Oct 25 2013

Its All About Attitude

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By Robert Raker

There is a common misconception about simplicity and its relationship to Christ and Christianity.  In fact, this

misconception has caused many within the church to abandon this centuries old Brethren practice completely.  But why?

The problem is that, as with mo

st Biblical issues, we have gotten away from what the Bible really teaches.  When asked what simplicity in the Bible means, most would probably answer something like giving up worldly things, or living without nice things, or living on the bare essentials.

But this is not what the Bible teaches about simple living.  Indeed, simple living is not about the absence of things, but about the absence of the need for things.  Here I want to consider two scriptures and hopefully clarify the idea.  The first text we’ll examine is Matthew 6:25-34.

This passage should be familiar to those even loosely acquainted with the Bible.  Anytime someone faces worry or doubt this passage is used to bring comfort or lend support.  It is a part of  “The Sermon on the Mount,” one of Jesus’ most famous teachings, .

While the entire passage could be

read in regards to simple living I want us to focus in on three main points.  First, in verse 32  Jesus says, “the pagans run after all these things.” The key word here is “run”.  It is my belief that what the Bible teaches regarding simplicity is more about attitude toward our possessions than the actual possessions.  And here Jesus plainly states that those who run after, or pursue, these things are the pagans, not merely those who own them.

This idea is supported in the next verse when Jesus says we are to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness,”  Again, we see the idea that to have these things is not necessarily. Rather, to pursue them before God’s kingd

om and righteousness is bad.  Jesus is reminding us what should come first in our lives.  In other words, its all about the attitude. This idea is completed in the second half of verse 33.  “All these things will be given to you as well.”  God wants us to have things, that is the things we need and desire, but He will only give them to us when we pursue Him first.

Our second passage comes from I Timothy 6:3-10.  In verse 6 Paul tells Timothy that, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”  This is another way of saying, “Seek first His kingdom.”

Simple living is about being happy with what we’ve been given rather pursuing more and more and more.  But again, we must be reminded that the possessions themselves are not harmful, but rather our attitude toward them.   This is an idea Paul expounds on in verse 10,  another well know passage.  Who among us hasn’t heard this at some point, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”  However, if we scan this verse quickly, without stopping to examine it, we can lose the true meaning.

I have heard people say that this verse teaches that money and the things it purchases are evil and should

therefore be avoided at all cost.  This is not what Paul is saying.  Paul says that, “the love of money is the root of all evil.”  Its our attitude toward it that matters not the money itself.

Try this experiment.  Take a dollar bill out of your wallet and place it on the kitchen table, or desk in front of you.  Now watch closely.  Has it moved?  Has it done anything other than possibly been moved by a fan or breeze?  Of course it hasn’t!  It’s only money. The point is this: money, or possessions have no power in and of themselves.  They cannot think, read, talk, or walk.  The only power they have is the power we give them.  That’s why Paul says the love of money is the root all evil and not money itself.  Its all about the attitude.

Still later in this verse Paul takes it one step farther when he tells Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

These are just two of the many scriptures which demonstrate that possessions are not evil, but our attitude toward them.  Is it wrong to have nice th

ings?  If they cause us to pursue more nice things then the answer is yes.  But if we are satisfied, or content, with the things which God has blessed us with, and continue to place His kingdom and righteousness above our things then the answer is no.  When it comes to simple living, its really all about attitude.

Rob picRobert Raker is an ordained minister in the Southern Ohio District of the Church of the Brethren.  He is currently between assignments as an interim pastor.  He enjoys spending time with his wife and children, writing, and teaching a weekly home based Bible study

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Aug 8 2013

A New Order for Clergy?

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David Fitch(Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary) shared these reflections on his blog “Reclaiming the Mission.” Given the recent conversations in the Church of the Brethren regardingour polity for ministerial leadership, his remarks seemed appropriate to share with our readers. With David’s permission, I have reposted his remarks here. To follow the significant discussion that has already taken place you can click here to head over to the original post. Much thanks to David for sharing his thoughts with Brethren Life and Thought. To read up on the recommendations before the Church of the Brethren, a number of resources are available here.

So I am sure I’m not the firstto come up with this notion (look here for instance), but it seems to me denominations in the West need to create a new category for commissioning leadership. We need an new order of pastors for mission.

For hundreds of years, and still within my lifetime, churches in the West have been confined to the traditional structures of clergy. This order of professional clergy was defined by a time when there was huge demand for the full time pastor to order the entire ministry of a congregation.  Seminaries were structured to educate persons for this role. They learned Biblical exegesis, preaching, administration, pastoral care, leadership, etc. all in one package. The process to ministry included getting a MDiv at a seminary, passing ordination exams and interviews, and then candidating for a post at one of thousands of local churches.

This made sense in U.S.A. , Canada and even Europe in the last 50-75 years.  But the world has changed and we need less and less full time professional clergy. The churches that flourish with full time paid professional staff are large mega churches who need specialists – worship pastor, C.E.O. senior pastor world class communicator, children’s ministry pastor, justice ministry manager, director of outreach, executive pastor, etc.etc. The other kind of churches looking for a full time clergy are the old-fashioned single pastor congregation of Western Christendom. More and more of these churches are floundering smaller congregations looking for a ‘savior.’ It is true that there are more mega churches but they grow on the backs of the shrinking of the old-fashioned single pastor congregation of Western Christendom. As we consolidate existing ‘successful Christians’ into larger and larger churches, the old-fashioned single pastor-small staff churches shrivel unable to even pay one pastor let alone a church secretary.  The net-net result is we need fewer and fewer full time clergy to ‘service’ the remaining Christians left in our society.

I suggest there is a need for a new order of clergy (if I may call it that): a missional leader who can understand the relationship between work and ministry so that it is seamless. He or she dedicates 10-15 hours a week to organizing the Kingdom community in their local context.  He or she knows her gifting and can lead out of that gifting. He or she has a job that he/she can support her/himself and her family with. He/she can develop a job skill that can adapt to changing circumstances. Often, he or she adjust their work hours so that she can work a tad less than the average 40 hour week. He or she can then give time to the leadership of their community without disrupting a daily/weekly rhythm of being present with family and neighborhood as well. The small church community can offer a small stipend to make up the difference. He or she does all this with 3 to 4 other leaders who do the same. Each is recognized for one of the five-fold giftings out of which they minister and lead in relation to the other leaders. They are apostle, prophet, pastor-organizer, teacher-organizer, evangelist working together, 15 hours plus 15 hours, plus 15 hours, plus 15 hours plus 15 hours. They are doing more out of multiple giftings than one single pastor ever could. They are bearing each other’s burdens. They are a “band of brothers and sisters.” This becomes a sustainable missionary kind of ministry that changes the whole dynamics of ministry because they are present in jobs, families and neighborhoods and makes possible long term ministry in context. It is, in essence, a new version of the old monastic orders of mission adapted to the capitalistic societies in the West while providing the means to resist (and provide witness) to its more oppressive sinful patterns.

Denominations need to define a new order of clergy because anyone seeking to operate in ministry this way will easily get defeated. Some of the more obvious ways they will get defeated are:

  • They will get caught up in bi-vocational ministry where they will be expected to get a full time job, and do the work of a full time minister (because no one changed the expectations). This is chaos and recipe for personal disaster. It simply will never work. We need a new order of clergy then to redefine bi-vocational ministry and fund a new imagination for what this kind of order of mission might look like.
  • They will get ordained into ministry and become bi-vocational and missional but the denominations will still expect them to fulfill all the old requirements of the traditional form of full time pastorate.  They will have to go to local ministerial associations, represent the church at local events, make sure the furnace is working at the church, take care of funerals and attend civic events, fill out data sheets for the denomination. But reality is, they have other jobs! They need to be given credentials that recognize the new rhythms of life they have committed themselves to. (This stuff nearly killed me when I was a bi-vocational pastor).
  • They will get a job, take up local contextual ministry and they will not understand the relationship between their work and ministerial leadership calling. They will not know how to look at their jobs once they get successful. They will not be able to be comfortable with 15 hours a week working for the organization of the church (because no one provided these expectations). They will not know what it means when their churches start to grow and some leaders ask them to quit their jobs because they will have allowed the identity of their jobs and its monetary success to overwhelm them. An imagination for the way work and ministry and family (when there is one) go together needs to be cultivated and this can best be done through defining a new order of clergy and then bringing those practicing together to discuss and offer visions for what this looks like.

For all these reasons we need to fund a new imagination for a new emerging clergy class that are in essence self sustaining contextual N. American missionaries. But the denominations for the most part have not navigated this. My guess is, if the denominations formed a new order of clergy, helped developed imagination and supporting structures for it, there would be untold numbers flocking to this group. There are literally thousands of second career people, and thousands of younger seminary graduates  dissatisfied with current options (dying small church senior pastor or mega church staff person) who would gravitate towards this kind of commissioning.  But we have no larger imagination for it. A new order of clergy could help and support these kind of missionaries and stir up such an imagination. Such an order of clergy could seed a whole new mission for a renewal of the Kingdom in N America.

What do you think? Denominational leaders, do you have such an order of clergy in your structures? Of course, it goes without saying that we need to fund the education of this new order of clergy differently, not taking people out of their context, but providing training along the way over longer (more affordable) periods of time.  There are many seminaries preparing to do this. We know we have to do it. I can’t wait til Northern unveils its new program for doing just that.

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David Fitch is the Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and part of the pastoral leadership of Life on the Vine, a congregation in suburban Chicago. He has published several books, including End of Evangelicalism (Wipf & Stock, 2011) and Prodigal Christianity with GeoffHolsclaw (Jossey-Bass, 2013).

 

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Apr 3 2013

Small Groups in Congregational Life

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Tim Harvey, pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, VA recently shared some observations on small groups in church life in preparation for their congregational business meeting. In this post Tim discusses the components of vibrant small groups in the life of the congregation. The post was originally shared on Tim’s blog on the Central congregation’s website

Our congregation has recently experienced renewal through the ministry of the Hunger Group. Originally conceived as a short-term study group in the summer of 2011, these Central members have found renewed energy, focus, and challenge through their commitment to understand and alleviate hunger in the Roanoke Valley.  We have each benefitted from their leadership.

Small groups are not new to the history of the church. In fact, the Church of the Brethren began as a small group, as eight persons gathered for Bible Study, prayer and baptism in 1708.  Many Christians throughout the years have found a deepened sense of faith and commitment through the shared life of a small group.

In order to be effective, a small group needs to find togetherness in the following areas:  someone to bring the group together; a commitment to stay together; a focus which guides theirstudy together; opportunities to do mission together; chances to get together; and times to pray together.

The first two categories are the minimum commitment for a small group to exist in any meaningful way; without these, the group is significantly flawed and will struggle to accomplish effective ministry.

Leadership is what brings the group together.  Leadership takes a number of forms:  a convener; a study leader; a fellowship coordinator; a mission coordinator, just to name a few.  In fact, an effective small group will divide up these tasks among the group members, thus sharing in the overall group planning.

A commitment to stay together is also critical.  This commitment will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose.  A prayer group or life-stage group may stay together indefinitely; a study group (like we offer in the summer) or a focus group (like our membership class) will meet for a short period of time, or until a particular task is complete.  Whatever the case may be with each group, commitment must be clearly stated and agreed upon:  how often the group meets, how long the group plans to exist, and what members do to prepare for group meetings are key questions.

The next four categories will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose of the group.  They need not exist in equal proportion, but will be present in some form:

A small group should study together.  This will likely be what brought the group together in the first place; whether the group is a Sunday School class or a mission group, a time of study will open our minds to greater understanding of God’s activity in our lives and in the world around us.

A small group should do mission together.  Whatever the purpose of the group, there should be some project that takes the group outside of itself into the community.  When we put mission first in our lives, the Spirit opens up some interesting doors.

A small group should get together for fellowship.  Whatever the main purpose of the group (mission, study, prayer, etc.), the overall group experience will be enhanced by spending time together doing other things.  Deep relationships centered around fellowship can powerfully impact the group’s commitment.

Finally, a small group should pray together, encouraging one another in their shared spiritual growth.  Through prayer and discussion, group members can help one another grow in deeper faith and commitment.

As our congregation moves forward and seeks continued renewal and growth, small groups should be at the forefront of our thinking.  Approaching our Spring Council Meeting, I see several implications of small group thinking for our congregation.

First, the days of measuring church commitment by a willingness to serve on a committee are over.  Instead, small groups with a strong emphasis on mission and spiritual growth must be the priority of our congregation.

Second, consider the small group(s) (Sunday School classes) you are in.  How are the above six characteristics on display in that group?  Is there a clear investment in shared leadership?  Have each of the members in the group expressed their own commitment to the group?  In what proportion are the qualities of study, mission, fellowship, and prayer present?   If these qualities are there, then thanks be to God!  If they are not, is it time for some soul-searching among group members?  Could it be that the group has simply outlived its original purpose?  Is it time for the group to be either renewed or disbanded so members can reform into a new group?

Tim HarveyTim Harvey is pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in downtown Roanoke, VA. He and the congregation work hard at issues of renewal and revitalization, both in the congregation and in the downtown community. Issues of spiritual and literal hunger are recurring themes in their mission and ministry. And yes, he rides a unicycle!

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Mar 2 2013

Fasting and Feasting

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By Laura Stone

As the season of Lent comes upon us it is easy to question the appropriateness of the season for a tradition of the Radical Reformation. Laura Stone, a Church of the Brethren student at Andover Newton offered these reflections in the days before Ash Wednesday on her blog The Patchwork Pietist. We are grateful for her permission to repost her thoughts here. 

I fast in Lent as a preparation.  Just as one heroic act is made possible by a lifetime of little heroic acts, just as a marathon cannot be safely run without days, weeks, months, even years of training; likewise, if I am going to run the race of faith, dare the foolishness of faith in the decisive moments, I need to have trained in the little daily moments.  I need to know how to open myself to God’s grace as I travel little valleys, so that when the Valley of the Shadow of Death comes, I will fear no evil because I will know the God who is at my side.
I fast in Lent for freedom.  I am bound by so many things of which I am barely aware.  I am bound by consumerism, by busyness, by techno-addiction, by habits of mind and heart that keep me from experiencing abundant life.  In Lent I declare with my fasting and by God’s help, that none of these things that keep me bound are ultimate.  I declare, with the full freedom of a child of God, that these things do not have to have control of my life.  And this freedom inevitably spreads, because I can’t step into my own freedom (however haltingly) without noticing others’ lack of freedom.
I fast in Lent for justice.  My fasting during Lent reminds me that Love is what is eternal.  It creates a thin place, lifting the veil between worlds, easing scales from my eyes, and allowing glimpses of things as they truly are.  When I step bit by bit into my own freedom, I become aware of the ways in which others are enslaved, sometimes by systems in which I am complicit.  So freedom, for me, leads to confession, which leads toward justice, which leads back again to freedom.  Indeed, is not this the fast God chooses?: to loose the chains of injustice, to set prisoners free, to shelter the homeless, to feed the hungry.
But I don’t just fast in Lent.  I also immerse myself in activities and postures that open me and bring me and the world joy.  For Christians, Lent is a journey to the cross, toward death, and always in the shadow of sin.  But we also know that the story doesn’t end there.  Lent is also a journey toward new life that rises from the ashes of the old.
So today begins the fast and the feast.  This year I am fasting from Facebook and “yeah, but…”‘s.  This year I am feasting through daily prayer / writing around a word and through daily connection with nature.  If you are fasting and/or feasting this Lent, feel free to share.  It’s always good to have companions on the way!
I look forward to seeing what new horizons God opens to our vision in this season, and I pray this journey’s blessings on each of us and on the whole world.
Laure Stone

 

Laura Stone is a former Community musician and former mental health worker (at Gould Farm in MA).  She is currently most interested in practical theology, urban ministry, and how worship, theology, and justice connect. She will begin pursuing these interests as a PhD student at Boston University. Catch her article, “A Brief History of Christology” in the Fall 2012 Issue of Brethren Life and Thought.
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Sep 28 2012

What about the Prayer Covering?

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Photo courtesy of Bethany Theological Seminary

When was the last time that you changed your physical appearance to enter into worship? Have you removed your shoes to walk a labyrinth? Removed your hat for a moment of silence? Have you placed a covering on your head to enter a sanctuary? Each of these practices is rooted in Biblical instructions spanning from Moses to Paul. And each action contains its own unique history of evolution from what the Biblical writers intended to what we now observe as contemporary practice. More importantly to me, each practice invites us as people of God to think intentionally about how we prepare to present our physical bodies – an integral part of our whole selves – to the divine and to each other before we enter in to worship.

At Bethany Seminary I focused my master’s thesis on the third practice mentioned above, women wearing the prayer covering. My work concentrated on Church of the Brethren understandings of this practice, but I dream of connecting our tradition to how covering heads intersects with a variety of world-wide faith traditions. We can observe head covering in wedding veils, nun’s habits, Jewish Yakamas, elaborate hats for African American worshipers, and the often controversial Muslim burkah, just to name a few.

Dots of white coverings were visible throughout this year’s annual conference. On any Sunday morning you would see women in some Brethren congregations still wearing the covering for worship, and a few more women donning the covering for love feast or communion with their faith body. Some women wear the covering at all times, from the moment they rise until they are ready to sleep. In extreme cases, women have even chosen to sleep in their covering. This grows out of connecting their interpretation of Paul’s instructions to cover their heads during prayer with another instruction to pray without ceasing. Therefore, they believe that even at night in bed they are called to be in prayer, and so they never remove the covering. While many Brethren women today do not wear the covering, by far the most common reaction to the topic when I bring it up is for people of both genders and of a wide span of ages to share fond or humorous memories of a grandmother or pastor’s wife from a different generation who wore the covering.

What motivates any Brethren women to cover their heads with a thin white piece of cloth? And where did the practice originate? It’s already been mentioned that Paul instructed the practice in his often cited but difficult to interpret passage in I Corinthians where he states, “…but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head… For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” (1 Corinthians 11: 2-16, NRSV) Historically, this passage has been interpreted in ways that both inspire women to cover their own heads, or drive men and women to force others to wear coverings. Some women feel a sense of empowerment and holiness from the practice, while others feel controlled or denigrated to a position of subservience by the act. These reactions are not formed as one coherent feeling. They inter-mingle so that many women, if they consider or practice covering at all, fall somewhere on a wide spectrum of motivations and emotional responses about the practice.

Some of the most commonly cited motivations for wearing the covering in written accounts of the practice include obedience to scripture and to the leading of the community, a sense of identity, divine empowerment to offer leadership by virtue of the covering, and a feeling of reverence. By far, the most cited of all reasons for practicing covering was a feeling of reverence. This reverence intersects directly with women’s experience of worship. For many women, placing a covering on their head heightens their personal reverence to God in preparing for, and participating in, worship.

No records have been uncovered yet to trace the beginnings of Brethren covering. It seems to have been a part of Brethren dress from our very beginnings in Germany and connects most closely with an entire ensemble of plain dress. According to Annual Conference minutes, the most recent Conference decision about the practice dates back to 1925. A study committee was formed at that time to consider the practice, and the determination of that committee was that women should wear the covering. Practicing local congregational freedom, choices about size, color, duration of wear and other specifics were left up to each congregation’s conscience.

However, although the most recent official statement recommends participation in covering, fewer are participating in the action of wearing a prayer covering. The observable slacking of the practice directly correlates with a broader Brethren assimilation to prevailing surrounding culture beginning in the early twentieth century. This assimilation includes a whole host of beliefs and practices including participation in war, prohibition to alcohol, seeking and voting for public office, and the rise of cultural evangelicalism. But, even with these recognizable cultural shifts, some women still participate in covering as congregational communities or individually as part of personal devotion.

I do not want to wrap this up in a way that does not acknowledge the deep hurt and frustration felt by some Brethren women. Throughout my writing process, I was most compelled by personal stories shared about the practice. While many stories tended toward sentimental and humorous, the most heart-wrenching were those who share stories of pain, struggle and separation. For women who interpret the covering to symbolize domination by men, or for those unable to practice covering because of some external reason, it is particularly difficult to see reverence in the practice.

However, as I write this, I am looking at my own lace-lined covering sitting on my desk in front of me. It was lovingly sown by my great-grandmother for my first Love Feast after my baptism. I still generally remember to wear it for Love Feast, which is the way that tradition was passed to me from previous generations of Brethren women. And it reminds me of my deep links to those important women who have shaped my faith and Brethren identity. My own experience is one of heightened awareness of the presence of God and the support of my foremothers in my own faith formation. More profoundly, I have learned that each woman has her own unique story of covering. My deep desire for Brethren women is that each of us can examine and express our own understandings of covering with one another. And then that the practice can be embraced or rejected based on the inspiration of the spirit for each one of us living in this community we call Brethren. And maybe, at its best, a practice like covering can be a tool to remind us of how we bring our whole being into the presence of God through worship. 

Monica Rice is a 2011 MA graduate of Bethany Theological Seminary. She currently serves as the Administrative Assistant for Institutional Advancement and Coordinator of Congregational Communication. She is also a member of the Brethren Journal Association Editorial Board.

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Sep 11 2012

Giving and Community Life

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The following “Call to Giving” was shared by Jeanne Davies, Associate Pastor of the Highland Ave Church of the Brethren.

Call to Giving

I want to quote a reflection for you on church struggles and their relation to church giving. This is from a post on sister Dana Cassell’s blog after a recent visit to the General Offices of the Church of the Brethren in Elgin.

“The image I left Elgin with last week was a gigantic upside down pyramid of denominational programs and activities balanced precariously on the stooped backs of a dozen or so staff. Pulling funding to make a point? Demanding radical change of an already woefully understaffed and overworked group? Your point will get lost – is already lost – in the deep, soulful grief they are already carrying as they witness the church they love and have served (some for decades) not simply lay down quietly and slip into a final sleep but get smashed and broken by angry children who aren’t getting their way.

And it’s not just the denominational staff, though I have witnessed their struggle most recently. It’s volunteer leaders forced to arbitrate nasty disputes and appeals, pastors of angry or divided congregations, middle-roaders losing their church home, young people being taught that church is about politics and power.”

Here at Highland Avenue, in Wednesday morning Bible study, we recently read God’s instructions to Moses about each household’s offering. God says to Moses, each person man must give one shekel as a ransom offering, or he will die. To not give was to not be a part of the community. To not be a part of the community in the desert, in the wilderness, a place of thirst, hunger, and hardship, was to risk death.

Historically in the church people gave to the church because it was a way of living. They returned to God what was a gift from God to begin with. They did not withhold their money because they didn’t like the sermon or they disagreed with the church leaders. Withholding money from the church was not seen as a way of influencing church decisions or policy. All gave to the church and all struggled together to determine the ministry and mission of the church – in prayer, in conversation, even in heated debate.

Giving to the church is not an investment. It’s not a gesture of support of an institution. It’s not a way of voting with your dollars. It’s a way of living. It’s another way of living, different from our culture of production and consumption that turns everything into a commodity to be bought and sold.

When we give we remember who we are, sons and daughters of God with an amazing inheritance. We remember who those sitting next to us are, our brothers and our sisters in faith. We remember who we are together, members of the Body of Christ, unique and unified, endowed with life-changing power. Let us share our gifts in joy and celebration of the One who gives us life and the ability to give.

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Jul 15 2012

Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 2

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By Christopher J. Montgomery

Read part one of this series…

Liturgical Place

Early Brethren meetinghouses arranged their liturgical furniture in a rectangular or circular fashion. The benches faced inward to emphasize the community of believers gathered for worship. The presiders, often a panel of elders and ministers, occupied a bench as part of the group. There was no hierarchy of status, only a distinction of role. God’s presence was manifest in the faces of assembly.

Our first step was to re-arrange our liturgical furniture in this manner. Guided by our heritage and the prevalence of Table imagery in the biblical narrative, the pews were detached and removed. Of the 28 pews on the floor level of our chapel, we retained 11. The remaining pews were stored in the back portion of the chapel underneath the balcony. Our worship space transformed from a long rectangle to a square. The pews were positioned in a circle facing two tables joined as a “T.” These tables held dual representation: the section holding the Bible and cross (from which the presider would lead), representing the remembrance of God’s revelation in story and symbol; and the section holding the meal elements, including bread, cup, towel and basin (representative of Love Feast), and three candles representing the presence of the Triune God in the assembly’s midst. Each table was covered with purple paraments, the liturgical color for Lent. The tables were to serve as a visual representation of the larger Table of God, realized as part of the Love Feast celebration and now as part of weekly worship. We positioned the presider’s chair, formerly on the elevated chancel, as part of the circle to represent the shared presence of God and ecclesial authority in the midst of the assembly. The musicians were also included in an opening in the circle to accompany the congregation’s song.

The shifted pew arrangement in the chapel resulted in the elimination of our projection and screen. The reduction in technological dependence created anxiety in some, particularly because of an increased amount of paper being used each week in the printing of the bulletin. All prayers and song texts that were normally projected were now included in a 6 page folded bulletin. In our initial conversations, I encouraged the congregation to make use of the bulletin for their personal devotional practice during the week. I drew their attention to the ancient breviary, an abbreviated form of the worship used by priests and deacons for personal worship.

Engaging the Scriptures Together

The new pew arrangement involved a rethinking of proclamation and the delivery of the sermon. Since the entire worship space faced inward as a circle, there was no place to stand where the presider faced the entire congregation (except seated in the presider’s chair as part of the circle). In the week leading up to the first worship service in-the-round, I began practicing with various ways of delivering the sermon and addressing the congregation. Standing at the table portion containing the open Bible was one option, though it meant that my back was to part of the group. I decided to approach the act of proclamation as I was approaching the entire liturgical event itself: ecclesiologically. If the authority of the presider comes from the assembly where the presence of God is manifest, the work of telling the stories of Scripture and engaging the community in its interpretation must also be rooted in the actual gathered assembly. This meant adopting a conversational approach to the sermon.

The work in preparing for this method of delivery began in the research. Rather than preparing a written transcript as I was accustomed to do for the past several years, I spent that time immersed in the topic itself. I engaged in reading, reflection, and conversation with a small group of persons for the purpose of preparing for communal engagement. I then approached the delivery of the sermon conversationally. Our worship series during Lent focused on the parables of Jesus from Luke’s gospel, traveling with Jesus through Samaria to Jerusalem. This content provided the necessary framework from which to present the Scriptures. I memorized each parable to present as a story-teller, circling the table and addressing the congregation while moving. The interpretive work of the parable each week proceeded with full community engagement. Questions were asked, discussions enabled. The deep work in research allowed me to serve as the guide for the discussion, threading component parts together (either in circling the table or from a seated position in the presider’s chair). The conversation would lead into moments of silence for reflection, leading then into our day’s prayer for change. The interpreting of the Scripture became a communal act.

The Ritual Meal

As part of the emphasis on the biblical Table image and socio-spatial awareness, we participated in the ritual meal weekly during this project. Though the Brethren have historically limited their participation in Eucharistic activity to the Love Feast (or a handful of additional times annually), our specific context includes those from more liturgical traditions. Our group, though divided evenly on whether to engage in weekly Table communion, agreed to treat it as an exercise in submission and forbearance.

I decided to broaden our understanding of the meal service at the Table. Using our Anabaptist emphasis on the life and example of Jesus, I explored ways to move from an exclusive focus on the Last Supper in Eucharistic practice to involve the entire meal tradition of Jesus seen throughout the Gospels (which included the Last Supper narrative). This approach to content, coupled with the traditional Eucharistic prayer form of the historic church (the Great Thanksgiving), served to fuse our ecumenical leanings with our mandate to speak liturgically with a distinctly Brethren voice.

For the first three weeks of the ritual meal service, the congregation stood around the Table. This presented a physical difficulty for many as we attempted to pass the trays of bread and cups to each other while also holding our worship orders. In the final weeks, we adapted by gathering around the table for the sursum corda (opening greeting for communion) following the passing of the peace, and then returning to our seats. To maintain an Anabaptist ecclesiological perspective, we shared the bread and cup in pairs. One person from each pair would come to the table to retrieve a small wooden tray which held two cups and an unbroken fragment of bread for sharing. When each person returned to their seats with the elements, I led the congregation in the recitation of our sharing line (“Bread/Cup of heaven, hope of the earth”). This proved to be a more effective method of engaging in the meal service.

Assessment

It became clear to the congregation’s key leadership over the course of our exploration together that our tradition’s emerging practice of forbearance and submission took greater shape in liturgical exercises. Those who may have been opposed to weekly Table service or engaging in worship in-the-round willingly submitted their preferences to those who found it particularly meaningful. We discovered that while some experienced the presence of God most fully in the music or silence, others experienced God’s presence in the bread and cup. While some found circular seating distracting, others discovered new joy in seeing the faces of each other as an act of worship. For many, the horizontality and verticality of the worship act met in the choice to seek the betterment of each other through self-limiting. Though none of us walked away from the experience with a complete worship service we would want each week, we discovered that we were engaging in the actions of liturgy that we needed as a community. Our joy in loving God was realized in our willingness to love each other.

Christopher J. Montgomery pastors the Drexel Hill Church of the Brethren near Philadelphia. He is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. He blogs at Practicing Missional Worship.

 

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Jul 1 2012

Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 1

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By Christopher J. Montgomery

Read the second installment of this series…

Gordon Lathrop asserts that the role of the presider in the assembly’s worship is to “make the center strong.”1 Throughout my work in pastoral ministry, either in proclamation, leadership, or the arts, my formation as a presider for worship has been a pattern of challenge, epiphany, and growth. My understanding of the role of presider when I first entered pastoral ministry as a worship minister nearly a decade ago was shaped by a paradigm of authority. The presider receives authority from God to act toward the assembly. In the past several years, this thinking has shifted. Recent research in liturgical architecture, Table imagery, and an experience and understanding of God’s presence began the work of synthesizing our tradition’s emphasis on ‘the priesthood of all believers’ with the work of presider. Though the presider’s calling and work is an act of divine importance, the authority of the presider rises from the assembly itself which God has empowered.

The Triune God of our faith meets us in this place that has been created for us. Our response is a rhythmic gathering toward and sending from that presence to expand the renewing power of the divine initiative. It is in this rhythmic gathering and sending, when the assembly is engaged in the rituals of story and meal, that the presider finds authority and empowerment. It is dynamic divine-human interplay: God and the assembly engaged in a sacred dance of illumination and response.

What follows in this brief report is my work with an urban Church of the Brethren parish, re-imagining and rehearsing these essential ecclesiological principles in the form of architecture and ritual. My goal as presider, and as advocate for faithful worship, was to “make the center strong” in response to the full revelation of God’s presence.

Grounding Worship in the Love Feast

In the Church of the Brethren, the practice of quarterly or monthly observance of “communion” or “the Lord’s Supper” is held in tension with our two annual gatherings for the Love Feast. We have valued the Love Feast as an expression of the community’s unity and obedience to Jesus: services of feet-washing, a simple fellowship meal, and the sharing of bread and cup. The principal ethos of Love Feast is often confined to the celebration of the event itself. In the past decade, many leaders across the denomination have worked to encourage congregations to learn to speak with a distinctly Brethren voice. The Church’s broadening development of the peace tradition has produced polity statements calling for social justice, environmental stewardship, and a purposeful conviction that Jesus intends to renew the entirety of creation. These missional perspectives should be shared in our liturgical expression. The self-giving renewal of God’s shalom begins in the illumination of God’s presence and the assembly’s ritual response to God’s revelation. The Love Feast in the Church of the Brethren is the community’s engagement in story and meal around the Table. As the primary holy day in the life of the communion, should not its spirit impact the weekly worship of its people?

The ecumenical spirit that has permeated the Church of the Brethren has been reflected in our parish since its consecration in 1953. Inhabiting a former high-liturgical Baptist facility, our liturgy embraced the typical Presbyterian style that characterized mid-20th century Protestant worship: a choir in robes and stoles, elevated chancel and pulpit, a robed minister, and the two-folds of extended gathering and the service of the word. It was a worship built upon the experience of the intellect engaged with educated clergy. Throughout the following years, changes in the worship order and content progressed organically with the changing styles of the presiding ministers. Because our congregational practice gives ministers broad influence over the shape of worship, the liturgical environment shifted from formal Presbyterian in the 1950s to informal Baptist by the late 1990s. There was little that was distinctly Brethren in either form or content.The liturgical place itself betrayed the historic Brethren emphasis on ‘the priesthood of all believers.’ An elevated chancel and pulpit from which the minister presided looked down upon an auditorium-style pew arrangement. A large stained-glass window displaying a crown hung recessed in the chancel. These elements, though aesthetically beautiful, highlighted the feeling of God’s distance from the midst of the assembly, holding implicit yet strong formative influence over the community that gathered for worship.

Understanding the history of the parish in changing worship, the broad vision of the denomination to reclaim a distinctly Brethren voice in worship and witness, and the theological implications of ecclesial expression, our congregation engaged in a process of liturgical exploration and renewal to discern our awareness of God’s presence through architecture and ritual.

Christopher J. Montgomery pastors the Drexel Hill Church of the Brethren near Philadelphia. He is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. He blogs at Practicing Missional Worship.

 Read on for part 2

  1. Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology Augsburg Fortress, 2006, 94 []
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Apr 18 2012

An Inside Out Faith

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By Randall Westfall

If I were to ask you to make a list of things that you loved to do as a child, what would be on your list? For me that list includes (but is not limited to): running barefoot, building forts, catching things, building campfires, climbing, getting dirty, telling stories, imitating animals, hiding, exploring, and a ton of other pastimes that would take up more time than I have been allotted here.

If you were to ask a child today what their favorite activities are, you’d likely get a different list of activities. Though overlap may occur, I suspect that most would involve a screen or an outlet as many have replaced formative experiences outdoors with informative experiences indoors. It’s even changing our vernacular as dictionaries are doing away with words like heron, dandelion, and blackberry in favor of iPod, broadband, and ironically Blackberry.1

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term nature-deficit disorder (NDD) to illustrate the significant psychological, physical, and cognitive costs that alienation from nature has on children today.2 NDD isn’t an actual clinical disorder as much as it gives voice to what many of us were already thinking by addressing our intuitive understanding that nature is not only good for our children but essential to their healthy development.

Children today spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors and less than 25 minutes a week outdoors.3 A trend that is leading to epidemics in childhood obesity, depression, ADHD, Asperger’s and more.4 Why is this happening? Studies are showing that there are: a) more demands on children’s time, b) parental fears of “stranger danger,” c) more sedentary lifestyles, d) urbanization of America and e) an increased use in electronic media (up to 44 hours a week).5 These “digital natives” are experiencing the world in a radically different way than their ancestors did and it has consequences on their spiritual development.

Throughout history, our ancestors encountered God primarily through two means: nature and storytelling. Nature was experienced through the senses (body) and the heart, and stories informed the intellect (mind) and the heart. Over time, our stories evolved from oral narratives, to being captured in written form. In the past 25 years, as technology has expanded its reach and outdoor experience has degenerated, we find ourselves processing our experiences more through our mind and less through our body. In fact, we are witnessing the beginnings of what some scientists are calling a “transhuman” era6 where we are no longer multi-sensory beings; rather we become one-dimensional as our experiences are increasingly filtered through some type of technological medium.

This is all a part of NDD, and it is affecting our spiritual landscape. In ages past, a child’s spiritual life was assumed, largely in part because of the way they interacted with the natural world around them. As we become less engaged with the outdoors, we can no longer make assumptions regarding spiritual development. Children are trading in outdoor experiences for a virtual house arrest in which they live through external, digital devices. Being outdoors has shaped who we are for centuries, yet in the span of a generation; children who are “nature-smart” are becoming an endangered species.

Could it be that we are actually doing more harm than good living in a “Take only pictures; leave only footprints” culture, as our efforts to protect and preserve nature are also creating barriers to interacting with it. When it comes to nature, we have adopted a “museum” approach whereby children are taught to look but don’t touch. Other adages like stay on the trail, don’t wander, may be inadvertently projecting our fears that when interacting with nature someone will get hurt, be it either human or the landscape. If you can’t interact with something, it isn’t long before you lose interest. And if enough time passes, we dishonor God by basically declaring that “what you have made no longer interests me.” We’re encouraging children to “play it safe” in controlled environments, hyper-stimulated by electronic media. If they aren’t hyper-stimulated, they either become anxious or disengage. NDD keeps our appreciation for nature so long as we don’t interact with it. Imagine the same being said for our faith? I appreciate God, but I don’t interact with God. What do spiritual disciplines look like to that person?

The paradox of faith is that the God who dwells on the inside often must be encountered outside. When we lose the appeal to explore outer landscapes, then what metaphors will navigate the journey for our inner landscape? Faith has become inside out and it isn’t until we realize our connection with nature; then the Mystery at work in the depths of our souls and the Mystery in the natural world are parts of the same reality.7  Author John Lionberger believes that “Being outdoors has the power to join two extreme states of awareness, consciousness and acuity, which lead to peak experiences the recipient finds deeply spiritual.8 In my time in outdoor ministry, I’ve observed that children who have a connection with nature are more aware of their relationship with God than those who spend little or no time outdoors.

This is not about doing away with our iStuff, rather we must learn to find a balance between the digital and the natural. What if for every text or email sent, we spent those moments sitting and listening for what the robins and towhees were saying to us? Or instead of recognizing the thousands of corporate logos we see on commercials, we take the time and familiarize ourselves with the wood sorrel, plantain, and nettle in our own backyard? Or every video game spent trying to get to the next level; we spent an equal amount of time following a set of raccoon tracks to discover hidden levels of its life?

How will we prevent NDD from being passed on to future generations? It’s time for us to start embodying those childhood passions we listed above, as spiritual disciplines to feed the fire of faith just as we do with devotions, bible study, prayer and worship. Only then can we become fully awakened, fully alive, and experience the abundant life that Jesus wants us to step into. Our eyes, ears, noses, taste buds, bodies, hearts, and even brains were created in such a way that it is vital for us to engage creation, in doing so we always encounter the Creator.

Randall Westfall is the director at Camp Brethren Heights and founder of Ancient Paths Outdoor School in west-central Michigan.He is a graduate of Wilderness Awareness School near Seattle, with certifications in Naturalist Studies, Wildlife Tracking, Edible/Medicinal Plant Studies, Bird Language, Art of Mentoring and Wilderness Survival. He spent just as much time immersed in nature as he did sitting at his computer writing this article.

 

  1. Morris, Charles. National Catholic Reporter. 18 November 2011.  []
  2. Richard Louv. Last Child in the Woods. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2005. []
  3. Play Again. Dir. Tonje Hessen Schei. 2010. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Richard Louv. The Nature Principle. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2011. []
  7. Robert M. Hamma. Earth’s Echo. Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2002. []
  8. John Lionberger. Renewal in the Wilderness. Woodstock: Skylight Paths, 2007. []
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