By Traci Rabenstein, director of Mission Advancement
“Do not be afraid, [Church of the Brethren]; be glad and rejoice. Surely the Lord has done great things!” ~Joel 2:21, modified
It has been six years since I began working for the Church of the Brethren denomination. Six years that have been filled with a lot of ups and downs, joys and sorrows, frustrations and celebrations. My work as director of Mission Advancement gives me the opportunity to talk with a lot of different people from across our church body. Those in lay leadership serving as deacons, church treasurers, witness chairs, board chairs, leadership team chairs, and the like. I’ve spoken with pastors and congregation moderators, and district executives, and office staff. I’ve shared a meal or coffee with “people in the pews” who give generously towards the missions and ministries of the church. It’s rewarding work. It’s work that, most times, fills my soul and gives me the energy to continue Mission Advancement’s work of interpreting and educating the ways in which we are the hands and feet of Christ in this world. Yet, there are times when the noise of our world and even voices among us drown out what is typically fulfilling work.
In those moments of frustration, when phone calls, emails, and conversations are centered around the distrust of the work of denominational staff (“Elgin”), misunderstandings of how contributions are used, the misuse of statements that were developed as a means to aid us in living together as community, and the confusing narrative shared by some who were once entrusted to guide the church in the ways of Jesus, the Spirit nudges me to lean into the Word in an effort to remain encouraged and strengthened.
I believe we find ourselves, again, in the times the Church has been warned about through the writings of Paul, James, Peter, Jude, and others whose letters form the New Testament. A time when the Church is called to be “awake and watchful,” aware of what is going on around and within our body so that we might live in a Christ-like manner in which we are not “conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2). It is easy to get caught up in negative narratives (of “no way forward” or “continued decline”) and allow accusations to deter the work of the Spirit that can lead us to new growth. But I would respond, in a loud voice, in the spirit of Deuteronomy 31:8: The Lord goes before us and will be with us; God won’t leave or forsake us; we need not be afraid or discouraged.
It’s encouraging to me that the New International Version mentions “do not be afraid” seventy-four (74) times. “Do not be afraid” was spoken to Mary, to Joseph, to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and to the shepherds in the fields. During Christ’s ministry, he told his disciples and others as he prepared for crucifixion and death to not fear. After the resurrection, an angel tells Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb to not be afraid. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we hear God tell His people, and us as adopted children, to not be afraid. “Fear not” is the message I echo to you in these days that precede our celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior, our King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ.
It is my hope that we will go into this new year saying to one another: “Do not be afraid! Be glad and rejoice! The Lord continues to do great things!” Look at all of the good work God has done through His Son, Jesus Christ, and how a new work is done within us because of our relationship with Him. I invite you to reflect on the good work the Lord has done through us, “The Not-so-Big Church.” From starting endeavors that now function on their own like Heifer International; to our work for conscientious objection; to the spreading of the gospel in Spain, Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Look at how God has blessed that work and how God’s kingdom has expanded through the Global Communion of the Church of the Brethren.
Even in the US, we have seen God’s provision and peace as we accompany those who have had their lives turned upside-down by natural disaster or horrific acts of violence in communities. Brethren Disaster Ministries and Children’s Disaster Service volunteers are ready when tough times come, to be of support and aid to those who are hurting, feeling lost and alone, have lost loved ones, or have nowhere else to turn. These are the places where we have met “Jesus in the neighborhood” and have continued his work. What we have accomplished in the name of Jesus for the size that we are is nothing short of miraculous. Instead of fearing the decline of our denomination, we instead claim, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” (Hosea 13:14). Until Christ’s return, our work as his body is not done. Be glad and rejoice for the great things God still wants to do through us!
As this year concludes and a new year begins, Do not be afraid! Rejoice and be glad for God is doing a great thing in the Church of the Brethren!