Pruned by God

By Traci Rabenstein, executive director of Mission Advancement

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. . . . I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. . . . My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
~John 15:1-2, 5, 8; NRSVue

Spring is here! Temperatures are on the rise. Plants and trees are budding. The earth is “springing” back to life after a few months of lying dormant.

Since my father retired, he has devoted more time to focus on his garden. He has started growing his own seedlings and talked about building a greenhouse. His enthusiasm has encouraged me to think about creative ways to plant vegetables at my home where I do not have the luxury of a couple of acres. In the meantime, I have houseplants that I do my best to keep alive.

All the plants in my home have meaning. Two plants were given to my family when my father’s mother passed away just over seven years ago. One plant was given to me a year before my mother’s mother passed. Another plant—an herb—I picked up near the Southern Pennsylvania District’s women’s luncheon last year. One plant I bought at the place where we met to celebrate my cousin’s pregnancy. The most recent planter was from a meeting held at Cross Keys Village – The Brethren Home Community. Each holds significance and sparks joy in me when I look at them.

Just like the seedlings and plants in my dad’s garden, my plants need to be tended and cared for (even beyond the times I remember to give them water). One thing I do consistently is check my plants each month for leaves that are decaying or discoloring, or parts that might damage the rest of the healthy plant if they aren’t removed. The process of doing this is called “dead leafing” when removing leaves and “deadheading” if you’re pinching off dead flowers, as I do with indoor plants throughout the summer. Both are ways of pruning plants.

Pruning is a method that allows the plant to flourish. It makes way for the nutrients from the soil and created by water and light to move toward the healthy parts without wasting energy on dead parts. Proper pruning is an investment in the long-term health of plants and in their overall appearance.

As we look to John 15 and read the words Jesus shared with his disciples, the language he used was intentional. He used the agricultural terms of “vine” and “vinegrower” to highlight the connection between God, himself, and the disciples. Just like other parables and references in the gospels, Jesus used the everyday, ordinary things to explain the Kingdom of God. God is the thoughtful and experienced vinegrower or gardener, Jesus is the main trunk that provides nutrients and stability to the entire vine, and we are the branches. If we’re deeply connected to Jesus through receiving spiritual nutrients from the Word, prayer, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, we will produce Kingdom fruit. And God will determine how to prune us so that we can bear fruit with increasing measure.

Even though God’s pruning is good for our growth, that doesn’t mean trials and hardships are fun to go through. In those moments of hearing a difficult diagnosis for yourself or someone else, grieving a loved one, losing your job, feeling bullied, being frustrated by what is going on around you, or whatever hardship you’re facing, we lean into Jesus even more to gather courage, to gain strength, to live fully in him so that we might persevere and flourish.

Looking back in time, I can identify seasons of pruning. I didn’t know it at the time when everything was so raw, but in hindsight, I can see what God was stripping away and allowing a new opportunity for the life of Christ to grow in me and fuel me for what was to come. In fact, it is because of a season of pruning that I now serve the larger church with the Mission Advancement office.

Whatever part of the growth cycle you find yourself in—lying dormant, being pruned, thriving, or all of the above—I pray your faith in God, the divine vinegrower, and Jesus, the life-giving vine, will grow. This spring and in every season, may we abide in Christ and bear much fruit, bringing honor and glory to God!

Learn about the faith-building and life-changing missions and ministries of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/greatthings or support them today at www.brethren.org/give.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Jesus washes feet

Illustration by LaTonya Jackson.

John 13:1-15

Jesus knew that he was going to die while he was in Jerusalem. As he thought about leaving this world, he was reminded how much he loved his disciples. He would love them until the very end.

So that night during dinner with his disciples, Jesus got up from the table. He took off his outer robe and tied a towel around his waist. He poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel. The disciples looked back and forth. Why was he doing this? This was a servant’s job.

Jesus knelt before Simon Peter, who said, “Lord, are you really going to wash my feet?”

Jesus nodded, saying, “Right now you don’t understand what I am doing, but later you will.”

Peter resisted. “You will never wash my feet,” he said.

“I must wash your feet for you to belong to me,” Jesus replied.

Now Peter understood. “Then wash my feet and hands and head!” he said eagerly.

But Jesus said, “A person who has bathed does not need to be washed again, except for the feet. You are clean, although not everyone at this table is.” Jesus said this because he knew that Judas was going to betray him.

After washing everyone’s feet, he put on his robe and came back to the table. “Do you understand what I have done?” Jesus asked. “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right. That is what I am. I have set an example for you as your teacher. I have washed your feet. Now do as I have done and wash each other’s feet.”

This story and art are from The Peace Table: A Storybook Bible, co-published by Brethren Press and MennoMedia as part of the Shine curriculum. Used with permission.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Prepared for a lifetime

www.brethren.org/bvs

From Ecuador onward:
BVS prepared me for a lifetime

By Jim Gibbel, Brethren Volunteer Service Unit #50

After graduation from Juniata College in 1960, I chose Brethren Volunteer Service as my  alternative to military service. Why? That’s what my church, Lititz (Pa.) Church of the Brethren, taught me!

The two-month BVS training at New Windsor, Md., was a thorough preparation for service, peace, and community—not for a BVS term, but for a lifetime. I remember that emphasis stressed by Dan West, a Brethren leader with us for one whole week of training. 

Because my mother was not well, and my father had died in 1959, I wanted to serve somewhere not far from home. Instead, I was called to Ecuador! Henry Long, Foreign Missions staff of the Church of the Brethren, visited me and encouraged me to go.

In July 1961, I began my BVS project in Llano Grande, Ecuador, an indigenous community located half an hour north of Quito, the capital, where the Brethren Mission office was located.

For two months I lived with a family in Quito to learn Spanish. After that my home was a simple, small house near the missionaries in Llano Grande, with water and toilet outside. I always joined missionary families for evening meals on a rotating basis. That was interesting!

I was treasurer/business manager of the Brethren Mission, consisting of five or six families and individuals involved in education, medical work, agriculture, raising chickens, and evangelism/church.

I’d go for supplies, take care of mail, shipment details, business matters; I’d transport students by truck back and forth every day to Quito for high school (as the Brethren school in Llano Grande was elementary only); I helped market poultry as that business developed; I helped build the church building with adobe blocks; and I generally participated in the life of the community, the church, and youth activities.

Living with these folks for two years, I felt a part of them! At my farewell celebration, the youth of the church presented me with a painting of Cotopaxi, the second highest peak in Ecuador. It had been done by a local artist, H. Moncaya, with signatures of the youth on the back.

What did I take away from my time in BVS? 
•   I learned Spanish!
•   I treasure lasting friendships with many missionaries.
•   Friendships and visits with wonderful people in my community of Llano Grande, including some who visited us in Lititz, and we visited them in 1994 and again in 2006.  
•   My limited view of life was changed immensely. I gained a deep appreciation and respect for other cultures and peoples, and for new experiences in this amazing world.
•   I gained a love of travel: I traveled alone in Peru and Chile one Easter, and at the end of my service in 1963, my brother John and I traveled home overland through Central America by public transportation. A great adventure! After Ecuador, I never stopped traveling until several years ago.
•   And since my assignment was with Brethren Mission, my love and dedication to the Church of the Brethren grew and continued my whole life.

After BVS, Jim Gibbel was a long-time insurance agency manager, now retired. He and his wife, Elaine, live at Brethren Village in Lititz, Pa.

This reflection was originally featured in the winter issue of
The Volunteer, a publication by Brethren Volunteer Service. Learn more about this ministry of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/bvs.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Share the light

One Great Hour of Sharing 2024 banner photo
www.brethren.org/oghs

A theme interpretation and scriptural exegesis written by Rev. Barbara Essex for the 2024 One Great Hour of Sharing

“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.” ~Matthew 5:14, The Message

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…
(1)

If Jesus had a playlist of music, surely this familiar hymn would be among the top five; at least, Matthew’s Jesus would rank it high.

Matthew opens the Gospel by placing Jesus squarely within the story of God’s ongoing relationship to and intention for humanity—people called into God’s own household, as sons and daughters, grounded in loving connection to each other and creation. God invites all of humanity into God’s house, regardless of nationality, tribal affiliation, social status, or gender.

As the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and purposes, Jesus calls men and women to follow him—and they do. He names them disciples—and they are. He outlines their responsibilities—and they respond. Their lives are transformed and they begin living from the inside out—less for themselves and more for others.

Jesus teaches that faith calls for action—as a response to the God who loves them unconditionally. They are now co-creators with God to bring peace, harmony, unity, compassion, care, love—shalom—right now. 

Discipleship is like the kaleidoscope—an optical tube containing loose bits of colored material between two plates and two mirrors; when turned, the bits of material are reflected in an endless variety of patterns (2).

Cozy Baker, kaleidoscope enthusiast and founder of the Brewster Society (3), says:

To me kaleidoscopes are divine inspiration; they resonate to the music in my soul and the imagery is exactly what my heart yearns to see. I view the kaleidoscope’s image as a warm embraceone more colorful expression of God’s love toward all creation (4).

Sharing our light, as the diverse and colorful expression of God’s love here on earth, leads to making blankets, staffing food pantries, cooking meals, building houses and schools, signing petitions for worthy causes, and protesting injustices.

We also share the light through our contributions to One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS)—supporting sisters and brothers after natural disasters; providing care and safety in places where war rages and poverty prevails; sharing techniques for sustainable agriculture, energy efficiency, and clean water; and advocating for the dignity of those who are marginalized.

Each of our playlists should include the hymn, “This Little Light of Mine.” A simple song with a simple message—let your light shine, share in the kaleidoscope of care and love. Your light is on a light stand, for all to see—shine and share.

On any given day, in any given place, in the midst of any given situation, light is shining because we are there through our gifts to OGHS.

Your contributions make a difference. Your dollars count. Give generously. Share the light. 

Learn more about this year’s One Great Hour of Sharing (suggested date: March 17) at www.brethren.org/oghs or give an offering today at www.brethren.org/giveoffering.

– – – 

1  Lift Every Voice and Sing II: An African American Hymnal (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1993), #221.
2  www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kaleidoscope.
3  Named for the inventor of the kaleidoscope, David Brewster.
4  Cozy Baker, News Scope, spring, 2004; Cozy Baker – Brewster Kaleidoscope Society (brewstersociety.com).

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

One Great Hour of Sharing 2024

Worship resources for the 2024 One Great Hour of Sharing of the Church of the Brethren

We love the ways you build up others!

Photos by Anna Esperanzate, Benjamin Hoffmann,
and Church of the Brethren staff.

“Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.” ~1 Thessalonians 5:11, NIV 

Thank you for the ways you encourage and build up others in your community and for your faithful partnership in the work of the Church of the Brethren!

Your gifts do great things! Support our missions and ministries that build up others by contributing to our matching gift campaign at www.brethren.org/matching-gift-2024 or starting a recurring gift at www.brethren.org/recurring-gift.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

From Afghanistan to Aurora

Family at CWS Fall 2022 outing.
Photo by Sherri Kimmel

by Sherri Kimmel, leadership team member at Mechanicsburg (Pa.) Church of the Brethren

“Nothing compares with being a refugee; you are robbed of context and you flail about, searching for self-definition.” —Peter C. Newman, journalist and refugee from Nazi Germany

This was not the parting I’d imagined. Actually, I hadn’t really envisioned a parting—yet here we were in early September, enfolded in a tight embrace, Najiba’s face pressed into my shoulder. As she clutched me tighter and sobbed loudly, I patted her back, murmuring, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” We held each other far longer than we ever had all those times over the last 18 months when we’d exchanged quick hugs as I came and went from her home.

Before long, tears were streaming down my face, too. I had to beat a quick retreat, too rattled to retrieve the yellow snow shovel propped outside the townhouse. I’d given it to her husband, Naser, last winter after our only significant snowfall. For the last two days, he’d been asking members of our Church World Service welcome team to take back items we’d donated.

Even though they were taking just the bare necessities for the cross-country move, they were leaving with more than they had when they arrived in the United States in September 2021 as refugees from a chaotic Afghanistan toting an infant, a three-year-old, and four duffle bags.

Now, on Sept. 11, 2023, they were leaving central Pennsylvania with a newborn (their third girl) in their Honda Civic that Mechanicsburg Church of the Brethren and two other local congregations had helped them purchase a year earlier. Their destination: Aurora, Colo., where several family members and former neighbors from their remote mountain village in central Afghanistan had settled.

A new mission

When I learned in August 2021 about the fall of Kabul and the desperate departure of Afghans who feared the Taliban, I immediately thought of an Afghan student whose essay I’d recently featured in Bucknell Magazine, which I edited. Her academic adviser, a close friend of mine, was trying desperately to find a way out for the student’s family. I offered to do what I could, but all avenues were closed. If not her family, I wondered, were there others I could help rescue?

Then I thought about the Vietnamese refugee family my home church, Brookville (Ohio) Church of the Brethren, had sponsored 50 years earlier during the ill-fated Vietnam War. I remembered how the Truong family had thrived in our community with the support of our church family. Knowing the relationship our denomination has with Church World Service, I reached out to the CWS Lancaster (Pa.) office.

CWS was one of nine resettlement agencies the US government tapped to resettle the 76,000 Afghan allies flooding into our country. Conveniently for me, CWS decided to open a new office in nearby Harrisburg to help handle the largest influx of refugees since the Vietnam War.

I approached our church leadership about sponsoring a family, simultaneously using professional and personal contacts to enlist two other local congregations—Grantham Brethren in Christ and Mechanicsburg Presbyterian. In September 2021, our new 10-member CWS welcome team held its first meeting. We began ironing out our organizational structure and started collecting furniture, household goods, and other items for the yet-unknown refugees we would be supporting. All we needed was a family.

When the time came, we had less than a week’s notice, but we were ready for the family to arrive. All we knew was that the parents were in their mid-20s and had two small children.

This excerpt was originally featured in the January/February issue of Messenger magazine. Read this article in full online or support the publishing ministry of Messenger magazine.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Our impact in 2024

Matching Gift Campaign

By Traci Rabenstein, executive director of Mission Advancement

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” ~1 Peter 4:10, ESV

Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!

It is with great excitement that we share about a special opportunity as we enter this new year! Donors have already shared generously with the denomination in 2024. A group of anonymous individuals have dedicated their time, prayers, and financial resources in the past to further the work of Jesus and this year have generously donated $100,000 for a matching gift campaign in support of the Church of the Brethren’s Core Ministries. With the help of those who respond with matching gifts, and with your help, our work will be strengthened in the year ahead.

TOGETHER we join Jesus in the neighborhood as we venture to live and serve one another. Together we grow as courageous disciples, extend generosity and witness, and steward God’s blessings. We passionately work in unity as the body of Christ. We pray with one accord for the missions and ministries of the Church of the Brethren and for those who carry them out. We discern in harmony how we can make a difference both locally and globally. Lastly, we acknowledge that our contributions and their impact are greater as we continue the work of Jesus together.

When we asked one supporter why they partner in the work of the Church of the Brethren, they shared, “We appreciate efforts the Church of the Brethren is making to love neighbors around the world, and are blessed to be financially a part of that ministry.”

All missions and ministries under the Core Ministries umbrella represent the heart of our faith, values, and identity. Global Mission supports various projects and ministries of our global partners and furthers the international mission of the Church of the Brethren. Brethren Volunteer Service and FaithX provide long-term and short-term service opportunities. The Office of Peacebuilding and Policy shares our voice, and the voices of our partners, with our elected officials concerning endeavors that support peacemaking around the world. Discipleship and Leadership Formation strives to empower, encourage, and educate our youth, young adults, older adults, lay leaders, and pastors who work to meet Jesus in their neighborhoods. Organizational Resources and the ministries under the General Secretary’s office—such as Information Technology, Buildings and Grounds, the Finance Office, Communications, Messenger magazine, Brethren Press, and Mission Advancement—support the work of the entire organization. An unrestricted gift to the Church of the Brethren provides the financial support needed to sustain all of the moving parts of the denominational work we carry out TOGETHER.

We encourage you to pray and discern how you can join all of our supporters and congregations to be the hands and feet of Jesus. TOGETHER we will have a greater impact in 2024.

Learn more about the work of our Core Ministries at www.brethren.org/greatthings. Double the impact of your contribution by giving to our matching gift campaign at www.brethren.org/matching-gift-2024.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Celebrating our ministry in 2023

Year-end Offering 2023
www.brethren.org/year-end-offering

“For great is God’s love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord.” ~Psalm 117:2, NIV

As 2023 concludes, we celebrate the ways God’s love has been visible through the work of the Church of the Brethren. Through your partnership in our core ministries and various missions, many things have been possible this year.

783 total (in-person and virtual) participants for Christian Citizenship Seminar, Young Adult Conference, National Junior High Conference, and National Older Adult Conference.

400+ new pen pals were assigned through the Death Row Support Project.

199 people attended seven in-person training events and 140 people attended seven live webinars connected to the work of Discipleship and Leadership Formation.

172 individuals participated in 12 junior high, senior high, we are able, and adult service trips through FaithX.

101 attendees joined in-person and virtually for the New and Renew Conference.

49 volunteers, including 21 new volunteers from two orientations, were supported by Brethren Volunteer Service.

20 projects (15 international and 5 domestic) were funded through grants from the Global Food Initiative totaling $124,111.

17 applicants received grants from the Brethren Faith in Action fund.

12 countries including the US received grants from the Emergency Disaster Fund totaling $1,024,565.


5 District Executive search teams began their work, assisted by the Office of Ministry, and 2 new district executive ministers were installed.

4 equipping sessions were provided for the Part-time Pastor, Full-time Church program.

1 international partner officially joined the Global Church of the Brethren Communion, bringing the total to 12 countries.


Thank you for supporting these and many more endeavors with your prayers and gifts. We give thanks for your partnership and for God’s faithfulness in 2023.

If you haven’t already, you can make a year-end offering to the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/year-end-offering.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

God with us

Painting of Jesus as an infant with the Advent Offering logo
www.brethren.org/adventoffering

A theme interpretation written by Matt DeBall, coordinator of Mission Advancement Communications, for the 2023 Advent Offering of the Church of the Brethren

“The young woman, who has never had a man, will give birth to a son. They will give Him the name Immanuel. This means God with us.” ~Matthew 1:23, NLV

“Only God can save.”

This phrase was repeated by our Christian Theology professor in undergraduate studies. This simple yet profound statement emphasizes God’s ability to help humanity in ways that we are not able to help ourselves. Through the redemptive work of Jesus, we understand that is not by human intervention, but by the work of God that healing and salvation are found for all that ails the earth.

As humans, it is natural for us to believe that we’re in control of our lives, but as God-fearing people, we believe every heartbeat and every breath is a gift from God. And just as God’s life-giving presence sustains every rhythm of our bodies, we understand that God provides strength for our mouths to speak encouraging words, stability for our hands to share in acts of service, and support for every way we show compassion to others.

During the season of Advent, we remember the promise of Immanuel, God with us. We prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the fresh expression of God’s presence in the world. We acknowledge the renewed invitation to declare our dependence on the God who reveals great love and saves.

Within the Church of the Brethren, we believe that God’s presence guides and sustains every mission and ministry that we carry out together. In the life of congregations and the larger church, it is because God is among us that we have come this far and can remain hopeful about the future.

Remembering how the peaceful and love-filled ways of God save, let us celebrate how God is with us. Through Advent and onward, let us pray for God’s presence to be increasingly seen and experienced among us.

Learn more about the 2023 Advent Offering (suggested date: December 17) at www.brethren.org/adventoffering or make a gift today at www.brethren.org/giveoffering .

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)