By Jonathan Stauffer
Several experiences in the natural world heightened my self-awareness and spirituality. These experiences began as a child living in the country and continue into my adult life. I once took for granted the value of Earth, but these experiences built the case for greater appreciation and protection of God’s creation.
I grew up on a family farm and had many outdoor experiences through work and play. One of my jobs during the summer was to pull weeds out of the corn fields. I fed calves as a part of our dairy operations as a year-round job. Each of these tasks gave me a sense of what living things need to grow, which I attribute as an early ecological awareness. I also had time to play on the farm. I pulled off the heads of dandelions and climbed trees. On clear nights, I beheld a multitude of stars. Looking back, these childhood memories often contained moments of wonder.
By my high school years, however, my attitude had changed. I underestimated the value of outdoor experiences, and I did not see farming as an appealing profession. My interests focused on science, and I wanted to become an engineer. I studied physical sciences as an undergraduate at Manchester where I learned about universal laws of nature as they pertain to energy and matter. I also realized concerns arising from pollution and climate change that I felt needed solutions. But looking back, my efforts to understand the crisis focused more on human interests than the broader issues of ecology.
A profound change to my ecological awareness came about 7 years ago. I agreed to teach nature classes at a Brethren youth camp with my friend, Randall Westfall. Randall introduced me to wilderness awareness skills. I learned practices for how to walk quietly, listen intently, and observe carefully in whatever place I walked. These practices added a greater definition to my vocabulary of the natural world and invoked my childhood wonder once again. I also received joy from teaching the youth some of these same wilderness techniques because I saw their own spiritual and intellectual growth develop at camp. From these experiences, I have a continued interest to serve in outdoor ministry and learn about the local place that I reside.
I believe that wilderness skills are practice that contributes to human wholeness. Over time, I studied field guides to develop further knowledge of plants and animals. I learned about the ecology in my region. I no longer saw trees as green tops and brown trunks, but distinguished them by their leaves and bark. I memorized the features of several common medicinal plants and a few common bird songs. In this way, my awareness of biodiversity within creation increased, which is a natural order that God allows humans to comprehend.
Of course, there are also natural hazards that humans must heed. Caution towards the wilderness is not just for our own protection, but also serves to protect the rest of creation. We are reminded that God established creation a long time before humans came on the scene. As powerful as human knowledge has become, we are still limited in understanding the processes of the wild. Natural hazards provide a wisdom that humbles and sets ecological boundaries.
We must remember that humans are not detached from the creation. I believe wholeness (Shalom) includes turning to sustainable farming practices as well as developing renewable energy technology alongside ecological conservation. In order to best enable these changes we need to increase our understanding of the ecological processes that benefit our daily lives and pattern our build environments after them. Failure to do so will harm all creatures, including humanity.
Today, I view creation not only as a means through which God provides our food and fiber, but also as places for renewal and revelation. From this understanding of creation, I am grateful for the sacred intent that the Creator gives through nature. Such an understanding fosters simple living by assessing what are truly basic needs and what are empty desires. In fact, I question the accelerated pace of technology over the last fifty years, and wonder whether there are limits to its perceived benefits. I now am concerned about wholeness for both human and non-human inhabitants of the planet Earth.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to care for God’s Earth. Reading the Bible enhances our ecological imagination in addition to faith formation. Beyond the account of creation in Genesis, poems and wisdom teachings in the Old Testament relate to nature (Psalm 104 and Job 38-39). In the New Testament, the parables of Jesus employ nature as analogies for the kingdom of heaven (e.g. Matthew 13). Human interests are deeply intertwined with other creatures and the land, and God intended creation to be this relational. The Creator establishes these relationships to keep us in communion with all living things and the Divine.
As Brethren, we have traditions of simple living and covenant relationship, lifestyles that foster wholeness and aid in restoring the planet. Let us enjoy the God-given benefits of creation while also relieving the pain that we and other humans impose on it. Failure to act will be a missed opportunity in witnessing to the abundant living that Christ modeled for us.
Jonathan Stauffer is a member of the Polo (IL) Church of the Brethren congregation. He is currently a student at Bethany Theological Seminary and beginning his second year in the Master of Arts program with a concentration in theological studies.
This video from Homeboy Industries came across my Facebook timeline the other day. If you don’t know about this amazing ministry in Los Angeles started by Father Greg Boyle, you can check out their website.
In his thought of the day, he dropped this fantastic quote. “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service to those one the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”
At some point we need to drop all this talk about service. For Brethren, I am probably nearing the line of outright heresy, but hear me out.
For the early Brethren, the idea that we care for one another was not based in the language of service, but in mutual aid. Sure, this made sense in the days of our more sectarian past. We did care for our sisters and brothers of faith. It wasn’t until the 20th century that this core idea shifted into the language of service. In my more generous moments, I can see how this shift in terminology helped the Brethren claim a role within the world. Talking about service in essence broke us out of the me and us view of care for others.
However, we must come to terms with how the language of service continues to separate us from others. Basically, those who “serve others” are often working from a significant position of privilege. Whether it is economic or social privilege, those who can take time off for service projects locally or around the country do so because they can. While we rightly acknowledge that those who have privilege should use it to care for others in need, the very idea that we serve them has an overtone of condescension. We literally come out of our privileged social location so that we can minister to “those in the margins.”
An interesting thing happens, however, as people go on service trips. Inevitably, they return with a bit of cognitive dissonance. I hear it most often expressed like this: “I went there to offer something to them, but they gave me so much.” In the midst of the relationship building with those whom we “serve” the lines between those in need and those from privilege blur, and uncomfortably so. Here we are, the ones who are to care for others and we find ourselves ministered to.
This is why we must finally let go of the service interpretation of feet washing. Put another way, washing feet is NOT about serving others. In John’s account, Jesus does name the roll he takes as a servant, but that is only half the story. When Peter chastises him for doing what is not appropriate for teacher, the conversation turns to washing, and alludes to baptism. “If I don’t wash your feet,” Jesus says, “then you have no part with me.” Brash as always, Peter responded that if that is the case, then he should be completely washed. “You have bathed,” Jesus said, “and are thus clean except for the feet.”
This exchange with Peter is a clear reference to baptism, sin, and grace. And when Jesus says that we are to do this for one another, he highlights the priestly role we offer one another. There is no privileged place since all must wash and be washed. All must confess to one another and all must receive grace from others.
This is why I think people are so put off by washing feet. Some say that it is the idea of feet alone that turns people off. However, when we talk about “serving others with the basin and towel,” it is much easier to kneel down and wash another person’s dirty feet. It is when we must receive the grace of having our feet washed that we get weirded out. In the language of service, it is always better to give than to receive.
This is why we don’t know what to do with the gifts we receive when we are on a service trip. It is why we feel so guilty about coming away with so much more than we actually give.
If we can finally recover the mutuality of feet washing I think we can finally move towards what Father Boyle called “kinship with those on the margins.” We can go out from our houses of privilege and finally enter the cycle of grace upon grace where we finally see Jesus in one another.
What do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians? Does bad behavior discredit good scholarly work? When concerning behavior is made public, what should be our response? When repentance has seemingly taken place, is there an appropriate length of time before the public forgives?
We recently examined what happens in baptism. My understanding has been heavily influenced by the work of two troubling theologians. Mark Driscoll and John Howard Yoder are two of the most famous theologians of recent times. They are, also, two of the most controversial. For my fellow theology nerds out there, it might seem odd that my theology could be influenced by two folks who are so different. If Driscoll and Yoder would have been locked in a room together, Yoder might have re-thought his pacifism. For now, though, let us focus on the questions from the previous paragraph.
Mark Driscoll is the former founder and pastor of Mars Hill Church, a multi-site megachurch in Seattle, and the former head of the successful para-church ministry Acts 29 Network which focuses on church planting. Driscoll was an early supporter of the Emergent Church movement and later became one of the most influential leaders in the New Calvinist movement.
Though Driscoll consistently received critiques from progressives for his complementarianism and hyper-masculine style, he started receiving nearly universal criticism in 2013. In May of that year an elder resigned and lodged a formal complaint against Driscoll stating that Driscoll’s sins included “not being self-controlled and disciplined, being domineering, verbally violent, arrogant, [and] quick-tempered.”((Murashko, Alex. “Charges Against Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church Executive Elders ‘Non-Disqualifying,’ Says Advisory Board.” Christian Post. March 27, 2014.)) In November of that year, Driscoll was faced with multiple accusations of plagiarism in both his published books and sermon supplemental material. The next year, it became public that Driscoll had used hundreds of thousands of church funds to purchase copies of his books to engineer sales numbers in order to suit his desire to make the New York Times Bestseller List. Things came to a head when a forum thread resurfaced and circulated online from 2000 in which Driscoll, under his pseudonym William Wallace II, was shockingly aggressive and vulgar – even for him. He was removed from the Acts 29 Network and resigned from Mars Hill Church which subsequently disbanded to form 11 independent churches.
John Howard Yoder was a theology professor with an expertise in Christian ethics. A Mennonite, he was a famous Christian pacifist. Yoder ended his career working at the University of Notre Dame. He began, however, working for Goshen Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Biblical Seminary. The two institutions later joined to form Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary which has since been renamed Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS).
Unlike Driscoll, Yoder was not particularly controversial and was even well liked by many across the theological spectrum. Even when his status as a troubling theologian became well-known he was, for the most part, not publicly lambasted or shamed. Folks in the seminary community had been aware, to varying degrees, of Yoder’s sexual behavior which was at its mildest strange and its worst violating. Numerous groups were formed to try to intervene with no success. The first group to really take any major action was from his congregation. This group received reports from 13 women of sexual violation which took place “in many places: conferences, classrooms, retreats, homes, apartments, offices, parking lots.”1 Due to the work of this group, Yoder’s credentialing was suspended and was never reinstated. This seems shamefully minor in comparison to Yoder’s actions, however. Though this initial case of 13 led to some action, once one digs deeper it becomes apparent that Yoder’s deviant behavior stretched much farther. During the 70’s and 80’s Yoder sexually violated over 100 women in multiple countries. What’s more, many knew and seemingly covered it up. Seminary president, Marlin Miller was not only aware, he took detailed notes about allegations, compelled women to remain silent, and later ended up destroying the majority of evidence against Yoder and the seminary. AMBS did finally apologize in a worship service on March 22 of this year in which folks close to the seminary community, including victims, were invited for a service of lament, open sharing, and prayer. Though this certainly is a step in the right direction, the overall response to Yoder’s actions is both perplexing and vexing.
Though these two stories have some similarities, the differences are what I find truly interesting. On the one hand, we have Yoder who actually broke the law – though he was never charged. Yoder also used methods – abuse of power, manipulation, and coercion – in his illegal activity which stand in conflict and diametric opposition to the Christian pacifism upon which his life’s work was based. All the while, Yoder’s fall from grace has not been widely discussed outside of Anabaptist circles and, as mentioned earlier, when it has been discussed by the broader public, he has not faced the sort of public backlash as others have for doing much, much less.
So, now we get to Driscoll who is one such person. Driscoll has been outright ostracized, as of late, for being un-Christ-like, unethical, and engaging in suspect business practices. Driscoll has, for the most part, been lambasted and shamed for behavior some, if not many, people are probably not surprised by. Anyone who has ever heard or read Driscoll’s works would describe him as aggressive, crass, and unapologetically blunt. For those outside the New Calvinist movement, his views on gender roles seemed backward and offensive long before his public fall from grace. Why, then, was the resurfacing of this blog thread from 2000 such a big deal? This is a serious question for a couple reasons. First, Driscoll had already confessed to this in one of his books, classifying his William Wallace II days as his angry prophet period – one he had since outgrown. Sure, you could still make a very compelling argument that Driscoll still was not acting Christ-like long after his angry prophet stage, but his behavior had noticeably improved upon his open confession and recognition of his former wrongs. Second, I wonder about the influence of our current internet culture on this storyline. If Yoder’s behavior, or at least its coming to light, had taken place in a world of social media and 24-hour news cycles, would things have been different for him?
Driscoll continues to be an outcast, some would even say he has been demonized. There was recently public uproar because Driscoll had been invited to speak at a recent Hillsong conference. He was not giving a plenary. He wasn’t even giving a speech or being asked to speak from any sort of position of authority. He was to sit down for a conversation with Hillsong pastor Brian Houston to talk about what if anything Driscoll had learned in the past year. People threw a fit to the point that Hillsong had to come out with a statement saying that Driscoll would not be present at the conference. The interview still took place and was broadcast via video at the conference which still got a number of people upset. Hillsong and Houston never endorsed Driscoll. Hillsong is a neo-Charismatic multi-site megachurch which differs from Driscoll and the former Marsh Hill Church in a variety of ways. Both are conservative evangelical, but Hillsong is egalitarian and has surprisingly moderate views on LGBT inclusion. So now what? Are we not even allowed to have civil discourse in public anymore? Are we not allowed to openly discuss our failings, and the failings of others, and examine what we’ve learned and how we’ve grown?
So, what do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians? Ed Setzter says that while repentance must be both public and thorough, it must also ultimately lead to restoration.2 This is huge. Yoder has passed on. There is no longer opportunity for his public and thorough repentance and his restoration this side of the Jordan. There are opportunities, though, for the AMBS and broader Mennonite communities. It seems, too, that they are moving in the right direction. The same could be said of Driscoll. You may not like him as a person. You may not like his theology. But he does seem to be in the process of a public and thorough repentance. When, then, does restoration occur? Is there a time limit? What if God treated us the way many of us treat folks like Driscoll and other famous pastors who have public falls from grace? Can we forgive without forgetting, being permissive or affirming?
Two stories from Scripture, the parables of the prodigal son and the unforgiving servant come to mind. We are to forgive and welcome back into the fold those who turn and come back home. We are to forgive others who act inexcusably because God has done so for us and will punish those of us who refuse to forgive. I think of Noah and his naked drunkenness, David the murder and rapist, Moses and Paul who were also both murderers. God did amazing things through these broken people. I might not be a drunk, rapist, or a murderer, but I know how dark my sins are. I know that I’ve done things that are truly terrible and I know that I have hurt a number of people in my life, especially during my adolescence. I also know that I have helped positively shape the spiritual lives of many people by the Grace of God who chooses to use broken sinners for his glory.
So, I ask again, what do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians? I, for one, acknowledge that the theology is good while also acknowledging that the theologians sometimes were bad. Yoder and Driscoll have hurt countless people. That is a serious, serious issue and should never be minimized. Yoder and Driscoll have helped positively shape the spiritual lives of countless people. That is a serious, serious issue and should never be minimized. So, that’s what I do. What do you do?
- Waltner Goossen, Rachel. “The Failure to Bind and Loose: Responses to Yoder’s Sexual Abuse.” The Mennonite A Publication of Mennonite Church USA Providing Anabaptist Content The Failure to Bind and Loose Responses to Yoders Sexual Abuse Comments. January 2, 2015. [↩]
- Setzter, Ed. “When Pastors Fall: Why Full and Public Repentance Matters.” The Exchange. April 22, 2014. [↩]
This post begins a two-part series. Part I will deal with the question “What happens in baptism,” an important question for many Anabaptist-Pietists. Part II will deal with the question of “what to do with quality theology from troubling theologians.” At first glance, I imagine that these two questions seem pretty far removed. You might be wondering how they connect as parts of a two-part series. Read on and I hope it will become clearer.
Baptism is: an act of discipleship; our dying and rising with Christ; our joining the fellowship of believers, which is the new humanity. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears write of this theology of baptism succinctly by saying:
We believe that water baptism is for those Christians who have already received Spirit baptism, making them part of the church. In water baptism, Christians are immersed in water, which identifies them with the death and burial of Jesus in their place for their sins. Coming up out of the water identifies them with the resurrection of Jesus for their salvation and new life empowered by the Holy Spirit. … [It] is a symbol of something far bigger. It is a visible declaration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit expresses the believer’s death to sin, burial of the old life, and resurrection to a new kingdom life in Christ Jesus.1
Baptism is an act of discipleship.
Scripture teaches that Jesus and the apostles charged all Christians to be baptized. Baptism identifies one as a disciple. Jesus commissions the first apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).” Peter, too, speaking to the crowds after Pentecost calls the crowd to believe, repent, and be baptized (Acts 2:38). Acts records how baptism accompanied conversion. After Peter had finished preaching to the crowd, Acts explains that “those who accepted his message were baptized (Acts 2:41).” Acts 8 shares of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch who eagerly exclaimed, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” After being baptized, he “went on his way rejoicing.” (Acts 8:36-38)2
Baptism is our dying and rising with Christ.
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.
One of the central claims of the gospel is that God is reconciling people to himself (2 Cor. 5:18-19). We go from spiritual deadness and separation to being counted as alive in Christ. We are united with Jesus and submit to becoming part of his death. In Christ, though, we experience death that conquers death for in Christ “death is nor more” for it has been “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).
Baptism is our joining the fellowship of all believers, which is the new humanity.
In addition to being united with Christ, baptism unites us with the global church of committed disciples – the fellowship of all believers. In baptism, we proclaim that we are part of the true church of those converted, born-again, being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and priests with unmediated access to God.
The church is the new humanity in which there is “a new inter-ethnic social reality.”3 The church is a people made up of all kinds of people. In Christ, God creates a new humanity that wrestles deeply with the problem of togetherness. In fact, this new humanity envisions a new way of living together “[as] a ‘multi-ethnic community,’ [that] does not quash ethnicity but relativizes it to the central claim that Jesus is Lord.”4 The same is said for other carnal attributes. This new path that showcases egalitarian living is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. The church is corporately made up of heirs of the Kingdom. “As ‘joint heirs with Christ’ (Rom. 8:17) we receive the title to the coming kingdom, and even in this life we receive the ‘earnest’ or first installment of this inheritance.”5 In the church, and even more so in the coming Kingdom, God fulfills the promise to “take … from all the nations [and] gather … from all the countries” and give them his Spirit (Ezekiel 36:22-32).
Even the individuality of joining the church has the potential to lead to this togetherness as part of the New Humanity. Baptism, an act commonly associated with inauguration into the Church family, is rooted in many ways to the forgiveness of sin. It is a new birth – a new start that is available to the proverbial you. “The you here must refer not just to each person but to the other person – the stranger, the outcast, even the enemy or oppressor that one is inclined to view in terms of their past actions.”6 Because God can forgive you, he can forgive anyone. As all can be forgiven, the forgiven are one with Christ. As part of the new humanity, we are called to see passed our individual sinfulness and the sinfulness of others to our oneness in Christ. The new humanity aims to serve both the guilty and the hurting through reconciliation to God and to humanity. This new humanity works in the world, to bring about holistic change, under the guidance of Jesus Christ who is leader, shepherd, and judge. Under Christ’s supremacy, the church brings people into newness, continuing to proclaim that “The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
So, what do we do when theologians don’t live up to their theology? What do we do when it seems as if the old things have not, indeed, gone away? Are they hypocrites? Do we dismiss their quality work because of their personal missteps? Does grace abound? Check back in next week as I ask the question: “What do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians?”
- Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Every Christian Should Believe (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010). [↩]
- See also: Acts 8-10, 16, 18-19., 22; Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:11-15; Titus 3:5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-14; 1 Peter 3:21. [↩]
- John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 30. [↩]
- Russell Haitch, From Exorcism to Ecstasy: Eight Views of Baptism (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 28 [↩]
- Haitch, From Exorcism to Ecstasy, 127 [↩]
- Haitch, From Exorcism to Ecstasy, 35. [↩]
Informative. Enlightening. Thought-provoking. Insightful. Energizing. Stimulating. Engaging. Refreshing. Challenging. Inspiring. Interesting. Hopeful. Enriching conversation.
I could go on. These are just the top reflections from the participants at Bethany Theological Seminary’s inaugural Young Adult Forum entitled “Anabaptism, the Next Generation.”
The goal was to bring young adult ministry practitioners together for a conversation about Anabaptism and its influence on and appeal to young people today. Instead we fostered an intergenerational conversation from college students to seasoned pastors. Some attendees were currently practicing ministry with young adults and some were simply interested in the conversation or were young adults themselves stepping into leadership and ministry.
The Ted-Talk inspired format encouraged speakers to share a “big idea” instead of an all-encompassing lecture. The format left space for short conversations between talks and allowed for more than just one or two keynote speakers as we are accustomed to at academic conferences. Talk-back sessions brought more than one speaker together so that their talks could interact with one another – music with spirituality, discernment with relationship, leadership with hermeneutics, and so on.
We heard talks that set the background with Anabaptist spirituality and biblical hermeneutics; we heard and experienced how we practice our Anabaptism through music; learned about practicing discernment together, being leaders, and making peace; we also addressed current concerns and practices of ministry with young people considering the multi-ethnic church and ministry with college students. Participants continued conversations in talk-back sessions, during lunch discussions where participants chose topics by sitting at tables with others interested in that conversation, and even during breaks as people met in the hallways of the seminary.
We also embarked upon a new adventure, taking what we were learning inside the walls of Bethany out into the community. We provided a list of locations for participants to go and observe how the context is appealing to the community, particularly young people. They engaged in questions such as, why do people come here? What is the role of this place in the community? How does this place and the work that it does interact with the conversations we’ve been having at Bethany this weekend?
Participants went to restaurants, a church, an ice cream place, and even bars and local hot spots to engage in these questions and observe the context and community in Richmond, Indiana. The goal was not to proselytize or make ourselves known but to take the first step from academic conversation to the streets and neighborhoods of our own cities.
I am grateful for the places where Bethany can grow into this forum and humbled by the things that others got out of the experience. The one thing that struck me the most after poring over the evaluations from this event is how much relationships were a part of this forum. Participants reflected on learning about the importance of intergenerational relationships, different ways to disciple others, the importance of discernment with the body of Christ, becoming partners instead of leaders, making connections, embracing multiculturalism, and connecting young adults to the church in new ways. We were invited into relationship with each other during the forum and encouraged to nurture relationships back home.
How are you engaging with each other in your faith community? What do you observe of different generations, ethnicities, and cultures? What is the importance of relationship for you and for your church? How do we marry our Anabaptist heritage to the neo-Anabaptism appealing to many young Christians today? These questions and many others still linger in my mind weeks after the forum. I look forward to observing and engaging them as I continue to participate in my faith community and in denominational gatherings.
If you would like to view the talks from this forum or for more information about this and other Young Adult Forums you can visit www.bethanyseminary.edu/YAForum2015. You will find the list of speakers from this spring, videos of their talks, and the schedule for the event. If you have questions you can be in touch with Bekah Houff or Russell Haitch of Bethany’s Institute for Ministry with Youth and Young Adults at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inspiring and educational talks. Thoughtful and engaging conversation. Friends, old and new. Beautiful singing. Connecting with the local community. Meaningful worship. These are just a few of the things we did together at the 2015 Young Adult Forum. We hope you will come and join us for the next Young Adult Forum April 15-16, 2016 at Bethany Theological Seminary.
Let’s continue the conversation!
Bekah Houff is Coordinator of Outreach Programs for Bethany Theological Seminary. She received her MDiv from Bethany with an emphasis in Youth and Young Adult Ministries. Bekah has been active in summer camping ministry, district youth ministry, and served in the Youth and Young Adult Office of the Church of the Brethren. Needless to say, she loves ministry with young people!
Interested in networking and engaging with others who are passionate about young adult ministry? Anabaptism, the Next Generation is a learning forum on ministry with young adults being hosted at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, IN April 17-19. Speakers include Chuck Bomar, Josh Brockway, Jeff Carter, Dana Cassell, Russell Haitch, Tara Hornbacker, Steve Schweitzer, Laura Stone, Dennis Webb, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. For more information and to register, go to https://www.bethanyseminary.edu/YAForum2015.
Bethany’s upcoming young adult forum is an event I am very excited about. As one who has been active in young adult ministry for the duration of my young adulthood thus far, I am always looking for others who share my passion and want to engage biblically and critically about the issues currently facing the Church – particularly from a young adult voice.
In addition to engaging in conversation, reading has been an important tool that has aided my ministry. Having sojourned with Quakers and, now, Brethren, I would like to think of myself as fairly simple. My book collection – and yes I mean real paper books – would tell a different story. I love books!
One book I have become especially fond of recently is The Slow Fade: Why You Matter in the Story of Twentysomethings by Reggie Joiner, Chuck Bomar, & Abbie Smith. You can purchase the book here. The book, written from the perspectives of a senior pastor, a college pastor, and a twentysomething, compels churches to move the finish-line of early Christian discipleship past 18 years old and calls for meaningful, intergenerational relationships as the answer to the “slow fade” of young adults leaving the Church.
In what I would consider the heart of the book, chapters three and four, we’re introduced to three ideas which serve as our framework for engaging with young adults: wonder, discovery, passion. Bomar writes of his two young daughters and how imaginative they are. He remarks on how as we get older our sense of imagination seems to fade. Western Christianity is often uncomfortable with how magical and mysterious our God is but, Bomar asserts, we must recapture “this sense of wonder in our own lives.”
As we get older, we become surer of ourselves and the world around us. As time goes by, we can even get rigid in our understanding. Young adulthood, though, is anything but rigid or certain. A person’s twenties are all about discovery.
Not only is this a time dedicated, largely, to cultivating self-awareness, it is also a time full of many transitions: high school to college, high school or college to the workforce, single to dating, dating to engaged, engaged to married, childless to a parent, and the list goes on. I think the transitory nature of young adulthood is another major reason why embracing discovery is so important. Young adults are not only discovering who they are, they are discovering how to successfully live into these various seasons or stations, of young adulthood.
This season of discovery should never end, according to Bomar. “Too many don’t want to admit this, but embracing our identity in God is never done. …The choice is always before us. Are we willing to remain teachable and continue moving toward discovery?”
Also, as many get older, passion becomes “a faded memory, forgotten like teenage love and letter jackets. …At some point maybe we thought we could impact the world, but now, well, we’ve resigned such childlike thinking” writes Smith. This definitely hits home with me.
As a young pastor, I often have my energy and idealism scoffed at by elders in congregations. People get set in their ways. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the phrase “well, that’s how we’ve always done it.” People frequently see my and other’s idealism as foolish and naïve.
This is particularly the case in my interactions with Baby Boomers – understandably so, however, as they grew up during a time when outspoken idealists were killed at places like the Lorraine Motel and Ambassador Hotel. Sharing one’s passion for new ideas takes vulnerability. Even so, doesn’t the call of the gospel necessitate vulnerability? It is a summons to die, after all. But, that’s for another blog post.
Toward the end of the book, Bomar writes an appendix called A Note to Ministry Leaders. If you didn’t already know Bomar, you learn more of his story here. He was the college pastor at Cornerstone – the southern California church planted by Francis and Lisa Chan – when the college age ministry grew from nine people at a barbeque to over nine hundred meeting at the church each week.
While the “ministry looked great from the outside,” Bomar writes, he began to question what he was doing and came to discern that they needed to shift their focus from programs to relationships. He lays out the following necessary steps for ministry leaders seeking to successfully engage young adults: Define success by relational connection; Help older believers embrace their responsibility; Invest in families; Value difference in a healthy way; Allow college-aged people to have a voice.
Slow Fade is full of valuable advice and is sure to get you thinking. I, for one, am a verbal (linguistic) learner. It is not enough for me to simply read a book. I have to process what I’ve read through more words – via speaking. That’s always better when others are involved in the conversation. So, please take time to converse here on the blog. We shouldn’t have to wait until next weekend to start engaging these topics and addressing these concerns. I look forward to responding to your comments here and to seeing you at Anabaptism, the Next Generation at Bethany April 17-19.
 The Slow Fade: Why You Matter in the Story of Twentysomethings: David C. Cook (May 1, 2010), 50-52.
 Ibid. 53
 Ibid. 55.
 Ibid. 112-114.
 Ibid 115-121
My journey with the Death Row pen pal project began with a seminar led by Rachel Gross at our church about four years ago. Prison ministry was something that was drawing my heart, but I wasn’t sure how to get involved until Rachel opened the door. There were so many disturbing facts that she shared that I knew this would be a part of my life in a very meaningful way. I first shared with her that I would be interested in having a pen pal that might have difficulty with writing, as I was a learning disability teacher and understood students who have some challenges communicating. Alden Harden was who I was matched with, and he has been an extremely articulate man with a beautiful way of expressing himself especially through poetry.
Our letters went back and forth from North Carolina to Indiana at least once a month. We began with getting to know each other through our daily routines, likes, and dislikes. It is surprising how many common things can be found even with such different surroundings. The common threads throughout our written conversations were respect, genuine interest in each other’s lives, mutual concern, and a deep belief in God. We have shared about our childhood, siblings, parents, youth groups, joys, daily routines, jokes, sermons, disappointments, frustrations, and more.
My husband enjoys photography as a hobby. This has opened up a window for Al that has turned into a blessing for both men. Max searches his pictures, finds several that go together, and writes a little about them with each letter I send. Al has a chance to see, through Max’s camera lens, a whole different world than the confines of the North Carolina prison walls that surround him.
About a year ago Al started sending poems that he had written. I love poetry, and his poems were beautifully written from his heart. I thought he might enjoy seeing them in print, so I typed them and sent them back in my letters. More and more came. Some were very soulful and filled with life-lessons learned, and others were light and whimsical. But all were a beautiful expression of a delightful, loving, caring, dear man sharing himself though poetry. An idea sprang up that we could put these together in a book. Al was so excited about that idea that I began the work of creating a poetry book, using my husband’s photographs of our church worship centers as the illustrations for each piece. Another friend, who had created many books of vacation destinations, shared her work with me, which greatly increased my enthusiasm.
Several hours of editing and rearranging produced a lovely book of Al’s poems with Max’s photos illustrating each one. I purchased two copies. One was sent to Alden Harding at Central Prison in North Carolina, and one went to me in Indiana. Both of us were thrilled with the results. As soon as Al received his book, he asked how he could get more copies, as several folks were interested. For his Christmas gift this year, I sent six copies to his loved ones. It was such a rewarding way to honor this man who had written such amazing work and to provide a way for him to share himself with his family.
A couple months have passed, and more copies are wanted for more folks. I am not sure what shape this project will take, but I do know that I am so grateful to be part of this journey with Al. God can join together two unlikely people with such different backgrounds and create a beautiful friendship and an amazing book of poems.
Where is God in all of this? God is in the stirrings of a heart wanting to serve and connect in an upside-down way. God is giving courage and opening spaces for individuals to share faith stories and personal insights. God is providing respect and honor to the worthiness of each of us and giving opportunities to share with others. This project is connecting the dots of God’s love in action. It is a story about changing lives, attitudes, and hearts into the essence of New Beginnings and touching the fabric of the Easter message.
I would like to close with one of Al’s poems.
Thanks for making my heart smile.
It’s a real pleasure
It’s no way to really measure.
Things you put in print makes me grin.
You’ve become quite the friend.
No, I don’t have many,
Yet your rigorousness has proven plenty.
I love our in-depth talks.
They’re cozy like moonlit walks.
The way we share so many things,
Hurts, pains, future dreams,
Thoughts of you can engulf me for hours.
Capture my mind in translucent powers.
The way you virtually hold my hand.
In this crazy and barren land.
When I lay awake in the bleak of night.
Alone with my thoughts and all wound up tight.
It’s rereading your thoughts
That seems to make all things right.
by Alden Harden
Sue Mock is a member of North Manchester Church of the Brethren (South/Central Indiana District) and an elementary special education teacher in Warsaw, Indiana.
After Sue wrote this article, she received the following words in a letter from Al: “Yes, [the copy of the poetry book Sue sent him for his birthday] actually got here on the 19th, so it made for a lovely gift. Funny, most times, the legal mail person comes around to the pod cell for or rather with our packages such as this. They actually called me to the sergeant’s office to sign for it. Then the sergeant asked to check it out. The lieutenant then got whiff of it and asked to check it out. Said that he thought it was really good and asked if I had another one in the makings. Another sergeant on this rotation actually has hold of it now. I can hardly believe folk think it’s truly good.”
This sonnet by Travis Poling was composed to bear witness to the bombing of an open-air market in Iraq in 2007
Al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad, March 2007
By Travis Poling
By chance the sky was calm that morning.
Locals milled through the open street, browsed books,
turned pages, visioned worlds beyond this war:
a yam farmer resisting the new church priest,
a boy with a seed finding one word: unless,
a cricket practicing her song every night.
The sun glared through the stalls off the pages,
but the people kept reading.
They didn’t hear the car engine gunning
behind them till the shriek of brakes grinded
in a singular block-busting blast.
These paper worlds, incinerated, leaped
for the freedom of the sky—
as thirty dreaming bodies struck the earth.
Travis Poling is a minister and artist who writes poetry, teaches college English, and curates worship at Richmond Church of the Brethren in Indiana. He blogs at The Poet-Liturgist
Katie shared these reflections with the staff of the Church of the Brethren and Brethren Benefit Trust on April 4, 2014 at the weekly chapel.
In January, when I was looking ahead at my upcoming calendar, March was a month for which I was both anxious and excited. March has an odd way of filling itself up in the blink of an eye. Anyone serving the church can list off thing after overwhelming thing that made March, both stressful and sometimes enjoyable. For me, it was some travel, some hospitality, lots of meetings, and weekends away. Now with that month behind me, I hope to slip out of the madness that has gripped me for several weeks. This isn’t the only year that March has been maddening. Last year, I was in the office for five days in March– workcamp travel added up fast! Maybe you’ve experienced busy travel seasons, swallowed up weekends, or long days with meetings recently, too?
In the midst of my March Madness, I traveled to Roundtable at Bridgewater College. It’s the Regional Youth Conference for the Atlantic Southeast Region of the Church of the Brethren. I have been attending this event for a DECADE. WEIRD! That’s what happens when you attend the conference in high school, become a part of the planning team in college, and then provide leadership after your graduate! While on the coordinating team in college, the weeks leading up to the conference were nothing short of prolonged chaos. They were full of final details, meetings that started at midnight, and little sleep. Even in the midst of the enduring craziness, it was my favorite weekend every March. Fellowship, worship, games, variety shows, joy, people, #brethrenthings– I love all of it. Despite all the swirling madness before, after, and during Roundtable, there is a sacred stillness that comes every Sunday morning of Roundtable with the anointing service. It’s a sacred space and I’ve cried on more than one occasion receiving the blessing. (No surprise there!) Every spring for the past decade, I’ve come to anticipate and cherish this anointed blessing for my journey. My heart becomes warm as the slick oil touches my forehead– marking me, reminding me to whom I belong, that I am enough, that I am blessed. March is mad and this reminder is needed. March is a month that is sometimes spring, sometimes winter. Teasing our sandals out of the closet for a day, before switching back to snow boots with a surprise storm the next day. The inconsistency of the weather is maddening. Our bodies have been bundled up for months enduring the harshness of winter temperatures and dangerous snow or ice. Weather whiplash smacks me so strongly my body doesn’t know what to think. I’ve even walked out of the house in sandals as it starts to snow. March is mad. In the dubious climate of March, where my body doesn’t know what the weather is doing and my head is exhausted from the season of planning, travel, and little sleep – my heart starts feeling “some type of way.” O, March, you bittersweet month of change. This Roundtable the speaker, Eric Landram, talked about Seasonal Affective Disorder, which I would say after living in Chi-beria for a full, long, awful season, has definitely chipped away at my positive demeanor this winter. He talked about “winter blues”, “summertime sadness”, and he mentioned one less common seasonal ailment “spring sadness”. I thought “spring sadness” was a little ridiculous at first. The world is coming alive – baby animals, flower buds, and all that! What is there to fear about spring?! Yet, I thought about it. Spring is another season of change, like fall, but instead of the world falling asleep, it is waking back up again. There’s bound to be some discontent as the world transforms. Spring is a season of goodbyes – graduations, preparing for upcoming seasons– summer conferences or vacations, board meetings, travel for retreats or conferences, or the slow trudge of day-to-day, while the weather spins madly around you… doing whatever it chooses to do. For me, it’s been a season of unknowns from year to year…what will my life be like after I graduate, after I move away, after relationships end, after BVS and NYC. It is a time of discernment and questioning.
Lent’s another difficult thing in spring. It’s a hard season. The season of Lent retraces Jesus forty days in the wilderness, Jesus fasted for that time and some Christians choose to fast, as well. Some people scoff at this practice and laugh at people who give up soda, but the past several years I’ve found it an intentional space to grow in my walk with God. Granted I have done some weird things like give up abbreviated words in college (which was totes hard) and wore a prayer covering one Lent. But this year I’m journaling every day. I have found that the intentional things I add or take away to my daily routine during this Lenten wilderness walk, slowly and surely point me on a closer journey with God that I had been missing. This routine that forms over forty days helps me when the ground changes beneath my feet during the maddening spring. March is mad.
We’re about done with our wandering in the wilderness, according to the liturgical calendar, and I have to ask, “How’s everyone doing?”
It says in Matthew 27, when Jesus died, “at that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” I wonder about Jesus’ disciples, about Judas who betrayed him, about Peter who denied him, about Mary of Bethany who anointed his feet, about Mary who birthed him – what kind of wilderness were they walking in now? What were they thinking as the ground shook beneath their feet? Their leader, their Messiah, their friend, their child was taken from them and the whole world was in upheaval. They might have started to grapple with questions like – “What will life be like after this?” … “What will happen to me?” … “Will life ever be normal again?”
We know the story doesn’t end here, but their three days of complete chaos and fear and doubt probably felt like an eternity. “How will we ever recover from this?”
In the book of Luke, Jesus appears to two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, three days after his death. The disciples are wrestling and reeling with the horrible series of events that have happened over the last couple of days. They’ve lost their prophet, most everyone following the Jesus movement has deserted and fled. And some women just this morning said that his body was taken from the tomb. They don’t really know what to make of all of it. They’re so lost in their sadness, that they don’t even recognize that it is Jesus coming with them on the road. They’re wandering is some kind of wilderness.
They walk and talk all the way to Emmaus and yet, they still have no idea they’ve been journeying with Jesus this whole time. They invite this stranger to eat with them once they reach Emmaus. It’s not until Jesus sat with him – blessed and broke bread – that they see who they have been journeying with. The scripture says, “Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:30). What have your eyes been opened to this season?
This March season, this hard Lenten season, we’ve been journeying with Jesus this whole time, whether we’ve recognized him or not. Amidst the endless travel, the fickle weather, the exhaustion, the meetings that never end – Jesus shows up in the ordinary, even when we’re not looking, even when we’re not prepared for him to do so. In the midst of our own wilderness, we don’t necessarily feel it, or see it, or take notice. Sometimes it takes oil on our forehead…breaking bread with a friend… to remind us that God does show up, God has come down, and God is here.
While, Lent is hard and long, it doesn’t last forever. The rumbling of the Earth on a dark Friday, gives way to a torn curtain, an empty tomb, and God’s spirit among us forever. In the midst of chaos, anxiety, and disbelief, we meet God on a dusty road and we break bread together.
Katie Cummings is from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, which means she grew up with mountains on either side of her. She graduated from Bridgewater College in 2012 with a degree in Sociology and a minor in Peace Studies. After college she joined Brethren Volunteer Service, coordinating Brethren Workcamps for a year before coordinating National Youth Conference. She enjoys running for fun, cooking Indian curries, and making things out of thread. She’s not competitive, but would love to play Ultimate Frisbee, Bannagrams, or Scattegories – if you let her stretch the rules.