Annual Meeting 2019
by Elizabeth Harder Schrock
First Mennonite Church, Mountain Lake, Minnesota
Worship services at Central Plains Mennonite Conference are a highlight for many of us who attend Annual Meeting, and this year was no exception. From beautiful banners and joyfully on-theme announcements to harmonious singing in multiple languages and communion on Sunday morning, we were led in worship inspired by the movement of the Holy Spirit.
This year's annual meeting took place at Iowa Mennonite School near Kalona on June 20-23--two weeks after the church's celebration of Pentecost. But Pentecost has not merely come and gone, said Dr. Cheryl Bridges Johns, keynote preacher for the weekend. Pentecost is no less than "God's great reclamation project," and we are called to participate in that project of reclaiming all of creation.
Dr. Bridges Johns is Professor of Spiritual Renewal at Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee, and has directed the Society for Pentecostal Studies. She has participated in major ecumenical conversations, including the ongoing Mennonite Church USA-Church of God dialogue. In addition to her many credentials, Dr. Bridges Johns is a gifted, passionate preacher who filled us with a sense that the Holy Spirit was present in our midst.
And how we need the Spirit's presence in our "postmodern wilderness," which she vividly described as an age of absence, absence of truth, absence of norms, and absence of identity. Friday morning's sermon was rooted in Exodus 33:12ff, in which Moses pleads with God to know God better. The worst he can imagine is the absence of God: "If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here" (v15). The Israelites were in the wilderness, still in search of their identity and purpose and not yet in covenant with God. In that absence, they had turned to "spectacle" --in their case, worship of the golden calf. In our times, the spectacle has moved into the world of government, church (think strobe lights and smoke machines), and of course, social media. But spectacles quickly turn cruel and dark, where people without a sense of identity and purpose participate with their claps or boo's from a distance, not fully engaged.
What the church has to offer in this postmodern wilderness is presence. Where God's Word is given, said Dr. Bridges Johns, there is always God's presence. Where Jesus, the living presence of God, is followed, there is God's presence. And the Holy Spirit that inspired the Word is always present when scripture is read and studied.
Dr. Bridges Johns noted that Central Plains Mennonites are a people of the covenant. As such, she encouraged us to also be people of presence, to hunger for God to go with us as Moses did. "This time we're in doesn't look too good," she admitted, "and we can't go there unless GOd's presence goes with us. That is enough." We do not need to fear the future, for God rushes in when we ask.
In her second sermon, Dr. Bridges Johns extended the theme of presence to Jesus' promise in John 14:15-24 to not leave his disciples orphaned. The "Spirit of truth" will bring them through dark times to come--again, dark times not unlike our own reality, where "truth has forsaken these lands."
Dr. Bridges Johns pointed out that Anabaptists have a particular commitment to obedience to the way of Jesus. CPMC bears witness to that in our Covenant of Spiritual Practices, in which we as a group "seek transformation toward Christlikeness and renewal by the Holy Spirit." If Anabaptists have focused on Jesus as the way, Evangelicals and Baptists lead the church toward following Jesus as the truth. And Pentecostals' contribution is to point toward Jesus as the life, living in us: "On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you" (John 14:20).
This indwelling of the Spirit isn't so much about suggesting an appropriate Bible verse to us here and there, but rather a whole new level of existence. In Dr. Bridges Johns' description, "it is the arm of God reaching out, sweeping down and taking us into God's economy, into God's life." She encouraged us to hunger for this mystical way of life, where we get to enter into the household of the church and where we in turn can say to anyone: "welcome to our new world--the place where Jesus abides and where you are loved."
In her final sermon, Dr. Bridges Johns again linked Pentecostals' and Mennonites' gifts to the larger church by asking what could happen if the Spirit of power were to be joined with the Spirit of peace. In fact, that is what living in the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) is all about. The powerful wind and fire of that day were signs of God's plan to reclaim and restore the entire cosmos to shalom. Our own restoration--our salvation--brings us into active participation in God's great restoration project. And in being the present, patient, faithful church--"singing together in beautiful harmony" -- we are pointing to, and preparing for, the day when all shall be filled with the glory of God.
"Don't grow weary, but hunger for the new," urged Dr. Bridges Johns, because we know that it will be good.