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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.

All People Are Of Sacred Worth

President's Blog
July 15, 2014

DSC 0430¶ 4. Article IV. Inclusiveness of the Church:
The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth . . .”  The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012.

“You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism . . .”  (Ephesians 4:4-5, CEB)

I have never forgotten an experience I had 15 years ago now when Neal Fisher was still President of the seminary. At that time, each year we brought a group of prospective students to the campus for a couple of days to meet the faculty, to meet current students, to be interviewed by faculty members, and to begin to develop relationships with each other. These were students who already had been admitted, but who not yet decided if they would attend Garrett-Evangelical. They were also students with very high undergraduate GPA’s, demonstrated outstanding leadership qualities, and who were being courted by other top tier schools.

Our schedule typically included a faculty panel after dinner one evening. I was on the panel one of those evenings – a panel moderated by President Fisher with four or five other faculty colleagues. At one point, a student asked how we would characterize the seminary, “Is Garrett-Evangelical a conservative or a liberal school?” I knew the panel consisted of faculty members who spanned a spectrum of theological perspectives. Within about five seconds, our body language became very telling. We began to sit back in our chairs looking down and away, no one of us eager to respond. For to claim the school one way or the other would also mean taking the risk of turning away at least some students whom we wanted to recruit, not to mention our reticence to take responsibility for characterizing the legacy and complexity of our school in such a flat-footed way. 

President Fisher sat forward. Clearly, he would answer the question – thank the good Lord! He said something to this effect, “God has given us minds, and at Garrett-Evangelical we believe that nothing we can learn about the world around us, and nothing we can learn about who and how we are as human beings, about our sacred scriptures, none of this truth will take us away from the Truth of God.” His point being that neither “conservative” nor “liberal” labels did justice to what we were engaged in at the seminary. I tell you this story, because I am inviting you into my thinking, periodically, over the next year regarding the very challenging issue of human sexuality and our United Methodist struggle with it.

As I said in my inaugural address, I believe that Garrett-Evangelical can (and should!) do much better than the minimal, non-discriminating statement on sexual orientation we issued in 1997. I also indicated it was my intention for our Garrett-Evangelical community to engage a year long conversation – longer, if needed – to consider the role of the seminary in these matters and to see if we might be able to come to a more substantive understanding toward the end of radical hospitality, love of neighbor, and perhaps more deeply embodying the meaning of being a servant seminary. I am currently engaged in finding a person(s) to help facilitate this process. There is so much to say and to consider! 

I want to call us to a kind of openness with each other and openness to a new consideration of this critically important issue for the church. United Methodists (UM) have formally struggled with this for more than 40 years. Many fear the possibility of a denominational schism and many are despairing. We often call to memory the split we suffered over race for nearly a century until 1939 and our delay until 1956 in ordaining women as elders. We caution ourselves to learn from history and not to make a similar mistake again.

blogpicWe watch as our other protestant denominations have taken on and resolved their thinking about ordination of the LGBTQ “practicing and self-avowed persons,” about marriage equality, and same-sex-unions. Just this week, I have been in communication with two congregations in the Northern Illinois Conference who are now undertaking consideration of the use of their facilities for marriage ceremonies and same-sex unions. Bishops are beginning to go on record with their intention not to bring clergy to trial for these acts of disciplinary disobedience. I believe the seminary has responsibility to be a resource to the denomination in its struggles, as well as a responsibility to be clear about how we engage these concerns in the educational and formational tasks we have undertaken as our mission.

Obviously, Scripture is a foundational element for us, notwithstanding our additional quadrilateral commitments to experience, tradition, and reason. I am aware of the “7 scriptural references” to homosexuality in the Bible, and I am also aware there is no escaping ourselves in the effort to discern true meaning(s) of various passages. Many of us read the Bible from a “canon within the canon” approach. We appeal to a biblical perspective, a verse, or a commandment to provide the lens against which we measure and interpret other parts of the Bible. The anxiety and discomfort we may feel, and the inchoate concern we have about different sexual practices is often expressed in reluctance to address these matters more openly and freely. Sometimes we manage our discomfort (unawares) by appealing to the Bible and by concluding, “The Bible says . . . about . . .” This seems to settle it for us. We can feel not only morally right, but we can also avoid the great discomfort of dealing with the differences in others that beset us. All of this is to say, that in our attempts to find a path forward, we are up against an extremely powerful and sometimes frightening dimension of our human experience.

The conversation will continue in the months to come.  We will be in touch with you about your thoughts, but for now, thank you for accompanying me on the journey.

The Frontline of Changing Religious Practices

President’s Blog
July 5, 2014

During the last several weeks, I have continued to find myself thinking about the seminary’s relationship to the church – to The United Methodist Church for sure, but also to the church at large.  I am thinking about this in the context of Garrett-Evangelical becoming more of a servant seminary. How can we be of service to the church and to the community around us?  How may we be of service to our alums who are faithfully engaging their ministries? And, how might we embody a servant attitude toward each other within our own Garrett-Evangelical community? The general answer is to be true to our mission to prepare excellent leaders. But, there is a deeper current to be considered, as well – one that lies in the fundamental attitude with which we approach our task. Specifically, I have in mind a kind of “epistemological humility,” that is, a kind of humility about how we know what we know and about the places and persons from whence our learning may come.

I repeat myself here by saying that sometimes we at the seminary tend to assume a prophetic stance toward the church, as if we know better what the church needs than the church knows for itself.  Do not misunderstand me. I am absolutely clear the seminary brings many gifts to the church, an extremely important one of which is the gift of learning and research. We can and do offer up our intellectual efforts for the benefit of the church (though sometimes we could be more user friendly in making the necessary translation from academy to church). And, there are many other gifts, too.  But for the moment, I’d like to focus on the gifts of the church to us at the seminary.

You will soon see in the president’s column for the next issue of AWARE an observation made by the executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, Dan Aleshire, at our Biennial meeting in Pittsburgh last week. He emphasized that congregations are on the frontline of changing religious practices and that as such, there are definitely some things we could learn from the church’s experience. I think we could begin by being open to a prophetic word from the church to the seminary, rather than proceeding immediately with a critical analysis about how those practices are somehow not “correct.” These new practices may be meeting the spiritual needs of persons in those communities. They may have emerged from the Spirit moving in those places. And, the Wisdom of “many gifts; one spirit” may well be at work. Since we are committing ourselves to a renewed collaboration with the church, (not to mention a curriculum revision), why not begin our servant leadership by taking a position of listening with an expectation that we might actually learn something from the church? Why not begin with openness to being changed by what we hear and by what we may come to know in a new way? 

The fact is that many of our own students are coming out of these churches and college ministry programs with substantive experience, for example, in creative worship. As reported to you earlier here, I unexpectedly happened upon an expression of this with a “flash mob” worship moment in the front lobby of the seminary a couple of months ago – the power of its simplicity and surprise still amazes me: singing, praying, and listening to the Word of God.  

Maple Park UMC Chicago Crop 

 

 

 

Maple Park United Methodist Church
in Chicago, Illinois. Maple Park UMC
is one of our newest SBC21 partners.

And, we are already learning a lot from a recent survey of our community regarding current religious life practices at the school. More to come on the results of that in the fall, but first and foremost, there is a strong desire for Garrett-Evangelical to be a more of worshipping community. An initial read also produces a clear call for more student leadership, for more contemporary music and worship style, for great guest and student preaching and for an integration of global/cultural diversity in music and style across the board. Perhaps, we really could learn something from the church about what constitutes compelling worship – even in the midst of the complexities we have to deal with in providing formational education. Congregations engaged in multicultural and contemporary worship surround us in the Chicago area. And, we are grateful for the teaching and research that Dr. Ruth Duck has engaged in these congregations over the years. What more might we learn from these worshiping communities?

We are excited about our partnership with the Northern Illinois Conference in Field Education assignments, in urban ministry initiatives, in educating and training Hispanic/Latino/a persons for ministry leadership, and in the “Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century” (SBC21) program. The reciprocal interaction of gifts given from the church to the seminary and gifts given from the seminary to the church is the beginning of true collaboration in which both communities grow in faith and develop a deeper understanding of God’s call to service. I believe we are well on the road to renewing lively work together, and not a moment too soon!

 

Faithfulness in a Little

President’s Blog
June 16, 2014

It’s Annual Conference season for United Methodists in the U.S. – the time each year when clergy, lay leaders, guests and their resident Bishops gather together.  Corporate worship is engaged, legislative matters are considered, and missional priorities are reiterated.  Retirements are celebrated, memorial services are held, men and women are ordained, and new appointments are announced. 

For many years, I have heard a refrain about the boredom factor at these 3-4 day meetings.  And, to be fair, as a layperson who has only periodically attended annual conference meetings (and then for specific purposes that allowed me to come and go quickly), I have never had to sit through a legislative session, nor have I experienced feeling that nothing was changing or that nothing was progressing.  And the truth is, that as a layperson I will never sit in the shoes of my ordained brothers and sisters who are required to attend these meetings as part of fulfilling ordination responsibilities and as an act of obedience to their Bishops.  I do not doubt these meetings have their fair share of less than fully exciting moments for everyone involved.  

BUT, I do want to bear witness to the deep joy I have experienced this year in attending five annual conferences in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan (and next year, others as scheduling allows).  I have been edified by revival quality worship and inspired preaching by the Bishops with enlivening music led by talent within the conferences – worship that called for renewed commitment to Christian service, and that supported new calls to ministry.  I have become familiar with the “episcopal address” and have been inspired again by the vision that each of these bishops is bringing to his or her leadership.

I have had the privilege of bringing greetings on behalf of the seminary and the opportunity to briefly – ever so briefly! – speak about our efforts to strengthen partnership with the church, about how Garrett-Evangelical is understanding itself as a servant seminary,  about pride in our alums who are making a transformative impact, and to express gratitude for the ministries of all present.  I have had the opportunity to offer opening prayers, to join social justice marches and rallies, to talk with Bishops and cabinet members, and to spend time at our display booths and ministry fairs. 

Carrie and Janice 
 Rev. Carrie Berry Carnes
and Janice Ringenberg

 Scott Carnes
 Rev. Scott Carnes

Most importantly, I have been visiting with our alums, brand new and long retired, and hearing how they are faring in ministry, as well as sharing news of the school with them.  There are too many meaningful moments to recount here, but I want to share one experience at the beginning of my sojourn this season.  For me, it was the demonstration of  “faithfulness in a little” at the Illinois Great Rivers conference.  Scott Carnes (G-ETS 2010), Carrie Berry Carnes (G-ETS 2012), Janice Ringenberg (G-ETS 2014), and Chris Quick (G-ETS 2011) worked together to host a creative “appetizer” dinner in a specially decorated room for our school gathering.  Their purpose was to provide something different that would encourage reconnection and new relationship building among those gathered.  The hospitality was exceptional as these four, along with Garrett-Evangelical trustee, Keith Zimmerman (ETS 1974 and G-ETS 1986) literally rolled up their sleeves in the kitchen of First UMC, Peoria, and served homemade appetizers to their fellow clergy and to current Garrett-Evangelical students.  I do have enough annual conference experience to know this is an extremely rare occurrence, if not entirely unheard of - and understandably, because meetings are closely scheduled and realistically, it is simply more efficient to have the meal entirely catered.  Even so, these homemade appetizers became the embodiment of creative, servant leadership in a seemingly small thing, the preparation of a meal. 

As human beings, we are well aware of the emotional significance of a shared meal.  As Christians, we experience the power of the Eucharist as we leave that table a forgiven people who begin anew to love our neighbor.  We are changed by the powerful vision of God’s eschatological banquet and the promise that one day all of God’s children will be welcomed there.  And so, in the lower level of First Church Peoria, we broke bread together, partaking of appetizers, delicious little bits of this and that, and receiving the hospitality offered to friend and to stranger.  It was the provision of life-giving sustenance.  It was a servant act by our graduates that furthered the “kin-dom” even in the midst of what sometimes seems just another boring meeting.  I am reminded to keep my eyes open for these “little” moments of grace, to give thanks for the dedication of our alums, and to be ever so grateful that God is yet at work among us.

And, P.S. – our heartfelt appreciation to Rev. Bob Phillips and the congregation at First Peoria for the generosity of providing us a beautiful venue - without charge.

 

Interpreting Newspapers from Your Bible

President’s Blog
May 28, 2014

"[Barth] recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians 'to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible'" (Time magazine, Friday, May 31, 1963).

In yesterday’s New York Times, I noted at least 5 stories that referenced religion, either directly or indirectly.  They included these events:

  1. The fatal shooting of Dr. Mehdi Ali Qamar, a cardiologist from Ohio who was doing volunteer work, for a second year, at the Tahir Heart Institute in Pakistan.  The killing was considered a “faith-based target killing” because Dr. Qamar was serving in a hospital run by an Ahmadi community (a religious group legally banned from describing themselves as Muslim because they recognize a 19th century man as a prophet of God, in addition to the Prophet Muhammed).

  2. A furor over free speech when the planner of the “World’s Largest Brat Festival” in Madison, WI included a Christian worship service, entertainment by a Christian band, and an invitation (eventually rescinded) to a motivational speaker on the topic of teenage suicide.  The speaker had ties to an anti-abortion group.

  3. Pentagon funded anti-terrorist training in the African countries of Mauritania, Mali, Libya, and Niger to assist resisting the intrusion and dominance of Al-Quaeda/”Islamic extremists.”

  4. Pope Francis’ visit to the Middle East and the competitive rivalry between Jewish and Muslim political leaders to influence and narrate the places he visited, the prayers he said, and the meanings of his gestures.  Pope Francis also offered mass at the Cenacle (“upper room”)/ Mt. Zion/the tomb of King David heightening fears that Rome plans to take over this multiply contested holy place.

  5. Preparation for the 2-3 million Muslim pilgrims who will make their way in October to Mecca for the annual Hajj.  The concern for the spread of infectious diseases and other illnesses (e.g., polio, MERS, yellow fever, malaria, gastrointestinal illness, meningitis) has resulted in readying massive resources for vaccinations, quarantining capabilities, testing sanitary food preparation and guaranteeing safe water supplies. 

These events were reported in just one daily newspaper.  I have not yet read today’s paper, but I have no doubt that I will find as many or more religiously related stories than I found yesterday.  It seems increasingly important to read the newspaper with an eye to how prevalent the thread of religion is in much of what is reported – religion for the good, and religion for ill.  Perhaps the number of religiously motivated events exceed what Karl Barth had in mind when he offered the admonition to read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

I have also been reading Elaine Graham’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Public Theology in a Post-Secular Age (2013).  She makes an important observation about the co-existing and simultaneous realities of, on the one hand, the decline of institutional religion and on the other hand, a new “public prominence of religion” with increased interest in spirituality and with faith-based interventions in community needs for health care, welfare, and other social justice concerns.  In spite of the challenges to our familiar forms of institutional religion, the significance of religion seems to be almost ubiquitous in world events.  

Our new graduates will need to be intentional about looking up, and looking out in order to keep the larger picture before them in their role as religious leaders in the wider community.  At our May 16 commencement, I was inspired to look upon our large graduating class, to know that they were about to step into the world  and make an impact for good.  I said to them:

“I hope you will become public theologians, thinking critically, ethically, and theologically about the work of God in the public square for the common good.  And, I hope that you will engage with others who share these values and concerns, and that wherever there are those willing to work for the well-being of all persons, whether they be Christian or not, persons of faith or not, that you will find ways to join with them for the greater good that may be accomplished.

There is no lack of need for strong, visionary public theologians who will roll up their sleeves and take on the compassionate and the prophetic work of Jesus Christ in the world.  We are called to, “Hate evil, love good, and establish justice at the city gate” (Amos 5:15).  And, Garrett-Evangelical is proud to have sent 84 theologically educated men and women out there to do just that.  We thank our God for every remembrance of these graduates knowing that God has begun a good work in them and will stay with them until it is brought to completion (Philippians 1:6), for we know the world remains desperate for the gifts they bring!

Class of 2014

 

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