Sitting at JFK Getting Ready For My Second Act…

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I’ve said before that I could travel the world with the right person beside me.  My problem had always been knowing how to focus my attention when the choices seem to be endless.  I had hoped to find a complimentary part, someone who was better at organization and making plans, to help overcome my own deficiencies.

Unfortunately, if you aren’t married by twenty-one you risk being typecasted.  And, after three decades, nobody gives you credit anymore for your unrealized potential and your marriageability is more likely to be determined by that existing list of faults and failures.  That was the case with me—I was, as one ambitious young woman put it, “thirty years old living in Milton” and was thus, in her eyes, ineligible for so much as a first date.

Fortunately, while the door closed for those who had long wrote me off (and those whom, after much anguish, I had finally determined would never fully accept me as one of their own) there was someone who saw me as irreplaceably special.  It was a person who was on her last hopes before we found each other and someone who held me together when my hopes in the church of my youth were lost.

In my lowest moment I found a precious bhest, someone who could look beyond my grief and loss of faith, who encouraged me to attend a church (any church) and believed in me.  It was in the midst of the struggle that I decided to visit this extraordinary person who lives on the complete opposite side of the world.  I purchased tickets nine months ago for a flight that is scheduled to depart at 12:50am on December, 26th.

The sermon yesterday, on Christmas Eve, was titled “going back to the beginning” and took us back to the starting point of the canonical Gospel. The text, Matthew 1:1-25, covered the genealogy of Christ, centered on Joseph’s decision to accept Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy, the prospect of raising a son not his own, and the potential harm to his reputation. It seemed a fitting send off for someone set to embark on a similar journey of faith and decision.

It is a strange conclusion to a tumultuous year of change—of ends, some painful, of unexpected new beginnings and a few noteworthy accomplishments. First leaving my church of thirty years, after holding unto a sliver of hope for an amicable resolution, left me feeling like one cut from their tether and reeling through space. Next a new job that utilized natural talents once thought forever buried. In the spring being a bedside witness to the passing of my only remaining grandma. In the fall receiving a first rental check. It has been a chaotic year that has left me with mixed emotions, of sad moments intertwined with happiness, and culminating with this unprecedented trip.

I am getting ready to board that flight.  It will be my first solo trip to a foreign country and only the second time in my life (other than a drive into Canada) I’ve been out of the United States.  My flight will take me from NYC to Seoul, South Korea.  And, Lord willing, if Trump and Kim Jong Un can keep the nuclear war on hold, I will continue from there and arrive in Manila (the capital city of the Philippines) in approximately twenty-one hours and fifteen minutes.

That “right person” is not physically beside me, but they have made planning a trip to the other side of the world possible for me and have left me wondering if this is God’s answer to my prayer a few years ago when I asked to go through whatever it took to make the impossible possible.

I have a new job, a new church and what seems the beginning of a second act quite different from the first.  It is amazing what can be accomplished in one year…

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When You Die Along With Your Dreams

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“He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

Those words have haunted me since I read them in high school.  Jay Gatsby was a fictional character, a creation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mind, but his story of seeking something from his past (a something that seemed close enough to grab yet was already forever behind him) has stuck with me.

Gatsby’s fixation, a moment from his youth, a girl named Daisy, continued to flirt with and torment him.  The green light at the end of her dock across the water was to him a beacon of hope.  He had taken the long way around (as one not born rich) and worked hard to increase his social status, he had achieved more than most men who started where he did—yet he still was not acceptable to her or those of her class and never would be despite his effort.

“…but now he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail. He knew that Daisy was extraordinary, but he didn’t realize just how extraordinary a ‘nice’ girl could be. She vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life, leaving Gatsby—nothing. He felt married to her, that was all.”

Daisy, to everyone besides Gatsby, was a frivolous person, oblivious to the carnage in her wake, and a strange obsession for a man who had everything.  But to him, in his mind looking backwards, she represents something that had escaped him, perhaps the innocence of his youth or just a moment of time that passed him by that could not be recaptured despite the greatness he achieved.  It could be as simple as his wanting her acceptance.

Ultimately Gatsby’s dream of a restored youthful romance ended in his actual death.  He was murdered, the result of a confused set of circumstances involving Daisy’s recklessness, and his deluded hopes died with him.  It was sad end, but almost the most merciful end, because he was locked in and could not escape a tragic fate.

The Mennonite Gatsby…

I’ve always been a nostalgic and sentimental person.  For better or worse, I’ve often been last to leave, the one who held on a little longer, and a person guided more by loyalties than practical concerns.  This disposition is probably why Gatsby’s hopeless pursuit of things already behind him had resonated with me.   It was sometimes difficult for me to distinguish the past from the future.

This backwards orientation is also part of my religious cultural inheritance.  Mennonites, like other Anabaptist groups, seem to find most of their identity in a defining historical figures and moments.  Ideas like non-conformity, while originating as a reference to a radical transformation of heart, have become primarily about maintaining a cultural status quo and preserving a Mennonite appearance.  Mennonite attempts to re-brand their denomination usually reach backwards for their inspiration.

Unfortunately, the past, no matter how hard you reach for it, will always stay right beyond your grasp.

And, eventually, a person reaching back rather than forward will sacrifice the only opportunity they have for a future.

There was an ideal within the Mennonite church that had held me captive for many years.  It is the story of those who do all the right Mennonite things, who find their perfect Mennonite partner, have their beautiful half dozen kids, find their special place in the church, and feel good about themselves in the process.  I had failed to achieve at many points along the way and still had hopes that someday the right pieces would fall into place for my happily-ever-after story to begin.  It was the day that never came.  My Mennonite dream was somewhere in my past, forever behind me, but I was so heavily invested and didn’t know how to let go.

In the past year, mostly in one cataclysmic moment, the dreams of my continued participation in the Mennonite church were extinguished.  It was not that I was disallowed, I was not excommunicated nor was it physically impossible for me to attend, but the desire to belong that had propelled me onward for many years had disappeared.  After years of struggle, after years of faithful devotion to a hope against hope, there was simply nothing left about the denomination for me to love.

Could Gatsby had continued to live on after his dream died?

The outcome I had feared was now upon me and inescapable.  But, unlike Gatsby whose end came with poetic grace, my story continued brutally on—a forced march into the void that had become my life.  There was no longer a reason within myself to continue on.  Had I not had someone who needed me, who told me that if I go to take them with me, I would certainly have ended my own miserable existence.

I continued to walk although dead inside.

I continued to do my job but without a reason besides that one person who had their hopes tied up in me.

Later, in the spring, I mourned with my grandpa who lost his wife of six decades.  He had lost the wife he knew, who spent all those many years faithfully beside him, who shared a part in so many of his memories, and could never be replaced.  Her death had profound implications for someone who had hoped to someday achieve what they had.  It is a dark moment of realization that all of our cherished dreams will eventually die—only my dreams of having what my grandparents did in their years together died before ever being born and thus would never get so much as a decent burial.

In truth, what was me has died with my dreams and is now gone forever.  I am the same person and yet there is this strong feeling that I’m a different person in a body that was once occupied by someone else.  I don’t care about many of the things that I once did.  I’m not as afraid to take risks that were once impossible for me.  And, nearly a year after setting foot in my old church, I do not miss any of it.  My friends from the past remain my friends, but there is nothing about being Mennonite that appeals to me like it once did.  Even discussing Mennonite issues has become more difficult because it has stopped mattering anymore.

I’ve done what was impossible for me this past year.  I’ve left the Mennonite denomination and have no intention of going back—there is nothing there for me anymore.  There is not a feeling of loss nor even understanding of why I longed to be a part of everything there.  I’m living beyond the death of my dreams, I’ve died with my dreams, and I am a different person.  My Mennonite dream betrayed me, it left me to die cold and alone, but God’s love never left my side.

My hopes built over many years had expired.  However, by God’s grace, I’ve continued on in love and have found deeper faith.  We will all die, everything in this world will pass away, and with it even the meaning of our struggles here.  But, after all is stripped away from our existence, gone forever and never to return, only true love remains.

A friend from my new church posted this…

“Everything betrays you: family, friends, acquaintances, riches, sensory pleasures. Even your own body will leave you at some point. All the elements of nature deceive you. So make sure you cleave to God, because He alone is love.” —Saint John of Kronstadt (20th century)

My Departure From the Ethnic Church

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Like many other things not appreciated until they are gone, there was a time when the unique character of the church of my youth was something I had mostly taken for granted.

You see, that church, unlike some other Mennonite churches, had many surnames not typically found within the denomination.  We had Cordermans, Gelnetts, Fiedlers, Schrocks, Schooleys and Rovenolts—all of them “community” people who decided to become Mennonites.

Over the years that near even split of Mennonite-borns and “community” people has slowly faded.  The non-Mennonite names displaced and replaced as more transplants arrived following cheaper land prices and a better place than Lancaster County to raise their families.

The original church, started a few decades before my birth, had been the result of a Summer Bible School program.  A group from Lancaster County drove several hours north and set up camp on the grounds of a small one room public school.

Eventually several young couples involved decided to move into the area where they held the summer program.  They purchased the little old school house and started the “East District Mennonite Church” with Lester Miller ordained as pastor.

That church, the one with Lester at the helm, is the one that had a greater focus on the local community and was basically a family of misfits.  As far as Mennonite churches go it was a very welcoming place and I believe still retain that reputation today.

However, over the years (since the time Lester moved back to Lancaster and with the influx of “cradle Mennonites” who didn’t necessarily share that original vision of outreach) there has been a subtle shift—a reverting back to a mostly ethnic church full of those who cater only to their own families.

What is an ethnic church and when is it a problem?

It used to irk me, coming from the mixed background congregation that I did, when people would describe Mennonites as being an “ethnic church” and unwelcoming to outsiders.  My response would be that Mennonites aren’t the only church with a distinct ethnic flavor and that my own church was diverse.

Truth be told, ethnic diversity isn’t a necessary ingredient for a vibrant local church either.  I would expect that a church in China would have mostly those of ethnic Chinese background and a church in central Pennsylvania to have mostly German or other Caucasian origin.  Most historical churches were made of those who shared an ethnic identity and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of local flavor.

Unfortunately these ethnic lines, when they come at the expense of a universal and united church, become antithetical to the Christian tradition left to us by the Apostles.  We are supposed to all be one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28) rather than divided up by differences of gender, social status and ethnic background.

Ethnic division, very often linked together with sectarian or denominational distinctions, is a great weakness of the North American church.  Instead of local community is being unite into one church, as was the case in the early church, we hold onto our own racial and cultural identities.  We put ourselves first, our own ethnic families, over unity in the Spirit.

American churches are “intellectual ghettos” as well.  We separate over political ideologies, theological perspectives, traditional versus contemporary preferences and, in the case of Mennonites at least, over the most trivial bits of application.  This multitude of churches all claim to Jesus as Lord and yet each prioritize preservation of their own cultural “echo chamber” and focus on insulating themselves from any real challenge of their ideas.

What would Jesus say about ethnic churches in diverse communities?

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

That might be hyperbole.  It was addressing an audience that place great value on ethnic and family identity.  It seemed to contradict prior teaching that put emphasis on tribe and caring for one’s own first.  Nevertheless it is something Jesus said and something we ought to contemplate as it applies to our own times.

Did Jesus come to establish a church divided in so many ways?  Would he approve when people living in the same geographic area drive past multiple churches to find one that suits their own personal preferences?  At very least, is it appropriate to “plant” a new church in a town where there are already multiple options?

At some point there needs to be some introspection.  If the church you are in does not reflect the demographics of the local community you should ask why that is.  Was the true Gospel of Jesus Christ was about people congregating with people ethnically and otherwise similar to themselves?  Were newly converted Greeks required to live by traditional Jewish religious standards?

I’ll let this be the answer to that last question…

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.  You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? […] Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:2‭-‬7‭, ‬11‭-‬12 NIV)

Strong words.

When we put our own ethnic and religious tribe above loving as Christ taught then we are like those whom Paul wished would cut themselves off completely.

Finding the universal church…

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. “ (Ephesians 4:4‭-‬6 NIV )

The divided western church does not represent the ideals expressed by Jesus or the Apostles.  What it does represent is our cultural value of independence over unity in Christ.  It is because we value our own ethnic groups and our own idiosyncrasies of practice over the love for the whole family of God.  It is because we are unwilling to “hate” our own families in order to find greater unity together in the Spirit.

There would no doubt be a blessing for those who gave up their own religious cultural and personal hang ups in obedience to their Lord who said to put love for his church first.  My own will to do that was crippled for many years by my want to feel loved, accepted and desired in my ethnic church.  In had placed being Mennonite above being Christian and truly loving my neighbors despite our differences.

I’ve recently started to go to a church that has members from many denominational backgrounds.  Yes, there are some of the “cradle” types who bring their own ethnic and cultural flavor to the group.  And, yes, I do need to drive past a couple other churches to get there.  But the mix is more representative of the surrounding community and the welcome I’ve received there reminds me of a little church that I once knew.