Category: Practices

Becoming Ecologically Aware


By Jonathan Stauffer

Several experiences in the natural world heightened my self-awareness and spirituality. These experiences began as a child living in the country and continue into my adult life. I once took for granted the value of Earth, but these experiences built the case for greater appreciation and protection of God’s creation.

I grew up on a family farm and had many outdoor experiences through work and play. One of my jobs during the summer was to pull weeds out of the corn fields. I fed calves as a part of our dairy operations as a year-round job. Each of these tasks gave me a sense of what living things need to grow, which I attribute as an early ecological awareness. I also had time to play on the farm. I pulled off the heads of dandelions and climbed trees. On clear nights, I beheld a multitude of stars. Looking back, these childhood memories often contained moments of wonder.

By my high school years, however, my attitude had changed. I underestimated the value of outdoor experiences, and I did not see farming as an appealing profession. My interests focused on science, and I wanted to become an engineer. I studied physical sciences as an undergraduate at Manchester where I learned about universal laws of nature as they pertain to energy and matter. I also realized concerns arising from pollution and climate change that I felt needed solutions. But looking back, my efforts to understand the crisis focused more on human interests than the broader issues of ecology.

A profound change to my ecological awareness came about 7 years ago. I agreed to teach nature classes at a Brethren youth camp with my friend, Randall Westfall. Randall introduced me to wilderness awareness skills. I learned practices for how to walk quietly, listen intently, and observe carefully in whatever place I walked. These practices added a greater definition to my vocabulary of the natural world and invoked my childhood wonder once again. I also received joy from teaching the youth some of these same wilderness techniques because I saw their own spiritual and intellectual growth develop at camp. From these experiences, I have a continued interest to serve in outdoor ministry and learn about the local place that I reside.


I believe that wilderness skills are practice that contributes to human wholeness. Over time, I studied field guides to develop further knowledge of plants and animals. I learned about the ecology in my region. I no longer saw trees as green tops and brown trunks, but distinguished them by their leaves and bark. I memorized the features of several common medicinal plants and a few common bird songs. In this way, my awareness of biodiversity within creation increased, which is a natural order that God allows humans to comprehend.

Of course, there are also natural hazards that humans must heed. Caution towards the wilderness is not just for our own protection, but also serves to protect the rest of creation. We are reminded that God established creation a long time before humans came on the scene. As powerful as human knowledge has become, we are still limited in understanding the processes of the wild. Natural hazards provide a wisdom that humbles and sets ecological boundaries.

We must remember that humans are not detached from the creation. I believe wholeness (Shalom) includes turning to sustainable farming practices as well as developing renewable energy technology alongside ecological conservation. In order to best enable these changes we need to increase our understanding of the ecological processes that benefit our daily lives and pattern our build environments after them. Failure to do so will harm all creatures, including humanity.

Today, I view creation not only as a means through which God provides our food and fiber, but also as places for renewal and revelation. From this understanding of creation, I am grateful for the sacred intent that the Creator gives through nature. Such an understanding fosters simple living by assessing what are truly basic needs and what are empty desires. In fact, I question the accelerated pace of technology over the last fifty years, and wonder whether there are limits to its perceived benefits. I now am concerned about wholeness for both human and non-human inhabitants of the planet Earth.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to care for God’s Earth. Reading the Bible enhances our ecological imagination in addition to faith formation. Beyond the account of creation in Genesis, poems and wisdom teachings in the Old Testament relate to nature (Psalm 104 and Job 38-39). In the New Testament, the parables of Jesus employ nature as analogies for the kingdom of heaven (e.g. Matthew 13). Human interests are deeply intertwined with other creatures and the land, and God intended creation to be this relational. The Creator establishes these relationships to keep us in communion with all living things and the Divine.

As Brethren, we have traditions of simple living and covenant relationship, lifestyles that foster wholeness and aid in restoring the planet. Let us enjoy the God-given benefits of creation while also relieving the pain that we and other humans impose on it. Failure to act will be a missed opportunity in witnessing to the abundant living that Christ modeled for us.


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

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Stop Serving!


This video from Homeboy Industries came across my Facebook timeline the other day. If you don’t know about this amazing ministry in Los Angeles started by Father Greg Boyle, you can check out their website.

In his thought of the day, he dropped this fantastic quote. “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service to those one the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”

At some point we need to drop all this talk about service. For Brethren, I am probably nearing the line of outright heresy, but hear me out.

For the early Brethren, the idea that we care for one another was not based in the language of service, but in mutual aid. Sure, this made sense in the days of our more sectarian past. We did care for our sisters and brothers of faith. It wasn’t until the 20th century that this core idea shifted into the language of service. In my more generous moments, I can see how this shift in terminology helped the Brethren claim a role within the world. Talking about service in essence broke us out of the me and us view of care for others.

However, we must come to terms with how the language of service continues to separate us from others. Basically, those who “serve others” are often working from a significant position of privilege. Whether it is economic or social privilege, those who can take time off for service projects locally or around the country do so because they can. While we rightly acknowledge that those who have privilege should use it to care for others in need, the very idea that we serve them has an overtone of condescension. We literally come out of our privileged social location so that we can minister to “those in the margins.”

An interesting thing happens, however, as people go on service trips. Inevitably, they return with a bit of cognitive dissonance. I hear it most often expressed like this: “I went there to offer something to them, but they gave me so much.” In the midst of the relationship building with those whom we “serve” the lines between those in need and those from privilege blur, and uncomfortably so. Here we are, the ones who are to care for others and we find ourselves ministered to.

This is why we must finally let go of the service interpretation of feet washing. Put another way, washing feet is NOT about serving others. In John’s account, Jesus does name the roll he takes as a servant, but that is only half the story. When Peter chastises him for doing what is not appropriate for teacher, the conversation turns to washing, and alludes to baptism. “If I don’t wash your feet,” Jesus says, “then you have no part with me.” Brash as always, Peter responded that if that is the case, then he should be completely washed. “You have bathed,” Jesus said, “and are thus clean except for the feet.”

This exchange with Peter is a clear reference to baptism, sin, and grace. And when Jesus says that we are to do this for one another, he highlights the priestly role we offer one another. There is no privileged place since all must wash and be washed. All must confess to one another and all must receive grace from others.

This is why I think people are so put off by washing feet. Some say that it is the idea of feet alone that turns people off. However, when we talk about “serving others with the basin and towel,” it is much easier to kneel down and wash another person’s dirty feet. It is when we must receive the grace of having our feet washed that we get weirded out. In the language of service, it is always better to give than to receive.

This is why we don’t know what to do with the gifts we receive when we are on a service trip. It is why we feel so guilty about coming away with so much more than we actually give.

If we can finally recover the mutuality of feet washing I think we can finally move towards what Father Boyle called “kinship with those on the margins.” We can go out from our houses of privilege and finally enter the cycle of grace upon grace where we finally see Jesus in one another.

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A Beacon in the Night


by Sue Mock

My journey with the Death Row pen pal project began with a seminar led by Rachel Gross at our church about four years ago.  Prison ministry was something that was drawing my heart, but I wasn’t sure how to get involved until Rachel opened the door.  There were so many disturbing facts that she shared that I knew this would be a part of my life in a very meaningful way.  I first shared with her that I would be interested in having a pen pal that might have difficulty with writing, as I was a learning disability teacher and understood students who have some challenges communicating.  Alden Harden was who I was matched with, and he has been an extremely articulate man with a beautiful way of expressing himself especially through poetry.

Our letters went back and forth from North Carolina to Indiana at least once a month.  We began with getting to know each other through our daily routines, likes, and dislikes.  It is surprising how many common things can be found even with such different surroundings.  The common threads throughout our written conversations were respect, genuine interest in each other’s lives, mutual concern, and a deep belief in God.  We have shared about our childhood, siblings, parents, youth groups, joys, daily routines, jokes, sermons, disappointments, frustrations, and more.

My husband enjoys photography as a hobby.  This has opened up a window for Al that has turned into a blessing for both men.  Max searches his pictures, finds several that go together, and writes a little about them with each letter I send.  Al has a chance to see, through Max’s camera lens, a whole different world than the confines of the North Carolina prison walls that surround him.

About a year ago Al started sending poems that he had written.  I love poetry, and his poems were beautifully written from his heart.  I thought he might enjoy seeing them in print, so I typed them and sent them back in my letters.  More and more came.  Some were very soulful and filled with life-lessons learned, and others were light and whimsical.  But all were a beautiful expression of a delightful, loving, caring, dear man sharing himself though poetry.  An idea sprang up that we could put these together in a book.  Al  was so excited about that idea that I began the work of creating a poetry book, using my husband’s photographs of our church worship centers as the illustrations for each piece.  Another friend, who had created many books of vacation destinations, shared her work with me,  which greatly increased my enthusiasm.???????????????????????????????

Several hours of editing and rearranging produced a lovely book of Al’s poems with Max’s photos illustrating each one.  I purchased two copies.  One was sent to Alden Harding at Central Prison in North Carolina, and one went to me in Indiana.  Both of us were thrilled with the results.  As soon as Al received his book, he asked how he could get more copies, as several folks were interested.  For his Christmas gift this year, I sent six copies to his loved ones.  It was such a rewarding way to honor this man who had written such amazing work and to provide a way for him to share himself with his family.

A couple months have passed, and more copies are wanted for more folks.  I am not sure what shape this project will take, but I do know that I am so grateful to be part of this journey with Al.  God can join together two unlikely people with such different backgrounds and create a beautiful friendship and an amazing book of poems.

Where is God in all of this?  God is in the stirrings of a heart wanting to serve and connect in an upside-down way.  God is giving courage and opening spaces for individuals to share faith stories and personal insights.  God is providing respect and honor to the worthiness of each of us and giving opportunities to share with others.  This project is connecting the dots of God’s love in action.  It is a story about changing lives, attitudes, and hearts into the essence of New Beginnings and touching the fabric of the Easter message.

I would like to close with one of Al’s poems.


Thanks for making my heart smile.

It’s a real pleasure

It’s no way to really measure.

Things you put in print makes me grin.

You’ve become quite the friend.

No, I don’t have many,

Yet your rigorousness has proven plenty.

I love our in-depth talks.

They’re cozy like moonlit walks.

The way we share so many things,

Hurts, pains, future dreams,

Thoughts of you can engulf me for hours.

Capture my mind in translucent powers.

The way you virtually hold my hand.

In this crazy and barren land.

When I lay awake in the bleak of night.

Alone with my thoughts and all wound up tight.

It’s rereading your thoughts

That seems to make all things right.


Dear Pen………….Friend.

by Alden Harden

Sue Mock is a member of North Manchester Church of the Brethren (South/Central Indiana District) and an elementary special education teacher in Warsaw, Indiana.

Learn more about the Death Row Support Project at their website, and sign up to get involved here.

After Sue wrote this article, she received the following words in a letter from Al: “Yes, [the copy of the poetry book Sue sent him for his birthday] actually got here on the 19th, so it made for a lovely gift.  Funny, most times, the legal mail person comes around to the pod cell for or rather with our packages such as this.  They actually called me to the sergeant’s office to sign for it.  Then the sergeant asked to check it out.  The lieutenant then got whiff of it and asked to check it out.  Said that he thought it was really good and asked if I had another one in the makings.  Another sergeant on this rotation actually has hold of it now.  I can hardly believe folk think it’s truly good.”


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Its All About Attitude



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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A New Order for Clergy?


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.


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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Small Groups in Congregational Life


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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Fasting and Feasting


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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What about the Prayer Covering?


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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Giving and Community Life


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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Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 2


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.


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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