The Lord is in our midst

www.brethren.org/adventoffering

A theme reflection for the 2021 Advent Offering by Matt DeBall, coordinator of Mission Advancement communications

“The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.”
~Zephaniah 3:15b, NIV


Hope. Peace. Love. Joy.

These are the thoughtful liturgical themes of the Advent season. They are signposts that can guide us from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and serve as gateways that usher us toward the humble manger of Jesus. Whether your congregation follows this rotation of topics or not, each of us is invited in this season to draw nearer to Immanuel—the God who is with us.

In the age of the prophet Zephaniah, the people of Israel were indeed in need of these reminders. His three-chapter book is primarily weighted with words of judgement:  for the people, for their adversaries, and for the land itself because of how it had been used for evil. It seems that God’s patience had run out, even for Israel, and that the consequences for their self-serving, idolatrous actions were finally catching up to them. It is into this heavy situation that Zephaniah spoke.

Have hope:  the Lord is with you.
Find peace:  God will end our affliction.
Feel love:  the Lord will soothe you.
Sing with joy:  God is rejoicing over you.

Though our circumstances may be a far-cry from what Israel was facing, these ancient words of truth still echo into our brokenness, struggle, and pain. We don’t need to be far from God to benefit from the reminder that God is near to us through all that we endure. Though very real conditions of violence, disaster, and disease in our world can trouble us, we can find comfort and confidence in knowing that the Lord is in our midst.

Even in the face of challenges, the ministries of the Church of the Brethren move forward for the glory of God and our neighbor’s good. Together we share words of hope for the future of the church, reveal the peace of Christ and the love of God, and in all things, find joy in the work of the Holy Spirit that is restoring all things.

May we find inspiration and strength on the journey through Advent and experience anew that the Lord, indeed, is in our midst.

Learn more about the 2021 Advent Offering of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/adventoffering or give an offering today at www.brethren.org/giveoffering .

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Ecological Injustice in Lagos, Nigeria

One of the more visible effects of global warming is flooding, and coastal cities -like Lagos, Nigeria- are seeing a rise in sea levels, due to melting polar icecaps. As one of the most populous cities on the continent of Africa, communities fear that the city is becoming unhabitable. This is because while floods are not foreign to Nigeria -March to November are peak rainy months-, the floods this year have been some of the worst on record.

This issue is further exacerbated by unreliable drainage systems, waste management facilities, and rushed poor housing infrastructure. Lack of infrastructural resistance and/or agility in the face of climate change put the lives of residents at risk. Torrential rain because of ecological injustice and rising sea levels, coupled with a coastline that is constantly eroding due to being mined for construction purposes, the urgency of now cannot be overstated.

Former priorities by the Lagos State government geared towards caring for the environment such as: proper waste management facilities, tree-planting exercises, and avenues for environmental sustainability awareness have been abandoned, leaving residents and indigenes reeling and struggling to keep up with manifestations of ecological injustice, such as these torrential floods. Governmental and institutional failure to see these floods not just as an ecological issue but also as a public health, security, and class issue as well highlights how tragic its dismal response to the recent flooding and the displacement and hardship it is causing.

Western efforts to disseminate capitalism via economic and democratic conditions in the name of ‘development’ sees cities such as Lagos located on the African continent -which produces 2-3% of carbon emissions, being disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change. Often advocacy for a political economy that mirrors that of countries like the US, which have large industrial economies -industries that include a food system contingent displacement and immigrant worker exploitation, or the military & arms industry- in countries like Nigeria do not highlight the violence that is the cornerstone of these political economies. Additionally, dependency is what is usually advanced through efforts of disseminating development via institutions such as IMF, World Bank and even US State department and USAID. Ecological injustice is a direct ramification of turning a blind eye to the slippery underbelly of the current political economy. There is a direct connection between the maligned, capitalistic use of the land for coal, oil, monoculture farming and animal rearing, funding + sustaining of extrajudicial wars and environmental degradation. Analysis of the torrential floods impacting coastal cities such as Lagos must be done within the larger context of ecological injustice internationally.

As people of faith, we have an obligation to hold in love the land and all who walk on it. An important way of doing so is understanding the ways in which we are complicit, questioning, or actively pushing back against structures and institutions causing harm -harm that disproportionately impacts black and brown bodies worldwide. Pushing back against ecological injustice is work that does not take place only in the sphere of the individual; changing your recycling and composting habits is half a step in a fifty-mile journey. Ecological justice is also a security, public health, and economic issue, and we must orient ourselves to thinking about the work of loving the earth and all who walk on it in these realms too. This week especially, as we gather in to break bread with our loved ones, on stolen land soaked with the blood of indigenous nations who even now steward and care for the land, we echo the sentiments shared in the World Council of Churches Statement in response to COP26, which “…acknowledge[s] and affirm[s] the agency and leadership of Indigenous People…” and “…appeals for a fundamental conversation in all our nations, societies, churches, and communities, away from the destructive exploitative path which has led us to this precipice, towards a just and sustainable future.”

Susuyu Lassa is currently a seminarian at Bethany Theological Seminary. She is from Nigeria -born in Lagos- and is a member of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN). This op-ed was written to fulfill the requirements of the 2021 Faithful Climate Action Fellowship.

Thanking God for you!

Thanking God for you!
www.brethren.org/givingtuesday

A reflection for Giving Tuesday (November 30) by Matt DeBall, coordinator of Mission Advancement communications

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” ~1 Thessalonians 3:9

The bond of love in the body of Christ knows no bounds.

As Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, he was serving more than 250 miles away in Corinth—a distance that would involve several days of travel. Paul surely longed to be present with them, but in the meantime, he wrote a heart-felt letter to share words of encouragement and gratitude with their community.

The places where we serve in the US (and around the world) might have far more than 250 miles in between; however, as we talk with one another (by letter, email, phone, or video conference) and hear stories of how each of us is growing in faith and love, we are held tightly together in the family of God.

Over the past year (and long before), we have witnessed your boldness of faith and your spirit of generosity through the ways that you care for your community, for the church, and for people who are in need everywhere. We also have felt your loving support for the missions and ministries of the Church of the Brethren.

Through your faithful partnership, volunteers are trained through Brethren Volunteer Service to be the hands and feet of Jesus. With your help, the work of the Emergency Disaster Fund ­­­rebuilds communities affected by disaster and brings healing to survivors. Because of your support, the Office of Global Mission continues to accompany our sisters and brothers around the world, and the Global Food Initiative works with partners to support agriculture and address food insecurity. With your gifts, Discipleship Ministries equips Brethren of all ages, the Office of Ministry cares for district leaders and set-apart ministers, and the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy bears witness to the peace of Christ in ecumenical and non-religious settings. In short, the ongoing work of our missions and ministries is because of you!

On Giving Tuesday (November 30), we will give thanks for you and celebrate all the work we are able to accomplish together. Join us (today or then) by making a gift to the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/givingtuesday.

Through seasons of challenge and celebration alike, we give thanks to God for you and for the love we share across many miles.

Clinging to God’s commands

Traci Rabenstein
Traci Rabenstein preaching at Dixon (Ill.) Church of the Brethren last month.

By Traci Rabenstein, director of Mission Advancement

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”’

     He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”
     You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.’”
     ~Mark 7:5-8, NIV


The seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel begins with details about Jewish practices that had been kept for generations. It reminds me of the opening scene from the musical Fiddler on the Roof (lyrics written by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock) in which Tevye, the village milkman and local philosopher (accompanied by a village chorus) sings with gusto about their traditions. In summary, he shares how their practices were meant to reveal the identity of their people and their devotion to God. Like Tevye, I wonder if the Pharisees and other religious leaders were chanting “tradition” in their minds as they questioned Jesus about the actions of the disciples.

The response of Jesus is brutally honest. He calls the Pharisees “hypocrites!” and uses words from Isaiah to accuse them of “going through the motions” (in my words)—no longer following God’s commands but clinging to man-made rules they received from others. The Torah was meant to be a gift for the people of Israel to walk humbly with God and be a light to the nations; however, over time, the customs of the Pharisees had turned the blessing of Israel’s traditions into burdens for the people, and in doing so, they failed to guide the people toward a loving relationship with God.

Brothers and sisters, I wonder how many times we have held onto “the way we’ve always done it” and struggled to welcome people to join our fellowship and experience God’s grace and redemption. I’m betting that those who initially started some ministry programs or orders of service for worship didn’t mean for those things to become distractions nor that they believed our practices should remain the same from the time of their inception until the day Christ returns. When someone comes with new ideas, it shouldn’t cause a fight in the parking lot or cause members (or churches) to leave our fellowship.  It should instead give us reason to pause and come together as the body of Christ to pray over the matter and read scripture to make sure that we remain in step with God’s commands.

God’s greatest command, revealed through the life and ministry of Jesus, is very clear:  Love God and love one another. Everything we are about, everything we say, and every practice we carry out should point toward this target. Sometimes this means putting what is familiar aside so that we can create space for people to meet God and have a transformative experience with Jesus Christ. We shouldn’t be worried about the order of worship or if it changes, but instead how we are being changed through offering our worship to God. If our words in worship are going to be a fragrant offering for the Lord to enjoy, our discussions should not involve arguing with one another. Far be it from us to let the words of Jesus to the Pharisees ring true for us.

Rather than carrying on with business as usual, the last two years have surely caused us to step back and reflect. It has invited us to reimagine what “church” looks like and how to stay connected. This surely includes how we worship, what it means to care for one another, and how to use technology and social media to stay connected with one another.

My Sunday school class is currently reading and discussing The Post-Quarantine Church: Six Urgent Challenges & Opportunities That Will Determine the Future of Your Congregation by Thom S. Rainer (available for purchase from Brethren Press). This and other discussions are surely inviting us to reconsider the “old ways” of doing things and what it looks like to faithfully carry out the mission of Jesus.

Our vision statement that was confirmed at Annual Conference this summer says it well:   “Together, as the Church of the Brethren, we will passionately live and share the radical transformation and holistic peace of Jesus Christ through relationship-based neighborhood engagement. To move us forward, we will develop a culture of calling and equipping disciples who are innovative, adaptable, and fearless.” If we live into this, Church, we will find ourselves setting human traditions aside and living according to life-giving commands of God.

Learn about the ministries of the Church of the Brethren that grow and adapt to continue the work of Jesus at www.brethren.org or support them at www.brethren.org/give.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Loving God and opposing the death penalty

"Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." -1 John 4:11

By Carl H. Spitzer

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s in Marin County, California shaped my understanding of the death penalty. The state executed people on a regular basis, and my sisters and I were told that if a man escaped from the state prison of San Quentin or the federal prison of Alcatraz, he could show up in our neighborhood.  Death row itself was not discussed often, but when it was, it was only to say emphatically that the men on it were the ‘worst of the worst.’

Then, in 1971 I began active duty in the US Navy, and the next year served near the coast of Vietnam.  I heard about ‘draft dodgers’ who moved to Canada and about conscientious objectors, as well as what the general public thought about to them. The debate of how Christians could opt out of the military interested me, but at the time, it was unclear how the teachings of the New Testament fully supported either side. In 1972, one of my bosses was leaving the Navy with a conscientious objector discharge, and he and I talked about the process.  The next year I filed for discharge on the same grounds; however, my application was denied and I was told my evaluations did not support my request.

After a time of discernment, my next steps were to join the Episcopal Peace Fellowship (EPF) in 1974.  I signed up for their newsletter and for The Catholic Worker and Sojourner publications.  In one of these, I saw an invitation to write letters to prisoners on death row.  The first person given to me as a pen pal was Joseph S. in Virginia.  We wrote to one another for 2 or 3 years, and then he requested to stop our correspondence.  A few years later, a small article in the newspaper announced that the State of Virginia had executed him. Joseph was a very troubled person, but I did not feel that his death was necessary. It upset me a lot at the time and still does to this day. It took a few years before I requested another pen pal on death row.

More recently, a friend joined me in the EPF and invited me join the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (WCADP).  This organization has an annual Lobby Day with senators and representatives, and I have also gone to the Capitol for many years to discuss faith and social justice. As with my stance about conscientious objection, I sometimes struggle to interpret what God has revealed to me:  that any act of taking a person’s life is a sin.

I wish others could experience what I have; however, it is a blessing to share my story so that others may understand how God’s love has shaped my journey.

This testimony was originally featured in an email by Death Row Support Project. It reflects a faithful expression of the Church of the Brethren’s vision to share the radical transformation and holistic peace of Jesus Christ. It also highlights our passion for ministries like the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy and Death Row Support Project. Learn about Church of the Brethren missions and ministries at www.brethren.org/greatthings.

Growing around the world

Eric Miller sharing about a recent Global Mission and Brethren Disaster Ministries trip to Haiti at a Facebook live event.

By Ruoxia Li and Eric Miller, co-directors of Global Mission

In recent years, there has been a concern about decline in the church in the US; however, the global church is growing in most of the 10 countries where the Church of the Brethren has sister denominations around the world. Annual grants provide critical funds to support leaders as they develop denominations in countries that are torn by conflict and disasters. Fellowships are forming in new countries. Churches are being built and leaders are being trained through programs in the US as well as those they design themselves or in nearby seminaries.

In the last year, major gifts have made possible the purchase of a new property for Delmas, the Haitian mother church. These gifts have supported the completion of the first translation of the Bible into Kamwe—a language in Nigeria—which is a culmination of work over decades. Your generosity has allowed us to send money to Nigeria to rebuild churches that were destroyed as Christians are persecuted and attacked. Your gifts also provide resources for building new churches in the African countries of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as in Venezuela. Evangelism of those churches is reaching people who have been marginalized in their own countries and gives them hope as they receive the Good News that Jesus cares and that they matter—to God and to the human family.

Your gifts help us build relationships with our brothers and sisters around the world. We pray for them, and they pray for us, and all of us are blessed. These relationships allow Brethren Disaster Ministries to respond quickly to needs that strike the areas where we have churches. As one example, churches in Rwanda and the DRC were able to distribute food to their members and neighbors after a volcano there. In addition to places where we have sister churches, your gifts also support projects in eight other countries around the world. This includes literally bringing sight to the blind in Vietnam, and supporting peacemakers in war-torn South Sudan.

Through your generosity, Brethren around the world will continue to do this and so much more in the coming year. They are able to do so much with so little. Despite many challenges, we can celebrate that our church is growing around the world!

Visit www.brethren.org/global/ for more information about the work of Global Mission and to sign up for the global mission prayer guide. Support this ministry of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/giveGM.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Humbled by God’s faithfulness

A project in Ecuador supported by the Global Food Initiative.

By Jeff Boshart, manager of the Global Food Initiative

“I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies.” -Psalm 57:9-10, NIV

Last year I wrote to you at the beginning of  the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the US has seen some seasons of improvement, but many of our partners around the world have not. While experts are optimistic about the economic recovery in wealthy countries, the same is not true for poorer countries. Borders in many parts of the world remain closed or limit the flow of people and goods. Some countries that initially kept the spread of the virus low are now experiencing the most deaths and hospitalizations as vaccines remain in short supply. In some places, lockdowns and masks are still a daily part of life and likely will continue into 2022. It is against this backdrop that we praise God for faithfully providing and give thanks for Global Food Initiative partners who continue to be Christ’s hands and feet as they minister to those in great need.

With your generous prayerful and financial support in 2020, we were able to share $145,890 in grants for agricultural projects both domestically and internationally. Gifts to the GFI in total were $205,877, meaning we had a healthy balance to start this year. Recently, however, the pace of requests has picked up and the GFI is at its lowest level in 10 years. Since January, grants were distributed to undergird community gardens or food ministries in Maryland, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Illinois. New projects were also started with help from the GFI for a grain mill in Uganda, and a fruit tree nursery in South Sudan. In Nigeria (soybean production) and Ecuador (dairy cows and irrigation for organic vegetable production), partner organizations received grants to continue multi-year programs. 

Looking ahead, the Church of the Brethren in Rwanda has begun distributing pigs to the Batwa people–a tribe that lives on the fringes of society. Materials for pens and funds for veterinary services are needed to expand this project. In the Dominican Republic, leaders of Iglesia de los Hermanos are planning to establish a farm credit program for church members and neighbors. In Honduras, plans for a backyard chicken project in an urban setting, though originally delayed by restrictions, are now back in motion. These are just a few partners that will need support from the GFI in the coming months.

If you are like me, you spent much time in prayer over the last year. I wasn’t sure at times how much support the GFI and its programming would receive while we were in uncertain circumstances. Looking back, I am humbled by God’s faithfulness and your generosity in 2020. I am excited about the future, and what God and our partners will do next as together we seek to serve our neighbors near and far in the name of Jesus. Thank you for partnering in this important ministry. 

Learn more about the Global Food Initiative of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/gfi or support its ministry today at www.brethren.org/givegfi.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Declaring the glory of God

Mission Offering 2021 banner photo

A theme reflection written for the 2021 Mission Offering by Matt DeBall, coordinator of Mission Advancement Communications

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.” ~Psalm 19:1, NIV

Since the beginning of time, humanity has looked to the skies. Whether for direction, agricultural planning, or inspiration, the heavenly bodies—near and far—have promoted ingenuity and amazement in our world.

King David was a sky-watcher, a stargazer. In his younger years as a shepherd tending his sheep, he surely spent plenty of days under the radiance of the sun and nights with little more than the heavenly bodies to keep him company. Taking in the warmth by day and the vast masterpiece at night, David concluded that the sun and stars above were telling a story, playing a song about the awesomeness of God—a song that, he reasoned, warranted words being written and sung along with it.

Psalm 19 is a wonderful hymn for the people of God in every age. It begins with observing the lights in the sky by night and by day, declares the greatness of the Lord who made them all, reflects upon the lifegiving nature of God’s word and promises, and concludes with a plea for protection from wrongdoing and a prayer.

As we consider the body of Christ in all the earth, many have witnessed the beauty of the skies and proclaimed how great God is for bringing them into being. Around the world, our sisters and brothers continue to be inspired by God’s power and goodness, and as a result, work to share great love with those around them. Indeed, all of us are invited to catch the tune of the heavens and to share fresh testimonies of God’s handiwork in the heavens, in our world, and in our very lives. It is together that we can tell (this and other) rich stories and sing melodious songs about the God who created all things and continues to sustain them through all seasons and struggles.

In a time when each of us greatly benefits from hearing statements of hope and promise, what words of Psalm 19 resonate with you or would encourage those around you? As you look to the heavens, what fresh (or refreshed) words of worship do you feel led to sing to God in this season?

No matter where we are located, as we look to the skies, may we with one voice declare the glory of God, singing new words to the song of the universe.

Find worship resources for this year’s offering or give an offering today at www.brethren.org/giveoffering.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)