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 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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Rethinking Church and its Mission in the 21st Century

September 2nd, 2011 – by Nelson Okanya

This post is the first in a series on mission/evangelism. Email the editors at workandhope if you would like to contribute to the series.

On Thursday July 21, NASA ended the shuttle program after more than 30 years. That Thursday morning I drove 2 hours away to meet with a committee to explore the possibility of serving as the next president of Eastern Mennonite Missions.  That same weekend a new nation was to be born in Southern Sudan.  I could not help but see the emerging theme.

As a person born and raised in Africa, once considered the mission field for Europe and North America, I could not help but think about the new reality I was living in.  The fact that I was being considered to lead a mission agency in the United States was a new frontier for the mission agency and for me.  Southern Sudanese for the very first time had their own brand new country and the shuttle had served its purpose and something new was being envisioned.  These stories convinced me that a new era has dawned and with it new ways of living and being the church in the world.

I was moved by one reporter’s description of the space shuttle.  He said,

“The shuttle is an amazing machine. It takes off like a rocket, but lands like a plane, so it’s re-usable. It’s had some spectacular successes. It carried the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit. And the shuttle built the International Space Station. It launched the first American female astronaut into space, and the first black astronauts. But the space shuttle has also developed a reputation for technical problems. Originally, it was supposed to fly dozens of times a year, and cheaply.”

This reporter’s next statement has parallels to mission agencies and the church.  “But NASA’s William Gerstenmaier says the shuttle isn’t ending because we’ve lost our mojo. It’s because the next missions require different designs to go into deeper space ….We need a smaller, more compact vehicle than the winged vehicle we have today.”

I believe this story is relevant for the church as it engages God’s mission in the 21st century.  We are living in exciting, as well as scary, times.  These times are characterized by great opportunities to innovate and think outside the box.  As NASA continues to research and envision the new frontier of space exploration, the church must likewise envision the new mission frontier.

I envision a new generation of missionaries being raised as the church once again rediscovers God’s mission in a fresh and new way.  We cannot live as if everyone understands what it means to be a Christian, even those who have been part of the church family for years.  The Christendom era where we assumed that everybody knew the Bible is long gone. And I think we should celebrate that reality!  Even though the era of Christendom has ended, as we look back we must acknowledge the successes, as well as the failures, of that era. Like NASA, we must do some self reflection and dream about new ways to be relevant, go to places where the witness of the Gospel has not yet reached, and discover fresh ways to embody faithful Christian discipleship in our own communities.

Missiologist Craig Van Gelda of Luther Seminary, in his book, The Ministry of the Missional Church argues that the church must reflect and self define in order to understand its relevance.  He writes,

“The key premise is that understanding the nature of the church is foundational for being able to clarify the purpose of the church, and for developing any strategies related to that purpose.  And understanding the nature of the church is also seen as being foundational for discerning how to address changing cultural contexts.” (p 13).

Taking Van Gelda seriously, I looked at Acts chapter 2. In this chapter, I see the church growing exponentially as the Holy Spirit descended in a fresh way.  Numerically, it grew from 120 people to 3,120.  As the Holy Spirit took charge, it was transformed and empowered to become an authentic Christian community that ministered to others. It became a community that continually experienced the Lord’s hand at work, God’s Spirit continued to shape and act in powerful ways. It is no wonder that the author reports, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47). This Christian community experienced phenomenal growth as the Holy Spirit descended and the community took seriously their new identity and mission.

Is the Acts 2 experience possible again? I believe the answer is a resounding “Yes”! What would the church look like if we were to live as Holy Spirit filled communities of Jesus? What kind of impact would we have in our immediate neighborhoods and around the world, as we become authentic communities of disciples? We must actively engage our changing cultural realities with the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  In order to do this, as Christians we must once again cultivate the virtues that continue to form us and helps us to embody the Christian narrative, for in the same way Jesus was sent, Jesus has sent us (John 20:21).

Nelson Okanya was appointed as president of Eastern Mennonite Missions in July 2011. He will begin his term of service in October.  He has served as associate pastor and lead pastor of Capital Christian Fellowship since 2006. He is a 2003 Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate.

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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 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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The Theological Legacy of Art Gish (old books need love too!)

November 4th, 2010 – by Brian Gumm

On that day this past July when Art Gish was tragically killed on his farm in Ohio, I was on another farm a few states away in Iowa, reclining on a porch swing at my in-law’s, reading his 1972 book, Beyond the Rat Race (Herald Press; sub. page numbers are from this ed.).  It was my first substantive engagement with Gish’s writing, and that it was being done on the day he died was both humbling and sad.

The lives of Art and his wife, Peggy, are a contextual recapitulation of traditional Brethren nonconformity, and Beyond the Rat Race offers us practical and striking insights into living out our faith in Christ amidst a coercive and fallen world. For being published nearly 40 years ago in the late days of the Vietnam war and following in the wake of hippie culture and broader social upheaval, the book remains startlingly relevant. Indeed, the corrupting cultural currents that Gish identifies and critiques have in some ways become more deeply entrenched in American life and are therefore harder to discern and resist in rigorously Christian ways.

Especially eerie this side of the Internet is Gish’s passing remark about then-contemporary media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, who Gish saw as “(advocating) deeper devotion to electronic fragmentation for those disorganized by society,” then adding, “But we will not find reality by turning ourselves into an electronic package” (p. 117). What is Facebook and other social media on the Internet but a contemporary venture into just that? To say nothing about the foundational role of advertising on these networks!


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Editorial: Why “Work and Hope”?

July 19th, 2010 – by The Editors

Work and Hope: Finding Christ in the Church is a blog and e-zine dedicated to the experiences and perspectives of young Anabaptists in their twenties and thirties.  Our vision for Work and Hope is to start a conversation that we believe is missing from both the official church channels and its margins.  We hope that this space can become a forum that both affirms Christian discipleship and wrestles with the ambiguities of what that means in today’s world.

Like many mainline Protestant denominations, Mennonite Church USA is in the midst of a demographic crisis.  In 2007, Conrad Kanagy’s study, Road Signs for the Journey, provided sociological evidence of disengagement by young people from MCUSA.  Since then, the focus of discussion at the institutional center has been about our peers that have left the church.  From the margins, the discussion has often centered on what it means to be culturally or ethnically “Mennonite” without belief in traditional Christian truth claims.  While both of these conversations are important, we want to start another one among those of us young Anabaptists who continue to seek Christ within a denominational context.

When we started daydreaming about this magazine/blog, Jeremy came up with the name Work and Hope.  The motto “work and hope” (Arbeite und Hoffe) frequently appeared as the inscription to the Martyrs Mirror until the 1990 edition.   The motto speaks to us about the perseverance and faithfulness inherent in the Anabaptist tradition.   At the same time, Finding Christ in the Church, signals the ambivalence that many of us feel about denominations and church structures.  Our whole name, Work and Hope: Finding Christ in the Church, attempts to name some of the complex and often conflicting dynamics on what it means to be a Christian during this anxious time, when many US Christian denominations struggle with dropping membership and internal challenges to traditional understandings of faith.

Ultimately, we believe that our work here is a sign of hope for the church.

Hope keeps us working toward something even when we have no idea if it’s going to turn around, or go in the right direction.   We hope for the church, even when many in our generation express hopelessness over the institution’s dysfunctional and fallen nature.  We hope that the work of Christ continues in this group of people who sometimes get it totally wrong. We hope that the Spirit can still sway people and moved them to do something that would have seemed completely absurd to them at any other time.  We work because we hope.

In this issue, we feature several short reflections from some of our peers on why they still identify themselves “Mennonite” or “Brethren.”  We hope that this issue provokes, inspires and helps start this much-needed conversation.  Please respond in the comments section to each post.

While we editors will be blogging regularly, we intend to put out an “issue” every quarter that will feature a broad range of perspectives by young Anabaptists on a particular topic.  Our next issue will come out in October, with frequent posts by the editors in between.  In the October issue, we will ask the question, “What is Church?”   If you’re interested in writing for future issues of Work and Hope, please contact us at . Ω

— Laura Amstutz and Jeremy Yoder

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