Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

12/18 2017

The Fight for . . . Not Against

prayers for healingIn the midst of polarizing political and denominational battles, the word “fight” may turn many of you away from reading this. However, the fight I’m describing has nothing to do with political rhetoric and is far removed from congregational committees and denominational commissions. It is a fight that no one will know I am in by looking at the smile on my face or by hearing the sermons that I preach. I am fighting for the life of our unborn daughter who was recently diagnosed with a critical congenital heart defect. I am not fighting the health care system nor am I at odds with insurance companies. I do not think that I am fighting with evil forces nor am I fighting with/or against God. Honestly, I have no idea exactly “who” my fight is against.

Perhaps, not having an enemy to fight against is what is keeping me focused. I don’t see “that person’s face” when I sleep at night. There is no awkwardness when he/she walks into the room. I have accepted that my fight is a fight “for” rather than a fight “against.” Simply put, I fight for our daughter to be born and to live. My fight daily brings me to my knees and I feel closeness to the Lord that strengthens me. My fight drives me to the pages of Holy Scripture to immerse myself into the Story that imparts hope. My fight pushes me to seek out the prayers of the saints who have allowed our suffering to become their own.

Simply put, I fight for our daughter to be born and to live.

I am not theologically naïve to believe that somehow I am wrestling with God or that my family is being tested. Instead, we are confronted by the frailty of the human condition that cannot save itself. Yet, at the same time, we are placing a degree of trust in human ingenuity that can operate on a baby’s heart soon after birth.

I believe that God is greater than critical congenital heart defects and human ingenuity. I believe that Jesus can heal. I believe that the Spirit is at work in this situation in ways we cannot see. I also believe that as I fight for my daughter’s life, I am called to fight for other children whose fate is uncertain. As I sit in different doctor’s offices, I now look at the faces of those who sit in anticipation of the “news” and pray for them. I no longer cling to my conscious ignorance toward those “sick” people who are all around me. This fight for our daughter’s life has opened me to the fight of others. At this time in my family’s life, these words of Jesus feel especially real, “ in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV).

The Rev. Keith Kaufold ’07/’12 is the lead pastor of a circuit that includes United Methodist Churches in West Homestead, Swissvale, and Millville; pastor of Community United Methodist Church in Aspinwall; and founding pastor of Eighth Avenue Place—a church plant and Christian community that confronts the ignorance that perpetuates racism and lives and ministers together in the name of Jesus Christ. Keith is currently enrolled in the master’s in social work program at California University of Pennsylvania.


11/17 2017

Did We Really Do Things Better Back Then?

On the Field

I got to the soccer field five minutes before the end of practice, in time to hear the closing strains of a plaid-skirted mother’s rant to her friend about the way they teach math these days: “So I said, why are you beginning with centimeters? How hard is it to carry the ones?” (I’m just reporting what I heard, folks, not trying to make sense of it.)

At first annoyed—get over it—I then dropped my stone and let it roll away, for I’ll admit it: I do the same thing. They did everything better when we were young.

In the Classroom

Take teaching a kid to play the saxophone.

My seventh-grade son plays the professional model saxophone my parents bought for me my senior year in high school, when they thought I was going to college to study music. That purchase was a few months before God started messing with my life, eventually inviting me to become a preacher. I played that saxophone for nine months; my mom thinks God still owes her $2,000.

But now my son plays the instrument. And I can’t believe how they’re teaching him to play. First, all the other saxophonists hold their horns between their legs, but I won’t let him. My son is going to position the thing to the side of his body, the right way—the way I was taught.

And don’t they teach kids to speak rhythms anymore? When I try to help him with a tricky rhythm, I say, “Speak it with me: 1, trip-l-et, 3-&, 4—da, one …

And he looks at me like it’s time to chat with his mother about my fitness for fatherhood.

The stone I drop hits my sore toe and tumbles a few feet away.

And in the Church Too

And we do the same thing in the church too, don’t we? It’s not just the schools that used to do it better.

I recently saw an article skipping through the fields of Facebook entitled, “Hymnals Are Back to Stay,” and all the people I know who know that singing out of hymnals is the right way to do it—the way they did it back when people still came to church—were smiley-emoji-ing the heck out of the comments section.

None of us, of course, can remember the time when hymnals were the new technology, and I can only imagine what the nostalgia-prone set was saying then. It might have gone something like this: “Remember when we all used to have the same seven hymns memorized, and we sang them over and over again? How unfortunate for the kids these days—they’ll have to sing something new almost every week!”

And now, having recently commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I can’t help but think how much better Christianity was back in the 16th Century, when Protestants really believed in sola scriptura (none of this consulting-experience-to-figure-out-the-truth stuff), and justification by faith alone was still fresh and exciting, and we actually killed the people we disagreed with rather than merely crucifying them online. I’m getting misty-eyed just thinking about it.

We all do it, I’m sure, about one thing or another—reminisce about how we used to do things—so maybe we should all drop our stones.

And while we’re at it, maybe we should toss away the stones in our other pocket as well, the ones we’re saving for those poor, misguided people who actually think the way we do things now is just fine, even better than it used to be—however unimaginable that seems to some of us.

The soccer practice was wrapping up. The coach was giving the final pep-talk to the girls circled around her, and that gave the plaid-skirted mom time for just one more complaint, this one about the teacher’s eschewing flash cards in teaching multiplication tables.

“She just thinks they can use a calculator! And so I went out and bought flash cards, and I’ve been quizzing Suzy every night because I want her to know them like this,” she says, snapping rapid-fire to indicate the speed with which she learned her multiplication tables as a child. “When she sees ‘8 × 3’ I want her to think right away: ‘16.’”

Ah, those were the good ole’ days, weren’t they?


The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife, Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.


9/22 2017

The Master of Divinity Will Challenge You

master of divinity (mdiv) degree studentGetting my Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is a lot like the video for Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”.

No, really, stay with me here.

If you’ve not seen the video, it features Talking Heads’ lead singer, David Byrne, wearing an ill-fitting suit with a bowtie and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that would make George McFly jealous. He is visibly uncomfortable, sweating, seemingly out of breath, engaging in what could charitably be called dancing against a wavy turquoise background. Byrne spasms arrhythmically, epileptically, twitching and lurching like a marionette trying to avoid enemy fire, all the while talk-singing in a cadence reminiscent of a televangelist. The third verse is the one that always sticks with me long after the song itself has faded:
“And you may ask yourself, ‘What is that beautiful house?’

And you may ask yourself, ‘Where does that highway go to?’

And you may ask yourself, ‘Am I right? Am I wrong?’

And you may say to yourself, ‘My God! What have I done?’”

Insecurity in Answering Your Call

Offhand, that probably doesn’t seem like a ringing endorsement of the seminary experience. It’s fraught with imagery of the unknown and the ambiguous, vacillation and doubt, strangers and the strange. Those are hardly the creature comforts we seek out.

In this I am heartened by just how few of our biblical role models seemed to have any idea what they were doing when they answered their call. Abraham leaves his country and kindred and father’s house on a wing and a prayer, trusting in a vague promise in which God doesn’t even specify where Abraham and Lot will end up (Gen 12:1-5). He even laughs when God promises he and Sarah a child, a true heir, in their advanced age (Gen 17:15-18). Yet through all this turbulence, Abraham plows forward and believes, “and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).

Moses, of course, doesn’t see himself fit to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He asks God what he shall tell the Israelites when they ask for the name of the God who sent him, and God replies, “‘I Am who I Am’”—which to me has always sounded remarkably like, “Mind your own business, Moses.” (Ex 3:14) It’s not hard to empathize with the uncertainty Moses must have carried with him, and yet, though he considers himself “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex 4:10), he leaves the lap of luxury to liberate his people into the unknown.

That’s not even to mention the prophets. Before Isaiah says, “‘Here I am; send me!’” (Isa 6:8) he proclaims, “‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (6:5). Jeremiah protests, “‘Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy’” (Jer 1:6). Gideon opines, “‘My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (Judg 6:15). The young Samuel receives a vision from God but is afraid to tell it to Eli. (1 Sam 3:15) Jonah, of course, lets his boots and boat speak for him. All of them are filled with insecurity and doubt that would make David Byrne dash his bowtie to the ground and slink off in defeat. Nevertheless, in the midst of their reservations, they struggle to their feet and deliver God’s word.

Seminary Will Challenge You

See, here’s the thing. Even though “Once in a Lifetime” conjures up all these uncomfortable, even jarring existential questions, it sticks in your head. The sum total of those troublesome parts is much less than the effect of its magnificent whole. That’s been my experience in the Master of Divinity program at Pittsburgh Seminary. I make no bones about this when talking to prospective students. You will be stretched. You will be challenged. You will hurt. And when you somehow garner the briefest moment of spare time, you will realize that, even though our seminary education might call us into indifferent or hostile parts of the world; even though we might be asked to go down unfamiliar highways into twisted alleyways and sneering cul-de-sacs; even though we might encounter new traditions and ideas and ways of seeing God that force us to reevaluate what we once pigeonholed as right and wrong; even though we might well, in the course of ministry to a world that increasingly needs and yet does not want ministry, whisper to ourselves, “My God, what have I done?”—that very same God is there with us through trial and travail. It is only when we occasionally step back from our dimly-lit mirrors that we can see the grace of God transforming our uncertainties into something beautiful, something marvelous, something glorious.

Same as it ever was.

Michael Ondrick is a second-year Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, originally from Belmont, Ohio. He is currently discerning a call to international mission, specifically that dealing with the addicted and mentally ill. A graduate of The Ohio State University, his hobbies include performing and writing improv and sketch comedy, professional wrestling, music both worshipful and secular, and cryptozoology. His favorite parts of the Bible are the weird parts.

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