Good news of Jesus in a traumatized world

Leadership Day addresses neighbourhood evangelism

Amy Rinner Waddell | B.C. Correspondent
At Gathering 2019's Leadership Day, Elaine Heath encourages Mennonite Church Canada leaders to be good neighbours in a traumatized world. (Photo by Jane Grunau)

The way of the missional God is that the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood, Elaine Heath told church leaders on June 28 at Gathering 2019’s Leadership Day. Heath is a former dean of Duke University Divinity School in Durham, N.C., and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church.

Much of Heath’s talk, entitled “Trauma informed leadership for a missional informed church,” focused on how various kinds of trauma people have experienced can hinder how they hear the good news of Jesus. Those who are in trauma cannot be fully present because they are so hypervigilant, they feel the “sky might really fall,” she said. She defined trauma as “not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” 

The church must be a good neighbour to its neighbours in a traumatized world, she said, citing statistics of one in three women and one in five men being sexually abused by age 19, making them feel toxic shame. 

She defined evangelism as more than a formula to get people to believe the “four spiritual laws”; instead, she said it is the fruit of true presence, deep listening, wise discernment and loving action. She gave examples of two congregations that lived out this definition: a rural one that revitalized itself from an attendance of 11 to around 50 each Sunday, and an urban one that found itself welcoming homeless people, cooking and eating meals together regularly, and enjoying community life.

“People are coming to know God because God has moved into the neighbourhood,” she said, then asked her listeners, “What are the next steps for you and your congregation to become flesh and blood, and move into the neighbourhood in the power of the Spirit?” 

Heath also talked about the importance of spiritual discernment, a contemplative practice. Showing up, paying attention, cooperating with God and balancing options are all part of a contemplative life. Contemplative practices, she said, are “whatever helps you find God and peace.”

To choose life is always the best way, Heath concluded, asking listeners to reflect on “What must you take up and what must you give up to choose life?” 

To view some of Heath’s presentations, visit home.mennonitechurch.ca/node/1660.

 

See more about Gathering 2019:

Holy Spirit fire and imagination

Nationwide church experiences modest surplus

‘Firestarter stories’ spark the imagination of the church

Mennonite Women dissolve national ministry

Holding growth and the past in tension

Kids make friends at Gathering 2019

At Gathering 2019's Leadership Day, Elaine Heath encourages Mennonite Church Canada leaders to be good neighbours in a traumatized world. (Photo by Jane Grunau)

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The leadership of Mennonite Church Canada can truly be commended for their inspired choice of Elaine Heath as speaker at Gathering 2019's Leadership Day in Abbotsford, B.C. Not having been there, I am relying on Canadian Magazine reporting, and accompanying reading as to who Elaine Heath is and the message she had to convey to Mennonite Church Canada leaders and constituency.

Canadian Magazine correspondent Amy Rinner Waddell reports on Heath's address on leadership in the article "Good news of Jesus in a traumatized world" (July 17, 2019). Rinner Waddell's reporting of Heath's address is sprinkled with terms and tones redolent of aspects of personal salvation, which seems to have been perhaps the dominant Mennonite Church response to living out the gospel of the previous few decades, and hence the need to "reignite the imagination" of the church. Terms such as "evangelism," "missional church" and "hearing the good news" are terms that we seem to be comfortable with, as they don't really demand or require much from each of us personally or from the church in general.

That being said, Rinner Waddell also reports on aspects of Heath's address that would require from us much more than lip service about the good news of Jesus the Christ. This aspect of Heath's message requires us to "welcome the homeless," "cook and eat meals together" and "be truly present with traumatized persons." To my mind, Heath's calls to action are encouraging, not so much that "God has moved into the neighbourhood" and that we are doing God's will with and towards others, but that the "power of the Spirit" is being embedded in our own hearts, and effecting then the transformation where it is truly needed, namely the hearts and souls of the Mennonite Church constituents and leadership.

A cursory exploration of Heath's background provides some insight into her "hands on advocacy" for living out the message of Jesus. Heath has set aside or moved beyond such prestigious leadership positions in places such as Duke's School of Divinity. Rather, Heath has become instrumental in participating in the Garden at Spring Forest, an intentional Christian community of a few families that live together, work together and grow their own food. The main tenets of the community are "hospitality, prayer and justice."

It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination then to believe that Heath's address to Mennonite Church Canada was heavily influenced by her own turning to communal living as an inspired means of living the good news of Jesus. Heath's prophetic socialism, both in language and in deed, is a powerful voice urging Mennonite Church Canada constituents to turn from the pursuit of mammon and empire-building, and turn towards the prayer, hospitality, and justice of the Gospel, needed to promote healing in ourselves and others in a world of traumatic suffering.

Heath's message is of course not the first time believers have been called to turn from the ways of the world and turn to the message of the Gospel. Biblically, Acts 2 describes the "igniting of the spirit" amongst the apostles and the "fellowship" of the believers, which included the breaking of bread together, prayer, holding all goods in common and giving to anyone who had need.

The Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century ignited a similar kind of response in the Anabaptist movement. The 1527 Schleitheim Confession of Anabaptists such as Sattler, Blaurock and Reublin provided principles/tenets of belief, and included an overarching injunction to "hold all goods in common, so that none might have more than the next, and so that none would go without," much like the example of Christ and the early church.

Unfortunately, Anabaptists, and subsequently Mennonites, were all too eager to drift away from the example/mandate of Schleitheim, and readily adopted the advent of mercantilism/capitalism with its focus on private property and wealth accumulation, as they made their historic journey through the Netherlands, to Prussia, to Russia, and eventually, as in the case of my forebears, to Manitoba. Calvin Redekop, Victor A. Krahn, and Samuel J. Steiner provide an enlightening expose of the origins of the Anabaptist/Mennonite relationship with capitalism in "Anabaptist/Mennonite Faith and Economics" (1994).

As Mennonites we have been eager to partake of a system which sanctions private property, wealth accumulation and individualism, and not so eager to engage in the kind of communal living espoused by Heath. Historian Dr. Colin Neufeldt (Concordia University of Edmonton), documents the Mennonite/Soviet experience of collectivization of the 1920s. In an address entitled, "Building a Soviet Utopia: Mennonites and the Collective Farm," Neufeldt reveals how the extreme disparity between rich and poor Mennonites, influenced many of the poorer Mennonites to join the Bolshevik collective leadership in opposition to their fellow Mennonite kulaks and dispossess rich Mennonites of property and land. Mennonites in Russia seemed to have forgotten/ignored the injunctions of Schleitheim or even of Acts 2, in favour of the private property and wealth accumulation.

This legacy, this historical narrative of influence and affluence, which Mennonite settlers/immigrants brought to Canada in the 1870s, continues to be the main historical narrative of our present day Mennonite Church Canada. In 1977, the newspaper journalist David Virtue, in an article entitled, "Mennonites: From a humble start to status of power," in the Vancouver Province, is credited with writing, "If God were a capitalist, the Mennonites would be his favourite people" (Vancouver Province, April 23, 1977). It seems that we have lost our way as a people of God. We have resigned ourselves to personal salvation and being a "missional church."

Along comes Elaine Heath with her prophetic voice and life. Oh, perhaps only the prophetic trumpets are absent, however her message seems clear, "repent, and go and do the important work of being the gospel." Virginia A. Hostetler, Canadian Mennonite editor, makes it clear when she reports on Heath's message that the church is "at the front end of a new Reformation" and that in order to be relevant in these times, the church must change. She reports Heath as saying, "this reality requires new models for being faithful disciples; some of the old ways of 'doing church' no longer work."

Amy Rinner Waddell also reports of the urgency of Heath's message and the new model of being church asking of each of us, "what must you take up, and what must you give up to choose life?"

So thank you, Elaine Heath, for the powerful voice of your prophetic socialism calling us to do as Christ would have us do, and thank you to the Mennonite Church Canada leadership for a powerful call to Mennonite Church constituents to turn from the idolatry of mammon, and turn to the call of prayer, hospitality and justice.

I watched and listened to the first two plenaries of Gathering 2019 and came away confused and troubled by quite a number of things that Elaine Heath said. And so I wonder—did the attendees and online audience soak up and believe everything that was said? How many were deceived?

Colossians 2:8 warns us, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”

In that light, I want to share some thoughts from a biblical perspective in response to what I heard Elaine say. My hope is that scripture will shine as a light of truth on these matters that I find so concerning. I have too many concerns to cover in one post, so will bring only a couple to the forefront here.

Early in the first plenary, Elaine Heath talked about what a disciple is, and used Oswald Chambers’ definition: “A disciple is someone who bears a strong family likeness to Jesus Christ.” She then asked the question, “And if we are going to bear the gospel faithfully into our neighbourhood, the result will be more disciples who bear a family likeness to Jesus Christ. But the question is, which Jesus Christ are we talking about?”

She then proceeded to display a collection of “pictures of Jesus.” Included were a Jesus who wore a pair of dark framed glasses and was described by Elaine as “the Professor Jesus and is all kind of on a head trip,” and “says a lot of words like exegesis and hermeneutics.” Laughter followed. And finally, a caricature of the “Selfie Jesus and His buddies” as Elaine described them. It was a picture of Jesus taking a selfie with his disciples at the last supper, historically a significant and somber event (Luke 22). Even so, people laughed.

Let’s stop and think of the significance of the last supper—taken the evening before Christ’s crucifixion. Because Jesus loved us so much, He died a brutal death on the cross willingly to save us from our sins and live with Him eternally. But still, that picture, which was clearly a mockery, was put out in open display in front of the church. Where, oh where, was there reverence for Jesus Christ our Saviour that day?

Next is the matter of hell. From what Elaine said, I’m not clear on how she fully views hell because she didn’t elaborate. But this is what was said. “Wait, what about responsibility? People need to go to hell. People need to burn. Noooo… (laughter). Now, if you’ve ever been burned on purpose, you know that that should never be something that anyone ever does to somebody. That’s not, not the love of God.”

Do not be deceived! And do not allow the words of anyone, whether atheist or theologian from “higher education” influence you to move away from what God says in His Word. There is much said about hell in scripture, and it all culminates in Revelation 20:14-15: “Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.”

Yes, our God of love designed it this way for those who reject Him and refuse His cleansing power over the sin He hates. But the good news is that He also loved us so much, that He has provided us with a way of escape. (John 3:16)

Elaine, thank you for speaking up and bringing shining the light of Scripture upon the unbiblical teaching of Ms. Heath. All the communal living and "prophetic socialism" in the world means nothing if the truth of God's word is ignored or twisted. And it doesn't take much for that to happen.

I see so much emphasis on God's love in the reports of the Canadian Mennonite magazine but God's holiness and judgment, and humanity's sin and need for salvation seem to take a backseat. It seems there's quite a few people who need to read and consider the words in Galatians 1, 2 Peter and Jude.

God is indeed the God of love, and we often fall far short of the example of the early believers in Acts 2 (it's interesting that, in the list of things the believers did in Acts 2 that were mentioned in the article, "devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching" was omitted), but God's love apart from holiness and judgment is neither loving nor just. To twist His word and suggest there is no hell is outright heresy.

If this comes across to anyone as harsh or "unloving", you don't understand what true, biblical love means. Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul, Peter, and Jude minced no words when it came to heresy and the wolves who peddle it. The lack of biblical discernment in the Mennonite Church runs deep, and anyone who comes to them speaking of "Earth care", "communal living", and religious ecumenism is embraced with reckless abandon. Satan himself comes as an angel of light, and so many who call themselves Mennonites welcome him with open arms. Menno Simons would be rolling in his grave.

I want to make a few observations about the comments written by Karl Krause and Elaine Fehr. I sense something of the spirit of absolute certainty and judgment regarding the work that Elaine Heath did at the Assembly in Abbotsford. More than that, I sense that both Karl Krause and Elaine Fehr are claiming that their assessments are biblical and true, and the presentations that were given were deceptively heretical. What seems to be overlooked here is what Paul wrote in Romans 14:1-15:7.

Paul urged fellow believers not only to differ graciously but also to enthusiastically welcome and accept those with whom one disagrees either in understanding or in discipleship practice. Paul also identified two heart attitudes that come into play when there are disagreements between believers. Those who feel the other has gone too far are urged not to judge, and those who feel the other is too conservative are urged not to despise. I would invite critics to consider Paul’s helpful teaching in situations of differing interpretations.

Paul urged everyone to be fully convinced before God about the issues, and difficult as it might be, he urged everyone with reconsidered convictions to accept those who differ as God in Christ has accepted each one.

There may be other important dimensions to this conversation as well, but I feel that what Paul urged the believers in Rome to do in Century One might be a good place to begin.

Mr. Neufeld, as much as I appreciate Romans 14:1-15:7, this passage does not address judgment of false teachers. Rather, it deals with matters of Christian liberty regarding issues like food and days of observances. And what you have described as Paul’s instruction to believers does hold true regarding food and days of observances, but never does Paul direct such instruction towards dealing with false teachers. There is no such Christian liberty allowed for false teaching in Scripture. None.

So, what does Scripture say regarding false teachers? Acts 20:28-30 tells us to be watchful and warns us that “savage wolves” (another term for false teachers), will come among us. It also says that even from within the church, there will come those who will distort truth and will draw some after themselves. We are seeing so much of that today, and that’s why I have such a passion to fight against it! Titus 1: 6-16 is another great passage. Here Paul lays out the qualifications of bishops (pastors) and in v. 9, he states, “…he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict”. Other passages that deal soundly with false teachers are Matthew 7:15-20, 2 Peter 1:12-21, Galatians 5:7-12, 2 Peter 2, Matthew 23:1-29, 1 John 4:1-6, 2 Peter 3:14-18, just to name a few. I just can’t overemphasize how important it is for us to read and believe the Word of God!

I still stand by what I said regarding Elaine Heath’s use of irreverent pictures of Jesus, including a mockery of His last supper with His disciples prior to his crucifixion; and second, her denial of a burning hell. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg regarding other concerns that I have with her teachings.

If I present anything with absolute certainty, including any judgments I make between right and wrong, may it always be grounded solidly in the Word of God. But should I err, I do want to be shown from Scripture (within correct context) where I erred, so that I may learn from it.

Elaine Heath calls for a reimagining of the church, calling us to be the good news of Jesus in a traumatized world, exhorting us to "move into the neighbourhood" and be present to others through "deep listening, wise discernment and loving action," (CM July 2019). Of course, deep listening, wise discernment and loving action are not so easily come by, however perhaps "wherever two or more are gathered...," discernment may happen and perhaps it was so at Mennonite Church Canada Gathering 2019 in Abbotsford, B.C.

In an article in the August 31, 2019 issue of the Winnipeg Free Press entitled "Bible Not An Instruction Manual: Prof," John Longhurst comments on Peter Enns' (Eastern University, Philadelphia) reimagination of how we interpret the Bible. A recent book by Enns is titled "How the Bible Actually Works." Enns strongly advocates discarding the Bible as a rulebook or instruction manual, and treating the Bible as a "source of godly wisdom to be explored, pondered, deliberated and put into action" (Longhurst). Enns posits that the Bible cannot be an instruction manual for reasons being that a) it is the product of a vastly different time and place, b) it contains competing and contrasting points of view, and c) it speaks with a variety of voices writing for different purposes over time. Enns urges us to put literalism aside in favour of efforts to discern the wisdom the Bible has to offer as we walk in troubled times.

Enns advocates for more than an absence of literalism when interpreting the Bible. In a February 2019 interview with Religious News Service' Jana Reiss, Enns advocates for a "reinterpretation of the law with every passing generation." He maintains that "all our conceptions of God, are inevitably filtered through our humanity," and thus there must be a continual "imagining and re-imagining " of God. It would seem that this thinking could be in keeping with what Mennonite Church Canada had envisioned as it planned for Gathering 2019.

There have of course been other post-modern Christian theologians who have also advocated for re-imagining God and the church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his 1944 "Letters from Prison," also re-imagines humanity's relationship to God. Bonhoeffer writes to his good friend Eberhard Bethge, that we must live in this world as if God does not exist for us, "etsi Deus non daretur." Bonhoeffer's understanding of Jesus crying out on the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" is an indication of the absence of God, at the very moment Christ needed God most. At the moment in Christ's life when he was most vulnerable, God remains silent. This seems to be an instructive moment for those of us who would choose Christ. The signpost of Christ's life points to vulnerability and uncertainty. Bonhoeffer says absence of the deity at the culmination of the life of Christ, indicates that "God would have us know that we must live as men (sic) who manage our lives without him." It seems then that we must become aware of the goodness and full potential of our own humanity, and live for others as much as possible through denial of self.

As believers, we could acknowledge that the life of Christ was the supreme example of denial of self, however there have been others we might look to who have lived exemplary if not perfect lives, and who might provide touchstones for our journey back to Christ. Lives led by Jean Vanier and his commitment to L'Arche, Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity, or even Mahatma Ghandi and his commitment to India self-rule. Each one of these individuals sought to reimagine what it meant to be more loving and thus more human, through their self sacrifice.

It seems that perhaps Elaine Heath and Mennonite Church Canada are on a good track, one of re-imagination of what it means to be the church, what it means to seek the face of God. Heath urges us to go out into the neighbourhoods and be the gospel for traumatized others, to find Jesus in the faces/lives of our neighbours. Bonhoeffer says Christ's vulnerability is instructive for us, pointing us towards God. Peter Enns says to cast aside the literalism when interpreting the Bible, in favour of discerning the wisdom of the Word. Perhaps Enns is correct to say that the Bible is not an instruction how-to manual, however perhaps the life/death of Jesus the Christ is all the instruction one might need to seek the face of God in a traumatized world. It will take continual collective discernment (Heath's included), deep listening and loving action as we make our way through troubling times.

Folks, this is an urging for us all to put on the full armour of God (Ephesians 6:10-17) so that we can stand firm against unscriptural musings of Peter Enns. In comparing his works with what God says in His word, it is apparent that Enns’ views do not line up with the truth of Scripture. May we always allow God’s Word speak to us. After all, “…the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

I find it interesting that Enns urges us “to put literalism aside in favour of efforts to discern the wisdom the Bible has to offer." That does not make sense to me. If we cannot take the Bible literally, I would consider that a handicap in discerning the wisdom it offers. I don’t know if this is true for Enns, but from what I have observed, it seems like the usual motive for putting literalism aside is in order to be able to deny the hard truths that are written in Scripture. In other words, there are those who don’t want the Bible to mean what it actually says in plain words. Of course, there are obvious figures of speech that cannot be taken in a literal sense (Psalm 17:8, for example), but it would be impossible to get a good understanding of Scripture if it can not be taken literally.

Also bothersome, is that “Enns maintains that ‘all our conceptions of God, are inevitably filtered through our humanity,’ and thus there must be a continual “imagining and re-imagining’ of God.”

Oh my. So when did God become a subjective entity to be imagined and re-imagined? Scripture does not support that! To encourage “imagining and re-imagining God” only sets the stage for exploitations of God and His ways. There’s a very real danger of an “anything goes” attitude when imaginations are encouraged over searching Scriptures for truth about Him. That kind of approach can seriously lead to a “shipwrecked” faith. What we need to do is to get to KNOW God through the solid foundation of His Word. Scriptures are clear regarding the blessings of knowing God and also the consequences for those who do not know Him.

On another matter, Peter Reimer says, “Perhaps Enns is correct to say that the Bible is not an instruction how-to manual, however perhaps the life/death of Jesus the Christ is all the instruction one might need to seek the face of God in a traumatized world.”

I heartily agree with Enns, that we should view the Bible as a "source of godly wisdom to be explored, pondered, deliberated and put into action." But why can we not see it, at least in part, as a practical “instruction manual,” as Enns describes it? In spite of the reasons given by him, biblical instruction is as relevant for us today as it was when God revealed Himself to mankind thousands of years ago. (Before anyone thinks it, I’m not saying that this relevancy includes the idea that we are bound to Levitical law today. But I do believe that its significance in history is still relevant.)

What concerns me is that a blanket statement was made that “Enns advocates discarding the Bible as a rulebook or instruction manual.” In this, I’ll stand with 2 Timothy 3:16-17—“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That is a timeless word of truth, as true for us now in the 21st century, as it was back in the day it was written.

May God help us all to discern His truth!

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