By Annette Brill Bergstresser
GOSHEN, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Palmer Becker, D.Min., told graduates at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s (AMBS) 72nd commencement service that as followers of Jesus, they have not only been given a mandate to teach, but also to cast out broken and evil spirits.
“We might define these spirits in different ways and have different methods for casting them out, but the mandate stands,” said Becker — a church leader, pastor, missionary, author and educator from Kitchener, Ontario — during the May 6 service at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana.
Becker, a 1965 AMBS graduate and recipient of the seminary’s 2018 Alumni Ministry and Service Recognition, spoke on the biblical stories of Jesus freeing a man from an unclean spirit (Mark 1:21-28) and sending his disciples out to teach others about God and to cast out evil spirits (Mark 3:13-15). He noted that exorcisms played a major role in Jesus’ ministry.
“Jesus didn’t go around looking for people who were demon-possessed,” he said, adding that Jesus consistently responded to people according to their needs.
Becker pointed out that while people in many parts of the world still assume the presence of spirits, Western cultures tend to seek solutions to problems through education, research and technology — often neglecting the spiritual aspects of life.
“However, many people in our world, both secular and religious, are realizing that not everything can be explained in natural and materialistic terms,” he observed. “It really comes down to the question, ‘Do we or do we not believe in spiritual reality?’”
He noted that the 16th-century Anabaptist movement emphasized the essential role of the Holy Spirit in empowering followers of Jesus to live faithfully and also shared a brief testimonial from Barbara Nkala of Zimbabwe, the regional representative for Southern Africa for Mennonite World Conference, about the influence of the Holy Spirit on church growth in Africa.
Becker said he believes in the activity of the Holy Spirit and the existence of evil spirits but acknowledged “the great distance that exists in time, culture and context between the ways in which spirits were experienced in New Testament times and how they are experienced today.” He explored several ways of understanding the word “spirit,” proposing that an evil or negative spirit is “any settled thought or attitude that is contrary to the spirit of God.”
How then does one cast out evil or unclean spirits? Becker named three methods — therapy and counseling by trained professionals; exorcism; and an approach that “emphasizes listening and the caring presence of compassionate people” — and shared three examples from his ministry in which he was called on to deal with fearful and oppressive spirits and the occult.
He also shared that the Anabaptist tradition offers an infrastructure for fulfilling Jesus’ mandate through three core values: “Jesus is the center of our faith; community is the center of our life; and reconciliation is the center of our work.”
Following the conferring of degrees, Rachel Miller Jacobs, D.Min., AMBS associate professor of congregational formation, presented the charge to the graduates, first drawing on Becker’s message to bind any powers contrary to God — “the spirits that impair hearing, constrict imagining, shrivel trusting, wilt believing” — and then encouraging the graduates to “inhale God’s own Holy Spirit.”
“Receive God’s spirit; let it dwell in you; let each inhalation proclaim that death does not have the last word, that goodness is stronger than evil, that love is deeper than hate,” she told them. “Let the Holy Spirit be the one who powers your ministry.”
The graduates responded with a litany that included the refrain, “We breathe in,” and sang together, “I bind my heart this tide.”
The commencement service also included commendations for retiring teaching and administrative faculty members Lois Y. Barrett, Ph.D., who has served 16 years as professor of theology and Anabaptist studies; and Rebecca Slough, Ph.D., vice president and academic dean, who has served the seminary in a variety of roles for 20 years. They anticipate retiring on June 30.
The 2018 graduating class
Of the 21 graduates honored during the commencement service, 12 earned a Master of Divinity, five earned a Master of Arts in Christian Formation, and one earned a Master of Arts: Peace Studies. Three students received a Graduate Certificate in Theological Studies, representing the equivalent of one year of study.
The graduating class comprised seven men and 14 women from Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Romania. Two graduates originally came to the U.S. as refugees, fleeing war in their home countries of Laos and Zimbabwe.
Eighteen of the graduates are affiliated with Mennonite Church USA; one with the Evana Network; one with the Brethren in Christ U.S.; and one with the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. One is nondenominational.
Mennonite colleges and universities with graduates in AMBS’s Class of 2018 include Bethel College (Kansas), Bluffton University, Eastern Mennonite University, Goshen College and Hesston College; Anabaptist-related colleges include Bethel College (Indiana), Grace College and Seminary, Messiah College and Tabor College.
More than 70 percent of the graduates are serving as pastors or seeking pastoral or chaplaincy assignments. Four are pursuing mission or service work, and one is seeking work in faith-based community organizing. Half of the graduates served as paid pastors or congregational staff members while earning their seminary degrees.
This year’s graduating class was the first to include students who did all the work toward their Master of Divinity at a distance — coming to campus twice a year for intensive classes and doing the rest of their coursework online through the seminary’s MDiv Connect program, which began in 2013.
Four graduates are the daughters of AMBS alumni: Janette Lyndaker Gallagher’s late father, Norman J. Lyndaker, earned an MDiv in 1971; Sophie Lapp Jost’s father, John F. Lapp, earned a Master of Arts: Theological Studies (MATS) in 1988; Mariah Martin’s father, Lauren Martin, earned an MDiv in 1990; and Julia Schmidt’s father, Dennis Schmidt, earned an MDiv in 1994. Julia Schmidt’s mother, Dianne Schmidt, is a current AMBS student. Sophie Lapp Jost’s grandparents are also graduates: Lois Shenk Zehr received an MDiv in 1994, and Michael Zehr received a MATS in 1994.
As a gift to the seminary — an annual tradition — this year’s graduating class commissioned Sophie Lapp Jost (MDiv 2018) to create a Fraktur (traditional folk artwork) of Ephesians 3:16-21, and Steve Thomas (MDiv 1988) and his son Matt Thomas (a former AMBS maintenance assistant) to create a wooden cross and base for use in worship services at the seminary.
Palmer Becker, D.Min., gives the address at the 2019 commencement ceremony of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana. (Credit: Jason Bryant)
Graduates at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s May 6 commencement service at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, receive an ovation following the distribution of diplomas and certificates. The graduates are ringing brass bells that are replicas of the bell that rings on the seminary campus. (Credit: Jason Bryant)