Speaking of monuments

There has been a lot of talk lately about monuments. Leroy Seat from Rainbow has written a piece called Monumental Decisions, and Sojourners published a great piece here: Where are the Monuments to Peacemakers?

This national discussion has led me to pay more attention to the monuments around KC. In particular, I am interested in the Biblical Ruth sculpture that sits in the median on the west side of the intersection of Nichols and Wyandotte, what is known as the KC Plaza.

I love this description: “She [Ruth] is kneeling on her right knee and holding sheaves of wheat while she gazes off to her right.  The center panel of the base, which is sometimes obscured by the surrounding landscaping, is a bas relief depicting the story of Ruth from the Bible. “

Ruth

This sculpture is an original work by Pasquale Romanelli of Florence, Italy. It was purchased by Miller Nichols from Romanelli Studios for placement on Country Club Plaza in 1966.

The story of Biblical Ruth is indeed obscured, not just sometimes, but most of the time I’m afraid. Too often we turn the book of Ruth into a romantic fairy tale, with a man swooping into rescue the vulnerable, passive, submissive women. Too often we forget that the story of Ruth begins by describing the humanitarian crisis that is famine. An Israelite family must flee Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means “House of Bread,” to a foreign land called Moab in order to survive. Ruth of course was a Moabite woman who eventually marries into this Hebrew family. Crisis after crisis piles up and eventually Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi have to flee once again, this time back to Bethlehem. Desperation and perhaps literal hunger drives the widow Ruth to glean in the fields, as widows, which means “the leftover piece,” were allowed to do by Mosaic Law.

As Joan Chittister reminds us, Ruth was written thousands of years ago—anywhere from 500 to 1000 B.C.E.—composed, faith tells us, under the inspiration of the Divine, it [Ruth] is a universal story of the poor, the marginalized and the refugee. It is a story, she argues, of hope emerging out of loss and tragedy, a story about risk, vulnerability, marginalization, barrenness, hostility, change, transformation, relationship, survival, resiliency.  “We are all,” she writes, “Naomi on the way from the grave, all Orpah on the way to security, all Ruth on the way to a strange tomorrow.”

Sure, the story ends (spoiler alert!) on a more pleasant note. Naomi, a name that means “pleasant,” is restored and her bitter (Mara) tears are replaced by tears of joy at the birth of her grandson, Obed. (Obed would then father Jesse, who would father David. All of this means that Jesus’ lineage is traced back to Ruth, the Moabite and foreigner.)

What I take away from Ruth is a radical story of foreigners despised and then welcomed, of enemies becoming friends and kin, a story that explores the realities of scarcity, famine, emptiness, barrenness as well as friendship, abundance, and hesed, that wonderfully rich Hebrew word, which often is translated as loving kindness, but really sums up the way God intends for human beings to live together. It is, as Carolyn Custis James writes that “bone deep commitment that motivates a person to love voluntarily with nothing expected in return.” The story of Ruth is soaked in hesed, she writes. With Ruth’s blood running in Jesus’ veins, no wonder his followers still to this day believe he fully embodied hesed. No wonder Jesus often talked about welcoming the foreigner, the widow, the hungry and sorrowful.

I understand that the Plaza includes many statues and murals depicting many of the world’s great leaders and historical figures. When Plaza developer Jesse Clyde (J.C.) Nichols traveled through Europe in the 1920’s, he wanted to bring some of Spain back with him. It’s wonderful to see the Biblical Ruth be given prominence. But what kind of great leader and historical figure do we see when we look at Ruth? How have we obscured the more radical vision of hesed that Ruth gives us? We will explore this question and more on Saturday, September 30 from 9-11 am.  Join us for coffee and, while this might further obscure our study, maybe I’ll bring some Baby Ruth bars for us to enjoy.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Shapers of Conscience

I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I am a nine year old standing in the lunch line at school. I can hear the lunch lady asking my peers in front of me if they want white milk or chocolate milk. Unlike my friends, I didn’t see myself as having a choice between white or chocolate because in my family, chocolate milk was a no-no. Too sweet, my parents told me. It would inevitably lead to cavities. So for years, even though I felt jealous of my peers as they slurped down their chocolate milk, I remained obedient—it was always white milk for me.

Then, just like that, it all changed. For reasons I can’t explain, it dawned on me that day that my parents weren’t standing in line with me. How could they possibly know if I chose white or chocolate? I felt this rush of adrenaline that comes with new-found freedom, independence and maybe a little bit of rebellion.

IMG_3078

As it turned out, I ended up not liking the chocolate milk. It was, in fact, too sweet. (Don’t tell my parents they were right.) I also realized that while my parents weren’t there to punish me, they were still shaping my conscience and guiding my actions from a distance, or they were at least trying to.

I’ve thought a lot about this lunch room memory this summer as I started to prepare for this new worship series we are calling “Voices of Conscience.”*

voices of conscience

Precisely what is a conscience? Does everybody have one and if so, are we born with one? Is conscience fixed or malleable? Is it always trustworthy? How are our consciences influenced by the attitudes and values of our culture? And finally, is there such a thing as a Jesus-shaped conscience? Or a Mennonite conscience?

No matter what our answers are to these questions, I believe developing a healthy conscience or moral compass requires a lot of maintenance. Our conscience is not always reliable or infallible. I tend to agree with others that while we should always listen for what our inner conscience tells us when it comes to discerning what is right or wrong, we should not blindly follow our conscience. Rather, real moral growth and maturity lies in examining our conscience, evaluating its promptings, purging it of negative influences and error.

Peter W. Marty writes this in a recent article in Christian Century called Conscience means knowing together:

The word conscience, from the Latin conscientia, is formed of two words, meaning “knowing together.” That’s a clue that it’s best to think of conscience not as an inner voice but as the ability to think and act with outside help. Parents, teachers, and coaches all contribute to the shape of our conscience. So do formative events. So does God. God in Christ Jesus helps form followers into particular kinds of human beings.

Forming a conscience shaped by the moral compass that was Jesus is what I hope we will consider in the weeks to come at Rainbow.

As Peter W. Marty reminds us, the stakes are a lot higher than whether to choose white or chocolate milk. “It’s time to start renewing our own conscience by asking the right questions,” Marty writes.

“As Martin Luther King Jr. famously put it: “Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right?” We have the work of conscience cut out for us in America.”

Yes we do.

*Voices of Conscience is the name of a traveling exhibit that is being developed by the Kauffman Museum, Bethel College, KS. It will premier at the Muted Voices Symposium October 19-22 at the National WWI Museum in KC. Rainbow Mennonite Church will be the first exhibition stop on a year-long exhibition tour around the U.S.  This exhibit will remember the witness of peace-minded people against the First World War, 1914-1918. The exhibit will lift up the prophetic insights and the personal courage of WWI peace protesters suggesting parallels to the culture of war and violence in our world today.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mennos dancing with the stars

I can’t tell if Menno Simons (pictured below) is excited about Monday’s solar eclipse or disappointed in our sketch of him. Or maybe he just doesn’t like our reworking of the hymn “Will you let me be your servant.” Blame my friends, Menno, not me.*

menno eclipse II copy

Will you let me be 3

*Jesse Graber (drawing); Joanna Harader and Maggie Goble (hymn text); Rosi Penner Kaufman (musical score assistance)

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Comforted by Mennonites

Rainbow quilters were back on Monday! I could hear their wonderful chatter and the purring of their sowing* machines and it filled me with hope that somewhere in the world, someone would be comforted by their compassion.
quilters
According to the Mennonite Central Committee website, last year over 51,000 comforters or blankets made by Mennonites were shipped to Jordan, Ethiopia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Ukraine, Serbia, Iraq, Canada, the U.S. and more.
On a more lighthearted note, this is my favorite story about Mennonites seeking to comfort others. I believe this particular story comes from Barbara Chappell via Ben Chappell. (Like the gospels, I believe several versions of this story are floating around.)
A social work professor who travels to Darfur, Sudan, shared stories at a recent church gathering. In the midst of recounting the horrors of the genocide there, he related this amusing story.
Mennonite Central Committee has been sending blankets and comforters to Darfur where they are greatly appreciated.  There is no Arabic word for “comforter,” so the people just called them “Mennonites.” Until he figured this out, the traveler was totally perplexed to hear these very appreciative people talking about how they always like to have a Mennonite on top of them to keep them warm at night, and how they hang the Mennonite on the wall in the morning because, in the morning Mennonites look so nice hanging from a hook!
*Apparently I’m of the Mennonite generation that does not know how to sew. At least I sure don’t know how to spell it.
Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

In the valley of weeping

Psalm 84 has been on my mind this week, especially this phrase:

As they go through the valley of Baca…

Baca is often translated as “the valley of weeping,” a place of adversity, dry, devoid of water and nourishment. Some point to an actual valley, Rephaim, that fits this description and that is close to Jerusalem.

Many of us have walked through our own valleys of weeping and adversity, whether literal or figurative. Mark Wiebe and Anne Brady Bloos certainly know this valley as they, together with their youngest son, Noah, reel from the sudden and shocking death of their 25 year old son, Quinn. You can read the obituary here:  Quinn David Brady

Last week I met with the Wiebe family in their home. The family asked me to help them center their pain and shock, hopefully in a spirit of love. As I sat with them in the valley of weeping, these are some of the words I shared. I still hope and pray that that they will find their way within this valley toward the springs of life, but now is a time for sitting with them in the valley. Now is the time for acknowledging the pain and sitting in the void.

IMG_7158(1)

July 21, 2017

Dear Quinn’s beloved family and friends,

I brought some symbols from Rainbow. The large candle graces the front of the sanctuary every Sunday at Rainbow. Some people call it the Light of Love, some call it the Centering Light, some call it the God Light. We relate to and name light and the divine in different ways, and that is beautiful.

The little candles in the sand stand like little figures to me. They make me think of all the people surrounding you right now from near and far, holding you in the Light of Love.

What many people at Rainbow don’t know is that sometimes the wick of the large candle gets buried from all the wax build up, and sometimes during the middle of the service, the light goes out. When this happens, my thoughts usually drift to the sad, but true reality that sometimes life has a way of snuffing out potential. Life is blown out by disease, injury, sometimes unknown causes. When this happens, we are left struggling to relight the potential, to relight our lives in the face of loss, and to surrender to mystery.

To you who knew and loved Quinn the most, to you who Quinn knew and loved the most, your grief and pain is raw. This is not a time to say clichés or look for resolution or even answers. Rather, it is a time to hurt together. Tears are welcome and I would say they are holy, for they flow from love.

John O Donahue, the great poet writes this: “To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge, especially when thresholds open suddenly in front of us, for which we had no preparation. This could be illness, suffering, or loss. Because we are so engaged with the world, we usually forget how fragile life can be and how vulnerable we always are. It takes only a couple of seconds for life to change irreversibly. Suddenly we stand on completely strange and shaky ground…..”

This is the shaky ground you stand on. And the challenge is to let grief be as it is–wild, raw, and untamed. And as best we can, be present to it and one another. For in honoring grief and sorrow, we honor the love that it stems from.

I was searching for poetry to share with you. Quinn, after all, loved poetry.

IMG_7125

A poem by Quinn David Brady written in his early homeschool years.

So often poets, especially of the religious variety, want to move quickly toward the transforming power of grief and sorrow, toward a resolution. But today isn’t a day for seeking full resolution.

The one poem I did want to share with you is called A Grief Ago, by Michael Shepherd. I shared it with a friend and she wrote this in response: “I have to admit that I am kind of pissed at grief right now.  Yes, I have experienced its beauty, its transformational energy, its paralyzing heaviness and protection, but I so badly want to lock it up in a cupboard for a minute.  I want to gather up everyone else’s grief and plant it somewhere, again if only for a minute.  Bearing witness to so much pain, so much grief… There really is no hiding from it, no burial for it, no putting it up somewhere- this I know to be true, sigh.”

 

I think Michael Shepherd says something similar in this poem.

A grief ago

There is no grief
which time does not lessen
or soften’ –
so said Cicero, a man so often right;
a Stoic, those for whom
all life presents a lesson
to be learned from,
and then, to move on from..

But I wonder about all this:
is grief ever lessened or softened?
Is it not, perhaps, overlaid
in our so various ways?

For some, grief framed and falsified
to ease that grief;

For some, like hyacinths and crocus bulbs,
left in a dark cupboard in the autumn of our grief
to respond to time, and
become at last
themselves?

gently, gently, the covers pulled
over the loving bed,
the true, the pure, the lovely painful grief,
the memory deep cherished,
gently, gently, folded
into the cupboards of the heart

there to be known, without the door disturbed
until the time – ‘a grief ago’ as Dylan wrote
the cupboard opened only for love’s sake
without grief…:
those carefully folded memories
brought out and loved
and lived a while…

not grief, not grief…but
the pure memory of grief

and behold,
life.

image

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Life tips

 

IMG_7047

If you were asked on the spot to give a room full of 100 K-8th graders a life tip, what would it be? And what would it be if you had to say it in one sentence, using fewer than 10 words? This is exactly what community leaders are asked to do every morning during Rainbow Summer School Program.

For example, on the morning of July 12 here was Mayor Mark Holland’s life tip (it’s hard for Mayors to keep it to one sentence): “Everyone has a special calling, and I believe that calling is somewhere between what you are good at and what you enjoy. So keep figuring out what you are good at AND what you enjoy!”

IMG_7082

Here are a few more life tips heard at Rainbow Summer Program. You might notice that someone named Pastor Ruth couldn’t keep her life tip to 10 words either.

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mennonite Church USA Pep Talk

Next week, July 4-8, Mennonites from across the US will gather in Orlando, Florida for the Mennonite Church USA biennial convention. I have spent my whole life going to these conventions so it feels weird not to be going this year.

There are many things to celebrate in regards to the wider Mennonite denomination, but as you will see by this email exchange with a friend, knowing how to relate to the wider Mennonite church, including all the denominational policies and procedures, can sometimes be painful. Here is just one example of a very recent denominational decision that has many in the church feeling angry and disappointed: MCUSA Board Suspends Appointment of Gay Member on Committee

The same week that this news broke, I received the following email from a friend/fellow Mennonite pastor. What follows is my response.

hi ruth –
am i remembering right that you are not going to be at orlando?

would you be up for a pep talk/real hope? by that i mean, i’m headed to orlando with a heavy heart, tears come to my eyes at the thought of being there.

if you have time to have a talk about how to even engage the state of the church experience, i’d welcome talking with you, one of my grounding, long term people!

Hi!

You are correct about me not going to Orlando. As for a pep talk, I just returned from a trip to Alaska with my family, so my heart is still with the mountains, moose, rivers, and bears.

Did you know that of all the tourists who come to Alaska each year, specifically to get a view of Mount Denali, only 30% are successful? This is because the weather is often cloudy and rainy—by often I mean 70% of the time. It must be incredibly disappointing, especially since going to Alaska isn’t cheap! The Harder family was extremely fortunate in that we had three beautiful and sunny days. And Mount Denali doesn’t disappoint in its splendor and size.

IMG_2320 (1).JPG

So what does that have to do with the “state of the church experience”? I want to believe there is still beauty, splendor, mysticism, and majesty to be found and experienced within the confines of the church, yes even MCUSA, but unfortunately there is a whole lot of “cloud cover” blocking our view of the larger horizon that Jesus calls us to. We walk away disappointed and brokenhearted and just plain broke by the church (trips from KS to Florida aren’t cheap either!), some of us a lot more than 70% of the time.

I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what it would be like to lay my own eyes on Mount Denali. It was more beautiful, larger, and more mystical looking than what I could have imagined. So I guess one of my prayers for MCUSA right now is that people will gather knowing that God is so much bigger than what we already know right now. For people to go to Orlando believing that what they know of God or discipleship is good enough or just enough period, would be tragic.

My 10 year old nieces squealed with delight when seeing bears and moose in the wild. We adults did too. With binoculars in hand, we scanned the landscape for any sign of movement. Dare I dream of a church where children and adults are once again regularly amazed and delighted, actively looking for God’s fresh movement, maybe not with binoculars in hand, but you know what I mean. Again, I only dare to dream this an average of 30% of the time, sometimes more, sometimes less.

IMG_2220.JPG

We learned that the first person who claimed to reach the summit of Mount Denali had miscalculated and hadn’t actually reached the highest point. How embarrassing. He planted his flag believing himself to have conquered the tallest mountain in North America. I fear Mennonites sometimes do this with peacemaking. We make these claims, congratulate ourselves, only to realize that sometimes violence is done in our very own homes and churches and over and over we miscalculate the damage done in Jesus’ name, or in the name of peacemaking; damage that can never be undone.

Eventually someone reached the true summit, and still to this day climbers from all over the world try to do the inconceivable. But very few make it, probably way fewer than 30%. That should keep us humble, hopefully with sights still set high.

I guess one final thought is that we couldn’t have survived Alaska without dramamine, Advil, mosquito repellent, and wine (for the responsible adults in my family).

So there you have it. That’s my pep talk. I will be praying for you and the wider church, at least 30% of the time next week. Oh, and bring Advil!

IMG_6941

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments