History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.
Much of pastoral ministry involves not speaking, but listening. A new minister slowly learns the stories of their congregation, both individual stories and the collective history of that faith community. Listening takes time and intentionality. As relationships deepen, the opportunities for sharing significant and personal experiences grows.
A few months ago I shared some of what I’ve been learning about FCC Morehead, gleaned from conversations and practices. I listed the core values I’ve see in this faith community: communion, compassion, education, beauty, Creation, hospitality, community, history, and practicality.
It’s an incomplete list, I know. Still I hope we can continue the conversation on these core values. I’d love to see where our lists overlap and what you know of this congregation that I have yet to learn.
Let me say a bit more about one of those core values: history. I am mindful of the rich tradition of this congregation, under the direction of Frank C. Button its joint history with the founding of the Morehead Normal School, now Morehead State University. The very foundation of the church building rests upon the ground of its predecessor, the Union Church, which was built at the encouragement Col. John Hargis, founder of Morehead. Those two parts of our congregation’s history reveal the threads of ministry which continue to this day: our ongoing commitment to education and our dedication to ecumenism. It is, borrowing the words of Lord Acton, “an illumination of the soul” of this congregation.
An exploration of one’s history also calls us to reflection, and at times repentance. Our ancestors, both personal and corporate, were human beings like us, sometimes inspiring, at other points most fallible. Engaging in history requires much of us, to be willing to face uncomfortable facts and to learn what those parts of our history reveal about ourselves. Our congregation’s history is no exception. The first financial supporter of the founding of the Normal School and of the Christian Church in Morehead was William Temple Withers, a former Confederate general and slaveowner, and also a prominent Lexington philanthropist and supporter within Christian Church circles. His name is included in one of our stained glass windows.
History is complicated because human beings are complicated.
We are beginning our worship services with an acknowledgement of the land, a public recognition of the stories of this place before us, of the people who lived on this land, loved it, cared for it, and who were forcibly displaced from their lands. That story is part of the history of the American church, too, and of ours as members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It’s a history which may make us uncomfortable, which challenges the narratives our ancestors told about themselves. Learning about the Doctrine of Discovery, the role that Christian churches played in the forced removal and the intentional erasure of indigenous culture and practices, enables us to tell our own stories with more honesty and humility. And it can change the ways in which we engage in ministry today, as we learn from the mistakes of the past and see how those historic decisions still affect the present day.
Our histories are a mix of cherished stories and of regrets. I’m grateful that this congregation is committed to being faithful storytellers who both inspire and who don’t flinch at the painful chapters of the past.
How do you understand the role of history in this congregation? In your own life? What lessons are you learning from the past? What stories do you want to know more about?
Let’s keep this conversation going.
Be well. Be kind.
And always be the church where you are.
Do you know what thinking is?
It’s just a fancy word for changing your mind.”
—The Twelfth Doctor
In 1938 economic collapse, unrest, and conflicted had altered the shape of global affairs and shaken the foundations of modern theology, the editors of The Christian Century reached out to prominent theologians and church leaders asking the question, “How has your mind changed in the last decade?” The request described a proposed essay series as “a kind of testimony meeting” for “the free exchange of experiences.” The 34 contributors were to respond both intellectually and personally, offering deeply reflective essays that were published by the magazine. Karl Barth, Georgia Harkness, and Reinhold Niebuhr were among those who submitted essays, with Niebuhr confessing he had experienced “’a fairly complete conversion of thought which involved rejection of almost all the liberal theological ideals and ideas” which had been part of his earlier work.
It is a question to which the magazine has returned, each decade asking religious thinkers to reflect on the ways in which their understandings have changed. Some essayists profess a constancy to their thought. Others such as Langdon Gilkey saw the changes in process rather than complete, writing, “I prefer, if I may, to say ‘How My Mind Is Changing.’ Instead of having the sensation of motion followed by present rest and clarity…, I am now overwhelmed by the sense of being theologically still in passage.”
It is a question worth pondering, how our thinking changes over time. Asking the question of ourselves requires honesty, a fair bit of humility, and vulnerability. Today as the divisions in society seem greater than ever before, admitting to a change in thought demands courage. Our politicians are criticized for changing their positions on issues, sometimes rightly so if those changes are for political expediency. Yet, I would argue the ability to state publicly, “I was wrong. I changed my mind,” reveals a strength of character which our culture sorely lacks.
Asking myself the question, opens up many ways in which I’ve shifted my thinking. A newsletter article is too small to describe how much my mind has changed through the years, however, looking back there seem to be two consistent threads when I’ve clearly changed positions. First is the lens of God’s abundant grace which I experience at communion. Moving away from my formative experiences of the Lord’s Supper growing up in a conservative Baptist congregation in which our unworthiness and sinfulness was a primary communion theme, I have been reshaped by an expansive view of God’s radical welcome in the sharing of the Eucharist. Secondly, in those most consequential issues where I have changed, more often than not it has been because I have listened to the stories of others, heard their experiences of pain and injustice. Those stories opened up new ways of understanding.
There is much talk of echo chambers and confirmation bias in our culture. It is tempting to stay in our own safe camps and point fingers at those who disagree with us. And yet our God is always doing an new thing, always creating, always at work for transformation. If we are fearful of our current circumstances, asking the question, “how has my mind changed” might be a good place for us to begin. Acknowledging where we’ve been and how we’ve evolved may open up constructive possibilities for our future.
As my opening quote reveals, I am a lifelong fan of the British television show, Doctor Who. I’ll close with a bit of wisdom from the thirteenth and current Doctor, who in the 2018 season opener introduced herself saying,
“We’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next. Now’s your chance! How about it?”
Now’s our chance. How about it?
Your fellow pilgrim on the way,
A native of Illinois, Rev. Nancy Gowler lived for 26 years in the Pacific Northwest. She joined the ministry of First Christian Church in Morehead, KY, in July of 2020.