Beware the Amish pirates

becoming Mennonite

October 11th, 2011 by IsaacV

Last year I had an opportunity to visit eight Mennonite communities in the United States. I talk about it as my get-to-know-the-family tour (I haven’t been a Mennonite for very long). I am discovering that we are quite a diverse denomination. I ended up writing a series of reflections for The Mennonite Weekly Review about my experiences in these different congregations (see the column, Life of the Body).

I ended the column with a summary reflection about what it means to think of Anabaptism as a living tradition in which we can participate by being part of the Mennonite church (among other Anabaptist denominational bodies):

An Anabaptist vision that is simply an essence distilled from various histories turns our tradition into a corpse. Anabaptism as a system of principles ends up killing the past. Once we have a system, we no longer let the twists and turns of our present life give us new ears to hear what we may have missed before. Within a living tradition, old voices are made new as we let our ever-changing world open us to displays of faithfulness from different times and places. Anabaptism comes alive when we locate ourselves within cultures of worship that become spaces where stories can echo back and forth through the ages. (”Faith that lives“–not my chosen title)

Anyhow, that’s were I’ve ended up, at least for now. If you are interested in further thoughts in this direction, I put together a booklet of my reflections. It’s available at the website of the church I’m a part of: CHMF, Mennonites. But I’ll also post it here, if you’re interested:

Isaac Villegas, Life in the Body (2011). (click to download the whole booklet in pdf form)

Below are some passages from the booklet, if you want to get a taste of it to make sure its worth your while. read more »

MCUSA, what keeps us together?

August 13th, 2011 by IsaacV

After spending some time visiting some member congregations of Mennonite Church USA (see Life of the Body), I’m trying to think through what unifies the denomination. How do we describe our belonging to the same body of faith, the same Christian tradition?

One way that’s quite popular these days is the essentialist approach. Stuart Murray seems to be the current instantiation of this perspective. In his book, The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010), Murray wants to find an “Anabaptism [that is] stripped down to the bare essentials” (15). He continues: “it is legitimate, and often helpful, to strip back the historical and cultural accretions from traditions that have persisted through the centuries” (44). His work is an “attempt to distill the essence of Anabaptism” (44). Because Stuart thinks he can strip away the husks of contemporary Mennonite communities and get to the Anabaptist kernel, he finds no reason to be in institutional communion with flesh and blood Anabaptists: “I will not become Hutterite, Amish, or Mennonite, but I am grateful that the principles of ‘naked Anabaptism’ are sometimes clothed in Hutterite, Amish, and Mennonite dress” (158-159).

read more »

Closer: reflections on the trinity

June 19th, 2011 by IsaacV

God created us without us;
but God did not will to save us without us.

~ Augustine of Hippo

I have always found good company with the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans when he writes about the groaning inside all of us: “for we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).

Does it seem a little unholy to start a conversation about the triune nature of God by paying attention to the groaning in our gut? The Trinity doesn’t belong there, right? Shouldn’t we start up in heaven? Isn’t it a bit self-centered to turn a sermon on the Trinity into a sermon about us? Isn’t God supposed to be way over there, or way up there? As the prophet Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty” (Isa 6:1a).

Now, to be fair to Isaiah’s vision, God isn’t completely distant: “The hem of God’s robe filled the temple” (v. 1b). There is a point of connection between heaven and earth, and that is the Temple. But in Romans, Paul seems to think that God’s presence is even more intimate than that: God is in us, in our groaning, in our sighs, in our prayers, God’s Spirit is a companion with our spirit. Here’s what Paul says: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:15b-16). Through the Spirit, God becomes intimate with us, interior to us, completely familiar, a companion. The Holy Spirit is present in our spirit, groaning with us, crying out with us. And with the groaning we begin to get a sense for the Trinity; we become the site of the work of all three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit. Our bodies become God’s home. God rests with us, and in us, not as some outside power, not as some cosmic clockmaker, not as some bearded old king on a throne in heaven. God isn’t an outsider to our lives. God isn’t like a king or a president who might choose to save us by sending his troops. God doesn’t send others to do the dirty work. God sends God. That’s why we confess that Jesus is God. If Jesus is not God, then we worship a God who refuses to jump into our mess, then we serve a God who doesn’t like to get dirty. If Jesus is not God, then we praise a God who doesn’t want to get too close—a God who refuses intimacy, who refuses the risks that come along with becoming our friend, our companion.

This is why the language of God’s sovereignty sometimes leads us astray. read more »

preaching on the suffering of war

November 5th, 2010 by IsaacV

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“The Iraq War will surely go down in history as an embarrassment to the Christian church. Zealous Christian preachers promoted the cause from their pulpits, urging the nation to engage in a preemptive strike against a country presumed to have the capacity to eventually wage nuclear war. What troubles me most is that many of those warmongering sermons made little or no reference to Jesus, the one who taught us to love our enemies. Further, as Charles Marsh argues convincingly in his book Wayward Christian Soldiers, Christians from around the world vigorously appealed to keep our nation from this action. The recent release of classified documents only adds to my distress. I urge preachers to take this new preaching project seriously.”

~ Ervin R. Stutzman, Executive Director, Mennonite Church USA

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If you’re a preacher, please consider participating. If you’re not, please forward the invitation to a pastor near you!
Thanks,
isaac

Revelations from WikiLeaks

October 28th, 2010 by IsaacV

The recent revelations about U.S. and British forces in Iraq uncover a stunning darkness. According to The Guardian, the 400,000 documents made available last week through WikiLeaks reveal “15,000 previously unreported civilian deaths.” The number of deaths kept secret by the leaders of our government exposes the sickening violence of war. While I would rather ignore the stories of killing and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am reminded of the words of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1934 he wrote to a friend, “Only complete truth and truthfulness will help us now.”

Here are two stories that I can’t get out of my head as I think about the truth of war. In 2006, in the town 60 miles north of Baghdad, Khalib and his pregnant sister Nabiha were in a rush to get to the hospital. As they made their way down the usual streets, they came upon a new U.S. military checkpoint. The soldiers perceived the approaching vehicle as a threat, so they opened fire and killed Nabiha and the child in her womb. She was 35, and the dead baby was a boy.

War is never kind to women and children, especially to pregnant women. Neither is war kind to the mentally disabled, who are some of the most vulnerable among us. read more »

Mennonite denominationalism and the Concern pamphlets

May 17th, 2010 by IsaacV

I’ve been a Mennonite for nearly 8 years. I’ve felt welcomed in local congregations and regional assemblies and national conventions. I have enjoyed everything about our denomination–even the quirkiness. But I also can’t help but notice that there are lots of faithful people who have been Mennonite for a lot longer than I have been who are asking tough questions about denominational structures (both physical structures like a new office building, and institutional structures like the merger of various board agencies).

After reading Wipf & Stock’s wonderful collection of republished Concern pamphlets, I can’t help but notice similarities between Mennonite discourse in the 1950s and today. Here’s a passage from the introduction of the 1954 Concern pamphlet:

Are American Mennonites, in spite of their great institutional and even spiritual progress, perhaps after all moving rather toward ‘respectable’ denominationalism rather than toward a dynamic and prophetic ‘grass roots’ movement? And if so, what responsibility devolves upon us in our generation? (Concern, vol. 1, p. 3)

What do you think? Is this the same sort of question that needs to be asked?

I also beginning to wonder if this is a perennial Mennonite concern. Paul Peachey and his friends asked it back then, and plenty of others are asking it again today.

While the Concern group of the 1950s offered important criticisms of their denomination, I am also struck by one of quotes at the beginning of their first pamphlet–an epigraph that offers a kind of framework for their essays:

…send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may rebuild it. (Neh 2:5)

Bodies Matter: a footwashing protest

April 2nd, 2010 by IsaacV

For Holy Thursday a bunch of gathered at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Cary, North Carolina, and held a footwashing worship service—we told them we wanted to wash the feet of the people detained inside. If you haven’t heard about these ICE detention centers, that means the federal government is good at what it does: Obama is turning out to be just as good as Bush in keeping secrets from U.S. citizens. ICE sets up field offices in unmarked buildings, tucked away in business parks throughout suburbia. Once citizens find out about a particular site, ICE closes up shop and moves to another unmarked building, tucked away in one of the other many business parks in a different suburb. The detention center in Cary we visited is next door to the offices of Oxford University Press, the publisher of many of the books on my shelves. (For more information on ICE detention centers, read this article from The Nation: America’s Secret ICE Castles).

Here’s some local media coverage of our worship service and protest: “Protesters hold demonstration,” and “Taking the Cross to the streets.”

And here’s an excerpt from the short sermon I preached at the detention center as a Cary police officer kept telling me to stop preaching and leave the premises:

This chair here will remain empty as a sign of all the bodies that the department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement have hidden from us, the bodies that law enforcement agents have torn from our communities and our families in the middle of the night, the bodies that they have ripped away from our churches. By refusing to let us wash the feet of the people hidden in their detention centers, the federal government has dismembered the body of Christ, they have torn apart the church, they have pierced and severed the body of Jesus.

For the rest of the sermon, follow this link to my church website: “Bodies Matter, part 1

technology and worship: part 3

February 2nd, 2009 by IsaacV

(I’m still thinking about our use of technology in worship. This post continues my earlier thoughts: Part 1 and Part 2)

The best books on technology and worship offer methods for carefully appropriating devices that contribute to the unique form of a congregation’s worship. Technologies should not be imposed from above, but should arise from the communal discernment of the church. I’ve already offered two authors who take this route (see links above).

While I appreciate these critical investigations into the liturgical use of technology, they aren’t haunted by the voices that I can’t get out of my head. They haven’t yet exorcised the histories of terror that come with each bit of technology. From their explorations, one is left assuming that devices magically appear in catalogs and electronic stores like Best Buy and Circuit City. But we know that technologies are not creatio ex nihilo. They have a history; they come from somewhere; and they materially remember what we would like to forget.

Walter Benjamin, the tormented Jewish Philosopher, teaches us to be honest about the history of oppression that produces the cultural achievements that we enjoy. In his essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (see Illuminations, pp. 253-264), Benjamin describes how the barbarism of progress delivers to our doorstep the useful fruits of civilization:

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures… For without exception the cultural treasures [the observer] surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.

The record of civilization is also a record of barbarism. read more »

The morning after: politics beyond an election

December 23rd, 2008 by IsaacV

Now what? I woke up the morning after Election Day politically disoriented. The empty feeling in my stomach didn’t go away after eating my usual yogurt and granola. What would I do in a world without politics? Do I have to wait another four years to fill that gnawing political void?

Not according to Romand Coles and Stanley Hauerwas in their new book: Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary (Cascade, 2008). Politics is not restricted to something that happens when we vote, they argue. Instead, politics involves all the ways we tend to “common goods” which exceed “settled institutional forms” (3). In other words, politics happens outside the voting booth as well. Politics happens in our neighborhoods, not just in Washington, D.C. Democracy involves “a multitude of peoples enacting myriad forms of the politics of the radical ordinary in ways,” they write (8). For Coles and Hauerwas, democracy is everyday politics that turns us to the importance of “concrete practices of tending to one another” (8).

Coles describes the Civil Rights movement as a story of everyday democracy. He does not focus on the familiar story of Martin Luther King, Jr. Instead Coles turns our gaze from powerful pulpits to the ordinary African-American churchwomen who gave Dr. King something to talk about. read more »

In with the New; out with the Old

October 23rd, 2008 by IsaacV

I’m not even 30 and I feel like a curmudgeon. I’m not interested in books and movements that herald the promises of our changing world. We are interested in the emergent, the yet to come; we want to be the New Christians occupying the frontiers of change. When I hear this way of talking about our faith, part of me wants to run the other direction. But I recognize that I am also permeated with this generational sensibility. The “new” for me was choosing an old tradition as a way to navigate into the future: I became Mennonite.

We are dying for the new and exotic, something to set us free from a troubling past and open us to the yet to come. New horizons. New frontiers. Our gaze fixed on the emerging future; our backs to the past. We are now suckers for anything “postmodern,” whatever that means. The old ways of our parents are passé. All that stuff didn’t seem to work and we’re tired of it. I wonder if we feel what Sebastian Moore discerned in his tradition as a catholic neurosis:

The effect of being continually exposed to the truth which is doing one no good is distressing to the soul. There can even result a kind of unbelief, an exhaustion of the spirit, which is all the worse for being parly unconscious. (God is a New Language, p.21)

read more »

Jesus for President: An Ecumenical Campaign

September 18th, 2008 by IsaacV

I wrote a report for the office of Interchurch Relations (MCUSA) on our district’s sponsorship of the Jesus for President campaign stop in North Carolina. You can read part of it below.

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The Jesus for President campaign came to Raleigh, N.C. on July 22nd. Chris Haw, Shane Claiborne, and their crew took the stage at 7pm. People started filling the seats at 6:30, anticipating the acclaimed campaign. For two and a half hours, Shane and Chris spoke about Jesus and politics to an attentive crowd. Although our Mennonite district took the lead role in bringing them to town, we were a marginal presence. With no money spent on advertising, we drew around 650 people to a midweek event. Duane Beck, pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church, had the idea of inviting the Jesus for President tour to make a stop in our area.

The district pastors (including myself) enthusiastically approved. With the support of our Eastern Carolina District of the Mennonite Church, we explored our ecumenical networks to form a coalition of sponsors. Pastor Spencer Bradford of Durham Mennonite Church approached the North Carolina Council of Churches, which gladly agreed to help sponsor the event. Since our Mennonite churches have small worship spaces, Duane Beck found a partnership with First Baptist Church in downtown Raleigh which agreed to host the campaign. Though the Mennonites did most of the legwork, various churches came together to bring the Jesus for President crew to town.

People of different Christian traditions came to hear Chris Haw and Shane Claiborne preach the gospel of Christ’s peace. In many respects, the evening felt like an evangelistic crusade. One member of my congregation even said that it reminded her of the Campus Crusade rallies she attended as a youth. read more »

technology and worship: part 2

September 2nd, 2008 by IsaacV

Part 2 (look here for part 1)

If Marshall McLuhan’s dictum, “the medium is the message,” is helpful (as Shane Hipps argues), then we must go all the way down; we must dig into the materiality of the medium. We must investigate the conditions that make possible the process of production. Hidden powers are physically remembered in the pieces of technology we use.

Most popular discussions of technology and worship fail to explore the realities of material production–the where, when, why, and how of invention and assembly. From reading these books on media and worship, one would assume that technologies magically appear–created out of nothing. Since electronic devices are available, we have to figure out ways to make them liturgically productive. The problem, according to Eileen D. Crowley, is that “Most churches lag at least twenty years or more behind the art world in the kind of media art they create or purchase and in how they imagine that media might be integrated within worship” (32). Our churches are not on the cutting edge of media. Our liturgical media is passé. We have failed to encourage the development of artists who makes use of anything at their disposal to lead us into an “experience of the Holy” (32) read more »

technology and worship: initial reflections

August 26th, 2008 by IsaacV

I’m participating in AMBS’s conversation on technology and worship. I have to put together a paper. Below are my initial reflections as I work towards something of substance. I would appreciate any critical engagement. Am I going in a helpful direction? Should I turn around while I still can? Thanks.

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Why not start with Karl Barth? In his essay, “Church and Culture” (in Theology and Church, London: SCM, 1962), Barth disallows any uncritical approval of culture, nor does take a consistent stand against culture. As usual, Barth makes things complicated. On the one side of the dialectic, Barth takes up the ax of John the Baptist: “Christian preaching…has met every culture, however supposedly rich and mature, with ultimate sharp skepticism” (quoted in T.J. Gorringe, Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture, p. 18). But later in that same essay Barth has no patience for a spiritualism that ignores our cultural milieu. There is no room, Barth writes, “for a basic blindness to the possibility that culture may be revelatory, that it can be filled with promise.” The seeds of God’s kingdom proliferate throughout the world. Barth pursues the same line of thinking in Church Dogmatics IV/3, where he claims that if “all things are created in and through Jesus” (Colossians 1:16-17), then, as Prof. Peter Dula puts it, “there is nowhere, not even the mouth of an ass, that we cannot expect to find words reflecting the light of the Word” (Peter Dula, “A Theology of Interfaith Bridge Building,” p. 164 in Borders and Bridges: Mennonite Witness in a Religiously Diverse World). Barth goes on to call these diverse worldly witnesses to God’s kingdom “secular parables” (CD IV/3, p. 115). The earth and human culture resound with echoes of the one Word of God which speaks into existence the kingdom of God. Therefore we must pay attention to the places we inhabit, the cultures that permeate us. “The Church,” he writes, “will be alert for the signs which, perhaps in many cultural achievements, announce that the kingdom approaches” (20). The kingdom does come. The question Barth poses to the church is whether she is ready to receive it, however strange it may appear.

It’s a strange possibility to consider how the pieces of culture called ‘technology’ may display God’s kingdom, if only parabolically. Barth won’t let us rule out an abstract category like “technology” without serious engagement in particular technological machineries–he calls them “cultural achievements.” Nor will he take up every new sophisticated invention as a chance for the kingdom to make headway. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism.

In The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture (Zondervan, 2005), pastor Shane Hipps critically considers the place of technologies in worship. He carefully steers clear of many church leaders who welcome any and every form of technology as the panacea for dying churches. Blindly welcoming technology into church life turns worship into another capitalist commodity. We then become one show among many where Christians can find “new experiences to consume” (15). In Modernity, writes Hipps, “churches heeded consumer demands and sough to reinvent church. They either had to compete in the consumer marketplace on the consumer’s terms or face extinction. In the spirit of modernity, these churches reincarnated themselves as highly competent vendors of religious programs and services” (99). But the answer, according to Hipps, is not a reactionary turn against all forms of technology. “I’m not arguing for some Luddite strategy of literally destroying media” (65). Instead, we carefully and communally discern how modern technologies can aid us as we embody the good news of Christ. In Hipps’ words, “We learn to understand the power of our technologies to shape us, thereby regaining power over them” (122). read more »

Jesus for President Report

August 20th, 2008 by IsaacV

As I reported to ya’ll a while back, our Eastern Carolina District of MCUSA brought Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw to town in July for a Jesus for President campaign stop. Laura Graber Nickel from our church in Chapel Hill, N.C., wrote a news piece on the event that ran in The Mennonite this past week (look here). But the editors took out a lot of good stuff. So, with Laura’s permission, below is her full report on the event. Enjoy.

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On a July evening in Raleigh, NC, every one of 500 seats in the First Baptist Church auditorium was occupied. The 200 people without a chair leaned against the walls and sat on the floor. Next door at Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters, another crowd gathered to cheer their candidate for president. But back in the church auditorium, through storytelling, song and worship, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw described an alternative political perspective: Jesus for President.

The pair is promoting their co-authored book, Jesus for President, nearing the end of a month-long nationwide tour that has attracted crowds of 500 to 1000 people at every stop. In Jesus for President, Claiborne and Haw ask Christians to think differently about their political and religious allegiance, re-evaluate the church’s role in the arena of American power and politics and examine the way they live their faith day to day. “We’re saying that we see in Jesus not a presentation of ideas,” said Claiborne, “but an invitation to join a movement that embodies the good news with the way that we live in this world.” Their message includes a strong emphasis on peace and puts a high value on communities of believers who reject the world’s ways and live their lives according to Jesus’ teachings; both familiar themes to Mennonites. read more »

Spirituality from Prison: a sermon on Anabaptist/Mennonite spirituality

July 21st, 2008 by IsaacV

Don’t worry. I won’t bombard ya’ll with every sermon I preach. But I thought I’d share this one from this past Sunday since it’s specifically about young anabaptist radicals from a long time ago.

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Title: Spirituality from Prison
Date: July 20, 2008
Texts: Gen 32:22-32; Matt 11:25-30

Alone.

It was night, and Jacob was alone. He left his family and possessions behind on the other side of the stream; now he was alone, surrounded by darkness. And the wrestling begins.

Jacob isn’t a spiritual superhero. He hasn’t mastered the spiritual disciplines; nor has he celebrated them. He isn’t known for fasting. Nor for meditating on Scripture—obviously, since it wasn’t written yet. And he isn’t a prayer warrior.

Jacob isn’t known for any of those spiritual practices. Instead, he’s known for his trickery and tenacity. He will get what he wants no matter what. His name, Jacob, Ya’aqov, means heel catcher and deceiver. His name remembers his struggle with his brother, Esau, in Rebekah’s womb (Gen 25). And his name remembers his trickery and deception later when he steals Esau’s birthright blessing. Jacob, his very name, testifies to his devious ways. read more »