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Renewal of Hope


O Holy Night HPB

President's Blog
December 22, 2014
Lallene J. Rector

We are well into the Advent season, that time of waiting again and anticipating the renewal of Hope for the world.   Words from the familiar Christmas carol, “O Holy Night” have returned to me repeatedly during the last week.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining.

There is no question that this continues to describe our condition.  With the tragic events of recent days and the last few months – the  unending racial violence against each other, violence as the response to violence, the Ebola crisis, ISIS terror, wars and rumors of war, ongoing poverty and hunger, and so much more – we come to this Christmas season of hope burdened for the well being of the world.

And in His name all oppression shall cease.

It is the Hope to which we must remain committed for this is fundamentally what we are about at Garrett-Evangelical.  We are preparing leaders who are dedicated to working for justice and to being the bearers of this Hope in the world.  The Advent story is an incredible one, for what else calls our imagination to more hope than the beginning of a new life with all the promise that it may bring, but a promise realized only if that new life comes into a situation that is secure, safe and well nurtured with love, in body, mind, and spirit.  Our graduates are about this work of the Lord and we are about preparing and equipping them so that the world may come to more nearly approximate the kindom of God.  We are all contributing, together, to make the world a better place.

'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

It has been a good year at the seminary in so many ways and you are the ones who have made it possible.  You make this a place of which our alumni are proud; a place to which students want to come; and a place that our friends want to support.  During this holiday season, we pause to give thanks to God for you, for these many blessings, and for the gift of abiding hope and love in Jesus Christ. 

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.

May you enjoy a merry Christmas and may you be filled with renewed hope.  Best wishes from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary for a happy New Year. 

Lallene J. Rector
President

 

Cries of the Wounded

President’s Blog
December 5, 2014
Lallene J. Rector

Blog ImageI have been thinking long and hard about the death of Michael Brown and the circumstances surrounding it. And now, I am ”sickened unto death” along with many others by the death of Eric Garner. I have tried to think and feel my way into the experience of both of the ones who died and both of the ones who killed them, as well as into the experiences of both their families. To put it plainly, I have been trying to practice radical empathy, i.e., temporarily suspending our own interests, assumptions, and judgments for the sake of understanding and learning from the other. It’s more easily done with those we experience as like us, but not at all easily done with those whom we experience as different, or with those who make us anxious, hurt us, or do things of which we do not approve. Nonetheless, I have long held the conviction this is an important starting point for what it means to love our neighbor, including our enemy. If we are not willing to let ourselves into the experience of the other, as best we can and knowing we are limited, then we have little hope of effecting anything truly transformative. 

You may remember the story in the gospel of Mark (10: 17-22, NRSV) where the young man approaches Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? ” and Jesus responds, “Keep the law and the commandments.” “I’ve done all that since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  When the young man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 

Jesus loved him before giving the difficult answer. The role of love in this story jumped off the page at me when I was 20 and I have never forgotten it. This is not love that precludes a hard answer, nor love that precludes accountability. It is not sentimental love. It is love that understands with compassion the experience and plight of the other – first.

An 18 year-old young man is raised and developmentally formed in an environment shaped by systemic disparities in economic and educational opportunity, as well as in an environment where the social consequences of white normativity and anti-black racism dominate. He was victimized by these realities.

An officer of the law lives out his vocational calling to defend and protect the innocent in the same environment, perhaps also formed by an environment in which white privilege and racism (explicit or implicit) were regnant. He was victimized, too.

The two encountered each other on August 9, 2014. What might they have been feeling? Perhaps, one was feeling that police were inherently prejudiced against him because of his skin color and prior experiences. Perhaps, he felt rage for the inequities and injustice he had suffered during his life.

And the other? Perhaps, he felt a desire to serve the public and develop a sense of competency as a police officer. Perhaps, he felt threatened in this moment in a way he had never experienced before. Perhaps, he felt caught with no other options. 

Possibly, both carried negative, hateful feelings and stereotypes about each other. And perhaps, both were terrified at different points, fearing for their own lives.

At the Seminary earlier this week, we listened to a lecture, “Power and Politics” by Dr. Mark Lewis Taylor. Though he holds a regular faculty post at Princeton Theological Seminary, he has been our Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Theology during the fall semester. Dr. Lewis spoke eloquently at the end of his address about how we must be listening for the cry of the wounded, suggesting that the expressions of lament and rage be heard as cries of the wounded. He suggested this was exactly what Jesus was about.

Garrett-Evangelical has heard the cry of the wounded and we have felt with them rage and lament. But, we have been struggling with how to respond to the seemingly never-ending reality of the cycle of violence and injustice in our society. We also have been struggling, haltingly and intermittently, with the reality of white privilege and normativity that dominates all of our lives and ways of doing business in this place. And, in this Advent season of hopeful expectation, we are also filled with the question, “How long do we really have to wait for the coming of Jesus?”

At the end of his lecture, Dr. Taylor called us to respond to the cries of the wounded by working with the “forces of power” for liberation. Those seem to be the right words and we resonate with affirmation for them.  But, the question remains about how we shall proceed to do so. It begs for wisdom and discernment in action that is demanded of us as Christians.  We know that “faith without works is also dead” (James 2:26 NRSV). In our setting with its educational and formational mission, the question arises about what difference all this can and should make for a curriculum revision. How do we prepare and equip graduates who will be public theologians in the public square, who will think theologically and ethically with a prophetic set of values that require action, and who will collaborate with others sharing similar values, if not the specific content of our faith?  

Dean Rivera has already invited us to join Evanston community responses by providing detailed information about interfaith worship services, protests, and community educational events. On Wednesday evening our Gospel service was devoted to prayer and worship with Ferguson and New York at the heart of our concern. On Monday, under the direction of Dean Cynthia Wilson, Garrett-Evangelical will gather at noon and at 6:00pm for a prayer vigil and for discussion. And, on Monday afternoon the faculty will meet to plan a response. In all of this, we are challenged to be people of faith with prophetic commitments, to work with others, to take action, and to be wise leaders preparing others to be leaders. I am very proud that our students have been in the forefront, while some of the rest of us are still busy struggling with how to best respond.   

I close with a word from Thomas Merton I came across this morning:  “ . . .when the [person] of resolutions puts his [or her] resolutions aside as if they had all been broken, then he [or she] learns a different kind of wisdom.”1 It is my hope that we can hold our fear and caution lightly enough with confidence that we may yet find a new wisdom.  

 

1) The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns.  William Shannon, ed. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1985. p. 115

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.  

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