Pandemic Fears, Realistic Response

Ebola. The word alone in a news headline is enough to make me want to click and read more.

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And the media certainly know how to play off my fears. All they have to do is insert the word crisis and they know they’ve got me.

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I live in suburban Ohio, between Cleveland and Akron—very close to the area where Dallas nurse Amber Vinson visited last weekend before she was diagnosed with Ebola. A few area schools have been closed and cleaned “out of an abundance of caution”; a bridal store she visited has been closed; and Vinson’s friends and family who had direct contact with her are being quarantined for 21 days (including three who work on the same college campus as my spouse). My husband got a notice about it at work, my younger daughter’s daycare sent home a notice, the pediatrician asked about possible exposure when I called to make an appointment, there’s a countywide Ebola hotline, the list goes on.

It feels to me like level of panic in this area is at an all-time high.

I don’t want to bury my head in the sand here and skip the news altogether, but I also need to be realistic: it’s more likely at this point that I’m going to die from a car accident or the flu than Ebola. There is a very real Ebola outbreak, but right now it’s in West Africa.

How do I manage my own personal fears while also working to help solve the problem? This was my quandary late last week when I remembered a series of resources MennoMedia developed a few years ago about pandemic preparedness.

Back in 2009, medical authorities were warning that the world was due to suffer a flu virus on a global scale, equal to or greater than the international pandemic of 1918. They warned that, despite our advanced medical technology, thousands of people would die and many more would become sick. People would fear for their health. Naturally, people would want to protect themselves.

So we at MennoMedia considered: How would the church respond to a pandemic? Do we have a plan? Will we retreat in fear, or are we ready to be God’s light in the midst of suffering?

We developed a series of pandemic preparedness resources. It has three parts:

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The Beyond Our Fears guide is designed to be part of a congregational study series, but it can also be a personal resource for inspiration and learning.

This series was written not to raise our fears, but to do the exact opposite: to prepare the church to shine as God’s light in the midst of such crises, to respond to our call to be people of healing and hope. Even if these crises never occur, the resources (especially the ones for adults) will help us think through our mission as Christians and how God calls us to join the work of healing and hope in our families, neighborhoods, and world.

Most of us would rather not think about worst-case scenarios such as Ebola in Ohio (or anywhere else, for that matter), a new flu pandemic, or devastating hurricanes or tornadoes. But governments and municipalities are creating plans to be prepared for each of these crises. So shouldn’t we, as ordinary people of faith, be spiritually prepared? Why not know before the crisis what kinds of actions and attitudes are most consistent with our faith? Why not think together about how is God calling us to be good stewards of the future? Let’s face it: crisis has always been a fact of human existence on this planet, and it can hit without warning.

Because these pandemic preparedness resources are perfect for such a time as this, MennoMedia is offering 20% off any of the three titles this week. Just use code BEYOND14 at checkout. I encourage you to take advantage of the sale and to consider these issues with your congregation.

Now to part 2: the matter of stopping and controlling Ebola in West Africa. There are so many inspiring stories of what’s being done in Africa. But, as experts warn us, more work needs to be done to contain and control this virus. Dollars are needed—quickly—to aid in this work. In the last week on the news or in my Facebook feed, I’ve heard of people giving to the following organizations. Click on the name of the organization to make your own contribution.

Manage your fears; make a donation. That’s my recipe for realism and action amidst worst-case scenario reporting.

How are you coping with fears of Ebola or other crises? If you have children, how are you talking about Ebola with your children? Has your congregation used any of these resources?

Amy Gingerich, editorial director

Amy Gingerich

Engaging the Jesus Way

Are Anabaptists ready to rock and roll? Truly ready? We live in a time when the larger church is interested in articulating positions around peace, reconciliation, and simple living, among others. And that interest is driving people to check out Anabaptist-affiliated groups and churches.

But are the Russian and German cultural heritage pieces keeping people away? Is four-part singing keeping people from engaging at a deeper level? Is talk of Zwieback or Faspa keeping us from sharing the good news?

This past weekend I attended “Church and Post-Christian Culture: Christian Witness in the Way of Jesus,” a conference hosted by Missio Alliance that focused on the convergence of evangelical and Anabaptist thought and how we apply that theology to the concept of mission.

There were 10 excellent preachers on Friday, plus more speakers on Saturday, and a workshop each day as well. My mind is still churning with ideas, so what follows are a few of my takeaways and how they intersect with my work at MennoMedia.

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So many good conversations happened during this conference. Yes, there were a number of women present (including three of us from MennoMedia and Herald Press), but this photo from our booth doesn’t show any.

Cultural religious heritage

Greg Boyd, of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, encouraged Mennonites and other Anabaptists to stop putting so much weight into the cultural aspects of religion, such as four-part singing, and instead get ready to rock and roll in our churches. I don’t doubt for a moment that Greg is right. How do we make room in our churches to welcome newcomers? Music is certainly one part of what Mennonites need to work on to be more welcoming. So are potlucks, the weight given to certain last names, and more.

“As the rest of Christianity is discovering God’s peaceful kingdom, Anabaptists are trying to forget it.” Ouch. But again, Boyd is right. Many Anabaptist churches have tried to distance themselves from their historic peace position. And yet this is what is driving neo-Anabaptists to explore Anabaptism. From a publishing perspective, I know this is what others coming to Herald Press and MennoMedia are looking for and expect.

Kurt Willems, of the Pangea Communities in Seattle, spoke of his own Mennonite heritage and affirmed exactly what Boyd was saying earlier: Willems was a raised a cultural Mennonite but not an Anabaptist.

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Kurt Willems preaching about growing up culturally Mennonite but not Anabaptist.

He grew up with Mennonite foods, attended Mennonite schools, was part of a Mennonite family with all the right surnames, and yet he did not know the Anabaptist message of peace. He has a powerful story of being convicted about the gospel of peace not by other Mennonites but in attending an event where evangelical author Shane Claiborne spoke. Willems is now a church planter in Seattle and sharing the gospel of peace with those coming to the Pangea Communities.

Jesus-looking faith

A Jesus-looking faith does not mean complicity or following a stable leader without cost. A Jesus-looking faith is risky, willing to question what the Empire has taught. Over and over the speakers shared this message in different ways, and I believe people are hungry for books and resources that flesh out this message.

“Jesus wasn’t handing out tickets to heaven,” preached Brian Zahnd, founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. “He was re-founding the world … [Jesus] isn’t Lord-Elect; he’s Lord right now!”

We’ve often gotten that wrong, and thought of faith as forward-looking toward heaven rather than in the present tense.

Think, for example, of the story from Matthew 14 of Jesus walking on the water. In that story we often focus on Jesus pulling Peter from the water once he starts to sink—the act of Jesus “saving” Peter. But Meghan Good, pastor of Albany Mennonite Church, said that this emphasis causes us to miss an important point: “Most people think Jesus is the one who pulls us out of the lake, when in reality he’s the one calling us out onto it.” Good delivered a powerful sermon, with such excellent exegetical work around this story. To what is Jesus calling each of us?

Anton Flores-Maisonet is a full-time volunteer among immigrant populations in Georgia and co-founder of the Alterna Community. He shared the idea that Jesus is the “Good Coyote,” who provides safe crossing and knows how to make the outcast feel like the most important person in the room. His work among those without documentation is a powerful witness for what it means to have a Jesus-looking faith.

Time now for me to put these challenges into action, and to have conversations with possible writers to help bring these ideas into books and resources. What ideas here resonate with you? What ideas would you like to know more about in resource or book form?

Gather ‘Round Bids Farewell

After 8 years, 32 quarters, and 416 weeks, this is the last week of the current children’s Sunday school curriculum, Gather ’Round: Hearing and Sharing God’s Good News. Next week will be the first week of the new curriculum, Shine: Living in God’s Light.

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In the course of this thoughtful curriculum I have done countless puzzles, tried my hand at various crafts, and edited numerous Bible stories as I read through session after session.

But my own work comes nowhere close to that of Project Director Anna Speicher. By my estimation, she has read a total of some 2600 sessions. (Curriculum was produced weekly for seven age groups for the first two years of Gather’ Round, and after that it was for six age groups each week.)

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This is what eight years of curriculum looks like when all stacked up.

 

I was hired by Anna in February 2005 to serve as managing editor for Gather ’Round, a full year and a half before the first curriculum was used by congregations. MennoMedia and Brethren Press are the co-publishers of Gather ’Round (just as they are for Shine), and in those early days we made decisions about student book names, we established the parameters for what each product would look like, and most of all we hoped and prayed that this curriculum would aid congregations and families in forming faith.

Being part of the Gather ’Round team has been a privilege in my life, and I’d like to share a few highlights.

  • Sharing: In my former congregation, I was part of planning a summer worship series using Gather ’Round themes. It was a delight to bridge my own faith and my work in this way, and to share this brand new curriculum with my church.
  • Teaching: I have loved teaching Gather ’Round. For two years I taught the Middler curriculum to one child. It was certainly a small class, but this one-on-one teaching was such a good way for me to really understand each session. Since then I’ve mostly taught the Preschool curriculum to a group of about five children. There’s no time to go deep with active three and four year olds, but I have appreciated the great variety of activities suggested in each session as we quickly moved between them. It was a delight to see how some children got engaged in memory work, others in art, some in games, and still in others in retelling the story. It reinforced for me the importance of teaching to the multiple ways that children learn.
  • Learning: Participating first as the managing editor and later as a member of the oversight group for Gather ’Round has meant that I’ve learned about all angles of producing a curriculum. I’ve put my seminary Greek language skills to good use and also sharpened my pencil as I looked over sales figures and budgets.

Thank you for the privilege of serving you and the children, youth, and families in your congregation with Gather ’Round! And we look forward to sharing with you through Shine: Living in God’s Light.

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To close, here’s a glimpse of Gather ‘Round by the numbers:

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vision

 2

publishing partners

 7

age groups

 18

denominations represented among Gather ‘Round users

25

Bible scholars

31

Talkabouts

49

curriculum writers

124

student books

184

teacher’s guides

342

Bible stories

416

Bible insight essays

2613

responding activities

Thousands and thousands

 of children and youth taught

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curriculum

Amy Gingerich, Editorial Director, MennoMedia.Picture of me 1