by Sue Mock
My journey with the Death Row pen pal project began with a seminar led by Rachel Gross at our church about four years ago. Prison ministry was something that was drawing my heart, but I wasn’t sure how to get involved until Rachel opened the door. There were so many disturbing facts that she shared that I knew this would be a part of my life in a very meaningful way. I first shared with her that I would be interested in having a pen pal that might have difficulty with writing, as I was a learning disability teacher and understood students who have some challenges communicating. Alden Harden was who I was matched with, and he has been an extremely articulate man with a beautiful way of expressing himself especially through poetry.
Our letters went back and forth from North Carolina to Indiana at least once a month. We began with getting to know each other through our daily routines, likes, and dislikes. It is surprising how many common things can be found even with such different surroundings. The common threads throughout our written conversations were respect, genuine interest in each other’s lives, mutual concern, and a deep belief in God. We have shared about our childhood, siblings, parents, youth groups, joys, daily routines, jokes, sermons, disappointments, frustrations, and more.
My husband enjoys photography as a hobby. This has opened up a window for Al that has turned into a blessing for both men. Max searches his pictures, finds several that go together, and writes a little about them with each letter I send. Al has a chance to see, through Max’s camera lens, a whole different world than the confines of the North Carolina prison walls that surround him.
About a year ago Al started sending poems that he had written. I love poetry, and his poems were beautifully written from his heart. I thought he might enjoy seeing them in print, so I typed them and sent them back in my letters. More and more came. Some were very soulful and filled with life-lessons learned, and others were light and whimsical. But all were a beautiful expression of a delightful, loving, caring, dear man sharing himself though poetry. An idea sprang up that we could put these together in a book. Al was so excited about that idea that I began the work of creating a poetry book, using my husband’s photographs of our church worship centers as the illustrations for each piece. Another friend, who had created many books of vacation destinations, shared her work with me, which greatly increased my enthusiasm.
Several hours of editing and rearranging produced a lovely book of Al’s poems with Max’s photos illustrating each one. I purchased two copies. One was sent to Alden Harding at Central Prison in North Carolina, and one went to me in Indiana. Both of us were thrilled with the results. As soon as Al received his book, he asked how he could get more copies, as several folks were interested. For his Christmas gift this year, I sent six copies to his loved ones. It was such a rewarding way to honor this man who had written such amazing work and to provide a way for him to share himself with his family.
A couple months have passed, and more copies are wanted for more folks. I am not sure what shape this project will take, but I do know that I am so grateful to be part of this journey with Al. God can join together two unlikely people with such different backgrounds and create a beautiful friendship and an amazing book of poems.
Where is God in all of this? God is in the stirrings of a heart wanting to serve and connect in an upside-down way. God is giving courage and opening spaces for individuals to share faith stories and personal insights. God is providing respect and honor to the worthiness of each of us and giving opportunities to share with others. This project is connecting the dots of God’s love in action. It is a story about changing lives, attitudes, and hearts into the essence of New Beginnings and touching the fabric of the Easter message.
I would like to close with one of Al’s poems.
Thanks for making my heart smile.
It’s a real pleasure
It’s no way to really measure.
Things you put in print makes me grin.
You’ve become quite the friend.
No, I don’t have many,
Yet your rigorousness has proven plenty.
I love our in-depth talks.
They’re cozy like moonlit walks.
The way we share so many things,
Hurts, pains, future dreams,
Thoughts of you can engulf me for hours.
Capture my mind in translucent powers.
The way you virtually hold my hand.
In this crazy and barren land.
When I lay awake in the bleak of night.
Alone with my thoughts and all wound up tight.
It’s rereading your thoughts
That seems to make all things right.
by Alden Harden
Sue Mock is a member of North Manchester Church of the Brethren (South/Central Indiana District) and an elementary special education teacher in Warsaw, Indiana.
After Sue wrote this article, she received the following words in a letter from Al: “Yes, [the copy of the poetry book Sue sent him for his birthday] actually got here on the 19th, so it made for a lovely gift. Funny, most times, the legal mail person comes around to the pod cell for or rather with our packages such as this. They actually called me to the sergeant’s office to sign for it. Then the sergeant asked to check it out. The lieutenant then got whiff of it and asked to check it out. Said that he thought it was really good and asked if I had another one in the makings. Another sergeant on this rotation actually has hold of it now. I can hardly believe folk think it’s truly good.”
This sonnet by Travis Poling was composed to bear witness to the bombing of an open-air market in Iraq in 2007
Al-Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad, March 2007
By Travis Poling
By chance the sky was calm that morning.
Locals milled through the open street, browsed books,
turned pages, visioned worlds beyond this war:
a yam farmer resisting the new church priest,
a boy with a seed finding one word: unless,
a cricket practicing her song every night.
The sun glared through the stalls off the pages,
but the people kept reading.
They didn’t hear the car engine gunning
behind them till the shriek of brakes grinded
in a singular block-busting blast.
These paper worlds, incinerated, leaped
for the freedom of the sky—
as thirty dreaming bodies struck the earth.
Travis Poling is a minister and artist who writes poetry, teaches college English, and curates worship at Richmond Church of the Brethren in Indiana. He blogs at The Poet-Liturgist
By Katie Cummings
Katie shared these reflections with the staff of the Church of the Brethren and Brethren Benefit Trust on April 4, 2014 at the weekly chapel.
In January, when I was looking ahead at my upcoming calendar, March was a month for which I was both anxious and excited. March has an odd way of filling itself up in the blink of an eye. Anyone serving the church can list off thing after overwhelming thing that made March, both stressful and sometimes enjoyable. For me, it was some travel, some hospitality, lots of meetings, and weekends away. Now with that month behind me, I hope to slip out of the madness that has gripped me for several weeks. This isn’t the only year that March has been maddening. Last year, I was in the office for five days in March– workcamp travel added up fast! Maybe you’ve experienced busy travel seasons, swallowed up weekends, or long days with meetings recently, too?
In the midst of my March Madness, I traveled to Roundtable at Bridgewater College. It’s the Regional Youth Conference for the Atlantic Southeast Region of the Church of the Brethren. I have been attending this event for a DECADE. WEIRD! That’s what happens when you attend the conference in high school, become a part of the planning team in college, and then provide leadership after your graduate! While on the coordinating team in college, the weeks leading up to the conference were nothing short of prolonged chaos. They were full of final details, meetings that started at midnight, and little sleep. Even in the midst of the enduring craziness, it was my favorite weekend every March. Fellowship, worship, games, variety shows, joy, people, #brethrenthings– I love all of it. Despite all the swirling madness before, after, and during Roundtable, there is a sacred stillness that comes every Sunday morning of Roundtable with the anointing service. It’s a sacred space and I’ve cried on more than one occasion receiving the blessing. (No surprise there!) Every spring for the past decade, I’ve come to anticipate and cherish this anointed blessing for my journey. My heart becomes warm as the slick oil touches my forehead– marking me, reminding me to whom I belong, that I am enough, that I am blessed. March is mad and this reminder is needed. March is a month that is sometimes spring, sometimes winter. Teasing our sandals out of the closet for a day, before switching back to snow boots with a surprise storm the next day. The inconsistency of the weather is maddening. Our bodies have been bundled up for months enduring the harshness of winter temperatures and dangerous snow or ice. Weather whiplash smacks me so strongly my body doesn’t know what to think. I’ve even walked out of the house in sandals as it starts to snow. March is mad. In the dubious climate of March, where my body doesn’t know what the weather is doing and my head is exhausted from the season of planning, travel, and little sleep – my heart starts feeling “some type of way.” O, March, you bittersweet month of change. This Roundtable the speaker, Eric Landram, talked about Seasonal Affective Disorder, which I would say after living in Chi-beria for a full, long, awful season, has definitely chipped away at my positive demeanor this winter. He talked about “winter blues”, “summertime sadness”, and he mentioned one less common seasonal ailment “spring sadness”. I thought “spring sadness” was a little ridiculous at first. The world is coming alive – baby animals, flower buds, and all that! What is there to fear about spring?! Yet, I thought about it. Spring is another season of change, like fall, but instead of the world falling asleep, it is waking back up again. There’s bound to be some discontent as the world transforms. Spring is a season of goodbyes – graduations, preparing for upcoming seasons– summer conferences or vacations, board meetings, travel for retreats or conferences, or the slow trudge of day-to-day, while the weather spins madly around you… doing whatever it chooses to do. For me, it’s been a season of unknowns from year to year…what will my life be like after I graduate, after I move away, after relationships end, after BVS and NYC. It is a time of discernment and questioning.
Lent’s another difficult thing in spring. It’s a hard season. The season of Lent retraces Jesus forty days in the wilderness, Jesus fasted for that time and some Christians choose to fast, as well. Some people scoff at this practice and laugh at people who give up soda, but the past several years I’ve found it an intentional space to grow in my walk with God. Granted I have done some weird things like give up abbreviated words in college (which was totes hard) and wore a prayer covering one Lent. But this year I’m journaling every day. I have found that the intentional things I add or take away to my daily routine during this Lenten wilderness walk, slowly and surely point me on a closer journey with God that I had been missing. This routine that forms over forty days helps me when the ground changes beneath my feet during the maddening spring. March is mad.
We’re about done with our wandering in the wilderness, according to the liturgical calendar, and I have to ask, “How’s everyone doing?”
It says in Matthew 27, when Jesus died, “at that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” I wonder about Jesus’ disciples, about Judas who betrayed him, about Peter who denied him, about Mary of Bethany who anointed his feet, about Mary who birthed him – what kind of wilderness were they walking in now? What were they thinking as the ground shook beneath their feet? Their leader, their Messiah, their friend, their child was taken from them and the whole world was in upheaval. They might have started to grapple with questions like – “What will life be like after this?” … “What will happen to me?” … “Will life ever be normal again?”
We know the story doesn’t end here, but their three days of complete chaos and fear and doubt probably felt like an eternity. “How will we ever recover from this?”
In the book of Luke, Jesus appears to two disciples walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, three days after his death. The disciples are wrestling and reeling with the horrible series of events that have happened over the last couple of days. They’ve lost their prophet, most everyone following the Jesus movement has deserted and fled. And some women just this morning said that his body was taken from the tomb. They don’t really know what to make of all of it. They’re so lost in their sadness, that they don’t even recognize that it is Jesus coming with them on the road. They’re wandering is some kind of wilderness.
They walk and talk all the way to Emmaus and yet, they still have no idea they’ve been journeying with Jesus this whole time. They invite this stranger to eat with them once they reach Emmaus. It’s not until Jesus sat with him – blessed and broke bread – that they see who they have been journeying with. The scripture says, “Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:30). What have your eyes been opened to this season?
This March season, this hard Lenten season, we’ve been journeying with Jesus this whole time, whether we’ve recognized him or not. Amidst the endless travel, the fickle weather, the exhaustion, the meetings that never end – Jesus shows up in the ordinary, even when we’re not looking, even when we’re not prepared for him to do so. In the midst of our own wilderness, we don’t necessarily feel it, or see it, or take notice. Sometimes it takes oil on our forehead…breaking bread with a friend… to remind us that God does show up, God has come down, and God is here.
While, Lent is hard and long, it doesn’t last forever. The rumbling of the Earth on a dark Friday, gives way to a torn curtain, an empty tomb, and God’s spirit among us forever. In the midst of chaos, anxiety, and disbelief, we meet God on a dusty road and we break bread together.
Katie Cummings is from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, which means she grew up with mountains on either side of her. She graduated from Bridgewater College in 2012 with a degree in Sociology and a minor in Peace Studies. After college she joined Brethren Volunteer Service, coordinating Brethren Workcamps for a year before coordinating National Youth Conference. She enjoys running for fun, cooking Indian curries, and making things out of thread. She’s not competitive, but would love to play Ultimate Frisbee, Bannagrams, or Scattegories – if you let her stretch the rules.
As for us, our duty is clear. We should not only obey the complete Gospel, but we should teach it to others. We must accept the faith once delivered to the saints, and keep the ordinances as they have come down to us through the New Testament. While we dare not forbid those who teach and obey but half of the Gospel, we may do well to commend them for the good they do. But it is one thing to commend them for the good they do and quite another to encourage them in the neglect of many of the plain commandments. ((Our Relation to Others Engaged in Good Works,” The Gospel Messenger, January 7, 1905, 9.))
Suppose you wanted to see how Brethren used the beloved phrase of Jude 3 in its booklets, tracts, and papers. As late as 2010, this would have involved having to physically travel to a Brethren library or archive, look through catalogs and finding aids, and then thumb through issue after issue of material. If you were lucky, you could perhaps have microfilm of a Brethren publication sent to your local library, to which you would have to scroll page after page in a similar fashion. However, thanks to the work of the Brethren Digital Archives, many of these publications are now freely accessible and searchable on the internet.
Begun in September 2007, the mission of the Brethren Digital Archives is to digitize some or all of the periodicals produced from the beginning of publication to the year 2000 by each of the Brethren bodies who trace their origin to the baptism near Schwarzenau, Germany in 1708. It consists of twenty partners: archivists, librarians and publishers from every Brethren branch. To date, Brethren Digital Archives has digitized over seven hundred items, including full runs of major publications such as Messenger (beginning Henry Kurtz’s Gospel-Visiter and its variations), The Brethren Evangelist, Brethren Missionary Herald, and Bible Monitor.
One may wonder for the need of a small, volunteered powered organizations like Brethren Digital Archives to form and scan materials. After all, the Google Books Library Project has scanned 20 million book volumes of an estimated 130 million volumes in existence.1 Mainly there is much Google cannot do. Google’s mass digitization currently includes 40 of the largest research libraries in the world.2 This method produces a large number of items scanned on a limited footprint, yet misses many items not included in these libraries. 36% of all cataloged books are only held in one library.3 With over 100,000 libraries in the United States alone, it is unlikely that all these unique items are at the handful of libraries Google has visited.((“Number of Libraries in the United States,” accessed February 24, 2014, http://www.ala.org/tools/libfactsheets/alalibraryfactsheet01.))
Another challenge with the Google mass digitization project is the “scan now, ask questions later” approach to publisher and author rights. This approach brought about the Authors Guild v. Google lawsuit in 2005. While dismissed in November 2013, it is once again being appealed/4 Brethren Digital Archives sought another way, inviting publishers to the table from the very beginning of the project. This partnership has not only avoided possible legal repercussions, but has brought the depth and insight of Brethren publishers and editors to assist with the needs of the project.
Google’s mass digitization project is incredible, and includes many Brethren resources previously available only in the stacks of your local library. However, to successfully digitize the unique resources not available in the world’s elite library collections, local grassroots large-scale digitization projects need to take place. “Large-scale projects are more discriminating than mass-digitization projects. Although they do produce a lot of scanned pages, they are concerned about the creation of collections and about producing complete sets of documents.”5
A slow, intentional, dare I say Brethren, approach to such a project does have advantages. Two key advantages are accessibility and quality. Partnering with publishers, Brethren Digital Archives has been able to have candid conversations about open access from day one. Other digitization projects have brought about limited availability to many materials still in copyright, either through a “snippet view” feature or subscription paywalls. Brethren Digital Archives sought to balance the current economic realities of publishers with the desire to have free open access to historical documents, and agreed to have copyright released up to the year 2000 for all publications when possible. Mass digitization without quality control often brings about, as have been chronicled in the The Art of Google Books blog, a variety of errors.6 Taking the time to select the best available copies of materials, followed by a careful inspection of the scanned product has avoided many of the errors possible with such a project. While aged documents will never look brand new in the digital medium, one can faithfully reproduce what exists.
What remains for Brethren Digital Archives and similar efforts? Plenty. Since Henry Kurtz took to the printing press in 1851 there have been over 250 Brethren periodicals published. Only twenty-seven of these have been digitized. Many of these publications have only one or two known copies, and are quickly deteriorating. Beyond the 250 Brethren periodicals are a world of Brethren affiliated blogs and websites, many of which could disappear today with a click of a button. In some ways the history of the past decade is in a more fragile condition than that of the past three centuries before. The ongoing work of such projects is important to pass on “the faith once delivered to the saints.”
Eric Bradley is Reference and Instruction Librarian at Goshen College, as well as Project Coordinator for the Brethren Digital Archives. His professional interests include next generation library development, theological librarianship, and historical research in the Believers’ Church traditions. He and his son Neil love the Lake Michigan shoreline.
- Sophia Pearson and Bob Van Voris, “Google Wins Dismissal of Lawsuit over Digital Books Project,” BusinessWeek: Undefined, November 14, 2013, http://www.businessweek.com/news/2013-11-14/google-wins-summary-judgment-in-digital-books-copyright-case. [↩]
- “Library Partners,” Google Books, accessed February 24, 2014, http://books.google.com/googlebooks/library/partners.html. [↩]
- Brian F. Lavoie and Roger C. Schonfeld, “Books without Boundaries: A Brief Tour of the System-Wide Print Book Collection,” Journal of Electronic Publishing 9, no. 2 (Summer 2006), doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/3336451.0009.208. [↩]
- Claire Cain Miller and Julie Bosman, “Siding with Google, Judge Says Book Search Does Not Infringe Copyright,” The New York Times, November 14, 2013, sec. Business Day / Media & Advertising, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/15/business/media/judge-sides-with-google-on-book-scanning-suit.html. [↩]
- Karen Coyle, “Mass Digitization of Books,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 32, no. 6 (November 2006): 242, doi:10.1016/j.acalib.2006.08.002. [↩]
- “The Art of Google Books,” accessed February 24, 2014, http://theartofgooglebooks.tumblr.com. [↩]
With the cold weather upon us, there are few things better than laying out on the couch with a new book. Fortunately for us, the publishing world knows this all too well! The catalogs are full of new and interesting books. Here are just a few that might interest Brethren, Anabaptist, and Neo-Anabaptist readers. If you are interested in review these or any other titles contact Brethren Life and Thought through the homepage. The contact email address for the book review editor is at the bottom of the page.
by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (Eerdmans Publishing Co.)
From Eerdmans- “In Reading for Preaching Cornelius Plantinga makes a striking claim: preachers who read widely will most likely become better preachers.”
A recipient of Christianity Today’s 2014 Book Award
by J. Denny Weaver (Eerdmans Publishing Co)
From Eerdmans- “This bold new statement on the nonviolence of God challenges long-standing assumptions of divine violence in theology, the violent God pictured in the Old Testament, and the supposed violence of God in Revelation. In The Nonviolent God J. Denny Weaver argues that since God is revealed in Jesus, the nonviolence of Jesus most truly reflects the character of God.”
by R. W. Moberly (Baker Academic)
From Baker- “Leading Old Testament theologian Walter Moberly probes what is necessary to understand and appropriate the Hebrew Bible as a fundamental resource for Christian theology and life today.”
From Herald Press- “The book of John shapes Christian identity, invigorates worship, and implants eternal hope.
John’s gospel defies description, marvels Swartley, professor emeritus at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.”
Here at Brethren Life and Thought we are trying out a new format of blog. Below is a brief excerpt from a sermon on Acts 15 shared by Steven Schweitzer, dean at Bethany Theological Seminary. Rather than post the whole sermon, Bethany has graciously provided the video of the sermon delivered on September 25, 2013 as part of a series on difficult scriptures.
… We can approach Acts 15 from many starting points and methods. Questions of chronology and history are needed and helpful. Situating the passage in its literary context is useful. Placing this chapter in conversation with the biblical canon, a canonical reading, is beneficial, and I would say essential to elucidate meaning. Yet, this is not an easy text. If we stop to consider this Jerusalem Council, pondering this pivotal moment in the life of the Church, noticing how the story unfolds, and how it relates to other canonical texts, we are confronted with something that makes us quite uncomfortable. There is such a tendency to idealize and romanticize the early Christians—and we constantly read ourselves back into these formational stories. I believe we must at least begin by slowing down and paying attention to what the biblical text actually does and does not say.
In Acts 15, we encounter an intense conversation, some might say a dialogue, a debate, or perhaps a “knock-down, drag-out fight” among early Christian leaders. The Greek words used are rather intense, and this was certainly an animated event and not one governed by Roberts Rules of Order. The presenting problem: there are all these Gentiles becoming followers of Jesus; some of the Jewish followers of Jesus wanted these new converts to be circumcised and follow the Law and others thought they did not need to do so. The church gathered together its leadership—the text says “apostles and elders”—to discuss the issue and decide how to live into this new reality. …
Steven Schweitzer is Academic Dean at Bethany Theological Seminary. His PhD is from the University of Notre Dame. He has published a number of essays and articles along with his book Reading Utopia in Chronicles (T&T Clark International, 2007). Along with his courses in Hebrew Bible, he is currently teaching an elective on Theology and Science Fiction.
By Robert Raker
There is a common misconception about simplicity and its relationship to Christ and Christianity. In fact, this
misconception has caused many within the church to abandon this centuries old Brethren practice completely. But why?
The problem is that, as with mo
st Biblical issues, we have gotten away from what the Bible really teaches. When asked what simplicity in the Bible means, most would probably answer something like giving up worldly things, or living without nice things, or living on the bare essentials.
But this is not what the Bible teaches about simple living. Indeed, simple living is not about the absence of things, but about the absence of the need for things. Here I want to consider two scriptures and hopefully clarify the idea. The first text we’ll examine is Matthew 6:25-34.
This passage should be familiar to those even loosely acquainted with the Bible. Anytime someone faces worry or doubt this passage is used to bring comfort or lend support. It is a part of “The Sermon on the Mount,” one of Jesus’ most famous teachings, .
While the entire passage could be
read in regards to simple living I want us to focus in on three main points. First, in verse 32 Jesus says, “the pagans run after all these things.” The key word here is “run”. It is my belief that what the Bible teaches regarding simplicity is more about attitude toward our possessions than the actual possessions. And here Jesus plainly states that those who run after, or pursue, these things are the pagans, not merely those who own them.
This idea is supported in the next verse when Jesus says we are to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness,” Again, we see the idea that to have these things is not necessarily. Rather, to pursue them before God’s kingd
om and righteousness is bad. Jesus is reminding us what should come first in our lives. In other words, its all about the attitude. This idea is completed in the second half of verse 33. “All these things will be given to you as well.” God wants us to have things, that is the things we need and desire, but He will only give them to us when we pursue Him first.
Our second passage comes from I Timothy 6:3-10. In verse 6 Paul tells Timothy that, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” This is another way of saying, “Seek first His kingdom.”
Simple living is about being happy with what we’ve been given rather pursuing more and more and more. But again, we must be reminded that the possessions themselves are not harmful, but rather our attitude toward them. This is an idea Paul expounds on in verse 10, another well know passage. Who among us hasn’t heard this at some point, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” However, if we scan this verse quickly, without stopping to examine it, we can lose the true meaning.
I have heard people say that this verse teaches that money and the things it purchases are evil and should
therefore be avoided at all cost. This is not what Paul is saying. Paul says that, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Its our attitude toward it that matters not the money itself.
Try this experiment. Take a dollar bill out of your wallet and place it on the kitchen table, or desk in front of you. Now watch closely. Has it moved? Has it done anything other than possibly been moved by a fan or breeze? Of course it hasn’t! It’s only money. The point is this: money, or possessions have no power in and of themselves. They cannot think, read, talk, or walk. The only power they have is the power we give them. That’s why Paul says the love of money is the root all evil and not money itself. Its all about the attitude.
Still later in this verse Paul takes it one step farther when he tells Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
These are just two of the many scriptures which demonstrate that possessions are not evil, but our attitude toward them. Is it wrong to have nice th
ings? If they cause us to pursue more nice things then the answer is yes. But if we are satisfied, or content, with the things which God has blessed us with, and continue to place His kingdom and righteousness above our things then the answer is no. When it comes to simple living, its really all about attitude.
Robert Raker is an ordained minister in the Southern Ohio District of the Church of the Brethren. He is currently between assignments as an interim pastor. He enjoys spending time with his wife and children, writing, and teaching a weekly home based Bible study
This post original was published on the blog Women in Theology. In a culture which capitalizes so much on desire, exploring the topic is an important theological task. Though this is a longer discussion than is usually shared here, the E. Lawrence gives a helpful reflection on desire as a theological category. It is shared here with her permission.
The older I get, the more I think that the crux of becoming a mature person, the person God has created you to be, is about discerning your desires. Your deepest desires. I have to admit upfront that I am not necessarily sure what you should do with your desires in all cases (especially since there are life-giving, truthful desires and selfish, destructive desires…), but I think we should decide it’s a good thing that desire is there, inside of us, and we should strive to know it.
Perhaps if I continue to get older, I will stop pursuing this line of thought and decide that something else is key. But, as it stands, as I am on the cusp of turning 30, I think that being honest about your desire lines is necessary for mature adult personhood.
If you’re studying Christian theology, I can imagine a certain uneasiness cropping up at this point, at least for some of you (especially some of my peers at my graduate institution). But no, I’m not blessing consumerist individualism. Or hedonism. Or any form of extreme self-indulgence, really. I’m not telling you to go in peace and excessively indulge in whatever happens to get you off, whether it be shopping or food or porn or sports.
I’m not even blithely endorsing expressive individualism, which, as a distinctively modern phenomenon, pivots around the centrality of the individual self and its unique worth, a singular identity that just has to be expressed. (“My self-expression is my only truth.”)
Importantly, I’m not adducing the concept of discerning your own desire as a way of ignoring the desires and needs of others. In reality, clarity about one’s own desires, and an ability to see—to empathize with—the hopes and wishes of others, should rise in tandem together. (But how all that gets concretely negotiated is obviously very complicated…)
Hopefully some of that throat-clearing is done now. What am I up to, then?
To begin, I’ll say that I’ve been reading Anglican feminist theologian Sarah Coakley lately. Also, she plays an important role in my dissertation. This return to Coakley’s corpus is especially timely given the impending release of her much-anticipatedGod, Sexuality, and the Self later this month in the US. (Could this turn of events be a beacon of hope for the coming release of David Tracy’s God book?! Do the books of lore eventually get published?!)
A couple things about Coakley. The cornerstone of Coakley’s work is a particular kind of prayerful practice: allowing oneself to be de-centered by God so as to become still, to be able to discern and follow through on the possibility of right relationships within the world. In her famous essay entitled “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing” fromPowers and Submissions, she writes (and I quote at length):
What I have elsewhere called the ‘paradox of power and vulnerability’ is I believe uniquely focused in this act of silent waiting on the divine in prayer. This is because we can only be properly ‘empowered’ here if we cease to set the agenda, if we ‘make space’ for God to be God…[E]ngaging in any such regular and repeated ‘waiting on the divine’ will involve great personal commitment and (apparently) great personal risk; to put it in psychological terms, the dangers of a too-sudden uprush of material from the unconscious, too immediate a contact of the thus disarmed self with God, are not inconsiderable…But whilst risky, this practice is profoundly transformative, ‘empowering’ in a mysterious ‘Christic’ sense.
Even though I continue to have some reservations about the ease with which Coakley brushes past the potential psychological burdens of sustaining contemplative practice described in such self-effacing terms, I remind myself that she intentionally makes this argument in response to post-Christian feminist Daphne Hampson and the latter’s rejection of a discourse of kenotic vulnerability before God. In other words, Coakley is keenly attuned to the reality of women’s oppression and noxious infantilization under the rough hands of patriarchy. And, it is precisely in and through this concern that she argues that making space for a powerful triune God in prayer does not reinforce subjugation, but rather, gives one the strength to resist it. So, to understand Coakley, you’ve got to understand how important the paradox of prayerful human vulnerability before a powerful God is for her thought.
But to really understand Coaklian vulnerability, you’ve got to locate it in proximity to her account of desire, and that is what currently interests me. For Coakley, the act of making oneself vulnerable allows for a couple significant things to occur: you become in touch with your desire for God, and, through that, you also become in touch with God’s desire for you: “There is our own primary desire for God, of course, which we strive in prayer to put first; but underlying that is God’s unique and unchangeable desire for us, without which all our own striving is fruitless.”To make space within oneself for God, is to connect—and reconnect—with a yearning for God, to be filled with God’s goodness (“Our hearts are restless,” etc.). And, then, if we sit with this desire, we realize we are being buoyed up by a stronger, underlying undercurrent of divine love directed at us, permeating us, praying within us (cue Romans). In grasping for God, we realized we are always already being grasped (and this point reminds me of Rahner’s notion of mystery as superabundant, positive and gracious).
Importantly, this matrix of divine and human desire that suffuses prayer also affects our desires as directed at people and things within the world. Specifically for Coakley, this means that our sexual desires and our desire for God are entangled with each other: “No less disturbing than the loss of noetic control in prayer and all that followed from that was the arousal, intensification and reordering of desire that this praying engendered…Our capacity as Christians to try to keep sex and God in different boxes is seemingly limitless, but the integrative force of silent prayer simply will nor allow this, or not for very long.” Among many things, I take this to mean that our sexuality, in its essential goodness at its root, is a compass to help us discern the precise ways that we each choose to love God in this life. And, inversely, our love for God directs us to expend our energy toward particular people in particular ways, including sexual ways, in our lives. (Perhaps surprisingly, though, Coakley, as I recall, defends celibacy precisely as a particular kind of channeling of sexuality into various other forms of intimacy with groups of people.)
I like the way Coakley retrieves the Christian insight that sexuality, specifically as a paradigmatic expression of desire, tells us about who we are at our deepest level, in relation to God (and it’s definitely there in the tradition. See the Bible, the mystics, other people). In making this argument, she—unsurprisingly—puts me in mind of Rowan Williams’s essay “The Body’s Grace” and the way he understands same-sex desire in a similar theological paradigm. I like what these Anglicans are doing.
At the same, time, however, as a Catholic who is all-too-familiar with JP II’s theology of the body, I know how this high theology of sexuality can easily be deployed in service of homophobia and static gender roles oppressive to women. (In sum: sexuality is amazing when you are in a heterosexual marriage and the husband/God/Christ “initiates” and the wife/humanity/Church “receives.” The ontology of Everything Ever, especially Your Interlocking Genitals, stipulates it!)
Furthermore, I am aware of the ways that construing desire almost exclusively in terms of sexuality can problematically reduce desire down to one particular slice of human passion and feeling. I don’t think Coakley actually holds such a narrow conception of desire, but all too often in her work, desire is glossed in terms of sexual eros, and then she rest content to play with the supposed scandal created by crossing the gap between that desire and the desire for God. But I want more. (Wording intentional there.)
So, in returning to the opening of this post, and my positing that discernment of desire is pivotal for becoming an adult, I’d like to take Coakley’s positive valuation of desire and think about it in ways that include sexuality but also go beyond that. I’d like to think about the importance of desire more holistically in living a good life.
Desire, to my mind, is about figuring out what—and who—gives you the energy to be an instrument, an agent, of divine grace within the world. What lights you up and sets your ablaze? What makes you fully alive for God’s glory? Where do your passions lead you? What gives you glimpses of exuberance, of ekstasis, of joy? In other words, in all senses of this phrasing: what turns you on?
This kind of discernment isn’t about opposing desire and work, or desire and self-sacrifice for others, or desire and other frameworks for moral reasoning. It’s about gaining the kind of self-knowledge that is rooted in being a creature of God. Note that, in the list of questions I offered, I didn’t separate the joy of authentic human desire from living for God’s glory. The two are together. That’s the kind of passion I mean.
As I’ve gone through my twenties, I’ve noticed that the push for adulthood as an escape from childhood seems to go hand-in-hand with trying to fit into the expectations and wishes of others for us. The pressure doesn’t have to be as blunt as your parents wanting you to have a Responsible Job even though you Let Them Down by doing something silly like going to graduate school for a humanities degree. (That’s actually not my particular situation, luckily.) Rather, the external pressure can be much more subtle and diffuse.
For example, if you’re at a prestigious graduate institution to get your doctorate, you can gradually imbibe through the general intellectual ethos that being a “good” scholar is about putting all your energy into research (so you publish like a maniac) and the intellectual crushing of opponents whenever possible (there has to be violence at some level…). Or, to take another example, you may think that one particular romantic partner is the “right” choice for you based on various external criteria you have appropriated over the years. But in both these cases, you may come to realize that what you’ve been “groomed” to think about what’s proper and ideal is not actually what gives you energy and sustains you. In the first case, maybe you want to teach and lead a quieter—but no less profound—intellectual life geared around mentoring. And in the other case, maybe you come to see that your partner, for whatever reason, doesn’t fit into your desire lines as they orient your life. Maybe you want to be with somebody else, somebody who doesn’t fit the profile. Maybe you want to be indefinitely independent and single and use that particular freedom as an opportunity to direct your energy in new ways.
I hope these examples show that my emphasis on desire is not a rejection of broader frameworks for moral reasoning that include discerning right/wrong, the rights and needs of others, the formation of empathy, etc. (and these frameworks, of course, are initially exterior/heteronomous before they are internalized and learned over the years, and that’s good and normal).
I’m simply saying that there are too many people walking around with a false sense of direction in their lives when, in truth, they really don’t know what they want from life, who they are supposed to be, or that it is a good thing to stop and contemplate these desire lines as a mode of adult spiritual and emotional askesis. Women in particular, please listen up.
Before you dive headlong into the task of Meeting Expectations, at least take a second and think about protecting your joy and your energy any which way you can. The thing, too, is that God wants that, anyway.
 Sarah Coakley, “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing,” Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 34, 35.
 To be clear, I am not sure that Coakley ever adequately answers Hampson’s (albeit bluntly overstated) critique. Something to ponder.
 Sarah Coakley, “Prayer as Crucible: How My Mind Has Changed,” The Christian Century (March 22, 2011), 37.
 Ibid., 37.
E Lawrence is currently a PhD candidate in systematic theology. Her academic interests include theological anthropology, specifically theologies of disability, and feminist and womanist theologies; the intersection of ethics and systematics regarding love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self; the relationship between suffering and oppression and the cross; and embodiment and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. And, as Netflix informs her, she also enjoys “TV shows with a strong female lead.”
David Fitch(Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary) shared these reflections on his blog “Reclaiming the Mission.” Given the recent conversations in the Church of the Brethren regardingour polity for ministerial leadership, his remarks seemed appropriate to share with our readers. With David’s permission, I have reposted his remarks here. To follow the significant discussion that has already taken place you can click here to head over to the original post. Much thanks to David for sharing his thoughts with Brethren Life and Thought. To read up on the recommendations before the Church of the Brethren, a number of resources are available here.
So I am sure I’m not the firstto come up with this notion (look here for instance), but it seems to me denominations in the West need to create a new category for commissioning leadership. We need an new order of pastors for mission.
For hundreds of years, and still within my lifetime, churches in the West have been confined to the traditional structures of clergy. This order of professional clergy was defined by a time when there was huge demand for the full time pastor to order the entire ministry of a congregation. Seminaries were structured to educate persons for this role. They learned Biblical exegesis, preaching, administration, pastoral care, leadership, etc. all in one package. The process to ministry included getting a MDiv at a seminary, passing ordination exams and interviews, and then candidating for a post at one of thousands of local churches.
This made sense in U.S.A. , Canada and even Europe in the last 50-75 years. But the world has changed and we need less and less full time professional clergy. The churches that flourish with full time paid professional staff are large mega churches who need specialists – worship pastor, C.E.O. senior pastor world class communicator, children’s ministry pastor, justice ministry manager, director of outreach, executive pastor, etc.etc. The other kind of churches looking for a full time clergy are the old-fashioned single pastor congregation of Western Christendom. More and more of these churches are floundering smaller congregations looking for a ‘savior.’ It is true that there are more mega churches but they grow on the backs of the shrinking of the old-fashioned single pastor congregation of Western Christendom. As we consolidate existing ‘successful Christians’ into larger and larger churches, the old-fashioned single pastor-small staff churches shrivel unable to even pay one pastor let alone a church secretary. The net-net result is we need fewer and fewer full time clergy to ‘service’ the remaining Christians left in our society.
I suggest there is a need for a new order of clergy (if I may call it that): a missional leader who can understand the relationship between work and ministry so that it is seamless. He or she dedicates 10-15 hours a week to organizing the Kingdom community in their local context. He or she knows her gifting and can lead out of that gifting. He or she has a job that he/she can support her/himself and her family with. He/she can develop a job skill that can adapt to changing circumstances. Often, he or she adjust their work hours so that she can work a tad less than the average 40 hour week. He or she can then give time to the leadership of their community without disrupting a daily/weekly rhythm of being present with family and neighborhood as well. The small church community can offer a small stipend to make up the difference. He or she does all this with 3 to 4 other leaders who do the same. Each is recognized for one of the five-fold giftings out of which they minister and lead in relation to the other leaders. They are apostle, prophet, pastor-organizer, teacher-organizer, evangelist working together, 15 hours plus 15 hours, plus 15 hours, plus 15 hours plus 15 hours. They are doing more out of multiple giftings than one single pastor ever could. They are bearing each other’s burdens. They are a “band of brothers and sisters.” This becomes a sustainable missionary kind of ministry that changes the whole dynamics of ministry because they are present in jobs, families and neighborhoods and makes possible long term ministry in context. It is, in essence, a new version of the old monastic orders of mission adapted to the capitalistic societies in the West while providing the means to resist (and provide witness) to its more oppressive sinful patterns.
Denominations need to define a new order of clergy because anyone seeking to operate in ministry this way will easily get defeated. Some of the more obvious ways they will get defeated are:
- They will get caught up in bi-vocational ministry where they will be expected to get a full time job, and do the work of a full time minister (because no one changed the expectations). This is chaos and recipe for personal disaster. It simply will never work. We need a new order of clergy then to redefine bi-vocational ministry and fund a new imagination for what this kind of order of mission might look like.
- They will get ordained into ministry and become bi-vocational and missional but the denominations will still expect them to fulfill all the old requirements of the traditional form of full time pastorate. They will have to go to local ministerial associations, represent the church at local events, make sure the furnace is working at the church, take care of funerals and attend civic events, fill out data sheets for the denomination. But reality is, they have other jobs! They need to be given credentials that recognize the new rhythms of life they have committed themselves to. (This stuff nearly killed me when I was a bi-vocational pastor).
- They will get a job, take up local contextual ministry and they will not understand the relationship between their work and ministerial leadership calling. They will not know how to look at their jobs once they get successful. They will not be able to be comfortable with 15 hours a week working for the organization of the church (because no one provided these expectations). They will not know what it means when their churches start to grow and some leaders ask them to quit their jobs because they will have allowed the identity of their jobs and its monetary success to overwhelm them. An imagination for the way work and ministry and family (when there is one) go together needs to be cultivated and this can best be done through defining a new order of clergy and then bringing those practicing together to discuss and offer visions for what this looks like.
For all these reasons we need to fund a new imagination for a new emerging clergy class that are in essence self sustaining contextual N. American missionaries. But the denominations for the most part have not navigated this. My guess is, if the denominations formed a new order of clergy, helped developed imagination and supporting structures for it, there would be untold numbers flocking to this group. There are literally thousands of second career people, and thousands of younger seminary graduates dissatisfied with current options (dying small church senior pastor or mega church staff person) who would gravitate towards this kind of commissioning. But we have no larger imagination for it. A new order of clergy could help and support these kind of missionaries and stir up such an imagination. Such an order of clergy could seed a whole new mission for a renewal of the Kingdom in N America.
What do you think? Denominational leaders, do you have such an order of clergy in your structures? Of course, it goes without saying that we need to fund the education of this new order of clergy differently, not taking people out of their context, but providing training along the way over longer (more affordable) periods of time. There are many seminaries preparing to do this. We know we have to do it. I can’t wait til Northern unveils its new program for doing just that.