Theopoetics Conference Recap – Guest Blogger, Evan Underbrink

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A man, masked in the guise of some immortal earth spirit, rumbles in his deep baritone a song as he comes onto the improvised stage, to an audience of some fifty theopoets and scholars. His hair is moss; his eyes shine through the hip-bone holes of some vernal skeleton, the mind’s eye being born from mother earth. His hands hold a basket, or womb, or crib, redolent with the leaves and needles of trees. He sings:

            I am stretched out, on your grave
            and I’ll stay there forever.

This begins the “acceptance speech” turned performance from the Rubem Alves Award for Theopoetic excellence. This award, in honor to a giant within our field, was given to Tevyn East, director of Holy Fool Arts, who would shortly join her husband Jay on the stage, in the dress of Mother Nature, which had been formed from dumpster finds. She and her husband Jay were performing a small portion of their “Carnival de Resistance.” In their act, they deftly stitch together dance, song, stagecraft, Bible verses and allusion, poetry, and social activism:

            Did not your prophets tell of the burning of the cedars of Lebanon?

The award winners were well-chosen, as the themes of art and activism would be a unifying strand throughout all the papers, workshops, and panels which studded the conference.

It all began, however, with Jillian Weise, and her poetry reading. Having time for a brief refreshment and some introductory remarks, the poet and scholar was introduced to a room she was very shortly to own. Her pieces touched the intersection of art and the embodied life of the person with a disability, a term which she presented with no small ambivalence, preferring instead to call herself a “cyborg.” She first read “The Amputee’s Guide to Sex,” which proffered this advice:

            to create an uninhibited environment for your partner,
            track their hands like game pieces on a board.

Continue reading below after enjoying this song. Reflect on the lyrics and meditate on the music’s movements.

In the Q&A that followed, Jillian talked provocatively about her activism, her body as a place where the battle for the rights of the disabled – a term she adopts with great ambivalence, preferring to call herself a “cyborg” – was waged. The community applauds, celebrates, and breaks up into talk and refreshments. Outside, a simple blackboard sign, facing the street, reads, “Poetry & Party Tonight. All Welcome.”

The first-morning panel held Scott Holland, a theopoetic scholar and regular in the field, the Transgender Social Justice Educator and writer J’Lissabeth Faughn, Lisa Hess, a scholar of interreligious learning, conscious feminine leadership and Christian spirituality, and the black theologian and scholar Adam Clark. They danced with questions of aesthetics and activism, with what is this thing theopoetics, and offered the reflections of their own fields and selves they each saw therein. An argument slowly unfurled itself over conceptions of gender, the purposes of art, the failures and benefits of preaching. As one witness later put it, “by the end, I thought it was about to go down!” And yet, we seemed to have found some peculiar gift which allowed for deep disagreement to coexist with deep connection. No small feat, given the seemingly inevitable sacrifice of one or the other in most communities.

The panels kept the discussion going, each session stretched with wide spaces for conversation, connection, and honoring of disagreement and divergence. These stretched the gamut of topics, from the esoteric nature of resistance to be found in the figure of Herman Melville’s Bartleby and expressed by Daniel Boscaljon, to the quiet and profound poetry of Jeff Gundy, under the title “Beauty is Something to Love”, to the joy and laughter of Jan Voigts “The Bible through a Comic Lens.” Beauty, activism, connection, and hidden in the corners of our conversations was some love of that surplus necessity; the idea that the best of what we were doing were the things which could not be captured in our speech, theories, and arguments.

Before our final meal together, and the Holy Fool’s performance, Troy Bronsink, the founder/director/spiritual director of The Hive led us in an embodied, contemplative grace:

            Allow yourself to feel gratitude,
            starting from the top of your head, and moving down…

Some would have called it worship. Others meditation. Some would refrain from putting that time in strict categories. Regardless of our words, we were together, in an expression of gratitude for our bodies, ourselves, our community, our weekend together, and that time we had to cherish that time.

The next day, a smaller group of us would gather at the local Bed and Breakfast to try and name those things, to keep some expression of them in the next conference. Words and concepts were offered, considered, and appreciated from all around the table:

17103594_1461965687171127_3646029071182532306_n
Callid Keefe-Perry, as Evan puts it, is one of the Saints of Theopoetics.

            “Connection.”
            “Not like other academic conferences.”
            “A place where artists and scholars meet.”
            “I saw respectful disagreement.”

In the end, it was Callid himself, the founder and head of our theopoetic group, who named the darker elephants in the room. With impassioned, reddened eyes, he said: “At this time, when there is so much fear, and some many things falling apart, we need this. Everything is falling, and we need to be here, building something up.” Looking around, at the faces of hopeful artists, thoughtful scholars, and perhaps one silly lover of Dante, I have to agree.

 

img_04772Evan is a published short story author and student of Theopoetics at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana. Evan‘s editor has told him that he has to write a more human bio than he first submitted. This has turned out to be a daunting prospect, as writing about himself in the third person seems a rather artificial act, leading to inevitable self-calumny. Evan feels in this moment as if he is doing the equivalent of standing in front of a mirror, that most sacred of contemporary artifices, and attempting to describe himself in writing to someone with very little point of reference. Dürer’s “Rhinoceros” comes to this mind. Therefore, Evan would like it known that he is most certainly not a rhinoceros.

 

Photo Credit: Evan Underbrink

“Gungor – “Late Have I Loved You”,” YouTube, April 04, 2010, , accessed March 16, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WoCwuPXhvM.
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Road to Selma – Guest Blogger, Sarah Bond-Yancey

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The following poem was written as the author reflected on receiving her level 1 trainer certification in Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation at the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth & Reconciliation. A Pagan, she nonetheless weeps for those whom Jesus weeps and actively seeks a day when justice will roll like a river (Amos 5:24). How do her compassion and action challenge our often safe and lazy faith? – C

Road to Selma

First thing I notice is16999128_10102948986529423_7131485732795198647_n
Greyhound –
Those famous Freedom Rider lines? –
Don’t run here anymore

Only way to get here
Now?
Seventy-five bucks to Uber
After five hundred bucks to fly

An economic ebb and flow
Drains the rolling Alabama River
Robbing the nameless
To feed the faceless

Another rusting facet on the
Pipeline
of Economic Genocide

Priced out of
Existence
Mapped out of
Deliverance

A white moderate nation says
Not my fault
Not my problem

But

Blacks killing blacks
Is still lynching
If the city’s soul is strung up
In the freshly bleached cords of
White
Supremacy

Doc sits quietly to the side,
Eyes glimmering in the amber sun rays,
Tells us of a time:

These empty streets
Once were filled
These tender prayers
Once were willed

But

The searing summer of Whiteness ended,
Biracial autumn waxing,
White flight
To some other unsuspecting summer
Left these faithful streets
To wander themselves
In search of feet
To warm them

Left these faithful lights
To shine themselves out of oblivion
In search of another sun
To call their own

May I remind you –

It is still called segregation
When white and black
Are seasons
Are timelines
Are zip codes

It is still called segregation
If the buses stop running
When the whites stop riding
And the Freedom lines no longer stop in
Selma.

10547461_10101430233053563_8814039422811650982_nSarah Bond-Yancey is Volunteer Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity and Impact Planning & Analysis Coordinator for On Earth Peace.  She lives in Bellingham, Washington with her partner Brian. When not working toward justice, she has been known to make alpaca crafts.

Photo Credits: Sarah Bond-Yancey

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Four Reasons Why People Attend Church: Socialization & Transformation in Today’s Church Pt. III – Guest Blogger, Brody Rike

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Reason #3: To Commune

The third reason that many attend churches is the desire to be a part of a community of believers, or perhaps a more shallow way of putting it, “a desire to make new friends.” There is no question, whether we are talking about socialized or transformed individuals, this is clearly a more mature step in a journey through church life. Entering into new relationships always has a risk factor. It is risky to allow others to know you and to take steps toward new people, engaging yourself in their lives. New relationships always have the potential to create strong bonds as easily as they can create new conflicts. People who are willing to take these steps are willing to make some form of sacrifice. When this kind of sacrifice is happening, it can bring great vitality to the social culture of a congregation.

CommunityCommunity through Socialization
I once believed that longing for community is a void that everyone had, and that it was a high priority in the lives of most people. From my experience as a minister, I conclude this simply is not true in the American culture in which we live. I do believe people still long for community, but their scope of what community is has become much smaller while the overall burden for it as a whole has decreased. For many people, the immediate and extended family is enough scope for a community. One or two good friends are often enough community, a few closer acquaintances at a workplace or even regular interaction on Facebook and social media can fill the void of a community. Sure, most would love to be known by many and even have many close friends, but when it comes to making decisions to move toward new and closer relationships, it is just not something that most will do, or even know how to do. As such, people coming to church for others is a good thing. Socialized people that pursue community are pursuing relationships, but not necessarily pursuing relationships to foster their spiritual growth or contribute to another’s spiritual growth. They are willing to take the risk of making new friends and developing more engaged relationships, but the only spiritual prerequisite for these relationships is that they attend the same church.

Community after Transformation
When one who is being transformed begins consuming the things for God and makes a commitment to a church community, they recognize that there are other Christians in the congregation that they need to engage to grow spiritually, just as they notice that there are relationships that they should pursue to help others grow spiritually. A key point of validation to determine whether one is pursuing community for transformation or socialization is the content of their dialogue outside of worship or Christian education settings. People in socialized church relationships will never speak of the Holy Spirit, sin or victory when they are together in non-programmed moments, except maybe for a prayer request from time to time. But those who are being transformed will look upon a brother or sister in Christ as one of the only people that they can talk to about such things. Sure it will not be the only topic of their interactions, but when these matters of the heart conversations are happening, spiritual growth is happening.
My call into ministry began with a moment like this. When I was 19 years old, I had a transformative moment when I had an encounter with Jesus Christ. A month before this experience I had just moved into an apartment near my college campus with four other guys so I could have the full “college experience.” When I became a Christian not only did I not know anyone else my age that was living their life for Christ, I didn’t even know if these types of people existed. Within weeks of this transformative experience, the Lord led me to about 15 other young adults at a church right around the corner from my apartment; with whom I soon wanted to spend all of my time. This desire was so strong that I joined the program they were in and began training for ministry; when I actually just wanted to have Christian community. My relationships with these young men and women were based on the common bond that we all had, to love God with our lives and to sharpen and encourage each other to grow closer to Christ.

Reason #4: Calling

A final reason why just a few attend churches is a sense of calling, purpose, and responsibility. living-a-life-worthy-of-the-calling-650x487Transformed people who are giving their lives over to the will of God will begin to have a sense of mission and destiny. They will begin to recognize that there are few coincidences when we walk with the Lord and that there is something sacred about the opportunities that they have been given to build the church of Christ. When congregation members begin to see themselves as called to a body, they no longer speak of a church as “this church” but rather “my church.” Called members have a sense of ownership in the congregation, but ownership is really only the first indicator, and it is one that can be easily confused with a socialized commitment.

A better indicator is when someone who is called begins to talk about challenges in their congregation; you will not hear them pointing a finger in the other direction, but rather asking or finding a way to be a part of the solution. Transformed, called people see their church as a spiritual mission, that they are responsible for. A final indicator that we will mention is found in consideration of transition. Those who don’t see their church as part of their calling as a Christ-follower can easily find reasons to leave the church. These reasons usually come in response to a new void that is found in one of the previous reasons why they originally attended; they don’t like the new pastor’s sermons or the new kid’s programs (consuming), they no longer want to serve in the capacity that they have been serving in or have been asked to serve in a different way (commitment), or there is just too much conflict in their relationships at church (community). A transformed person who is called, will not transition from a congregation for any of the above reasons, because they recognize that they are not at their current congregation on their own terms, but rather the Lord’s. The primary reason why someone who is called would transition from a congregation would be that they get a genuine sense that the Lord is leading them in a different direction. This leading is far beyond their own personal preferences, but a moving of the Holy Spirit in their life.

This last reason of calling was not placed in two categories as all the others, because the final reason is a rare reason why one would attend church and one that is hard to socialize. For the lay member, it would take the work of cult-like manipulation to be socialized into attending a church because they are called. Paid clergy, on the other hand, can in fact slip into a mode where they can socialize their own calling from the Lord. I would guess that if you ask 99 out of 100 clergy if they felt called to their congregation, they would say yes, and express many of the feelings and language of calling. However, the socialization creeps in when they see themselves in the role as “sent from God,” but are no longer working hard to produce spiritual growth in their congregations and rather begin to go through the motions, keeping the peace and making others feel good about themselves while collecting a paycheck. It is in the hands of severely socialized clergy that the church begins to be in danger of removing the transformative power of the Gospel from their church.

A Way Forward
As a minister who has now journaled my assessments of my current congregation along with experiences in different congregations, I will conclude with my convictions and a commission that is a way forward for all churches in the middle of this tension between the socialized and the transformed. First, ministers who are being transformed or have at once been transformed must return or draw near again to Christ seeking his plan and his will for the church they pastor. They must be burdened with love for the spiritual growth of their people. Secondly, they must realize that transformed people are the hope of their congregation. They must begin to focus on some key relationships within their church and not be afraid to ask them the tough questions about their faith. This task is truly spiritual, which is why much of the burden must be placed on the work of the Holy Spirit through prayer. This description is of person to person discipleship, which must be passed on from clergy to lay members and lay members to other lay members and/or the unchurched in their communities. I do believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is the hope of the world and the Church will fulfill its mission when lives are being transformed by the Holy Spirit.

This blog post is the final installment of a three-part series based on a paper written for Russell Haitch’s Educating in the Spirit class during the fall of 2016.

brBrody Rike is Pastor of West Alexandria Church of the Brethren in West Alexandria, Ohio, where he has served the last four years. Brody is a current MA student at Bethany Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Biblical Studies. At 36 years-old his ministry experience includes ministerial roles as a senior pastor and youth pastor with the Assemblies of God. Brody also has experience working in Christian education as a Bible Teacher, Athletic Director and Principal. He is happily married and a father of three, who remains active in his community, coaching varsity basketball and coordinating ministry programs in local public schools.

Photo Credits: Doing Life Better and Center for the Advancement of Christian Education (CACE)

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Four Reasons Why People Attend Church: Socialization & Transformation in Today’s Church Pt. II – Guest Blogger, Brody Rike

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Reason #1: To Consume

The first reason why one may decide to begin attending a church is to consume. To consume is simply, “to use up a resource.”[8] For some elucidation, it must be stated that to consume is not exactly the first and initial reason why one may walk through church doors. There are a variety of reasons why someone may attend a church for the first -time, many of which have nothing to do with consuming (i.e., a church production or to appease family). However, the desire to consume is the first reason why many people choose to stay. Similar to Loder’s concept of “The Void,” this is a step where people begin to recognize that they need something that they do not have, so they consume of what it is that they do not have.[9]

Consuming through Socializationsocialization-contamination1243884839

Many begin their church journey consuming a program of which they want their kids to be a part of. Some begin consuming church because it gains them favor and respect among others in their local communities to be seen in a local congregation, and some even consume church because as Dean states, it simply makes them feel good about themselves.[10] Although not an exclusive list, all of the items above can be seen as products in our culture that are desired by everyone. We all want to be respected, we all want our kids to be a part of programs that will make them better young men and young women and we all certainly want to feel good about ourselves. These products of socialization alone can keep people in church for a long time without any hint of transformation ever taking place.

Consuming after Transformation

When one has an encounter with Christ and is transformed with a longing to know more about him, the desire to consume more of God is certainly a healthy desire that must be nourished. Beginning to attend a Bible teaching church is a great way for one to fill this hunger. If this hunger is authentic and sparked from a personal transformation, the desire to consume more of God’s word, God’s presence and God’s will, is a desire that will not go away, but rather fanned into flame by a congregation of others with a longing to consume more of God.

Reason #2: To Commit

A second step that many will take in their experiences attending a congregation is that they will make a decision to commit to a place of fellowship. This commitment includes deciding that this is the church that they will attend regularly and regularly always means different things to different people. Commitment often includes finding a way to serve or contribute to the place that they will attend. Many that make it to this phase in their journey through church life will even begin to give monetarily to the church on a “regular” (always subjective) basis.

Commitment through Socialization

A healthy dose of the philosophy of the American dream tells us that teamwork is a good thing. We also understand that if we consider ourselves to be a part of an organization and take a bit of pride in it, then we should find a way to contribute to that organization. Then if we can attach these concepts to the idea of “serving the Lord,” or “building the kingdom of God,” then we have just come up with a really noble way to be a part of something mutually beneficial while being considered as one who is “spiritual or religious.”

There is also another level of socialized commitment that socialization produces. As a young Brethren pastor, I was surprised to discover how many people there were that wanted me to be their pastor, but they did not really want to attend church themselves. It was as if they were often saying, “We don’t really want to attend church that often, but we are really glad that you are there.”[11] It was also surprising how many people considered the church that I pastor to be their home church, but I would only see them 6-8 times a year attend a service. Their sporadic attendance is a strange level of “commitment,” that socialization can produce, but we must recognize that this level of commitment has nothing to do with transformation.

Commitment after Transformation

After one is transformed and begins to consume of the things of God, they will quickly (not gradually) desire to serve. When the presence of God is real in the heart of the believer, they will long for a way to worship God with their life. This longing goes far beyond a church congregation, but it undoubtedly includes the church congregation. This desire can be nurtured by others who are being transformed and are serving as well as those who have been socialized into serving. The transformed commitment level of church participation is one who is saying “I desire to love God with my life and I know that this is where I belong, so this is where I will serve.”

why-do-people-go-to-a-church-service

This blog post is part two of a three-part series based on a paper written for Russell Haitch’s Educating in the Spirit class during the fall of 2016. Part three will be published on Thursday, February 9.

brBrody Rike is Pastor of West Alexandria Church of the Brethren in West Alexandria, Ohio, where he has served the last four years. Brody is a current MA student at Bethany Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Biblical Studies. At 36 years-old his ministry experience includes ministerial roles as a senior pastor and youth pastor with the Assemblies of God. Brody also has experience working in Christian education as a Bible Teacher, Athletic Director and Principal. He is happily married and a father of three, who remains active in his community, coaching varsity basketball and coordinating ministry programs in local public schools.

[8] “Consume – Definition of Consume in English | Oxford Dictionaries,” accessed November 28, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/consume.

[9] Loder, The Transforming Moment, 80–84.

[10] Dean, Almost Christian : What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, 14.

[11] Quote by Russell Haitch

Photo Credits: Idea Expo and Adam McLane

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Four Reasons Why People Attend Church: Socialization & Transformation in Today’s Church Pt. I – Guest Blogger, Brody Rike

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They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. – Acts 2:42-47  (NIV.)

        The description above of the first “church” in the Book of Acts is one that has often become a Biblical standard for what a church today should look like, what it should be doing, how the people of the church should be treating each other, and most importantly what the Lord should be doing in their midst. The good news is that what we read above is still happening in some churches in America. The bad news is that something else is also happening in many churches across our nation.

        The purpose of this study will be to explain how two very different things can be happening to different people in American churches. These two different things are socialization and transformation. To understand these two concepts and their relevance to the church today we will look to James Loder and Kenda Creasy Dean. We will explain the four primary reasons people attend American churches today and how there is a significant difference between initiatives that are produced from socialization and initiatives that are produced after transformation. Finally, we will conclude with a brief proposal of a way forward for the Church of Jesus Christ in America.

Socialization

        Socialization can simply be defined as, “the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society.” [1] Kenda Dean in her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Teenagers is Telling the American Church, explains how this idea of socialization has significantly infested today’s church. She calls this form of “socialized faith,” Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are:

  1.      A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
  2.      God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3.      The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4.      God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
  5.      Good people go to heaven when they die.[2]

This MTD that Dean speaks of is a socialized form of the Christian faith that fits nicely into our American culture. James Loder states that socialization systems (such as MTD) are often achievement based.[3] This concept of achievement also fits well into our culture, as many feel as if being a part of a church community is often a symbol of “having it all together,” or “having high values and priorities.” Many rural American cultures still view church life from these perspectives.

Transformation

Transformation will serve as the term used to describe the contrast to socialization. In his book, The Transforming Moment, James Loder defines transformation as:

whenever within a given frame of reference or experience, hidden orders of coherence and meaning emerge to replace or alter the axioms of the given frame and reorder its elements accordingly.[4]

Loder also describes transformation as occurring in five phases: conflict, interlude for scanning, insight, release and openness, and verification.[5] He explains how this process takes place within one’s understanding of the lived world, the self, the void and the holy.[6] To summarize Loder’s work on transformation concisely: those who have been transformed or are being transformed are those who have had some form of encounter in their life (a five- phase process listed above) where they have allowed their voids (areas where they are incomplete) to be filled by the holy (the Holy Spirit or the presence of God). Transformation means that there has been and is continuing to be spiritual growth in someone’s life, where they continue to live empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The Paradox of Today’s Christian Education

        Now that we have defined socialization and transformation from Dean and Loder’s perspectives, we can state the paradox of Christian education that is in most of our American churches. This paradox is that in most churches, there is nothing wrong with the message that is being preached or the substance that is being taught. There are many today that would disagree with this statement and state that the primary problem is that the Gospel is not being preached and taught today the way that it used to be, or that we have watered down the message of the Gospel to make it more palpable. This is certainly happening, and we will mention it at the conclusion of this study, but this is not the crux of the problem.

The Gospel is still being preached in old ways and new creative ways and the Holy Spirit is still available for everyone to respond. The paradox is that while the most powerful, transforming, life-changing message is being preached and taught, most “Christians,” in our culture are choosing not to respond to it, while continuing to be an active part of church life. The paradox is that most of what we see in churches today is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or patterns of socialization. This is the negative side of this paradox, but the positive side is that a few are still transforming. In many churches, the transformed are coexisting with the socialized. This is where the point of conflict in this study lies – this coexistence between the transformed and the socialized does not remain in moderation in church life. One of the two dynamics will be in progression, either a church will be moving in the direction of a more socialized culture, or transformed people will begin to empower and disciple other transformed people to bring about authentic spiritual growth in the life of a church. Kenda Dean describes this tension with parasitology stating that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a symbiote (the weaker of two organisms) that is drawing life from the transformed in the church, eventually weakening the culture to something that is mostly socialized.[7]

To understand how this coexistence can take place, we will now identify the four primary reasons why people attend church. All but one of these reasons will include how one can be socialized and attend for this reason, and how one can be transformed and attend for the same reason, yet have a completely different perspective on their purpose in the congregation.

 

This blog post is part one of a three-part series based on a paper written for Russell Haitch’s Educating in the Spirit class during the fall of 2016. Part two will be published on Thursday, February 2.

 

brBrody Rike is Pastor of West Alexandria Church of the Brethren in West Alexandria, Ohio, where he has served the last four years. Brody is a current MA student at Bethany Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Biblical Studies. At 36 years-old his ministry experience includes ministerial roles as a senior pastor and youth pastor with the Assemblies of God. Brody also has experience working in Christian education as a Bible Teacher, Athletic Director and Principal. He is happily married and a father of three, who remains active in his community, coaching varsity basketball and coordinating ministry programs in local public schools.

 

[1] “Socialization – Definition of Socialization in English | Oxford Dictionaries,” Oxford Dictionaries | English, accessed November 26, 2016, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/socialization.

[2] Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian : What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 14.

[3] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, Second (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 166.

[4] Ibid., 229.

[5] Ibid., 36–40.

[6] Ibid., 67–91.

[7] Dean, Almost Christian : What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, 13.

Photo Credits: Lisa Notes

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Post-Election Conversations – Guest Blogger, Anita Hooley Yoder

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Four days after this year’s election—one of the most contentious in our nation’s history—I traveled with a group of college students to a social justice conference in Washington D.C.
I went to the conference in my role as a campus minister at a small Catholic college, where I had started working a few months earlier. As an Anabaptist-Mennonite, I was just beginning to find my place in the job, working mostly with students from Catholic and non-denominational Christian backgrounds.

At the conference, we gathered in a large room with about 1,800 others, mostly high school and college students from Jesuit institutions. (Jesuits tend to be on the progressive edge of Catholicism.) The evening featured many speakers, and almost every one of them—from the young emcees to the wizened keynote speakers—prefaced their comments with a lament about the election results. “We’re all feeling angry and fearful and despairing,” they said.
Except we weren’t.

As the evening unfolded, my co-worker and I realized that at least half of the students in our group had voted for Trump. I’ll confess that I couldn’t fully comprehend why they had made this choice. Or why they would make this choice and also sign up to come to a social justice conference.

I should say that social justice conferences are kind of my thing. The topics, the tone, the very vocabulary of this conference were all fairly comfortable for me.

But then there were my students, crying in the hallway. Frustrated at one more reference to the election that assumed everyone in the room felt the same way. Pained that a conference about mercy and inclusion didn’t seem to include them.

I don’t think the pain and frustration they felt are comparable to the fear experienced by undocumented immigrants, LGBTQIA+ folks, and African Americans, who are uncertain about what the new administration will mean for their very being in this country. But pain and frustration were felt by my group of students at the conference. Their feelings were real.

By the second day of the conference, I found myself hearing the speakers with my students’ ears. I cringed at each new mention of the election. (“You’ll notice I’m wearing black today,” the final speaker said in her introduction, signaling her perspective to the group.)

One of the few speakers who made little mention of the election was Father Greg Boyle. Fr. Boyle has spent thirty years working with gang members in Los Angeles. “Imagine a circle of compassion,” he said. “Then imagine no one outside that circle.”

No one. Not the person shot by a gang member. Not the gang member who did the shooting. Not the Black Lives Matter activist, and not the college student who is upset by those black voices. Not the Trump supporter, or the Hillary supporter, or the Gary Johnson or Jill Stein or Evan McMullin supporter—all of whom, I discovered, we had in one van on our trip to D.C.
Imagine all of us in a circle together.

Some days it’s not hard for me to imagine that because it kind of happens in our office. The Campus Ministry Office (or “CMO,” as it’s affectionately calleNotre-dame-colleged), is a welcoming space with orange and blue painted walls, old couches reminiscent of a church youth room, and posters of MLK, Mother Teresa, and U2. There are always snacks on the table; the fridge is always stocked with drinks. Students come before class, after class, sometimes during class, for a little break, a little juice, a little (or sometimes a lot of) conversation.1

Thanks largely to the skills of my boss, who has a much longer history doing this sort of thing than I do, our office is a space of compassion for most people who enter it. I don’t always agree with the opinions people express when they are there. I am sometimes baffled by the comments students make and the choices they embody.

But I am learning to see us in a circle of compassion together, mostly because they’ve shown such compassion to me.

While many students at my school aren’t Catholic, none of them, as far as I know, is a Mennonite. The school took a risk by hiring me as one of just two campus ministry staff members. A lot of our student leaders are Catholic, and if they’ve been confused or annoyed by working with a non-Catholic minister, I haven’t felt it. They participate in service projects I organize, eagerly registered for a spring break trip I’m leading, and sometimes even ask me what I think about a particular topic.

I do feel like an outsider sometimes. I don’t partake in the Eucharist, even though I attend our Sunday night Mass almost every week. I don’t share some of the Catholic assumptions about moral issues, or reverence for particular saints, or familiarity with liturgical language. I am young and married and female in a tradition that reserves its highest positions for older celibate men.
But most of the time, I feel solidly within the circle. And maybe because of my brief excursions outside the circle, I am constantly on the lookout for people who may also feel on the fringes and am constantly thinking about ways to bring them in.

At the end of the conference in D.C., one student reflected that, if nothing else, she at least experienced what it felt like to be in the minority, to feel excluded. This experience wasn’t a familiar feeling for her, and she understood that it was part of what others at the conference had been so concerned with addressing. Admittedly, having a minority opinion at a conference is not comparable to living as part of an oppressed minority group. But I sensed in this student an openness that surprised me, a willingness to make something meaningful out of what had been a difficult situation for her. And I’ve seen that openness continue in conversations we’ve had since.

9781611744347In his book Tattoos on the Heart, Greg Boyle writes,

God, I guess, is more expansive than every image we think rhymes with God. How much greater is the God we have than the one we think we have.2

((photo credit: Book Depository)) Every time I think I have a handle on who God is, what God wants, God’s definitive view on one thing or another, God expands my idea of God.

I am working on imagining a circle of compassion with no one outside that circle. Not the conservative student, not the liberal professor, not the senior who is struggling, not the sophomore who thinks she knows it all. Not the Catholic or the Mennonite or the atheist comes with me to volunteer at the nursing home. No one outside.

Fortunately, I get to practice drawing that kind of circle almost every day.

 

me croppedAnita Hooley Yoder works as Campus Ministry Coordinator at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio. She and her husband live in the Cleveland area and attend Friendship Mennonite Church. Her book on Mennonite women’s organizations is forthcoming from Herald Press in summer 2017.

  1. photo credit: Brockway Properties []
  2. Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010), 190. []
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Holy Week – Guest Blogger, Evan Underbrink

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On Sunday, I fast from having it all together.
On Monday, I fast from being too productive.
On Tuesday, I fast from right and wrong.
On Wednesday, I fast from closing doors.
On Thursday, I fast from self-mastery.
On Friday, I fast from trying.
On Saturday, I feast on empty places.
On Sunday, I look at this list, scratch it out.
and

 

On Sunday, I fast from being serious.
On Monday, I fast from temples.
On Tuesday, I fast from answers.
On Wednesday, I fast from solitude.
On Thursday, I fast from temperance.
On Friday, I fast from staring at clocks in conversation.
On Saturday, I feast on sleepless nights.
On Sunday, I crumple the list, throw it
and

 

On Sunday, I fast from silence.
On Monday, I fast from consuming.
On Tuesday, I fast from indicative statements.
On Wednesday, I fast from the reasonableness of Faith.
On Thursday, I fast from being in control.
On Friday, I fast from life.
On Saturday, I feast on Silence.
On Sunday, I tear up the list,
and start again.

Evan is a is publimg_04772ished short story author and student of Theopoetics at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana. Evan‘s editor has told him that he has to write a more human bio than he first submitted. This has turned out to be a daunting prospect, as writing about himself in the third person seems a rather artificial act, leading to inevitable self-calumny. Evan feels in this moment as if he is doing the equivalent of standing in front of a mirror, that most sacred of contemporary artifices, and attempting to describe himself in writing to someone with very little point of reference. Dürer’s “Rhinoceros” comes to this mind. Therefore, Evan would like it known that he is most certainly not a rhinoceros.

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Permaculture Recap – Guest Blogger, Jonathan Stauffer

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The Seminary Stewardship Alliance (SSA) met in Portland, Oregon on October 13-15 for its 5th annual conference. All seminaries that are participants of the consortium, from the American East Coast to a couple from Australia, and a handful of undergraduate colleges were in attensbp1dance. The theme of the conference was, Permaculture: Developing a Creation Care Culture in Christian Higher Ed, and the program consisted mostly of plenary speakers and breakout sessions among regional and theological cohorts. It’s a rare occurrence to see denominations like Southern Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, and peace churches agree to talk about any common interest. However, all attendants came to discuss the need for developing creation care principles and actions through our respective Christians institutions.

Assistant Professor Nate Inglis and three students (Chibuzo Petty, Elizabeth Ullery-Swenson, and I) represented Bethany Theological Seminary. Regarding the conference, Elizabeth shared:

In the midst of an early seasonal deluge, we were reminded that the challenges facing our global climate are dire and demand a response. During our time together we talked about our Biblical responsibility to care for all God’s people and all of God’s creation. The wide range of theological backgrounds made for challenging conversations, but I believe that everyone left with a sense of urgent purpose and direction. Personally, I came away with new Biblical grounded ways to find common ground across theological difference regarding our responsibility to care for God’s creation.

sbp2

I appreciated the spectrum of Christian traditions that were in attendance and was stimulated by the opportunity to network with faculty and students from other schools that were also passionate about caring for God’s earth. Daniel Brunner, professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, presented the opening plenary on Friday morning about Luther’s theology of the cross and how it pertains to ecological justice. Chibuzo most appreciated the discussion of the Book of Job:

We’re all familiar with the basic buffet of creation care verses. Hearing we would be exploring Job as a creation narrative certainly peaked my interest. Kathryn Schifferdecker, professor at Luther Seminary, spoke about her book on the subject Out of the Whirlwind. Her reimagining of eco-theology within the context of suffering and divine justice in Job was creative. She provided attendees with a much needed reminder of how radically non-anthropocentric God’s creation is.

On one afternoon, I attended a breakout session with representatives from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. There we discussed a common heritage on our traditions with small-scale agriculture and the challenges that a range of theological perspectives within our denominations presents in promoting creation care ministries. Overall, I found the SSA conference an instructive and encouraging experience.

A complete list of schools represented can be found here: http://seminaryalliance.org/partner-schools/.

Each of the members of Bethany’s SSA delegation will be speaking at Bethany Theological Seminary’s Presidential Forum and Youth and Young Adult Event, March 16-19, 2017: God’s Green Earth—A Call to Care and Witness. SAVE THE DATE!

Jonathan SJPS_Tweed_Ride14tauffer is a member of the Polo (IL) Church of the Brethren congregation. He is currently a student at Bethany Theological Seminary where he is finishing his MA with a concentration in theological studies.

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Confronting a Dangerous World – Guest Blogger, Clyde Netzley Fry

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This post originally appeared in the “Peace Advocate News,” a newsletter prepared as part of the Peace and Reconciliation ministry of the Northern Ohio District of the Church of the Brethren. 

Confronting a Dangerous World and Protecting Democracy

Clyde C. Fry, Mansfield, Ohio

1) The Warning

On January 17, 1961, Dwight David Eisenhower, five star general, supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during WW-2, and 34th president of the United States, gave his farewell presidential address to the public. Instead of the “sentimental and valedictory” address that was expected, he gave the nation a stern and serious warning. This is what he said:

“Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry.  American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.  Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a larger arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence–economic, political, even spiritual–is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development.  Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” ((Eisenhower, by Paul Johnson, Viking Press, 2014, page 121.))

The next day (January 18, 1961) Eisenhower held a press conference in which he made an “impassioned attack on the way military values were replacing the bedrock civil values of American society” and the risks to our liberty and fiscal security that this change would bring. ((Ibid, page 120.)) Eisenhower worried that our “military strength, and imprudent leadership, could lead the country into interventions all over the world, encouraged by the arms lobby and the military chiefs who were its puppets, and the result would be an over extension of resources and economic ruin.” ((Ibid, page 120.))

2) The Problem

The problem that Eisenhower raises is very simple and very dangerous to peace and a democratic way of life. The manufacture of armaments provides employment and taxes for many of our families and communities. But, like any manufacturing enterprise the products produced must have markets that need and will consume them. Without market need and consumption, the industry, with its jobs, income, and taxes will be lost. Like all manufacturing the greater the consumer need the more the industries connected to that consumption will grow and proliferate. Today, every state in our nation has important economic ties to our growing armament industry and its share of the GNP (we are the largest armaments exporter in the world). The armaments that we produce must be used somewhere by somebody making the need for armed conflict itself a vested interest. William Hartung, weapons industry analyst pointed out, “If there’s one thing we should have learned over the past 13 years of war, it’s that war is good business for those in the business of war.”

3) The Giant

The Pentagon employs 3 million people, 800,000 more than the world’s largest retailer, Walmart. 70 percent of the value of the federal government’s $1.8 trillion in property, land and equipment belongs to the Pentagon. The Army alone uses more than twice as much building space as all the offices in New York City. The Pentagon and the Veterans Administration together constitute the nation’s largest healthcare provider serving 9.6 million people and holds more than 80 percent of the federal government’s inventories, including $6.8 billion of excess, obsolete, or unserviceable stuff (some of the excess is being funneled into local police departments, which some argue, is contributing to the “military mind-set and policing tactics” that are so controversial today). ((David Gilson, Journalist, a Senior Editor, Mother Jones, Sources: Congressional Research Service, House Budget Committee, Government Accountability Office.))

4) The Necessity

Violent conflict is necessary to keep the armament industry alive! Someone has to use up all that stuff so that we can continue to produce it. Either we must go out and fight somebody “to keep America safe” or we have to sell the stuff to somebody else who is willing to use it in one of their conflicts. The result is that we abuse the sovereignty of other nations by clandestine shenanigans or outright public interference and make “terrorist lists” that keep the public stirred up, afraid, and thus willing to support the big bucks and spilled blood to maintain the system. Because of this need for violence the use of diplomacy and negotiation are suspect or rejected all together (the current negotiations with Iran are a good example; do we need to keep our hostile view of Iran to justify a high Pentagon budget and middle-eastern arms sales alive?  Is that why political lackeys in the congress are so anxious to put a possible treaty down even before the details have been settled?). To quote Eisenhower once again: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a larger arms industry is new in the American experience.  The total influence–economic, political, even spiritual–is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.  We recognize the imperative need for this development.  Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.  Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”  Is our belief in and economic need for the use of violence in national and international affairs turning our declydemocracy into a hypocrisy or worse? 

Clyde C. Netzley Fry is a retired pastor in Northern Ohio District. He has served as a mediator in congregational and community disputes and participated in national and international conferences on various peace related issues. He has written numerous essays on peace topics, the first of which was a brief historical sketch “Whatever Happened to Non- Violence?”

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Discerning the Mind of Christ: Neither Progressive Nor Conservative

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At a not so recent Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren I was sure the delegates had made the wrong decision. And I made as much clear in the last days through several meetings a small action during the closing worship. To be honest, I was a bit proud in taking a stand. I knew what we should have done, and I believed we had gone the wrong way. 

In the months after that conference my pride waned a bit. I had to submit my annual paperwork for my license to the ministry and I began thinking about what it meant to disagree with a position of the wider church. 

Over a decade later, I found myself writing these words in the middle of our polity regarding congregational ethics. “The prayerful conclusion not to support a denominational position or program should be a matter of anguish, not competitiveness or superiority.”

Unfortunately, I often experience disagreements within the church as a matter of competition for power and an assertion of superiority. And often the lines are drawn between what some might call progressive and conservative cultures.

But I have this weird notion that when the church gathers to ask questions about the faithful response to our times, the wisdom of the whole church informs our approach. So when I disagree with what the wider communion has said, my first task is not so much to chastise but to ask myself what I am missing. What part of Christian discipleship have I overlooked in my prideful positioning? 

In the years since that conference I have found myself wondering a lot more. I wonder, when I enter a community of progressives, what part of the gospel they are lifting to my attention. And the same is true when I am with conservatives. In this posture towards others, I find myself assuming above all else that the people I am with are sisters and brothers seeking to follow Jesus above all else. Sometimes that assumption is harder to maintain, but I find myself listening differently when I remind myself of our shared commitment to Jesus.

So, then, what I have learned from our conservative and progressive communities?

From progressives I am often reminded that love and grace are the root of the Good News. In order to witness to the wider world, I must act from a posture of grace.

From conservatives I am reminded that grace is the catalyst for transformation. As I have heard said in many places, we are welcomed into the community with the understanding that we will be changed by the Gospel of love and grace. Come as you are are and leave as you never were.

Progressives have taught me that the church witnesses to the ways of God in the world, and we are to act in ways that build up the Kingdom of God in the here and now.

Conservatives have reminded me that this building of the Kingdom of God is not my own doing but something God is doing in and around me. 

Progressives have taught me the world is a fallen place, where war and systems of oppression diminish the Image of God in everyone.

Conservatives have taught me that systems do not change on their own, and that as Christians we are to work on our own inner heart as much as we work for justice in the world. In other words, righteousness and justice are two sides of the same coin, and often the most prophetic thing to do is to tend to our own holiness.

Progressives have often reminded me that there are many roads to faithfulness. Each of us seeks after God in our own ways, and just because one’s path is not my own does not mean that they are wrong and I am right. 

Conservatives have taught me that truth is real and not relative. While we may all be on different paths there is still a need to discern if we are indeed heading in the same direction.

Progressives have taught me to value the experiences of others. In listening to the testimony of others I learn to see more fully the ways God is at work around and in us.

Conservatives have reminded me that deception is a real part of our fallen nature, and that in listening to others I must also test the spirit in which a testimony is given. Part of that testing includes speaking from my own vantage point, articulating truth biblically as well as experientially. 

Though the Brethren are not a creedal form of Christianity, I think the greatest reminder of balance has come through the Nicene Creed. In the last section the words are both plain and convicting. “We believe… in one holy catholic and apostolic church…” It is that tension between being one and being holy that gets me every time. How is that we can be both one— work from a place of unity— while at the same time hold up the holiness explicit in following Jesus. We are inherently mixed in our holiness, or as the followers of Wesley remind us, we are growing in our holiness. Put another way, holiness makes clear there are boundaries that often make unity a difficult endeavor. In the practice of “seeking the mind of Christ” I think the Brethren have worked out a way to attend to both boundaries and unity, one-ness and holiness. I am just not convinced that our current models of doing so have actually produced the fruit we seek. 

We have simply become too proud of our positions and too often confuse discernment with coercion. We assume that our processes are about setting one another straight, and that one must win the argument in order for truth to be proclaimed. 

Since that conference long ago I have come back to the words of Thomas Merton. Just because I think I am following the will of God does not actually mean that I am doing so. But I believe that the desire to please God does in fact please God, and I pray that I (we) have that desire in all that I (we) do.

I need my brothers and sisters to help me see when I am following Jesus and when I have strayed. And when I disagree with my community of faith, my first task is not to chastise others and set the record straight but is to ask if I am working from my desire to please God or if I simply desire to be right. More often than not, I am afraid I want to be right.

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