Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Believers Church Road Trip!

From Harrisonburg, VA, USA
Earlier this month, Aaron, my friend from seminary, and I headed out to Richmond, Indiana to Bethany Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. Bethany was hosting an event called "When Strangers are Angels" and was pulling together people from the three so-called "historic peace churches": Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren. There were numerous motivations for me wanting to make this trip, chief of which was connecting and reconnecting with some folks from my flock of believers, the Brethren.  Being one of the few Brethren in a proudly Mennonite academic institution here in the Shenandoah Valley has been by and large a wonderful, spiritually transformative experience, but there are times when I long to commune with Brethren folks.

So when I heard about this event, I cooked up a way to connect it with a seminary class called "the believers church," taught by our wonderful church history professor, Nate Yoder. The seminary also graciously helped us, financially, to get out there and back. We made contact with three scholars, one in each tradition, and secured interviews with each one while we were at the event. The following 10-minute video is the fruit of this road trip, the interviews, and reflection in the context of this class. After the break, I'll offer some further commentary...

(YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9Ugm8b4UC8)

First, a word of gratitude, which echoes what came at the end of the video. We're grateful that Nate Yoder and the seminary were willing to let Aaron and I connect this event with some academic work as well as providing financial support. We had a blast the whole time, even during the 8 hour drive there and back. Thanks to Elizabeth and Amy at Bethany, for helping us get lodging and get connected with two of the scholars we interviewed. Thanks to Chris and Lindsey, students at Bethany, who not only let us crash their quarters, but also fed us! Finally, many thanks to the three scholars we interviewed: Thomas Hamm, Scott Holland, and John Rempel.

Next, a word about our interview methodology and the format of this video. We came in to the interviews with three general questions to consistently ask each person: 1) What is the "believers church?," 2) What is your tradition's place in that category?, and 3) How has the shared early conviction of pacifism fared across the intervening centuries? We also had a handful of questions unique to each of the scholars, depending on which tradition they were coming from, but we didn't have a chance to use much of this additional, perhaps more interesting, material in this video. The process of getting three interviews that each lasted from 30 to 40 minutes, edited down to a 10 minute video on YouTube is not an easy thing, especially when you're working with material that's important to you, and with scholars like these that clearly care about it as well. Our hope is that these three men feel their perspectives were adequately conveyed despite the potentially harsh editing process.

Finally, a word about my own reflections in the video, which are also tied to the constraints of a 10-minute video for YouTube. First of all, I jumbled a few of my words because I was going off-the-cuff with some hastily prepared thoughts, distilling weeks of thinking and discussion into 20 seconds. My final question in the video was "Why does the Church of the Brethren look like so much of the rest of  mainline Protestant America?" I don't wish to back away from that question, but I do wish to nuance it a bit. I have a deep appreciation for the church tradition that raised me well, called me into the ministry, and continues to support me. There is a rich history and theological tradition that I find compelling enough to want to stay connected to it. At the same time, though, I recognize some rather puzzling things  about how my tradition is living out its life these days. The Brethren, once considered a "peculiar people," don't seem so peculiar these days. They also don't seem to hold themselves together very well in some ways.

When talking about pacifism and the peace stance, Scott Holland named an "unfortunate gap" that separates church leadership (I would locate this at the denominational level, but also in the seminary at Bethany) from the wider congregational expressions in the Church of the Brethren. I've experienced a mostly implicit, but sometimes explicit suspicion of "what's going on in the denomination" or "at the seminary" from some of my fellow Brethren. So I think the gap that exists on "the peace stance" is actually a symptom of a deeper, less obvious conflict or division within the denomination. Similarly, I feel that my denomination's decade-spanning argument about the "issue" of homosexuality is rather a proxy battle for what is likely the same kind of division/conflict.

I've already gone outside the intended scope of this post, so I'll leave these suspicions stated but not explored. Part of my education in conflict transformation and further theological training will hopefully provide adequate tools to help work at this perceived gap. I seek to locate myself in this situation as a peacebuilding teacher/teaching peacebuilder, neither condoning nor condemning either side of this gap, but practicing deep listening to all parties, patience with the awareness that there are no quick, easy fixes and that this may be part of my long-term life's work in the church. Essentially, following the way of Jesus in fellowship with the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God, and the healing and reconciliation of my little band of believers, these odd folk called "Brethren." So that when the wider world observes us doing church the way we do, there may be a prophetic witness to the truth of God's coming reign, rather than the perception of us being just another group of Christians tearing each other to ribbons using the same weapons that the world uses. May it be so...

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