Peace & Global Witness

Asking the hard questions

October 1, 2020 by Emily Enders Odom

Not surprisingly, Hannah Lundberg’s sermon on peacemaking for World Communion Sunday opens with a series of questions:

“What is peace for you? Is it a simple state of being? The way things are until something goes wrong? Is peace the absence of conflict?”

Growing up, the Southern California native was known for her tendency to gently but persistently question everything, a trait that her parents, pastors and professors continue to admire and encourage as she completes her seminary education and pursues ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Raised in a non-denominational, evangelical church — which she appreciated for the firm foundation it gave her in Bible and in “liking church,” while at the same time finding that it didn’t fully meet her needs in other ways — she identified early on a strange “fragility” in what her faith could be.

“I sometimes received messages that you shouldn’t ask too many questions,” she said. “It felt like if you asked too many questions or you asked the wrong questions, the whole thing could crumble.”

Beyond that, Lundberg found that much of the faith in the church of her early years “was about individuals feeling good in their relatively comfortable social locations.”

“Although sometimes we’d do things that helped people portrayed as ‘poor and sad’ on the other side of the world,” she said, “there was rarely integration of those needs, our local needs, and broader issues of systemic injustice. When I went to college, I really wanted to find a community where I could engage more of my questions in faith and have social justice be more active. In my faith, there were things I think I read in Scripture but wasn’t seeing in my church.”

During her senior year in high school, she applied “on a whim” to Grinnell College, a small private liberal arts school in Iowa.

“I liked the spirit of questioning there,” she said.

Soon after arriving at Grinnell — whose selfsame motto, “Grinnellians ask hard questions and question easy answers,” might be Lundberg’s own — she worked with the Rev. Deanna Shorb, the college’s dean of Religious Life, chaplain and lecturer, to find a church community that would challenge her in all of the ways that she needed.

“Hannah was an extraordinary student while at Grinnell,” Shorb said of Lundberg. “She arrived quietly seeking religious engagement. At our first chapel services and religious orientation meetings, I tell students I am happy to help them find a church home in town. We can meet to discuss their experiences, the personal theology they are developing, and interests. After Hannah and I did that, she returned after a few weeks to further discuss town churches. I think her first few weeks at Grinnell and exposure to some diversity of thought — or perhaps just a personal journey — made her more open to a slightly more progressive worship experience. We have a wonderful Presbyterian congregation and pastor here in Grinnell, and it proved to be a good fit.”

Upon joining First Presbyterian Church, Grinnell during her first year, Lundberg declared it both a homecoming and a “breath of fresh air.”

“I felt that I was able to see that the pastor, the elders, a lot of the leaders and the members of the church were not afraid to engage questions or to have pieces of their faith challenged,” she said. “There was a lot more openness to the reality that we’re the community, we’re co-creating with God, we can figure out how we respond to things and we don’t have to be afraid that our faith will fall apart.”

Lundberg also appreciated the intergenerational nature of the church, where she could freely interact with people of diverse ages. “Little kids that I babysat for and older folks who said to come on over for dinner — I think growing up a lot of my church experience was, ‘You are this age, so you’re only going to hang out with people in this age category,’” she said. “It was a neat thing to be a part of a real community where I could offer things to other people and other people could offer things to me.”

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Kirsten Klepfer, described Lundberg as “one of the most spiritually compelling people I have ever known.”

“She is brilliant, she is genuine, she loves relentlessly, and she has an empathy that people feel instantly,” said Klepfer. “Her ministry, her justice work, and her relationships all grow out of this rich soil. Hannah was a blessing to our community for four years — her kind, humble, generous presence could be felt viscerally. And her absence is likewise experienced by everyone here. Our only consolation is knowing how lucky other communities are with Hannah as a part of them.”

Klepfer and Shorb were both delighted, but not surprised, that Lundberg was invited to preach this year’s sermon, “A Peace That Doesn’t Give Up,” to conclude the PC(USA)’s A Season of Peace on World Communion Sunday, the first Sunday of October, when the Peace & Global Witness Offering is traditionally received.

A recipient of the Hudnut Award — which is awarded to a middler who has made the best preparation for the preaching ministry — at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where she has just begun her third and final year, Lundberg was honored to preach on a cause so close to her own heart.

“What I really liked about the way that this offering is set up is the division between what stays on a local level and what goes on a broader level,” she said of the Peace & Global Witness Offering,

Across the U.S. and around the world, the Peace & Global Witness Offering supports empowering ministries that work for reconciliation and facilitate healing. Half of the Peace & Global Witness Offering goes to the national church to address these issues around the world. Twenty-five percent is retained by congregations for local peace and reconciliation work, and 25% goes to mid councils for similar ministries on the regional level.

“The way the offering is distributed is an important way of reminding us that peacemaking is an active part of our lives on multiple levels as well as an active part of God’s work in the world in which we should also be involved at multiple levels,” Lundberg said. “For me, it’s easy to segment those things. For example, let’s have less war in the world is one level of peacemaking, but so is how we are addressing interpersonal conflict in a community over some contentious issue that people don’t want to talk about. Although these can feel like very different things, I think God calls us to be engaged in all of it.”

Of God’s call to her, Lundberg, who is a candidate under care of the Presbytery of Des Moines, said she’s still figuring out individually and in conversation with others what God might want her to be doing.

Naturally, there will be more questions.

“I like so much that the Presbyterian ordination process starts with the inquirer phase because I kept going to my pastor and saying, ‘Maybe I want to do all of this, but I still have some questions,’” said Lundberg, “to which my pastor said, ‘That’s what it’s all about!’”

Because she had such a surprisingly positive experience working as a hospital chaplain this past summer in the midst of COVID-19, Lundberg said she might stay in New York to do a full-time residency in Clinical Pastoral Education.

“Each of [my] experiences in the hospital made me think a lot about how we are most aware of peace when we feel its absence,” she wrote in her sermon. “We rarely yearn for peace while relaxing on a beach, but in the midst of the fire, it’s the first thing we need. If you’ve experienced these last few months at all like I have, this is a time when we all truly need some peace. And when it feels like the world is falling down around you, it can be awfully hard to find that refuge. I’m glad we’re not alone in the search. Time and again in the Bible, we see people in desperate need of comfort seeking God’s peace. And what does God do? God shows up. And God works alongside them.”

Give to the Peace & Global Witness Offering to continue the valuable ministry of the Peacemaking Program and to support the peace and reconciliation work of church partners through World Mission.

View or download Hannah Lundberg’s sermon here.

This was originally published for Presbyterian News Service on October 1, 2020.

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The Peace & Global Witness Offering draws Presbyterians together and provides exposure to active peacemakers as well as education and resources to empower congregations and individuals to become peacemakers, themselves.  These collective efforts support resources in dealing with conflict, provide nurturing reconciliation, and stand in support of our global siblings, because the peace of Christ belongs to people everywhere.