From May 1-4, 2003, in a conference center at Winterthur, in the mountains of Switzerland, over 1000 Christians from all over the world met to joyfully worship, prayerfully seek and faithfully obey the God who heals our land by healing our broken relationships. This “Heal Our Land” conference was sponsored by the Stiftung Schleife, a Christian ministry devoted to serving the body of Christ and headed by Geri Keller, a Swiss Reformed minister.
Geri Keller and other Swiss reformed pastors as well as Christian leaders outside the Swiss Reformed church discerned while seeking the Lord in prayer that God wants to bring healing to the nations by first healing long standing divisions among Christians. They became burdened with remorse and guilt for the way the founder of their church Huldrych Zwingli and his associates and their descendents had persecuted the Anabaptists for several hundred years. They came to see that the Swiss Reformed Church by persecuting the Anabaptists had “cut off its right hand” of authority and service. One Reformed pastor became so distressed as he reflected on the blood-tainted history of his church that he threw the leather bound Bible, given to him at the time of his ordination as a pastor in the Swiss Reformed Church, into the waste basket.
The Reformed pastors came to see that they still profited from the dispossession and persecution of the Anabaptists. Some of their churches were built with resources expropriated from the Anabaptists. Some of the pastors were also in turmoil about the issue of rebaptism. When persons who had been baptized as infants came to personal faith as adults and requested adult believers baptism, the Swiss pastors found themselves sending these persons outside the Reformed church for baptism to keep the peace with their denomination. They also knew that there continued to be a political component to baptism in that baptismal records are used to establish the tax base.
As Geri and Lilo Keller with the Schleife team and an extended group
of Reformed pastors sought the Lord for direction in dealing with their
guilt, they sensed God saying “there is no statute of limitations
on reconciliation;” that “now is the time to seek reconciliation
with the cut off Anabaptists”. They felt that for them to be personally
faithful to God’s word they must pursue reconciliation at their
own expense, whether or not any others inside or outside the organized
churches understood or joined them in the journey. They began to intensively
seek the Lord’s direction for this God-given vision of reconciliation.
Thousands of miles away from the Swiss Alps in the state of Montana, God was stirring up the desire for reconciliation in a group of Old Order Amish originally from Indiana. This group of Amish, under the leadership of Bishop Ben Girod, had experienced new Spirit-empowered life in Christ. They sensed that although they were free in Christ to leave the Amish traditions they were being called by God to identify with the Amish culture and to share their new faith with their brothers. One of these leaders testified that he had been a minister for a year before he had a personal encounter with Christ. He now “invites his Amish brothers in under his big broad brimmed black hat and shares the gospel with them.”
This group of Spirit-directed Old Order Amish has been widely misunderstood both inside and outside the Amish church. They have suffered much for the gospel. There have been periods where they are invited to speak in Amish meetings because the tradition dictates that visiting Amish leaders who maintain the traditions should be invited to share in the meetings. Ben and his associates have taken these occasions as opportunities to share the gospel. As a consequence many have come to a new or renewed faith in Christ. However some of these new believers will hesitate or even resist the call to fully participate in the life of the Spirit. Instead they will resort to a legalistic approach and become critical of Ben and his community.
Other of the new Amish believers, embrace their new freedom in Christ,
but understand their freedom to consist of freedom from Amish traditions
rather than freedom to follow Christ whether he should lead to continue
or to lay off Amish traditions. Even some Mennonites who initially applaud
the Spirit-directed life in this group of Amish will at some point council
them to give up their Amish traditions. But for this group of Amish, giving
up the traditions is giving up what God has called them to do so that
“by all means they might save some” of their Amish brethren
who do not know the Lord.
As this group of Amish continued to seek the Lord through their times of trial, they heard the Lord say that they must be connected with their spiritual fathers in Switzerland if they were to survive. They wondered expectantly how this connection would occur. Exactly nine months ago the Amish met Geri Keller of the Swiss Reformed church in a meeting in Canada. This connection was the “next step-answer to prayer” both for the Amish and the Reformed. As the months progressed, plans were laid for the May 2003 “Heal Our Land” reconciliation meeting in Switzerland.
The third strand of this reconciliation movement developed in Lancaster County Pennsylvania. A group of Lancaster Mennonite Conference persons and other Anabaptists leaders met regularly over the past year or so seeking for a release of God’s power and presence among the Anabaptists. The leaders in this group included Lloyd Hoover, bishop in Lancaster Mennonite Conference and Rusty and Janet Richards of Petra Christian Fellowship. This group felt especially led to ask God to reveal to them the hindrances to revival among the Anabaptists. They felt impressed by God that these hindrances included the following:
1. A paralyzing fear of man. This fear of man and an associated fear of freely following the movement of the Holy Spirit contributed to the Anabaptists becoming known as the “quiet in the land.”
2. A self-righteous pride in Anabaptism. Anabaptists are in danger of feeling themselves more “spiritual” because they have the right doctrines and have historically suffered more for their faith. These perceptions have led to feelings of superiority over brothers and sisters of other denominations and movements and to separation from them.
3. An avoidance of dealing with conflict and a superficial unity. Following the disagreements of the Reformation, Anabaptists have been tempted to avoid dealing with conflicts in order to maintain unity. This unity often has a superficial quality and is easily ruptured because the underlying conflicts were never effectively engaged nor resolved. People chose distance and separation to portray the perception of peace rather than to face the pain of engaging and resolving conflicts in order to experience God’s true peace.
4. A façade of religiosity. An over concern about what others think has led to a form of religion where persons legalistically focus on outward appearances and behaviors. Following the right patterns of worship and evangelism becomes more important than hearing and following the voice of Jesus. As a consequence many Anabaptists have lost the zeal of the first century Christians and of the early Anabaptists who unashamedly and passionately followed the Spirit’s leading in the honoring of the heavenly Father.
As this group prayed together they recognized that the trauma of the early persecution years allowed an open door for Satan to entangle Anabaptists through bitterness and unforgiveness. They began to pray for God’s direction to resolve the five hundred years of woundedness which has afflicted the Anabaptists and created logjams in the flow of His grace. They began to ask what could happen if brothers and sisters across the church started offering forgiveness in areas where offenses occurred and divisions resulted?
God used a devout Christian but non-Anabaptist to connect the Lancaster
County group to the Switzerland and Amish groups. Dr. Bob Doe a Lancaster
county physician and member of a Lancaster city church, In the Light,
had gone to Switzerland to research his wife’s family background.
While there he came in contact with Andreas Keller, son of Geri Keller,
and the Schleife ministry. Through them he learned of the planned “Heal
our Land conference scheduled for May. He made them aware of the prayer
groups in Lancaster County among the Anabaptists of which he was a part.
Through this connection a meeting was held on January 21 at Petra Church.
Andreas Keller, a representative of Schleife and the Swiss Reformed and
two Amish bishops from Montana, joined 25 Mennonites from Lancaster County
for an initial sharing of vision and testimonies as to God’s marvelous
leading in giving each group separately a similar vision for reconciliation.
As the Lancaster group (joined by a couple from Franconia Conference) considered the invitation to attend the “Heal Our Land” conference they were moved by something stronger than personal desire to go to Switzerland in the spring time. It became evident that God was calling them to a place of new beginnings by restoring the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers. “It is time,” they said to one another; “It is time for reconciliation and healing between the fathers of the Reformation (the Reformers), and the children (the Anabaptists).”
The appointed time for the Heal our Land conference finally arrived exactly nine months following the initial meeting of the Amish and Swiss Reformed. True to the vision of God the Schleife ministry and members of the Reformed Church paid for the Anabaptists to attend the conference. They paid the airfare and provided room and board for approximately 40 Amish to attend from Montana. They paid for fine hotel accommodations and three meals a day for the 16 persons with the Lancaster County Mennonite group. In every way the Anabaptists were made to feel as honored guests.
Throughout the week the Anabaptists were honored and blessed with small and large gifts by the Swiss. One of the Anabaptists said “it was as though we have finally come home after all these centuries of being away.” A Swiss Reformed pastor presented to the Lancaster Mennonites a “Froschauer Bible”, printed in 1538, a priceless heirloom, which had been in her family for generations but which had originally been expropriated from an Anabaptist family. The Reformed pastor said it was only right that this Bible, originally translated by and for the Anabaptists during their time of intense persecution, should be restored to the Anabaptists. As a further expression of restitution, conference participants gave an offering of $15,000 to the Anabaptists from the States to be used in reconciliation and revival.
The conference was moderated by Geri Keller, a gracious, white-haired
fatherly man in his early 70’s. Geri was gentle and benevolent,
a fountain of blessing to the entire conference. It became clear as the
conference progressed that this was a man who moved gently because he
had first been aggressive in his pursuit of the heart of God. Consequently
he was not anxious or pushy but rather relaxed and confident in God’s
ability to show at every juncture what the next prophetic word or act
The participants in the conference had little sense ahead of time what was planned for the next session. Rather there was the clear sense that God was in charge communicating to his children His will for the gathering as the leaders humbly sought his face. One of the Lancaster group said that even one session of the conference was so powerful that it would have been worth his airfare. There were a total of ten sessions of the conference, each life-changing in its own way. In addition on Saturday afternoon the conference participants chose between going to the Baeretswil cave or to the Grossmuenster Swiss Reformed Cathedral in Zurich.
In several sessions Swiss Reformed pastors shared their pain and turmoil.
They reflected a radical Christianity. That is they want to be faithful
to the root of Christianity wherever it leads. Some testified of not baptizing
their children or of rebaptizing adult believers with a sense of the personal
risk to their positions as pastors in the state church. These Reformed
leaders identified with the early Anabaptist leaders in their passion
to be faithful to the living Christ in taking the nations for Christ.
They were clear and passionate in their desire to be reconciled with the
Anabaptist brethren who had been cut off from the Reformed Church.
The Amish in their public and private communications emphasized their desire to be reconciled to the fathers of the reformation. They described the pain of rejection and misunderstanding by their own people and the joy of being welcomed by the Swiss church. They praised God for his faithfulness in leading them to this place of reconciliation. Without reconciliation they felt their own survival as a people was at stake. But with reconciliation they were convinced that a new era of productive kingdom building was about to unfold.
Swiss Anabaptist leaders had come to the conference expecting to observe. Some expressed in private conversations uncertainty about what would come out of this meeting in that it had not primarily involved the organized Swiss, Mennonite or Amish churches in its planning and execution. However they did address the conference in response to the invitation of Geri Keller. By implication the Swiss Anabaptist speakers acknowledged that they as a people have lost the radical nature of their founding fathers.
One speaker outlined the state of the Swiss Mennonite Church, the offspring
of the Anabaptists today in Switzerland. Of the 1.2 million Anabaptists
world wide there are 2400 Swiss Mennonites in 14 congregations ranging
in size from 40 to 500 members. The most recent congregation was founded
in 1991. The churches are autonomous in structure and so there is much
diversity. In general the churches are falling off in numbers. The Swiss
Mennonites try to please rather than be visible. They try to be in harmony
in spite of differences. There is a spirit of hospitality and service.
Anabaptism is a symbol for a freedom of the will. That is why there is
renewed interest in Anabaptism.
The Swiss Mennonite speakers agreed that there is a distinction between the practice and the theology of the Swiss Anabaptists. The Swiss Mennonites have compromised. They often define themselves in terms of their past: the “quiet of the land”. They are comforted that people are interested in them even though not in Christ. But no spiritual battle is taking place to take the land for Christ. The speakers acknowledged that the Swiss Mennonites need healing, strength and power not to define themselves in terms of their past but in terms of Jesus.
Young men who addressed the conference, whether Swiss Reformed or Anabaptist, were passionate in their call for radical discipleship. A young Reformed seminarian told of writing his final seminary paper on the Anabaptists and being challenged by their radical life style. He dared to rebaptize his wife and encourage young people in the radical life style. He fears and wonders if he will be able to continue in this life style or whether he will, like his fathers, stifle this life style.
Paul Veraguth who authored the booklet made available at the conference entitled Heal Our Land: Reconciliation with the Anabaptists: An Appeal to the Church, as a younger man was always at the train station evangelizing. Consequently he was sent to a psychiatrist to be evaluated for his unusual behavior. But he was driven to be rooted in the love of God. He stated that if one cannot suffer anything they have no roots. Another young radical pastor of a growing free church, Matthias Kuhn asserted that we must continue rooted in the stream of the Spirit till the world is changed.
Vaughn Martin, an Anabaptist from Pennsylvania who is now planting a church in Brussels, authored the book There is a Way Back: A Prophetic Message for the Mennonite Church. This book was an encouragement to the Amish as they sought to be connected to their spiritual roots. Vaughn in his address to the conference quoted the Apostle Paul who said “I am the least of the apostles. I am not worthy to be called an apostle for I was a persecutor, but I am what I am and the grace of God has operated in me.” Vaughn stated that every movement has its good points but that every one also has dirty hands. As Anabaptists we have soiled hands from the ways we have accused and divided from one another and from the way we have resisted the working of the Spirit in our midst. God wants to give the same spirit of the martyrs to the church of Switzerland. He wants no one to go to hell quietly. Rather He wants to restore a bold public preaching of righteousness in Europe. He wants to restore that anointing to the Anabaptist movement. God wants to give a root to those who come to Christ. He wants to give a supernatural root so that the evangelism will not be shallow but will have a root that will persevere.
Geri Keller in an impassioned message stated, “We can no longer hide secretly that we feel you are right about baptism. I do not want infant baptism to be just a throw-away experience of infant blessing. It is not something cheap, an instrument just to control people. Infant baptism before the eyes of God has its meaning. How can I refuse to take the child of the confused parent and pray blessing down on that infant child? There are baptisms which are a betrayal of all that Jesus stood for. No minister or priest has the right to perform such baptisms; the symbols and signs of baptism belong to Christ and not to the church. If people have a heart for radical repentance then we must rebaptize those people. We self-righteous ones need to be rebaptized as much as others. Jesus did not celebrate when man saw men as trees. He touched him again. It is good to see but I want you to see more clearly.”
David Demian, an Egyptian, living in British Columbia, heads an international reconciliation ministry called Watchmen to the Nations. He addressed and ministered to the conference several times. He said that the Lord can lift the burdens of nations as he does the burdens of individuals. God is going to do something for Switzerland because its importance exceeds its borders. God is about to do something major in the world today. Our obedience changes the heavenlies. Joshua’s obedience was to march around and possess the city: it was not to see if he could possess it. We all can see the sin in the land. When the Lord comes and says to His people, “I am about to give you the land,” we need to say we are able to take the land.
When the church takes its authority, the government will be changed.
When we move in humility and brokenness, then the Lord will move. God
is about to reveal the Messiah to his people. God is raising up nations;
it is time for the bride to make herself ready. The church speaks a lot
but little happens. It is time for the kingdom to come.
Our job is to listen and obey. When we do this it pleases His heart and He acts. It is time to believe. It is time for people to rise up and say, “Whatever the cost, we will seek for the glory of the Lord to be revealed.”
“It is time for the remnant to rise up with the Joshua and Caleb spirit. God is looking for such people. Joshua and Caleb saw the giants but still believed in God’s superior power. God was so upset with the ten spies. He said, ‘Your sons will make it but I will not let you go in to the promised land with that spirit.’
God, you are about to visit us. The hour has come for Switzerland (and for Lancaster County and for the Amish and Mennonite nations). It is not about an event or about one or two rounds. It is a journey of ‘whatever it takes.’ Whatever it takes, I will lay down my life until I see your glory come to our nation. (The motto for Demian’s ministry is “whatever… until.”)
The ministry and times of prophetic action were powerful spiritual times occurring throughout the conference. Fathers confessed to the sons, asked for forgiveness and received it; sons confessed to the fathers, asked for forgiveness and received it. Forty Reformed pastors took off their clerical collars and gave them to the Amish. Forty Reformed pastors stooped and washed the feet of the Amish. The Lancaster Mennonites asked that the Reformed pastors would wash their hands which had become soiled with self-righteous accusations and pointing. The entire conference participated in a hand-washing ceremony. A local pastor who had left the town “by the back door” under a cloud of suspicion and shame was brought in the front door and led down the center aisle and restored to value in the church community. The entire assembly responded to the invitation to give whatever it takes till the kingdom comes in our land.
The worship times were led by a worship team, directed by Lilo Keller, wife of Geri Keller. Lilo a trained musician, composed much of the music used at the conference. The worship times were powerful times of entering into the presence of God. As one of the participants from the Lancaster group stated, “The worship tonight led us into the presence of God. I felt for a moment that all boundaries were removed; that the veil between us and the supernatural realm was very thin indeed. Tonight as we worshiped I found my tears released as a fountain. I asked the Lord, ‘Why am I so moved?’ Was it that the Swiss Mennonites were called up to the platform--the ones with a more direct contact with our roots in persecuted Europe? Was it the presence of the Reformed, the children of Zwingli? Was it the many from the free churches? Was it the Amish from America? Yes; but it was more than this!”
“Suddenly I knew what it was! It was all these but it was also Menno Simmons himself who is present; it is Zwingli who is present. It is my father and mother who are present. It is the church of the first born whose names are written in heaven. It is the spirits of righteous men made perfect. It is all of us at this moment gathered around our Lord Jesus. And my parents who knew the Lord but never raised their hands in worship and never clapped their hands are raising their hands and clapping their hands. And Menno and Huldrych are embracing and pointing to Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, for bringing us together, for reconciling us. We are together tonight with Jesus and we are together with the saints of the ages.”
At several times the worship moved into dancing before the Lord. The Amish danced; the Mennonites danced and the Swiss Reformed danced. The old men danced and the young children danced. Great joy filled each heart in response to Christ’s reconciling presence.
Reflections on the Conference
As I reflected on this Heal Our Land conference, journey, movement, and experience”-- each term feels somehow appropriate-- I sensed the following:
1. God’s heart is for reconciliation. If we remain open to hear from God as we worship, He will speak to us from his heart about reconciliation with our brothers. “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” The Spirit brings things to our memory. It was the Holy Spirit who stirred up the memories of the Swiss Reformed, the Amish and the Mennonites to remember that there were offenses that have not been addressed. It was the Spirit who stirred up the intense desire for reconciliation. It was the Spirit who gave the vision of what reconciliation would look like.
2. God responds to the day and night cry of desperation. “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:1-8) Will he find any who are desperately crying out to him by day and night? There was desperation in the hearts of the Amish, the Reformed and the Mennonites. They felt they could not go on with business as usual; they could not survive without the anointing of God to draw them into reconciled relationships with their brothers and sisters. Their prayers ascended continuously to the throne. At the conference it was apparent that the various groups were unified, not in all the finer points of doctrine; but rather they were unified in their desperation for a move of God in their midst. This desperation was stronger than their fears and moved the hand of God to visit them in power and glory at the conference and to begin the healing of the land.
3. God values faithful obedience to what he reveals to us in worship. If as we worship, he reminds us of a severed relationship and we ignore His word we are both devaluing the word of God and devaluing our brother. If we continue in our disobedience we will come under judgment and will not have his anointing on our lives and work Just before the passage in Matthew 5: 23, quoted above, Jesus says in verse 22, “..anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the council.” Raca is an expression of contempt spoken in our pride against our brother. To hear from God about our brother’s offense and to minimize and not act upon it is to say to our brother, ‘Raca’. The Swiss Reformed, the Amish and the Mennonites who participated in this conference experienced the power, presence and direction of God not just because they love to worship God but because they valued what He valued. They refused to contemptuously say, “What do I care about brothers offended 500 years ago, and what do I care about brothers offended across the Atlantic Ocean and what do I care about brothers offended in another faith tradition. They are all ‘Raca’, worthless and of no value or significance to me.” The anointing of God was clearly on the organizers and participants in this conference because they were each faithful to what God had revealed to them in their worship.
4. God moves as he wills. And blessed is he who is not offended when God does not fit into our structures and expectations. John the Baptist was in danger of being offended when Jesus did not set him free from prison. In Matthew 12:22-37, Jesus healed a man who was blind and mute. The people said, “Could this be the Son of David?” But the religious leaders were offended because Jesus did not move within their structures as they had expected. They said, “This is not God; it is the Devil.” Swiss Reformed and Anabaptists were moved in their times of seeking after God to humbly and faithfully plan this Heal Our Land Conference. This Conference did not originate within the organized Swiss Reformed, Amish or Mennonite Churches. Satan tempts even the saints who are faithful in their organizational responsibilities to question the motives of those who are following God’s spirit outside the organizational structures. It is very easy to take up the spirit of the elder brother. God is saying “Be very careful not to attribute the work of my Spirit to the world, the flesh or the Devil. And blessed is he who is not offended when I work outside official church structures.”
5. God multiplies the impact of individual faithfulness to his word. Some may ask, “How can this conference impact the world? What difference did it make that a thousand people met for a week and spoke and acted reconciliation; they are not the organized denomination, so what significance will this event have?” But we are not responsible for the ultimate impact of our actions. In the end the question is “did we faithfully obey the word we received?” The little boy’s faithfulness led to the feeding of five thousand. Nehemiah’s faithfulness led to the rebuilding of the wall and the reestablishment of God’s people in Jerusalem. This happened in spite of Sanballat’s skepticism: “What are these feeble Jews doing?...Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble, burned as they are?” As the little boy said as he tossed the one star fish stranded on the shore, of the thousands yet stranded, “For this one my action makes all the difference in the world.” As one who was blessed by Geri Keller of Schleife, and all those who planned and participated in the Heal Our Land Conference: “For this one the Conference has made a great difference.” My wife, who is not given to spiritual hyperbole, stated in the week since we have returned home, “I sense something new and fresh of God’s grace and presence has been released into my life as a result of the Conference.” May life continue to ripple out from this Conference all over the world and may the glory of the Lord cover the earth as the waters cover the sea! And may our land be healed!