Simplify Recap – Guest Blogger, Jonathan Stauffer

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This week, we take a break from our four-part series, “The Bible As…” by Jon Prater, to welcome back frequent Brethren Life & Thought blog contributor, Jonathan Stauffer. Stauffer writes about his experience attending Brethren Woods Camp and Retreat Center’s recent Simplify Conference. Stauffer accompanied two current Bethany Theological Seminary students as part of a partnership between Bethany’s Peace Forum and conference organizers, (also) current Bethany students, Katie and Tim Heishman.

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Nestled in vibrantly-colored trees above the Shenandoah Valley, I attend a weekend retreat at Brethren Woods Camp and Retreat Center located a few miles northeast of Harrisonburg, VA. The retreat, aptly entitled “Simplify,” explored a Christian witness through simple living principles largely drawing from the Anabaptist traditions. Beginning on Friday night, attendees watched a video called “The Story of Stuff,” which described the harm a hyper-consumerist culture places on God’s earth and its inhabitants. Later that evening, several small groups discussed how simple lifestyles could alleviate such harm and steward toward the healing of all creation.

Displaying 20171111_094450.jpgAfter a good night’s sleep, Saturday provided a full day to explore simple living and creation care principles further. The first keynote speaker, Sam Funkhouser, grew up Church of the Brethren but as an adult joined the Old German Baptist Brethren New Conference.* Sam accepts the socio-economic concerns presented by climate change and global capitalism as a needing a Christian response. Yet he also appreciates the tradition of nonconformity, a form of simple living practiced by the Old German Baptist Brethren. Motivated by their sectarian faith, Sam and his wife, Stephanie, make their own clothes and have modified their car to become as fuel-efficient as possible. Both topics were expounded during smaller group sessions later that day.

Displaying 20171111_104638.jpgOther workshop sessions were offered later on Saturday. Yakubu and Diana Bakfwash, Nigerian-born Brethren members, are ministers at GraceWay Church located east of Baltimore, MD. Using the example of Jesus in washing the disciples’ feet, Yakubu and Diana talked about service leadership in a Displaying 20171111_115449.jpgcontext that acts beyond the church walls. Nancy Heisey, a professor of biblical studies at Eastern Mennonite University, facilitated a workshop on the role of technology in our lives. Spending some time to carefully reflect on the gadgets we use daily, Nancy says, helps one decide when technology is an effective tool or becomes a distraction in light of our faith values.

Displaying 20171111_134604.jpgThe afternoon keynote speaker, Jenn Hosler, presented a biblical call to creation care and simple living. Starting from Genesis, Jenn outlined the instances of God’s care towards creation in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. She went beyond the first chapters of Genesis and the Gospel of John. The Prophets, wisdom books, and New Testament letters also reveal a cosmic order to the Heavenly Kingdom, one that blesses and desires to renew creation. In terms of simple living, the Bible raises up God’s blessing in those living responsibly and compassionately rather than idolizing material possessions (Mark 10:17-25 and James 4:1-10 are a few examples).

Between thoughtful speakers and rich group discussions, there was a lot one could take away from this event on simple living practices. The question remains: what is the first step for one to live more simply?

Jonathan SJPS_Tweed_Ride14tauffer is a member of the Polo (IL) Church of the Brethren congregation. Currently a substitute teacher, Jonathan is a recent graduate of Bethany Theological Seminary, receiving an MA with a concentration in theological studies.

*The New Conference formed out of the Old German Baptist Brethren in 2009. Interestingly, the split was largely centered around the church’s authority over internet use. More details can be found in the following article: Mast, Gerald J. “The Old German Baptist Brethren Church Division of 2009: The Debate over the Internet and the Authority of Annual Meeting.” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 88, no. 1 (January 2014): 45–64.

Image Credits: Jonathan Stuaffer

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The Bible As… Pt. II – Guest Blogger, Jon Prater

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This blog post is part two of a four-part series adapted from transcripts preached during a revival at Forest Chapel Church of the Brethren.

The Word of God should not only be approached as rule. No, in fact, one of the most quoted Scriptures in regards to Biblical inspiration states that there must be multiple ways of engaging Scripture.Paul, in 2 Timothy 3:16, says “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” which speaks to the array of ways we can, and should, use the Word of God. If we search past the Word as rule we will next see the Word as confession.

The Bible as Confession

Consider books such as Lamentations or Psalms- the scope of these books is much broader than instruction. Yes, there are factual pieces of these books, but their greater use is in confession. After all, doctrine is of no value if there is no confession attached to it. A criminal can know the rules of the land, but until they confess to the value of the system the laws create, their knowledge does not transfer to a common value system. In other words, our society is much better off when people not only avoid drunk driving because they will face consequence if they are caught, but they also understand and confess to the more significant value of human life and the ways this law contributes to a more healthy society.

The Bible itself speaks to the Scriptures as confession. In Romans 10 Paul is expounding on thoughts regarding evangelism, the climax building to verse 9 when Paul states that those who “believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths will be saved”. However, this is not the end of the thought Paul is giving. If we track Paul’s train of thought we come to verse 17 “Faith,” says Paul, “comes by hearing and hearing comes from the Word of God” (emphasis mine). The word Paul uses here is pistis which is defined as “a conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervor born of faith and joined with it[1]

What this means is confession in the life of a Christ followers not only an admission of guilt but also an acknowledgment of truth. We can confess and not be guilty. Many theologians such as Knox, Luther, Augustine, and Lewis all have published some kids of confession- that being the core belief that forms who they are and the way that they interact with the world and God. This faith that Paul is speaking of, this burning passion is undoubtedly more than law. Faith, in this context, is not just what you believe, but what you do with your belief. To tap into James, this is related to the tension between faith and works; one drives the other; they are indicative of one another; not similes.

The Word of God as rule guides our behavior, but the Word as confession guides our identity. When we engage Scripture through the lens of rule it tells us how we are to live, but engaging through the lens of confession tells us why we are to live that way. Consider the framing of the Laws given in Scripture, most of them are framed in a structure of confession and rule. Take Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments, for example. God speaks to Moses a decree for confession before giving the Law. The terms of confession are found in 2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” God sets up the formula- declaration for confession, followed by action or consequence- if you believe I am God then this is your rule.

The problem that the church has seemed to battle for a majority of history is getting this formula out of order. Instead of allowing our identity to affirm our doctrine we invert the process so that our rule, or doctrinal infrastructure, informs our identity. Our convictions work contradictory to the grace God has given us; our church culture states that if your doctrine is right, you can identify with us; when in reality what the Scriptures seem to suggest is that if you identify with us, your doctrine should follow suit.
In recent years there has been debate on the traditional order of identifying with Christ. Traditionally practitioners have prescribed to a believe, behave, belong order for identifying with Christ. However, as the Emerging church movement gains momentum, this traditional rule has been called into question by many leaders. For the emerging church, a more efficient order for identification is belong, believe, behave. While some argue that this model leads to more ethical dilemmas, it certainly seems to fall more in line with Paul’s train of thought in Romans 10.

The lens of confession is rooted in the Christocentric and community hermeneutic. By offering a standard community confession, we are strengthening the fabric of the faith community. When asked why the Law was so central to the Israelites we are quick to identify that it kept them separate from other nations. I am not debating the truth in that statement, but I lift a consequential truth alongside it- it held the Israelites together. Sure, the sectarian truth is prevalent here, but the Israelites also shared their experience and tradition across their stories. The common confession that they shared in Yahweh led them to a common rule of practice and drew them around a collective identity- people of the Lord.

Perhaps this is one of the core pieces we can learn as faith communities- the Bible as confession invites following the rule of faith and practice to be a fruitful experience, not oppressive. Also, this pushes us past the individual adoption of doctrine and belief. When we move past these, we place the center of discerning rules of faith and practice back into the community setting, allowing for a more significant connection to our neighbor.

Jon Prater is the pastor of Mt. Zion Church of the Brethren in Linville, Virginia where he has served since 2020. He is a current MDiv student at Bethany Theological Seminary and has an undergraduate degree in Biblical Theology from Liberty University. A former church planter, Jon is a public speaker and workshop leader on subjects including church planting and church vitality. He is husband to Jessica and father to twin sons Aiden and Elijah.

  1. “Greek 4102.” Strong’s Greek: 4102. Πίστις (Pistis) — Faith, Faithfulness, Biblehub,Com, biblehub.com/greek/4102.htm.

Other referenced works

“Create a Sense of Belonging.” Psychology Today. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pieces-mind/201403/create-sense-belonging.
“Genesis Chapter 1 (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Accessed January 13, 2017. https://www.blueletterbible.org/kjv/gen/1/1/s_1001.
“Spiritual but Not Religious.” Psychology Today. Accessed October 14, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hot-thought/201610/spiritual-not-religious.

Image Credits: Protestant, and Christian Unity Ministries

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The Bible As… Pt. I – Guest Blogger, Jon Prater

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Earlier this year the Barna group released results from a series of surveys based on the American opinion of the Bible, and their research revealed some interesting trends. For example, 80% of those surveyed stated that they considered the Bible to be a “sacred text,” which was more than three times the amount of the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the Torah combined. However, only 45% of people said that they strongly agreed that the Bible contained everything a person needs to live a meaningful life[1]. These studies also revealed that 71% of people confessed that the Bible was inspired the God in some way, but only 33% believe it is entirely accurate[2]. Finally, 51% of people responded that they engage the Bible at least two times a year outside of an organized church service- and 55% percent of responders say the Bible brings them closer to God[3].

It is no secret that the evolving culture around us has a complicated relationship with the Bible. Whereas the Bible may not have the central role in society it once had, to say that the majority of people in America have abandoned Scripture is not accurate, and in many ways is a hyperbolic response to a complicated issue. In fact, many people would identify that they have a high respect for the Bible, but they do not relate to the Scriptures in traditional ways. Therefore, through the next series of essays, I will present a four-fold way that Brethren can faithfully approach the Scriptures in a series I have titled “Witnessing the Word.” These essays will present engagement with the Bible as rule, confession, repentance, and proclamation. Each of these movements hopes to introduce a way that we can both personally and cooperatively engage the Word of God, and invite others around us to approach the Bible as well.

The Bible As Rule

The Church of the Brethren has always held a high view of the Bible- especially the New Testament. In 1998 Annual Conference adopted a statement entitled “The New Testament as Our Rule of Faith and Practice.” This paper has become a cornerstone of how our denomination functions together. The heart of this statement affirms that the Bible was central to the Brethren movement from the beginning. The 1998 delegate body affirmed that Alexander Mack himself taught that one should “resolve to sacrifice your life, property, family, yes, all that you have in the whole world rather than waiver from [the Bible’s] teaching].”[4] The Bible as rule is not new to who we are but deeply seeded in our Brethren DNA.

The conflict arises not from the Bible as rule, but the purpose of that rule. For many people, the rule of the Bible is about legislation, judication, and punishment. For these people, the Bible is a standard; we should place our lives against that measure to assess reward, discipline, and eternal destination. Much of this way of thinking find roots in Augustine and his dogmatic method of relating to Scripture[5]. The tension here can be that a dogmatic method of Scripture interpretation can easily call us away from specific behaviors, rather than inviting us into a more holistic way of living.

For others, most Brethren included, Scripture is not about judication, but relationship. Brethren have traditionally approached Scripture with a two-fold hermeneutic- Christocentric and Communal[6]. In other words, the Brethren read the Bible with the understanding that all Scripture is centered around Jesus, and all Scripture is best understood and applied in the community setting. Emphasising the communal hermeneutic means shifting from I and me language when interpreting the Scriptures to us and we language, because the rule of Scripture is not just about the individual, but that certain individuals place in the community of faith, and the world as a whole. Furthermore, the Brethren hermeneutic offers a conviction that Biblical literacy is not about merely factual memorization, but in the lifestyle of a person. Perhaps this conviction is best framed by Dale Brown, who said that the Brethren hermeneutic “becomes a genuine living authority when stories and messages of texts make a difference in the lives of believers, even vessels of clay.”[7] This is the connection between the New Testament as our rule and our practice.

By applying this hermeneutic to the rule of Scripture, we are led to focus on the Scriptures as a way of encouraging us to flourish in the Kingdom of God, not merely offering a list of offenses punishable in the Kingdom. In many ways, this kind of interpretation seems to line up alongside the original intent of Old Testament Law. Many people would emphasize passages like Exodus 19:5-6 which says “Now, therefore if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites” (NRSV) to summarize the intent of the Law. However, this does not seem to be the end of the story. Yes, God used the Law (rule) to create a holy people, but passages like Galatians 3:10 emphasize that keeping the Law is a curse, and impossible to do with human strength. Paul then teaches in Galatians 3 that the Law was not merely given to push us to try harder but to point us to our great need for a savior- Jesus Christ.

Scripture, then, is not merely about innocence and guilt, but relationship. The “rules” of Scripture function as parameters for engaging the most healthy relationship with both God and neighbor. When juxtaposed against worldly rule we see that the laws of the government are not merely to legislate who is guilty or innocent, or to prevent anarchy, but to provide parameters for a flourishing society. In the same way, the rule of Scripture is not just about heaven and hell, but about empowering the Kingdom of God to come in our lives in the healthiest way possible.

This blog post is part one of a four-part series adapted from transcripts preached during a revival at Forest Chapel Church of the Brethren.

Jon Prater is the pastor of Mt. Zion Church of the Brethren in Linville, Virginia where he has served since 2020. He is a current MDiv student at Bethany Theological Seminary and has an undergraduate degree in Biblical Theology from Liberty University. A former church planter, Jon is a public speaker and workshop leader on subjects including church planting and church vitality. He is husband to Jessica and father to twin sons Aiden and Elijah.

[1] “The Bible in America.”
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “The New Testament as Our Rule of Faith and Practice.”
[5] McKnight, Postmodern Use of the Bible. 29.
[6] Brown, Another Way of Believing. 101.
[7] Ibid. 103.

Image Credits: Jesus without Baggage and Quote HD

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In A Reunion Like This We Can Share – Guest Blogger, Anita Hooley Yoder

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The following originally appeared on the blog Anabaptist Historians and was republished here with the permission of the author. For more on Anabaptist Historians, check out https://anabaptisthistorians.org/about/

History matters in the church. It matters what kinds of stories are told about our past, and who gets to tell them.

This was obvious at the recent Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, where a timeline exercise brought up some past events and issues but left out others. (See Joel Nofziger’s recent post)

As I worked on a book on the history of Mennonite women’s organizations, I found myself especially captivated by stories I had not heard before, and did not fit neatly into a typical understanding of Mennonite women. I was specifically fascinated to learn about the activities of Black and Hispanic Mennonite women, which began in an organized way in the 1970s and, to some extent, continue to today.

These activities are narrated in just one chapter in the book, but I hope the chapter I wrote is just the beginning of more writing and sharing about what happened at these events and the way God continues to work through Mennonite women of all kinds of backgrounds.

Below is an excerpt from Circles of Sisterhood, about the start of the Hispanic Mennonite women’s conferences. To read more, purchase the book! You can order online from Mennonite Women USA or MennoMedia.

Seferina De León speaking at an Hispanic Mennonite women’s conference in the 1970s

The first Spanish-speaking Mennonite women’s conference was held in April 1973 in Moline, Illinois. Maria Bustos, wife of pastor Mac Bustos, coordinated the gathering, along with Lupe Bustos and Maria Rivera Snyder. Several reasons were given for the one-day event, which was called a servicio de inspiración. Seferina De León described it as an opportunity “to have a group of our own to listen to each other and figure out how we can help each other.”1 The organizers specifically wanted to gather women whose husbands were involved in church work and spent much time traveling, so the women could have a meaningful time together while their husbands stayed home.2 In a Voice article about the conference, Lupe Bustos wrote that the gathering arose from a concern for women who could not speak English and had never had the benefit of participating in the WMSC [the Mennonite Church women’s organization].3 As a woman of “American-Spanish descent,” she had been encouraged by attending WMSC meetings and wanted to provide similar encouragement for Spanish-speaking women.4

At the first conference, about sixty women gathered from churches in several Midwestern states as well as New York and Texas. Lupe Bustos’s article described the event as having women’s marks of creativity and care: hospitable overnight hosts, corsages for each participant, a craft project fashioning crosses out of a variety of materials. But the most memorable aspect of the event was the spiritual presence that pervaded it. The Spirit-led singing, prayer, and testimonies came to a climax when the women gathered to take communion. Mac Bustos wished to join the group for the communion service, which was led by pastor Mario Bustos. Suffering from leg pain and other health complications so severe that he was planning to give up his pastoral work, Pastor Mac was assisted into the sanctuary. Women nearby laid hands on him as they prayed and praised God. Suddenly, Mac got up and said, “Praise the Lord, all pain is gone!” He began going up and down the steps to show his increased mobility.5 “Tears just streamed from all of us,” Lupe Bustos wrote. “We realized that God still performs miracles; and a miracle happened to all of us there, because we were renewed again in Him.”6

The conference’s leaders viewed the miraculous healing of Mac Bustos as confirmation of God’s presence with them and as encouragement to continue their gatherings. At the October 1973 Minority Ministries Council meeting, they made plans for another conference and also adopted the name Conferencia Femenil Hispana Menonita (Hispanic Mennonite Women’s Conference). This is the name the group uses today, after a several-year period of using the name Sociedad de Damas Cristianas en Acción (Society of Christian Women in Action).

A 1974 gathering was planned for Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The first gathering was presumably paid for by the women themselves; Maria Bustos lists “faith” in the finances column on a chart showing figures for the early conferences.7 To help with the second conference, the Concilio leaders wrote to the WMSC requesting a grant of $3,000 for “las hermanas.” The WMSC executive committee decided to make the money available, even though it required some temporary reallocation of funds. Beulah Kauffman, WMSC director, wrote a letter to the WMSC district presidents explaining the move and reminding them of the WMSC meeting at the 1973 MC assembly. . . . At that meeting, women had expressed that they would “stand ready to help in whatever ways possible” when “clearly defined” needs of Spanish-speaking members were presented. Kauffman described this request as just such a need and expressed hope that women across the denomination would consider making the Hispanic women’s conference their annual giving project.8

The WMSC money was apparently the only outside funding received for the 1974 conference. Women from many Hispanic churches contributed through offerings, craft sales, and other fundraisers, either to support the conference in general or to fund the travel of their own members. Lois Gunden Clemens attended the gathering as a WMSC representative. She reflected in a July 1974 Voice article: “It has been good for me at various times to be a minority within a Christian group representing a cultural heritage different from mine. My heart has been strangely warmed in sensing the oneness I could feel with them. This was true again when I joined our Spanish-speaking sisters gathered together in their Lancaster meeting.”9 Enriqueta Diaz summed up her sentiments about the conference in an August 1974 Voice article: “It is marvelous that in a reunion like this we can share with each other ideas, emotions, and thoughts, all in our own language and in a cordial environment. Praise God for His love!”10

Excerpt and photo are from Circles of Sisterhood by Anita Hooley Yoder. © 2017 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va. All rights reserved. Used with permission. www.HeraldPress.com

Anita Hooley Yoder works as Campus Ministry Coordinator at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio. She and her husband live in the Cleveland area and attend Friendship Mennonite Church. She is also the author of the recently published book on Mennonite women’s organizations, Circles of Sisterhood. Anita serves as secretary of the Brethren Journal Association Board.

  1. Quoted in Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 152. Maria Bustos is often referred to as “Mary Bustos” in publications, since there were many other “Marias” involved with the organization. I follow Hinojosa in using “Maria.”
  2. Ibid., 152–53.
  3. Lupe Bustos, “Historic Women’s Assembly,” Voice, April 1973, 5.
  4. Ibid.
  5. This event is also written about in several other places, including Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites, 153.
  6. Bustos, “Historic Women’s Assembly,” 5–6.
  7. Mary Bustos, “Report to the Executive Committee,” November 10, 1978, box 1, folder 3, WMSC Partnerships Records, 1973–1992 (IV-20-008), MCUSAA– Elkhart.
  8. Beulah Kauffman, letter to district WMSC presidents, April 3, 1974, box 4, folder 19, Women’s Missionary and Service Commission Executive Committee Records, 1917–1997 (IV-20-001), MCUSAA– Elkhart.
  9. Lois Gunden Clemens, “Editorially Speaking,” Voice, July 1974, 2.
  10. Enriqueta Díaz, “Hispanic Women’s Conference,” Voice, August 1974, 11.
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On Hospitality: Banquet of the Absurd (Luke 14:12-24) Pt. II – Guest Blogger, Scot Miller

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This blog post is the second in a two-part series adapted from a piece originally published on Scot’s personal blog (link below). For part one, visit http://www.brethrenlifeandthought.org/2017/04/21/on-hospitality-banquet-of-the-absurd-luke-1412-24-pt-i-guest-blogger-scot-miller/. What follows is a continuation of Scot’s story about serving the water distribution effort last year in Flint, Michigan.

Over the next few weeks, we distributed water, fed children of all ages, homeless persons, and drug addicts, treated a heroin overdose, and began delivering food to folks who were marginalized to the point of being afraid of coming to the church (some distribution points were asking for photo identification). I was able to do outreach and wellness checks to families who made their only income illegally, thus preventing them from seeking some services for fear of opening excuses for home visits from authorities. We served refugees and immigrants who did not know English, and could not get help, or were scared to seek it out. The Church of the Brethren building on Stocker Avenue was a church, and it was contributing to its neighbor’s lives in many ways. The building was truly a place of welcoming and affirmation of all folks from any and every background. We were the church. We were practicing radical hospitality.

We continued to talk about the Bible and what the stories of the Bible meant to us. We also talked regularly about how the church might be relevant in the lives of our neighbors. I also believe we wanted the church to be more relevant to us spiritually. Sometimes, our church experiences left us longing. Sometimes, we felt spiritually malnourished. Mary Lorah-Hammond and Jennifer Betts had been dreaming of doing dinner church, and they also knew that the water crisis brought new nutrition needs to the forefront of everyone’s mind. It was decided that we extend our hospitality to folks at the farm market and our Facebook friends, activist, and professionals who were serving the city to share dinners on Tuesday nights. Flyers were made and distributed, invitations were extended, and preparations were made for a messianic banquet we called “Feeding of the Flintstones.”

Parker4

And nobody came.

But we had been reading the text.

The text had answers.

While Mary and Jennifer cooked, I went outside and walked around the neighborhood, inviting every individual or family I came across to come to the church on Stocker Avenue and share a meal. I believe we had 12 that first evening, certainly a number appropriate to our shared narrative. This continued every Tuesday night. Some folks followed up on the invite. More often than not, all of our guests came as the result of someone going out into the neighborhood who embodied the text of Luke 14, which invites all and sundry to experience fellowship without regard to status or ability to contribute to the “potluck” that is a staple of Midwestern hospitality for “those who belong.”

One warm evening, my son Micah and I left Mary and Jennifer to cooking and walked around the west side neighborhood looking for folks to invite for meal sharing. As we walked down Arlene Avenue, I noticed two women in a van parked on the corner of Mann Avenue. I approached the van to invite them to dinner and saw they were both crying. I asked if I could help, and they indicated to Micah and me that one of the women’s family had just moved into an abandoned house, and they had lost their food benefits card, had no cash, nothing to eat, and no electricity. I told them to bring everyone to the church for a meal.

That Tuesday evening, we had more than 20 folks eating with us, eight of them belonging to the woman sitting in the car. As everyone was enjoying food and conversation, Mary and Jennifer were talking with the women; I tried to reach out to the father of the group. He was less than interested in communicating and seemed to feel patronized by me as I served him bread and soup. He was not enjoying my presence, or anyone else’s.

As Now Ministries worked to get the whole family set up for food delivery the next day, it was evident they needed some things that night. I asked the father if he would like to go with me to Kroger to pick some things up, and I could foot the bill. Reluctantly, he made the decision to go. As we drove by ourselves to the grocery store, he began to open up just a bit. When he found out that we shared some experiences of city living, we were able to begin a conversation that, within 15 minutes, turned into a warm experience of friendship.

The fact of our hospitality was the result of reading the text and then trusting that our living out the stories would lend credibility to our actions. In fact, we acted in faith, and our faith was vindicated. But the vindication is by no means represented in a growth of church membership, or big publicity regarding our worship services, or even in miracle funding for more outreach. For the text states that it is of no use to provide hospitality to those who somehow repay you or invite you in return, but rather we are to invite and serve the poor.  We will be vindicated for our faithfulness at the Judgment, but salvation comes immediately to those in need. They are liberated from the bondage of facing the crisis in isolation. Everyone knows that sin is evident, but the opportunity to respond in new ways with new outcomes is what the church is to reveal to those in need. The apocalypse is the unveiling of how the church responds to sin that has not been properly identified as sin. If the economics of food are unjust, the church calls this sin and offers an alternative.

In fact, we are sharing or extending the blessings of faith in a manner that makes the kingdom of God a credible alternative to systematic corporate sin for those most in need of God’s grace and mercy. It is our voluntary sacrifice of privilege and our sharing of resources that makes our claims of the Kingdom of God credible. We embody faith at our expense, and not for reward. This is faithfulness. This is apocalyptic witness. This is the eschatological “end-times” that marks not the end of the world, but more importantly, the end of an age that witnesses the collusion of the so-called Church and State to promote wealth and power rather than the victory of the Lamb over the devil, sin, and death.

An apocalyptic unveiling is not God’s new response to sin, but the church’s identifying and uncovering the fact of corporate sin which has been sold to Christians as conservative religion. Civic Christendom is far from conservative. Rather, it is liberal democracy costumed as Christianity in order to the hide selfishness, racism, and exclusivity that has victimized those who need the church the most. The church has not only colluded with the State, but indeed has colluded with the Accuser. We accuse those left behind as being responsible for the products of our own economic, racial, and militant sin. This heresy is a Satanic reversal of the Gospel call to love one another as ourselves.

The folks of Flint have been left behind, but they have not been left behind to suffer through some apocalyptic Armageddon. They have simply been left behind as “the least of these.” Flint and other places like it have been left behind by Christians who keep promising that heaven awaits them, preaching that if the victims of sin don’t clean their act up, God will leave them behind just as the economy, the judiciary, and education has left them behind.

Indeed, if these so-called spiritual warriors read Revelation more closely, they might see passed the plank in their eyes to see that Christ judges them. The biggest sin of Christendom is the Laodicean error – the error that Jesus would not overlook.

Revelation 3:15-20 (HCSB)

15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,’ and you don’t know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, 18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see.19 As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be committed and repent. 20 Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me.

10271482_694810043912301_8536081974303114262_nScot Miller, of Hastings, Michigan (by way of Flint and Detroit), is a passionate and tireless worker for justice – passions that led him to seek degrees in social work. Having been a member the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for 15 years, he now serve as Pastor of Education and Outreach for Common Spirit Church of the Brethren in Grand Rapids. Scot spent most of 2016 ministering in Flint, Michigan, as a responder to the water crisis there. He served under the auspices of Common Spirit at First Church of the Brethren in Flint, in the neighborhood of his birth. He served as an adjunct professor of social work at Kuyper College for four years, and more recently served as an adjunct professor at the Earlham School of Religion during the 2017 January intensives. He is particularly drawn to Anabaptist theology as well as apocalyptic expressions of early Quakerism. You can read more of Scot’s work at http://www.gospeloftheabsurd.net/.

Image Credit: 2×2 Vital Church

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On Hospitality: Banquet of the Absurd (Luke 14:12-24) Pt. I – Guest Blogger, Scot Miller

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If the end-time fallacies of Tim LaHaye have any interpretive value, I propose a compare and contrast exercise with the city of Flint, Michigan. Flint is home to a people that have been “Left Behind.” While LaHaye’s apocalyptic lack of theological imagination is little more than a lie, the opportunity for the church to recognize our error and reorganize into a truly apocalyptic assembly is fully represented in the reality of living in Flint. The Body of Christ has been lost in the violent maladaptive literary world of dragons and super-whores for far too long, failing to recognize our obligation to embody the gospel in a manner that reveals something far more important than the end of the world; that being the rebirth and a restoration of God’s creation to wholeness.

Flint is the place where the sins of unjust economics, whiteness, and electoral politics have come home to roost. In the midst of a water crisis that has had a catastrophic effect on residents of the city and resulted in corporate trauma, the failure of the church is as evident as the failure of the water system. The residents of Flint were left behind to suffer the consequences of state-sponsored sin, when their water was poisoned, and and when this poisoning was denied by authorities. The people of Flint were left behind to suffer the consequences of institutionalized racism. They were left behind by a changing economy that no one prepared them for nor explained to them, despite promising them new jobs and new prosperity every election cycle. The people of Flint were left behind by the very people who promote Heaven as a reward for worldly suffering while reaping the benefits of wealth accumulated in the midst of such suffering. Flint is far more indicative of the end-times than LaHaye fans want to admit – it marks the end of the church as a relevant institution as we know it in the here and now.

I felt a call to return to Flint, the hometown my parents were forced to leave behind when the recession of the late ‘70’s drove us to Detroit so they could find work. When I heard about the water crisis and thought of the biblical call to deny privilege and serve the least of these, I turned a deteriorating job experience into an opportunity for ministry. I made a decision to go to Flint three days a week and contribute resources to the water crisis response. I was welcomed by First Church of the Brethren in Flint to work with their congregation and the African-American congregation they shared the building with, NOW Ministries.

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B.B and Scot taking a brief reprieve while serving in Flint.

Working with First CoB and Now Ministries, we went from distributing three pallets of bottled water a day to 18 pallets of water a day, three days a week. We also found the resources to provide fresh food to our neighbors, diapers and hygiene products, and provide neighbors with up-to-date information about the water crisis. Along with the work that was being done at the church, we shared with one another our understandings of God and the Bible and talked about what it is that we must do to reflect the love of Christ to our neighbors.

Importantly, the number of folks volunteering allowed for the church to keep its doors open almost every day of the week. As such, the building on Stocker Avenue became much more than a place to pick up water. It became a central location for adults and children alike to experience community. The building’s social significance became evident one night when my 70-year-old water distribution partner B.B. and I were struck with a dilemma. We were the only two folks (left behind) at the church one afternoon, waiting for hours for a water delivery that never came. The state was not sending enough truck drivers to help with water distribution, and deliveries were being held up because the food bank drivers were pressed into double duty. They delivered loads of food to locations around the east side of the state, and then came back to Flint to deliver pallets of water. We received our delivery at 5 pm.

Importantly, the number of folks volunteering allowed for the church to keep its doors open almost every day of the week. As such, the building on Stocker Avenue became much more than a place to pick up water. It became a central location for adults and children alike to experience community. The building’s social significance became evident one night when my 70-year-old water distribution partner B.B. and I were struck with a dilemma. We were the only two folks (left behind) at the church one afternoon, waiting for hours for a water delivery that never came. The state was not sending enough truck drivers to help with water distribution, and deliveries were being held up because the food bank drivers were pressed into double duty. They delivered loads of food to locations around the east side of the state, and then came back to Flint to deliver pallets of water. We received our delivery at 5 pm.Cars were lined up for water, and B.B. and I were having great difficulty keeping up.We were two men over the age of 50, we were wearing down, and our instructions at that time were to not leave water outside. The line of cars grew deeper, and we were exhausting ourselves. As the sun was setting, our neighbors were not unaware of what was happening. First, one teen came over to the church to volunteer help. Then a second. A third came with his sister, who set up a candy and Kool-Aid stand, using bottled water to make the drinks with sugar from her house. It was this evening that we recognized we were making an impact on our block. We had folks from the block, ages eight to nearly 80, distributing water and having fun. Together, we had a purpose.

Cars were lined up for water, and B.B. and I were having great difficulty keeping up.We were two men over the age of 50, we were wearing down, and our instructions at that time were to not leave water outside. The line of cars grew deeper, and we were exhausting ourselves. As the sun was setting, our neighbors were not unaware of what was happening. First, one teen came over to the church to volunteer help. Then a second. A third came with his sister, who set up a candy and Kool-Aid stand, using bottled water to make the drinks with sugar from her house. It was this evening that we recognized we were making an impact on our block. We had folks from the block, ages eight to nearly 80, distributing water and having fun. Together, we had a purpose.

This blog post is part one of a two-part series adapted from a piece originally published on Scot’s personal blog (link below). 

10271482_694810043912301_8536081974303114262_nScot Miller, of Hastings, Michigan (by way of Flint and Detroit), is a passionate and tireless worker for justice – passions that led him to seek degrees in social work. Having been a member the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for 15 years, he now serve as Pastor of Education and Outreach for Common Spirit Church of the Brethren in Grand Rapids. Scot spent most of 2016 ministering in Flint, Michigan, as a responder to the water crisis there. He served under the auspices of Common Spirit at First Church of the Brethren in Flint, in the neighborhood of his birth. He served as an adjunct professor of social work at Kuyper College for four years, and more recently served as an adjunct professor at the Earlham School of Religion during the 2017 January intensives. He is particularly drawn to Anabaptist theology as well as apocalyptic expressions of early Quakerism. You can read more of Scot’s work at http://www.gospeloftheabsurd.net/.

Photo Credits: Scot Miller

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Zero Waste – Guest Blogger, Katie Heishman

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zero-waste

One Lent, a couple of years ago, I vowed to give up trash. I chose Lent as a time to re-examine the amount of trash I was creating and tried to get that as close to “Zero” was possible. Choosing to embark on this journey during Lent was intentional—my faith informs my relationship with Creation. Sitting in my bedroom on Ash Wednesday, oily ash on my forehead, I found myself surrounded by things that would never turn to dust.

“From dust you were created, and to dust you shall return.”

While my faith informs my ecological passion and commitment to live simply, I was struggling to see this lived out in an intentional way in the church around me. I was inspired by a woman named Bea Johnson, who is the mother of a worldwide movement, called the “Zero Waste Lifestyle.”

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Katie with one of her and Tim’s lovely chickens. She felt to dorky to include them in her bio so we needed to sneak one in somehow!

The Zero Waste Lifestyle is about making as little trash as possible. Johnson and her family of four can fit a year’s worth of trash in a quart size jar. This moment is when we all gasp and wonder how when the average American produces about 4.4lbs of trash in a single day. Just think for a moment about all of the things that you have touched today whose final destination will be “away.” But where is away truly?

During Lent, I confessed my complicity within a consumeristic society. I confessed to using an item for thirty minutes (or even less) and tossing it into the trash can. I confessed that I had mindlessly tossed something “away” without considering the real consequences of where “away” might truly be. Most of our trash goes to landfills, which really should be known as “mega-fills” for their mammoth size. These mega-fills are usually in the backyard of the socioeconomic disadvantaged. In the Pacific Ocean, we have so much plastic trash swirling that we had to name this new region of the Sea: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The water and the sun break down plastic into little microplastics which are ingested by sea life. There are countless images of Albatross birds with stomachs full of plastic particles and sea turtles suffering from plastic straws and soda-can rings.

In Genesis 2, God makes it known that we like “every animal of the field and every bird of the air” are made of dust. We are all made from the same substance. That the creator God became embodied in the dust of Creation, to save Creation, suggests that this dust matters. My Anabaptist faith taught me to pay particular attention to the disadvantaged—to “the least of these.” When throwing my trash “away,” I was complicity throwing it into the backyards of my neighbors. It was disappearing from my sight, but re-appearing in the sight, smell, sound, and soul of others.

The Zero Waste Lifestyle promotes “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot” and in that order. Refuse involves stopping the flow of waste from entering our homes, our lives. During Lent, I began to refuse “single-use disposable items” like the Starbucks coffee cup (in seasonal color), the plastic bag from the grocery store, the napkin and straw from the restaurant, the to-go container. Reduce means limiting our consumption and downsizing our possessions. The less
stuff we have—the less we must upkeep, and the less likely our possessions are to possess us. I downsized my closet and committed to only buying second-hand clothing. Reuse focuses on using quality items that will last. I brought my to-go container to restaurants and made sure to have a “Zero Waste Travel Kit” with me to help me avoid waste as I navigated the world. This kit included metal silverware, a cloth napkin, and a mason jar for a to-go cup. Recycle seems like it would be an important component in a Zero Waste Lifestyle, but there is a reason it’s at the end! Recycling of plastics is a closed-loop system because a #1 plastic bottle won’t become a #1 plastic bottle again, but a lesser plastic. So, I tried to avoid items packaged in plastic and opted for glass or cardboard which can be eternally recycled. Rot is the hopeful end to our waste. While a Zero Waste Lifestyle hopes to create minimal trash, it does produce things that need composting like food scraps and wooden items. This is God’s idea of filling the land.

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Katie and Tim’s herb garden at their home, onsite at Brethren Woods.

I took areas of my house and my life and tried to find Zero Waste alternatives. In my bathroom, when my toothpaste in a tube ran out—I made my own from baking soda and coconut oil. I bought bars of soap without packaging, instead of facewash with “exfoliating” microplastics. In my kitchen, I tried to buy only fresh produce (instead of packaged) and purchased grains and beans in bulk bins where I could find them. I made all of my meals from scratch, and I learned how to make food items that might come in plastic: like tortillas and brown sugar. In my bedroom, I learned how to mend holey items and gave them a second life. For school, I submitted papers electronically and refused handouts in class when available online.

I did produce trash during my Zero Waste Lent because it was the beginning of a journey. I found that pursuing a Zero Waste Lifestyle has opened up simple living to me in a whole new way. It created physical and emotional space in my life to encounter the Holy in new ways. I was partnering with people in my community by bringing cloth bags or refusing a straw. I was inviting creativity into my life by finding sustainable alternatives to the plastic world that surrounded me. I had fewer clothes and mysteriously didn’t suffer from the “I have nothing to wear syndrome!” I let go of the items and things that were taking up space. Instead, I filled my moments with experiencing life and creativity, instead of mindlessly consuming. I washed dishes with friends at common meal and used the soil from my compost bin to start a garden in our backyard. Most importantly, I abandoned the idea that I am what I own and found myself resting in the mantra of being a child of God.

Pursuing a “Zero Waste Lifestyle” sounds like a daunting task, but there are small ways that we can challenge the systems which render God’s planet as inconsequential. Imagine if our churches, if faithful followers of Jesus led the way in modeling a sustainable life on the Earth. At the conclusion of Lent, we celebrate the resurrection hope—of what was dead becoming alive. As followers of Jesus, may we continue to live in resurrection hope—sharing God’s redemptive, resurrection power with the world one intentional action at a time.

 

SAMSUNG CSCKatie Heishman is an MDiv student at Bethany Theological Seminary and co-Program Director at Brethren Woods Camp and Retreat Center with her husband, Tim. They live in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and attend Linville Creek Church of the Brethren.

 

 

Photo Credits: Kaikoura Seafest; Katie Heishman

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Permaculture Recap – Guest Blogger, Jonathan Stauffer

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The Seminary Stewardship Alliance (SSA) met in Portland, Oregon on October 13-15 for its 5th annual conference. All seminaries that are participants of the consortium, from the American East Coast to a couple from Australia, and a handful of undergraduate colleges were in attensbp1dance. The theme of the conference was, Permaculture: Developing a Creation Care Culture in Christian Higher Ed, and the program consisted mostly of plenary speakers and breakout sessions among regional and theological cohorts. It’s a rare occurrence to see denominations like Southern Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, and peace churches agree to talk about any common interest. However, all attendants came to discuss the need for developing creation care principles and actions through our respective Christians institutions.

Assistant Professor Nate Inglis and three students (Chibuzo Petty, Elizabeth Ullery-Swenson, and I) represented Bethany Theological Seminary. Regarding the conference, Elizabeth shared:

In the midst of an early seasonal deluge, we were reminded that the challenges facing our global climate are dire and demand a response. During our time together we talked about our Biblical responsibility to care for all God’s people and all of God’s creation. The wide range of theological backgrounds made for challenging conversations, but I believe that everyone left with a sense of urgent purpose and direction. Personally, I came away with new Biblical grounded ways to find common ground across theological difference regarding our responsibility to care for God’s creation.

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I appreciated the spectrum of Christian traditions that were in attendance and was stimulated by the opportunity to network with faculty and students from other schools that were also passionate about caring for God’s earth. Daniel Brunner, professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, presented the opening plenary on Friday morning about Luther’s theology of the cross and how it pertains to ecological justice. Chibuzo most appreciated the discussion of the Book of Job:

We’re all familiar with the basic buffet of creation care verses. Hearing we would be exploring Job as a creation narrative certainly peaked my interest. Kathryn Schifferdecker, professor at Luther Seminary, spoke about her book on the subject Out of the Whirlwind. Her reimagining of eco-theology within the context of suffering and divine justice in Job was creative. She provided attendees with a much needed reminder of how radically non-anthropocentric God’s creation is.

On one afternoon, I attended a breakout session with representatives from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. There we discussed a common heritage on our traditions with small-scale agriculture and the challenges that a range of theological perspectives within our denominations presents in promoting creation care ministries. Overall, I found the SSA conference an instructive and encouraging experience.

A complete list of schools represented can be found here: http://seminaryalliance.org/partner-schools/.

Each of the members of Bethany’s SSA delegation will be speaking at Bethany Theological Seminary’s Presidential Forum and Youth and Young Adult Event, March 16-19, 2017: God’s Green Earth—A Call to Care and Witness. SAVE THE DATE!

Jonathan SJPS_Tweed_Ride14tauffer is a member of the Polo (IL) Church of the Brethren congregation. He is currently a student at Bethany Theological Seminary where he is finishing his MA with a concentration in theological studies.

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Reflections on Rooted and Grounded at AMBS – Guest Blogger, Jonathan Stauffer

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Are human beings given free dominion of the land, or does God care what we do with the creation? Participants explored these and other profound questions at the Rooted and Ground conference held at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Six students, from Bethany Seminary and Earlham School of Religion, and two Bethany professors attended the creation care conference from Thursday, October 1 through Saturday, October 3rd.
Around 140 participants brought a range of ecumenical perspectives to address a variety of environmental concerns. Activities at the three-day conference included presentations, worship services, and immersion experiences. From the assorted presentations and conversations, participants envisioned a variety of Christian responses to the ecological crisis.

The bulk of conference events centered on a multitude of presentations. Several papers and workshops focused on biblical, theological, and ethical principles in relation to creation care and social justice. Nate Inglis, Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Bethany Seminary, presented “Conversion to the Community of Creation: Bridging Anabaptist Theological Anthropology and Ecology” on Thursday afternoon. Scott Holland, Professor of Theology & Culture at Bethany Seminary, and Bethany MA student Kristy Shellenberger presented a workshop about theopoetics and creation care on Friday morning.

Presentations also featured practical suggestions that care for the land and local communities. Farmers described their methods of organic production. At the urban level, pastors shared how gardens were employed in liturgical practices and served the food needs of marginalized communities. “As demographics continue to shift in this country, it is important that the Church adapt and be equipped to minister in these new realities,” remarks Shayne Petty. He continues, “It is crucial that we expand the conversation about eco-theology to include the voices of those, demographically, not typically associated with agriculture. It can be incredibly empowering for persons of color, most of whom, especially Blacks, living in urban areas to be given theological language to reflect upon the beauty of God’s creation in the city.”

Worship services employed rich liturgical themes of creation’s praise to God through hymns and responsive readings. Three keynote speakers presented thought-provoking messages for conference attendees. 2015-10-02 12.14.53

Wilma Bailey, Professor Emerita of Hebrew and Aramaic studies at Christian Theological Seminary, spoke at the Thursday night worship service. She explored various Hebrew terms found in the creation accounts of Genesis 1-3. Bailey also reflected on the wildness of creation. Lions and other predators caution us humans that we are not as fully in control of nature as we like to assert.

Our Friday night speaker provided even more profound reflection. Sylvia Keesmat, an organic farmer and adjunct professor at Toronto School of Theology, interpreted from the Letter to the Romans, particularly between chapters 1, 8, and 12. She claimed that the apostle Paul expressed profound grief over the Roman imperial occupation – an occupation that degraded both social and ecological health – and explored how that grief still pervades in our present global crisis. “It was humbling,” notes Katie Cummings, “to lament together our shortcomings and to confess our idolatry.” Keesmat also professed an inspiring hope, following Paul’s message, that God’s love for all creation will prevail and includes faithful acts of earth care.

Ched Myers, biblical scholar and activist theologian, spoke as keynote for Saturday morning worship. He explained the principles of “watershed discipleship,” a recent model of Christian community formed by natural bio-regions and local economies. It recognizes the sacredness of the land in providing not only for human needs, but also for all processes that God created to sustain life.

Before the conference began, participants selected between options for immersion experiences scheduled on Friday afternoon. Four Bethany Seminary participants, myself included, went on the “Trail of Death” tour near Plymouth, Indiana. A Potawatomi tribe once inhabited two sites around the Twin Lakes area until they were expelled in September 1838 by military force. For the next three months, the tribe marched west under oppressive conditions. The survivors settled in Oklahoma territory in November. As we walked between sites, I took time to reflect on the plight of the Potawatomi tribe and what true reconciliation with American Indian communities would look like. We then made a brief tour of the Indian exhibit at the Fulton County museum and headed back to AMBS.

The Rooted & Grounded conference reminds us that the whole creation knows God as Creator and is eagerly waiting for God’s people to return to this understanding. Oscar Lugusa Malande, a student at the Earlham School Religion, states this insight well: “At this conference, it occurred to me that the revelation of children of God is being fulfilled. [For a long time] the creation has been groaning for this revelation.” Compelled by this humbling truth, Christians must allow God’s priorities to inform our role in becoming responsible stewards for the health of the land, of our communi2015-10-03 11.07.40ties, and of other living creatures.

For more background information about activities and speakers, go to the Rooted and Grounded conference website: https://www.ambs.edu/news-events/Rooted-and-Grounded.cfm

 

 

 

JPS_Tweed_Ride14Jonathan Stauffer is a member of the Polo (IL) Church of the Brethren congregation. He is currently a student at Bethany Theological Seminary and beginning his second year in the Master of Arts program with a concentration in theological studies.

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The Faith once Digitally Delivered Unto the Saints – Guest Blogger, Eric Bradley

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Digital Archives

As for us, our duty is clear. We should not only obey the complete Gospel, but we should teach it to others. We must accept the faith once delivered to the saints, and keep the ordinances as they have come down to us through the New Testament. While we dare not forbid those who teach and obey but half of the Gospel, we may do well to commend them for the good they do. But it is one thing to commend them for the good they do and quite another to encourage them in the neglect of many of the plain commandments. ((Our Relation to Others Engaged in Good Works,” The Gospel Messenger, January 7, 1905, 9.))

Suppose you wanted to see how Brethren used the beloved phrase of Jude 3 in its booklets, tracts, and papers. As late as 2010, this would have involved having to physically travel to a Brethren library or archive, look through catalogs and finding aids, and then thumb through issue after issue of material. If you were lucky, you could perhaps have microfilm of a Brethren publication sent to your local library, to which you would have to scroll page after page in a similar fashion. However, thanks to the work of the Brethren Digital Archives, many of these publications are now freely accessible and searchable on the internet.

Begun in September 2007, the mission of the Brethren Digital Archives is to digitize some or all of the periodicals produced from the beginning of publication to the year 2000 by each of the Brethren bodies who trace their origin to the baptism near Schwarzenau, Germany in 1708. It consists of twenty partners: archivists, librarians and publishers from every Brethren branch. To date, Brethren Digital Archives has digitized over seven hundred items, including full runs of major publications such as Messenger (beginning Henry Kurtz’s Gospel-Visiter and its variations), The Brethren Evangelist, Brethren Missionary Herald, and Bible Monitor.

One may wonder for the need of a small, volunteered powered organizations like Brethren Digital Archives to form and scan materials. After all, the Google Books Library Project has scanned 20 million book volumes of an estimated 130 million volumes in existence.1 Mainly there is much Google cannot do. Google’s mass digitization currently includes 40 of the largest research libraries in the world.2 This method produces a large number of items scanned on a limited footprint, yet misses many items not included in these libraries.  36% of all cataloged books are only held in one library.3 With over 100,000 libraries in the United States alone, it is unlikely that all these unique items are at the handful of libraries Google has visited.((“Number of Libraries in the United States,” accessed February 24, 2014, http://www.ala.org/tools/libfactsheets/alalibraryfactsheet01.))

Another challenge with the Google mass digitization project is the “scan now, ask questions later” approach to publisher and author rights. This approach brought about the Authors Guild v. Google lawsuit in 2005. While dismissed in November 2013, it is once again being appealed/4 Brethren Digital Archives sought another way, inviting publishers to the table from the very beginning of the project. This partnership has not only avoided possible legal repercussions, but has brought the depth and insight of Brethren publishers and editors to assist with the needs of the project.

Google’s mass digitization project is incredible, and includes many Brethren resources previously available only in the stacks of your local library. However, to successfully digitize the unique resources not available in the world’s elite library collections, local grassroots large-scale digitization projects need to take place.  “Large-scale projects are more discriminating than mass-digitization projects. Although they do produce a lot of scanned pages, they are concerned about the creation of collections and about producing complete sets of documents.”5

A slow, intentional, dare I say Brethren, approach to such a project does have advantages. Two key advantages are accessibility and quality. Partnering with publishers, Brethren Digital Archives has been able to have candid conversations about open access from day one. Other digitization projects have brought about limited availability to many materials still in copyright, either through a “snippet view” feature or subscription paywalls.  Brethren Digital Archives sought to balance the current economic realities of publishers with the desire to have free open access to historical documents, and agreed to have copyright released up to the year 2000 for all publications when possible. Mass digitization without quality control often brings about, as have been chronicled in the The Art of Google Books blog, a variety of errors.6 Taking the time to select the best available copies of materials, followed by a careful inspection of the scanned product has avoided many of the errors possible with such a project. While aged documents will never look brand new in the digital medium, one can faithfully reproduce what exists.

What remains for Brethren Digital Archives and similar efforts?  Plenty. Since Henry Kurtz took to the printing press in 1851 there have been over 250 Brethren periodicals published. Only twenty-seven of these have been digitized. Many of these publications have only one or two known copies, and are quickly deteriorating. Beyond the 250 Brethren periodicals are a world of Brethren affiliated blogs and websites, many of which could disappear today with a click of a button. In some ways the history of the past decade is in a more fragile condition than that of the past three centuries before. The ongoing work of such projects is important to pass on “the faith once delivered to the saints.”

Bradley

Eric Bradley is Reference and Instruction Librarian at Goshen College, as well as Project Coordinator for the Brethren Digital Archives.  His professional interests include next generation library development, theological librarianship, and historical research in the Believers’ Church traditions.  He and his son Neil love the Lake Michigan shoreline.

  1. Sophia Pearson and Bob Van Voris, “Google Wins Dismissal of Lawsuit over Digital Books Project,” BusinessWeek: Undefined, November 14, 2013, http://www.businessweek.com/news/2013-11-14/google-wins-summary-judgment-in-digital-books-copyright-case. []
  2. “Library Partners,” Google Books, accessed February 24, 2014, http://books.google.com/googlebooks/library/partners.html. []
  3. Brian F. Lavoie and Roger C. Schonfeld, “Books without Boundaries: A Brief Tour of the System-Wide Print Book Collection,” Journal of Electronic Publishing 9, no. 2 (Summer 2006), doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/3336451.0009.208. []
  4. Claire Cain Miller and Julie Bosman, “Siding with Google, Judge Says Book Search Does Not Infringe Copyright,” The New York Times, November 14, 2013, sec. Business Day / Media & Advertising, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/15/business/media/judge-sides-with-google-on-book-scanning-suit.html. []
  5. Karen Coyle, “Mass Digitization of Books,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 32, no. 6 (November 2006): 242, doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2006.08.002. []
  6. “The Art of Google Books,” accessed February 24, 2014, http://theartofgooglebooks.tumblr.com. []
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