An Existential Bit of Birthing Video

One of the best moments this year happened when I substitute-taught a girls Child Care class one day. (Not necessarily your regular public school “Child Care for Teen Moms” course, but more of a “Child Care for 18-Year-Olds-Who-Will-Marry-Very-Young” class, which I oversaw for a single day. #mennoculture

It was THE DAY OF THE BIRTHING VIDEO.

We watched (kosher parts of) an ancient 1980s film, the title of which was something about “miracles” and “life.” The dusty cover indicated it had won an Emmy award, mostly due to the incredible microimagery of Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. Ugh. So. Cool. No CGI here, but rather actual photographic footage of a singular sperm uniting with an egg. Sam Roberts at the New York Times writes, “Using high-definition, three-dimensional ultrasound; a scanning electron microscope; advanced fiber optics; color filters to tint the photographic gray scale; and wide-angle lenses, Mr. Nilsson documented the journey to conception by some two million sperm as they swam six inches upstream from a woman’s cervix to the eggs traveling down her fallopian tubes.”

So you can tolerate the screeching 1980s educational video musical score (you know the ones?) if only by marveling at the incredible photography.

I suppose life is a miracle, and beholding it at a microscopic level makes you stop for a moment. I was struck by something very particular while watching the film.

The tired narrator was droning on, dispelling all kinds of facts about sperm and eggs and fertilization, when he listed a statistic that stopped us in our tracks.

“Of the 200 million sperm released, only about 50 sperm make it past the uterus to the Fallopian tubes. Then, only a single sperm unites with the egg.”

“WHAT?!” I interrupted the bored movie-watching silence. I was incredulous!

Think about it.

Each sperm has a different DNA. This means essentially that Daddy is donating 200 million different options of people, when babies are being made.

And only one sperm makes it. One unique sperm, with its own unique DNA. One unique sperm unites with a mother’s unique egg to create you.

You made it. You made it. You beat out 199,999,999 other people to be here!

Do you realize how incredible it is that both of us are living on this planet, at this time, as we are?

It is a fantastical miracle, incomprehensible to the human mind, that you and I exist together in this moment.

I looked at my senior girls: “You belong here. You belong here. You belong here at this school! You were designed to be here at this time, at this school, in this moment, with these people.”

Later, during a girls chapel one morning, I geeked out again with my sperm facts. “Of those 200 million sperm created, only one created you. God designed you so perfectly to live in this moment.”

The Psalmist, in Psalm 139, also ponders God’s choice in creation:

“You created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.”

Ben
Aunt life: our brand-new baby Ben.

I’ve been struck with such an incredible awe since watching that science-y birthing video one day in Child Care class. The knowledge of my incredible existence inspires me to want to live well. To live with eyes wide open. And to love well. To be grateful for my friends and all the incredible people I’ve come to know, especially those I’ve met since moving to Pennsylvania.

This knowledge seems to make every moment matter. I want to make my life count. (I mean, I do kind of owe it to 199,999,999 other little DNA globs.)

I find myself meditating, as Mary Oliver put it, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Speaking of Mary Oliver, what a better way to wish you all happy graduation, happy summer, and happy vacation than with a reading of Oliver’s “The Summer Day.”

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

In this post-school summer season, I wish you three things:

  1. Joy in learning, especially the joy of learning nerdy facts about God’s creation,
  2. Time and space for awe and gratefulness, perhaps a moment or two like Oliver’s stop-still interaction with a simple(!) grasshopper,

and finally,

  1. Motivation for life-changing acts of the will. Because it’s pretty incredible about the Fallopian tubes. So please understand how desperately serious I am when I say: “Don’t waste your life.”

Happy Summer!

Make it count.

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Distant Skylines: On Sanctification Through Change

I last wrote about how “it doesn’t always get worse” and about how sometimes we develop life-giving running rhythms in the back half of a race. For a person going through significant life change, I suppose “developing” was the perfect topic for me, for I’ve spend the last three months on a whirl-wind roller coaster applying and getting accepted into a grad program at Yale Divinity School. (More on that in a bit.)

Last year I quit my job as an English teacher, and this entire year has been one of learning to be flexible, and of learning to try to new things. One of the new rhythms I recently experimented with was fasting from social media and Youtube for the 40 days of Lent. Now that I’m nearing the end of this season of withholding, here is what I found:

  • I found I had more head space. Science tells us that it takes 30 days to develop a habit, and by the time I hit that 30-day marker, I realized that my daily routines and my emotional awareness were slightly shifting. I find that the white noise of social media gives me an illusion of being busy and having stuff (and people) going on. Removing the illusion is highly illuminating. It allows the “peak” sounds of your own mind and your own experience to shine through with greater intensity. Three things I noticed during my fast were (1) a hint of a greater tolerance for solitude (in other words, a few times I fully entered into a healthy kind of being alone, when I was alone), (2) tiny moments of writing inspiration (a few times I drifted off to sleep and some lines I could put in a novel someday danced around my head), and (3) a full awareness of my emotional state (me, reaching for my phone: “Am I feeling boredom? Sadness? Loneliness? Or do I really, actually need to look up the trailer to the documentary Free Solo?)
  • Second, I missed being creative. While mindless consumption of social media has great consequences (mood shifts after engaging, anyone?), social media content creation is about being creative, after all, and I missed being able to post snarky jokes, pretty photos, and theological wonderings.

Being off social media also allowed me to be more intentional with my schedule. I actually planned ahead to rent Free Solo. (You know the documentary, right? The story of Alex Honnold scaling for the first time the half-mile-high rock face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in a free solo climb, that is, rock climbing with no ropes?!) At the end, I wept like a baby. There’s something about the scene where he’s clinging to a ledge, there’s all those bugs flying in his face, and he says something like, “Imagine going to the worst Pilates class possible, and them making you hold the pose until you vomit, and if you drop the pose you literally die.” The film holds its own sort of artistic solemnity because viewers know he’s risking his entire life for a three-hour dream.

On the summit, his face shows simple joy, a simple smile, and a smiling and quiet response: “So delighted.”

There’s something about miles and miles of running that connects me to him. It’s endurance sports. It’s the connection of being part of a community where your life rhythms just don’t make sense to “normal” folks. Once he had finished the climb of his lifetime, he was asked, “So what are you gonna do now?”

“I’m gonna go hangboard.” He went into his van that he lives in and hung by his fingers which were stuck into a board, for…. strength training.

When I get up on a Saturday and go run 11 miles, I get it now that it’s a small sacrifice to the miracle that is the human race. It’s only a small sacrifice to the virtue of determination and discipline.

Anyway, if you want to watch a documentary that inspires you to find your dreams and to be true to yourself and never stop, and that also makes you weep like a hurt sparrow, watch Free Solo.

(I know that sentence sounds like crap, and maybe it is) but guys, I got in to Yale Divinity School. I don’t really know how to explain how deeply the last four months have touched me, and how they have been an absolute roller coaster of hope and turmoil and chaos and fear. I found out in December that I had everything I need to apply, so I simply went for it.

Why Yale?

I’ve been looking for grad programs that pair theological study with literature programs, and YDS happens to have a Master of Arts in Religion that pairs those two interests. And currently, YDS has some amazing literary folk (think: Christian Wiman and Marilynne Robinson). I applied, and I waited agonizing weeks to find out if I was accepted.

I visited YDS in February.

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Not YDS. Just undergraduate dorms.

On one hand it was so inspiring to be around such hungry learners. The entire earth holds such wonder for them. I happened to sit in on a chapel service (which, I had been warned varies in a mind-blowing gamut of Christian expression, from Episcopal liturgy, to Unitarian Universalist water services, to a joint service with the Yale Forestry people, featuring tulip-planting in your bare feet), but this time a young man preached for 10 minutes, and another young man sang the most beautiful solo I’ve ever heard to water the earth (a nod to a Grammy-nominated Gospel artist who happens to live near New Haven). The sun was streaming into the white marble-floored Marquand chapel, and it was a moment of beauty that brought tears to my eyes.

On the surface, I received an incredible welcome to the Yale community. The students I met were genuinely interested in the research work I hope to do with Mennonite literature for the sake of Mennonite literary education, and I had several conversations about how my work relates to other students’ areas of expertise.

More personally, it was incredibly exciting to see such laser focus in these adults who were studying all day long. It made me want to come home (to Lancaster, or to wherever) and to never stop growing. I was inspired to constantly redeem the time, to be reading and studying, preparing (for something, I’m not sure what).

On March 15th, I received noticed that I was accepted.

And not only did I get accepted to Yale Divinity School, I’m also turning it down.

For this fall at least.

Like I said before, I don’t really know how to explain how deeply the last four months have touched me.

“I have called you my friends,” yes, but you’re still the internet. So. I suppose I’ll just leave it like this: theeeeee most cathartic read on the internet this week has been David Brooks’s “The Moral Peril of Meritocracy.” The by-line of Brooks’s article states, “Our individualistic culture inflames the ego and numbs the spirit. Failure teaches us who we are.” In the article, Brooks erects two mountains, where mountain #1 is our career in which we achieve success and “win the victories the ego enjoys.” The second mountain is one in which we climb when we are thrown into our greatest adversity, when we find ourselves “falling, not climbing,” when we are navigating tragedies that “[make] the first-mountain victories seem, well, not so important.” Brooks describes the kind of people who experience moral renewal on the second mountain – people who are not broken by these experiences, but rather “broken open.”

He writes, “The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. The basement of your soul is much deeper than you knew. Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realize that success won’t fill those spaces. Only a spiritual life and unconditional love from family and friends will do. They realize how lucky they are. They are down in the valley, but their health is O.K.; they’re not financially destroyed; they’re about to be dragged on an adventure that will leave them transformed. They realize that while our educational system generally prepares us for climbing this or that mountain, your life is actually defined by how you make use of your moment of greatest adversity.”

If I’m wondering a bit aimlessly at the base of either of Brooks’s mountains, it is because I realize that grad school for me is part of my first mountain, and as a 29-year-old (cough cough, for only four more days), I realize I need some time to hangboard, and hangboard with people before I finish my first mountain, parts of which may very well be free solo. If we’re still speaking metaphorically, I’m actually doing training climbs on my second mountain instead, right now. I have some great coaches, and most of my training right now looks like uncomfortable ice baths and deep tissue massage, a little hangboarding, learning new rope techniques, and also scheduling time for the hot tub and sauna. It’s quite revitalizing, actually.)

If you ask me, I don’t know how long I’ll be on this second mountain. Because timelines in second mountain experiences are a bit subjective, like those in spirituality, and those in relationships. Second mountains do not always have the objectives timelines like those that first-mountain career experiences have, timelines like those in a two-year grad program.

While the second mountain is new, I’ve found that what I’m experiencing and what I’m living is distantly familiar…. Like a skyline you’ve seen before, but in which you’ve never lived, a skyline that is not the green hills of home, but another sort of artistic beauty, one that pulls you out of yourself, and requires change.

I complained to my friend recently that I don’t like these changes. They HURT. And they are HARD.

She softly responded, “Maybe this is part of your sanctification.”

And she is exactly right. Which is the only reason that this uncomfortable disappointment is bearable.

“So is it hard not having grad school plans for the fall, then?” you ask. I’ll spare you. “YES.” It is The Big Thing That Didn’t Happen.

For the moment, I’ve been drowning my sorrows with the artistic delights of spring, like lawn-flavored reading of Carolyn Weber’s Surprised by Oxford, most of which I consumed propped up by my elbows under a curiously gray sky. Or like my friend’s performance at her choir’s concert “The Unknown Regions,” which featured a cheerful selection of death songs (including Schuman’s Carols of Death, lyrically informed by Walt Whitman, Bach’s Jesu Meine Freude, and John Rutter’s Requiem).

Another delight was inaugurating my birthday week by playing privileged host to the dearest and oldest of friends, roommates from Bible school in days of yore. These wives and mothers and I galavanted all across Lancaster County this weekend, experiencing its best bits.

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Cafe One Eight, Longwood Garden, the sauna, Rachel’s Creperie, Main Street Exchange, Fashion Cents, Community Aid thrift shop, and the driving range for golf. Did we leave anything out?

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Ah, yes, at length we sipped the bowl of friendship.

I will close with these lines from John Updike’s Seven Stanzas for Easter because they point to the sort of reality I’m seeking. If it is second-mountain self-awareness that allows me to more fully outline the cross, then I consider these lines as fuel for these new treks.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of
beauty, lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

May your distant skylines bring you ever closer to the real, lived truth of the Gospel.

Wishing you a Happy Easter from Shasta’s Fog.

 

It Doesn’t Always Get Worse: Thoughts at New Year’s

Happy New Year’s from Shasta’s Fog!

This New Year’s I’m celebrating in the best way, brilliant sunshine bursting through floor-to-ceiling windows at my favorite coffee hotspot downtown, a buzzing atmosphere for family and friends enjoying embarrassingly late brunches. (Travel tip: there’s free parking in downtown Lancaster on federal holidays!)

On the first day of the year, I’m taking a few moments to breathe in the newness, and as I open my planner, I notice a new scent.

I smell violent adventure.

In many ways, the year ahead looks very hard, full of change, decision-making, exploring new opportunities, meeting new people, networking.

It all sounds adventure-y, yes. But also terrifying for this self-proclaimed introvert.

Despite the fact that it’s easy to writhe under the day-to-day grind of vocational service, sometimes it’s easier knowing exactly what the next twelve months hold, vocationally.

If you find that you don’t have that luxury this New Year’s Day, I offer you this observation gleaned from the endless stream of running podcasts I listened to driving back and forth from Ohio for the holidays. #midwest #roadtrips

Lindsey Hein, interviewing ultramarathoner Jessica Goldman, asked her about mental fortitude on the trail: “How do you navigate the ultramarathon mentally? What makes a person able to conquer distances of 100 miles or more?

Goldman responded, “One thing I repeat to myself is, ‘It doesn’t always get worse.’”

When you’re in mile 20 of a 100-mile race, you may be feeling awful, your legs screaming at you. When you look ahead to the fact that you have 80 miles left to go, there are two options. You may be tempted to think that you don’t have enough in you, and that if this is how things are going now, there’s absolutely no way that you can finish, because you cannot handle it if things continue to go downhill. (Heh heh.) Or, you have this option: you can glean from the experience of Goldman and others who know that sometimes it doesn’t always get worse. Sometimes life-giving running rhythms develop in the back half of the race, and it’s only in those first 20 miles that you experience mind-numbing distress.

Take this as a running tip and also as a booster for your New Year’s day. Perhaps this is the year in which your lived experience collides with never-before-experienced wellness.

Because that, my dear readers, is hope.

Hope is flexible. Hope is open to new experiences. (Truly, hope believes that new experiences are in fact possible.) Hope trusts that God gives wisdom for navigating new places and people. Hope believes that the power of Jesus gives us everything we need for a godly life. Hope is humble and ignores the awkward feeling of trying to do things differently. Hope is ambidextrous, employing multiple modalities for seeking spiritual and mental health.

J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote: “The world indeed is full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

I think Tolkien points to a hopefulness much needed in our world. (Even though as I’m blogging, I’m at the same time reading at Peter Hitchens article over at First Things called “Vice and Fire” that questions the religious ambivalence of Tolkien’s work and also prophesies the cultural effects of religious indifference promoted by George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Hitchens brings clarity to the way in which Tolkien and Martin create nonreligious fictional worlds which have no need nor vision for the spiritual; indeed Hitchens writes that Martin’s “fantasy greatly disturbs me, because it helps to normalize the indifference to Christianity which is a far greater threat to it than active atheism.” So on second thought, perhaps Tolkien’s hopefulness doesn’t go far enough. What fair-ness, for example? And what, really, is its undergirding? Human wistfulness? Sentimentality? That is the last thing we need.)

As you step forward into growth this new year, I pray that the hope you encounter is real and true, creational and cosmic, impossibly larger than human sentiment.

In 2019, perhaps Isaiah is the prophet we need:

Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31

Signs at Christmas

“You will be so impressed when you come home and see allllll my snowmen!” Mama’s voice smiles over the phone, oozing with sarcasm. Every year I criticize Mom’s hideous figurines set in haunting displays about the house. We’ve always quarreled over decorations, neither of us mincing words.

I’m nearing the 270 Columbus outer-belt, a route made familiar by my countless OSU commutes. It’s 10:30 p.m., and the city is nearing its bedtime. Weaving through traffic, I choose the swiftest lanes, paths memorized on my drives to campus. My 10-year-old iPod nano (a gift from my sister and her then-boyfriend) shuffles, playing indie Paper Route, and just then, driving through the glowing Columbus city-scape, it’s like it’s 2011 again, everyone’s in college, life is crucial, and TØP is a backyard band made up of a homeschool kid who used to play Christian high school basketball.

The city is a backward bronze horizon as I turn dark west. Soon I reach the familiar plains; the howling wind comforts me, and the stars are visible on the open plain.

***

“I just love the snowmen you’ve set out!” I gush, upon alighting on the front steps.

Mom rolls her eyes and gathers me into a hug. Papa is napping silently, bare feet sticking out of his favorite denim blanket, eyes behind an old Qatar Airways sleep mask.

It’s 11:00 p.m., and though I’ve already eaten supper, I stuff my face with blood oranges, Emma’s popcorn, homemade dipped gingersnaps, peanut butter blossoms, and a giant slice of frosted tea-ring. It occurs to me that my gastroenteritis ER disaster is firmly in the past.

Mama and I quietly catch up in the living room, me breathlessly explaining my own Christmas miracle from earlier that morning, which can only be explained here as me requesting a Very Important Email from a long-lost professor in Seattle. The sensitive situation required careful research, phone calls, a letter, and a certain kind of academic etiquette that I’m never sure if I get quite right. I can tell you that Thursday night I fell asleep half-seriously asking God for an email for Christmas. The next morning I drove my 30-minute work commute in glum anxiousness, not knowing where to turn during the week of Christmas break, if my efforts were in vain.

Haphazardly checking my email before exiting my car for my last day of work before Christmas break, I gasped in surprise at my inbox, too afraid to even read the brand-new email.

It was better than I could have even hoped.

I was beside myself upon entering work, that I couldn’t figure out what to do in the office with my excitement, so I just went to the bathroom and refilled all the toilet papers.

Isn’t it freaky when your prayers are answered in super-specific, timely ways?

Mom, of course, had heard the whole story twice, but listened gently in motherly raptures at my excitement. In the living room, we giggled over Oasis Chorale news, and Mama and Papa listened quietly as I played for myself for the first time Arvo Part’s “The Deer’s Cry.” Struck by its meditative, almost Russian-sounding quality, I carefully read the text:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in me, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me,
Christ with me.

It’s chilling to imagine performing this piece. Simply put, disciplined worship forms us. And the vision of the future here, the already-not-yet of the Gospel described here is so profound, that it lent a moment of soberness to our crumbly-cookie gathering.

Let me be honest: the disparity between my own brokenness and the Christ-centered existence mentioned in this text breeds spiritual insecurity for me, a common topic for me and my mentors. As I approach the new year, I continue to explore ways to build spiritual confidence and unity with Christ.

Saint Patrick, who composed the text in 433, chanted the text along with his comrades while fleeing through a forest, away from persecutors set to kill them. The story goes that the travelers were transformed, as reported by the perpetrators, into a deer and twenty fawns. Thus, St. Patrick was saved.

(What a strange manifestation of grace, using common forms. Strange and common… like an email.)

Dipping into Disciplines for the Inner Life last week, I was encouraged to pray not for answers, but for the sense of being heard, by God. Is that what had happened when I had checked my email before work?

Receiving exactly what you ask for is confidence-boosting. It is also rare. It also breeds doubt because you second-guess if it’s actually an answer, or just a coincidence, something you received that’s so small that you shouldn’t have prayed about it in the first place. (Call me irreverent, but I struggle to pray for lost coins. I’d rather divert the Lord to, say, the border.) Then, once you decide to actually call it answered prayer, you try to interpret it. What does the “answer” mean for you and your one, beautiful life? Does the answer have anything to bear on other requests, much more monumental, for which you seek wisdom?

***

One and a half days later, I stuff my feet into brilliant purple running shoes and pull on tights and all manner of winter running garb. I steal a handkerchief from my dad’s drawer and tie it over my nose and mouth to protect my lungs.

Shaking out my legs on my first vacation run, I squint my eyes through the only opening on my face, between my hat and scarf. I pick up speed, and the earth quiets. The sun has set, and the entire landscape is a frozen brown, the lavender-blue sky meeting the razor-straight solitary trail, lined by scraggy saplings. Just before I reach “The Tree,” I hear a thundering under the wide expanse. Over my right shoulder, I catch a movement, and my adrenaline surges.

Three white-tailed deer thunder toward me.

For a moment, their light hooves match my rhythm, then thunder past.

I chase them, and their tails disappear just up ahead.

I can’t help but remember…

…“The Deer’s Cry.”

***

Perhaps readers think that such a sighting may be common for Ohio landscapes, but I’ve been running this trail for twelve years and have never once spied such wildlife.

The experience was so otherworldly that it’s hard to not ask what sort of meaning it prefigures.

***

For now, I turn to the Psalms:

“As for God, his way is perfect:
The Lord’s word is flawless;
he shields all who take refuge in him.
For who is God besides the Lord?
And who is the Rock except our God?
It is God who arms me with strength
and keeps my way secure.
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer;
he causes me to stand on the heights.”

Psalm 18:30-33

I hold this memory close at the end of this page-turning year.

Drinking Coffee with Canada’s National Mennonite Historical Society

This past weekend, I listened to no less than thirty academic presentations in a space of 2.5 days as Canada’s national Mennonite Historical Society hosted scholars and speakers for the annual Mennonite Studies conference at the University of Winnipeg. For me, to hear Mennonite history treated with academic regard of the highest degree was paradigm shifting. The conclusions of scholars on Mennonites and education, specifically Mennonite girls in education, were especially moving.

If Canadian Mennonite history were a monarchy, then Frank Epp was crowned king by the frequent reference to his contribution to the three-volume work Mennonites in Canada, his daughter Marlene Epp reigning as current monarch, with U of W’s Mennonite Studies chair Royden Loewen acting as lovable prime minister.

It’s been only recently that I’ve come to discover that the idea of a singular “Mennonite identity” is passé, and it was confirmed to me by the conference. The Canadian presenters seemed to take this as a given as they presented deep research showing diversity of expression in Anabaptist identity in Canada since the 1970s. The fact of diversity within Canadian Mennonitism was further supported through Ted Regehr’s opening comments that highlighted that one major change of Anabaptism in Canada since the 1970s is that it is now primarily an urban identity, not a rural one. (In this way, Mennonites in America seem some fifty years behind their northerly neighbors.) I’ll share here some of the emphases of conference topics and research that to me seemed particularly Canadian in flavor.

1. One of the first concerns raised seemed to be that of indigenous issues. Canadian Mennonite scholars were sensitive to the fact that white Mennonite settlers in Canada settled on Native lands, and the conference began with a ceremonial naming of the tribes on whose land rests the University of Winnipeg. Daniel Sims outlined the interaction of Mennonites with Tsay Keh Nay in Ingenika, British Columbia while they squatted on “government” land. One MCC worker spoke about donations at an MCC thrift store being able to be repatriated to First Nations people in Saskatoon. Coupled with this was occasional reflection on the Mennonites’ responsibilities to the 2008 Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Melanie Kampen asking the question if Canadian Mennonites have fully explored their participation in the cultural genocide of First Nations through residential schools.

2. There were frequent references to Canada’s 1971 induction of a state policy of multiculturalism, which led to (for Mennonites) the creation and promotion of the Manitoba Mennonite Centennial (attended by 70,000) and even government grants for writing the histories that Frank Epp did.

3. Most thrilling of all was my first taste of Canada’s vast archiving of its Mennonite identity. IT IS TO BE RESPECTED. We in the States do not have any sort of Mennonite Historical Society on a national level, and the level of scholarship, documentation, and archival work is simply phenomenal, leading to highly gratifying presentations like that of Laureen Harder-Gissing’s work on Canadian Mennonites at the edge of activism.

  • It was a Canadian Mennonite woman who gained national attention by lobbying (successfully) for less violent scenes in the children’s TV show “Power Rangers” in the 1980s.
  • Mennonites also hopped on the anti-war toys campaign of the 1990s. Ontario Mennonite Fred Snyder bought his local Sears’ entire stock of GI Joe toys on his credit card, and then returned them after Christmas. Sears was forced to return the toys to the manufacturer!

Dr. Janis Thiessen delighted conference-goers with her exposition on John Braun and his Leftist manifesto of the Radical Mennonite Union of the 70s. Hoping to unite the radical Left and Anabaptists, Braun organized and gained funding for a pan-American road trip in which he interviewed Mennonite dissidents along the way, at the same time distributing Leftist propaganda, stopping by the Chicago Mennonite commune that produced the Leftist Mennonite newspaper, the Mennonite Stomach. Thiessen’s research culminated with observations about how the Mennonite Left differed from its nondenominational counterparts. First, there was an intergenerational institutional support in the fact that the older generation indulged Braun, allowing him to create his trip and even agreeing to be interviewed. Second, the Mennonite Left maintained pacifism and the absence of violence, unlike the New Left when they lost out.

4. Another concern to be raised was that of gender – how would Canadian Mennonites include and promote LGBTQ persons within the church, and how did Canadians view the historical contributions of Mennonite women in their respective communities? (Frank Epp’s wife Helen personally reviewed countless national documents in order to find and record every single Mennonite conscripted during the World War. Also, 40% of Mennonite farmers who testified against building a uranium refinery, the El Dorado nuclear site, on Mennonite farmland in Warman, Saskatchewan, in 1980 were women. [They won, incidentally.])

Thus, a theological self-consciousness emerged, along with a call to “change our theology when it hurts others” (which begs the question – what is the definition of theology, and is it so liminal?) This self-consciousness appeared both in relation to gender, but also to ethnicity. For example, Mennonite Brethren folks wondered whether a name-change is in order for the conference, an option for a new name being Evangelical Anabaptist. (One sees how the name is less gendered and less ethnic than Mennonite Brethren). Which actually makes sense given the fact that one researcher pointed out that the Mennonite Brethren church in Quebec is made up of almost entirely non-white immigrants.

The ethnic question was also brought up implicitly by the cultural diversity presentations. For example, how do we account for a Chinese Mennonite Brethren church in Caracas, Venezuela? “That’s so specific,” in the words of Marlene Epp (who was actually describing a cookbook called Friendly Favorites: a Cookbook of Favorite Recipes of Ontario Markham Mennonite Girls Born in 1995, but it nevertheless relates.)

5. Also noticeable was the Mennonite connection to a farming past (and farming future). We heard how Ontario Old Orders responded to the implementation of electric, refrigerated milk tanks. “Can’t use milk cans anymore? We’re moving to Guatemala.” In relation to a change in farming policy, there was, historically, overall, a wide berth of resistance, flexibility, and acceptance. Or as Royden Loewen’s research mused, “Are Canadian Mennonite farmers biotic believers? Or Anabaptist agricultural agnostics?”

6. A purview into contemporary history of Mennonites necessarily reported on Mennonites “Re-Imagining Education,” and it was telling to hear about the move away from Bible schools to Christian universities for the Mennonite Brethren. I tried to remain stoically unemotional when powerhouse Robyn Sneath dusted off her shiny new Oxford doctorate, reporting on forty oral interviews she collected from Lower German Mennonites on their experience with 8th grade public education, and why secondary education seems unobtainable. Further, Janice Harper’s work on the Elmira Life and Work School in Ontario demonstrated to me a flexibility and creativity at the state level to address truancy among conservative Anabaptist who drop out of school after 8th grade. (Among the compromises this Canadian high school made were providing the Mennonites high school segregation at an off-campus location (!) and a work-study option, in which students attend high school one or two days a week, working for a local business for the other three or four days.) The creativity and flexibility demonstrated by the public school board in order to compromise with the religious community in Elmira, Ontario pierced like a neon saber.

But I couldn’t hold back the tears because I was seeing the issues for which I champion every day as an educator discussed in respectful, nuanced ways by national scholars, while feeling the weight of class struggle bind me in solidarity to one Lower German Mennonite girl who solemnly declared when asked if she would ever go to university: “I could never afford it.” While a fog settles over my own educational path, a path of economic resistance, to see my questions legitimized by cutting-edge researchers was paradigm shifting, yet also called into remembrance what Daniel Sims, a Native researcher called for: “No research on us without us.”

Thankfully, every two hours we breaked for coffee and pastries, and I was able to gulp huge breaths of air, and Mennonite big-whigs exchanged my tears for business cards, helpful introductions, and a genuine interest in my conference affiliation because what are you, and would you even consider yourself Mennonite.

7. The last session cast its eye toward the future with talks on Youth & Generation. Gil Dueck’s “Conceptualizing the Millennial: Questions of Theology and Identity” reported that millennials’ questions are not theological in nature, but rather those of identity. A few data points: (1) The 2011 study “Hemorrhaging Faith: Why & When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying & Returning to the Church” reported in a weirdly recognizable way that things that keep teenagers from engaging with the church include, for one, not having a meaningful relationship with God (not that teens were able to describe what a meaningful relationship looked like, yet they seemed to be able to feel what it was not). (2) “Identity” is becoming crucially important in emerging adulthood, and the search for identity is continuing quite abnormally into the late 20s and even low 30s. (3) Now, adulthood is about standing alone, rather than accepting role change.

Peter Epp spoke on unbaptized young adults in Mennonite contexts and asked the question, “Why aren’t young people getting baptized?” His named his work “It’s Like Dating Around” because participants in his study equated baptism to marriage, in importance. Since it was a historical conference, Epp was forced to offer objective findings rather than subjective analysis, but it was easy to see how the research pointed to a response. For instance, Epp reported the following concerning unbaptized young adults in Mennonite contexts: (1) To them, baptism requires certainty of belief and changed behavior AND they believe that certainty of belief and changed behavior will be arrived at individually (as in the case of one girl who was waiting to get baptized until she had time to “think really thoughtful thoughts” about what she believed). (2) Secondly, they’ve experienced isolation at church.

If you’re not a historian, feel free to make subjective analysis now.

I worried that a conference of this pace might be tiring, but part of the fun was managing the metacognition of dropping down into a new country… adjusting to signs for “the washroom,” being frowned at for saying, “Yes, sir” (“This is NOT the military!”), noticing uncluttered European-like spaces (a design sense that’s inexplicably un-American), Canadian politeness (could Americans be any more whiny at security), and Canadian forthrightness (especially females). Also the cold. (On a 7o morning, an older conference member announced cheerily, “I walked here, 1.2 miles. Took me twenty minutes. Nice brisk walk.” Another man: “I bike to work. If it’s below -40o, I wear goggles and a face mask. If it’s above -40o, you don’t really need the goggles.”) Have literally never seen an electric hitching post before, in the parking lot, and there was an electric plug sticking out of the hood of the 2018 Dodge Charger we rented. My friend Janae and I dashed out for the most highly rated coffee in Winnipeg, Fools & Horses, and haphazard flakes flittered down lazily, an afterthought in the pink morning sky. (My friend Janae is a chemist, but she graciously accompanied me to the three-day conference, and I think she took more notes than I did!)

 

Winnipeg’s annual Santa Claus parade provided us an hour detour before our final stop: across the Red River is Winnipeg’s French quarter, St. Boniface, and slipping into Promenade, we enjoyed bouef bourguignonne by candlelight, the city lights sparkling on the banks of the river, and we discussed with exuberance our copious notes. Warmed and grateful, I recalled a bit of John Braun’s manifesto as we later stepped out into the night: “Before change, understanding. Before understanding, confrontation. God is alive. Magic is afoot.”

The Limits of a Biblical Worldview

One of my reading goals has been tackling James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, the first in his three-volume Cultural Liturgies. The “It-read” of OC 2012, the book arrived on my shelf years ago, and I am finally doing it justice.

In the book, Smith champions a Christian education that is not merely the dispensation of a Christian worldview, because, as he argues, humans are more than thinking machines, and the most important parts of human existence are not heady, intellectual affairs (we at Shasta’s Fog imagine that they nearly are) but rather the habits and loves of whole-bodied persons. He therefore reimagines humanity as “desiring animals” rather than “thinking things.”

Knights

Professor at Calvin College (*cough* theological alliances made clear), Smith writes to a seemingly Protestant audience, one that he finds doctrinally bloated (Ye lucky Reformed brethren! Ye of the orthodoxy!), evidenced by his gentle questions:

“What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” (18).

Some worldview definitions reduce “Christian faith primarily to a set of ideas, principles, claims, and propositions that are known and believed. The goal of all this is ‘correct’ thinking. But this makes it sound as if we are essentially the sorts of things that Descartes described us to be: thinking things that are containers for ideas. What if that is actually only small slice of what we are? And what if that’s not even the most important part? In the rationalist picture, we are not only reduced to primarily thinking things; we are also seen as things whose bodies are nonessential (and rather regrettable) containers for our minds… But what if our bodies are essential to our identities?… What if the core of our identity is located more in the body than the mind?” (32)

Smith proves this nature in a creative anthropological study of the American shopping mall (reminiscent of Horace Miner’s “Nacirema” essay) to represent that all embodied humans are religious, chapel or no chapel, and that our behavior rises from a certain vision that we have of the good life, a vision which, cyclically, is reaffirmed through habits and practices. In short, “what defines us is what we love,” not what we believe (25). Humans, then, are creatures of desire. Or as Smith states,

“Human persons are intentional creatures whose fundamental way of ‘intending’ the world is love or desire. This love or desire—which is unconscious or noncognitive—is always aimed at some vision of the good life, some particular articulation of the kingdom. What primes us to be so oriented—and act accordingly—is a set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means, especially bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination, which is closely linked to our bodily sense” (63).

And so we read Smith’s presentation of the “new,” which rejects humans as merely “believers,” for he questions the capability of worldview, as we understand it, to explain our behavior. “For most people,” Smith points out, “religious devotion is rarely a matter of theory” (69).

(Which, I think, is a *very important* distinction for those of us trying to make sense of [what I would call] forceful contemporary Anabaptist orthopraxy.)

Without worldview as a conceptual framework, Smith must offer us another explanation of reality, and he borrows Charles Taylor’s “social imaginary,” conceivably because “Taylor intuits that what we ‘think about’ is just the tip of the iceberg and cannot fully or even adequately account for how and why we make our way in the world” (65). Convinced of the limits of worldview, Smith then fully explains this social imaginary as a “noncognitive director of our actions and our entire comportment to the world… It is a way of intending the world meaningfully—giving it significance—but in a way that is not cognitive or propositional” (66). Smith notes how Taylor insists that “‘it can never be adequately expressed in the form of explicit doctrines’” (66). Which means, that the social imaginary must have different means of transmitting itself—through images, stories, and legends.

I want to take a break here and, first, point out how much SENSE the social imaginary makes to one needing an explanation of the “success” of contemporary Anabaptism. How can a denomination self-perpetuate so successfully, for so long, in a seemingly “doctrine-less” context of practice? But that is what Taylor exactly expects: “If the understanding makes the practice possible, it is also true that it is the practice that largely carries the understanding” (67). Which explains the incredulous looks I receive when I question whether Mennonites really know what they believe. Passionate adherents immediately begin listing “beliefs” that are nothing more than ordinances, practices. Which, as we have learned, carry certain understandings about “who I am,” an understanding rarely put into words, but powerful nonetheless.

Second, Smith develops a rich argument for the viability and strength of social imaginary being perpetuated through “images,” images that powerfully (yet subtly) develop a particular vision of the good life. My one fleeting thought (I cannot help myself): what if we went further than shopping mall behavior and assessed the liturgical practice of incessant scrolling? How does this practice/habit/behavior both reflect and refine our vision of life? What does the social media scrolling practice say about what we love? How does it sculpt our loves? How does it redefine them? If the “social imaginary” is conceptually true, then our media habits hold powerful sway in creating and sculpting our loves, for they powerfully captivate our imaginations, compounding in time to drive a stake, claiming our loves.

Since I’m only one-third of the way through the book, I imagine Smith will do several things: (1) more fully work out how the social imaginary is different than “worldview” as we know it, and (2) offer suggestions for how the church must necessarily shift away from thinking worldview-ishly, and begin offering embodied alternatives.

In a telling essay called “Why Victoria’s In on the Secret,” Smith highlights how modern advertising campaigns seem understand our embodied nature better than the church. He writes, “On one level, Victoria’s Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry—which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination—is operating which a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church. In other words, I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied desiring creatures” (76). Yet the church seems to be fighting these strong passions and loves with… ideas. And beliefs. In our heads. Which have somehow gotten disconnected from our bodies. Smith writes, “When Hollister and Starbucks haven taken hold of our heart with tangible, material liturgies, Christian schools are ‘fighting back’ by giving young people Christian ideas. We hand young people (and old people) ‘Christian worldview’ and then tell them, ‘There, that should fix it.’ But such strategies are aimed at the head and thus miss the real target: our hearts, our loves, our desires. Christian education as formation needs to be a pedagogy of desire” (33).

(I might note here that Smith uses the term “liturgies” to mean any formative practice, that by repetition, becomes a ritual of identity. Less like brushing your teeth, more like going to Cross-Fit every day or shopping on amazon.com. What does it mean that one goes to Cross-fit every day, and how does that habit or ritual begin to bend back on a person, shaping their desire? What liturgies do we participate in every day? Are there Christian liturgies, and secular liturgies? Smith calls liturgies “secular” when they “capture our hearts by capturing our imaginations and drawing us into ritual practices that ‘teach’ us to love something very different from the kingdom of God” (88).)

Finally, Smith will (3) more fully explain how the new conception of the social imaginary comes to bear in what we call Christian education. I love Smith’s definition of education:

“An education – whether acknowledged or not – is a formation of the desires and imagination that creates a certain kind of person who is part of a certain kind of people. The facts and information learned as part of the process are always situated and embedded in something deeper that is being learned all along: a particular vision of the good life” (29).

The full title of the work is Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, because it is when education prioritizes worship (whatever that is) that education can begin to expand beyond the limits of worldview-dispensing into an actual education that recognizes and uses our bodies.

 

 

 

Years That Ask Questions, and Years That Answer

Remember that AIO episode where Eugene Meltzner packs his bags for California and victoriously declares, “I’m going on a journey… to find myself!”?

Bernard Walton (every evangelical’s favorite sarcastic saint) replies, “Sounds like a pretty short trip.”

I feel like I’m approaching this year in the same way: with both parts inspirational stirring and bemused pragmatism.

Last winter I made the crazy decision to take a year off from the English classroom, and I spent most of this summer furiously job-hunting, most interviews going something like this:

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Saved by the bell (a literal school bell), I got an administrative assistant job just weeks ago in a local high school. While I was initially looking for more distance from a school setting, I’m not going to lie that I look forward to #everyholidayoff and #snowdays.

I thought I would make things easy for myself as I adjust to a new job by packing up my entire apartment and moving across the county. Things I’m gaining: roommates who cook, a dishwasher, a yard with big trees, and a patio. #suburbia

Things I’m leaving behind: cement, my favorite running trail, the clip-clop of buggies, and the infamous Menno Wal-Mart. (Tons more diversity in this part of Lancaster. I went for groceries, and I’m pretty certain I was the only white person there.)

Oh, and did I mention that this summer I also threw out all my beginners’ training plans and ramped up half-marathon training to chase an early fall half-marathon PR. (So laughable because my new neighborhood lies on top of countless, impossibly-mountainous hills.)

A lot of people have been asking me why I quit teaching this year, and I can’t say it better than Zora Neale Hurston: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

2018 is that year for me, and I feel incredibly blessed to have the luxury to take time off to ask deep questions of myself, my career, and of God.

Don’t get me wrong, this year I have an incredible to-do list. I have an incredible reading list. I have an incredible amount of research and academic networking to do. (Step 1: Mennonite Studies conference at University of Winnipeg in November.) And as always, I have writing goals, running goals, and music-learning goals.

“But wait,” my friend said. “Are you going to actually take the time to rest and do the re-focusing that you wanted to do in the first place?”

(Thanks, Nancy, I need the reminder.)

Because at the outset, I scheduled this year as one big fat giant reminder to rest… a sort of personal maintenancing. I have a feeling that the silence of rest will at first sound like a roar. (Especially as I force myself to answer some deep questions.)

You know what they say: “Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow.” I hope to be asking that question for this entire year.

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One of my new next-door neighbors is from West Africa, and he said this about Americans: “You ask American, ‘How are you?” They say, ‘I’m fine.’ Could be living catastrophe. Could be shot by bullet with blood coming out, they say, ‘I’m fine.’”

Here’s to a year of asking myself, “How are you?” and answering honestly.

Because the truth is, readers, if you’re running a rat race, you’re allowed to DNF.