I’m becoming Catholic. But how? (Part 2)

You make a vow
You take the bread and wine and the family name
With people who mistake lies for the truth
Oh, it’s hard to keep on showing up
It’s easier to run away from home

… But everything is gonna change …
— Derek Webb, “Everything Will Change

In my prior post, I wrote about not being able to find my church home in the Mennonite world and, in July, giving my notice to leave my job with Mennonite World Review. What hasn’t been known publicly until now is that I’m joining the Roman Catholic Church.

I owe my readers an explanation, because I’m sure some of you will be shocked. It’s shocking to me! So this post, in connection with the previous one, is my attempt to explain myself.

Assuming you’ve read Part 1 (and you really need to), let’s go back to September 2017. I was torn up over losing my church and becoming deathly ill. I wrote that I was hoping to die while in surgery, but the real reason for that was that I was despairing of ever finding a church home for conscience reasons (as you now see since of course you’ve read Part 1).

This is very important: Up until just a few months ago, I was operating with the unquestionable assumption that unless the beliefs and the practice of a church’s members were acceptable to my conscience, I could not fully participate in communion without endangering my eternal welfare.

Losing hope

The day before I went into the hospital was Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. I rode along with my parents to church since I wasn’t in any condition to drive and could hardly walk anymore. I sat in the very back on a padded chair (normally reserved for nursing moms or elderly people) because I was so emaciated that sitting on a hard surface was painful, and I drank my meal replacement shake (to give you an idea of how horrific that day was, I ended up vomiting most of it about nine hours later).

During the service, I began making a mental list of reasons why I might be OK with simply returning to my parents’ church: My dad was a longtime elder there; people knew me; there was a respect for the authority of Scripture that was better than most “conservative” evangelical churches; I could tolerate the aggressively Reformed Baptist theology (because even though I felt it was lacking on the praxis side, I felt it at least provided a solid foundation that could be improved upon), etc. I reasoned that, even if I made a complete physical recovery, I didn’t really want to live by myself because that was so awful, and the sad reality is that there aren’t really any stable roommates for single people other than our parents (if we still have them). So if I was going to limit myself to this geographical area, my parents’ church was, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty solid place where I already had connections.

I started to feel a tiny bit of hope that I would soon emerge from the desert of church-homelessness.

Then I checked Facebook that Sunday afternoon and saw several of the same people who were connected to my parents’ church castigating the National Football League players who were protesting racism by kneeling during the pre-game National Anthem, which was seen by many people as disrespectful.

All the same frustration I remember experiencing as a 13-year-old after 9/11 came rushing back. How could all these “biblical” Christians be more upset about refusal to be patriotic than they were about racial injustice? In my opinion, nationalism is an idolatrous scourge in the American church, and for professing Christians to be calling for people who don’t engage in the proper acts of nation-state worship to be persecuted (i.e. be removed from their jobs) is beyond disgusting and evil. I was completely repulsed by this — there was no way my conscience could stand knowingly participating in communion with people who held such hideous, un-Christian attitudes and church leaders who did nothing to root out this idolatry.

That’s when I wanted to die. For years I had tried to get other Christians to agree with me on this, but almost no one did. That’s a major part of what had led me to become Mennonite, but there were problems in Mennonite world as well…

In the summer of 2016, after taking another look at the epistle of Jude and warnings to the the churches in Revelation (particularly the letter to the church of Thyatira in Revelation 2), I became convinced that for a church to affirm sexual immorality (including same-sex marriage) would put the eternal welfare of all its members in jeopardy. If church leaders did not remove unrepentant practitioners of immorality (according to the instruction in 1 Corinthians 5), faithful Jesus-followers had no other choice but to remove themselves from the fellowship and seek obedient fellowship elsewhere if they hoped to escape condemnation.

Following that, I quickly realized that, in order to be consistent, I had to apply this action to all sin, not just same-sex marriage. Jesus said remarriage after divorce constitutes adultery (Matthew 19), so any pastor who knowingly remarried a couple while one party had a still-living spouse was sinning, and I could not accept communion from or with him. Etc., etc., etc. Pretty soon I realized that following this course would practically result in me excommunicating myself from nearly everyone. And that’s what happened.

Again, this is very important: It was my foregone conclusion that removing oneself from a corrupt church was the faithful course of action to take. This premise is what grounds the entire Anabaptist movement, and in my mind it was it was unquestionable.

So once Plow Creek was gone, I was devastated. What were the chances of finding another nearly perfect little group like that? And if even my parents’ relatively solid church wasn’t good enough, surely none other around my area would be. And that’s how I ended up passing that Sunday, Sept. 24. I curled up on the couch with my churning gut and mind and watched Polycarp. Unlike the garbage my professing Christian Facebook friends were posting, Polycarp refused to be “patriotic” and stood by his allegiance to Christ — at the cost of his life — instead. That’s the mindset I wanted us all to emulate! After the movie ended, I wandered over to my bed and put on Handel’s Messiah. The pain was getting worse, and I wanted the truth of the biblical passages in the Messiah to comfort me. Some hours later, I vomited my last attempt at a meal.

I had just turned 29, I was 84 lbs, and I had lost my hope in this world. My mom got me into the hospital the next day so I wouldn’t dehydrate between Sunday and Wednesday, when my surgery was scheduled.

Another look

Obviously, I didn’t die. But I was in the hospital for about 10 more days getting the use of my body back. I could hardly move at first, but there was internet access. The first few days, my vision was a little scrambled and I experienced strong tiredness when I tried to read any text. Maybe that’s what drew me to Instagram, which is dominated by images.

I’d had my Instagram account since 2012, but I’ve only occasionally posted pictures, and I didn’t look at it a lot. With hours and hours in the hospital with nothing to do, I somehow started following Catholic Instagram accounts. It’s hard to say what I was looking for. Maybe I was just looking to be comforted by beauty and encouragement. I went so many days without eating or going outside (my brother, Frank, brought me a white mini pumpkin which felt incredibly good and therapeutic to hold). My mom and dad spent a lot of time staying with me, especially early on. But for some reason I felt particularly helped by those Instagram posts, highlighting saints, sharing prayers and selling encouraging products.

I grew up hearing Catholicism was totally corrupt and evil. I can remember being very little and hearing about how Catholic authorities tortured and burned people who disagreed with their religion and wanted to interpret the Bible differently (or even be allowed to read the Bible). I didn’t think about it too much, but I had this vague idea that the only reasons Catholics weren’t trying to take over America and kill non-Catholics today was that most of them were clueless about their religion (all the Catholics I’d ever met didn’t seem to know the Bible at all or even talk about their faith that much) and the few who knew better simply had to be content with giving up their barbaric, superstitious ways because they were a tiny minority. I thought their connection to ancient times was vaguely compelling, but I was persuaded that their religion was hopelessly corrupt, even if parts of it were good.

Obviously I was pretty ignorant, but those assumptions stayed with me and colored my view for a very long time. Even now, the history related to that still bothers me… But I’ll come back to that.

Outside a few nominally Catholic relatives’ funerals and some John Michael Talbot music (the latter of which I rather liked), I didn’t have much exposure to any Catholic people until May of 2007. I wanted to attend a Christian college student retreat, but no one else from my community college was going. So I got connected with the group from a nearby Catholic university. I remember being very impressed with the beauty of the campus (there’s that beauty thing again…), and then we were off on a long drive. I was very quiet, doing my usual Rachel-y observing and judging. At this point I identified as a quasi-Mennonite (I didn’t actually have a Mennonite church to go to, but my thinking about Christian faith and practice was very Mennonite-influenced), and I took Jesus’ saying, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7), very seriously.

During the week, the Catholic campus minister from our group hosted a small discussion time during the meal to talk with evangelical students about some Catholic beliefs and clarify misconceptions. I realized I’d never actually had the chance to talk to a person who was actually Catholic AND who knew what he was talking about, so I hung out over there. The only thing I remember from that time was learning that Catholics don’t pray to saints, but they ask saints to pray for them like they ask their Christian friends on earth to pray for them. I remember thinking something like, “Well… That’s weird, but it’s not as weird as I thought.” I didn’t think too much about it, but it planted in my mind the idea that there were probably other things Catholics believed that weren’t as weird as I thought they were.

I think at one point, I went to a Mass held in a tucked-away classroom when a Catholic friend said he was going. I decided to sit in the back of the room and watch very suspiciously. It was pretty funny because we were the only two attendees there, and I really didn’t know what was going on; I just knew I wasn’t supposed to participate. So I watched. Very suspiciously. LOL

I ended up transferring to that Catholic school, Lewis University, in 2011 (yes, I spent seven years in college figuring out my life; don’t judge me). I didn’t really look into spiritual things at that point. It was a time in my life when I put God on the back burner and focused on journalism. I just wanted to graduate and get my job. Plus I was really burned out and disgusted with the right-wing politicalism of people at my parents’ church. I wanted to go looking for some neo-Anabaptist-ish fellowship, but I didn’t have a car. So I protested by sleeping in on Sunday mornings. It wasn’t the best time in my spiritual life, but I was diverting all my passion and energy to full-time studies and professional networking, with the long-term plan to find the “real Christians out there.”

I went to one student-led Mass on a Sunday evening on campus, but it was pretty tiny and nothing about it really grabbed my attention. I do recall, though, that it was right after the big liturgical overhaul, and all the cards with the updated liturgical responses had been distributed in the pews. I remember being impressed by how some central authority somewhere could dictate such minute changes and all the churches had to accept them. I also remember, during my last semester, when two of my classmates skipped class to watch the announcement of Pope Francis becoming pope. They breezed in smiling during the middle of the class period, unconcerned with any potential consequences for their purposeful lateness. I remember thinking, “Wow, I know it’s a big news story, but this is personally important to them.” Another vague memory I have is of getting slightly familiar with the consistent ethic of life in Catholic Social Teaching, which would have really interested me if I hadn’t been so singularly focused on graduating and journalism networking…

There isn’t much to say until the spring of 2017, when Plow Creek was on its way out. Plow Creek had some vaguely Catholic liturgical touches that I really liked (“kind of a low church with a dash of high church,” as described by our worship leader, Christiana Peterson), so I had a new appreciation for that little “dash of high church” that I found myself greatly missing when I was visiting other churches. (Something I noticed was a correlation between traditional liturgical elements and liberal theology/practice, while more theologically conservative churches seemed to have less-inspiring “contemporary” worship or, better but less often, revival-era hymns. This bothered me. Couldn’t we have orthodoxy, orthopraxy, AND a little “dash of high church,” too? Plow Creek seemed to be the only group that got anywhere close to this balance. But Plow Creek was soon to end.)

That’s when a former co-worker invited me to the Easter Vigil service at his Catholic church. With no other plans on the Saturday night before Easter, I figured, why not? I’d never been to an actual service at a Catholic church before, so might as well check it out. I rather enjoyed it. It bridged the gap between sober and joyful. Best of all, the entire gospel message was given straight from Scripture readings. In fact, there was much more time spent on the biblical text than on the priest’s commentary. I came away thinking, “That’s the gospel. That’s the same thing I believe.” From then on, I no longer doubted that the Catholic faith (when it was actually adhered to) was anything but orthodox Christian. I knew there were some other strange beliefs that were part of the package, but I also realized there was a long historical tradition those beliefs came from, and I had some sense that I should have some more respect for that tradition instead of just assuming that my ideas about the Bible were automatically more right in every case. I was still bothered by the violent history, but I saw there was a lot of good that was worth appreciating.

After the service, I went out for a late light dinner with my friend and his wife. I can’t remember how the conversation flowed, but at some point I said something about being interested in “nun life” (that’s what I called religious life back then, LOL!). They were the first people to not awkwardly smile at me, but seemed to think this notion entirely natural.

“So you want to be a bride of Christ?” my friend asked.

“I feel like I already am!” I blurted out.

“I could see that for you,” he said.

Not being awkwardly laughed at or dismissed was huge for me. I felt like I was finally understood — at least sort of — by someone.

And that’s all there is to relate re: Catholicism, up until the point where, after Plow Creek had ceased meeting as a church, after I had moved back home in July, after that terrible Sunday in September, after the surgery on Sept. 27… I found myself looking at Catholic Instagram posts in the hospital, looking for anything worth living for, looking for God.

Confronting my conscience

When I was still in the hospital, post-surgery but well enough to have a conversation, I told my dad about my experience the Sunday before. I told him I couldn’t participate in communion as long as church leadership didn’t decisively condemn nationalistic sentiments and the ugliness those sentiments spawned on social media. I challenged him to do something about it, since he was a church elder, or else I wouldn’t stay at church. He didn’t think it was as big of a deal as I thought it was, so I said I had no choice but to remain self-excommunicated for conscience’ sake indefinitely, and I wished I had died on Sept. 27.

I had to spend the next 10 months unraveling this dilemma: How could I get access to the body and blood of the Lord AND avoid violating my conscience at the same time? To some of you, this may seem strange, while to others it might make complete sense. Remember: My unquestioned premise was that the only faithful response to a corrupt church was to remove oneself from fellowship, because to remain in fellowship with a corrupt church was to jeopardize my eternal welfare! This was the premise I was going to have to deconstruct in order to reconcile my problem.

But I didn’t see that right away. When I begged God for guidance, I sensed him telling me I had to rest right now. Winter was coming. I had to work on eating and regaining weight, standing up straight, walking, getting fresh air and socializing. I quickly got back to work. Soon after I came home, my grandma moved in with us, and I needed to help take care of her.

As I wrote at the beginning of December:

I desperately wanted to have a church home by Advent — the start of our new year. Now Advent begins tomorrow, and I don’t think a miracle is going to happen. I have cried a lot about this, particularly the past couple weeks. I didn’t really think it could happen, but I was still hoping.

Instead, I bounced around some churches. I was kind of addicted to traditional-ish liturgy by this point, and I was attending Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran services. I felt somewhat like an impostor, but there was something compelling me. I bought the Blessed Is She liturgical planner (I LOVE THIS PLANNER, ladies!!! GET IT!) and took note of various saints’ feast days (I was particularly drawn to the martyrs from the church’s first three centuries), and sometimes found myself driving — almost in a haze — to their memorial Masses during the week at this Poor Clares monastery that is 10 minutes from my house.

I felt compelled by the mystery even as I wondered about the rightness of what I was doing. God, I would often think, if I’m doing something wrong, please forgive me. I’m just trying to find you. Sometimes I would stop and think to myself, What am I doing here? Just what am I doing???

YouTube’s algorithm decided to start showing me videos from LizziesAnswers, a YouTuber who had just publicized her conversion to Catholicism (from a Church of Christ background) near the beginning of Lent in mid-February. I watched her subsequent videos with curious interest, and continued to enjoy Instagram posts from accounts like Blessed Is She.

On the first Sunday in March, I got into a discussion about my concerns with some people at the Orthodox church I went to sometimes. I wanted to know: Will the churches that claim a lineage from the ante-Nicene church reclaim the ante-Nicene Christian views on church-state relationships and repudiate the church-state fusion of the latter fourth century? Not exactly the apologetics question most Catholic and Orthodox believers expect to get from someone like me. But at this point, that was my main concern with basically every Christian church group (other than Anabaptists, obviously). All the other “weird, but not as weird as I thought” stuff, while somewhat of a stretch, was workable for me. But there was no way I could affirm a phenomenon that led to some horrific violence against people connected to friends of mine living today.

On that day, there wasn’t really a conclusive “Yes, we will repudiate that and make sure it never happens again.” from my Orthodox friends. But there was openness to my belief in Christian nonviolence. More than that, though, I remember they introduced a different way of looking at the church. It was the idea that the church is a family, and you don’t remove yourself from your family even if you have relatives who have done horrible things. There’s one church, and it’s the church that God started, and you can’t just start your own because you have a lot of crappy relatives there.

I felt that I’d been gently smacked on the head, cracking open a space for some light to poke through. As I drove home that Sunday, I began daring to question my unquestionable premise that schism was an indicator of faithfulness and purity. I remember asking myself a terrifying question: “Have I made my conscience into a god I cannot appease?”

It was starting to feel like it. I cherished my conscience’ freedom and sensitivity — a core value of Anabaptism and similar movements — I saw it as the mechanism via which I received and applied instruction from God about how to order my life. Surely, it was untouchable, enshrined with the greatest care. I could think of no greater priority than to defend human conscience from even the remotest of threats — for if our conscience became subject to any force other than the Spirit of God, how could we continue to pursue, discern and implement righteousness?

(I think I’ve reached peak Enneagram 1 status here…)

I felt the defensive reaction immediately, and I began a furious argument with myself inside my car. At war were these two paradigms: the protection of one’s conscience at great costs that could include church schism in order to secure one’s peace of mind regarding one’s eternal destiny vs. the faithfulness to the one universal church that God started — through which one’s eternal destiny is secured via access to the body and blood of the Lord — that one cannot simply leave to start a replica church (any more than one of Noah’s sons could jump off the ark to build a vessel of his own because animal poop was all over the deck).

About a week later, I wrote a blog post that played with the second paradigm of the church as “a hot mess” like the character of Kid in “Chrono Cross” who spends half the game’s story nearly dead, unconscious or fighting on the wrong side — yet is still the one meant to be redeemed:

These days, I’m taking a very hard look at how to distinguish between this dissatisfaction that is meant to be momentarily endured and legitimate objections of conscience that warrant the self-imposed excommunication I’m currently living with. How do I reconcile Jesus’ parable of the good seed and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) with Paul’s admonition to “purge the evil person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)? Have I made my conscience into a god I cannot appease?

The road trip

Although I was not excited to think about moving away from my family and trying to find some measure of stability and love in a new living arrangement, I realized that I was never going to find a church community my conscience felt right about unless I left the area.

I had planned a 30-day road trip from Joliet to Boston and back to network with people from conservative Anabaptist groups, Lancaster Conference and the Kingdom Christian movement. No groups like that were in my area, despite my years of trying to spread an Anabaptist Kingdom Christian vision. I negotiated with Mennonite World Review to fund the trip in exchange for the valuable on-location reporting I provided, and I set out in a rental car with the themes of pilgrimage and seeking the kingdom of God. Songs like “I Wonder as I Wander” (Audrey Assad’s haunting version suited me perfectly) and “Pilgrims to the City of God” (Michael Card) were played many times on repeat, reflecting my inner stormy tenacity.

One thing I did in advance was get permission to attend the Easter Mass with the Daughters of St. Paul in Boston. I had somehow discovered them online the year before and I was delighted — a community of celibate women who loved Jesus and whose charism was working in media! (Why can’t non-Catholics have anything cool like this? I fumed.) My heart was so taken with the idea that I just had to meet them, since I was going to be in the city of their U.S. headquarters.

As it turned out, to my amazement, the few hours I spent with the Daughters of St. Paul were the best part of the entire trip. It was just such an odd situation — the Kingdom Christian community I was staying with had no interest in observing the church’s liturgical calendar (they favored the regulative principle of worship, which limits Christian worship practices to those affirmed in Scripture), and yet there I was over Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Now, I love the church’s liturgical calendar and find it vital to my spirituality. I think the regulative principle of worship is an unnecessarily restrictive idea that disrespects our liturgical heritage that has evolved from centuries of our shared devotion to Christ. That weekend is what it took to confirm that I find the regulative principle of worship insufferable.

I walked to the nearest Catholic church for their Good Friday service and was once again impressed by the extended readings from Scripture. The entire Passion narrative from the Gospel of John was read aloud, with different people reading various parts while we, the congregation, read aloud in chorus the lines of the crowd calling for Jesus’ death. It was a somber and even horrifying experience to identify with those people and to reflect on my own complicity as a sinner. It was especially chilling to read aloud, “We have no king but Caesar” (which would be a terrible thing for us to say anywhere outside of reading this narrative — but how different is it from professing Christians calling for people to lose their jobs for not worshiping the nation-state appropriately?).

I didn’t make it to the Easter Vigil service this year, but I got up early Sunday morning on April 1 and hiked back to the church, feeling chilly without my jacket (which I’d temporarily misplaced) but sensing that God was making enough sunshine available to compensate. After the service was over, I quickly walked back to my car and drove through downtown Boston to meet the Daughters of St. Paul. I heard the same readings and gazed with wonder and delight at the image displayed of Christ bringing Adam and Eve up from the grave with him.

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Jesus delivering our parents, Adam and Eve, from the grave! He’s simply the best! Did you know this deliverance is available for you, too?

But where I really felt the nearness of God was when the sisters invited me to their Easter lunch. I had felt some sadness at missing my family’s Easter dinner, so being invited to join these lovely women (with whom I felt a surprising amount of affinity in so short a time) for our traditional meal gladdened my heart immensely. Now, this entire trip I’d had a fierce craving for peanut M&Ms, and I kept buying them along the way. So I was blown away by the sight of this marvelous dessert table in the convent’s lunchroom featuring (among other delightful items) a small mountain of peanut M&Ms. I could almost hear God telling me, standing just outside my field of vision, “I got these for you. I’ve got you covered. I’m telling you, It’s going to be OK.” The entire lunch was like a foretaste of heaven; I’m getting tears in my eyes recalling it. I also got a tour of the Pauline Books and Media facilities and got to join a few other young women there on a discernment retreat (that’s what you do when you’re thinking about religious life) and for an after-lunch walk outside (another family tradition I enjoyed!).

I remember feeling sorry to leave, and I spent the next couple days processing in my head what I couldn’t say out loud: Could I actually be Catholic to join a community like that? Something like that was what I really wanted. I had tossed the idea around with various Mennonite friends over the past couple years about starting some kind of celibate Christian community with Anabaptist theology. But there was very little interest. I mulled the pros and cons.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to understand the operating principle here: I was still evaluating the Catholic Church — as one of several other options — against the measuring standard of my conscience’s synthesis of God’s written Word. This was the only way I knew how to operate: Look at a church’s statement of faith and measure it against your own understanding of Scripture — if there are any red flags that alarm your conscience, cross that church off your list, because that’s obviously the Holy Spirit warning you of danger. So of course it’s imperative to continually be refining your understanding of Scripture, because if you didn’t, you ran the risk of making a monumental error in judgment.

(If you’re reading this and you’ve been Catholic all your life, I’m curious what you make of this. Does it sound absolutely crazy to you? Looking back now, I see this as absolutely sanity-destroying, but this was my normal procedure for my entire life until a few months ago. I truly could not conceive of another way to discern truth but to continually bulk up on Bible study and collect an arsenal of proof texts working in concert to fight other Christians’ arsenals of proof texts in a battle for whose analyses were superior. There’s no one church who’s more trustworthy than all others; it’s everyone running around like Pokémon trainers battling each other for the distinction of being the most faithful to Scripture, with anyone able to start his own church at any time if he can attract followers. For people on a quest for truth, it’s chaos.)

Naturally, my conscience recognized a threat to its supremacy and reacted violently, like an allergic response at the soul level. All the associations I had of the Catholic Church (and Orthodox and a lot of Protestant groups as well) as an entity that had never truly repudiated its complicity in violent attempts at conscience violation returned to me and terrified me. How could I confess fidelity to an entity that had hurt so many people and might, in the future, repeat those activities and harm people I cared about? I couldn’t do it. My conscience was literally screaming bloody murder. I couldn’t violate it and live.

Once again, I wanted to die. I alternated between asking God to take my life during the night and fearing for the state of my soul if I were, in fact, to die now. It was Easter Week. I felt like the phoniest Christian I knew.

The turning point

I amended my request and told God he could take my life after I returned the rental car and got home so my parents wouldn’t have the added burden of fetching my body from some other state. But while on the journey back to Joliet, I was able to connect with a few more Kingdom Christians who were my last hope that the church I was looking for was out there, so my desire to die was held off a little longer.

I returned home, had my post-recovery colonoscopy and was declared disease-free. With the last energy I had, I thought my only remaining option was to try to start a church fellowship of my own, which could eventually network with what I fantasized would be an emerging coalition of the best of Lancaster Conference, the more open-minded conservative Anabaptists and the Kingdom Christians. I wrote an editorial in Mennonite World Review encouraging such a coalition to emerge, centered around our common ground in the writings of the early church:

It is good that the leaders of Lancaster Conference and representatives of various plain Anabaptist groups are looking in the direction of our ancient Christian heritage. As they do, they will rediscover their common ground and perhaps work together.

As I continue my pilgrimage, I hope to see these kingdom-seeking groups join forces in simple obedience to God, as Jesus’ followers have done since Pentecost. I want to join them for some church attic-cleaning.

But days after writing it — even before it was published on April 23 — I had almost no faith that what I was looking for would ever come to fruition. I had lost hope in what I had written the week before. My internal harmony was dismantled and I felt I couldn’t live with myself. I shuffled through some more nights, praying each would be my last.

On the morning of Tuesday, April 24, my old friend, Tom, who had invited me to the Easter Vigil a year earlier, sent me a text message:

“How are you doing today?

I keep thinking of you this week. The Holy Spirit has thrust you to the front line of my prayers and petitions, for whatever reason.”

OK, God. I see that’s a ‘no’ to my request. Thanks for letting me know you’re listening. Now I’m listening for you as hard as I can. Please keep talking.

The next day, Tom invited me to church that coming Sunday, April 29. I went. Two weeks later, I had begun re-evaluating my paradigms.

On May 9, I wrote on Facebook:

“In four months (and a day), I’ll be 30. Here’s what I’m giving myself:

permission to make mistakes
to make imperfect decisions
to move toward God, to not stop in this life
to trust in his mercy.

I can’t be perfect, but I have to be something. I believe he rewards those who diligently seek him (Hebrews 11:6). I can accept the inevitability of me/us being wrong about some things while trusting in his great un-chaos-ing of things.”

These were my first steps out of my own prison that was destroying me. Four months to the day after giving myself this permission, I’m beginning the Catholic Church’s Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, which will end at Easter. I told my Enneagram 1 self that honest mistakes are part of the path toward God, and his mercy has the capacity to cover my deficits. Isn’t that what all Christians believe, anyway? I’m sober, but I’m at peace, and even excited.

What’s the logic, though?

The story so far has already looked at one of the major reasons I’m becoming Catholic, which is that relying on one’s own sense of the Holy Spirit in interpreting the Scriptures has led Jesus-followers in thousands upon thousands of directions. I know my Anabaptist readers insist they recognize the discernment of the gathered community in interpreting Scripture, but there are dozens of Mennonite communities with clashing beliefs, and I felt indefinitely doomed to homelessness among the spectrum from Old Order Mennonite to Marginal Mennonite.

So that’s argument No. 1: Attempts to interpret Scripture apart from the tradition of the original church and via one’s sense of the Holy Sprit, even when practiced with a small group of generally like-minded people, lead to endless discordant permutations of what both individual and communal Christian belief and practice ought to look like. This leads to an ocean of disunity and chaos that I can no longer navigate.

As I said in Part 1, if I were to place myself somewhere on the Mennonite conservatism spectrum, I would place myself right about where Tabitha Driver places herself in this delightfully simplified graph — between Conservative Mennonite Conference and Biblical Mennonite Alliance (note the latter is a schism from the former!). I suppose the most classically Mennonite thing to do would be for me and Tabitha to start our own church, right on that point of the spectrum! But if we did, would it last? Or would we continue the pattern of division to vainly combat degeneracy?

Here’s how Mennonite historian Rich Preheim relates a typical history of Mennonite schism:

A series of ministers’ meetings, called Diener-Versamm­lungen, were held between 1862 and 1878 to try to address the problems. The Diener-Versammlungen were only marginally successful and ended with the emergence of two groups: the tradition-minded Old Order Amish and the more progressive Amish Mennonites.

Unlike the Old Order Amish, most Amish Mennonites built meetinghouses and aligned themselves with the former Mennonite Church, joining in the creation of mission and publishing enterprises and supporting Goshen (Ind.) College, the first MC educational institution.

Like their MC counterparts, most Amish Mennonites created area conferences. The first was the Indiana-Michigan Amish Mennonite Conference in 1888, followed by the Western (1890) and Eastern (1893) conferences. All three joined the Mennonite Church and in the early 20th century merged with MC area conferences.

But a number of congregations kept some distance between themselves and their more progressive sisters and brothers, choosing instead to remain unaffiliated. M.S. Steiner, a prominent Mennonite Church administrator in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is credited with naming this in-between group the Conservative Amish Mennonite Conference. “Amish Mennonite” suggested it wasn’t part of the Old Order Amish. “Conservative” meant it was different from the conference-organized Amish Mennonites.

Does anyone else have a spiritual headache after reading this? I do! This is an unavoidable part of the Mennonite legacy, and although this criticism might be hard to hear, I need to talk about this, because it has wrecked me so badly the past couple years.

I was impressed as an almost-13-year-old with the early Anabaptists’ (note: I’m specifically referring to those Anabaptists whose legacy was carried on by the Mennonites — I’m aware the term “Anabaptist” was a catch-all derogatory term applied to anyone who practiced adult baptism but could have had any number of strange or objectionable views on other subjects) commitment to taking New Testament instruction literally for their practice, particularly regarding the refusal to participate in violence (which I still believe is the correct view and the one held with a surprising degree of uniformity among ante-Nicene Christian writers), which is a practice their successors were routinely persecuted for over the following centuries.

Given this background, you must try to imagine my horrified shock when with my own eyes I witnessed in June 2016 a Mennonite (Mennonite Church USA) pastor baptize a young man who had announced to his congregation not an hour earlier that he planned to join the U.S. Marine Corps. I was so utterly rattled and nearly in tears — I felt betrayed. How could you do that in the face of the American martyrs for peace of World War I? Conscientious objectors to war on Christian grounds endured abuse and died refusing to participate in violence, right here in the United States, as recently as 100 years ago — and it could happen again!

Whatever spiritual credibility I had ascribed to Mennonite Church USA began eroding that day. Clearly not every pastor in the denomination cared about the peace position that much. (Of course, given the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, I shouldn’t have been surprised. For some reason I thought surely the peace position was untouchable, and I found out that day it wasn’t.) And once I realized that, I realized that any beliefs I had associated with Mennonites were up for debate in Mennonite Church USA, and I couldn’t count on anyone being disciplined for any violation of our written confession I had presupposed we all agreed on. I hope people can understand how jarring and horrifying this was for me. It was like watching my people shoot their own feet, demolishing the very heritage that attracted me to them in the first place. As much as it hurt to lose Plow Creek a year later, one blessing I privately noted was that my congregation’s dissolution naturally released me from a denomination I no longer trusted — I was spared an ugly break-up scene because I had no church to break up with.

Meanwhile, looking at more conservative Mennonite groups raised red flags as well, though of a different sort. It was in conservative Anabaptist settings that I experienced repeated and painful marginalization as a single woman (and I noted women in general had really no voice other than blogging/social media — if their groups were “liberal” enough to allow that). But what bothered me more deeply, particularly at the Anabaptist Identity Conference (which I attended three years in a row), was the way their faith was bound up so tightly with particular practices that were (for the most part) only palatable to those who grew up with them (rules about how to dress, strict limitations on recreation, etc.). I observed a lot of pressure to 1) have many children and 2) to pressure one’s children to carry on the practices they had grown up with and not to lose any of those practices (i.e., become more “liberal”).

I noted a strong emphasis on submission to the brotherhood of the church (that is, their brotherhood’s extrabiblical rules applying biblical principles) while simultaneously esteeming Anabaptist martyrs who weren’t exactly known for their submission to the church. This seemed inconsistent. Conservative Anabaptists today still believe in baptism upon a person’s voluntary confession, but the strictness of some of their lifestyles (which, again, are transmitted primarily via parenting) left me with serious questions about how voluntary these confessions really were. Is an 18-year-old truly consenting to baptism (which, for him, is initiation into his distinct tribal community) when his alternative is to be distanced from his family and not allowed to marry within his community? Technically, he can refuse, but if he refuses, he’s going to incur a fair amount (the extent varies, depending on the dynamics of the group) of loss that most people that age aren’t prepared to face. (See my editorial in Mennonite World Review addressing this question.)

I remember sitting alone in my hotel room during the first AIC I went to in 2016, trying to process the nascent versions of these thoughts, combined with the low-key triggering flashbacks of being at a Christian homeschool convention, with its heavy emphasis on traditional family life that contributed to all the shame and inferiority I had felt for most of the past decade. It was another kind of betrayal — not as blatantly jarring as what I experienced among Mennonite Church USA, but more subtle, harder to pin down, yet still upsetting.

When I tried to point out these inconsistencies, I received no satisfactory replies. People on the “liberal” extreme dismissed me as judgmental and bigoted, while people on the “conservative” extreme castigated me as individualist and rebellious. During the middle of 2017, when I was getting sicker, I left two different Anabaptist Facebook groups (one very liberal, one very conservative) because I was tired of fighting the extremists in both.

(Of course, I must not neglect to mention the many kind non-extremist people. There were many who sent me kind and encouraging emails appreciating my reporting and editorials for Mennonite World Review. This essay is pointing out ecclesiological root problems, but I would be remiss not to mention that there were many loving Mennonite friends and sometimes strangers who supplied me with lodging, food, labor and good conversation — both online and off. The emphasis on Christian community/mutual aid/hospitality is a beautiful Mennonite strength that should be normal for all Christians.)

These observations illustrate argument No. 2: Church renewal cannot be accomplished via schism because each new schism eventually degenerates, often making mistakes eerily similar to the ones they were originally formed to oppose. And this pattern will repeat with no end! I remember thinking at some point, “Give any new church restart-attempt three or so centuries, and watch it repeat the same mistakes as the original church did.” Rich Preheim’s June 18 column in Mennonite World Review confirmed my hypothesis with this title: “When Mennonites Persecuted Mennonites.” The time frame? The 1860s — about three centuries since the Anabaptist movement originated (1520s). (The article is worth reading for its familiar sad refrains.)

Now, once a schismatic movement goes through all the upheaval and suffering in order to exist as a “better” church — I expect the new church to, in fact, be better. Not just somewhat better, but excellently better — very near perfect. Because once we establish the precedent that the mechanism of church renewal is schism, schisms will continue, perpetuating the quest for purity as long as their originating branch is deemed corrupt by any of its members.

If a schism is doomed to degenerate, then why should I continue to perpetuate it? If I’m looking for a pure church, and I pour everything I have into forming the ideal pure church, only for it to let me down later when corruption eventually does set in, wouldn’t I have wasted my time when I could have poured my resources into renewing the church that God started? Do I think I can build a more durable, corruption-resistant church than God has been building? I once did, but it was a foolish thought, even though I maintain I had pure motives. The answer is no.

Argument No. 3: If any man may form his own church and thereby gain access to the body and blood of the Lord in the Eucharist, what then is the point of excommunication? The very fact that excommunication is given to the Church as her mechanism of discipline and self-purification of unrepentant members implies that she has the guardianship over whatever the real Eucharist is.

So when a schismatic movement is excommunicated, that means it no longer has access to the real Eucharist. The schism cannot produce the real Eucharist if the Church has the guardianship of it and the Church has excommunicated the schism. From where, then, does a schism get the authority to declare itself a church and excommunicate its own sub-schisms in turn?

This argument occurred to me when I was talking with a Kingdom Christian friend about the question I raised earlier: How do I get access to the Eucharist and avoid violating my conscience? My friend’s solution was to refrain from communion at his home church and serve himself at home. This did not sound right to me. He asked me if I could raise an objection from Scripture. I couldn’t think of a particular Scripture reference, but I did ask what the point of excommunication was if any of us can serve himself. I almost lost my breath as I realized I had all but argued myself into the Catholic Church!

We should ask, if we trace our spiritual heritage to an excommunicated schism, whether we’ve ever had access to the real Eucharist at all.

The bottom line: For these reasons, I’m now convinced that attempts to renew the Church via schism — no matter how pure their intentions — are futile. Since the nearly-perfect church is unsustainable, what’s the long-term, big-picture point of schism? Even if Tabitha Driver and I and a handful of other like-minded people started our own Mennonite church right where I wanted to be on the spectrum, how long would it last before degenerating into liberalism, retaining a stifling conservatism (or sub-schism-ing without end because its founders believed schism was the way to purity), or simply dissolving into history?

I don’t think God’s ideal was for “finding the church” to be this insanely, heartbreakingly, death-wishing-ly confusing! We simply can’t, in the long term, improve upon the church that God started via separation. I no longer have the heart to try, because I’ve looked at both history and my own journalistic observations of the present to know that, even when some faults are improved upon in the short term, it’s a losing effort in the long term.

On a positive note: I do want to add that Mennonites (and, to some extent, other Reformation-era and later separatist movements, but especially Mennonites 🙂 ) had and still have many good qualities and admonitions that we all should consider and learn from — like discipleship and holiness not being optional for Christians, like the centrality of Christian community in Christian life, like legal freedom from coercion in religion, like the peace position (properly rooted in New Testament teaching, NOT in questionable neo-Anabaptist theological wrangling nor in liberal social ideas)! Right now, there are many younger Catholics who are serious about their faith and experiencing a renewal, reclaiming the better parts of their heritage, looking (like everyone else) to the early church for inspiration on how to be faithful in an increasingly post-Christian society. They’re looking for more community, more evangelism, more prayer, more study of Scripture, more devotion to the Lord — a lot of the same things we non-Catholic Christians have been talking about! All of us Christians in the broader realm of orthodoxy have more in common than we’ve had in the past several centuries — the Catholics I’ve met who are orthodox and kind are surprisingly more evangelical (in a good way) than I expected, and have really blessed me with their witness.

But what about…?

I’m not able to answer every remaining question. There are Catholic apologists who have converted from Protestant/evangelical groups after doing intense, critical investigation (Scott Hahn and Steven Ray, for example). I don’t feel the need to attempt to replicate their work; you can check out their testimonies if you want to hear from people with greater scholarly credentials than I have. Also, The Coming Home Network’s YouTube channel has tons of conversion stories and lectures explaining much more.

This apologetic is only meant to explain my journey, not to defend every Catholic teaching out there. That’s not my job, and I’m not signing up for that right now.

But there are a couple big things I have to address:

What about infant baptism?

Infant baptism was the No. 2 difficulty for me because it seemed very non-consensual and coercive. I had read some arguments for it (in summary, the idea that God grants the infant faith at his baptism, so in that sense, it can be called a believer’s baptism, albeit unconscious; as well as the historical argument — apparently it was practiced at least as early as the third century, with Origen claiming the tradition came from the apostles!), but something about it still bothered me.

One day, the Holy Spirit just started talking to me about it.

“What’s your real problem with infant baptism?” he asked. “You don’t think it’s a sin, so why is it bothering you this much?”

“I don’t like that it gives people false assurance of their salvation,” I said. “People think because they were baptized, they’re all squared away with you. They think they’re in your kingdom by default, and as long as they meet the minimum obligations, they don’t actually have to pursue real holiness.”

“Then your problem is with bad catechesis,” he replied. “You know you can do something to help with that, right?”

Oh. Silly me. Of course I can. (Isn’t God the best???)

And that’s more or less how I’m able to resolve things: I understand there’s often a difference between Catholic practice and actual teaching. So if I see someone’s practice (or lack thereof) that makes me uncomfortable, it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. 1. I’m not in trouble because someone else is messing up. 2. I can learn what the real teaching is. 3. In any case, it’s OK to feel uncomfortable! Sometimes is the problem is my negative associations/triggers rooted in lingering misconceptions. God knows what’s up, and he’ll fix what he needs fixed. I don’t have to be the all-confident defender of everything! WOW! For my Enneagram 1 self, that is huge.

What I need to concern myself with is being united with Christ and pursuing righteousness in my own life. I’m no longer going to let other Christians’ sin disrupt my intimacy with Christ.

That being said, there’s one really serious issue left to talk about. I referenced it earlier, but I need to say more:

What about the Anabaptist martyrs?

The lamentable reality is that there are going to be sinners in the Church. There are going to be sinners among Church leaders. There are obnoxious and sinful people on both the “traditional” and “liberal” ends of the spectrum, just like everywhere else. Like Kid from “Chrono Cross,” the Church can go astray in some terrible ways. There will be extremists doing ugly things, and we should rightly grieve these phenomena and pray for deliverance, whether it’s the evil coercive force used against dissenters of the Reformation era (not to mention the corruption that inspired dissent in the first place) or the evil sexual abuse of today’s headlines.

There’s some real ugliness in the Church’s history, stuff that really hurts my heart to learn about. I don’t want to gloss over how difficult it is for my Mennonite friends to live with some of these terrible historical realities that caused trauma to their ancestors, the lingering effects of which may contribute to (or at least set the backdrop for) the very phenomena I had the audacity to critique earlier. I also don’t want to overlook the contribution of Anabaptist martyrs (tortured and killed by Catholic- and Protestant-aligned authorities) to the ideological foundation for the religious freedom many of us have today — the freedom that both enables great confusion but also enables great quests and pilgrimages (like mine) that in the end make our faith stronger. Again, this issue of historical violence was far and away the most difficult thing for me to confront in this process, especially knowing that some of my Mennonite friends could be particularly hurt by my announcement, related to this history.

In the summer of 2013, right after I had graduated from Lewis, I was driving home late from the second shift as an intern on the copy desk of a California newspaper. The headlines that day were more violent than usual, and it sank in that working in news meant I was going to see a lot of upsetting content. I cried inside my car, feeling the weight of fallen humanity and wondering if God was, in fact, really going to fix it all. He gave me a vision of himself as the Great Copy Editor, faithfully correcting the errors of our sad history with his own red blood. I don’t know if that means nearly as much to you as it meant to me that night, but if you’re hurting because of my announcement, I hope it brings you some comfort.

What I suggest to my non-Anabaptist friends, and particularly my Catholic friends, is to make a pilgrimage to a place like the Kauffman Museum in North Newton, Kan., to see “The Mirror of the Martyrs” exhibit. Our traditions may never perfectly align in theology and practice, but I hope all of us could look at that, learn our history, grieve, repent and say “never again.”

When you consider that there’s a terrible enemy of God in the picture, it’s not surprising he wants to corrupt and destroy the Church any way possible — including from within. The enemy wants the Church to be so horrible that people are understandably terrified of it and stay away, lost in the desert while searching vainly for something better. But the reason I’m at this threshold in spite of all the darkness is that the mythical nearly-weed-free church “out there” doesn’t exist, at least not for more than a few glimmering moments. I have looked hard. So if you’re Catholic and you’re thinking about leaving to look for another church that’s free of abuse and corruption and fighting, I affirm your desire for righteousness, and I want to warn you that you’re going to feel completely crushed when you find that stuff in the “better” church, too.

In a beautiful article, Sr. Theresa Aletheia writes:

However, one might ask, “If the Church is truly one with Christ, how can some members do such evil?” The answer to this question is at the heart of the mystery of the Church itself. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this mystery well: “Christ, holy, innocent, and undefiled, knew nothing of sin, but came only to expiate the sins of the people. The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal. All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time” (827). Therefore, no sinner, not even the worst of sinners, can bring ruin to the Church. Not because the humans that make up the Church are trustworthy—we are not. But God is trustworthy.

I can’t be perfect, but I have to be something. I’m choosing to join the imperfect Church and let God sort the wheat and weeds at the end. Because it’s not just one of the many Christian “tribes” that depend on its followers’ adherence to its particular confession’s emphases, I no longer have the burden to see “my tribe” maintain its particular heritage (or the fear of seeing us lose it). My job is to make sure I’m among the wheat. My job is to pray that God’s Spirit will raise up more wheat. My job is to be the most inspiring witness I can be, with the help of the Lord. My job is to encourage other believers toward holiness, and leave the rest up to God. I don’t have to be best friends with every Catholic out there. I don’t have to follow every Catholic’s ideologically upsetting social media posts. I can access the body and blood of the Lord — for real — and while I grieve sin, my conscience can rest, because I’m only responsible for my own integrity, not the integrity of any other person or organization. And someday, the Lord is going to make everything right at the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Thank you, God, for helping me find my way again by 30. Thank you for telling me it’s all going to be OK. Thank you for your mercy. I’m looking forward to the next 32 weeks and beyond with you. Help.

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Self-reflection on relationships

One thing I’ve learned from repeated experiences of feeling betrayed by people I thought were in my corner (particularly online) is that I shouldn’t be so quick to bond with people over a shared ideological principle or aspect of life. I tend to have several unpopular opinions and lifestyle choices, so I get all these “we should be friends!” feelings when I find people who agree with my views! But just because someone agrees with me on some important things doesn’t necessarily make her a trustworthy person. I’ve had to learn this the hard way multiple times, and I think now — days before I turn 30 — I’m finally crystalizing it.

I think a good safeguard for me is to not try to make community happen based primarily on some good online conversation or even meeting at some event somewhere. Before social media, I would give people a long time (a few months to a year, depending on how often I saw them) before deciding to consider them as my friends. Now social media has unnaturally accelerated that process because I get this emotional “high” because someone somewhere agreed with my unpopular opinion and I’ve been waiting so long to find people who agree with me!

I guess I’ve always looked to bond over shared ideology, because I always put principle first in every endeavor I deem worthy of my limited investment capabilities — including relationships. Some people may think that’s a very cold, hard-hearted way of putting it, but it’s odd and shocking to me that everyone else doesn’t operate that way, because I have no clue how to go about working any other way! I can’t imagine having any type of deep, meaningful relationship with anyone who doesn’t share my worldview/philosophy/etc. Like, that does not compute for me at all. In my worldview, there’s something bigger and greater and more transcendent than our enjoyment of each other merely for its own sake. I believe everything in my life, including relationships (if they’re going to be meaningful) must be oriented around this more transcendent thing, like the relationship of the Fellowship of the Ring was oriented around a greater quest. I believe in being honest about the limited resources I have and the lines I draw regarding their allocation. I’m not being mean. I’m being fair and honest with myself and everyone.

So if I try to integrate myself in a community (whether it’s a church denomination or a Facebook group) where a shared ideology is the basis for the relationship AND THEN the ideology isn’t adhered to by all parties, I’m compelled to call for consistency in order to preserve the relationship. After that, to have some parties vilify ME for my call to integrity and sanity really messes me up badly. I have felt so gaslit and shaken up and been in tears from these experiences when I thought we were all on the same page but then weren’t, and I was looked at as the bad guy for pointing it out.

Then I have realized that I have my integrity and no one can take that from me. I do not tolerate inconsistency in my personal life or close relationships. If what you say doesn’t line up with something you’ve said earlier, and you can’t give me a satisfactory reconciliation — or worse, you vilify me — we have no meaningful relationship. If you can’t be consistent with yourself, there’s no way I can trust you with any part of myself! Good-bye! To me it’s utterly ridiculous that this should even have to be said, but I’ve learned there’s some dysfunctional and unreasonable chaos out there.

I’m a communicator and a publisher, so unless God calls me to some radical change in mission and lifestyle (from what he’s already called me to, I mean), I’m not planning to ditch the internet anytime soon. That said, I’m going to make some adjustments.

I’m investing more of my resources in face-to-face relationships with local people. I have a goal (and yes, I’m fully aware this indicates a lamentable state of my social life these days) of at least one quality face-to-face meeting per week with a friend outside my family. I don’t meet that goal every week, but knowing it’s there gives me something to pre-actively look forward to. Face-to-face interaction, early and often, will usually clue me in much faster to red flags about someone than if we interacted mainly online.

Social media platforms are convenient and excellent tools for keeping up with friends, networking to find new friends and putting more of yourself out there so people get to know you better. I have used my social media networks to exchange ideas, generate illuminating discussion, encourage people and generally build community. It’s wild to think that my birthday this coming Monday (Sept. 10) will mark 10 years of using Facebook, and I’ve used Twitter for nine years.

However, a combination of various circumstances in my life (feeling alone, longing for friends who shared my viewpoints, working in journalism, living alone, working from home) have induced me to use social media as the bulk of my social life. While I don’t see that phenomenon completely disappearing from my life, I want to at least try to even the scales between my online socializing and offline socializing.

I’m also imposing a soft moratorium on accepting new Facebook friend requests, with exceptions mainly for people I know and with whom I’d like to get together more often in person. Most of my Facebook posts are public or at least viewable to friends of friends, and I’ll accept private messages from most people. But sometimes I’ve accepted friend requests out of a desire to network, and then had people who just rubbed me the wrong way for some reason, or just too many posts from people I hardly ever see and can’t meaningfully invest in.

Just some not-super-organized thoughts of self-awareness and modification for health.

No church home for me in the Mennonite world (Part 1)

Note: I wrote much of this post in October 2017. I decided to let it stew for a few days because I felt some parts might come across as too critical or harsh, and after reflecting further I decided to hold it indefinitely. This past July, I put in my notice to leave the Mennonite World Review staff this October, so I feel like now is the time to share this.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
That Jesus, my Savior, did come for to die
For poor ornery people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
— John Jacob Niles
(Audrey Assad’s version has a been a theme for this season of my life)

Losing Plow Creek last summer was devastating — not just because of the obvious losses of my community and my house (as well as my health, which was coincidental), but because Plow Creek was the closest thing I thought I might ever find to the mythical “perfect church.” (Christiana Peterson’s description, titled “Your Ideal Church,” gives a good picture of what Plow Creek was like.) Of course I knew the perfect church didn’t exist, but ever since I was old enough to think seriously about these things, I had been determined to find and labor to perpetuate the closest thing possible.

Since Plow Creek ended, I would commonly have non-Mennonite friends ask me, “What are you looking for in a church?” It would be nearly impossible for me to adequately condense an answer, because my non-Mennonite friends were largely clueless about who Mennonites are, what they believe, and why that was important to me (not to mention how wonderful Plow Creek was). To do that, I would have had to recount years of spiritual pilgrimage.

So that’s what I’m going to do now.

‘We need that Mennonite stuff’

When I was 12 years old, getting close to 13, I discovered Anabaptism in the pages of the catalogs from Christian Light Publications and Rod & Staff Publishers, both of which are plain/conservative Mennonite. It was the summer of 2001 — a time in my life when I was beginning to gain a more adult consciousness of God, of the spiritual realm, of the conflict between good and evil and my response to it all. My parents were committed, “first-generation” Christians who had a high view of the Bible as the Word of God and worshiped in Baptist churches, and that was my foundation from before I was born.

When I was 3, I was told that if I believed in Jesus and confessed it, I would go to a place with no more death, mourning, crying or pain (Revelation 21:4) after I died. A simple confession in exchange for an eternity with no more scraped knees (my greatest woe at the time) sounded like a fabulous deal, so I gladly accepted and professed my faith immediately.

(I didn’t actually get baptized until I was 17, though, because… Well, the reasons evolved from being afraid of water to being afraid of a crowd of people looking at me to being afraid of being baptized in a church that might be erring in doctrine and/or practice. And I was told it had to be my decision, so of course I took it so seriously that I might have delayed it indefinitely for fear of making a mistake.)

When I was around 8, I mentally connected our act of going to church and worshiping God with Jesus’ sacrifice for us. I thought that since Jesus died for us, we owed him our thankfulness expressed by praying to him, singing songs to him and feeling love for him.

But when I was 12, I began to see holes in my childish views of the gospel. I understood that it wasn’t enough to intellectually believe true statements and to feel emotionally positive things about God. It was impressed upon me that true Christianity should notably affect our entire lives — righteous day-to-day living was an essential marker of salvation. We should be visibly different from the world. I was shaken by my prior ignorance. I distinctly remember one evening on which I wept heartily for a long time. I want to be good, I remember saying again and again. I didn’t know exactly what that looked like, but I began to ruminate on what that could be.

That’s when I found Anabaptism inside conservative Mennonite publishers’ catalogs. I had never heard of these teachings before. Nonresistance? Women’s prayer veils? I had grown up with the Bible, but I had never seen this. Yet there it was. If the Bible is God’s Word, and the New Testament is authoritative for Christian practice, how come no one talks about this stuff? Did the Anabaptists get killed for all this stuff? Is it safe to talk about? These were the questions I mulled over as I approached my 13th birthday.

The day after I turned 13 was Sept. 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the brutal airplane-hijacking attacks on the U.S. East Coast, I watched my small Christian world around me blend into the unbelieving world. I heard no talk about loving or praying for enemies — just calls for war and revenge. We had always made much of our Christian identity, but it now seemed indistinguishable from a non-Christian identity.

The inconsistency jarred me. If we were going to be ruled by the same destructive passions that unbelievers were ruled by when times were hard, then was the Christian faith real? Did we actually believe that our union with Christ would grant us his victory over death, making it worthless of our fear? I couldn’t formulate my thoughts then, but I knew somehow that: If we are believers in Christ and the reality of his resurrection and his kingdom, our response should be different. What I remember clearly thinking at the time was: We need that Mennonite stuff. This wasn’t right. I had to say something.

So I did. And I did again. And again. And again. For the next decade. No one tried to kill me. There was just some scoffing and arguing, but mostly a lot of misunderstanding and loneliness. I did not know one other person who shared my Anabaptist-inspired views on Christian nonviolence (and radical discipleship/literal New Testament obedience in general). I could only experience Christian fellowship with people up to a point, and then there was a big disconnect.

I call this period in my life, from age 13-25, a desert. I won’t bog down this post with extended descriptions of prolonged frustration, hopelessness and thirst regarding my unrealized desires for whatever “real Christianity” was. This is all merely background information to ground the following analysis.

What a world

Now I’m almost 30, and my job with Mennonite World Review for the past three years has allowed me to immerse myself in the Anabaptist-Mennonite world (in the U.S.). And what a world it is.

Since Plow Creek was gone, I had to take a hard look at what my church options were in the Mennonite realm, which is where I identified doctrinally. But the Mennonite world is complicated. It’s not one denomination, but many — dizzyingly many. Once I recovered from my surgery, my plan was to choose from somewhere among this spectrum that was closest to my own beliefs and make a move — most likely to another state — to join a congregation in that group (there was nothing near my position on the Mennonite spectrum that was in my area at that point).

There seemed to be three broad options and a couple emerging movements. I’m going to include affirmations and criticisms of each. I’m aware my observations are limited. These mainly focus on Mennonites in the U.S., because that’s what I know. I’m aware that present-day Anabaptists include more than Mennonites — Amish, Brethren, Hutterites are other main groups with which I’m less familiar.

Mainline Mennonites (Mennonite Church USA/Canada): The merged denominations of the former General Conference Mennonite Church and the former Mennonite Church.

Pros: MC USA/Canada has a lot of wonderfully kind and loving people, a growing openness to expressions of worship/spirituality from other Christian traditions, and a presently active tradition of social/humanitarian service and peacemaking. Notably in the U.S., there’s a strong witness against the right-wing Americanized Christianity that is present in much of mainstream evangelicalism.

Cons: The major con that negates everything good is an increasing move away from New Testament teaching as authoritative for Christian practice, as most strongly evidenced by the increasing affirmation of same-sex marriage in the church (though this is by no means the only evidence — the affirmation of remarriage after divorce and women as teaching pastors of the whole congregation were similar wrong moves). In fact, despite mainline Mennonites’ retention of esteem for conscientious objectors to war, I’m not sure any of their congregations would actually discipline a member who joined the military as a combatant. Once you flout New Testament authority in one area, you can’t use it well to uphold a difficult teaching in another area.

My take: MC USA was the denomination my church was part of before it dissolved. There’s a diversity of belief throughout the denomination, with some people holding holding fairly traditional Christian views and others advocating religion that barely resembles Christianity. Due to past abuses of church discipline, many of its leaders are incapable of exercising healthy church discipline when it has become necessary. It’s deeply divided, and the fault lines are ugly. The direction it’s moving is not good. I like many things about it, and I love many people who are part of it, but after Plow Creek was gone, I reasoned that I couldn’t — in good conscience — go back.

Evangelical Mennonites (Mennonite Brethren, Conservative Mennonite Conference, Evana Network, Lancaster Mennonite Conference): It might be a stretch to lump all these groups together like this (although their leaders recently met to explore their shared affinity, so it’s not as much of a stretch as it might have been in the past), but all of them would align as some form of “evangelical Anabaptist.” Still, I must note that not all the following observations apply to all these groups equally.

Pros: These groups tend to have a more solid traditional view of Scripture as the authoritative Word of God, greater appreciation for the reality of the spiritual realm and our response to it, and greater emphasis on making new disciples and planting churches. Particularly in Lancaster Conference, there’s a lot of openness to influence from the early church, which is a very positive development.

Cons: These groups are so much like (or becoming like) mainstream/conservative evangelicalism that they’re less recognizable as Anabaptist. Anabaptist theological/practice distinctives are being downplayed and disappearing. They’re more likely than mainline Mennonites to have some level of affinity with the right-wing Americanized Christianity that plagues the U.S. church’s collective witness. While they’ve drawn the line at affirming same-sex marriage, they generally don’t take much of a stand on remarriage after divorce, and many (not all) are OK with women as teaching pastors. I’m not really sure how many of these churches would discipline a member for joining the military as a combatant, either. I’d like to be wrong about this, but I think the congregation that would practice discipline in this case would be an outlier.

My take: What is the point of taking a stand against affirming same-sex marriage while allowing remarriage after divorce, allowing women in teaching positions over men in the church assembly, doing away with the prayer veiling, and downplaying the importance of Christian nonviolence? If these groups are going to be “biblical” when it comes to same-sex marriage but not as much about other things, they shouldn’t be too surprised to be accused of gay-hating. Inconsistency doesn’t look good. I like a lot about LMC and CMC in particular, but I had to seriously question whether I was willing to make a long-distance move to be part of a congregation that was still tolerating things I believed were sinful.

Plain/culturally conservative/nonconformed Mennonites (Old Order, Beachy Amish, Amish-Mennonite, Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church, Church of God in Christ Mennonite, Biblical Mennonite Alliance, and several others): A wide variety of denominations and independent congregations make up this broad grouping, from horse-and-buggy-driving Old Order Mennonites to the Biblical Mennonite Alliance folks on the “liberal” end of the plain spectrum.

It’s hard to separate pros and cons here. The very things that are these groups’ strengths are also their weaknesses. They have generally done a good job of maintaining certain beliefs and practices of the early Anabaptists. They also participate in humanitarian work around the world. They’re known for upholding Christian modesty, simplicity, brotherhood and nonresistance. These are NOT easy practices, which is why they impressed me so much when I first read about them. Because of the unpopularity of (and hostility toward) these beliefs, these groups have — to varying extents — closed in on themselves over time and through endogamy (marriage within the group) have become tribalistic, with their faith and biological heritage bound up in ways that are unhealthy.

My take: When people are observing practices “because our church tells us to” or “because this is what our people do,” rather than “because we love and fear God and we want to obey his Word,” these practices are easily jettisoned when they become too burdensome. Because these groups enforce (via church discipline, which involves some form of excommunication — I can hardly imagine how heightened that pain must be when one is cut off not only from his spiritual community but his biological one as well!) extrabiblical regulations alongside genuine New Testament instruction, sometimes their members cannot easily tell the difference. The real tragedy here is that in their quest for purity, these groups crack down on extrabiblical regulation violations, and this drives the offenders into the loving arms of more “liberal” Mennonite groups, where they put off not only the extrabiblical regulation but the genuine New Testament teaching as well. As much as I respect these groups’ commitment to their beliefs, I cannot join myself to a tribalistic, overbearing community that will punish me for wearing jeans and a T-shirt. That’s just not what Christianity is about. (I also have to note that the very conservative cultures feel particularly stifling to me as a woman — particularly as a single woman who wants to stay that way.)

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It’s totally possible to wear a veil with jeans and still be modest, friends.

Emerging movements

Neo-Anabaptism: I know no one who self-identifies as “neo-Anabaptist.” The term is applied to popular teachers and their followers, mostly from evangelical backgrounds who are disaffected with the cultural-political and theological aspects of American evangelicalism. Some well-known ones in North America are Greg Boyd, Brian Zahnd, Benjamin L. Corey, Shane Claiborne and Bruxy Cavey.

Pros: Neo-Anabaptists typically have some of the strongest condemnations of American nationalism and civil religion in Christian circles, likely because they’re from evangelical backgrounds and are reacting to that (like I was and still am). They’re known for vocal emphasis on the kingdom of God and critique of empire, linking that to their refusal of violence and war. In this sense, they gloriously channel the ancient church, who defied the power of Rome with her declaration, “Jesus is Lord!” In rhetoric, at least, they outdo the traditional “peace churches” in their teaching on Christian nonviolence. They also retain a traditionally evangelical emphasis on making disciples, are open to nourishing spiritual/liturgical practices from other Christian traditions, and actively cultivate a social conscience out of concern for the poor and marginalized in society.

Cons: I suspect that most of the pros are more motivated by current socio-political factors than by a commitment to the authority of New Testament teaching. An understandable disdain for the negative aspects of American evangelicalism has led to a questioning (increasingly, rejection) of some foundational beliefs such as the inerrancy of Scripture. Greg Boyd’s popular teaching that God is fundamentally nonviolent and won’t do violence has diminished a healthy fear of God in these circles. Whether Boyd and co. intend it or not, the logical pathway of this teaching ends in universalism, making the need for salvation and the pursuit of righteousness unnecessary. This is evidenced by (among other things) increasing affirmation of same-sex marriage in the church. Of course, other sins such as remarriage after divorce and women teaching men in the church assembly are affirmed as well.

My take: There is A LOT to like about neo-Anabaptism. I really related with it in my late teens and early 20s. I was also caught up in the reaction against the right-wing political fervor in evangelical circles after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. I think a lot of young Christians my age (and some older ones, too) were really disgusted with the political passion and rage throughout professing Christian circles, and we wanted out. (We see this phenomenon on an even bigger scale since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.) Neo-Anabaptism was our movement. As a college student, I read Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation and Claiborne’s Jesus for President, and I found them exhilarating. Finally, Christians who were rebuking the idolatry of American nationalism and civil religion among their own people AND who were more accessible than the closed conservative Mennonites. Since then, though, I’ve become disturbed by the downplaying of New Testament authority and the fear of God. If neo-Anabaptists could commit to a higher view of Scripture, fear God and pursue righteousness in all areas of New Testament teaching, I might have been able to find a home there. But now I’m not sure “neo-Anabaptism” is as accurate a term as “progressive evangelicalism.” It’s hard to tell the difference.

Kingdom Christianity: I would loosely describe this movement as the neo-Anabaptism of the plain Mennonite world. (See my feature story exploring the movement.) Its leaders are split between plain Mennonite background and non-Anabaptist background, while most of the movement’s followers are from conservative Mennonite and Brethren churches (as well as some Amish). Leaders include David Bercot, Dean Taylor, John D. Martin and Finny Kuruvilla.

Pros: The Kingdom Christianity movement seeks to reclaim the teaching and practice of both the early Anabaptists and the ante-Nicene (period of church history before the Council of Nicaea in 325) church. Radical Christianity is their goal, like many church renewal movements before them. Just as the Jews in the early church learned to see gentile believers as equals and leaders, many people from conservative Anabaptist backgrounds are open to learning and critiques from leaders of non-Anabaptist backgrounds who bring fresh vitality to the movement. Like the neo-Anabaptists, the Kingdom Christians have a strong anti-empire bent, but it’s not as politically pronounced — because it is better rooted in New Testament/apostolic/early church teaching, as are all the movement’s emphases. Kingdom Christians have a passion for sharing the gospel and planting churches around the world. They are open to questioning their traditional culturally conservative Anabaptist practices that might be unnecessary barriers to new believers.

Cons: Because the majority of Kingdom Christians are from a plain Mennonite/Brethren/Amish background, they’re still rather hesitant about accepting practices that deviate too far from a very conservative way of doing things. Although they’re better than typical plain Anabaptist groups in this respect, they’re still fairly intimidating for non-plain-background people to integrate with. While Kingdom Christians tend to rightly critique the extrabiblical regulations found in plain Anabaptist groups, the reality is that they still carry over some of those ideas and practices that can be burdensome and austere.

My take: I really, really, really wanted to fit in with these people. So badly. I really wanted this movement to be the answer to the church I was looking for. But I had a lot of misgivings due to the highly conservative cultures (which feel particularly stifling to me as a woman, and even more as a single woman) that dominate the movement. At the same time, there’s a spirit of fidelity to New Testament teaching that I hoped would soften some of those hard edges. I’ve been intrigued by Bercot’s work of making the Ante-Nicene Fathers accessible and digestible for average Jesus-followers, and I think these writings should be studied by every Christian.

So where do I go from here?

At the time I originally wrote this post, I said I was I looking for Christian fellowship that is committed to upholding the teaching of Jesus and the apostles as non-negotiable but also doesn’t resemble a strict, conservative cult.

In theory, this shouldn’t have been that hard to find. In reality, the quest became a nightmare. If I had to classify myself on a scale of Mennonite conservatism, I would point to Tabitha Driver’s graph, where she places herself between Conservative Mennonite Conference (the most “conservative” of the evangelical groups) and Biblical Mennonite Alliance (the most “liberal” of the plain groups). But as far as I know, no organized Mennonite group like this exists, leaving me in a quandary as my quest for consistency and faithfulness to New Testament teaching and healthy, nourishing church life drove me into an ecclesiological rut that was turning toxic.

I later returned to editing this post in April, and to give you the best understanding of how I was feeling then, the paragraphs that follow are from that time.

My conscience cannot bear to participate in communion with churches who claim to be “theologically conservative” but somehow find a way around so many New Testament teachings (except the prohibition on same-sex marriage). Of course, the “theologically liberal” ones are off the table for obvious reasons — they’re not even trying to mask their flouting of God’s Word. And most of the groups who are obeying God’s commands are these culturally conservative and austere groups that aren’t really that pleasant to be around. While I’m encouraged by some aspects of the renewal/restoration/reformation/revival movements that are present, the truth is that they are small, scattered and still have problems.

Almost no one understands my dilemma, except for a very few people who have either taken the time to really listen to me over many long conversations or who are walking the same path. A lot of people think I’m making too big a deal over being right or being too judgmental of people who aren’t perfect.

But I’m not looking for perfection — I’m simply looking for obedience, with joy and freedom. For whatever reason, finding both sides of this equilibrium eludes me, and I feel like my only choices are to join a half-way solid church and violate my conscience, join a conservative church and be miserable, or starve out here in the church-homeless desert. I don’t have the words to describe how frustrated and thirsty I am, and when people I thought were my friends tell me to give up and that I’m wrong for wanting to be right and that I should just accept things I think are wrong, it’s utterly demoralizing.

Many nights I hope God takes my spirit while I sleep and ends this pilgrimage. I have no idea how many more Sundays I have to wander in the wilderness before I’m home. These days I like to sit in Catholic and Orthodox services (real talk: their liturgy beats the pants off anything else out there) and think about how glorious they’d be if only they’d reclaim the early Christian view of the two kingdoms or better yet if they had never lost it in the first place and then the Anabaptist movement would never have existed and how much hellish misery could have been avoided and oh, I’m in love with the mystery of how our sad history can turn out for good! And how lovely it would be to just throw my obnoxious conscience out the window and just enjoy some great liturgy and not have to be my sister’s keeper. But that’s not what God’s Word teaches it’s OK to do.

Since I can’t separate my conscience from my living self, and since God won’t take my life, I just keep hoping that whatever answer he has for me is not much farther now. He did promise that the one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness shall be filled (Matthew 5:6). I need to hear those words louder than the naysaying. And when I feel like I can’t go on any longer, someone is there to help me get through the next few days or weeks of wondering and wandering.

God put this passion for truth and righteousness into me before I was born, so I have to believe it’s part of his agenda to make himself more known, more loved and more glorified. Now, if I can participate in that, that should more than compensate me for all of this — indeed, I could not give enough of myself to that unending endeavor.

In the end, I trust God’s mercy to cover the deficit of all I get wrong. His blood is the credit applied to my fault — which makes me want to be all the more faithful, not to take it for granted — even though it is granted. Wow. It’s the middle of the night, and I don’t know if my gibberish is even orthodox at this point. Maybe this is all a giant misadventure involving me being wrong about everything and receiving his mercy anyway. What a mystery — to trust in his mercy but to avoid presuming upon it. I am so tiny — just a grain in this story. Probably wrong about all kinds of stuff.

Lord, have mercy. I’ll never really understand why you would, but please do. Amen.

This brings us to the most recent developments of how I am resolving this internal conflict, coming in part 2…

You had to be at Revoice to grasp the gravity of this moment.

Revoice gave me courage to love the Lord more than I love myself

At the end of July, I was finishing my breakfast in a St. Louis hotel when I saw a man and a woman walking toward the exit. They were wearing shirts identifying themselves as fans of the Chicago Cubs, a Major League Baseball team in town that weekend to play against their rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. While I wouldn’t call myself a fan of the Cubs, I feel some minor affinity with them since my family is from the greater Chicago area and there are several Cubs fans or supporters among my relatives.

So my heart went out a bit to these people from home, boldly proclaiming their allegiance in enemy territory. I thought to myself, as I’ve thought several times in the past, I couldn’t openly declare myself a supporter of a sports team playing away from home. I’m not completely conflict-averse, but showing up as a fan of the away team amid a rivalry like the Cubs and Cardinals have — I would be too afraid to do that.

But suddenly I thought, Wait, that’s what being a Christian in this world is like! Except not only do we cheer for our team, but we’re supposed to get fans of the home team to join us! What an uncomfortable thought! “Greetings, people of the world. Jesus Christ is Lord and God. Renounce the world and the devil, and throw your life away to obtain life in Jesus’ eternal kingdom!” We come up with more winsome (and less socially awkward) ways to communicate this, but this hard sell can be found in the “fine print” of evangelism. (I think we ought to enlarge this print and not sugar-coat this message as much as we do, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Of course, this results in conflict. Most people of the world don’t want to renounce the gods they already esteem. Those whom God draws to himself soberly reflect on what it could cost them to defect from their former loyalties. And strangely, almost counterintuitively, seeing other Christians pay that cost often emboldens the faith of those on the fence.

I found my thoughts applicable to the reason I was in St. Louis — the Revoice Conference. The event was the first of its kind I had ever seen focused on “supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” In other words, Revoice was an event supporting gay Christians choosing celibacy or marriage to an opposite-sex spouse (as Jesus defined marriage in Matthew 19).

You had to be at Revoice to grasp the gravity of this moment.

You had to be at Revoice to grasp the gravity of this moment.

To publicly take a stand like this is to invite conflict. Sexual pleasure is a god of this age who hates to be denied. The world’s sexual ethic is: You have the right to a sexual relationship with anyone who enthusiastically (and legally) consents to it. The Christian sexual ethic is: No one has the automatic right to a sexual relationship. It is an expression reserved for marriage that signifies the relationship of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5).

So it wasn’t surprising that St. Louis-area LGBTQ+ groups and “progressive” Christian faith leaders — who align with the world’s sexual ethic — issued a scathing missive: “We, the undersigned, condemn this conference as spiritual violence, unhealthy, and unwelcome in our city.” (Yes, this sentence was in bold letters.)

What was more surprising — and disheartening — was the barrage of condemnation from theologically “conservative” Christians on the #Revoice18 Twitter hashtag, who could not handle the fact that Christians who experience same-sex attraction exist. I expected some of this (because the church is always going to have meanies), but not as much and not as fiercely as it was. Apparently it’s not enough for some Christians for their gay brothers and sisters to simply refrain from same-sex sexual relationships out of obedience to God — they’re not truly repentant unless they become heterosexual. (Some Christians say God took away their homosexual desires. Others have asked God to do so, yet they still experience them. God doesn’t always give everyone what he or she asks for, and we don’t always get to know why.)

It was a bit shocking for me, because two years ago, several “progressive” Christians online were accusing me of hating gay people because I argued the church should not affirm same-sex sexual relationships (based on warnings in Jude and the letter to the church in Thyatira in Revelation 2 about judgments to come for sexual immorality). Now, here I was arguing with “conservative” Christians online who seemed like they truly could not abide the existence of same-sex-attracted people in the church — even if these people were not engaging in same-sex sexual relationships. It was making my head spin.

I watched these pummeling comments on Twitter fly from both sides of the religio-cultural spectrum, while simultaneously watching the expressions of faithfulness from the people at Revoice (most of whom identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or same-sex-attracted). Here were people who were staring in the face a life without fully expressing sexual desires that might not go away — because they wanted to put their Lord first. Some people I spoke with thought protestors might show up to disrupt the event. (I did not witness this happen.) Volunteers guarded the entrances to the church building, making sure only people with conference name badges could come in, for everyone’s safety. A couple times, I felt myself shaking a little, wondering if we were possibly the most hated group in St. Louis that weekend (or at least we would be, if enough people knew about us).

I love celibacy. I’ve written before that I don’t experience sexual attraction; in fact, I’m averse to any sexual contact. So I don’t have all the same struggles that a gay Christian might have. But we do share some of the same concerns about the social and economic disadvantages of singleness (for example, I have no hope of owning a home, and I wonder who will be there for me when and if I’m old). It was good to be able to talk about this with other women who are actually facing these things. I wanted to share my vision for how beautiful and joyful Christian celibacy could be if more celibate Christians existed and banded together to support each other. (So far, my efforts to get my straight friends excited about celibacy have been pretty fruitless.)

I came to Revoice to network and encourage Christians who were actually talking about celibacy. I did not know how much I was going to be encouraged.

At most Christian conferences I’ve been to, the musical worship often seems like a feel-good warm-up routine to get people feeling spiritual. At Revoice, the songs (a refreshingly seamless mix of classic and contemporary) took on new depth and meaning. Lines like “And as he stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me,” and “My sin, not in part, but the whole is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,” and the entire song, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” — which I will never be able to see or hear the same way again — actually meant something real, something palpable. The grief and pain and hope and fidelity in the room of around 400 people was weighty and almost tangible. Multiple times I felt a squeezing in my chest and tears leaking from my eyes.

It was the most costly display of repentance and faithfulness I’ve ever seen in the contemporary western church. In our (dominant white American) culture, we don’t have a lot of visible cases of significant sacrifice for the Christian faith. While we shouldn’t discount the sacrifices of our brothers and sisters in other settings, there’s something visceral about proximity that we can more easily identify with. To sit and stand with people who look like me and who live where I live, to see them act with such courage, caught between the condemnation of the world and certain misguided sections of the church who can’t recognize what a gift we have in “side B” Christians — I felt so privileged to be able to catch and absorb some of that courage.

I need courage, too. I’ve been rethinking some really important things this spring and summer, and in my journey toward God, I am making some very hard choices that scare me. I’ll blog about them sometime soon…

The final evening, I stood in a pew next to a man I’d met only a few hours earlier when I was having dinner with his group of friends. The songs of trust in and commitment to God were visibly moving this new friend of mine (and almost everyone else around us). I felt myself crying again. I was blessed with a culturally relevant (for me) picture of what it looks like when we love our Lord more than we love ourselves. I wanted to be discipled by these faithful people. The music came to an end. My friend suddenly turned to me with open arms, and we gave each other a hug. After the meeting ended, I found him outside. I told him about the things I’ve been working through, and straight-up said, “I’m scared.”

“Why don’t we pray right now?” he said.

And then we were holding hands and praying the Lord’s Prayer.

And then we said good-bye.

And as I walked nearly a mile to my hotel, my heart was both full and light. I had turned a corner. I had been granted the courage I needed.

P.S.: Exactly one week later, I was at a booth at a local festival helping with church outreach. A man came by, and one of the women at the table with me asked him if he went to church. He said sadly, “I used to, but I don’t anymore. They don’t want people like me — rainbow people.” I nodded and said, “This past weekend, I was at a conference for gay Christians who are trying to uphold the traditional Christian sexual ethic. It was a great time, and we talked about this.”

He looked at me and asked, “Are you part of the tribe?”

I knew what he meant. “I’m asexual,” I said.

Then he laughed and apologized for basically asking me to come out. He shook my hand, told me his name and asked me mine. “Thank you for being part of the tribe,” he said.

I laughed. I didn’t choose this! Perhaps he simply meant he was glad I identified myself, and that I was at least sort of understanding. I grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote “Revoice.us” on it. “Check out this website,” I said, handing him the paper, which he tucked into his bag. “There will be another conference next year; I think you’d really enjoy it.”

The other women encouraged him to come back to church. After a bit, he moved on from our booth. I hope he comes back to church. I hope he falls wildly in love with Jesus, who is unparalleled, unrivaled, matchless.

What if you found a love that was worth throwing away your life for?

See videos of the talks at Revoice here.

How Kid from ‘Chrono Cross’ reminds me of the church

“Everyone is hurt and separated…
Inexperienced and incomplete…
However, by living as such, we may change for the better into something bigger…
Something more…gentle…”
— Riddel, “Chrono Cross”

I have a lot I want to say about all the things I observe in the church that distress and demoralize me, but the emotional (and largely fruitless) labor of having to explain past wounds and construct arguments for change saps my time, my energy and my psychological integrity.

The church’s problems go so much deeper than intellectual disputes about theology. Propositional arguments in a vacuum won’t solve the problems. We all bring our own history with wounds that no one but ourselves — and, we believe, the Lord, who is not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15) — quite understands. There are no easy answers to fix it all. We can and should address areas of weakness that need improvement, but there’s still some level of brokenness we have to live with until the kingdom’s consummation.

I plan to write more about my concerns, but for this post, I want to do something different.

When I was about 15, John Eldredge published the book Epic. It’s short and easy to read, but surprisingly difficult to summarize well. It’s one of the most influential books on my worldview. It filled me with a passion for the gospel by pointing out the similarities between it and the fictional stories we enjoy. It’s a short and easy read, and I highly recommend it.

Ever since reading Epic, I pick up on parallels between the gospel and the fictional stories. The more parallels I can draw, the more compelling I’ll find the story.

A story containing a stunning amount of parallels to the Bible’s story of salvation is the story found in the video games Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. I’m not going to write about all of them here, but I want to talk about the character of Kid, and how she’s a literary type of the church.

(Even though the games have been around for several years, I feel compelled to note the following analysis DOES contain major end-game spoilers for their shared story. If you haven’t played or watched a play-through of both games, this post won’t mean as much to you. I can understand why you wouldn’t want to spend hours consuming this story — it’s not going to speak to everyone the same way. For me, it’s a spiritually nourishing activity.)

If you know Kid, comparing her to the church might strike you as offensive at first. She can be likable at times, but she’s tough, scrappy, quick to toss insults, scantily clad, and out for vengeance. She is said to be part of a gang of thieves called the Radical Dreamers, and while no other evidence of this group is found, she is skilled at thievery. She takes a liking to Serge (the player’s character and protagonist) and allies with him, but routinely treats him with disrespect. She seems sure of herself most of the time, but as the story progresses, we learn that she’s plagued by cynicism and loneliness. “I’ve wandered the world and experienced so much pain just to get by…” she tells Serge. “No one was there to help me. I was always alone. If you ask me, the idea of guardian angels watching over us all the time… that’s a load of rubbish.”

And that’s not even counting about half the game, when she’s not even there because she’s out of commission for one reason or another. Kid is repeatedly assaulted by Lynx, the game’s antagonist who is always haunting Serge but going after her. First she is poisoned by Lynx’s knife. Though she recovers, it’s not long until Lynx tricks her, wounds her again (somehow she’s healed again) and then deceives her into siding with him against Serge. At one point, the misguided Kid and Lynx attack Serge and his followers, forcing them to retreat. When Serge finally faces Lynx, Lynx has rendered Kid unconscious. She briefly awakens after Serge defeats Lynx, but she’s filled with incredible pain and a desire to destroy everything with the dark power of the Frozen Flame, which she has been seeking and which now is within her grasp. Another character takes the Frozen Flame from her, and her soul withdraws into her past, unable to reawaken.

Here it is that we finally see the beginning (she does reveal some of this story in an earlier scene, depending on a choice you make in the game) of Lynx’s assaults on her, and why it is that she’s such a rough character. Kid is a child with no known family. She lives with several orphaned children under the guardianship of Lucca, a time-traveling hero who helped save the future in Chrono Trigger. Lynx is after the Frozen Flame for malevolent purposes, and he believes Lucca can break the lock currently making the Flame inaccessible. Lucca steadfastly refuses to do this, so Lynx burns Lucca’s home with her adopted children inside. Serge comes upon this point in Kid’s past and rescues her, though Lucca is killed. This is when Kid seeks revenge.

In a heartbreaking scene that makes me cry every time I watch it, Kid, as a child, weeps aloud to Serge while they watch her home burn. “Why…? Why did this happen!? … I’m going to be left all on my own again, aren’t I? Everybody I have ever loved has gone far, far away…” Serge is then pulled back to the present, leaving little Kid alone. “No! Come back!!! Don’t leave me… Please, no! Don’t leave me all alone!”

serge and kid orphanage

Serge comforts Kid after saving her life in the past. (I’m sorry I’ve lost track of who the artist was; I would be happy to add your name and a link to your site if this is yours.)

Then we see Kid awaken in the present, finally reunited with Serge. She explains that whenever she is in life-threatening danger, she loses consciousness and wakes up somewhere safe and unharmed, with no memory of what happened. “It’s happened to me plenty o’ times in the past, so it’s nothin’ to worry about,” she tells Serge nonchalantly. So Kid has been in life-threatening danger several times, yet she somehow manages to survive.

For being one of the “good guys,” Kid is kind of a failure. She’s tough and smart, but more often than not, she’s behaving badly, almost dead, or fighting for the wrong side. Some partner!

But despite all this — Kid is the one chosen to join Serge to help save the world. Belthasar, who (we later find out) organized the mission, names his objective “Project Kid” after her. It is Kid who is tasked with traveling back in time to save the young Serge from drowning. And it is Kid who is meant to fight alongside Serge and, ultimately, be saved by him.

At the very end of the game, Kid finally gets answers to the questions of who she truly is, why she’s always being assaulted, and why she’s always been alone. She is hurt, separated, inexperienced and incomplete. It’s true that Project Kid is about saving the world, but it’s also about her own liberation and restoration.

Kid is the “daughter-clone” of Schala, a long-ago princess of history’s greatest kingdom who had fallen into the darkness beyond time and a fate worse than death. It is Schala — as she was before she fell — who Kid is truly meant to be. Lynx wants to hurt Kid as Belthasar wants to restore Schala.

How can these parallels NOT jump out at me?

I am reminded of the image in Revelation 12: “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Depending on your interpretation, this woman could refer to the church or to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Since Mary is part of the church and can be used to represent the church, both interpretations work for our purpose here.

This woman gives birth.

Kid saves Serge from drowning as a child. Mary doesn’t save Jesus’ life, but she does give birth to him and protects him in his childhood, which is a life-preserving activity. Kid isn’t Serge’s mother, but she’s his main partner in the mission. Because of Mary’s close connection with Jesus, and the necessity of her work for his early life as a human, she can be thought of as a partner with him in mission. Indeed, many Christians accord Mary a kind of foremost position among the followers of Jesus throughout history because of her partnership with him in this way. Following Mary’s example, the rest of the church partners with Christ by accepting his commission.

This woman’s child is opposed by a dragon, but because her child is protected, the dragon goes after her.

Lynx seems to have it out for Kid, but it’s really Serge he wants to confront. He goes after Kid because she’s Serge’s partner. Sometimes Lynx just wants her out of the way because she’s helping Serge; other times Lynx purposely hurts Kid because he wants to hurt Serge. Similarly, the church is an entity that is continually “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed” — not to mention repeatedly straight-up assaulted. Following this pattern, many Christians believe Mary suffered in a particular way because of her partnership with Jesus.

This woman is repeatedly attacked, but she survives. The dragon continues to make war on her children.

Some power comes to Kid’s aid every time she’s near death, preserving her life. And despite some terrible odds (from a human point of view), the church has survived to this day. Many Christians think of Mary as the mother of the church, who continues to suffer assaults around the world.

By now, you can see where I’m going with this.

The church has many shining moments, but more often we’re pretty much a hot mess.

I don’t have to spend much time on Facebook until I see reports of some horrific persecution of Christians in some place like North Korea, India or Nigeria. Much closer to home, it seems like the majority of my Christian friends are running after some heresy or another (that is, if they’re not downright flouting the instruction given to us by God), or they’re just behaving badly and slinging some ugliness. We keep repeating our horrid history of infidelity, tearing each other apart, and being a stain on Jesus’ name. It all just makes me wanna walk away from my computer (or smartphone) and scream.

Why did this happen? Why don’t you come back now, God? Why don’t you fix it all? How are we supposed to live like this?

In the final moment before Serge and Kid enter the darkness beyond time to free Schala, Kid gives a passionate speech that sounds vaguely like a remixed version of Mary’s magnificat in Luke 1.

“C’mon, Serge, me mate! You don’t wanna keep the girl waiting any longer… She’s been waitin’ for you, and only you! And for over ten thousand years, I might add! If the world’s gonna be destroyed, then let it be destroyed! If history is gonna be changed, then let it bloody well be changed! I’ll show you what Radical Dreamers really dream about!”

Kid now has the radical dream of her own salvation. Of course, “the girl” is Schala, but she’s also Kid. And her liberation is glorious.

I keep coming back to the Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross story because I need to keep being reminded of the redemption waiting for us. These days I look around at the church, and much of what I see leaves me thinking it’s a radical dream indeed to believe our redemption is even possible. Can the blood of our incarnate God have — as we claim — such stain-removing power to clean this mess? Can we, in fact, be preserved alive through its full effects?

Our radical dream, our passionate hope is that yes, we can be salvaged through Jesus’ victory over death. Right now it feels to me more like a dream and a hope than a certain confession.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-24)

Even we who have the firstfruits of the Spirit are groaning and hoping for redemption, Paul writes. We cycle through confessing our faith and marveling at our own confession. I love the song “Redemption, Passion, Glory” by Dizmas, how it represents this cycle:

This is redemption
This is salvation
This is our mission
This is our passion

What love is this, that you would die for me?
What love is this, that you would die for me?

Let’s start this over and we’ll see just where this love will take us
Your presence shows us grace right here in our own meditation

Creation finds your mercy
Redemption, passion, glory
Creation finds salvation
Redemption, passion, glory

I confess “one holy, catholic, apostolic church,” but I’m having a hard time finding my place in it. People like Kid don’t seem like good partners. What love is this, indeed?

In Mystics and Misfits, Christiana N. Peterson features this quote:

The Church is the cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church. — Dorothy Day quoting Romano Guardini, The Long Loneliness

These days, I’m taking a very hard look at how to distinguish between this dissatisfaction that is meant to be momentarily endured and legitimate objections of conscience that warrant the self-imposed excommunication I’m currently living with. How do I reconcile Jesus’ parable of the good seed and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) with Paul’s admonition to “purge the evil person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)? Have I made my conscience into a god I cannot appease?

Meanwhile, I take some comfort in thinking that if human game writers can figure out a way to redeem Kid, God knows how to redeem me. All I can do is to be as faithful as I know how to be right now, and trust in his mercy to make up the deficit.

I almost died, but I didn’t

I keep wanting to say this has been the worst year of my life, but that’s not quite true. This has been the hardest year of my life, but I have been compensated by more of God’s presence and revelation.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t want this sorrow to give way to joy right now!

I desperately wanted to have a church home by Advent — the start of our new year. Now Advent begins tomorrow, and I don’t think a miracle is going to happen. I have cried a lot about this, particularly the past couple weeks. I didn’t really think it could happen, but I was still hoping.

The discussion of why I can’t find a church home is a long and complicated one, and it really deserves its own blog post. I have begun working on one, but I am letting it sit for a while, because I know it’s going to offend pretty much everybody, and I want to give it extra consideration.

The short version is that I can’t, in good conscience, take communion anywhere I can find around here because it seems the vast majority of Christians (that I can find) are affirming or tolerating things I believe are sinful. Like I said, this really needs a whole post of its own to unpack, but I’m not going to do that right now.

My point is that — between losing my church and being unable to find a new one — I am miserable.

After I moved back to my parents’ in July, I tried to visit as many churches as I could after searching on Google and looking at their websites. In September, I gave up. I was so sick. I no longer felt safe driving. I could hardly walk anymore. My mind was becoming slower and fuzzier. I was slowly starving to death.

On Sept. 22, I had a consultation with a surgeon. She told me I couldn’t afford to wait much longer, and we scheduled the removal of parts of my small intestine for Sept. 27. I was 84 lbs. and becoming dehydrated, so my mom pushed to get me admitted to the hospital Sept. 25, where I spent the time before surgery sucking on ice cubes and frozen Gatorade cubes.

Part of me hoped I would go into surgery and not come back. I was despairing of ever being able to find full Christian fellowship. The last thing I remembered was a surgery team member trying to cover my nose and mouth with a plastic tube, and me gasping for the air flowing in around the edges. I heard him say he was going to get a smaller one.

But four hours later, I came back. Almost a quarter of my small intestine was gone. I had a giant wound on my belly. I couldn’t move my legs, and I had a tube sucking out gastric juices through my nose so they wouldn’t pass through. My heart rate peaked at 150, and they loaded my veins with fluid to bring it down. My dad later told me I looked half-dead lying there.

But I didn’t die. One by one, the tubes came out, and I gradually was able to walk, drink and eat again. I came home Saturday, Oct. 7. After having a suppressed appetite for months, my hunger mechanism reactivated, and I regained 20 lbs in one month.

I feel like I always want to eat food now. I’m always snacking and munching and dining; I can never get enough for long, it feels like.

I haven’t participated in the Lord’s Supper since July.

And I keep stuffing my face. And buying stuff. Because inside I feel like a weightless phony Christian filled with hot air instead of God’s Spirit.

It makes me wish I had died when I had the chance. But I didn’t. God didn’t want me to. Which means he has something good waiting for me. Sooner rather than later, I hope.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). That is the consolation I’m furiously clinging to.

It is rather appropriate for Advent, I suppose.

But, Jesus, all I want for Christmas is you.

Playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/1215102563/playlist/5pIUXx3edmpGq08WzZThmB

We were worthy of assault

It was the liturgy that first warmed my heart.

I tried to be cautious, not to fall in love too quickly. How long should one wisely wait to call a church one’s home? I still don’t know the answer to that question. I thought the three-ish months of spring 2014 was enough before I posted the first cautious, positive-but-non-committed reference to Plow Creek Mennonite Church (actually, it was just a reference to Plow Creek Bakery) on social media. Then a week later, another post referencing Plow Creek Farm’s delicious strawberries.

But the fact is, my heart was aglow from the first moment one Sunday in March 2014 when I settled into the beat-up metal folding chair with the dark blue Mennonite Hymnal: A Worship Book sitting on it. In a matter of less than two hours, I tentatively decided there was something good worth at least a second drive of 40 minutes one way to this extremely awkward church of 20 or so hippie-ish farmers in the boonies who worshipped in a questionable-smelling building and ate fellowship meals on the most unsanitary tables I’d ever encountered.

It was love at first sight, despite my valiant attempts to moderate my feelings. Christiana wrote a good post describing how great and un-great we are (were). I don’t feel the need to repeat what she said, but if you want to know more about the church I loved, read it.

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“Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” Palm Sunday dance

There were about 18 months of delightful fellowship, during which time some new people joined us. The few Sundays when all 30 of us managed to assemble were great shows of triumph in my eyes. We were the scrappiest little outpost for Jesus’ eternally victorious kingdom. I didn’t think we were perfect, of course, but we were good. There would always be room to improve, sure — but we were doing it right.

I saw what I wanted to see.

Month after month, we shared our homemade bread and juice from the grapes on our land in a common cup formed by one of us. We moved through the nourishing cycle of the church’s calendar, telling each other the story of our redemption and future glory in Jesus Christ, our death-beating God. Our liturgy was not plagued by the “worship wars” — we made room for faith formation old, new and everywhere in between. Our children unwittingly yielded stunning insights about the kingdom we were to inherit. (Precious “kids’ time!” How close you brought us to the New Jerusalem!)

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God gave our kids insights that blew me away sometimes

After those 18 months, I got a new job that allowed me to move anywhere I wanted. I declared my desire to move onto Plow Creek’s jointly owned property. I wanted to take our relationship to the next level. I was courageously scorning the world’s disapproval to embrace the wild, dark, organic-smelling, bug-and-spider-infested, devoid-of-any-good-pizza-places boonies I’d always said I’d never move to. The call of my King was unmistakable, and communion with him was better than anything.

Two years after falling in love, I euphorically pronounced my formal membership commitment to Plow Creek Mennonite Church on Easter Sunday 2016. Perhaps I’ll never have the words to describe my joy, my relief, my passion that day.

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Our Common Building will no longer be ours, but the kingdom for which it stands will never pass away.

And then… I slowly grew conscious of our problems. By late summer, some of the newer people were talking about leaving. I was sad, but had to accept it in the end.

I still remember what I call the last good night: On November 8, 2016 — the night of the U.S. presidential election — a group from Plow Creek and our sister congregation, Willow Springs Mennonite Church, shared communion in my living room, pledging anew our fidelity to the kingdom of God regardless of whatever non-good news the election results yielded. The honor of facilitating our meal and exhorting these beloved people was mine — a memory I’ll cherish for life.

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The leftover bread after communion on election night

On November 9, in the immediate aftermath of the aforementioned non-good news, more of our people announced they were planning to leave our fellowship. This blindsided me. I had no warning. My heart broke, and the resulting pain persisted — through Advent, through Christmas, past Epiphany — until it transformed into numb gloom sometime in mid-February.

During this time, we lost three of our oldest members to literal, physical death. A cloud of death was over us all. There would be no recovery. We were witnesses to the grieving process of our own dissolution. This process included the flow of many tears and sharp words — precious testaments in themselves to the familiarity we had cultivated — as we futilely tried to resist speaking the reality of our ending.

By Easter 2017, we were no longer meeting as a congregation. Only one year after I had joyfully claimed membership, we were effectively finished. Our energy had failed.

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Our last Christmas Eve, 2016

How can I describe the path that led us to pronounce the reality of our undoing? Some things are only for us to try to make sense of. God knows I’m the least qualified to analyze it, since I of all of us know the least about it. The truth is that there were significant problems among us long before I ever sat down in that folding chair. Part of the story is that we were victims of our human frailty. The part of the story I’m clinging to is that we were targeted by enemy forces because we had something worth targeting. And in his inscrutable sovereignty, God allowed them this victory over us, for the ultimate purpose of his glory, the design of which we may or may not one day know. Amen.

Did not God allow his enemies a victory over his own Son? If he then gave Jesus a greater victory, our hope for sharing in that greater victory is in our unity with Jesus. Beloved people, that is something no enemy can take away. Now is the time to demonstrate our faith in that Resurrection victory is real.

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The farm team planning creation care farming operations

I have no hard feelings toward any of us. I refuse to. That would accomplish absolutely nothing, and it would be just one more victory for the enemy. They won’t get that from me.

Nonetheless, for me — I can’t speak for the others — there remains a sense of shame. Particularly because my job and all its accompanying networking centers around the church. Summer is church convention season, so I’m meeting all kinds of church people, and naturally one of their first questions is, “What congregation are you from?” And again and again I have to pronounce the hideous confession, “Well, I’m church-homeless right now.” And then, particularly because of my age, I feel the urge to clarify that I’m not one of “those millennials” who’ve “given up on church.” So then I have to say, “My church is dissolving.” And as long as I don’t really think about what I’m saying, and the questioner doesn’t press too much, I can get through it. But the fact is it’s a humiliating admission that doesn’t look good.

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Our prayer group petitioned earnestly for spiritual renewal

Deeper than that, though — even if my job were unrelated to the church — is the fact that being the church is central to my identity. I love Jesus. As part of his church, I’m betrothed to him. To be out of fellowship with any congregation is to be outside of his plan for us. The alternative is the desert. I know what it’s like — I’ve been here before. It’s terrible. My spirit recoils at being lost out here again.

Yet here I am, in the church-homeless desert. I’m disoriented and demoralized. I don’t know where I’ll get communion next, and that not-knowing is a poverty to my soul. To add to the upheaval, Plow Creek’s dissolution has precipitated the sale of my house, so I have to move from my physical home as well.

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Love in action: Chopping wood to keep each other from freezing in wintertime

It hit me tonight that I’m moving out in one week, and this means separation for real. A last good-bye is coming sometime this week. It hit me hard. I wept hard. But what’s really been impressed on me this past week is that this is the church’s story, past and present. Our story is one of being assaulted and torn apart. My little story is (so far) one of the much milder ones. I wrote in a previous post how our counselor, Allan Howe, compared our experience to that of the martyrs.

It is really disappointing to see people disappearing and dying. It’s a heavy time; there’s no denying it. It’s very tough. I’m helped by looking over Christian history and seeing others who went through something like this. When I first saw this kind of church, I felt like I had met what I believed in. I was fresh out of college and could hardly believe what I was seeing — sharing solidarity week after week. We’re in the heritage of the martyrs and folks who were very lonely and sometimes killed. That happened in renewal movements like the Anabaptists and lots of other Christians. We’re in very good company.

At the time, I thought he was being a bit hyperbolic. Maybe he was. But also maybe not. Revelation 12 is our story — not our full story; thanks be to God — but it is our story.

So when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. Then from his mouth the serpent poured water like a river after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 12:13-17)

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You can destroy us, but you can never undo our story.

Over the past several months, I’ve been writing a lot about our assurance of victory. I’ve been clinging to that because I need to. And it’s all true. But equally true is the present darkness arrayed against us. We are at war, and our history all too clearly displays that we’re the weaker party. Whether by brute-force extermination, schisms and heresies, sedation to complacent inertia, or strength-sapping exhaustion, our enemy has gotten plenty of victories. And the more we love Jesus and pursue fidelity to him, the more we become a target for the enemy. That is our reality right now.

I absolutely believe we had something good among our weakness, something rich among our poverty, something precious among our simplicity — some kingdom-y excellence our enemy wanted destroyed. Just think of how many victories we must have come away with in our time to warrant that kind of attention. It makes me smile a tiny bit as I feverishly wait to taste the body and blood of the Lord through a mouthful of desert sand.

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Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.