NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Christine Pohl has spent years reading and writing about practices essential to Christian community, and she came to Bethel College to talk in depth about two of those.
Pohl has been a teacher and administrator at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky for the past 26 years. She was one of two presenters for Bethel’s biennial Worship and the Arts Symposium, held on campus Nov. 21.
Pohl is the author of Living into Community: Practices That Sustain Us (2012), in which she looks at truthfulness, promise-keeping, hospitality and gratitude. In her two plenary presentations, she talked about the latter two.
“The one that undergirds other practices, even holds them together, is gratitude,” she said. “Grace and gratitude are central to our relationship with God as well as life together [as congregations], but mostly we’ve overlooked gratitude as a practice for community life.”
She noted that “gratitude is about more than good manners or being polite. It involves a posture, a way of being. If we understand our lives as redeemed by costly grace, then gratitude is essential.”
She pointed to “several different levels” of gratitude: thanksgiving and praise (praise for who God is and gratitude for what God has done); gratitude as a posture; and gratitude shown toward other people.
She also said that “gratitude is countercultural, since our economic system depends on us always being dissatisfied, always wanting more and better, an attitude of entitlement.”
Pohl closed her first plenary with some suggestions for “how we might strengthen the practice of gratitude in our communities and congregations and lives.”
Make gratitude “frame the day,” she said. “Start the day by expressing gratitude to God. End the day by recalling the instances of God’s grace.”
She also encouraged “[catching] people in the act of being a gift, and then recognize and celebrate them.
“Followers of Jesus have endless opportunities to offer thanks,” she said. “It becomes a life-giving spring. We will shrivel up without it.”
In the question-and answer-period that followed, one symposium participant asked: “How do we reconcile gratitude and the tougher times of community life?”
“I think people are afraid of gratitude because it seems like you’re dismissing the heartache,” Pohl said. “Just like in the Psalms, take the freedom to express lament along with gratitude. They’re not mutually exclusive.
“People who work and live in the hard places often express the deepest gratitude. Mary Jo Leddy said that gratitude is a way death and destruction do not have the final word. The whole story of the Christian faith is holding it all together, the death and the gratitude.”
In her second plenary, Pohl looked at the practice of hospitality.
“A life of hospitality begins in gratitude and worship,” she said. “We tend to think of it as a task or duty, but it’s first a response of gratitude for God’s love for and welcome to us.”
When we “reflect on how Jesus made a place for us, we’re asked to live in response to that welcome,” she added.
Practicing hospitality isn’t easy in the 21st century, she said. “It challenges our lifestyles. It breaks down the distance between those who have resources and those who need them.
“You have to live truthfully when you’re practicing hospitality. [Any] big disconnects between what we say and how we live are revealed in hospitality. It stretches us to become bigger.”
Hospitality is “obviously a huge issue right now with welcoming refugees. You can hear in the conversations all the old ‘fear of the stranger.’”
She cautioned against a temptation to inadvertently “corrupt” hospitality.
“In the church, it can be couched in terms of stewardship – ‘What will it accomplish?’ There’s a tendency to turn hospitality into a strategy, a means to another end – the latest way of evangelism, toward church growth.
“The overlap of home and church [such as through small groups and shared meals] continues to be one of the best avenues of hospitality, though not the only one.
“We want the best for the people we welcome,” she said, “more than acceptance – transformation into the image of Christ.
“The work of hospitality can be exhausting, unpredictable and wonderful.”
Both Pohl and the second resource person, Father Michael Driscoll from the University of Notre Dame, also spoke in the hymn festival worship service that closed the symposium.
Driscoll gave two brief reflections on the value of music when the church faces hard times.
“Singing in times of adversity is often to protest – against injustice, or in the face of oppression and oppressors,” he said, citing a modern-day example, “We Shall Overcome,” which became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and a much older one, the reformer Martin Luther’s hymn “Ein feste burg ist unser Gott/A mighty fortress is our God.”
Luther “knew the value of singing, having composed many chorales. [Singing is] a great way to catechize, to praise God, to stand up to authority.
“[That] song is irrepressible,” he said, noting that although many thought at the time it was composed that it contained “anti-Catholic” lyrics, it now appears in Catholic hymnals.
“It makes me think that this music forged in adversity might have been converted to something positive. Perhaps it is musical swords converted into plowshares to express a new kind of unity. May this always continue.”
Driscoll also spoke in Bethel College’s convocation Nov. 20, the day before the symposium, and led one of the concurrent workshops during the symposium.
In the former, his topic was icons and in the latter, the Eucharist and social justice. An icon, he said, is something visible and tangible meant to lead us to the eternal – to God.
“The Eucharist is a kind of icon, reflecting the idea of Christ back to us” – which then pushes disciples of Christ toward action.
In the other workshop, three local artists – John Gaeddert, North Newton, LaVerle Schrag, Hutchinson, and Joanna Pinkerton, Wichita – reflected on how they used sculpture as a means of personal worship and for enhancing the worship of a church community.
Christine Pohl’s homily in the evening service was on celebration.
“The Creator of the universe really likes celebration,” she said. “Think of all of them described in the Scriptures.
“Our deepest celebrations link beauty and sacrifice, sorrow and joy. We remember that God is present through it all [and that] we’re part of a community that will move forward.
“Our celebrations are the sign to us and to the world of God’s promise to reconcile all things. We’re saying Yes to life, love, beauty and wholeness.”