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Sustained by the Work of God

President’s Blog
March 19, 2014

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work (John 4:34 NRSV, from the gospel lectionary text for this coming Sunday, the third Sunday in Lent). This is the response of Jesus to his disciples, just following his encounter with the woman at the well and their conversation about living water.  The disciples have returned from town bringing food with them and they have encouraged Jesus to eat something.  I am captured by this response and its implication for Christians, especially for those of us who have public leadership responsibilities.  What would it mean to really feel that we are sustained, that we actually survive, by doing the will of God and by working toward or participating in the completion of God’s work?

Rector and DyckLast week, a few of us at the school had the privilege of visiting with our Northern Illinois Conference Bishop, Sally Dyck.  The purpose of our time together was to consider some of her thoughts about the kind of skills necessary for effective ministry and how that might translate into formational and educational goals for our graduates – a timely conversation since the faculty are just beginning the earliest stages of a curriculum revision process! 

Bishop Dyck spoke of four things in particular:

  1. The capacity to be a spiritual director (including engagement in personal spiritual disciplines and the skill to lead others in their own spiritual growth and development);

  2. The ability to utilize community organizing skills (to lead in way that actually gets things done);

  3. The capacity for improvisation (to creatively respond to what is given based on a solid theological/biblical/ethical/historical foundation), and,

  4. Cultural competence (the ability to do contextual analysis, to seek resources for understanding where necessary, and to communicate and relate in ways that are culturally sensitive, appreciative, and informed).

She told us that pastors do not often get into trouble in the ministry because of theology, but more typically because they are ineffective leaders.  Essentially, the Bishop is asking for leaders who are spiritually grounded, who can get things done, who can respond creatively to given situations, and who understand the inescapable cultural dimensions of every ministry context.  It made great sense to us.  Our conversation was lively, full of good humor, and inspired as we considered how the seminary might partner in meaningful ways.  I believe we all felt a renewed sense of the potential for our alliance together between church and seminary, work that could make a real impact in the world.

And, so this week may we reflect upon being sustained by engaging the work of God by being leaders who love God with all their mind, soul, and strength (spiritually grounded); leaders who accomplish something, who get things done (“Faith without works is dead” James 2:26); leaders who are led by the Holy Spirit and who can participate in the new thing that God is doing (“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:19); and leaders who understand and care about those with whom they are in ministry (who love their neighbors as they love themselves).  This kind of work is sustaining and does help accomplish God’s purpose.  As we think on these things, I believe we are called to consider a reorientation of consciousness and intentionality about how we are “fed,” nourished, and sustained in doing the work of the One who has sent us – a most proper focus for our continuing Lenten devotions.


How can such things be?

President’s Blog
March 12, 2014

Last weekend I attended a meeting in Dallas sponsored by the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry – specifically a training event for the Ministerial Assessment Specialists who do psychological evaluations for candidates and clergy in ordination processes. For quite a number of years, I’ve been a member of the Advisory Committee that supports this work. We knew that one of our members had been in a serious car accident a year ago and very nearly died. We learned during our meeting that though there has been major progress in his recovery, he suffered devastating injuries that have resulted in a future with severe physical and emotional challenges. The information all but silenced us as our committee acknowledged the news, but immediately recognized we were helpless to make what felt like any meaningful response. Flowers? A card? We were experiencing our own profound challenges in how to process this painful reality and our helplessness in the face of it. The subject was changed and we went on to discuss the business at hand.

The unspoken question for me, and I suspect for some of the rest of us, was, “How can such things be?” We had been faced with something about which we really just had no gratifying way to make sense. “Accidents happen” was not adequate. And yet, as Christians and as persons who have pastoral leadership responsibilities, we are obligated to struggle with these ambiguous realms of life experience and of our faith - experiences that we simply cannot take in, either because they strain our credulity, - they are not logical, or because they are emotionally overwhelming, for good and/or for ill.

Christ Instructing Nicodemus Crijn HendrickszI think this is essentially the realm of experience that Nicodemus found himself in as he met Jesus under the cover of night (we know that as a Pharisee he had to be careful about being seen with this controversial Jesus). Nicodemus was seeking further understanding about some of what Jesus had been teaching. There were questions about being born again by water and by spirit. And, I would add that we could be asking further questions about this passage and the meaning of God giving God’s only Son for the sake of the world, questions about the meaning of eternal life, and questions about how the world could be saved through this gift of God’s son. 

The story in John 3:1-17 is the gospel lectionary text for this coming Sunday. As I have prepared to preach the text this week, I have struggled with those aspects of our faith that do not readily make human sense to us – hence the questions, “How can these things be? How are such things possible?” And then the experiences of life that lead us to similar questions – experiences in which something is too good to be true, or something so painful and tragic that we plead, “Dear God, let it not be so."

To be perfectly honest, when I discovered the text for the week I squirmed around with it, wondering how I could find some other angle or focus in the story. I thought about changing the title, or choosing another text. I wanted to resist resorting to easy answers or the platitudes of faith to which we sometimes appeal hoping that if we say them loud enough and repeat them enough, that maybe our listeners will feel the spirit, get whipped up, and not really be thinking about what they are hearing.  So much of our spiritual language makes no real logical, human sense.

After indulging these escapist fantasies, I realized that I could not avoid the number of challenges I found at every turn. I resigned/committed myself to struggle with the text as an obligation of leadership. This doesn’t mean the results are worthy, but the process of “leaning in” to the work could not be turned away from. I know this struggle is a common experience for those of you who have to preach every Sunday, and from my teenage years on, I have always admired the weekly preachers for this dedication.

Working on the sermon brought me to the mysteries of our faith and the necessity to engage what Paul Ricoeur called the second naivete, that condition we may find ourselves in when after studying, learning, and coming to grips with the limitations of how much we really do not know and cannot not know in ways that will satisfy our human longing for certainty and understanding – after all this, we take that leap of faith that Kierkegaard described and we decide to believe anyway, as a child believes and trusts. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV).

We “see through a glass darkly” now, but as Christians we are called to believe anyway and to take responsibility, as did Nicodemus, for seeking understanding, and for living faithfully, trusting that even as we have to ask, “How can these things be?” that God is God and we are not. Let us have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts that trust God with these spiritual mysteries of the faith so that we might offer witness to God’s extravagant gift of love to the world in Jesus Christ.

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



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