The Best of Bearings

We celebrate. We bid farewell. We look ahead.

“It’s December, and nobody asked if I was ready,” writes poet Sarah Kay.

December arrives every year with a bit of urgency, doesn’t it? The last remnants of turkey are still in the refrigerator, and all of a sudden, almost without warning, ready or not, we find ourselves turning the calendar to the very last page, and we’re forced to confront the truth that the year is waning.

More than any other month, December invites us to pause, to consider where twelve months have led us, to inventory the loose ends and unfinished business, to bring some things to a close, even as we anticipate all that will emerge with the start of a new year.

It’s December, and nobody asked if we were ready.

More than any other month, December invites us to pause, to consider where twelve months have led us, to inventory the loose ends and unfinished business, to bring some things to a close, even as we anticipate all that will emerge with the start of a new year.

Here at The BTS Center, with this December issue we bid farewell to Bearings magazine, bringing to a close five-plus years of good work: inspiring prose, thought-provoking reflection, provocative questions, soul-stirring imagery, expressive poetry.

Bearings got its start in September 2014 as The BTS Center’s blog as this fledgling organization was just beginning to take shape—striving to find its own bearings. The memories of Bangor Theological Seminary—our predecessor organization, on whose 200-year legacy we are building—were fresh, and questions of identity, mission, vision, and purpose swirled. Bearings provided a space for deep reflection on the changing religious landscape; a digital platform to amplify fresh, new voices; a little corner of the internet where spiritual imagination and enduring wisdom—innovation and tradition—could collide, sparking new insights and possibilities.

With its launch, my predecessor, Rev. Dr. Robert Grove-Markwood, the first Executive Director of The BTS Center, expressed his hope: “We pray that you will find Bearings much more than a navigational aid providing helpful hints, or tools and techniques. We envision this online space as a collaborative effort to build a theologically grounded community that will grow through energized engagements and creative conversations.”

Elizabeth Drescher, Ph.D., our Editor and host from the beginning, introduced the very first collection of authors: “To get the conversation started, we’ve gathered a group of thinkers and writers from across local, regional, and national Christian landscapes who will explore various outposts of Christian practice that tend to be missed amidst mainstream (and Christian) media fixations on denominational decline and various ecclesiological and doctrinal controversies.”

That circle of thinkers and writers has continued to widen. Over these years, we’ve featured 83 different contributors, spanning the country from California to Maine, from Minnesota and Texas, from Washington, D.C. and Georgia, from Hawaii and Rhode Island and Ohio and Florida, and many other places in between. We’ve explored important topics like immigration and gun violence, church planting and new expressions of community, ritual and spiritual practice, homelessness and racial justice, trauma and transformation, social media and the dynamics of change. All along the way, we have sought to amplify voices from the margins, rather than from the center; voices less likely to get center stage; compelling voices calling the faith community and the world to reimagination, to reformation, to healing, to hope, to justice.

This final issue begins with an original piece, “Death, Ashes, and Resurrection,” by a new contributor, Ben Yosua-Davis. Writing from an island off the coast of Maine, where he and his family live, Ben reflects on how his own experience of planting an experimental Christian community challenged all of his notions of success and failure. That experience—confronting the distress of death, when all of his years of spiritual and professional formation had prepared him only for life—taught him the grace of Holy Saturday, he says. Now a few years removed from the pain, Ben invites us to consider the lessons of endings and new beginnings. He writes, “At the end of this year, and at the end of whatever story you find yourself at: here’s to endings, here’s to the ashes, and here’s to a glorious green resurrection.”

All along the way, we have sought to amplify voices from the margins, rather than from the center; voices less likely to get center stage; compelling voices calling the faith community and the world to reimagination, to reformation, to healing, to hope, to justice.

In that spirit, we offer this final issue as a retrospective, celebrating “the Best of Bearings.” Although it’s an impossible task to survey a collection like this and choose the best—I mean, by what criteria?—still we asked Elizabeth Drescher to identify some of the pieces that stand out for her as she reflects back on these five-plus years, and we’ve included these five from our archives. Here they are, with Elizabeth’s insights and recollections:

Kelly J. Baker was one of the writers who helped to develop our voice as we started out. Her 2014 article “The Return of the Holiday Prodigal: It’s Complicated…” gave rich insight into people who leave the church that was valuable to our readers. It opened a space in Bearings to talk honestly about real challenges in the church.

I’ve been teaching Jamye Wooten’s “Who Has The Right to Be Violent?” since he published it in Bearings in 2016, as do a number of colleagues now. It stands with the work of James Cone, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, with whom I often teach the article, as commentary on the reality of African American experience.

Mihee Kim-Kort’s “Yes, Jesus Loves Us. Now What?” from 2016 is a powerful reflection of racism and sexism in the church that is often difficult for progressive, white Christians to read, in my experience. But I’ve experienced adult formation groups work through their discomfort to actually acknowledge the reality of systemic white supremacy and patriarchy in the church.

More recently, Joan S. Latchaw’s response to the Tree of Life Massacre, “May Their Memory Be a Blessing,” was deeply moving and healing. It was a gift to have the power and compassion of her voice in a special issue of the magazine that we scrambled to pull together quickly as we were just launching the new website.

Last year, Heber Brown’s “Can Churches Build when the Walls Seem to Be Falling Down?” stirred conversation in classroom and congregational settings. It was a message of hope and possibility that didn’t ignore real challenges.

But these are only five of the 83 authors we’ve featured, and in one way or another, all 83 contributors deserve a round of applause and a grateful high-five, because over these 60+ months of publication, their wise and faithful words have inspired and challenged, offered hope, invited us to dig a little deeper, illuminated our longings and our fears, given expression to our struggles and our joys.

Elizabeth notes, in particular, that there were several writers who helped to get Bearings started, who were reliable contributors as we grew—so before we turn our sights to new ventures, we want to acknowledge Keith Anderson, Adam Copeland, Max Grant, Jordan Shaw, and Martha Spong. Likewise, when we developed the Creative Insights section, we relied extensively on Ellen McGrath Smith and Mark Collins to get things going, and Angela Yarber was a helpful resource for introducing visual content.

And of course, as we did last month, we want to reserve our deepest gratitude and praise for Elizabeth herself, for her skillful and spirited work as the primary steward of this publication, month after month, season after season. On behalf of The BTS Center’s Board of Trustees, our staff team past and present, the dozens and dozens of contributors to Bearings over these five-plus years, and our loyal readers: Thank you, Elizabeth, for giving so much of yourself to this publication. We are truly grateful.

With gratitude for all that has been, and with confidence in the God of endings and new beginnings, we look to the future with hope.

There are exciting things stirring for The BTS Center. Although we’re bringing this project to a close, we’re looking ahead to new ventures, and we hope you, our readers, will stay engaged. We will continue to find ways to amplify the voices of great thinkers and entrepreneurs, practitioners on the spiritual margins, people doing good work on the frontiers of faith. We will continue to stay focused on our mission: to catalyze spiritual imagination with enduring wisdom for transformative faith leadership. With gratitude for all that has been, and with confidence in the God of endings and new beginnings, we look to the future with hope.

Allen Ewing-Merrill

The Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill joined The BTS Center as the Executive Director in July 1, 2019. A graduate of the University of Maine (Orono), Ewing-Merrill taught high school English before attending Boston University School of Theology. He has served First United Methodist Church of Hudson, MA (2000-2007) and HopeGateWay in Portland, Maine (2007-2019). From 2011-2016 he also served as founding Executive Director of Hope Acts, a nonprofit focusing on immigrant support and addiction recovery. He is the founder and former convener of Moral Movement Maine, a faith-based network that advocates for social justice in the state, and he serves on the Board of Directors of the Maine Council of Churches and of the United Methodist Foundation of New England. He is married to the Rev. Sara Ewing-Merrill, and they have three daughters. Click here to view Allen’s Biography on our Team’s page.


Featured image: Rana Sawalha, “Travel. Learn. Teach.” (Sept. 5, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license

Image #1: Markus Spiske, “Golden Wooden Stars.” (Dec. 4, 2019). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Image #2: Jake Blucker, “Asphalt Road Between Pine Trees.” (Sept. 24, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.