Defining Religion While Thinking Of the Difference between Change and the New

At the 2014 American Academy of Religion, David Morgan, of Duke University offered an excellent presentation on religion and media, suggesting that over the past two decades the intersection of religion and media have altered definitions.  Religion is less about  “systems of ideas to which believers assent” and more about “embodied practices that cultivate relations among people, places, and non-human forces—nature, spirits, ancestors, saints, gods—resulting in communities and sensibilities that shape those who participate.”   (Paper, “Religion and media:  A critical review of recent developments,” presented at Religion and Media preconference event, November 21, 2014, AAR, San Diego, Ca.)   Media is no longer understood as channels for targeting receivers in order to deliver messages “to shape opinion or achieve certain effects,” rather, media is “technologies of sensation, as embodied forms of participation in extended communities joined in imagination, feeling, taste, affinity, and affect.”

I do agree with the shift in definitions Morgan provides, very much so.  Does this change Christian faith and belief?  Does it account for shifts within institutions which seek to embody communities of faith and practice?  Probably not, though what these definitions open up is a way of understanding what is taking place on a wider scale and how then it brings confusion.  Together, these redefined actions have caught faith traditions, belief systems, and institutions off guard.  We’ve not been prepared for this kind of change.  And so seminaries, churches, communities are seeking to catch up, to find a new equilibrium..   Though I am for change when it is needed and I am for openness to new approaches and to what is defined as being willing participate in adaptive change more than technical change, I do have a theological reflection to share. What is important, theologically, is to participate in these shifting definitions not for the sake of change itself, but because we are in an ongoing narrative which invites us to the new, to the creative edge, to the ever fresh reality of life.  In other words, change for the sake of change does not necessarily result in transformation, or in the new life always before us to which we are invited, called, challenged.  And at times, I fear that we settle for change and consider it as theologically “new” when it isn’t.  Change is constant; the new is transformative, deep, life-giving, and brings to mind the term re-newal.

We are invited to a life of redecorating thought beneath and above it all we are invited to a life of discovery of whole new rooms. (St Teresa of Avila)

We can wander around in the wilderness for a very long time, upset because we haven’t found the change we were or are looking for.  This powerful biblical story is less about change and more about being open to a new way, to a new understanding, to a new form of trust.

It may be easier to wander around and search than to stop and pay attention.  Recall the early monastics, who rushed to the desert to prepare for the end—that change they so wanted.  Years passed, stillness, rhythm and pattern set in—a set of practices, an adaptive approach to food, water, sleep, and deep listening.  The change, that is, the new faith, was within them.  I believe as do many that we are in an indefinable moment.  I see possibility possible in this liminality; that is to experience the new because it is being offered to us.  This is the heart of a life of faith.  My prayer is not to be so focused on change to miss the deeper voice calling forth a whole new thing.

The DMin Program of Pittsburgh Seminary seeks to be open to the new sense of faith to the real thing; to call; vocation; ministry.  If this appeals to you, tugs at your heart, taps into your longing—this is an invitation to consider—seeing the new through the thicket of change; the fog of the ordinary; the addictive pace of change.

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With Whom and To Whom Are We Accountable?

On the face of it this is a rather straightforward answer, is it not?  If you are in ministry, doesn’t the answer come quickly and easily?   Not a hard sermon to preach, or column or blog to write and yet, I want to suggest we wait, take time, live, in other words, with the question.

Accountability is necessary, but not easy.  David Ford writes about congregational understanding of ministry, membership, and community in “Religious Giving and New Metrics,” in Insight.  (http://www.philanthropy.iupui.edu/files/file/september2014_issue2_posted.pdf)

We do not find in scripture:  thou shalt be accountable; though shalt have an accountability matrix for your church, your congregation, and yourself.  It is there though and not perhaps in the ways we might wish it to be—through power, position mandate, command and control.   And therein is both the beauty and the purposefulness of spiritual formation (or what faith is in practice).  Accountability is a practical term, a practice evidenced by action.  For institutions, it takes the form of reports, tax information, and strategic planning; for individuals, it takes the form of paying bills, and keeping care of things, and seeking to live your life from a centered purpose and clarity of your gifts and vocational calling.  It is the constant momentum of change which gets in the way of the straight forward linear thinking that it all begins at point A and neatly comes together or results in point Z.  And while there is a technical side to accountability, without an ongoing openness to seeing, thinking, behaving differently, adapting is the word I am looking for—we get in deep and wide ruts.  We get bored, anxious, fearful, and at times depressed.

Here is my answer to the above question:  to ourselves first of all. It begins with us (though it is so tempting to say it begins with “them”) as persons.  It takes a life time of developing self-awareness because what awareness is about and who we are and who we become over time, changes as the years go by; our sense of self changes when tragedies happen, when we receive education, when the restless energy of despair or boredom serves as a prod luring us to deeper maturity, new challenges, greater creativity.  In looking for example, at the work of Raymond Williams, and his study of key words, ( http://keywords.pitt.edu/williams_keywords.html)

I find an intriguing and dynamic challenge.  Words are not static—or outside context and culture, said Williams, and I agree.  I say that the major issue of religious identity, of faith and even the word truth remains a primary source of frustration.

This is why study is of value; why a return to study and conversation on particular topics is of value.  It is a calling in and of itself.

Come join in this call:  reflect, practice, read, study, write, discuss, and be renewed.

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Peace of Christ

I sent a quick note to a student.  In his response was, “peace of Christ and his name.” Not a new phrase for certain and one I often receive. At times it is shortened to simply peace. I’ve been (our world too has been) without much peace as of late, and while this is an ordinary greeting or sign off for many, today it struck me with particular force. I use the word “force” intentionally—as in that phrase from Star Wars—”may the force be with you”—not to reduce what the peace of Christ is or means, but rather to indicate the power of such a phrase. May a particular formative peace be with you. This in itself is not a mere set of words; it is a life-shaping stance. But for what and why?

Much conversation within seminaries resolves around the themes of formation and practice. This is not an entirely new conversation; this is simply a new iteration of an old theme stirred to life by the vast changes of technology. Technology unleashes an entire set of challenges and changes and at the forefront is the inability to claim primary control of information and ideas and news events. We are found out through video, texts, photos taken in the moment of an incident. Words take on a power often because we lack taking time both of discernment and our unwillingness to understand the source itself of what we feel and what we do.

I and colleagues discuss whether things are as bad as they seem, or is it simply that we have access to so much more information and news, and there is a search for anything which stimulates our neurons—especially those of fear and flight? It is hard to know at this moment, given the narratives of the past. It is always more clearly seen after the fact.

I grew up in a “peace” church. I grew up shaped by a primary theology in which pacifism was paramount and central to Christianity and therefore was the single shaping orientation for relationships, personal and family (even my siblings were to be treated with this ethic in mind, a true test), and as adult in my professional life and in the politics of everyday. This was the primary formative ethic of my faith. As an adult, I quickly learned this formative stance was hard to practice; it was the subject of ridicule and distain. And at times, I did not know what to do with the feelings of anger and confusion. I discovered my grandfather had spent time in prison for his views in World War I; and a great-grandfather had been tarred and feathered in Kansas for his stance. For them, it was clear. I was not always so brave or so I thought. I also discovered while living in Germany and Japan, near military bases, that there were many fine people who understand the formative practice of peace and pacifism differently. These were people I respected and admired; people I worshiped with and worked alongside. What might it mean to sign or greet one another, the peace of Christ be with you, as a habit and practice? With those whose views are so different from mine on a number of vitally important issues. As a culture and society, as a church and institution, there is a critical lack of peace. As with most themes of this sort, we differ on what it means in terms of our vocation or calling; of our willingness to defend against evil; on our study of ritual and practice and community. What gathers the disparate fragments we have made in our own interpretive strategies about not only the peace of Christ, but the meaning of Christ as a primary shaper of our intentions and practices and habits is that unseen force which remains as real as this keyboard I’m typing on and yet as elusive as the cloud in the clean blue sky on this sunny day.

I have failed to practice what this peace means. I have come to understand that it does not mean giving up or becoming passive or withdrawing from the world simply because it is too hard to make sense of things. Though it does not mean that with Christ all is immediately well; it does not get me off the hook from claiming that the formative vision and narrative of my childhood faith is the wrong one or a naïve one at best. What do I know of formative language of peace now that I am old enough to have a tiny grandson? That this peace matters, the peace claimed in a name called Christ shaped my ethical stance, though I fail at it all the time I remain formed by what it promises in the real and everyday way of seeing and relating to the world.

The D.Min. program offers the opportunity to consider what formative practices may mean for us and for the people with whom we minister. Some of us are chaplains, military, hospice, hospitals; some are non-profit employees, some are church planters, or intentional interims, or pastors of congregations formed long ago. We’ve much to examine, absorb, and learn these days. Here at Pittsburgh Seminary is a gift of time and space for such a task.

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Why a Doctor of Ministry Degree: because you will have space, and a place for honest dialogue for the sake of our present and future.*

 

 

 

*For the quick read, skip to the last paragraph.

 

This morning at 5:30 am, I received an email from those I know in Israel, in Gaza.  I received two photos of two children, one in a hospital bed, and another of a child playing with a balloon amid the rubble from a missile, a bomb, meant to do one thing and one thing only, shatter, take apart and destroy.  I then watched the New York Times docu-narrative of a boy in Brazil, who flies kites.  He makes them, glue and paper, string, and stick.  He says:  “I think everyone should have wings just like the birds and since we don’t have wings, I fly kites.”  These children are the heart of the matter.

 

Someday these children might reflect on the innocence of these days, innocence so easily shattered.  What would we have to do to provide protection and space and nurturing presence and wholeness for the children of the world?

 

Of course, for some the answers are simple:  kill or be killed.  For others, the answers are some form of a savior which marks the centerpoint of their faith and belief; for others, it is the work of medical research, the development of medicines, for others it is a set of laws, clarity of right and wrong.  A leading researcher on AIDS, died in the plane shot down in route to an international conference.

 

These narratives of suffering, death, destruction leave little room for breathing space; little room for comfort.  We assume that to fly high in the sky will take us always from home to wherever it is we are going and then back home again.  We make plans; we expect to find and keep an even keel.  And then we don’t any longer.  We give up, retreat to the narrow confines of our belief, our settled upon answers, our guns, our intellectual reasoning, our prejudices, and forego the unpleasantness.  Because we do not have answers that seem to provide a way, we have become polarized, split in two, grasping for an ideology which at least offers some sort of solid ground, but it doesn’t, not really because it creates exclusion and inclusion; fear of anyone not like me.

 

Every generation seeks to find answers, to prepare to offer the world the gift of an end to violence.  The news cycle becomes addictive, the wordiness of editorials, blogs, columnists become predicable.  Analysis is unending, updates constant, and answers few and far between.

 

*Here is what I know:  dialogue helps, being in conversation with others is most important, and accountability to what we think and what we say vital; acquiring listening skills, necessary.  That is why a Doctor of Ministry is a good idea for those in ministry, both pastoral and specialized.  This degree gives room for the both/and of points of view; gives room to be changed, provides companions from all over the nation (and increasingly the world) so that we might have courage, we might continue to live in hope for here and for now; and through faculty and students together, creates a climate for learning.

 

Link to New York Times Kite Fight: http://www.hulu.com/watch/661868

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NEW DMIN FOCUSES BEGIN IN JANARY 2015

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Doctor of Ministry Program launches four new concentrations beginning in January 2015.  These are:

 

  • Missional Leadership
  • Urban Change
  • Reformed Focus with New College, School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Parish Focus:  Emerging Leadership at Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida

 

 

The purpose of these new concentrations to acknowledge and to partner with pastors and those in specialized ministry as we together begin to understand what it means to trust God as the Initiator and Guide of both vocation, call and change.

 

Applications are now being accepted for these four concentrations, with the deadline of October 31, 2014.

 

The goal is to meet you in the midst of the work; to pay attention beyond the rhetoric which clouds our thinking, leads to fear of change, and to at times doubt not only our vocational call, but the very purpose of ministry.  Clearly, the world yearns for spiritual connection, for community, and for a deep sense of an ongoing presence of God, experientially and intellectually.  Rather than see all that is wrong; I believe we are invited and even compelled to participate in sustained conversation with one another; and to trust that this faith will not disappoint.  It is after all a pure gift of grace we are given.

 

I am happy to talk with anyone about the new DMin focuses.

 

Susan Kendall, PhD

Director, DMin Program

412-924-1421

skendall@pts.ed

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URBAN CHANGE: PARTICIPATING IN THE FUTURE NOW

A new focus beginning in January 2015

Study in the present to live faithfully in the future is here:  in Pittsburgh, one of the up and coming cities, travel to London and to Pretoria to grasp the realities of urban life in the world, engage with colleagues and an amazingly gifted set of professors. ( See Urban study in Pretoria at http://web.up.ac.za/default.asp?ipkCategoryID=19967&language=0)   Craft a project, think critically, reflect theologically, be transformed.

Pittsburgh, Portland, Austin:  three cities mentioned as a trio, though it is admitted that Pittsburgh has yet to arrive fully with the top two cool cities of Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon.  I’ve been to both these cities in the last two months.  Portland, or PDX is my home town; Austin was a destination adventure, a gift over Mother’s Day.  Great Barbeque, probably the best I’ve ever had in my life; I stayed in Travis Heights, an old neighborhood, with some of the most beautiful, majestic oak trees I’ve ever seen.  Silent witnesses to generations:  I had the strange notion these trees are a living witness to past, present and future.  Pittsburgh, where I live and work, has changed so much in the past nine years, especially the East End, and Butler Street in Lawrenceville.     I wonder, then, how it is that I can parlay the city as a contextually inviting space and place for study at the seminary, that is, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where ancient oaks too flourish.  (See Pittsburgh’s plan to retain an urban forest at http://treepittsburgh.org/urban-forest-master-plan. )

By the end of this century, more than 75 percent of the world’s population will reside in urban areas.  The complexity of this prediction can seem overwhelming and challenging.   

 

The Doctor of Ministry Program is pleased to announce a new focus:  URBAN CHANGE.

Below is the purpose and a set of objectives.

Purpose: To assist church leaders in framing and pursuing spiritually and socially transformative ministry responses to rapidly changing and socially and spiritually complex urban circumstances.

Objectives:

(1)   To provide church leaders with interdisciplinary analytical tools, multi-sector expertise, and multicultural competencies for effectively engaging in contextual analysis of urban ministries and settings, including analysis of the social and religious frameworks and dynamics informing urban ministry approaches from one ministry to another and from one neighborhood and metropolitan context to another;

(2)   To engage scholarly literatures that provide theological and social-critical foundations helpful to church leaders in formulating integrated conceptions of Christian transformation—understood in individual spiritual terms and in terms of community formation as premised upon Christian ideals of hospitality, egalitarianism, justice, and love of neighbor; and

(3)   To contribute to a broad understanding of urban ministry that extends beyond church walls and church auspices and that recognizes the potentialities of God’s movement and purposefulness in every person and community-enhancing organization and initiative.

(4)    To engage in a research methodology appropriate to the context of ministry; to develop and implement a  project demonstrating leadership grounded in theological reflection, to evaluate outcomes  which  account for cultural, economic and social themes while offering a theologically and spiritually rich  integration from theory to practice.

 

In line in the hot, hot sun for Austin barbeque, I and my companions struck up a conversation with a woman, who flew in from LA just for the barbeque.  She knew CMU, she knew Pitt, but when I mentioned the seminary, she went silent.  Why? Easy answer, she would have no reason to know of us, her interest was science and medicine, and yet, I wonder:  In this most unusual time when religion remains dominant and influential, we must create a niche; a dialogue and discussion of religion and its purpose; of Christianity and its relationship to other religions.  It seems a natural to me.  We need space for dialogue, clearings under the trees for conversations and questions, without a rush to fill in every moment of silent angst or wonder.  We need spaces for honest reflection; we need trees in urban areas, we need relationships of depth and purpose around the globe.

 

This is not a time to hearken back to some idea of utopian idealism; to a frontier spirit of a time-space continuum in which communities and churches and educational enterprises were established to keep intact a way of life, a set of beliefs as if there had been some sort of arrival of all truth for all time and place.  Rather the call if you will for now is to be truly present to what is; to acknowledge that the most important task of this time is courage to create conversations.

 

 

 

This is your invitation to consider participating in the new DMin focus—a future which is NOW.

 

Susan Kendall, PhD, Director, Doctor of Ministry Program

 

 

 

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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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