Friday, May 18, 2018

My CTS Essay Questions

CTS Essay Questions
Tony E Dillon Hansen
8 May 2018

Theological Studies:

I am pursuing theological studies due to a renewed sense of call. My call comes despite a long time of wondering and a period of serious doubt of organized religion.

The calling to ministry has been part of me since my youth, but I just ignored or put that answer on hold for a long time. I have endeavored throughout my life to serve the community and the Call just tickles that desire. Thus, there is a reason for everything and God has made that clear to me, including the time away from church as much as the return to church.  With that, I have felt a spiritual connection in my youth, while in exile from church, and now that connection has been fully restored these years with the UCC. After reconnecting with the Church, serving various roles at Plymouth UCC, leading worship at area retirement centers, and then later serving as Student Pastor at Urbandale UCC, I feel that I am firmly called to parish ministry with an eye towards social justice and witness ministries. When you read the short religion and vocational history, I believe readers may understand more about this call.

With my goals, I was realizing that PATHWAYS was limited, and that my goals seem to require another degree. 

My Religious and Vocational History (How I came to serve in the UCC):

I grew up Roman Catholic (and if we went my grandma’s house (my dad’s side) we went to Missouri-Synod Lutheran). My baptism patron saint is Anthony of Padua and my confirmation name is from Matthew, the tax collector. Perhaps, there may have been some intercessions in my life from these great spirits. In our family, we believed that Mass was not optional, neither were the beliefs and neither was service. For a while, I thought maybe I was hearing Holy Orders in my youth. Fundamentally, and probably due in part to my upbringing, I desire to and wish to serve my country and my community. There, however, was a problem with Catholic Holy Orders with who and what I was. 

So I was in exile for years. In that time, I found strength and skill in martial arts (eventually achieving the rank of master) but also in studying Asian traditions that surrounded them. I also found myself serving our community through non-profit advocacy work in areas like human rights awareness, legislative lobbying, running pride festivals, HIV awareness, and later with competition taekwondo and interfaith dialogues. Through these efforts, I have grown to appreciate the value of the community and togetherness.

Also, I am a software developer by title and pay. Since my primary job is IT, I regularly use technology and have consulted on several great projects and strategies. Through this career path, I have learned the value of logic and simple designs. It has been a means of income for me but has lacked purpose.

I have learned much along the way, but something was elusive to me. Eventually, I found myself at Plymouth UCC by way of the Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus and Interfaith Alliance of Iowa already meeting there. Subsequently, I had to see what was happening in the other rooms since I was already there every week. I attended worship with skepticism until I understood the UCC was really about embodying what I learned of the Gospels in my youth.

I became a member with my spouse, and like my youth, why just be a member? Where is the limit? I started as a Deacon, Chancel Choir and also Stephen Ministry. During that, I heard God calling me again (maybe it was Pastor Dave Ruhe of Plymouth UCC), but to invoke Psalm 23, perhaps I “heard” the gate open by the still waters and with Jesus waiting and calling again. So I have been serving at Urbandale UCC (UUCC) as part of PATHWAYS supervised ministry, along with Stephen Ministry via Plymouth UCC, leading worship at area retirement facilities, and pulpit supply where they invite me today as a result of listening to that call.

I realize that I have made a few mistakes along the way, but I have felt so many graces and connection with the service. I have learned so much from Pastor Dave Sickelka and his team at UUCC as well as colleagues in Stephen Ministry. Most of all, I learned from the congregation and how pastoral care is more than individual but can be projected in the communal setting of worship.

My goal:

I want to serve my community and to help lead advocacy efforts in our community.  I believe the power of the Gospels can help increase the effectiveness of those efforts.  I also want to give voice to many sides of the theological perspectives rather than rhetorical and token slogans attached to harmful traditions that have caused so much damage and unbelief. With that, I see myself in pastoral ministry with an eye for social justice. 

Also, after walking with my dad at the VA in his final months, I am also considering chaplaincy to help the many people that simply don’t have someone to walk with them.

The biggest challenge to my goals is competing priorities with my current employment and a need to pay down student loans that I acquired with my previous education. I thought maybe I would be able to take class work along with CPE, but I learned that CPE via UnityPoint in Des Moines may not be feasible due to potential schedule conflicts with my current career.  I may have to get creative for CPE credits.

Religious institutions and community roles:

As I consider new paths beyond today, I realize that nothing good has ever happened when I did nothing. Sometimes, we have to change paths to do the good we want. For institutions relying upon doing nothing different will not change their situations or the situations in the communities we live. Our religious institutions influence are waning along with the decline of participation. The effort to reverse this seems to be relying upon well-worn methods from society that may not be effective today. There are core components of worship and some worthy traditions that we must consider, but I believe that we can work the mission Jesus gave us in ways that work today.

I have consistently made adjustments throughout my life to prepare for where I am, and with that, I do not expect to ever have the “perfect” anything. I believe that the UCC is a great home for the many in our community looking for a church home, and I would submit even for those not necessarily looking for a church home.

I see possibilities for activism in contrast to the many voices that have caused my own self-exile as well as social justice activism as part of the mission Jesus has given to us. Thus, the role that I anticipate is as parish and ministry leader that promotes social justice advocacy in the community.  I like the idea of working with mission of Jesus to inspire people to support our community in unique and sustaining ways.

Two Critical issues:

The two critical issues facing religious leadership is 1) waning interest from the American population and especially younger generations and 2) rejection of religion due to personas that have damaged the pastoral institutions. The PEW Center has reported a continuing decline of Church participation and attendance especially with younger generations.  This is a persistent issue from when I was a youth. While there are plenty of ways to distract people today, there is a fundamental question of the future of the Church when there is a decline that yields no end at this point. 

This leads me to consider the second issue is that the Church has to be willing to take a hard look at itself, its practices and if its message really demonstrates what Jesus taught.  The traditional building (church) for ministry is looking more and more foreign to people that have never stepped foot into a church and less welcoming to those that felt shunned by window-dressing rhetoric.

I am not here to fix things or to save people and I cannot undue damage that has already been done. I don’t want to add to that damage, and I want to offer the worship and community of God that lifts up and heals.  I believe that we are here to learn and to work together in community. We have to be willing go into the community, and from 1 John, our Church is a mission started by Jesus not just for words but for action.  We have to be able lift up the struggles and social justice issues of our community just as Jesus did. We also have to be open to listen to all of God’s people because there have been too many pulpits that excluded people from the Good News. The Good Shepherd story of John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus, by example, shows us how to be examples to our community for all people, not just those in the pews on Sunday.  That is how our Church lives into future generations.

Why CTS application?

God has called me here and is slowly revealing the path for me, and I have yet to learn where this will ultimately take me. As I said, I feel my primary call is leading towards pastor at a congregation. Yet, by Jesus’s example, we are reminded to go the watering hole (John 4:1 - 26) to be with the community. Also, my experiences with my dad’s cancer treatments have me looking at chaplaincy, in addition to pastor role. I have pursued seminary training through the SE Conference of the UCC called PATHWAYS seminary program. PATHWAYS has greatly improved my theological connection and understanding for ministry in the UCC, but I realized the limits of the program. I pray that CTS will enhance this foundation as I move forward because it provides asynchronous program like PATHWAYS, CTS provides a path towards MDiv, and I have friends and colleagues with positive experiences at CTS.

As a pastor and church leader, I pray that my words and the meditations of hearts will be worthy in God’s sight always and worthy of the recommendations and recognitions given to me by Plymouth and my mentors.  I will always give thanks for the opportunities and blessings I have, and I hope to share them with the Church and CTS.

Thanks Be to God

Sunday, May 13, 2018

What's Your Story - Acts 1

What’s Your Story
Tony E Dillon-Hansen
13 May 2018

A reflection based upon Acts 1:15-17, 21-26 • Psalm 1 • 1 John 5:9-13 • John 17:6-19

Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock, Our Redeemer.  Amen.

On this seventh Sunday of Easter, Let us walk through a narrative in this week’s scripture.
We are going to talk about roots, eternal life, and what’s your story.

The Story of 12 (Roots and Foundation):

Our scriptures this week from Acts talks about the one Apostle that joins the group after a discussion and vote. The question can be raised of why the need to keep the number as 12.

There is a relationship of the 12 Apostles with the 12 tribes of Israel.
The Apostles keep the number 12 by selecting Matthias.
With that, we are also reminded of the importance of heritage
because our Church has roots in Jewish traditions and culture. 

Fundamentally, the reminder is not just of our roots,
but we are reminded not to forget the lessons and the celebrations of our heritage.
That is one reason we read the Old Testament section of the Bible.
That is not just a story about God
but about our humanity’s lessons, fallibility and celebrations. 

In those books, we faced many obstacles, threats, and destruction.
We were once objects of persecution, slavery and tyranny
– much like our neighbors are today.
We still make mistakes.
These roots humbly remind us of what impact that has,
and we should work to correct that in our society today.

We also celebrate the many achievements
because the Creator has been helping us to learn.
In those many books of the OT,
lives and stories were shared
- so that we don’t forget the lessons.
Let us pray not to forget those lessons today.

Story of Eternal Life (Future and Legacy):

Our epistle reading is a synopsis of what Easter season means,
specifically this “Eternal Life”. 
Well, what does “eternal life” mean?
Some may think it refers to the afterlife.
I honestly don’t know what happens on the other side of death
--  I have not been there,
and I prefer to take my time getting there.
I have images of Heaven.
Thus, Heaven may be waiting for us and for you,
but what really, can “eternal life” mean for us today.
What life do we make here?

We have our life (aka our story) that we share.

An important word of the epistle is “testimony.”
There are some interesting origins of the word testimony.
Yet, testimony is our witness,
and ultimately, we are telling our story.
Through our stories,
we have life and we reveal our connections,
our community, and our families.
For example, I can’t tell you about my life without my story
just as you cannot without your story.

If we are to be true in our testimony,
then we must not be afraid of the struggles and questions of our lives.
Those hard parts are just as important
because those reveal our humanity and lessons (just like our roots in the Old Testament)
that we have learned along the way.
That is part of the prayer of Psalm 1.

My dad served in Vietnam, and to his grave,
he would not tell us about many of those experiences.
I have to wonder What could have been learned from his struggle
and his questions in those stories.
Doing Stephen ministry or pastoral care,
When people tell me their story, even the hard parts,
We have a chance to heal.
Dad’s story lives on from what he did share, but
Perhaps, he may have learned more by talking about it,
and I certainly would have better understood the pain and life he witnessed.
(I wonder how many other vets are not able heal because they don’t share their story.)

That is part of our roots.
We live and breathe our experience of the Spirit, community, success and failure.
Together, we learn to have life and live life; not just as spoken or written words.
Through our witness, we are examples of that life
and what Easter means to us
even during dire times.

What are you doing today to let your story live or even live into your family?

Your Story (Wondering the Present):

When times feel dire, you may feel hurt, lonely or repressed.
Perhaps, you found joy in life only to see it taken.
Perhaps, the world seems to be full of people that don’t share your values (or experiences).
When you feel lost,
Take pause to remember your witness,
your story
and who you are.

When I am lost,
I question everything and sometimes,
my questions simply don’t make sense.
(I might go visit Mom and talk.)
By talking and telling the story,
things may start to make sense.
I find myself working out what I have done,
what I have been taught,
and what I could have done better. 
Somehow, a path unfolds before me
because I am reminded of how I came to be here today.
We can find ourselves in mediation, prayer and story.
Still it sucks to feel lost. Don’t be disappointed.

From Gospel John 17, we are reminded that Jesus and the Apostles lived in a time under vicious oppression and the Bible written when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.

Listen to these words: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world and I am coming to you. Holy Father protect them in your name.. so that they may be one as we are one…I have given them your word and the world has hated them...I am not asking you to take them out of the world , but I ask you to protect them.” One theologian uses the Gospel prayer to remind us that destruction happens and our values are in fact valuable.

There is real anguish and experience of loss, but still, we can witness the hope and reassurance of Jesus. All we have to do is remember what it felt like to watch the World Trade Center Towers burn and collapse. Whether physical destruction, getting old or injured, Jesus reminds us of our values and our roots-- That we are more than just symbols or our past. We came together as community.

A path is before us even when we feel alone or lost. 
Look up and see the light before you.

Tell your story.
Lift up the many experiences around you.
Then, You can reconnect.

We are in a world where we witness and we testify
to the grace of God and the Church’s mission.
Yes, I see a world all around me
that don’t share my sense of values, my sense of discipline or my experience.
That’s ok.
Jesus, in John’s Gospel, reminds us
that we don’t have to be the same.
Hopefully, we understand identity;
that is great because you realize who you are.

And, in Jesus’s prayer,
we are not here to dictate to others or to fix people.  Wouldn’t that be awesome to have a switch that we flip and suddenly everything is ok.
(I could lose 30 pounds a lot easier that way!)
We, first, have to take care of ourselves. 
We are commanded by Jesus to be examples of God’s love to each other and our families.
We share our story.
We listen to others tell their story.

We are here to share in the community precisely
because the community needs our story.
We share our experiences and witness.
Through our story and our example,
we show the value of a good path, including the broken parts.

Then together, we realize that community is belonging to each other
-- not just empty slogans and phrases. 
When we pray together,
we eat together,
we work together,
we sing together,
we fail together,
then we heal together.
We fill our community with our testimony in our unique ways
—we give life to our community and to us as ourselves.

When we embody the presence that heals and shares love,
that is how we have eternal life and legacy.
That is how we honor our roots.
That is how we live today and witness today.

That is our roots!
That is life lived!
That is our story!
That is the Gospel story!
And I am sticking to it!

Thanks Be to God.