Mar 2 2013

Fasting and Feasting

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By Laura Stone

As the season of Lent comes upon us it is easy to question the appropriateness of the season for a tradition of the Radical Reformation. Laura Stone, a Church of the Brethren student at Andover Newton offered these reflections in the days before Ash Wednesday on her blog The Patchwork Pietist. We are grateful for her permission to repost her thoughts here. 

I fast in Lent as a preparation.  Just as one heroic act is made possible by a lifetime of little heroic acts, just as a marathon cannot be safely run without days, weeks, months, even years of training; likewise, if I am going to run the race of faith, dare the foolishness of faith in the decisive moments, I need to have trained in the little daily moments.  I need to know how to open myself to God’s grace as I travel little valleys, so that when the Valley of the Shadow of Death comes, I will fear no evil because I will know the God who is at my side.
I fast in Lent for freedom.  I am bound by so many things of which I am barely aware.  I am bound by consumerism, by busyness, by techno-addiction, by habits of mind and heart that keep me from experiencing abundant life.  In Lent I declare with my fasting and by God’s help, that none of these things that keep me bound are ultimate.  I declare, with the full freedom of a child of God, that these things do not have to have control of my life.  And this freedom inevitably spreads, because I can’t step into my own freedom (however haltingly) without noticing others’ lack of freedom.
I fast in Lent for justice.  My fasting during Lent reminds me that Love is what is eternal.  It creates a thin place, lifting the veil between worlds, easing scales from my eyes, and allowing glimpses of things as they truly are.  When I step bit by bit into my own freedom, I become aware of the ways in which others are enslaved, sometimes by systems in which I am complicit.  So freedom, for me, leads to confession, which leads toward justice, which leads back again to freedom.  Indeed, is not this the fast God chooses?: to loose the chains of injustice, to set prisoners free, to shelter the homeless, to feed the hungry.
But I don’t just fast in Lent.  I also immerse myself in activities and postures that open me and bring me and the world joy.  For Christians, Lent is a journey to the cross, toward death, and always in the shadow of sin.  But we also know that the story doesn’t end there.  Lent is also a journey toward new life that rises from the ashes of the old.
So today begins the fast and the feast.  This year I am fasting from Facebook and “yeah, but…”‘s.  This year I am feasting through daily prayer / writing around a word and through daily connection with nature.  If you are fasting and/or feasting this Lent, feel free to share.  It’s always good to have companions on the way!
I look forward to seeing what new horizons God opens to our vision in this season, and I pray this journey’s blessings on each of us and on the whole world.
Laure Stone

 

Laura Stone is a former Community musician and former mental health worker (at Gould Farm in MA).  She is currently most interested in practical theology, urban ministry, and how worship, theology, and justice connect. She will begin pursuing these interests as a PhD student at Boston University. Catch her article, “A Brief History of Christology” in the Fall 2012 Issue of Brethren Life and Thought.
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Feb 12 2013

The Joy Candle

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Image Courtesy of Flickr

The following sermon, by Katie Shaw Thompson co-pastor of the Ivester Church of the Brethren, was delivered on December 16, 2012. With clear pastoral insight, Katie places the then recent tragedy at Sandy Hook within the season of Advent. 

Instead of the words of John the Baptist, I feel moved to bring you a different scripture reading this morning. This scripture is part of the Christmas story that is understandably often skipped over.

It is also a verse that flew around the internet and Facebook after the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School.These words are all too relevant for the grief experienced by so many.

Mathew 2: 16-19

 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated,and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ’A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; She refused to be consoled, because they were no more.’

Sometimes I can read this passage and let it be something that happened far away a long time ago, or maybe never, maybe just another part of a great story. But not today. Now, after the news of yet another shooting I read this text and it hits close. Too close.

 

I don’t think you need to have an 11-week old son at home to feel how wrong, wrong, wrong this story is and how wrong, wrong, wrong the terrible violence that occurred at Sandy Hook elementary school was.

As the president said in his address,

Our hearts are broken today — for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost. Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early, and there are no words that will ease their pain.

Our hearts are also broken because we are reminded once more just how real evil and suffering are in this world. My heart is broken and my stomach is turned that any human being could massacre innocent children, whether it is a man in Connecticut, or Herod, or Pharaoh.

I wish that I could pretend I didn’t believe that God’s peace and forgiveness could extend to men like that. My heart is broken and my stomach is turned at the thought that those could have been children that I know and love.

I wish that I could have some guarantee that I could keep my baby safe from violence of any kind. It would be easy in times like these for parents like me to be tempted to want to deadbolt our doors seal up our windows, and keep the world away from our children.

Yet, we know we cannot. And we know that to do so, would be to let evil win. To do so, would be to let murderers win.

In my New Interpreter’s commentary on this passage of Matthew, one wise scholar writes: “God does not will these deaths, but until God’s empire is established in full, rulers will do such things.”

I would add that those who seek power over others by violence will do such things, until God’s empire is established in full. I do not believe that God willed this terrible tragedy in Connecticut or that God willed that long ago terrible tragedy in Bethlehem.

But I do believe that God is in the midst of those tragedies. God walks right in and sits beside Rachel as she wails, and God mourns too. I do believe that God is a God big enough to hold all kinds of grief. I do believe that God is the spirit that ignites a spark of hope, and love, and yes, even joy, in the midst of the greatest darkness.

It would be easy in times like these for Christians like me not to want to light the joy candle. But it is precisely in times like these that we must. For in lighting the candle of joy even in the midst of grief we declare that joy will come again.

We declare that violence and hatred and suffering do not get the last word. It is precisely in times like these that we need all the celebration of Christmas. Not to celebrate with superficial smiles and shallow warmth, but rather with defiant cheers and tearful gratitude.

That is the true spirit of Christmas, That is the message of Christ.

No matter how dark the night,the light of Christ is brighter. No matter how terrible the violence, the peace of Christ is stronger. No matter how hot the hatred, the love of Christ is warmer. THAT is indeed something to celebrate!

At the beginning of this week I heard songwriter Tracey Thorn’s new Christmas album, I was particularly caught by her the words of her song entitled simply, Joy.

“When someone very dear,

calls with the words everything’s all clear.

It’s what you want to hear.

But you know it might be different in the new year.

That’s why, that’s why, we hang the lights so high.

 

You loved it as a kid

And now you need it more than you ever did

Its because of the dark

We see the beauty in the spark.

 

So light the winter fire

and watch as the flames go higher.

We’ll gather up our fears

and face down the coming years,

and all that they destroy

and in their face we’ll throw out JOY.”

It is important to take time to grieve and not to simply glaze over difficulties and pain. Yet, experts tell us that re-establishing some routine and order is important after trauma to re-establish a sense of safety and normalcy.

Even in the midst of their grieving a local church in Newtown, CT did just that. They held a live nativity service Saturday re-enacting that first Christmas night. Their celebration in the midst of grieving flies in the face of all the evil, suffering, and pain they continue to experience and reminds us all of light that is stronger than any darkness.

So we must celebrate with joy this Christmas, not with superficial smiles and shallow cheer, but with faithful warmth and tearful gratitude.

So, muster all the joy you can this season and invite someone to share it with you. For I find joy is grown and amplified when we share it with others, when I see it in the eyes of children or in the eyes of someone who needed it badly this season.

This need to witness to the joy, this need to share and amplify joy is why we tell children about Santa Claus. Its why we give presents, and prepare meals and go caroling, to share joy with others.

We light the joy candle on our advent wreath this week

In defiance of all that is dark and evil in this world.

In defiance of suffering.

May the spark of Christ shine brightly in our hearts this season despite the darkness of our world.

May it be so. Amen.

Parker and KatieKatie is a 2012 graduates of Bethany Theological Seminary. She is  co-pastor of the Ivester Church of the Brethren along with her husband Parker.

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Nov 27 2012

A Year of Biblical Womanhood: A Review

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By Dana Cassell

Rachel Held Evans’ new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood is getting a bunch of press, which I’m glad about. There’s a lot of predictable internet bickering going on, a lot of posturing and arguing and name-calling, some pointed and snarky responses and some responses full of grace. Some of the evangelical crowd is yelling about the book being a “mockery” of the Bible. Even some more progressive, neo-evangelicals and emerging Anabaptists are pretty inhospitable to the idea – though I’m not convinced they’ve actually read the book OR much of Rachel’s blog.

Honestly, I find most of that conversation silly. I don’t come from those circles where women in leadership is still an all-consuming and contentious subject. I’m not really invested in arguments about women’s roles or what biblical womanhood may or may not be. I like the book, and I like Rachel, not because she’s a woman or because she’s writing about women but because a) she’s funny and b) the way she incorporates an online community into her writing is fascinating and phenomenal.

When I say funny, I mean: laugh-out-loud, guffawing in the middle of the studiously quiet Starbucks kind of funny. Rachel is self-effacing in ways that I can identify with, she references everything from Anne of Green Gables to Arrested Development, and her ability to play off the mad-dash contemporary pop culture against the molasses pace of down-home Dayton, Tennessee is delightful. A scene near the beginning of the book in which Rachel attempts to purchase cipollini onions in an East Tennessee Wal-Mart nearly knocked me off my chair.

But what really intrigues me is the way that Rachel has been able to create space on the internet for real, sustained, honest conversation among people of widely varying theological stripes…and then somehow incorporate that communal discussion so gracefully into her in-print writing.

First: the blog. Rachel’s blog is built for conversation. I’ve been involved in several online blog-based initiatives meant to spark discussion, and none have been uber-successful. Whether we skewed the pieces too theological or aimed them at a too narrow audience, readership was high but participation was very, very low. I think people are often hesitant to participate online because of the dangers of being misinterpreted and because they’re wary that any conversation on the internet will devolve into name-calling and triviality. Surely, the prevalence of Facebook and Twitter debate has not eased anyone’s mind on that front.

But Rachel somehow creates and nurtures space that is meant to be about interaction, and healthy, productive interaction at that. The comment sections are long and encouraging – people actually engage the substance of one another’s comments. There’s very little snarking back and forth at one another.

The content itself is carefully planned and directed by readers. She regularly hosts guest writers in an “Ask A…” feature, where readers submit suggestions for the guests as well as their particular questions. The space has hosted funeral directors, transgendered Christians, Mennonites, messianic Jews, feminists, pagans, Pentecostals, and nuns, to name a few. Readers ask honest questions, and writers answer with openness and grace. Real conversation!

This sense of graceful community comes through in the book. Rachel writes about sharing the experience of her writing project with blog readers. She tweets for help in the kitchen, asks her readers about tips for baking challah, and surveys the blogosphere for perspective on motherhood. It is clear, reading the book, that while the hard work of writing (and experimenting: Rachel is definitely the one who slept in a tent during her period, abstained from cutting her hair for a year, and called her husband “master” for a month.) were done by one person, the authorship of this book is shared.

I’m not sure exactly what that means yet, literarily or theologically. But I like where it’s headed. I like that we can use technology to open space for communal conversation and discernment. I like that a book can be written together: not by committee, but by community. I like that this book and this blog are places where multiple voices not only get heard, but are engaged, regularly. I like that when I tweeted about guffawing while reading, Rachel saw it immediately and re-tweeted so that my experience of reading alone in a coffee shop was transformed into a shared celebration. I like that, as we Brethren say, discernment comes through scripture-read-in-community, and this book is an example of both creation and experience done just that way.

And in some strange, meta-level twist of the Spirit’s movement, I think that’s exactly the point that Rachel was trying to make: no work of art is pure and singular. Not even the Bible, revered as it may be, is a monolithic monotone dictation from God. It is a collection, a conversation, a squawking cacophony of voices that don’t really make sense until we agree to create some space for them to speak to one another in grace. Maybe that’s what the canon is, maybe that’s what the church is, maybe that’s what we are to be about. Thanks to Rachel for clearing away some of the clutter and getting the discussion started. Eshet chayil! Woman of valor!

Dana Cassell serves as Minister for Youth Formation at the Manassas Church of the Brethren in Manassas, Virginia, as well as Staff for Ministry Formation in the Church of the Brethren Office of Ministry. She blogs at Authenticity.

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Nov 6 2012

Uncommon Engagement: Shalom-minded voting and civic involvement

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Photo by Keith Ivey via Flickr

By Katie and Parker Shaw Thompson 

As brand-new Iowa transplants with our first landline, we both have to admit to being a bit giddy at our new-found status as coveted “swing state voters,” who happily give our time and opinions to nearly every pollster who seeks us out. So, we should admit to a bit of bias toward civic engagement. However, we believe that bias to be soundly rooted in our understanding of the teachings of the New Testament and the witness of faith traditions like the Church of the Brethren. It is this understanding that compels us to push back on our fellow Iowan’s argument for a “virtuous abstinence” from the political process, in favor of an even-handed, if thorough, engagement more akin to Yoder’s call to bring a Biblical realism to the ballot box.

It is true that our nation is currently overrun with ugly political partisanship and disgusting abuses of power and wealth. Furthermore, neither of the two major party candidates can be said to be adherents to our understanding of a Brethren peace witness. However, in a world that is estranged from the perfection and wholeness of God, Christians must make choices everyday between the lesser of evils in an effort to bring peace to God’s creation and to live lives that are pleasing to God.

Furthermore, both Brethren and Mennonites, as members of churches with Anabaptist heritage, take the responsibility of community seriously. In our understanding, this responsibility extends beyond the walls of the church and into our neighborhoods. Just as it is the personal responsibility of a good church member to read and interpret the Bible for themselves within community and then to struggle with that community to come to the best understanding of how to follow Christ, so it is the personal responsibility of a Christian living within a democracy to digest the positions of candidates and to struggle with their neighbors on a local and national level to find the best way to govern our living in order to seek the justice and welfare of all citizens.

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Nov 1 2012

Virtuous Abstinence: Radical withdrawal for the peace of this nation-state

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By Brian R. Gumm

As a Brethren sojourning with Mennonites at EMU in Harrisonburg, Virginia for the last four years, I’ve made many wonderful connections and friendships. As I went through my theological peacebuilding education, these friendships have often been fostered through deep conversations about any number of pressing theological, philosophical, and social issues. And for the past month or two, the persistent topic of conversation has been voting in national elections. One of my main conversation partners has been Ted Grimsrud, theology professor in EMU’s undergraduate Bible & Religion department. Ted has a series of three posts related to this, which I engaged through the comments section and as well as face-to-face conversations at a local pub. In an on-campus event recently I had the opportunity to condense some of my thoughts about a radical Christian stance toward voting in national elections, and I’m happy to share them here for Brethren consideration.

In a 1977 article in Sojourner’s, John Howard Yoder had this to say about the then-current context: “American political culture, a comparatively solid crust of common language and rules of thumb, floats on a moving magma of unresolved debate between two contradictory views of what the state is about.” In this article, entitled “The National Ritual: Biblical realism and the elections,” Yoder goes on to argue that we shouldn’t get ourselves too worked up about this system, or take it too seriously. But nonetheless this weak system is one that we can and perhaps should participate in.  He claims that:

[Voting] is one way, one of the weaker and vaguer ways, to speak truth to power. We may do well to support this channel with our low-key participation, since a regime where it functions is a lesser evil…than one where it does not, but our discharge of this civil duty will be more morally serious if we take it less seriously.

This position of Yoder’s I take to be the basic position taken by Ted in his arguments. And while I’m sympathetic to both, I want to sound a few cautions. I’ll preface these cautions with a quote by Yoder’s one-time colleague at Notre Dame, Alasdair MacIntyre, who made these comments in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election:

When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither. And when that choice is presented in rival arguments and debates that exclude from public consideration any other set of possibilities, it becomes a duty to withdraw from those arguments and debates, so as to resist the imposition of this false choice by those who have arrogated to themselves the power of framing the alternatives.

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Sep 28 2012

What about the Prayer Covering?

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Photo courtesy of Bethany Theological Seminary

When was the last time that you changed your physical appearance to enter into worship? Have you removed your shoes to walk a labyrinth? Removed your hat for a moment of silence? Have you placed a covering on your head to enter a sanctuary? Each of these practices is rooted in Biblical instructions spanning from Moses to Paul. And each action contains its own unique history of evolution from what the Biblical writers intended to what we now observe as contemporary practice. More importantly to me, each practice invites us as people of God to think intentionally about how we prepare to present our physical bodies – an integral part of our whole selves – to the divine and to each other before we enter in to worship.

At Bethany Seminary I focused my master’s thesis on the third practice mentioned above, women wearing the prayer covering. My work concentrated on Church of the Brethren understandings of this practice, but I dream of connecting our tradition to how covering heads intersects with a variety of world-wide faith traditions. We can observe head covering in wedding veils, nun’s habits, Jewish Yakamas, elaborate hats for African American worshipers, and the often controversial Muslim burkah, just to name a few.

Dots of white coverings were visible throughout this year’s annual conference. On any Sunday morning you would see women in some Brethren congregations still wearing the covering for worship, and a few more women donning the covering for love feast or communion with their faith body. Some women wear the covering at all times, from the moment they rise until they are ready to sleep. In extreme cases, women have even chosen to sleep in their covering. This grows out of connecting their interpretation of Paul’s instructions to cover their heads during prayer with another instruction to pray without ceasing. Therefore, they believe that even at night in bed they are called to be in prayer, and so they never remove the covering. While many Brethren women today do not wear the covering, by far the most common reaction to the topic when I bring it up is for people of both genders and of a wide span of ages to share fond or humorous memories of a grandmother or pastor’s wife from a different generation who wore the covering.

What motivates any Brethren women to cover their heads with a thin white piece of cloth? And where did the practice originate? It’s already been mentioned that Paul instructed the practice in his often cited but difficult to interpret passage in I Corinthians where he states, “…but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head… For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” (1 Corinthians 11: 2-16, NRSV) Historically, this passage has been interpreted in ways that both inspire women to cover their own heads, or drive men and women to force others to wear coverings. Some women feel a sense of empowerment and holiness from the practice, while others feel controlled or denigrated to a position of subservience by the act. These reactions are not formed as one coherent feeling. They inter-mingle so that many women, if they consider or practice covering at all, fall somewhere on a wide spectrum of motivations and emotional responses about the practice.

Some of the most commonly cited motivations for wearing the covering in written accounts of the practice include obedience to scripture and to the leading of the community, a sense of identity, divine empowerment to offer leadership by virtue of the covering, and a feeling of reverence. By far, the most cited of all reasons for practicing covering was a feeling of reverence. This reverence intersects directly with women’s experience of worship. For many women, placing a covering on their head heightens their personal reverence to God in preparing for, and participating in, worship.

No records have been uncovered yet to trace the beginnings of Brethren covering. It seems to have been a part of Brethren dress from our very beginnings in Germany and connects most closely with an entire ensemble of plain dress. According to Annual Conference minutes, the most recent Conference decision about the practice dates back to 1925. A study committee was formed at that time to consider the practice, and the determination of that committee was that women should wear the covering. Practicing local congregational freedom, choices about size, color, duration of wear and other specifics were left up to each congregation’s conscience.

However, although the most recent official statement recommends participation in covering, fewer are participating in the action of wearing a prayer covering. The observable slacking of the practice directly correlates with a broader Brethren assimilation to prevailing surrounding culture beginning in the early twentieth century. This assimilation includes a whole host of beliefs and practices including participation in war, prohibition to alcohol, seeking and voting for public office, and the rise of cultural evangelicalism. But, even with these recognizable cultural shifts, some women still participate in covering as congregational communities or individually as part of personal devotion.

I do not want to wrap this up in a way that does not acknowledge the deep hurt and frustration felt by some Brethren women. Throughout my writing process, I was most compelled by personal stories shared about the practice. While many stories tended toward sentimental and humorous, the most heart-wrenching were those who share stories of pain, struggle and separation. For women who interpret the covering to symbolize domination by men, or for those unable to practice covering because of some external reason, it is particularly difficult to see reverence in the practice.

However, as I write this, I am looking at my own lace-lined covering sitting on my desk in front of me. It was lovingly sown by my great-grandmother for my first Love Feast after my baptism. I still generally remember to wear it for Love Feast, which is the way that tradition was passed to me from previous generations of Brethren women. And it reminds me of my deep links to those important women who have shaped my faith and Brethren identity. My own experience is one of heightened awareness of the presence of God and the support of my foremothers in my own faith formation. More profoundly, I have learned that each woman has her own unique story of covering. My deep desire for Brethren women is that each of us can examine and express our own understandings of covering with one another. And then that the practice can be embraced or rejected based on the inspiration of the spirit for each one of us living in this community we call Brethren. And maybe, at its best, a practice like covering can be a tool to remind us of how we bring our whole being into the presence of God through worship. 

Monica Rice is a 2011 MA graduate of Bethany Theological Seminary. She currently serves as the Administrative Assistant for Institutional Advancement and Coordinator of Congregational Communication. She is also a member of the Brethren Journal Association Editorial Board.

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Sep 11 2012

Giving and Community Life

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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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Aug 23 2012

Brethren Hermeneutics

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By Andrew Hamilton

I was recently rereading an old edition of Brethren Life & Thought and rediscovered a thought provoking article by Nadine Pence Frantz.1 In her article, “Biblical Interpretation in a ‘Non-Sense’ World,” Frantz offers a thought provoking discussion regarding the Believer’s of both modernity and post-modernity. Modernity, being most notably marked by the epistemological foundation of a Cartesian mind-set, lends itself hermeneutically to the understanding that the source of meaning lies within the individual. The basic idea here is that the individual receives unmitigated information regarding reality allowing the person to apprehend the said reality leading to an objective understanding of that reality. In addition to this objective apprehension is the role of individuality and particularity in this epistemology. First, it is only the individual who apprehends the objective information regarding the object (reality). Any other individual must also understand that which one individual understands regarding said object. Therefore if one person sees and understands the reality of a chair, any other individual will also see and understand the reality of the same chair. Secondly, the reality that is perceived by the individual is a particular reality that is not like any other. For instance the chair that is experienced by the individual is an oak high-backed chair and not just any chair. Therefore according to modernity, the individual can and must apprehend the objective reality of that particular chair. This process of apprehension relies upon the fundamental presupposition that the locus of knowledge and understanding is located within the individual, whom Frantz labels the “unmediated self of the Cartesian ego.”

As Frantz points out, this philosophical posture underlies the development of biblical criticism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Therefore the result of this philosophical foundation was that there could only be one meaning for any text. Consequently the goal of historical criticism is to find the singular meaning that lies within the words written by a particular author during a particular time period. In order for the historical critical method to be applicable for contemporary readers and hearers, one must find the underlying universal principle, which extends out of the singular intended meaning of the text.

This desire and hunt for objective truth, however, eventually succumbed to the criticism and questions of postmodernity. While Frantz notes authors such as Derrida, Foucault, Schussler-Fiorenza, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, one of the most interesting examples is offered by Stanley Fish in his text, Is there a Text in this Class?2 What each of these scholars contributed included the recognition that individual perception is affected by a multitude of external factors including not least of these life experiences. Unfortunately, some of these factors include power, economics, gender, and class. In the real world it is the powerful, rich, and ethnically righteous who have been allowed to provide the normative interpretations and each of these aspects contributes to the shaping of the textual interpretations.

What these postmodern scholars did was to debunk the notion that any text contained a singular meaning. In essence it moved the locus of meaning from the mouth of the author to the mind of the hearer or reader. What postmodernity hermeneutics said was that regardless of what the author intends the hearer or reader creates the meaning. Again Fish illustrates this with the interpretation of a supposed poem by the students of his literary criticism class.3 While the class assumed that what they were looking at was a poem, they indeed provided an interpretation. However, the supposed poem, which they were observing, was in fact merely a list of author’s names. This particular narrative illustrates that the meaning of any text is subject to the individual’s (in community) perspective. What this means is that to live in a postmodern society is to live in a society that accepts a plurality of interpretations and meanings.

This then leads Frantz to pose the question, “Can the Bible mean in a postmodern world?” The answer is found in the relationship of the Believer’s church hermeneutic to postmodern approaches for interpretation. In order to find the relationship one must first understand the nature of the Believer’s church hermeneutic. Unlike other traditions, the Believer’s church traditions do not formulate their hermeneutic according to creeds or even statements of faith. Rather one of the primary factors of interpretation for these churches is the extent to which the believer is living the scriptures. Orthopraxis is emphasized rather than orthodoxy. In Frantz’ view this may offer itself as being a potential link to an encounter oriented postmodern world.

The Believer’s Church traditions understand scripture in a unique manner. Frantz states that her understanding of the Believer’s church’s view of the Bible is one that sees the text as primarily testimonial narratives. She says, “The stories, events, and worship materials recorded in the Christian canon are regarded as ‘a scattered series of documents emerging from the ongoing struggles of a community.’”4 In other words, the text of the Bible is not seen as containing a collection of principle truths or as merely a historical account. These churches understand the Bible to be a narrative of a group of people whose self-perception was defined by its interdependent and dialogical interaction with God. Therefore they emphasized the intent of the Bible as a whole to be a testimonial possessing rhetoric aimed at evoking a response. She specifically describes this as being “that which was told and recorded with the intent to evoke a similar life and faith in other people. It is intended to evoke an encounter.”5 Thus the only appropriate response to this testimony, according to the Believer’s church, was humble obedience.

Moreover the Believer’s church tradition holds to a contextual understanding of revelation. Unlike other tenets of Christianity, these churches do not believe that revelation is some sort of abstract truth. For them it is the insight received by the community of faith seeking to be attentive to the text within a particular context. Frantz describes it as “seeing a new way of interacting or of structuring community life.”6 Instead of attempting to shed the historical contextual information to get at the abstract kernel of truth, their understanding requires the concrete historical circumstances surrounding the text because it is only within real history that Christ can be known.

Modernistic hermeneutical approaches have notoriously attempted to separate the processes of interpretation, understanding, and application. While Frantz points to Hollinger’s compilation of essays, Hermeneutics and Praxis, as evidence toward this end, one can find evidence of this even within the practical manuals of biblical interpretation.7 However, for the Believer’s church tradition there is a fundamental link between epistemology and practice. Life experience is the validation of knowledge. One comes to know God through the living encounter with God as experienced with the reception of the scriptural testimony. In other words, interpretation essentially involves application. The exercise of interpretation is not complete until it is lived. The implication of this is that revelation requires a response to the encounter. Revelation is not revelation unless the recipient responds even as divine revelation demands a response. Revelation cannot exist exclusively apart from a response to it and in the same way the hermeneutical endeavor is not complete unless that which was understood is lived. This idea is perfectly expressed in Bernhard Rothmann’s quote: “And, if we, with constant diligence, earnestly do what we understand we will daily be taught further by God.”8 Therefore as Cornelius Dyke once stated, revealed truth is only received through obedience and understanding is only accomplished through the application of the information.

While postmodernity surely questions and ultimately denies the power of narrative, the Believer’s church tradition challenges postmodernity by an insistence of trusting the scripture to be a continuation of history which shapes our epistemological lenses and ultimately a testimony which elicits a response.

Andrew Hamilton is pastor of Akron Springfield Church of the Brethren and an adjunct professor of theology at Ashland Theological Seminary.This post originally appear on his blog Hermes Table.

  1. 39 no 3 Sum 1994, p 153-166 []
  2. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 33ff. []
  3. Ibid., 33ff. []
  4. Frantz, “Biblical Interpretation in a ‘Nonsense’ World,” 158. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Ibid., 159 []
  7. See Randolph Tate’s, Biblical Interpretation. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997). In the introduction Tate’s discussion of interpretation completely eclipses praxis. He argues for procuring meaning through the exegetical process. []
  8. As cited in Cornelius Dyke’s article, “Hermeneutics and Discipleship,” Essays on Biblical Interpretation. Edited by, Willard Swartley, (Elkhart: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), 30. []
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Jul 15 2012

Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 2

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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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Jul 1 2012

Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 1

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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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