church

Thoughts from a Hike on the Appalachian Trail

September 20th, 2011 – by Randy Keener

In March 2010, Hugo, a close friend from Goshen College, and I attempted a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail.  Roughly 5 months and 2,179 miles later, we finished that long walk in the woods. We were immensely tired, amazed, and pondering.  There were a number of reasons for embarking on this journey from Georgia to Maine. For us, two important ones were the sense of adventure it held and the escape from the busyness of life and all of its demands.  Neither of us expected the great hospitality, kindness, and care that we each experienced among the trail community.  We found ourselves in awe of that slice of people who exist in a very counter-cultural way.  We were honored to be a part of that community.

Even a year later, I am still reflecting on that time and in many ways I deeply miss it. I think about the wonderful people that we hiked with, the strong sense of community and shared experience of trying to get to Maine.  And yet an irony remains in all this.  Much of the Appalachian Trail community really wants little to do with God, much less the church.  Many of them operated out of some form of secular humanism or vague spirituality.  For them, it simply made sense to treat people and the earth with kindness, justice, and love, because those are basic human rights. Every person deserves to experience those things and should practice them.   Hugo and I realized that we cared about many of the same things that the trail community did, but where these things were rooted was very different.  When fellow hikers heard how our particular beliefs and practices, rooted in the Christian-Anabaptist story, emphasized the same things as their own stories, we no longer talked past each other.

So what did mission, in this context, look like for us?  It looked like two friends choosing to hike the entire trail together, in the good times and the very hard times. Most friends that start together on the trail end up splitting after the first month or so for a number of different reasons.  It meant that when we enjoyed the cool breeze, the picturesque mountain top views, or the delicacies of creation’s wonders, we gave thanks to God, the creator of all good things.  When we shared food mutually among the trail community- we remembered what Christ has done for us in the cross and resurrection, and that we are invited to participate in that same resurrection hope.  It meant getting to know a fellow hiker, not much older than us, who had lost his wife just 6 months earlier to cancer. For him the trail was a place of healing as he escaped the busyness and materialism of society.  And yet in our relationship and trust with him, we were able to share the hope and healing that we knew and had experienced. We shared that for us this was greater than any walking footpath could offer.  Mission happened in relationships, and in conversations.  It happened in stereotypes being shattered, and mutual trust and care being nurtured.  It happened when our stories connected with theirs, and in those Spirit engagements, we saw something of a larger reality. 

Sometimes I think I see glimpses of the Kingdom of God when I reflect on that small slice of culture called the trail community.  And sometimes I become frustrated with the church because I wonder if I see the Kingdom more on the trail than I do in mainstream Christianity.  I am thankful to the trail community for a lot of things.  No doubt, it has changed my life and the way I think about certain people groups.  I may always live in the uneasy tension of how a secular community could embody the Kingdom more faithfully than much of the church has.  Maybe it is a reminder that the Kingdom of God shows up in places that we didn’t think to look. Yet I am also reminded that as followers of Jesus we live with a greater hope and calling than many on the trail have ever known.  The church does not live in ways that are sustainable, righteous, loving and justice minded simply because it makes sense, or is the right thing to do. Rather, the church, rooted in a larger story, is to embody these things because they are our very act of worship to God and is our witness to the power of the resurrection in the world.  For this reminder, I thank the trail community.

Randy Keener lives, works and studies in Harrisonburg, VA.  He is a residence director at Eastern Mennonite University, and a 2nd year graduate student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in the Masters of Divinity program.   In his spare time he enjoys running, hiking in the Shenandoah Valley, and watching baseball. 

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Deconstruction and Rebuilding in Community: Mission in the 21st Century

September 12th, 2011 – by Hannah Heinzekehr

This post is part of a series on mission/evangelism. Email the editors at workandhope @emu.edu if you would like to contribute to the series.

Since moving to Southern California, my husband Justin and I have had a problem: we can’t keep plants alive. Our outdoor porch plants slowly withered and died –from overwatering, or conversely dehydration or for reasons unknown. Our first attempt at community gardening failed when our small plot was eaten alive by California critters that we didn’t know existed. Now, as we’ve started to grow some small potted herbs on our porch, we are watching with fear and trepidation, like worried parents, hoping that somehow, against all odds, these new plants will grow into fruition. We’ve had to deconstruct the ideas about gardening we learned in Indiana. We’ve had adapt and re-learn gardening here: what plants to grow, fertilizers to use, where pots should be placed, how to keep lizards off our “crops” and how much water to use.

Similarly, our ideas about mission have been deconstructed in Los Angeles. When we moved to California, I had already been working for Mennonite Mission Network for two years. I spent a lot of time talking with people about mission, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it meant. But moving to an area as cosmopolitan and diverse as Los Angeles County meant that my ideas about what mission meant had to change. I couldn’t make the same assumptions about what church looked like, how theology impacted mission, what language we worship in etc. This is a gift! But it also meant that some of the assumptions that I brought with me, as a European, middle-class, English-speaking, Mennonite from Indiana , were called into question simply by virtue of the place I was living.

Just like we had to reshape our models for gardening, our models for mission needed to be re-shaped. Some of the needs were the same. Just like our plants still needed water, fertilizer and soil (just different types and amounts), there is still a hunger here for church planting, church revitalization, and peace and conflict training, theological education and community outreach, but the ways that these needs are expressed and responses to them needed to change. Sometimes, it was little things that made me aware of these assumptions. The Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale here features Nigerian puff-puff (delicious) and kimchee instead of apple fritters and funnel cakes. “International mission” doesn’t feel very far away. In fact, many church leaders are actively involved in mission in their home towns in Nigeria, Belize and Indonesia.  Four-part harmony was not as familiar, and worship services are often conducted in two or three languages. Building space, which is highly expensive and limited in crowded Los Angeles County, was hard to come by, and many congregations share space and/or meet in homes or parks. And the list could go on…

I realized that I would need to sit at the feet of new teachers and people who had been involved in mission in Los Angeles for many years. I would need to be willing to stay still, listen and learn, instead of being in the middle of the action.  Mission Network has been working for a long time to cultivate radical and “post-colonial” ways of thinking about mission. But it took actually moving to a new and different space before my own structures about mission and church could be re-formed. So, when I think about mission in the 21st century, I think our first challenge is to examine our own assumptions about mission and expand our ideas.

The second piece of this process is to re-build a concept of mission in collaboration with the communities and people where we live, work and minister.  If we believe that mission involves finding the places and spaces where God is already at work in the world, and finding ways to join in that work, then what better way to discern this than in community? As Anabaptists, we are wrapped in a lineage and historical theology that emphasizes the role of the community: in interpreting the Bible, in prayer together, in hospitality and in a myriad of other ways.

As the Mennonite Church continues to receive the gift of increasing levels of diversity, it will be our challenge to find ways to sit down at the table together: to discuss, to argue, to pray, to discern and to laugh together. I believe that this act of coming together is an act of mission.

Hannah Heinzekehr lives, works and studies in Claremont, California. She is a Church Relations associate for Mennonite Mission Network, and a graduate student at Claremont Lincoln University, studying the intersections between community development and theology. In her spare time, she enjoys visiting the beaches in southern California, hiking in the San Gabriel mountains, and reading something that hasn’t been assigned for class!

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On Being a Young Adult Voice

November 18th, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

I’m not sure how it happens exactly, but I keep being asked to “represent young adults” or “give the young adult perspective” at church gatherings. This makes me uncomfortable.

First, because I can hardly conceive of the idea that I would speak for all young adults everywhere, or even a tiny percentage of young adults at any one time.  I have a very particular perspective based on my particular upbringing, socialization and personality.

Second because by adding me to a committee as the “young adult representative” church leaders then assume that they have done their duty in ushering young adults into the workings of the church.

Third, because while I am a young adult, not everything I have to offer the church is defined by that label. For example, I could also offer the perspective of seminary employee, or congregational leader working at new models of leadership, or of a woman, or of a seminary graduate.

This representation of the young adult voice is a double-sided coin for me. On the one hand I’m glad there are young adults being asked to participate in important church-wide events. I’m glad there are young adults present and active in these conversations and I’m even glad when those young adults are asked to give the “young adult perspective.” In particular I feel honored and respected when I’m asked my opinion about church matters.

On the other hand, I think it might be wise for churches as a whole to ask themselves, “Why do we need a ‘representative,’ why aren’t young adults involved in our institution naturally? Or even more pertinent, why aren’t our congregational and denominational bodies multi-generational?” We don’t ask for an elderly representative, or a Generation X representative.  As I look around many gatherings of church leaders the dominant perspective is baby-boomers.

Why is this? Is it because the church formed into these particular structures during the boomer era and so the boomers have a vested interest in keeping these structures going? Is it because boomers have not paid attention to mentoring younger generations into leadership? Is it because younger generations don’t care about the church or its structures?

Maybe all of these things are partly true for some people, in some places, at some times. However, I also wonder if part of what is missing is trust. Does the church trust us to lead? If we are labeled “young adult representative” then our opinions only need to be taken seriously as young adult opinions, not as a leader’s opinions. It seems that if you really trusted us you would invite us in for ourselves, and not as a young adult. If you really trusted us our opinions would be sought because we are leaders not because we are young. If you really trusted us, you would not need a “young adult perspective” because we would already be involved, present, and active in your congregations, agencies and organizations, leading them and moving them forward.

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Editorial- What is Church?

November 4th, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz and Jeremy Yoder

What is church? It’s a simple question with a complicated answer. In English,  the word “church” connotes the building, the people, or some set of beliefs and practices. While we are certain that church is more than any one of these things, it’s difficult to find the language that really names the essence of what church is. The Bible, after all, uses a number of metaphors to describe this emerging community of faith. Jesus Christ referred to the church as a “Kingdom.” Paul referred to the church as a “body” – a living organism made up of believers, each an essential and distinct part of the body. Whatever the image, the Bible depicts the church as a unified whole – a communal expression of God’s restorative relationship with humanity.

In this issue of Work and Hope, four young writers address the meaning and function of the church. Tim Baer shares the pain of not finding a church home,  Patrick Nafziger tells us how church makes meaning in his life, Maggie Page shares how people have enacted church for her, and Keith Wilson explores the importance of obedience. There are probably as many stories of what church means as there are people who read this page. Somewhere in this kaleidoscope of experiences and definitions, a picture emerges of people gathered together to worship, to make meaning, to care for each other. Church is a community with a special purpose and a distinctive mission in the world, driven by God.

Brian Gumm reviews Beyond the Rat Race by the late Art Gish, a 1972 critique of the engagement of church with culture. Art was a prophet and provocateur, who sought to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ is everyday ways. His tragic death in July means that the next generation will have to pick up his legacy and move forward.

We hope you enjoy this issue of Work and Hope. If you’re interested in contributing, either to an upcoming issue, or as a guest blogger please email workandhope@emu.edu Ω

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What is Church?- Home

November 4th, 2010 – by Tim Baer

My first church home, twenty miles north-west of Baltimore, was a large evangelical congregation that met in a public school auditorium. It was there that I met Jesus, His followers, and His call to prayer. I was nineteen, played drums in the socially conscious indie-punk band “The Soma Solution”, wore an orange Mohawk, and smoked a pack of Camel Lights every day. Even with my left-of-center roots, the idea of God had never seemed absurd to me, but Jesus had been different matter and the Church was something I wanted nothing to do with.

It only took a few months for me to understand why. After I started attending church, people stopped taking my phone calls. The youth group that had seemed so inviting, barred me. The morning Bible study for teenagers asked me not to come back. It was my age – too old for teenagers, too young for adults. The church had a void and offered me nothing. I was accountable to no one and felt abandoned in my immature faith. I felt abandoned not just by the church, but by the people I had come to depend on.

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What is Church?- A place to make meaning

November 4th, 2010 – by Patrick Nafziger

I have a shoebox in a closet.

It’s full of cards and notes I’ve received since leaving home.

I don’t keep everything–just the ones that really mean something. But by now that box is getting full. When I go to add a new card to the box, I notice it won’t close right anymore.

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What is Church?-Where they have to love you

November 4th, 2010 – by Maggie Page

I want to be honest with you, so you should know that I’m not a “real” Anabaptist, meaning I was not raised in nor am I technically a member of an Anabaptist congregation. On the other hand, I am in one way technically more Anabaptist than many of you, in that I am, in fact, “twice baptized”, the literal meaning of the word. I was first baptized as an infant in a small Methodist church in Virginia, which didn’t take too well. Nineteen years later I was baptized again by my best friend in a river in the woods in the small Minnesota town where we attended college. There were maybe 10 of us, mostly college freshmen, standing on the banks and in the waters of the Cannon River in between final exam sessions. Someone brought a guitar, someone snapped some photos, and those of us in the river risked frostbite to form a makeshift but beautiful family.

In the six months leading up to my baptism I had attempted suicide, been hospitalized for a drug overdose, ended a two year romantic relationship and nearly failed out of school. Those kids- because that’s what we were- who were with me in the river that May were literally the only reason I survived my first year at college. I honestly didn’t much care for these friends at first. They were Christian, they went to Bible studies nearly every night of the week, and talked about things like abstinence and transubstantiation at the dinner table. When the shit hit the fan, however, they were there. They put everything on hold when they saw someone in need. They cared about me and cared for me, not because I loved them, or because it was easy, or because it gave them any reward. They loved me because they were, and are, Christians, and that’s what Christians do.

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What is Church?- Community of Obedience

November 4th, 2010 – by Keith Wilson

Human beings – created in the image of God – are not isolated, but commingled organisms. Whether we like it or not, we are deeply bound together. For “church” or the kingdom of God to exist, there must be an acceptance of this binding as a spiritual fact; a spiritual reality made possible by the Holy Spirit and our common pursuit of obedience to the truth found in Jesus Christ. I find the truth, the way, and the life to be in Jesus and what he taught (and continues to teach through the Spirit), and hope that many of us can agree on this. If so, we can agree that obedience to this truth, to these precepts is not only a good idea, but the only idea that will result in peace and that elusive sense of purpose we all yearn for.

Obedience is a tricky word in my experience, and can carry a mountain of godless baggage. I see it like this: there is a path toward wholeness, a path that leads me home to the “perfection” or maturity of spirit that my Creator envisioned and called forth long before my biological life began. To find and stay on this path is what my deepest heart – the heart beneath the scars and shame of sin and a broken world – longs for and strains toward. Obedience requires me to trust that the teachings of Jesus and the moving of the Spirit know better how to articulate what is best for me than my own broken will.

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Authenticity, Transformed Shadows, and Betty D. King

October 21st, 2010 – by Michael A. King, vice president and dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary

I’ve reached that stage each generation finally reaches of beginning to lose the preceding generation. Increasingly I attend funerals of my friends’ loved ones. Last month the service was for my own mother. After several funerals of  my friends’ loved ones I learned how traumatized my friends had been by the gap between the glowing eulogies and the real-life shadows of the departed ones. This has me wrestling again with a reality that has troubled me since boyhood: The way we talk about the Christian walk is often fiction.

Maybe my family and I are just messier than the norm. Maybe everyone else is bewilderedly whispering, “Say what?” to my strange take on public affirmations of how wonderfully the Lord guides and blesses. Maybe your family doesn’t have hidden shadows. I do suspect there are those for whom the rift is narrower, and I don’t want to minimize or undercut for them their blessings.

But when my mother died I felt again the importance of this issue. How would we celebrate my mom without crafting a fantasy instead of telling the truth about her?

My mother was in her way a giant. She gave me many of my life’s resources and gifts. I can’t imagine having become writer, pastor, dean, ever fascinated with God, theology, and the meaning of life had it not been for the endless hours I spent as a teenager hanging as over the counter while she cooked.

I was always full of questions about everything, including whether there was really a God and whether the Bible was really true. So on and on I’d go, pushing my skeptic’s agenda while she defended (often amazingly well) the faith. And sometimes hinted that she found my questions a tad intriguing herself. To her final days, when introducing me to people she’d report one of her favorite things about us: We were really good arguers! When she was dying I told her I couldn’t have been a dean without her sharpening my mind. She couldn’t talk any more. But she smiled.

In her final months, precisely the wild spirit that made her a wonderful intellectual sparring partner turned things difficult for her and many, including the staff at her retirement community. Parkinson’s stole her peace of mind and mobility. After she died I looked for ways to thank staff for hanging in—and was blessed by Valda Weider Garber, head nurse overseeing the staff. She phoned to offer words of healing. She told me those final weeks had reminded her of “Better than a Hallelujah?” a song by Sara Hart and Chapin Hartford recently made popular by Amy Grant’s cover. Particularly she was reminded of the line, “Beautiful the mess we are.” The line went straight into my bruised heart. When I e-mailed Valda to thank her, she sent me back this paragraph:

I sang that song in church. . . . Faces were somber, some relieved. I mentioned prior to singing the song that we, as Brethren by denomination and Christian by belief, have long suffered in silence when life happens, not wanting to question God’s almighty will or ability to know what is best for us. Questioning “why” somehow is equated with non-belief, or at minimum, questioning the will of God. However, in my own life experience, I have learned that God wants me to question, to cry, to ask why, and through that process, receive his grace and ultimately his blessing. The Bible is full of individuals who were messes (David, Saul who became Paul, the woman at the well); individuals whom God used in spite of their messy lives. We are all messes in some way. We fail miserably. But God still sees us as beautiful.

In the midst of that interchange, I was getting ready to give a committee meeting devotional and a summary of my vision as new dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary. One thing I’d been doing as dean was developing a few areas of emphasis for me to keep in view for EMS. It hit me that there was an area I hadn’t thought to add to my EMS themes but have long been passionate about; I’ve called it “transforming the shadows” and describe it as—

fostering through the content of studies, and the spirit within which seminary life unfolds, a fierce love for the church that is able to celebrate that the church is the real body of Christ and also is ever shadowed by failures and fallibilities; shadows named rather than suppressed can become, through the saving grace of God in Christ, sources of transformation grounded in authenticity rather than unacknowledged subversion of stated values and commitments (Luke 7:36-50).

When at the end of the week we held the memorial service for my mother, this guided my thinking about what to say in my tribute to her. And though I hadn’t shared it with other family members, they too seemed to be operating from their version of it. Together we found ways to tell the truth about my mom, about how her wild self could be both a challenge and a wonder, about how she helped us grasp that though none of us are saints, through the grace of God in Christ the messes we are can be made beautiful.

So I dedicate my “transforming the shadows” theme to my mother, Betty Detweiler King, who helped me both to see the shadows and to trust that God can transform them into gifts of beauty.

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