Paul, Money, and You: A Reflection on Urban Intercultural Stewardship – Chibuzo Petty

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(S)Paul of Tarsus is, after Jesus, the most consequential New Testament figure. Many would, with some validity, claim (S)Paul’s influence on the development of Christian theology has even been greater than that of Christ himself. A prolific writer, he also serves as one of the main characters in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. (S)Paul was born in Tarsus (Acts 9:11) but raised in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). Having Roman citizenship, he was well traveled and one of the most cosmopolitan of the New Testament characters. He was instrumental in the early Church’s shift of focus from Jerusalem to Antioch – though we will see in 2 Corinthians that this is more complex than it immediately seems. Antioch was where Jesus followers were first called Christians and remains the center of Western Rite Syriac Christians.

Ancient Corinth was a major Greek city during the time of (S)Paul. It was his practice to travel to various cities on his missionary journeys. Acts suggests that he would go to cities with stable Jewish populations. Using synagogues as his launching pad, he would reach righteous Gentiles and convert them to Christianity. His letters, including this one, are unique because of his predominantly Gentile audience – in contrast to Luke’s writing, for instance. Because 2 Corinthians touches on so many topics, I have chosen to focus my reflections on 2 Corinthians 8-9.

The selected passage is important for many reasons. First, it is worth noting that, at least at first glance, (S)Paul’s tone might seem more manipulative than a modern reader would be comfortable with. He writes to the Corinthians in several paragraphs about how important it is for them to give, how he’ll be so disappointed if they do not give, how the broader Church will be disappointed if they do not give, how they should be embarrassed if they do not give, and how he is not only writing them to ensure they give but also sending three people ahead of him for good measure. Still, he writes that they should only give gladly and not due to pressure. This seems to border on the absurd. He certainly seems to be pressuring them into giving.

To be fair to (S)Paul, giving is an essential aspect of church life. Giving of time, talent, and treasurer is a vow many take when being baptized, declaring their faith, officially joining a congregation, etc. In our modern context, financial giving not only pays staff, bills, and taxes but furthers the mission of the church through local and global service. Despite financial giving being such a high priority for congregational leadership, it is not a priority for most members. Studies show than less than ¼ of a congregation tithes. 80% of tithers are giving at just a 2.0-2.5% rate. (The Hebrew Scripture’s standard is 10%.) This lackluster giving rate is even below that during the Great Depression when Christians gave at a rate of 3.3%.

There is also some reason to believe that those who have the least to give actually give the most. Broadening the conversation to charitable giving, the lowest income bracket, people making less than $20,000 annually, give 4.3% of their income to charity. Remaining income levels give at an average of 2.3%. Counting the three lowest income levels (i.e., those making less than $58,000), which are the three most generous per capita, they average a giving rate of 3.2% compared to $2.0 for those making $58,000+. This should not surprise us. Nor should it go without recognizing that Jesus praises this sort of behavior. The Scriptures say:

While Jesus was in the Temple, he watched the rich people dropping their gifts in the collection box. Then a poor widow came by and dropped in two small coins. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has.” – Luke 21:1-4 (NLT)

This is an important image as we think about urban ministry. While the national poverty rate is 13.5%, the urban poverty rate is 16%. Further, urban poverty is growing increasingly concentrated. In Dayton, Ohio, the urban area nearest me, 60.3% of the poor live in neighborhoods with a 20%+ poverty rate.

Beyond tithing, these chapters illustrate the importance of Christian stewardship, more broadly. I think the most meaningful aspect of the passage for urban ministry is that it illustrates the importance of building a network of support, ideally connected to a sending congregation. I really like the early model of Jerusalem, the mother church, sending apostles out to plant other churches. I appreciate that these congregations did not only have a relationship with the mother church but with one another as well. This relationship included prayer, fellowship, and some degree of shared finances. In a modern context, I believe this model remains relevant. If urban ministry, especially church planting, is to succeed, it will take a lot of prayer. New church starts will almost certainly need connection with other, more established, congregations. And, this connection will almost certainly need to go beyond fellowship to financial support. I have been pleased to see many seminaries, as well as large, influential churches, establishing entrepreneurial ministry training programs in recent years. I think this is a really excellent idea. As I think of future ministry opportunities, money is clearly an object. I do not believe this is my succumbing to modern temptations. (S)Paul understood the power and importance of money in ministry.

Image Credits: Crosswalk, Fuller Youth Institute, and Teen Quest.

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What is a Prayer School? – Guest Blogger, Ryan Braught

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We drove on to the church campus which was surrounded by fields and fields of corn. A seemingly strange place for a megachurch. We entered the building, and since we were early, we found our way to the Bookstore/Coffeehouse called Solomon’s Porch. As we waited, we talked about what brought us to this place, our struggles, our questions, and our fears about what we were there for. And would it be just another workshop notebook thrown onto the pile of other workshop notebooks on my bookshelf or in my filing cabinet? When it was close to time for the workshop to start, we walked down the hall and were transported from the evangelical megachurch in the cornfield in the midwest, to what resembled a Catholic chapel in either a monastery or in a cathedral. And all we did was open a set of ornate wooden doors into what is called The Upper Room. We were instantly awash in the glow of candles, the sound of Chant music playing, and the beautiful art of the Stations of the Cross hanging on the walls.

Image result for brian zahnd prayer schoolWe took our seat waiting for the beginning of the workshop. I knew that I was in the right place, when the speaker, Brian Zahnd, said he had been praying this prayer liturgy for 10 years, but he had been a pastor for 30. You see we were in St. Joseph, Missouri at Word of Life Church for Brian’s Prayer School. We were there to learn how to pray, after being in ministry for 20 years, 8 of those years serving in a church plant that my wife and I founded.

You see, honestly, I have never felt very spiritual. I have never been really good at praying, being still and being quiet. I would hear other Pastors talk about waking up at 5 AM and praying for 3-4 hours and I thought I could never do that. Prayer for me “often becomes a giant cesspool of guilt.” I’ve often been told to pray, but not been given the resources to pray well. And that is why I was at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, MO that July weekend with my wife.

I knew that I needed help in learning how to pray, and in growing my prayer life. I knew that I need a resource to help me pray well. I knew that if I were to last another 20 years in ministry, especially in church planting, that I would need to learn how to develop a rhythm of prayer. I needed, what Brian, called a trellis, a liturgy to guide my prayer life. To get my prayer life off the ground, like the roses that grow up trellises. And so that I could be properly formed in the ways and life of Jesus. And being at Prayer School has given me a liturgy of prayer that I am seeking to follow each and every morning.

This prayer liturgy is like walking a labyrinth. The first half of the liturgy moves us into the presence of Christ culminating in the center with a time of contemplation or in other terms, sitting with Jesus. As you “walk” (pray) toward the center of the prayer liturgy your walking companions have been walking with Jesus for a very long time. You walk with the Psalms. You journey with the Jesus Prayer. You walk with the Lord’s Prayer. You pray through the gospels. You pray prayers of confession. You recite the Apostles Creed. And you also spend time praying for your family and other prayer requests that you want to bring and leave at the feet of Jesus.

The second half of the prayer liturgy moves us out in the world, helping us have proper position in the world because we have sat with and at the feet of Jesus. When we have been sitting with and at the feet of Jesus, spending time walking with him and having other walking companions, our prayers change, we change, and then we want to go out and be change agents in the world. As we “walk” out the prayer liturgy into our world, our prayers begin to shape us into the kind of people Jesus wants us to be in his world. Our outward journey from the center includes walking through the beatitudes, praying prayers of peace, and praying the Prayer of Saint Francis. We also walk with the Prayer of the Week from the Book of Common Prayer. Finally, as we round the corner of this prayer liturgy and begin to see the light of the world around us, we pray a prayer of mercy, a confession of mystery, and finish with the Jesus Prayer.

Image result for brian zahnd prayer schoolWith that, we walk out of the Prayer Liturgy and into the world that Jesus loves.
We have spent time in the presence of Jesus. And we have gained new eyes to see
the world the way that he does. Our prayers have changed. We have changed. If you, like me, don’t feel very spiritual. If you, like me, have trouble getting your prayer life off the ground. If you are looking for a way to connect honestly, authentically, and transparently with God. If you are looking for a way to be formed in the ways and life of Jesus. Then I would highly recommend checking out Prayer School with Brian Zahnd. Visit www.wolc.com to find out when they will be offering Prayer School. But if you can’t get to St. Joseph’s, MO, like my wife and I, then at least pick up his book Water to Wine in which he spells out this prayer liturgy. And I trust that when you begin using the prayer liturgy each and every morning your prayer life will get off the ground just like roses clinging to a trellis in a garden. And you will find yourself being formed in the ways and life of Jesus.

Image may contain: 1 personRyan Braught is the Pastor/Church Planter of Veritas. Along with his wife, Kim, and kids, Kaiden and Trinity, he founded Veritas in 2009. Ryan has a BS in Telecommunications from Kutztown University and a Master of Arts in Religion from Evangelical Theological Seminary. Besides his work with Veritas, Ryan loves to read, listen to music, snowboard, and spend time with his family.

Image Credits: Word of Life Church and Eventbrite

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This I (want you to) Believe – Chibuzo Petty with Guest Blogger, Katie Heishman

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For this blog post, we are publishing two audio recordings in the style of NPR’s “This I Believe.” Below are the audio files as well as their respective transcripts. Each piece is less than four minutes. So listen. You will get a lot more out of both pieces this way. They are meant to be listened to rather than read. Enjoy these creative and thought-provoking pieces!

Thinking about Plastic Straws

I had never really thought much about plastic straws. The disposable ones from fast food that are punched into plastic lids or from sit down restaurants where waiters leave the paper lining at the tip top so the customer can feel like the straw is sanitized. I used them, I needed them, and they came without my prompting. I had never really thought much about plastic straws until I saw a video.

The video showed a team of microbiologists surrounding a giant sea turtle that had been brought onto their boat for routine study. The angle focuses in on the turtle’s face—a tan crinkled piece of something lodged into his nose. Hands move in and out of the frame—hands holding him in place, a hand moves in with pliers towards the bit in his nose. They grasp hold of the crinkled piece of something and begin pulling slowly—it doesn’t come with ease—the turtle’s eyes close in a wince. The turtle hisses in pain as the pliers make slow progress. Eight painstaking minutes later, the pliers extract a wizened 4-inch plastic straw. The disposable ones with the stripe on either side of the straw.

There’s something like 7 billion people in the world. If we all went for a single fast food run or restaurant visit this week, just one, there’d be 7 billion straws released into the waste stream. If we all went twice, there’d be 14 billion straws floating. If we went once this week, and once next week, and then the next week and then the next there’d be 28 billion straws just in a month. Every restaurant I have ever been to in 27 years has never been without plastic straws.

Plastic straws don’t go away. They drift to ocean floors and mistaken for gangly see grass they are eaten by sea turtles. Can you imagine sneezing and a hard spaghetti noodle lodging in your nose? Plastic straws don’t go away because plastic doesn’t go away. Every piece of plastic ever created still exists. I didn’t shove that straw into that turtle’s nose, but I have used plenty of straws at McDonalds or Olive Garden. I’d left them in glasses, tossed cups into the trash—not following the flow of that glowing black trash bag. I acquiesced to a little piece of plastic over and over and over again.

Why do I need a plastic straw in my glass of water at a restaurant? I don’t use a straw for any drink I have at home. I drink water out of a glass like an adult. It’s not hard drinking water straight from a glass at a restaurant, if you have the facilities to do so. The effort is in a simple phrase uttered with an order: “No straw, please.” Waiters and waitresses used to middle-class requests bring a glass full of water, empty of a straw. I had never really thought much about plastic straws before and maybe one day, we won’t have to again.

Black Lives Matter… in Public Health Too

As a child, I remember my grandmother locking the car doors when we entered the city. She lived in fear (about a lot of things, really). But, was she afraid of the right things?

I’ve twice heard sounds of gun violence. Admittedly, both times were in cities. But, I’ve known several people living in active addiction, even some who died of overdose or drug instigated suicide, and none of them grew up in the city. Most went to supposedly nice middle-class schools.

“Tonight’s lead story: A child shot and killed on Apple St. Fun and recreation have been stripped from the weekend by the macabre – as increasing gun violence leads area parents to keep their children indoors. Mondays are now a respite from voluntary house arrest as school playgrounds remain the only safe place to play.”

Gun violence kills. That’s not a belief. It’s a fact.

“Next comes devastating new data from the Sheriff’s Office. Heroin overdoses have quadrupled to roughly twenty deaths monthly. Mothers. Sons. Dead. Buried. Such staggering numbers leave this newscaster wondering how many more preventable deaths are necessary before the Drug War is finally be won.”

Drug abuse kills. That’s not a belief. It’s a fact.

But, where are the headlines about heart disease? High blood pressure? Diabetes? Infant mortality? Guns and drugs are serious. But fake and fast food are really killing us. If you’re a black member of the urban poor, you’re much more likely to be killed by Popeye’s Chicken in your gut than a bullet in your chest or a needle in your arm.

I believe that Black Lives Matter in public health too. Urban lives. Poor lives. Single-parent lives. The lives of those without reliable transportation.

Sure, I believe in beef brisket. In venison sausage. In pulled pork. And fried turkey. I believe in macaroni and cheese. And in potatoes fried at least a dozen ways.

But, I don’t need to believe that diabetes can lead to limb amputation… I’ve seen it.

I don’t need to believe that it’s easier to buy Ho Hos than fresh spinach. A million reluctant and sorrow-filled mothers will confirm this as they begrudgingly give their sons a buck fifty and send them to the convenience store. I’ve lived in the burbs and in the city and I don’t need to believe that the grocery stores are different. I have seen it. My wallet and my stomach know this to be true.

If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t like the odds finding someone who takes homemade rice crispy treats as seriously as I do.

I believe grandmas and aunties in the kitchen are saints.

I enjoy a cool glass of moscato d’asti. I might even enjoy a second. I know I can handle that… because I’m over six feet tall and weigh over two hundred pounds. I also know, though, that addiction runs in my family. And that I’m prone to the obsessive. I dare not flirt with crossing the line into dependency.

As much as I love a good brisket or believe that cereal isn’t meant for milk but for marshmallows and butter. I believe in temperance. In moderation. In food prep on Sunday nights so my busy schedule doesn’t tempt me to visit the Colonel. I also believe, beyond any action I can take, that healthy, nutritious food is a human right.

I’ll never forget being in a room full of family, watching them all take their blood pressure, believing the cuff was malfunctioning because it said each of them was reading high. I’ll never forget the chill in that room when mine read 108 over 69.

 

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.

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A Place Where Jesus Weeps – Guest Blogger, Melanee Hamilton

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Graffiti on the Palestinian side of a partition wall

My first trip to the Holy Land was one year and five months ago. It was a trip that absolutely enthralled me. When I returned home, I knew I had to go back. From February through May of this year, I lived with a Palestinian Christian family in Bethlehem. I came away more captivated by the region than I had thought possible.

You see, Palestine has a distinctive way of enchanting those willing to expose themselves to the tragic and beautiful reality that is the Holy Land. She is warm and welcoming, but at times remarkably tense to one unaccustomed to perpetual hostility. The stunning sight of the rolling hills of Bethlehem and the sharp, stony mountains of Wadi Qelt near Jericho are enough to mesmerize even those oblivious to the convolution of the region. The true exceptionality of Palestine, however, is found in the beauty and complexity of those living in Bethlehem, Jericho and the rest of Palestine.

The too-short experience I had in Bethlehem was humbling. It required me to forego the place of comfort I had the privilege of enjoying in the United States. At once, this distant region I had been reading about in books and hearing about in podcasts became familiar as I grew to love the family who hosted and cared for me. Palestine was no longer made up simply of statistics and newscasts. The stories of Palestinians’ homes being raided in the early mornings had, overnight, become stories of my neighbors. When something like this happens, staying removed from the raw realities of people’s lives becomes impossible.

A young girl swings in Bethlehem

I could spend this short space listing the statistics of life under occupation in Palestine, but it seems better spent painting a picture of the people I lived among in Bethlehem (although I highly recommend that you take a look at Human Rights Watch: Israel/ Palestine and UNICEF- State of
Palestine for information regarding the occupation). As a seminarian, this picture is painted unashamedly in light of my theological perspective as a follower of Jesus.

Days before boarding the plane to Tel Aviv, I began to feel anxious about my quickly approaching adventure. I prepared to leave for a place whose native language I did not know, to live with a family I had never met, and to navigate a culture with strict guidelines for women. But I knew all of these anxieties had to be confronted. Not because I needed to prove to myself that I could do it (well, maybe that was part of it), but because the convictions I had as a Christian compelled me to take this step of faith. If I believe that the crucifixion and suffering of Christ is an invitation for us to stand opposed to suffering, then how could I not expose myself to the oppressive realities in which people live?

About a month into my stay in Bethlehem, I witnessed my first protest. The Wi’am Center where I was interning is located beside an Israeli watchtower and the separation wall. The Center had decided to close early because of the protest. I stayed back to observe part of it with my friend, a young Palestinian woman. Within a moment, the peaceful protest erupted with tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets, and rocks. My friend grabbed my arm and told me to run. I followed her down a side road into a shoe shop. After attempting to leave the shop only to rush back in the building when the armored truck came plummeting down the road greeting us with more tear gas, the shop owner graciously offered to give us a ride up the street where things were calmer. When we were outside the range of chaos, my friend and I hopped out of the car. Without a second thought, my beautiful Palestinian friend looked at me said, “I’m hungry. Let’s get shawarma!” Despite my entire body trembling from what I had just witnessed, I had to laugh at how utterly unmoved she was by the entire experience—by the tear gas and bullets being shot at us moments before.

Irish Palestinian Solidarity

Later that day my Palestinian brother and sister got a good laugh out of how severe I found the protest: “On a scale of one to ten, that protest was a two,” they said. It was—and is—jarring for me to consider how drastically different our lives are, despite being so close in age. The reality, however, is that this is their life. Palestinians are strong and resilient, though. They laugh, play, sing, and dance—despite most being trapped by a wall and checkpoints.

Since being home, I have struggled with feeling angry at how Western Christianity has largely overlooked the plight of those living in the land where our God was crucified. I watched as thousands of Christians from around the world joined the Palm Sunday procession from the Mount of Olives to the Old City of Jerusalem. I watched them turn their faces away from the Palestinians in the procession being harassed and arrested. With heads turned, they sang “Hosanna, Hosanna!”

As I processed this event, I pictured Jesus standing with those Palestinians being harassed—weeping with the child whose uncle was arrested, standing firmly with the priests trying to help their parishioners. Jesus weeps over these events. And he weeps every time his people turn their faces away.

Visiting the Holy Land is more than just seeing where Jesus walked 2000 years ago. To truly experience Jesus in the Holy Land is to be with the people in the region. It’s to sit and listen to their stories, to laugh with them and to cry with them.

This message I bring home: To those able to visit Palestine, go! Experience the beautiful and heartbreaking place that she is – and listen. Bring back your own stories to share with the world. And to those unable to go, listen the stories of people who have been there. Don’t just hear what they have to say. Truly listen because the memories of those who have been there will undoubtedly overflow with incredible passion.

Originally from Ohio, Melanee Hamilton currently lives in Massachusetts where she studies Religion and Conflict Transformation at Boston University School of Theology. While in school, Melanee, a Brethren PK (pastor’s kid) interned with On Earth Peace, a CoB affiliated nonprofit organization, where she revised the Matthew 18 Workshop on congregational conflict and reconciliation.

Image Credits: Melanee Hamilton

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Wading in the Water Pt. II – Guest Blogger, Sarah Ullom-Minnich

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This blog post is the second in a two-part series. For part one, visit http://www.brethrenlifeandthought.org/2017/08/08/wading-in-the-water-pt-i-guest-blogger-sarah-ullom-minnich/. What follows is a continuation of Sarah’s story about her experience studying abroad in Ecuador.

My washing complete, I slip back into the welcoming water. I swim out several meters and try to hold my own while swimming against the current. I manage it for a few minutes, but then begin to tire and make my way back into the shallower water. My feet find purchase on the sandy bottom of the river. I close my eyes and let myself feel the rush of the chill water against my arms and legs.

The Church of the Brethren, my community, has a particular historical connection with resistance against a hegemonic system and a river. The story of the original brethren entering the Eder River to be baptized, undertaking a resistance against what they felt was a moral injustice as a community, is one with which I have grown up. The church has a rich heritage of resistance to injustice, and living in Tzawata has helped me feel that heritage more present within me. But it has its ties to racist and colonial systems, ties that here are impossible for me to ignore. I feel a calling in Tzawata, a place very different from my community, to reconnect with the Brethren idea of radical justice – the life courageously lived in the example of the radical love of Jesus, simply, peacefully, together. It is easy back home to let my modern, United States, middle-class, materialistic lifestyle make me comfortable. But living on this side of the bridge, where there are only a few hours of generator electricity and no clean running water (the government has done its best to discourage human habitation here), provides the opportunity to see beyond it.

A couple of small girls swim out to me and hold on to my back. I swim around with them for a while, and we all laugh when one of them lets go briefly to slip under the water, then pops up again and grabs on tight. They, like all the children here, speak in Spanish to one another.

Even as the adults of Tzawata continue a long legal battle against the government and the mining company, their youth are coming of age in a globalized world. One in which speaking Kichwa is looked down upon, and in which the language of power is Spanish, or even English. These youth have their struggles, that of managing their identity in a changing world, without losing their connection to their culture and community. Many leave to study in big cities or find work on the other side of the country. Some become ashamed to speak Kichwa, even with their families. Others invest themselves in preserving their language and culture. All have to negotiate a complicated relationship with the community they have grown up in and the hegemonic culture that pervades their world. When I think about growing up as a Brethren youth, I feel a resonance between our experiences. We live in complicated worlds, affected by complicated systems. Like the toxic laundry soap seeping into the beautiful river we hope to protect, there are parts of our identity that conflict with other parts, parts of the culture we live in, breathe in, that are oppressive, and that seek to smother our less-mainstream values.

The gathering place where the Rehearsing Change cohort meets for classes. About 100m beyond it is the Anzu River.

I check my watch and realize that it is almost time for class. Today we will be working on some of the theater pieces we have been creating in small groups that deal with the struggles faced by Tzawata. Our final presentations are coming up, where our group of local and international students will have the opportunity to share all that we have been working on this semester. I take one last dip to say goodbye to the river, then gather my things and carefully climb back up the rocky bank. The heat of the Amazonian sun on my skin already makes me miss the cool, clear water behind me.

The community of Tzawata will continue their struggle and their negotiation of the many cultural pressures they face. While I have had the opportunity to learn alongside them for half a semester, I will be only a tiny part of the story of their struggle, and they of mine. But if there is anything that I have learned from this semester, it is the power of story to empower and transform our identity. And just as we as a class have been working with the story of Tzawata, the story of Tzawata has been calling to my own story. The story of how the church of the Brethren negotiates a changing world is one with significantly lower stakes. We are not at risk of losing lives, of losing thousands of years of culture, of losing a language, or of losing our homes. But our stories are interconnected, because “Peacefully, Simply, Together,” also calls for resistance against a system that seeks to assign everything a dollar value, including life itself. Our shared humanity interconnects them, and our desire to see a juster world. And for me, they are also now interconnected by human relationships, by friendships and shared experiences.

I finish hanging up my clothes and walk to the roofed area where we have class. One by one, international students and local counterparts trickle in. Around me float the sounds of jokes and laughter, of the giggles of children as they chase one another in and around our group of 13, and of the barks of excited dogs as they romp around the perimeter. As class starts, I feel a twinge of excitement as we split into our groups to rehearse and prepare to reimagine our stories, to reimagine our realities, together.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoorOriginally from Kansas, Sarah Ullom-Minnich currently lives in Pennsylvania where she studies Peace and Conflict at Juniata College. Her involvement as a leader in the Church of the Brethren has included interning with On Earth Peace, volunteering with Brethren Voluntary Service, and being featured on the Dunker Punks podcast. She recently returned from a study abroad trip to Ecuador.

Image Credits: Rehearsing Change

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Wading in the Water Pt. I – Guest Blogger, Sarah Ullom-Minnich

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<Hola amigo, como está el agua?> <Mojado!>

 

Class exercises in movement and group cohesion.

The typical response still makes me smile even after five weeks of living in the community of Tzawata. I pick my way down the rocky bank towards the wide Rio Anzu. We’re lucky today, it didn’t rain yesterday, and the river is a clear green-blue. The friend I had greeted is out about twenty feet, swimming against the current. On the rock about 30 feet away, in the middle of the river, three children are perched, enjoying the sun. Another woman is washing her clothes down the bank from me, in a rocky area. The slap of the shirt she swings persistently against a rock punctuates the clear sound of a sunny day. Another group of children upstream has seen me coming to the river and is now letting the current bring them down to say hello. I slowly step into the water up to my knees. Despite the heat of the day, the cold still makes me shiver. With a deep breath, I throw myself into the water, taking the plunge all at once.

The Rio Anzu, and the large, old, metal bridge that connects us to the other side, are two of the most iconic parts of Tzawata’s identity for me. An indigenous community of Kichwa Quijos, Tzawata has a long and harrowing story since the time of colonization. Their ancestors had lived around this river for thousands of years, but upon the arrival of the Spanish they were forced to move up into the mountains and made to work as slaves on their ancestral land. The deed to their land eventually made its way into the hands of a Canadian mining company, where it legally remains to this day. Several years ago, when the company briefly had to leave the country for legal reasons, some of the women of made the decision to journey down the mountain and take back their land. They left Tzawata Alta, as the mountainous part of the community is called, and formed what is now Tzawata Baja, which we refer to simply as Tzawata. Since then, the community has engaged in an often ugly struggle against the company and the government branches whose cooperation it has been able to buy. At one point, the police entered and burned down all of the wooden houses. Many community members lost everything they owned, but they refused to move back up the mountain. In a particularly iconic encounter, the police attempted to cross the bridge to forcibly evict the population. The entire community of Tzawata met them on the narrow bridge, blocking the way. Women and children stood at the front and the men in the back with spears. After a long and tense standoff, the police turned back.

Class response to the instruction: create an image of “power” with your bodies.

After the initial plunge, the icy cold of the water is refreshing. I wade back to the bank for my sack of dirty, smelly clothes and laundry soap. I wet the first shirt in the river and begin to lather it with soap. It’s the same kind of non-biodegradable soap that everyone in the area uses to wash their clothes in the river, but still, I feel the familiar twinge of guilt as I watch the suds disappear downstream.

The community of Tzawata articulates their struggle in many different ways, but the most common ones include their desire to protect their identity and their land. They still cultivate in the traditional way, with many different crops sharing the land, rather than raising one specific crop to sell, which would objectively be more profitable. They also wish to protect the land, and the river which is home to the fish and so much other life, from the inevitable destruction and pollution brought on by mining. They live out this philosophy on top of a literal gold mine.

Presenting a movement piece on the banks of the Anzu River as part of a final project.

I make my way through the shirts and move on to socks. The children splash in the water around me, calling to one another and me. Some ask me to watch them playing in the river; others just want to talk to me, to have me ask them about themselves. A few run up the bank and throw themselves recklessly off the edge of the bridge, whooping during the 20-foot drop into the water, and surface triumphant, excited for another round.

The international students, often affectionately referred to as “las gringas,” though not all of us technically fit into that category, are always a huge source of entertainment and attention for the children. That is one of the reasons the community has continued to invite back the “fair trade study abroad” program Rehearsing Change, which brings in international students to take classes alongside community members, around subjects that are useful to the community. No matter how much we make an effort to put all of us on an even playing field, however, the hegemonic structures of globalization never really disappear. Those of us with a little blue book that has our picture in it have access to privileges and resources that the members of this community will most likely never have access to independent of outside assistance. Those of us with light skin, hair, or eyes have access to cultural resources and preferential treatment, in and outside of Ecuador, which our local counterparts never will. To the best of its ability, Rehearsing Change strives to put these advantages at the disposal of the community, giving them the decision-making power to decide how our presence can be used to further their goals – to use the system’s problems against it. But even on this side of the river, across the bridge, there is no fully escaping a white western hegemony. There can only be a consciousness of it, and an effort to resist.

This blog post is part one of a two-part series.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoorOriginally from Kansas, Sarah Ullom-Minnich currently lives in Pennsylvania where she studies Peace and Conflict at Juniata College. Her involvement as a leader in the Church of the Brethren has included interning with On Earth Peace, volunteering with Brethren Voluntary Service, and being featured on the Dunker Punks podcast. She recently returned from a study abroad trip to Ecuador.

Image Credits: Rehearsing Change

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Giving Wilderness New Meaning – Guest Blogger, Matt Guynn

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We seek wisdom from the trees
From the stories of Jesus, of you and of me
We seek wisdom from the bees
From the practice of Sabbath, Shalom, and Jubilee

This is life, sacred life,
And I want to be alive for it,
I want to be alive!

-Solveig Nilsen-Goodin

Just a few days after we moved into our new home in southeast Portland in snowy cold mid-December 2016, we were unofficially house-warmed by several handfuls of new visitors. The Wilderness Way Community was gathering for our monthly Sabbath hike, which this year is taking place each third Sunday at Powell Butte Nature Park. The trailhead is a block from our front door. We were worn out due to our move and our late-term pregnancy, but Sarah and I sent our four-year-old son, who rode through the snowy woods on someone’s shoulders.

On most Sunday afternoons, we are gathering in the sunroom of the Leaven Community in northeast Portland, Oregon. We’re singing “Done Made my Vow to the Lord,” or “God Let us Be Free,” or “We Are Ready/Manna Rebirth,” or another one of our favorites. We’re kneeling and washing our faces in a shallow ceramic basin, sluicing off the weeks we’ve had, blessing ourselves with water and preparing to enter the wilderness together. We divide into pairs for ten-minute one-to-one check-ins. We gather again to share stories about the skills of loving, anecdotes from our lives about how we’ve attempted — and succeeded or struggled or failed — to practice unconditional love in the last week.

Depending on which Sunday, next up might be a someone’s money or spiritual or nature autobiography. Or it might be Liberation Bible Study. Or it might be “Gettin’ After It” Sunday, where we go deep about how it’s going with our shared practices of Sabbath, Shalom, and Jubilee.

Across the street, the greenness of Alberta Park shines at us. Through windows, through the trees, on any given Sunday I see my son Daniel’s bright clothes as he climbs and balances on a mossy stone wall with other kids. He in the Wilderness Way Community’s Children’s School, learning core stories of Christian faith while also learning to build fires, track the turning of the elemental and liturgical seasons, and play in ways that channels aggression and stays emotionally connected with other kids.

Wilderness Way exists to ground and cultivate “wild” Christian disciples and fearless spiritual leaders, rooted in the natural world and the prophetic Christian tradition, offering our lives for the transformation of our culture and economy into one that Jesus might recognize as what he called the Kingdom of God, what we might call the Ecosystem of God.

– from the Wilderness Way Mission Statement

Since 2009, my family has participated in the Wilderness Way Community. Wilderness Way was founded with a clear focus on developing spiritual leaders who are ready and able to respond to our times. This process of leadership development isn’t one size fits all, as each is on a personal journey. Some in Wilderness Way are rediscovering a faith damaged by the churches of their childhoods – having been treated as less than, for being women or queer or just different. Some are learning to teach the radical stream of the Bible, focused on the “least of these” and the Exodus escape from oppression into God’s new pattern of relying on manna as we journey together. Some are learning and teaching permaculture. Some are learning to release power and privilege and enter into the fullness of community. We are community organizers, counselors, pastors, teachers, medical professionals, students, retirees. We are on the Wilderness Way together.

In 2016 we celebrated the community’s tenth anniversary. As a part of that celebration, we collectively wrote a book – mostly through the labors of our pastor/organizer Solveig Nilsen-Goodin. Here’s a little more, from What Is the Way of the Wilderness?: An Introduction to the Wilderness Way Community.

“At Wilderness Way we come together to open up an alternative space within the context of the American empire—a bastion of global capitalism and neocolonialism. We come together to imagine this alternative space as a “wilderness” space, a space in which we can push back the logic of empire and find power in community to imagine and create a new reality; a space in which we can be formed and transformed, forgiven and challenged, untamed and undomesticated. The wilderness motif runs deep through the whole of scripture. In this motif we discover that at its core, wilderness refers to the places that empire has not been able to control. This is why prophets often come out of the wilderness, and why people seeking liberation from empire go into the wilderness.

Two of the many biblical wilderness stories that shape our imagination are the 40-year Exodus journey of liberation in the wilderness, and Jesus’ 40-day wilderness preparation to fulfill his baptismal call. The Exodus journey of liberation is a powerful prototypical story of a community seeking and attaining its own liberation and then having the dual blessing and challenge of unlearning the worldview of empire and slavery, and reimagining a way of life in harmony with the God of creation and liberation. Carving out “wilderness” spaces invites us also to unlearn the distorted worldviews that have shaped us and to reimagine life in harmony with the God of creation and liberation. In the same way, Jesus’ 40-day wilderness sojourn invites us to take our own call to spiritual leadership seriously.

Wilderness, however, is not simply a metaphor or a motif, an imaginative place or space. Every biblical story and every imaginative “wilderness” space we create takes place somewhere: In a particular ecosystem with its particular flora and fauna. In a particular watershed with its particular story of humans and their relationships to the land. In a particular bioregion with its particular history of human interactions, both harmonious and hostile, benevolent and brutal. Wilderness Way, for example, which finds its home in the Willamette and Columbia River watersheds, currently meets just miles from a portion of the Willamette River declared a Superfund site. This land, once a vibrant trading area for indigenous peoples, was ceded in 1855 by the Kalapuya, Molala, Clackamas and other peoples only after violence and epidemics had devastated over 95 percent of their populations.

Without an intimate connection with place, we easily spiritualize or see only the metaphoric meaning of a thing. For example, when Jesus compels his listeners to pay attention to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, he calls them not to a greeting-card moment but rather to a radical teaching on how God’s intended economy functions. Or how often, for example, do we hear the biblical phrase “living water” solely as metaphor while toxins flow unimpeded into water in countless rivers and oceans, poisoning the water that is the source and substance of life for us and myriad plants and animals—literally, our living water? Wilderness, therefore, also calls our attention to the earth, the land, the waters, the ecosystems, the biosphere in which we live, imploring us to learn their wisdom, their stories and the ways they have been impacted by empire. The climate crisis facing humanity reveals how deeply so many of us are disconnected from the ecosystems in which we live. Wilderness Way understands that reconnecting with the earth and earth’s stories, with wilderness and our own wildness, is not only essential for our healing and survival, it is inevitable for those who seek to follow in the way of Jesus and the untamable, undomesticatable God of Life. The breadth and depth of these meanings of wilderness have revealed to us what we call the Wilderness Way: the way of Sabbath, Jubilee and Shalom.

The Wilderness Way Community is a Synodically Authorized Worshipping Community of the Oregon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Matt Guynn has been actively involved with WWC, including anchoring Liberation Bible Study for several years and serving on the Wilderness Way Council. Guynn is program director for nonviolent social change with On Earth Peace. He is an alumnus of Manchester University (1995, B.A. Peace Studies), the University of Notre Dame (1996, M.A. International Peace Studies), and Bethany Theological Seminary (2003, M.A. Theology). His M.A. thesis at Bethany was “Re-enchantment: Theology, Poetics, and Social Change.”

Image Credits: Kmusser, Wikimedia, and Wilderness Way

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Cycling to Simplicity – Guest Bloggers, Katie Shaw Thompson and Anna Lisa Gross

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Katie’s Story

As I was crossing the Fox River on the Highland Avenue bridge on a misty Sunday morning in Elgin, IL, a Bald Eagle stretched its wings and soared directly over top of me. I don’t know if I would have caught it if I had been driving my little Mazda across town to preach at the Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren, where I am the pastor, but since I was on my bicycle, there was no glass or steel to block my vision of this serene creature’s stark white head and strong brown body gliding discretely through the grey winter morning.

From December through April, my family has pedaled more miles than we have driven. It has been a mild winter in northern Illinois, but even on below freezing days, my family, including my well-bundled 2-year-old and 4-year-old, have more often than not chosen our bikes over our car to get to church on Sunday mornings.

Since selling our second car in September and purchasing a long-tailed cargo bike for hauling both groceries and precious toddler cargo, my family has grown increasingly fond of this means of transportation as well as increasingly fond of the city in which we live. We have found it much easier to have occasion to greet our neighbors or strike up conversations at the bike corral with perfect strangers. Traveling at 5-10 miles per hour instead of 30 miles per hour through my city’s streets allows me to stop and chat with a congregant at work in his front yard, rather than throwing a quick wave while I blow by. The novelty of the long-tailed bike has more than once been the reason for a motorist stopped with us at a traffic light to roll down the window and start a curious and friendly conversation. Once while locking up outside a local supermarket the children made friends with a local store clerk and returned to find the cargo bike sporting a new, bobbing, bright yellow, helium-filled balloon. In the fall we enjoyed the view of the Autumn leaves. This winter we have been even more grateful for our warm house after frosty bike rides. And, as the spring erupts in Elgin, we have welcomed the miles of tulips, daffodils, and magnolia blossoms right alongside the bloom of increased bike and pedestrian traffic in these friendlier temperatures. All these encounters help me to feel more connected to the physical world and community around me than I feel in my car.

Not all bicycle-fueled encounters are as pleasant as spotting a high-sailing eagle or turning a stranger into a friend. When traveling alone on my bicycle, I have been the target of gender-based street harassment and have received other vulgarities hurled high-speed at me from car windows. Those are encounters my husband and children have never experienced and ones I never have in my car. When biking to work I also notice the incomplete infrastructure and the lack of sidewalk clearing after snows that makes it more dangerous for folks to bike and walk in my city. And I notice the people who are walking or biking like me. I see men who appear to have all their belongings on their backs. I see women walking with their coats zipped high and their ear pods implanted. I have seen mothers struggling across icy sidewalks with strollers. I wonder how many of them are out in all weather like me by choice and how many of them simply have no other choice to get to home, work, school, or food.     

The congregation I serve, like many other congregations, is seeking to renew and re-envision its call to community engagement in a world and a city that has changed quickly around it. The church’s three-year strategic plan asks, “What does it mean for the Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren to be a vital presence in the Elgin community? How does our identity affect the way we relate to the community, and how does the Elgin community shape us? Where do we lead? Where do we follow?”

The Israelites are in a time of renewal after many have returned from exile in Babylon when they hear the words of Isaiah 58. In this text, God speaks to the people and lets them know that the religious checklist of pious acts they have been crossing out has lost its power to transform them and transform their community. The voice of God tells them they only fast to serve their own interests and in doing so, oppress their workers (Isaiah 58:4). Rather God asks,

Is not this the fast that I choose:

 to loose the bonds of injustice,

 to undo the thongs of the yoke,

 to let the oppressed go free,

 and to break every yoke?

 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

 and bring the homeless poor into your house;

 when you see the naked, to cover them,

 and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Riding my bike is a simple act and not one I think of every day as transformative, but it has changed the way I relate to the environment around me. Moreover, the more I read about bicycles as transit, the more hopeful I become that this mode of transportation can address aspects of racial inequality, economic inequality, epidemic loneliness and isolation, and environmental sustainability. In Isaiah, God tells the people, if you choose this kind of fast, then you will be called “repairers of the breach” and “restorers of streets to live in.” My prayer is that my family’s commitment to two-wheeled transportation will help us to answer that call to repair the breach and restore the streets of our city one pedal stroke at a time.     

Anna Lisa’s Story

I like to tell people I bike everywhere because I’m lazy. I don’t carry quarters for parking meters, and I still get the best parking spots. But biking is only easy with preparation. Luckily, Brethren know about disciplines, spiritual and otherwise, and have the skills needed to bike simply.

I don’t mean to conflate lazy, easy, and simple. Lazy was just to get your attention and even make you smile! As we know, living simply can be easy, but it’s often quite complicated.

That’s where habits come in. If your spiritual disciplines include daily scripture study, you probably have a certain chair where you read and even a favorite Bible. That Bible might stay on the end table by that chair, and maybe there’s a coaster for your morning cup of coffee.

Biking everywhere can be that easy if you have as much habit and preparation. You’ll never make a practice of biking if you start the decision-making from scratch each morning, and have to decide on the spot what to wear, find a helmet, pump up your tires, and plan your route.

If you don’t know where to find a Bible and haven’t chosen a time of day to read scripture, you won’t pull off that spiritual discipline.

I have old track pants that I can pull over thick leggings – even a dress. I have a thin plastic coat and a thick plastic coat. I keep nice clothes at my office. I can bike in any weather (except ice) and for any occasion by building in these routines.

Because I bike every day, charging my headlights and pumping my tires is nearly automatic, and I do it at the end of the day (I’m not a morning person, so telling myself I’ll get up earlier to maintain my bike sets me up for failure).

Not always easy, but simple, because I’m not thinking through each choice every time. Habits are a gift.

Moving to the Pennsylvania mountains threatened my simple living cycling practice. I could no longer take my morning coffee in my bike’s cup holder without ½ of it spilling on my way down our steep, long driveway. It wasn’t easy to lose the pleasure of sipping coffee on my morning commute because I kept trying to complicate things – finding a better travel mug or holding it my hand down the driveway (which gave me some serious road rash one day). When I gave up that commute coffee habit, I simplified my morning routine.

Our individualistic culture has a shallow notion of freedom – that freedom means we get to make any choice we want. Not only is this toxic and impractical, but we also end up with even less freedom. Freedom is not 127 deodorant choices at a grocery store. Freedom is not trading the climate-controlled box of our homes, where we can pick the voices we listen to and restrict who comes inside, for the climate-controlled box of our cars, where we can pick the voices we listen to and restrict who comes inside.

As Paul wrote to the Galatian church,

It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. (MSG)

It’s so much easier for me to love people when I’m biking than driving – driving makes it so easy to ignore humanity and instead see vehicles – too fast, too slow, bumper stickers I like or don’t like. On my bike I look people in the eye: drivers – to make sure they see me, pedestrians and other cyclists – to exchange a greeting. I think I’m easier to love when I’m on my bike, too! Occasionally I’m harassed by drivers, but often I get a smile and wave, for my bright orange milk crate (cyclist version of a trunk) or the surprising combo of plastic track pants with cute shoes.

 

Katie Shaw Thompson is the pastor of the Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren, the mother of two young children, and a four-season bike commuter in Elgin, IL.

 

 

 

 

Anna Lisa Gross is the interim pastor of the Stone Church of the Brethren. She is grateful to be involved in planning worship and rituals, creative writing, joining people in the joys and sorrows of their lives, asking provocative questions, tending to beginnings and endings, community organizing, and advocating for justice.

 

 

Image Credits: Momentum Mag & UK Pintrest

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A Psalm of the Earth – Guest Blogger, Elizabeth “Liz” Ullery Swenson

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joebraun_angelslanding01
Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park

Last February, I had the opportunity to explore Zion Nation Park in southern Utah. My sister is a park ranger and spent last winter at, what locals simply call “Zions,” and so my wife and I drove down from our home in Washington State to visit. It is truly an amazing place. Towering red sandstone canyon walls. Unimaginably beautiful sunsets that seem to reflect the colors of the rock. The southern Utah desert is majestic and harsh, and staggeringly beautiful. The sense of the divine is palpable, and not only because of the references to biblical names throughout the park. It is one of those liminal spaces, truly sacred ground. God’s red earth.

Early one morning we hiked to Angels Landing, a famously rigorous and scenic hike. As we made our way up the canyon, I found myself pondering all the ancient canyon walls and rock had experienced. Formed by the Virgin river, slowing eroding the sandstone over thousands of years. Zion Canyon is still being formed; it is not yet finished. God’s creativity is still at work on this ever changing landscape. Maybe it was the steadily rising temperature as the sun rose above the canyon walls and we climbed higher, but I wondered if rocks pray, and if they did, what were their prayers? As I pondered this, I swear I could almost hear the rocks speak. Not in some alarming way, in a quiet way, when you can push past your thoughts and settle into a sacred quiet. Tuning out your internal dither and being fully present. Recognizing and accepting your place in the cosmos of things.

zion-national-park-emerald-pools-wallpaper-4
Emerald pool at Zion National Park

Back in our cool hotel room as I recovered from the strenuous 11 miles of hiking, I wrote a psalm of lament from the perspective of the Earth.

A Psalm of the Earth

How long O Creator?
How long will you allow your people to hurt me?

You created me, fashioned me from stardust.
Parting my waters and my lands, proclaiming me good.
Every soaring peak and babbling stream,
Every tumbling sage and towering sequoia,
You proclaimed it good and holy.

In one mighty chorus we praise you,
In the harmony of the songbirds
The rustling of the tree branches
The rumbling of the rocks
And the roaring of the waterfalls.
All is offered in celebration and praise of your wondrous works.

You created humans too,
people of all kinds,
Created in your holy image,
molded out of fertile soil.

You instructed them to take charge and care of me
and all your majestic creation.
But your people forgot.

They have become greedy and forgot the promise they made to you.

My sacred ground and holy waters are poisoned and pillaged.
My tender ecosystem is ruined
And still they persist.
Soon I will have nothing left.

My pristine wilderness is trampled and overrun
My flowing streams run dry to meet their insatiable thirst
Storms rage unrestrained because of my warming oceans.

Do they not care?
Do they not know we are interconnected and interdependent?

Our survival depends on each other,
they cannot live without me.
My future is their future.

O God, remind them of their promise to you and their responsibility to me.
Do not let them destroy me.

13015177_10100863827350253_314074110569093358_nElizabeth “Liz” Ullery Swenson is the Founding Pastor of WildWood Gathering and is an MDiv student at Bethany Theological Seminary. She lives in Olympia, Washington with her wife Lucy Jane Swenson. To find out more about WildWood, visit http://wildwoodgathering.org/.

 

Image Credits: Joe Braun Photography & PCWallArt

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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.”

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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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