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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Giving and Community Life – Guest Blogger, Jeanne Davies

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

Call to Giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 2 – Guest Blogger, Christopher Montgomery

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By Christopher J. Montgomery

Read part one of this series…

Liturgical Place

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

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

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

Engaging the Scriptures Together

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

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

The Ritual Meal

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

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

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

Assessment

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

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

 

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Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 1 – Guest Blogger, Christopher Montgomery

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By Christopher J. Montgomery

Read the second installment of this series…

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

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

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

Grounding Worship in the Love Feast

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

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

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

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

 Read on for part 2

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