General sessions intended to move faith from head to heart
by Myra Holmes
In keeping with planners’ hopes that faith would move from head to heart to hands, the SA2011 “flood” found its source in a wellspring of Scripture and worship, provided through four general sessions placed strategically throughout the event.
Sessions opened with video recaps of the day, thought-provoking media productions, inspiring stories from MB Mission and highlights from MB partners such as Fresno Pacific University, Ministry Quest, Tabor College and more. Emcees Trent Voth of Fresno, Calif., and Ben Marquez of Wichita, Kan., kept the sessions flowing smoothly.
Worship was an integral part of the sessions, led by Stories in Braille, a four-member group from San Jose, Calif., that blended plenty of drums, bass and electric guitar with heartfelt lyrics. Songs were mostly familiar to the teens and at times flowed perfectly with the event’s emotional and spiritual currents. Teens responded with whole-hearted expressions of praise and worship.
On Sunday, for example, after a day focused on engaging hearts in mission, they raised their arms and sang, “I’ll stand with arms high and heart abandoned, in awe of the one who gave it all…. All I am is yours.” After a Monday of serving and seeing poverty firsthand, they threw their voices into, “Oh happy day, happy day. I’ll never be the same. Forever I am changed.”
Such worship served as both preparation for and response to the challenges presented by speakers Paula Simpson-Parry and Shane Claiborne. The duo posed a dramatic, but effective, contrast. Simpson-Parry, formerly part of Youth for Christ’s leadership team in Britain and now ministering in Texas, opened the event Saturday evening and spoke again Sunday evening. Shane Claiborne, founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, Pa., spoke Monday evening and closed the event Tuesday morning.
Simpson-Parry, a petite and proper Brit, laid out her points deliberately and clearly, while Claiborne, sporting home-made clothes, waist-long dreadlocks and a warm Tennessee drawl, told animated stories. While their appearance, demeanor and styles couldn’t have been more different, their messages similarly challenged the students to a life of love and justice.
At the opening session Saturday evening, Simpson-Parry challenged the students to get into the flood of what God is doing, using Ezekiel 47:1-5 as her text. “You can only flood out what has come into your life,” she said.
Simpson-Parry’s message answered three questions: How do we get into the flood? How do we move away from the edge? How do we go deeper?
“God asks us to just take one step and to stand in his flood,” said Simpson-Parry in answer to the first question. Mistakes and fears should not be cause for holding back. “Your past does not determine your future,” said Simpson-Parry, emphasizing that this was one of the most important statements she would make that evening. “God celebrates when we jump into his flood.”
To move away from the edge, “look up. Look to God,” said Simpson-Parry. “Are we going to be people who let God put his strength inside of us? As God floods into my life, it overflows into the people around me.”
She said, “God is putting dreams and visions into your life right now! You need to get in, move away from the edge and go deeper.”
Going deeper means relying on God’s gift of grace, said Simpson-Parry, and grace can’t be earned. “God is love. For God to stop loving us would be for God to not be God. He loves us just because of who he is.”
Sunday evening, Simpson-Parry spoke again from Ezekiel 47 and noted three things God’s flood offers: It restores and refreshes; it heals; it brings life. She again emphasized that it is only when God is present in one’s life that God’s love and grace can overflow to others.
She told the students about a canal in the British town of Lincoln that looks fine from a distance but is in fact dirty, stinky and potentially harmful if drank. “Do you want to be a stagnant pool or refreshing water?” she asked.
Simpson-Parry focused on God’s call to forgive as one way in which God brings healing. She spoke of recently forgiving her mother for events from her youth and the ways God has blessed her family since.
Simpson-Parry concluded with the story from John 4 of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman as an illustration of the way in which God’s river floods with life. She emphasized Christ’s death as the reason why Christians can bring change into individual lives and communities.
“Take a minute to think about where you are with God,” said Simpson-Parry, “and be honest about where you’d like to be.” She invited youth sponsors to stand and as the worship band led the group in singing she asked those students who were making a first-time commitment to follow Christ or who were looking for a “fresh start” to stand with their youth leaders. “Make the best decision you could ever make,” she said.
Following the session, time was set aside for youth groups to process and discuss. One youth leader commented that the gathering was especially significant for their group as the teens took ownership of the mission in a new way. Students from another group described a time of deep sharing and bonding as they discussed areas of needed forgiveness.
Before the session Monday evening, attendees had an opportunity to be “the hands and feet of Jesus” in a concrete way through an offering, a NYC tradition. Eight years ago, youth gave toward the North Carolina District Conference’s dream of building a new facility to expand ministry—a dream that is now reality in The Life Center. Four years ago at Anaheim ’07, they gave to help MB churches in California’s Central Valley reach out to those hit hard by a brutal freeze that destroyed critical crops.
This year’s offering will bless the Latin American Mennonite Brethren, the group of MB churches in South Texas that hosted SA2011. Because these small, mostly Spanish-speaking churches are geographically distant from other MB churches, it is often especially costly for them to travel to events of the larger MB family. Funds from SA2011 will establish a scholarship fund so that youth from LAMB will be able to travel to MB leadership training events. Attendees gave about $3,000 for this cause.
When the much-anticipated, much-debated Claiborne took the stage, he challenged students to take their faith to new depths. Despite significant controversy before the event surrounding Claiborne’s selection as a speaker, his content, while challenging and dramatic, his content was well received.
Student reporter Austen Houts, from Bethany MB Church, Fresno, Calif., says, “I had heard (Claiborne) referred to as a ‘controversial’ and ‘radical’ speaker, so I was half anticipating myself disagreeing with some of his ideas; however to my pleasant surprise this was absolutely not the case. He was an excellent example of being God’s hands and feet to those who need (God).”
Two youth groups chose not to hear Claiborne’s message, having arranged alternate activities with the planning team before the convention.
Claiborne opened his Monday evening address with the story of his own multiple responses to altar calls and teen years in church that left him longing for more. “This whole Christian thing has got to be more than being born again, again,” he said.
He then told about his own faith journey. “I’m still recovering from my conversion,” he said, saying that following Christ turned his life upside down. He told stories of working with Mother Teresa and lepers in Calcutta, India, learning what it means to truly share from a poor child given a rare ice cream treat, throwing a “kingdom party” in Philadelphia and getting arrested for feeding the homeless.
Christians should be “holy troublemakers,” he said, people who are not content with the world as it is, but dare to imagine the world as it should be.
He also showed a video of Mark Weaver who committed to selling all he had to give to the poor, then won a small fortune on “The Price is Right,” and changed the lives of many Ugandan AIDS orphans when he followed through on his commitment. “What he did just makes sense in light of the kingdom of God,” Claiborne commented.
Claiborne encouraged attendees to follow Jesus no matter what the cost, in big ways and especially in small ways. “A flood is made up of lots of little drops,” he told the youth. “God does not want to change the world without you.”
When Claiborne spoke again Tuesday morning at SA2011’s closing session, he continued dreaming about what it looks like to live a life marked by Christ’s love. He challenged attendees to be “extremists for love and grace” in a world of extremes. “The question is not whether we’ll be extremists,” he said, “but what kind of extremists will we be?”
Again he made his point through stories, taken from his own life, church history and the Bible. Speaking of the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus, he said, “The closer we are to God, the less we want to throw stones at other people.”
He reminded students and leaders alike that all are sinners. “This gospel is not for people who have it all together but for those who are falling apart,” he said. He challenged them to read Scripture as a series of stories of people transformed by grace: “If God can use those people, he can use us.”
Claiborne also encouraged this next generation of Mennonite Brethren to embrace their heritage, saying the world needs the Anabaptist voice of love and peace. He reminded youth of Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist prisoner remembered for saving his captor at the cost of his own life. “That’s your story!” Claiborne said.
Claiborne’s closing story was a video of one of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity nuns touching and comforting a child suffering from both malnutrition and post-traumatic stress. It served as a dramatic and wordless example of grace in the face of suffering and left the room hushed.
“I want to love like that, don’t you?” Claiborne asked.
With that challenge hanging in the air, youth groups huddled for communion, serving each other and praying together. As Stories in Braille led in a final worship set, students sang, “Let justice and grace become my embrace. Consume me from the inside out, Lord.” The song felt like a fitting closing prayer.
“So this is the end,” emcee Trent Voth said as he offered closing comments to SA2011. “Go in peace and may those you encounter be blessed by you.”
As students poured out of their rooms at the Grand Hyatt into buses and airport shuttles, spilling toward South Dakota and Kansas, California, Texas and North Carolina, it felt more like a river overflowing its banks. This flood was just beginning.
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