'Use freedom responsibly'
Like many progressive pastors, the Rev. Bruce Epperly can't help but think outside the box. Or, in his case, "color outside the lines."
"It's OK if we color outside the lines a bit, to be creative, imaginative," says Epperly, whose new book, "Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living," is intended as an alternative to Rick Warren's best-selling "The Purpose Driven Life." Warren's work — a guide to living 21st-century life based on eternal purposes, not cultural values — uses Biblical stories and a set of devotionals titled "40 Days of Purpose" to explain God's plan.
"In 'The Purpose Driven Life,' you find out what your job is, and if you stay inside the lines, you're OK," says Epperly, Director of Continuing Education and Professor of Practical Theology at Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary. "If not, you're in trouble."
Epperly says he has had many conversations with pastors, including several from the UCC, whose congregations have studied "The Purpose Driven Life." "It brought people to adult studies, but many pastors weren't comfortable with the theology of it. They struggled with the notion that God, despite everything that is important in our lives, acts without our input. It challenged our human freedom and seemed to imply that God was responsible for heinous events, from genocide to traumatic events."
Undermining Warren's message is not Epperly's intent. "It's the difference between purpose and adventure, and being driven and having a degree of creativity in the course of your life," says Epperly, who, along with his wife, the Rev. Katherine Gould Epperly, is co-pastor of the Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster. "'The Purpose Driven Life' implies that the script has been written, that goals have been planted, and all we have to do is discover them."
Defining "adventure" as "the interplay of call and response," Epperly says God continually calls us to take our role as God's companions in creatively healing our lives, relationships and the earth. "Freedom is real, but it is always shaped by our previous choices and our environment. Like a good parent, God wants us to use our freedom responsibly as God calls us to be more creative and free in shaping our lives and the world."
The "extra" day in Epperly's book is designed to symbolize that the future is open. "It's very much a practical theology. Each of the 41 days focuses on a theological theme and then provides exercises to live it out with their heart, head and hand."
Local churches can use "Holy Adventure" for both group and individual study, says Epperly. "My goal would be for congregations to study this book and help them frame their own lives, shape where God is calling them on the adventure. If there's one challenge of our church, we've forgotten contemplation in the midst of all our action. We need both. When we live out our faith, our actions are inspired."
In many ways, Epperly thinks "Holy Adventure" is the embodiment of the UCC's "God is still speaking" ministry. "Our church quite possibly has the most dynamic model of any denomination in the world. 'God is still speaking' is saying that your life is an adventure, and that God is not finished. He is still in the process of doing a new thing...and he wants us to be part of it."
Epperly praises the Stillspeaking ministry for going beyond reinterpretation of Bible passages and considering new perspectives on topics such as homosexuality — and sex in general. "God is saying, 'Well, this is how it's been understood in the past, but behold, here is a new thing,' " he says.
Eagerly anticipating those "new things" yet to come, Epperly hopes "Holy Adventure" helps to provide the spiritual foundation on which people can build and live out their faith.
"We live in a world where the final word hasn't been written, so we're helping to write it."
Jeff Woodard is a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, Ohio, and a regular contributor to United Church News.
Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living