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The Irony of "Giving Up" for Lent

Ash-Wednesday-Bulletin-CoverPresident’s Blog
March 5, 2014

“So, what are you giving up for Lent?”     

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day Lenten Season preceding Easter.  Many of us engage various forms of self-denial, penitence, abstinence, and/or fasting as a way to become more aware of God’s presence and as a way to prepare for the remembrance of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There is sometimes an irony in our decision about what it is we will be “giving up” each Lenten season.  The thing we choose, while it may be a real sacrifice of something we normally enjoy, is often given up in relation to a vain self-interest. The sacrifice is not necessarily conceived of as that which will enhance our relationship with God or help us to be more conscious of God’s presence, or lead us to real repentance for our shortcomings.   We give up things like certain foods, smoking, or the avoidance of exercise.  These sacrifices are positive steps toward better health and better stewardship of our bodies.  But, I sometimes wonder if we take a ride on Lent to get something done we have not been able to accomplish otherwise.  As well intentioned and important as these efforts are, do these sacrifices connect consciously enough to a spirit of repentance or to more sensitivity for God’s presence in our lives?  Or, are these efforts at self-denial only ennobled ways of accomplishing, under religious censure, something we would not otherwise have undertaken?

I know I have drawn too clean a distinction here, for there is always ambiguity in our human motivations:  “ . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NRSV).  Along with St. Paul, we need all the help we can get to do the things that we know we ought to do.  And, we can always appeal to an ethic of at least doing the right thing, if for not exactly the right reasons – oh, so human of us!  The lectionary texts for today speak to this complexity.  From Isaiah 58, I note verses 5-7:

“Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? 
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
 and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
 Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, 
to undo the thongs of the yoke, 
to let the oppressed go free,
 and to break every yoke? 
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
 and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

God challenges us about parading our humility and self-righteousness, when what God really desires is that we would respond to the needs of our neighbors.  And in Matthew, from the “Sermon on the Mount,” we find a similar concern, with a focus on our prayer lives:

"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (MT 6:5-6).

I am troubled by public prayers before a meal in which we/I regularly, in the midst of our/my own gratitude for the gift of food before me remember those who will not be eating today.  And, then I proceed to actually do little or nothing about it, except for the occasional money given to a stranger begging on the streets, or the occasional donation to a food pantry, or the occasional service in a soup kitchen.  It is all pretty comfortable for me.  I do not worry about whether or not I will be able to eat today.  I know I will have a warm bed to sleep in and a roof over my head tonight.  I also know that what I have done is not enough, even as I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of an economic system that does not support equitable distribution of our resources.

There is certainly no one right way to go about observing Lent.  My Lenten discipline will include times of self-assessment, reflection and prayer.  I will repent for how I have failed to live more fully into my Christian vocation and into the commandments to love God with all my mind, heart, and soul, and to love my neighbor as myself.  But, I am not yet clear about what it is I will give up for Lent.  Perhaps, I will give up the easy prayers that do not result in significant action.  At the very least, I encourage all of us to spend time in our prayer closets, honestly considering how we have fallen short, listening to what God may be saying to us, and seeking discernment for the meaningful expression of real change in our lives that moves us closer to the prophet’s admonition to “loose the bonds of injustice.”  May this Lenten season be a period of deep reflection and renewal for our seminary community and friends, and a time of blessing as we seek to more fully know God’s presence in our lives.  

The Table

President’s Blog
February 24, 2014

first-supper-last-supper-by-susan-dorothea-white copyYesterday, I attended First United Methodist at the Chicago Temple, my home congregation. It was the last Sunday in Black History month and one of our current Ph.D. students, Rev. Michele Watkins-Branch, was the guest preacher. She delivered a prophetic word, based on Psalm 94  - erudite and compelling. At one point, she pointed to the Table and observed that Jesus had invited a zealot and a tax collector to come and sit at the same Table. It was “a dangerous alliance” with the power to pave a path toward freedom. I was proud to call her ours.  

Shortly after the sermon as the communion ritual began, I was confronted, as I am every Sunday there, with the experience of racial/ethnic/gender/sexuality diversity. It is not something simply talked about and hoped for, but it is something that is embodied before my eyes as our pastoral staff, interns, choirs, and members gather around the Table.

There were eight persons: 4 Caucasians (one older male, the pastor; one young adult male; one middle-aged woman, an associate pastor; and one young adult woman); 1 young Asian woman; one young African American female, our preacher; one African American 3rd grade boy who had earlier read the gospel lesson from John (“and a little child shall lead them”); and one middle aged Chilean man, an associate pastor at the church. As each one shared leadership in the ritual, I marveled yet again at the power of God’s call to a banquet table and the eschatological vision of a time when, despite our differences, we can all gather together in true love of neighbor.

I think of the final scene in the movie, “Places in the Heart” where the congregation in a small church in Texas is engaged in a communion service. As the bread and the cup are passed up and down the pews, people begin to almost inaudibly, say, “God’s peace” to the next person. It begins to become clear that persons are present who had died or who had been murdered earlier in the film – some of these black victims sitting next to the Ku Klux Klan members who had taken their lives. “God’s peace” as the young boy passes the bread to his murderer.

I have struggled to understand the psychology of being able to speak a word of God’s peace to someone who has committed a heinous crime against your body and soul. I have to conclude this capacity goes much beyond the call to celebrate difference and to live joyfully in the midst of the Creator’s human rainbow – difficult as even that seems to be for us.  Such forgiveness seems impossible without the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us. I think of the genocide in Rwanda and the justice and truth processes there trying to establish peaceful living. And I think of the earlier South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While fraught with difficulties, transformation still at work.

We have given ourselves to a faith that asks the humanly impossible of us, but that calls us, nonetheless, to love our enemies, to love our neighbors, to treat all persons with respect and dignity and to work for the well being of all. The vision at the Table each week inspires me, in the face of our human frailty, to keep struggling for this justice. And, I must also trust in the ultimate establishment of God’s righteousness.

“For the Lord will not forsake his people; God will not abandon God’s heritage; for justice will return to the righteous, and all the upright in heart will follow it. Who rises up for me against the wicked? Who stands up for me against evildoers?If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.”          Psalm 94:14-17

Photo Credit:  Susan Dorothea White

Public Theologians and the City Gate

President’s Blog
February 18, 2014

“Hate evil, love good, and establish justice at the city gate.” Amos 5:15 (CEB)

On Monday, the “President’s Assessment Task Force” (PATF) had its final meeting.  The Task Force is a representative group I called together last November for the purpose of doing an environmental scan of the seminary.  The members have interviewed internal and external constituencies (faculty, students, trustees, friends, alumni, and religious leaders), including business and corporate leaders who have had no relationship with the seminary.  The PATF has worked hard and has produced much valuable information for our consideration.   

Yesterday, we discussed the findings and began to identity initial themes and recommendations for the school as we move forward.  More to come on that in a few weeks, but for now, let me share with you one of the major themes that was reported over and over: Garrett-Evangelical and its graduates need to have more visibility in the outside world.  We need to have more of a voice in the public square speaking to concerns for the common good.  Essentially, we need to be explicitly functioning as public theologians for the well being of the community of which we are a part, and we need to be educating and forming bold spiritual leaders who are public theologians. 

What do I mean by “public theologian”?  I mean persons who can think theologically and ethically about the broader contexts in which they find themselves, who can not only ask the questions, but who can also offer some discerning response to them: “Where is God in this place?  Where is God not in this place?  What is God doing here?  How can we partner with God’s purpose?” More and more graduates are going into ministries that are not located within the church proper, but within the wider community, e.g., ministries in social service agencies, in journalism and the media, in work on environmental sustainability, in efforts to assist the homeless, to mention only a few.

The seminary has three historic emphases: Evangelical Commitment; Creative and Critical Reasoning; and Prophetic Interaction in Society.  With so many new faculty members joining us in the last 10 years, clarity about these emphases and the centrality of their place in our identity has eroded a bit.  I hope to revisit each of these with the faculty and the PATF findings actually support the continuation of these emphases newly appropriated and clearly defined.

The front page of the New York times yesterday reported news about bombings in Syria; about a retired hedge fund manager dedicating $100 million dollars to support climate change measures through pressuring politicians; and about the dilemma of thousands and thousands of abandoned, dilapidated buildings in Detroit.  There is no end to the need for Christians to participate with others who are concerned about the common good.  The challenges of gun violence, discrimination against all kinds of minorities (racial/ethnic, sexual orientation, religious, etc.), access to health care, the challenges of poverty, immigration injustice – it goes on and on.

We have a strong history of already being public theologians who engage prophetic interaction in society.  In the latter part of the 19th c., Lucy Rider Meyer founded the Chicago Training School (1885) and with the work of the teacher/nurse/social worker deaconesses, the school served the urban poor of Chicago.  Our alums and faculty marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. to demand basic Civil Rights for the oppressed Black population to protest violent racism.

TrimbleAnd, most recently on President’s Day just passed, Bishop Julius Trimble (Iowa Conference), one of our alums and a member of the Board of Trustees protested at the White House on the occasion of the 2 millionth deportation under current Obama immigration policy. He was joined by other United Methodists and by Bishop Minerva Carcaño (California-Pacific Conference) with whom he co-chairs the UM Interagency Task Force on Immigration. Both were arrested at the White House. 

This act of civil disobedience was a witness against injustice and an act of solidarity with all those who suffer the devastating effects of deportation.  We are proud of the Garrett-Evangelical family who join with others in the world to make not only a difference, but to make an impact.  Thank you, Bishop Trimble and thank you, Bishop Carcaño.

I believe one of the challenges of the PATF findings is a clarion call to Garrett-Evangelical to be a servant seminary to the church and to the world and to do this, at least in part by preparing bold, spiritual leaders who are public theologians dedicated to accomplishing the common good.  It is the very claim God puts upon us through the proclamation of the prophets and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Let’s do it together!

Photo Credit: UMNS


Capacity for Empathy

February 10, 2014
Lallene Rector

A few weeks ago, I began the process of meeting individually with each employee of the seminary. I still have many meetings yet to go, but it is my conviction that at this time of transition in leadership it is important to understand how persons who work at the school are experiencing their jobs and to understand their concerns. I have also invited discussion about the ideas and hopes our employees have for the school as we move forward into the future. I began these meetings with the staff, those whom I have known in the comings and goings of our work together over so many years, but with whom I have never really sat and discussed their experience of being here. My own knowledge is more limited to the experience of faculty members and administrators.

I can see more clearly how Garrett-Evangelical is a slightly different school from each of these various vantage points. This is obvious, but the difference now is that I am experiencing these slightly different schools as a result of the initial meetings with the staff.  Of course, the school means different things to different people. I have not yet encountered anyone for whom this is “just a job.” Job it is, to be sure, but there are larger and more personal meanings than that for most of us working here.

These conversations have reminded me, once again, of how critically important the capacity for empathy is in our relating to each other. It requires an interest in, concern for, and/or at least a curiosity about the other. Most of us walk fairly easily through our days encased in our own perspectives, concerned with our own interests and how things affect us. I do not criticize this natural inclination for I believe it is the basic orientation we have as human beings. I don’t think it’s possible to entirely escape our own perspectives, nor do I think we are called to do that. How would we be able to love our neighbors as our selves if we had no awareness of our own captivating self-interest and concern?

A Chinese depiction, Beijing, 1879 

One of the most compelling phrases in the New Testament for me has been, “Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him” (Mark 10:21 CEB). It jumped off the page at me when I was 20 and engaged in a piece of research at Texas Christian University, a study of the synoptic gospels and the analysis of every instance someone approached Jesus with a request. Do you recognize it? It immediately precedes the account of Jesus talking with a young man who has asked what he must do to obtain eternal life. We know the story more commonly as “The Rich Young Ruler” or “The Rich Young Man.”

I have pondered many times the meaning of this phrase. It tells us that before Jesus gave the young man the hard word to go and sell his possessions (for he had many), to give the proceeds to the poor, and, then to follow him, Jesus looked at him intentionally and loved him – first. Jesus must have known that what he was about to ask would be very, very difficult and I like to believe that Jesus considered the young man’s perspective before he offered this devastating directive. I like to believe that it was this act of empathy that led Jesus to love him.

In order for us to actually engage in an empathic understanding of what others are experiencing, from their perspective, we first have to be interested in that information. We have to care about the other person. We have to be curious. We have to open ourselves to something potentially different than ourselves. And, we have to risk experiencing the direct impact of others not seeing the world as we do. We are challenged to consider that others’ perspectives have as much experiential validity as our own. Surely, this must be one of the meanings of the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Value your neighbor’s perspective – at least enough to try and understand it – as much as you value your own understanding. I am not saying that understanding means agreement, but deep understanding has great potential to change our own perspectives and, as a result, to change the decisions we make. Perhaps we already know this intuitively and that’s why we hesitate to really enter into the effort to understand another’s experience.

I have learned important things in the last couple of weeks only because I sat down to listen, truly interested in what I would hear. In a similar vein, this past Thursday we had our first  “all employee” meeting.  It was another opportunity to get to know each other better across our various work responsibilities  - to have a space in which we can come together as one G-ETS with all our gifts differing. Can we really afford as Christians to be uninterested in the experience of our neighbor and its implications for how we are to live justly?

I am committed to this work. And, I am pleased to report to you that even in the midst of emerging legitimate concerns, we are blessed to work with each other in the divisions of labor among us, committed to helping Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary be the best that it can be – together! Beyond the school, I encourage us to look around to those who are part of our ministry and life contexts, especially those who are less visible in their work and further back from the front lines. I am confident that these are often the persons without whom our work and our lives simply could not proceed well. I encourage us to cultivate our empathic interest in these neighbors and co-workers, for we are all part of the Body, together. “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26, CEB).

Let Your Light Shine Before Others

Light Shine

February 3, 2014
Lallene Rector

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership and the call that God places upon our lives to be leaders.  Being a “leader” was not part of an identity I could connect with for the better part of my adult life. Sometimes, however, the realization of a leadership dimension in one’s life just sneaks up on you. For a long time, it was other people who were leaders. They had the power to inspire and to speak well publicly. Leading meant people expected something of you. It meant accepting responsibility and the consequences of mistakes that can become very public, never mind the possibility of outright failing. It made me anxious and worried me about whether or not I could deliver. 

Many persons have had these feelings about leadership. We also know well the initial responses to God’s call of some of the great leaders in our biblical narrative. I think of Moses and his objection about not speaking well enough to influence Pharaoh (Exodus 6:30).  Jeremiah also protested he could not speak well because he was too young (Jeremiah 1:6-7). 

It’s easy to turn away from these biblical examples thinking that “leadership” is only for men or for those with big public jobs. Actually, the developmental processes of growing up mean taking increasing responsibility for one’s own life and the various roles we will come to play in our communities (parent, partner, worker, volunteer, friend, and/or as baptized Christians). We will inevitably become persons to whom someone will look for guidance, example, inspiration, expertise, and/or decision- making. 

The text from Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” tells us not to hide our light under a bushel, but rather, “Let your light shine before others . . .” (Matthew 5:15-16). As Christians, we lead not by hiding our light, but by letting our light shine and by being a witness to the faith we hold.

I am just returning from the annual Association of Theological Schools’ seminar for presidents. Each morning for three days, devotions were lead by Father Ronald Rollheiser. Many of you know of him through his numerous publications on Christian spirituality. He is a theologian and the President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio.  My fellow seminar participants and I received his daily homilies with great appreciation. Briefly, I share the leadership insights he presented to us:

  1. As Christians, we are called to a greater righteousness than the Scribes and the Pharisees. It is not enough to keep the commandments and to love those who love us. We must also love our enemies. In leadership, this means absorbing the tension in the system around us and not giving it back. We absorb, and we turn the other cheek.

  2. Part of our role as leaders is to bring life and light in order to keep our work together in the community from going flat – something like the way in which Jesus provided wine when it had run out at the Cana wedding lest the party go flat. It was a gathering that served the heart of the community’s life (and, let’s not get sidetracked by any suggestion that alcohol is the way to bring light and life).

  3. Leaders are called to be compassionate just as Christians are called to be “perfect” – not without flaw (a Greek understanding), but rather with compassion (an Hebraic understanding). We are to be “non-selectively compassionate” in the way that God brings the sunshine to all. We strive to love all persons and to treat equally those for whom we function as leaders. No favorites. No “less-thans.”

We learned at the end of our seminar, after Father Rollheiser had departed, that two days earlier his brother had died. He requested our leaders not reveal this information until he had taken leave of us. He was concerned we would be distracted from more fully receiving his devotions. I suspect he was correct about this. While there is no inherent right or wrong in his request, it does strike me that yet another part of leadership is the call to consider first the well-being of others, and sometimes at our own personal expense.

I close with one caveat. There are all kinds of leadership. Some forms are public in what appear to be those big important jobs. But, some of the most powerful and profound leadership we see takes place in the quiet, day-in and day-out servant leadership of devoted parents, dedicated school teachers, persevering small church pastors, faithful Christians, and all persons in the trenches of life who let their light shine in small acts of kindness.  

Where is the leadership in your life and how are you letting your light shine through it?



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