After leaving my three-year Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) term at incredABLE in Northern Ireland, I emailed my former boss about a reference for a job in the States. He said to me that no other job would ever be good enough for me, that they had ‘ruined me’ for other work by giving me too much freedom and too good of an experience. At the time, I laughed at him. A few months later, though, I told him he was right.
But it wasn’t totally incredABLE’s fault. It’s BVS’ fault, too.
Volunteer life is freeing in a way that’s difficult to convey and even more difficult to move past. I still had bills to pay during my placement—being in your mid-30s when you join up will do that—but spending that time focusing on only basic monetary needs frees a person to engage with other needs. As a BVS volunteer you get to focus on your social needs, the things that ‘fill your basket’ at work and learning to create and maintain the boundaries that feed your emotional health.
I had a fantastic plan for my own re-entry. I was going to transition so easily and simply back into the career I had been working in for 15 years. But a full-time office job, particularly with U.S. expectations and job culture, is something that doesn’t really appeal to me anymore. I know how much I’ll miss those freedoms, from the materialistic mindset and the general belief that you are where you work.
BVS changes you. You’ll learn to make genuine connections with strangers, to rely on community, to look at conflict differently, even to define home differently. It’s the most rewarding set of changes I can think of, and they make returning to life as you knew it before… impossible!
A reflection written by Matt DeBall, coordinator of Mission Advancement communications
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. . . . Then the Lord was jealous for his land and took pity on his people.” ~Joel 2:12-13, 18
Life can be a wonderful thing, filled with many blessings, but no matter who we are, how much we have, or where we come from, each of us will experience circumstances and seasons that will knock us down. Whether it be personal tragedies, health concerns, natural disasters, or events of trauma caused by other people, all of us will endure hardship in this life.
The prophet Joel was speaking to a remnant of Judah, who had seen the destruction of the northern kingdom and had endured much disaster and hardship of their own. Joel tells us they had experienced swarms of locust and famine or, at least, food scarcity (natural disaster) but also leaves the impression that they had endured repeated attacks from Assyria and other nations as well (human-inflicted turmoil). To say the least, their lives were completely altered and they were brought to a very lowly and destitute place.
Some of us have endured natural disasters, but we also think of our sisters and brothers in Puerto Rico who have faced hurricanes over the last few years and earthquakes more recently. Many of us have also experienced hardship or trauma because of the actions of others.
While hardship can befall us as the natural consequence of poor actions—the focus of some prophets in the Old Testament—Joel is not concerned with why the people were stricken with turmoil and oppression. (And, indeed, we know that “good” people don’t just receive “good” things and “bad” people, “bad” things.) Instead, Joel is asking, “What are you/we going to do now that hardship has happened?”
The response of God’s people is meant to be both personal and communal. There is great value in checking ourselves and recognizing, whether we are close to God or far away, that new forms of surrender are necessary to find healing after hardship. Following the Old Testament practice, Joel recommends not only rending clothes but rending hearts, first and foremost. It is as if he warns us, “Be careful that your outward expressions are in line with your inward experience. Change and surrender your hearts first.”
Once inward repentance and return have started, it is also important to embody surrender in a communal response. The healing and comfort of God is found in community.
In Lent, we choose personally to give up things that distract us from God. But the fast that Joel declares is for the community—from the youngest babe to the most aged elder. We can fast from gossip, contributing to harmful conflict, and trying to promote our own agendas at the expense of others. We can fast from jumping to conclusions about things we don’t know and instead ask questions of one another. When we give up these things, we surrender to God together and find healing.
In a very simple way, whenever we observe the Lord’s supper, we mourn the sinfulness in our lives and the brokenness in our world. We grieve what has been lost and declare hope in the all-encompassing redemptive work that Christ will accomplish when he returns.
On Ash Wednesday, we remember the impending tragedy that we will face death. Our observance of this day serves as a helpful reminder for all of us. When hardship befalls us, it is not an opportunity to be concerned with why something as happened, but rather to understand how our next steps will be of surrender to God. Whatever hardship we face, it is an opportunity to check ourselves and to declare a fast from all that distracts us from God and the mission God has for us.
When we pause to repent or return, we are greeted by a God who is gracious and compassionate, who is slow to anger and abounding in love. Whether we are in a season of blessing or hardship, may we find the comfort and the mercy that we need when we surrender to God.
What are you fasting from for Lent? How is your church taking extra measures to surrender to God in this season? We would love to hear how. Share with us at MA@brethren.org.
An excerpt from a theme introduction written by Katie Shaw Thompson for the 2020 One Great Hour of Sharing
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” ~1 Corinthians 3:5-9
“Let us plant dates even though those who plant them will never eat them,” writes Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves. “We must live by the love of what we will never see.”
Date trees can take a decade to bear fruit and 100 years to reach their full height. The hands that plant such a tree may do so knowing they may never rest in that tree’s shade. Moved by love, they invest in that unseen future. “We are all co-workers together in God’s service,” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 3. Some of us plant. Some of us water. But God gives the growth. Through Week of Compassion, we become like date tree planters: serving the fruitful future for which God yearns. Who knows what growth God may bring when we join hands together across distance, across traditions, and across time for the love of what we may never see?
When we give to One Great Hour of Sharing, we help make new life and growth possible. Through our sharing, we are connected as co-workers. Our combined gifts have the capacity to travel all over the world. Whether we are rebuilding communities after disaster, supporting communities through agriculture as they learn to sustain themselves, or empowering ministers and members to serve their communities, in these and so many other ways, we release the waters of God’s growth when we invest in the lives of others.
In sharing our gifts, we join together as both givers and recipients of generous investment in the growth God will bring. As Paul writes, “the one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose.” Moved by our common purpose, we share our gifts for the glory of God and for our neighbors’ good.
By Traci Rabenstein, director of Mission Advancement
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. … You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. … Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:1, 13-15, 24-25).
These are not easy words for the church in Galatia to hear, nor for us today. Paul wrote this letter to Jewish believers who were teaching Gentile believers that they needed to follow the letter of the law in order to follow Jesus. In addition to correcting them, Paul was also calling them to find freedom in Christ. Since the Jews who believe in Jesus as their Messiah struggled with a split identity—growing up with strict adherence to the Torah and, now, celebrating their freedom in Christ—it’s no surprise that they also struggled with how a Gentile could now become a part of the family of God.
This tension divided the early church, and Paul wrote to urge them that their faith was no longer centered around the law but, rather, Jesus, who fulfilled it. Their former directive was now simplified to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Earlier in the letter, Paul shared about a time he rebuked Peter and other church leaders, and in chapter 5, he built a case for liberty and stated plainly that all believers were saved by faith, not by keeping the law. Their salvation through faith alone freed them to love and serve one another, carry each other’s burdens, and share kindness with everyone (chapter 6).
What does this mean for us today? The church in Galatia struggled to find loving unity and experienced bouts of dissension—an atmosphere that, unfortunately, can feel too close to home. Don’t we also struggle to live in loving unity? Experience disagreement with each other? Can our discord also lead into destructive postures? And can’t all of this harm our life together and our testimony?
While the Church of the Brethren may seem like an easy target for these questions, this can also be true for any church regardless of denominational affiliation. Many churches have struggled with one issue or another, and it has led to ugly feuding. When we are not motivated by love, we become more critical of others. We stop looking for good in them and see only their faults. Soon the unity of believers is broken.
According to Paul, there is a way to counteract division. He proclaimed repeatedly what it means to have freedom through Christ Jesus. He kept sharing the message that faith in Jesus Christ equals salvation, that salvation equals freedom, and that freedom leads us to love and serve every person made in God’s image without prejudice. The message is for every person. Salvation is offered to every person. Loving and serving are for every person. Freedom from selfish desire. Freedom from Satan’s agenda. Freedom from being overcome by the ways of the world. This is what transformation through faith in Christ looks like and this empowers us to bear a spirit of freedom with joy and confidence. It transforms us to serve the least of these without reservation, so that they may catch a glimpse of God through us.
As the Church of the Brethren, through the financial support of congregations and individuals, we reach to the corners of our country and the world, and we proclaim the message of freedom through faith in Jesus. We bear witness to the love that God has for all people through the ways we are present with and serve others. This happens through ministries like Global Mission and Service, Brethren Disaster Ministries, Brethren Volunteer Service, Discipleship Ministries, the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, and the Global Food Initiative. Through our shared work, we continue the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together.
Even through seasons of tension and sharp disagreement, doubt and uncertainty, may we be Brethren who seek to find light and hope. May we find God’s presence within us and around us in our life together. And may we continue to focus on the work we are called to do as the body of Christ, doing it in love and in service to others.
By Hannah Shultz, coordinator of short-term service for Brethren Volunteer Service
“This is holy ground.” The first time I heard Jason Haldeman, the former program manager at Camp Swatara, speak these words I got goosebumps. It was during staff training of my first summer working at camp and Jason was preparing us for the ministry we would be a part of in the upcoming weeks. He told us that God was present among us and that we were on holy ground. “This is holy ground” stuck with me throughout the summer as I planned evening vesper services, went on hikes, taught Bible classes, and sang silly songs around the campfire. I knew what Jason said was true. From the moment you drove through the archway onto camp property, something felt different. God was certainly present in that place. Camp is where I learned to encounter God in both the most mundane and the most serious moments.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and theologian, has a book called an Altar in the World in which she talks about blurring the lines of what we consider to be sacred. We need not only encounter the Divine sitting in church pews and reading scripture, she says, but by keeping our hearts and minds open to the presence of God in the world—in the everyday activities and encounters in our lives. She also encourages us to follow the words of Jesus by recognizing how God cares for lilies and sparrows as well as women who prepare bread and laborers who wait to be paid. In all these cases, we find the work of God in the world as much as in scripture.
In Genesis, Jacob told us what to do when we encounter God in the world. As the story goes, Jacob and Esau both wanted their father Isaac to bless them on his deathbed. Since Esau was the firstborn, he was set to receive the blessing, but Jacob and his mother developed a scheme to trick Isaac into blessing Jacob instead. This enraged Esau, so Jacob fled for his life. He left with nothing and walked as far as he could. He was out in the wilderness when he finally decided to rest, and he went to sleep using a stone as his pillow. During the night he had a vision from God in which God promised him safety, children, and land. God said to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
Genesis 28:16-18 reads: “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.”
God visited Jacob right where he was—out in the wilderness. Jacob realized that this ordinary place in the world must be part of the house of God, so he used a stone as an altar for God. In doing this, he taught us what to do when we encounter God in the world. Barbara Brown Taylor encourages us to follow his example and set up an altar, in the world or in our heart, to commemorate the places where the Divine meets us.
For the past few months, Kara and Liana and I have been writing the 2020 workcamp curriculum, centered on our theme, “Voices for Peace.” Through the workcamp experience, we hope to learn that encountering God does not just take place within church walls, but also when we serve and live in the world. Workcamps offer many opportunities to do physical acts of worship. Through pulling weeds on a farm in Florida, dishing out food at a soup kitchen in Los Angeles, and being in community and sleeping on hard church floors, we are challenged to find God in these daily, sometimes mundane, activities.
At workcamps, we also encounter God in the hard work of identifying injustice and doing something about it. Encountering God in the world often means getting involved in the messiness of human failure. It requires a willingness to be radical disciples in a world that may reject us. Jesus calls for an inbreaking of the kingdom of God on earth. His compassion and healing reaches out to those who are often ignored, and in his parables, he challenges his followers to consider the poor, the hungry, the widow, and the orphan. Similarly, we are called to challenge systems and structures that perpetuate injustice and to make God’s enduring presence known to everyone. We build altars in the world when we participate in activities that advance God’s love and justice, when we create more spaces where we can say “this is holy ground.”
Holy ground does not rise only out of church buildings, it is not just a place where we have sung to God or preached from scripture. Holy ground is the place where God’s beloved community is formed and where God’s reign of justice is made known on earth.
We are each on our own path to discovering holy ground, and as we journey through mundane circumstances and personal fatigue, there are moments to pay attention to the Divine. Like Jacob, we are called to recognize when we have encountered God in the wilderness and to celebrate that God meets us in the most unexpected places. Let us go into the wilderness, seeking God in the fight for justice and peace, and discovering divine possibility in our daily practices. And when we discover that we are on holy ground, let us make an altar to the Lord, revealing to others that God is in this place and still moving in our midst.
Church of the Brethren workcamps are for people of all ages to be the hands of Jesus and voices for peace in the world. Learn more about the workcamp ministry or register for a 2020 workcamp at www.brethren.org/workcamps. Registration opens tomorrow evening (1/16).
“Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering.” – Psalm 96:7-8a
As 2019 concludes, we remember what God has done among us through the ministries of the Church of the Brethren.
We celebrate the ministries of international Brethren bodies and partnerships, the 1,064 individuals who attended Discipleship Ministries conferences this year, the ongoing work of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, 33 grants totaling $200,000 given by the Global Food Initiative to national and international projects, the continued work of Brethren Disaster Ministries to serve individuals and families through times of need, and 79 Brethren Volunteer Service workers who served in the US and around the world in 2019.
Thank you for your prayerful and financial support in 2019. Have a very blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Celebrate with us by making a year-end gift to the Church of the Brethren.
By Nathan Hosler, director of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy
We live in a time of great urgency. Turmoil grips our communities and the communities of our sisters and brothers around the world. This isn’t news nor is it new. However, the persistence of injustice is not a reason to despair but to recognize that our calling to be peacemakers is all the more essential.
I grew up in Chiques Church of the Brethren in Manheim, Pa., and my grandfather and his brothers were conscientious objectors. I grew up believing that to follow Jesus meant serving others and being against war. In college, as my vocational call to ministry took shape, I realized that, even beyond opposing war, I needed to work for peace. Through experiences of tutoring Somali refugees in English and building relationships with homeless people on the streets of Chicago and Baltimore, I learned about systemic violence and racism. Through this education, the call to peacemaking began to sprout.
In Washington, D.C., “peacemaking” is an odd word. Even for organizations whose work would be considered peacemaking, the term is unusual. “Peacebuilding” is much more common, and while I use the terms interchangeably, peacemaking comes from the biblical text, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
In Luke’s gospel, the prophecy of Zechariah proclaims the coming of Christ our savior and how we will continue his mission: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).
Guide our feet into the way of peace. We know that the awaited Jesus became the teacher who declared that peacemakers are the children of God and said, “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). This Lord guides our feet into the way of peace.
The peace of Christ cannot be forced. We cannot impose a peace that is both global and personal, of inward reconciliation and outward wellbeing, and that brings reconciliation with God and neighbor and even our enemy. We cannot—nor should we try to—force peace. We bear witness to it and proclaim it. We must struggle for it and dedicate ourselves to it. While peace is a gift of God, it is also a process built.
In The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Mennonite Alan Kreider writes of the prominent role of patience in the writing and thinking of the early church. Specifically, he asks why is it that, with no documented focus on church expansion, the church grew in remarkable ways. He highlights the virtue of patience and trusting that God is in control, and a recurring theme of bearing witness through how one lives. Patience makes way for the freedom to do the slow work of peacemaking and not force an outcome.
This work is slow. Preaching the gospel of peace in a war-torn world is difficult. It is only through patience that we may persist in the slow and difficult work of nonviolent resistance to all oppression, injustice, and violence. We cannot impose peace but it is urgent that we work for it, train for it, prepare our youth for it, and build up institutions and organizations that add heft to our words.
Thank you for the ways you proclaim the gospel of peace and for your support of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. Though we live in a time of great urgency and the work before us is slow, the Lord is faithful and will surely guide our feet into the way of peace.
By Matt DeBall, coordinator of Mission Advancement Communications
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” ~Luke 16:8
The call to be a faithful steward can seem like a daunting task. Thankfully, the Lord Jesus not only calls us but also empowers us and equips us for the task. The parable shared in Luke 16 is one such exhortation.
As a master declared job termination and requested a final financial report, a dishonest manager threw a going-out-of-business sale—as in, he was going out of business and he cut deals with as many indebted partners as possible. Though, at first, it appeared his actions were merely for selfish gain, the manager was commended by the master for shrewdness.
This parable is interesting, to say the least, and may cause us to scratch our heads. Surely it is not an invitation to use dishonest financial practices or to fix the books. However, if a dishonest manager can be an effective example of stewardship, we can do even better. The dishonest yet shrewd manager exemplifies three important aspects of being a faithful steward.
Being generous. When the manager met with each debtor, he canceled almost a year and half worth of wages for a common laborer. How blessed each one must have felt! Many of us will never be able to give such a generous gift, but we can make a difference in the lives of people around us by giving faithfully of what we have received from God. Whenever we share, we prove to be good stewards when we do so generously.
Honoring others. As the manager canceled debts, he honored everyone involved. The debtors received generous pardons and the master was honored for being generous. To reinstate the canceled debts would harm the master’s reputation, and thus, by confirming the manager’s maneuvers, honor was maintained for all. Faithful stewardship honors others, and this also includes the Lord.
Preparing for the future. The manager was preparing to be out of a job and needing the help of others. Though our stewardship does not include consideration of selfish gain, we are called to look beyond the circumstances of today and, with God’s help, chart a course for the future. Again, this need not involve grand means or measures. It can involve doing simple but purposeful acts boldly and faithfully. Consider water: over time, even a gentle and persistent trickle can wear away the face of a rock. Trusting God with the results, we can act simply and boldly now while working toward a future that we cannot yet see.
It’s a privilege and honor to witness all who give generously of themselves to the ministries of the Church of the Brethren—whether staff, volunteers, board members, or supporters like you. Thank you for using your gifts generously, honoring one another and the Lord. Thank you for investing what you have been given now, and preparing for the future with hope. As you practice faithful stewardship, may the Lord continue to bless you.