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Lent Reflection: “Is the Lord among us or not?”

3.20. 2017 Posted By: The Mennonite 253 Times read

Reflections on Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 95. 

For many generations of Christians, Mennonite Church USA has been an overflowing oasis of spiritual formation, cultural confirmation and interpersonal affirmation. There has been a strong sense of a distinct identity, community and shared values. Our religious Anabaptist theology and our ethnic Mennonite heritage has benefited the majority of our members in the United States by providing a unified and homogenous church community. The continuity of our confession of faith and the consistency of our church covenant has created a tightly-knit circle that has been perceived as both inviting and not easily entered into or expanded upon. Those that are afforded the privilege of drawing from this thirst-quenching well of our spiritual inheritance are often determined by social structures, classifications and ethnic identities, thus creating a need to explore the issue of exclusivity.

I often wonder how the realities of our own traumatic Anabaptist history of persecution and the need to seek refuge in a foreign land during the Reformation and beyond has affected our capacity to embrace differences, address social inequalities and surrender our spiritual formation, social privilege and political power to those that are now marginalized within broader society.

For we must not forget that we also were once vulnerable as we traveled through the wilderness into unsettled territory. As a result, we have resisted the ways of the world for our own security. We embodied the value of separation while at the same time pursuing the call to evangelism and mission. We sincerely desired to share the way of Jesus with those that may have been less fortunate than us, yet we struggled to develop sustainable strategies and infrastructures that empowered the communities of color that we felt called to serve.

For many people of color within Mennonite Church USA, this reality has been a long-suffered source of great anguish and lament. The changing cultural demographics of our congregations and institutions are often confronted with murmurs of white fragility, “color-blindness” and passive aggressive methods of resistance to new ways of experiencing and worshiping Christ in spirit and truth.

Speaking “truth to power” is perceived as being in conflict with our non-political peace stance concerning the separation of church and state. Yet our world is suffering in the grips of fear and is polarized by our current political climate. People of color in our congregations and communities are being persecuted in this modern day attack on civil rights and human decency.

So what should our response be in such a time as this? Where is our witness as a peace church in the midst of this current chaos, confusion and incivility? How can we stand together unified in radical faith and love as we seek to overcome the racial/ethnic challenges within our own church community?

Are our collective silos of silence overshadowing our church theology of peace and justice?

During the season of Lent, we often focus on giving up tangible things as a spiritual practice. However, it is the seemingly invisible things that we choose to hold on to. We hold on to power that is inherited through race, patriarchy and socio-economic class. We hold on to the privilege of being able to choose to remain comfortable and apathetic as European Americans living in the United States, and we hold on to the right to demand that our “thirst be quenched” by any means necessary.

In Exodus 17: 1-7, the people are continuing a journey from a place of persecution to a place of promise. Although the Lord has faithfully provided for the Israelites along the way, they have suddenly come to a place of temporary lack.

“The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

 The wilderness experience has the potential to propel us to the next level of our faith and mission or cripple any efforts to believe in our collective hope for the future.

In this new season, I believe that the Lord is inviting us to learn to move forward as a diverse and inclusive church where all people are empowered to contribute equally. For we have been delivered from one land and are preparing to enter into another. We must not fear that the Lord will not provide for us if we release what we believe has sustained us for generations: our inherited privilege and secured sanctuaries.

Today, if only you would hear his voice,
“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,[
as you did that day at Massah[
b] in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested me;
they tried me, though they had seen what I did. Psalm 95: 8 – 9

Perhaps this is the season to give up focusing on our own comfort and make a tangible commitment to speak out on the injustices that hinder us from creating a more inclusive and welcoming community, believing in faith that even in the wilderness surely the Lord is among us.

Melody M. Pannell is a native of Harlem, New York City. Currently, she serves as the Assistant Professor of Social Work and Chairperson of the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. She is also the Founder and Executive Director of The Destiny’s Daughters Empowerment Ministry. It is her life’s mission to embody practical theology and encourage those that she serves to engage in a transformative journey of “emancipatory hope in action” and empowerment through holistic, therapeutic and restorative justice practices. 

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One Response to “Lent Reflection: “Is the Lord among us or not?””

  1. As you say, the wilderness experience is transformative, for good or ill. Biblically, it entailed a journey from empire to peoplehood under the reign of YHWH. And it was a failure; the Hebrews focused on human power and chose a king instead.
    Melody, you describe this Mennonite community as “an overflowing oasis.” As one who has been grafted in, at times I have found it so, at times not. There is always that element of “struggle,” which you identify. But then “struggle” is good, right?
    This inviting “oasis” formed around an understanding of nonconformity as an inherent aspect of YHWH’s people. You acknowledge this, but it is often overlooked in contemporary discussions. Many who address diversity within our church emphasize only color, as if our nonconformity is a fake identity that can be redeemed only by declaring ourselves white, black and brown. This has been a mistake, in my view.

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