September 25, 2009

The Koinonia Story in a Nutshell

Thanks to Church of the Servant King in Eugene, Oregon Koinonia Farm Director Bren Dubay and Ekklesia Project Director Brent Laytham met during Pentecost 2008. Bren was visiting the folks in Eugene to learn how another community shares life together. Brent was there as a guest speaker celebrating the birth of the church with Church of the Servant King. Inspired by Brent’s teaching, Bren promised she’d attend the 2008 Gathering. This led to her coming back in 2009 and co-presenting a workshop, “Doing Business for the Kingdom or the Empire,” with Chi-Ming Chien of Dayspring Technologies.

Many of those involved in the Ekklesia Project know of Koinonia Farm and Clarence Jordan. Clarence, his wife Florence and their friends Mabel and Martin England founded Koinonia (Greek for loving community) in 1942. Inspired by the Book of Acts, they wanted to live in an intentional Christian community and live out their deeply held beliefs drawn from Jesus’ teachings: peacemaking, radical sharing, and brother/ sisterhood among all people.

In the 1950s and 60s, Koinonia was fiercely challenged for these beliefs—reviled by many for its racial integration, pacifist actions, and supposed Communism. Koinonians and their children endured threats, beatings, bullets, a boycott, exile from some of the local churches and other sabotage. The community survived through prayer, a sense of humor, nonviolent resistance, and by starting a mail-order pecan business. The boycott ended in the 60s, but the pecan business remains the community’s main source of income to this day.

In the 1990s Koinonia moved away from its original vision and saw the loss of the intentional community. This loss led to times equally as challenging as those of the 1950s and 60s — some would say more challenging. But in 2005, Koinonia returned to its origins and the intentional community is thriving once more.

Koinonia is a haven of down-to-earth theology. Founding member Clarence Jordan was a farmer, Greek scholar, writer and preacher. From his writing shack in the pecan orchards, he penned translations of the New Testament from the Greek into the rural South Georgia vernacular, calling them the Cotton Patch Version. His books and lively sermons are still beloved and well-known today—and his version of Matthew has been reborn onstage as the Cotton Patch Gospel Musical.

Living out their faith, Koinonians have done many kinds of work and service over the years, responding to the needs of the times. They’ve farmed for their livelihood, exchanged friendship with neighbors (in the early days, mostly sharecroppers and tenant farmers), and welcomed guests from all over the world. Habitat for Humanity was born there, beginning in 1968 as Koinonia Partnership Housing, a project to help neighbors buy decent, simple homes, built with volunteer labor, with no interest charges. Current works include affordable home repair, events for youth and elders, organic gardening and ecology, educational offerings and as always, welcoming people to visit, intern, learn, and walk with them on the journey. Call or write if you’d like to schedule a visit, apply for an internship or find out more —, 1324 GA Hwy 49 S, Americus, GA 31719, 229 938-0391.


September 24, 2009

Loving Enemies: A Training Program

by Brian Volck
Numbers 11: (4-6, 10-16) 24-29; Psalm 19; James 5:1-6 (Catholic); 5:13-20 (Revised Common); Mark 9:38-50

“Even heretics love God, and burn
convinced that He will love them, too.
Whatever choice, I think that they have failed

to err sufficiently to witness less
than appalling welcome when – just beyond
the sear of that ecstatic blush – they turn.”

– Scott Cairns

My enemy has a portion of the truth. A portion I need. My enemy may have deformed that partial truth into an absolute (Heresy, from the Greek, hairesis, “to choose,” is an absolutized partial truth, no longer according to the whole.), but its core remains true. That’s one reason why Christians must love, rather than kill, enemies.

History, of course, demonstrates how difficult the injunction to love one’s enemies is, especially for Christians. Perhaps that’s why we’re assigned less challenging tasks as practice. Perhaps that’s why we rehearse lesser challenges in liturgy. We listen and reflect on the Word (not just the parts that please us), extend signs of peace to those who worship with us (most of whom won’t be on the guest list of our next – or any – house party), and become one Body (understood variously in different traditions) in the breaking of the bread.

Today’s readings from Numbers and Mark are about getting over ourselves, to stop fussing about the uniqueness of our place in salvation history.(Interesting, isn’t it, that Joshua, the future military leader, wants Eldad and Medad silenced. Interesting, too, what happens to Miriam soon afterward, when she questions Moses uniqueness as prophet. I leave parsing such matters to Torah scholars.) We are not the only prophets, not the only healers. My portion of the truth, however clear to me, may seem partial and opaque to you. Others, even those whose theology we find terribly wanting, are still capable of speaking and doing the Word.

Mark’s Jesus goes even further, having us cut off even our hands, our feet, our eyes if they become instruments of our personal heresies. I, at least, need frequent reminders that my most precious faculties may serve as channels of error. Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Revelation,” ends with a vision of the righteous entering heaven, surprised to find even their virtues being burned away. Scott Cairns concludes his poem, “Possible Answers to Prayer,” similarly:

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

The Letter of James provides other ways to practice love for those “who rouse our passions.” James pulls no punches in the reading Catholics hear this Sunday:

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries….Behold,
the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.

If this is so, the majority of Christians north of the Tropic of Capricorn have reason to weep and wail.

The selection in the Revised Common Lectionary is subtler: Pray constantly. Confess our own sins to one another. Counsel – notice it doesn’t say burn at the stake – those in error.

But what could be more revolutionary in a time, like ours, that worships health and autonomy, than anointing the sick? Yes, oil was a common treatment in first century Palestine (see the so-called Good Samaritan story), but James presents a liturgical function here, involving the elders of the church. In biblical context, ritual anointing is reserved for priests, kings and prophets. Jesus himself is “the Anointed One of God.” What James does is assign the sick person, weakened in body, mind and spirit, place of honor in the worshipping community.

This isn’t your standard Scott Osteen message, but even Mr. Osteen has a portion of the truth, however obscured by his carefully maintained exterior. We can live our best life now, or at least live a foretaste of it. The price, though, is steep, far steeper than most Christians are willing to pay: loss of autonomy, surrender of the role of “decider,” hospitality toward strangers, acceptance that God – not we – must make things come out right in the end.

It’s certainly not a path I’d choose on my own. But not walking that path, today’s readings tell us, is a waste of time.


September 16, 2009

Kids in Church

by Debra Dean Murphy
Mark 9:30-37
(Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost)

Images of Jesus embracing cherub-faced children have been irresistible throughout the centuries. Sentimental art within the last hundred years or so has given us the “sweet Victorian Nanny Jesus” (Philip Yancey’s memorable description), patting boys and girls on the head, admonishing them, one supposes, to eat all their vegetables and be nice to mummy.

It’s hard to set aside such treacly visuals when we hear Mark say, “Then he took a little child and put it among them, and taking it in his arms . . . “ It’s hard not to wax a little sentimental about Jesus, children, the church, and Christianity itself.

The observant preacher, however, will recognize that this week’s passage from Mark’s gospel is not really about children. It’s about misidentified power; it’s about an upside-down kingdom; it’s about the scandal of the cross and the way of discipleship.

But it is worth reflecting for a moment on how we understand the discipleship of children in the church and what it means to introduce them to the habit and lifelong practice of Christian worship.

Children, as we know, have a great capacity for imaginative engagement with the world around them. They readily enter the world created by a good story (and they usually know a good story from a not-so-good one).

Children need to hear the Bible’s stories in worship—not because they will understand them better there, but because that is where the stories do their formative work, shaping a people week after week, season after season, year after year. When we use the Bible’s stories to impart pious moralisms to children (“be good,” “be helpful,” be nice to your brother”) we minimize Scripture’s real purpose and power, and we fail to communicate to our children that in worship—in the hearing of the Word, the preaching of it, the performance of it through gestures, postures, and holy sign-acts—they (along with us) enter that world and have the hope of being transformed through time—God’s time—by its vision and power.

And since repetition is the key to effective pedagogy, we should regularly communicate to children (and their parents) that they are integral to the whole worshiping body; that their presence is not merely tolerated but happily anticipated. When we “dismiss” children from the worshiping body (for children’s church, say), no matter how well-intentioned our efforts at teaching them about worship may be, we convey to them and to everyone else that dividing the worshiping body is an acceptable norm.

But it is also important that worship not cater to children. Worship that seeks above all else to enact God’s story of redemption and to imagine God’s politics of peace invites and expects the participation of the whole household of faith—young and old, rich and poor, the able and the infirm—with the understanding that, in regard to young children especially, there are privileges reserved for their maturity, mysteries and riches of the worshiping life that reveal themselves as rewards for years of practice and perseverance.

Finally, we engage in the work of introducing children to worship—and overseeing their ongoing participation in it—not in an effort to make them good but that they might know who they are. And we do this with the hope that worship which is attentive to the gospel’s grand story will do its transforming work in their lives (and ours), will feed their imaginations and not their egos, and will help them (and us) learn to order our lives by the gift of God’s time.


September 10, 2009

Setting Nature on Fire

by Halden Doerge
James 3:1-12

As a young person growing up in the evangelical church I remember always considering James to be my favorite book of the Bible. In reflecting back on why I found it so important at the time I think what drew me to James was the sort of clarity I seemed to find there. It is certainly no accident that this passage is paired in the lectionary readings with the Proverbs. Among all the books of the New Testament there is a sort of practicality to James—strong vestiges of the Hebrew Wisdom tradition.

Because of this sort of practical approachability James has long been a field ripe for memory verses and nice practical sermons. James’s statements about the tongue have been a particular source of this sort of hortative guidance for many of us. In my days in youth groups and the like it was trotted out regularly to make clear to us younglings why cussing was inexcusable for Christians.

But when looking at James more closely, there is something far more serious at work in these sayings about the dangers of the tongue. Notice the strength of James’s language: the tongue sets forests on fire, corrupts the body, indeed it even “sets the cycle of nature on fire.” What is striking about the infernal language James uses about the tongue is that it refers to the power of words to consume and destroy—most centrally to disrupt and destroy the world around us.

Given that the statements James makes about the tongue occur precisely in the context of a warning against becoming teachers (v. 1), what might we make of all this? It seems that James is not simply talking about the danger of cursing or speaking wrongly, but specifically about the dangers that attend those who speak with authority, who have power over others, just as the pilot is able to turn the whole ship and all those one it at will, simply by moving the rudder (v. 4).

What I want to suggest here is that James’s exhortation about the nature of the tongue is not simply a reproof about the deceitfulness of our own speech, but about how that deceitfulness manifests itself in positions of power. What lies at the heart of the problem James speaks of is duplicity, doubleness. This is, as we are all too aware, something that distinctly attends those in positions of power and authority. Blessing and cursing seem to always come from the mouths of our leaders whether in the church or the world.

What James underscores is the radically powerful nature of duplicitous speech in the world. Today more than ever we are aware of the power of words, and specifically of lies, to destroy and lay waste. What James draws our attention to is the radical power of ideology in our world. The way that language becomes a weapon with a will of its own, an instrument that is set on fire by hell indeed.

James’s conclusion is rather simple: “Brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (v. 10). If I may venture one more suggestion here, I would advise us to take the statement that “this ought not to be so” not merely as a wistful statement of the “Why can’t we all just get along?” variety. Rather, here James is echoing Jesus’s own statements about the nature of power:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matt 20:25-28)

As James is quick to remind us, “we all make many mistakes.” We are called to refuse the form of power that is practiced in the ideologies that set nature on fire all around us. The deceitful words of those in power, the words of blessing and cursing from the same mouth, these the words we are called to reject. This is why Christians should always be the most reluctant to speak with authority, the slowest to claim that their words should be obeyed. The words that set the world on fire all to often come from our own lips. As we seek to follow after the Messiah who told is that “it will not be so among you” we do well to listen to James as we strive to be wells that produce fresh water and fresh water alone.


September 01, 2009

The Kingdom’s Gatekeepers

by Jenny Williams
James 2:1-10, 11-17; Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Ouch. James must have been visiting churches in North America, where in addition to race, the other great divider on Sunday morning is class. He upbraids the congregation for gatekeeping by the way they treat visitors at their worship services. They give preferential treatment to rich visitors and fling spiritual platitudes toward poor visitors. “We’ll pray for you,” we good Christians say, without much regard to which of their physical needs we can meet.

After working last fall in a small village in the West Bank, I became friends with a Melkite Palestinian priest there. I was surprised to discover he held many of the convictions shared by we Ekklesia Project folk: beliefs that liturgy forms us, that liturgy should take us outside the four walls of the church, that we ought to stand in solidarity with the poor.

He once expressed his skepticism of the church hierarchy. He said, “I do not like the Bishops in general because they do not daily meet with the poor. They see the world secretly from behind dark glass.” When bishops visited the villages, he explained, they were chauffeured in limos with tinted windows, and never got out of the car to interact with the townspeople.

By North American standards, this Palestinian priest is poor. Out of his monthly salary of US$1000, he is to support his family of six as well as meet needs of people in the community. He does amazing work in his village, working with Christians and Muslims alike. He runs programs for children and youth in the summer, assists people with medical expenses, and buys olives from farmers whose livelihoods are now diminished because of the separation barrier erected by the Israeli military. The olives go into a soap sold by his church to raise funds to send children to school.

In her lecture at this year’s Gathering, Kathy Grieb cited statistics which showed that people with less income are more generous supporters of churches and charities than people with more income.

A clergy friend told me a story about a middle-class church that began a food pantry and eventually added a clothing closet. Some of the clients who patronized the pantry and closet eventually ended up volunteering with those ministries as a way to give back the help that had been given to them. Such was the case with Sally, one of the pantry’s original patrons who became one of their regular volunteers.

One day when Sally was working at the food pantry, a destitute woman came into the clothes closet. Her trailer had burned down, and she didn’t have anything. The church members were able to quickly help her with what she needed, with the exception of shoes, because they didn’t have any at the time. They scurried around wondering aloud what they could do about the shoes, asking questions of each other like “Does anyone know of anybody who is planning to donate some shoes but just hasn’t brought them in yet?” and “I wonder if one of the merchants in town would be willing to donate a pair of shoes?” Sally walked into the room, discovered what was going on, and asked the client what size shoes she needed. “Seven-and-a-half,” the woman replied. Sally took off her own shoes, handed them to the woman, and said, “Here. We wear the same size.” She, who did not have much at all, gave the shoes off her feet.

Perhaps our upper- or middle-class churches could learn from Sally or the priest. What we have is not really ours. We servants just care for things for a time while the master is away, and we’re supposed to care for them in a way that pleases our Master.

Fall is upon us—a time when Stewardship Campaigns rear their ugly heads. Perhaps this text can push us beyond the kind of stewardship that has us write checks to our churches, and toward a kind of stewardship that asks us to give up our shoes to people who need them. Coming face to face with someone in need and trying to meet that need in a way that maintains the other person’s dignity is difficult. It involves a relationship. It’s easier to donate money or canned food to an organization, which keeps us a safe distance from the messy realities of the lives of our neighbors.

In this area of our discipleship, we tend toward the wide gate. The path is easy, but it leads to destruction. The challenge is to enter the narrow gate, which has a hard road but it leads to life. Perhaps only few can find this gate because the poor are standing around it, and we’d rather not walk near them. “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” (Proverbs 22:22-23).

If we avoid people in need and instead choose the wide gate, the easy road will lead to not only our own destruction, but to the destruction of the neglected ones who are gathered around the narrow gate to the Kingdom.