Simplify Recap – Guest Blogger, Jonathan Stauffer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Jonathan Stuaffer

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Summer Camp and the Rule of Life – Guest Blogger, Katie Heishman

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Brethren Woods Camp & Retreat Center’s new logo updated 04/2017.

Working as a program director might be one of the only “office” jobs that connects me to the cyclical design of nature. As we move from season to season, our programming shifts in rhythm with the movement of nature. In the winter, we slow down, observing a slower pace, a slower schedule. Into the spring, the pace of life and work perk up with the greening of life all around camp. By the time summer erupts around us, we’re matching the pace of buzzing bees and the vibrancy of the natural world bursting around us. Then with a flicker summer blazes into fall, the erratic pace of summer giving way to the vibrancy found in restful sleep, dreaming of new seasons, and preparing for winter weather.

The summer months sneak up on me and leave with a sense of disbelief, “Is this really happening? Are the summer staff really arriving today?” Despite my disbelief at the fast-paced reality, it’s really happening. Our summer staff begins to arrive in the middle of May—we spend two weeks training and planning with our Assistant Program directors. They take charge of the day-to-day routines of camp making sure meals and activities are happening on time. They allow Tim and I space to step back from the day to day of summer camp and prepare for next week or the coming months of programming. The calendar still spins on—even if I’m living in the disbelief of summer all around me.

2017 Summer Staff after a commissioning ceremony

My disbelief stretches from the arrival of summer to the people who show up to summer camp. Each summer that the summer staff—full of male and female counselors, support staff, and leadership—is a gift from God! Finding faithful young adults who will be getting paid can be a struggle, but finding people to come for free—well, that floors me! Brethren Woods has a faithful base of adult volunteers for health managers and deans who take a week from their job or their summer to spend time at camp serving.

As an extrovert, the buzzing about of volunteers and summer staff is a real treat for me. Every volunteer brings a unique spin to their leadership. I am blessed seeing nuanced styles at play throughout the whole summer. The worship stays fresh week to week with the movement of deans, who provide daily Bible study lessons and lead the campers in evening worship, adding personal songs or stories to the mix. Adult counselors resurrect games from the late 80s and early 90s that the kids love! Health managers each have a different system for grading the “cleanest cabin” from yellow cards to the Mr. Clean Broom, and a dancing duck. I’m in awe of the time and commitment folks will put into their roles. My favorite question to ask volunteers is, “What are sacred memories or moments that you have around Brethren Woods?” Everyone’s answer is different and each one leaves me in awe at the many ways we can each experience a place where God speaks to us.

Everyone wishes that life could be more like summer camp…and I’m one of the lucky kids that gets to experience it every summer. Supervising the summer is obviously not the same as sleeping in a cabin with seven other souls, but summer camp’s rhythm lends itself to a “rule of life.” A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that give our lives structure and strengthen our walk with God. Camp’s rule of life looks like rising with bunk mates; praising God by the lake with croaking bullfrogs; blessing breakfast, lunch, and dinner and eating family style; reading scripture and studying the Bible; evening worship hosts a painted sky that fades to twinkling stars; and reflections of the day and God’s movement are shared with bunkmates by flashlight.

During the summer months, I’m reminded of the enormous impact the camp rule of life has on camper’s and staff’s lives. A whole community is committing to immerse themselves in rhythms that encourage their awakening to God’s movement in their lives. Most of the time, we don’t create these spaces and these rhythms to encounter God in the same way that we can at camp or on spiritual retreats. Camp is a technology-free zone, but most of my life involves daily attentiveness to a laptop or a phone. Even as a seminary student and worker in outdoor ministries I need reminders to cultivate a consistent rule of life that allows me to abide with Jesus. How can I cultivate a life with sacred, joyful rhythms like summer camp? What does a faithful rule of life look like when I must create it myself? What would a rule of life for a family or household include? What sacred rhythms do you want to cultivate together?

While I work on drafting my rule of life for the coming, slower seasons—I wonder about what volunteers, staff, and campers will carry with them from this summer season. At the end of the season, summer staff usually share about the immense deepening of their faith because of their time at camp. Many learned spiritual disciplines like centering prayer and breath prayer for the first time and I’m hopeful for their continued walk with God. Sometimes we hear about campers initiating baptism and membership classes with their pastors when they come home from camp. Many heard calls to follow Jesus more intentionally, committing to an intentional step in their journey and I’m grateful for church communities there to support them. I finish thank you cards for volunteers—thanking them for the gift of their time and energy, which in this day and age are fleeting more and more. I am grateful for their spiritual maturity and their commitment to join in the sacred camp rule of life over and over again each summer.

 

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.

Image Credits: Camp Brethren Woods, Faith and Worship, and Rule of Life

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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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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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