community, spiritual life

God’s still calling

Editor’s note: As part of a continuing series on how Wheeling residents express their spirituality, today’s post features a young couple who are going against the cultural flow. Matt and Amanda Cummins are trading potential big-pay job training for the big-blessing world of ministry.

Sometimes God comes at you fast. In one season of life, Matt Cummins was a relatively happy atheist, pursuing a master’s degree in chemical engineering and operating under the assumption that, “all religion kind of seemed absurd.”

Rocket forward a decade — past an encounter with Old Testament prophecy that engaged and changed his mind, past a conversion whose date is marked in his Bible, past life problems that included an abrupt career loss and the near death of his young wife. And, there you have him. A 30-something who is entering the ministry — potentially as a missionary — and making a commitment to lower-pay service that is growing rare among even those Americans who cut their teeth on church pews.

“It may look crazy on the outside, but this is the same God of Joseph,” Cummins said, referring to an ancient Israelite who was blessed and became a blessing in spite of experiencing both slavery and imprisonment.

A New Path

Cummins identifies with Joseph, having experienced similar kinds of ups and downs. Prior to his conversion to Christianity in 2008, he had drifted from a loose childhood church affiliation to agnosticism to atheism. Then, everything changed.

“In college, people began to witness to me in ways that appealed to my intellectual interests … I kept looking for empirical evidence (of God’s existence) that I could evaluate. It was the Old Testament prophecies that compelled me into Christianity,” he said.

Isaiah, written more than 600 years before the birth of Jesus, was especially arresting in its detailed description of a Messiah that had yet to come, he said. “That really impressed upon me the truth, the authority of the (scripture).”

Ironically, it was a Bible study on the second coming of Christ that is still anticipated by Christians that sealed the deal. Cummins went home from the study, concerned he might miss out on what God was doing. He prayed for salvation and a literal new life was launched.

Like Joseph, Cummins soon experienced a shocking loss. Citing a “lack of passion,” his boss let him go from an engineering job. Encouraged by friends and having good memories of coaching gymnastics while a teen, he began teaching at a private Christian school. But, this new work was at one-third his former salary.

“I worried what (my wife) Amanda’s parents would think,” he said, noting another initial reaction to the change, shame.

Looking back on that moment, however, the Louisville, Ky., native, sees God at work. “I know that this was God’s purpose for me,” he said of the job loss. “I would have continued running uphill … Being let go was an opportunity to explore another territory.”

That opportunity included time. Time to teach children. Time to learn more about the Bible. And, time to begin teaching Bible studies himself at the couple’s spiritual home, First Baptist Church of Wheeling.

“Growing deeper in the word, I really began to love the church,” Cummins said. The couple began going on mission trips — to India, Nepal, Nigeria and Honduras — using Amanda’s physician’s assistant training as a springboard. “There came a point when I was ready to devote myself full time.”

Ironically, the beginning of Cummins’ off-site ministerial studies through Southern Baptist Theological Seminary coincided with the birth of the couple’s first child, Jane. Childbirth complications left Amanda fighting for her life for several weeks.

Still, the couple, now married nine years, persevered. She is back on her job as a PA at Wheeling Health Right, a non-profit clinic in the downtown. Matt cares for Jane and works on his master’s of divinity, often spreading his schoolwork and a laptop computer over a corner table at nearby Tim Horton’s. He has about two years of studies to go.

Amanda Cummins, who has felt a similar calling to move beyond “do goodery” to a more ministerial approach to her own career calling, agrees their unconventional life is where God has led.

“That (pursuing higher pay) wasn’t even on the radar for me,” Amanda Cummins said. “I picked this profession because it seemed like a tangible way to serve God … I want to be able to provide people with a hope of something better.”

Cummins laughed at this point in the interview, acknowledging Amanda’s lack of monetary pursuit was part of her initial allure. “When I saw that Amanda was a PA and that she was choosing to work with the underprivileged and was willing to take a hit in income — that was an indication of authenticity.”

This kind of passion may serve the couple well, as their long-term goal may not be traditional American pastoral work, but missions.

A New Trend?

Interestingly, the Cummins aren’t the only First Baptist members training for ministry. Another young man and a young woman are also attending the same Kentucky-based seminary on site, according to Pastor Darrin Wright. Across the three, their intended paths range from mission work to pastoring to Christian counseling.

Wright suspects the church’s commitment to verse-by-verse Bible study and an emphasis on lay members, as well as ministry, going on mission trips has something to do with the trend. He estimates 50 or more local church members have done such trips in the last eight years or so. Another factor is likely about listening with spiritual ears, Wright added. “Over the years, we have preached messages challenging people to consider whether or not God is calling them into ministry.”

He can look forward to a day when the training is done and youth he has worked with are out there, somewhere, serving. “It is a humbling privilege to see God work in people’s lives this way,” Wright said of the Cummins and the others. “It never gets old seeing how God … changes and uses people for His purposes and for His glory.”

These young ministers in training are part of a national trend, as well. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, seminary enrollments are up across America. Hartford noted, however, that a perceived shortage of pastors continues. With the majority of American churchgoers now attending mega-churches of 350 or more members, churches with fewer than 100 members are having difficulty finding pastors.

The Hartford Institute said there is not so much of a “shortage as a lack of balance.” With few pastoral jobs at the top and a disappearing opportunity for traditional career advancement through mid-sized congregations, some ordained ministers are leaving the field rather than sign on for a lifetime with the smaller churches that make up the majority of American houses of worship.

 

 


spiritual life

I lost baby Jesus!

“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” Revelation 1:8

Somewhere in the dank, dark basement is a blue tub. And, in that tub is an abundance of crumpled bits of wrapping paper left over from Christmases past. And, CIMG5895_edited-1.JPGin one of those bits is the baby Jesus figurine that is usually hidden away in a buffet drawer until the morning of Dec. 25.

It’s true. I’ve somehow lost baby Jesus!

There’s no doubt a blog in that — losing the reason for the season in a house that is already decorated ABT. (All But Tree — wink, wink, grad students.) But, that isn’t where I’m going.

On Facebook, my Fresh Mercy mini-blog is presenting a name of Jesus and a corresponding scripture each weekday. Lamb of God, Light of the World, the Amen, Beloved Son, the Rock, He Who Liveth and Was Dead and so forth. Some of the name scriptures are from the Old Testament, particularly the book of Isaiah. Most are from New Testament books written by the Apostle John, one of the 12 men who spent three years or so directly ministering with Jesus.

It’s those latter verses that have captured my attention. John seems to have understood Jesus at a level that even the other disciples did not. It likely not an accident that he was the one Jesus chose for the vision of Revelation. And, John’s awareness of the fullness of Jesus’s identity is most often expressed in names that make me shiver. They’re throughout his gospel, where every action seems to be tied to one. And, in Revelation, the names fly fast and glorious, almost as if there is not enough space on the page or in the world (as John once suggested) to contain just who God the Son is.

Those thoughts were on my mind when I realized the wee figurine that we once used to set the story of the Nativity in our daughters’ minds was missing. They’re nearly grown now. They know the story. We know the story. And, it is a story far too big to be, well, contained.

So, resin baby Jesus will stay wherever he is and I am going to do my best to celebrate a Christmas and a life that lets God the Son be God. Vast, complex and full of mysterious glory.

community, spiritual life

Is there a faith/church balance?

Readers interested in balancing individual faith and church accountability may enjoy this shortened version of a news feature I did for weelunk.com. It focuses on one young man’s regional fight to bring a global pattern of sexual abuse within one church into the light and toward an end.

Just going to the grocery store can be a challenge when your calling, your spiritual work is the pursuit of truth and justice — particularly truth about sexualweelunk spirituality catholic dissenters.JPG misconduct inside the ministry.

A breeze by the frozen green beans can yield a surprising thumbs up from a highly placed priest. Or, in another aisle, Michael Iafrate could just as likely hear the question, “Why are you attacking the church?” If not that, it could be something like, “How can you defend a church that condones criminal behavior?”

The Wheeling Jesuit grad, co-coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, reflected on this contrast of perspectives from his unassuming office in downtown Wheeling.

“I can’t be a Catholic and not fight for a better church,” he concluded in a gentle voice that matches his John Denver-meets-Mr. Rogers vibe. “I can’t be a Catholic with my back to the people who Catholicism hurts.”

Right now, that means he, co-coordinator Jeannie Kirkhope, the committee and committee friends have a heavy focus on the sexual-misconduct revelations that are unfolding at a weekly, if not daily, pace in the news. The nearly 50-year-old, small-grant-funded group advocates for a broad variety of social-justice issues in a 20-diocese region that includes parts of Pennsylvania. A cloud of dirt from grand jury reports in that state concerning widespread priestly sexual abuse had barely settled when the scandal turned local. Really local.

The recent resignation of Bishop Michael Bransfield as head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston under accusations of sexual misconduct toward adults and lavish living at parishioners’ expense cannot help but take center stage for the moment, Iafrate said of committee responses that have included publishing letters demanding accountability.

Since Bransfield’s resignation, more local connections to the scandal and more committee responses have followed. The nearby Steubenville, Ohio, diocese recently released a list of “credible” accusations against priests. Information about a specific Steubenville priest who impregnated an underage altar girl was also announced.

Iafrate, who had already discovered regional interconnectedness meant he knew three of the priests on the Pennsylvania lists, was on high alert. He pondered the word “credible.” He looked carefully at the story surrounding the specific priest, who was soon reported by several sources to have been volunteering with youth activities within West Virginia. He also noticed the general list had limitations he found troubling.

He specifically challenges a list detail that he suspects few outside the Catholic Church would understand. For example, in Steubenville, he said the only released names were those of “diocesan priests” attached to a specific parish. Other Steubenville-area priests — such as Franciscans, Dominicans or Jesuits serving in various capacities — were not included, he said.

That distinction had him on the phone with the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which has promised to release a similar list of accusations made in West Virginia over the last 50 years. Will all priests be included, he asked on behalf of the committee. The local diocese, under interim leadership by a bishop from outside the state, assured him they will. Does that include priests who cross diocese borders to volunteer, such as the one associated with the teen pregnancy? Again, Iafrate was pleased with the response.

The local diocese, he said, has, in fact, already gone on to issue an announcement about that priest’s in-state activities in both internal parochial school communications and to the general church membership in recent days.

Pleased? Yes. But, Iafrate said the committee is not yet satisfied. “I would like to see the diocese be more transparent about what they know, how they handled abuse, how they failed to handle the abuse.”

“I would like to see the diocese be more transparent about what they know, how they handled abuse, how they failed to handle the abuse.” — Michael Iafrate

He would also like to see external civil investigations in addition to the internal ones promised by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. The committee may approach state Attorney General Patrick Morrissey to request he follow up on a recent mention of interest in an investigation.

This blend of internal and external advocacy is also expressed at ccappal.org, a website the committee manages. There, diocese news releases are available alongside secular reporting from story leaders like the Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Indeed, Iafrate said he depends on such secular news, which some church officials have called “media attacks,” to give the issue broader context. He pointed to a specific joint Globe/Inquirer report printed in early November. It gave extensive details about the allegations against Bransfield that he has not seen reported elsewhere.

Iafrate — wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Be the church you want to see in this world,” and chipping away at the dissertation stage of a doctorate in theology — pauses for a deep breath at this point in the interview. Keeping that kind of advocacy in balance with his own Catholicism is what it is. He notes his “very Catholic” family includes a priest and a deacon and that he recently had his infant daughter baptized into the faith.

“I don’t think the truth is an attack. Jesus said the truth will set us free,” he said. “I love the church as the people of God. The Catholic faith is beautiful. It orients my life. I think it changes the world when it’s operating the right way. … But, when the church is hypocritical (it) actually hurts people through the way it behaves.”

spiritual life

Why does God matter?

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” C.S. Lewis, British author

It wasn’t a game of stump the teacher. The kid — eight years old and messy haired — looked at me in all sincerity and asked, “Why does God matter?”

Used to years of teaching church kids — who tend to answer any Sunday CIMG5848_edited-1.JPGSchool question with “Jesus,” even if it’s about Elijah or manna — I was flummoxed. I said something about God as creator and judge. It was theologically correct, but in no way satisfied her curiosity. Nor mine.

That question — why does God matter — has been floating around my brain for the last seven years. It shows up in my speech, my actions, my writing. It, in fact, has changed the way I look at all things church.

Which is a good thing — as there’s not a whole lot of “church” left in this world. There is, instead, a vague spirituality that ranges from blatant hypocrisy at its worst to an open curiosity like that little girl’s at best. That latter spirituality — often found in younger people who grew up completely outside of the church world — is disarming. And charming.

It reminds me of God and Moses, meeting nearly face to face on a mountain. They were already acquainted, but Moses wanted to know more. God responded, in person. And, fascinatingly, He literally walked by Moses, both naming and describing Himself as He passed. “Merciful.” “Gracious.” “Longsuffering.” “Abundant in goodness and truth.”

Why does God matter? I suspect that mountaintop encounter probably holds the answer. We only figure out why God matters — and how much — as we get to know Him. And, we only get to know Him bit by bit — the same way He unfolded facets of Himself on that mountain.

Those descriptor names — merciful, gracious — are critical. As are the many names of Jesus, whom church folks all over the world are celebrating this season. Morning Star, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, Man of Sorrows. It’s true. The who of God the Father and God the Son drive the why.

So, if you are among the curious, you may enjoy visiting my Fresh Mercy blog on Facebook/NoraEdingerBooks (which can also be viewed on this site by scrolling lower on the page) over the next few weeks. Beginning with today’s Bright and Morning Star, bite-sized weekday posts will focus on the who of God.

Stop by. Hear His names. Take in those names. And, don’t be surprised if you suddenly know the answer to that little girl’s question for yourself. Christmas blessings!