Christine Pohl, a teacher and administrator at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky for the past 26 years, has spent years reading and writing about practices essential to Christian community.
In her book Living into Community: Practices That Sustain Us (2012), she looks at truthfulness, promise-keeping, hospitality and gratitude. She came to Bethel to talk in depth about the latter two during the biennial Worship and the Arts Symposium, held on campus Nov. 21.
“The one that undergirds other practices, even holds them together, is gratitude,” she said in the symposium’s first plenary session. “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 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 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.”
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.”
“A life of hospitality begins in gratitude and worship,” Pohl said in her second plenary session. “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.
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.”
Worship and music
Both Pohl and the second resource person, Father Michael Driscoll from the University of Notre Dame, 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.”
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.”
The Worship and the Arts Symposium is made possible by the Reimer-Boese Worship and the Arts Endowment, which celebrates the lives of Katharina Voth Reimer and Thomas U. Reimer, and Maria Schroeder Boese and Abraham L. Boese. The former are the parents, the latter the birth parents of donor Rosella Reimer Duerksen ’48, both of whose birth parents died in her infancy. The endowment is intended to assist Bethel College in providing lectures, musical events, workshops or conferences which focus on the arts as tools for the communication of the faith.