A few anticipated questions about me and my background are listed below. Click on a question to display my response.
What background do you have in religious studies?
The Short Answer: While I have had a few classes in religion and some training in the bible, I am a layman, not a theologian or biblical scholar. I write from the perspective of a layman.
A fuller answer: The only formal, religious, college-level courses I've had were the required Old Testament and New Testament classes in my undergraduate years at Bethany College. (Founded by Alexander Campbell, Bethany has been a four-year private liberal arts college affiliated with the Christian Church — Disciples of Christ — since its inception. This religious body, of which Campbell was one of the principal founders, continues to support and encourage the College, but exercises no sectarian control. Students from virtually every religious community attend Bethany.)
I did receive in-depth instruction in the bible through the Bethel Series, an intensive, long-term overview of both old and new testaments (a year with each). Although having Lutheran roots, the Series is non-denominational and has been in existence nearly 50 years. In addition to having the two-year teacher training, I taught two two-year "student" sessions in my Glenrock, Wyoming, American Baptist church.
In addition to these direct learning experiences, I also taught adult Sunday School classes for over ten years, and wrote some curriculum materials for the educational division of the American Baptist Churches.
Perhaps as important as the more formal experiences, in much of my adult life I have read diverse religious and religion-related materials and have sought to form a faith based on education, experience, and interaction with other Christians.
What faith traditions have been a part of your life?
The Short Answer: I have always been part of some community of faith, all of them Christian and "mainline Protestant" type. These include Disciples of Christ, American Baptist, and Episcopalian denominations, with specific churches in diverse parts of the United States, from West Virginia, to California, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania.
A fuller answer:
I grew up in a Christian family in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Our denominational tradition was Disciples of Christ (Christian). The "Disciples" has its roots an northern West Virginia/Western Pennsylvania, and was started at what is now Bethany College by Scottish Presbyterian father and son Thomas and Alexander Campbell. (In early years the denomination was often called "Campbellites", a bit of a pejorative term.) The Disciples have a long heritage of openness to other Christian traditions — having come into existence as sort of a 19th century protest movement against denominational exclusiveness. Disciples are frequently involved in cooperative and ecumenical work.
A rejection of creeds and "tests" of faith were part of my Disciples heritage. A slogan was, "No Creeds but Christ," and I experienced an emphasis of following Christ and little emphasis on belief statements. I remained a part of the Disciples through my college years until we moved to an area of California where there were few Disciples churches.
For a few years in northern California, we were part of a Congregational Church community, and in our first years in Wyoming attended an Episcopalian church, a small log building.
In the early 70's (in Glenrock, Wyoming) we joined an American Baptist church and remained very active in that denomination during the remainder of our years in Wyoming and for our first 24 years in Pennsylvania. My wife, Rose, worked at the denomination's national headquarters in Valley Forge, PA as an editor of adult Sunday School curriculum. I served two terms as church moderator in both our Wyoming church (Glenrock Community Baptist) and at Central Baptist Church in Wayne, Pennsylvania.
Many of the baptist principles have become part of my faith DNA. Of special meaning is the concept of Soul Freedom and the emphasis on Separation of Church and State. The former emphasizing the responsibility of the individual to work out, with the grace of God, one's path to God and our personal responsibility to answer to God. Baptists have been champions of the separation of church and state, and that emphasis played a key role in my administration of public schools.
In 2011, we sensed a need to recharge our spiritual batteries, and searched for another church. While difficult to leave the American Baptists after nearly 40 years (including 24 at Central Baptist), our "search" took us only a few miles away to The Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, PA, an Anglican Evangelical community (Episcopalian). In the Anglican liturgy I am finding a strength and meaning in the words spoken for centuries. The Eucharist brings a special nearness of Christ. I am also getting in touch with the sense of "mystery" that is a part of faith. And, I am finding that the important issues of social justice, active involvement in world-wide and local mission efforts can definitely be found in any church wanting to live the full gospel.
I feel blessed to have been an active participant in different faith communities and traditions in diverse parts of our country (all within the boundaries of "mainline, protestant"). These diverse experiences give me the perspective that while the road may be narrow, there are many narrow lanes on that road, all striving to reach a common end. And, there are good people on these many lanes.
It is sad, however, that the few beliefs, traditions, and practices of disagreement often overshadow the many common goals and aspirations that should unite people of faith. But, when such disappointments make me question whether "the church" is really of God, I think, "The church must be of God. If it isn't, how could it continue to survive!"
What are some key events or special experience that have shaped your faith?
The Short Answer: I cannot point to any "Damascus Road" experiences or anything I would call a dramatic revelation on my life's faith journey. In retrospect, however, I can point to some longer-term and perhaps not-recognized-at-the-time experiences that have slowly shaped my faith to what it is today. Nothing dramatic; but all major influences. These are detailed below.
A fuller answer:
I was raised in a Christian home (in the northern panhandle of West Virginia) and the small community's Disciples of Christ (Christian) church was a central part of my upbringing. Church was always there, not a conscious choice, but a vibrant factor, and Sunday School, Chi Rho and CYF groups and camps, and regular church attendance are my roots. Like my peers, I was baptized (by immersion) around age 12; again, no dramatic decision, but the ordinance was not taken lightly.
My parents were active in church, and my mother taught the "Beginners" class for 50 years (complete with sandbox and flannel-graph stories and, of course, singing Jesus Loves Me). Many children, perhaps not totally by mistake, called Esther Dodd, "Mrs. God." I don't recall any regular devotional time at home and not much faith talk. Other than bedtime prayers when a child and my brother or I saying grace at Sunday after-church dinner (usually fried chicken) are the only family prayer times I remember. Doing church things and responding to other people's needs were the focus of my religious upbringing. Nothing really outstanding, of special meaning ... but a solid "firm foundation."
In the mid 1970's we joined an American Baptist church (in Glenrock, Wyoming). While quite similar to the Disciples in structure and style, I became more aware of the foundations of the baptist faith. The Baptist principle of Soul Freedom became a key component of my faith. (See some details of American Baptist Principles.) I realize that while I must learn from others, dig deeply, study the scriptures, and understand church tradition, it is my responsibility (in freedom) to work out, "with fear and trembling" ... and with God's grace, my relationship with God and Christ. I am the one who will stand before God, not my pastor or priest, not my mother, not my church. Soul Freedom is not a simple, loose "believe what you want" concept. It is a serious responsibility. Another aspect of this freedom is to grant that same freedom to others and respect them in their search for meaning in their own lives.
This individual freedom also expresses itself in another baptist principle to be advocates for the Separation of Church and State. Baptists grew from roots of response to intolerance and insist on religious freedom for all and especially guards against dictates of the state toward religion (and even the absence of religion). (More about Baptists and Church and State.) This principle had a strong influence in my various roles in public schools and made for some tough decisions as a public school principal.
Although I had been in many bible study classes and groups, the Bethel Series was transforming in my understanding the scriptural basis of our Christian faith, the bible. (I was involved with Bethel through much of the 1980's in my Glenrock, Wyoming American Baptist church.) Most bible studies focus on one book, or even a few passages, without much context of the flow of the scriptures. While such may be meaningful, it can be like reading Martin Luther Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech without knowing of his childhood roots, his theological training and preaching, or even the Civil Rights Movement.
Bethel is an intensive two-year college-type study of both the old and new testaments. Emphasis is on development of themes that run through the bible, God's movement through history forging the plan for salvation, and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Not only did my two-year training give me a new and solid perspective, my opportunities to teach the course demonstrated the power of the bible to become The Word in individual lives.
Although I think I grew up with a strong sense of social justice, I don't know that I thought of it in terms of my faith. Coming to Central Baptist Church in Wayne, PA, and through its pastor at the time, Stephen Jones, I came to realize that supporting social justice is a most natural expression of believing in and following Christ. CBC had a rich history of involvement in civil rights issues and just prior to our coming had been a "sanctuary church" for refugees from El Salvador. After getting to know the people in that special community, it became obvious that this was not activism for its own sake, but came out of a desire to live out the full gospel. I also became committed to the church being an inclusive community: That all people regardless color, background, or sexual orientation are God's children and the church should never establish barriers to keep someone from establishing a saving and transforming relationship with God.
I bristle at the term "Social Gospel." There is one gospel. That gospel has many facets. But, it is not like a Chinese restaurant menu: We are not to pick and choose.
Although I knew of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and often heard him quoted in sermons, until 2011 when I read Eric Metaxas' book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, I knew little about him. Learning of his life, teachings, and writings had a profound effect. Reading Bonhoeffer caused me to more deeply examine (and question) my understanding of my faith. (Doing so made it clear there was a need to recharge the faith batteries, which led to the difficult decision to look for a new church home.)
For me, the quest for understanding the nature of God and what God requires of us has been a lifetime of questions, trial balloons, beliefs, doubts, and especially wisps of perceptions (and probably mis-perceptions). Reading some of Bonhoeffer's writings has helped move those wisps into more solid understanding and belief. How often I find myself saying, "He is saying concretely -- and emphasizing -- my snippets of thoughts, which often felt silly, the result of wishful thinking, or even heretical leanings." This doesn't imply that I have really nothing to learn from Bonhoeffer. Quite the contrary, I seem to learn daily! However, having someone like Bonhoeffer affirm that my thinking is not always far off is a special gift to one who often feels far afield from the thoughts of many Christians. Feeling a kinship with the thoughts of someone like Bonhoeffer is special indeed!
My morning devotional time begins with the day's selection from A Year With Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am in my third iteration and feel blessed to continually gain insight into faith as presented by Bonhoeffer.
Ineffable: That which we cannot define, even though we can experience and "know" it profoundly. While "ineffable" is likely in the vocabulary of others, it is a new word to me. (What feels weird is that I think I've known it all along!) There are some things we know without knowing ... without knowing in the usual sense of the word. I know that Rose, my wife, loves me. How do I know? I don't. But, I do "know!" (It's upsetting that it's as far along as my 70th year to have the words to explain this.)
Importantly, using the ineffable is not just an easy cop-out for that which we don't want to put the time and energy into trying to explain or understand. "Oh, I don't understand ... I just believe and accept. " Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it well: "By the ineffable we do not mean the unknown as such; things unknown today may be known a thousand years from now. By the ineffable we mean that aspect of reality, which by its very nature lies beyond our comprehension and is acknowledged by the mind to be beyond the scope of the mind."
Regarding issues of faith, I believe that we are called to put our full mind to the task. We need our scientific study, our literary research, our knowledge of psychology and human behavior. But in a final view, the fuller picture is in the interplay between our traditional knowing and the ineffable. Perhaps in that sense, we can say with conviction, "I know!" We can be bold to proclaim things like, "I know that my redeemer lives!"
It is exciting to consider my faith a dynamic one. It seems ever changing. Over the years, I've set aside faith beliefs and understandings which no longer seem valid. I've discarded stuff that doesn't fit reality as I now understand reality. I have gained understanding through learning and insight ... and through my new word, ineffable. Some faith beliefs worked well in an earlier life. In my seventies, many do not serve me well and have been modified. This does not mean that my faith is simply a result of wishful thinking ... at least I hope and trust it is not. I hope the baptist principle of working out my faith with fear and trembling is at play. All I do know is that my faith changes. I look forward to the next changing day.
I expected that writing this section would be a quick, just put-it-together task. Wrong! It ended up a bit of a pilgrimage. Sometimes at places like youth camps, we are tasked to write a short personal testimony, such as a How-I-Came-to-Christ-type thing. Such can be a most meaningful experience ... for both the writer/speaker and the listener. But, in composing this section, I realized I had no Big Event, that my faith was an evolving thing.
In terms of faith, why am I what I am now? What is the nature of my belief (yes, and disbelief)? What caused me to end up on some healthy roads and to detour from some not so healthy? Lots of questions and a need for the grace to reflect honestly. Regardless your stage in life, faith or lack of faith, ability to articulate, I would recommend trying to put together something like I have done in this section. It can be a bit unsettling, but also affirming.
You are a "lay person." What has been your career?
The Short Answer: My working career has been in education, as a teacher, coach, and principal in public schools in California, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania.
A fuller answer:
In retirement, I have a small business in developing websites (including this one), under the business name Wings of Eagles Services. However, most of my working career has been in education ... public education teaching, coaching, and administration.
My academic background includes a bachelors in chemistry from Bethany College, a small liberal arts school in West Virginia, a masters in education from Stanford University, and administrative courses from the University of Wyoming and Moorehead State University (Minnesota).
I taught chemistry and physics and coached football and track in high schools in Loomis, California, and Glenrock, Wyoming. During my time in Glenrock, I moved into administration, first as a curriculum director and later as principal of the middle school. In 1988, I came to the Philadelphia western suburb of Wayne as principal of the Radnor Township Middle School, where I remained until my retirement from education in 1997. This retirement culminated 32 years in public schools, the last 19 as a middle school principal.
Over two of the years as principal, I kept a daily diary of my work, thoughts, and feelings. The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine published a feature on my diary and included several entries. You can see that publication at Principal's Diary on my business website.
What is your family history and background?
The Short Answer: I come from working/middle class roots in the "Steel Valley" area of West Virginia along the Ohio River. My parents were hard workers and neither had the opportunity for a college education. Family, church, school, and sports were roots of my life.
A fuller answer:
Both my wife Rose's and my roots are in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, near Wheeling, and about 50 miles from Pittsburgh, PA. My father was a steelworker (Rose's a coal miner). My mother was a beautician and had a shop in our home. Wellsburg High was our alma mater where in addition to the usual classes, I played football and ran track (graduating in 1961). In 1965, I received a BS in chemistry from nearby Bethany College where I also played football and ran track.
Rose and I married the summer between my junior and senior year at Bethany. That next June (1965) we moved to the bay area of California, where I received my masters in education from Stanford University in 1966. That August we moved to Placer Country, California at the base of the Sierra Nevada's in the town of Loomis, where I was chemistry/physics teacher and football/track coach at Del Oro High School. Our only child, son Alan, was born in 1968, a native Californian.
In 1969 we packed up again and moved to the wilds of Wyoming, to a small town, Glenrock. We never quite understood our motivation to move to Wyoming, but it was good and we were there for 19 years. Alan graduated from high school in Glenrock and had a year of vocational training in Sheridan, Rose worked in the environmental engineering section of a local power plant, and I taught, coached, and later served as middle school principal.
In 1988, we moved east to the western suburbs of Philadelphia, PA, where I took the position of middle school principal in Radnor Township in Wayne. I retired from Radnor in 1997 after nine years. Rose worked several years before her retirement at the American Baptist denomination's national headquarters in Valley Forge as editor of adult Sunday School materials. Alan worked for TV Guide for several years at their main offices in Radnor, and now works as a cashier for the Acme supermarkets. We all live in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.