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This Christmas we will all sing Silent Night, most likely several times.  At least once, I imagine someone will reference the singing of this traditional carol in the midst of The Christmas Truce of 1914.  Unfortunately, that was not the last time the peace of Christ was intoned in the fog of war.  This Christmas the carol will be sung in congregations and homes, as well as in the mountains of Afghanistan and the sands of Iraq.

Many had hoped that this would not be the case with the new administration, yet twice in a week President Obama reminded the world that just as there are no atheists in fox holes, there are no pacifists in the White House.  We should not be surprised.  What more could we expect from a man whose theological and ethical outlook has been shaped by the pen of Reinhold Niebuhr?

Obama’s Oslo speech has been praised, oddly enough, by his staunchest critics as well as his progressive allies.  It has even prompted a series of reflections by theologians and ethicists on a blog hosted by The Ekklesia Project.  In the first post, Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas summed up the fundamental problem well:

That the speech ends with appeals to love I suppose seems a good. But, again, I worry that such appeals make peace an ideal which war becomes the means to achieve.

Pacifists are often characterized as ideologues who have no sense of how the world really works.  Yet, Hauerwas helpfully shifts the terms.  Pacifists, or Non-Violent Activists, know the ways of conflict within the world.  Its just that they also are convinced that the ends justify the means.  In other words, a peace achieved by violent means is incomplete and fragile at best.  Niebuhr, and his presidential heir, have overlooked this simple truth.  Both are blinded by the modern poker game of balanced power and called bluffs which must be backed by military acuity.

Unfortunately, this realist approach to conflict overlooks the confession of faith within the Christmas carol- Christ the savior is born.  The brief peace in the European trenches of 1914 testifies to our faith:  Peace is not achieved through violent means,  but through common belief and celebration of Christ the Savior.  Sounds a bit pithy, but the bullets were overpowered by the melody of that simple carol.

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I always find it humorous when I read books and articles that are targeted at “smaller churches” and realize that within the broader context of Christianity the definition of a small church encompasses the vast majority of congregations within the Church of the Brethren. I just don’t see it that way. For me, a church with 150 people is BIG! And yet there are many people out there who would consider it to be small (and not just the megachurch crowd.) I wonder what they would think about the church I worshiped with for several years that averaged about 20 attendees?

I’ve been working with Micah 5:2-5a for this final Sunday in Advent and in the process I’ve been reminded that being small and seemingly insignificant isn’t always a detriment. After all, Bethlehem was small too. Yet despite its size and status among the “lesser” clans of Judah it will be forever remembered as the birthplace of Jesus. And don’t forget Nazareth – “can anything good come from Nazareth?” But the towns of Jesus’ origin are in no way the only examples of the lowly being lifted up – just consider David or Joseph, or Mary the young teenage mother. The history of our faith is filled with similar stories! God often works through the people and places that our world is quick to write off.

So I’m left thinking – what does this mean for us, a relatively small denomination of about 1,000 churches, most of which are smaller and therefore seemingly less attractive to the general populace. According to one resource I found, smaller churches only draw about 11 percent of those who attend (Christian but not Catholic or Orthodox) worship in the US, while at least 50 percent of that same demographic attend the largest 10% of congregations, with an average attendance of 350 or greater.

It’s easy to get depressed about being a bunch of small churches in a small denomination. Still, I think there are also blessings that come with occupying this particular ecclesiological niche. Yes, being small has its challenges, but I don’t think we should think for a moment that God cannot work through us in amazing, world-changing ways!

So my question for you is this – what are your experiences of how being a relatively small church (both congregationally and denominationally) can be a blessing? How do you think our size makes us well-suited for this increasingly postmodern, post-Christendom age? What opportunities afforded by our size are we poised to take advantage of, and which ones are we missing?

I’ll be thinking about these questions (and many others this topic raises) and will contribute some more of my thoughts in the comments …

Unfortunately, this will be more of a reflection than a prompt for a discussion.  So I will put the question first, and then offer a meditation.  What are your communities doing for Advent?

In front of the administrative building here at Catholic University sits a nativity.  As a group of us walked in front of it my friend, a liturgical scholar,  quipped “Baby Jesus is not here yet!”  For a second, I had to think, but I soon realized what he was saying.  “Oh, since its Advent and not yet Christmas.”

Though it might sound like an academic dismissal of a common practice, there is an element of truth to his observation.  Culturally, we really do not prepare for Christmas.  The turkey barely cools on the Thanksgiving table and advertisements tell us its Christmas time.  So we venture out to buy our Christmas presents, put up our Christmas decorations, and set out the Christmas scene in our nativities, complete with the Messiah in a manger.  In other words, Christmas comes as soon as the dishes are done. Baby Jesus comes on the last Friday of November.  I do not want to digress into mourning about the commercialization of a religious holiday or to rant about the need to insert Christ back into Christmas.  All of this is simply a collective sign that December has lost its role as a season of preparation for the coming Christ.

Advent is our liminal time, much like like the name of our blog.  Like the apostles waiting in the upper room in the days after the crucifixion we are stuck, anxiously twiddling our thumbs waiting for the next event.  For us, as with the apostles, its the second coming of Christ we anticipate.  Despite the remembrance of the first Christmas, Advent comes as a season to get ready for the day when Christ comes again.  This is an eschatological, and not memorial, preparation.

We just do not handle delayed gratification well.  Culturally, we are not trained to wait.  A recent review of Barnes and Noble’s new e-reader presents this well.  In describing the difference between a computer screen and the display of the e-reader the author praised the speed of a computer:  The image on an LCD screen, he said, is refreshed as many as 60 times a second.  Unfortunately, from his perspective, the e-reader screen only refreshes once a second.  As I read, I laughed.  There are few moments in my day to day life that I measure in increments smaller than a second.  Yet, I also know what he means.  When a computer or phone takes longer than a second to respond to my whimsical commands I can get frustrated.  In our ego-centric culture time and needs are defined by the individual’s perception, not the realities of the situation.  Having it our way, and having in now are the new mantras of our society.

But Advent forces us to stay for a while in the waiting stage.  We do not measure the season by seconds, minutes or even days.  We count the weeks, one candle at a time.  Then on Christmas Eve when we can finally light the center white candle, we are met with absence.  We can put Jesus in the manger, open the presents, and offer wishes of merriment for Christmas but the Second coming we expected does not take place.  So we content ourselves for memories, another egg nog and enter the post-Christmas let down.  Then the clean up begins and the Valentine’s day gifts fill the store shelves.  Its no wonder the season of advent is treated as the religious countdown to the remaining shopping days of the season.

When we do pause in this season of waiting, we can see for a moment the realities of the Christian life.  We are a people hopefully waiting, living in the state of delayed gratification.  What is known as the Glory Be, or Lesser Doxology captures our state well:  “As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.”  God the Christ has been present from the beginning of time, in the manger long ago, now, and will come again.  Advent presents us with the occasion to search for  the presence of Christ in everything  through the confounding interplay of presence and absence; presence in the mangers of the nativity and yet absence in a conflicted world.

A few weeks ago a leader in the Columbian Mennonite Church came to DC to share the experiences of the Columbian Anabaptists with University Park COB and Hyattsville Mennonite.  Through his eloquent Spanish and several capable interpreters I was amazed by his prophetic yet pastoral insights.

His most cutting insight came in a profoundly simple question:  “Have we so spiritualized salvation that we have piety without justice?”

The sigh of confirmation from the congregation was audible.

This seems, at least to me, to capture the insights of the early Brethren in a single sentence.  Some contemporary Brethren may want to highlight the interests of justice and peace over salvation while others among us want to elevate salvation above all else.  Yet, each camp presents themselves as pious members of the tradition.  Fundamentally, however, I think our early spiritual ancestors held all three in a kind of Trinitarian balance.

So I want to open the same question for our collective discussion: How have we spiritualized salvation so that we have piety without justice?

In the comments on my last post, about what the church is called to be, it seems to me the common theme that ran throughout everyone’s thoughts was that of a radical, reconciling, relationality (even if no one actually used those words :)).  Dan spoke of the idea of the church family, Matt of being reconciled with all Creation, Josh of radical community, Paul of overcoming the continual broken relationships of this world.

So, I feel the need to push this  a little further.  We did a pretty good job of speaking in catch phrases and themes – the glory of God and my neighbor’s good, of being transformed, a network of Christ-centered communities, ect. I think all of those are well and true, but what do we actually mean by them?  What does it mean for the Church to be a place of radical relationship? H. Richard Niebuhr writes in his text The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry (pardon the male-centered language),

Is not the result of all these debates and the content of the confessions or commandments of all these authorities this: that no substitute can be found for the definition of the goal of the Church as the increase among men of the love of God and neighbor? The terms vary; now the symbolic phrase is reconciliation to God and man, now increase the gratitude for the forgiveness of sin, now the realization of the kingdom or the coming of the Spirit, now the acceptance of the gospel. BUt the simple language of Jesus Christ himself furnishes to most CHristians the most intelligible key to his own purpose and to that of the community gathered around him (31).

But again, what does that mean when lived out in practice?  For me, this lives true as not only living out the example of Jesus Christ, but reflecting the inner, loving relationships of the Triune God.  As the imago dei, we are called to reflect and live out those relationships to the world around us.  They are relationships of radical giving, surrender, sacrifice, and love. When we conceive of a Trinity as three existing in relationship, it is no longer necessary to distinguish between the way God relates to the world and the being of Godself.  When we see God as the unity of relationships, the relationships become visible all around us as the very foundation of who God is.  Catherine LaCunga writes of the kind of impact this understanding should have in her text God For Us, stating,

God moves toward us so that we may move toward each other and thereby toward God.  The way God comes to us is also our way to God and to each other:  through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is our faith, confessed in creed and celebrated in sacraments.  Confessing faith is incomplete unless it becomes a form of life.  Living faith in the God of Jesus Christ means being formed and transformed by the life of grace of God’s economy:  becoming persons fully in communion with all; becoming Christ to one another; becoming by the power of the Holy Spirit what God is:  love unbounded, glory uncontained (377).

So, what does this mean, and actually look like in day to day life?

Greetings, friends. I do believe it is my turn now to keep this conversation going on here.  And so, I am going to kick this off with the title of the blog.  Yes, partly this was meant to imply the place in which young adults find themselves in the church – already leaders, but also not yet fully who they are going to be – or who they are being called to be.  People ready to step up and take responsbility, but who still need some mentorship along the way.

But more than that, I want to think about how this is the role of the church in the world – proclaiming the already but not yet Kingdom of God.  It is appropriate, I think, as we begin the Advent season – the season of preparation for the coming of God into this world.  The arrival of the God in human flesh.  So, what does this mean for the CoB today?  What does it mean for the church to proclaim a reign of God that has already come, that has already begun … and yet is still not fully visible?  Sallie McFague writes, in the Epilogue of a book titled Theology That Matters,

We are called to live in a different world, a world where the good of the individual and the good of the community are intrinsically and intimately related.  But how do we get there? […] We return to verse 24 of Isaiah 65: “Before they call I will answer, while they are speaking, I will hear”. That is the only reason we dare to imagine a different world – because God is before us, God is there already […] The One in whom we live and move and have our being assures us that this other world […] is not a dream, but the way things should be, and will be, with God’s help. To the degree we live in God, from God, and for God, this world will emerge (205).

And so, my question for you – what kind of world should the church be calling into being?  In what ways should we be modeling that world?  Just what is the church called to be?  What is the vision the Church of the Brethren should be living into?  And are we?  Ok, so that was 5 questions, but they are all pretty well related.  As the quote and the image show us, this reality is being birthed as we speak.  The world is full of the expectation of this season.  So, in this Advent season – what is the hope the Church of the Brethren is called to live into?