"Prayer in Action"

Message preached July 23, 2000
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Luke 4:16-21

Is there is disconnection between prayer and action? I mean, when we are actively engaged in meeting basic human needs in this world - like feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the forgotten, remembering the imprisoned - when we reach out to address such "social" concerns, is this separate from the spiritual task of the church?

We are privileged to have some Baptist guests with us today who are going to be doing just that this week - getting their hands dirty in the nitty-gritty repair of someoneís home. Our newfound friends in Christ, such work touches our Brethren heart, for "service," extending "a cup of water in Jesusí name" (Mark 9:41), is important to us... I must confess, at the outset, that this morningís message was intended for a Sunday nearly two years ago, when we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of Brethren Volunteer Service. As it turned out, the needs of that morning were such that this sermon got preempted. I think it fits the needs of this day, though.

World War II, and its aftermath, proved to be one of the most creative periods in the life of the Church of the Brethren. Our forbearers (which include some of us here) creatively branched out in very social ways. We only have to remember Heifer Project International, begun by the visionary Dan West and a bunch of Brethren farmers, as well as that crew of young men (our own Ellis Shenk included) who accompanied the heifers as "seagoing cowboys." Or we can recall the "Christian Rural Overseas Program," or CROP, which had extensive Brethren involvement at the outset, far beyond our comparatively small number of members. Our denomination was at the forefront of relief efforts following the war, meeting basic human need, continuing the work many Conscientious Objectors had been about during that conflict.

Was all this effort merely "social" work which gradually loosened our tie to the spiritual responsibility of the church? A case could be made for such a statement. After all, in some corners of the larger body of Christ, the focus has shifted from God as the motivator of action, to human need as the agent calling us onward. Do we step out because God calls us, or because we hear the cry of the needy? A subtle difference, yes, but one which sometimes works its way into a reluctance to bring God into the equation, or even an ignorance of the fact that God is already involved. Of course, I believe that God speaks to us in many ways, including the cry of a hungry child. Still, is there a disconnection between prayer and action?

Two years ago this fall we celebrated the 50th anniversary of another program which had its genesis in our church in that fertile period following the war. It would be interesting to hear how other similar ministries in other denominations, such as "World Changers" among the Baptists, began. Donít you think there are common threads the Lord uses in weaving together the work of his people over time? Let me retell the story of Brethren Volunteer Service (simply known as BVS). We presently have one young man serving in BVS in Virginia, Dennis Rosas, the son of another BVSíer. Nancy Rosas gave a year or so of her life to the Lord, serving in Falfurious, Texas. Nancy was not alone. There were other volunteers from Long Green Valley.

Now, I was but a wish in my parentís imagination when all these things took place, so Iím dependent upon others to tell the story. What strikes me as I hear the tale, however, is that this creative enterprise began with the youth of the church. Something else grabs me as well, but let me get to that later. The first page of the BVS anniversary booklet, published two years ago, is filled with pictures of older men with suits and ties (there is one woman around the table, but she is surrounded by eight of these respectable looking fellows sitting in committee around a table). Now, donít let me talk down this group. They were visionaries themselves who directed much of the creative work our church was about following the war. In some senses, these people were the seed planters for Brethren Volunteer Service, but the real story begins with the youth.

Something marvelous was happening among the young people back then. A pivotal event occurred around the Annual Conference of our denomination in 1947. Enough of the youth of our church were there that they gathered to hear a fellow by the name of M.R. Zigler tell about the hunger and homelessness, the illness and misery, the devastated land and leveled cities all over Europe. His words must have plucked a chord in those young people which would not be silenced. "What can we do?" was the oft repeated question.

Do you know what those young people then did? They decided to begin praying and wait for an answer. Thatís the other thing that strikes me about the beginning of BVS: Prayer. The youth cabinet of the denomination called for a round-the-clock vigil to pray for peace throughout that Annual Conference. The vigil didnít end with the conference, either. On the train home, some of the youth decided the prayer vigil was too important to drop. "Letís continue it through the summer," they said. They contacted Brethren summer camps and assigned various months in the coming year to the youth in different camps. The idea caught fire.

That same summer, about 40 youth gathered in Salina, Kansas for a work camp and peace institute. They built a community playground and did a door-to-door survey. They studied the Bible, discussed international problems, studied the history of the peace movement, looked at Jesusí teaching, and thought about postwar needs. This event was originally planned for two weeks, but the youth themselves extended for two more weeks. Can you imagine that? How did they talk their parents into it? Something must have been at work to counter the expected response of parents to such a request. Hey, "World Changers," I wonder what your parents would think if you called home and said, "Hey, Mom, Dad, we want to stay a couple more weeks in Baltimore. Can I?" Of course, things were a bit different then, and I imagine the request would have been put in different words. Furthermore, many of them were college age and a bit more mobile. The point is, something was moving through the heart of our church, and it was happening among the youth, and it was centered in prayer.

In fact, those youth just would not disband. Instead, they kept up the prayer, and a number of them, joined by others, started traveling from church to church in small teams called "Peace Caravans." All year long these caravans spread a word that ignited into a fire. One of those caravaners was a Manchester college student named Ted Chambers. Another was Alma Moyers. As the caravans journeyed across the denomination, the prayer vigil continued. "What can we do, God?"

The next summer, the summer of 1948, Annual Conference was held in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Young leaders from all over the country met in Chicago just before heading to Colorado, full of new ideas - a foretaste of National Youth Conferences to come. They arrived at Annual Conference ready to act. Do you see the movement of the Spirit there? Things didnít just erupt out of nowhere. A year of prayer and the patient impatience and active passion of youth built to a crescendo. The rest is history.

They had an idea whose time had come - start a volunteer program whereby this prayer could be put into action. The proposal wasnít on the agenda of the meeting, though, and the Moderator was known to be a stickler for proper order. Young Alma Moyers boldly approached the Moderator on the last day of business, Saturday, June 19, asking for time to speak. This wasnít the proper way to bring an item before the conference, but something new was happening. This staid and orderly man responded by allowing the door open a crack. "The officers have met," he said to the delegates when the time was right, "and we believe this is of such importance that it ought to be admitted as business."

Ted Chambers had been chosen to make the proposal to the delegates. Only 4' 10" tall, he carried an orange crate with him to the microphone in the delegateís section, and stood on it to speak. "Ladies and gentlemen, Iím Ted Chambers from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and believe it or not, Iím 22 years old." People laughed. The ice was broken. "And I have to interrupt this meeting," he went on, reading the motion that the church begin a volunteer service program, and then making a speech about it. One of the extraordinary things about that moment is that beyond those few opening words, no one living remembers what Ted said. The following year, Conference began tape recording the sessions, but it was not recorded in 1948. It, and the speeches then given by Alma Moyers and Charlotte Weaver in support of the motion, generated excitement and immediate approval, but no one recalls the words. Sometimes, thatís how it is.

On that last day of Annual Conference, 52 years ago, there were no opposing voices, and the vote taken was unanimous in favor of creating Brethren Volunteer Service. Throughout the rest of the summer the idea took shape and form, so that in September of 1948 the first BVS unit went into training in New Windsor, Maryland. Since then, thousands of persons have gone through the program, serving all over the world. In fact, when our government created the Peace Corps, they modeled it, in part, upon Brethren Volunteer Service. Such has been the impact of a movement begun in a year-long Prayer vigil among the youth of our church.

So, let me ask again: Is there is disconnection between prayer and action? When we are actively engaged in meeting basic human needs in this world - like feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the forgotten, remembering the imprisoned - when we reach out to address such "social" concerns, is this separate from the spiritual task of the church? What do you think? Maybe the key is turning to Jesus of Nazareth, the One we believe is our Messiah, our Christ, our Savior and Lord, and persistently asking, "What should we do, Lord?" In the course of vigilant listening for God, when we hear the cry of human need, then (perhaps) we can say this cry and the call of God coincide.

There are a variety of ways of answering that call. One we can celebrate today with our Baptist guests is "World Changers." Another is Brethren Volunteer Service, which has spawned all sorts of other creative possibilities in the years since. By the way, for our own young people, we have work camps going on all over the place, similar to "World Changers," ready for you to respond, "Here I am, Lord, send me." I wonder, who among us in the days and years ahead will be asking, "What should I do, Lord?" and will then hear Godís call? The creativity of the Holy Spirit never ends. The story goes on and on. Amen!

©2000 Peter L. Haynes

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