Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

8/28 2020

Evangelism: Asking the God Question and Listening for the Answer

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listen to God in church planting

I have a spiritual director. She is someone I meet with monthly who asks the “God question” in my life. I’ve learned a million things from this little practice of ours—several of them life changing—but the first thing I learned is that I hear God better when someone is listening with me. I see God more clearly, when someone is looking out at the world with me, also expecting to see God there—moving and offering and welcoming. Often in our sessions—when I start to assume all is lost—she asks again, “so where is God?” And I am forced to imagine again that there is some way out of this human mess I am in other than my creativity, diligence, or strength. And that is not easy work. I don’t know how to imagine a hope that doesn’t come from a concrete, plausible likelihood. When I most need the Good News, I really struggle to imagine that God is working and will show up when I need it, even if I see no evidence of that coming toward me through a familiar, practical, or logical channel.

 

God is Moving in the World

My spiritual director sits quietly and waits—sure that I will be given what I need, sure that I will be able to see God moving somewhere and be able to call it out. And while this exercise is hard, while it sometimes even feels delusional, there is always a moment in there, when something starts to shift in me. I start to think—“okay God, wherever you are, if ever you are—I actually can’t get out of this human mess with my creativity, diligence, or strength. I know, because I’ve tried, I’m frustrated, and it isn’t working. That is why I’m talking about it in spiritual direction. So where are you? What are you going to do about it?”

Now God never says, “I AM HERE! I am doing exactly what you wanted! It is fixed! Go have a snack!” But something happens. I start to remember that it is not all mine to fix. I start to remember that it is God’s world and God is moving in it. I start to be able to breathe next to all the things I’m worried about, and I learn how to live alongside all the things I can’t fix. They belong to God and not to me.

 

Listening to God in Church Planting

When I talk about church planting, this is the evangelism space I hope we as conveners might be able to open with each other, and with the people in our communities. As we gather, can we watch together for God to move? As we listen closely to each other’s lives, can we dare to ask the question—where is God? What is God doing here? Can we find comfort in asking it together? Could new faith communities be new spaces of courage to look together at what God might be up to?

This is my prayer for this work—that we might have eyes to look for God and ears to listen as we do the work of gathering those who trust, those who doubt, and those who are willing to bravely ask the questions. For it is in those holy spaces that I have encountered the converting truth of the Gospel.

 

The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.

 

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7/29 2020

A Psalm for Every Occasion

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Psalm 118

Christians have turned to the Psalms over and over again throughout the history of the church. These ancient prayers have provided millions of people with just the right words to express their powerful emotions of agonizing grief, frightening confusion, or exultant joy. These are more than just beautiful words—they seem to tap into some of the most important aspects of what it means to live by faith.

This year, I was taught a framework that helps to describe how the Psalms relate to the universal spiritual journey. I learned it in a class taught by Dr. Peter Choi at the Newbigin House of Studies. If you haven’t heard of this program, it’s a nine-month online fellowship that provides theological formation by exploring the spiritual, public, and missional dimensions of the Christian life. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is a partner seminary for this fellows program, so the fellowship provides credit for PTS’s master of divinity and other degree programs.

 

Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation

In the program’s Spiritual Theology course, we discussed some content from Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. In this wonderful commentary, Brueggemann supplies a framework for better understanding both the Psalter (the entire collection of the Psalms) and the spiritual life: orientation, disorientation, and new orientation.

According to this view, psalms of orientation correspond to seasons in life or faith marked by well-being. These are psalms of creation that look upon and celebrate God’s reliably ordered universe. Psalms of disorientation correspond instead to seasons of anguish, suffering, and death; these are poems marked by painful disarray. Finally, psalms of new orientation have almost a surprised tone as they rejoice in new gifts of life from God.

But Brueggemann draws our attention even more closely to the transitions between these seasons (and their associated Psalms). He calls these the two decisive moves of faith: from orientation to disorientation, and from disorientation to new orientation. The first move in the ancient Jewish context would have been evident in the people’s initial enslavement in Egypt, their unforeseen difficulties in the wilderness, the arrival of new enemies outside their borders, and the cataclysmic move to exile. In the early Christian tradition, the clearest move from orientation to disorientation was the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This type of move is captured in the Psalter with psalms of lament.

The other decisive move of faith is from disorientation to new orientation. Ancient Jews were no strangers to hope. In Egyptian bondage they had prayed for deliverance, and eventually they would enter a promised land. As exiles in Babylon, they had dreamed of a return to that land of promise; while the new orientation might not have been what they expected, they were allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild and live in the city. For early Christians, of course, the disorientation of Christ’s death gave way to the new orientation of his resurrection. This movement of faith rings clearly in psalms of thanksgiving.

 

Psalms and Christian Spirituality

This is perhaps why the Psalms have been so useful in the spirituality of both individual Christians and communities of faith. They provide prayers calibrated to the decisive seasons and movements of faith and life: from a comfortable but naïve orientation to a bewildering and wretched disorientation; then, blessedly, from that pain and confusion to a new place of acceptance and gratitude. And, of course, over the span of a person or community’s life, these seasons and movements will occur many times.

Which season of life and faith are you currently experiencing? Does your heart need to cry out in anger or grief? Are you overcome by unexpected grace and love?

In any of these seasons, may the Psalms help you discover, name, and express to God what is in your mind and heart.

 

Jon Mathieu is a Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. While his background is in mathematics, he has been engaged in ministry in Pittsburgh for more than a decade. Most recently he has served as a writer and program director at an evangelical church. Sensing God was leading him into new ways of thinking, believing, and loving, he became a fellow at the Newbigin House of Studies and a student at PTS. His writing has appeared on RelevantMagazine.com.

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5/7 2020

Learning Online Brought us Closer to Jesus

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MDiv student learning onlineYears ago, I attended a retreat to prepare for an extended overseas mission trip. As we walked into the retreat center, we were greeted with a large, hand-written sign that read: “Change is our friend who brings us closer to Jesus.” The mission coordinator wisely knew that our venture would bring language differences, culture shock, reverse culture shock, loneliness, and confusion. As with any challenges, we could choose to view them as curses or opportunities.

I am reminded of this catchphrase now in this challenging season of global pandemic and physical distancing. I am reminded of it day in and day out because I am fortunate to be an M.Div. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. PTS is a place where this season of change is bringing us closer to Jesus.

 

It would be impossible to capture all the ways that this community has embraced change and experienced God’s grace in the midst of the global crisis.

As I survey my own gratitude, I think these three aspects are worth celebrating:

 

Swift, Clear, and Compassionate Leadership

As soon as it became clear that we needed to brace for a global pandemic, PTS President Dr. David Esterline began to clearly and frequently communicate with the student body about the school’s response. There was never confusion about whether classes would be in-person or online, whether campus would be open or closed. I was comforted not merely by the clarity and frequency of the communication, but also its content. The Seminary’s Coronavirus Response Team has taken this crisis very seriously and implemented wise measures to keep us safe. One of these decisions was to move all classes this semester to pass/fail; this signaled to me that our leaders care not only about our physical health or academic metrics, but indeed about our holistic well-being.

 

Generous and Adaptable Faculty

Under regular circumstances, our seminary so values the classroom experience that it does not offer classes online. I think this is a strength in normal times, but it must have been a liability when it was time to abruptly shift all classes to online environments! Yet the professors (and IT department) worked extremely hard to move our classes online. There has been no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Some classes meet synchronously on Zoom, while others utilize discussion forums. Others are hybrids of e-mails, online lectures, forums, and video calls! While I can’t speak to every PTS faculty member’s response, my professors have been patient, hard-working, and gracious as we explore new methods of teaching and learning.

 

Amazing Students Learning Online

The students of PTS are incredible. Even before the campus was closed, a student had organized a Facebook group to help coordinate needs and services within the Seminary community. There is also a daily video challenge; every day, a different student makes a short video about themselves so that the rest of the students can get to know them better. Our student government has scheduled a weekly video lunch hangout and a weekly video game night. Of course these online interactions are a somewhat sad substitute for spending time together in person. The students miss each other! This speaks to the strong bonds of trust, respect, and affection among the students here.

How long will the pandemic last? What will change in our health care system, government, and economy? As seminarians, we might have more specific questions about classes, teaching formats, campus closures, and student life. The frustrating thing about a season like this one is that we don’t have any of the answers. It’s a bit like preparing for an overseas trip.

But when gifted administrators and faculty exhibit wisdom and grace, and when students band together in encouragement and love, one thing is certain: these changes will continue to bring us closer to Jesus.

 

Jon Mathieu is a Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. While his background is in mathematics, he has been engaged in ministry in Pittsburgh for more than a decade. Most recently he has served as a writer and program director at an evangelical church. Sensing God was leading him into new ways of thinking, believing, and loving, he became a fellow at the Newbigin House of Studies and a student at PTS. His writing has appeared on RelevantMagazine.com.

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