Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

12/18 2014

Coping with Grief During the Holidays

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Coping-with-Grief-During-the-Holidays“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” That’s what the peppy Christmas songs tell us, but if you’ve recently suffered a loss – such as the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, or sudden unemployment – these words may ring very hollow. In fact, almost everything about the holiday season tends to ignore the complex emotions that many people experience at this time of year.

Advertisements show happy, intact families enjoying the holidays in their perfect homes, and we get the message that we should all feel that cheerful. Expressing sadness or emptiness at this time of year is discouraged, because that would really put a damper on everyone else’s “holiday spirit.” But what if you’ve lost your job and you can’t afford to buy gifts for your children this year? What if someone you love deeply has died, and Christmas will never be the same again?

As Christians, we affirm the joy and hope that are at the heart of Christmas. Yet even Jesus’ birth was not unmarked by suffering and loss. Mary, after all, became pregnant before she was married, which likely caused both her and Joseph to endure the community’s scorn. And Jesus himself, though he was God, became flesh and entered into a world of brokenness, making him subject to the full range of human emotions – including not only joy and peace, but also grief and utter abandonment on the cross.

For most people, the holiday season is a time for celebration. But for some, it is a very painful time; failing to recognize this can cause others to feel even more isolated in their grief. Here are a few suggestions for helping to ease the pain of loss (your own or someone else’s) this holiday season:

If you are grieving:

  • - Decide which holiday traditions you feel like participating in, and opt out of the rest. For instance, you may feel OK about attending a small Christmas gathering with loved ones, but not the holiday party at the office. Choose activities because you think you would enjoy them, not because others pressure you.
  • - Limit your intake of upsetting news in the media. When you are grieving, exposing yourself to too much of this kind of information can feel overwhelming.
  • - Seek support wherever you can find it. If your family or friends don’t understand what you’re going through, look for support groups in your community. These groups may help connect you with others who understand your situation because they’re experiencing something similar.

If you want to care for others who are grieving:

  • - If someone doesn’t feel like attending a holiday event, respect that person’s choice. A simple response like “I understand,” or “I’ll be thinking of you,” feels more supportive than cajoling or laying on a guilt trip.
  • - Be especially sensitive toward those who have suffered the death of a loved one within the past year. This will be the first holiday without the deceased person, and will probably feel especially difficult. A simple, handwritten note can communicate your caring in a profound way.
  • - Consider hosting a “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” service at your church. These services, held on or near the winter solstice, can be a powerful way to acknowledge the difficulty many people experience at this time of year, and to make space for individuals to bring their losses before God and the faith community.

Of course, we don’t have the power to heal the pain of loss on our own; that is God’s role. But, this holiday season, being gentle with our own and others’ grief may convey hope and peace in ways no cheery Christmas tune ever could.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.

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12/10 2014

Sowing Shalom as a Church Planter

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Showing-Shalom2On Dec. 3, 2014, church planter Dan Steigerwald presented “Sowing Shalom in Our Own Backyard” at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Dan argues that as the Church continues to lose its voice and influence across America, we face a growing urgency to re-engage our neighborhoods and cities. To do this, churches must become adept at growing local missionaries to be agents of God’s shalom. Here April Roebuck reflects on the discussion.

After reading Dan Steigerwald’s book Growing Local Missionaries, I wasn’t sure what to expect as I would get to meet him in person. In his book he shares about being agents of peace. He uses Jeremiah as the premise; more specifically Jeremiah 29:4-7. He asks the reader to imagine being an exiled Jew in a foreign land and God says to stay, build houses, increase in number, seek the peace of the city and as the city prospers you prosper. If we are to settle where we are planted that means that we have to blossom where we are planted. When we look at the text for what it really says, it tells us that it’s not about us but about God. We were created for relationship; relationship with God and relationship with one another to bring glory to God. When we remember that we are agents of God’s peace for the glory of God it changes how we look at the city and the people within it.

Dan uses a Celtic Trinity knot to demonstrate what sowing Shalom looks like. At the top point Dan describes this as the initial step of sowing peace. At this stage we immerse ourselves in the culture and listen to those we meet. I agree with this step but I’d like to push it further to say listen as a means to understand instead of listening to respond or correct. Meeting new people is not difficult. We come in contact with people every day at Starbucks, a gas station, or the waiter at a restaurant. The difficult part is getting out of our comfort zones to speak. If it’s not about us and our uneasiness then seeing someone as God sees them is easy. When we see someone for who they are then can we listen to understand why they are. The bottom right knot is a step toward befriending and connection once we have listened. The first step was to absorb as much information as possible about the surroundings and our new friend. Now we can begin to relate, converse, and share information. This then leads us to the bottom left knot of participating and enriching them as a person. While all of these steps are taking place the center circle is a place of prayer and being led by discernment through the Holy Spirit. The knot is interconnected because it is an unending cycle and practice that then becomes a way of living. What stood out for me in Dan’s presentation was the idea of prophetic living. Prophetic living calls for us to live in obedience to God. It calls for demonstrating the love of Christ to each person we encounter. To live prophetically we need to abandon our need for power and control in order to be filled with the power of God to empower others even if they never profess Christ. Can we be friends with non-Christians? Absolutely! Prophetic living is courageous, so ponder this: What does my life speak?

Active in the new church plant initiative in the Pittsburgh area, April Roebuck is a 2014 graduate of the Master of Divinity program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She is an associate minister at Mount Ararat Baptist Church. “I think sowing Shalom—meeting people where they are both physically (in the community) and spiritually—is key to advancing God’s Kingdom here on earth.”

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12/8 2014

Creating a Cross-Cultural Church

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Creating-a-Cross-Cultural-ChurchFor weeks now, social media has been filled with reactions to the grand jury decisions about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The whole nation has been talking again about race and police brutality. I’ve been hesitant to chime in. As a privileged person, I’ve thought this is a season when I’m called to listen more than speak. And listening well, I believe, leads to prayer. In this case, my prayers have mostly consisted of a simple plea: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. I pray this because my limited experience in cross-cultural ministry has taught me just how much we need the Lord’s help.

When my friend Mike Gehrling and I set out to plant The Upper Room in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pa., six years ago, we said we wanted to be a “multi-cultural” congregation. Mike had experience working in a cross-cultural setting as the English speaking pastor at a Korean congregation. I had spent two years living in the mostly African-American neighborhood, the place about which my humble and wise friend Jen Pelling recently wrote in her post “Walking While White”. Given these experiences, both Mike and I both thought we had a passion for cross-cultural ministry and a calling to lead a multi-ethnic church.

I did, and still do, believe that planting new, intentionally multi-ethnic churches is one of the best ways to combat racism in America. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often quoted as having said that “eleven o’clock on Sunday morning” is “the most segregated hour of Christian America.” But as Aaron Howard, the pastor of As One Fellowship says and shows in this video, “We’re working to change that through the love of Jesus Christ.” New congregations have the potential to break down the walls that divide us by committing from their inception to pursue cross-cultural relationships and to speak explicitly against racism and injustice. That is what we wanted to do.

When Mike and I shared our plan with the leader of one prominent multicultural church several years ago, he bluntly stated what I’m sure many others were thinking: “But you’re two white men. And you think you can plant a multi-ethnic church?” We were naïve, but we were confident of the calling God gave us. But confidence doesn’t make fulfilling a calling easy.

Two years into that journey, we changed the way we spoke about the congregation. By claiming to be multi-cultural, we were (at that time) shining a spotlight on our Korean member. What we thought was well-intentioned felt like tokenism. So we began to speak of being a cross-cultural church, a community that believes God calls us into relationships that cross cultural, ethnic, and economic barriers. Changing the language we used was easy, but our newer adjective carries an even weightier calling. A cross-cultural church will not only cross cultural barriers, it will be cruciform, shaped by the cross of Christ. To truly be a multicultural church we have to both take up our crosses and actively live counter-culturally. Those who claim to have a passion for reconciliation should expect to bear in their own bodies the passion of Christ.

According to our denomination’s low bar, we now barely meet the standard for being multi-cultural: having one-fifth our worshiping congregation representing “non-majority” people groups. It’s still an uphill battle, and thanks to the honesty and vulnerability of a few current members of the congregation, we’re beginning again to intentionally press toward becoming a more authentically cross-cultural church.

We’re not giving up because the Church is called to be a community where the “mystery of Christ” is proclaimed and embodied. The Apostle Paul wrote, “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Jesus Christ” (Eph 3:6 NIV). The Gospel has from the very beginning included a calling to unite people groups who once excluded each other. The Father’s purpose in sending the Son was “to create in himself one new humanity out of [Israel and the Gentiles] . . . to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Eph 2:15-16).

That means that this Advent, as we confess our need for Christ and our hope in his return, we wait upon the One who comes to put to death our hostilities. We are not capable of achieving reconciliation or peace or justice alone. Only the Christ, who from the cross could have cried “I can’t breathe,” can tear down our dividing walls. Only his Holy Spirit can inspire the creation of counter-culturally integrated churches. And I believe that such reconciliation is the Father’s cross-cultural purpose for us in Christ. Come Lord Jesus.

Written by the Rev. Christopher Brown (MDiv, 2008), Church Planting Initiative coordinator at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and co-pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church.

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