reflections from a weary heart

Children, don’t grow weary / Children, don’t grow weary / Children, don’t grow weary / till your work is done — African American spiritual (Keep your lamps trimmed and burning)

Last night we were going to go to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. It seemed like just the kind of escapist thing I needed after expending most of my spiritual, social and mental resources at the Fabulous, Fierce and Sacred gathering of LGBTQIA+ Mennonites in Chicago over the weekend.

But sometimes the spirit calls us to stay present for a little bit longer. During the day we received news that the Grand Jury decision in the Ferguson, Missouri case would be announced imminently. Clergy, activists and the local NAACP invited the community to gather at Second Missionary Baptist, and we decided that was actually the place we were supposed to be. So that’s where we went.

We arrived and began to visit with friends (old and new). As the time for the decision approached, we all began to sing:

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes — Sweet Honey in the Rock (Ella’s Song)

CoMO ProtestAfter the non-indictment was announced and after we shared four and a half minutes of silence at the request of Michael Brown’s family the leaders of our local movement revealed their fear and anxiety. They argued among themselves over whether to march or not, fracturing into factions. Some left and some stayed.

As people left the church, Jamie and I decided to join the outside demonstration, which was led by students from Mizzou. We walked up on an energetic and passionate crowd. It takes me awhile to lower my inhibitions and join the chanting, but I was ready by the time they got to this refrain:

Indict. / Convict. / Send that killer cop to jail. / The whole damn system / is guilty as hell.

So many people I’ve talked to here in Columbia understand the complexity of this unfolding story. Of course it’s about one young black man and one young white police officer, but of course it infinitely larger. The first three lines of the stanza aside (that’s another topic), I’m in awe of the lucidity of those last two lines of this chant heard ‘round the country. The whole damn system is guilty as hell. I don’t know what else to say but that this is the truth. We are embedded in a violent, racist, evil system. It’s a brilliant way to turn the question onto the system itself, which is deeply fallen. The system is guilty. We need to continue to expose and challenge, renew and transform.

Someone asked me to speak for Columbia Mennonite Fellowship at the next day’s rally. Tonight I really do needed to stop and rest, so instead of me, it will be another from our group. Together she and I wrote this message for our community:

If you know one thing about Mennonites, know this: we are people of peace. But peace should not be confused with passivity. The Jesus kind of peace does not mean avoidance or acquiescence. The Jesus kind of peace does not mean we sit back and leave the work to others.

Ferguson calls us all to remember that peace must be active. Nonviolence is something to live and be, something to choose every day.

Today we choose peace by questioning the violence of the state. Yesterday it was once again declared legal for a police officer to wield lethal force. The logic of violence is embedded in the ruling that said it is lawful to take another person’s life. By questioning the use of violence by police, today we choose peace.

Today we choose peace by challenging the violence of racism. We know the grand jury decision is the product of a system and culture that does ongoing harm to black bodies and black lives. By naming this injustice, by calling for a different reality, today we choose peace.

Today we choose peace through unity — perhaps the hardest task of all as we come with vastly different histories and experiences.   We stand with you, friends of all ages, colors and faiths with the certainty that we must bring to bear not only tenacity and passion, but every creative thought and action in order to make our community and our country safe, life affirming and enriching for every citizen.  At times we may need to help one another stay on track in order not to fall into the sometimes tantalizing trap of consolidating power for the sake of our religious, civic, or educational institutions.  If we are to free our children from the terror of racial oppression and hatred, we must begin to show them peace through unity the likes of which they have never seen and we have never lived.

We, the Columbia Mennonite Fellowship, stand with you in Columbia, Ferguson, St. Louis and beyond. We as people of peace stand with you in unity. We recommit ourselves to choosing peace. Today, with you, we choose peace.

One of many transcendent moments at Fabulous, Fierce and Sacred involved clapping and dancing through the aisles of the sanctuary at our Catholic retreat center host site. And I think what we were singing about there connects to what we are singing about here today in Columbia, Missouri:

Come walk with us, the journey is long / Come walk with us, the journey is long / Come walk with us, the journey is long / Come walk with us, the journey is long — South African traditional

So step by step, we keep walking.


my other job

For the last little while, I’ve been some version of what you might call bi-vocational. It partly started with a note from Doug over at Fulton United Church of Christ. One of their regular preachers had taken a job and wasn’t able to continue her first, third, and fifth Sunday pulpit supply. “I was wondering,” wrote Doug, “if you would be able to help us on any of those times, and if so, when could you start?”

I’m not very good at making firm decisions. It’s hard for me to close off possibilities and even harder to think I might be letting someone (or a community of someones) down in the process. I had to talk to a few folks from my church. I’m one of the elders there, which means I take my turn taking communion to the home bound and presiding at the communion table with the pastor and delivering the offering invitation, among a few other things. Despite my worries, the church folks granted me their grace to take this additional call, and so I did.

fulton stained glass

Fulton UCC’s Stained Glass Window

I started in February, mostly knowing what I was getting into. The small and relatively progressive church in this town of 12,000 has between 12 – 20 in worship on a given Sunday. Easter attendance exploded to a vibrant 43, but despite their persistent desire for evangelism, their current environment doesn’t seem to have much in the way of growth.

During worship folks spread themselves across the pews in their usual spots in the blessedly small sanctuary. The faithful come, as some of them have been coming for over fifty years. The musician comes and splits his time between piano and organ on all but the third Sundays. We take communion and then commune for a potluck on the first. I preach at a lectern on the floor, my microphone connected to stereo speakers in the back, which sit directly underneath the large stained glass Jesus who stares me down each time I speak. After six months, I know most everyone’s name. And that’s about it.

Pastoral care: nope. Lunches and dinners in homes: not with these folks. Council meetings and 125th anniversary planning: not for me. Creative worship ideas: mostly regulated to the realm of readers theaters with participants recruited five minutes before the service begins. (I should say we have some excellent readers among the faithful twelve.)

I’ve quickly learned that it’s one thing to serve a church you know and entirely another to show up every other week to preach and pray. In fact, it’s a bit muddled for me, not participating in the larger life and vision of a place to which I am supposed to bring the good news.

To be honest, there are times I wish I could insert myself, lend a voice and a hand to the tenor and identity of this place, but it’s just not what I’m called to do. At least not here.

champion of the people

You wouldn’t want to read every sermon I preach, but here’s the first one in a long while that was designed for a Mennonite context. I filled in at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship over the Fourth of July weekend and got to re-use some Joy of Giving material that seemed especially suited for the day. 

Zechariah 9.9-12 // Year A – Proper 9 // July 6, 2014

championThis week I was thinking about how everyone should have a crazy uncle.

In my life that was and still is Crazy Uncle Marcus, my mom’s older brother. Marcus has a smile that takes over his whole face and an infectious laugh and an ornery streak. When we were young, he was always ready for anything. He’d toss me a ball for hours on end. He taught me how to put a worm on a fishing hook. And oh the games we would play.

One game in particular had to do with climbing to the top of things. We’d race up a big rock or a pile of sand, stumbling over one another in a rush to the peak. Trying to be faster, stronger, smarter. The first person to summit the mound would stand at the pinnacle, lift her arms in victory above her head and yell out “CHAMPION OF THE PEOPLE!”

I love Champion of the People moments.

It reminds me of my college basketball-playing days at Missouri State University. We were accustomed to being champions. We were accustomed to a certain kind of excellence, faster, faster, stronger, stronger, better, better. We were used to winning, and it was woven through everything we did. If we won, we celebrated. And if we lost, we were punished in hopes that we would find renewed motivation to win next time. Those days we did wind sprints, mostly: free throw line to baseline to half court, up and down, up and down the basketball court in twenty-six seconds. And you know what we called those wind sprints? We called them champions.

How appropriate to think of it this Independence Day weekend, as all across this nation we celebrate that founding myth: that freedom is achieved through conquest, through winning. We belong to a country, that is a championship kind of country. Success, victory comes by being bigger, bigger, stronger, stronger, richer, richer. We have it, don’t we: the largest economy, the best universities, the most creative entrepreneurs, the strongest military. Even, for the briefest of moments, we had hope that our world cup soccer team might get closer than ever to champion.

Don’t we just love these Champion of the People moments?

Our foremothers and forefathers in the faith did too. The ancient Israelites, after wandering through the desert and enduring the persecution of slavery and homelessness somehow convinced God that they needed a leader, a king, and so the monarchy was born. King Saul, then David, then Solomon and many many more: the legends are still with us: untold riches and power and military might. Weapons and horses providing protection, and God’s presence in the ornate Temple in Jerusalem keeping the king safe, a divine warrior who would not let his people come to harm.

A theology sprang up to help the people celebrate their rulers. Royal Psalms were written, celebrating the king, his power, and the salvation of God that he ushers in. In Psalm 2 the Lord says, “I have set my king on my holy hill. I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession.” I can just imagine how they loved those champion of the people moments.

The people placed their hope in this certain kind of king. But hope can be a disappointing thing. Consider again our foremothers and forefathers in the faith, for instance.

After some years of prosperity, the Israelite monarchy began to crumble around them. Power struggles and in-fighting and competing loyalties reared up. King after king after king failed to live up to expectations. The Israelites themselves were conquered and driven into exile. Their symbols of success were destroyed and their champions were taken captive.

And so their hope shifted. Their theology stayed the same, but their hope shifted from the present to the future king. They believed, they found comfort in the idea that someday a warrior king would come again, divinely anointed to exercise his great military might, to rise up in a show of power and to rescue them from exile. To save them from their enemies and exact revenge.

Hope can be a dangerous thing. As the prophet Zechariah says in our scripture today, hope can become a prison, when it’s placed in the wrong kind of champion.

In 2008 I was in divinity school in Nashville, TN and Barack Obama was running for president for the first time. It was an exciting year for many, myself included exciting to have an energetic, hopeful candidate who seemed more ordinary and less aristocratic than the usual suspects. This could change everything, some of us thought. An unprecedented number of people in my generation took an interest in politics, put up bumper stickers, and donated money to this campaign, inspired by that slogan, “Change You Can Believe In.” People were hopeful that this could be the change we’d been waiting for. Perhaps some of you hoped so too. Perhaps in some ways it was.

But over the last six years, the wars have not ended well. The inequality between the rich and the poor has only grown. Poverty rates remain high. Gun violence continues. Partisan politics have become even more entrenched. Hope has not been realized, and so it has shifted to the future. Who will run in 2016? In whom can we place our hope this time? Surely things will change if we just get the right people in power. Hope can become a prison.

Perhaps closer to home some of you may have been closely following the happenings of Mennonite Church USA. Certainly your beloved pastor and my dear friend Samuel and ally has been part of the proceedings. The institution struggles to right itself in a situation of great conflict, which comes to light in the issue of sexuality. Can gay and lesbian people be fully part of the church? And so we’ve waited with expectation, some hopeful that conferences and powerful church leaders would lead us toward a welcome that would allow all of us to be fully part of our wider church. And despite the allies we have in high places, that has not happened. People are hurt, outraged, frustrated, disengaged, angry. We had hoped for better. We had hoped that those with formal authority, the institution would champion our cause and affirm our place. Hope can become a prison.

I’ve seen other champion kind of hopes dashed this week. The Supreme Court: surely they’ll rule with an eye toward women and the working poor. Surely there, there in the hands of justice are power and might there that we can place our hope. But we should know by now: hope can become a prison.

Hope can be a disappointing thing if it is given to the wrong kind of champion.

And the voice of the prophet Zechariah calls, giving us a different image of a champion of the people: he will cut off the chariot and the war horse. He will command peace.

One of my co-workers, a white woman, had only been with our agency a couple of months as the volunteer coordinator when a new position opened up. It was a more powerful position, a supervisory role with higher pay and better hours, and the higher ups thought she’d be a good person for the job. Of course she took it. But after a day she got to thinking. There’s another person, an African-American person who was more qualified. Someone who had been with the agency years longer, someone who knew the ins and outs of the work, someone who was well-respected and would be an excellent supervisor and yet was passed over for the promotion. And so my co-worker went to the bosses and told them she had to turn down the job after all. And she told them who they should hire instead. To this day, this woman has my unending respect. She earns less, and her social capital is smaller, but in this moments was a true champion of the people.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton puts it this way: Be anything you want. Be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form. But at all costs avoid one thing: success.”

We were on a road trip my senior year of college, from Springfield, Missouri to Peoria, Illinois. We’d played a bad basketball game. I’ll be honest, about half the time that year we just weren’t any good. And so after the loss, things looked grim. The drive back was long. The team was disappointed and tired. The coaches were upset and had let us know in no uncertain terms that this was not how champions played. As we settled into the charter bus for the long ride home my gentlest, kindest teammate leaned over to me and said, “Sarah, we’re sad and frustrated, we feel like losers, but just think how happy the the other team is right now.” I think of this moment often, and how with this simple logic, she turned everything upside-down, which is the work of a true champion of the people.

We grasp for institutional validation, for socially acceptable forms of authority, for a sense of power and success that is so often defined by bigger, bigger, stronger, stronger, faster, faster, richer, richer. And the voice of the prophet calls: rejoice! Your king is coming. He is victorious, and he rides not on a horse of war but on a donkey. Your champion comes in triumph, but not bringing shows of wealth and power. He brings with him peace.

Joshua Casteel was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib when his conversion happened. In the words and face of a jihadist he somehow encountered the gospel of Christ and saw the wholeness of humanity that both lies underneath and transcends all the grasping at military power and the trappings of war. He became a conscientious objector. He could no longer question the enemy. He told his commander that he no longer wished to be a soldier. He was transferred to non-combatant duty and staffed open-air burn pits where toxic trash burned day and night. Weapons, paint, toxic materials, it was all burned there, and when Joshua returned to the states after six months he had stage IV lung cancer. It is a heartbreaking story, the death of this peacemaker, who said no to one kind of power to find another.

There’s a certain image our world has of a champion, a certain idea of our society thinks a champion should look like: bigger, bigger, faster, faster, stronger, stronger, richer, richer. A wealthy king, a powerful Messiah. There’s a certain way we think a savior should look.

And then we hear the biblical story, our story, we hear this message from the prophet, and the images of success that we carry most days of our lives are turned upside-down. The journey with the divine presence, the journey of faith and life, asks us to hear this message instead. Poorer, poorer, slower, slower, smaller, smaller. My friends, Jesus was a champion of the people, he is our champion of the people, and this is what he looked like.

book review: the enneagram: a christian perspective

ImageI remember the first time I read through the nine types of the Enneagram five or six years ago. I naively decided I wasn’t any of the types, but I did pick out my favorite qualities from each. Oh how that disillusion has long faded as I have come to know more intimately my greatest sin(s). On that journey I am assisted most recently by the clear writing and gentle yet astute analysis of Richard Rohr and Adreas Ebert.

Engagement with this work must necessarily be at least partly personal, because first and foremost, “the Enneagram uncovers the games we find ourselves tangled in” (24). It draws on deep patterns of the human psyche to point each of us toward our own gifts and our own flaws. The Enneagram is not merely a personality assessment, a system to shape beliefs, or a way to analyze and categorize people. It is rooted in deeply spiritual impulses that help to unmask the falsehoods that shape human life and community.

Rohr and Ebert describe it this way: “The Enneagram is much more demanding and much more dangerous than believing things. It is more about ‘unbelieving’ the disguise that we all are” (xix). In keeping with the Christian tradition, Rohr and Ebert call the disguises our sins. Over and over we as readers are reminded of the deep, paradoxical connection between our gifts and the ways we miss the mark.

For each of the nine types, the authors identify a fundamental need. Type One is the need to be perfect; two is the need to be needed; three is the need to succeed and so on. They describe motivations, fears, hopes and representative symbols for each type, thus giving the reader multiple entry points for engaging even those types to which one does not naturally relate.

The book includes a brief history and dash of numerology that begin part one and will fascinate some readers. Others will connect more readily with the detailed descriptions of each type, and still others will be most intrigued by the way the types relate to one another as wings and sources of integration. Other helpful features of this volume include a detailed index and charts that summarize each type in easily referenced form. This text has a little bit for everyone who would venture inside.

I have but a few small criticisms: The saintly examples of each type are disproportionately male as are the biblical characters used to highlight each one (though this points to a deeper flaw with the biblical sources). Also, while the authors did caution against misusing the Enneagram to categorize and critique other people, they did not take time to explore any external criticisms of the system itself.

All in all, I commend this book, not to those who want to just explore personal problems or analyze other people but to those who desire to go into the depths of self. It promises to be a difficult and yet rewarding journey: “The Enneagram can help us to purify our self-perception, to become unsparingly honest toward ourselves, and to discern better and better when we are hearing only our own inner voices and impressions and are prisoners of our prejudices – and when we are capable of being open to what is new” (21).

I find my work with myself (and hopefully my work with others) has already been enriched by reading this text, yet I can’t help but think I’ve only scratched the surface. If the Enneagram is truly for the second half of life, as Richard Rohr says, then I have only just begun my work.

a mennonite letter

Disruptions abound in Mennonite Church USA these days. The very public debate about LGBTQ inclusion once again reveals that our peace-loving denomination is no better equipped to handle internal conflict than anyone else. Mountain States Mennonite Conference recently licensed a lesbian pastor, and behind a call to form another task force, the executive board shows signs of responding in a punitive manner. I’ve watched these patterns repeat on various church levels for years, and the actions from leadership are more frustrating than surprising. Responses and open letters and analyses are flying around the Menno-interwebs. Here’s my addition to the cacophony.
Dear Ervin,

My name is Sarah Klaassen, and I live in Columbia, Missouri. Among many other things, I am a lifelong Mennonite and a lesbian. As a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, a some-time preacher, an accidental church planter, and a community organizer, I am well-equipped to analyze power dynamics and speak about justice and inclusion.

But today instead, I want to write about leadership. My great friend and mentor Weldon Nisly who recently retired from Seattle Mennonite Church modeled leadership on the edge of the inside, something eloquently written about by Richard Rohr.The edge is a sacred space where considerations of job security, rules, and constituencies fade into more prophetic concerns. The people on the edge mediate that liminal place between those of you in seats of power and those of us who don’t have access to the institutional church. Mountain States Mennonite Conference plays that role today. Other leaders, groups, and institutions will play that role in the future.

I recognize the contentious ecclesial circumstances you face today, and so I respectfully say to you and others at the center: if you yourselves are not called to take the leadership risks required for this time, please do not be the ones who prevent others from taking them.
One last word, I also serve on the board of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests. As always, we invite you to invite us to be part of your conversations, task forces, processes, and decision-making.

In hope,

joy of giving

Rock Bridge Christian Church, 1.26.14

In our house over the last couple of months, Jamie and I have been pondering some big purchases. You see, our ancient computer from way back in 2009 runs quite a bit slower than it used to, and it can be infuriating to say the least. And those couches we bought five years ago are a little worse for the wear now that our cat Wyatt has made them his favorite scratching post. We’ve been wrestling with how seductive it is, especially for those of us who have means, to just go get what we want. A new couch. A new computer. The list could go on.

Replace the old, acquire the new – get what we want when we want it. These are the gifts we give to ourselves – our little allegiances (to follow this morning’s sermon).

I heard a piece on the radio this past week about what is called “anticipatory package shipping.” Anticipatory package shipping is a system that will ship products before customers have actually bought them, and the online retail giant Amazon has a patent for this practice.

They will box and ship products that they expect customers to buy based on searches, previous purchases, wish lists, and – get this – how long a user’s cursor hovers over an item online. ( Basically they are developing algorithms that assess your behavior and then ship you the package before you even know you want it. My mind is a little bit blown by all of this – and all the consumerism that props up this kind of system. Let’s get what we want when (or before) we want it.

With these personal and societal impulses as my backdrop, I read today’s gospel text. It was a bit jarring to read about how Andrew and Peter left their nets immediately when Jesus called. No questions asked, no deliberation, no price comparisons or shopping around. And then James and John did it too. They left their boat and their father, and followed Jesus. In terms of possessions, material resources, money this story has nothing to do with what they acquired, and everything to do with what they gave up and what they gave away. Their allegiance shifted from getting to giving, and I think it’s the same for us when we choose to follow Jesus.

joyful is the dark

nightoceanSometime in the magical blur of divinity school I learned about the way we use imagery of light and dark. Light is good; dark is evil. Light is safe; dark is scary. Light is energy and hope; dark is depression and loss. I learned that language frames our reality, and so when it goes unexamined, imagery like this can uphold destructive cultural patterns, especially when it comes to race.

Since then, during these, the darkest days of the year, I ponder how I can confront my own ingrained prejudices and reclaim dark as good – if not for the world, at least for myself. This year it comes to me through a hymn (HWB 233) I just learned a few weeks ago:

Joyful is the dark, holy hidden God, rolling cloud of night beyond all naming, majesty in darkness, energy of love, Word in flesh, the mystery proclaiming.

Joyful is the dark spirit of the deep, winging wildly o’er the world’s creation, silken sheen of midnight, plumage black and bright, swooping with the beauty of a raven.

Joyful is the dark, shadowed, stable floor, angels flicker, God on earth confessing, as with exultation Mary, giving birth, hails the infant cry of need and blessing.

Joyful is the dark coolness of the tomb, waiting for the wonder of the morning. Never was that midnight touched by dread and gloom; darkness was the cradle of the dawning.

Joyful is the dark depth of love divine, roaring, looming thundercloud of glory, holy haunting beauty, living, loving God., Hallelujah! Sing and tell the story!

A joyful solstice and the goodness of the dark to you. -sk