Pace e Bene staff-person Peter Ediger died on February 16 after a brief illness. In the last six months of his life, he engaged in a powerful witness for Gospel nonviolence, in which he visited churches in Las Vegas and, as depicted above, held a sign inviting conversation about their church's stance in relationship to Jesus' call to "love your enemies (Matthew 5:43-45).
A couple of weeks before Peter fell ill, author and activist Fr. John Dear, S.J. wrote a story for the National Catholic Reporter about Peter's project, which you can read by clicking here. We honor Peter's long journey for justice and peace, which began as a conscientious objector in World War II and ended as a faithful witness to the foundations of Christian nonviolence.
It’s been stirring in my soul for two years; now I’m acting on it.
I am sending the following letter to Christian Churches in the Las Vegas area
Re: A Vision and Visitation
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I greet you in the name of Jesus, whose coming into the world was good news then and is still good news today. The good news that God loves the whole world, including enemies, needs to be heard anew in our world today.
The Vision: what would happen if Christians here, there and everywhere would take seriously Jesus’ invitation for us to love our enemies? Could this help break down the dividing walls of hostility in our world, and save us from our destructive cycles of violence and counter-violence?
The Visitation: This fall I am visiting different churches in the Las Vegas area each Sunday. I am coming with a sign which I hold near the church entrance. The sign reads: “Jesus says, love your enemies. What does your church say?” When the service begins, I join in worship with the congregation. I look forward to being with you next Sunday.
My hope is that this visitation will encourage conversation among people of faith and move us all to become more active in living out and sharing the good news of gospel nonviolence. Our world urgently needs this witness.
I pray that the Spirit may richly bless all the ministries of your congregation.
Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service
ps: If you would like more information about resources for deepening the spirituality and practice of gospel nonviolence, you may call me at 702-648-2281 or go to the Pace e Bene website: www.paceebene .org
August 13, 2011
Today the following note is in the weekly church bulletin of the Westminster Presbyterian church in Las Vegas.
A Note from Peter Ediger: This fall I plan to engage in a ministry which will necessitate my taking a leave of absence from Westminster Presbyterian Church. I will be visiting different churches in the area each Sunday, arriving early, holding a sign reading, “Jesus says Love Your Enemies. What does your Church say?” When the service begins, I will join in the worship there. My hope is that the Spirit may use this witness to encourage conversation among Christians to take Jesus’ teachings more seriously, helping to break down dividing walls of hostility and save the world from its destructive cycles of violence and counter-violence and perpetual warfare. I ask for your prayers for this venture.
I add a few comments during the sharing time. Someone asks how long I’ll be gone. I reply “that depends on the Spirit. We’ll see.” Pastor Kunen places his hand on my shoulder and offers a prayer of blessing for the mission. Following the service numerous people respond, generally expressing support for the mission and “we’ll miss you here,” and one smilingly saying, “it sounds a little scary.” I am encouraged by this response from the brothers and sisters at Westminster Presbyterian.
Week I. August 21, 2011
I arrive at Trinity United Methodist church at 8:30am, and stand beside the sidewalk with my sign, “Good morning” I say as people pass by. Many “good mornings” come in response. Some smiles, a few glances. Sandra approaches with a friendly question, “where are you coming from?”
Before I reply, she says, “from Jesus?” “Yes,” I say. We have a good conversation. At 9am I place my sign in the car and join the congregation for worship. It was a refreshing hour. Well planned liturgy. Vibrant spirit. Diversity of leadership. Sermon challenging the mind and the stretching the heart. I feel blessed.
I send the letter informing Community Lutheran Church of my plans to visit there next Sunday.
Week II. August 28, 2011
Week two brought some pleasant surprises. On Saturday a friend gave me a copy of the e-mail sent out by the pastor of Community Lutheran Church.
Hello Members and Email friends of CLC:
Yesterday I received a very unusual letter from a Peter Ediger . What makes it unusual? I will quote him…
“I greet you in the name of Jesus. This fall I will be visiting different churches in the Las Vegas area each Sunday. I will be coming with a sign which I will hold near the entrance. The sign will read. “Jesus says, love your enemies. What does your church say?” When the service begins I will join in worship with the congregation. I look forward to being with you next Sunday, August 28. My hope is that this visitation will encourage conversation among people of faith and move us all to become more active in living out and sharing the good news of gospel nonviolence. Our world urgently needs this witness.
OK. I do not know him or his organization “Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service.” His intentions seem to be peaceful, his method sounds a bit confrontational, but his message is certainly within the realm of Christian pacifism. I inform you because he may create a stir from non-suspecting worshippers; it may seem like a protest, which it seems is not his intention. I would hope that we would welcome him with love, treat him with dignity (whether we agree with him or not) and let’s show Peter the radical grace and acceptance that Jesus calls us to do. I appreciated his letting me know of his intentions. I invite you to go out of your way to welcome him if you see him. Please inform others as well, so the love of Christ is showered on this man on a unique mission.”
An encouraging response! So I was not surprised Sunday morning when I was warmly greeted by many, including Pastor Mark, as I stood near the entrance Sunday morning. Comments included “we say the same” and “ I don’t have enemies” (there we got into some conversation) to “sometimes that’s difficult.”
At 9:30 I entered the huge auditorium filled with some 500-600 worshippers singing away under the enthusiastic leadership of Bruce Ewing, who I know from his fundraising support work with Family Promise. Then I had another surprise. Bruce mentioned that among visitors was Peter Ediger, whom you might have seen with a sign “Jesus says love your enemies; what does your church say.” Peter would you stand? So I stood. And Bruce went on to say that he had been challenged by reflecting on the message, and he thanked me for bringing it. After more readings and singing, Pastor Mark preached a challenging message on Jesus words about being salt and light for the world, and the tendency for Christians to lose their saltiness, (some Christians lose the saltiness of radical grace and preach hate) and apologetically put their lights under baskets of welcoming only those who are like us and excluding the other.
The Spirit is moving!
Week III. September 4, 2011
I send the letter to All Saints Episcopal church. I note in their website that they identify themselves as, among other things, “a military friendly church.”
Bob Nelson, who is retired from years of working as an administrator of the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado and the Nevada Test Site, is now a priest at All Saints. Bob and I have participated in several panels discussing nuclear weapons. Through the week I have feelings of anxiety about what my visit there might be like. Sunday morning at 9:30 I take my sign and find a shady spot near the entrance. I give and receive lots of “good mornings” and smiles.
A man comes by, introduces himself as a deacon and says, “we have a prayer group and we pray for our enemies all the time. And this morning prayers for our enemies and for peace will be included in our liturgy. I hope you’ll join us.” I reply that I plan to do so. I ask whether Bob Nelson will be here today. “Yes, he’ll be presiding today, and preaching.” A few minutes later Bob comes out, welcoming me. He says he’ll be preaching about conflict resolution from Matthew 18. I ask whether he’ll include applications to national and international conflicts. With a grin he says, “probably not this time. We’ve got our own conflicts right here in the parish.”
At 10:00 I enter the sanctuary, appreciating the beautiful viola prelude music.
I’m reflecting on Matthew 18. In a way, that’s what I’m trying to do in my visitation. Some brain-waves: It’s time for nonviolence believers to engage our Christian brothers and sisters who are “offending” the gospel by their support of war-making. And counter brain-waves: But these are such good people. And who am I to try to get the speck out my brother’s eye, when I’ve got a beam in my own eye?
The liturgy begins. In the first reading from Ezekiel, God puts it right out there—if you don’t warn the people to turn from their wicked ways, I’ll hold you responsible.
“Turn back, turn back from your evil ways. Why will you die? I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” What is this saying to us today? What is this saying to me? The second reading is from Romans 13. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another….Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Brothers and sisters, are we hearing with our ears?
Bob unpacks the conflict resolution process Jesus outlines in Matthew 18. I particularly appreciate his calling attention to what he calls the important “twist” in the process: if the conflict is not resolved, you are to treat the offender as a Gentile or tax collector. And Jesus went out of his way to love the “outsider.”
So I continue my ruminations. How do I love those outside of the nonviolence community?
The quest goes on. Next Sunday I plan to visit a Catholic church.
Week IV. September 11, 2011
The week of 9-11. Media is focusing 24/7 on telling and re-telling stories from that tragic day ten years ago. I have some second thoughts. Should I skip the visitation this Sunday? Is it appropriate to bring up the question of loving our enemies on this Sunday? Jesus, are you asking us to love terrorists? How in the world are we to do that? A still small voice is saying, follow me.
I will go Sunday as planned.
I arrive at St Viator’s Catholic Church at 7:30 as people begin to come for the 8:00 mass. Standing near the entrance with my sign, I greet folks with my usual “good morning” and get the usual “good morning” in response. A few comments—“I do not love my enemies” and “what is this for?’” invite brief conversations.
As I enter the sanctuary at 8, a vocalist is singing “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” A good beginning. After announcements and prayer, the first reading from Sirach includes these words, “forgive your neighbor’s injustice, then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven”. Father Rinn reads the gospel lesson, Matthew 18:21-35, where Peter is asking Jesus how often to forgive, up to seven times? Rinn notes that while this scripture was not particularly selected for today—the lectionary was set long ago—it may well be that the Spirit was at work in asking us to think about forgiveness on this 9-11 Sunday. “Jesus breaks the cycle of violence. May this gospel change us, and help bring change to our world.” I breathe a silent amen, and thankfully join in the celebration of the Eucharist. And when the Mass concludes with the singing of the prayer of St Francis, “Make me a channel of your peace, where there is hatred let me bring your love, “ I feel blessed. Then during the recessional, a vocalist sings “God bless America” and people join in. It feels like a let-down.
But I notice that the man standing beside me is wiping tears from his eyes.
On the way out I shake hands with Father Rinn, and thank him for his message.
Two interfaith services of remembrance are happening this afternoon. The first is at the Islamic Society of Nevada. After comments by representatives from the Center and brief speeches by our sheriff and the head of the FBI in Las Vegas, I read my 9-11 “I have a Dream poem, and lead in singing “America the Beautiful.”
The second service planned by the Interfaith Council of Las Vegas is in the ballroom of the Student Union at UNLV. While I am uncomfortable with some of the elements of the program--the presence of the honor guard and the notes of “honoring America” with no reference to the violence of our response to 9-11, bringing death to hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan—I am nevertheless grateful for the existence of an Interfaith Council in our community, bringing together Muslim, Jewish and Christian peoples to celebrate our common humanity.
So the journey continues. Next week I plan to visit Central Christian Church.
Week V. September 18, 2011
On their website, Central Christian Church says of itself, “A place where its OK to not be OK.” I’m wondering how OK they will be with my sign. On the half-hour drive to their suburban location, I pray that my Anabaptist-oriented tendency to carry pre-judgments about mega-churches may not hinder the Spirit from blowing where she wills this morning.
I exit the freeway, turn on to New Beginnings Drive and enter the twenty acre parking lot. I’m feeling a bit intimidated as I see the huge superdome-like auditorium. I take my sign and place myself in front of Entry #2. In a few minutes Walt approaches and says, “I need to ask you to remove the sign.”
“And why is that?” I ask. “We don’t allow solicitation on our premises.” “Oh, but
I’m not soliciting. I’m asking a Jesus question. Did you get my letter? ” “Yes,” Walt says. “We got your letter and the staff agreed such signs are not allowed on our premises. You need to take it down now.” “I’ve been planning and praying about this” I say, “what if I decide to stay?” “Then I’ll have to call the police.”
So now what should I do? “I need to think about this. How about we pray? “
I take Walt’s hand, and offer a short prayer asking for Spirit guidance. Then another brother, Dennis, joins us, also saying the sign needs to go. Despite my assurance that I’m here to witness to the good news of Jesus, and I’m looking forward to joining in worship with the congregation, Dennis insists that if I don’t remove the sign, he will take it. Since by now it’s almost time for the service, I take the sign to the car and enter the auditorium.
Loud music greets me as, with the help of an usher, I grope my way in the dark to find a seat in this huge place, by now nearly filled. Three large screens display musicians along with strobe lights and instant messages. Words on the screen tell me they’re singing about Jesus (About now I’m missing “Joyful, joyful we adore Thee”). After thirty minutes of praise music and some testimonies of answered prayers for healing and new life, Senior Pastor Jud Wilhite takes the stage and takes us on “The Spiritual Joyride.” The screen shows cartoon-like messages of things we bank on for happiness, but which, in the end, fail to bring us joy. With some comedic stories (after all we are in the entertainment capital of the world) Pastor Jud offers the key: J for Jesus, O for Others, Y for You. Reinforcing his message with readings from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he encourages us to find our joy in living for Jesus. As I’m trying to process all this, I find myself wondering how Jesus would be viewing this ministry in his name, I’m caught short when Jud notes Paul’s words, “Those others do not have pure motives as they preach about Christ. They preach with selfish ambition, not sincerely, intending to make my chains more painful for me. But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice.”
So, more to ponder…..
Week VI. September 25, 2011
A large sign, YOU CAN BE SURE YOU ARE GOING TO HEAVEN greets me as I approach Victory Baptist Church. I park my car and take out my sign, “Jesus says love your enemies: What does your church say? A few minutes after I position myself near the sanctuary entrance, Pastor Teis comes out, introduces himself and says, “Peter, if you were to die tomorrow, would you go to heaven?” “Well, Pastor, I believe in the God of love revealed in Jesus, so I trust that all will be well when I die.” “But, Peter, you can be sure.”
So Pastor Teis expounds on the four steps in God’s Plan of Salvation. “Pastor,
I say after a while, “I’m here to ask a question about God’s plan for saving the world, and that plan includes loving our enemies. How do you understand Jesus teaching about loving our enemies? And why are we killing them rather than loving them?” Teis responds by referencing numerous biblical texts from David the warrior being blessed by God, to governments being ordained of God, to war being ordained of God. After some twenty minutes of volleying texts back and forth across our theological divide, it is clear that we are not coming closer to bridging the gap between us. And now it’s almost time for the service to start.
I take my sign to the car and join the congregation for worship. I add my voice to the spirited singing of several familiar hymns, “Praise Him! Praise Him! Jesus our blessed Redeemer” and “Jesus is all the world to me” Amen! After some announcements and the offering, Pastor Teis goes to the pulpit and invites the people to open their Bibles to Deuteronomy chapter 13, a passage warning about false prophets. “How do we discern true prophets from false prophets?” he asks.
Good question, I’m thinking. “False prophets come saying, let us go after other gods.” And my mind goes to militarism, materialism, nationalism, and other isms, even biblicism? But that’s not where Pastor Teis is going. He is concerned about followers of other religions and also about Christian churches who have forsaken the true beliefs, including the reality of eternal hell-fire for those who are not saved. He concludes the service with an invitation for anyone unsure of their salvation to come for prayer.
The pondering continues. How do we discern true and false prophets?
How does the Bible, carrier of that amazing message of the love of God,
become sometimes the barrier for us to really get that message?
Week VII. October 2, 2011
I’m aware of more self-questioning during this week as I prepare to visit the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. My feelings of being seen as an intruder, which are always there, seem stronger. Why? Is race a factor?
I breathe a silent prayer as I take my sign and place myself near the church entrance. I observe that the men are dressed in suits and ties and I’m thinking I should have followed my instincts to do the same. I’m heartened by the smiles and friendly comments in response to my “good morning” greetings. Pastor Ralph Williamson comes out to greet me, and asks about my sign. I share a bit about my visitations and that I look forward to joining in the worship here this morning. He asks that I not bring in the sign, to which I agree.
Signs of Spirit energy abound in this assembly, along with a reverential dignity, as the 40 member choir processes in and the ushers, all dressed in white, help us to our pews. I feel at home joining in the singing of “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing My Great Redeemer’s Praise.” I sense that this congregation takes its time in worship. From the welcome and announcements, to the prayer of invocation, to the music from the choir, to the scripture readings, to the sermon, to the celebration of the Lord’s supper—there is no rush.
When Pastor Williamson takes the pulpit he cites the text, Matthew 6:33 “ Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” He calls the congregation to repeat it, over and over. “Put God first. That’s our call. Amen.” And amens come form the congregation. “Two thousand years ago God came into our broken world to fix it. God still comes into our broken lives and our broken world to fix our broken relationships and our broken world. God wants to change the way we think and act and live. We are called to be change agents for God.” At the conclusion of the sermon he invites all to come forward to join in prayers for healing of broken relationships and healing of our broken world. The Eucharistic celebration which follows feels organically authentic.
I leave First AME church grateful for the ministry here, and wondering again how such good Spirit energy can be extended to embrace the nonviolence gospel so that the church indeed becomes a change agent for the God who is seeking to fix the broken relationship with our enemies.
Week VIII. October 9, 2011
I’ve sent the letter to First Presbyterian Church. On Thursday there’s a message on my office phone from Pastor Jim Houston-Hencken, saying he wants to talk to me about the letter. I return the call to his cell phone; no answer so I leave a message.
Sunday morning I go to the early service and take my stand near the sanctuary entrance. I greet early comers with my “good mornings” and get “good mornings” in return. One man asks “whose side are you on?” I reply “the Jesus side.” An usher/greeter comes out and asks what I’m doing here. I say I’m here to encourage people to take Jesus seriously, especially also in his call to love our enemies. He says there is evil in the world and Jesus calls us to take out the evil.
There will always be wars, and we have to fight the evil. He says I can’t be there with the sign, because signs or petitions have to be approved by the Session. I say I’d like to stay until the worship begins, and then join in the service. He leaves and soon Pastor Jim comes. We greet each other and acknowledge that we missed each other’s phone calls. Pastor Jim says I can’t be there with the sign. I respond that I’ve prayed and planned for this visitation, and would really like to stay and then come in for worship. He says “you need to take the sign down now.” “And if I don’t?” “I’ll have to trespass you” “Then trespass me” I say as he leaves to enter the sanctuary.
I’m wondering what will happen now. Will he really call the police? And if so, what then? After a few minutes Elder Hawkins comes out, introduces himself, says he feels fine about the message, and suggests that I should come to their Session meeting next Monday and share my concern, and get permission to come another time. Pastor Jim comes out and confirms that they will welcome me to the Session meeting. I say this sounds like a good plan. So I take my sign to the car, and enter the sanctuary for worship.
I’m breathing a prayer of gratitude as I join the congregation in singing “How firm a Foundation, ye saints of the Lord is laid for your faith in His excellent Word,” and a bit later, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Pastor Jim’s sermon, titled “Sinful and Saved by Grace” takes the Noah story and lifts up human sinfulness then and now, and then assurance of God’s grace in promising “never again” to bring on the flood. I confess to some inner questioning through the service. What am I to learn form all this? The concluding hymn is “Trust and Obey.”
Week IX. October 16, 2011
I arrive at St Thomas More Catholic Church at 9: 20 and already a steady stream of people are coming for the 10:00 mass. I hold my sign near the
sanctuary entrance and offer my good morning greetings. I get smiles and good mornings in turn. After some time Deacon Mike comes out, asking what I’m about. I say I’m here to ask the question about how seriously we take Jesus teaching about loving our enemies. He says he agrees with the concern, but I should not be here by the door with the sign. Why? I ask. He says people are asking questions about it. That’s good, I say. He asks me to move up the walk a bit, farther from the door. So I do. Soon Monty comes asking whom I represent.
I say I’m here as a follower of Jesus. He says the sign should go. By now its time to join the congregation in worship, so I take the sign to the car.
The large sanctuary is filling as the Youth choir sings “Glory and praise to our God” and the priests process in. The first reading from Exodus 22 includes “you shall not oppress an alien, for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt.” The Gospel reading is from Matthew 22, where Jesus responds to the question “which is the greatest commandment” by summarizing, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. In his homily Father Michael emphasizes God’s love as a gift which frees us from the burden of carrying guilt for our breaking of commandments, and calls us in response to love God and our neighbor. He does not speak to the question of how our enemies fit into that equation. I’m wondering about that as we sing the closing song “They’ll know we are Christian by our love.” By what will the people in Iraq and Afghanistan know we are Christian?
Week X. October 30, 2011
I’m scheduled to visit Canyon Ridge Church, another mega-church in the area. On Thursday I get a call from Pastor Jose Cruz. Having received the letter, he asks a few questions about my visit, and then suggests that I not come this Sunday, but rather the next. When I ask why the delay, he says it will give him time to inform his staff and prepare them to answer questions about my being there. I’m thinking that maybe that could even help spread the good news, so I say, well, this will be my tenth church to visit, and I guess I can delay my coming for one week. So I tell him I’ll look forward to being there a week from Sunday,
and he says good. He calls back in a few minutes. Peter, will you be coming alone? Yes, I assure him. I’ll be there by myself. I’m just coning to raise the question in the hope that it will encourage us all to follow Jesus more faithfully.
He wonders whether I’d like to be at a table in their courtyard. He says different groups in the church have tables with information about their ministries. I ask whether I could have literature to distribute if I had a table. He says the literature would need to be approved. I’ll need to think about this. I’m thinking I’ll stay with the plan of standing with the sign.
So after a week delay I go to Canyon Ridge, and place myself on the walkway near the auditorium entrance. I get a lot of warm responses to my “good mornings.” After some time, Jeremy, one of the ministry team members, approaches. He says they appreciate the message, but want me to move aside to a place in the courtyard. I say I would really like to stay here where I can greet the people. He says you need to move. I ask what happens if I don’t. He says he’ll have to call metro. Now what. I stay. He goes off to confer with Jose Cruz, who had called me last week. They come back, and ask me again to move. By now it is almost time for the service to start, so I say I’ll take the sign back in a few minutes. Jeremy asks me what church I’m with. I say I was a Mennonite pastor for some time. “Oh”, he says, “I know where you’re coming from. I’ve read Stanley Hauerwas.” “And John Howard Yoder,” I ask? He says yes, “I have his Politics of Jesus book in my office.” So I ask, “are you bringing that message into the ministry here?” Well, he says, “that’s mature stuff, for academicians.” I suggest that I’d be happy to come to one of their staff meetings and talk about bringing the nonviolence gospel into the life of the church. But now it’s time to join the worshipping congregation.
A soloist sings “Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, He’s the rock on which I stand” as I find a seat in the 3,000 seat auditorium which is nearly filled to capacity. After a few sing-along songs and a video inviting people to be thankful for the gifts of life and all that sustains it, the preacher announces the theme for the day “Live Like No One Else.” Where will he go with this? It’s soon clear. After citing all kinds of figures about debt, from personal to national to world-wide, he announces a three week sermon emphasis which will help fulfill his dream that everyone in the auditorium would become debt-free. Lamenting the fact that having debt has become normal in our culture, he calls for a new normal—to “live like no one else.” Given his focus on finances, I’m waiting for a word about the Occupy movement, or the growing gap between haves and have-nots in our world. Nothing on that comes.
As I leave the auditorium, I meet Jose, who asks me what I thought of the service.
I heard many good words, I say. At the same time, I felt there was much emphasis on the “me” throughout the service: what does Jesus do for me, what does God do for me, What about concern for the neighbor? Why no mention of the Occupy movement in a sermon about finances?
What is the Spirit wanting us to learn from the mega-churches in our time? Are they symptomatic of a spiritual hunger, or a spiritual disease? Or both?
Week XI. November 6, 2011
As usual, I’m feeling a bit out of my comfort zone as I take my place near the entrance to the sanctuary of University United Methodist Church. Soon an early parishioner stops, looks at the sign and says “you’re preaching to the choir here.” I hope so, I say. After a few minutes Pastor Tang comes and asks what I am doing here. I tell him about my visitation to churches in the area, and ask if he got my letter. He says he’s been out of town, so he has not seen it. I give him a copy. He scans it and says OK, Peter. You’re welcome here. You came on a good Sunday.
The worship begins with words of welcome from the pastor and the singing of “God of love and God of power, Thou hast called us for this hour.” Visitors are invited to introduce themselves. I join with others in doing so, and say a word about my visitation mission. Noting that this is the Veteran’s Day weekend, Pastor Tang asks the veterans present to stand and report in which branch of the military they served. He then prays that the “God of peace may protect those who are now in harm’s way defending our freedom, and may the hearts of our leaders and our enemies turn to peace.”
The Matthew 18:15-20 gospel text gives me a clue as to why Pastor Tang had said that this was a good Sunday for me to be here. Again, as was the case in two previous visitations where this was the sermon text, preacher Tang used the occasion to encourage parishioners to follow the conflict resolution process Jesus prescribes to work through the conflicts which are normal in families and churches. “The church is not exempt from struggle and conflict. We are here to learn how to love and forgive.” The service concludes with the singing of “Heralds of Christ” which includes these words, “Lord, give us faith and strength to build, to see the promise of the day fulfilled, when war shall be no more, and strife shall cease upon the highway of the Prince of Peace”
The questions continue. In many ways, I feel here, as in other visitations, that I am indeed “preaching to the choir.” There is much love flowing among the people. There are many beautiful affirmations in the songs and spoken words. And yet…and yet. What does it mean that we continue to speak of the military as “defenders of our freedom”? Why, in our time of confession, is there no pleading for mercy for the death and destruction we rained on Afghanistan this week? Why no begging for forgiveness for our mass incarceration of our black brothers? Why no asking for God to take the blinders from our eyes so we will see the thousands of Lazarus’s lying at our doorsteps? Has the choir, too, become tone-deaf? Or has the preacher lost the music?
Week XII. November 13, 2011
As I approach St John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, I’m thinking, with a bit of irony, of the question a brother asked me at the Men’s Club breakfast at Westminster Presbyterian Church yesterday, after I had shared about my visitation mission: “Peter, do you feel like John the Baptist?” Located in an affluent suburb, St John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church with its majestic Byzantine dome is hardly suggestive of a wilderness. With some sense of awe, I take my place near the entrance. I am greeted by Justina who says she likes my sign. She tells me of her conversion from the Baptist to the Orthodox faith. After some time two men, John and Demetrius, come out asking where I’m from. I tell them of my visitation mission. They say they have no problem with my message, but they do not allow signs on the premises. They invite me to come join in the liturgy which is about to begin, so I take the sign to the car.
I enter the sanctuary to the sounds of interplay between the chants of the pastor with beautiful choral responses from the choir, and to the sight of icons filling the front and all around. As I pick up the weekly bulletin, I note with interest a brief story of two saints, Plato (not the philosopher) and Romanus who were martyred for their refusal to worship the Roman gods. This resonates positively with my Mennonite soul, which admittedly is still in process of learning to appreciate icons and highly liturgical practices in the church. While lacking in understanding of the various elements of the liturgy here this morning, I am impressed by the sense of mystery and harmony evoked. At the same time, Fr. Hondros gets right to the point in his homily based on Jesus parable of the rich fool, from Luke 12:16-21. Noting the Occupy movement’s calling attention to the growing gap between the people of great wealth and the many struggling in our world, he warns against the temptation of accumulating for oneself and forgetting our brothers and sisters in need. The message is clear, he says. People who do that are fools.
Again I’m left with questions—for myself, for us all. When is my barn big enough? Has accumulation become an American idol? Is our soul being taken from us? And what other American gods are we being wooed to worship? What about our sense of exceptionalism? What about our military presence around the world? Do we have the faith and courage to resist, if not to martyrdom, at least to risk being labeled un-patriotic or subversive?
Week XIII. November 20, 2011
In the attractive newsletter of the International Church of Las Vegas, Pastor Paul Goulet announces the launching of their “Jesus said Go” campaign dedicated to the sending of short-term missionaries into internships nationally and world-wide. I begin my very-short-term mission to the church by holding my sign near the auditorium entrance. My first conversation is with Jeremiah, who shares of his finding Jesus in prison eight years ago, and how he is now engaged in ministry with men as they are being released. We rejoice together in the transforming power of the love of God. A few minutes later David comes affirming the sign’s message. I ask him why then do we go on bombing and killing our enemies? Joseph, a security guard for the church comes to join the conversation. He asks whether I have permission to be here with the sign. The Spirit sent me, I say. He says I need permission from the church. Tony, another staff member, pleads with me to take the sign to my car and come join in the worship. It’s about that time, so I’m persuaded.
“Our God is greater than any other god” sings the vocalist backed up by a band.
The assembling congregants sing along in a medley of praise songs extolling the name of Jesus, interspersed with enthusiastic proclamations from the vocalist and worship leader. The note of joyful celebration is picked up by Pastor Paul as he comes on stage with his Bible open to I Chronicles 29, the story of King David calling on the people to bring their gold and silver and jewels to the house of the Lord, and the people rejoicing and bringing their offerings willingly. Pastor Paul is excited as he talks about the amazing things happening in the missions of the congregation locally and internationally. In his prayer before the offering, he sees a God of prosperity blessing his people, with someone receiving an inheritance, some debts being cancelled, and people giving their offerings willingly. His sermon is an Attitude Check. “Your attitude determines your altitude.” Taking off from I Peter 3:8, he lists eight characteristics of a good attitude: thankful, grateful, appreciative, indebted, other-centered, clean heart, positive, and God as the source. Being a Denver Broncos fan, my ears perk up when he cites Tim Tebow as an example of someone having a good attitude and flying high with it.
(Interestingly, Tebow pulls another one out of the fire later!) Back to sermon—I’m doing some attitude checking as I listen. I’m aware that I need some tune-ups along the way. So, I thank you Pastor Paul and the International Church of Las Vegas for taking me in today, At the same time, I confess that I missed the absence of any reference to Advent in this service.
How do I do a check on my attitudes in this visitation mission? I’m aware of a mix of feelings within myself about the venture. On the one hand, sometimes I feel like I’m intruding inappropriately. On the other hand, when I sense that loving enemies, which is at the heart of the gospel, is given short shrift in most churches, I feel compelled to go on. I hope I’m going more out of a spirit of love and less out of a spirit of judgment.
I have taken a break for Advent/Christmas/New Year celebrations, and plan to resume the visitations in January.
Church Visitation Journal , January 2012
Visitation Phase Two, Week I: January 22, 2012
After a six week break for holiday celebrations, I am ready to begin the next series of visitations. As I approach the First Christian Church I note with interest the message on their street sign, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” Well! Then I remember a sign they had on some time ago, “We need to talk! -God.” So I park my car, take my sign and go stand near the sanctuary entrance. I get friendly affirming responses to my “good mornings.” One brother comes by, looks, and says, “I was in Vietnam. It's taken me a long time to forgive my enemies.” “And how is it coming?” “I’m about 99% there.” We shake hands. “It’s a long journey. I wish you well.” Interim Pastor Stan Smith comes out to greet me and asks about the visit. I tell him I’m trying to encourage people of faith to take the enemy loving message of Jesus more seriously. We need that, he agrees. Praise God. I’m ready to get on with worship in the sanctuary.
After announcements and the passing of the peace and joyful singing of Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee and some time with children and sharing of joys and concerns and pastoral praying and readings from Galations 3 and Matthew 18, Pastor Stan preaches about belonging. “We all need to belong. And in Christ we all do belong….Where two or three—or ten or twenty or whatever number are gathered, Christ is present…..There is no conservative or liberal or this or that or whatever label to divide us.” I’m waiting to hear him add “no American or Afghan.” That doesn’t come. Following the celebration of communion we sing the closing hymn “In Christ there is no East or West, in Him no South or North but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.” I rejoice in this celebrative affirmation of the all-embracing love of God for people around the world even as I’m bothered by the large American flag on the stage.
After the service I’m invited to join an adult discussion group whose question for the day is how to understand Jesus words “Judge not that you be not judged. For with the judgment you judge you will be judged.” A very lively discussion, with comments all over the place. I leave First Christian Church with a sense that the treasure of gospel nonviolence remains to be more deeply mined here, as in other churches which see themselves as progressive.
Visitation Phase Two. Week II: January 29, 2012
The large street sign says “Grace Reformed: A Community Bible Church. And as the people come for worship, I note they are all carrying their Bibles. I greet the early arrivals with my “good morning” and get the usual mix of smiles and questioning looks in response. Soon church secretary Sarah comes to introduce herself and asks what I’m doing here. So I tell her of my visitations and the hope that we will all take Jesus teaching about loving our enemies seriously. We do that here, she says. Then are you protesting the killing we are doing in Afghanistan? Sarah goes back into the sanctuary, saying she needs to consult with the elders. After a while Pastor Jason comes and says, we have no problem with your sign, but we don’t allow protest sign on our property. But this is not a protest sign. This is a message from the Bible about the good news of the gospel. Peter, you can’t hold that sign here. Go hold it on the sidewalk near the street. And what if I stay here? We may need to call metro. I’d rather not do that. When I respond with the suggestion that we pray together about this, he turns around and goes back in the church. I stay for another five minutes, then take the sign to the car and enter the sanctuary.
A Musical group consisting of violin, (beautiful) guitar and vocalists sings praise songs for some twenty minutes, with some singing along. Pastor Jason reads the scripture for the day, Hebrews 3. Then Pastor Jeff takes the pulpit. His sermon is titled “The Excellence of Christ.” He talks briefly about Christ’s excellence in his power, his glory, and his providence. Then he becomes more passionate when he preaches about the sacrifice of Christ. “God is a holy God. And He was angry with his people. Christ’s sacrifice purged our sin and satisfied the wrath of God. Once and for all.” Sadly this Substitution Atonement interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death has infected many churches. At this point in my long faith journey I am seeing this theory as a pernicious heresy, leading many people to buy into the “cheap grace” Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned us about. At the same time, I am impressed by the Bibles in the hands of the people in the pews, including a large number of young people. I didn’t see any people carrying Bibles in the “progressive” church I visited last Sunday, and there were only a few youth. I’m wondering, which group will produce the Jesus followers who will preach and practice the nonviolence gospel of Jesus in the next decades?