Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford

The poet, teacher, and WWII Civilian Public Service worker William Stafford (1914-1993) brought me back to a healthy, compassionate writing life--and through his life example, asked me to rekindle my active membership within an historic peace church.

But what do you do when you'll never meet an important teacher in person?

One way I answered this question was to edit a poetry anthology, and I'm happy to say it's finally in the world.

The way I see it, writing something down is my ultimate act of hope, whether it's a snail-mail letter, an essay, a poem draft, or an ever-changing list of gratitudes.

This anthology is my letter to Mr. Stafford. It also represents my continued reaching out to others, asking for help and mentorship and friendship--its table of contents feels like a new little support group, a congregation of other hope-ers, if you will.

More info here: http://woub.org/2014/01/14/athens-author-publishes-anthology-inspired-famed-poet-pacifist

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Shrinking Women No More? Mennonite Women in Leadership

"Shrinking Women" by Lily Meyers

Some things that continually surprise me:
1) just how many women's stories I carry within me-- stories I've been told or read from women I love/know/admire, stories that have not been told in public, that may never be told. 
2) how most of my college students in their early 20s--women included--use the word "feminist" like Americans might once have used the word "communist": a dirtied, failed term, a word that they wouldn't want to be caught embracing as part of their current American identity, a movement they've been taught to mistrust and keep rigid and stagnant by whom? The media? Each other? Their own mothers and sisters and female friends?
3) how I continually wrestle with being called to leadership and mentorship as an adult woman. This wasn't the case when I was younger. Those who knew me growing up would be surprised at my struggle, but I've continuously questioned the consistent inner push to raise my voice, to ask to be seen. This is a reaction I've been taught through watching women around me, but also a reaction I choose to sometimes live out, despite the consequences. As the poet says in her performance (see video above), "As she shrinks, the space around her seems increasingly vast."  

In pulling back and settling into silence at various times in my adult life, I've sometimes literally made myself ill. The first two years of my marriage felt like I was disappearing, and it scared me more than anything ever has. It wasn't my husband's doing, it was mostly my own. Some of the stories I carried inside me about "good wife," "good (Mennonite) woman" haunted me, even though I'd never fully acknowledged their power before. Formally a H.S. class/student council president, Rotary Scholar, and performing arts enthusiast, I suddenly felt like I didn't have a worthy voice or body to house it--and if I did and followed the call to lead (in various circles), I'd be letting someone down. I still haven't figured out who that "someone" might be, but "someone" still has a firm place in my psyche more times than I'd like to admit. 

So how did I get here, and why might other women who embraced leadership roles growing up hesitate to be leaders when they become adults? For me, I think one answer is that absence is a powerful teacher. And for someone who sees a church family as one of the most important, life-shaping communities, I didn't witness women in leadership very often. When I did, there seemed to be chaos and drama attached to it. This female pastor had this happen to her, this woman went to seminary and no one hired her, this woman writer left the church/community/denomination in order to write what she wanted, this woman spoke up and was socially shunned, this woman--well, you get the idea. Looking back, I'm also very aware that women who felt called to leadership, specifically within Mennonite circles in the area where I grew up, carried a weight and anxiety that often wasn't named but was always surfacing. This constant upset seemed part of being a woman in leadership inside a Mennonite church or our greater denomination...But I'm glad to say I feel/hope that this weight is shifting, maybe even being flung by the women who have carried it into the rural fields and city streets where we find ourselves. 

In "Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers," a recent online article in the Harvard Business Review, the authors name my ongoing story (and no doubt, others') by describing how "[p]eople become leaders by internalizing a leadership identity and developing a sense of purpose ... A person asserts leadership by taking purposeful action... Others affirm or resist the action, thus encouraging or discouraging subsequent assertions. These interactions inform the person’s sense of self as a leader and communicate how others view his or her fitness for the role." Mennonite women need to feel heard and be seen, starting by one another. 

Two major reasons I've started to call myself Anabaptist again and to rejoin a Mennonite congregation are 1) because I'm seeing more women from diverse backgrounds, races, and experiences--specifically in their 20s and 30s--who are raising their voices and asking to be seen as leaders. It thrills me that many Mennonite-affiliated women are raising their voices through the act of writing and storytelling, two things that inform both my own identity and faith walk. Through blogs, books, plays, conferences, sermons, and magazine articles, we are redefining and reclaiming our public connection to God and the roles we are called to play within a greater Anabaptist family. Secondly, I'm getting to know more and more Mennonite men in leadership voicing the value and necessity of women's stories and leadership (though I still haven't heard the word "feminism" in a Mennonite pulpit). Perhaps I can be one of the women to change this, speak up. And maybe it will be this Sunday, even. 

Below is an excerpt from my (male) pastor's most recent email letter, in which he reflects on themes in sermons past and forthcoming. May I sleep well the night before this service. May I feel God's voice welling up in me, too, a woman also made in God's image, according to one version of the Creation Story that I didn't hear until my early 30s. May we as Mennonite women leaders claim this creation story with faith and energy and and joy. May we tell our stories in public because it's one of the hardest and most self-healing and empowering acts we can do
     "On the last Sunday of October congregations are invited to observe Mennonite Heritage Sunday, each year having a different theme related to the Anabaptist/Mennonite story. This year’s theme is The Gifts of Women.     Needless to say, the church historically has not done such a good job of treating women and men as equal partners in the mission of God.  Neither has it done such a good job of using language and imagery for God that celebrates both the feminine and the masculine.  The dual effect here is that men have too often seen themselves as god, and women have too seldom seen themselves as god.      We’ve not done this well, and we are all the poorer for it.I see Columbus Mennonite as a community committed to learning and growing and nurturing the gifts of all who are present, regardless of gender identity.  That’s a beautiful thing and an important witness. I thought it would be a little strange if I, in my maleness, would deliver the sermon on this theme, so instead I’ll be interviewing three CMC women about their experiences with church – Joyce Wyse, JoAnn Knapke, and Becca Lachman.  We’ll talk about the churches of their youth, how their gifts have or haven’t been welcomed, their evolving relationship with the predominantly male populated Bible and masculine God imagery, what they are observing presently, and their best hopes for what the church can be. I, for one, am looking forward to it. This Sunday we will celebrate the gifts of women, we will lament the ways those gifts have been ignored and repressed, we will sing to the Divine who is the Source of the feminine and the masculine, and we will hear from women who will give voice to their own journey with God and church. And whatever ways the conversation needs to continue after Sunday, may it be so."

Friday, October 11, 2013

Keeping the Faith: Spiritual Memoir Examines Life Of Emily Dickinson

What writers have asked the questions that help you live out your faith practice, or perhaps a way of seeing the world? Have you used poems as psalms and prayers when you could not find words yourself?  

Doing this local NPR radio interview with Emily Dickinson sage Kristin LeMay and Ohio poet Wendy McVicker was such a treat--l
isten to our radio conversation at the link below:

See http://www.stardogstudio.com/collage_portraits.html

My review of Kristin's book: http://tattooedmennonite.blogspot.com/2013/01/i-told-my-soul-to-sing-book-for.html


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Outside the Box: Alternative Forms of "Church" and "Community"

Most Sundays at my house, "church" means some quiet reflection, maybe--if I'm lucky-- some poetry writing and a long walk, then listening to a sermon via podcast while cooking. Living 80 miles from the congregation where I'm a member, I've learned to look for spiritual mentorship and community in alternative forms; I can't always take the half-day to be with my church family in person.

Looking at the last few years of Jesus' life, I'm inspired at how he "made church" wherever he went, and with whomever happened to be drawn to him--even with groups and individuals the church leaders might call unworthy or unclean.

Last weekend, I drove the three hours to NE Ohio to visit both sides of my family. The kicker was that my central Ohio Mennonite church family was there, too (at a fall camp retreat just minutes from my parents' place). During that Sunday service, we even baptized two high schoolers in the camp lake, walking from the chapel while singing "Down to the River to Pray." All week, I've been thinking back on my own baptism at age 15, and how when I invited the Holy Spirit into my life, she said "OK, but I've gotta warn ya: I'll turn up in the most unexpected places and ask you to listen." And she has.

What feeds your faith walk outside of church walls? How do you build your definition of "church" and "community" in today's world? 

An Amish barn raising near my hometown. 

I happen to think that different layers of church can happen just about anywhere. If you're interested in reading more about my musings on this subject, visit  http://www.themennonite.org/issues/16-10/articles/Outside_the_box and check out the "Additional Notes" section to see just some of the sources that inspire and challenge me as a stumbling Anabaptist.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

What the Mennonite Church Can Learn from Chelsea Manning

One of my biggest, living peacemaking heroes sits in a prison cell tonight. And she identifies as transgender. What she does not identify as is "pacifist." But her bravery (on many levels) and her story could be--and I hope will be--a powerful catalyst for many more conversations and actions within broader peace communities, including my own, Mennonite Church USA. 

“As I transition into this new phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me,” Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley) stated through a letter released on the Today show. She is just beginning what could be up to a 35-year jail sentence for leaking classified military documents to the public. She has already been tortured in a U.S. prison. Her trial was a military one, where reporters were harassed and ignored. Well, you might be thinking, this is a theft, a crime. And we're facing terrorists. 

But I wonder how much more Chelsea Manning has done for today's peace movement compared to many Mennonite pastors I've known. For starters, she's made me think more about the Mennonite motto and calling "Pray for Peace, Act for Peace" than I have in a long time. 

As a soldier, Manning released documents revealing U.S. military torture and abuse--including a chilling video of our soldiers' reactions as they kill civilians-- in the hopes that the American public would realize only some of the true costs of the wars we've been fighting for over a decade--costs that are physical, psychological, cultural, financial. The list goes on. 

 “If you had free reign over classified networks… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?” --Chelsea Manning

She wanted us to know. She wanted us to react.  And this is where the opportunity for the Mennonite church comes in. 

Manning broadly represents three groups Mennonites have generally struggled to relate to and fully welcome: 1) members of the military, 2) non-heterosexual identities, and 3) unconventional peacekeepers who truly rock the boat, making many of us uncomfortable.

Even as an historic peace church, today's American Mennonites have, on the whole, remained at a safe distance from calling attention to ourselves as Anabaptists within a nation that revolves around its military industrial complex. If this weren't the case, many more of us would be arrested for acts of nonviolent resistance, serving Christian Peacemaker Teams, or at least protesting how much of our annual taxes fund military action. And perhaps more young people would be drawn to our churches, seeking an alternative Christian community that believes God blesses everyone. (It's telling that we've recently developed a Peace and Justice Support Network to rile up a peace church about....well, peace.)

So: As members of an historic peace church, how will Mennonites react to whistleblowers such as Manning? How many of us have already spoken to friends, family, youth groups, small groups, or congregations about Manning's actions and sentencing in relation to our own peace traditions? And how will we respond now, knowing more of her sexual identity? 

As far as I'm concerned, we have a genuine peace heroine on our hands, and she happens to be a soldier. And she happens to be embracing a transgender identity. How Mennonites publicly respond to her evolving story will tell the world a lot about who we aim to be in today's international and national communities. "I want everyone to know the real me," Manning said. When it comes down to living out and teaching nonviolence during the ongoing War on Terror, what does "the real" Mennonite Church USA look like? Does our commitment to nonviolence encompass our daily interactions and relationships with everyone, even our fellow LGBTQ Mennonites? Or is it easier to pretend they don't exist or will go away, hoping no one blows the whistle on the various limits to peacemaking in our own faith communities? 

I admit that talking about LGBTQ issues still makes me feel like a fish out of water--I don't want to offend or seem awkward in that "Hi, I grew up in a rural, homogenous, religious town of a 1000 people" kind of way. I've been hurt in the past when dating gay or bi-sexual men trying their best to live out a heterosexual identity because they thought they had to. But I am here, saying I want to listen. To borrow an idea from trans activist and minister Rev. Malcolm Himschoot, "You can't say the word transgender and people really know what you're talking about. But anybody who says the word transgender means something different by it anyway, so it really is a story and not just a label."  I'm willing to admit that "This is where I am in my story, Chelsea. I'm a stumbling Anabaptist and a straight, married woman-- and I want to know you as you."  

If we let her, Chelsea Manning has quite a sermon to give Mennonite Church USA. It's not an easy everything-is-OK kind of message, and its complexity will leave many of us with more questions than answers. But we can decide to actively listen--perhaps next discussing how this important story impacts our own. 

In all things, love. In all people--Mennonite, Muslim, soldier, CPT-er, transgender prisoner--love. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Balancing the News with the Good News

"Open to Light." Bennington College, VT. Photo by Becca.

Over the last year, I've been working a lot from home (I'm an online teacher of college writing and a freelance writer/editor/tutor). This work-from-home experience has reminded me how unnerving and powerful silence can be. After breakfast, I begin to crave others' voices, music, some kind of controllable community while I brainstorm, grade or proofread. 

So I've often climbed down my writing loft ladder to switch on the radio at the top of the hour. Each time I hear that familiar NPR theme music (daa-daa-daa-daa, daa-daa-daa-daa, you know the one), I feel like An Adult-- I'm about to tune in to something important!  I want to know what's going on in the world. I will be "an informed citizen" so that I can work towards more lasting good, know what to pray for, work for. Maybe that's why I open my Facebook account daily, too. I don't want to be left in the dark. I long, instead, to be a part of a caring, awake, and aware community. And that's why by lunchtime, I'll have 4-5 links to articles and essays waiting to be read on my computer. 

But here's the reality: most days I've let the mainstream media pull me out to an anxious sea. My work day grows longer--4 p.m., 8 p.m., 11 p.m.--because I stew and get distracted, because I just have to listen to that podcast on fracking in Ohio or read the piece on Monsanto NOW. Or because I'm so depressed and disheartened about the state of my nation and world that I'll stay in bed till well past my alarm.

I've learned to depend on timers and small rewards to keep me productive (and sane). I grade ten essays? I get to eat that piece of raspberry pie in the fridge, or read that snail-mail letter from a friend. Or, every hour I have to do something off-screen, away from technology--fold the laundry, weed the driveway, walk to the post office. I take breaks or else my wrist and elbow, neck and shoulders will pay--but so will my inner peace. And as much as I write and talk about the responsibilities and gifts of being part of an historic peace church, I often have to remind myself that peace starts within--a mantra that greets my eyes now every time I turn on my cell phone.

What small acts of online and off-line kindness
am I nudged to take, and do they matter?
So how to really reach towards a lasting inner peace, even as someone who wants to "speak up for those who can't speak for themselves" (Proverbs 31:8)?

I don't think I need a personal technology monitoring assistant (a job that now exists, by the way): For starters, I could practice the discipline of thankfulness. The Good News can shape my day if I let it, and I need its theme music more than any other if I want to keep hoping and working for a different world. "New earth, heavens new, Spirit of God moving..."

For me, the Good News sings out that lives--including mine--have been and will be transformed through a mysterious Love and a creative Holy Spirit. I am not in charge of this transformation--but I can put Spirit-fueled love into actions. Listening for a still, small voice might be my revolutionary act each day, especially in a social media-driven sense of community. And retelling stories of solution and justice can help remind me that small acts of kindness are happening more than our media will ever let on.

Here are some of my short-term goals: 
1) Name three things for which I'm grateful at the beginning and end of each day, and with someone I love.
2) Do small acts of kindness outside of any screen--put aside a weekly time for this.
3) Downsize to one cell phone and one laptop between my husband and myself.
3) Instead of daily doses of news on NPR or the Internet, seek out more stories/newsletters from people I know who are working towards peace & justice on a larger scale--and speak openly with those who are working for other (sides of) issues.
4) When I do take in the news (perhaps only on Diane Rehm's news roundup?), listen with ears tuned in to some Good News headlines, first spoken by a Good Shepherd, and away from the crowds:

Blesséd is the begging spirit—heaven shall be harvest.
And blessed are they who cry out—I will give them peace.

Loved is he whose heart is gentle—the earth is his to hold.
Adored is she who thirsts for justice—I will go where she goes.

Blesséd are the tender, blesséd is the heart unclouded.
Blessed are those who give their days to peace:
You are my songs and daughters—
You are my daughters and sons.

Be salt—Be light—Be water
and pour out, pour down, my love.

Monday, July 15, 2013

I Am George Zimmerman: How I've Helped to Keep America "Safe"

A photo snapped by a fellow writer-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center this past fall. 
One of my favorite mindfulness meditations asks me to close my eyes and envision my life as a lake. While there's commotion, change, and a city's worth of tiny movements below it, a lake's surface often appears calm, beautiful. Even safe. When we look out across this surface, we are calmed too. We can almost forget all that's happening under it. While this lake meditation's meant to help us in dealing with the realistic difficulties and change in adult life, there are times when we need to look deeper, dwell with what's hidden, dive into unfamiliar waters.

I grew up in a tiny, rural, wealthy community where if you weren't Mennonite or Amish and white, you were a minority. For most of my 32 years, I've been lucky and privileged--some would no doubt use the word blessed-- to not have to say that my life's been negatively affected by


And yet, of course, my life has been affected by these words--even if I'm blind or busy living in a relatively calm surface society around me, simply because I can. As I've been listening and reacting to the recent verdict of George Zimmerman, I've also felt a renewed call to repentance and reconciliation. You see, as a middle-class, non-minority, tax-paying U.S. citizen, and Christian, I played--and play--a big part in the America of today. I've actually been wondering why more of us--regardless of race--aren't posting our pictures online with homemade signs that read "I am George Zimmerman"-- not to support his actions or verdict, but to confess that we are part of creating and supporting the violence-driven realities of today.

The "Support for George Zimmerman" Facebook group page, created as a rebuttal to the "I am Trayvon Martin" movement, includes links to firearms websites, racially charged and hate-filled language, photos of guns, and many "God Bless George Zimmerman" and "I'm not a racist, but..." comments.  I might claim that these things make me sick to my stomach (and they do), but I am, in fact, more like George Zimmerman than the boy he killed because Zimmerman was trying to keep his own world "safe."

Americans of many belief systems continue to support a culture that believes in might, and often that our peace-throughviolence is justified by God. We support this by paying taxes without questioning what we are funding (drones, overflowing prisons, and decades of war, for instance), but also by smaller actions under the surface of our country and economy.

As a humanist, an artist, and as a 21st-century Anabaptist, what more can I do to show the world a third way, the way of nonviolence?

And as a member of an historic peace church, I'm often flabbergasted at my denomination's near- assimilation into society's militaristic and violent-ready identity, even with the chance to publicly support efforts like the Peace Tax Fund today (Imagine: every Mennonite household withholding the percentage of taxes that would otherwise go toward military spending!) Heck, asking Mennonite congregations to support nonviolence by buying only fair trade coffee seems impossible on some days... And yet, we, too, are shocked at violence met by injustice. But should we be?


We can repent today for our part in American violence. We can use this act as a new starting point, no matter how it might interrupt or ripple our familiar assumptions, lifestyle, or identity as a U.S. citizen. Will you join me?

Forgive me, O God, on most days
-for letting news outlets shape my idea and mental image of a "bad person"
-for being surprised that the man on drugs who murdered my great-aunt was white
-for forgetting that my tax dollars help to make more violence possible
-for avoiding any man speaking Spanish on the street, on campus, on a bus years after being mugged in New Mexico
-for being scared in many ways of what the Upside-down Kingdom might do to my comfort level as a white American
-for posting my thoughts, concerns, and beliefs on Facebook more than in prayer and everyday action
-for not writing letters to the editor, to someone hurting, to someone alone--and for not raising my voice in the face of injustice in other everyday ways
-for taking it for granted that when I step into an airport, a car, a classroom, I will not be profiled
-for catching myself leaving a little more distance between me and the young black men walking in front of me