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Faithfulness in a Little

President’s Blog
June 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

Carrie and Janice 
 Rev. Carrie Berry Carnes
and Janice Ringenberg

 Scott Carnes
 Rev. Scott Carnes

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

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

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

 

Interpreting Newspapers from Your Bible

President’s Blog
May 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class of 2014

 

Women and Education | #BringBackOurGirls

President’s Blog
May 15, 2014

Last week, the women of the Garrett-Evangelical community gathered to enjoy  “Just Desserts,” a late afternoon tea that celebrates our graduating women each year.  The Myrtle Saylor Speer award recipients were announced and we applauded those three graduating women recognized by their peers as “Outstanding Women in Ministry.”  Myrtle had visited our campus many, many years ago and won the affection of the few female students enrolled at that time.  Through incredible persistence, she finally became the first ordained female elder in Missouri. The award named in her honor was first given in 1977 to Rev. Dr. Marti Scott.  

The small number of women seeking formal theological education needed a lot of support in those days, so Mrs. Vera Watts, a former academic registrar, began hosting the tea for those who had managed to “run the race set before them.”  It was a time of rejoicing, a time to recognize accomplishments completed, and a time for a lot of good humor, e.g., clever hymn verses were written for each graduating woman. 

NIGERIA-master675As I went to Just Desserts, I was also acutely aware of the over 300 Nigerian school-girls and young women who were abducted on April 14 by the Boko Haran “terrorist network.”  And, why were these girls abducted?  Because they were seeking education within a culture where some believe that girls, as young as age 9 should be married “out” and live their lives as the “slaves” they are believed to be.  I remain haunted and sickened by what these young girls are enduring as they have likely been taken out of the country and sold into “marriage.”  I cannot imagine the anguish and anger their parents must be experiencing.

From yet another vantage point, I think of visiting Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea last fall.  It is the largest women’s university in the world with approximately 25,000 female students.  The Ewha school was founded in 1886 by Mary Scranton, an American Methodist Episcopal missionary, who held a deep conviction about the need to educate women.  College courses were introduced in 1910 and the university was established in 1945.  So controversial was the idea of women’s education that only one young student showed up on the first day of classes.  But Scranton persevered and today there is a medical school for women only, a business school for women only, a law school for women only, a theology school for women only, and these in addition to other graduate and undergraduate programs – for women only.

In the United States, we enjoy a broad cultural assumption that men and women not only need to be educated, but also have a right to education.  As we prepare to celebrate our 157th commencement at the seminary, I wonder if we take it a little too much for granted.  I think of the education I so freely pursued and the education Garrett-Evangelical continues to provide for so many women. 

So when we learn of the Nigerian kidnapping as a response to young girls pursuing education, we are horrified not only by the violence, but also by the rationale.  Perhaps most difficult of all is the helplessness we feel to intervene in any way that would be immediately gratifying and that would give us some sense of agency and of making a difference for justice, recovery, and healing.  We believe we are called to action - “If you have done it unto the least of these . . .” So, we have had a “Stand up for women” campaign and a hash tag picture taking initiative.  The mothers of these girls and many others take to the streets to protest what seems a completely inadequate response of the Nigerian government.  And, the United States is finally allowed to assist. 

But I confess that in the extreme circumstances of something like the Nigerian kidnapping, I cannot help but question if it is a lack of faith that makes the idea of praying feel less than satisfactory.  I ask, “Whatever is the world coming to?” and “Where, oh where, could God be in this?”  It all seems so impossibly hopeless that, ironically, I am absolutely driven to pray with all my heart for the safe return of these girls, even as I am compelled to continue supporting women’s rights and their education.  And, no longer take for granted the privilege of educating men and women, leaders who will graduate from Garrett-Evangelical to work for the well being of all persons.  In the midst of such violence in the world and such radical disregard for the safety of even a child, perhaps it is enough an act of faith to say, “I believe; help thou my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Jazz, Ministry, and the Need to Improvise

President’s Blog
April 30, 2014

drums-and-friends-debra-hurd 
"Drums and Friends" by Debra Hurd

Tonight, we will enjoy a worship service with jazz pianist Bob Ravenscroft and his “Music Serving the Word Ministries” group, joined by our own VP of Student Affairs, Dr. Cynthia Wilson.  The Leadership Team hosted the group for lunch earlier in the week and it was a most remarkable time together.  As we introduced ourselves to Bob’s group, one by one describing our work at the seminary and why we are excited to be at Garrett-Evangelical, various words emerged: sacred ground; mystery, tradition and renewal, mystical, servant, generational stewardship.  And then the jazz group introduced themselves and more words and phrases emerged: improvisation, jazz, music serving the living word, music as language.  And, then . . . I believe we all felt it – the power of a connection among us and an excitement and synergy that had us all on the edge of our seats as we began to make connections between this musical ministry and our own work at the seminary.  Dare I suggest the Holy Spirit was blowing through the room?

We talked of improvisation and the movement of the Holy Spirit in worship.  We talked of the feelings of risk in following the Spirit and the courage that it requires for some of us.  We spoke of black sacred music, it’s improvisational nature and it’s contribution to jazz.  We spoke of Bishop Sally Dyck’s call for our graduates to be able to improvise, i.e., to know enough of the basics of theological education that they are able to work with what is given in their various ministry settings.  In another recent situation, someone said to me, “That’s all it is once you graduate – improvisation.”

I thought of my earlier studies of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience and his passing remark about how music and mysticism are somehow related.  I recognize the connection James describes as I think about how music and mysticism are both heavily involved in the affective, emotional realm of our experience – that ineffable dimension of our living that only music and the mysteries of the mystical seem able to capture.  I was reminded of how Paul speaks of the Spirit interceding for us when we have no words: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” Romans 8:26. And then I remembered in high school watching a lecture (one of six, The Norton Lectures) that Leonard Bernstein gave at Harvard, later published as “The Unanswered Question (1976).  In it, he suggested that God did not speak the words, “Let there be light.” Rather, God sang them - most likely to the rhythm and notes of the opening measures of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – dah, dah, dah dah – “Let there be light.”  It is a powerful image that Bernstein suggested.

So, what is the significance of all these connections?  I am not sure.  As a more introverted type, I am comfortable with and greatly appreciative of traditional forms of United Methodist worship and Catholic contemplative modes - but not exclusively.  Whatever the moving of the Spirit in our seminary may mean for our worship life together, I am confident that much of the worship in the broader Christian church both in the United States and around the world is compelling not only in its direct engagement of the worshiper’s relationship to God, but also because it invites more active participation of the worshipers and it incorporates these jazz, improvisational forms utilizing elements of many different kinds of global music – incorporating music, art, and dance that seek freer expression in response to the Holy Spirit, beyond the words.  What might it look like to think of preparing worship and music leaders who theologically understand the traditions, who are trained in basic musical skills, and who also have learned further improvisational skills to bring to their own ministries of “serving the Living Word?”

Defining "Public Theologian"

President’s Blog
April 10, 2014

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Philippians 2:1-4 (Common English Bible)

Breanna HQ
Garrett-Evangelical alumna, Breanna Dahl (G-ETS 2013)

At the school, we have been recently thinking about what it means to be public theologians, about the implications for our curriculum revision, and about the questions of how we might teach in ways that would better prepare our graduates to be public theologians. I am becoming more familiar with the related literature and with some of the academic complexity in defining the term. And, I am learning about the wide range of definitions that can be attributed to the term, from public theology being an improper pursuit at all to definitions so broad the term ceases to have any useful specific meaning.

In the midst of these intellectual considerations, it seems obvious to me that Jesus was a “public theologian” as were the prophets before him. At least this is the case if we understand “public” to mean a reference to concern for the wellbeing of all. Jesus’ directive to love our neighbors as ourselves (which follows as a necessity if we are loving God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul), also ensures that we must look beyond ourselves and beyond our comfort zones. Much of our work and many of our efforts can be insidiously self-serving in ways that are blinding.

For me, being a public theologian means being able to bring the resources of our faith to the public square with concern for “the common good.” It means being mindful about where God is at work - or not - in certain circumstances. It means explicitly using the language of our faith -  sometimes. And, sometimes it means simply caring enough, across the otherness we encounter in the public square, to participate with those of different faiths, or no faith, in a set of shared ethics and the actions that ensue from these commitments. This kind of collaboration with others for the wellbeing of all increases our impact on issues of homelessness, violence in our communities, poverty, hunger, unemployment, immigration justice, health care, sustainability of our environment, access to quality education, etc.  

Recently, I was in Indianapolis visiting with an extraordinary group of highly accomplished women leaders.  Our Board of Trustee member, Rev. Kevin Armstrong, President of the Methodist Health Foundation, and our friend, Judge Sara Evans Barker hosted a lunch meeting for the purpose of introducing these women of faith (United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Quaker) to Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, as well as providing an opportunity for me to learn something from them about leadership. 

The visit was lively and full of good humor. As I began to hear something from each woman about her work and the extent of her public involvement, I was stunned, absolutely stunned, by the cumulative contribution for good in the public square represented in the room. To a person, some form of “giving back” and community service was definitively present. For example:

  • leadership of and for the United Way
  • Big Sisters
  • illustration of Jewish children’s books that teach inclusivity
  • directing exploration of vocation and faith with undergraduates
  • working for public safety
  • pastoral leadership in denomination and faith community
  • chairing and participating in community foundations and philanthropy that supports many forms of education and assistance to women
  • serving boards that support the prevention of child abuse
  • working in legal aid
  • leadership supporting music in the community
  • elected representation in local and state politics
  • health care policy work
  • activism
  • journalism
  • chamber of commerce service
  • service on higher education boards
  • architectural work
  • supervision of a hospital chaplaincy training program 

I was compelled to seriously reconsider, in a new light, some of the recent invitations I have received to join community-focused boards. As a result, I decided to accept an invitation to join the Evanston Health Ministries Board as a way of helping our school gain more visibility in the community and as a way of exploring how we might contribute to this new work.

The lunch meeting was a wake up call to the ways in which we can live fairly insular lives, in our own little comfortable spheres of influence (as important as these are) taking care of our own loved ones and not venturing too much further out. Garrett-Evangelical has not in recent times been systematically intentional about the role of public theology in our educational mission, or, about what I believe we intended in our institutional emphasis formed almost 20 years ago on “prophetic interaction in society.” To be sure, there is much good service and public theology going on all across our community. It is in our institutional DNA and I have made a call for us to be more explicit and intentional about how a commitment to public theology will support the formation of bold, spiritual leaders, leaders who are willing to take the necessary risks.    

We will continue to clarify for ourselves what we mean by the term, but for now, we can look to Philippians and harken to the admonition of St. Paul when he says, “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others." 

 

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