Belonging?

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

I took a few days out of my summer sabbatical time to venture to Kansas City, Missouri to participate in the 2019 Mennonite Church USA Convention. It was a unique experience for a number of reasons. 

For starters, it was the first time in a number of years that I was present at a summer gathering without week-long responsibilities. The last convention I attended was four years ago, also in Kansas City, and I was present as a delegate and seminar presenter. The convention before that I was present as a youth pastor with my youth group in tow, and it was at that gathering in Phoenix, Arizona in which I learned that University Mennonite Church was creating a campus ministry that would eventually become 3rd Way Collective and hire me as its first Campus Minister. 

I’ve been at Convention as a high school youth (three times), an Eastern Mennonite University Admissions Counselor, a youth pastor, a delegate, and even with no affiliation during seminary as I was building connections about possible job offers. I’ve experienced conferences where I’ve felt pure youthful excitement, spiritual highs and lows, anger at the direction of our denomination, and many more feelings. 

This year’s gathering reminded me that for better or worse, these are my people. I don’t agree with everyone present, nor do I anticipate that this will be the case in the years to come. But as I walked those long convention halls I was continually reminded that this is the place in the world where I feel more connected and grounded to the participants than anywhere else. I connected with old classmates and colleagues from my time at EMU as well as Fuller Theological Seminary. I connected with fellow pastors from the conferences (and adjacent conferences) where I’ve been in ministry. I saw family members and friends who I haven’t seen for many years, and a significant number of people who have taught and influenced me throughout my life.

The theme song for the long-running TV sitcom Cheers provides the familiar refrain, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” I know this is not literally true – there are many people among this year’s attendees that I have never met (and perhaps a small number of the people I know were not happy for my presence because of disagreements on the future of this denomination or moments where we’ve not seen eye to eye) – yet each day came with many warm greetings and reunions that gave me a strong sense of belonging. 

This year’s gathering was also a humbling reminder that I benefit from a lot of Menno-priviledge. Many aspects of who I am have never been called into question in the church. I’ve never felt alienated or scrutinized for being both a Canadian and American citizen. I’ve never felt like I don’t fully belong in MCUSA for identifying or being straight, white, male, cisgendered, middle class, or English-speaking. My theology has moved in a progressive direction during my life, but rarely have I ever felt as if my voice was not an active part of the ongoing conversation of who we are as a church body. 

This year I was reminded of participants in this year’s gathering who did not come from the privileges I carry – both those who continue to show up although they don’t always know how they fit with the larger denominational system, as well as those who have stopped showing up because they have felt too much hurt and pain after years of exclusion and systemic violence directed their way. 

I belong, but I also recognize that I belong to a flawed system that does not always feel safe or like a place of belonging for everyone who desires this to be a home. 

I did feel like this year marked a small step in the right direction. I met more colleagues who were newer to the tradition than in past years. I found more willingness among attendees to be working on justice issues as far ranging as gender diversity, to Israel/Palestine, to racial justice, to LGBTQ inclusion. We even heard denominational leaders point us toward a path forward that is focused on love and diversity rather than religious or historical purity. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. 

My hope is that each future MCUSA summer conference gathering will move us in a direction that looks less like our old exclusionary selves, and looks more like a place where all participants feel as if they have a place to be included and fully present. 

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How do you cope with despair in the Age of Trump?

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Some news from around the world in the last day or so:

President Trump hosted a gathering of racists and conspiracy-mongers at the White House today so they can complain that they don’t get enough respect on social media.

It is reported that thousands of undocumented immigrants are being targeted in raids planned for this weekend.

• My old home state of Pennsylvania is cutting off cash assistance to the needy.

• My always-home state of Kansas is watching as the attorney general threatens to sue the governor to let some adults receive food assistance even if they haven’t met the program’s work requirements.

War with Iran seems a bit more inevitable every day.

It feel like my values are losing on every front in public life in favor of a war on truth, refugees and the poor. I feel despair. I imagine some of our readers are similarly discouraged.

I know I just wrote last week that Christians should have hope beyond the here and now, but you know what? It’s hard. Sometimes we need a little comfort.

I have a couple of ideas about how to combat the despair. But I would love to hear more.

On my list:

Walk away from the news once in awhile. That’s tough for a lot of us to do, especially if — like me — you work in news and news-adjacent businesses. But it’s not impossible. It’s good to take a day a week to unplug, especially from Twitter, and direct your energies to other things.

• Think global, act local: I’m increasingly convinced that any salvation we’re able to create from current circumstances will come in large part from working together in our communities for our values and against the forces that alarm us so. I have recently been doing some volunteer work for the first time in my life. It’s not enough. But it’s also a way of doing something positive, and it never fails to make me feel a bit more positive. It also helps to simply embrace real-world, non-online relationships.

Embrace what’s beautiful: I grew up in a generation that was cynical about beauty. That’s unfortunate. Find what inspires you — music, dance, the outdoors, art — and make sure some of your time is spent focusing on it. I’m not sure about the whole “beauty is truth, and truth, beauty” business, but I’m not sure it’s entirely wrong, either.

Make stuff. Don’t just consume. Even if you learn a new recipe to share with your family at dinner, that’s something.

I’m not always good at doing these things. I linger far too long in front of my computer. But when I take my own advice, my life is a little better. And that gives me the strength to fight for the values that I believe in.

 

Just Say Yes?

New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.

Starting a campus ministry from scratch was not something I had given much consideration to until I learned about the creation of 3rd Way Collective. Being hired as the first campus minister allowed me to jump into this consideration with both feet – baptism by fire if you will. One of the easiest ways to immerse myself in the early years was to try and spread myself as broadly as I could across our campus and community. I did this by showing up in many different places, but also by saying “yes” whenever I could.

At times I’m guilty of operating under the self-inflicted pressure of “FOMO” – a Fear Of Missing Out. I say yes because I don’t want to experience missing out on something I could have been a part of. I still have a memory of a moment during my high school years when I took too long trying to decide whether to join a group of friends for a concert of one of our favorite bands. By the time I said yes the show was sold out and I had to spend the next few weeks hearing my friends talk about how great the concert was and wishing I had been there with them.

Being guided by FOMO as a new campus minister occasionally worked out to my benefit. When I was asked if I would participate or help plan, prepare, or lead an activity or event in those early years, my only parameters were whether it fit under the broad umbrella of peace, justice, or faith, and if my calendar had free space available (sometimes even that parameter was stretched beyond its limits). I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to be present in the community in some kind of meaningful way, so I just said yes to everything in hopes that I wouldn’t miss those early chances.

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Above, a street scene in State College, PA. 

This aggressive willingness to say yes allowed me to build many different kinds of relationships and connections. My network continued to expand as I found myself in many different kinds of spaces – participating in community organizations, campus panels, collaborating with other clubs and groups, leading workshops, mentoring, counseling, and many other different things. I discovered and became an active part in many movements in our area built around racial justice, LGBTQ advocacy, environmental justice, poverty, interfaith collaboration, peace, and so much more.

At a community meeting during one of my first years I bumped into the Mayor of State College. She greeted me by name and congratulated me on showing up. “You know Ben, I think you are present in more spaces than I am!” she remarked with surprise. I don’t think she knows just how much that sentence has stayed with me. I took her words as the ultimate praise, that I was doing my job to the best of my capacity.

Unfortunately my FOMO also became a crutch. I realized early on that if I was ever scrutinized over whether 3rd Way Collective was “working”, I could at the very least point to my robust calendar and all that I had been a part of. I didn’t want to ever be accused of not trying hard enough, so overcommitting and overworking became my standard operating practice.

Since our first event I’ve tracked each event and activity in a spreadsheet. Our second school year at Penn State (2015-16) 3rd Way Collective created or collaborated on 138 different projects during those two semesters. I also showed up to numerous community meetings/committees/panels/boards not included on that list – at times as many as four or five additional meetings per week. The Penn State school year has 30 weeks of classes, and during that year I somehow averaged out to more than four events per week, plus other meetings. There were a few weeks where I was away from my family four or five evenings each week. There was a moment near the end of that year when my wife Meredith looked at me and said, we can’t keep this pace up. Something needs to change.

Saying yes to everything was a difficult thing to correct. The more I did, the more positive affirmation I received from my community and supporters. My value and affirmation was all tied up in an unsustainable process. It was like a boulder that had been pushed down a hill. Once I got going, I had set up a precedent that came with momentum. The more connected I was, the harder it was to say no, and the more aware I became of all the different ways I could be involved.

One of the major weaknesses of this system was that my over committed pace made it very difficult to react and respond when unexpected things came up in our community. I remember having to say no to an impromptu community vigil because I had already committed to some kind of scheduled event. I remember having to say no to a last-minute request from a student who wanted to get coffee because I was supposed to be a part of a panel discussion.

But perhaps the biggest weakness was that I wasn’t able to offer adequate time to my family or myself. My partner was a solo-parent far too often, and my kids missed out on more time with me than they should have. My over-committed-FOMO-mentality also meant that I had less time for my own quiet time to reflect or do the things that I love to do on my own – riding my bike, taking a hike, or playing disc golf.

Marv Friesen was the pastor at University Mennonite Church when I began this work. His presence in my life was a real gift as I was getting started with this process. During one of our conversations he asked what would be different if I cut back on some of my commitments. I told him that I felt anxious just thinking about doing less, but that it also sounded wonderful to slow down a little more. He wondered where the anxiety was coming from – was I afraid of letting someone down? I realized that a significant part of the pressure I was putting on myself was self-inflicted. I was the one who was not willing to let myself slow down. The imaginary crutch of a robust calendar was not necessary because the church who hired me and the board who guided me were very supportive of the work that I was doing. We realized in these conversations that a core part of the work of 3rd Way Collective was being a community presence. My hunch was that this was only possible by being busy, but the reality was that I needed to be less busy in order to be more responsive to the needs that came up in our context. By putting less on my calendar, I could be more adaptive when students needed me to be there for them. I could show up in places and spaces that ministers rarely went because I’d have less programming and planning that I had to do.

It was an epiphany that I deeply grateful to have been blessed by, and a posture shift that has allowed this work to be far more sustainable than the path I had originally taken.

I still have FOMO, and I still occasionally fall into the trap of overcommitment, but in the three years that followed the 2015-16 school year I have lowered the number of 3rd Way Collective events and activities in each consecutive year, while also being more adaptive and flexible. Each year I still feel some anxiety that less on the calendar will result in less impact in the community, but the reverse continues to be true. This past year was our lowest event total since our first year at Penn State, yet we connected with more people than ever before, and I personally found my work to be far more fulfilling than any previous year. 

I still struggle to honor my time and my family by first considering those two things before saying yes, however this practice has been live-giving – more than I could have imagined.

I know this will continue to be a part of the challenge of creating something new, but I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to figure this out as I go. The surprising realization for someone who began thinking that it was best to always say yes is that there is more balance and fulfillment – perhaps even more worth – in saying no from time to time.

Today’s evangelicals seem to think God can be defeated

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Photo by Alem Sánchez from Pexels

Pete Wehner, a NeverTrump conservative, weighs in on Evangelical Christianity in the Trump era:

I recently exchanged emails with a pro-Trump figure who attended the president’s reelection rally in Orlando, Florida, on June 18. (He spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, so as to avoid personal or professional repercussions.) He had interviewed scores of people, many of them evangelical Christians. “I have never witnessed the kind of excitement and enthusiasm for a political figure in my life,” he told me. “I honestly couldn’t believe the unwavering support they have. And to a person, it was all about ‘the fight.’ There is a very strong sense (I believe justified, you disagree) that he has been wronged. Wronged by Mueller, wronged by the media, wronged by the anti-Trump forces. A passionate belief that he never gets credit for anything.”

The rallygoers, he said, told him that Trump’s era “is spiritually driven.” When I asked whether he meant by this that Trump’s supporters believe God’s hand is on Trump, this moment and at the election—that Donald Trump is God’s man, in effect—he told me, “Yes—a number of people said they believe there is no other way to explain his victories. Starting with the election and continuing with the conclusion of the Mueller report. Many said God has chosen him and is protecting him.”

Emphasis added. One wonders how Jesus would be received in this crowd.

After all, Jesus wasn’t exactly known for his earthly victories, or for his fighting. When the special prosecutor of the day came calling, Jesus ended up in custody — and, ultimately, on the cross. It was only by his losing, in a very conventional sense, that Christianity as we know it exists.

But Wehner points out the concerns of modern evangelicals are, well, temporal:

Many white evangelical Christians, then, are deeply fearful of what a Trump loss would mean for America, American culture, and American Christianity. If a Democrat is elected president, they believe, it might all come crashing down around us.

Paradoxically, to be a Christian should meant that you believe you’ve already won the ultimate victory, but that victory won’t be of an earthly nature. Matthew 6, for example, is full of admonishments to Jesus’ followers not to worry about earthly rewards but to store up treasure in heaven.

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

I always thought this heaven orientation of Christians made other elements of Christianity possible. If you know that’s your ultimate destination, you don’t have to worry about earthly persecution so much — you can suffer for the sake of your faith — because it’s going to come out OK. Today’s evangelicals don’t seem to have that orientation.

To put it another way: Today’s evangelicals seem to think God can be defeated. Which is one reason they cast their lot with Trump — as a hedge against that defeat.

Here’s where I offer some sympathy: I don’t always believe in this eternal outlook myself. The less I do, the more I’m willing to depart from what I’d otherwise consider non-negotiables of Christian belief and living. My pacifism for example, slipped around the same time my belief in the eternal faltered. So I get it. Heaven is a promise, but the world you live in is the world you live in — one might be real, but the other is for sure real. Most days, it feels like it’s the only thing that matters. Even now, I can’t say for sure it’s not. So really, who am I to criticize evangelicals for their approach?

Wehner offers some hope, at least.

Evangelical Christians need another model for cultural and political engagement, and one of the best I am aware of has been articulated by the artist Makoto Fujimura, who speaks about “culture care” instead of “culture war.”

According to Fujimura, “Culture care is an act of generosity to our neighbors and culture. Culture care is to see our world not as a battle zone in which we’re all vying for limited resources, but to see the world of abundant possibilities and promise.” What Fujimura is talking about is a fundamentally different set of sensibilities and dispositions from what we see embodied in many white evangelical leaders who frequently speak out on culture and politics. The sensibilities and dispositions Fujimura is describing are characterized by a commitment to grace, beauty, and creativity, not antipathy, disdain, and pulsating anger. It’s the difference between an open hand and a mailed fist.

I want to investigate this concept further, but on its face “culture care” seems counter-cultural. I’m not sure how much traction it can gain in today’s polarized political atmosphere. But it seems worth striving for.

Time for a Parade

Contributor Ben Wideman is campus pastor with 3rd Way Collective in State College, PA.

President Donald Trump won’t get his parade (at least not this year). However,  the Fourth of July celebrations in DC this year will have tanks and military vehicles on display.

Admittedly, my first reaction upon hearing this news was some relief because rumblings about a military parade through the Capitol have been present since Trump’s election. But the more I consider this possibility, the more I welcome a military parade.

Here are five reasons why…

  1. Citizenship – A military parade reminds those of us from a peace tradition to consider our citizenship in a country which prides itself on military might. A parade can encourage us to ask where our loyalties lie and challenge us to consider how we participate or benefit from our warfare driven culture.
  2. Action – A military parade can call us to action. Many of us who claim to follow the nonviolent way of Jesus live our daily lives in a country that is currently planning a parade showcasing its military might and do little about it. The public spectacle of a military parade can encourage us in turn to make a public declaration of our commitment to active nonviolence and peace. It challenges us as individuals and as congregations to be speaking Christ’s peace into whatever context we find ourselves.
  3. Priorities – A military parade reminds us of our national priorities and how our government has chosen to spend federal funds. Increased military spending seems to be an annual part of our national budget (regardless of party), and in the past few years have coincided with cutbacks to social services and environmental programs. A parade reminds us of the increasing need to stand up and for the most marginalized in our midst, in a time when our government has chosen to cut back from many programs that help vulnerable people.
  4. Cost – The USA already significantly outspends the rest of the world on military expenses. A military parade would require significant cost to plan and implement, and the political opposition to the proposed parade are already asking for the sticker price and expressing concern about shifting funding away from combat. Perhaps as peace people we can take some solace in the fact that a military parade would shift resources to an event which would not claim any lives. It also reminds us of the overwhelming price we pay for our military power.
  5. Fear – The best reason to hold a military parade is to illuminate how much our country depends on fear and insecurity. A parade is a way to show off our nationalism and strength, and to affirm again our American exceptionalism over other nations. It provides the perfect setting for us to engage our neighbors and friends about why Christ’s people are called to reject those things. It serves as a reminder that as people of faith we reject our culture of fear and see all the earth’s citizens as children of the living God.

Peace church people like the Mennonites like to think of ourselves as “People of God’s Peace” (In fact, some of us occasionally sing a hymn with this title and refrain), and perhaps a parade would force us to consider again what it means to live more fully and boldly into that title. Perhaps we can see the pending military parade as an opportunity to once again lift up an alternative way of living against the violent history of this country. May we continue to boldly and prophetically strive to join God’s peaceful Spirit as it moves throughout our world.

 

Eyes in the Room: Making Sense of Screens with Young Children

My children and I have been on a road trip this summer with no definite end. We’ve already driven about 2000 miles and could easily put another 3000 miles in before we’re done.

This means that we have spent a lot of time in close quarters, which has been fun, but it also means that sometimes, we need a break and there isn’t much space for one. So we disappear into books and silly YouTube shows on our phones and games on the Nintendo DS. The tension here is that the downtime I need can only happen out of the car (because I can’t really zone out while driving), whereas that is when any 2 out of 3 kids are focusing on a screen. The other sits up front and we talk. Since my youngest isn’t able to sit up front, though, this means he is getting a lot of screen time this summer. We watched Aladdin (the animated version) 30 times this summer in the van. Or, rather, the kids in the back watched it, and those of us upfront just got to hear it. Over and over. In the car and, then, in our dreams because it’s impossible to turn off “Arabian Nights” and “Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World” once your brain has heard them that much. Aladdin is one of the few DVDs without a major scratch (though a smaller one has shortened the viewing time by about 15 minutes), which just means we start it over again more frequently.

Anyway, this means that my youngest is getting a LOT of screen time–and then we he is away from it and wants to connect with me, I want to disconnect from everything.

We’re working it out. In the meantime, I’m reminding myself of the central finding from an article titled “Eyes in the Room Trump Eyes on the Screen” from the Journal of Children and Media: “children depend primarily on their live social partners to make sense of their media experiences.” The stuff he watches on a screen–that’s stuff he needs my help processing, even if it’s all appropriate for him. And it’s not just my job as a parent to do that–it’s a joy, if I let it be, because I get to see how his brain makes sense of things. I get to hear the new words he is learning. (This week’s were the verb encounter and the Arabaic word haboob, which means a duststorm.) I get to see him model the stories he tells on the stories he is seeing in films.  I get to see him try out new jokes his favorite YouTubers have shared. I get to hear him singing songs from his favorite movie in the shower.

This much screentime isn’t my first parenting choice, but it’s where we are right now, as I am working full time this summer while solo parenting in the middle of a cross-country trip. But it’s been fun to help this little one make sense of what he is engaging, and it’s a reminder that we don’t passively consume media–we shape how we understand it, and we have a lot of agency in that process.

Rebecca

 

 

 

Walking Roots coming to Hesston Tomorrow

A few years ago, my children and I got to see the Walking Roots Band at a performance in Johnstown, PA. We fell in love. Carry Your Heart has remained in our CD player in our van ever since, and the only arguments we have about it are what order to play the songs in.

The band is coming to Hesston, Kansas, at Whitestone Mennonite Church, tomorrow night, and we are going to get to see them again. (If you miss it, you can check them out elsewhere in the Midwest, including at MCUSA’s upcoming conference in Kansas City.

One lyric in particular, from the song “The Wind on the Water,” has become a theme for us recently: “In want or in plenty/I have learned to live contently/It’s amazing grace that I cannot ignore.” We’ve had a summer of disruption, with lots of question marks for our family and few answers. This lyric has become a prayer for us–something we aspire to–and as we’ve prayed it, it’s also become a reality.

I look forward to saying “thank you” to the Walking Roots Band for the gift of peace that has come with this lyric tomorrow night. And if you are a Sixoh6 reader who comes to the concert, please ask around until you find me so we can say hi!