First United Methodist Church & Messiah College

Touching some of the Church’s deep wounds in healing ways

Jenell Paris jumped at the opportunity to walk The Colossian Way, and expanded it to an adult Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church of Mechanicsburg, Penn., as well as undergraduate students in a Women and Men in American Society class at Messiah College, where she teaches sociology. Here’s a bit more about The Colossian Way from Jenell’s perspective:

Why? I want to walk The Colossian Way myself, learning to broaden and deepen my faith in everyday, practical, relational ways. I want to sharpen my skills for engaging in conflict, relating across difference, and guiding others to do the same. More than for myself, though, I want to invite others into this process in hopes that our work, local and small as it may be, may touch some of the Church’s deep wounds in healing ways.

I want us to be a grain of yeast – a little expression of faith that is part of God’s big picture.

In the college setting, I hope to nurture some of my highest hopes for education. As a teacher, am I limited to talking and reading, that is, producing and consuming words about various subjects? I can generate ideas and words endlessly, and when one topic is exhausted, choose another. All these words are metaphors – they stand for something, refer to something. I want to get to the something – the reality, the living, the doing – the thatness that makes the words even worth uttering.

I highly value traditional academic skills of critical thinking, reading, talking, and writing. But I want to link that more intentionally to living, doing, and being. I want to try to do both – the academic work of metaphor construction and manipulation (reading, thinking, analyzing), and also heartfelt dialogue over deep matters of faith. This feels like a lofty and intense dream, even at a Christian college, to do work that is so explicitly discipleship oriented. Usually we point to implications or applications, or focus on applications that are more about service and justice, which are easily perceived as “common ground” goods. Offering opportunity for personal transformation around divisive issues is more risky. It’s easy to see the “other” as the one with the problem, and cast ourselves in the role as helper, the one with the solution.

It is much more challenging to see ourselves as both part of the problem and part of the solution, and to construct and commit to a narrative that casts ourselves in a more complex role than pure-hearted protagonist.

I’m eager to try The Colossian Way as a mode of engagement that can invite students into deeper discipleship, critical thinking, and personal transformation.

The class is Women and Men in American Society, a topic plagued with binaries. Feminism: for or against? Abortion: for or against? Egalitarianism in marriage: for or against? It is a lively challenge, but a constant one, this tendency to default to binaries that put the self on moral high ground and cast everyone else as “Other.” I constantly strive for ways to name this tendency and to move beyond it, but students are sometimes reluctant to trust me, searching instead for a way to profess agreement with my positions in an attempt to earn a higher grade. The Colossian Way offers a fresh pedagogical approach that I hope will come alongside my teaching goals.

In the church setting, the fears and doubts I bring are very deep:

•  Are our highest Christian ideals liveable, or are they just words?
•  Are they possible to teach, and to learn, and to do?
•  Do Christians in our society want to learn these skills?
•  How deeply are we committed to politicized, polarized, uncivil, reactionary modes of discourse?
•  Are we willing to be shaped by our religious tradition to be different?

Even worse, I am deeply discouraged by corruption and abuse in the Church, so much that I’ve lowered my expectations severely. I’d like for my children to not be sexually abused at church. I’d like to not be marginalized and judged as too assertive, too feminist, too loud, or too angry. I’d like to make a friend or two, bring my children to positive activities, and serve the community in practical ways. I do, in fact, do these things at church, and I find that church is a wonderful structure that holds tradition and facilitates spiritually engaged community for me and my family.

But is it safe, or realistic, to ask for more?

Can church be a place for shaping character and developing disciplines for living?

Honestly, if a child is being abused anywhere, in any church, shouldn’t we be asking foundational questions about organized religion? We know that it isn’t just one child, it’s thousands, in hundreds and hundreds of churches, all around the globe.  Abuses of power hurt women, too, and men. There is something about how religion is structured in the modern world that fosters warped concentrations of power and self-delusion and collusion with evil. I’m so concerned about this – is church a viable place for spiritual formation in this generation?

I don’t mean to express this as merely a manifestation of my personal problems or experiences. There is widespread disappointment and disaffiliation with organized religion for this very reason. There is increasing distrust in social institutions more broadly (government, education, economy, as well as religion) – modern bureaucratic institutions that grew huge in the early twentieth century are showing some common fractures, and people are responding with heightened individualism – fending for themselves in employment, retirement, health care, and so on. People literally arm themselves with guns, not trusting systems of criminal justice or government to do justice or even preserve the peace. Religiously, we take up personal, privatized, non-institutionalized spirituality that allows us to cultivate the sacred in our lives without handing over trust to organizations – church, and sometimes religion altogether – that seem to have proven unworthy of our trust.

Extreme as some of these measures are, they are rational responses – the systems themselves incentivize these responses – religion does, too. Faith, hope, and trust in God is not the same as faith, hope, and trust in the church, or in fellow Christians.

One of my deep hopes is that The Colossian Way will help strengthen the bonds of trust and hope across those domains – personal faith, church commitment, and bonds with fellow Christians.

I don’t know whether it’s possible. I don’t want to be a bystander or a critic – I see myself as part of this broken Church, and I want to see who I can be and become in and for the Church. Working with The Colossian Forum touches these very deep pains in my heart, and very real fears for the well-being of children, women, and men. I go into this process feeling those pains, but not certain or even entirely hopeful that the process or outcome will soothe them.

But I’m hopeful enough to try.

Wicked Problems
Christian Virtues