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This winter the invasion has begun.  The motels are full indefinitely.  Buildings have quickly and mysteriously been bought up.  Hundreds of trucks from 10 different states roll around town.  They found oil in Harper County.

Natural Gas to be specific.  At first it was a rumble of a rumor, but sometime this winter it really became official as several oil companies began to set up shop here in town.  There has been all kinds of speculation as to what this will mean for our community.  Some of it is pretty wild (quadrupling the population of the county within five years) and some of it is worth thoughtfully considering (how can the churches reach out to this new group of people).

While I’ve had a couple of passing conversations about this changing dynamic, I have yet to say something in my official pastoral role.  Perhaps this is an attempt to begin to articulate what I’d like to say.

The place that I want to start is with the Bible.  Specifically with an understanding of Biblical Shalom that I will shamelessly steal from Marion Bontrager and Michelle Hershberger.  Essentially the idea is that God created the world to be in a particular harmony, order, or relationship.  This right relationship we call Shalom.  These right relationships can be described in four ways: being in right relationship between each of us and God, us and other people, us and ourselves, and us and the earth.  Sin, then, is when these relationships get broken, which is something that can happen both on an individual level and on a larger systemic scale.

As I reflect on the impact of the oil boom I can see that there are some benefits to be had.  The biggest of which is that Harper County has been on an economic and population decline for about 40 years, and yes, we can definitely use the income and jobs.  But this is only a surface benefit.  The questions I have are much bigger and much deeper.  Most of the large scale questions that I have can be framed in Marion and Michelle’s understanding of Shalom and what it means to break those relationships.

Between each of us and others – There are two main areas of concern for me here; 1) housing costs and 2) unequal income distribution.

1) Harper County just doesn’t have the infrastructure to support the influx of people that we are beginning to experience.  As a result, landlords can begin to raise the cost of rent quite drastically because they know that the higher price will be paid by someone, usually by the oil company.  I have already heard several stories, however, of landlords who have tripled someones rent, sometimes with less than a months notice.  Here’s the difficulty of sin: landlords are struggling too, and it seems pretty reasonable that if you could get a higher rent, you would charge a higher rent.  It’s an obvious choice.  The problem is that when a whole society does this, large populations of poor people who have been life long residents of Harper County are being pushed out on to the street for the sake of oil field workers who may not be here a year from now.  As individuals, it’s hard to fault a landlord, but as a whole, it’s definitely sin.

2) Yes, there is a tremendous amount of money flowing into Harper County because of the leasing contracts with the oil companies.  And yes, some of that money has begun to trickle down into some specific parts of the economy.  However, it is very important to note that this influx of money is not shared equally.  If you own land, you stand to make a tremendous amount of money.  However, the number of people who own land in the county is relatively small in comparison to the overall population.  This kind of massive inequality will, and already as begun to, breed resentment, hatred and injustice between neighbors.  Again, this is a difficult situation because I know many landowners do genuinely want to do the right thing, but what that is isn’t exactly clear.  Nevertheless, as a whole society, this is going to cause some problems.

Between each of us and the earth – I have jokingly said that yes, I think we need the economic boost in our county, but I also don’t want my water to light on fire.  Water is scarce enough already around here.  The damage that the hydraulic fracturing process does is irreparable and highly taxing on our already limited natural resources.  This is a major concern for me, and yes, I put the damage done to the earth in the category of Sin, not just politics.

Between each of us and ourselves – Money brings a lot of things with it, most of them aren’t particularly good.  I worry about what the greed and envy will do to each of us.  I worry about whether our hearts will be turned to stone or moved to compassion as the economic landscape changes.  Whether we are only peripherally connected to this change in our community or a direct recipient of it, it is going to change us.  The question is how.

Between each of us and God – Economics is always spiritual.  On on hand, these changes will affect our own personal spirituality, but they will also impact us as a church.  The impact on our church is coming.  Even in my own mind I’ve begun to think about new possibilities for additional programing or staff or buildings, all of which could be made possible because of the oil money floating around.  The question for me is yes, but at what cost?  Are we being bought off?  How will in change our church?  There’s at least one church in our area who was almost completely destroyed because they found oil under church land.  While I don’t know the answer, I feel like we need to ask the question whether or not our ideas for the future of the church are actually the leading of God or are they are something else.

I think that the most concerning thing about how our county has reacted to this industry moving into town is that there has been (or it feels like) little to no critical reflection on the deeper impacts on our community, our relationships and our faith.  The most telling example of this to me was an article in a local paper last fall that was talking about the economic growth in our county.  They outlined two major industries moving into the county.  One was the oil companies and the other was the large wind farm going in on the west side of the county.  In the article the only discussion was that of jobs and economic opportunities.  There was no reflection about the environmental or social impact of either of them, let alone the idea that they are two opposing industries in the energy industry.

I’m aware that right now I don’t have all the answers, but I’m hoping to start to identify some of the issues.  Now if I can just figure out how to start the conversation in church and in the community.

 

 

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Our church has been involved in a partnership with Iglesia Evangelica Menonita Bolivana (Evangelical Mennonite Church of Bolivia).  One of the projects that they have started, and that we have helped support, is a daycare outreach project in Santa Cruz.  The daycare is called La Guarderia Samuelito (The Little Samuel Daycare).

Currently one of our young adults is doing some voluntary service work at the daycare.  Among other things, he’s been working on some videos to help people get to know the kids, as well as a blog highlighting several kids each week.

The videos are below and the blog is www.caresupportandlove.blogspot.com

If you’ve got interest in making a donation or sponsoring a kid, you can get in contact with our church office 620-896-2004.

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I find that government, that is the idea of government as well as specific local to national governments, have taken a beating in the last few years.  The rhetoric that government can do no good and that it should just get out of the way has been around for about 30 years, but it has intensified recent years across all political lines.

While I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind in the grand scheme of things, let me offer one example of government doing something right, at least ethically and morally.

Our local hospital is designated a “Critical Access” hospital.  This is a medicare designation and program that is to meant to help rural under served populations have access to some amount of health care.  One of the things that this means is that we are a partially government funded hospital which means that we have access to the same health care plans that the other State of Kansas employees have access to.  Now, we can cuss and moan all we want about the finer points of health care these days, but there was one thing about this plan that has really stuck out to me.

The premiums are on a sliding scale in relation to your income.

Translation: the lowest income employees at the hospital are able to afford health insurance.  This means that my wife and I pay higher premiums but it also means that when the hospital went onto this plan a few years ago, for some people it was the first time that they’ve ever been able to get health insurance.

The reason that this is on my mind today is because last night the hospital board met to decide whether or not to stick with the state plan or to switch to a private insurance company plan that was similar, but not the same.  They decided that, for now, they’ll continue with the state plan.

For this I simply want to say thank you.  From a Biblical and Christian perspective, it is imperative that we take care of the most vulnerable around us.  And, for the record, when it comes to health insurance, available but not affordable doesn’t count.

To my local hospital board members, thanks and keep up the good work.

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I didn’t plan to be standing in a cemetery on Good Friday, but somehow it seems as though it was the right place to be today.

Someone from out of state who was working on a family history project emailed me and asked me to take some pictures of the grave stone of one of his relatives.  It’s turned out to be a rather nice day and I needed a reason to get out of the office.  After finding the grave stone and snapping my pictures, I thought that I would wander around and look at some of the other gravestones.

As I wandered through the cemetery I began to realize that this had become more than just a burial place to me.  In many ways it has begun to tell a significant part of my story.  Before coming to Harper I was oblivious to the fact that I had any connections with this town or this church.  But as I walked through the cemetery I saw the gravestone of my great-great grandparents Sol and Mary Plank.  As I looked around I soon realized that there are people here who are directly related to me than I ever thought possible.

As I kept on wandering I saw my professional life begin to flash before me as I saw the graves of people who I had the honor to perform funerals for.  I saw Charlie Bickel, my first funeral.  I saw Olive Bare, a woman who I did the graveside service for.  I saw Loren and Florence Gerber, the couple in their 80’s who passed away together in the ICU holding hands, surrounded by family.  I saw Marlin Unrurh, and eccentric old man who I only came to know through amazing stories from family and friends.

As walked around the cemetery I also saw many graves that told the stories of the history of this church.  I saw the graves of people who were among the founding members of Pleasant Valley Mennonite.  I saw the graves of people of who I only missed by a few years, who people still say, “man you should have known them”.  I saw the gravestone of an infant son of a previous pastor.  All of these markers have a story to tell.

It seems like the past 6 months have been pretty rough for me and people that I’m connected with.  A family in the community has suffered the sudden loss of both parents, one from a heart attack and one from cancer, leaving only the teenage children behind.  There was a teen killed in a 4-wheeler accident on a country road.  There is the child in our youth group who is dealing with serious, almost deadly, kidney problems.  It seems like every week I hear more stories from the youth about people they know going through difficult situations.

In January, my wife’s grandmother passed away in Ohio after years of dealing with dementia.  During the week long process of grieving I had the privilege to speak at her funeral.  2 months later, in March, my wife and I switched roles as my grandfather suddenly passed away from a pulmonary embolism.  Adjusting to life after both of these events has been difficult and ongoing.

As I was standing out in the cemetery, on the day that we remember the death of Jesus, I had a heaviness around me.  This year, I can really put myself in the shoes of the disciples as they watched things go from bad to worse for Jesus.  I also had the thought that, this year more than most, I’m really hoping that the resurrection is real.  I’m about as good of a deconstructionist as you can get when it comes to thinking about the historical realities of the Bible.  To say the least, no one has ever accused me of being overly literal with the Bible.

That being said, I just need to have a bit of hope that God’s going to bring me through some stuff.  Stuff that appears to be a dead end in my life right now.  When it comes right down to it, I haven’t the foggiest idea how Jesus came back to life, and I haven’t the foggiest idea how I’m going to find a way forward through some of the things in my future.  But maybe I don’t need to understand everything.  Maybe I just need to trust that it happened once and that it’ll happen again.  But then again, that’s often easier said than done.

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Last week was Pastor’s Week at AMBS.  I found myself inspired and convicted in a number of ways.  Below is the reflection that I shared with my church this morning.  This is something of a follow up to my previous post here.

Reflection on Pastors week 2011

This week I made the trip up to Elkhart, Indiana to Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary for an annual gathering of pastors.  The keynote speaker was Dr. Rev. Cleophus LaRue who spoke to us about preaching with imagination.  It was inspiring to both learn from his expertise and to listen to him preach.

It was also a great time to get together with some other peers that I haven’t seen for a while.  It was refreshing to hear how others were doing and to support each other in our ministry and work.

One of the other significant things that I’ve been involved with this past week is an ongoing discussion about the national convention for our denomination that is scheduled to be held in Phoenix in 2013.  Some of you are aware of the ongoing discussion about this convention, but others might not be, so let me try to bring you up to speed.  Every two years our denomination gathers together in a different city for both a youth convention and an adult convention.  In 2009 the convention planners decided to hold the 2013 convention in Phoenix.  Later that year the state of Arizona passed a new immigration law.  Many support this law while many others see it as unconstitutional.  Many people in the Mennonite church have said that it goes directly against the Biblical mandate to take care of the foreigner and the immigrant.  Still others have pointed to our official denominational position as a call to action.  This statement was adopted in 2003 and says, “We reject our country’s mistreatment of immigrants, repent of our silence, and commit ourselves to act with and on behalf of our immigrant brothers and sisters, regardless of their legal status.”  After the Arizona law was passed there were numerous people throughout the church, led by the Hispanic Mennonite Churches, who called for the convention to be cancelled partly because they do not feel that it is safe for people of color to even go to the state of Arizona in order to attend the convention.

As a result the executive board of the denomination spent the better part of 2010 listening to a wide variety of people throughout the denomination as they seriously weighed the possibility of cancelling the convention, even considering that to do so would mean the loss of the down payment that we had put on the convention facilities.  About three weeks ago the board met to make a final decision.  They decided to continue with the plans and to have the convention in Phoenix.  In addition plans will also be made to have a satellite location so that people who are not able to attend because of safety or conscience can still participate in the work of the church.

At pastors week there was a special time where two of the board members shared about the process and took questions from a variety of concerned people.  At this meeting I quickly realized that while the specifics at this time might have to do with Arizona and a particular law, the real issues for our church and our country are much larger and much deeper.  In this meeting I realized that what really matters is not some intellectual argument about a law, or an abstract discussion about what might or might not happen.  What matters the most are the stories of the people that were in that circle.  I found that I was sitting next to people who not only had a variety of views on this issue but who are also personally affected by this issue.  I listened to the pastors from Colombia who were on sabbatical at the seminary and spoke of their close friends in the United States who fear for their safety on a daily basis and who simply could not understand why the denomination would possibly consider still going to Phoenix.  I also listened to the pastor from Ohio whose congregation couldn’t understand why we would not go to Phoenix because they see that the Biblical call is to go to the places of injustice and to speak the truth of God.  I listened to the black woman who is my age who, with tears in her eyes, said that she has always felt like a second class citizen in the Mennonite Church and is just plain tired of fighting for basic rights.  I also listened to the pastor who shared that while many in his congregation are committed to working for justice, many still see no problem with the immigration law at all and can’t understand what the fuss is about.  And, finally, I listened to the pastor of Shalom Mennonite Church in Tuscon, Arizona who shared that, on one hand, he would love to be a host and have the denomination gather in his state.  But on the other hand he said that he has a member of his congregation who recently came to him and said, ‘when I get deported this is where my children are to go’ and that he can’t ask others to voluntarily place themselves in that kind of danger.

As I sat listening to the stories of the people gathered there I began to realize how deeply divided and broken our church really is.  I don’t think that this issue has actually created divisions but rather has exposed what has already existed for an incredibly long time.  The discussion at pastor’s week really opened my eyes, not only to the divisions and difficulties on a national level, but also the ones closer to home.  In our local conference, South Central Conference, while we can say that we have a strong group of Hispanic churches in South Texas the reality is that because of the distance between the Kansas churches and the South Texas churches, we very rarely spend any time together we are quickly loosing our connections with each other.  In our town of Harper I think of an entire group of people who are invisible to most of us.  I think of the boy in the grade school whose mother told him that if he ever got in trouble he was never to call 911 but to rather to call his uncle instead.  I have to think of our own church and the fact that our brothers and sisters from Bolivia cannot come here to Harper to be with us because of my countries immigration policy.  I even think of the division within myself.  While I think of myself as committed to peace and justice I am painfully aware that I live in such a way that I don’t really ever come into contact with anyone who doesn’t already look or think like me.  What’s worse I confess that I have failed to even raise this deeply important issue in our church because I know that we have people who have who have very different views and I am simply afraid of how this church will respond.

As I have thought about this past week and the state of the church I have come to realize that the true issue is not about a particular law, whether we go to Phoenix as a church or the politics that we each hold.  The true issue comes down to what it means to be the church.  This week I have come back to the book of Ephesians chapter 4 which says, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  This week, as I have thought about how our denomination is dealing with the decision to go to the convention in Phoenix and the overall state of the church I have found myself questioning whether we still believe that this verse is true.  Do we really believe that we are one church?  Do we really believe in one God who is over all and through all?  Do we really believe that being a Christian abolishes the boundaries of race, class, and nationality?  Do we really believe that we are called to stand with our fellow Christians who are suffering, whether they are across the street or around the world?

Lest you think that I’ve lost all hope let me assure you that I haven’t.  I do see signs that give me hope that with the power of God, we can go through our brokenness to become the people that God wants us to be.  I have hope when I see those in our denomination who work tirelessly for justice.  I have hope when I see the teacher in Harper stand up for the children who are picked on and rejected.  I have hope when I see the hard work and commitment of this church to maintain our relationships with the Bolivian church.  I have hope when I see our community come together at Pancake Day to raise thousands of dollars that will go to easing the difficulty in our community.  I have hope when I see people break down the walls that separate us simply by making a new friend with someone who is different than they are.  We are in a difficult spot as a church.  Our brokenness is exposed.  But as we learned in our series on Henri Nouwen, it is through our brokenness that the grace of God can truly shine.  After a long and intense week, I have now come to lay my hope in the power of God to work through our brokenness, nothing more, nothing less.  So may the God who is above all and through all and in all take our lives and now work through us so that the light of God’s healing love may be felt throughout our broken land.

Amen.

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There really is nothing like a county fair in Kansas.  The various animals of all sorts, carefully raised to perfection, plenty of artery clogging foods, a traveling carnival that you are pretty sure you shouldn’t let you kids ride on but you do anyway, and of course the contests.  From woodworking to fruits and vegetables, cakes and canned goods.  Among the contests was the photography contest.  Being the amateur photo buff that I am, I decided to enter.

Out of a total of 9 pictures, 3 got nothing, 1 got a red and 5 got blues.  And one of the blues took reserve grand champion.  I was pretty pleased, even if it is just the county fair.  And yes, my mother will be getting the picture of the flower, complete with the blue ribbon.

Blue – Reserve Grand Champion

Blue

Blue

Blue

The next series of photos were part of a single piece that was supposed to tell a story.  It got a blue


Red

The rest didn’t place.   I was really disappointed by that on a couple of these.


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For those of you who aren’t familiar with the booming metropolis of my hometown of Goessel, Kansas, it’s a small town tucked away out on the prairie.  As with every small town, they have their annual parade and town festival.  There are all kinds of events and things to see and do, all pretty much relating to all things agricultural.  This year, I didn’t get to stay for much of the festivities, but I did get some good photos of the parade.  Enjoy.

A traditional beginning

Go GHS!

Throwin’ candy.

You never really know what you’ll see at the parade.

And of course the tractors

Finishing up with the horses.


The End.

Oh, one more P.S. for you foodies.  Of course we had to go to the grade school for the Low German meal.  That would be Verenika, German Sausage, Zwiebach, a new years cookie and cherry moos.  If you don’t know what all that is, you’re seriously missing out on a glorious food experience.

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