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Speaker urges Bethel audiences to ‘take Jesus seriously’

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Anyone who knows Bethel College Director of Church Relations Dale Schrag well has heard one of his favorite sayings (borrowed from Lynn Miller of Bluffton, Ohio, and referencing the 16th-century Anabaptists): “Jesus meant what he said, and he was talking to us.”

Shane Claiborne, says Schrag, proved he was cut whole from 16th-century Anabaptist cloth.

Claiborne gave two presentations on the Bethel campus, March 5-6. “I grew up in east Tennessee,” Claiborne told a crowd of more than 500 in Bethel’s Memorial Hall and a packed house the next day in Krehbiel Auditorium for convocation. “For a while, I had the experience of being ‘born again’ every year.

“Eventually, I began to think, ‘There’s got to be more to it than this, more than just believing. Even the demons believe.’” Citing 1 Corinthians 13, Claiborne noted that giving away everything, submitting to martyrdom or having all faith and all knowledge are nothing without love.

“The more I read Jesus,” said Claiborne, who has a degree from Eastern University and has studied at Princeton Theological Seminary, “the more I found in conflict with the faith I’d grown up with. The kingdom of God was not only something to hope for when we die, but something to work for now. [We were taught] there was life after death, but I was hearing people say, ‘What about life before death?’ This was about Jesus, who came to help people live now.”

He spoke of his experience working directly with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta and observing Mother Teresa’s badly deformed feet. Finally, one of the sisters explained to him that many pairs of donated shoes came to the ministry each year and Mother Teresa wanted to be sure everyone else got the best shoes. Years of wearing poorly fitting shoes herself had deformed Mother Teresa’s feet.

“What would the world look like if we all took Jesus’ words that seriously, of giving the best away to others?” Claiborne said. “The best thing to do with the best things is to give them away, not keep them for ourselves.”

Claiborne’s desire to take Jesus seriously led him not only to Calcutta but also to Baghdad during a time of bombardment by coalition forces. It caused him and a group of friends to form The Simple Way community in inner-city Philadelphia, constructed along the lines of the early church with sharing of financial and other resources, and part of a resurgence of intentional Christian communities that has come to be called a “new monasticism.”

Claiborne outlined several characteristics of Christian communities like The Simple Way. In addition to economic sharing, some of these characteristics include “lamenting” and breaking down racial divisions; caring for creation; celebrating celibacy and singleness equally with marriage and families; and being committed to peacemaking “in our homes, our communities and globally.”

Another characteristic, Claiborne noted, is to “move among, relocate among, the abandoned of the world. The nature of the gospel is we have a God who enters into … the margins, the suffering.”

He also noted hospitality as a mark of Christian community. “The church and our homes should be places of hospitality,” he said. “Our homes are God’s homes.” Later, when asked how people can work in rural settings as well as urban ones, he said, “Begin with the hospitality you’ve experienced and build on it. What if Mennonite-Your-Way was available to the poor? I’d like to see Mennonites be Mennonites and get that Mennoniteness out into the world.”

He told his largely college audiences, “I studied at Eastern University with great teachers like Tony Campolo but it wasn’t in the halls of academia that faith came to life, it was on the streets of Philadelphia. I’ve learned more about Jesus from the tears of homeless women than any systematic theology book.”

That doesn’t mean it’s not important to study, he said. “I’m excited that people are studying, especially Christians. The answer to bad theology isn’t no theology.” He has heard too many people say they “don’t know any evangelicals who think,” he said.

He told the story of a young man who became a robotics engineer and found that it brought him prestige, admiration and a lot of money. But, the engineer told Claiborne, “I haven’t been given these gifts to make money or to impress people, but for God’s kingdom.” That engineer is now designing robots that can disable land mines.

Claiborne called his audiences to pay attention to something Mother Teresa often said: “There are Calcuttas everywhere. The lepers, the lonely, the hurting and the untouchable are all around. Find your Calcutta and go there and serve.”

It may be simple but it isn’t easy, he said. “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ so if we’re living into that kingdom, we’ll be in conflict with the world. We’re agents of a dimension that is incompatible with the status quo. Remember, the Bible is a dangerous thing – it’s gotten a lot of people in trouble.

“If people ask us, ‘Are you Christian?’, could we ask them back, ‘What do you see?’ And would they see the love of Jesus in us? Someone once asked Gandhi if he was a Christian. ‘Oh, I love Jesus,’ he said. ‘I just wish more Christians would take him seriously.’

“I’m excited because more and more people are taking Jesus seriously. We’re all on a journey … let’s keep pushing each other toward Jesus.”

Claiborne’s appearances at Bethel College were made possible in part by memorial funds given to Faith Mennonite Church in Newton in honor of the late Art Goering, specifically for the purpose of bringing a speaker of Claiborne’s caliber to the south central Kansas area.

“We wanted to use these funds to honor Jesus,” said Faith pastor Gordon Smith, “[in a way that honored] Art’s spirit by lifting up Jesus as the source of peace and justice in the world.”

Art would have been delighted with Claiborne’s presentation, said his widow, Rosie Goering, after the March 5 event. “He’s singing in heaven tonight,” she said.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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