Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

5/13 2016

Of Sin and Community

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Bonhoeffer, community and sinCommunity tends to be quite the buzzword in the Christian context. From my early days occupying the halls of my more conservative-leaning institution of higher learning to my current days roaming an institution a bit more open to hosting the voice of both ends of the spectrum, the ideals and reality of community continue to be discussed.

Do we have it? How do we get it? How do we give or get it if we have or do not have it?

We form committees, student groups, social events, forums, or invite some people to have a drink at the bar. We inhabit coffee shops and restaurants, read pages of books by experts, and keep our eyes peeled for the perfect and right solution. Much time, energy, and conversation is spent on how do we create community, shape community, or better the community.

Unfortunately, little time, energy, and conversation is spent talking about sin.

In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that an essential component to community is the confession of sin, especially the confessing of sin to one another. For Bonhoeffer, Christians can worship all they want, pray with one another, fellowship, be on every committee in the church, and still be utterly lonely. This is exactly what sin wants to happen. Bonhoeffer says:

“Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown.”[1]

Thus a cycle is created. Sin which is hidden grows roots which pull each woman and man away from community. In their isolation, whether self or community inflicted, they remain in their sin allowing the sin to pull them further down the path of pain, death, and despair. It keeps us broken.

However, confession breaks through the cycle of sin. Confessing to one another, naming the sin we have committed, rids sin of its power over us and we are able to break through to the cross. Or maybe the light of the cross breaks through to meet us. Confession reminds us that we need healing and we need a Savior—desperately and achingly need a Savior. Like a dry and barren land aches for drops of rain so too our bodies crave to intimately know redemption. And grace, parceled in the frail and broken bodies of other Christians.

So then someday, when we are asked if there is community where we are at, we will answer, “Yes, because I have sinned against God and my brothers and sisters in thought, word, and deed, and every time I confess, they do this amazing thing of forgiving me.”

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 112.

Rebecca Dix ’15 is a Pittsburgh Theological Seminary MDiv grad and ThM student who hopes to one day combine her loves of food and God in an ordinated ministry position.

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4/27 2016

Pastoral Care and Counseling to Help Families Heal

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pastoral counseling helps families healWithin the ministry of pastoral care, healing from brokenness is a central goal, both for individuals and for the families of which they are a part. Although pastoral care can certainly be extended at times of great joy in a family’s life (such as at the time of a marriage or the birth of a new baby), families most often feel the need for pastoral care and counseling during experiences of brokenness in their lives together. Of course, brokenness within a family may take many forms: caring for an elderly parent; grief following the death of a loved one; divorce or familial estrangement; the loss of a job; abuse or violence.

In the midst of such experiences, individual pastoral caregivers and caring faith communities are called to facilitate healing in families’ lives. Healing, in this sense, focuses on the restoration of wholeness and fullness of life, and does not necessarily mean “cure.” In other words, it may not always be possible to fully restore a family’s health or wholeness, or to reverse the family’s current situation in any meaningful way. Instead, in this way of thinking, healing means helping people overcome an impairment by helping to lead them to a place beyond their previous condition. It may also mean assisting families to move to a higher level of spiritual insight and awareness of God’s love by integrating their experiences of brokenness with their faith.

To be clear: healing does not come directly from individual caregivers or faith communities, or from any particular approach they might take in their pastoral care ministry. It is God who heals, but there are many things caregivers and communities can do to facilitate healing in the lives of the families they serve. Here are just a few examples of what this healing work might look like:

  • Developing a pastoral care network in your congregation so that lay people can be trained to care for one another more effectively, even as care is also provided by those serving in official pastoral roles. Stephen Ministries is one of the most comprehensive and well-respected programs for training members of faith communities in pastoral care, but there may be other good programs available in your area. If you’re not sure where to start, consider contacting the local judicatory staff for your church’s denomination to see if they have specific recommendations.
  • Including attention to the reality of family brokenness in the worshipping life of the community, perhaps by naming some of these struggles in the prayers of the people, in pastoral prayers, or in sermons. For many families, having their challenges acknowledged (in a general way) in worship helps them to feel less alone, and to let go of the notion that church is for perfect people. One of the most powerful ways of helping families heal may simply be communicating, in worship and in other places in the congregation’s communal life, that you don’t need to “have it all together” before coming to church.
  • Hosting support groups in your church for various kinds of family issues (grief, divorce, parenting, etc.) You may have people on your congregation’s staff with the expertise to run these groups themselves, or you may simply wish to invite community organizations to consider holding their support group meetings in your space and making sure your members know such groups are available. Either way, this can be another important means of conveying that the church is a place for people to bring their whole selves, and that healing can be found in the midst of the faith community.

Just as family brokenness can take many forms, healing from brokenness can take many forms as well. The key is to figure out what kind of healing work makes most sense in your own ministry context. In the end, the goal is not to take one particular approach in our ministries of pastoral care and counseling, but simply to make sure we are communicating—as individual caregivers and as caring Christian communities—that the lives and struggles of families are important to us, and that God’s healing is available to all who seek it.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.

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4/26 2016

The First 50,000 Harriet Tubman Bills

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Harriet-TubmanDo some quick math. 50,000 $20 bills is…

$1,000,000.

That first million has an important historical significance worth remembering. I’ll explain.

I’ve been fascinated by Harriet Tubman for some time, and several years ago had the chance to do some research and writing on her life. Her story is quite interesting.

Harriet Tubman was born as Araminta Ross in the early 1820s. Christianity was an important force in her life from her childhood. In her early 20s, she married John Tubman. She began to go by her mother’s first name and her husband’s last name, and thus came to be known as Harriet Tubman.

When her owner died in 1849, his will set Harriet free. Unfortunately, in addition to his will, he also left behind outstanding debts. Realizing that she would likely be sold to settle those debts, Harriet chose instead to escape.

Over the next 20 years, Harriet became an unstoppable force. According to some estimates, Harriet helped more than 300 people reach freedom. That record made her the most successful liberator in the United States and eventually earned her comparisons to Moses. She gained a reputation as a powerful speaker on behalf of abolition.

During the Civil War, she served as a scout and spy for the Union. After the death of John Tubman, Harriet married a former slave and Civil War veteran Nelson Davis. She then shifted her focus to advocating for women’s suffrage. She also created a home to care for the aging and in particular for those who had nowhere else to go.

In 1913, the liberator, speaker, spy, visionary, and scout died as a resident of the facility she had built. She left behind two biographies that she worked with a friend to complete and publish over the years.

As someone who cared for the aging, who freed slaves, and spent her life fighting for equality, why does that first 50,000 matter so much?

Because in the 1860s, Harriet was so notorious for her own escape and her role in freeing others that there was a bounty on her head. To be more accurate, there were many bounties on her head. The total value was somewhere around $40,000.

But that $40,000 in 1860 would be worth significantly more today. By some estimates, it would be worth roughly $1,000,000. Harriet had a bounty of $1,000,000 on her head! By the time 50,000 $20 bills are in circulation, something fascinating will have occurred. Instead of having a bounty of $1,000,000 on Harriet Tubman’s head, we will have a picture of Harriet Tubman’s head on $1,000,000.

I wonder what she would think about this.

Some have pointed out that Harriet Tubman might be less than thrilled to have her face put on money. Her own life’s work was more concerned with real justice than poetic justice. Others have argued that this symbolism represents a significant moment in American history, one we should celebrate, not downplay.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be an “either or”. Maybe this news can be both a reminder for us of the significance of Harriet’s legacy and call to each of us to work for what’s right.

Either way, the moment that 50,000th bill is printed, something truly amazing will have happened. It will commemorate the legacy of Harriet Tubman—but whether it calls us to battle injustice, we’ll have to wait and see.

The Rev. Derek Davenport ’05 is director of enrollment at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and program co-director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute. Derek is also a PTS alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program after which he served at a church in Orlando, Fla., for five years. Besides working with prospective students, he serves as a guest preacher in Western Pennsylvania, researches church symbolism on his website, and tweets at @DerekRDavenport.

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