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FROM THE PRESIDENT

Piercing the darkness

It is a joy to wish you a Merry Christmas on behalf of the seminary community. This is a season of deep meaning in which we recognize the wonder of new birth and see the sacred amidst the ordinary. For some, it is a time of extravagant celebration. For others, Christmas joy is more subtle and perhaps even laced with pain or loneliness. The lessons and carols of our tradition speak poignantly of the interplay of light and darkness.

The most prominent images of the holiday highlight the light and the happiness, but those of us in ministry – indeed, all of us who have lived a few years – know something of the darkness that gives meaning to the light. When we read in the Gospel of John that the “light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it,” we know that it is sometimes a serious act of faith to believe it.

Dec. 21 is the 15th anniversary of my father’s death. He died during the middle of the longest night of the year. We buried him in a snowstorm on Christmas Eve. The joy I feel this time of year is not necessarily of the rosy variety, but it is very real. It is real because I have faith that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Even when it is very dark.

When I was a small child, my family had a holiday tradition of traveling to my grandparents’ farm late in the night after attending the Christmas Eve service in town. I have a very distinct memory of one very cold evening in which my father and I trudged through deep snow toward the house after parking the car in the barn. The sounds and smells of the animals were vivid, but all we could see was a distant yard light near the house. We stopped for a moment, transfixed by its beauty but chilled to the bone. Somehow the faintness of the light seemed to make the night feel even colder and darker.

And then something became apparent to me. I haven’t forgotten the feeling I had inside as the crisp air in front of me began to cloud a bit. I haven’t forgotten the feeling because I realized that the air was clouded by my father’s breath, illuminated by the faint yet very real light. I knew then that something subtle and seemingly distant can illumine the life and the love that is ever around us.

In this sacred time, may light pierce your darkness and that of your loved ones and your parishioners, of your neighbors and your friends, and even of your enemies. I pray that what that light illumines is of deep comfort for you and for those around you. Once again, Merry Christmas.

Jay Rundell

 

FACULTY AUTHOR

Sarah Lancaster tackles
Wesley’s approach to happiness

Lancaster

It’s a regular occurrence when Professor Sarah Lancaster leads students in the study of United Methodist doctrine. They delve into the sermons of John Wesley, endeavoring to mine the most profound thoughts of the founder of the Methodist movement, and one word keeps popping out.

Happiness.

Lancaster, who holds the Werner Chair in Theology at MTSO, understands her students’ mild befuddlement: “Many of them have learned in their churches that Christians don’t seek happiness. They seek joy.”

But a reading of Wesley’s sermons reveals an unabashed concentration on happiness.

“I found the word happiness in more than 80 of his 150 sermons,” Lancaster said. “And that’s only searching for the word happiness, not the word happy.”

On self-help bookshelves, of course, the word is everywhere, and Lancaster has seen the publishing industry’s focus on happiness grow just in the past few years. She has even noticed a surprisingly large collection of happiness-themed books at the famed Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, UK – a store with a decidedly academic bent. And she realized that in the 1700s, Wesley was weighing in on a topic with resonance in the 21st century.

“If we have this in our tradition, why aren’t we engaging in this conversation that the culture at large is having?” she said. “People seem to care about this. Why aren’t we making the connection?”

Now Lancaster has made the connection, with the publication of The Pursuit of Happiness: Blessing and Fulfillment in Christian Faith (Wipf & Stock, 2011). In researching the book, she found that Wesley’s sermons don’t differentiate between the words happiness and joy – and for him, neither defined the kind of momentary pleasure you might get from downloading a nifty iPhone app. His preferred word for more superficially positive state of mind was merry.

Happiness, on the other hand, referred to an integrated life that has meaning. Lancaster said it’s significant that Wesley’s writings usually paired happiness with holiness.

“When Wesley talks, he talks about the two of them together. It’s happiness and holiness, holiness and happiness,” she said. “It’s so central to his way of salvation. It’s the goal of what salvation is about. It’s what God intended for us in the creation of the world.”

“And it’s not just happiness for humans that he’s thinking about. He actually thinks about the happiness of all creation.”

Does that mean Wesley was an 18th-century eco-theologian? “You can actually find a good theological basis for current ecological concerns in the way that he thinks about happiness,” Lancaster said.

She said Wesley’s rich understanding of happiness didn’t seek to discount life’s hardships.

“He uses a word for the difficulties we face, which he calls heaviness. There can be heaviness, but you can still be happy in God and supported by God through those difficulties. It’s this confidence that sustains you through those times.”

Lancaster said it’s important to remember that Wesley’s writings are in the form of sermons, intended as practical messages, delivered in a particular context at a particular time. In that spirit, the last chapter of The Pursuit of Happiness asks, “What would a church that promotes this kind of happiness look like?”

“This is not just a theoretical kind of concern,” Lancaster said. “It really does have real-life application, and churches ought to be thinking about this and promoting this sort of happiness for people.”

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INTERNATIONAL HONOR

MTSO awarded 224-volume
science and religion library

The International Society for Science & Religion has selected MTSO as an ISSR Library awardee. At no cost to the school, the ISSR has provided MTSO’s Dickhaut Library with 224 volumes, spanning subject areas from ecology to cosmology to bioethics. If the volumes had been purchased separately, Dickhaut Library Director Paul Burnam estimates the price would have exceeded $13,000.

In a Nov. 23 letter to Burnam, ISSR Executive Editor Pranab Das wrote, “Your application was reviewed under a competitive judging process and your institution will join a select group of only 150 institutions worldwide to receive a full set of the Library.”

MTSO’s application included letters of support from Master of Divinity student Jess Peacock and Dr. Timothy Van Meter, assistant professor in the Alford Chair of Christian Education and Youth Ministry.

“I could not have asked for better news on Thanksgiving Eve,” said Burnam, who began the ISSR application process in April. “MTSO is doing more and more in terms of looking at science and religion. This came along at just the right time.”

Burnam said the ISSR Library will provide valuable resources for students pursuing two specializations recently introduced by MTSO: the Ecology and Social Change specialization for those pursuing a Master of Divinity degree, and the Ecology and Justice specialization for those pursuing a Master of Arts in Practical Theology.

“In looking at all the areas this collection takes in, it fits very well with the courses that make up those specializations,” he said.

The ISSR Library Project is headquartered at St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge, in Cambridge, UK. The collection was delivered to MTSO in early December and should be available for circulation soon.

The John W. Dickhaut Library, named for MTSO’s founding president, is the school’s primary information and research resource. With more than 130,000 volumes onsite, the library offers borrowers access to 48 million volumes through its membership in the Ohio Private Academic Libraries and OhioLINK consortia. It also subscribes to 250 periodicals.

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MARK YOUR CALENDAR

Claremont’s Monica A. Coleman
to speak at Williams Institute

Coleman

Writer, scholar and activist Monica A. Coleman will deliver two February lectures at MTSO. “Interreligious Outsiders” is the theme for the 2012 Williams Institute lectures, to be presented by Coleman at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 and 11:30 a.m. Feb. 29 in the Alford Centrum. The lectures are free and open to the public. No registration is necessary.

Coleman is associate professor of constructive theology and African American religions at Claremont School of Theology in southern California, where she also serves as co-director of Claremont’s Center for Process Studies. Her Feb. 28 lecture title is “Multiple Religious Belonging: How African American History Expands Theories of Religious Pluralism.” On Feb. 29, she’ll speak on the topic “Transreligious Spirituality: Process Philosophy, New Thought Religions and Religious Pluralism.”

An ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Coleman earned doctoral and master’s degrees from Claremont Graduate University, and a Master of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt University Divinity School. Her research interests include process theology, new movements in black and womanist theologies, African traditional religions, mental health and theology, and religious pluralism.

Coleman founded and coordinated the Dinah Project, an organized church response to sexual violence, at Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville. Her writings focus on the role of faith in addressing critical social issues. She wrote about church responses to sexual violence in her book The Dinah Project: A Handbook for Congregational Response to Sexual Violence. In Making a Way Out of No Way: A Womanist Theology, she discusses interreligious responses to the joys and pains of black women’s lives. She is co-editor of Creating Women’s Theology: A Movement Engaging Process Thought.

MTSO’s Williams Institute was begun in 1981 to honor the late Dr. Ronald L. Williams, professor of theology from 1971 until his death in 1981. The institute has featured speakers from many backgrounds, including theologians, ethicists, poets, biblical scholars, historians, pastoral psychologists and Christian educators.

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IN THE NEWS

NPR features Numrich’s work
on the mosques of Chicago

MTSO Professor of Religion and Interreligious Relations Paul Numrich provided expert analysis for a National Public Radio story about the growing presence of mosques in Chicago. The story, which aired nationally on NPR’s Morning Edition Nov. 3, drew on Numrich’s 2010 sabbatical studies of mosques in the six-county Chicago area.

His findings are presented on the website of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. A map of the 91 mosques he located in metropolitan Chicago is accompanied by an essay describing his research methods and findings.

In discussing the implications of his research, Numrich notes in the essay that “new mosque construction has continued – even accelerated in Chicago – since the watershed of September 11, 2001. This has occurred in spite of – perhaps because of, in some sense – growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. This is no trivial fact as it bespeaks the civic maturity of American Islam. Building a new mosque requires interaction with government authorities, neighbors, local community interests, contractors, vendors, and others. In today’s hypertense atmosphere, the lesser known story is that of the successful construction of new mosques across the country.”

Numrich holds the Snowden Chair for the Study of Religion and Interreligious Relations at MTSO. His most recent book is The Faith Next Door: American Christians and Their New Religious Neighbors, published by Oxford University Press in 2009.

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REGISTER NOW

Mission and Evangelism Institute
set for March 19 and 20

MTSO is pleased to announce the theme for its 2012 Mission and Evangelism Institute: “Missional Church in Many Contexts.” The institute, to be held March 19 and 20, will offer pathways toward becoming a missional congregation in urban, suburban and rural settings. The event’s three speakers are proven missional leaders who have had breakthroughs in transforming congregations from inward-oriented to mission-focused.

Rev. Dave Hood is the campus pastor at Fort McKinley Church, the urban branch of Ginghamsburg Church in Dayton. Fort McKinley is a church “restart” that was on the brink of closing in 2008. In just three years, it has grown from 40 attendees to 400, with three Sunday morning worship celebrations.

Rev. Kevin Koske is the pastor of Church in the Mall in Heath. An outreach ministry of Centenary UMC in Granville, Church in the Mall celebrated its public launch on Palm Sunday of 2010. Through its location, it brings church to the people, instead of bringing people to the church, and seeks to integrally embrace and utilize social media for evangelism.

Rev. Bill Lyle served as pastor of Greenville Evangelical United Methodist Church, a rural congregation, for 14 years. His accomplishments there include growing church attendance from 126 to 770, initiating three new styles of worship with innovative multimedia, and creating a culture of serving and witnessing with over 70 percent of the church family involved. He has recently become the senior pastor at Peace UMC in Pickerington.

Tuition for the Mission and Evangelism Institute is $70. Two or more people from the same congregation may attend for $60 each. Student tuition is $15. Dinner on March 19 is included. A Continuing Education Unit certificate is available for $10.

Additional material, including a schedule and registration form, is available at www.mtso.edu/mei.

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FACULTY READING SUGGESTIONS

Three books on moving
through our conflicts

Withrow

In our continuing series of reading recommendations by faculty members, Dr. Lisa Withrow, associate academic dean and professor in the Dewire Chair of Christian Leadership, offers three suggestions.

I chose these books because they all are about moving through our conflicts such that people with faith, cultural, race and political differences can come together to understand “love of neighbor” in radical ways. For me, this message, taken up by three very different authors, is the purpose of our lives.

Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit

By Parker J. Palmer
Jossey-Bass, 2011

Writing on the cusp of a political year, Palmer confesses to having a broken heart about the state of U.S. politics. But he finds hope for democracy in habits of heart, where people can learn to live in tension with each other through civil discourse and imagination. The democratic experiment, he says, is an endless movement from conflict into creativity, tension into common good, and suffering into community. The first half of this book describes the formation of heart habits: the inward work that designs democratic infrastructure. Palmer then offers connection to the external work required for finding our way to an honest “We the People” community – our best natures, on which democracy depends.

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race

By Willie James Jennings
Yale University Press, 2010

Jennings engages the question, “Why has the Christian faith, a faith based on neighborly love, failed to heal social division?” Social, spatial and racial divisions arise from prescribed habits of mind in the West, and Jennings argues that these habits of mind cause disassociation and dislocation – seeking to categorize, define, interpret and clarify, rather than to relate, adapt, form and exist in a fluid manner. He doesn’t seek reconciliation in a traditional sense, instead pointing to a Christian capacity for intimacy and life together with “other” as the redemptive way forward.

A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good

By Miroslav Volf
Brazos Press, 2011

Volf addresses how Christians can live in a multifaith society, engaging in public ways that lead to human flourishing rather than dysfunction and disconnection. He invites Christians to speak in our own voices in the public arena; likewise people of all faiths should represent their particularities by giving the gift of their notions of love and wisdom. For Volf, achieving a multifaith commonality, reached by different means according to different faith traditions, is to move from love of pleasure to pleasure of love.

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