Advent Reflections: Hope

Mennonite Road

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9 NRSV

1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like…

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A Mennonite Woman

The end of the process of “lectio divina” – which we used weekly when I was pastor at Methacton Mennonite – the last step is when you just rest in the presence of God, rest in love, without words. This is the step called “contemplatio.” This is what I want more of for the whole church as well as each person within it. A more contemplative, restful experience of life with God. Another word for the “resting” stage of prayer, when you’ve done the meditation and the conversation with God, with Jesus, when you’ve done the previous three steps of “lectio,” the fourth and last step is contemplation.

That’s why this sermon from the Canadian Mennonite Assembly this past July was so important to me. The preacher, Betty Pries, was calling the whole church to contemplation. She quoted this phrase: “I have spent time in the womb of the divine.”

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On the Slow Side

Mennonite Road

If we are to retreat in daily life, we also need to slow down.

-April Yamasaki [1]


I had an opportunity to slow down today. A walk turned into a moment of reflection by the creek. I noticed elements of nature that I miss when I’m riding my bike here or when I’m just too busy to even stop by.

Within this creek, the central feature of our region and the subject of a Hall and Oates song, stand a few small islands. This particular one stood out to me today. For the first time I noticed that the presence of the island creates two different streams for a short stretch. Though it doesn’t look like it from the angle I took the picture (above) the right side is the larger stream, which features a faster-moving current. On the narrower left side, the water flows gently at a slow and steady pace.

On the slow side I notice…

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On Joy July 2014

Back to the joy theme. Do we have enough of it in our current Anabaptist/Mennonite spirituality?

Today I read a fascinating account of a Catholic person using the ANABAPTIST PRAYERBOOK, TAKE OUR MOMENTS AND OUR DAYS, as an experiment in a class at a Catholic school. This prayerbook was produced recently by several faculty and staff at the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. His account is at the link below:

It’s on the Bridgefolk website. Bridgefolk is a Mennonite-Catholic dialogue group I have been part of for some years. I hope to attend this year’s conference on Service: An Overflow of Christ’s Love in Collegeville, Minnesota, at St. John’s Abbey which often hosts us.

My interest in Mennonite-Catholic dialogue goes back to living in Ireland in the 1980s and finding that the themes and assumptions of another tradition greatly enriched my own experience of faith.

This student is experimenting, as a Catholic, with Anabaptist prayer. “One reason I chose to pray this Anabaptist office during Easter was to get a taste of how they would incorporate the joy of the Resurrection into their prayer. It was interesting to me, then, that the first words of Easter Sunday morning are ‘He humbled himself, and he became obedient unto death, even death on a cross, therefore God lifted him high.’ While I recognize the importance of putting the Resurrection in context with the Passion, it seemed odd to me to begin Easter Sunday with Jesus humbling himself to the point of death on a cross. Is this a characteristically Anabaptist emphasis on humble service rather than triumphalism? In the Roman tradition we break our forty day fast from ‘Alleluia’ by proclaiming it as many times as we can (at least ten times during Morning Prayer alone). In the Anabaptist tradition there is one Alleluia in the prayers for the entirety of Easter Sunday.”

So he says he missed the “joy” of the Easter season in the prayers in the ANABAPTIST PRAYERBOOK. The references to joy were too slight to indicate to him a full appreciation of the resurrection celebration. Evidently in the Catholic church you refrain from using the word “alleluia” in worship or prayer in the weeks leading up to Easter, so that you can say it over and over at the time of celebrating the resurrection.

I’ve experienced this but didn’t know the theory behind it, on retreats in Catholic retreat houses over the past years. I remember the banks of fresh flowers at the Mariawald Renewal Center in the chapel those weeks after Easter – potted spring flowers all still growing – hyacinths, tulips, lilies, numbered in their 10s and 20s around the altar. The smell and the color and the beauty was sensual and overwhelming.

Same at St. Raphaela’s in Haverford – flowers clustered for weeks in the center of the sanctuary, when I was there on retreat post-Easter one year.

In contrast I remember our Mennonite preacher Jim Longacre starting a sermon for Palm Sunday once asking, where would Mennonites be in this crowd of praising partying people? (Or words to that effect.) I think we would be near the back, he said, and many of us laughed in recognition. We want to be sure the cross doesn’t get left out or ignored. But like I said last month, do we know how to celebrate the presence of the Risen resurrected Lord, our savior and redeemer, consoling us and walking with us in the power of the Spirit on a daily basis and also with our communities and our world?

Dawn Ruth Nelson July 10, 2014

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I keep in touch with Ireland, the country where I spent twelve formative years, in any way I can. This week I read an interesting article on legalizing same-sex marriage from the Irish perspective. It mentions Anabaptist approaches and how they make sense in Ireland right now, where post-Constantinianism is becoming more of a reality. When my husband and I were part of a peace ministry in Dublin, we talked about Anabaptism making sense in Ireland way back in the 1970s and 80s. Since then the move toward secularism and the marginalizing of church voices there has become much more pronounced. It is interesting, too, because learning goes both ways. I think there might be things for Anabaptists to learn in the United States context, from the recent history of the church in Ireland. It is fascinating to see how other churches are working at some of the same issues that face Mennonites today.

The author of the “Faith in Ireland” blog summarizes an article by Patrick O’Riordan S.J. that appeared in the Irish Jesuit journal, STUDIES. O’Riordan gives some advice to the Irish Catholic bishops as to how to situate themselves in the current national debate. “The self-understanding of the Irish Roman Catholic church has been forged in a profoundly Christendom context – and this has led to the church understanding itself as a guardian of political and social values. Such assumptions are no longer credible in post-Christendom Ireland….[O’Riordan] urges the Bishops not to campaign beyond highlighting the values at stake.”

But more in a devotional mode, my spirit was also struck with these words in the article: “…the core message of the faith has been drowned out by a predominance of moralising in the [Catholic Church in Ireland’s] communication. There has been too little of the joyful proclamation of the presence of the Risen Lord and of his Spirit in the midst of our messy and broken world.”

“Joyful…” I had just been praying with a Scripture passage that morning, from John 17 that had the word “joy” in it. Jesus says to God in his prayer, speaking about his disciples: “So now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (verse 13).

I lingered with the words “my joy” lectio divina-style, just letting them shimmer awhile.

“My joy….my joy…” I noticed these words, too “…Made complete…” “made complete in themselves.”

What does that mean?

Sacred Space, The Prayer Book 2014, says the words for “joy” occur 335 times in the Bible. I’ve been on a quest to understand that joy in the Bible, in Jesus’ life, for many years. Then I read this reference to the church in Ireland (above) and the need to be about “the joyful proclamation of the presence of the Risen Lord and of his Spirit in the midst of our messy and broken world.”

I feel like I keep being invited to more joy. When I worked with people with intellectual disabilities, I was part of a local Faith and Light worshipping group – a movement begun by Jean Vanier. “Fiesta” was a term we used a lot in this group. When I went to the annual national gatherings of Faith and Light in Washington DC, we’d worship by singing and reading Scripture, often acting it out. And then we’d put on silly hats and bouncy music and dance around the room conga-fashion and laugh and eat. It was all worship.

I learned to have parties in Ireland when we lived there. Sometimes joy can be learned just by being in a different culture for awhile. We can experience ways to express joy that might be new for us.

I’m learning that joy, the kind of joy that is called “joy in the Holy Spirit,” (Romans 14: 17) is not dependent on our circumstances. It’s dependent on the presence of Jesus and the promise of the Spirit that will be with us always. We’re not going to get around the difficult parts of our conversations and encounters just by saying the word “joy.” It’s not an escape. But it is a matter of focus. We need to refocus on “the core message of the faith.” In this post-Easter and Spirit-recognizing season of the church, let’s have lots more, not too little, of the “joyful proclamation of the presence of the Risen Lord and of his Spirit.” That’s formative!

Dawn Ruth Nelson June 10, 2014

Categories: Anabaptism, Ireland, Joy, Lectio Divina, post-Christendom, Spiritual Formation | 1 Comment

A Review of “Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus”


A few weeks ago I came across a product that highlighted for me the instant, need-for-speed reality of our consumeristic culture in the United States. The sole purpose of this product was to cook ramen noodles faster and easier. It was designed specifically to cut down all the waiting: for the water to boil, the noodles to cook, etc. According to the ad, having to wait fifteen minutes for a meal to be ready is just too long for busy people to endure.

Apparently, we have reached the point where cooking ramen noodles takes too long.

“Slow” is a challenge. “Slow” probably qualifies as a four-letter word in the suburban context that I inhabit. We like convenient, pre-packaged, easier, bigger, and especially faster! Churches and ministries often talk about gaining “momentum,” and it is usually in the context of gaining speed. However, over time this need for speed can create tension in both personal and congregational life. For this reason I have been looking forward to Chris Smith’s and John Pattison’s new book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.

Smith and Pattison present the case for a slower, more patient, more intentional life in community as followers of Jesus.

At the heart of our vision of Slow Church is a theology deeply rooted in the importance of the people of God to God’s mission in the world and in the rich joy of shalom that comes to all creation as we grow and flourish in the places to which we have been called. (33)

This vision is an incarnational one which invites us into the practice of “cultivating together the resurrection life of Christ, by deeply and selflessly loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and even our enemies” (32). This kind of life is messy, it is not easy and it is not fast. But it can help us move more in sync with God’s mission in the world.

The authors highlight a number of values and practices that are a part of the Slow Church vision, such as place, stability, patience, wholeness, work, sabbath, abundance, gratitude, hospitality, conversation, and meals. Speed can cause us to neglect or be deficient in these practices, so Slow Church invites us to slow down and engage (or reengage) with these important practices and elements of life and faith.

As a pastor of a small local congregation I found the book to be a great encouragement and source of theological reflection. Smith and Pattison included a chapter on “Dinner Table Conversation as a Way of Being Church,” which I really appreciated as I’ve written about similar topics and regularly experiment with this kind of practice with our congregation. Slow Church is an enjoyable read and also includes discussion questions at the end of the chapters. The questions enhance each chapter making the book a great resource for reflection in congregations and church leadership teams. I’m excited to use this book as a tool for equipping us as a congregation in these rhythms.

In a fast-paced culture, “slow” can be a challenge. But it is a challenge we would do well to accept. And Slow Church is certainly a valuable contribution for the spiritual formation of the church today.

[This post originally appeared at Chris’ blog,]

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Telling Stories About Jesus

This piece was originally posted here.

From time to time in my congregation we will participate in a “communal sermon” in place of a regular sermon preached by an individual. I have found this practice to be a way for us to be both spiritually formed and to grow as a community valuing multi-voiced approaches to worship. We most recently did this during the Easter season and the text was from Luke 24:13-24 (NRSV):

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

There appears to be a kind of simple creed or faith statement included in this narrative, beginning with “The things about Jesus of Nazareth.” The statement describes Jesus as prophet, condemned, crucified, and alive. Of course, later in this story Jesus is revealed to his hosts in the act of breaking bread together at the table. But the short, ancient form of talking about Jesus, found here in the first half of the story, stood out and offered a chance to explore the idea through some modern day lenses.

I’d heard of the “six word story” technique for creating a complete yet extremely short story. Ernest Hemingway is thought to have dabbled in this kind of writing, after some friends challenged him to write a complete story with only 6 words.[1] In our day this kind of storytelling can work well on social media forms like Twitter, and I’ve participated in this type of writing there before.

We used the hashtag #My6WordStoryAboutJesus. This would be our topic and also a means to share our stories. Telling our stories about Jesus felt like a good way to help us journey through the Easter season as witnesses to Jesus. Our instructions were simple: if you could only use 6 words, what would you say about Jesus?

After a time of reflection we shared our stories aloud with one another. We ended up creating a long list of short stories about Jesus, which were later tweeted from our Twitter account (@SpringMountMC). The exercise created space to engage with the Jesus of the scriptures, to reflect on our personal views and experiences with him, and to listen to each other as we told our stories.

I noticed some consistent themes among those who participated in this storytelling, including ideas like “Jesus is my hope,” and “There is so much I wanted to say.” As a result, the final story written on the list was an appropriate one to close with:

“Tombs and words cannot contain him.”[2]

May we continue to center our lives on the risen, transforming, and uncontainable Christ.





[1] See

[2] Written by Gay Brunt Miller.

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for Palm Sunday, year A

This prayer, if used in public worship, invites two or more readers. Italics suggest where to switch, but please adapt and tweak freely to fit your context.
Living One, you are good.
Your loyal compassion endures
all creation’s history and all yet unfolding.

We love you; we do not always trust you.
We would give ourselves to follow you;
we are not prepared for how it hurts.

You are good.
Your loyal compassion endures all things,
stretches into ages before us, beyond us.

We hurt each other; we hide our hearts.
We are closed and open.

You are good; Your loyal compassion endures.

In our land, prisoners groan: people we say we see
as equals.

You alone are good.
Your loyal compassion endures all things.

In Pakistan, one hundred sixty-eight children killed by U.S. drones.
Or two hundred two; we have only estimates.

You are good.
Your loyal compassion endures.

A Jew, a teacher from the sticks of Galilee
comes in on a bumpy ride, stopping and starting.

The buzz around him, a swarm of bees,
fire in a thicket.

God, were you weeping already
with broad leaves swaying in the city’s heat?
Did your Spirit groan under every step
of donkey and man, heavy on cloak and palm,
under shout and song?

O Christ, we are never ready
for the moment the crowd turns.

I cried to you with my spirit on edge;
Your answer was to set me free.

YHWH, You are good.
Your loyal compassion endures.

And what can we do with your anger?
And what should we do with our own?
We are bystanders, dove-sellers, money-changers,
the temple guard.

We are here. We are not ready, but we are here.

You kneel with pitcher and bowl.
You kneel in the olive grove.
Our stomachs are clenching, and it is night.
Forgive us if we turn away
to warm ourselves and stare into the fire.

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Prayer-poem for Lent 5, Year A

We are watching.
Craning our necks listening in the darkness,

aching for any sound of your breathing,
more than the night shift
ache for their beds,
more than the night shift
ache for their beds.

Our darkest valleys hold long empty spaces,
and beneath that, bones—
and there is no condemnation,
and you will breathe and our bodies will spring up, awake.

Will you?
Will you put your breath in us
and bring us out of our graves
so we will know that you are YHWH,
the One who brings into being,
the One who was, and is, and will ever be?


You stand by our closed tombs and weep.
You cry out our names.
In bone-dry valleys,
in our valleys full of brittle bones
white on the desert floor,
you send your breath.

Stay with us.
Watch with us.
Our eyes are closing in the cool spring night.
Stay with us until
we are no longer breathing,
and you are breathing us.

Lead us into our valley of bones;
rattle them,
put on flesh,
send your wind
until we stand on our feet, a vast multitude
coming out of our graves,
still wrapped in stench, blind
and speechless under open sky,
and alive.

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Prayer for Lent 4, Year A

In an arc of streetlight,

wide as a straw sun hat
drooping over bare shoulders,
snow falls, small and steady.
It is March,
the end of March,
and snow now is like
my friend who is always
coming back in the door after leaving—
forgetful, slightly unexpected, and amusing.

The perfect meeting of daylight and darkness
passed over the weekend,
and from now ’til late June
shadows fall later and later.

Snow is falling everywhere, but I only see it
begin from one dark line
outside the reach of streetlight
and fall into further shadow.

When Samuel, prophet of the Lord,
stood with ram’s horn in hand, filled with oil,
did he believe his eyes?
Did he who heard You so clearly
feel his vision cloaked
as You looked into the hearts of Jesse’s sons?
Did he feel his own heart tense, exposed?

Did you talk together, after
the oil ran down
and your Spirit came strong,
and did he find himself awake
in Your shining?

Are You shining now within us,
each with dark valleys
afraid to be illumined,
wondering what such blinding light will cost?

We have tasted
Your good fruit;
its juice’s tang on our tongues
even in the valley, when we stand still
and remember.

Take us by the hand again,
lead us by the water;
we will trust your loyal compassion
to search us out and find us.
And if that finding
means spit and mud
on our unseeing eyes,
we will trust you.
You have seen us, and there is no use hiding.
Let us be awake and willing to be found.
Let us be at home in the heart of your mercy.

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