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Over the generations, those of us in the Brethren movement have claimed “simple living” as a core value. Of course, as with any socio-spiritual conviction we’ve found vastly different ways of living in ways we might consider simple. It used to be plain clothes and abstaining from anything that might be considered “fancy.” More recently we’ve taken to focusing on living within our means, not falling prey to the prevalent consumer culture that surrounds us, or not relying on consumer credit to buy luxuries we can’t really afford.

Another way that many folks I know have taken to living simply involves trying to opt-out of complex corporate/industrial systems that are seen as working against the common good of all humanity. Yet it seems that such efforts often lead to a lifestyle that is far from simple, at least when judged by our traditional ideas of simplicity. Read the rest of this entry »

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We’re halfway through the season of Lent, and a recent conversation with a friend has me thinking about the purpose of Lenten fasts and practices. “It just makes me so mad,” he said, “that people would give up something for a few weeks only to hit it harder when Easter comes.”

I get the cynicism, but I am a fan of Lent. Honestly, it’s my favorite liturgical season (and yes, I realize that having a favorite liturgical season makes me fatally nerdy). Lent seems to create an atmosphere of anticipation – as if, were we able to dive deeply enough and honestly enough into the pathos of the journey to the cross, then we might just be able to experience the unspeakable joy of the resurrection.

Barbara Brown Taylor talks about Lenten practices as wandering out into the wilderness:

…if you have spent a lot of time and/or money trying to acquire whatever it takes to grow your soul without seeing any new buds, then maybe a little spell in the wilderness is worth a try–a few weeks of choosing to live on less, not more–of practicing subtraction instead addition–not because your regular life is bad but because you want to make sure it is your real life–the one you long to be living–which can be hard to do when you’re living on fast food and busyness…

Brethren have long embraced the idea of living on less. We practice simplicity – I think – because it keeps us mindful of “the life that is really life.” In that light, a Lenten fast might be a very Brethren thing to do. Are you keeping a fast this year? Is it growing your soul?

This past fall I co-taught a course on Protestantism. Of course in the midst of preparations I had to re-study the sacramental debates of the early reformers. At the risk of oversimplification the positions ranged from an elaborate theosophical argument for real presence to an equally intricate spirit guided memorial understanding.

We as Brethren have tended toward, if not staked our claim with, the memorial camp. This can be confirmed in the 20th century work of Vernard Eller, titled In Place of Sacraments. Though a bit polemical at times, the sum of Eller’s critique follows the Reformation critiques of the economics of salvation (Luther and the Indulgences) and crude physicalism (Zwingli and memorialism).

To be sure, I do have some sympathy with these critiques. Yet, in an equal measure, I balk at the wholesale rejection of the idea of sacraments because of a nearly 400 year old controversy.

Let me explain. At the heart of sacramental thinking is the conviction that God is active in the material world. The prime expression of that action is in the Incarnation, in Jesus the Christ. When we dismiss the sacramentality of the Eucharist, along with the other sacraments, we effectively limit God’s actions to the past. We have no means to remind ourselves that God is indeed working here and now. In effect we are forced to expect extraordinary miracles rather than a seemingly mundane moment of worship.

Its even more important given our HIGHLY incarnational view of our work as the Church. When we see our times of worship as so one dimensional (earth centered, aimed at God) rather than just as incarnational as our service (where the Divine and the human co-operate within a hurting world), what foundation do we have? Put another way, we lack the spiritual grounding for ethical activities.

How do you understand the relationship of Incarnation and Service?

Maybe it’s my exposure to a disproportionately large percentage of Church of the Brethren folks who are seminary trained and highly ecumenically involved, but it seems to me that there is a growing interest within our tradition in more “liturgically-oriented” worship practices.

I can think of several examples of this: more Brethren pastors following the Lectionary, increased interest in special, more liturgical services like Ash Wednesday, Tenebrae, etc., and even movement toward a more high-church style of worship on Sunday mornings.

I’ll admit that I too find myself appreciating and being influenced by such liturgical expressions, especially as they relate to more ancient Christian practices that pre-date the Protestant Reformation. Still, I’m left wondering, “why?”

Despite my opening statement, I don’t think it is just the highly ecumenical and the seminary folks who connect with this trend. In my own congregation we’ve begun having more of these small gatherings, like tonight’s Ash Wednesday service, and it’s a relatively broad demographic that generally attends. Another good example of this is last year’s Tenebrae service, when a group of about 20 local college students came and participated. It seems to me that young adults and youth particularly are finding deep connections with these kinds of worship.

My questions for you are: Does any of this ring true in your experience? What are your thoughts as to why we might be witnessing this shift within our tradition which has been very “low-church” for many years? How do you personally find yourself connecting (or dis-connecting) with more liturgically-leaning worship?

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?

Dana’s great observation about the “tag line” prompted me to think about the three elements depicted within it; Peacefully, Simply, Together.

One of the things that arises in the 300th Anniversary Study is the low numbers of respondents who identify with the Peace witness of the Church.  Many lament this development, others see it as affirmation of an already perceived reality.  I am not sure its so much a development given the numbers of Brethren men who went to into Civilian Public Service on one hand, and those who served in various positions in the American military in World War II.  Yet, it is clear regardless that around 20% of the Church of the Brethren members self identify the Peace Witness as part of their personal system of belief.

There are a number of ways to approach this question, such as how we measure a belief, how we understand the Peace Witness etc.  But I think a helpful phrasing of the question at the heart of this reality is as follows:  How are we to understand these numbers and the strength of the Peace witness within the Brethren today?

I’m spending a couple of weeks in Cincinnati, where BVS has just opened it’s first intentional community house for volunteers. Ben Bear, a former BVSer who signed up for another term just so he could participate in one of these communities, describes his motivation like this:

“When I did BVS the first time, I got to live out the first two parts of the Brethren tagline – peacefully and simply. What I’m hoping for this time is to get the ‘together’ piece, too.”

So, what defines Brethren community for you? What are the practices that we participate in together that form us into Christ’s body? And, how are they different from any other group of people – civic or Christian?

As I begin my new position as Director of Spiritual Life and Discipleship another question comes to mind:

If you could identify two practices or beliefs that are central to Brethren Spirituality, what would they be?”

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