Like the rest of the nation, we were shocked by the mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last week.

 Earlier this year we became aware of a new book, America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé. We thought, following a number of mass shootings in recent years, especially those this summer at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, that this was a topic that deserved attention. So we asked our friend Rick Barger, who had been a pastor at Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colorado, at the time of the Columbine High School shootings, to reflect on the book and write a review for Congregations magazine.

 And then, last Friday, came the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook, in which 26 people were killed, including 20 first graders. What had been an important topic for discussion became a pressing one. A passionate national debate on the role of guns in society is underway, and we wanted to share this reflection as a theological resource for our readers.


America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé by Jim Atwood

Review by Rick Barger

 I wish I had written Jim Atwood’s book. It not only powerfully places America’s deathly covenant with arms and violence within a sinister theological framework of idolatry, it also is a wake-up call for the church to give voice and lend action to a national obsession that is literally killing us. Atwood is thorough, well-researched, and compelling. He earned the right to write this book. His impassioned presentation leaves no holds barred.

 April 20, 1999, changed my life. I was on the scene within minutes after the shootings broke out at Columbine High School. I spent the day as a victim’s assistant, was the first face that many students and faculty members saw after being evacuated from the building, and was certainly traumatized myself by the senseless carnage and terror of the event. From that day and into the weeks that followed, I have never seen such an outpouring of grief and pain. As the lead pastor of what was described as a “ground zero” congregation, “Columbine,” as the event would be known, became a part of who I was. 

 Whether speaking with the media in the aftermath of the event, preaching at specially called worship services, or being called upon to speak in places like Maryland, Ohio, New York, and Blacksburg, I shared a very thoughtful message I had honed entitled, “Lessons from Columbine: A Theological Perspective.” My voice in the aftermath was to address the stubborn questions that surfaced immediately, such as, “How could God let this happen?” I would also speak to the difficulties communities had in finding healing after such an event. In response to the God question, I would use Luther’s theology of the cross and reframe the question into proclaiming the very presence of God in the tragedy. “God took a bullet and died in the halls of Columbine.” I would point to the empty tomb and the power of God to raise up the dead and communities who grieve. When asked about guns, I would give an answer that was not as thoughtful. “I call for a national meltdown of all weapons.” I even tweeted that mantra in the hours after the recent massacre in the theater in Aurora. Never did I get at the heart of the matter as Jim Atwood has. Again, I wish I had written Atwood’s book. 

Continue reading Rick Barger’s book review 

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Advent lectionary on the PCUSA website has Isaiah 11: 1-9 listed multiple times.  The narrative is titled “The Peaceful Kingdom” in my NRSV Bible.  The narrative offers an image of peace:  wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and lion, cow and bear.  The powerful shall be led by a little child.  A child can play alongside the most poisonous of snakes.  In this vision—it will be a promised reality because the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth—like the waters cover the sea.

This is the stuff of Christmas cards, Christmas pageants, and simple songs.  It is not the logo for living life too much of the time; rather, it is an ideal, as a sometime far-off hope, a gentle political vision; a day in December with candlelight and soft songs; careful drawings of lion in protective embrace of the innocent-eyed lamb.  These verses shaped my identity from the time I was a small child.  It seems ordinary to imagine in my little girl mind a lion and a lamb—mostly.  It seems still that is the primary relationship between animals recalled this time of year, though here in this particular set of verses—it is a lion and a wolf.  Not so much the adder and child intertwined, or the bear and the cow, the leopard and the goat.  Intriguing though to consider in my adult imagination—even now—less possible perhaps given the graphic video narratives of snakes of the world or the great grizzlies to the North or the gray wolf packs making their way through blizzard conditions. There is a tension in this tri-part book of Isaiah. 

One of a poetic vision, like this text, and another one of enemies which impede the reality of the vision requiring a resilient hope of a kind we are not accustomed to consider.  Enemies of our own making and enemies who see us with fear.  This tension weaves back and forth throughout the book.  When all else fails there is a possible possibility for a future not yet experienced because after all we know really how lions, adders, wolves and bears are driven by instinct. We need to protect ourselves from the enemies which abound all around us.

I have learned to assume nothing in this biblical text or in any other part of scripture.  I cringe when preachers are so certain in the preaching of a text.  I’d rather not hear it for they assume a certainty and a quickness which is not present in Isaiah.  Those who know this text intimately, have studied it for all their adult lives, are keenly aware of its patient and careful construction aimed toward a particular set of present moments to evoke the patient promise of participating in renewal and restoration.   It is as one scholarly author titled his book:  prophecy and propaganda. 

In Advent, if it is to be purposive, is it not to challenge? Lay the groundwork for the courage to consider a shift from constant fear and what feeds it to faith and what fulfills it?   To do so requires of us courage and patience and vulnerability and honesty.  From whence does faith come?   The point is not an idealized lion and lamb in warm embrace—the point is facing the abyss and the terror—understanding the waters and the sea as one.

Susan Kendall

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The World as Diverse: Examining Reality

On the door of the designated “Prayer Room” of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is a map of the world (a map of Voice of the Martyrs an organization founded by Richard Wurmbrand) and a sombrero, with a price tag dangling from the edge which clearly states this sombrero was Made in Mexico.  From later summer, when this grouping appeared on the door until now, I’ve pondered both the purpose and meaning intended.  Prayer as a primary practice for those of Christian faith I do understand.  Mission in the general sense I understand, though I am bothered by this particular coupling for it communicates a message of the designated other and a particular notion of martyrdom.  Without critical thinking the message seems to be that those with sombreros, outside the North American context need prayer. The sombrero covers up the northern half of the world.  Who wears these hats anyhow: I mean the ones easily purchased in a large discount chain store:   Beach-goers; kids; those in costume; interior decorators looking for something to hang on a wall, Mexican restaurants, and Taco Bell?  Wikipedia, the fastest form of quick research offers the history of the head-gear as both a cultural and national symbol originating in Spain and Mexico.  As such, both color and intricate and lovely designs and styles through time have made it much more than a poor man’s practical hat shielding one from the hot sun.   I do not know who placed this symbol on the door and the map. 

Perhaps it might be better to rotate a series of head gear and maps for that matter, many are conveniently found at the local giant-sized Target down the street.   I noticed on the news about China last evening, one distinct hat in the gathering to mark the end of one leader and the beginning of another—a lovely round shaped, animal skin, black stitching and design—not an urban-centered delegate it would seem.  Hats serve as religious symbols for many—both women and men.  The newly appointed Bishop of Canterbury is given an extraordinary hat.  Presidents don’t seem to wear hats much.  Military leaders, police, pilots wear hats—I suppose to designate both status and recognizability.  Perhaps the hats of field workers, farmers, cowboys and girls, baseball players, football teams (helmets) serve a very real purpose:   shielding the eyes from sun, protecting the head.  British royalty, well, it seems to be a contest of balance and eye-catching surprise. 

 The world of mission is no longer about hats hung on prayer room doors.  This is my view.  We are not divided up by what we wear or what we eat or where we live—there is no other.  Other:  that term, which designated someone else and not me.  Such a term scholars use over and over again to discuss the mystery or the puzzle or that which is not known.  Scholars might argue all is unknown on some level.  This makes humans by and large uncomfortable.  We find it necessary to place boundaries, hats, maps and religious views to assuage our discomfort.  It has serious consequences (thus the martyrs).

And yet:  we are not divided up at all—even by a map of martyrs. We human beings have made these boundaries, created the distinctions of time, place, event, and circumstance.  Mission and prayer and maps and hats represent the creative force in the world—one that brings us to a common and shifting center.  The simplicity calls us to this reality.  It is too simple, too real, it dazzles and blinds us—this grounded, deep rooted community of the world in our hearts and minds and bodies.  And this then is the place and the space and the complete inclusive room
(with no map for that) of and for prayer—all the hats of the world from every time and every place are there—always have been and always will be.


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BOOK TITLES COUNT as in How Will You Measure Your Life?

It was the title that piqued my interest.  For me and for many people I talk with this is a primary question; at times consciously so and at other times less so.   The book is an easy read, simple and direct and clearly written from the point of view of someone who as a member of the faculty of Harvard has done well, had plenty of opportunity, and someone I would label as privileged.  He writes on the theme of unhappiness—that each year as colleagues gather for reunions—his classmates, former students, many if not most despite professional accomplishments “were clearly unhappy.”  Perhaps as pastors, as you read this you think—well, duh—that is what pastors know all too well—people are unhappy.  And then perhaps you are thinking:  it is not about happiness, it is about something deeper, richer.   I have wondered if this is a narrative mirrored through the ages and certainly found in the biblical record numerous times.  Certainly, it is and it comes at different moments:  young, mid-life and beyond. 

I know unhappy pastors; I know happy pastors.  I know pastors who have made very poor decisions, who lack self-awareness and emotional and spiritual maturity.  And I know those who have made decisions which lead to a deep and ongoing self-awareness, a disciplined life centered in the courage to remain listeners, practitioners of habits leading to emotional and physical wellbeing and gives shape to the spiritual life.  Who have come to realize that the question:  how will you measure your life is a constant.  This is really the heart of the issue for me. 

What intrigued me in this book is the simplicity of the questions, which the author Clay Christensen says most of his colleagues “never asked, or had asked but lost track of what they learned.”   The questions begin with this phrase “how can I be sure that” and continue:  how can I be sure that I will be successful and happy in my career; my relationship with my spouse, my children, and my extended family and close friends become an enduring source of happiness, and I live a life of integrity—and stay out of jail?  The introductory phrase and the last point really grabbed me.  How to be sure—is a primary driver of our beliefs.  How to be sure—is what humans long to know and feel.  It is what the gospel of Jesus Christ comes up against again and again in my view.  Some guarantee of certainty, but if this becomes our primary way of defining faith then we are in trouble.  Faith is a guarantee of what?   And this question is the heart and soul of pastoral ministry, the defining center.  We may each of us answer the question using different words, or place emphasis on particular themes.  Nonetheless, at the core is the fundamental and most interesting and for me exhilarating question:  faith is the guarantee of what? 

 The Pew study on the state of religion in the US has evoked much comment.  Having read the entire report, my conclusion is it is not that people are not interested in faith and belief and a center for their lives—it is that what is organized as providing that—is not doing so in the way that connects to the reality of the everyday life of a growing number of folk.  What informs faith becomes the question for me?  This is why I believe doing a practical degree on the order of a DMin is a good decision.  One is able to step back and examine assumptions—to return to the simple questions.  And that takes courage.  And it leads to transformation and renewal (which I might add is the starting point of faith for each of us again and again and again).

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The Most Important Questions?

How Will You Measure Your Life? Is a book I’ve recently come across written by Harvard’s Clayton Christensen.  In this book, which has been most popular, Christensen lists  primary questions:  How can I be sure I will be successful and happy in my career; My relationships with my spouse, my children, and my extended family and close friends become an enduring source of happiness?; and I live a life of integrity—and stay out of jail? (I wonder why Harvard Business School faculty would add on that last phrase.)

Simple and surprising in my view and telling–leading me to wonder–what are my primary questions and what are your primary life questions? 

The author admits that these questions have taken him decades of hard work to answer.  I am now reading this book—having downloaded it onto my Kindle.  I am going to dialogue with each chapter in this blog.  I invite you to do the same—dialogue with each chapter of the book and share it with me.  I want to use this book in the introductory class of the Doctor of Ministry Program I teach.  There is great value in thinking through questions like these and formulating our own.  There is equal value in paying attention to our emotions and feelings Christensen’s questions elicit and more importantly the questions you might develop with regard to your own life.  There is great value in knowing your own story and context and what shapes you and your thinking and feeling and decision making.

Look for my response to Chapter One next week:  “Just Because you have feathers….”

Book Title:  How Will You Measure Your Life?
Authors:   Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon
Publisher:   HarperCollins, May 15, 2012

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Welcome to the Era of Chief Executive Customer: From the Many to the One

The above title is taken from an IBM ad appearing in Wired Magazine, August 2012.  Wow—I thought as I read the one-liner—this is becoming so true.  In the fine print of the ad it reads like a commentary, violating all the rules of snappy, precise one-liners.  It is as if IBM is outlining for the reader their philosophy of change, seeking to sell that they “get it”.   For example, because decisions are now made by customers on information directly one-on-one, companies must respond less to the market and more to the actual individual; also, in the past so much of marketing was intended to shape customers’ desires, now marketing must manage its ability to predict what the customer might want.

What might be the parallel to seminary education and to the Doctor of Ministry Degree in particular?  I know there are many options available to those seeking this degree.  As director, I work not from a marketing strategy rather from a vision or at least I hope that what we offer is shaped first and foremost by a vision—a vision of possibility and of openness.  One of the secondary themes in the IBM fine print is an acknowledgment that customers—the one customer multiplied to millions—is able to discern the commitment of companies to transparency by “their actual behavior.”

What fascinates me is the parallel language to the hope of learning; to the actions of those in pastoral ministry, and the connections between theology of the head and heart and the patterns of walking the talk—actual behavior, and doing what we say we will do.  Credibility is at stake for companies like IBM, for the church much more is at stake —it is the deep desire of folks to live authentic lives.  Pastors stand as a witness to that through the Gospel we practice, preach and teach.  We’ve opportunities before us in ministry—and we need one another in shared deep faith to honor God’s primary call on our lives and our actions. 

Check out the opportunities for study at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry Program.   From the many to the one—may God guide your steps.

 Susan Kendall, Director, DMin

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Doctor of Ministry New Focus Groups to Begin





Click on the links provided to review the calendars for each of the Doctor of Ministry Focuses listed above.  Each program is tailored to specific themes and all share a common core of addressing ministry, pastoral leadership, and the present challenges of ministry. 

PARISH FOCUS/PITTSBURGH begins July 16, 2012 in Pittsburgh.  A cohort group of nine will begin a two-year cycle of two weeks in the summer and in January.  If you find that this peaks your interest, stirs your desire to connect in new ways with colleagues and freshen your sense of call, there are a few slots left. 

PARISH FOCUS/CHARLESTON will begin in January 2013, taking place in Charleston, South Carolina.  At the invitation of a number of pastors, the program has been shaped to be a collaborative model of what pastors are searching for in an advanced degree.  Faculty from the seminary will come to Charleston for this purpose with one seminar taking place in Pittsburgh and one seminar as an online opportunity.  As we peer into the future and in many ways trust in ways we thought not possible—there remains a present reality that pastors and ministry is vital and necessary.   God continues to call women and men to this unique vocation—what, how and when and why questions—will guide the shared work of both student and faculty.  Come join in!

EASTERN CHRISTIAN FOCUS/PITTSBURGH begins in May 2013.  The DMin program has a long-standing collaborative partnership with the Antiochian House of Studies.  Seminars take place both at the seminary and at the Village near Ligonier, PA.  Coming from all over the nation and internationally, this focus welcomes those within the Orthodox traditions. 

SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY FOCUS draws on professors who have a depth of knowledge about theology and ministry.  Some are scientists, some serve in other capacities-and all have ably demonstrated their ability to bridge the two disciplines of faith and science; the narratives of science and theology which intertwine and weave a most interesting pattern.    There is a great deal of confusion about science and faith I believe leaving most people in a reactive mode, and unable to consciously decipher what they think in relation to what they practice.  The goal of the science focus is one of providing space for pastors to consider these issues directly, to be in conversation with one another and with scholars and then to return to their contexts of ministry able to provide leadership on these issues and to reclaim the conversation that has become so fraught with hyperbole and tension.  Applicants are welcome. 



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Moving Beyond One Size Fits All: Can You Hear Me Now?

Two articles on atheists have popped up on my reading list this week.  Anthony B. Pinn, a writer and researcher I like, identifies himself as a non-theistic  humanist.    The other article is of a different tone, though on the same theme of a United Methodist pastor in Florida, who has finally turned the corner and confessed publically that “I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that is totally false.”  The writer of the article, Candace Chellew-Hodge and her analysis is that MacBain presents a false dichotomy:  either you are a Christian or you are an Atheist—and the media loves the false either or construct.

The irony is that both writers call for as Pinn puts it “a bit of introspection.”  Well said.

My heart aches for the United Methodist pastor as she now publically searches for a new grounding, as she weathers the hateful responses she has received, as she deals with the after math of what must be an ongoing personal dilemma.   I wonder if it is part of the human condition to hope that in making clearcut, unequivocal decisions, we will solve the angst within?  We have been set up in some ways by the media, by our too easy understanding of faith, by our desire to place our own markers of belief, of faith and its trajectory ahead as the map, when what we need is more dare I say it, a compass.  (This is what the new media suggests—not maps, rather a compass.)  Certainty does not equal faith.    My own experience is one of a lifelong series of questions, with moments of despair and momentary atheism, amnesia, ambivalence—precisely because I am human, fragile, complex.    I have walked on water and I have sunk deep down to ocean depths.    Ok, so philosophers have been debating for centuries what constitutes meaning and purpose which inform or shape faith and our understanding of the Divine.  I am reviewing, for example, the concept or idea of the hegemony of vision, or an “ontological order of presence.”    I wish for those preparing for or in ministry the courage to see from these new angles so that those we serve in the ministerial capacity might genuinely and transparently participate in the angst of our time.  This is the point of ministry for me.  Not a one-size fits all approach; not some sort of core self we are to spend a lifetime striving to grasp or claim.  Pamela Cooper-White calls this a façade at best, or “a well-functioning persona while concealing everything, anything:  chaos, creativity, despair, multitudes.”

 I hope MacBain finds her way and a source for nourishment of her soul.  I appreciate Pinn’s clarity and honesty and careful scholarly research.  Ministry is the art of tracing patterns within human communities and the human condition.  It is the courage to be in open, transparent dialogue with grace, dignity, and compassion.  When I or others suffer—how is that to inform us and shape decisions?  Each of us answers that question in our own way, in our own context.   


Sources:  Anthony Pinn, “Can Atheist Billboards Kill Religion?”, May 1, 2012, Religious

Candace Chellew Hodge, “Clergy Come Out as Atheists,” May 2, 2012, Religious

Pamela Cooper-White, “Reenactors:  Theological and Psychological Reflections on ‘Core Selves,’ Multiplicity, and the Sense of Cohesion,” in In Search of Self:  Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Personhood, J., Wenzel van Huyssteen and Erik P. Wiebe, eds.,pps 141-162.  Eerdmans, 2011.

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Catch a Vision: Claim a Vision

Article:  “No Need for Church,” (Adam J. Copeland, Christian Century, February 8, 2012), is important reading for the future goals of the Doctor of Ministry Program of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.    The author is a pastor, and a young adult, and is immersed in ministry-a form of ministry less about the building, the pastor’s study, the correct theological stance, the correct view of everything-and more centered on what I call being present and what I call being truly present.   I mean by this last statement agenda-less. 

Is such possible?  Don’t we really all have some sort of agenda even when we say we do not?  Can we really be present to someone else-listen deeply without importing our own view of things, our own truth, or our own struggles?  I suppose not.   Not really.  It might seem as if it would then be a faith without any theology or a question of what belief is all about?

Pastors are faced with an ongoing vocational conundrum.   When is it about us; when is it about others; when is it about the institutional church; when is it not?  What is important to know-what informs knowledge (What is epistemology) and what are we to do with experience? 

There are lots of questions which shape the direction and the purpose of an advanced doctorate in my view.  It is about a deep and rich life of faith in God through Jesus Christ.  I do think Adam J. Copeland says it well at the end of his article:  “I’m grateful that when I become overwhelmed, something or someone always reminds me that I’m not called to bring God to young adults.  As I listen to the stories of their loves, I sense that God is already at work.  But will the church catch and claim the vision?”

This article is one of several in the Parish Focus Education and Formation Seminar taught this July by The Rev. William Myers, Ed.D.   If this peaks your interest, catches your hope for ministry-check out the whole of the DMin program. 

Susan Kendall, Director

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Vision: Seeing and Imagination

Vision has been on my mind.  Not that I need new glasses; I mean vision as that which motivates from within—based on hopes, dreams, ideas, failures, gifts, ability, circumstances, beliefs and faith.  Vision   based on imagination, on conversation with others, on time spent alone, time spent listening and being challenged by new ideas.  Courage to listen to ideas not one’s own, and then not skipping the step of wrapping it all in the scriptural concept of the still, small voice of the Divine. 

What leads to vision or from vision?  What comes first I’ve been pondering that of late-a kind of chicken and egg thing.  Does vision guide us in our daily life and work; do we create a vision or do we participate in one?  In the work we do-for example-my work here at the seminary-what is the vision that guides me and is it connected to the vision of the seminary?  In some ways, the previous question is easy to answer-of course-this is after all a seminary, and a reformed one at that.   And by definition then, as a seminary, it is always vision, which guides the institution.  (And if you don’t like the vision, then go where there is a vision that suits or create your own private one, or a group one of your own ideology.)  This last sentence, the one in parentheses, just because it is in parentheses, is not to be skipped over as an afterthought.  I have purposefully written it that way because it is too easy to place this notion as an incidental afterthought.  And it is all too easy to draw sweeping generalizations about our own conclusions—that is, creating our own version of the vision over and over and over.  We attribute a lack of vision to:  individualism, or a lack of Christian-based ethics (and our idea of what they are often constructing our own idols of what and why), or to culture or some sort of “other”.  Vision is not at all about sweeping generalizations, not about taking even that most common of scriptural references, particularly the one about where-there-is-no-vision-the-people-parish one and applying it to any and every circumstance either as a negative for what we don’t agree with or as a positive in support of our well-developed vision. 

This leads me to wonder about the whole notion of “a vision statement.”  This is the stuff of hundreds of minutes of work by corporations, and institutions of all sorts.   Many are quite clever, and quite good.  Able to be grasped by most people; applied to any circumstance—lipstick, cars, higher education, the meaning of life, faith and belief, vocation and career.  How did this come to be:  the history of the vision statement and its link to vision as a concept and as a guiding rubric for decision making, one in which we mix up our shades of lipstick and car models with the guiding rubric of the heart and soul and mind?  One in which the dollar sign serves as the ultimate in vision making and aim?

I feel bereft at times because vision is a precious word and center for the living of life.  I and the value of religion have been co-opted.  I do not want this co-opting to continue both personally and in the work I do and in the institution with whom I work.

One of the most sung hymns is “Be Thou My Vision,” not only because it sings well, rather because it captures the intent of the human desire for whatever might be purposeful for each of us and for all of us—“Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.”  My heart-the inner, center, motivating site of feeling, of intellect, of experience, of hope, of forgiveness, of renewal.  It is my heart and your heart, any institution’s heart, any gathered community’s heart.  Heart is the site of seemingly impossible transformation.  It is the beginning place of vision and its renewal.

Susan Kendall, Ph.D.
Director, Doctor of Ministry Program

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