Hey! It isn’t Christmas yet

The most counter cultural thing a Christian can do today is to refuse the drive to Christmas. If you watched the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving, Santa came riding in at the end of the parade with the bold symbolic statement that Christmas has come. The commercialization of Christmas is obvious. “Santa has come, the Christmas season is here, so come shop with us.”
The last thing our culture wants to do in this season is wait. We don’t want to hear about voices crying out in the wilderness, of a young woman wrestling with what the child she carries means for her and the world, or even about some long off time when Christ will come again. With all the decorations and advertisements we are collectively saying “Get on it with it.” Just like a child unable to control the excitement, who treasure hunts around the house for gifts, we want the celebration now. None of this waiting business.
Yet, in truth, this is Advent. It is not Christmas. We are waiting. We are preparing.
To observe Advent is to push back on our culture of consumption and immediacy. To observe Advent is THE Christian practice for our time. For in Advent we acknowledge the delay. We recall the Hebrew people waiting for the Promised One. And we proclaim the fact that we are liminal people. We live in the now-and-not-yet-ness of our faith. Jesus has come, and we wait for him to come again.
We wait.
Waiting is so uncomfortable because we have to acknowledge both our longing and our lacking. When we confront our longing, we realize that there is something we lack. That is very definition of desire. We want what we don’t have. And when we see our longing played out each Sunday of Advent we are confronted with the very reality that we are not yet in the fullness of God’s embrace. In a culture that celebrates immediacy, consumption, and satisfaction, such a realization is nearly anathema.
In Advent we embody both our longing and come to terms with the very distance between us and God. Christians today have bought into our culture of immediacy, preaching a Gospel of God’s full presence. To even hold the season and practice of Advent counters the way we have tried to share the Good News. Advent, then, chastens us as followers of Jesus by reminding us that God is both with us and yet before us. It forces us to accept the distance between us and Christ. Christ is not “in us” but coming. Christ is not here, but is calling us into the fullness of faith.
At the close of his beautiful memoir, The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton put words to this paradox.
“I no longer desire to see anything that implies a distance between You and me: and if I stand back and consider myself and You as if something had passed between us, from me to You, I will inevitably see the gap between us and remember the distance between us.
My God, it is that gap and that distance which will kill me.”
To the world around us, living in want and wait does seem like death. Why wait for anything when everything is right here? Why wallow in longing when satisfaction is so easy? And for the dominant theology of our time, preparing for the coming of Christ contradicts the very immanence we preach. Why prepare for Christ when we have Christ now, in our hearts, and will go to heaven when we die? Why all this business of rough places smoothed, valleys lifted up, mountains made low, the overthrow of the powerful, and the proud humbled?
It is Advent sisters and brothers, and there is no greater resistance than to hold this season of waiting. Advent is counter cultural.

Living the simple life?

By Ben Bear

Ben Bear with pumpkin

BVS volunteer Ben Bear decapitates an innocent pumpkin. Photo by Laura Whitman.


Being a volunteer through BVS can be a radically different experience from person to person. Some of us live in single apartments, plopped down in a city or town hundreds or thousands of miles from “home” and hit the ground running with their project. Others end up living in intentional communities where they are immediately connected to other volunteers and a hosting congregation with a well-established role for them.

In the weeks since I arrived in Elgin, I have struggled some with the concept of living a simple life. As volunteers, we have agreed to live simply, within our means, and without (too much) excess. Having heard stories from other volunteers and seen some of their sites, some of them take this challenge quite seriously. For example, the New Community Project in Harrisonburg, VA has a homemade table at which they eat their communal, second-hand gathered meals. The kicker: the table is made of warehouse pallets. The table’s creator ballparked the cost of the entire process of making the table at around $20. Check it out:

New Community Project table made of warehouse pallets

New Community Project table made of warehouse pallets

On the flip side, my new role as the BVS assistant recruiter has me traveling all over the country in the coming year. Recently I was in the great commonwealth of Virginia, mostly hanging out down in the Shenandoah Valley. Fast forward seven days after returning and I was already back on the road, this time in Pennsylvania. I’ll be pretty impressed if I manage to put together an entire month back at Elgin between trips the rest of my time here. Granted, I knew this would likely be the case when I agreed to come back into BVS. Still, I sometimes struggle with how simply I’m actually living when I jet-set around the country so much and end up with rental cars that look like this:

Red rental car

Shiny!

And this:

White rental car

Also shiny!

Driving around in these well-maintained, relatively new, kinda sporty-looking vehicles is, admittedly, a bit fun. It’s nice to not feel constantly concerned that the [random car part] might break. They do get pretty decent gas mileage, too. Still, there remains an internal struggle of what it really looks like to live simply and to what degree I’m being successful in that endeavor.

In the end, I don’t have an answer to the justification for the life I lead here or how to alter it for the better. For a guy who really likes having answers, this might be one that is left for pondering. To that end, here are a few quotes that seem to grasp at the concept of a simple existence:

“Live simply, so that others may simply live.” ~ St. Elizabeth Seton

“It is impossible to detach from the love of material things unless it is replaced by love for things unseen.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” ~ Confucius

May the road rise with you…

Ben

The Kitchen

Sharing a meal at the BVS house in Elgin

Friends share a meal at the BVS house in Elgin, Illinois

By Katie Cummings

In my house
When I want to be with
Someone
I come
To the kitchen
And I sit
At the kitchen table.
Organically people may
Emerge—
Stretching on the floor after a run,
Shuffling pots and pans for dinner,
Reading a book in the glorious sun.
It is the heartbeat of our home,
Thumping to daily rhythms.

In the midst of cooking,
The kitchen becomes—
A stage
Our impromptu dance parties
Filling the spaces between
Linguine and cheddar cheese

With a warm cup of tea
And a listening ear—
I’ve stepped into
A therapy session
The linoleum floor bouncing back
The sacred words of our hearts.

With a hefty bag of thrifted finds—
The fluorescent lights reflect
The dazzling uniqueness of
A fashion show that only cost
Ten dollars.

In the heart of our home—
The kitchen

Our dancing stage
Can easily deteriorate to
An arena.
With a warrior on either side
Poised
For a death match.

The vibrations of the floor
Reverberating
Angry words and weighty sighs—
Slammed doors and broken conversations.

The fluorescents illuminate
The cracking pieces—
Shining lights into the deepest,
Darkest,
Most selfish parts of
Ourselves.

And yet,
Those four walls
With open cabinets and an
Alphabetized spice rack—
Hold us—all.

As we come
To the kitchen table—
Angry with housemates.
Disappointed with work.
Fists clenched.
Jaw tightened.
Something—happens.
Our hands open,
Reaching across the table
To hold another.
Fingers unfurl—
White knuckles regain their color.
Jaws relax,
Exhaling prayers
And
Inhaling the love inside
Homecooked food.
Eating brown rice or white,
Coconut curries and
One-pot-wonders
We slowly find our way
Back
To each other
To self.

The kitchen holds us—
Maybe better than we hold
Each other
Because
The heartbeat of our home
The kitchen
Is that place that
Grace lives.

A Declaration of Love

Coffee Shop conversation

Katie Hampton (left) listening at Abrasevic.

By Katie Hampton

I spent three years and three months (2007-2010) as a BVS volunteer in OKC Abrasevic in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am still discovering all that those three years meant to me, but it is no exaggeration to say that it changed my life.

If I’m being completely honest, sometimes I freak out about the fact that I spent three years not earning/saving any money, or at the very least interning at some international organization which would look good on my resume. I spent a frantic year+ after BVS interning, working and not getting paid, job hunting, etc. During that time, Abrasevic, with its tiny budget, paid me TWICE! I was moved to tears by their solidarity.

But really, I would NEVER take it back. This is who I am. This is how I become who I want to be.

In Abrasevic, the most important thing is to show up and to be present. To talk to people. To make jokes. People are an end in themselves. When Arma stopped being a member of the management team, he spent even more time at Abrasevic than he had before (he had already been there ALL the TIME)—but now he was in the café talking to people, rather than up in his office working. (Nedzad, a longtime volunteer, took on his tasks.) Tina said, when we discussed it, “what’s important is being here; that’s more important than what you do here.”

[[I’m tearing up again thinking about all of them and longing to jump into a car right this minute and visit them!]]

Everyone in Abrasevic has their own artistic dream. Even the waiters are all DJs or musicians or doing street performances or graffiti. People are so supportive of dedication to artistic dreams. We’re always going to the concerts of Mostar bands to hear the same songs and going to the book promotions of Mostar (Abrasevic) poets. I also had a poem published in an Abrasevic literary journal (Kolaps) and showed my videos in the main hall.

One of the main things that I learned in Abrasevic is how important PLACES are for cities. It’s like “a room of one’s own” for urban spaces. It’s essential for Mostar to have an Abrasevic. It’s essential for every city to have neutral urban spaces that encourage people to come together. Like Italo Calvino’s book “Invisible Cities” (which I studied in-depth in a video journalism course at Abrasevic), where Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan the stories of a hundred cities, only to reveal that “all cities are Venice”; now to me, “all cities are Mostar, and must contain an Abrasevic”. When I move to new places, I am always looking for an “Abrasevic”. Of course I can never find another Abrasevic, as it is irreplaceable and unique. But in my life I combine the elements which made Abras so dear to me (solidarity, creativity, espresso) to try to live an Abrasevicy life.

There’s nothing like putting a camera in the hands of a young person. So exciting to see what they come up with. I have to do this again! My life will not be complete unless I can make videos and help young people to make videos! About Roma, skaters, beautiful ramshackle monuments, artists, poets, musicians and activists.

I learned to film and edit video footage.

I also got some experience in grant writing.

I learned about challenges in project design and implementation.

I was so inspired.

I learned about the impact of political conflict on daily life.

I was filled with hope.

– Katie Hampton, BVSer at Abrasevic from October 2007 to December 2010 (currently blogging at www.pilgrimography.com)

Shop till I drop

By Katarina Eller, Brot und Rosen Community, Hamburg, Germany

Katarina Eller in Germany

BVS volunteer Katarina Eller in Germany. Photo by Kristin Flory.


My days mostly consist of cleaning, chopping vegetables, and food shopping. Our day begins with devotions in the chapel, with a simple prayer-song-Bible-reading-silence-song-prayer model…. Like a sandwich, or an Oreo cookie. Almost all of the songs come from the Taize movement. (You know you live at Brot & Rosen when most of the songs stuck in your head are in Latin.)

Sometime after breakfast and light cleaning or email-checking, I might start with lunch prep. Leftovers from the night before are warmed up, and some type of salad is made. More often than not, it is a green salad. My favorite part of lunch prep is making the salad dressing (I never want to buy pre-made salad dressing ever again). And the worst is washing the salad. It is usually donated to us from an organic food store and can be very earth-filled and/or sometimes tiny-insect-infested. It can be the case that there is no green salad. But not to worry, other variations are possible! Carrot salad with grated carrots and apples, and oranges with oil and lemon juice for example; or red beet salad with chopped onions, vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, and caraway seeds. Or chicory salad with apples, oranges, bananas and a yogurt, lemon, curry dressing.

Katarina Eller

Katarina Eller at Brot und Rosen in Hamburg, Germany

I usually don’t cook dinner. Dinner is very intimidating. Often around 15 people show up, and the children don’t eat anything that might contain nutrition for healthy development. So I leave dinner to the professionals (unless of course they’re not around), and chop vegetables for them. We may be unofficially part of what is called the Slow Food Movement (correct me if I’m wrong). Since I’ve been here, I have made/or experienced the making of: salad dressing, bread, jelly, orange juice, tomato sauce, pralines, mixed drinks, pizza, vegan chocolate, vegan cheese, mashed potatoes, African chili salsa, guacamole, fufu European style, applesauce etc. I’m not gonna lie, one of my initial thoughts during my very first week at B & R was: uh-oh. Yeah, sometimes I still feel like that, but it’s all good, that’s why I live in community, so other people can take over when they see me start on a crazy culinary maneuver.

It is my job to buy everything that is not donated by the food bank, organic food store, or ordered from said store. So, a large portion of my shopping includes cooking oil, lemons, noodles, tomato sauce, and toilet paper. Sometimes I have to make more than one trip, even though I use a rolling shopping-hamper-thingy. (I don’t know what we call them, but they are all over Germany.) And sometimes the cashier is like, “Oh it’s you again!” and I think “Yeah, because if you only had a wheely cart and two little chicken-bone arms you’d be back again, too.” Then there’s the whole discussion of what we should buy fair-trade, regional, and organic. And, if organic tomato sauce from who knows where is worth the price, or even really organic, and whether it’s better to buy organic sugar or the normal sugar that says on the package that it’s made in northern Germany from sugar beets but is probably not organic etc. As usual with Brot& Rosen, as soon as I ask a question as to what I should buy, I get eight different answers. So as usual with Brot& Rosen, I just do whatever I want to.

That’s Christian Anarchy for you!

Find out more about Brethren Volunteer Service.

The Beginnings

By Allison Snyder

Allison Snyder

Allison Snyder, BVS unit #304

I will begin as most stories do, unless you’re Kurt Vonnegut, at the beginning. BVS began following World War II as an alternative to military action. It’s been ongoing ever since and has become a big thing in my church denomination, the Church of the Brethren. Basically, it is a smaller version of all of those organizations like the Peace Corps.

My BVS experience had a rocky start. My body reacted adversely to the anxious jitters and plane ride movement. I was greeted by people as nervous as I was about meeting them. It was awkward, as all first meetings go; one guy thought I was from Ohio instead of Iowa, a common mistake that happens a lot more than you think it would. Fortunately for our group, we were small and quickly grew used to each other in a way that made getting to know each other very easy.

I learned a lot from orientation as a whole. Most of our learning took place in the sessions that we participated in. I couldn’t tell you what each one was about but the overlying theme was developing people who could hold up and utilize their skills in their placements. The first week’s sessions tackled shopping and cooking on an extreme budget (basically poverty), conflict and finding the project placement that best suits you. One of the guest speakers who came during this week sold the project and location so well that I ended up there.

In between sessions, we had a lot of free time to do as we pleased, and at Camp Ithiel, in Gotha, Florida, there was plenty to do. I still can’t get over the fact that I played sand volleyball in the middle of February.

A lot of the free time in the first week was spent on creating our faith journeys on paper. This was a neat experience to both interact with the people in our group and reflect on yourself. Mine looked nice at the end but only because the one medium of visual art that I actually was good at and knew what to do with was available to me, smudge chalk. Drawing frustrates me. Mine turned a bit dark but that’s what my faith journey consists of and it’s made me who I am.

The sessions taught us about work styles and conflict resolution while the free time and devotion taught us about our fellow BVS’ers and the inner workings of a changing and growing self.

Three weeks isn’t a long time but in that kind of setting you get to know the people around you quickly and deeply. There are things that these people know that friends that I’ve had for a while don’t. I don’t get self-conscious about singing in front of them or sharing the stuff that I wrote with them. Jacob and I spotted two dolphins when we went to the ocean and ran after them on the shore without a care that we might look silly (it was amazing!). We did hymn singing twice during the three weeks and had a foot washing for the commissioning service and I participated in both without being ashamed and it was freeing. I trust BVS Unit #304 completely.

There is so much that I learned and experienced during BVS orientation, more than I can or dare say; wouldn’t want you getting bored. As a group, we learned how to create our own fun. I learned how to lose at a game I love (Settlers of Catan) graciously and that faith is a practice, not something you can preach at people without the discipline and understanding that it requires. Walking through Apopka, Florida, looking to help, I learned the capacity I have for patience, how fortuitous timing a thief had to dress in purple the same day as our group did and how to talk to the cops in that kind of a situation. I learned that it’s okay to be goofy and silly and that judgement is not as bad as you think it is. It was three weeks of self-discovery mixed in between sessions about peace and workdays and I left it as prepared as I could be for Cincinnati, Ohio, probably the farthest place from a country farm in Iowa that I could get.

Want to read more about BVS orientation? Or find out more about BVS in general?

Hyper-real Unconditional Positive Regard: BVS Orientation

By Emily Davis

Perception of reality is often so subjective and inconsistent that it can subvert being present with others. That in conversation or from moment to moment there is a sense of surreal space and time, where situations seem distant, foreign or magnified; where waking consciousness seems more sleep-like. A friend recently spoke so eloquently of these dream-states it made me realize their rarity and that I’d been feeling them most frequently in my life during transitions.

I spent the last three weeks in one of those otherworldly states, in extended moments of fantastic and absurd loving reality at Brethren Volunteer Service orientation.

BVS orientation candle

Photo by Emily Davis

Twenty-four volunteers, making up BVS fall Unit #303, chose year-long, individual volunteer placements, each at a domestic or international non-profit organization focused on social justice and peace work. Together, among the picturesque rolling hills and corn fields of New Windsor, Maryland, we considered our vocational callings, attended training sessions, cooked for each other, worked in the community, sang hymns, threw dance parties, practiced devotional meditations, told nonsensical stories and played ridiculous amounts of four square.

Our group of uncommonly kind individuals opened up to each other relatively fast. We shared deep insecurities, hard pasts, and current joys so fiercely that we cultivated a strong sense of trust and connection. And some vocalized a feeling of being part of a magic bubble or alternative reality made of communal strength and safety.

Our last weekend we stayed at Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren and volunteered with the Brethren Housing Association. For me, and others I think, those few days gave a vivid example of what the Church of the Brethren is about. Although there are a small number of congregants, there is an enormous, humble partnership being built with that community; where structural impact can be seen in many small but persistent ways. On Sunday morning Pastor Belita spoke of a multifaceted faith in God that is planted in grace and personal relationships in order to serve others. In Harrisburg and later, I fell in love with those combined Brethren ideals: living in peaceful simple community, serving others together.

Those values provided a framework of thought and action that was a central part of the mystical-community-reality of orientation. In that space I was hyper-sensitive to past feelings, present thoughts, and future expectations, and immersed in thinking about how to use my particular passions and gifts to serve.

Domestic volunteers from our unit moved to their placement cities and started work this week. Going out into the world where Brethren ideals are not the norm or structure of thought and where those expectations or intentions are not necessarily clear, is daunting. The task seems infinitely lonely and substantially more difficult without intentional community, where a winking smile, compassionate hug and true support were easy to find. It was a magical, surreal place because trust, acceptance and love were abundant.

I leave for Hinche, Haiti in early November and I want to stay in that dream-state of mindful reality during my service. Where moments may seem subjective, raw or strange but they’re hyper-real and CLEARER because I’ll be questioning my faith journey, vocation, power, paradigms of thought, and intentions; and actively working to make meaningful connections with those around me. I am SO thrilled for these two years of Brethren Volunteer Service because I get to work through the model of loving kindness and pragmatic solidarity, spreading and emanating that energy I found at orientation of cosmic unconditional love.

Find out more about Brethren Volunteer Service.

The Why

Jenna Horgan

Jenna Horgan

By Jenna Horgan

We leave for Central America tomorrow morning. We have been preparing for this moment for over two years now! I think we have told our story to at least 1,000 people in 1,000 different ways.

Everyone has different responses. “Oh wow, you’re doing mission work?” or “that’s nice that you’re going there, are you going to build a house or teach a useful skill?” or “be careful, I hear it’s dangerous.” Some people have expressed their own longings, saying they wish they had volunteered abroad when they were younger.

The one question I have not fully processed is “why are you doing this?”

I am still living my way into the why.

The heart of it is this: we are all part of this human experience. Gay, straight, rich, poor, Latino, white, black, Asian.

I have grown up with such privilege, such wealth that I cannot even begin to comprehend. Sure, in the US I would be considered middle class. But I do not know what it’s like to not have enough to eat, or money to spend. I quit my job two months ago and have lived off savings and the generosity of others, with no problem. Vacation is part of my yearly routine. I have an Ipod, a laptop, a car.

Yes, I do feel guilty, but I do not think guilt is the answer. Guilt will not get us anywhere, nor change our lifestyles.

There is another kind of wealth that is far more valuable. The wealth of community, and love. That is what I seek, and what I hope to share.

I will keep you updated on the why. We are off to Guatemala in the morning!

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

-Lilla Watson

Note: this post dates from 2012, at the beginning of Jenna’s overseas assignment. People serve with BVS for all different reasons! Would you like to read more stories of call? or find out more about BVS?

Living our way into a new way of thinking

By Bryan Hanger

I’d like to talk a bit about what pushed me to join BVS, and how my journey before and during BVS has affected my understanding of God and what it means to be the Church in the world today. I had grown up at Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke with a loving family and church community. But something changed when I left for college at James Madison University. I became detached from the daily life of living with family at home and was removed from my community at Oak Grove. Much of the immediate stability that had defined my life was in an instant vanished.

My first two years of college became a time where what I started to study and believe were in open rebellion to my previous 18 years of existence. As I began to find meaning in new places and even question what I had believed about God and the church, my head felt divided. What I was learning, wasn’t adding up with how I’d thought and lived before college.

This was a confusing time for me because in one breath I’d be having conversations with folks where I’d be condemning the shortcomings of religion and the impossibility of many of the biblical stories, and in the next I’d catch myself yearning to understand the Lord’s precepts like the Psalmist in Psalm 119.

I started taking classes in religion where I filled my head with knowledge of how the Bible was formed, how Christian beliefs developed over the years, and how Christianity compared to the other religions of the world. I was fascinated by it all, but my actual life hadn’t changed a bit, let alone been transformed.

It wasn’t until my Senior year, that things radically came into focus for me. And it didn’t happen in one of my super academic classes or even at a church, but rather it occurred on a spring break trip where I headed to the mountains of Tennessee leading a group of 10 college students on a service trip through our university’s Alternative Break Program.

JMU work team

Our group from JMU with our hosts Ed and Arleen and their dog Blue

Throughout the week we worked and lived in the Cherokee community in the Smokey Mountains on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. We built steps, cleaned up creeks, looked after children, cared for seniors, and got to immerse ourselves in the Cherokee way of living.

Our trip, however, would not continue as planned because life got in the way, as it often does. For the second half of the week we had to totally shift gears due to tornadoes that had wreaked havoc through parts of southeastern Tennessee.

We traveled far back into the Smokey Mountains near Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to get to the affected area. Our group was chosen to go even farther back into the hollow of the mountain to help a man named Daniel who had been one of the worst hit.

It took quite a while to make it up the winding road’s switchbacks and when we reached Daniel’s steep declining driveway, we had to hold on for dear life as we bounced and bumped down the hill towards his property. We were all laughing and smiling as the ride down the driveway felt like a ride on a roller coaster, but once we reached the bottom of the drive, the van fell silent.

tornado devastation

What remained of Daniel’s home

The devastation was unspeakable. The land looked like a trash dump where local residents came to leave their garbage, but no, the truth was, that less than 24 hours ago Daniel and his family had been living happily in their home that now lay strewn across the earth.

We were all unsure of how to properly speak or help, as we felt inadequate in the face of such terrible tragedy. Daniel was an intimidating looking man. He was tall and had broad shoulders and had a long dark beard that reached to his waist. He walked with a cane and I later noticed this was because he had a rudimentary prosthetic foot. None of us moved or spoke for a minute, but our immobilization did not last as Daniel and some of his close friends approached and greeted us with handshakes and hugs.

Hidden underneath Daniel’s big beard was a bright big smile that quite frankly surprised us. Daniel couldn’t believe that a bunch of strangers from hours away cared enough to show up to his rural mountain home to help him pick up the pieces of his life. He wanted to know where we were all from, how we came to find ourselves in Tennessee, and he kept up this small talk throughout the day.

He told us about his children and about how he loved to ride his Harley Davidson motorcycle through the mountain curves we had just driven through. And we actually uncovered one of his old Harley engines in the wreckage.

Cleaning up tornado destruction

Me (green shirt) working and talking with Daniel (black shirt).

I told him about growing up in Roanoke, my family back home and then about my college and what I was studying. It was as if we were making chit-chat before church or while we waited in line to buy a coffee. We even were lucky enough to share a meal with him and his friends out of the little food that we all had. You would’ve thought we were eating at a 5 star restaurant in downtown DC the way everybody gobbled it up and abundantly thanked us.

His upbeat attitude perplexed me. Calamities such as the events that Daniel and his family experienced were the exact sort of thing that had disturbed me when trying to reconcile my faith in a loving God with the chaotic world around me, but something was understood by Daniel and the others in Tennessee that had eluded me in my education.

I had spent so much time in the classroom and trapped in my own head trying to force myself to think a certain way or feel certain emotions in certain situations that I actually had missed the entire point of the Gospel. Many times when I was full of these questions and full of these doubts, I had thought how great it would be for me to have an opportunity to ask Jesus all of these questions that perplexed and confused me.

But now when I reflect on scripture, I think that Jesus would’ve gently rebuked me for being so blind to the purpose of his kingdom. When you read through Matthew 5, Jesus isn’t telling us how we’re supposed to change our mind or what we’re supposed to convince ourselves of. Instead, everything is all about how we are supposed to act as a people. As the body of Christ.

He isn’t condemning anybody for having the wrong political belief or incorrect opinion; instead he’s speaking to us on a much deeper level and not just as individuals, but as a community. When you read through Matthew 5 and hear things like, ‘give to everyone who begs from you’ or ‘pray for those who persecute you’, at an individual level we feel helpless to live up to this high standard. But that’s okay. We aren’t meant to follow Christ on our own.

As the Body of Christ, we are each intimately connected to each other, and with each doing its part we not only can do more than we could on our own, but we create a community that lives out and embodies Christ’s new transformative reality.

The great theologian Henri Nouwen once reflected that,

“You don’t think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking”.

And the way we live our way into this new kind of thinking is by being obedient to God’s instructions for our life and living out his word, TOGETHER.

Eugene Peterson in his Message translation of our text from Matthew puts Jesus’ words this way:

“Grow Up! You’re Kingdom subjects. Now live like it! Live out your God created identity. Live generously and graciously towards others, the way God lives toward you.”-Matthew 5:48 (Message)

This notion of ‘living my way into a new kind of thinking’ was exactly what I was doing, unbeknownst to myself, in the hills of Tennessee. What had at first looked to me as a space where God was obviously absent, because if he had been there he surely would’ve sheltered Daniel and his family from such devastation, turned into the very space where God most forcefully brought strangers together in love and service to one another.

As I have built upon this experience by joining and serving through Brethren Volunteer Service, this mantra of living into a new way of thinking has proved to be consistently true. My views on many things have shifted since moving to Washington and working for the church, but I am always surprised when I finally realize that my thinking has changed, many times without me noticing it right away.

You can’t will the reality of God into your life. You can’t force yourself to think and believe differently. You have to go out and live. You have to go out and serve and share with your brothers and sisters that you don’t yet know.  You just have to notice that God is already there, working in the spaces where it feels like he is most absent.  You just have to acknowledge that perhaps God is already doing a new thing and that he wants you. No, he wants us, regardless of how we all got to this place. He wants all of us to participate in and help bring about the glory of his peaceful Kingdom.

To start off the BVS blog, we are focusing on how volunteers have been called to BVS. Read more posts about call or find out more about BVS.

Life Through a Different Lens

By Jessie Houff

Jessie-Houff-graduationEver since I attended college, I knew that afterwards I would volunteer. I spent so much of my life thinking about “me” and what “I” would do. I was sick of this lifestyle that only focused on me. I knew I needed to do more to make others happy. What better way to do this than to volunteer? I didn’t have to look far for a way to do this because I grew up in the Church of the Brethren and have known about Brethren Volunteer Service (or BVS) for the majority of my life. I really grew interested in it by attending Bridgewater College and hearing about it from representatives and recruiters that I encountered at least twice a year from Roundtable (an annual conference for youth of which I was part of planning) and other random events. I applied for BVS over-achiever style in the early months of my final semester.  After waiting many months to finish up college, it was FINALLY time to attend BVS orientation!

Orientation took place in January at the beautiful Camp Ithiel of Gotha, Florida.  Besides being able to wear shorts and t-shirts in winter, I got to meet some amazing people.  Our group had 13 volunteers plus a few BVS staff members to facilitate the 3 week long orientation. BVS provides a wide variety of volunteer programs both domestically and worldwide. I went to Florida with every intention of going abroad to El Salvador to teach the arts to people young and old. If you ask anybody I know, they will say that I had no desire to stay in the states for my project. I wanted to “get out” and see the world. I didn’t think that I could gain a meaningful enough volunteering experience if I stayed in the states. When I got to orientation and reality sank in, I started to have a change of heart. Abroad projects require at least a two year commitment and a strong willingness to learn whatever language the country primarily spoke.  While I had no problem wanting to learn Spanish, it was still very intimidating. How am I supposed to spend two years in a place where I don’t know anybody, don’t know the language, and will be completely on my own?

Anyway, the thought of all this terrified me and after much contemplation, prayer, and maybe a few tears, I realized that if I was ever to go abroad to volunteer, now was simply not the time. After switching my thought process and exploring domestic options, I came across a program in Liberty, New York with an organization called Youth Economic Group (or YEG) which is a project under the larger organization of Rural and Migrant Ministry.  From El Salvador to New York…you can’t get much different than those two places, but what can I say? The Lord works in mysterious ways.  It didn’t take long for me to be convinced that this was the project for me. BVS and the leaders at YEG spoke and deliberated, and in a few short days I was deemed the new volunteer to be sent to New York for my year-long service! So after about a week at home to prepare and pack and a 24 hour journey to Liberty (that I do not particularly wish to experience again), I finally arrived to my project.

I was welcomed so warmly by my new supervisors and all the youth that I will be working with.  I have never felt more welcomed in my life. This is a completely new place, climate, and experience for me yet I feel as if I am truly supposed to be here. Now I can finally start this new journey of volunteering for a project that is doing some incredible things. I think this new chapter in my life looking through the lens of volunteering is going to be the most amazing experience of my life thus far.

To start off the BVS blog, we are focusing on how volunteers are called to BVS and their projects. Read more posts about call.