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Willing Spirits for the Work Ahead

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President's Blog
March 16, 2015
Lallene J. Rector

“ . . . Sustain in me a willing spirit.”  (Psalm 51:12 NRSV)

Psalm 51 is an anchoring word for me and one I return to more days than not. Today, verse 12 speaks as a prayer of encouragement to faithfully shoulder the demands of leadership in which we all participate. There are many challenges to tackle, but also those gifts of God along the way that affirm and inspire us and that become for us a holy and sustaining presence. We feel renewed with “willing spirits” to persevere in the work we have undertaken.

Late last week, Garrett-Evangelical was immersed in one of those gifts as we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Pacific Asian and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM). Almost a year ago, I wrote about the 2014 PANAAWTM meeting also hosted on our campus. We were anticipating this anniversary then. And what a celebration it was! Well over one hundred persons were in attendance.

The festivities began with a public dinner and panel discussion located in the chapel. Drummers, music, historical readings, and beauty surrounded us. But more than this was the joy of women gathered together again with old friends and new friends-in-the-making, supported both by male allies and non-Asian allies, as well as by many institutional representatives and letters sharing in the excitement. We heard from representatives Rev. Joanne Rodriguez, Director the Hispanic Theological Initiative, from Rev. Stephen Lewis of the Forum for Theological Exploration, from Dr. Frank Yamada, president of McCormick Theological Seminary, Dr. Jeffrey Kuan, president of Claremont School of Theology, and Dr. Mary Elizabeth Moore, Dean of Boston University School of Theology, among others including the American Academy of Religion.

Workshops and meals continued over the next several days. It was a remarkable time, a moment to stop and review the history of marginalized scholars who walked with each other; who found their ways into leadership, publications, joint scholarly projects, the inclusion of female practitioners in ministry, and into a widening of their circle, rather than a “circling of their wagons.” Indeed, they have been sustained with a “willing spirit.” 

There was excitement and gladness in the air, a happiness that flowed all through our campus. I walked out my office door on Friday afternoon to the beautiful sound of Asian languages being freely spoken in the classrooms and in the hallways. The delight was audible in persons who felt a sense of “at home-ness and belonging” – their reports, not mine – and who were inspired by the activities of mentoring, learning, and sharing knowledge and wisdom.

Our students, both masters and doctoral, joined the dedicated leadership of Dr. Anne Joh, along with other members of the seminary to provide outstanding hospitality and care – a model we would do well to emulate in our own efforts to be hospitable to all who are part of our community and to all who visit as guests - honored guests.  PANAAWTM continues to embody a vision for collaboration and welcome even as it pursues critical, scholarly productivity and reflective practices.

I give thanks for these Asian sisters who are God’s gift to our Garrett-Evangelical community and who encourage in us willing spirits for the work ahead.

 

Why We Do What We Do: Celebrating Alumnus Rev. Dr. Charley Hames

President's Blog
February 17, 2015
Lallene J. Rector

IMG 1555This past Sunday I had the privilege of visiting Beebe Memorial Cathedral (a Christian Methodist Episcopal church) in Oakland, CA, where our alumnus, Rev. Dr. Charley Hames (MDiv, 2000) serves as senior pastor. It is a congregation that, under his leadership, has grown from 80 members to 2100. I was present to honor Dr. Hames on the 15th anniversary of his graduation from the Seminary with a certificate announcing an endowed scholarship in his name initiated by Garrett-Evangelical with a $1000 gift. Dr. Hames contributed $2000 himself that morning as a witness to how his seminary education helped equip and prepare him for the ministry. He also gave an inspiring testimony in the second service about how Garrett-Evangelical had educated at least six Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishops. He spoke of the value of a seminary education and how it distinguishes leaders who can provide better spiritual nurture, “not junk food” (and I would add, better administrative leadership) to those whom they serve.

It is evident that Dr. Hames has been theologically educated. He possesses critical thinking skills, as well as a sense of humor and a creative turn of mind that makes his preaching compelling. In his first sermon – yes, Dr. Hames preached a different, but related sermon for each of two services that morning - he referred to “ontology” and “ontological” several times, defining the terms as he went along. He talked about a hermeneutics of suspicion in one sermon and a hermeneutics of remembrance in the other. He utilized the occasional translation of a Greek term and introduced material from commentaries. His sermons were biblically based and reached across the Bible, tying concepts together, specifically the qualities of love as patient and kind, the fruits of the Spirit, and the conviction that we deserve to be loved by God, who created us in God’s image. In short, his preaching was a tour de force for communicating the good news of God’s grace in a most compelling way. And while clearly “educated,” it spoke not only to the intellectual diversity of all who were present, but also to our hearts and to the real struggles in our lives. For a person who is a “quiet” worshipper, I simply had to get to my feet more than once!

Though the preaching was a centerpiece of the Sunday morning worship experience, there was such incredible congregational hospitality that I would argue it constituted an incarnation of God’s grace. It began with an army of greeters welcoming each one who arrived stepping out of a car or walking up, introducing themselves, expressing appreciation for the attender’s presence, and offering assistance and direction to various locations in the building. As we departed, the greeters wished us a good week and thanked us for coming to the service. And it was not only the greeters, but it was the whole congregation who offered various forms of hospitality. A 7 or 8 year-old young man approached me and took the initiative to shake my hand and welcome me.

The music was joyous, supportive of the pastor, and uplifting to the congregation.  The liturgy truly was “the work of the people” in this place. Even the offering time was one of praise and encouragement. They processed to the front of the church to place their tithes and offerings in baskets held by the stewards. Not only did they place their envelopes in the baskets, but they greeted and were also greeted by the stewards. There was joy in their giving. It was all so upbeat that I imagine it would not have been impossible for someone to throw all of his or her income in the basket out of sheer enthusiasm before they fully realized the extent of their largesse!

The congregation came to the altar and prayed together. And during one of the altar calls, a woman was welcomed as she came forward to become a Christian and to join the congregation. I learned later that she lives across the street in the Recovery House for women struggling with different forms of addiction.

Why do I bother to share all this with you? I do so because I was so struck by the genuine joy and the love embodied in this congregation, and by the amazing and contagious hospitality. There is no question that people departed lifted up for the week to come. I am still humming some of the music. We could certainly take a few lessons from Beebe Memorial. It reminded me, experientially, of why we are doing what we do at the Seminary. It renewed my resolve for us to better attend to leadership formation, to ensure formation in and facility with the Bible that will undergird biblically and theologically informed preaching, to offer a revised curriculum that will not take away the excitement and joy with which our students arrive on campus, and to seek a renewal of the spiritual life in our community such that it engenders true joy and love.   

Bless you, Charley, for keeping us inspired! Your alma mater is proud of your leadership and the witness you bear!

PS – See Charley’s new book, Press Reset. He not only shares wisdom for the real challenges that life brings, but he offers the encouragement, through our Christian hope and our relationship with God, to “reset” ourselves and the direction of our living.

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).

 

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