The Story of a New Church, part 2

This is a continuation of part 1.

As I explained at the end of the previous post, I had felt convicted to pray for one week about whether or not God was calling me to plant a church with Chris. In my gut, I was hoping that after the week of praying, Chris and I would have a conversation where we both learned that the other had felt called and been praying for the previous week. That didn’t happen. Mainly, from my perspective at least, because I never brought it up in conversation.

I was trying to think about it from Chris’s perspective. I thought to myself, “How would I react if someone came to me and said, ‘Mike, I’ve been praying and I think God is calling you to plant a church with me.’?” I couldn’t bring myself to say anything, so I committed myself to continue praying daily. I also got a little bit more (too?) bold in my praying. I often found myself demanding that if God was behind this, then He needed to make it clear to both me and Chris.

A few weeks later, Chris and I traveled with several of our classmates to a gathering of the Company of New Pastors at the PC(USA) headquarters in Louisville. Two important things happened for me over this weekend. Firstly, I told Chris that I had been praying, although I didn’t mention the part about planting a church together. Secondly, as I was meeting other seminarians, I would tell them that I was looking into doing New Church Development after graduation. This was the first time I had told other people about that dream, and I found it liberating, and somewhat empowering. By the end of the weekend, I was convicted that I needed to pursue this call more actively.

So, the week I got back I sent an email to Vera White. Vera is the staff person at Pittsburgh Presbytery for New Church Development. I asked Vera for some resources that could help me with my discernment. I expected to receive an email with some web resources and maybe a bibliography. To my surprise, I instead got an invitation to meet with Vera in person. She gave me a good bit of advice, but what she stressed most was the importance of prayer. She encouraged me to find other people to pray for and with me to aid me in my discernment. I immediately knew who I was supposed to ask.

I talked with Chris about Vera’s advice, and asked if he’d like to start praying together. He was eager to, and so we began praying together every Monday morning. The meetings started out with us each praying for the other, as both of us were discerning a possible to New Church Development. That didn’t seem to last too long, though. Within a couple of weeks, we found ourselves thanking God for the partnership he had called us into and asking Him to use it as he desired. Then, one Monday morning in November, Chris prayed out loud, “God, make it clear if you’re calling us to plant a church together.”

I couldn’t believe what I heard. Chris just prayed about the same thing that I had been praying about for over a month. Was he praying about too? Did it just pop into his head randomly? For whatever reason, I hadn’t told Chris that I had been praying that same prayer, but I was encouraged and excited to see that God had placed it on Chris’s heart as well.

Oddly enough though, we said “Amen” and went on to praise band rehearsal, neither one of us mentioning that we had just offered our futures to God for the possibility of planting a church together. Eventually, though the conversation would happen.

 

To be continued…

 

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Achieving Dreams

I’m currently reading The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, the book inspired by his now-famous “last lecture”given at CMU. He talks a lot about achieving your childhood dreams, and it got me thinking about a post I had written on my old Xanga blog about this time last year, where I listed some of my lifetime goals. I reposted them below, but updated some of them. So this really isn’t a repost so much as it is a 2nd rev. ed.

1. Master Public Transportation. This was actually more of a silly short-term goal. At this time last year, I was planning on going to New York City with some friends. It was my sixth trip to NYC, and for the previous five, I had to rely on others I was traveling with to figure out which subway line(s) to take. At one point on my fifth trip, I tried to lead the group, and I failed miserably. At one point, we were standing at the station, staring at a subway map, and the guy operating the train actually stopped and said, “where are you going? You need help.” For some reason, the subway system mystified me, as if it’s this really tricky puzzle. Last year I was determined to solve the puzzle, and I did! I was actually able to figure out which subway lines/trains to take to get from Time Square to the World Trade Center, and later from my hotel to the college campus where Redeemer Presbyterian Church meets. I was thinking about crossing this off the list, but I’ve decided to edit the goal to “Use Public Transportation.” Maybe it’s because I tend to be stubbornly independent, but I drive everywhere, even when living at the seminary. Once I move to Squirrel Hill in August, I’ll have easy access to bus lines, plus I’ll probably be able to walk to work. (Although with church planting, “work” doesn’t have any definite location yet…)

2. Get a Doctorate. Now that I got my MDiv, ministry is my next step. A few professors at seminary, though, have encouraged me to consider PhD. work, though. The Church needs faithful pastors who are also faithful theologians. I think PhD. work is a part of my pursuing that. Before that, though, I might pursue another degree. At commencement, I received an award for displaying promise in pastoral ministry. The award is pretty big, but the money is designated for continuing education, and I need to use it all up in three years. I’ve been thinking about, and I could use the money just for conferences and auditing classes, which would be good, but I’m also thinking, “why not get a degree out of it?” I’m probably not going to be ready  (or willing) to go after a PhD before the award expires in three years, so I’m thinking I’ll use the money towards a Master of Sacred Theology degree at the Seminary. If I go part-time, I’m pretty sure I could complete the degree in three years, and I could use the thesis required for that degree to begin focusing interest for doctoral studies (likely something to do with ecclesiology (theology of the Church) in Luke-Acts.

3. Write a book and have it published. This in all probability won’t happen until 2. is accomplished, but I’m already thinking about what topics and issues most interest me, and what areas I could actually contribute to. Like I mentioned above, I’m really interested in ecclesiology, mainly because I think ecclesiology may be the weakest aspect of Reformed theology (illustrated by the number of times Reformed denominations have split; how many brands of Presbyterian are there now?). I’m also interested in theology of Scripture, because I also think that our theology of Scripture is becoming increasingly weak in the contemporary Church, and not just in the Reformed tradition.

4. Learn my family history. I know very little about my family, which has always bothered me. I love talking w/ my relatives about my great-grandparents who were the first generation in my family to come to America. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about what happened before they came. I do know that my Great-Grandfather Wrono came from Germany as a stowaway when he was a child. He arrived in NY not knowing a word of English. No one knows how (he refused to talk about it), but he managed to make his way to Detroit, where he knew he had an aunt. He found their house (again, no idea how) and knocked on the door. His aunt had no idea who he was, and he couldn’t say since he only spoke German. So she closed the door.. and he knocked again. This happened several times over until eventually his aunt discovered who he was and let him in. I’ve also learned a few other stories in the past year. Apparently my Great-Grandfather Bernet came to America from Switzerland to run from the law. (No one in the family spoke of or wrote down what the actual crime was.) I’ve also learned that I’m the descendant of someone who fought and was wounded in the Civil War. I love learning these stories. I always find myself admiring my ancestors (except for that running from the law part….), and I’m really hoping there’s more stories about them available for me to learn.

5. Travel. There’s a bunch of places I’d love to see. Going along with 4., I’d like to learn more about my heritage in general, so at some point I want to go to the three country’s of my family’s origin: Germany, Lithuania and Switzerland. Plus, having worked in a Korean church, I’d like to go to Korea at some point. Oh, and it would be cool to go back to Vietnam again… and France and England. I’m not so sure when I’ll actually be able to afford to do any of this, but I really want to make it happen.

6. Learn to play guitar. In a way, this kind of goes along with my family history. My grandfather lived in Florida, and I rarely got to spend time with him. But, he and I shared a love for music, especially singing. He actually sang on TV for a local Catholic show. When he died several years ago, my grandma gave me all of his sheet music. Since he was a bass and I’m a tenor, most of it’s of no real practical use to me, but I love going through it and looking at what he sang and reading some of his rehearsal notes. I was doing this the other day, and I came across a folder of handwritten lyrics and guitar chords. I had forgotten that my grandpa played guitar, too. I had always wanted to learn to play guitar, but now I think it would be a really cool way of honoring his memory if i could learn guitar and then play some of the songs he had written out. Again, I’m not sure when I’ll actually get to start on this goal. I suppose the first step is going to be investing some time and money on lessons, and a guitar, for that matter.

That’s it for now. I think it was actually a good exercise to revisit this post a year later. I actually had to revise more than I thought, and discovered that I had, intentionally or not, made some progress on this. The subway experience in NY helped me master public transportation, I finished my MDiv and have become more interested on a particular area for doctoral work and writing, and I learned some more about my ancestors. Numbers 5 and 6 have been on the backburner, but someday…

Weird Dreams

In the past week or so, I’ve had a series of three really strange dreams. I dream that I’m a student taking calculus. In the first dream, I received my text book and we learned the first lesson.

In the second dream a couple nights later, I arrived in class and realized that I hadn’t done the homework. I tried to explain, “I’m a religion student! I don’t do homework! I read!” I woke up from the dream in a panic and had to remind myself that I really wasn’t taking calculus.

In the third dream, I’m at home getting ready to go to class, and I’m kicking myself for not doing the homework again! I decide to get to class early and complete it, but I go outside and realize that it’s snowing and I’ll have to use my spare time cleaning my car off. Once again, I woke up in a panic.

What I find incredibly bizarre about these dreams is that this is the first time that I’ve had multiple dreams that build off one another in chronological sequence. I distinctly remember being on lesson 1 in the first dream, then lesson two in the second, and lesson three in the third.

So, I’m trying to figure out what these dreams mean, and I’ve come up with a few possibilities:

1.) I miss school already. I graduated about 2 weeks ago, and my life as a student is over. Maybe I’m in denial and, as stressful as it is at times, I still want to be a student.

2.) I’m anxious. Going into church planting doesn’t exactly offer much job security, and there’s no guarantee things will go as expected. This has been on my mind a lot over the past few months, so maybe these dreams about panicking over unfinished homework are subconscious expressions of my anxiety.

3.) I feel inadequate. This may be a combination of 1 and 2. I’m through with being a student (at least for the time being) and now I’m entering into a form of ministry that, frankly, seminary doesn’t entirely prepare you for.

4.) I miss calculus. I kicked butt when I took calculus my senior year of high school; I scored nearly perfect on every exam…. and then I pursued ministry. Maybe these dreams are me longing to go back to what’s comfortable.

Well, it’s getting late. Maybe tonight will be lesson four…

How I’ve Changed in Seminary

About 2 weeks ago, I graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary with my MDiv. I’ve been thinking about the past three years, getting to know classmates and professors in class, the late night study sessions for exams (usually Dr. Gagnon’s), trips to Five Guys or Sharp Edge, the mission trip to Southeast Asia, and a multitude of other experiences, and it’s got me to thinking about the ways in which I’ve changed because of my experience at PTS. So, in no particular order, here are some of the ways in which I’m a different person than what I was 3 years ago.

1.) I no longer call myself conservative. Granted, a lot of people would probably still call me conservative, but I don’t like the label. When I started seminary, I proudly called myself “theologically conservative” and (since I also considered myself reasonably intelligent) expected to win every debate with every “theologically liberal” person I ran into. The (first) problem (among many) that I realized with this was that I had no idea who the “theologically liberal” people were. In my mind, a “liberal” was someone who consistently and across the board had the opposite views I held to. I began to realize that no such person existed. The more I learned, the more I understood that I was thinking in very two-dimensional (maybe even one-dimensional) terms. Coming out of Grove City College, a school with a considerably theologically homogeneous religion faculty, “liberal theology” was an abstract concept of which I knew no adherents. When I arrived at PTS, which is considerably more diverse theologically, I grew frustrated when I would talk with a person and learn that they had a low view of Scripture and yet still believed in the exclusive Lordship of Jesus Christ, or supported homosexual ordination and yet was pro-life. I began to realize that people were much more complicated and three dimensional than the labels “conservative” and “liberal” allowed. I also began to notice that the labels are way too polarizing to be using in the Church. So, though some may still call me conservative (though I suspect fewer would now than when I started seminary) I’m no longer one of them.

2.) I’m more capable of an original thought. When I started at seminary, I relied a lot on things I had heard before. In college, I had read and heard a lot of Christian teaching that was apologetically focused, so I thought that I was equipped with an answer to everything. Those answers lasted about 1 term. I soon found myself being challenged to think beyond the simplistic, cut-and-paste answers that I had memorized. As a result, I had to think for myself.

3.) Consequently, I’m more confident in my own abilities. I managed to get by on memorized answers for a very brief time. Once I had to move beyond that, though, I had little-to-no confidence in my ability to do so. I remember some of the early papers I wrote. I had convinced myself that the paper sucked. I remember just a couple days after turning in my Prophets and Psalms paper, I actually had a nightmare about it. In it, I got the paper back with the comment from the professor: “Why did you make me waste my time reading this?” Thankfully, I learned that I was lying to myself when I got positive feedback (and grades) from professors and I eventually learned that I actually am capable of writing a good paper.

4.) I better realize the value of friendships. I’m not certain why, but when I started seminary, I viewed the people I was meeting as future colleagues, and only that. Of course, those classmates are all colleagues in ministry with me now, but I (for reasons I’m still not sure of) failed to view people at seminary as friends also. Consequently, I found conversations with classmates usually limited to theology or ministry issues, and really didn’t open up to friends in seminary until this year. I’m really glad I noticed that I was making this mistake partway through and intentionally worked on correcting the problem. Otherwise, I suspect this blog post would be a lot more negative.

5.) I’m planting a church. Even though church planting was something that interested me before seminary, I NEVER in my wildest dreams thought I would actually be called into it. Before coming to PTS, I had considered some other seminaries. Had I gone to another one, I don’t think the church planting would be happening. So many of the puzzle-pieces that came together to form this calling fell into place because I was at PTS. Working in the Korean Church, getting to be good friends with Chris, being able to network with Don, Vera, and others in Pittsburgh Presbytery, and a bunch of experiences that aren’t immediately coming to mind have all contributed to this calling, and I thank God for it.

The Homosexuality Debate: Are We Completely Missing the Point?

In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard compares writing to mining. When we write, she says, our words are a miner’s pick. Our words probe into our thinking, and we follow where they lead. Sometimes our words lead us to a dead end, other times our words lead us to new territory, and we discover the real subject of our thoughts and find ourselves mining something completely different than what we set out for. The latter is what happened in my writing this post. This post was originally inspired by a brief online conversation I had with Bruce Reyes-Chow via comments made on Chris’s post about Bruce. If you don’t know him, Bruce is one of four PC(USA) pastors/elders who are standing for moderator of our General Assembly. I was originally going to write a post about stereotypical categories (like ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’) and how Bruce doesn’t fit into either of those categories. Then all of a sudden I found myself writing about something completely different, and I found myself coming to conclusions I hadn’t come to before. So all that being said, here are some of my thoughts about the PC(USA)’s decades-long debate about homosexuality.

First, a parable: Imagine, if you will, that you are sitting at a poker table with three others to play a game of five card stud. The cards have been dealt, and being the shrewd, methodical poker player that you are, you look at your cards slowly, one at a time. First you see a ten of diamonds, then a Jack of diamonds… then the Queen of diamonds… your interest is perked. You uncover your next card and see that it’s a King of diamonds. Your heart begins to race. Then you look at your fifth card. Yep. It’s the Ace of diamonds. Somehow, you’ve managed to be dealt a royal flush, the greatest poker hand you can possibly have. You get excited knowing that you’re going to win the hand, and you begin to strategize your betting, so that your opponents don’t catch on. The person across from you is about to begin the betting. He says, “Got any threes?” And the person to your right says, “No. Go fish.” Your heart sinks, and you grow angry. You thought you had the perfect hand, and you did… if you were playing the right game. To your dismay, the game is Go Fish, and your royal flush suddenly has no value to the rest of the table.

Such is the problem, I would argue, with the homosexuality debate in the PC(USA) (and probably in most other mainline protestant denominations). The two sides are playing two completely different games. For example, those who support traditional ordination standards and consider homosexual practice a sin base their argument on about 4000+ years of Judeo-Christian tradition and on the teaching of Scripture. When it comes to Scripture, this side of the debate has a “royal flush.” The problem is those on the other side are playing a completely different game. Consider, for example, the remarks of Walter Wink, one of the leading scholars supporting ordination of homosexuals. In his article, entitled “Homosexuality and the Bible,” Wink says: “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.”

It’s greatly significant that one of the leaders in the debate on the pro-homosex side admits that the Bible consistently identifies homosexual behavior as sin. The issue then is not a matter of “what does the Bible say?,” but rather “should we listen?”. For those supporting ordination of homosexuals, they’re much more likely (from what I’ve seen) to begin their arguments by talking about the experience of homosexuals (or their families and friends) in the church. They’ll tell stories of those who have been hurt and jaded by the policies of the church, and will conclude that their argument is a ‘royal flush.’ Of course, those on the other side think otherwise.

The homosexuality debate, then, is iconic of a larger, even more important issue surrounding theological method and authority of Scripture (and authority of our own experience). As less scandalous (and frankly less interesting) as it is, I don’t think the church is going to solve the homosexuality debate until it first takes time to determine what game it is we’re playing; we need to discuss theological method. We need to discuss the authority of Scripture and the authority of our personal experience (and while we’re at it, the authority of church tradition, reason, and science). Until we do, I think we’ll just keep arguing our points not realizing that the other side is playing a completely different game.