Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Christian Mutt

I really like cats a lot better than dogs, but the closest description to "mutt" that you get with cats is something like "domestic shorthair" which really doesn't quite give you the picture of something that is such a combination of backgrounds that you really can't say what it is.

That is what my Christian heritage is like.

I started out with just two denominations:  Catholic on my father's side and United Church of Christ on my mother's side.  I was baptized in both denominations, on the very same day.  I had my first communion and confirmation in the Catholic church.  After that, I pretty much stopped going for a while.

I spent one semester of my sophomore year of college at a Catholic college, where I experienced God in a very unique way (I'll write about that some other time) that I had never experienced before and have not experienced since.

After that semester, I lived in Utah for a few months and had some LDS friends.  I didn't learn a ton about the LDS faith--I wasn't interested in jumping into any faith/religion yet but I did appreciate the friends who taught me some things, and I appreciated the thoughtfulness in the gift of a Book of Mormon, embossed with my name, that I received from a friend as a going-away gift when I moved to New Mexico.

In New Mexico, I attended a Presbyterian (PCUSA) church (this is the one I would consider my "home church") as well as a Southern Baptist church for a time (the SBC church didn't actually call itself Baptist; they liked to have a non-denominational feel, but they were still affiliated with the SBC).

The seminary at which I took a few classes has a Wesleyan/Methodist heritage, but is not officially connected to the UMC.

In Indiana, I attended a United Methodist Church and in the first town in which I lived in Iowa I again attended a United Methodist Church but then switched to a Baptist church, though this one was of the Minnesota Iowa Baptist Conference, not Southern Baptist.  At this time, the college in which my husband and I both worked was initially connected to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I now live in Western Iowa, and will end up attending a church that is of the Christian Reformed Church denomination.

In addition to these, I also made some Jewish friends and learned a lot about Judaism from them.

So you see why I used the term mutt.  After typing all that out, I even lost count of how many denominations have somehow come into my life up to this point.

I am actually very glad to have such a varied background; I think it has helped me to be able to see and understand from another's perspective and realize that I don't necessarily have all the right answers.

I am sure that they have all, in ways in which I may not even be aware, shaped me into who I am today.  It also makes me sad to see so much division and fighting between Christians of varying denominations.  At the very least, they all believe in Jesus, and isn't that the most important thing?  

There are things that I have learned from my experiences in each of these, although whether or not they constitute "official" denominational teaching is debatable, and I'll explore what I learned in future posts.  How about you?  Have you always been in one denomination?   Or did you "stray" to another?  What was the experience (or experiences) like?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why I Quit Seminary

I don't like quitting.  Generally, I believe that once something is started, it needs to be finished.  Of course, when it comes to various projects or cleaning around the house that are incomplete and spread out all over the place, I haven't actually quit doing them; I'm just "taking a break" or "saving them for later" so that I don't have to put them away.

I began seminary in the Fall of 2003, with some trepidation.  I knew that God was calling me to do this but I didn't know where it would lead as I really wasn't comfortable with the idea of being a pastor or giving sermons (I had a big fear of public speaking).  All I knew was that I had an insatiable hunger and thirst for studying the Bible and the only place to learn more was seminary.

I took classes via the seminary's online program and only enrolled part-time as I had a full-time job as a legal assistant and a part-time job as my church's "Young Adult Coordinator".  It was an adjustment to go back to being a student.  Even though I'd only been out of college for two and a half years, it was difficult to get back into the routine of studying all the time.  Despite that, I enjoyed my classes and enjoyed learning new things.

And I really enjoyed letting people know that I was a seminary student.  I wanted people to know that yes, I was in seminary, and, yes, I was considering becoming a pastor.

In the spring of 2005, I made my third cross-country move, from New Mexico to Indiana (the first two were Connecticut to Utah and then Utah to New Mexico).  With the stress of moving I chose not to take any classes that semester but was then anxious to begin again in the fall.  I took classes in the fall and then registered for Christian Doctrine and Hebrew in the spring.  I was actually excited for Hebrew; I had a few Orthodox Jewish friends who I knew I could count on to help me in learning it and I desperately wanted to be able to read the Hebrew Scriptures (I tend not to use the term "Old Testament" because to me it makes it sound outdated and irrelevant) in Hebrew.

The class was extremely difficult for me (as was Greek when I'd attempted to take it a prior semester).  As big of a proponent of online education that I am, I don't know that languages are meant to be learned that way, even with audio files available.  Or it could just be my own limitations).  I would cry when I would come home from work and have to study Hebrew because I just wasn't getting it.

I also felt that I was so immersed in studying that I wasn't being very effective in life.  I was not enjoying activities I previously had enjoyed such as the Bible studies I led or the ballet class I took because all I could really think about was how much studying I had to do.  I wondered why I was pursuing something that only benefited me personally in an intellectual way.  I thought about how if I had to give up any of the other things in my life, it would feel as if I was giving up on relationships and giving up on helping people grow in their faith.  And isn't that what ministry is for?  Shouldn't that be more important?  I couldn't see putting off "real" ministry until I had a degree and/or ordination.  Real ministry is something that should happen every day, not something that should wait for later.

I made my decision and this is the note I sent to my seminary as well as to the session of my church when I decided to quit:
I have decided to withdraw from seminary.  This is a decision that I have given a lot of thought, prayer, and tears to.  I have loved being in seminary.  I have loved the new ideas and new ways of thinking to which I have been exposed.  I have loved the challenges it has brought me.  But I now think it is time to step away from it.  I am doing too many things in my life and I am very drained.  I have often taken on way too many things and I think I am finally learning a lesson to not do that anymore.  I think that by leaving seminary I will be able to better serve in other areas of my life.  I will be able to do a few things well rather than a lot of things half-heartedly.  I am doing this knowing that I can always return to school someday in the future, but for now, it's not the season in my life to continue.  As I have made this decision, I have felt a lot of sadness, but also a sense of relief and the feeling that a huge weight is being lifted from me.  Peace and joy has been missing from my life lately, and I can feel it beginning to return.  I am excited about continuing to read and study on my own without the deadlines for assignments, papers, and quizzes.  I feel a sense of freedom that I do not have to spend so much time studying; that I can be free to spend time with people.  I still feel my vocation is in ministry; it just may be that it is not in "professional" ministry.  
One thing that continued to puzzle me even after I quit was "why had God called me to seminary just to call me to quit it as well?"

I think there were a couple of different reasons.  One, at the time I began seminary I was struggling with some issues of faith and doubt.  One class in particular was immensely useful in helping me work out some of those issues.  Two, a few years later I somehow came to the conclusion (I really wish I could remember the events surrounding my conclusion) that had I continued in seminary, I very likely would have continued in pride as well.  Liking the fact that I knew things that other people didn't and that I was learning things that other people weren't is not really a good thing to combine with ministry.

Someday, maybe I will finish a seminary degree (though I doubt it will be an MDiv).  This time, though, I hope I'll have more clarity going into it as to what I want to do with it and more humility while learning.

Monday, February 27, 2012

But My Pastor Said So!

I currently only read a handful of blogs (I am sure this will increase as time goes on), and they seem to start as my jumping-off point.  Yesterday, Rachel Held Evans posted her usual "Sunday Superlatives"  One of these links was deemed "Most Pastoral" and it was a post by Tim Keller called Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople

The website this came from, called "The BioLogos Forum: Science and Faith in Dialogue" is one with which I am not familiar, having only been introduced to it through this one post.  I love the idea of the dialogue between science and faith though, because I have found that too many of us Christians separate the two and act as if they are irreconcilable.  Once, in an email to members of a group to which I belonged, I stated that God and Science were not enemies, but that God created science.  The next time I  met with this group, within just a few days, I felt a somewhat chilly reception that I assume was related to that statement.

In Keller's article, I particularly liked this paragraph:
However, many Christian laypeople remain confused because the voices arguing that Biblical orthodoxy and evolution are mutually exclusive are louder and more prominent than any others. What will it take to help Christian laypeople see greater coherence between what science tells us about creation and what the Bible teaches us about it?
I look forward to reading the rest of the series, but my one hesitation comes from the last paragraph, which Rachel excerpted:
“In short, if I as a pastor want to help both believers and inquirers to relate science and faith coherently, I must read the works of scientists, exegetes, philosophers, and theologians and then interpret them for my people. Someone might counter that this is too great a burden to put on pastors, that instead they should simply refer their laypeople to the works of scholars. But if pastors are not ‘up to the job’ of distilling and understanding the writings of scholars in various disciplines, how will our laypeople do it? This is one of the things that parishioners want from their pastors. We are to be a bridge between the world of scholarship and the world of the street and the pew. I’m aware of what a burden this is. I don’t know that there has ever been a culture in which the job of the pastor has been more challenging. Nevertheless, I believe this is our calling.” 
While I agree without hesitation that pastors should be interested in and engaged in a variety of topics that affect their parishioners in multiple ways, I am hesitant to give the job as "interpreter" of these things to the pastor alone.  Each person in a congregation should be equipped and encouraged to study and explore the topics for themselves, whether it is the Bible, science, mathematics, history, art, etc.  This is especially true if there are laypeople in the congregation who are highly educated in these fields.

While laypeople may be less educated in the Bible or how to run a church or pastoral care/counseling than the pastor, that is not true in all respects.  A layperson is simply an unordained person, not an uneducated one.  And, each denomination will have its own rules and regulations as to the requirements for ordination.  As a woman, I would be able to be ordained in some denominations, but not others.  Therefore, I could be "clergy" in one and a "layperson" in another.

My hesitation in this mainly comes from my own limited experience.  I once attended a church in which the pastor, though possessing a Master's of Divinity degree, did not seem to hold education in much esteem.  This pastor was the type of person to say "we seen" or "ain't" and on multiple occasions, the sermon preparation consisted of finding a sermon online and hitting print or reading chapters from a book to constitute a "series".  It made me quite wary of trusting what a pastor has to say about the Bible, the topic in which a pastor is primarily educated, so how could I trust what a pastor says about those things in which he or she is not formally educated?

I agree wholeheartedly with the author that the job of pastor is one that is extremely challenging and I do not envy the pastors who are expected to be everything to their congregations and to be expected to have all of the answers to the questions the congregants ask.  I only hope that we can understand that a pastor, though a leader, is not one to have all the answers about everything.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Find Your Voice

When I was in college, I thought I was going to be a high school English teacher.  After all, for someone who loved to read and write, what better major was there than English Literature?  And what else would I do with an English Literature degree?  Then I took a class on "Modern British Literature" and realized that I was tired and bored with literature and I could never, ever teach it to someone else if I wasn't enjoying it myself.  I am glad that saved me from taking education classes, though, because they probably would have been a big waste of time.  I stuck with the major though, because there was no way that I was going to start over with something else, and even if I had, I had no idea what I would pursue.  I ended up enjoying the classes in my minor, Religious Studies, much more than most of my literature classes, although there were some literature classes that were Bible-related, and those I loved.

I believe I had to meet with an adviser once during college to make sure that I was taking the classes I needed to take for my degree, and I found it to be somewhat of a waste of time because I had a spreadsheet that I'd created in order to track my progress; I knew what I needed to do.  I only have a distant memory of waiting to see the adviser, and no memory of the meeting itself.

At no time during my college career did anyone ever talk to me about discovering my vocation.  When people would ask me what I wanted to do, it was as if I was already expected to know, because, really, what 18-22 doesn't know what she wants to do for the rest of her life, right?

During my time in college and after, I had jobs that I did well, and even liked, but they were not jobs that I loved.  I was not passionate about them but I didn't know what I should be doing instead.  I got a little closer to figuring it out when I began seminary, but I was very unsure about actually becoming a pastor--but that seemed to be the "right" thing to do.

Fast forward a few years, two moves and two children later, I still don't have a Master's degree (giving it up will be a story for another time), I have had part-time jobs (one as "Operations Coordinator" for a non-profit organization and the other as "Campus Ministry Coordinator", and I have now moved a third time (as in I just moved about three weeks ago).

In my last sermon at Waldorf College in January, I spoke about vocation (Waldorf has a huge emphasis on vocation, which is an excellent thing) and said that I was heading into the unknown to find out what God's next calling for me would be.

I knew that when I moved I wanted to really start looking into the concept of vocation and learning more about it as well as discovering what my next vocation would be.  I have a stack of books in my "to-read" pile (and many more that are not in the immediate pile) that are about vocation, the Bible, and writing.

While I haven't figured it out yet, I have had little messages, you could say, that are serving to keep me somewhat focused.  It's as if God is saying "ok, you're mainly settled in, now get to work on this vocational discernment".  The messages so far have been:

  • A book called Deepening the Colors by Sydney Hielema that is required reading at the college where my husband now works.  When I picked it up to read it, I had no idea that the topic was vocation.
  • A tweet and blog post by Rachel Held Evans about a man who was a mega-church pastor who had to give it up is is searching for his new purpose in life.
  • A tweet and blog post tonight by my friend Andy of a video of a song called "Make a Noise" by Katie Herzig. 

There were a few lyrics in this song that stood out to me:
"Believe that you can change the world. Your dreams have been living in a code of silence.So let them out."
"Find your voice, find your voice.  Make a noise."
As I listened and watched, not only did I start to feel tears forming (and my interest in fashion made me wonder how I could replicate the singer's outfit), but I had a sense that there is something within reach, yet it is foggy, like waking from a dream and only being able to grasp a fleeting memory of it.

I hope as these next few weeks or months pass by, that the call will become clearer, the dream will become reality, and I will have the courage to discover my dreams and find my voice.

I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God's mystery, that is, Christ himself,in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. --Colossians 2:2-3   

Friday, February 24, 2012

Immersion in the Identity of God

This morning I read a post in which a pastor was questioning infant baptism and youth confirmation.  As this is something I've contemplated off and on, I thought it would be my topic for today.  This is not to make light of the sacrament of baptism as practiced by churches.  I love seeing people baptized, but, I have wondered if we have made it into a basic formula and/or rite of passage and not looked much further than that.

Let's look at Matthew 28:19-20
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  (NRSV)
At every baptism I have witnessed, the person doing the baptizing has said "I now baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (question:  while there are many names throughout the Bible for the Father, and the name of the Son is Jesus, what is the name of the Holy Spirit?).

But what if we took it further?  Instead of just thinking of baptism as water, and instead of thinking of the names as a formula for baptism, what if we thought of it as immersion in the identity of God?  What would it be like to be immersed in the name?

When I think of immersion, language immersion comes to mind.  People who really want to learn a new language may not just take a class in a language, but use it in all areas of life, even living in an area where it is the primary language.  They are immersed in this language.  It completely surrounds every part of their lives; there is no escaping it.

When I look through the Hebrew Scriptures, I see that the name of the LORD is a very big deal.  It is such a big deal, that it is the subject one of the first commandments told to the Israelites after God delivers them from Egypt.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. --Exodus 20:7, NRSV
This command is why YHWH, yod-hey-vav-hey, the tetragrammaton, is not used in Judaism.  It is why often some Jews will write HaShem (the name) or write G-d when referring to YHWH. It is sacred.

What's in a name, anyway?  Throughout the Bible, there are many, many references to the "name of the Lord".  It is something that is forever, great, wonderful, used to bless people, magnified, has a house created for it, majestic, praises sung to it, exalted, brings salvation, a place for refuge, worth dying for, something to be washed, sanctified, justified in...  and the list goes on and on.  This is just a small sampling of references (I've included the sampling of verses I used, but feel free to skip over them if you want to).
  • God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The LORD,the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations. --Exodus 3:15   
  • For I will proclaim the name of the LORD; ascribe greatness to our God!--Deuteronomy 32:3  
  • But the angel of the LORD said to him, "Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful." --Judges 13:18
  • But David said to the Philistine, "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. --1 Samuel 17:45
  • When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD of hosts, --2 Samuel 6:18  
  • Thus your name will be magnified forever in the saying, 'The LORD of hosts is God over Israel'; and the house of your servant David will be established before you. --2 Samuel 7:26  
  • Now the LORD has upheld the promise that he made; for I have risen in the place of my father David; I sit on the throne of Israel, as the LORD promised, and have built the house for the name of the LORD, the God of Israel. --1 Kings 8:20   
  • I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High. --Psalm 7:17
  • O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!--Psalm 8:1  
  • Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. --Psalm 148:13
  • Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; --Joel 2:32
  • For I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the LORD --Zephaniah 3:12
  • Then Paul answered, "What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus."  --Acts 21:1
  • But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. --1 Corinthians 6:1
  • Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. --Philippians 2:9-11

The name is not just some stand-alone word.  It is wrapped up and maybe even indistinguishable from God himself; it is his identity.

And so, what would it mean to be immersed in the identity of God?  What would it mean to live our lives always thinking about God and completely surrounded by him?  How would that go along with the first part of Jesus' instruction to make disciples?  What if we thought of that instruction as
"make disciples of all nations, immersing them in the identity YHWH, in the identity of Jesus, in the identity of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you"
What would it look like for Christianity to deliberately be thought of and taught as a lifelong immersion class?    Would it make a difference in how churches reach out to non-Christians?  Would it make a difference in how we make daily decisions in our own lives?

I think it would.

Can you imagine being immersed in the identity of God?  I think maybe it's something like this:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. --1 John 4:16
I think we are well-meaning when we talk about "making time for God" in our lives, but I don't think we should have to make time for God.  God shouldn't be something that we schedule in our calendar for 15 minutes each day or something that is on a checklist of things to do.  This God that loves us and reaches out to us throughout every second of our day deserves more than that.

So let's stop making God part of our day, and abide in Him all day.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Contemplating Ash Wednesday

I guess since it is Ash Wednesday, I should give some thought to it.  It's one of those days that I forget about until it arrives and then I scramble to think about whether or not I am going to give up something for Lent.

In 2006, though, I apparently gave Ash Wednesday a lot of thought and wrote three blog posts on the subject:

Ash Wednesday Part I
Ash Wednesday Part II
Ash Wednesday Part III

What is Ash Wednesday to you?

What Am I Going to Write About Today?

As I realized that today was Wednesday and I had promised myself to start a new habit of blogging on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I wondered what on earth I was going to write about today.  I wondered if I should even bother, because I don't have a flashy, well-put-together blog, I don't participate in a lot of other blogs in order to up my readership, I don't have a domain name that make me easy to find.  So what am I writing for?

I had remembered something that my friend Amy wrote on her blog recently that I knew would be encouraging to me and when I went to look for it, I found this instead, which was actually much more encouraging to me than what I thought I was looking for:

I try to be intentional with what I post on the blog because I never know who is going to read it. I do believe in providence. I do believe that I could be writing a blog post for just 1 person to read. And I’m OK with that. We all need encouragement. If in some small way a blog post is an answer to prayer for insight, then it’s served it’s purpose.  From "The Makings of a Blog Post" on Grace for Jean.

And then when I finished reading that, I saw that someone had commented on a previous post of mine here. In my homily/message/sermonette/devotional/whatever-you-want-to-call-it from   the beginning of October, I had spoken about fear.  This part of Robert's comment made me smile and I felt encouraged that I had helped even just one person, as Amy had written about.  He said: "This post touched me so strongly kelly!!! ... A light turned on for me."

I have often thought there are no coincidences in this world, and in the last few months have seen glimpses of God working in things that perhaps we don't normally attribute to Him, and this is no exception.

So what will I write about today?  Well, this.  There are a lot of people and websites out there who will give advice on how to have a successful blog (and I am sure I will be reading them and taking some of the suggestions to heart), but if success is defined only in numbers, and if it leads to blogging pressure, then I don't think I want it.  I am happy to know that it is successful if even one person benefits from it, somehow.

So thank you, Amy and Robert, for your encouragement to me today.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Woman of Valor

One of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, has a series of posts about "Women of Valor", based on the Proverbs 31 woman, and also posts about how she spent time trying to be this woman in her "Year of Biblical Womanhood" project.

As I was reading a book last night called Deepening the Colors: Life Inside the Story of God, I came across a reference to this Proverbs 31 woman.  The author, Sydney J. Hielema, writes:

Our experiences concerning what it means to be male or female also affect the shaping of our dreams.  Every culture on earth conveys particular assumptions concerning what it means to be a man or a woman and what sorts of dreams are acceptable for each gender.  For example, North American culture cultivates dreams of the "career woman," and, in reaction to that, various Christian subcultures have encouraged dreams of the "stay-at-home mom."  The Bible does neither.  When it dreams about the "wife of noble character," it describes her as someone who "considers a field and buys it, out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.  She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.  She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night...She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy" (Proverbs 31:16-18, 200).  In other words, such a woman is very active in all parts of society (pages 112-113, emphasis mine).
 As  I start exploring the next call that God has on my life, this is encouraging to me.  Too often I have felt the tug-of-war between working mom and stay-at-home mom, and in the past have been able to find a balance between them by working part-time. 

This chapter with a section on having dreams has also encouraged me to be deliberate and intentional about blogging.  I had thought that I would try to take it up again on a regular basis once I moved, and I am now going to set a starting goal of blogging three times per week, probably Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  If it is more frequently, great, but I hope to keep it three times at a minimum. 

There are many things in this book that spoke to me, and perhaps sharing them will be some of the content for my blog.