So, the two people I’m going to talk about in this post may very well read it, and if so, that’s great, because I’m going to brag about them. But, if you’re reading this saying, “Hmm, I think he’s talking about me” you’re probably right.
Ministry is a constant set of up and downs, both with youth and adults. My experience has been mainly with youth. The frustration of working with anyone, including youth, is that you sit at a bible study talking about how we should treat other people and then you see how they treat other people and you just have to shake your head. Basically, despite all my best efforts kids still will be kids and they do stupid things. But for every nine of those experiences, there is one experience that makes youth ministry totally worth it.
Last year a new girl came into our youth group. Her dad had been on staff at the church for a year or two, and had just recently become full-time. With that switch he brought his two daughters, one senior high, one junior high to Northmont. Being the new girl at youth group, especially a youth group that is pretty tight-knit with a lot of friendships well in place is never easy. But overall she did quite well settling in and making new friends. Very early in the year, Lisa, our now former youth director, suggested that this girl should date one of the senior guys in the group. Everyone kind of laughed about it, but no one thought it was a bad idea per say. Well, then they ended up doing our church musical together and everyone and their brother (and sister) knew that they liked one another. It was so obvious that it was almost comical. So, after a while they ended up both admitting they liked one another, went to prom together, all those cute sorts of things that high school couples do.
The thing is that most high school relationships that I see are at best, take it or leave it, and at worst, downright damaging to both parties involved in the relationship. But, there are a few though that you see and you’re like, “yeah, they’re really good for one another.” (I had the great fortune of seeing not just one but two of these relationships in our youth group last year). And when you see one of these, it makes up for watching a bunch of your kids go through one bad relationship after another. Anyway, these two were one of the two relationships where I saw that they spent more time caring about one another than they did fighting, more time being together than complaining about one another to their friends. It’s really cool to see.
Some Christians advocate “courtship” and such, and while I think that’s fine for some people, I think I’ve seen more how dating relationships can really teach people how to communicate in relationships, even if they don’t work out for the long haul. I know in my own life that although my girlfriend from high school and I didn’t work out for the long haul, that that experience was important in my development, and because of it I’m a better fiancé now and will be a better husband in the future.
Anyway, to make a long story short, what I’ve seen in these two’s relationship has proven to me that everything I’ve done is really worth it, because there are kids out there who want to grow in their faith and want to make their faith apart of every aspect of their lives, including their romantic lives. When I gave my testimony one night at church I told everyone that Renee and I pray together every night, and that’s one of the most essential parts of our relationship, and I recommended to everyone that they try it. The other night the girl in the relationship told me that they had started praying together and she shared the strengthening impact it had had on their relationship. And she prefaced it with “We finally took your advice and starting praying together…” It’s statements like that that really do make it all worth it.
The last couple days in Pittsburgh have been very typical Pittsburgh days, cloudy all day, with occasional rain to mix it up a little bit. All I can say, I’m glad this weather is coming now and now when we were at camp, this would have been an awful week to have kids. Plus, with a chance of storms coming tomorrow and Thursday, it looks like its going to be much of the same. Lovely!
So, yesterday was my first trip back to church as a staff member. I was there on Sunday for worship, but yesterday I participated in my first meeting. Northmont, where my official title is “Seminary Intern”, is where I’ve been attending the entire time I’ve been in seminary, and where I was on staff last year and played fill-in youth pastor for six months. This year I’m still helping out with both youth groups, but Sean, the new youth pastor, is firmly in charge and doing a fine job. However, youth programs run better when you have more leaders, so I’m still going to help out. Plus, for a few times in October, when he’s not there, I’ll be running youth group again.
This year however, my focus is going to be the small groups at church. In fact, I’ve come up with a fancy title – Small Group Ministry Coordinator. We have a few small groups running now. We have one that meets on Sunday night after our evening worship service, two that are scheduled to meet throughout the week, one at Eat ‘N Park, the other at someone’s home. The Presbyterian women also have two bible studies that meet throughout the week and follow the Horizon’s Bible Study curriculum produced by the PW national office. Last year we had one or two groups that met on Wednesday night and went through a couple different things. But, it is safe to say that up and until now, small groups have existed but without much structure or support from the staff.
I firmly believe that one of the keys to church development (note – I didn’t say church growth) is promoting genuine Christian fellowship. Christians are not solo flyers and were never intended to be. As important as corporate worship is, corporate worship is not the setting for true Christian fellowship to exist. That requires a small group of people, a group of people where people care truly feel cared for and know that they can share their burdens and joys. A place where people can ask honest and open questions about faith and life, without feeling as though they’re being judged. Questions such as “How do we know that Jesus is the Son of God?” or “Is Jesus the Son of God” are not considered out of bounds, but in fact are encouraged. Ultimately, the church is about the worship of God and carrying out God’s mission in the world. The problem is that when people don’t know what God’s mission for the church is the church can’t be about the business of it. The mission of the church is multi-faceted to say the least. Yet, Christian fellowship is a vital part of all of it. So, what are we going to do? Well, the plan right now is to start planning a church-wide small group campaign to kick off in November and run through Advent. That leaves this month to plan it, October to push it and train group leaders, and November to kick it off. Tentatively we’re planning another one during lent but we’ll see how the first one goes. The hope is that some of the groups that are together for the six weeks or so end up staying together for continuing small groups. That obviously won’t happen with all of them, but we’re hoping it happens with some. I’m also going to exist to provide support to current small group leaders and help them find resources. There’s one big problem, I have no budget, so I’m going to end up mooching off of the Christian Ed budget, which isn’t exactly ideal. But, we’ll do what we need to do. I’m also going to be leading a small group aimed at people between the ages of 18-35 hopefully on Monday nights. So, those are my two tasks to get the year started. Oh yeah, I’m also teaching the “Transitions” Sunday school class along with Sean. That’ll be fun, especially since most weeks I’m predicting we’ll have two kids, but that’ll be okay too.
Well, I am off to make this a productive day. I got the okay from one of my professors to do a 1 credit independent study with him reading from Karl Barth. Surprisingly, he wants me to work on III.4, which is the end of Barth’s doctrine of creation where turns his discussion of creation into a discussion of the ethical implications of creation. This is probably good for me, since Ethics are one area that I really haven’t spent much time since I’ve been in seminary. I had thought he’d have me work from 1.1 (The Doctrine of the Word of God) or 2.1 (The Doctrine of God), but this is good too. Twenty pages per week, a reading log, and a short (6-8 page) paper at the end of the term. Between this, my Scientific Theology class, my course on the theology of the Reformed Confessions, and my class on Church and Sacraments, I’m taking no less than 4 courses (8 credits) worth of theology courses this term. Wow, I couldn’t be more excited (honestly!). The only bummer, Hebrew.
So for the past few days, well, since Friday I’ve had nothing to do here in Pittsburgh. Officially things get started here on Wednesday with new student orientation, but really they get started Thursday. So, I’ve just been bumming around. I helped Brad move on Saturday and I have managed to get a fair amount of reading done and my room is all set up, although my desk area is already a mess. But part of what I’ve thought about is how far I’ve come in two years, and wondering what my last year will bring.
Two years ago around this time I moved to Pittsburgh and started my own seminary career. I started out well ahead of the game compared to my classmates because my undergraduate background included humanities courses (which I never thought would come in handy) and a minor in religion, that included course work in bible, church history, and theology. All in all, I just had the framework from which to think theologically, and that was big advantage. This isn’t to say I was smarter than all my classmates, because that certainly wasn’t true, I just had a leg up on most of them as far as the academic study of theology goes. I was scared like everyone else, although I wonder if I was as scared as some of these new students look (well, probably I was, I’ll be honest). I dove into my first term classes, church history, spiritual formation, greek, and Historical Books of the Old Testament and quite honestly did quite well that term. But beyond academics, seminary has taught me a lot.
One of the things that people will tell is that seminary is challenging to their faith, and I have to admit that that wasn’t the case for me. One, the academic study of theology has always been spiritually nurturing to me. Reading the likes of Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and Athanasius has aided in my spiritual journey, as does writing long technical exegetical papers. Second of all, I had been introduced to many of the things that cause people trouble in their faith, namely higher critical study of scripture, at Grove City which presented a “safe environment” to explore its implications, rather than the halls of a mainline seminary where higher criticism is taken for granted. (In other words, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks Moses wrote the Pentateuch among the faculty here) Second, I am a sucker for tradition, as my fiancée would tell you (she thinks I’m quite traditional). Part of what seminary has done is introduced me to the history of the church which has been enlightening to me and quite fun to learn about. Some of the most cherished books in my library come from what is known as the Early Church Fathers collection, which includes the writings of everyone from Origen, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Athanasius, John Chrystom, etc. These marvelous collections are not only great for sermon preparation (when I can find stuff) but also priceless treasurers of Christians from a time gone past. I also have continued to fall in love with the Confessional tradition of the church. The Reformed church (those roughly following in the theological footsteps of Calvin) has always been a confessional church which has, at different points in time, composed confessional statements that outline what the church believes. These include the Apostles and Nicene Creed, which are shared with the greater church (after all, the Nicene Creed is shared amongst the Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions). But also more recent confessional statements, such as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Scots’ Confession, the Westminster Confession and Catechism (not my favorites), the Second Helvetic Confession, as well as recent statements of faith, including the marvelous Barmen Declaration and the Confession of 1967. (By the way, if you’ve never read the Barmen Declaration, you really should read it. It is truly one of the greatest statements of Christianity in contemporary times. It was written by German Reformed and Lutheran pastors in the face of the rise of Nazism and claims that the true Lordship of the Church rests in the hands of Jesus Christ, and no other.)
So now I stand on the beginning of my third year of seminary, and already the dean of Student has been looking at churches that want associate pastors. And well, the whole thing is sort of overwhelming. There is a part of me that would really like to pursue my PhD in Historical or Systematic Theology. There is another part of me that really thinks it time for me to get out of the classroom and start serving in the church. There is another part of me that really just wants to stay here, where its now become comfortable. Last fall I preached to the incoming class during orientation, and I preached on Peter walking on the water. I told that group of students that Jesus would be constantly calling them out of the boat, and I’m afraid that time has come for me. Last year I was called out of the boat when Lisa, the youth pastor at the church where I work, left to take another job and I was asked to fill in till they found someone new. Now this year things at church look a little more predictable, but after graduation is a brand new adventure, as I’m graduating one weekend and getting married the next, and then who knows? Well, God knows, thank goodness.
It has come to my attention that my last post, which was written far too early in the morning for intelligent thought, can be misunderstood in a number of ways.
First of all, who am I really criticizing? I am not criticizing those who love philosophy or the social sciences. In fact, while I have little to no interest in these fields I have no problem with those who do. I also do not blame either philosophy or the social sciences their theological influence. Who I am criticizing are the theologians and pastors who have allowed the social sciences and philosophy to have an undue amount of influence on their teaching and practice. They have allowed the social sciences and philosophy to lay the ground rules for what theology can and cannot do. For example, most modern Pastoral Care texts are really introductions to psychology. While psychology is certainly important for pastoral work, after all you have to know how people tick, to allow psychology to control pastoral care to the extent that it has, where most pastoral care books turn Jesus into a placebo in the attempt to help people look within to fix their problems is a theological disaster. For contemporary “Pastoral Theology” God has little interest in day to day lives, and the true power to fix problems lies within ourselves. Again, I am not denying that a knowledge of family and systems theory, Myers-Briggs, etc are not helpful (and often incredibly helpful) in Pastoral work, but when theologians allow psychology to set the agenda, rather than supplement, you end up with improperly trained pastors trying to be psychologists giving bad self help.
Second, who gets to be a theologian? Well, everyone is a theologian. In fact, if you’ve ever even thought about God you’re a theologian. But specifically, who gets to do Christian theology? One can only do Christian theology is one publicly consider themselves to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, and takes an active part in the life of the Christian community. I do believe church attendance is important, as the concept of being a “go it alone solo Christian” is an oxymoron. The Christian church from the beginning has been a community and despite the church’s many many failings, it remains the body of Christ here on earth and it is the primary worshipping community. Worship is an integral part of “doing theology”, because when theology really wrestles with the mystery of what God has done in the world and how God has spoken, one should be left with a sense of awe and wonder at certain points when the language changes from that of rational explanation to the language of adoration and praise at God’s awesomeness. Theology that seeks to avoid the language of worship (such as the 4 Spiritual Laws and Westminster Calvinism) turns the Christian faith into a set of propositional beliefs that must be believed in order to be saved. I’ve just finished a reading of the book of Acts that wasn’t how it was done. Peter and Paul brought people to faith by telling the story of what God had done in the world, and what God had done in Jesus Christ. When one reads the works of Karl Barth, my favorite theologian, it is not full of propositional truths, but rather he winds and weaves his way through the entire bible, drawing on the ways in which God has spoken and acted in the world. Rather than reducing God to something that can be understood, Barth’s theology seeks to expound on what God has said and done. The true task of theology is not to simply and explain God, but rather to present to story of what God has said and done in the world in contemporary language. This task too often falls only to academic theologians working in our seminaries rather than our pastors and church members which, if you have suggestions about how to facilitate such discussion, please let me know.
So, it’s early on Saturday morning and I’m not sure why I’m really awake. I fell asleep last night while trying to compare translations of Exodus around 11:40. I’m preaching on Exodus 14:19-31 in a couple weeks and figured I might as well get started now before all heck breaks loose around here next week with orientation.
I also began two new reading adventures. The first is for a class, Scientific Theology. As many of you know my background is in Physics/Computer Science and then two years ago I switched to theology. Last Spring I was introduced to the work of T.F. Torrance, who some regard as the greatest theologian of the second half of the 20th Century (most agree that Barth was the biggest name in the first half). He sought to combine the insights of the natural sciences as tools to help in our understanding of theology. After all, Torrance, and many before him, argue that since God is the creator of all things seen and unseen (a basic Christian doctrine of Creation) that the world around us should help us understand God better. In some circles you will hear people speak of “Natural Revelation” or “General Revelation” vs. “Special Revelation”. This is true of Calvin as well as many of the Reformed Confessions (Westminster in particular comes to mind). Well, as my good friend Matt Bell points out, as well the great Karl Barth, there is somewhat of a flaw in this thinking. It is true that God has spoken through his Word, but why do we insist on creating two categories of revelation – one general, one special? Karl Barth founds this especially troubling since “Natural Theology”, which many theologians love to talk about today, contributed a great deal to the rise of Hitler in Germany, as he mixed a theology of Aryan supremacy drawn from “Natural theology” with political rhetoric. Barth’s point was that no, there was no general revelation, all was special revelation. After all, there is but one God, and we only know of God through his actions. After all, there is no knowledge of a non-acting God. Theologians even speak of the “being-act” of God. Since God is not a being in the sense of which we think of one (flesh and bones, physical location, etc.) we really know God’s “being”, the inner workings and nature of God, only through his actions, whether that be as Scripture bears witness to God or as we view the nature of the world around us. By eliminating the two categories, Barth argued that Hitler had to be wrong – what he has concluded by “natural theology” couldn’t be so, because it contradicted how God had spoken in scripture. However, getting back to the main point, Torrance (and others) reclaimed the connection between the created world and the study of theology with the following hypothesis. If God is both the author of the world (God’s Works) and scripture (God’s Word) shouldn’t the two be natural partners? Torrance’s answer was yes, and he seemingly bases everything on a scientific method, including his exegetical method. Torrance, who is now in his 90’s and in somewhat poor health has passed the mantle onto Alister McGrath who has taken up the charge with a new three volume set entitled “Scientific Theology”. Volume 1, which I have just taken up and will be reading this term for a independent study is subtitled “Nature”.
In the first chapter, which I finished last night, McGrath lays out a brief history of the various partners of theology, including its long time dance partner philosophy, and more recently its whore of a partner the social sciences. One of my professors, Andrew Purves, whose specialty is Pastoral Theology, believes that theology recently has let the social sciences control it, to the detriment of Christians everywhere, and to this point, McGrath agrees. After all, social sciences operate from a naturalistic framework which is entirely incompatible with Christian theology. At least Philosophy would admit the possible existence of God. McGrath believes however that unlike Philosophy and the Social Sciences, which have two often becomes Lord’s over theology (just look at the impact of Kant upon the theology of Harnack, Hegel, and Schleriermacher)the natural sciences are an appealing and natural partner. After all, as he has and others have pointed out, God’s Word and God’s Works should help shed some light on one another. In the next chapter he’s going to lay out his methodology for doing a Scientific Theology
The second project I began last night is a continuation of my independent reading of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Barth’s massive 13 volume systematic theology covers over 9000 pages of small print. It’s divided as follows
Volume 1: The Word of God
Volume 2: The Doctrine of God
Volume 3: The Doctrine of Creation
Volume 4: The Doctrine of Reconciliation.
Each individual volume is broken down into parts. So for example, there is Vol 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, 2.2, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3.1, 4.3.2, 4.4. I started by reading 4.1 on my own and finally completed it after fifteen months. I had planned on continuing onto 4.2, but had also thought about beginning 2.1, Barth’s Doctrine of God. Ultimately I started at the beginning, 1.1, where Barth lays out some of the foundations for Dogmatics. It turned out to be an interesting choice and there are a lot of parallels between McGrath’s discussions and Barth’s. Barth’s most interesting point is that theology as a science really has no reason for existing. It is pointless to exist because it shouldn’t have to exist as a separate field, since all that was created and all that is of God. He says that theology exists because there is a void there. He also says that theology, the task of talking about God, belongs exclusively to the church and here I agree. Too many people today, and sadly many of them get a lot of press, claim to be doing theology or talking about Jesus outside the church. The problem is, you can’t do that. We all know how irritating it is when someone who thinks they have a clue starts talking about something we know a lot more about, and such is the case when those outside the church get on their high horses and talk about God like they know something. They usually resort to bad theology (aka the Divinci Code) or abstract philosophy and never truly engage in the task of theology, serious discussion of what God has done and said in history. We have fine “scholars” who have decided what Jesus really said and did, the Jesus Seminar (As you might know, I’m consider these guys sham scholars who have been successfully destroyed by real scholars across the liberal and conservative spectrum). Yet this what happens when people outside the church take on the task of theology. Why? Theology must begin with Faith, there’s no two ways about it. Faith is what makes theology theology, and not just philosophy or anthropology. Without faith one cannot know God, because part of knowing about God includes knowing God. Hence, those outside the church who do not have faith, cannot be theologians.
So they’re done, that’s right – ords are officially over for me. Many of my classmates have the pure joy of returning tomorrow morning to test their knowledge of polity and then from tomorrow at noon until next Thursday their ability to exegete the texts of scripture from the original languages. I on the other hand do not have that honor, as I was fortunate enough to pass those two ords last February. So, hopefully I will pass these two and move onto the next step in the process. If I fail one of them, life will go on. If I fail them both, I’ll be really disappointed in myself.
So, from now until next Wednesday I get to relax and enjoy myself before orientation kicks into high gear. There are seventy students on their way to PTS this year, and already many of them are moving into the apartments and the dorm. It’s amazing what a difference a year and a whole load of weddings can do for a place, as the dorm is absolutely packed with new students. Suddenly I feel very old as I tell people I’m a senior who is set to graduate. YIKES!
Anyway, I need to go and track down a professor and see if he’ll let me do an independent study with him.
So I’ve officially moved back in at Pittsburgh. Why is it now official? Because I have moved my computer back in.
Anyone who has been in my room can tell you that my computer is the epicenter of my room. When you walk in the most prominent object in the room is a black desk with two giant monitors on it along with a few printers, etc. Also, anyone who has visited will tell you I am quite proud of my computer and its shear size. Oh sure, moving it requires almost as much time as it takes me to move everything else I own combined, but when it is all set up, its worth. Even better, over the summer my computer (knock on wood) has fixed a little problem it developed last spring, where it would on occasion stop error (blue screen of death) while trying to load windows. I think it was a malfunction or hardware conflict of some type that when I hooked everything up this time around was resolved.
Anyway, just to be a geek I’m going to post the specs on my machine
Athlon 3000+ Processor
1024 MB of RAM
1 – 160 GB Hard Drive
2 – 40 GB Hard Drives
1 – 48x CD-ROM
1 – 16x DVD+RW
1 ATI RADEON PCI Card (32 MB)
1 ATI RADEON 7000 AGP CARD (64 MB)
2 – 19 inch monitors
1 – Samsung Laser Printer
1 – HP Inkjet Color Printer
1 – 350 Watt UPS
1 – Canon N670 Scanner
All for a seminary student… ha!
Okay, I’m going to bed.