Since December (as well as, of course, a long time before that) The Mennonite Church has been in a state of some anxiety over actions taken concerning the homosexual community by a couple organizations under our umbrella. These same anxieties are bound to become stirred any time, and for any reason, the long-held views of a group of people are challenged. The conclusion of these challenges always leads to change, whether in shifting to incorporate the new views or in reaffirming our commitments and seeing not the policies but the faces in our churches change. In any debate, no matter which way things go, the fallout is painful and the struggles are deeply felt by many.
A recent document released by Lancaster Mennonite Conference called Healthy Sexuality Resources: A Toolkit of Resources for Leaders and Congregations includes a selection of websites containing a number of important documents that shed light on the teachings of the Mennonite Church. The documents while clearly defining a position, also take a strong stand on love and forgiveness as well as repentance. Equally important, they discuss some other issues that tend to be obscured by the issue close at hand. I am including links to a few of the more focused of these sites for anyone who would like to take a look. The leadership of Lancaster Mennonite Conference has made comments and sent out documents that reaffirm our commitment to these statements and call for a renewed focus not on controversy, but on the mission of the Church: growing disciples for Jesus.
Much of what we find in the Old Testament about repentance shows the LORD repenting of decisions He had made. This helps us a great deal in separating the idea of repentance from sin. It is a change of mind or a change of heart. One of the images is “to sigh” or “to breathe strongly”. It is an expression of regret, but in the case of the LORD it also communicates being moved to grief or pity on those who are experiencing trouble, because their trouble is directly caused by or at least allowed by the LORD himself. Modern translations have tended toward words like "relent" and "grieve" instead of repent, but following the thread in the King James Bible or the American Standard Version helps to show the strong usage of the concept in the Old Testament. Comparing them with these newer renderings we see nuances in the idea of repentance we might otherwise miss.
In those same early times, the concept has more to do with practical regret than with an intention of the mind. It is during the establishment of the Temple when the word becomes an expression of a human heart condition, when Solomon refers to people who have been carried away as captive because of their sin, and in their place of captivity repent and pray toward the Temple invoking God to hear and forgive. Also in the Wisdom Literature, which is associated with Solomon’s writings, Job speaks of personal repentance for sin. Later a few references to human repentance arise in the prophets. This human repentance, though, is in the definite minority of the Old Testament idea of repentance.
For the most part, when the LORD is spoken of as repenting, it has to do with decisions He made regarding human action. Most of the time people sinned and God judged them, then later He repented of His own harshness and followed up with mercy. Sometimes God expresses a definite reluctance or even a refusal to repent of His harshness.
In the New Testament the idea of human repentance takes full form. Here it is almost always a human change of mind. It sometimes carries the implication of a wish that something had never happened or never would be.
John the Baptist and Jesus draw a great deal of attention to the human concept of repentance speaking of it bearing fruit and of repentance causing a change in action. For example, Judas “repented” of what he had done and brought the silver back to the priests who gave it to him. As it moves into the book of Acts and Paul’s epistles, the idea of repentance is closely associated with baptism and with salvation. It is occasionally spoken of as something that is given to people, described almost as a grace from God.
As the idea is raised in Revelation we come again to God’s repentance, his regret that He had given grace to some who did not take advantage of it. At the same time a great many people are judged in Revelation because of their refusal to repent.
As humans then we should see repentance not only as a thought of distancing ourselves from sin, but of action. We should see it as something that spurs certain feelings in us:
We can think of repentance not just as a human action regarding sin, but as something we can learn from God Himself, using Him as our model for repentance. Even He, when He acted strongly in response to Holy righteous indignation, sometimes repented of His harshness and was moved to kindness.
When I signed on to Facebook it was with the expectation of connecting with my family who live far away. In some cases old friends were also a welcome addition to a list. Like many others, though, I found my list of friends growing nearly out of control as Facebook introduced not just a means of connecting with people but whole new implications of social politics. What does it mean to "friend" someone? What are the implications for real world friendships if I virutually "unfriend" someone? Who are all these people who want so badly to friend me?
In some cases, the growth of this list has introduced a new dynamic to my spiritual life. Some of my friends post things I never thought they would. Some of the videos and graphics and propaganda that are posted contain profane, filthy, and perverse words and images. To some people, I am sure, they are just light humor, but I, when I see them, I am authentically distressed. Sometimes it is not the wording of the graphic that is objectionable, but even the name of the original site from which it is posted is crass. I can't help wondering what else is on that site. Of course, many of the graphics that get posted are simply shared from another friend's post, so who knows where or by whom the post was started. This is the nature of social networking gone viral.
I used to take these things very personally, and sometimes would object to them on site. I soon realized that I was a very minority voice, and began wondering if I was just taking things too seriously. I don't think I was, but I am much quieter now. I am realizing a few facts:
For some folks, it is a darker side leaking out. Hey, I have one too. So does everyone. But social networking provides a new and interesting way to let down our guard and allow our darker side a measure of freedom we would not indulge in person, especially around all the people on our friend list. This is not the good thing some people will think it is.
But for all my network friends out there, be aware. Whether it is spoken or posted, sin is still sin. Crudeness is still crude. Words are still associated with you and should be thought through before being put out there in public. We are concerned about the physical safety implications of social networking and hear about them all the time. I'm not so sure people are paying as close attention to the moral safety of the tech. Even on line, the Devil is stalking around looking for someone to byte. So, my friends, let's be careful out there.
Ok, I believe God is a real person. This is much more complicated than it sounds. I don't believe in the Mystery or the Light, or a Construct, or the 62,527 names of God. I don't believe all roads lead to Heaven or that it doesn't really matter what you believe. That is because I believe He is a real, objective, living person.
Now the reason this is complicated is that it opens Him up to a bunch the same ideosyncratic problems of other people. These include: being misrepresented, being misunderstood, being purposely disrespected, being used, and being accidentally overlooked.
So, like a bunch of other people, God says stuff. The stuff He says is meant to convey, to varying degrees, what He is like and what is on His mind, His likes, dislikes, and closely held values. So, in the same ways we write essays or articles or letters, God has written a book in various genres and styles.
It puts me in mind of the Register of Wills office. We often had a will sitting in front of us with a family on the other side of the counter saying things like, "I know this is not what he really wanted, why can't we just do what we know he wanted?" Our answer was always the same. "We have to do what is in the will." People did not get it sometimes. "Even if that's not what he really wanted?" Our answer again was always the same. "We have to assume he knew what he meant when he wrote the will." We were not allowed to just do what the people wanted to do in disregard of what the person had written for themselves.
You may not believe it, but I do, that God reveals Himself in the Bible. He knew what He was saying when He wrote it. Some people try to reinterpret it, rewrite it for our modern times, disregard parts of it, and try to fit God into their own conceptions in spite of it. Thus, the complications. That means that some people, when it comes to God, are wrong. This is especially true when a person, like God, has gone to great lengths to explain themselves and we just can't see past our own conceptions. Just as much as we can be wrong about the personality of our teacher, our child, our boss, our spouse, we can be wrong about God, because He is not a construct of our imagination, our psychology, our anthropological context. He is a real, objective person.
God knew what He was writing when He put ideas in the Bible: His loving nature, His justice, His holiness, His patience, and His desire for all people to come to Him. And He told us what that means, How we go about it, What is acceptable and what is not, His intentions for eternity, and His plan for the world in the here and now.
Go back to God's Word. Find what He says, even if we don't fully understand why He says it. Try to get to know God in this way, to dispel your misconceptions and renew the wonder of discovery. Get to know the Real God.
Sometimes I could really use an epiphany. It is interesting to me how this third definition in the dictionary has become the primary meaning of the word in common useage. The way most people I've heard use the word "epiphany" it is anything that gives a sudden flash of insight. It is just one more example of how a holy and faith laden idea has been coopted by the world to be used for other, even pagan purposes.
This is not the primary meaning of the word. The word indicates a great day when the magi showed up on Jesus' doorstep and gave Him gifts. It was the coming of Messiah not just to the Jews (that was earlier through Jesus' family and through the shepherds), but to the Gentiles as well, maybe some pagan royal advisors of some kind from Persia. Suddenly, though, people from other parts of the world were aware of Jesus' coming and were taking the message of this amazing child to others in other lands.
Epiphany is also the day we observe today, celebrating that event. Of all the holidays, this may be the most missionary holiday we have. It is a clear indication of the gospel going to other lands, taken by believing people who were from those lands.
I try to imagine what was happening in the hearts and minds of these men as they presented their gifts. What did they see in the Christ Child as they worshiped? What transformative event could it have been? Did they come in doubt or in faith? Did faith happen suddenly on the spot as we would interpret the word "epiphany"?
May I come to Jesus in faith today, finding as I arrive a Divine human bringing me life and light. May those virtues engulf my spirit like a torrent and wash me anew with His goodness.
We say we shouldn't be so materialistic.
Then we give more than we can afford.
We say it's about Jesus.
Then we make it about family.
We want peace on earth.
But we create as much unrest as possible.
We miss those who have died.
But they're already at the birthday party in person.
We want perfection in our days.
But Jesus warned us that this life would have trouble.
Adjust the perspective.
The joy is not in having everything just so ...
It's in having the One we are celebrating close to our hearts.
As we are close to His,
Then when everything else isn't perfect,
We can be sure the One Thing that matters is.
We all learned in our early years of school how to write different kinds of notes. One was a bread and butter note. I always found that one to have an interesting name. It is a special kind of thank you note. Perhaps you owe somebody a bread and butter note for their hospitality this past Thursday. Thank you notes were another form we were taught, and which most of us treated like an academic exercise and quickly forgot.
Do you write thank you notes? The Thanksgiving season is an interesting time to think of such a thing, because we don't write thank you notes to God but to people. Thank you notes come back into play in about a month ... at which time many of us will forget about them again.
I think Thank you notes are nice. Many of us probably think of them as overly formal. We stick them in the same category as an engraved invitation and assume that people in our tax bracket do not indulge in such frippery.
However, they are not froth. All we have to do to realize that is to consider how we feel when we receive one. In our adult years we grow jaded about mail. It is full of fliers and bills. But once in awhile a personal envelope makes it to our door, a card, or (it still happens even in these digital days) a letter. When it does, at our house, it gets placed in a special pile as we sort the mail: junk, bills, interesting or important, personal. It is the last thing we open, relishing the idea that somebody thought about us enough to spend time and some effort to send something we could hold in our hand.
Thank you notes are expressions of personal regard. They say "You were nice to me and I have not forgotten." Giving thanks to God is easy. We simply send up a prayer. Give thanks to Him by thanking him for somebody else. Then let them know ... in writing.
Remember Joseph? Rembrandt did. Life was not fair to Joseph ... or was it life?
At some point or another, every parent or leader of children hears it. "It's not fair!"
Most adults will automatically and even a bit bitterly retreat into the truism, "Life is not fair."
And it is true, but why is it true? Certainly bad things happen to people in ways that are completely undeserved. That is not fair. Random trouble comes everyone's way.
But are we certain that when we retreat into the truism, "Life is not fair" we are not simply hiding behind a general truth to cover a more pliable problem? Certainly when we deliver our edict from on high to children, this timeless wisdom they will have to learn sooner or later, the child knows, deep down as an inexpressible fact, "Life may not be fair, but people should be."
But it's not just a children's problem. People are prone to take advantage of a situtaion that will give them benefits not received by others. The unfairness of life is fueled by oportunism, our chance to get our own way, to do unto others before they do unto us, to do what the other guy would do if he were in our place. Is it not more the way of Christ to be more blessed by giving rather than hoarding blessings by receiving at the expense of another?
May it be ever truer that when we acknowledge the unfairness of life that we are not simply making excuses for our own unfairness. May it be ever truer that we are not evading a responsibility we might be able to shoulder to enter into an unfair situation and transform it. When we say "Life is not fair" may the subtext never be, "therefore I need not be fair."
It was for Joseph. When he finally emerged from prison, he did not stick it to his brothers because they stuck it to him ... perhaps that would have been fair to them, but not to their hungry families back home. Instead he showed generosity, forgiveness, and grace. That is the way of Jesus. Is it the much debated definition of Justice, to act fairly in unfair circumstances?
Today is my sister's birthday. It's important to remember that family is a gift from God. He created us to be born of a couple parents and to be dependent on them for everything until we can fend for ourselves. The fact that the system is designed so people can also grow up together is proof enough for me that we have a built-in system for socialization. It is among siblings that I first learned to share, to make peace, to make room for the needs and wants of others, to be empathetic and kind. The Bible says we can know God by looking at what He has created. Well, He created families and when they are working at their most functional, they do indeed reflect His goodness.
Birthdays are days our culture designates to celebrate those we love, and hopefully they feel our regard and enjoy it to the fullest. But it is also a time for the rest of us to remember how important the person we are celebrating is to our own balance. When we celebrate a birthday fully, it is often with and for a person who is an emotional resource to us, someone we talk to in particular circumstances and they share our joy and pain. Since conversations like that with those to whom we are closest are so reciprocal, we tend to forget how much we appreciate and need them. The gift of celebration is a "thank you" writ large.
So, Happy Birthday, Becky. I hope your day brings you joy. And may the year to come bring you all the peace that's out there. God bless you, you are certainly a blessing to me.
For a good many years the American Bible Society hosted "ForMinistry.com". It was a free website for churches with a nicely sophisticated interface. We used ForMinistry for a long time.
ForMinistry was a great service, but like all free things, it had its limitations. We don't know why ABS had to close the service, but in these difficult financial times, it is hardly surprising.
We are thankful to the American Bible Society for providing a useful service to the Kingdom of God for as long as they could.
Our new service is a more generally available free service called Weebly. We are thankful to God for the availability of these services to help us stay connected with so many on line folks. At the same time the free services allow us to be good stewards of the Church's resources.
Pastor, Norma Mennonite Church.