May 28 2013

Anabaptists are hip!

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Anabaptist symbol

by Joshua Brockway

In my work for the Church of the Brethren I increasingly find myself involved in discussions about our relevance today. Sometimes this is cast in the frame of doing workshops on Brethren Heritage, and in others it is outlined precisely in terms of relevance.

Running in circles outside of the Church of the Brethren, it is clear that we do have something to offer the wider church as it lives into the crumbling of imperial Christianity- more often called Post-Christendom. This interest often comes in the form of seeking out Anabaptist traditions- groups whose very genesis came about in a simple act of adult baptism, an act of civil and ecclesial disobedience. Now centuries later, after derision and flat out persecution, these Anabaptist traditions are hip!

It is interesting, and worth discussion, that this surge in interest falls out in varying ways. Some use the name “Anabaptist” to talk of the whole diverse tradition past and present, while others choose a more nuanced form and  speak of themselves as Neo-Anabaptists. In many cases writers, including the likes of Harold Bender and Stuart Murray, have attempted to offer a kind of type for Anabaptism in order to get a handle on just what we mean by this name.

Coming from an historic tradition within Anabaptism I have found myself trying to draw lines that help make this small, yet complex, tradition intelligible. This is often complicated because the historic communities often fall into sectarian modes- playing name games with each other, working on insider topics, and occasionally dismissing those who are not “true Anabaptists.”

After many blog, face to face, and Facebook conversations I have finally (and tentatively) come to a helpful taxonomy for this rich matrix of Anabaptism- both of the neo and traditional varieties. What I offer here is by no means complete or comprehensive, but simply a frame within which we can understand just what we mean by Anabaptism. I argue below that the dividing line between Anabaptism and Neo-Anabaptism is to be found in the practice of baptism- that is, whether the community of referent baptizes believers or infants.

Any wisdom to this outline is due to the great conversation partners while any faults are, unintentionally, my own.

Anabaptist

Historically speaking, the Anabaptists first emerged in the early years of the Reformation. A group of Swiss, initially connected to Zwingli, they were  disenchanted with the steps of the reform to date. This group gathered together for the studying of scripture and constructed a short document outlining the central tenants to their way of life as Christians. The Schleitheim Confession, though the core values of this new group, should be set immediately within this group’s decision to baptize one another based on a conscious confession of faith. This act, and not so much the faith they professed, literally broke the law and imposed on them the name of Anabaptists- Re-Baptizers.

Though the Schleitheim Confession makes clear that Christians are not to take up arms for the state, soon after the tragedy of Munster challenged the assumption, both then and now, that Anabaptism is necessarily non-violent in posture. It was not until Menno Simons came along in the wake of armed Anabaptists that a peace testimony became part of the tradition. There, however, Simon’s emphasis on the earlier Schleitheim statements regarding violence was a posture of biblical pragmatism. Since their practice of a believer’s baptism already challenged both civic and ecclesial authorities, a “quiet in the land” posture of non-violent, non-resistance (based in part on Romans 13) was simply prudent for the survival of the group.

As with many groups, different forms of Anabaptism soon followed- even up through the 18th century. Some groups took on a more sectarian or withdrawn posture, such as the Hutterites and Amish. Still others emerged on their own, such as the Brethren (Schwarzenau Brethren) who merged their Pietist sensibilities with adult baptism.

In the 20th century, Harold Bender set out to outline just what this thing called Anabaptism looks like. His work on an “Anabaptist Vision” was clear for its day in that it offered some markers for this tradition. Most recently some have rightly dropped Bender’s vision for a more historically nuanced picture, preferring instead to talk of the many visions and forms within the wider umbrella of Anabaptism. Even the once dominant narrative of the Brethren as holding together the distinct tradition of Anabaptism and Pietism has been critiqued in favor of naming the many influences that merged into the Dunker tradition. There were just too many forms of Anabaptism to talk of it in any singular fashion. Often, then, efforts to distill the distinctive is a kind of argumentative task to speak internally to the tradition itself- saying what we should be about- and then to a wider audience- making the tradition applicable.

Modern Anabaptists

Most recently, this desire to articulate a clear vision for those inclined to Anabaptist thought has come by way of England. There, through a strong relationship with the Mennonite Mission Network, a group of British church leaders began collaborating in a loose network. Stuart Murray (Stuart Murray Williams) penned a summary of the network’s discussions that outlined their understanding of Anabaptism. That summary was published in the US under the title Naked Anabaptist. In that book, Murray is clear that Anabaptism, as they understand it, is a theological perspective in the light of Post-Christendom. In the decades following the ecumenical movement, the UK network is often at pains to say that affinity with these markers of Anabaptism need not institutionally convert others to the historic denominations. Rather, it is possible to be an Anglican Anabaptist, Presbyterian Anabaptist, or even a non-denominational Anabaptist.

In the United States, a similar movement of interest in Anabaptism has come by way of the prolific theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Hauewas’ articulation of Anabaptism is often not the product of historical research into the Anabaptists of the 15th century but is rather a working out of the theology of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. Hauerwas often speaks of the rich formative culture of the church in a way that merges Yoder’s work with that of noted ethical philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre. Yoder, as a former student of Karl Barth, and Hauerwas as a part of the later Post-liberal discussions stand in stark contrast to the dominant narrative of Enlightenment Liberalism. In a way, like the UK Anabaptists, readers of Hauerwas often bring their understanding of Post-Liberalism ecclesiology to their own denominations.

What, then, is the difference between an Anabaptist and Neo-Anabaptist?

An impulse within Anabaptist circles is to talk of two groups- Traditional Anabaptists and Neo-Anabaptists. For me, this distinction feeds the sectarian bias of the historic denominations. I, myself, have been guilty of this at times when I have asked in polite conversation just what Hauerwas has to say about Anabaptism from his position as an Anglican. What possibly could he have to say about a way of life he writes about in abstraction without taking part in the existing, explicitly Anabaptist denominations?

As I interact with people who come to Anabaptist through a variety of ways and have formed their communities intentionally around the various forms of early Anabaptism, I find this distinction between Historical and Neo-Anabaptists unhelpful. Given the diversity within the history regarding forms of Anabaptism, it is simply too sectarian to say that anyone not a part of the main historical groups should be considered Neo-Anabaptist.

Instead, I want offer this brief taxonomy:

Anabaptists are groups of believers who share any of the markers of Anabaptist thought, and practice them within the context of a Believers’ Church structure (i.e. that baptism is a rite for those who have consciously confessed their faith and are baptized on the condition of this confession).

Neo-Anabaptists, then, are those groups or individuals who have found many of the ideas and practices of the Anabaptist tradition to speak relevantly to our context today, but bring this theology and practice into their existing denomination.

This distinction, based around the Believer’s Baptism, upholds the historic first rite of the tradition as the marker between the two. Hence, we can find persons, like Hauerwas or those of the UK Anabaptist Network, who continue to live and work within more magisterial traditions and not hold them outside the fold. For it is clearly a new phenomenon within wider Anabaptism to find such Anglican or Presbyterian Anabaptists. The ecumenical movement has opened the door to less sectarian forms and made it possible to even think that traditional Anabaptist thought could be at home within the very traditions that once persecuted these “Re-baptizers.”

For those of us in historic denominations within Anabaptism, wriers such as Hauerwas and Murray, to name just two, often help us to see parts of our heritage that we often overlook. This is especially the case for the Post-Liberalism of Hauerwas. It is important for those of us who resonate with Hauerwas, yet remain part of denominations like the Church of the Brethren and Mennonites- whose denominational life has come to adopt a decidedly liberal trajectory- to name just what we are claiming by calling ourselves “Neo-Anabaptists.” We are not working from the kind of ecumenical synthesis made possible in the 20th century, but are rather adopting a decidedly Post-liberal re-reading of our heritage. We should more appropriately identify ourselves as Post-liberal Anabaptists rather than muddy the waters with the name Neo-Anabaptists.

So what?

Some may think that such a distinction is mere hairsplitting. And I should confess that I hope this is not just an effort in theological abstraction. For example, many have observed that Greg Boyd’s congregation recently joined the Mennonite Church USA. I do not take this move to be a homecoming, or the movement of a Neo-Anabaptist group to becoming Anabaptist properly speaking. Instead, I think this was a move to draw together two Anabaptist groups, links that were once ideological and practical, and are now structural. Before that coming together, I would not have called Boyd a Neo-Anabaptist. Yet for the likes of Hauerwas, I think the distinction is necessary, if only to name the divergence around baptism. For it was the baptizing of believers and not infants that marked these groups in their day and context.

There are indeed a number of markers for Anabaptism that need further attention, such as a Post-Christendom ecclesiology, the centrality (or not) of a Peace witness in all its forms, and the importance of mutuality and simplicity. Still more work needs to be done in terms of Christology- especially given that many of the Anabaptist traditions have a Christ-centered ethic but do not have a explicit theology of the Incarnation and atonement. Nonetheless, we can see that the taxonomy begins to get at the current contexts of Anabaptist thought- a plurality of contexts not much different from the first centuries of the Reformation.

brockwayJoshua Brockway is director for spiritual life and discipleship for the Church of the Brethren. He serves as editor for this blog and book review editor of Brethren Life and Thought. His is currently writing a dissertation on the 5th century monk John Cassian. 

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Apr 3 2013

Small Groups in Congregational Life

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Tim Harvey, pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, VA recently shared some observations on small groups in church life in preparation for their congregational business meeting. In this post Tim discusses the components of vibrant small groups in the life of the congregation. The post was originally shared on Tim’s blog on the Central congregation’s website

Our congregation has recently experienced renewal through the ministry of the Hunger Group. Originally conceived as a short-term study group in the summer of 2011, these Central members have found renewed energy, focus, and challenge through their commitment to understand and alleviate hunger in the Roanoke Valley.  We have each benefitted from their leadership.

Small groups are not new to the history of the church. In fact, the Church of the Brethren began as a small group, as eight persons gathered for Bible Study, prayer and baptism in 1708.  Many Christians throughout the years have found a deepened sense of faith and commitment through the shared life of a small group.

In order to be effective, a small group needs to find togetherness in the following areas:  someone to bring the group together; a commitment to stay together; a focus which guides theirstudy together; opportunities to do mission together; chances to get together; and times to pray together.

The first two categories are the minimum commitment for a small group to exist in any meaningful way; without these, the group is significantly flawed and will struggle to accomplish effective ministry.

Leadership is what brings the group together.  Leadership takes a number of forms:  a convener; a study leader; a fellowship coordinator; a mission coordinator, just to name a few.  In fact, an effective small group will divide up these tasks among the group members, thus sharing in the overall group planning.

A commitment to stay together is also critical.  This commitment will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose.  A prayer group or life-stage group may stay together indefinitely; a study group (like we offer in the summer) or a focus group (like our membership class) will meet for a short period of time, or until a particular task is complete.  Whatever the case may be with each group, commitment must be clearly stated and agreed upon:  how often the group meets, how long the group plans to exist, and what members do to prepare for group meetings are key questions.

The next four categories will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose of the group.  They need not exist in equal proportion, but will be present in some form:

A small group should study together.  This will likely be what brought the group together in the first place; whether the group is a Sunday School class or a mission group, a time of study will open our minds to greater understanding of God’s activity in our lives and in the world around us.

A small group should do mission together.  Whatever the purpose of the group, there should be some project that takes the group outside of itself into the community.  When we put mission first in our lives, the Spirit opens up some interesting doors.

A small group should get together for fellowship.  Whatever the main purpose of the group (mission, study, prayer, etc.), the overall group experience will be enhanced by spending time together doing other things.  Deep relationships centered around fellowship can powerfully impact the group’s commitment.

Finally, a small group should pray together, encouraging one another in their shared spiritual growth.  Through prayer and discussion, group members can help one another grow in deeper faith and commitment.

As our congregation moves forward and seeks continued renewal and growth, small groups should be at the forefront of our thinking.  Approaching our Spring Council Meeting, I see several implications of small group thinking for our congregation.

First, the days of measuring church commitment by a willingness to serve on a committee are over.  Instead, small groups with a strong emphasis on mission and spiritual growth must be the priority of our congregation.

Second, consider the small group(s) (Sunday School classes) you are in.  How are the above six characteristics on display in that group?  Is there a clear investment in shared leadership?  Have each of the members in the group expressed their own commitment to the group?  In what proportion are the qualities of study, mission, fellowship, and prayer present?   If these qualities are there, then thanks be to God!  If they are not, is it time for some soul-searching among group members?  Could it be that the group has simply outlived its original purpose?  Is it time for the group to be either renewed or disbanded so members can reform into a new group?

Tim HarveyTim Harvey is pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in downtown Roanoke, VA. He and the congregation work hard at issues of renewal and revitalization, both in the congregation and in the downtown community. Issues of spiritual and literal hunger are recurring themes in their mission and ministry. And yes, he rides a unicycle!

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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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