Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

12/18 2013

Benediction for the Waiting Ones

An Advent litany from the Northumbria Community’s Celtic Daily Prayer reads,

God of the watching ones,
give us Your benediction.

God of the waiting ones,
give us Your good word for our souls.

God of the watching ones,
the waiting ones,
the slow and suffering ones,
give us Your benediction,
Your good word for our souls,
that we might rest.

God of the watching ones,
the waiting ones,
the slow and suffering ones,

and of the angels in heaven,

and of the child in the womb,

give us Your benediction,
Your good word for our souls,
that we might rest and rise
in the kindness of Your company.

I love a good benediction:
the brief, yet powerful truths,
and the charge to get busy serving and loving out in the world.

The benediction both nourishes and commissions.

My affinity for a good benediction grew during my college years when a pastor of mine offered this simple blessing, delivered with warm hands on my nervous face, “Jesus loves you, Lance, he always has, and he always will.”

I sigh now when I think about that blessing. I want to hear it again. I don’t want to merely read it. I yearn to hear, to feel that blessing. I want to know the peace and joy that come with such affection and hope. But I have to wait.

During this Advent season we practice waiting and hoping. We want to hear the Lord’s benediction, those good words for our souls. But for now, we are the waiting ones, the watching ones. Some of us might be the slow and suffering ones of the litany above. But if God’s coming is anything like it was last time, the slow and suffering will be in good company.

Written by Lance Hershberger, senior MDiv student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

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11/13 2013

The Quest for a Common Loaf

“Take and eat,” Jesus said, passing the bread around. And everybody did, except for Philip, who went away hungry, for he was allergic to gluten.

Oh, wait, that’s not how the story goes!

There is no evidence to suggest that any of the disciples suffered from a wheat allergy, but lots of Christians do today. And that makes it challenging to come up with communion elements that everyone in a given Christian community can enjoy together. Yes, there are other ways you can handle the issue.You can of course have a little plate of gluten-free wafers on the side for those who need them. But somehow it just doesn’t match the extravagant spirit of the meal itself—those forlorn little wafers for the complicated ones in the shadow of the big crusty loaf blessed and broken for everyone else.

Those of us who support the PTS chapel program have been on the quest for a common loaf for a couple of years now. We have tried many a gluten-free loaf, looking for that perfect combination of breakability and taste.

There have been some real disasters over these months: There was the loaf that was, yes, gluten-free, but exploded into a fine crumbly powder when broken, with each worshipper leaving behind a trail of bread crumbs that would make Hansel and Gretel proud. There was the one that didn’t show its true colors until a hunk of it was dipped into the cup of wine, at which point it promptly dissolved. What are you supposed to do as you watch your piece of bread sink beneath the waves never to be heard from again? The body of Christ, sunken for you? All you could do was choke out a mournful “Amen” and head back to your seat. Finally there was the one that worked beautifully for the gluten-intolerant members of our community, but it did so by adding ingredients from the nightshade family, thus rendering it off limits for another member of our community! Back to the big crusty loaf and the lonely wafers.

The turning point came a couple of months ago, when PTS M.Div. senior Charissa Howe found a recipe for gluten-free, nightshade-free, nut-free, vegan bread and did some tweaking. The final version calls for some uncommon ingredients: chia seeds, maple syrup, psyllium husks, and garbanzo flour, to name a few. It does not explode, crumble, or dissolve into the cup, and it has a wonderful taste and texture.

Four people from the PTS community have graciously been baking this new bread for our Thursday chapel service each week, passing the basket of unusual ingredients around: Kendra Smith, Charissa Howe, Shana Hutchings, and Greg Steible.  We also have some new volunteers who will soon join the rotation, but we can always use some more! If you are interested in baking bread for chapel, contact our chapel coordinator Greg Steible (gsteible@pts.edu).

So next time you come to chapel on a Thursday, take a good look at that uncommon, common loaf there on the table.

Kind of a parable, don’t you think?

Written by The Rev. Dr. Angela Hancock, Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Worship

 

 

 

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10/9 2013

The Heart of Vocation

One day when our son Silas was 6, I saw him sitting at the end of the front pew in the sanctuary. He was alone and crying, and I couldn’t do anything to help.

But he helped me glimpse the heart of the pastoral vocation.

I couldn’t do anything because I was giving the pre-worship welcome — “Welcome to worship … If you’re here for the first time, please sign the attendance pad …” My wife and co-pastor, Ginger, usually gives this greeting, but this morning it was my task.

Between glances at my script, I noticed Silas out of the corner of my eye, a frown erasing his dimple, tears coursing down his cheeks, shoulders slumped.

I’d seen this a million times before — after a skinned knee or a scuffle with his brother or a reprimand from me. Any other time I would have sped to his side, but this time I had my script to finish. So I quickened the pace. I skipped lines. I cut to the end: “Prepare your hearts and minds for worship.”

And then I committed dereliction of duty. Instead of walking to the back of the sanctuary during the first notes of the prelude and falling in line, ready to process behind the candle, cross and choir, I walked to Silas, sat down, put my arm around him and asked what was wrong.

He’d been given the job of handing out fliers for a children’s event, a job he didn’t like. And he couldn’t find his mother or older brother anywhere (I scanned the sanctuary, and neither could I). He felt abandoned.

As I listened, I started strategizing: What am I going to do? The congregation was already on the last verse of the opening hymn. The reading of Scripture and the sermon — my sermon — would come after the opening prayer. And there was still no sign of Ginger or Silas’ brother.

Then I heard a voice. It wasn’t a voice from outside me, a voice from above like the one at Jesus’ baptism. It was the voice of vocation, a voice from within. And that voice said, “Your place is here, right here.”

Then I knew, even if the lector sat down after the Scripture reading and it was my turn to stand up, I wasn’t going anywhere as long as these tears were still flowing and my son felt alone.

I leaned down to Silas and said, “I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Since that Sunday, I have replayed this scene in my mind; it has become for me a kind of parable that gives me clarity about the pastoral vocation that I have rarely had.

If the voice of vocation tells me as a father to stay near this child, the same voice tells me as a leader that the heart of the pastoral vocation is to stay near the congregation, especially in its times of abandonment, loneliness and fear.

Of course, a congregation is not a helpless child, so in that way the analogy breaks down. But both need a soul friend to companion them through times of turmoil and change.

If the writers of leadership books are right, we live in a period of rapid change in the shape of pastoral leadership. Pastors are bombarded with various images of the pastoral vocation — pastor as visionary leader, CEO, spiritual guide, head strategist, entrepreneur, rabble-rouser-in-chief.

I have tried to live into so many of these that I’ve sometimes felt that at any given time I don’t know what I’m really about.

Except when an incident on a Sunday morning disclosed it to me: You are the one who leans over to this gathered body and says, “Pledges might be down, worship attendance might be declining, a new, hip church might be starting a block away, but even when the dimple of your smile disappears, I will stay near.”

You are a companion. You are the presence that symbolizes and embodies God’s own staying-near named Holy Spirit, the one who won’t fail to stay even when we do.

The temptation, of course, is to try to fix the problem. To wipe the tears and bring back the smile. That was my temptation with Silas. Glancing around the sanctuary, I was formulating a plan to fix the situation so I could get back to doing my job. Until that deeper voice spoke and told me my job was right here.

Many of the dominant images of leadership suggest that our job is to make things better. When a church is going through a dark night, we’re told to craft a plan to get it out. And sometimes that’s what needs to happen.

But at the heart of each image of leadership, I believe, is this call to stay near. Without it, the rest is mere technique, and can appear hollow.

Staying near doesn’t mean not doing anything else. But it shapes the “anything else” and gives it integrity.

His mom and brother did show up (they’d been in the restroom). And they showed up in time for me to preach the word of Christ, who in coming near to us in the flesh, and staying near to us in the Spirit, reminds me of the heart of this vocation.

Written by the Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens, associate professor of leadership and ministry, at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. This article originally appeared in “Faith and Leadership,” a publication of Duke Divinity School.

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