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The Power of Open and Honest Dialogue

November 21, 2014

I have just returned from a consultation in San Diego on theological education hosted by the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.  About 50 persons were invited representing an array of constituencies inside and outside United Methodism: bishops, faculty, pastors, GBHEM staff, deans and presidents of seminaries and divinity schools, leaders of other denominations and related institutions.

Our meeting format was led by two consultants committed to a “living systems” approach in which much care was given to being present, to checking in about how we had arrived, to what we were being called and invited into, to the concerns we brought, to deep listening to ourselves and others, to an incredible trust in process, and to the power of dialogue that would move us to meaningfully consider action.  No doubt some wondered about whether or not such a process could eventuate into anything but more talk that goes nowhere.  To be honest, at this moment it is too soon to know what will come of our investment. 

It was a challenge to be present in the midst of the busyness that surrounds our lives and that feels so demanding.  However, I was committed to do so believing that conversation and dialogue are the basis upon which we begin to understand each other and at the heart of which lies something sacred.  Such dialogue at times requires courage and perseverance and it is easier to turn away from than to engage.  But perhaps it is the best hope we have for dealing with difference and for finding ways to truly collaborate toward a common good bigger than any of our personal or institutional agendas.  I left the consultation reminded of a conviction I experienced at 12, i.e., that the process of listening, really listening, and of being listened to has transformative impact and embodies what I can now name as an incarnation of God’s grace among us.

It was good to reconnect with this early conviction and the essence of my vocational calling, for I had become tired in this aspect of it. Deliberately immersing oneself in the subjectivity of another for extensive periods of time, over time is challenging.  It requires us to let go of our own judgment and interests and to become truly curious about the other for the sake of learning and understanding. 

DSC 0295 copyThe faculty has spent several years considering the reality of white normativity in our school and in our ways of doing business.  We understand this to be, at least in part, the historical legacy of enjoying privilege by virtue of having been the majority racial group in this country.  We have been thinking about the insidious and the not so subtle ways in which white persons can proceed with an assumption (often unaware, but not always) that our ways are superior and preferable to other ways of doing things, other ways of thinking, other ways of determining value, other ways of expressing ourselves, in short, other ways of being.  We can fail to adequately recognize the value and gift of other ways.  Given that nearly half of our student body consists of persons of color and that we expect the white US population to tip into racial minority status within the next 15 years or so, our blindness in addressing this dynamic in theological education is unjust and irresponsible.

The challenge is how to talk honestly about all this with each other.  Such an undertaking is highly provocative and threatens “the peace.”  But it is a cheap peace if we politely try to keep the direct expression of fear, anger and frustration at bay.  I think we sense that engaging this kind of dialogue will necessitate change in the ways we live and work together.  If we are really honest with ourselves, we also know that it is necessary in order to not do things the way we have always done them, to not simply dress up the old in new technologies, new delivery systems, and new acknowledgement of diversity while white normativity continues to reign.

If we want to be truly responsible in our leadership not only in the seminary, but also in Christian leadership where ever it takes place, then we must engage courageous-telling and open-listening in holy conversation. Only then are we free to make transformative and bold decisions, not safe decisions, about how we live and work together, about how we will develop a new curriculum, and about how we equip our graduates to respond to the realities and needs of today’s church and world they will serve.

Perhaps we could begin with Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:15 to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” And, then we could move on, taking courage to humble ourselves in difficult dialogue where we lay down our emotional arms, suspend judgment, and engage true curiosity. Again, looking to Paul’s encouragement, let us to take on the mind of Christ and, Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than ourselves. Let each of us look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:3-5, NRSV).

 

For Every Remembrance

November 4, 2014

Fotolia 10955691 L copy 3 copyFor a number of years we have been cohosting an interfaith luncheon for Evanston clergy at Northwestern University with President Morty Schapiro.  Yesterday we enjoyed an outstanding presentation by our own faculty member, Dr. Tim Eberhart.  Though Tim’s focus was on environmental matters and concern for creation care, in considering how we might respond to that crisis, he spoke of the ways our faith supports resilience.  In this regard, I was struck by the way Tim articulated some of what is so compelling and distinctive about our faith (and others), i.e., that religion can hold the deepest and most intense emotions we experience through lament, ritual, and direct engagement with God.  And, it also calls us to hope, in spite of what seems impossible.

Each November 1, Christians recognize All Saints Day, that time when we focus on those who have died and “gone on to glory.” I took the opportunity to think again about death and how we respond to it.  Death puts us up against one of the most profound experiences of helplessness there is.  In all of our human ability to negotiate with almost anything else in our lives, death is the one thing with which we absolutely cannot negotiate.  There is no wiggle room. It simply is.

In the face of such painful loss, and the whole range of feelings we have when we lose a loved one, I have been drawn, over and over again to the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi: “I thank my God for every remembrance of you . . . knowing that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.”  Paul is writing from a prison cell and he is not speaking there about the departed saints, but rather speaking to the living saints who are faithfully leading Christian lives as best they can, and who are supporting his ministry.  It is the thankfulness, and the spirit of gratitude that can be transformative.

As a young college student in Fort Worth, Texas, I used to visit Broadway Baptist church – a southern Baptist church.  I know, I know, but being a “cradle” United Methodist not withstanding, when you are raised in the Bible belt of the south, there is no escaping some exposure to southern Baptists and the gift of their immersion in the Bible.  This particular congregation was pastored by Dr. John Claypool.  He had had an exquisitely sharp mind and a gracious, liberal spirit.  During that time, I came upon a sermon he had preached some years before.  It was his first Sunday back in the pulpit, a month after his 6 year-old daughter had died from leukemia.  I have never forgotten the power of the response in his sermon – one that was so very unexpected.  Rather than railing with anger at God that morning that such a thing should happen, especially to an innocent, Dr. Claypool took a profound position of gratitude – gratitude that he had ever had the privilege of loving this little girl, his daughter, for even 6 years.

In the midst of acknowledging the disappointment, regret, anger, and perhaps even resentment that can be a part of deep and important relationships, a spirit of gratitude helps us to not only manage our grief, but more importantly it also helps us inspire us to live better and more faithful lives. The point for me is that there are so many who have gone before us, upon whose shoulders we stand.  Those from whom we have learned so much, people who were saints because they were faithful people – not because they were super Christians or super Jews who did spectacular things or lived the purist, holiest lives.  They are saints because of their steadfastness in the little things - hospitality offered to all, concern for others, thoughtful acts of kindness, contributions of beauty to our lives.  And, all of this offered amidst human imperfection.

Let’s live with a deep spirit of gratitude, rejoicing in all things as best we can and with God’s help, that we ever had the gift of our departed loved ones, in the first place.  And as servant leaders, let’s lay claim to our own “saintly” identities and to the ways in which we may be part of a living cloud of witnesses now to those around us, blessing them in our steadfastness with the little things.

 

We Are All In This Together

President’s Blog
October 13, 2014

 obama2
 Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

About two weeks ago, President Obama was on the Northwestern campus to speak about the economy and his current priorities for job opportunities, education, health care, environment and technology, and fiscal prudence. Even the excitement of a sitting President of the United States arriving on campus via helicopters flying in over the lake and landing out on the sports practice fields of NU not withstanding, to me, one of the most striking things President Obama said, in an almost offhanded way, was, “You know, we’re all in this together.” It was offered in the context of an allusion to the difficulty and rarity he has experienced of actually getting to sign a bill in to law with the agreement of both major political parties.  To my ears, “We are all in this together” is a less overtly theological version of Paul’s appeal to the metaphor of the body in I Corinthians 12:26, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (NRSV). We really do need each other to get the job done and we need to value what each one can contribute.

It is ironic that the person who inhabits what is often referred to as the most powerful position in the world is reduced to saying that if he cannot get it done through the normal channels of constructive collaboration, then he will go it alone, undertaking another strategy of securing incremental change for the well-being of US citizens, especially those who do not enjoy a variety of adequate benefits.

At the Seminary, we have said for quite a number of years now that part of our mission is to prepare a certain kind of leader for ministry, but perhaps we do not sufficiently address the complex challenges that our “bold spiritual leaders” will face in the midst of difference and/or opposition. 

Just a few days ago, I had the privilege of hosting a lunch at the school for the Black United Methodist Pastors (BUMP) of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference. They took me up on the call for Garrett-Evangelical to renew and revitalize its relationship with the church and they came prepared and organized with questions, requests, and a proposal. The final agenda item in our conversation was to find a way to work together so that their voice would be represented in relevant decision-making at the seminary. And, we took immediate concrete steps to get that accomplished. 

I introduced our time together by saying that I understood my responsibility as President to be at least two-fold:  First, to squarely face the critique, criticism, and reality of who we are and who we are not, i.e., the ways in which we have failed and do not live up to our hopes and ideals. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). I suggested perhaps all seminaries have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The second responsibility, as I understand it, is to hold before the community a vision and the goals to which we aspire, believing that the One who began a good work in us, will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6). This is at least one of the tensions leaders live with and those of us in ministry are always negotiating this tension whether we have explicitly understood it as such or not. We are to face reality, model hope, and inspire - all at the same time.

There are those whose “calling” is to bring only the prophetic word of critique and in contrast, those who want only to look at how good we have been and the nobility of our aspirations. My operating assumption is that wisdom lies somewhere in-between in the realm of acknowledging the reality of our limitations and at the same time holding forth the hope that is ours – the gift of God to us in the human capacity to hope for things not yet seen.

In the end, President Obama’s comment is resonant for me with the familiar refrain of Paul’s “one body,” an understanding from the earliest days of the Christian faith. We are all in this together. To acknowledge this means to continue to work toward collaboration even when it seems untenable, while also being willing to work alone, if necessary, in order to make incremental change. And even if it is incremental change and not all that we might have hoped for, we proceed all the while with hope and trust that God will redeem our efforts and bring our efforts to good completion. 

I look forward to the work that Garrett-Evangelical and BUMP will do together and to its positive effects. I am always grateful for the collaborative, constructive and gracious spirit of those who seek common cause with others who also share the vision.  

Our Human Limitation

President’s Blog
September 17, 2014

Love our enemiesI have been reflecting for the last number of weeks on our human capacity for anger, a common emotion provoked by many things. It may be one of the most difficult emotional experiences with which we have to deal and there are varying ways of handling it. Some of us are more regulated with anger than others. Some of us are at the mercy of what it does to us. Some quietly simmer; some seethe; some blow up; some express anger indirectly; some hearts become hardened and embittered; and some try to deal more directly with it in as constructive a way as possible, finally letting it go and moving on.

At base, it seems to me that most anger is finally about fear, or feeling wounded. Or a sense of helplessness, and maybe feeling “righteous” indignation - though I suspect that even below righteous indignation, there is some more fundamental feeling of helplessness, “How can such a thing be?”

On August 9, in Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown, an 18 year old unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white 28 year old police officer. The event spawned an outbreak of anger and rage for the unjust and violent loss of yet another young black person. There was anger and rage all around - emotions that were and continue to be expressed in many ways: through protests, further violence, looting, blogs, sermons, lamentation and prayer, railing at God, and social justice action.

As Christians, we wonder where God is in all this and what role our faith plays in such circumstances. These are especially difficult questions when we are overwhelmed by our own feelings of anger and rage, helplessness and fear. Recent sermons I have listened to include a confession of struggle with the temptation to return violence for violence. One preacher indicated it was a good thing she had no gun for she knew she would not be able to control herself if provoked in a certain way. In a discussion about the lack of empathy for the victims, another preacher left us with the question, “How do we not become like them?”

I believe our faith tells us exactly how we do not become like the enemy – we are to love the enemy, to return no evil for evil, and, ultimately to love even this neighbor. Another way of saying it is that we should have as much empathy for the perpetrator as for the victim. But none of us really wants to hear that in the midst of this kind of violence and injustice where there is tragic, profound loss and hurt. 

Perhaps, this ultimate love of neighbor is only an ideal toward which we are called to strive. Perhaps, it is an impossible requirement for human beings to embody, a  casualty of our fallen condition and our frailty. Freud may have been right when he observed in Civilization and its Discontents (1930) that we have a basic predisposition toward violence and aggression and the only reason we do not simply give in to a “free for all” is that civilization and the possibility of living in community requires we manage ourselves - both in terms of our sexual desires and in terms of our aggressive inclinations. We are just self interested enough to comply with society’s prohibitions lest violence come to us.

I was recently reminded of a clip from the 1982 film “Gandhi.” In it, Gandhi offers a “way out of hell” to a young Hindu man who has suffered the murder of his son at the hands of Muslims. You can watch it here.

Yes, we could dismiss it as Hollywood imagination, but is not the instruction of Gandhi to this tortured soul no less challenging than the commandment that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves? I know it is too easy to simply speak about this high standard. It is quite another to be able to approach embodiment of the commandment in circumstances where our children have been murdered.  And yet . . . this is the answer we receive from our Lord. 

Howard Thurman spent time with Gandhi talking about the experience of racial violence in the United States.  As a black man, his reflection below is even more poignant.

Is my enemy God’s child? If he is, I must work upon myself until I am willing to bring him back into the family. Does God love him? It doesn’t help me any to say, I am not God. That would be convenient but irrelevant. If God loves him, that binds me. Can it be that God does not know how terrible he is? No, God knows him as well as he knows himself and much better than I know him. It must be true, then, that there is something in every man that remains intact, inviolate, regardless of what he does… If a man is of infinite worth in the sight of God, whether he is saint or sinner, whether he is a good man or a bad man, evil or not, if that is true, then I am never relieved of my responsibility for trying to make contact with this worthy thing in him. I must love him because God causes the sun to shine upon him as well as upon me (The Growing Edge, 1956, p.18)

Finally, in discussing the matter of empathy for one’s enemy, a colleague spontaneously responded, “But it is so-o-o-o hard.” Her quick assessment captured the dilemma we face as limited human beings. We are inescapably self interested and given to intense emotions that  we are all, to one extent or another, ill-equipped to handle. There is no easy path forward, but there is nonetheless a standard to which Christians are called, a commandment to which we are held accountable. In the words of Thurman, “I am never relieved of my responsibility . . .

Doesn’t my Lord see all this?

President’s Blog
August 10, 2014

Doesn’t my Lord see all this? (Lamentations 3:36)

Early in the morning on July 18, 2014, I went to the curb to pick up the New York Times and saw the first photo showcased below. I was profoundly sickened and I have been haunted by it ever since.

My children are destroyed because the enemy was so strong (Lamentations 1:14)

 NYTimes headline


 Four brothers playing on a beach when a missile strike killed them.

 

israeli teenagers


Three Israeli teenagers who, while hitch hiking in the West Bank, were picked up on June 10, 2014, shot and then their bodies were burned in a car that was abandoned and found later.

 
 morgue


On July 20, 2014, a photo appeared of a medical examiner weeping in his morgue surrounded by the bodies of little children wrapped in various bags and cloths, children who were the casualties of war where there is suffering on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a seemingly irreconcilable conflict.


 rikers island


At Rikers Island in New York, a culture of violence and bullying goes virtually unchallenged. Officers in charge of incarcerated adolescent boys have long been accused of unwarranted physical abuse and of covering each other’s backs with no accountability. Fear of reprisal has lead to unrestrained sadistic practices. We learned last week from an investigation that recent charges were dismissed – the testimony was inconsistent and contradictory.

 
 south korea


South Korean soldiers, over the period of a month, repeatedly beat 20-year old Private First Class Yoon until he died on April 6, 2014. The soldiers sought to toughen him up along with other young male soldiers so that they could more effectively engage (read “kill”) North Korean soldiers.

 

The nations said, “They can’t stay here any more . . .” (Lamentations 4:15)

 migrant children


Migrant children were flown to Arizona from Texas and Georgia, May 28, 2014. They are pouring into our southern borders, coming alone and coming with relatives who have been sent to what their loved ones in Mexico and Central America hope will be a better future.

 

Women have been raped . . . Your hurt is as vast as the sea.  Who can heal you?  (Lamentations 2:13; 5:11) 

 father weeping


On May 29, 2014, a father in Utter Pradesh weeps upon learning that his daughter and niece (ages 14 and 15) have been gang raped and hung up in mango trees after they went out into the fields one evening, with no other sanitation option, to use “the bathroom.” He is comforted by his mother.

 

I call on your name, Lord, from the depth of the pit.  Hear my voice.  (Lamentations 3:55)

 malaysian airlines


On July 17, 2014, Malaysian Airlines 17 was shot down by “terrorists” over Ukraine near the Russian border because it was believed that spies were on board. The plane was carrying a brain trust of HIV/AIDS scientists from Amsterdam headed to a scientific conference in Kuala Lumpur.

 

People wander blindly in the streets polluted with blood. (Lamentations 4:14)

 goose island shooting


On August 6, 2014, four men were wounded during the wee hours of the morning in a shooting at Goose Island Night Club. The gun violence in Chicago is rampant.


We are driven to lamentation.

There are unending daily photos and stories that depict all manner of human violence. They are always with us, but these weeks in particular have left me deeply stunned, again, at our inhumanity to each other, an inhumanity that simply does not remit. Please forgive me, my Wesleyan Arminian friends, when I say, “Calvin’s theology of total depravity takes on renewed meaning.”

The world is entirely DESPERATE for servant leadership, for prophetic voice, and for those who can recruit others to care for the least of these and who can advocate for justice and peace. Garrett-Evangelical and its graduates must participate in responding to the needs of the world and those who are right before us in our local communities. As public theologians we can work for the wellbeing of all and we can bring a word of Good News – even when it feels we are shoveling sand against the tide.    

For this moment, let us lament and plead together with the author of Lamentations,  “Return us, Lord, to yourself” (Lamentations 5:21), please.

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