Holy ground

Workcampers at the Knoxville, Tenn. workcamp in 2019.
Photo by Marissa Witkovsky-Eldred

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).

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

The ministry of fishing

By David Steele, general secretary

“Simon replied, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing.
But because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.’ So they dropped the nets and their catch was so huge that their nets were splitting. . . . Jesus said to Simon,

‘Do not be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people”
(Luke 5:5-6, 10; CEB).

Many within the Church of the Brethren are not afforded the opportunity to regularly experience the church beyond a local congregation or district setting. Without the privilege to worship, meet, and engage with congregations and districts across the country, it is difficult for someone to truly appreciate the richness of what we call the Church of the Brethren. Without those opportunities, one could easily see a denomination unsure of its own identity and miss the forest for the trees.

While we may talk about membership decline and its impact on giving, I would caution against making any direct correlation of that decline with competing notions of identity or a denomination unsure of its identity. A common purpose and identity are essential to the success of any organization, and I won’t deny that some have doubts or disagree with the identity articulated by the Mission and Ministry Board and Church of the Brethren staff. However, from my experiences as a pastor and a district executive, I believe membership declines have less to do with any common understanding of a true north “Brethren-ism” and much more to do with cultural and familial shifts, our hesitation to move beyond “the way we’ve always done things,” and pastors and church leadership at all levels struggling to meet the ministry needs of local communities and to live into the great commission.

In many ways, our predicament resembles that of the tired fisherman that Jesus encountered. We have labored in less-than-ideal circumstances, been left wanting for better results, and are weary from difficult, often thankless, work. And yet, Jesus is calling us to cast out the net again—not just to continue our usual work but to do the work of fishing for people.

Despite our challenges, our ministries and missions continue. The Mission and Ministry Board, with the help and support of districts, congregations, and members, is working to fan the positive sparks that are emerging. The outcome of the denominational compelling vision process will inform the shaping of our next strategic plan—a plan that will guide our ministries for the future.

While these movements will lead us forward, each of us must take seriously the role that we hold. Max Lucado once wrote, “When those who are called to fish don’t fish, they fight.” Until we whole-heartedly unite for the work of fishing, we will continue to fight and continue to struggle for a common identity and purpose.

Friends, our governing principles and Annual Conference statements cannot save a church filled with imperfect people. Being the church is messy, and there always will be differences among us. Yet in the midst of our circumstances, if we listen carefully to members from across this country, we hear common and familiar themes: service, peace witness, community, living simply, mission, and discipleship—one might say “Brethren-isms” that still point true north. These are at the center of the work and ministries of the Church of the Brethren and the methods we will use together to fish for people.

If we look around us, we will see passionate disciples continuing the work of Jesus. As followers of Christ, may we focus on the work ahead and keep our attention on the work of fishing. We have something unique that the world so desperately needs, and the Lord who calls us is faithfully beside us for our mission. It is for this reason that we may trust that the Church of the Brethren will flourish.

The Church of the Brethren continues the faithful work of fishing for people in the name of Jesus. Support its ministries today at www.brethren.org/give.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Plans for prospering

Hannah Schultz

Hannah Shultz. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

By Hannah Shultz, BVS unit  #307
Chapel reflection May 6, 2015

“For I know the plans I have for you” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This was my favorite Bible verse as a child. There is something inherently comforting in the words, especially for a small child with an unknown future. But as I repeated these words to myself, I always thought that this promise from God was kind of vague. “Plans to give you hope and a future”—but what kind of future? “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you”—but prosper me how?

Last May I graduated from Juniata College where I had been actively involved in campus ministry. My senior year I was the president of the Christian ministry board on campus, and because of this role, had been asked to speak at our baccalaureate service the night before graduation. The verse Jeremiah 29:11 was the scripture that was chosen for this service, and as graduating seniors getting ready to move into an unfamiliar and unknown future, I felt that it was an appropriate message with which to send us off into the world. The promise of prosperity and a future is what all of us were seeking as we left Juniata.

As I prepared a few words to share with my graduating class I reflected on my favorite childhood scripture one more time, but again, as I read these words, I wanted to know more. What do I need to do to prosper? It turns out the answer to this question comes a few verses earlier. Verse 7 says: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Growing up, service was a big part of my life and it continued to be important during my time at Juniata. It was fairly easy to be involved with service activities. From spring break service trips, to events such as Science Olympiad, Relay For Life and Special Olympics, Juniata provided opportunities to contribute not only to the prosperity of the surrounding community, but the school also encouraged us to reach out to our world. Leaving Juniata I knew I would need to make an effort to continue making service a part of my life when opportunities were not as readily available right outside my door.

BVS seemed like a perfect fit, and I’ve felt so blessed to be part of the workcamp team where I’ve had the opportunity to plan service trips for youth around the country. From working on farms, to serving in soup kitchens, to spending time with senior citizens and working with the intellectually disabled, I feel confident that during these weeks we will be contributing to the prosperity of others, and that we will be nourishing our own journey with God and creating lasting friendships. In our service to others, we will also prosper.

In the past year or so, I’ve begun to recognize that prosperity not only comes from direct acts of organized service, but also from more subtle acts of compassion and from responding to causes you believe to be important. Regardless of religion, ethnicity, gender, or any other identity used to discriminate and set people apart from one another, we are all human, and we all have a responsibility to one another. We are all being called to fight against human suffering, to produce love in the face of adversity and to bring fortune to those around us.

In light of the recent events in Baltimore, Jeremiah 7 has been running through my head. I was born in the suburbs of Baltimore and lived there until I went to college. Although I spent most of my time in the suburbs, with only infrequent trips downtown, I do consider Baltimore to be my home. I have family who live near the areas being destroyed and I recognize the names of businesses and streets where the destruction was occurring last week. My personal connections to Baltimore play only a small part in influencing my feelings regarding what happened. It would be heartbreaking to watch any city in our country or our world be devastated and torn apart by violent acts.

As someone who is not a part of a racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic minority I cannot pretend to understand the feelings of the protestors and I cannot pass judgment or pretend to believe that I may not have been tempted to act out in similar ways if I were in their situation. The reactions we were seeing in Baltimore were not just stemmed from feelings of anger towards the incident with Freddie Grey’s death. The problems facing Baltimore are rooted in decades of injustice, discrimination and police brutality. I fully support the right to be heard, and recognize that rioting is an avenue many have taken to achieve this purpose. A Time article recently addressed this exact point and quoted Martin Luther King JR as saying

“…in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met….”

It was however, distressing to watch the continual and systematic destruction of a place so many call home. Protesters were setting fire to their own homes, neighborhoods, places of business, of education, of worship, of recreation.

It’s a shame that the violent acts of destruction are the ones that receive attention. There were a significant number of peaceful protests on the streets as well, but the media had not allowed those protests to represent the voices of the discouraged. Alongside stories of peaceful protests, it has also been encouraging to hear about the actions those have taken to clean up the city and restore what has been lost. Posts on my Facebook news feed switched back and forth between status’ revealing opinions on the matter, and posts listing information regarding times and locations of clean-up activities, urgently calling volunteers to help for an hour or two. My pastor from my church at home posted a Google doc listing where help was needed, contact information and supplies requested. It was encouraging to see our communities come together in response to the recent events. Another beacon of hope last week came from an unexpected gathering of clergy and gang members who stood side by side to end the violence. Gangs who were notorious enemies came together to protect their community. These are the stories that should be flooding the media, these are the stories that inspire hope and shed light in times of darkness. It’s good news such as this that helps to promote peace and prosperity.

In the fall of my senior year I took a class called “God, Evil and the Holocaust”. After spending the semester discussing the atrocity of the holocaust and the role of God during those years, we were asked to write a final paper in which we answered where we thought God was during the holocaust, and how this affects contemporary faith. Regardless of the answer to the first question, the class unanimously decided that the darkness of the holocaust demands us to take full accountability for the destruction we commit against one another and calls us into responsibility for resisting injustice and helping the victims of suffering. The holocaust demonstrates the power of darkness in our world and challenges us to learn from our past and actively resist allowing something similar to happen in the future. There is an organization called Charter for Compassion that has a charter that talks about this issue beautifully. The last part of the charter reads

“We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”

 

LamplighterThe call to compassion reminds me of a story I heard about the author Robert Lewis Stevenson. Robert Lewis Stevenson, best known for his adventure story, Treasure Island, was in poor health during much of his childhood and youth. One night his nurse found him with his nose pressed against the frosty pane of his bedroom window. “Child, come away from there. You’ll catch your death of cold,” she fussed. But young Robert wouldn’t budge. He sat, mesmerized, as he watched an old lamplighter slowly working his way through the black night, lighting each street lamp along his route. Pointing, Robert exclaimed, “See; look there; there’s a man poking holes in the darkness.” I love the image of light breaking through perfect darkness.

One of our workcamp daily themes is “imitating Christ’s humility as light” and we talk about carrying the light of Christ into the world. This summer I’m excited to witness acts that drive light into dark places and I hope to inspire youth to make service and compassion a luminous and dynamic force in our world. I know feel like I understand the meaning of Jeremiah 29:11. This is the future God has promised me and I know that through the work I am doing, I am also prospering.