Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 21, 2007

Reba Place & Me: The Birthday Blog

It’s my birthday today, August 20th. I’m 42 now. You nerds and fans of odd British sci-fi out there — in other words, those familiar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — will see the significance of that number.  

42: the book’s tongue-in-cheek answer to that age-old question, “What’s the meaning of life?” I still don’t get it, mostly –neither life, nor the joke.  But I figure I have at least a year now to figure it out. Maybe by next August I will see it all clearly… finally wise, walking in the power of God, at peace. (Or else I’ll just continue to slide into middle-aged oblivion, though perhaps my current terror and anger will fade into a steady, seen-it-all kind of calm.)

kids & adults dancing in a circle

It will probably also take a year to fully understand and build upon the milestone reached by my spiritual home for the past twenty years: Reba Place Church (which recently celebrated its own 50th birthday).

I’ve had a sense recently –not necessarily prophetic, but a hunch based upon recent events and conversations– that this will be a time of transition for my church. We’re just due, know what I mean? Due for a stretching, a difficult but necessary period of change, to lay the groundwork for a new work of God. It’s one of those cyclical things in life. I’ve lived through several such transitional periods with this particular body of people, enough to recognize some of the trends.

If nothing else, as a socio-politically engaged congregation, it stands to reason that we will be pressed to respond to the obviously big changes in presidential, economic, environmental, security and other worldwide situations {click for a 2005 Eastern Mennonite University article on the post-war context of Reba’s founding}. Past heroes  like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Desmond Tutu have taught us this much: that if the church is of no use in times of  local, national and worldwide crisis — if we can’t be witnesses and demonstrate the Jesus Way of looking at these matters, of leading God’s children in a better direction — then we may as well pack it in. It’s easier to hide in some safe, self-serving foxhole of dated programs and bad theology, waiting out the storm, detached from the very God who seeks us in our wandering and hiding.

But I don’t think we’ll do that at Reba Place. It would be a betrayal of our roots, of the courageous, good work done by many people over these fifty years (through God, who strengthens us, of course).

And so finally, let’s wrap up my four-part review/retrospective of the 50th anniversary celebration on a positive note. As always, it’s just one man’s slightly warped opinion, not the official line, and probably contradicting the experience of many of my beloved friends. All I can offer is my own perspective. I must leave it to others to offer expertise.

In no particular order of importance, here are a few lasting impressions, now two-plus weeks after the fact. I’ve already talked about the big Saturday night music, dance and multimedia presentation — the blessing of that is a given. These below are perhaps some of the less obvious but still valuable parts of the weekend:

The hilarious circa-1974 Reba/household-era fashion show, featuring the hand-embroidered men’s dashiki and the ragged, colorfully patched jeans for women (with a peasant blouse, of course) that have ironically come back into style. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, not just our “back then” selves but our current foibles, we won’t get very far.

Excerpts from the letters of Louise Miller, circa 1957 and 1958, as read by her daughter. These letters or diary entries offered real details and emotions that gave us a genuine sense of the risks and rewards of stepping out in faith, in a way that flies in the face of the prevailing cultural winds.

The Ministry Center Exhibition Rooms: If you missed these well-executed displays of photos, artwork, videos, music, and artifacts from various ministries over the years, you probably didn’t get a complete picture of what the de-centralized, multifaceted RPF/RPC community has always been about: creativity and courageous service to each other and the community around us. 

Frank admissions by the leaders presenting for 1977-87 and 1987-97 that we didn’t get everything right. Sally Schreiner gently confessed there had been heavy-handed pressure put on people to conform. Bob Shuford set the stage for the challenge of our re-formation in 1987-97 by saying that leading a congregational cluster– while the purpose and identity of those groups remained fuzzy– was like “herding cats”. Not all of the historic topics of disagreement were touched upon (the role of pentecostal/charismatic gifts, our stance on the interpretation process or inerrancy of the Bible). Also, some of the real blessings and contributions of the mid-period decades (my generation, if you will) were underplayed. But still it felt right to “confess” that we’re only human, and sinners at that. People feel burned when groupthink gets out of hand, or in the confusion and temporary vacuum of trusted leadership when structural change happens. Better to learn from it, forgive and move on, and to keep experimenting and tinkering, than to sit still and bear no fruit as the world passes you by.

A fine, professionally catered dinner by candlelight, under a big tent in nearby Eiden Park. In both the food quality and the logistics, it was a model of efficiency and ingenuity– a welcome change-of-pace from the homey but sometimes clunky (and often exhausting) “do-it-yourself” methods the church has taken toward feeding itself over the years. There are times when money just has to be spent, and plans carefully created. Some smart choices and big sacrifices were made in pulling off the two common meals we ate together. (Many thanks to all who did the work.)

Current Pastor Ric Hudgens’ passionate Sunday morning wrap-up message, in the context of sharing the Eucharist. {Click to listen again… it runs under 15 minutes.} It was about forgiveness, freedom from co-dependence, relieving each other of burdens, and most of all about letting God’s all-consuming forgiveness and love really sink in and change us as individuals and as a body… letting God break or carry our burdens, thus giving us a future. Jubilee, the idea of forgiving very real debts and starting over every fifty years, was the perfect theme for the whole weekend. Despite being an obvious choice, Ric’s perceptive, organic approach to the topic, and his deep yearning for authentic faith, healing, and growth, inspired us all to a strong hope for the future.

I could go on, but I won’t. Old friends were greeted. A few new friends were made. Songs were sung and dances were done. Individual or group contributions were both praised and (unfortunately) ignored. Children were fawned over and entire careers were recalled. As we used to say back in college: God showed up. Three loaves and two fish were turned into fifty amazing years.

May the spiritual food of God, shared together, strengthen us for the next fifty.



  1. Mark,

    I visited Reba Place in 1992 or 93 and was stretched and blessed to be there. While I didn’t agree with everything that I saw and heard about, it has challenged me since then with what the meaning of Christian community is. I’ve had the privilege of being part of different churches who were better (or worse) at finding that Gospel expression of community which our hearts long for.

    Thanks for sharing this post.

    Phil Henry

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