Each year my congregation (along with a number of local churches and non-profit organizations) participates in a local witness called the Witting Tree. On a tree in front of the meetinghouse we solemnly hang dog tags to remember and raise awareness that 20+ veterans commit suicide each day. And we recommit to being a compassionate presence for our veteran neighbors and their families, in light of the often unseen burdens of moral injury, traumatic stress, and return from war.
We put the tags up on Veterans Day, and it dawned on me this year that we take them down as the season of Advent begins. The temperature was cold with a slight wind, and each time I removed a metal tag there was a chiming sound as it gently touched the nearest branch. I heard twenty-two chimes as I worked, once again reminding me of twenty-two servicemembers and neighbors who may be struggling.
So I decided to pray through the themes of Advent while I was out at the tree. Hope, peace, joy, and love seemed an appropriate request, as these are longings I have heard as I listened to my veteran friends over the past few years.
If you like, pray with me…
I pray for hope…for those who have lost faith in the promises made to them, and for those who wonder what the next day will bring.
I pray for peace…for a journey home that leads to welcome and healing, and for our nation to break the cycle of endless war.
I pray for moments of joy within the dark nights of the soul. And for friendship and community to share in joyful moments with.
I pray for love…that each one would know that they are loved, both by their Creator and their neighbor, and that we would embody this love in meaningful ways.
by Chris Nickels, Pastor at Spring Mount Mennonite Church
On Sunday June 4, five Franconia Conference congregations (Wellspring, Methacton, Spring Mount, Frederick, and Providence) gathered in Skippack to worship together and have a picnic. Skippack has some historical significance, being the place where Mennonites first settled in Montgomery County. A few centuries later we are still here, seeking to live out a vision of faithful witness to Jesus Christ.
In the beautiful surroundings of Hallman’s Grove, tucked within a residential neighborhood just east of the village, I was reminded of the life and Spirit that surrounds us. One’s senses could pick up the sights and sounds of creation as well as a gentle breeze— especially meaningful on this day of Pentecost that was the focal point of our gathering.
We celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit to the first followers of Jesus (Acts 2), and the gifts of the Spirit present among us today. Worship included speaking and singing in different languages, and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer included nine languages (Spanish, Indonesian, English, German, Greek, Italian, Kannada, French, Vietnamese). Pastor Sandy Drescher-Lehman of Methacton Mennonite Church presented a children’s story about the birth of the church—complete with birthday cake! —and she and the children led us in a fun birthday song.
We prayed for each other, for our pastors, and also for a local food pantry, all of which reminded me of our common mission in central Montgomery County. Our pastors took turns giving a short message about how we have been living out God’s mission and how we are being empowered for ministry by the Spirit. The picnic, organized by members of each church, provided plenty of delicious food and space to build relationships with one another.
The event was a team effort among our congregations, and I think we are discovering that we really enjoy working together and are being blessed in our common activities and growing relationships. Despite the small size of our individual congregations, we are noticing that we benefit from diverse membership and from the wisdom of our elder members. We are realizing that our small congregations can be a blessing to our conference and also to our local communities. We have unique gifts to offer, and by the end of our time together I felt energized for how we might continue to share the love and light of Christ together.
by Chris Nickels, Pastor at Spring Mount Mennonite Church
For two days (May 13-14, 2015) a group of thirty-one individuals gathered at Salford Mennonite Church to learn about the experience of veterans and how to provide support for veterans and their families. The title of this seminar was “The Journey Home from War,” a branch of the STAR: Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience program from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. This learning community consisted of veterans, spouses of veterans, representatives from social service and community development agencies, veterans network leaders, and members of congregations from a variety of denominations.
Each person in attendance felt a call to this gathering, and opportunity was given to share about our personal connection with military veterans. As a body, we had combat veterans and war protestors, those suffering post-traumatic stress and those providing care for friends and loved ones who do, pacifists and non-pacifists, clergy and laity. Our differences did not prevent us from discovering that we have so much in common. All of us have been touched by war in some way, and are feeling the need to respond in compassion, care, and support of veterans and their families.
As the seminar concluded we were sent out to embody what we had learned together. Some action steps I noted include:
Raising awareness about the physical and spiritual needs of veterans (and their families).
Developing mutuality in our relationships as we commit to learn from each other.
Being committed to helping returning veterans find “meaningful work…that rewards the soul,” as my friend Glen articulates so well.
Looking back, it feels like a good description of this experience could be a liturgy of healing and hope. Sometimes liturgy is thought of as “the work of the people.” Liturgies consist of work that is intentional and repeated, and so I’m reminded of the important ongoing work that will emerge from this training and these relationships. Liturgy is also a way we are drawn into the restoring, reconciling, healing work of Jesus Christ, who announces hope and good news for all.
In the midst of the work of these two days, my mind kept recalling words from Psalm 34:
“seek peace, and pursue it…
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”
May we find ways to embody these words, and may God extend this space of healing and hope deeper into our communities and into our hearts.
Franconia Conference delegates and leaders gathered November 2 at Penn View Christian School in Souderton, Pa. to celebrate God still at work. With a packed auditorium for a third united assembly with Eastern District Conference, representatives gathered to listen and pray, to celebrate newly credentialed and ordained pastoral leaders, and to work alongside one another after an over 150-year rift created two separate Mennonite entities. The theme “God still @ work” was an extension of the 2012 theme, “God @ work.”
With singing in Indonesian, Spanish, and English led by Samantha Lioi (Peace and Justice Minister for both conferences) and Bobby Wibowo (Philadelphia Praise Center) and translation into Franconia Conference’s worshipping languages, delegates and representatives from nearly all of the Conference’s congregations from Georgia to Vermont gathered to confer around a board-crafted statement on the Conference’s increasing diversity in ethnicity, experiences, faith practice, and expression. The gathering was punctuated with points of celebration including testimony from Peaceful Living led by Joe Landis and Louis Cowell from Salford congregation, a youth choir from the revitalizing Garden Chapel in Victory Gardens, NJ, and a moment to mark the upcoming November retirement of Franconia Conference Pastor of Ministerial Leadership Noah Kolb after 45 years of ministry, which was met with rousing applause and a standing ovation.
In a shortened one-day event, delegates spent the morning together around tables with Eastern District Conference to continue to deepen relationships across conference lines. Business sessions were separate, and Franconia’s included a significant amount of time in conversations among table groups, conferring over the board statement and then reporting on those conversations to the whole body. Delegates and representatives were encouraged to mix across congregational lines to better hear and experience the diversity of conference relationships.
For many, including Tami Good, Souderton (Pa.) congregation’s Pastor of Music & Worship, who was attending Conference Assembly for the first time, the table conversations were holy spaces. Each person at her table was from a different congregation. “I saw God at work in the gracious listening, especially in the time when we talked about the conferring statement,” Good reflected. “There were disagreements, but everyone was graciously listening and hearing. Everyone actually wanted to hear each other. It was a beautiful time.”
The conferring time, along with an afternoon workshop led by the Franconia Conference board, focused on prayer and visioning for the Conference into the future. Conference board members Jim Longacre (Bally congregation), Rina Rampogu (Plains congregation), Jim Laverty (Souderton congregation), and Klaudia Smucker (Bally congregation) served as a listening committee for the daylong event. They reported seven themes of consistent and continued conversation: engagement, diversity, shared convictions, authority, polity, the role of conference, and the reality of changing relationships and engagement. Board members noted that there is much response work to do to continue the conversation and discernment process.
Bruce Eglinton-Woods, pastor of Salem congregation (Quakertown, Pa.), said, “The challenge is speaking clearly on what we believe and where we are at, which is often a challenge for Mennonite leaders. My hope and prayer is that we can trust God and release the idea of keeping it all together. We need to let God do the holding together.”
According to Rampogu, one of the longest standing Conference board members, “the hardest part about this kind of meeting is that there isn’t enough time. We want to share and to talk together,” she said. “That is a positive sign. People want to connect. My hope and prayer is that we keep our goal in mind, keeping our mission focused on equipping leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission, with Christ in the center and churches focused on missional activity.”
In business sessions, delegates selected a number of positions by 97% affirmation including a 2nd term for conference moderator John Goshow (Blooming Glen congregation) along with board member Beny Krisbianto (Nations Worship Center), as well as ministerial and credentialing committee members Rose Bender (Whitehall congregation), Ken Burkholder (Deep Run East congregation), Mike Clemmer (Towamencin congregation) and Chris Nickels (Spring Mount congregation). Randy Nyce (Salford congregation) who is completing a term as finance committee chair and board member reported on Conference finances, noting an 11% decrease in financial contributions from congregations.
“I was surprised and pleased that the attendance at Assembly 2013 was so strong; seeing the room filled to capacity was an affirmation of how much the delegates and guests in attendance care for our conference,” Goshow noted. “Franconia Conference is all of us who are members of our 42 churches and our Conference Related Ministries. It is my hope and prayer that together we chart a course that will advance God’s Kingdom in exciting and wonderful ways.”
Spring Mount Mennonite Church is located in Spring Mount, Pa., in the Perkiomen Valley. At its very beginning (1934) this faith community was a mission Sunday School and summer Bible School, organized by the Franconia Mennonite Mission Board and facilitated by members of Salford Mennonite Church. In the early 20th century communities like Spring Mount were summer resort towns. Visitors from Philadelphia would travel here on the Perkiomen branch of the Reading Railroad that went through each town. The old railroad line is now the Perkiomen Trail, a popular recreational space and part of the county park system. Today Spring Mountain is the main attraction in town, and the Philadelphia Folk Fest is held here annually, just a short distance away from the meetinghouse.
All are welcome in this small, friendly congregation. We value newcomers while continuing to put down roots in our Anabaptist/Mennonite heritage. Our worship style is warmly informal, participatory, and multi-voiced. The leadership structure includes a Church Council and Elder team, with Chris Nickels serving as pastor. Our vision statement reads, “To reach out to our community as a healthy congregation able to offer welcome and fellowship for the purpose of salvation and nurture in God’s grace.”
We have always valued the community and seek to serve and connect with our neighbors through a number of activities, such as the Schwenksville community food pantry. We often experiment with new ways of doing church together, which has led to new expressions like Table Church (a monthly Sunday morning meal liturgy). We value practices like corporate prayer, Bible study, and worship. We particularly like to use food to bless others, through activities like fellowship times and meal ministry.
Last summer the members of our worship commission, led by Eileen Viau, were planning for the fall and doing some reflection together. It was less about the monthly details and more of a “big picture” conversation about our identity as a worshiping congregation.
Worship is an expression, and the style of a congregation’s corporate worship can reflect the gifts and talents of the group. Among other things, we asked ourselves, “What are some of the gifts present within the Spring Mount congregation that God might want to use at this time?” And fairly quickly an experiment in doing church began to take shape.
In listening to church members, a sentiment that I heard voiced a number of times was “We should have more fellowship meals.” Those meals have always been a popular event–an atmosphere of comfort and fun. And our congregation is particularly good at facilitating ministry with meals. In the past we created worship and Bible study experiences that included a food element, such as an Anabaptist meal liturgy (with resources from our friend Stuart Murray Williams) and Saturday morning breakfast Bible studies. Every Sunday morning we enjoy an abundance of refreshments for fellowship time, coordinated by our dedicated hospitality team. Stacey Hallahan’s chocolate cake, Lorene Nyce’s monkey bread, and Ruth Reinford’s mango salsa are some of the best culinary treats you can find in the Perkiomen Valley (or anywhere else for that matter). If we were going to experiment with a new kind of ministry, it seemed natural to move in a direction involving food and hospitality.
Our conversation landed on the idea of creating a monthly Sunday morning meal liturgy. I believe Gay Brunt Miller first mentioned the name “Table Church,” which we liked and which certainly fit because this would be “church happening around tables.” Table Church is modeled after Jesus’ table practices and the gatherings of early Christians that we noticed in the New Testament (Acts 2:42). It is a potluck meal (everyone brings a brunch-type food) reminding us that we all participate in the church and each has something of value to share–no matter how big or small the contribution. We sit at round tables, facing one another, in an environment intended for conversation. A simple liturgy was created for this time to guide us as we eat, pray, share, laugh, and reflect on a Bible story together.
There is no sermon at Table Church. Instead, we listen as someone reads the Bible passage aloud and then each table group reflects on it by asking missional questions (adapted from Darrell Guder): What does the passage say about God? About us? What is the Good News in this passage? How does this passage send us out to help in God’s Mission? We may not have a typical sermon at Table Church, but the potential exists for a collective one to emerge as we respond to the Story, to each other, and to the voice of the Spirit. Various people of different ages participate in leading elements of the liturgy, through praying, reading the scripture, and offering a blessing to the group before we depart.
For each Table Church, we print a Spring Mount trivia question in the bulletin as a conversation starter (Example: Name the famous music act that wrote a song about the Perkiomen Creek.*). The questions are a fun way to delve into some of the history of our town. For some of us the answers are new information, while for others they recall memories from the past. It was great to observe one question–about a local park–inspire some reminiscing about the person the park was named for, a friend of a few church members.
It feels like God is doing something among us through Table Church. I think we are continuing to discover the vital ministry of hospitality. We are learning about the place where we meet, the place on whose behalf we are “seeking the peace” (Jer. 29:7). We are further experiencing the value of multi-voiced worship, and how God is present and shapes us as we listen to each other and to God’s Story. We are trying out new recipes and sharing new foods; one table group recently proposed the idea of creating a Table Church cookbook. So far, I think we are discovering that the table can be a fun, meaningful, and even holy place. No wonder Jesus spent so much time there.