The Gospel According to Mni Winconi

Increasingly I can only understand the Gospel story, to the extent that I can understand it all, as the story of the Indigenous people that surround me. For a more general survey of what this can mean see Dan Oudshoorn’s blog posts A Blog Commentary on Luke’s Gospel, written for Settlers in the Occupied Territories called Canada (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

For me this has culminated in the resistance at Standing Rock particularly as the Advent season begins. The elders and water protectors at Standing Rock have declared a spiritual act of resistance in protection of the land and the waters. The events surrounding these acts have an uncanny resonance with Advent.

Advent begins with apocalyptic imagery. In the prophets there are images of longing that seemingly unstoppable powers can be overcome.

Oh come, oh come Immanuel and ransom captive Israel.

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” – Mark 13:24-25

There are visions of the nations and wealth that will stream to God’s holy mountain in which the people will gather that they might learn war no more.

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.

Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. – Isaiah 2:2-4

And the nations have come to Standing Rock, the nations of the world represented by various tribes, religions, cultures, and causes (with military veterans being the latest to join putting down their guns with a commitment to ‘fight’ in the nonviolent ways led by the water protectors). The prophets say that the wealth of nations will flow to this mountain in that time as well, and it has with millions in monetary support as well as gifts of various sorts coming in.

Advent is marked by signs. At Bethlehem they followed a start at to Standing Rock they have followed a river and the Black Snake (from the Sacred Stone website: When we refer to the pipeline as a black snake, we are referencing an old Lakota prophecy that speaks of a black snake (zuzeca sape) crossing the land, bringing with it destruction and devastation.).  And to be clear stars in the Ancient Near East were political symbols and a shift or sign in the heavens reflected a shift in the powers of the earth.

Around the world we watched as a buffalo herd came to show strength and support to the water protectors. We watched as the US empire doubled down in its power electing Donald Trump who heralded the ‘good old days’ of law and order (for white people). As Adrian Jacobs tweeted,

The eagle spoke concerning Trump.
The sparrow spoke concerning Bernie.
The buffalo spoke concerning #NoDAPL.
The colonizers did not listen.

The signs were given.

And then we heard news of the birth of a child.  mni-wiconi

We heard good news. A woman with child came to the camp to make a supportive space for other women there. She gave birth alone to which she later testified that the spirits of her ancestors surrounding her; this cloud of women calling her blessed. And she has named her child Mni Winconi, Water is Life.

I do not claim anything profound or original in these observations only to say that if ever I have felt the weight and presence of signs and wonders it is now. If ever I have got a sense of what it means to have the privilege of overhearing the Gospel, even at a distance, it is now. It is hopeful, deeply hopeful. But it is frightful because the Gospel is clear about the how the powers of this world will respond [as Adrian Jacobs reminded after posting this many ‘Rachels’ will no doubt continue to weep in the events to come]. God have grace and God have mercy this holy Advent. Protect our Water Protectors and protect Mni Winconi.

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Becoming Mennonite again, and again

Chantal and I rarely make a point of going to art exhibit openings but on occasion we pass by them and end up wandering in. We recently walked through a photo exhibit with massive images measuring around 4×8 feet or so. They were in black and white and included a single human figure ‘blended’ into some aspect of nature, mostly wood if I remember correctly. The theme was straightforward enough particularly in relation to the artist statement. What I remember from the statement was some comment about the artist’s connection to nature and how they could ‘feel it in their bones’. This sort of statement is common and I remember mentioning to Chantal that I have never understood this sentiment. I cannot relate to this experience but I am beginning to relate this inexperience to my faith tradition.

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Surprising News

[The following is a sermon preached on Sunday October 2, 2016; World Communion Sunday]

Matthew 28:16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Last summer I attended Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg, PA. The event proved to be a very mixed experience for me. I reconnected with old friends and made new ones. I listened to encouraging stories of various women’s groups developing theological associations in South America. I was challenged by the questions of faith expressed by a young adult from Ethiopia. I was concerned and troubling by some missionary practices in Indonesia. I argued theology with a guy from Niverville (out of all the small groups I had to be placed in!).

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Responding to the church’s call for vision

[The following is a sermon preached at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg on Sunday August 14.]

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’  So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’
– Genesis 32:24-28

“We are looking for vision.”

This or a similar sentiment was expressed from the delegate floor several times in the course Mennonite Church Canada’s 2016 Assembly in Saskatoon. The people, the constituency, the faithful gathered and many asked for a vision.

What does this mean?

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Yahweh stabbing your brain

After Salem has brushed his teeth and we have read him bedtime stories he gets a little bit of quiet time in his room to play before bed. Salem is a very active and talkative child but during this time he is settled and plays quietly. He also appears to be reflective during this time as he will occasionally shout out a question or comment that he has been pondering.

Last night from out of his room he says,

You know when you do something bad and haven’t told anyone and you feel like you need to tell someone? I call that ‘Yahweh stabbing your brain.’

Salem was looking at the Brick Bible at the time. We had started reading him stories from it until we realized very quickly that the stories skewed heavily towards the more violent images of the Hebrew Bible. The hook then is to see the child-like and nostalgic materials of Lego being taken up in some of the most horrific scenes in the Bible.

lego-bible-levites-concubine-634x475
Concubine dismembered in Judges 19

And because Yahweh is an active agent in many biblical stories there is a depiction of Yahweh as an old bearded man in white. And when it says that Yahweh does something, well Yahweh does something.

yahweh_the_killer

Now of course on one level this is terrible and entirely inappropriate for Salem to be reading. But it gave me real pause to pay attention to tension I feel between this simply being blasphemous transgressing the prohibition of making an image of God on one hand and having to face and see the material imagery of stories that are intentionally sanitized and excluded from graphic representations of the Bible (i.e. children’s Bibles).

So when Salem tells me this experience is like Yahweh stabbing his brain I assume that he is somehow trying to articulate how our conscience (or super ego) can afflict us and perhaps in this way it actually becomes easier to talk about the limitations, changes, and need for revising how God has been understood over time and how that continues to affect us in the present. And in many ways the representation of Yahweh as an old white man is appropriate as it is many of these stories that have formed the patriarchal structure of our faith that need to be dismantled. Though the Brick Bible may actually contribute to a more textured and meaningful engagement with our faith tradition, for now I think I will slip into his room as the unseen all-knowing hand from above removing it from him.

When no news is good news and other gospel truths

Acts 16:6-9

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’

At Jesus’s ascension in the beginning of Acts Jesus tells the disciples that they will be witnesses to the ends of the earth. If this is the case then why keep them from going into Asia?

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The church’s tale of two systems

My national denomination (Mennonite Church Canada) has engaged the national body of congregations in two major processes. One dealing with an ethical and exegetical matter the other with the overhaul of our organizational structure. These processes as well as my increased involvement with the national church body have heightened my sense of two conflicting ways of being church in the midst of potentially divisive processes. Now what follows is admittedly simplified but I want to take a stab at clarifying at least one basic factor in the division and conflict that we are experiencing. Mennonite Church Canada (as well as many other churches I am sure) is currently a tale of two systems.

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