Sunday, October 12, 2014

Phil Kniss: What to do when it’s hard to be a Christian

Church matters: Discipling and mentoring
Matthew 28:16-20; Hebrews 10:19-25

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“It’s hard to be a Christian in America.”
    So said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, of Durham, NC.
    His voice is worth getting familiar with.
        He is a white, southern evangelical
            with a seminary degree from Duke,
            who is an associate minister at a historically black
                Missionary Baptist church in Durham,
            who is a close friend to Virginia Conference Mennonites
                in the Chapel Hill/Durham area,
            who, with his wife and children,
                founded a new monastic community called Rutba House,
            who has lectured across the country,
                and published five books on church, spirituality,
                    and new monasticism,
            and who’s in his early 30s.

    Now why would this kind of radical, young Christian,
        who has embedded himself in such a supportive, intentional
            community of radical Christians,
        and who is smart and gifted and well-educated,
            say that it’s hard to be a Christian in America?

He recognizes what we as Christians, and the church, are up against,
    embedded as we are in a culture that not only misunderstands Jesus,
        but ignores the values of God’s kingdom, and
        actively undermines the way of life Jesus taught
            and demonstrated to his disciples.

So if we want to be a Christian in America,
    we must surround ourselves with other aspiring disciples,
    who support and encourage and empower us.

In an article Wilson-Hartgrove wrote,
    he called people to consider a radical path of life together,
        modeled after the monastics.
    And you might know that “radical” means “of the root.”
He writes, and I quote, “The roots of God’s kingdom are rhizomes.
    They spread beneath the surface, effecting change from below.
    Like the rhizome called kudzu
        that covers so much of the South where I live,
        God’s kingdom just won’t go away . . .
    Yes, it’s hard to be a Christian in America.
        But . . . with God, all things are possible.
    May we slip God’s kingdom
        into the cracks of this world’s broken systems.
        And may it spread like kudzu.”

He may be a southern, white, evangelical, new monastic.
But at least part of what he is saying,
    is a common theme that runs through all Christian traditions—
    Catholic, Episcopal, Protestant, Evangelical, Anabaptist.
I think the church everywhere, when we are doing our best thinking,
    all pretty much agree on this one thing:
    the most important work of the church is making disciples,
        for our particular time and place.

When our church disagreements aren’t stealing our attention and energy,
    when our priorities are not being misplaced,
    when the dominant culture isn’t dominating us,
        I think all churches, in our better moments,
            say that job #1 is making faithful disciples of Jesus.

How could we not say that? Jesus said it.
    In today’s Gospel, Jesus gave his parting words and mandate.
        “As you go, therefore, make disciples.”
    They are Jesus’ last words.
    They are the Gospel writer’s last words.
    They are the most potent summary of the will of God for the church.
Actually, “discipling” doesn’t belong in a series on church practices.
It’s not just one in a list of things to do as a church.
    It is the main thing.
    It is what it means to be church.

But sometimes the most obvious things are the easiest to neglect.
Sometimes, things that are just part of the landscape,
    are the easiest not to see when we look around.

I put discipling in this series, because I need to hear it said again.
    I think we need to be more intentional
        to develop structures for discipling,
        to grow a culture of discipling,
        to nurture habits that encourage discipling.
    I’m not saying we all must move into intentional communities
        in the broken parts of our cities . . .
            but I thank God for those who do.

I am saying, we all must be intentional
    about our life and growth as disciples of Jesus.
    Disciples of Jesus are not born.
        They are not delivered by storks.
        They do not just appear in the flesh, because, in a flash,
            they “have decided to follow Jesus,
                no turning back, no turning back.”
        I love that song, and sing it.
        Deciding is a necessary first thing.
            But don’t ever think deciding is what makes a disciple.
        Actually following Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit,
            and embedded in the community of Spirit,
            is what makes disciples.
        Following Jesus is hard.
        And it cannot be done alone. Ever.

Kyle Childress wrote in a journal article, “Ties that bind”—
    “If our people are going to live the Christ-like life,
        then they had better do it as a body or they will never make it.”
    “I want [us] to think in terms of God and each other,
        each other and God—
            that we cannot have one without the other—
            and to think like this so much that it becomes habitual.”
    “Jesus Christ calls us to a shared and common life in him.
        [But since most church members have no idea such a life exists,
            much less is desirable,
            it is imperative that we look around for glimpses and models
                of what a common life might look like.”
    And he points to the new monastic movement as one example.

    You might think words like that would come from some
        hippie-communal-Anabaptist-intellectual type person.
        But Kyle Childress, for 25 years and counting,
            is pastor of a Baptist church deep in the heart of Texas.

Along with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, he defies stereotyping.
    Like all good disciples of Jesus should do.

So I want to challenge all of us here this morning,
    with these words—
“How are we finding our place in a discipling community?”—
    a real down-to-earth, rubber-hitting-the-road, kind of community,
    where we not only allow, but actively invite each other
        to speak into each others’ lives with love and honesty
            and courage and clarity and charity
            and grace and forgiveness and healing
    and where, like we heard the epistle writer say in Hebrews 10,
        we “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess,
        for he who promised is faithful.
        And [where we] consider how we may spur one another on
            toward love and good deeds,
            not giving up meeting together,
            as some are in the habit of doing,
            but encouraging one another—
                and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

The New Testament church, in those early days
    when they were on the margins of a hedonistic society,
        and were persecuted for it,
        they knew they needed each other.
    No one had to tell them in a sermon or a journal article
        that it was hard to be a Christian.
        They knew it, and lived it, daily.

So they, quite naturally,
    came together to disciple each other in The Way,
    they broke bread together daily,
        listened to the teachings of the apostles,
        discussed and discerned, and often argued over
            what being a disciple meant for their time and place.

I know the world has changed radically,
    and the church has changed,
    since those early days we read about in Acts and Hebrews.
I’m not suggesting we have a precise model in the N.T.
    that we just need to copy from.

But, in other ways, not much has changed at all,
    in terms of the conflict between
        the values of the church living under the reign of God,
        and the values of the dominant culture
            which the church inhabits, and breathes in every day.
        It was hard then.
        It is hard now.

    To even have a chance,
        we must immerse ourselves in a discipling community.
    We need to be situated in such a way
        that we can both be discipled,
        and help to disciple others.

    We have a different sets of experiences that shape us.
    We have different perspectives,
        points of view that are valuable,
        but that need to be checked against the points of view of others.
    We have differing gifts and insights.
    We have differing levels of growth and maturity.
        Some have been at this for 60 years.
        Some for 6 months.
            And both have something to offer of real value to the other.

    We have our differing stories to share.
        We have accounts to give of our lives.
        That’s what being accountable means, really.
            It’s not heavy-handed or coercive.
            Accountability should not be something
                that gets dragged out of us against our will.
            Accountability is owning my story, the account of my life,
                and being willing to give account for my life
                    to one whom I trust.

    Where there is community,
        there has to be accountability.
    Choosing not to give account,
        is choosing not to be in community.

I’ve been a baptized follower of Jesus for well over four decades.
    I’ve been in pastoral ministry for three decades.
    But I am not now, nor will I ever be,
        above the need to be discipled in my Christian walk.
    If I call myself a disciple of Jesus,
        I will be in covenant with other disciples,
        and will be willing to give account of my discipleship.

How do I do that?
    For me, it happens in various ways.
    You’ve heard me talk about our small group experience before.
        That is one important way that I give account, every week.
        We don’t come together demanding account of each other.
            There is no one person, pastor or otherwise,
                enforcing honest confession and transparency.
        Instead, we have created a space, a group culture,
            where confession and transparency
                is beautiful and life-giving,
            where we each know what we share will be treasured,
                and held lovingly.
        And when there is some unintended hurt toward another,
            there will be forgiveness and reconciliation.
        I would not want to be without that in my life.

But as wonderful as that group is,
    it’s not everything I need for discipleship.
    I carry a lot of different responsibilities and roles,
        so I need to be creative and flexible
        in how I go about being discipled, and discipling others.

    I meet with one other pastor most weeks,
        for mutual sharing and counsel and prayer,
        and have been doing that for 17 years.

    I have a district minister who asks me questions regularly.

    I lead a monthly group of area pastors,
        in which I help us give account to each other
        for some practices we agreed upon.

    I walk with two other young pastors in the area,
        who have asked for some intentional mentoring in their roles,
        and as you might expect,
            I end up learning a lot from them, as well.

    And for the last two years, I’ve been in something we call a huddle,
        led by someone else—
        a group of about 10 followers of Jesus, including several pastors,
        who meet every two weeks for the express purpose
            of growing as disciples and leaders,
            as we follow the leadership of our discipler/mentor.

    And of course, here at Park View, I don’t walk alone.
        I’m part of teams of leaders.
            We three pastors meet every week for mutual sharing
                and discerning.
            The elders meet with us monthly for the same reason.

Maybe that sounds like a lot of meetings. It is.
    And I’m certainly not saying you need 5 or 6
        different accountability structures.
    But I have a variety of responsibilities and roles,
        and I therefore need a variety of ways to stay accountable.
        Responsibility, and accountability, need to be in balance.

    So yes, I do take seriously my need to give account,
        and to keep learning, and growing.
        I may be a leader, but I am still a disciple,
            an apprentice of Jesus,
            with much to learn.

So today my challenge to each of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus,
    is to ask ourselves, and be honest with ourselves,
    “To whom do I regularly give an account
        for my life and walk as a disciple of Jesus?”
    Who is actively discipling me?

And please, don’t say, “My pastors.”
    Because that is not our calling.
    We are not your disciplers.
        We are here to equip the discipling community.
    We are not here to walk beside you
        down the straight and narrow road that leads to life.
    We can be with you in certain limited ways, at certain times.
    We can teach and preach from the pulpit,
        in ways that might assist in your growth, God helping us.
    And there might be a very few we walk with closely,
        in a discipling relationship for a season.
    But you need more than we can give.

And please, don’t say, “My spouse, or significant other.”
    Oh, I do hope, if you have a spouse or partner,
        that you have the kind of relationship
            where you give honest account
            about all areas of life, including your spiritual life.
    But that is not the same as being in a discipling relationship,
        where you are inviting someone from an outside perspective,
            to help you examine your life,
            and to speak honestly and prophetically into your life.

And . . . it’s not only a question of “Who am I giving account to,
    and who is investing themselves in my life?”
    There is also the question, “Who am I investing in?
        To whom am I making myself available?”
        And maybe it’s not even someone asking for it, explicitly.
        Elijah, in the O.T., walked up to his protégé Elisha,
            and threw his mantle over his shoulders,
            without Elisha asking for it.

Perhaps, God is putting someone in your life right now,
    who can’t even articulate a need to be discipled,
    but who is open to the gifts of yourself that you have to offer them,
        and who would grow as a disciple, if you did.

I invite you to give careful, and prayerful, thought,
    about the persons in your lives right now,
        both the ones who are investing in you and your discipleship,
        and the ones in whom you are investing.

And may this be our prayer . . .
    Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s load to bear,
    that all may live in true accord, our joys and pains to share.

    Help us to build each other up, your strength within us prove.
    Increase our faith, confirm our hope, and fill us with your love.

    Together make us free indeed--your life within us show,
    and into you, our living Head, let us in all things grow.

    Drawn by the magnet of your love we find our hearts made new.
    Nearer each other let us move, and nearer still to you.

Let’s sing together, HWB 362

—Phil Kniss, October 12, 2014

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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ron Byler: One body? Impossible!

World Communion Sunday
Ephesians 4:1-6

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Our guest preacher today is Ron Byler, Executive Director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. In this role he oversees the relief, development, and advocacy ministries of MCC U.S., and together with his counterpart at MCC Canada, oversees the international programs of MCC. Ron spoke in his message of Christ's call for unity in the body of Christ, drawing primarily from Ephesians 4:1-6.

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Phil Kniss: Fasting and hope

Church matters: Fasting and Feasting
Isaiah 58:3-6; Luke 18:9-14; Psalm 36:5-10

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Of the many practices of the church—
    practices that can shape us as the people of God for the 21st century—
    fasting is probably the most misunderstood,
        and the most neglected.
I won’t ask for a raise of hands,
    but I certainly wonder how many of us,
        anytime in the last 12 months,
        chose intentionally to fast.
    And I don’t mean on doctor’s orders,
        or to prepare for a blood test or medical procedure.
    I mean for spiritual or religious reasons.

If I asked that question, with a raise of hands,
    to all kinds of religious groups all over the world,
    many groups would obviously have all hands raised,
        and would be dumbfounded that I even asked—
        Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus,
        Catholics, Eastern Orthodox,
            would all be in that category.
    I have a pretty strong hunch,
        that the group with the fewest hands raised,
        would be North American Christians
            who are not Catholic or Orthodox,
        that is, Protestants, evangelicals, Anabaptists.

Why would that be?
    One answer is that those groups give lesser importance
        to the Christian calendar,
            and its designated fast days and feast days.
    Another answer
        is that the call to these historic practices of the church
            has been drowned out by our cultural narrative—
            a narrative that glorifies excess, accumulation, consumption,
                individual freedom, and instant gratification.
    We live in a larger culture that bombards us continually,
        with overt messages, and hidden messages,
        telling us happiness lies in filling up our lives,
            with whatever we desire.
    The notion that we can find fulfillment through emptiness,
        is utter nonsense to the those outside our Christian narrative,
            and outside the narrative of most other
            great religions of the world.

But there’s another reason for our neglect of fasting, I think.
    Even when we do think about the discipline of fasting,
        or decide to engage in it, or experiment with it,
        we often do it for the wrong reasons.
    And when our expected results, don’t quite materialize,
        we are less likely to repeat the experiment.

I’ve been reading a book on fasting by Scot McKnight,
    part of the Ancient Practices series.

This book helped shake me out of my own apathy about fasting.
    I have been just as influenced as the rest of us,
        to think less seriously about fasting,
        because it’s just not a deep part
            of our regular rhythms in the Christian calendar,
        and because it just doesn’t seem altogether necessary
            to purposely deprive our body of its physical needs,
            in order to get God to do something for us.

But then I hear McKnight say, “Hold on a minute.
    Since when do we think fasting is primarily a means to an end?”
And I think to myself . . . well . . . isn’t it?

    That’s sort of what I gathered in my Christian upbringing.
        If I’m facing a major, life-changing decision,
            I should pray, and fast, so God will give me a clear answer.
        If I’m really desiring someone’s healing,
            I should fast, as well as pray,
                so God will be more likely to hear, and to heal.
        If I’m burdened about the state of someone’s spiritual life,
            I should fast, so God would listen, and intervene, and save.

    Fasting has usually been, in my mind, kind of like a megaphone.
        A prayer amplifier.
        I take my ordinary prayer,
            and speak it through the megaphone of fasting,
            so my prayer will be louder, and clearer,
                and so God will hear it better,
                and bump it up a few spots on his daily to-do list.

Scot McKnight says fasting is not an initiative, but a response.
    He calls fasting a person’s whole-body natural response
        to life’s grievous, sacred moments.
    The fact that it’s a natural response,
        is why it shows up in virtually every world religion.

    Choosing not to eat or drink is how a person naturally responds
        to a grievous sacred moment.
    I think we all have either experienced,
        or walked with a loved one who experienced,
        a prolonged loss of appetite in a time of deep grief and loss.
    That’s our body talking.
        It’s our body speaking what we feel in our spirits,
            and know to be true in our minds.
    There is a deep connection of body, mind, and spirit in our beings.
        So when the mind and spirit are struck deeply,
            with grief, or injury, or fear . . .
            fasting brings our body’s experience
                into alignment with our mind and spirit.

    Fasting may be spontaneous. Done without thinking.
        Fasting may also be a conscious choice.
    But in either case,
        we choose, with intention, to go without food or drink
        as a response to whatever the grievous, sacred moment may be.

People fasted in the Bible
    in response to death,
    in response to the realization of sin,
    in response to a serious threat,
    in response to national tragedy.

McKnight asks, “Does [fasting] bring results?
    Yes, but that’s not the point of fasting.
    Those who fasted in response to grievous sacred moments
        frequently—but not always!—received results,
        like answered prayer.
    But focusing on the results
        causes us to misunderstand fasting entirely . . .
    Fasting isn’t a manipulative tool that guarantees results . . .
    The focus in the Christian tradition is not ‘if you fast you will get,’
        but ‘when this happens, God’s people fast.’
    Fasting is a response to a very serious situation,
        not an act that gets us from a good level to a better level.”

McKnight says the trouble with thinking about fasting
    as a means to an end,
    is that it “becomes a manipulative device
        instead of a genuine, Christian spiritual discipline.”

Fasting, when it becomes a device, or tool,
    easily moves us toward self-righteousness and self-absorption.
That’s what the prophet Isaiah was upset about in today’s OT reading.
    If fasting does not lead us toward compassion for others,
        then it loses its meaning altogether.
    If fasting is seen as a tool to get what we want,
        while failing to grieve what God is grieved about,
        our act becomes detestable to God.

Isaiah, speaking about Israel, in God’s voice, says,
    “Day after day they seek me out;
        they seem eager to know my ways,
        as if they were a nation that does what is right.
    They ask me for just decisions
        and seem eager for God to come near them.
    They say to me, ‘Why have we fasted, and you have not seen it?
        Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

Israel is engaging in an instrumental fast, not a responsive fast.
    They are fasting, to try to convince God to relieve their suffering,
        to rescue them from whatever unfortunate state they were in.
    they themselves were the cause of other’s suffering,
        they were not feeding the poor,
        they were exploiting the laborers,
        they were quarreling among themselves.
    They were self-absorbed in their fasting.
    And they failed to grieve what God was grieving about—
        their own injustice and callousness and infighting.

It was a sham of a fast.
    The fast God desires,
        is a fast that comes from an encounter with the truth,
            an honest reckoning with the grievous, sacred event.
    In Israel’s case, the grievous sacred event
        was God on the move in the world,
            with a hand of justice and judgement,
            setting things right.
    But they didn’t see God’s hand moving among them,
        because they were fixated on what they wanted for themselves.

True fasting comes from an orientation toward the other.

Scot McKnight wrote,
    “Every generation needs an Isaiah
        to stand up in the middle of the action and say,
        ‘Hey, folks, this isn't about us!
            What we give up when we fast should be given to others.’”

It makes me wonder.
    What are the grievous, sacred events,
        which ought to be driving us to fast?
    If fasting is, in fact, a natural, whole-body response,
        to life’s grievous, sacred events,
        are we paying attention enough to notice, and respond?

    Do we allow ourselves to deeply feel and reflect on
        the grievous and sacred happenings around us, and in the world?
    And if so, are we attentive to how our own body
        may be calling us to respond,
        so that the experience of our body,
            is aligned with what we know in our mind,
            and feel in our spirit?

For instance,
    I don’t know how you are responding
        to the horrific events in Iraq and Syria,
        and the brutal indiscriminate killings by ISIS.
    Our news media, because it depends on advertisers’ dollars,
        is programmed to deliver bad news in small digestible doses,
            mini sound-bites, selected images,
            appearing and disappearing in seconds.
    It can’t afford—literally, it can’t financially afford—
        to let us viewers become overwhelmed with grief and sorrow,
        lest we are unable to mentally process
            the advertisements for Lexus and L’Oréal and Miller-Lite.
    We have to be able to laugh out loud at the Geico commercials,
        or the networks will lose millions of dollars in ad revenue.

So more than likely,
    the abject horror of the violence registers with us, barely,
        and but for a moment,
    so we can get on with our lives,
        and have a nice dinner out tonight.
    To consider that we might fast, for a day, or even one meal,
        in response to the devastatingly grievous events in the world,
        probably didn’t even occur to us.

How many of us, lately, have considered fasting, in response to the
    Ebola outbreak in West Africa, or the
    thousands of unaccompanied children detained near our border, or the
    increasing threat of climate change, or the
    racial tensions and violence here at home, or the
    conflict happening across the Mennonite church
        and other parts of Christ’s body, or the
    topic we’re dealing with in the second hour,
        child sexual abuse.

If we haven’t thought of fasting, as part of our response,
    maybe we should.
It would be easy, and relatively painless,
    to make all these things merely issues to be debated,
        and fought over rationally.
    Which is what we do, mostly.

What if we would allow ourselves to enter into God’s grief
    over these areas of deep brokenness—
        brokenness in ourselves, our families, our churches,
        our larger systems in the world, in which we partake.
    Perhaps, if we really felt God’s grief,
        a response of fasting might naturally, almost spontaneously,
            come to the fore.
        And we might be changed by it.
        And other results might happen because of it.
        God might move among us in new ways.

    Not because we pulled out one of the tricks in our book—
        fasting, to manipulate God to act in our favor.
    No, but because we opened ourselves anew to God’s grief,
        and sought to have integrity in ourselves,
        so that our mind and spirit and body would be aligned,
            and oriented toward God, and toward God’s purposes,
            in other words, oriented outward, rather than inward,
                toward the other, rather than ourselves.

This kind of fasting—responsive fasting—
    responding to a grievous sacred moment in time,
        or to a situation of deep brokenness or emptiness,
    is ultimately, a statement of our hope.
    By fasting, we are not only lamenting,
        but declaring our hope in the feast that is yet to come.

Fasting and feasting are closely related,
    in the scriptures,
    and in church tradition.
We enter the fast, in hope of the feast to come.
We embrace emptiness, in hope of the fullness God has prepared.

    Jesus reminded us that those who are first, will be last.
    Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.
    Those who grasp life, will lose it.
    Those who fill themselves, will find themselves hungry.

        And all of those . . . vice-versa.
            The hungry will be filled, etc.

    Like today’s Gospel, about the praying Pharisee and tax collector.
        the poor sinner left the temple justified,
        the self-justified was left in his sin.

Fasting is the way of Jesus,
    who emptied himself, even to the point of death on a cross,
        in hope that God would fulfill his greater purposes,
        in hope of the coming resurrection feast.

In the church calendar,
    we have seasons of fasting,
        as a way of declaring our hope in the feast to come.
    We have an Advent fast coming up in December,
        in hope of the Christmas feast;
        and the Lenten fast next spring,
        in hope of the Easter feast.

Many American Protestant Christians think of these seasonal fasts
    at least as optional,
    if not completely unnecessary for a Christian,
    and maybe even as a useless and empty ritual.
I’m quite sure that would not be the mind of Jesus,
    who regularly participated in the practices of his Jewish faith.
    Yes, on occasion, he decided not to fast, or not obey Sabbath law,
        as he listened to the Spirit,
        and to teach a lesson to the self-righteous leaders.
    But he was one who held together, without fail,
        his human body, mind, and spirit,
        in full alignment with the will of God.
    He fasted for 40 days in the wilderness,
        responding to the Spirit’s grievous, sacred act
            of “driving him into the desert” as one gospel puts it,
            and compelling a period of isolation and desolation.

    I think that was a period of hard work for Jesus,
        of deep aligning of his body, mind, spirit, and will.
    He fasted,
        not to get something good from God,
        but because it was the only response that made any sense,
            as he wrestled with God and Satan over his identity.

Would that we might enter more fully and deeply
    into the woundedness of this world,
        and feel physically compelled to fast, and pray,
        not to manipulate God into doing something for us,
        but to humbly empty ourselves,
            so we become fully aligned with God,
            and ready to then live out that alignment,
                with bodies that are ready to get into God’s action,
                to do God’s will, however costly.
    Genuine fasting and prayer is never a spiritual escape,
        it is preparation for deeper engagement.

May God give us courage to fast, often,
    with a full and joyful anticipatory hope
        in God’s abundant feast that is yet to come.

—Phil Kniss, September 28, 2014

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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Praying in Community

Church Matters: Praying
Ephesians 6:18-20; Colossians 4:2-3; James 5:13-16

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:
[coming soon]

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here

...or read it online here:

        Two weeks ago I met with the 6 youth from this congregation who were preparing for their baptism that took place last Sunday at Brethren Woods. At Ross’s request, I joined them for a pizza lunch, and then shared with them on the topic of “prayer”.  I consented to do this, not because I am an expert on prayer, but because I believe our prayer life is important and I know how challenging it is to maintain a regular rhythm of prayer in our busy lives. I wanted to share with these new young believers a variety of ways we can pray,(breath prayer, intercessory prayer, conversational prayer, centering prayer, prayer walking, labyrinth prayer,..)  and even different postures for prayer, practices that may help them have a larger view of prayer than what I had at their age.  The fact that I did this on a Sunday afternoon around 1pm after eating pizza, as they sat in comfy chairs, might not have been the best timing! But maybe they will remember at least 1-2 things.

In my teenage years, I tried to have my devotional time. I tried to read the Bible daily. I tried to have prayers regularly. It was always a challenge.  When I forgot, or ran out of time at the end of the day or got up late, I felt guilty. I often felt like a total failure in my prayer life.  It hasn’t become easier over the years, but my understanding of prayer and my attitude about it has changed and grown.  Maybe some of you have experienced similar feelings and challenges.

Recently I was re-reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, “An Altar in the World”, about her experience.  BBT is an Episcopal priest, a professor of religion, a prolific writer and preacher.  She knew as she was working on this book, that a chapter on prayer needed to be included but she dreaded writing it.  She goes on to explain that she has shelves full of prayer books, shelves of books on prayer, notes and files on prayer from classes she has taken or taught, candles and icons and incense, etc., but wrote “I am a failure at prayer.”  In a confessional way, she admitted that when people ask her about her prayer life, she tries to redirect them or to say admiring things about prayer so they know it is important to her, but all the time trying to change the topic!  She writes,  “I would rather show someone my checkbook than talk about my prayer life.  I would rather confess that I am a rotten godmother, that I struggle with my weight, that I like gin martinis than confess that I am a prayer-weakling.  To say I love God but do not pray much is like saying I love life but I do not breathe much.  The only way I have found to survive my shame is to come at the problem from both sides, exploring two distinct possibilities; 1.)  that prayer is more than my idea of prayer and 2.) that some of what I actually do in my life may constitute genuine prayer.”

Her words resonate with me.  My idea of what prayer is has changed considerably and continues to over the years.  I also have embraced the fact that my music, my listening, my waiting in silence, my learning scripture, my telling scripture, my prayer walks, my breath prayers are all various ways that I genuinely pray throughout my day.  But those are my private, personal prayers.

What about how we pray in community?  What about the practices we do as a congregation, as a community of believers? 

Arthur Paul Boers, a Mennonite pastor, writer, seminary professor, reflects on similar questions in his book, “The Rhythm of God’s Grace”.  In his early years as a Christian, he admits knowing the difficulty of being prayerful.  He describes his own prayers as ad hoc, made up without paying attention to the Christian year or the priorities of the church or the needs of the wider world.  His prayers, he writes, were self directed, disconnected, subjective.  He admits it was pretty easy to set aside his prayer time when life became overwhelming or schedule was too tight or he wasn’t in the mood.

What changed his life and direction was uncovering the practice of fixed hour prayers, or the daily office, at a time of real crisis in his life.  His only sibling, a sister, died from leukemia at the age of 18.  He found himself unable to pray.  He had nothing to say to God and couldn’t voice his laments and pain.  Then someone handed him a Taize prayer book.  It gave him words to pray.

Ruth Haley Barton, who was the keynote resource person last year for School for Leadership Training here at EMS, expressed similar thoughts in an article she wrote several years ago, stating, “when I participated in fixed hour prayer, I felt like I had come home to a place that I had never been and yet a place in which I truly belonged.”..and admits that it has become one of the richest aspects of her spiritual life.

So how can we continue to encourage one another and keep alive the practice of praying as a community, when we live in a culture that has many obstacles to prayerfulness?

Arthur Boers would say, let’s uncover the practice of morning and evening prayers and restore the “missing link”!  Christians offer worship to God and our prayers in three ways: (falls on a continuum)
1.)  Public, corporate worship and prayer - involves a large group, less participation, more formality.
2.)  Common prayer - “the missing link”. - involves smaller groups, more dependent on voluntary initiative and participation, some formal structure, but allows room for one’s own responses.    It falls in the middle between what we do corporately in our public worship and what we do individually, privately in a ‘free form’ kind of way.
3.)  Free private, personal, spontaneous prayer - individual, informal, subjective and dependent on one’s own initiative.

Boers believes that the absence of this common prayer practice has led to much distortion for Christians in both corporate worship and personal prayer.  He writes:  “Praying together at a similar time (even when separated geographically) can profoundly reverse unhealthy individualism in our prayer.”

He emphasizes, and I would concur, that we need a balanced 3 fold worship and prayer life.  We need to honor and embrace and encourage one another to practice, or to continue to practice our 1.) corporate, public worship and prayers (as we do right here Sunday morning), 2.) private spontaneous prayers, but then also uncover/restore the missing link, 3.) regular rhythm of morning and evening prayers/common prayer/daily office.

Two parts of this 3 fold prayer life we understand.
1.)  Public, corporate worship and prayer:
Sunday morning service:
-invocation-a prayer that invites God to be present
-thanksgiving-gratitude for specific gifts
-confession-a prayer that acknowledges our sin or guilt, followed by a request for forgiveness
-dedication-a prayer offering our tithes, dedicating our children, our school kits, our items for MCC relief sale
-litany-responsive prayer addressed to God
-pastoral prayer-includes thanksgiving and intercession
-Lord’s prayer-
-prayers to commission/bless mission workers
-special prayers during times of natural disasters and local tragedies
-benediction-blessing prayer to send people forth

2.)  Private, personal prayer - incorporates all of those prayers we utter on the spur of the moment, when we receive an e mail from the church or a friend with a request, the prayers we voice on our walks, when we lie awake at night and can’t sleep, prayers we sing in our songs, or when we are folding the wash, peeling the potatoes, mowing the yard, pulling weeds.

But what about ‘the missing link”, the common prayer, the fixed hour prayers, the divine hours, (has many different names for it), that Arthur Boers and Ruth Haley Barton and many others are rediscovering and enthusiastically embracing?  It is an old, old Christian practice that is rooted in Jewish tradition and in the patterns of the early Church.  Jesus and his disciples, as practicing Jews in the first century, would have been familiar with this.  The Psalms were the Hebrew prayer book and practicing Jews prayed from this daily.  We read in numerous scripture texts about prayers at certain hours.  We read of Paul’s words in many of his letters, encouraging prayer for a variety of reasons and continually.

Common prayer is composed of prayers that the church has prayed throughout the ages and around the world.  They will be prayed until the end of time.  When we pray them, we are joined with the body of Christ, the communion of saints, present and absent and future , here and gone and still to come.
The common prayer or fixed hour prayer went from being one of the most important ways that Christians worshiped and prayed to disappearing for most Protestants.  The understanding of it and the practice of this type of prayer was lost during the time of the early church and the Reformation.  Our forebearers as persecuted believers, were forced to hide and worship secretly, and much of what was a common practice in the early church was abandoned.  In that process we lost a rich avenue of prayer that is rooted in Scripture and was practiced faithfully by the early Christians.
Can we uncover this practice and restore this missing link?  Do we want to?

The elements of the fixed hour prayer model usually contain, an invocation, a psalm, a scripture reading, the Lord’s Prayer, silence, prayer of the church, parting blessing...or a combination of these elements.  It doesn’t have to take long, one can adapt and try some variations.  They can be said alone or when a few gather together.  As pastors and office staff, we gather weekdays at 9am to have morning prayers, that follow this format.  Anyone is welcome to join us in the conference room.
What would it take for us as a congregation to try, even minimally, to recover the practice of a daily rhythm of prayer for the church?  What about deciding as a SS class to prayer at a certain time of the day, or commit as a small group to do this?  What if ever PV member would stop for 10 minutes at noon to pray for the church and its leaders during this time of discernment, stress and tension?  

Ruth Haley Barton writes: “Fixed hour prayer anchors our daily lives in rhythms of prayer, Scripture reading, and silence, ensuring that we do not get too far into any day without reorienting ourselves to the presence of God.  Praying at least some of the fixed hours in community can shape our identity as communities of believers.” ( P.37 Sweet Hours of Prayer article)

In Arthur Boers book he share a true story about Nelson Kraybill, former president of AMBS and now pastor at Prairie St. Mennonite Church.  
Nelson was traveling by plane and ended up sitting next to a young man.  Enroute he began to engage in conversation with him and discovered the young man was a seminary student, preparing for the priesthood.  During the flight the young man pulled out his Roman Catholic liturgy of the hours book and invited Nelson to join him for prayers.  They didn’t sing the hymns aloud, but they did read the antiphonal liturgy and spoke prayers of blessing for each other’s ministry.  At 30,000 ft., two strangers recognized each other as brothers in Christ sharing a journey.  More than anything else it was that shared prayer that established common ground and bridged denominational differences between us.

Maybe it is time for us to recover, uncover, restore a daily time of common prayer that helps us pray as a community, even when we are separated, a time to remember the church, the needs of the world, the global communion of saints.....a time to embrace and immerse ourselves in the rich tradition of the early church for a time such as this.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Phil Kniss: Slow Church

2014 Park View Church Retreat
Psalm 46:1-5, 10-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 24-35; Ephesians 4:1-6

Watch the video:

Video guide:
0:00 - Music and photo introduction
4:05 - Phil Kniss meditation on "Slow Church"
19:40 - Faith statements and baptisms of six youth

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here

...or read it online here:

There are two separate brief presentations, Saturday morning and Sunday morning. The video above includes only Sunday morning. The text below, and the printer-friendly PDF includes both presentations.


You probably heard this one before, but speaking of slow church . . .
A person was talking to God. “God, how long is a million years?”
God answers, “To me . . . . . . it’s about a minute.”
“God, how much is a million dollars?”
“To me . . . . . . it’s a penny.”
“God, may I have a penny?”
“Sure . . . . . . Wait a minute.”

We all know about fast food.
It’s where you realize you are hungry,
swing your car into a drive-thru,
decide what to eat,
have it prepared,
pay for it,
and start eating it,
while you’re pulling back into traffic,
all in less than 3 minutes.
That scenario would have been unthinkable,
and probably disgusting,
when Park View church was founded 61 years ago.

Now, it’s normal.
Fast food has not just changed the way we eat.
It has changed the world economy.
And it has changed our culture.

30 years ago some Italian activists started a protest
against a new McDonald’s
opening near the historic Spanish Steps in Rome.
That protest started the “Slow Food” movement,
which, when it comes to food,
calls for the opposite of McDonalds and other fast-food joints.
Slow Food is traditional and regional cuisine,
it’s growing plants, seeds, and livestock
that are natural to the local ecosystem,
it’s taking time to prepare and enjoy food,
in community with others.

The Slow Food movement spawned other “slow” movements,
Slow Cities, Slow Parenting, Slow Travel, and now more recently,
“Slow Church.”

All these movements resonate with 
the work of sociologist George Ritzer,
whose 1993 book The McDonaldization of Society
criticizes what happens when whole cultures adopt
the characteristics and values of the fast-food industry.

Yes, there is a time and place for
speed, efficiency, predictability, and control.
But what are the long-term impacts 
on human health, on relationships, on cultural diversity?
when faster is always better?
when efficiency is more important than quality and durability?
when predictability and control
is valued more than spontaneity or creativity?
What do we lose?

This weekend, and maybe for longer . . . 
we are inviting this community of Park View Mennonite Church
to ponder the blessings of “Slow Church.”

Slow Church is a fairly new conversation happening
among pastors and church leaders.
There was a conference on it in Indiana earlier this year.
A book was published this summer titled,
Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.
This sparked my interest a great deal,
and when I shared the idea with the retreat committee,
they jumped on it . . . a slow jump, of course.

So what is “Slow Church”? First, I’ll tell you what it’s not.

It’s not doing everything we’re already doing,
but moving more slowly as we do it.
It’s not just having a nice, slow, relaxing weekend together,
to take a break from the speed of life in the marketplace.

No, it’s about a different way of life, as a church.
It’s about valuing relationships and conversation.
It’s about entering deeply into a particular place and context.
It’s about listening and taking time to discern what God is doing
in the neighborhood.
It’s about having the patience to stay, 
instead of always looking for the next thing—
the better, faster, bigger, shinier thing.
It’s about being content with enough.
It’s about radical dependence on the Holy Spirit,
and bold engagement with God’s mission in the world.

Slow church is local, communal, missional,
it is patient, forgiving, healing, listening, and discerning.

Slow church is the opposite of what Western Christian church culture
seems to think is normal—
building up our Christian religious enterprise
as quickly, efficiently, and productively as we can,
by aggressively marketing our goods and services, 
protecting our brand,
consolidating our power and resources,
having slick entertaining productions,
and hipster preachers.

Let me read you part of the publisher’s blurb for the book:
“As a church, we often fail to notice how quickly we capitulate . . .
to a culture of unreflective speed, dehumanizing efficiency 
and dis-integrating isolationism.
In the beginning, the church ate together, traveled together
and shared in all facets of life.
Centered as they were on Jesus, 
these seemingly mundane activities 
took on . . . significance in the mission of God.
In Slow Church, [we] leave franchise faith behind 
and enter into the ecology, economy and ethics 
of the kingdom of God, 
where people know each other well 
and love one another as Christ loved the church.”

A pastor, Carol Howard Merritt, said this,
“In this agitated and anxious world, 
our worth is determined by our productivity 
and our value is measured by how much we can devour. 
Without much thought, even our churches have become tangled up
in our quick-consumption mentality. 
[Slow Church is] a different vision—
one of a careful community of deep relationships.”
(Carol Howard Merritt, pastor, author of Reframing Hope and Tribal Church)

Mark Scandrette, another author, writes,
“Hurry, worry, stress and striving
have come to dominate human consciousness
in the twenty-first century—
the logical consequences of a society
built on individualism and productivity at any cost.
We long for a pace of life that allows us to enjoy deep relationships,
meaningful work, 
spiritual vitality 
and the simple pleasures of life.”
(Mark Scandrette, author of Free and Practicing the Way of Jesus)

Mark Lau Branson, professor at Fuller Seminary, said,
“All of our churches are shaped by our cultural environments . . .
forces such as fragmentation, impatience, commodification,
branding, hyper-mobility, individualism and efficiency
too often dominate our practices and priorities.
We strive for control in the midst of fears and self-protection.
Slow Church provides theology and imagination
that connect gospel embodiment with place and neighbors,
calling us to slower lives around tables
and conversations that nourish and interweave
gratefulness, listening, work, hospitality,
justice and the biblical trajectory
toward the reconciliation of all things.
Less of McDonalds; more of Sabbath feasts.”
(Mark Lau Branson, Homer L. Goddard Professor of the Ministry of the Laity, Fuller Seminary)

There is much more I could say.
And I will say a bit more
in some worship reflections tomorrow morning.
But let me just invite us all, for these couple days of retreat,
to play with this idea together.
Let us imagine what it would mean for us, as a church,
to give our highest priority, and our greatest time and energy
to conversation with each other,
to sharing our lives more deeply,
to connecting more organically to our neighbors,
to noticing God’s movement, and following it,
and become less worried and anxious about 
having a successful church program,
or fine-tuning the church structure,
or expanding the church institution.

In our group activities this morning,
which you’ll find out about in a minute,
we are going to exercise our skills of doing “slow church.”
We will need to practice things like listening, noticing, being patient,
accepting each other’s mistakes and extending grace,
taking more time than you think necessary,
and treasuring the gifts that everyone brings to the community.
If you thrive on efficiency, control, perfection, and predictability,
then you might find this activity a challenge.
But consider it a healthy challenge,
think of it as a work out,
a chance to exercise some spiritual muscles 
that maybe are underused, and a little bit flabby.
But mostly, let’s relax and enjoy our extended time together,
a time to build and deepen relationships,
to allow yourself to have lingering conversations,
without an agenda, other than to be in community.



When Jesus wanted to give people a picture of the kingdom of God,
he talked about farming.
Not many of us are farmers,
but I think most of us get it, anyway,
when Jesus uses metaphors about seeds, and being patient,
and paying attention to the context and environment,
like the rocks, and thorns, and weeds, and birds,
and then adjusting our responses accordingly.

The kingdom parables were not strategic plans
to maximize speed and efficiency.
They were stories that told about patience,
about not worrying overly much
about some of the seed that went to waste,
about letting weeds grow with the wheat for now,
and letting God sort things out in the end,
about knowing it doesn’t depend on us,
that alone, we can’t make a whole tree,
from a tiny mustard seed, but God can,
about being willing to wait for the dough to rise,
and not forcing it before it’s time,
about yielding ourselves and our efforts to God.

When Paul the Apostle wanted to teach the believers in Ephesus
about how to live and work together as the church of Jesus,
he did not tell them to work harder and faster and smarter.
Rather, he said, “Be completely humble and gentle;
be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit 
through the bond of peace.”

And when the Old Testament psalm writer
saw that his people were in great distress,
he did not write a set of instructions and strategies to overcome it all.
He wrote them a song, to comfort them,
to calm them, to slow their collective racing heartbeat.
He wrote, “God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
God says to you,
‘Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.’
The Lord Almighty is with us.
the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

Those were the scriptures we heard this morning.
There is more of the same, from beginning to end of the Bible.
We are invited into a place of trust in God’s sovereignty.
We are invited to cease trying to manufacture goodness,
or earn God’s favor,
or sell faith like a commodity.

Slow down. Breathe. Trust.
God is at work here and now, in this world.
We can count on that.
We can rest in that assurance.
Our part is to sit still and notice our surroundings,
to be attentive and discerning . . . and then responsive.

As a church, we live in a culture that is anything but
trusting, and attentive, and thoughtful, and relational, and settled.
We inhabit a culture of fear and mistrust,
of anxious striving,
of worry and hurry,
of hyper-mobility [moving around all the time]
of accumulation,
of power moves,
and of violence.

And it is into this kind of world,
that God invites us to be real church . . . “Slow Church.”
The opposite of what sociologist George Ritzer called
a “McDonald-ized culture” that values, above all,
speed, efficiency, predictability, control.

Scenario 1.
A 3-minute race through the drive-through,
eating cheap food imported from half-way around the world,
alone in my car,
while driving over the speed limit to our next appointment.
Scenario 2.
A leisurely evening sitting around a table 
visiting with friends and neighbors,
while eating dishes prepared mostly from our garden ingredients,
that we personally labored over,
during a period of months,
planting, growing, weeding, harvesting, and cooking.
The difference between those scenarios is incalculable—
in terms of nutrition, taste, relationships, and pure joy.
I know, because I’ve had both those experiences, precisely.

The difference between fast food and slow food,
is about the same as,
the difference between fast church and slow church.

Scenario 1.
Going to worship in a huge, cavernous, darkened auditorium,
with spotlights on a stage production,
mostly listening to the music, because I can’t hear myself sing,
a receiving a spell-binding message 
from a showman of a preacher,
who runs that church like a corporation,
who on his first day on the job as senior pastor (I kid you not)
walked into the offices of the other 14 pastors,
with a letter asking for their resignation,
because he wanted to build his own team from scratch.
Scenario 2.
Going to worship with a church family who knows each other well,
that spends time together through the week,
who are patient with each other’s failings and idiosyncrasies,
who linger long in conversations at potlucks and coffee breaks,
who sing all together, all voices joining heartily,
who know, and are engaged with their neighbors,
who love, and are patient with,
their less-than-perfect pastors,
because the pastors are just like the rest of their imperfect family,
The difference between those scenarios is incalculable—
in terms of what really matters in God’s kingdom.
I know, because I’ve had both those experiences, precisely.

The first one was a few years ago,
and the second one describes, mostly,
my daily experience as a pastor of, 
and more importantly, a member of, 
this community of believers on mission with God,
who call themselves Park View Mennonite.
I love you, church! I seriously love you!
And never more than when we get to spend
a whole weekend together like this.

But I say this “mostly” describes my experience at PVMC,
because as a relatively large, and well-established church,
we often get tempted by fast-church values of
speed, size, efficiency, profitability, predictability,
growth, institutional security, and such like.
And sometimes we might give more attention to those values 
than we ought to as a living, organic, body of Christ,
described in scripture with farming metaphors.

This weekend, we have celebrated our call to be “Slow Church.”
That doesn’t always mean moving slowly.
It doesn’t necessarily mean just chilling and relaxing,
like we are this weekend.
Although that’s all good, and we need to do it more often.

But Slow Church is more than that.
It’s a theological undergirding for who we are as a church.

Slow Church is a way of life, supported by intentional practices
(like our current worship series is working at).
Slow Church is a choice to live joyfully and gratefully 
in an anxious and broken world.
Slow Church is a holy resistance 
against the speed and industrialization of Western culture, 
and its captivation with efficiency, predictability, and individualism.
Slow Church is a call to patient cultivation of the kingdom, 
in the deeply relational way of Jesus.
Slow Church is a steadfast and stubborn commitment 
to real, honest, loving, respectful, and extended conversation 
with each other in the body of Christ, 
and with our neighbors (whom we love as ourselves).
Slow Church is always local and contextual,
even as it engages the world far beyond itself.

Even Pope Francis,
the head of the most hierarchical and institutional 
church body in the world,
admits that the heart of the church is not speed and efficiency.

In an address to the bishops in Brazil, he said,
“We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture,
but God lets us see things slowly, quietly.
The church has to learn how to wait.
Further, Pope Francis said,
“[In the church] we see a desperate need for calmness, 
I would even say slowness.
Is the Church still able to move slowly:
to take the time to listen,
to have the patience to mend and reassemble?
Or is the Church herself caught up
in the frantic pursuit of efficiency?
Without mercy we have little chance nowadays
of becoming part of a world of ‘wounded’ persons
in need of understanding, forgiveness, love.”

In highlighting “Slow Church”—
this weekend, and maybe in other ways throughout the year—
we are calling for intentionality,
for participating in the practices of the church,
for deeper, longer, and richer conversations
with each other,
for a greater investment in our place, our neighborhood,
taking our context seriously,
in short, for a more profound attentiveness
to what God is doing in and around us,
in people, systems, and in creation itself.

God is at work in the world,
in God’s way and in God’s time.
Our work is join together as a church
that co-labors with God.

With that in mind,
I invite us now, in Slow-Church mode,
to a slow soup communion,
a sharing soup and bread among us all.
This is not a traditional communion,
but rather, 
a demonstration of our connectedness with each other and God,
by eating together,
slowly, all together, with joy and freedom.

So here’s the suggested way of doing this . . .
There will be persons here serving up the soup and bread.
This is a symbolic meal only.
A mere appetizer,
for the banquet that awaits us at noon.
But in celebration of the community we experience at the table,
all are welcome, young and old,
whoever can hold a little cup of soup and piece of bread,
please come and join in.

There will be some quiet music playing
as we enjoy this little meal together.
Form spontaneous little groups
from the people who are close to you right now.
It doesn’t matter how many.
A group of two or four or more, as you wish.
Just group together, stand and form a little circle
and face each other.
Go ahead and take a minute to do that now,
while the servers and musicians come to front and get ready.

Please note that we have a gluten-free option for the bread.
The soup is vegetarian, but contains a bit of yoghurt.
So if you can’t have dairy, we also have a vegan option.
If you need either one, just ask for it when you come up.

Now, as the music begins,
your group can come together whenever you are ready.
The groups near the front should come first.
After you get your soup and bread,
carry it back to where your group is standing now,
and then eat it together as a group.
All the while,
whether you are waiting for your group to go up 
and get your soup,
or whether you already have it and are eating,
engage each other in conversation.
I suggest you reflect generally on the question in the bulletin,
as to where you have noticed God at work, in the church,
or in the neighborhood,
but feel free to vary from that as the Spirit leads.
The point here is to practice a little bit of slow church,
be attentive to each other,
savor the present moment,
listen for the Spirit,
be joyful in what God is doing among us.

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