Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why I (now) Believe Pastoral Care Is Vital: Douglas John Hall and Theology of the Cross

Over my nearly 10 years of Christian ministry and service within the life of several congregations, I have had a fair share of opportunities to engage in pastoral care. I have visited the sick and terminally ill in hospitals and home; I have sat with students whose parents divorced or recently informed them of their desire to do so; I have walked alongside parents whose students have "fallen away" from faith and made destructive decisions.

The calling to provide pastoral care has led me to sit and listen to students share their stories of abuse and neglect and their related desire to find healing and hope. I have also sat in living rooms and church chapels as students "come out" to their parents and these same parents contemplate what it means to have a gay son.

I have met with families who are living paycheck to paycheck. I have listened to stories of students who wonder if their parents will ever get another paycheck.

Pastoral care is hard. Pastoral care is raw. Pastoral care is real.

Pastoral care is vital.

I did not always feel this way.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Disturbing OT Judges, Ghoti Hook, and the Gospel

I am not sure what lead me to think now was the right season to cruise through the book of Judges, but that's what I began doing a few weeks ago. I try to ebb and flow between the Old and New Testament in my not-so-daily devotionals, convinced that it is irresponsible to read the New Testament without regular interactions with the Old.

This is not because I want to be able to claim victory every time I am head-to-head with a Bible thumper who claims he or she will crush me in a game of Bible trivia. Instead, I believe we must read the New Testament with the Old Testament as our running commentary.[1] We can only begin to know the depths of the gospel when we have some sort of interaction with the Jewish story Jesus embodied, fulfilled, and promised to be bringing to its new beginning.

So I like to read the Old Testament...a lot.

Also, you find some crazy stories in the Old Testament that would surely make for great Monty Python-esque sketches.

This is certainly true with Judges.

Take the "left-handed man," Ehud, for example. Ehud was sent as tribute, kind of like Katniss but not really, to the Moabite King Eglon. Scripture, not me, says that he was a "very fat man." King Eglon was so large that when Ehud thrust his sword into his belly, "the fat closed over the blade." Israel was then delivered from the hand of Moabite oppression and the "land had rest eighty years" (3:12-31).

Then there was Jael. At the time when Deborah was "judging Israel," she took a hammer and drove a tent peg into the temple of Sisera as he fled Barak's chariots, which were questing to liberate Israel from yet another foreign nation. I guess you can say Jael, Barak, and Deborah were "successful"...(Judges 4:1-23).

We also cannot forget Samson as judge. As a youth, this was one of my favorite stories, especially as told by ska-rockers, Ghoti Hook. Samson was the biblical equivalent to Hercules, whose strength lead him to slay lions and provide his family honey from the carcass, "but he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the carcass" (14:9). Details. Samson also captures 300 foxes, sets their tails ablaze, and sends them to destroy the vineyards and olive groves of the Philistines. He even slaughters one-thousand men with the jawbone of an ass.

However, we must not forget the classic tale of Samson and Delilah. Scripture tells us that Samson's strength was found in his lovely locks, uncut as a covenant made between God and Samson's mother when her womb was opened and she conceived her son. Yet, when tempted and deceived by a Philistine woman named Delilah, she cuts his hair, and his strength flees. The Philistines then gouged out his eyes, forced Samson to labor at the mill, and provide them with plithy entertainment. Yet Samson's hair regrew and he regained strength. The nazirite then stood between two pillars of the Philistine temple, cried out to the LORD, "leaned his weight" into the pillars, and brought the whole house down. The life of this judge ended along with the many gathered in the pagan temple (Judges 13-17). This was claimed as salvation and deliverance for the people of God?

There are plenty more. And this is just the book of Judges.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Our Father in Heaven? Father's Day Musings on an Ancient and Sometimes Difficult Metaphor

I am grateful for my dad. My father did everything he could to provide his kids with the best childhood possible. But for me, the best memories I have with my dad revolve around a shared interest: baseball.

Baseball was more than a hobby in our family, it was the air we breathed. We spent hours at the local fields hitting buckets of balls and working on my footwork as a catcher behind the dish. My dad coached and our family traveled near and far as I played for a variety local and travel teams.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards was also our home away from home. The stadium was more than where we watched the Orioles win and lose many o' games. The Yard was where we shared life. The diamond became a sanctuary for conversations and life lessons. I always knew my dad was someone I could go to. I could trust him. He would listen. Baseball was simply a platform for these sorts of interactions.

These are all reasons why my dad was also my best man in my wedding.

While we have our share of differences, we remain close to this day. We are both in ministry and do the best we can to love God and love neighbor as we follow Jesus in Catonsville, MD and West Chester, PA.

I did not fully appreciate the relationship I had with my dad until I became a father of boy and girl twins nearly 14 months ago. April 21, 2011, will forever be the greatest night of my life. My kids have already taught me more about joy, hope, love, laughter, prayer, and trust than I ever learned in all the years that lead up to their arrival. My hope and prayer is that I will be able to be at least as good of a father to my children as my own father was to my siblings and me.

But for some, the hope is to be a better father than the one they had, or the one who left, or the one whom they never met. Many have strained relationships with their fathers, were neglected by their fathers, or were tragically abused by their fathers. Many fathers have perpetuated cycles of violence and dysfunction, leaving children to hope that just maybe they could be the ones to break the cycle.

Some have longed to become fathers and still wonder if that day will ever come; maybe that day never has come.

The term "father" does not always conjure up positive memories from childhood and adolescence. The word "father" can actually serve as a reminder of the very opposite, digging up all sorts of difficult and painful experiences past and present.

Yet, throughout Scripture and the history of Christian theology, God is confessed as Father.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Is It Local? Portlandia and Gospel (re)Discovery


There is a phrase that is thrown around a lot in our congregation, "buy fresh. buy local." This slogan is intended to encourage citizens of West Chester to support local businesses and prepare meals with fresh produce. The food industry is breeding grounds for social injustice, human oppression, and creation exploitation. So "buy fresh. buy local." has been endorsed by our faith community in efforts to speak to God's concern for the whole creation, not only humanity. This campaign invites us to develop a social conscience and raise questions about where and how our food is grown, harvested, and sold.

That said, if you hang around Westminster long enough, you will hear many in our community ask similar questions to the ones asked by the hipster in the Portlandia vignette, "is it local?"

Yet Amber and I, more often than not, buy in bulk. Our food comes from all over the country and all over the world. It is certainly not fresh. It is easier, cheaper, and faster to buy packaged and preserved products. Still, I am convinced that many of the migraines I have experienced of late are not only the byproduct of stress, but also the result of a steady diet of preservatives and MSG.

This got me thinking, is our gospel local? Is the Jesus we proclaim and the Messiah we invite others to follow pertinent to the local concerns and questions of our immediate context or is our message packaged in some mysterious ecclesial farm and coated with theological preservatives and MSG?

Does it give you and your neighbors a migraine?

Doing local theology is hard. [1] It demands that we enter into community with our neighbors whom we may see while mowing our lawn or purchasing local produce. Local theology requires disciples to ask questions like, what is the good news either longed for in my community or already alive and well in my neighborhood? How does the good news of Jesus speak to both?

Local theology assumes that the faithful will serve alongside the poor and afflicted not only in the sexy parts of the developing world or major cities, but also and especially in the borough just down the road. God's call of discipleship demands that we not only advocate for the oppressed in Sudan, but also the bullied at Stetson or Pierce Middle School; we not only lobby for the hungry and homeless on the Avenue of the Arts in Philly, but also on High Street in West Chester.

Local theology asks the same question Jesus posed to Peter, "who do the people say that I am?" (Mark 8:27). Then local theology responds to this same Jesus' invitation to incarnate fresh expressions of the gospel among those very people.

I have been in youth ministry for a good while. Yet it was not until last summer when I realized that our youth ministry was not "local." While we had great relationships in Philly and beautiful partnerships in Honduras, we did not know much about "Colin" and his friends in West Chester. We certainly did not have any significant partnerships in our immediate context whereby we could ask questions of faith or build community of hope among our neighbors in the borough.

So we initiated SoMEthing. That is, we dreamed about a Summer of Missional Engagement (SoME) that would concentrate on related hopes and dreams in the borough of West Chester. We grabbed a list of the ministries our church has supported financially for years and began to consider how we could follow dollars and cents with people and presence. The primary stipulation, it must be local.

We have begun significant conversations with a few service organizations and faith-based programs that have excited us with possibilities to enter our community and be God's people alongside God's people there. We are not sure what this will look like in three weeks let alone a year from now. What we do know is that the Imago Dei Youth Ministry is going local this summer.

Through SoME, we expect God to open our eyes and ears to new possibilities. We encourage real questions and relevant extensions of the gospel among our neighbors whom we are sure to run into as we jog throughout the borough or when we purchase our local (or not so local) produce at the grocery store. In the end, or the beginning, God will go with us as we refrain from a ministry diet of packaged programs and reconsider what it looks like to do local youth ministry.

I am eager for the questions that will follow. I look forward to dreaming together with new and old friends as we look to embody God's kingdom throughout the borough of West Chester.

Actually, I am mostly excited to see how God's kingdom is already alive and well in these places, maybe we are just late to the party...or just in time...

The kingdom of God is universal, yes.

But it's also local.


[1] A great read is Doing Local Theology by Clemens Sedmak (Orbis 2002).

**Also, a related podcast from Homebrewed Christianity: Global Leadership and Local Christianity