Is that song running through your head right now? It’s Bob and his Sesame Street friends cheerfully singing about the people in their neighbourhood – the grocers, garbage collectors and greenhouse owners – in a happy little ditty about community life.
But we know things aren’t always rosy with our neighbours. Sometimes there’s conflict. Sometimes there’s pain. And there’s always need, whether we see it or not.
I remember my neighbour Mrs. Cowan. She was a sort of celebrity in our community since the local recreation centre was named after her late husband, James Cowan, a long-time Burnaby resident. I would fall asleep to Mrs. Cowan’s graceful notes on the piano as they drifted through my bedroom window. I truly loved her.
But I was young and unaware of the troubles of adulthood. I’m sure many of those piano-playing nights were bitterly lonely for the old widow.
As Christians, our mandate is to share the good news of Jesus – in word and deed – with our neighbours. But let’s face it. We won’t have much success sharing the gospel until we actually know our neighbours and recognize their needs.
So this year’s Week of Prayer revolves around the parable of the Good Samaritan. Conference leaders are inviting Mennonite Brethren across Canada to spend seven days this January focusing on our neighbours, reflecting on their needs and praying for them.
Who are the people in my neighbourhood? Are they bakers, barbers or baseball players? Seniors, students or single parents? Do they speak Punjabi, Portuguese or Polish? Do they need healing, hamburger casserole or just a handshake? And – most importantly – have they heard the good news of Jesus?
Looking back over 2014
The launch of a new year is time to look back over the past 12 months. The following are a few bits of church news that caught my eye in 2014.
Jesus + feminism.
In the larger culture, conversation about women heated up: sexual abuse allegations against celebrities Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi encouraged women to talk about rape; the Nobel Peace Prize went to a courageous Pakistani girl who stood up for her right to education; and Canadians began to wake up to the crisis of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. In the church, conversation continued about how to best equip and encourage women to use their God-given gifts in ministry leadership.
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women, released in late 2013 by Canadian blogger Sarah Bessey, became an instant conversation starter in many Christian circles. Moving beyond Beyoncé’s popular – yet highly questionable – use of the f-word (“feminism”), Christians are asking what it means to be an advocate for women and a follower of Jesus.
Our own C2C Network recognized the need to better serve and support women, appointing Karolyn Burch as director of ministry to church planter spouses last January.
In October, we watched the spectacular – and heartbreaking – dissolution of North America’s most prominent megachurches, Mars Hill Church in Seattle, after allegations ranging from plagiarism to abuse of power were brought against lead pastor Mark Driscoll. The blogosphere went wild!
Christian media was flooded with “lessons” following Driscoll’s very public fall from grace, such as: “We don’t need Protestant pop stars”; “Every lead pastor needs both internal and external accountability”; and “Character matters as much as doctrine.” There were important conversations around church structures and about how leaders should manage power.
The event also sparked a resurgence of dialogue around sex, as Driscoll was known for his provocative – and sometimes crass – way of discussing human sexuality.
Our own MB discussion around the topic carries on with next October’s Board of Faith and Life study conference, God, Sex and Church: A Theology of Healthy Sexuality. Mennonite Brethren will continue to wrestle with the practical and pastoral implications of our theology around sex.
In 2013, the reported number of cases of Christians killed for their faith doubled from the previous year – and it’s likely 2014 statistics will be even higher. Open Doors, a ministry that serves persecuted Christians worldwide, says that each month, 322 Christians are killed for their faith, and 214 churches and Christian properties are destroyed.
Over the past year, we’ve watched the North American church galvanize in prayer for these brothers and sisters. For example, some 13,000 people – including many Mennonite Brethren –participated in an August Facebook event to pray for the people of Iraq. And, in November, on the annual Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, Christians came together in solidarity to lift up believers throughout the world, including war-torn Syria.
Jesus said that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). It’s good to see the church move beyond apathy and fall on its knees in prayerful response.
In 2014, the good news of Jesus was proclaimed from diverse corners of the Christian world, with Christians of all denominations standing in solidarity around the gospel.
In June, for example, Pope Francis met with a delegation from the World Evangelical Alliance and boldly declared that the Holy Spirit “can inaugurate a new stage in the relations between Catholics and evangelicals – a stage that allows us to realize more fully the will of the Lord to bring the gospel even to the furthest ends of the earth.”
And then there was New Orleans football player Benjamin Watson who proclaimed the gospel with a celebrity megaphone. In response to November’s Ferguson, Mo., riots (which erupted after a jury’s decision not to charge a white police officer over the killing of an unarmed black teenager), Watson wrote an evangelistic Facebook post that immediately went viral.
“Ultimately the problem is not a skin problem, it is a sin problem,” wrote Watson. “Sin is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own…. But I’m encouraged because God has provided a solution for sin through his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being.
“The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the gospel. So, finally, I’m encouraged because the gospel gives humanity hope.”
This freedom to share the hope of the gospel is a sign that God is at work – and will continue to be at work – in the hearts and minds of people around the world throughout the coming year.