What is a Liberal Christian?

Liberalism – love it or hate it.  Take it or leave it.  Some churches cringe as if it is an insult, other churches lavish in it.  So I’d like to unpack in this brief blog what a “liberal” is and whether it is a good or bad thing.

Simply put, a liberal is someone who freely expresses their views.  Generally they are open-minded (although there are some close-minded liberals and also some open-minded conservatives).  Generally they like equality, tend to be very interested in social justice, and tend to be a bit on the hipster side – going to protests, skate parks, and the pursuit of “feeling” rather than cold hard facts and dogma.  Some liberals take it to the extreme, “What I believe is more important than what the Bible actually says.” – I am not that type of liberal.  Some believe that they are the most important authority on any topic whatsoever – I cringe at that type of arrogance.  What I am interested in, though, is genuine dialogue and discussion that seeks to improve upon the world that we already live in.

In some settings liberalism is almost a bad word.  When I was going to an evangelical university several students turned their noses down at it.  They thought that a liberal may as well not call themselves a Christian – they didn’t take the Bible at face value.  I had one professor in particular who really was against liberal Christianity.  Each class he went to great lengths to bash women in ministry, homosexuality, the United Church of Canada, and the notion of calling God “Mother”.  He believed that women had no place other than to homeschool their children, that contraception was a grave sin, and that creation was a literal seven days.  This professor got us to read J. Gresham Machen’s book “Liberalism and Christianity” in which Machen says that liberalism has ceased to be Christianity and is a different religion altogether.  [I feel this book doesn’t show his viewpoints in the most positive light, though, I would highly recommend reading some of his other writings which explain what exactly he means by liberalism.]  Needless to say, I didn’t always get along with him despite the fact that I did grow up in a conservative church and that since starting seminary I have realized that I am a whole lot more conservative than I once thought I was.

I also discovered that people sometimes get uptight if you call them “liberal”.  I made the mistake once of calling a certain institution liberal, it didn’t go over so well.  Later, I was talking to an American pastor and she explained to me that in the U.S. the word “liberal” is villianized.  Then it made sense to me why some people were offended.  I’m not an American, so try as I might to think as an American, I cannot.  I am a Canadian through-and-through.  In Canada, liberalism is seen as a largely positive, en-vogue thing by most people.  Sure, there are people at Tyndale who sneer at liberalism (not everyone is like this, by the way, there are conservatives and liberals alike), but many churches see liberalism as being “with the times.”  In Canada, almost all mainstream churches are considered liberal and almost all of them are okay with this.  In fact, the mainstream churches often look down on conservatives.  They find them to be “stuffy”, “arrogant”, and “proud” (I also do not think this is a fair representation).  So when you say the United Church is the most liberal church in Canada they would probably take this as a compliment.  Of course they are liberal – it is their goal to be welcoming and inclusive of everyone.  They have accomplished what they set out to do.

In Canada, almost any church which accepts homosexuals, allows women to be in senior pastoral positions, allows for free interpretation of Scripture (including not thinking that heaven and hell are literal places), and that openly encourages the use of alcohol (including: pub theology) are considered liberal.  While some may think that these things are sins, it doesn’t stop the fact that these types of churches are “mainstream” and most people are okay with that.  Being liberal does not mean that you don’t believe the Bible.  You may see it as more of a guidebook for moral living rather than an authoritarian source or you may read it along with the Qu’ran or a book on mindfulness, but that doesn’t make it any less important to you.   That’s also not to say that all liberals are liberal on every point of debate.  You might find someone who is very open towards the idea of homosexuality, but very closed to the idea of abortion.  You might find someone who is welcoming of not taking the Bible literally, but who detests alcohol.

Personally, I see how both religious fundamentalism and liberalism can both be somewhat damaging to the church if taken to the extreme.  So many liberal Christians that I know go to great lengths to bash conservatives – how could anyone be so barbaric as to think a woman needs to keep her child?  So many conservative Christians I know bash liberals – don’t they know the Creation was literally 7 days?  But I think that we all need to get along and learn to relate to each other without tearing each other apart.

Thankfully, there is a third way – Anabaptism (and perhaps other denominations, also). I define this Anabaptism as being a way that seeks to be devoid of the political connotations attached to the words “liberal” and “conservative”.  Rather, we are seeking to become a faith that encompasses the best of both of these worlds.  We seek to find a medium, especially as we consider how to live within the wider family of worldwide Anabaptists.   One of the founding pillars of the Mennonite faith was a sharp separation of church and state so even though the words liberal and conservative have morphed into something completely different – especially in the American electoral system which does not have near as many parties as the Canadian parliament, I think Menno Simons might be rolling over in his grave.  I can see now why Americans, especially, might be so hesitant for me to call them “liberals” – to them it is a marked difference.  On the far right we have conservatism and on the far left – liberalism, with very little in between.  For a Canadian, liberalism and conservatism are just parts of a wider spectrum that also includes NDP, Green Party, the Bloc Quebecois, and Marxists-Lennisist to name a few.   So calling an American a liberal probably evokes more of a defensive attitude than it would in Canada, perhaps for that reason.  I know I’m rambling…

It’s towards this third way that I constantly work towards.  I don’t think God ever slammed God’s fist at liberals or conservatives, neither should we.  Together we can just keep working towards an equilibrium.

See Also: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/working-towards-an-ndp-theology/

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Clarifying Convictions – Can One Be Mennonite and Not a Pacifist? (Mennonerds In Deep Discussion)

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SEX!!!  Now that I have adequately gotten your attention, I feel it is important for us to step back and truly ask ourselves: how do we have discussions about things that are difficult to talk about?  Things which exist in our churches but that we pretend do not truly exist?  I’m thinking of starting a series on some of these topics – the taboo issues our churches (not just Mennonite, but in general) face.  Some of which are: LGBTQ issues and the constant debate that is taking over the arena on whether to become welcoming and inclusive, the death penalty and abortion, as well as what is truly “acceptable” behaviour to engage in before the wedding night.  These are all things that young adults wish were discussed in church, and yet, most churches dare not discuss for fear that perhaps they will be seen as being too “liberal” or not taking their faith “seriously enough.”  More on this in a later post.

In the meantime, I wish to discuss another very important and serious topic which the Mennonerds and I discussed yesterday over a Google+ hangout.  The topic was: how do we maintain our peace stance as Anabaptists while also being welcoming to veterans and those who currently serve in the military?  How do we react to those who wish to be part of our community but who may not be at the place yet where they can truly agree with all of our finer points of theology?  We also discussed a bit about this theological conundrum in light of the Memorial Day celebrations that have recently occurred in the U.S., and the increasing militarization that both the U.S. and Canada are facing.

In our two hour long discussion, over 10 Anabaptists from both the U.S. and Canada with many diverse backgrounds (some grew up Mennonite, others joined the faith as adults, some have attended seminary and studied peace, others have a layperson’s knowledge acquired from years of reading John Howard Yoder and Nelson Mandela) came together to talk about what it means to be an Anabaptist and what it means to be a pacifist.

It was decided fairly early on that we need to distinguish between being a Christian and being a pacifist.  While ideally we Anabaptists, hope that all Christians will be pacifists, we know that for many it is a process.  One of our fellow Mennonerds raised the argument that one could ask: “Can you serve God as a firefighter?” – the answer is absolutely, “Can you serve God as a police officer” – now this might be considered a bit iffy for some, but the majority of us would say yes.  “Can you serve God as a prostitute” – now we are getting onto more rocky territory, the majority of us would say no.  Can someone serve God in the military – now this is a difficult question.  People who serve in the military truly believe that it is their duty towards their country; they are protecting others and defending our freedom.  Some may believe that they are truly called to be in the military.  Yet, for Anabaptists, many of us feel that this contradicts Christ’s call for peace and non-violence.   I raised the point that John Howard Yoder suggested that Mennonites should serve in the military because they need a pacifistic voice from within (I do not personally agree with this mindset, but am simply stating it as something I learned during my short time in seminary).

One member shared about a person he knows who carries a gun for his job, protecting women who are a risk of abuse and evils which are in play around the world because of gender inequality and dis-equilibrium.  All of us agreed that this man is doing very important work and many would say he should be applauded – yet, does this go against our belief in not carrying a weapon?  Is this simply an issue of one person using a violent means to stop violence so that other violence does not occur?  And if so, is this not the same as what soldiers are attempting to do in war?

We talked about the need for occasionally not being afraid to offend people.  It seems like so many churches are afraid of what others think – couching their language in very politically correct ways, being offended when someone doesn’t work their sentence “just so”, and not engaging with certain topics for fear that they “will not be liked”.  Frankly, we need to get over ourselves – our own desire to be liked.  The Gospel is offensive at times.  Jesus, Himself, was offensive at times.  Jesus didn’t pussy-foot around anything. He didn’t spend hours constructing politically correct language, so why should the 21st century be all hung up on this?

There is definitely a tension between including and excluding someone.  Many Mennonites try their hardest not to exclude anyone, though there may be different beliefs and opinions on this.  I have seen a few churches which have taken the peace stance so literally that they have excommunicated members who have joined the military, only accepting them back when a formal apology was made in front of the church.   I have also heard of Mennonite churches which have baptized members who are serving in the military and do not have any intention of leaving their profession.  I shared with the Mennonerds the struggle I see myself in as someone who hopes to pastor a flock one day.  As someone who grew up in a rural Canadian Mennonite church, pacifism was so ingrained in us.  To be Mennonite, meant to be a pacifist.  After Salvation, pacifism was the second most important thing.  We took literally the saying that “if someone takes up the sword even in the name of self-defense s/he is no longer a Mennonite.”  We believed that to use violence was perhaps the gravest sin one could ever commit.

Yet, I began to attend a seminary in the U.S. and was deeply surprised that a few American Mennonites do not consider themselves absolute pacifists.  In John Howard Yoder’s book “Nevertheless” he describes over 17 variations of pacifism and in my short stints at a Brethren in Christ Church (during my college years) and at the Mennonite Brethren Church (my first introduction to pacifism) I have noticed that these two church groups interpret things slightly differently than our general conference does.  We did talk a bit more about this very issue in our hangout.  So is it possible for someone to not be a pacifist and to be a Mennonite?  I suppose in a way, it is.

Many Mennonerds shared very important stories that evening about people they have welcomed into their churches and because of the loving and supportive community have gradually begun to re-evaluate pacifism and some of them have claimed it for themselves.  In this way, many of us agree that belonging is more important than theologically agreeing with the community.  I shared my own faith journey with them.  When I was 12 years old, I began attending a Mennonite church.  While I loved the deep seated commitment to social justice, I never fully understood pacifism.  At age 15, I made the bold declaration that I would never become a Mennonite because not only did I find pacifism unbiblical, but I also found it impractical and a hopelessly naïve mindset.  Nevertheless, I started attending discipleship class at age 16 and really delving into the Scriptures.  I became a Mennonite (technically) at 16, but did not claim pacifism as a way of life until 18.  Currently, I am a hippie and I am a student of peace at the seminary level.  Sometimes I feel guilty that I became a Mennonite at 16 when I didn’t entirely “buy into” their theology.  Occasionally I think that I was truly a Mennonite at 18, not 16.  Yet, in a way, I know that a large part of the reason why I was able to become a pacifist was exactly because of the loving community I was a part of.  The community was so patient in showing me the Scriptures and helping me to interpret them, that after a few years, it became natural to me and just made complete sense.  Had I not been a member 2 years prior, I doubt that I would be a pacifist today.  I definitely would not have a blog called “Zwiebach and Peace.”

Yet, this tension increases when we think about membership issues.  On the one hand, it is fine to include all people into church life, but those who are taking the step of baptism and/or membership perhaps should truly believe the set of doctrine laid out before them.  In one way, it might not make sense to allow “just anyone” to be able to be in a position to instruct and lead others.  We talked about the need to look after our “flock”.  When someone comes in and starts teaching theology contrary to what the pastors and elders believe it can really upset and damage the church.  Perhaps there should be some type of “fencing” that we put into practice.  One nerd mentioned that he has seen the damage this has done to other Christian denominations.  He mentioned that he knows of a church which will invite everyone in regardless of their viewpoints – they don’t need to believe in heaven, hell, or even God, but they can still take part.  He raised the question, “Is this truly the type of church we want to become?”  Another nerd remarked that there is indeed some danger in becoming a “Mennonite-universalist” church, although there is at least one church that has adopted this type of attitude.  The other side of this is that because there are thousands of denominations, people have a chance to “choose” the one that is right for them.  Many denominations do not require members to be pacifists, so why would someone who is not a pacifist intentionally choose a church which is against war?  Yet, there might be something to be said about mutuality in a church family – that we choose the community, but the community also chooses us.  One thing is sure – those who are baptized are held to a “higher standard”.  More is expected of them in terms of their theological leanings than if they simply grew up in that church or were exploring the possibility of joining that body.  Running the potential risk that the person in question might never come to the place where they will embrace pacifism, the question remains: how open minded do we want to be?

At the same time, we also realize that baptism is a process.  Thinking of one of my favourite theological writers, Maurice Martin, faith is a journey and baptism is only one road marker on that journey.  I’m sure that many of us who grew up in the church could relate.  We think differently now about God and the church than we did at age 4, 14, and 24.  We might even think significantly differently years after our baptism.  I know, that in my case, several years after my baptism there are so many things that I think and relate to in ways I never would have imagined as a 16 year old.

If baptism is a process, then hypothetically someone who is baptized now might not be a pacifist at this moment, but may wish to begin the progression of discovering where on the spectrum they land.  Baptism might be an important part of this journey – a way of publicly declaring that they are ready to learn from the congregation and to grow as a part of them.  So, in this way, perhaps we should not turn down someone’s request because to do so might be to harm them in more ways than if we baptized them and allowed them entrance into our community.

Many in our Mennonerds family believe that one way of going about this is to create a system of “two-tiered membership”.  Membership – where one is expected to fully agree and commit to a certain theology or Confession of Faith, and then associate membership – where one is able to walk and journey alongside others in discerning whether this is the place for them.   Yet, this could also raise some important questions: such as a fear that those who are associate members are “less Christian” or “less Mennonite” than the rest of us, thus creating the “holier than thou” type of attitude that we are trying to steer away from.  So then in that way, it might become one of those “all or nothing” types of deals.

We had a very fruitful discussion together.   We talked about how some “sins” are seen as worse than others (for example, going to war might be seen as significantly worse than having beer in your cellar – a discussion that some of us continued with coming from Germanic traditions we don’t think it’s quite the same).  We also talked about the need to continue to dialogue as a community and to seek input rather than simply “imposing” personal beliefs and opinions on others.  I don’t know if we really came to any answers or any really practical solutions for how exactly we were planning to engage with veterans and with the military.  I’m sure that all of us came at this discussion with the realization that it is a topic that takes careful thought over a substantial period of time, not one which can simply be decided upon flippantly.  I feel that it is important for follow up to take place not just within the Mennonerd community, but with the community of Mennonites and Anabaptists at large.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue.  Please post in the comment section or send me a private email at: deborahruthferber@gmail.com if you wish to discuss further.  May the peace of God which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus be upon you.

On Being Pro-Informed: A Response to the Death of Dr. Henry Morgentaler

This blog post will be somewhat controversial, and for that I do not make any apologies.  At the same time, it is important to know that the opinions expressed in this blog are simply my own and do not reflect in anyway the opinions of my undergraduate or seminary institutions, those of my church or denomination as a whole, or those of the pregnancy center where I did my college internship.  I welcome dialogue and debate publicly or privately (deborahruthferber@gmail.com) so long as the debates are addressed personally rather than in generalizations about what Mennonites or other Christian traditions believe on the topic.

Today, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a famous abortion doctor passed away.  It has created quite a buzz in my college’s pro-life Facebook group as well as among several of my pro-life friends.  I have long wanted to write a blog expressing my views on the pro-life movement but was waiting for the opportune time.  It seems to me that with Dr. Morgentaler’s death, now would be a good time to write on such a topic.

Abortion is a heart-wrenching decision.  I do not think that most women who undergo abortion really want to do so – many of them feel that they don’t have a choice.  They are young, they aren’t ready to give up their “dreams” or their “education”, their parents are upset with them and say they will not take care of their child, and their boyfriend is threatening to break up with them.  When they come from an abusive home life, the boyfriend might be the only support network they have.  Many young women would love to keep their child, but do not know how.  For whatever reason, adoption is stigmatized.  People feel they could never give their baby away – what kind of mother would that make them?  I am a young woman who sincerely hopes to one day adopt a child – I have found that even among my most devout Protestant friends this is discouraged.  “Well, good for you if you want to adopt, but I don’t.”  They would rather have no children than adopt a child – I have always found this to be very interesting.

Abortion is definitely a very difficult choice and I do not think it is one which is made lightly.  Sometimes abortion seems to be the only alternative if, for example, both the mother’s and the baby’s health are in danger.  Other times, it is sneered at as being “the easy way out.”  I do not think abortion is ever truly the easy way out.  It may seem to some that it is a way of encouraging a promiscuous lifestyle, but I don’t think it is.  Young women and young men both make mistakes.  Sometimes the mistakes are ones which can easily be fixed, other times, the consequences are long lasting.  Having sex before marriage is no worse than any other “mistake” someone could make – and yet the effects of it are more obvious than other “bad lifestyle choice.”  Some people say, “with all of the precautions for safe sex that are now available – no one really needs to become pregnant.  It’s their fault for not wearing a condom or taking the pill” – but I feel this type of attitude is rather judgemental.  There is no precaution that is 100% except for abstinence.  While ideally one might wish that every teenager is abstinent, it is not taking into account the pressures that they are facing from their boyfriend and peers at school.

The woman who decides to make the decision to get an abortion is truly the one who lives with the consequences, not us, and yet, so often we are the ones who judge her without ever walking in her shoes.  There are sometimes complications in the process of abortion, there are also sometimes complications after the abortion.  The woman may have to live for the rest of her life with guilt, she may not be able to have other children and may have to come to grips with the fact that the only child she would ever have is no longer alive, she may have to come to terms with the fact that the boyfriend who pressured her to get the abortion in the first place has still ditched her after all.

Many secular (and even some Christian) people believe that there is no such thing as post-abortive syndrome, yet increasingly we find that women who get an abortion (and even occasionally men) regret this decision terribly – some of them entering into a deep depression or facing extreme anxiety.  Abortion is never easy for anyone – not for the mother, not for the family, possibly not even for the doctor who may truly believe he or she is giving the young woman a “needed service.”

I share all of this because I think it is important to understand how truly difficult it is for a mother to “give up her child” in that way.  I do not like abortion myself.  As a pacifist, I feel as strongly about abortion as I do about the death penalty – except in different ways.  I see how the church spends so much time against the death penalty but hardly any time talking about abortion (the foetus being the most vulnerable being).  I believe that life begins at conception and truthfully I side with the Catholics in being against birth control.  Even though I know enough about birth control to know that it is a lot safer than many people believe it to be, and even though from a medical point of view I have no problem with people taking it, I believe that it is up to God to decide if we are to have children.  It is so interesting that women have this unique duty about them to give someone life and yet also the ability to take it away.

As much as I believe that we should not take a life, I do not agree with the pro-life movement** as it stands today.  I do not think it does anyone any good to show pictures of mangled foetuses or to have picket signs outside of abortion clinics saying that they are all a bunch of murderers.  I do not think this is what Christ would do if He were here today.  When these pro-lifers do such things, I do not think they understand the pressures these young women are under.  I also do not think they realize that women who grow up in Christian homes are more likely to seek an abortion.  Those who aren’t Christian find this natural – everyone’s getting pregnant, why not them?  Yet a woman who is a Christian is expected to know better – she faces guilt and intense fear of being rejected by her family and church.  Abortion seems to be a perfect way to “hide” her “sin”, either that or she waits until she can no longer hide her pregnancy (which is not healthy for either her or her baby).

Over the past few years as I have been reading much literature on abortion and being pro-life, as I have had an increasingly interest in midwifery and read pregnancy books for fun and interned at a pregnancy center, as I have joined the pro-life group at my college, and as I have discussed abortion with liberal and conservative Christians alike, I have adopted a new viewpoint.  I still think abortion is a terrible thing for any woman or her family to undergo, but today I consider myself “pro-informed”.

While I was interning at the pregnancy center, I learned that many women truly do not feel they have a choice.  Imagine their excitement when many of them discover that there are ways to raise their baby and to still finish their education and pursue other dreams.  I think it takes a lot of courage for them to get to that place.  The problem is, many doctors do not tell teenage women this.  In fact, one day at the center, our director called a “hotline” number that was given by the doctor and pretended to be a 17 year old pregnant woman.  She was faced with what she found to be “coercion” to give up her child.

Our center believes in empowering women to make their own decisions.  We educate them in all their options and then leave it up to them to decide what is best for them.  We are a prolife organization, but we do not let this impact their decision.  If they decide that they wish to get an abortion even after the information for adoption and raising a child are presented we walk with them in this decision.  We allow them to grieve during and after the process, we are there with them when they face fear and regret.  We provide a support system even if they have aborted a foetus before and wish to do it again.  It is not our place to tell them what to do, but it is our place to provide compassion, hope, and healing.

This is how I feel about abortion.  I believe in being pro-informed.  I believe that many women need information to decide what is best for them.  Once information is given, several of them will decide to keep the baby or to give the baby to a loving family which will take care of him or her.  Many young mothers worry that they will never see the baby again, we are able to assure them that many will be able to engage in open-adoption and will have some level of contact.  Some mothers are even able to visit their babies periodically and to watch them grow.  Many young mothers do not know how they will financially support their child if they wish to keep him or her – we are able to get them in touch with organizations which will help them secure a house and food.  We also gift each mother with a small gift basket which provides some of the bare necessities.

I have never been in a situation before where I had to decide my intentions for a life that is growing inside of me, so I don’t judge others because I have never walked in their shoes before.  I have learned never to look down upon teenage girls who get pregnant because when we view what they are doing as a “sin” we unintentionally end up viewing the child that they bare forth as “illegitimate”.  We may not think we are doing this, but truly, our views of the mother do impact our views of the child and how we treat him or her.

That’s not to say that I agree with premarital sex, I do not.  That’s not to say I agree with abortion, I do not.  But it is to say that I believe in giving everyone multiple chances, in mentoring, and in walking with them in what will likely be the most painful decision they will ever make.  It is my hope that churches and individuals can begin to see each mother as a daughter of God – a princess in God’s eyes and that they will work towards not condemning her but making the pro-life choices they wish to see possible for her to make.  Not just saying abortion is a sin, but rather making it known to her that she has other possibilities and walking with her throughout the process.

Here are some resources: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/abortion-rights-crusader-henry-morgentaler-revered-and-hated-dead-at-90/article12221564/ (Article on Morgentaler’s death)

Song about men experiencing post-abortive syndrome: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NJMTmz7pkg

Shade of Blue (Novel by: Karen Kingsbury)

The Morning After: (Dominc Balli) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EfmttrZau8 (This song is somewhat contrary to what I have said in this blog, however, I do think it does give a sobering image as to the effects abortion has)

Why Prolife (By: Randy Alcorn)

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/morgentalers-legacy-is-a-diminished-liberty-in-canada/article12258407/?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=Referrer%3A+Social+Network+%2F+Media&utm_campaign=Shared+Web+Article+Links (Opinion Piece: The Globe and Mail)

I am open to continuing this dialogue publically or privately.  I am not the most qualified person to talk about this however, I do have some experience in this field.

** When I say pro-life, I realize that the pro-life movement has been somewhat vilianzed in recent years.   There are various degrees of pro-lifers and not all of them engage in negative behaviour.  Some pro-lifers truly do step in and make a difference to pregnant teenagers by opening their homes and providing resources.  I am thankful for these types of pro-lifers.  The only pro-life movement I am against are the graphic ones that protest which I have described here.  They get a lot of press and hype, but really are in the minority.  Please do not allow this image of pro-life to negatively impact what truly being pro-life is really all about.**

Words of Wisdom to College Grads Considering Seminary

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If I were to give this blog a nickname I would call it: “10 Things that People Tried to Tell Me Before I Went to Seminary, but That I am Only Listening to Now” (Though secretly, I wish I would have listened to it then).

After many years of thinking and dreaming about seminary and becoming a pastor, the day had finally arrived.  My Visa had come much earlier than I would have expected it and since I was having a difficult time securing a summer job in Canada because they all wanted me to work until Labour Day and school in the States starts in August, I finally settled on working for my seminary’s summer maintenance crew.  Although I am not one for painting, gardening, or washing windows, my supervisor was very gracious to me (I’m sure that some of the areas were later repainted by others).  My first introduction to seminary came in the hottest part of the summer when Indiana was facing a drought and the entire campus was brown.  It also came at a time when hardly anyone was around.  Summer school was in session and I jumped right in to taking courses, trying to locate a Mennonite church, joining a young adult’s group, and working summer crew.  In hindsight, I would not recommend this.  Emotionally I was charged and excited, but physically my body was exhausted – the trip was only 4 hours, but I discovered that the subtle cultural differences between Canada and the U.S. took some time to adjust to.  Nevertheless, I soon found my rhythm and my place in the AMBS community.

Now, exactly one year later, I reflect back on this experience and ask myself: was it truly worth it to attend seminary?  I only stayed the one year, which in itself was a curve ball.  I never thought I would be leaving after only two semesters.  In my mind, I was going to go right through until I received my MDiv, then I would start intentionally looking into a pastorate.  Sooner or later, I might return to school to get my PhD, but that was kind of on the backburner.  I’ve always been more of a practical person than a book heavy person anyway, as much as I do respect young scholars who seem to know Barth, Niebuhr, and Bonheoffer backwards and forwards.  I on the other hand, enjoy reading a good C.S. Lewis book here and there and that’s about the extent of my brain workout.   As much as I am not an academician, I still found leaving seminary after one year to be an unexpected rut in the road.  Part of me was disappointed in myself, even questioning my sense of call.  I had felt called to be a pastor for the past 18 years of my life.  At age 4, I was already “preaching” (theologically incorrect) sermons to my teddy bears and by age 7 I had a “congregation” of over 100 members that included programing such as Sunday school, summer camp, and vacation Bible school.  For much of my life, I had been told that this was my destiny and my calling.  But now, I was packing in school – was I doing something wrong?  Was I doubting God?  Was I “going the wrong way”?

I do not believe that God makes mistakes, even when it may look that way.  I know that God works things out for a higher purpose even if we don’t see it at the time.  In my case, I firmly believe that God did call me to seminary, and even to this particular seminary, if for no other reason than to teach me lessons that I could not have learned elsewhere.  I am a firm believer in the fact that there are some lessons you can only learn in the working world, other lessons you can only learn through raising your own family (not that I have experienced this, but I am speculating), and other lessons that you can only learn in seminary.  Even if I don’t go back to seminary, I see the many ways I have grown, and perhaps even matured, and this is enough for me to know it is where I needed to be.

Looking back, though, I also realize that I probably should have given more thought to what my closest friends were telling me at the time.  I am a rather headstrong person and while I do value the opinions of my friends, ultimately, I decide my own decisions for myself.  And once those decisions are made, the only one to take responsibility for them is me.  I suppose that my wishing that “someone would have told me ____” hold very little weight since people likely did try to tell me them, and probably more than once.

Nevertheless, I would like to share 10 things which “I wish I would have known” or that “I wish I would have listened to” before starting seminary.  I share this particularly for my university friends who have just graduated and are 21 or 22 years old and thinking of joining seminary.  Hopefully, some of this could be applied at any age, but since I have never gone to seminary as an older person I cannot speak from experience in that regard.  You’ll have to ask me in a few more years if I go back to seminary after working at L’Arche.

1) I highly recommend that you get your BA in something.  While it is possible to attend seminary with a Bachelor of Religious Education or some other three year degree, and while it is even possible to attend seminary with no degree whatsoever, I believe it is doing a disservice to yourself.  Having a strong background in liberal arts (as much as I hated them in college) will serve you well.  The extra year that the BA gives you adds a certain level of “academic seriousness”, prepares you to write and articulate your thoughts well, and gives you an extra year to grow and mature within the academic setting.  Even if you have no use for English, history, psychology, or microeconomics (wait, how could anyone ever not have a use for that course) now, you will later discover that some of the most important lessons you learned were buried in those courses.  I regret the fact that I bashed liberal arts now because I don’t have the same grounding or appreciation for a well-rounded education as I could have had.  Also, I have had several people stop and ask me, “how are you going to be a pastor if you can’t even relate to your congregation?”  It’s fine and good, and in fact, very important that a pastor has some theological training.  The practical courses that I took in pastoral care and counselling, in leadership, in preaching, in worship, and in devotional practices will one day serve me well, as will the academic courses in Theology, hermeneutics, and Old and New Testament studies, however, the vast majority of my congregation will have done studies in other fields.  They will be English, philosophy, and psychology majors – they will want sermons that are relevant to them, not just filled with Theological jargon.  I don’t think Beowulf will ever be that relevant to pastoring, but I can see their point – that I should get to know their interests and what makes them passionate.  I shouldn’t just put my love of all things Greek and Hebrew on to them.

Also, keep in mind that many seminaries will not accept you without a BA.  When I started to apply to seminaries, I found that I was rejected on the basis of having a 3 rather than 4 year degree.  Even if you are 100% sure you know what seminary you want to go to and they don’t require a 4 year degree, it’s still important to realize that things change.

2) I highly recommend that you take at least one or two years off before going to seminary.  Don’t get me wrong, some Bible college students are very academically minded and love all things philosophical.  If you are one of these people, you probably will do well in the intellectually rigorous climate of the seminary.  However, I have found that so many people who enter seminary right after college are burnt out (especially if they have never done anything other than school).  If you have been in pre-school since you were three and now are 22 you have already been in school 19 years of your life!  That’s a really long time!  Take a break, travel, explore the world, volunteer, or get a job.  These experiences will add a certain depth of maturity to you that you will not experience just by going from school to school. 

I really wanted to take a year off after I graduated from high school and do a discipleship program, but was discouraged from pursuing this.  Looking back, I should have taken the time off regardless of what anyone thought because it resulted in me entering university burnt out and grad school even more burnt out.  And trust me – when you are writing 25 page papers and reading 1,000 pages every week, being burnt out is not academically strategic.  Somehow I made it through all 4 years okay, but it wasn’t ideal.  I have heard so many older people say that seminary means more to them now that they have some experience – some way of approaching their studies which is shaped and formed from years of pastoring or nursing or even raising their three children.  Even at the university level, everyone noticed how those who had taken a year off for whatever purpose (traveling, working, volunteering) were in so many ways more mature than those who went right from high school to college (no matter how smart they were).  Given that seminary is very integrative, if you have nothing to draw on except school, you will be at a disadvantage.

Also, keep in mind that pastoring is a career with a very high burn out rate – if you enter the field already burnt out you are doing yourself and your church a disservice.

3) Location, location, location.  You might not think this is a big deal, but trust me – it is.  I attended university in the biggest city in Canada – Toronto and I completely loved it.  Despite the fact that I had spent 6 years prior to this in a little hamlet of 800 people (my school was the same size as my town) city life grew on me.  Of course there are some downsides to living in the city – loneliness and the concrete jungle, but there were way more positive things.  The big city meant public transportation which enabled me to have fun in a variety of ways with my friends and also gave us an opportunity as a school to engage in homeless food runs, dramas at a local nursing home, and tons of volunteer possibilities.  It also gave me the chance to be in a very multicultural setting where I, for the first time in my life, became in touch with my Asian roots and where I got to be a visible minority because I have white phenotypes.

I love my seminary so much, which is not in a big city, but still the town it is in has grown on me in some ways.  Yet, I have got to admit – now that I’ve spent a year there, location is a huge consideration as I think about where I would do doctoral studies (if I ever do pursue that).  Smaller cities, like Elkhart, provide honest and very kind people.  People who are helpful and do a lot of work for their community and people who garden.  Yet, it also provides frustration if you do not have a mode of transportation.  Without a car, you are confined to your seminary and wherever you can walk to from the seminary.  Biking is an option, but the cold weather makes it harder to do.  Smaller cities do not have good bussing so it is increasingly harder to volunteer, which I think is one of the best things any seminary student could do. 

4)  There is a saying, it goes something like this, “I went to a Mennonite high school, then I went to a Mennonite college, then I did a year with MCC, then I went to the Mennonite seminary, now I’m a Mennonite pastor.”  I truly believe that if you are going to be serving in the Mennonite church then it is important to have Mennonite experiences and be committed to them.  The largest reason I went to a Mennonite seminary is because I felt Mennonite theology was very special and that it was important for me to be trained in this tradition and to be moulded by our unique history and philosophies.  I also think, it is important that every pastor has one year in a tradition that is not their own.  A year at a Baptist, Pentecostal, or Lutheran seminary provides you with opportunities to learn to articulate your faith to those who do not share your views, it sharpens your desire to really “own your faith”, and introduces you to friends you otherwise would not have made.  I am forever grateful for my time at Tyndale – even though theologically I didn’t always get along; I made the best friends of my life there and have been challenged by them to grow in charismatic prayer, in earnestness of the Spirit, and in Biblical seriousness.

I also think every pastor should spend a year doing something in a context other than their own – going overseas with MCC or serving in a parachurch organization which is not Mennonite.  These experiences prepare you to interpret the Bible differently, stretch you to have a different toolset than others in your field, and deepen your global awareness and reality.  If your entire life has been Mennonite, I recommend doing a certificate at a non-Mennonite school before embarking in your Mennonite seminary journey.

5) Really keep in touch with the friends that you made before seminary.  While you will make many wonderful friends in seminary, it’s also important to stay informed with your friends from college, from high school, and from wherever else you have been.  Seminary is very difficult – way harder than college is.  The topics that are brought out in class are not just theological abstractions but really make you think about ministry thought and practice.  I was blessed to have a “ministry partner” as well as a wonderful mentor during my time in seminary.  They kept me grounded and allowed me to “vent”, to “muse”, and to “hypothesize” what I was learning in class.  One Tyndale friend Skyped me once or twice a week and prayed with me.  It was so nice having Pentecostal and Baptist friends to discuss theology with – I would match up what I was learning in sem with what Tyndale had taught me and we would discuss the difference.  Sometimes if I had a question about the charismatic movement they provided helpful insights because the Pentecostals really live the Holy Spirit – they don’t just talk about her.  I would recommend every student to have these types of “lifelines” they will keep you sane.

6)  If you have the means, I recommend doing spiritual direction.  Many questions come up in seminary – even if you have a fairly strong sense of call, there will be things you wrestle with and even times that you doubt if you have what it takes or if you’re the right person.  Spiritual directors can provide a way for you to voice these thoughts in a confidential manner and are helpful in seeing that your time at seminary produces growth.

7)  I recommend that you do a year of counselling – not because anything is wrong, but because we all have “stuff” to work on.  Being a pastor means working through your “stuff” as well as taking on other people’s “stuff”.  It is a wonderful thing to be a “wounded healer”, but you have to make sure you are largely healed.  Especially if you have depression, anxiety, or have faced abuse, this will be important for you. 

8) One of the most wonderful blessings I have ever received was having a “Discernment group” get together with me before deciding to do seminary.  My discernment group from my church was made up of a pastor, a chaplain, a missionary, a local outreach coordinator, and some elders.  They provided me with a wonderful way to keep them in the loop about how they could pray for me and listened to me articulate my calling.  They challenged and prodded me to think deeply and to reflect.  This is very helpful if you are considering a change in career path or want to be sure that pastoral ministry is what you’re called to do.  It’s also helpful if you have this same group meet (on Skype or phone call) with you once a month in seminary to check in. 

9) Plug in to a local church.  Many people say that seminary is the time for you to quit going to church since all you do is read the Bible and go to chapel anyways.  However, don’t neglect your spiritual life while you’re a sem.  At Tyndale, we used to talk openly about how one can lose their faith in seminary.  We used to nickname it the “cemetery”.  For the first time in your life you may be challenged to see the Bible as a textbook rather than as a book of “Bible stories”.  What you thought was real will become “just theories” to you.  Your worldview will be shattered.  Being part of a church, having a mentor from that church, and being part of a small group will help you remember why you truly are in seminary.  If your mentor is the pastor, he or she might even have already been through seminary and thus can relate to some of your struggles.  Be open and honest with him or her and with your small group.

10)  Watch the way you present yourself.  I know, this is going to make me sound old school, but I think pastors are called to somewhat higher standards and that they need to live a moral life which will cause non-Christians to see them differently than how the world lives.  I’m not saying that you can’t have “fun”, but I would really encourage you to watch the attitude which you approach drinking with.  People have different viewpoints on drinking and some will find it to be a stumbling block.  Be respectful of them – if it causes someone to stumble don’t drink when you are with them.   Watch your language – not just because of political correctness but also watch your use of profanity and vulgarity.  If you’re in seminary, act like you are in seminary.  Make sure that you don’t give the seminary children any ideas – such as telling them that it is wrong to do something and then turning around and doing it yourself.  Make sure that you aren’t living a double life – one life at church where you pastor and another life on your own time.  Be transparent, open, and honest.

Seminary is a wonderful experience – both for those wanting to be pastors, as well as for those just testing it out or who are simply desiring to live a holy life and who want a year or two to grow in community.  I would recommend seminary for almost any Christian.  I hope you will find the seminary that is the right fit for you. Blessings on your journey.

Community – Divine or Dividing

Image I wrote the following at AMBS to post on our Wittenberg Door (a location where various students and staff/faculty can write whatever they want to contribute to discussions).  It was posted around September or October 2012.  I also encourage you to join the dialogue on this blog.

Community.  That is probably the word that I hear most frequently at AMBS and in the Mennonite church in general.  Personally, I am a big fan of community mostly because I consider myself an “extroverted extrovert”.  If you tell me there is a community event I will be sure to be there and the more people the better.  However, I have spent the last 3 years of my life with very introverted people who prefer small groups or do not really have the same desire I do to spend every waking moment with other people.  So in honour of the wonderful roomates that I have had over the years, I have decided to explore the pros and cons of community and also to take some time to describe the pros and cons of introverts and extroverts.

Clarifying Community: The word “Community” here means a group of likeminded individuals who get together to discuss or do other likeminded activities.  Specifically I am speaking of our Mennonite “bubble” – also known as the communities which shape our school and churches.  I am aware that there are many definitions of community, but for the purpose of this short paper this is the definition I am using.

What’s Good About Community: Being in community gives you an excellent opportunity to meet likeminded people as well as to engage with those who are different than yourself.  If gives you a chance to be stretched about what you believe about politics, ethics, and faith.  Being in community gives you a certain sense of belonging and helps you to stay up-to-date on relevant news and even social gossip.  Furthermore, being in community helps bond the school together and helps everyone to have a voice as they shape the school through their own experiences.

The Bad: Constant community building activities can put pressure on those who prefer to spend time alone.  Also community events often are large groups which many of my introverted friends do not prefer.  Furthermore, community often centres around small talk, and some people would just rather spend that time having meaningful conversations with just one or two people rather than flitting about with only five minutes to speak to each person.

The Good About Extroverts: From my own experience I have met many extroverts who have high amounts of energy and several of them like to be involved with everything.  Extroverts can be a lot of fun and also good conversationalists who at times are like the Energizer Bunny.

The Bad About Extroverts: Since extroverts tend to be like Energizer Bunnies they have been known to dominate conversations and sometimes as an extrovert I really need to spend time listening and drawing out information from my more introverted friends.  Some extroverts like being the centre of attention and this can detract away from the more quiet people who are very smart and talented but who feel overpowered by extroverts.  Sometimes I can become an insecure extrovert.  Since I enjoy spending all of my time in groups I can sometimes feel that if there is an event for which I was overlooked or simply not invited that there is a reason why I was not invited.  Sometimes I also spend too much time thinking about how others view me.  I have been told that someday I may outgrow my need to constantly be invited to community events.

The Good About Introverts: Introverts are also a lot of fun.  They can be very reflective and can spend time internalizing world events sometimes better than extroverts do.  Certain extroverts have a tendency to process things out loud and sometimes say things they may regret later, whereas, introverts take time before they speak and most of the time what they say is profound.  Introverts also are generally able to help extroverts stay on top of their projects because extroverts can become easily preoccupied with the people who are there.

The Bad About Introverts: Certain introverts are seen by certain extroverts as not being much fun because they aren’t spending every waking moment in community.  This probably is just because extroverts don’t spend enough time learning how to have fun with an introvert.  Despite the fact that introverts hate being embarrassed publicly and many of them don’t like surprizes, they can actually be more fun to hang out with than extroverts because they give you a certain sense of mystery and are comfortable with silence.

All this to say: is community divine or dividing?  I think it is both.  Divine in the sense that we can continue to learn and grow from each other and face belonging.  Dividing in the sense that sometimes community can become too much of a security blanket excluding those who don’t like to spend every minute in community.  I mean that there are so many inside jokes that take place in community and if you miss an event you could be out of the loop for the next week and a half.  So now I will leave you with two questions: 1) How can we make community more accessible to our introverted friends?  And 2) Is community divine or dividing?  I’ll let you be the judge.

Our Mission to Light Candles and Engage in Peace (A Charge to Graduates)

Image   This picture is taken in front of College Mennonite Church (where commencement was held).  The Peace Pole purchased by the graduating class of 2012-2013 will be installed at AMBS sometime near the start of the 2013-2014 school year.

On Saturday, May 25th, my seminary – Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary graduated 19 students who had been involved in and will continue to be involved in pastoral, teaching, administrative, and Christian counseling ministries.  These students included 8 women and 11 men who ranged in ages from early/mid-twenties all the way up to fifties or even sixties, thus showing that ministry is for every age.  God never thinks anyone is too old or too young to serve Him.   He chooses based on the heart and motivations of the people who have heard His call – sometimes gently in the night, sometimes in loud and clear ways, sometimes in times of uncertainty, and sometimes through the words of a trusted friend or family member who encourages them to keep pursuing Christ.

As I think about the men and women I graduated with, I know that each of them has made important contributions to others whether they have been recognized for it or not.  On Saturday, I received my Certificate in Theological Studies (having completed 30 hours at the graduate level), and so I realize that I am just at the very beginning of my journey.  I do not have the same education or graduate standing as the other 18 who walked the stage with me, and yet, I know that in so many ways all of us (whether we received the certificate, MA, or MDiv) are still growing and learning in community and in Scripture.

One of our classmates was not present because he already had arrived back to Ethiopia where he continues to lead a church and teach at a local Bible college.  Another one of my classmates was originally from Ecuador and had to learn command of a new language (English) while at the same time becoming adjusted to a completely different field.  Having done her undergrad in biology, she is a scientist by nature; yet, she has felt the call of God in her life to see how science relates to peace and has a burning passion for immigrant justice and reform.  The rest of the students were from Canada or the U.S., and yet, I know that each one had their unique struggles and also unique joys throughout their one, two, or three year stints in seminary.  Each one of them obeyed the Lord’s voice to leave whatever they were doing and to move to Indiana.

The most meaningful thing to me about the graduation celebrations was the commissioning that took place on Friday night.  Each student who was leaving the community had a blessing written and read by a fellow peer, professor, staff member, or someone else who was a part of the community.  Following this time of sharing, all graduates were invited to the stage where a candle was lit and a hymn sung.  During the singing of the hymn, one of the graduate’s candles extinguished.  There was a slight moment of awkwardness that ensued, but it ended very quickly because another student walked over to her and tipped his candle so that hers would be relighted.  When I saw this, I thought to myself, this is what being a graduate and a Christian in general is really all about.  God has given each graduate unique skills – some of us have skills in listening well, in being critical thinkers, in engaging with technology, in helping people who have disabilities, in writing, in researching, in teaching, or in learning languages.  All of us have improved upon our skills while in seminary as well as learned new ones.   Those who are gifted with languages were challenged to learn Greek and Hebrew for the first time, those who were gifted at writing poetry and fiction were challenged to learn how to write graduate level research projects and theses, those who were good at finagling technology had to learn to create sophisticated Powerpoint presentations.  While in the classroom, it is a good idea to work hard at writing and reading well, to pour your effort into a paper so that you can receive a good grade.  Yet, learning does not stop after one walks the stage.  In fact, it is only just beginning.

We are called to take these new skills out into the world and to be stretched and challenged by our ministry opportunities.  We are called to put the theory into practice.  No amount of research and writing truly prepares a person for handling their first crisis, their first burn-out, or their first sudden illness.  Yet, education does prepare their hearts to be open-minded and receptive and to become teachable.  As Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier say quite often, our “real” teachers are not so much the people who are in the academy, but the “least of these” – sometimes even the person who is non-verbal and is so childlike.

Our class is not only called to light the candles of those around us, but we are also called to light each other’s candles.  We have formed and shaped each other in various ways – through intense conversations at lunch about the meaning of life, through Karl Barth reading groups, through class discussions, through ultimate Frisbee, through games nights, and through going to church together.  Now, we are also called on to help each other when we begin to struggle.  To be a built in support network when we become burnt out in our ministries and to keep reminding each other of the call we once received when we feel that God chose the wrong person and are ready to give up.

The graduating class of 2012-2013 also donated a Peace Pole to the seminary.  The peace pole – which is in various locations around the world, reminds us of Christ’s call for us to be peacemakers in this world and has planks which have many different languages inscribed on them – thus showing a global reality.  I have a collection of peace pole pictures – having taken them at Mennonite universities, outside of Mennonite churches, and even a random one I found in downtown Palestine.  As Anabaptists, I feel this is an appropriate gift to the seminary, but I also feel it is an appropriate reminder for all Christians.  Everyone who walks through the doors of AMBS – whether for Pastor’s week, for continuing education, for a certificate, or for a degree, should be charged with the duty to take what they learned and apply it in their work towards peace and social justice.

I congratulate the class of 2012-2013 for their hard work, their perseverance, their maturity, and their sense of call over the past 2 or 3 years that they have been at the seminary and I continue to pray that God will use them for whatever purposes She has in mind.

I leave you now with a song by Chris Rice (Go Light Your World): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtIIFJIxdUw

Coming Out Mennonite Re-Visited

Dear Friends,

I am going to make this blog post relatively short.  I feel I need to clarify a few things from the other post (which I am thankful has been shared on MWR: http://www.mennoworld.org/blog/2013/5/23/coming-out-mennonite/ and other places).  I would like to thank everyone for sharing 🙂

First and foremost, a Mennonite or Anabaptist is someone who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ.  They believe that the Sermon on the Mount is to be taken literally, and that Jesus not only taught (but also demonstrated) peace to those who were far and to those who are near.  Being a Mennonite is about the Theology behind not only the peace stance, but many other stances as well (including love for all people, a desire to be open-minded in approaches to following Christ, and missional living).

I realize that the Mennonites are sometimes seen as an ethic group, and the ethnic group itself also does bring certain values and traditions for which I am thankful.  Yet, I believe that ethnicity itself does not make or define a Mennonite.  I am grateful to have experienced ethnic foods and four-part harmony, and these things have become of great value to me.  I am also thankful to have visited Chinese Mennonite churches and an Ethiopian Mennonite church a few times, because their traditions also bring something out to us 🙂

Personally, I like to describe myself as a zweibach-eating, borscht-loving Mennonite because to me, it shows that the Mennonites included me into their culture.  I am a third culture kid (born of an Asian mother and Germanic father) and so I never felt like I really had an ethnicity to claim as my own.  The Mennonite identity became my identity.  However, I also believe that one can be a rice loving Mennonite or a taco eating Mennonite :).

It is my hope that the Mennonite church increasingly becomes more diverse over time (and I believe that they already have and are working towards that).  Yet, I do  think both “ethnic” and “non-ethnic” Mennonites  have something to offer which is most helpful. The “ethnic” Mennonites root us in some ways and the share inspiring stories of their grandparents and great grandparents who faced persecution… the newer Mennonites add fresh perspectives… we both need each other

Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to clear everything up and thanks again to those who have shared this piece 🙂