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The Practicing Church by Diana Butler Bass is a helpful book for two reasons: 1) It offers a different story from the decline narrative that has dominated (and, unfortunately, continues to have strength) conversation about the mainline church for the past several decades. 2) It paints a picture of a model for mainline church redevelopment.

The central concept of Bass’ book is what she calls ” retraditioning.”. It is a process of creatively reappriopriating distinctively Christian practices such as prayer, Holy Communion, hospitality, Scripture study, healing, social justice, liturgical art, and so on. I find this concept compelling for. postmodern context that values creative juxtaposition and for an urban mainline context where churches are treasure houses of historic architectures, symbols, artworks, and traditions.

As an example, this summer Beneficent Church will be worshipping in the Round Top Center, which was originally built as the church’s chapel. in subsequent years the pews and organ were removed, a stage was built, and the Round Top Center was used as a parish hall. In order to reappropriatw the Center as worship space, we moved the historic deacons benches from the balcony of the meetinghouse into the Center. In doing so, we are creatively reclaiming and retraditioning powerful symbols.

Olivia enjoying fruit fresh from the garden

Olivia enjoying fruit fresh from the garden

This week I went to a program called the “Justice Kitchen” in Indianapolis.  A couple from San Diego have started a Christian community based in an intentional community that grows a lot of its own food. 
justice kitchen

justice kitchen

We always had a garden when I was growing up in Maine.  It provided all the fruits and vegetables we could ever want and then some.  I remember taking grocery bags of cucumbers to the neighbors, until they said, “Please, we just can’t take anymore.  I’m sorry!”  You know when it’s been a bumper crop year when even all of you friends and neighbors are sick of cucumbers or beans or broccoli or tomatoes.  My mom canned what she could as sour pickles, beets, relishes, green tomato pickles, tomato sauce, and jam.  Although your picture of a Maine landscape may be of vast fields and forests and breathtaking ocean fronts, I grew up in a modest neighborhood on about a half acre of land.  My parents had moved to the relatively more prosperous area of southern Maine to make a living and raise their children.  They took the rural practice of kitchen gardening with them. 

When Todd and I bought our first house in West Chicago in 1998 with our 6-week old daughter, one of the first things we did was start a garden.  We poured innumerable hours into the triangle-shaped garden wedged between the driveway and the sidewalk.  I experiemented with different soil preparations and seed varieties; watered nematode larvae into the soil to attack the squash vine borer eggs, and used a space-ship looking trap to catch Japanese beetles.   We became know as the “house with the sunflowers” because of the wall of 6-ft. yellow flowers that edges the garden.  Planning the garden, planting the garden, growing the garden, and diagnosing the problems of the garden, were what we talked about to friends, families, and church members.  Garden stories were frequently featured in sermon illustrations. 

I rembered the “year of the evil gourd.”  The squash we planted ended up taking over the entire garden, squeezing out the other veggies, literally wrapping around their stems and taking them down.  When the plants finally bore fruit, they were not squash at all, but some weird unintentional hybrid,  the ugly, inedible “evil gourd.”  This was my modern parable of how sometimes what seems like a good thing at first, can end up taking over your life and squeezing out any sense of balance.

Or the sermon about giving abundantly, with the illustation of two huge baskets of tomatoes my garden produced as late as October!  Congregants took a tomato with them as they left the service.

Or the small-child sized zucchini that I found in my garden after having been away on a long mission trip and Todd had forgotten to harvest.  God continues to bring new life, whether we’re paying attention or not. 

Or the Indian corn left over from Thanksgiving decorating that my preschooler Olivia planted.  She carried aroung her first ear of corn for weeks everywhere she went, telling anyone who would listen how she grew this corn “all by myself.”  The picture of her holding the corn with such joy and pride in herself is priceless. 

As pastors, we have led an itinerant life, moving every few years from state to state.  Everywhere we have moved, we have planted a garden and reaped so much more than good food.  We have had untold hours of enjoyment and feelings of pride and satisfaction of what we have partnered with our earth to create.

Photo from our visit to Milbridge Congregational

Photo from our visit to Milbridge Congregational

Last month the Grant Yonkman Adventure Team traveled to New England–as we do most summers. We visited family in Vermont and Maine, spent ten days at Nicole’s family’s camp on the Narraguagus River, and camped at Acadia National Park.

We also had the opportunity to do some church work–including an opportunity to serve as guest preachers at Milbridge Congregational Church. The Downeast Coastal Press (a newspaper for downeast Maine) published a piece on our visit along with a photo.

Here’s the text of the newspaper article:

Young Clergy Couple Share Their Story
By Joanne Halpin
“Rev. Eric Kelley and the Milbridge Congregational Church, United Church of Christ welcomed Rev. Nicole Grant Yonkman and Rev. Todd Yonkman as guest pastors on Sunday July 13. They are a clergy couple with the United Church of Christ serving in the New Church Leadership Initiative. For the last year they have been working in Fishers, Indiana to explore starting a new church.

The couple — who are in their thirties — shared the Milbridge pulpit and talked about how they go about starting a new church. They view themselves as missionaries to people who have not had a positive church experience or no church experience. (Everyone knows about Jesus, “they can google Jesus and find out about him”) Todd said that the majority of people that respond to national polls indicate that they believe in God but may view Christian churches as judgmental and/or anti-gay. The United Church of Christ is a Christian Protestant denomination that accepts people for who they are. They told how their personal experiences of church have been that of a loving and accepting community and want to spread that message. The Yonkmans have found ways to serve others in their work; this reflects their belief that acts of kindness tell the good news of Jesus’ message – that humans can live together, help each other and thus create a way of living that is what God intends—the new wine in new wineskins that Jesus talked about as recorded in the Gospel of Mark in the Bible.

The Yonkmans and their daughters, Fiona and Olivia, were vacationing and visiting Grant-Yonkman’s family in Milbridge. She is the daughter of Milbridge resident Betsy Crane. Nicole was born and raised in Maine, spending most of her growing up years in Standish and summers in Milbridge, where her grandparents lived at the time. She was baptized at Milbridge Congregational Church as a baby. She received a B.A. in Religion from Colgate University in upstate New York and Masters of Divinity from the University of Chicago, where she also completed coursework for a PhD in Biblical Studies. Nicole has served churches in the Chicago area, Dayton, Ohio and Indianapolis, focusing on reaching unchurched people and Generations X and Y.

Todd was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the Christian Reformed Church, an American branch of the Dutch Reformed Church. He received a B.A. in German and English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids and his Masters of Divinity from the University of Chicago. He also studied Theology in Marburg, Germany at the university. Todd has been a hospital chaplain and local church pastor in the Chicago area, and co-pastor with wife, Nicole in Ohio and Indianapolis. He is also a gifted musician and amateur actor.”

Flickr Photos