Grace and Truth: A word from pastors
As the willow oak and yellow pine trees in my neighborhood begin to bud, as branches and stems turn from brown to green, the Eastern bluebirds arrive. I watch one, then another, darting from tree to tree, pausing to scan the landscape, then swooshing to the ground in a streak of blue. Picking through the pine needles and the layers of decomposing leaves in my backyard, a bird clutches a twig with its beak, then shoots up to the top of a gazebo, where it disappears into a birdhouse. Tirelessly, day after day, week after week, morning and evening, the bluebird weaves a nest, prophesying life. God is like the bluebird in my backyard, making room for life to be born in the world—renewed and restored life, bountiful and abounding life. “I came that they may have life,” Jesus announced, “and have it abundantly.” God dashes through the world, gathering people, mingling relationships, intertwining us into a church, weaving us into nests where God makes us into a home for life, a home for people to be nourished and sustained, a place where people are born again, made new. Early one morning, I peeked into the nest. Amid the carefully entwined layers of twigs and stems, I noticed strange ingredients: a metal paperclip, lint from my laundry, strips of shredded paper from the recycling bin, shards of yellow plastic from something I must have dumped in the trash. The bluebirds are resourceful, scavenging the neighborhood, rummaging through trash, collecting bits and pieces from everywhere, even from litter. God gathers people who have been rejected by the world, trashed by society and dumped by the church—refused people. As the apostle Paul wrote, “God chose what is despised in the world.” Like the bluebird in my backyard, the Spirit of God chooses the expelled and shunned, the rejected and spurned, the reproached and censured, the maligned and despised, and weaves all of us into bonds of fellowship, into a life-sustaining community of outsiders, an outcast church. As Mennonites, we have been this nest—God’s refuge of the despised—because we are part of the Anabaptist tradition, a group of believers who were rejected by the rest of the church. Our spiritual ancestors were people spurned by neighbors and friends, trashed by Christian sisters and brothers, expelled from cities and congregations, scorned by church leaders, branded as heretics. “By everyone we’re scorned and shunned as would-be agitators, as heretics and traitors,” wrote Leonhard Schiemer, a 16th-century Anabaptist martyr. In 1526, the Zurich Council issued a statement against “the wayward Anabaptists,” who were “stubborn in their opinions, contrary to their oaths, vows and promises, and have exhibited disobedience”—alleged anarchists whose form of church would result, the council feared, in “destructive consequences for Christian life.” The great church reformer Martin Luther also condemned our people because, he wrote, Anabaptists are “cruel in damning the ministry of the Word, following uncertain doctrines, attacking correct teaching and attempting to destroy authority.” God formed Anabaptism from the debris of other traditions, from people rejected by Roman Catholics and Protestants. From the ostracized and unwelcomed, the Holy Spirit picked through the discarded remnants of mainstream churches and pieced together a church, a nest with layers of unwanted lives interwoven into a precarious community of believers. As Mennonites, as Anabaptists, we’ve become part of a ragtag church that lives because of the tireless and graceful labor of the Spirit, the One who has connected all of us, including alleged anarchists with questionable theologies, reputed enemies of Christendom’s traditions, supposed antagonists of society’s moral codes, people accused of contaminating true religion, people condemned for polluting a pure faith. Here we are, part of this church, part of the despised of history—some of us still accused of being unholy sinners who dirty the church, yet all of us chosen by God and now woven into a church, where my life overlaps with yours, your life interlocks with mine, theirs with ours and ours with theirs, as together we become a nest for life to be born in the world, a home for the Spirit’s love to grow, a place for Christ’s peace to flourish. God is like the bluebird, prophesying life through us, as long as we let God build all of us into a nest, a church, a home for abundant life. Isaac Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Church.