WHAT DOES A HEALTHY PASTOR DO TO BE HEALTHY?

(And…look for the addendum at the bottom of the page.)

What does a call to heath mean for those in ministry? It is a matter of stewardship of our very lives.  I have a good health plan and insurance.  I am fortunate.  I keep receiving postcards from my health plan which challenge me to keep healthy by taking certain actions.  The incentive is that I will receive a savings in the network deductible for the following year.   What is preventive health care?  It is the annual checkup—what we do to anticipate any issues and deal with them.  I took the time to call the insurance company and discuss their reasoning for this incentive and for what they listed as counting as preventive health.

 

Really, my agenda was to point out what they left off of the list, rather than what they included in the list.  I wanted to include diet and exercise criteria.  These are two themes which contribute to health—more than any other set of criteria.  My point was to include these—along with stress management as essential calls to health.  While receptive, the main point of the discussion was along the lines of how many pastors and those in ministry do not do take care of their own health.  They delay and put off annual exams, fail to develop habits and practices which are tied to diet and exercise and stress management.  Why?

 

How is it that those whose vocation is about care and attention on behalf of others, presenting a message of healing and hope, fail  too much of the time to maintain their own personal health?
How is this theologically understood?  That is that the habits and practices of over working, of no exercise, poor diet, and poor management of stress and lifestyle is the number one issue for caregivers, and for those in ministry.

 

This is why this incentive is being offered, the health insurance provider is asking simply:  what can we do to get those in ministry to do one thing which will be most helpful to them and to us in reducing costs?  When we do not take care of ourselves, we add to the burden of health care for everyone.   When we do not take care of ourselves we model poor habits and practices.  When we live in such a way that our primary motivation is the need to be needed, we radiate stress and self-importance.  When we do not take care of ourselves, we participate in a cultural system in ways that counter much of what we say about the meaning and purpose of our beliefs.

 

Indeed, it is a matter of stewardship. The path of least resistance is the one leading to poor health.  Leading a life of conspicuous health and habits takes work.  Happiness takes work and there is a direct outcome between health and happiness.  That most of us who might read this have health insurance is cause for gratitude.  It might even be providential.  Honor this gift by taking seriously the call to health.

 

Addendum:  Part of the Doctor of Ministry Program of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is a new emphasis on habits and practices of those in ministry as a part of leadership.  In the next few months THREE new concentrations within the DMin program will be offered which will begin in 2015.  These include:  missional leadership; urban cross-sector focus, which will opportunity for cross cultural venues in the US and internationally; and a new relationship in the reformed focus with the University of Edinburgh.

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Continuing the path and looking ahead…

The Doctor of Ministry Program will be undergoing a review in the coming months, beginning in February.  My goal is an open-ended review, paying attention to a variety of perspectives and voices of those who have been in the program, those currently in the program and also to talk with potential students as to what they might be seeking in a practice oriented degree like a DMin.

I’ve been director of the Pittsburgh Seminary’s DMin program for nine years, and in that time, we’ve made some changes, and added two specific and well-defined focuses:  Science and Theology and Reformed Christian Spirituality.  At present, the Reformed Focus is accepting applications for 2015, even while the details of a new relationship with Scottish universities are being finalized.  Students will continue to travel to Scotland and we welcome applications.

We will continue all the programs in place and the new cohorts now being formed while this review takes place.

As institutional realities shape new thinking, the primary questions of how to live life; what is faith; who are we to be within the Christian tradition and as those who sense an ongoing call to ministry what form does that calling take?  What, even more importantly, forms us?  And why?

This is not a brand new conundrum, or a brand new set of problems.  All of these issues have surfaced from time to time, and will continue to be issues—call it an information age, a knowledge-based age, the Stone Age—whatever you like.  In many ways, the whole notion of reform remains the primary activity and with it comes a commitment to be willing to change, to be open to change.  To this I would add the necessity of paying attention so that the human tendency to want to micro-manage change, to preserve our own point-of-view through control needs to be “on the table” too.  Even more so perhaps for people of faith, lest our own fears and agendas become the driving force rather than a disciplined, collaborative, both teaching and learning moments.

Look for further information as the review begins!

Susan Kendall

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CHANGE: a looping life

I was born into the church.  It has shaped me, my life and my vocational choices.  Imprinted early or to use current vernacular—the neuro-pathways of my brain–established a religious view as truth and loyalty.  Other people’s faith about God has had a profound effect on me and in many ways shaped both my interests and confusion about the church, belief and all that goes with it.  While others were marching in the streets, protesting great injustices within my baby boomer generation, I was attending a small conservative Christian college not because I wanted to, but because my father wanted me to, my sense of loyalty to his wishes I could not quite manage to overcome, because truth be told, I wanted to march with the best of them—march for justice and hope and freedom and opportunity.  My sense of self was not my own:  I was part of the church and its belief system, part my father’s deep and lasting desire for me to be a “good Christian woman”.  Through the years, I’ve realized as do many, that these two halves do not make a whole.  Change then is opportunity; though it may be disorienting, and we may even become quite lost for a time. Making simplistic observations about change is unhelpful and not really in keeping with good theological reflection.

Here is my view:  change shakes power structures, change rattles the expected roles of influence; change frightens individuals more than we know; change requires a different kind of skill in navigating pathways be they river, ocean, land or sky.  Taking cues from the lost art of finding our way, which is the title of a new book by John Edward Huth, on average, lost people are found relatively close to their last known position, even though they may have wandered a considerable distance in a convoluted path to arrive there.  He observes that if one constructs a probability map—the last possible position of the person—that probability is the greatest clue to where a disoriented in “woods shock” person can be found.  There is a “behavior of lost persons”.  This is analogous to redefining the meaning of change in the feeling if not the direct experience of lost in a post-denominational, or whatever post-word you wish to use here.   One might even say post-individualist belief systems, which then by definition, allow space for the person, for the resurrection of the authentic person or the real person through new forms of community and belonging.  Authority to define lost for religious folks, who claim the right to define has changed, and it leaves institutions disoriented and dare I say it–lost.  Huth’s continuing observation is valid once again I think:  “We often learn a lot about systems when they fail.  The state of being lost is a failure, a breakdown, in the mechanisms of orientation.”  So, who is lost, is it the institution or the person or both or maybe this is simply a new way forward yet to be tried.  Many lost folks create a loopy path that can often double back on itself.  As one person observed, “I’m in the exact same spot I was two hours ago.”

There is a personal and community/national/ cultural and social resonance.  Looping back and around—repeating patterns.  Neuropsychology research would support this understanding I think. Looping may actually get us somewhere if you think about it.  Being lost serves us if we do not panic or settle out of fear for that which takes us nowhere but back to the lost space again and again.  This reveals both the complexity and without meaning to be binary—the simplicity revealed in being lost.  To be lost can become a possibility which prepares and clears the mind, again if panic and fear do not set in.  The advice of rescue personnel is to stop the panic by building a small fire and keeping it burning.  Gather what is necessary to keep the fire burning and stay put.  This is metaphorical I know—and there are so many complicating factors in the case-by-case real life situations in which people become lost and loopy.  I acknowledge that and yet here in the literature about those who set out camping or hiking and become lost is a certain crossover wisdom; a form of contemplative practice if you will. Wendy Farley, in The Wounding and the Healing of Desire:  Weaving Heaven and Earth, speaks to this practice in a way I like, writing that contemplation has a variety of meanings.  She explains that the one most explained is a practice in which one seeks unity with God.  Farley’s view is to deepen and broaden the purposefulness of practice (much like building a small campfire and staying put to lessen anxiety) by beginning to recognize a “conscious desire to enter more deeply into the divine Eros that flows through all things as delighting, compassionate love, together with processes and practices that nurture that desire.”    The connectivity with recurring patterns of “lostness” then is in the practice of calming and clearing a space, lighting a fire.  This act is agency allowing in the stillness, in the contemplative moment, opportunity that “shifts can gradually occur in the body, in the emotions and in understandings, beliefs, vocation, and relationships.”   And so, I come back to the beginning of this blog:  Getting one’s bearings, recognizing that there is a quality of the human condition from birth, which consistently loops back to old patterns, old behaviors, work or community as strangely familiar and comfortable is changed as one (and institutions, too) recognize that to be lost might be a new beginning.

A blessed Advent and Merry Christmas,

Susan Kendall

Books cited:

Farley, Wendy.  The wounding and Healing of Desire:  Weaving Heaven and Earth

WJK Press, 2005, 16.

Huth, John Edward.  The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, Belknap Press, 2013.

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Art and Life; Meaning and Purpose; Agency and God

I read, faithfully, the New Yorker because of excellent writing, great cartoons, and attention to the best fiction, art, opera, film, poetry.  In the October 7, 2013 edition, Goings On About Town: This Week. http://nyr.kr/14HAxi4, the art of Chris Burden is featured.  The New Museum features a piece called, “Ghost Ship,” described as “a crewless, self-navigating yacht that sailed the North Sea in 2005.”    What would make, I wondered, this yacht a meaningful experience with people on board to guide it?  Is meaning or lack of meaning for that matter dependent upon what humans bring to an event, a circumstance, an idea, or an experience, even if it never became a piece of art?  Could in other words, a crewless yacht traveling on the open sea contain its own meaning?   Or without the human offering some sort of experiential reality, is it simply devoid of purpose or meaning?  Like the earth say going ‘round and ‘round along with all the other planets, in all the other solar systems, in this universe and other universes, most of which are not seen or experienced by human beings.

Forgive me my convoluted wandering/wondering ways.  Nonetheless, the larger point for me is what serves as the context for a meaningful and purposeful life?  Agency of the self, credentials and the power to speak and have others listen that validate agency, the community, the world, God’s agency?  How do we know what we know, and how do we find a new footing informed by what we know or think we know?  What happens when we don’t know—as in when the yacht goes on its path without us?  Which brings me to a theological conundrum:  God at work in the world.  I believe that it is more often the case that we do not know “where or how God is at work” in the world.  In fact, for me, that is what faith is.  It is that we cannot know the intricacies of God’s work on some level.  Therefore, faith is the fundamental trust of not knowing what in fact we know.  Our giving witness to any one thing or event or experience does not validate faith, it is the other way around!

In my context, a seminary and in the context of ministry—depending on your view and experience and understanding of religious faith and belief—clear answers or opinions (at least) emerge.  This seems to be the core of energy at the moment—an exchange, a parable repeating over and over of losing and finding and losing and finding what meaning and purpose is or is not.  This is so because seminaries are experiencing a loss of relevance at the moment; a shortage of enrollment, a shift in what potential students seek to study.

It comes as a great surprise when those of us in the church and in ministry and in seminaries enter the losing time in the parable. The parables of the lost coin, or the lost sheep for instance.   We don’t like to consider that we might be included as lost coins, or missing sheep.  The pattern of losing and finding in my view is fluid, continues, keeps us honest lest we evolve faith into something of our own making, in our own design for our own reasons.  That is the power of the gospel which will continually upend our understanding—when we take over the yacht of this world with our own crews and contrive meaning and purpose on our own terms, in our own computer technology.

For me, this art brings me face-to-face with my own deep hopes and fears.  Too easy to confuse agency and God, to attach meaning to that which we deeply desire as faith and trust—hoping that faith or trust will provide for us what we find missing; to assume getting lost again and again does not apply in the living of everyday, ordinary life and to me.

I’ll leave it at that…for pondering and prayer.

 

Susan Kendall, Ph.D.
Director, Doctor of Ministry Program

 

 

 

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TWO PARTS: Working on Emptying and Doing Empty Work

Part One:

Can you feel it?  Summer is about to end, and the energy is rising, like a late summer thunder storm.   At the same time, the easiness of at least the month of August leads to a bit of angst.  It is time to get back to real work.

In a recent CNN post, the theme was of work, and running on empty.  The phrase empty work—that is—in this constant attention to email and other forms of information, we (I confess my own propensity too) is to stay constantly in touch with office email, with all the forms of updated information available.  The author of the post, Andre Spicer, refers both to running on empty, and filling any left-over space with “empty work.”  It is strangely unsatisfying over the long haul.  I confess too that if I am not careful, I fill up the empty space with empty work.  It leads to forms of isolation; a strange irony.  Just when information of all types is at our finger tips, we suffer from a growing sense of disconnection and information or knowledge overload.  For example, any issue of concern can be addressed in an online search.  If your child is sick, it is easy to begin to research symptoms, which leads to more information on everything from disease to parenting, to studies on behavior patterns or research on the latest data on child rearing.  No subject is off limits.  Common sense no longer applies or so it would seem.  TMI—is stressful and perhaps addictive.

My conclusion is that the basics we know and resist continually remain valid.  Balanced lives, exercise and diet is key to good health.  It is too simple.  Time each day for breathing, walking, listening, being with others, even for those of us who are in ministry is basic.  It is called a “healthy ecosystem for emotional support.”  If we are too absorbed in work, unable to enter into a rhythm and pattern of relationships beyond those of work or work-related events; if we are our work, then isolation ensues.  At different times in our lives these patterns need to be examined and adjusted.  For ministers this is a hard though necessary adjustment.  Ministers in my view too often develop a syndrome of needing to be needed.

Part Two:

A secondary theme, though not a lesser one by any means, is what occupies my time and thinking.  In a world of overload information, the issues of importance to me—or ones I think of as important—seem to have taken a backseat to the constant flow of information and accoutrements which allow us to receive the information.  We mark this week the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march; the issues of violence take precedence in news reports and are two consistent reminders that the work of participating in a possible future in the present remains a priority—this is anything but empty work.

The challenge for me, and perhaps for you, too, is how to be balanced, engaged, and open to the primary work of justice, hope, and grace and to wellbeing. This is our call in ministry first and foremost.

 

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We Seek to Discern God’s Future for God’s Church in Service to God’s Mission in God’s World

…we seek to discern God’s future for God’s church in service to God’s Mission in God’s world

A comment on letting go

Susan Kendall

 

This is a variation on a theme I hear or read several times a week and yet in the Bible is clarity.  We are to love, listen, give, pray, weep, laugh, sing and lament, among some other clear active verbs.  A sampling:   “Take up your bed and walk; this day you are healed; feed my sheep; love one another.”  To be provocative: might it not be good to begin by saying:  In our confused state, we seek to discern?   The Psalms is often if not mostly about one mass state of confusion or fear (leavened by powerful praise and promise).   And yet, to continue to be provocative, don’t we have a sense already of purpose and mission set before us?  I do not find in the words of Jesus that he was seeking to discern God’s future and mission, though he spent a month and a week in the wilderness, and as the writer of Luke records, went to a “lonely place” to pray; because he knew the mission.  Even in what is called the Jesus prayer of John 17, Jesus is not discerning to know the future as much as he is seeking to be present in the present moments.  Mark’s gospel doesn’t have Jesus wandering around with committees and consultants to try to figure out the next step; Jesus is with the people, with the poor, the hungry, the searching, with the lesser than and the powerful.  Clearly, there is something elusive about faith and about Jesus too and Mark makes his point before the add-on to assuage some anxiousness.

Karl Barth said, “Hope comes in the act of taking the next step.”  It reminds me of that great scene in an Indiana Jones movie—the one where a deep canyon needs to be crossed and there is no bridge—a bridge will only appear when the first step is taken.  The camera draws the audience to Indiana’s right foot and he steps out into nothingness.   It is a powerful and wonderful scene.  We are drenched with fear and anxiety partly because we are terrified of making mistakes; we have become risk-averse and we have congregations so demanding that we keep recycling pastors like we do our ten dollar summer T-shirts.  Kathryn Schulz’s book Being Wrong:  Adventures in the Margin of Error, writes that most of us are deathly afraid of ever being wrong and we go to great lengths to account for this lack.  She suggests a number of persons through the ages at least in the western world, who explain why we might desire to seek to discern a way not to be wrong and how then being wrong becomes too often God’s issue rather than ours.  Thomas Aquinas said we have trouble because “we were banished from paradise” as “there is a gap between our own limited and blemished minds and God’s unlimited and perfect omniscience,” as quoted by Schulz.  Ok, this probably remains the main underlying theological theme to account for the desire to seek to discern a distant God whose will for us (in the specific actions where we often err) is unseen and that in itself makes us terribly insecure, not to mention the ongoing burden placed upon us of constantly getting it wrong from the moment of birth.  (I don’t agree with Aquinas that we are all born diminished.)   She also mentions Martin Heidegger who “thought that error could be explained by the fact that we live in time and space; because we are bound to a particular set of coordinates” or in other words we can’t see beyond the horizon.  Thus we must try to discern even though our coordinates are already set; sounds better perhaps than Aquinas’ words.

I do know that I don’t know what my primary understanding of faith is any longer.  And that is a good thing.  It frees me to be open to what is new or the old for that matter.  I do know that there is much writing and reading for me to do, a rich set of complexities to lean into which fall outside this theological language shaped in phraseology that makes no sense.  My vocation is changing and becoming one of letting go of my notions of God which come from a lifetime of study of the church and theology and culture.  In my context (institutionally) too much of the work of theology is trying to hold the past in place.  Writing and theological thinking is utterly institutionally-bound and ideologically-shaped like threads caught in a vacuum cleaner.  Too much is intertwined with ideas of what constitutes success, and old and tattered ways of marking what it means to have made it to the top (think big-steeple or tenure or title)  or to some sort of free-standing truth with a capital “T” (think newly-formed ways of doing or being church) which include sources of certainty and community and belonging and litmus tests based on ongoing feeling and experience at the expense of reason and good judgment or the reverse—reason which seeks to control and conserve at the expense of experience as if what we feel—through laugher or tears–is without purpose theologically.

We are like so many in the biblical narrative, in that we are ahead of the curve making our own way, getting it complicated by giving in to our fears, sinking into pits, trying to ride the waves of an unexpected storm.  We decide what we believe and spend our time arguing its merits.  We make these narratives into happy endings through a one note set of phrases, tacking on hope which reveals more about us than we might care to become conscious of—we cannot wait to contrive meaning in the midst of it all.   There is inner work of the soul or of the Hebraic understanding of soul—essential life spirit–to be done primarily as meaning emerges.   The power of the parable is that we seek and find again and again—this is hard to grasp in a linear-shaped belief system.   Hope is less an ending than an always forthright beginning and requires of us the patience to be present to the way things are.    This does not mean that we stay always with the way things are, again, if Jesus is our model.  This is the theme of the poet and “make[s] a work of soul always a perpetual beginning, and makes every effort at beginning again, as we heard …from the poet Eliot, a wholly new start and a different kind of failure.”[i]

 

[i] Robert D. Romanyshyn, The Wounded Researcher:  Research with Soul in Mind.  Sring Journal, In., 2007, 135.

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Walk and Dance: Body, Mind and Spirit

“Our memories, our beliefs, our imaginations are all impacted by the emotions we experience on a daily basis.  Emotions shape and color our world in truly fantastic and meaningful ways.  However, our theologies and ideas about humanity often lack careful attention to our embodied emotional experiences.”   Jason Whitehead, PhD Invited Professor for DMin Focus:  Science and Theology

Jesus washed feet. Mary anointed with oil.  The blind were able to see; the deaf to hear.   All these narratives in the biblical text are not possible without the body—the ordinary, necessary human body.   It seems we forget this fact—this reality–too much of the time when we are knee-deep in piety without practice, that is a disembodied sense of creatureliness.  Theology is heady stuff—easily allowing us to speak only of the mind and the spirit.

Why in theological education do we forget the body?  Why do we still too much of the time consider it a necessary evil—an encumbrance to some future without it?  It makes no sense to me.  My theory is that because the body requires something of us we Protestants want it to metaphorically go away!  What does the body require of us:  care and feeding, exercise and rest, warmth and touch?  More than that—the body requires us to sing and dance, to run and play, to hug and weep, to smile and frown.  To feel.  To experience.  To desire.  I am convinced that despite all the visual images of the body—the overexposure of the body—for example, the Super Bowl Halftime Show—and the number of advertisements which exploit, or portray violent trailers for violent movies, as a society we are confused, childish and nonsensical which it comes to the human body.

Too bad.  So sad—really.  It is a wonder—this human body.  Look at a newborn baby, watch dancers on stage—if there is one important corrective to be made in Protestant theology, it is to add the body to the mix of our theological thinking.  We are body-mind-and spirit.  Jill Johnson offers at Princeton University a certificate of dance for non-dancers offering a form of integration about the body, mind and spirit. Check it out here

It gets one in touch with the body—with the miracle of muscle and bone and flesh in movement.  It makes one healthier.  I love it—this could an important addition to seminary learning.  It ought to be—from a primarily theological point of view too.  Not some sort of add on—leftovers for after the really important work of systematics are done as in the one hour presentation at the end of the term.   This has everything to do with education and a renewal of educational philosophy.  In the ongoing debate of the value of online learning versus traditional learning, two terms pop up:  lateral learning and sacred time.  That means—persons together in a classroom or space.  Clever words which mean we need to be together—next to me is a human body in a classroom.  Bodies present around the table.  Another term of interest is how in hybrid learning, being present on the campus is considered “sacred time.”

I will make a prediction:  being present in a classroom, human bodies will remain important and necessary component of learning, even as we know online learning has its place.  After all, as science explores the notion of the brain as being the center of the human body—does this not then have everything to do with the body?  When Jesus proclaims, “Take up your bed and walk,” he meant it literally—it serves as a core understanding of a theology of the body.  It is with that understanding I work, so that Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s DMin is about body, mind and spirit—for truly “sacred time.”

 

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The Importance of Re-search and Context or Perhaps Science and Theology

I am continually intrigued with Robert Alter’s translations, particularly of the Psalms.  Psalm 147: Hallelujah.  For it is good to hymn to our God, for it is sweet to adorn with praise.  Builder of Jerusalem, the LORD, Israel’s scattered ones He gathers in.  Healer of the broken-hearted, He binds their painful wounds. 

He counts the number of the stars, to all of them gives names.

These first verses from Psalm 147 are an example of both power and pathos, of intimacy connected to the whole of the universe.  As I work to articulate the purpose of offering a concentration in science and theology, the careful craft of translation suits to form a reason.  In a world now totally shaped by technology, which lends itself to constant connection leading to unfiltered communication or to quick solutions for the human condition because of the availability of tests or medication or technique, what role does religion play?  Even more pointedly, what role does faith and belief play?  How do pastors, those designated in our culture as those with the knowledge and wisdom to provide answers to these questions, engage a postmodern world?  What is revealed when the categories shift and it is no longer that pastors or churches assume the privilege of serving as the authority on these matters in the same manner?  Of course, there is the push back, the seeking to retain a set of rules.  I am not talking about rules of authority here in this blog (like a view of contraception for example); I am talking about the tension of the language and metaphor present in the Psalms and the language of science, which rarely speaks of the broken-hearted and of the counting of the stars in the same sentence.  This in my view is the issue:  the capacity to hold both an intimacy of the deeply personal and the expansive grandeur of the universe in the palm of the hand.  In these verses, it is the hand of God—metaphorically speaking—which holds both together and for you and for me—it is the capacity for a mature, wisdom drenched faith.  (In the cold reality of medicine, a test with the latest technology is no replacement for the warm hand of hope. Technology is not the savior—though it may serve to save.  There is a difference.   This is only one example of many I could cite.)

The Science and Theology Focus of the Doctor of Ministry Program is an opportunity to articulate as pastoral leaders what this might mean for those searching both in the church and for those at the edge of organized religion.  It is not that people are abandoning church and the authority of pastoral  leadership out of selfishness or distain for the most part—it is simply that pastors and churches are too much of the time unable and unwilling to engage the tensions between hope and despair, between the deeply personal and the growing knowledge of science and technology.

Here is my challenge:  take the time, have the courage to address the present world as the poets of the Psalms have done, and create a new space for conversation not removed from the world but in the world.  We are to immerse ourselves in the messiness, in the chaos, in the tension, in the laughter and love and pain and tears.  When those who mark “none” as to their religious affiliation, they are marking a space to claim a new conversation.  It is an invitation.

Questions about the science and theology focus?  Follow the link below!

http://www.pts.edu/Science_and_Theology_Focus

 

 

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SHARING – A BOOK REVIEW

I RECEIVED THE FOLLOWING NEWSLETTER FROM ALBAN WEEKLY AND THOUGHT IT WAS WORTH A READ.   SUSAN

 

Like the rest of the nation, we were shocked by the mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last week.

 Earlier this year we became aware of a new book, America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé. We thought, following a number of mass shootings in recent years, especially those this summer at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, that this was a topic that deserved attention. So we asked our friend Rick Barger, who had been a pastor at Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colorado, at the time of the Columbine High School shootings, to reflect on the book and write a review for Congregations magazine.

 And then, last Friday, came the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook, in which 26 people were killed, including 20 first graders. What had been an important topic for discussion became a pressing one. A passionate national debate on the role of guns in society is underway, and we wanted to share this reflection as a theological resource for our readers.

BOOK REVIEW

America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé by Jim Atwood

Review by Rick Barger

 I wish I had written Jim Atwood’s book. It not only powerfully places America’s deathly covenant with arms and violence within a sinister theological framework of idolatry, it also is a wake-up call for the church to give voice and lend action to a national obsession that is literally killing us. Atwood is thorough, well-researched, and compelling. He earned the right to write this book. His impassioned presentation leaves no holds barred.

 April 20, 1999, changed my life. I was on the scene within minutes after the shootings broke out at Columbine High School. I spent the day as a victim’s assistant, was the first face that many students and faculty members saw after being evacuated from the building, and was certainly traumatized myself by the senseless carnage and terror of the event. From that day and into the weeks that followed, I have never seen such an outpouring of grief and pain. As the lead pastor of what was described as a “ground zero” congregation, “Columbine,” as the event would be known, became a part of who I was. 

 Whether speaking with the media in the aftermath of the event, preaching at specially called worship services, or being called upon to speak in places like Maryland, Ohio, New York, and Blacksburg, I shared a very thoughtful message I had honed entitled, “Lessons from Columbine: A Theological Perspective.” My voice in the aftermath was to address the stubborn questions that surfaced immediately, such as, “How could God let this happen?” I would also speak to the difficulties communities had in finding healing after such an event. In response to the God question, I would use Luther’s theology of the cross and reframe the question into proclaiming the very presence of God in the tragedy. “God took a bullet and died in the halls of Columbine.” I would point to the empty tomb and the power of God to raise up the dead and communities who grieve. When asked about guns, I would give an answer that was not as thoughtful. “I call for a national meltdown of all weapons.” I even tweeted that mantra in the hours after the recent massacre in the theater in Aurora. Never did I get at the heart of the matter as Jim Atwood has. Again, I wish I had written Atwood’s book. 

Continue reading Rick Barger’s book review 

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FAITH: AS THE WATERS COVER THE SEA

Advent lectionary on the PCUSA website has Isaiah 11: 1-9 listed multiple times.  The narrative is titled “The Peaceful Kingdom” in my NRSV Bible.  The narrative offers an image of peace:  wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and lion, cow and bear.  The powerful shall be led by a little child.  A child can play alongside the most poisonous of snakes.  In this vision—it will be a promised reality because the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth—like the waters cover the sea.

This is the stuff of Christmas cards, Christmas pageants, and simple songs.  It is not the logo for living life too much of the time; rather, it is an ideal, as a sometime far-off hope, a gentle political vision; a day in December with candlelight and soft songs; careful drawings of lion in protective embrace of the innocent-eyed lamb.  These verses shaped my identity from the time I was a small child.  It seems ordinary to imagine in my little girl mind a lion and a lamb—mostly.  It seems still that is the primary relationship between animals recalled this time of year, though here in this particular set of verses—it is a lion and a wolf.  Not so much the adder and child intertwined, or the bear and the cow, the leopard and the goat.  Intriguing though to consider in my adult imagination—even now—less possible perhaps given the graphic video narratives of snakes of the world or the great grizzlies to the North or the gray wolf packs making their way through blizzard conditions. There is a tension in this tri-part book of Isaiah. 

One of a poetic vision, like this text, and another one of enemies which impede the reality of the vision requiring a resilient hope of a kind we are not accustomed to consider.  Enemies of our own making and enemies who see us with fear.  This tension weaves back and forth throughout the book.  When all else fails there is a possible possibility for a future not yet experienced because after all we know really how lions, adders, wolves and bears are driven by instinct. We need to protect ourselves from the enemies which abound all around us.

I have learned to assume nothing in this biblical text or in any other part of scripture.  I cringe when preachers are so certain in the preaching of a text.  I’d rather not hear it for they assume a certainty and a quickness which is not present in Isaiah.  Those who know this text intimately, have studied it for all their adult lives, are keenly aware of its patient and careful construction aimed toward a particular set of present moments to evoke the patient promise of participating in renewal and restoration.   It is as one scholarly author titled his book:  prophecy and propaganda. 

In Advent, if it is to be purposive, is it not to challenge? Lay the groundwork for the courage to consider a shift from constant fear and what feeds it to faith and what fulfills it?   To do so requires of us courage and patience and vulnerability and honesty.  From whence does faith come?   The point is not an idealized lion and lamb in warm embrace—the point is facing the abyss and the terror—understanding the waters and the sea as one.

Susan Kendall

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