Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

ACU Today

by   |  04.02.16  |  Uncategorized

Recently, ACU Today highlighted the wonderful work of Dr. Mark Hamilton. You can read more here.

In the attached article you will find a direct link to the complete article in ACU Today that includes beautiful photos. Later in that same issue you can read about the good work of the Siburt Institute in an article entitled Flock Management (it begins on page 48).

For a direct link to ACU Today go here. (back to page 10 or forward to page 48 respectively).

Student Spotlight

by   |  02.23.16  |  Uncategorized

Recently, ACU highlighted the good work of Justin Whiteley. Read more about Justin here.

Questions that Matter Most by Matt Hale

by   |  04.21.15  |  Church, Ministry, Uncategorized

HaleThere is a genre of stories told among Church of Christ ministers (and occasionally graduate students) that goes something like this:

“I was teaching a class/preaching a sermon/leading a devo, and the subject was controversial topic x. While everyone was milling about afterwards, an old person came up to me and asked why I said A about x when the Bible clearly says B. I tried to explain to her what the Bible really says about x, but you know how it is.”

The conventional audience response is an empathetic eye-roll, a shaking of the head, and another story about how those old-school folks can really get us down. The unspoken upshot of these conversations is that “one glad morning” when their “life is o’er”, we’ll “fly away” from their irrational, conservative restrictions and sing praise hymns accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a fog machine, and preach about whatever we like behind a very small, transparent lectern. We will have to endure these trials for a time, and then the church will be ours.

Having worked mostly in small-town, rural, conservative churches, I have had some experiences like these, more than a few. They can be very frustrating. Recently, however, I have begun to wonder if the attitude of dismissiveness is the only possible option. And I have wondered if I have misplaced blame for these experiences. I would like to blame their close-mindedness, or their lack of access to the kind of theological education I have received. But when I am honest, I admit the blame must lie with me, because I would rather be dismissive than take on the loving, patient, and careful work of explaining my position to them in a way they can accept, or at least understand.

If I want to console myself a bit, I can remember that it is very tempting to dismiss those with whom we disagree, particularly when they are naïve, ignorant, and inarticulate. Why take the time to truly engage with them, to give ear to their questions and answer them properly, when I can call them “uneducated”, “conservative”, “patriarchal”, “heternormative”, “reactionary’, “nationalistic”, or “old-school”? Of course, this is even easier and more tempting if all I am really good at is deconstructing a position, but have never done the hard work of constructing something better.

This temptation, however, must be resisted. I am beginning to wonder whether, paradoxically, it is not the “progressive” young-folk who are asking the most subversive and important questions, but rather the old lady who wonders why the communion table has been moved to the back of the church? Or perhaps it is the octogenarian who wants to know if the preacher really think scripture is inspired, a question he is not ready to answer even though he should be. Maybe it is the grumpy old man who says he doesn’t like instrumental music because of the Bible, but it is really because it makes him feel left out of the worship because he can’t hear his own voice over the practiced praise-team and drums. Though their questions can reflect some unsophisticated assumptions, they are questions that demand answers. And maybe this frustrates me because it isn’t their lack of reflection that is revealed when they ask these questions. Maybe it is mine, my unpreparedness and inability to directly answer their concerns, carefully leading them through the morass to deeper spiritual nourishment like a good teacher must.

Soon, these “old-school” folks will be gone, and while we will lose their “literalism” and “legalism”, we will also lose their invaluable questions. But we will lose more than that. We will also lose their love of scripture, their unhesitating generosity, their commitment to truth, and their faith. When I have lost my most irritating interlocutor, who will drive a dozen hungry neighborhood kids to church twice a week in a wood-paneled van? When inane scripture wars finally end, who will take potato salad and casseroles to the bereaved, and the Lord’s Supper to the shut-ins? When they are gone, these will be the troubling questions posed to us, their final subversive inquisition. Once again, they will have unmasked us, and rightly so.

I encourage you, then, to cherish these questions, questions that catch us off guard, and do not dismiss them simply because they are based on conservative assumptions you’ve left behind. For perhaps it is not their limitations that are being revealed, but yours.

Matt Hale is a third year Theology M.A. student and preacher at Cottonwood Church of Christ in Cottonwood, TX.

New Article by Dr. Mindi Thompson

by   |  03.27.14  |  Learning, Uncategorized

Continuing Education for Faculty

Continuing education for seminary faculty used to be based on keeping up with your primary area of study: reading, publication, guild conferences, and the like. Unfortunately, that is no longer enough. Today, faculty must not only be masters of their subject; they must also master instructional design, educational technology, and accreditation standards. Keeping up with the newest trends in social learning, contextual education, or MOOC madness may lead many faculty to wonder what happened to good old-fashioned classroom lectures—or to classrooms at all! While recent MDiv graduates serving their first congregations are saying, “They never taught me about this in seminary,” I’m hearing more and more of my colleagues saying, “I never learned about this in my doctoral program.”

See the whole article here.

Congratulations to Carson Reed

by   |  02.12.14  |  ACU, Announcements, Ministry, Uncategorized

For thousands of years religious communities have depended on scholars to read, interpret, and analyze faith and the scriptures it is based on. The field of theology is highly academic, but it also influences peoples’ lives on a deep, spiritual level, and the most respected theological scholars can have profound effects on the many faithful people that read their work. The idea of participating in theological research and scholarship is appealing for many seminary students. Becoming a professor and teaching the next generation of theological scholars is an attractive career choice both from a spiritual and an intellectual point of view. However, it is not necessarily an easy path. Any theology student considering becoming a teacher or professor should look to those who have come before them for guidance and inspiration.

The professors and scholars mentioned here have not only contributed to the body of theological knowledge with their research, but they have also contributed to the preparation of a new generation of theologians. Each of these individuals can serve as a remarkable role model for current theology students who aim to become educators. These are listed in no specific order, and are categorized by the general region of the most recent institution they taught at. This list focuses on theological scholars who work and teach in the United States, though many of them are known and respected internationally.

100 Remarkable Professors

 

Carson E. Reed

Carson E. Reed

Carson E. Reed is the Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and Director of the Ministry Program at Abilene Christian University. He often looks at congregations, spiritual music, ministerial callings, as well as theology and practice.

  • Teaches At: Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology

Who are the 81%

by   |  11.15.13  |  Uncategorized

Recently, the blogosphere has pursued the topic, “the value of a seminary education.” One of the statistics that has grabbed the headlines is “81% of all incoming students do not expect to have a full-time position in parish ministry according to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).” The headline begs the question, “Who are the 81%?” The short answer is, “godly men and women who desire to serve God for the sake of the world.”

What the headline fails to report is that ATS indicates that the Entering Student Questionnaire (ESQ) also has findings for a total of 23 items including chaplaincy, missions, youth ministry, and campus ministry, which are not included in the sound byte. When all of these wonderful forms of ministry that make up the 81% are included, the alarm is but a clanging cymbal. For example, one year the ESQ for the GST indicated that 50% of our incoming class planned to enter foreign missions, church planting, and youth ministry. We were proud of that entering class even though it had fewer students indicating pulpit ministry. As described below, 66% of the GST’s graduates do plan to work in church ministry in one form or another.

I entered seminary indicating I wanted to do a church planting in Utah. I graduated taking a position to plant a church in New Jersey. I spent 17 years in full-time domestic missions and pulpit ministry. My story is part of the 81%. I do not believe my story should raise any red flags for the demise of a seminary education.

More telling is the story told by the Graduating Student Questionnaire (GSQ). Our sixteen-year story is summarized in the chart below highlighting last year’s graduating class.

GST Graduate Student Questionnaire  (MDiv, MACM, MAMI, MA)

 

2013

       16 Year Average

Parish Ministry

30%

31%

Campus Ministry

4%

3%

Inner City Ministry

9%

3%

Pastoral Counseling

0%

1%

Hospital or Other Chaplaincy

4%

3%

Secondary School Teaching

9%

2%

College Teaching

0%

4%

Church Administration

0%

0%

Seminary Teaching

0%

1%

Social Work

13%

1%

Foreign Missions

0%

10%

Home Missions

4%

1%

Church Planting/Evangelism

0%

3%

Youth Ministry

0%

8%

Church Musician

0%

0%

Christian Education

0%

2%

Spiritual Direction

0%

0%

Social Justice Ministry

4%

1%

Further Graduate Study

9%

9%

Professional Lay Ministry

0%

1%

Other

0%

5%

Undecided

13%

7%

None

0%

3%

 

 

 

 Totals

99%

99%

The GST identifies its mission to equip men and women for effective missional leadership for ministry in all its forms and to provide strong academic foundations for theological inquiry. According to the 16 year averages, 66% of our graduates pursue a career in ministry. 16% of our graduates pursue an academic career in the academy. Added together, 82% of our graduates intend to serve in vocations that fit with our large alumni hall of fame. And while 15% indicate “other”, “undecided”, or “none”, many of these students indicate that they will enter ministry, more school, or academic teaching when they answer the question about where they see themselves in five years.

In my mentoring group of five GST students, two are planning a career in youth ministry, one in chaplaincy, one in pulpit ministry, and one in academics. All five have bright futures. All five are representatives of what is good about a seminary education. All five will serve the kingdom of God in wonderful ways.

The GST appreciates all of its graduates in the many and varied ways they serve the kingdom throughout the world. It is an honor that they chose to come to Abilene Christian University for their ministerial formation and academic training. Additionally, the GST is thankful to all the congregations that graciously receive our graduates as they partner together in the gospel.

If you are looking for a place to continue your preparation for serving in God’s kingdom for the sake of the world, give us a look. Our faculty are delighted to journey with you in your vocational pursuits.

New Book Released by ACU Press

by   |  06.19.13  |  Uncategorized

The Effective Practice of Ministry:


Essays in Memory of Charles Siburt

 

 Effective Practice

Tim Sensing, editor

ISBN 978-0-89112-328-6

306 ppg

$25.00+ shipping, tax (if appl.)

Few people have made a larger contribution to the ongoing life and health of Churches of Christ around the world than Charles Siburt. During his twenty-four years at Abilene Christian University, Siburt oversaw some fifty DMin theses–a capstone experience designed to recount best practices in congregational life.

Rooted in Dr. Siburt’s conviction that good theology makes a difference in the lives of people, The Effective Practice of Ministry is a collection of thirteen of those research projects, covering the most critical topics facing churches today: spiritual formation, leadership development, catechesis, preaching, and missional initiatives in the larger community.

In honor of Dr. Siburt, this anthology is meant to inspire and encourage effective, embodied praxis in the ministry of the church.

About the Editor

Tim Sensing (DMin, PhD) is Associate Dean and Professor of Homiletics at the Graduate School of Theology, Abilene Christian University. Tim co-taught with Charles Siburt the project thesis course for the DMin degree from 1999 to 2012. Tim is also the author of Qualitative Research: A Multi-Methods Approach to Projects for Doctor of Ministry Theses.

– See more at ACU Press

Four of the Big Ideas of Christianity (4)

by   |  11.01.12  |  Uncategorized

This is the last of a series of talks given recently about major ideas of Christianity.  In a time of rapid, widespread, and not easily understood change, it’s important to be clear about the small number of things that truly matter.  Hence this series.  Any comments would be most welcome.  Big Idea 4 Salvation

Four of the Big Ideas of Christianity (3)

by   |  10.25.12  |  Uncategorized

The third in a series of talks on the main ideas of Christianity, this time on revelation.   Big Idea 3 Revelation

Four of the Big Ideas of Christianity (2)

by   |  10.19.12  |  Uncategorized

Here is the second talk on a major idea of Christianity, the idea of a common humanity, with a particular angle on human beings as users of language and the redemptive power of language.  Big Idea 2 Humanity

Four of the Big Ideas of Christianity

by   |  10.19.12  |  Uncategorized

This is the first of four talks given at a local church on four big ideas of Christianity.  There are a few technical issues at the beginning, but it gets better.  Big Idea 1 God

 

 

Return from Israel

by   |  06.05.12  |  Uncategorized

It’s nice to settle in at home this week after spending last week in Israel.  On Monday-Wednesday I had the privilege of attending, and presenting at, a conference on prophecy and politics at the University of Haifa.  The conference involved about 50 scholars from Israel, Germany, Argentina, France, Poland, and the United States, many of them at the very top of their business and well known for their research in various aspects of the Old Testament and the ancient Near East.

Some conference attendees. University of Haifa.

Thursday took me by bus to Caesarea.

Mosaic from Caesarea. Caesarea.

Friday and Saturday were spent in Jerusalem.  More about that later.

Theological Education and Tomorrow’s Church (part 3)

by   |  02.17.12  |  Uncategorized

The previous sections of this discussion emerged from my reflections on the future of theological education in Churches of Christ, which is deeply bound up with what we imagine the future of this part of Christianity to be.  Educating young men and women – the Millennials along with Gen Xers and Baby Boomers entering second and third careers – will look different in the future because of the church’s needs will look different.  But different how?  What do we need to innovate, and what to conserve?  How do we help men and women cultivate the imagination necessary for bearers of God’s good tidings in our time?

Let me suggest a few things for discussion.

Rule # 1: Self-awareness is good.

Over the past half century, Churches of Christ have gone through a number of phases, not everywhere and not all at once, but still in fairly recognizable ways.  We shifted from a confessional group that defined itself by a fairly small set of doctrinal distinctives (some biblically rich and some not) to a group more focused on self-help and consumerist approaches.  Sermons changed from “God’s views of appropriate music in worship” to “10 steps to a better family life.”  And since the shift was largely driven by Baby Boomers, the emphasis on programming, media, popular music, and other practices that made us less different from the dominant culture were all the rage.  Some of that change was helpful, some was inevitable, and some is worth keeping.  Much of it, however, was pretty lightweight stuff, and the processes of change sometimes expended a huge amount of energy that left congregations incapacitated for further spiritual growth and addicted to finding the next cool gimmick, when they weren’t blown apart completely.  Surely it is time that those of us in progressive churches acknowledged at least some of these problems.  Sectarian legalism sometimes – too often – has given way to a cheap grace that glibly demands that God forgive us no matter how uncommitted we are.

Of course, it is easy to overstate the problems, and no one could reasonably want to return to the sectarian past.  Or, to put things much more carefully, the truth is that the Holy Spirit worked to enable men and women to live Christian lives both during the times we want to forget and the times we spent forgetting them (forgetting them over and over, ironically – but that’s another story).   Christian men and women in our churches have done extraordinarily good and gracious things over and over regardless of the dominant ambience of our congregational lives.   So maybe the first thing we should say about our identity – the first step in self-awareness – is that we have been and are a blessed people through whom God has helped many others.  We can celebrate that, in spite of our very real flaws.

Rule # 2: It’s not about programs.

It is tempting in our environment of change to fall back on learned behavior, and for churches that means seeking the next dramatic program.  Millennials not part of your church?  No problem!  We’ll create a program that will bring them in.

The problem with such an approach, however, is that it assumes that human beings are just out there waiting for us to market to them, if only we can do it correctly, but that once the marketing has taken effect, we can just turn it off and convert folks to a lifestyle of commitment impervious to other marketing messages.  As many Baby Boomer churches in the Willow Creek mold have learned, however, the outreach program that soft-pedals commitment does not naturally lead to a Christian lifestyle unless significant re-messaging happens.  But in that process, the risk of the bait and switch approach is high.  In other words, we risk treating human beings as something less than that title would deserve.  Our methods do not honor people as God’s creation sufficiently well.

For Millennials, in particular, such an approach is highly unlikely to work because this is a generation that is (1) highly sophisticated in its consumption of media messages; (2) fairly cynical about the motives of powerful people trying to sell them something; (3) interested, however, in genuine community and long-term service; and (4) significantly less familiar with Christianity than the Boomers were.  That is, we can no longer operate parasitically on prior generations of Christian experiences in the way that Baby Boomer churches did.  We have to start over.  And just launching programs without trying to launch community will not work.  In truth, it ought not to work because it demeans people and separates them from God, who calls us all into full humanness in imitation of the gracious autonomy of Jesus Christ.  These claims, if they are even close to being right, lead us to Rule 3.

Rule # 3: It’s about community.

I have been fascinated, like many others, with the Occupy Movement and its attempts at democratic, participatory decision-making.  My fascination comes in part because I am sympathetic with many of the movement’s desires and demands and because I think that, with all its problems, it has put its finger on something many Americans feel today.  Many of us, especially those just entering adulthood, feel radically disenchanted with the dominant culture’s construal of power, status, and wealth.  Interestingly, the mostly secular people involved in Occupy share some deep instincts that are pervasive in Scripture and front and center in the gospel message.  They believe that the economy exists for people, not people for the economy.  And they want to do something, somehow to bring about that healthier reality.  Shouldn’t churches be on board with that sentiment?  Surely the Jesus we preach and worship was, at least if you believe the Four Gospels.

So what to do?  How do we give our young people a stake in the church’s work as it lives into the mission of bearing good news?  Can we (1) make sure that our news really is good, (2) that is live-outable day to day, (3) that it includes a lifestyle of truth-speaking in love, and (4) that it is open to everyone, including the most vulnerable among us?  It would be hard to argue that most congregations look like community, but in even the most frozen, formalized, fractious churches there are tokens of God’s community because the Holy Spirit continues to act among us.  Can we not, then, build from what we have to something richer and more robust?  Has not God given us all we need to be what we need to be?  Yes, if we allow this to happen.

Unlike the artificial communities sometimes created by church programming, authentic Christian community cannot simply include people whose values, experiences, and expectations are just like mine.  Somewhere I read, “What thank have you, if you love those who love you?”  Christian community must include the vulnerable, the outcasts, the dysfunctional, the unsuccessful.  Otherwise, it is not Christian enough.  Of course, such community demands much harder work than the homogeneous units we often seek to create, but out of the struggle and joy of life together, we come closer to the God who created and loved us all.  Hence the next idea.

Rule # 4: It’s about God, who is for us.

Like many other American Christians, I have heard all my life the extraordinary text of St. Paul, “If God be for us, who can be against us?”  Not an offer of cheap grace, the rhetorical question functions as a sort of invitation.  Do we not wish to be in the presence of the Almighty Creator who ordered the world in such a way that we could flourish within it, gave a history and a set of norms to a people so they could live freely, and triumphed over death itself by raising Jesus as the “firstfruits of those who sleep”?  Would it not be the case that, if such ideas are true, they would compel a radical alteration in my way of being with others?  And would not a community that resulted from such an idea, or rather, such an experience, spend much of its time seeking to be in God’s presence by pursuing the means of grace such as prayer, forgiveness, service, and so on?  Christian answers to these questions would surely lead us to rethink our ways of worshiping, serving, and sharing the gospel with others.

Yet the truth is that many of our congregations do anything but this.  When we speak of God at all we take refuge in easy clichés and, frankly, a sort of thinly disguised narcissism.  So, for example, Jeremiah’s great promise that God has not forgotten Israel (plural “you”) and will work to redeem a whole people devastated by foreign invasion, enslavement, and death so that it can find its place anew (Jeremiah 29:29) has become a pretty little plaque on a wall about God’s alleged provision of whatever we want whenever we want it (singular “you”).  Far from being just an innocent little bit of bad interpretation of the Bible,  is not this domestication of a powerful, but raw text, really just a travesty?  Do we really imagine that God has nothing better to do than provide us with the things we can easily provide for ourselves while we neglect to care for those among us who are vulnerable?  What Bible do we read?  What reality do we see around us?

As I write this, I see my own attempts to control God and feel keenly the “we” in the paragraph above.  There is no “I” vs. “you” here.  For all of us, can we let God be God, and ourselves be God’s servants, and thus the servants of each other?  Can the church be humble enough to speak on behalf of God rather than using God language as a warrant for doing what we wanted to do all along?  I hope so.  And I believe so.  Because God is for us, and even when we are against ourselves, as we often are, nothing can separate us from this God.  There is a future for our churches, if we let there be.  If we are humble enough, imaginative enough, and generous enough a new generation of leaders will arise among us who can help us seek the table of a generous God nurturing a generous people.

Please respond to these ruminations, scattered and imperfect as they are.  Let us reason together, so that our sins can be as white as snow!

Theological Education and Tomorrow’s Church (part 2)

by   |  02.06.12  |  Uncategorized

This is part 2 of 3.  Thank you for your comments to the first part of the essay.  I am grateful for the encouragement and look forward to the ongoing conversation!

The Theological Landscape Today

            But if the news is good, what precisely is it about?  To answer the question, let me step back to an event many of you remember because you were there.  In the summer of 1967, a new magazine was launched, Mission.  You know its history.  Some of you made it.  The impression one has in reading the early issues now is just how uncontroversial they seem, especially during the early years.  The academics and others who wrote it seemed to fit the basic theology of Churches of Christ rather well.  (I leave to one side cartoons of Nixon as a watch salesman on Fifth Avenue!)  Page 1 of the first number describes the journal’s three purposes as “to explore thoroughly the scriptures and their meaning,” “to understand as fully as possible the world in which the church lives and has her mission,” and “to provide a vehicle for communicating the meaning of God’s Word to our contemporary world.”  One might object to the hermeneutics of translation (kernel and husk) implied by the statements or note that the world was hardly as homogeneous as the sentences imply, but, after all, journal prospectuses are not the usual venue for subtlety, and so we can overlook those faults, if they are faults.

The curious and revolutionary part of the statement is that it seems to assume that we do not yet know fully what the Bible teaches and that the world as we experience it requires serious interpretation.  Both of these assumptions would seem to be givens today, but of course they have not always been.  This is why, within two years of the launch of Mission, other Church of Christ leaders, also mostly academics, founded The Spiritual Sword.  Page 1 of the first number of that journal set its course (by which it still sails, alas) by noting “The church is faced with critical challenges,” and promising to “meet these challenges,” especially the “threat of Liberalism.”  Their “defense of the faith” would “meet a specific and immediate challenge with a direct counter thrust of truth.”  The language of “combat” (their word, not mine) pervades the journal, and in fact has until this day.  So much for solidarity!  And so much for reasoned discourse!

Now my goal here is not to stroll down memory lane, especially since it’s not even my own memory but a bit of history.  I was just getting out of diapers when Mission was founded and was being taught in 1969 to avoid sharp objects, spiritual swords or not.  My point is, rather, to note that we have for a long time had different approaches to theological education.  One sought to understand and engage the theological worlds of Scripture and whatever else we could manage, and the other believed itself to command Scripture and to be able to ignore all else, or perhaps better, to learn about it so as to convert it (rather as a general would know his enemy).  It should be obvious with which approach my sympathies lie.

If we are to take the first tack stated so well by Mission and by my own teachers, we must ask where we are today.  Only in this way can we “understand as fully as possible the world in which the church lives and has her mission,” and “provide a vehicle for communicating the meaning of God’s Word to our contemporary world.”  This theological world differs very widely from that of the 1960s and 1970s, and the responses worked out then, I would argue, are almost completely irrelevant today.  It seems to me that three significant movements inform Christianity around the world today, albeit in many subforms.

The first is the critical reappropriation of tradition.  The second is the reinvigoration of structures, especially the congregation.  The third is renewed attention to spirituality.  These strands cut across denominational and even religious lines, and they are in large measure responses to the moves of two generations ago as well as the profound corruptions that secularization, and I would argue the birth of a form of capitalism utterly detached from its own social ends, has brought.  The theological models we worked out in the 1960s are ill prepared to deal with these movements, in my view, though we can do better.  Let me explain.

The Critical Reappropriation of Tradition.  Some of the most exciting work going on in theology today centers on the reclamation of the Christian tradition.  At some level, this is a reaction to the 1960s attempts at “modernization” and cultural accommodation to the secular city after the death of God.  Whether we are speaking of a generous orthodoxy, or critical realist reading strategies, or canonical theism, or the missional church, a major impetus to contemporary theology is the attempt to correct what is widely perceived as an excessive accommodation to one of several forms of modernity.  Thus we find a Sarah Coakley writing on the relationships between feminism and the Cappadocian notions of the Trinity or David Brown on the Bible and theological imagination or Nicholas Lash on hope after Marx, or whatever.  The various post-critical reappropriations of the Bible are part of this move, as we see in the work of scholars like Ellen Davis or, on the Jewish side, Jon Levenson.  But the task of reappropriation is much wider.

It would be hard to overstate the importance of this move.  It is also hard to know how a tradition like ours that began with an attempt to cut through tradition (talk about a self-effacing strategy!) to find a pure Christianity in the words of the New Testament should respond.  To me, we should begin by acknowledging the utter failure of restorationism as some of us have conceived of it.  The belief of high modernism in its Protestant expression that one could peel away layers of accretions to find the pristine core simply has proven intellectually untenable and institutionally unsustainable.  Moreover, the focus on institutions and practices (a focus both conservative and liberal strands in the Stone-Campbell movement perpetuate) stripped of theological underpinnings has proven a serious error, not only because it ignores the interests of the Bible itself but because it seems to forget the role of the Bible as a trigger of the Christian imagination.  In other words, the restorationism we inherited is radically reductionistic.  It is based on a logical fallacy – the genetic fallacy – and it eliminates more than it preserves.  It is an acid that dissolves too much.

At the same time, it is possible to construe restorationism in different ways, perhaps even in the language of Alexander Campbell himself, who wrote in the Christian System (p. 110):

First. Nothing is essential to the conversion of the world, but the union and co-operation of Christians.

Second. Nothing is essential to the union of Christians, but the Apostles’ teaching or testimony.

Or does he [Campbell’s imagined interlocutor] choose to express the plan of the Self-Existent in other words? Then he may change the order, and say,

First. The testimony of the Apostles, is the only and all-sufficient means of uniting all Christians.

Second. The union of Christians with the Apostles’ testimony, is all-sufficient, and alone sufficient, to the conversion of the world.

Neither truth alone, nor union alone, is sufficient to subdue the unbelieving nations; but truth and union combined, are omnipotent. They are omnipotent, for God is in them and with them, and has consecrated and blessed them for this very purpose.

In any event, we need a serious discussion here.  Our goal must be to reimagine the ends of our movement.

The Reinvigoration of Structures.  One of the most important insights of the Stone-Campbell movement was its confidence in the local congregation and its belief that denominational structures, however light, should be tested by their ability to serve the local church in its most fundamental work.  Perhaps we can take this congregationalism too far, but the basic orientation to the local community seems well-placed.

At the same time, we cannot merely be content with considering how to maintain basically well-functioning congregations.  Rather, ours is a time of renewal.  The need for renewal and the reexamination of cherished beliefs and practices that renewal presupposes should point us to the shape and content of our theological curriculum, both in the congregation and in the school of theology serving the church.  Shrinking congregations that are often mono-racial and increasingly out of touch with their neighborhoods and the spiritual needs of younger people (who often have no stake in the congregation’s success or failure) pose a serious threat to the survival of our fellowship.  We need to be honest about that.  Projects of renewal that draw on the best of our past and deepen our vision of our future require vigorous leadership, the training of which is surely the task of our schools of theology.

Even more difficult will be the reclamation of a pan-congregational consciousness.  The radical congregationalism that we inherited, which sees no legitimate structure between the local gathering of the saints and the ethereal Church Universal, provides us few resources for renewal except those intimately linked to sectarianism.  Can we imagine a collective identity that is not simply tribal or nostalgic, that does not depend on fear, family ties, or inertia, but seeks a worthy goal or end game (telos, for the Grecophiles among us!) that contributes to the whole Church?   This is a question for all of us, and how we answer it (indeed, how we ask it) will profoundly shape theological education for the next generation or more.

The Reclamation of Spirituality.  The widespread, cross-denominational turn toward prayer, fasting, acts of service in community, and the ordinances of baptism and communion mark a significant change in the contemporary church and a much needed correction of the disembodied Christianity of much of the evangelical world, including some parts of Churches of Christ.  Younger people seek to live as authentic servants of Jesus Christ, and those who enter ministry seek environments in which they can lead others to be disciples, not in which they will be caretakers of institutions they did not build.  Too many of us seem increasingly to believe that the congregation is a place in which they must silently avoid controversy so as not to upset the sleeping generations of Christians present there.  Such a view of congregations is too pessimistic, to be sure, but it has merit.  In some sense, this wider spiritual turn reflects a deeper awareness of the emphases of Scripture itself and thus should be welcomed by a movement that sets such store by the words of the Bible.  On the other hand, the turn also offers a major challenge to our churches, because the practices of Christian spirituality are often highly attenuated in most of them.

I see this complex mix of desires and ideas often with my students.  They long to pray, and they long to serve.  They often have not learned to do so in their congregations or families.  The school of theology must pick up much of that slack.  Doing so requires deep thought about curriculum, the formation of faculty, the relationships between congregations and the school, and other issues.

On Theological Ends and, therefore Means

All of these changes, then, raise a key question: what is the goal of theological education?  What is its end?  How does theological education serve the church as it serves the Triune God?  In what ways does our teaching of Scripture, church history, systematic theology, the history of doctrine, ecumenics, liturgics, homiletics, pastoral care, congregational leadership, and whatever else we think vital to a theological school work to form persons who can equip leaders to equip saints for ministries of justice, peace, and love?  (And it is important to distinguish these means from the ends of our work.)

There are perhaps three ways to describe the end of theological education.  The first is doxology: our work should bring glory to God the Father who redeems the world through Jesus Christ and dwells in the church through the Holy Spirit in bringing that redemption to completion.  Considered from this point of view, our work is thus a form of worship, a move of the human soul to the contemplation of God.

The second word is mission: the church has a goal beyond its own self-preservation or even growth.  The practices of theological education serve to form leaders who will help the church engage in its mission.  Thus our old distinctions between missions and ministry or missionaries and ministers prove to be empty or even destructive.

The third word, or rather phrase, is traditioned imagination: I mean by this that we who teach in schools of theology should induct leaders into a tradition that is not fixed but that requires by its very nature and history that its leaders find ways to help it develop faithfully as the work of God continues in our world.  Thus church structures and the ways in which we create and disseminate theological knowledge (in the congregation and outside it) give shape, albeit temporarily and provisionally, to a corporate reality formed in communion with God.  (If you want to connect these three items to the immanent Trinity in some way, that is your business, and I will not object, though I’m not sure I feel much need to do so.)

The point is that, however we articulate the ends of theological education, we should acknowledge that there are ends, that we should distinguish them carefully from means and measure the latter in terms of the former, that the ends do not revolve around the maintenance of the status quo, and that therefore, there will inevitably be tensions between our schools of theology and the rest of the church.  Whether this tension is creative or merely tense will depend on our ability to foster the kinds of broad and deep conversations that have hitherto been very difficult in our movement.

To be continued….

 

Theological Education and Tomorrow’s Church (Part 1)

by   |  01.31.12  |  Uncategorized

Once upon a time, a group of cousins inherited a large mansion, one of those plantation houses with wide be-columned porches all about, from which the owners could gaze across verdant lawns down to the river.  It had once been glorious, and parts of it still were, though it had recently fallen into decay.  “What shall we do with it,” said the cousins to each other.  “It’s beautiful just the way it is,” said one.  “Don’t change a thing.  This is the way it was planned, and no one should touch it”  “No, no,” insisted another.   “Nothing good ever happened in this house, and nothing good ever will.  Tear it down or sell it.  There’s a lot of rot and mildew and who knows what.”  A third chimed in, “Granted there are problems with the plumbing on the east side of the house, but we don’t have to go there.  The west side is where we used to get together at Christmas and tell stories and sing songs.  Don’t you remember the time….”  Her voice trailed off wistfully.  “Maybe we can just stay in this part and not go in the other.”  Then the last answered, “Cousins, we have to fix the house.  It’s got some great bones, but it does need work.  We need to fix it for our kids and their kids.”

Now you might ask me to explain my little allegory.  The interpretation is this: Churches of Christ in my lifetime have experienced a two-generations-long identity crisis.  The cousins have fought and cussed and argued, sometimes for good reason, sometimes not.  Some of us practice systematic denial of reality (both the arch-conservatives and the neo-denominationalists, albeit differently), others seem wedded to archness and snide criticism of the past (the so-called progressives), but some of us must work to repair and remodel the old house so that it can be a fit residence for the future.  What must we do?

Part of the reform will involve the training and support of leaders and thus the purposes and practices of theological education.  To reform Churches of Christ, we must reconsider the roles and especially the ends of theological education.  We must identify the contradictions and problems in what we inherited, the theological landscape of our time and place, and the resources and strategies for moving into the future.  Let me do that as part of this response.

Where we have been

To retrace our steps to this point, we might begin at the beginning.  In his 1839 prospectus for Bethany College, Alexander Campbell envisioned a school in which students would learn all that was “rational, moral, and subservient to good taste,” in which critical study of the Bible without “scholastic or traditionary [sic] theology” would create an environment hospitable to the formation of Christian persons.  No one would be trained for clerical leadership, for the movement neither wanted nor needed a professional clergy. This model for education of all Christians in a liberal arts environment has shaped Churches of Christ profoundly, as can be attested to by the tens of thousands of alumni of our colleges in leadership positions in our churches – and a lot of other churches – around the world.

Yet there is a problem here, and we must name it.  It became clear by the end of the nineteenth century that the failure to train clergy as such was a serious mistake.  Not only was it not possible to teach everyone all the things required by ministry as it had evolved over the centuries, but also it was not possible to train ministers properly in a strictly liberal arts environment.  Thus as early as the 1920s, schools like ACC attempted and failed to build full-fledged seminaries, and by the late 1940s Harding and ACC and shortly thereafter the rest of our schools had moved toward a mixed model.  Bible departments taught every student the rudiments of biblical theology, and they formed ministers at increasingly advanced educational levels.  Faculty carried heavy burdens in doing all this, but they managed, often at significant personal sacrifice, as long as the schools’ student bodies were relatively homogeneous theologically, ethnically, and socioeconomically. It was possible to pretend not to be training a professional clergy because we were also training everyone at some level and because the theological gaps between pulpit and pew were relatively narrow.  This mixed model has often served us well in creating vigorous lay leadership but has left unanswered the vital questions of just what it means to be ministers of the gospel in a full-time, ordained sort of way.  Our language betrays us here because we seem unwilling to call our ministers what they in fact are (and I think should be), a professional clergy.

This brings me, then, to a second problem.  Until the past decade, most of our Church of Christ colleges were extremely homogeneous institutions, especially theologically.  Most students, except at Pepperdine, identified their religious commitments with Churches of Christ, and all faculty members did.  The insider stories, assumptions, and even jokes formed part of the discourse.  That discourse could be critiqued in various ways – and was – and students could read far beyond its boundaries – and did, at least in some places – but the world of our schools was still comparatively closed theologically speaking.  We read about this or that theological movement, but no exponent of them ever taught at our schools.  The non-denomination could have many of the trappings of a denomination without acknowledging them.  I do not mean that everyone was sectarian.  Not at all.  But the non-sectarianism of even our most progressive schools had no practical implications in terms of hiring, student selection, curriculum development, the choice of outside speakers, and other tangible practices.  Nor did we encourage students entering full-time ministry to practice their theoretical ecumenism.  Rather, theological diversity lay hidden under a bushel.

This double-mindedness has become untenable today.  Undergraduate student bodies in many of our schools are well below 50% from Churches of Christ.  Brand loyalty is much weaker among all students, so that being “from” Churches of Christ need not imply a commitment to stay in them.  This means that the practices that allowed us to form lay leaders for Churches of Christ must be rethought in depth, and that we must learn to take seriously the priesthood of all believers and the catholicity of the Church in new ways.  The gap between the theological assumptions of alumni and those of current students is wide and growing.  Professors increasingly assume a mediatorial role, whether out of conviction or out of necessity.  (And the motivation matters!)

For the formation of professional ministers, the changing climate creates new challenges as well.  We are presented with ecumenical realities in a much more direct way.  We face squarely the call of training ministers who will work in post-denominational congregations of varying forms and structures.   They will need to work hard to rethink long-held traditions in light of new realities, especially the new reality that Christians today are able to draw on the whole storehouse of Christian practices and ideas, not just those that constellated in particular denominations or traditions (including our own).

In short, the realities that those who created our schools of theology in the 1950s and 1960s could assume simply do not exist anymore.  This is the news I must tell you, and this is why I think our conversation today is vital.  The apparent solidarity of the 1950s and 1960s has vanished into the past.  It has been vanishing for a long time.

Now some people would see all this as bad news.  I disagree.  Quite to the contrary, I think it’s the best possible news.  It means that we are now – finally – poised to take seriously what our teachers taught us about a vision of a non-sectarian Christianity in which human beings reflect adequately the justice and mercy and goodness of God.  What must we do now?

To be continued….

 

Injustice and Idolatry: The Psalms in Our Worship 46

by   |  01.17.12  |  Uncategorized

Psalm 58 is one of those troublesome hymns that seems much too honest for our polite, bourgeois church language.  Other than the first couple of verses, it contains a string of invectives that seem to fantasize about a world in which evil people (“those with venom like the serpent”) get their due comeuppance.  From the comforts of our upper middle class suburban dens, it all seems much to hot, too harsh to be something in the Bible.  Except for the first two verses.

The first two verses, however, offer a different frame.  The first line (not counting the superscription, which tags the psalm as a hymn for the choirmaster, perhaps sung to the ancient tune “Do not destroy,” whatever that was) reads in Hebrew: ha’umnam ‘elem tsedeq tedabberun (“Is it really so that you speak justice, ‘-l-m”).  The three consonants aleph-lamedh-mem (the second word in Hebrew) can be read as an adjective meaning “silent” or an adverb meaning “silently” (Hebrew doesn’t really distinguish between adjectives and adverbs most of the time).  Most medieval Jewish commentators read it that way.   Thus Rashi, in the eleventh century, imagines that the psalm relates to the story of David entering Saul’s camp and sparing the king’s life.  The proper response to such an act of mercy would be to search for a new level of justice in their relationship, which was not forthcoming. People were wrongly silent about fairness and equity.

Modern scholars have tended to read aleph-lamedh-mem differently, as the word for “gods,” which would have the same consonants.  Thus the NRSV translates the opening line of the psalm as “do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?”  If that is the right translation, as I think it is, then the psalm calls into question a social order in which various deities sit atop a social structure marked by injustice and oppression.  Like Amos and Micah, and their much later descendant Marx, the psalmist thinks that religion can, under certain circumstances, go terribly awry and be used to support terrible injustice.  Certainly there’s a lot to back up that assertion, as we have seen in our times with priest abuse scandals, fraud among televangelists, and the political coverage that some ministers have given to political leaders pursuing unjust wars. Religion can at times be the opiate of the people, and like all opiates, it can kill.

But the psalmist is no agnostic.  He or she offers a religious alternative to religious corruption.  It is faith in a God who does command justice and carries it out, and who is skilled enough at judging human beings to discriminate accurately between the just and the unjust.  This God is not impressed by  political propaganda that defines evil as what our enemies do and goodness as what we do.  This God recognizes that torture is torture and humiliation of the vulnerable is always evil.  This God does not relish being used for the narrow purposes of human powermongers seeking to defer the day of their own reckoning or divert the attention of others from their evil deeds.  As the psalm ends, it imagines a state in which human beings can recognize that God brings about righteousness on earth.  Surely, as Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount, such a realization is a major goal of the faith of Israel and all its heirs, including us.

This psalm comes to my own life at a time when I am asking if I am radical enough in my pursuit of justice, or whether I am not too often selling out.  There are many layers to that inquiry, and I will not bother you with them now.  But I would recommend a book that is helping me, Terry Eagleton’s 2009 volume “Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate” (Yale University Press).  He manages to take on critics of Christianity from his own perspective, which takes seriously Marxist insights into the corruptions of all political and social systems AND takes seriously the claims of Christianity.  It’s a fun read, and even you’re not a Marxist (which I am not), you find yourself wanting to read more.  Often you will disagree (why read a book you always agree with?  that’s a waste of time if ever there was one), but you will not be bored.  And your faith will be deepened.  I think our psalmist would’ve liked it too.  The banality of much of American culture, the secular indifference to the suffering of people, and the self-indulgence of so much of American Christianity all come under examination.  That’s healthy.  And I come under examination too.  More on that another time.

God’s p.r. agents: The Psalms in Our Worship 45

by   |  01.12.12  |  Uncategorized

One of the recurring notions of the Bible that seems counter-intuitive to many of us is that God’s reputation among human beings matters and that we religious people have some bearing on it.  It’s not that the Bible thinks that God needs human beings to carry out a given plan (as in the Star Trek film “The Final Frontier,” in which Spock’s half-brother Sybok thinks he’s being called by God, but finds instead a somewhat psychotic being trapped on a planet far from earth — that’s not the biblical picture of Israel’s God!).  But since the plans about which we know — assuming that God is up to many things that do not concern us — involve us and our reformation, what we think about those plans seems to matter.

So what do we think?  Psalm 57 begins with a call for divine graciousness, “for my life has taken refuge in you, yes, I have hidden in your wings’ shadow.”  The psalmist expresses an ongoing state of trust in the Almighty, a bold confidence that all will be well, in spite of the ferocity of opponents (v. 4 [5 in Hebrew]).  The psalmist’s confidence in God’s trustworthiness outweighs his/her awareness of the reality of danger on every hand.  Without denying the reality of evil in the world, the psalmist believes that God’s goodness outweighs evil.

The psalm next turns to a cry for future continuation of God’s past work.  “Let it arise over the heavens, O God, your glory over all the earth.”  The refrain opens and closes a major unit of the psalm, giving a sense of the whole.  In the Hebrew text, the word for “your glory” comes at the very end of the sentence, as if our poet wishes to make us wait to wonder what he or she wishes to extend over the heavens and the earth.  God’s splendor, shown by the willingness to save vulnerable human beings, transcends everything else in the cosmos, making all else pale in importance by comparison.  A world in which a gracious God reigns is a world that human beings can safely inhabit.

If the cosmos somehow reflects God’s care for us, and if the psalm is an example of how human beings testify to that, and if that testimony matters because other human beings can learn from it, then what is the nature of the testimony?  Two things: human beings can join God in the struggle against evil, and this struggle takes place in the context of celebration.  Thus verse 8 (Hebrew 9) calls for a new level of enthusiasm: “rouse up O harp and lyre, rouse up my liver” [emending the text slightly; Israelites often spoke of the “liver” the way we speak of the heart or mind).  The redeemed person has every reason to celebrate because we participate in the overcoming of evil.

A final, perhaps random, thought.  Like many people, I find it pretty easy to get discouraged by events in the world.  Some things just bug me, and you can guess what they are.  Some things should irritate us, because there is such a thing as righteous indignation.  The key is to pick which things.  But, at the same time, there are many things that inspire confidence in the possibilities for goodness in my fellow human beings, and even in myself.  Sometimes, it’s okay to say so.  Someone has said that cynics are just disappointed idealists.  Can we hold onto our idealism just a little longer?  If we do, is there a chance that others might notice and wonder what we found that they can find too?  Psalm 57 thinks so.  Many days — not always — I do too.

God is For Me! The Psalms in Our Worship 44

by   |  01.04.12  |  Uncategorized

Psalm 56 appears in a string of psalms that affirm trust in God.  This string begins in Psalm 53, or maybe even 51, and continues for awhile (where it stops is a bit unclear, or rather, is a subjective decision).  These psalms seem to belong together somehow, and even the ancient compilers of the Psalter thought so, because they added to many of them a superscription linking the sentiments of the poems to episodes in the life of David.  They thus sought to show how a given psalm could play a role in the spirituality of a real person under real duress.  That is, the superscriptions offer a window onto the oldest easily recoverable layer of interpretation of these psalms, according to which they were deeply personal pleas to God for help in times of trouble, as well as offers of thanksgiving to God for that help, once provided.

Psalm 56 seems to consist of four basic units: vv. 1-4 express deep trust in God; vv. 5-7 reflect on the lamentable conditions the psalmist has faced and may face again (because hymns of praise always have lament in their background, and vice versa); vv. 8-11 returns to praise to God, though with a bit of an edge (v. 8’s “You have kept track of my trouble; my tears you placed on your parchment” [not bottle, as in RSV and older translations] — God has remembered the psalmist’s difficulties, recorded them for future reference, and thus honored them as meaningful and real); and vv. 12-13 end as many hymns and laments do, with a promise to give to God some token of thankfulness.

I am especially interested in the statements of trust in God because such an attitude seems far harder than simply a straightforward acknowledgement of life’s difficulties would be.  We all know that life is full of uncertainties and outright evil.  Only people in breathtaking levels of denial could argue otherwise.  Is there hope?  Can we trust God?  That’s the question.

The psalmist thinks so, and says so, in a series of a affirmations beginning in 9b (Hebrew 10b):

This I know, that God is for me (or mine)/In God I will praise a word (or thing)/in Yhwh I will praise a word./In God I trust/I will not fear.

To live without fear and to believe that the infinite creator of the universe cares about me in my tininess and my radical individuality are astonishing commitments.  They are very difficult to pull off, made all the more so because everything in our existence seems calculated to inspire fear.  How many of us expect our employers to provide us meaning in life?  How many of us vote our fears and prejudices?  Most of us, and most of us most of the time.  That’s the tragedy.

Yet the psalmist, for a brief moment, imagines an alternative world without fear.  It is without fear because God has that person’s — and every person’s — best interests at heart.  (This is not the same as saying that God agrees with me, by the way!) 

What are the implications of such a belief?  For Israel, and thus for Jews and Christians, the implication has been that we can believe that life has meaning and purpose, if not in every little detail, then at least in its broad outlines.  We may not be superstitious enough to think that God has planned out every relationship and experience we have — that would be silly — but we do believe that God has in mind the ends of human existence and invites us to live into them.  We are not simply animals drifting from one experience to the next.  We are embodied souls, a little lower than angels, who have a greater destiny.  We do not need to live with the despair that seems to dominate our materialistic, power-hungry culture.  Nor do we need to escape the world through New Age puffery about how wonderful we already are (even when we know we’re not).  Both approaches are fear-driven fantasies.  No, we can live in ways that bit by bit remove fear as a motivator so that we can be truly free to live into the ends that God has foreseen for us.  This I know, that God is for me….

Is It Christmas Yet?

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by   |  12.19.11  |  Uncategorized

This time of year, I need to come clean about something.  I too am part of the excessive consumption and sappy sentimentality.  I like the music, and not just Ave Maria or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, but also Bing Crosby and Tony Bennett and even, in moments of weakness, Alvin and the Chipmunks.   And I enjoy too much the ham, sweet potatoes, and apple/pumpkin/pecan/chocolate/rhubarb/strawberry/blackberry pies.  The bell ringers at the mall get me, and so do the neighborhoods burning hydrocarbons to light up wire reindeer and strings of multicolored lights.  I like it all, even when I feel guilty about some parts of it.  I’m not alone in having mixed feelings.  Many of you do too.

Still, there is another piece of this season worth recalling.  Or rather, it’s the whole point beneath all the excessive glitz and kitsch.  It is about life and death, sin and redemption, possibilities lost and found.  At its core it is a story not the least bit sentimental, one of a family too poor to afford a decent place to have a baby, of rulers whose fear led them to massacre innocents, and of hints of illegitimacy and aching disappointment.  Christmas presents such an odd story of the time when no one knew the baby’s name or even whether he would live in obscurity or just die like so many other infants in the days before modern medicine.  It is a story of fragile human beings, lost in a world in which the powerful strutted across the world’s stage only to be replaced by others.  In short, it is the human story.

I thought of that again today when reading the obituaries of two major world leaders, Kim Jong Il and Vaclav Havel.  One was a savage tyrant who used his immense privileges for self-gratification of body and mind.  Kim Jong Il, if he is remembered at all, will go down in history as one of its worst human productions, a man whose death definitely made the world better.  He will not be missed, at least not by free people.  Havel, on the other hand, gave his life for human freedom and dignity, first as a dissident, often jailed, playwright in Communist-era Czechoslovakia, then as the president who managed the peaceful split of the country to maximize self-determination.  May he rest in peace.

The differences between the two men could hardly be more stark.  But perhaps they illustrate the range of human possibilities, the deep longing we have for human wholeness, but also the impulses for darkness that lurk within us and that can rise to prominence under certain to-be-avoided circumstances.  Moral differences matter a great deal, and we do well to have clarity about that.  No one is perfect, but some imperfections have far worse consequences than others.  The key is to find God amid our imperfections.

The curious thing about the Christmas story, I think, is not that it illustrates the complete failure of all human endeavors.  It is not a Gnostic myth of a redeemer come to rescue a select few from the invincible darkness of the world.  Rather, it is a story of solidarity, of God the Almighty creator of this very world (not some other world up in heaven!) joining us in our fragility in order to bring to the forefront the capabilities for goodness and wholeness that he placed within us.  It is about the healing of creation, not its dismissal.  So — to mix Matthew and Luke for a moment — angels sing to poor shepherds, Persian astrologers follow a star, and old people in the temple see a baby whose appearance fulfills all the old prophecies.  Human beings stand together in their freedom before God.  There is a seamless connection among humankind, and between us and God, that is revealed in the baby in the manager and all for which he stands.

So, is it Christmas yet?  Yes, it always is, for every day God is with us in our suffering and in our joy.  Too many babies are still born (and stillborn, alas) in stables, and too many tyrants still sleep peacefully in their palaces.  Yet there are also men and women who live with dignity and peace, even amid the sorrow.  Immanuel is not just a pretty word, but a description of the nature of reality.  And there is better news still.  Another holiday is coming.  Easter is on its way.  The God who brings life from a womb can also bring it from death itself.  Amen.

Beyond Regret: The Psalms in Our Worship 42

by   |  11.28.11  |  Uncategorized

The retreat from regret, the aching sorrow that crushes a spirit and snuffs out the first flicker of hope and goodness, begins with repentance.  Repentance allows us to cast away shame by acknowledging it and refusing to give it control over our lives, a control exercised in the quiet places in which we hide ourselves from others.  Far from being a humiliation, repentance is the first step to exaltation.  It is the end of humiliation because it is the first and greatest exercise of courage to which we can aspire.

Psalm 51 shows a profound knowledge of the power of repentance.  The earliest commentator on the psalm, the person who added the superscription to it, thought it so powerful that it could serve in the story of the most dramatic moral failure of a righteous person that he knew about: David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband Uriah.  The psalm itself is later than David’s time and must originally have served much broader purposes.  There’s nothing in it unique to the sins of the flesh or of violence; anyone’s sin, if deep enough, can find its release in this psalm.  In fact, the last few verses seem to imply a date after the destruction of the city by Nebuchadnezzar and before the rebuilding of the walls by Nehemiah.

“Be gracious to me, O Elohim, in light of your loyalty; erase my iniquities in view of your abundant mercies…. For I know my iniquities, and my sin is always before me.”  With this opening, the psalmist begins to acknowledge the reality of sin (without naming it, since this prayer can apply to anyone!) and its public nature.  It is not hidden from the one praying or the One prayed to.  There is no use pretending anymore.

But how public is it?  Verses 4 ff. (6 ff. in Hebrew) seem susceptible to multiple interpretations.  Does “against you only have I sinned” mean that the sin is secret (say, a plot not yet carried out, or sorcery, or something like that) or is this a case of hyperbole?  The Bible itself, in distinction from some of its readers in church, never seems to think that sin concerns only God and the individual.  Sin is communal; it involves others.  And it would be illogical and morally dubious — obscene, really — to argue that acts of injustice or betrayal (say, failure to honor parents, or lying in court, or stealing, or murder, or adultery — just to pick up on the Ten Commandments) offend only God and not other human beings.  Obviously, sins of this sort cannot literally be only against God.  So we do well simply to say that sin involves God because people in a covenant with God (as well as with each other) betray the relationship implied by covenant when they do evil.

In the text itself, the contrast is between divine purity and goodness, on one side, and human iniquity, on the other.  The psalmist underscores the dramatic nature of the contrast by saying, “Yes, I was delivered in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”  A great deal of very questionable stuff has been written about this verse, as it has played its role in the unfortunate case made for hereditary sin and irremediable human corruption made over the centuries.  Yet such ideas are very alien to the world of the Old Testament, which thinks that humans both can and should do good before God.  In truth, it makes little sense to repent of sin if you can’t really repent of it!  Since the psalm is poetry, it makes much more sense to read the line as, again, hyperbole.  Perhaps we could paraphrase it this way: “We humans are a really messed up species, aren’t we?  Our history is full of such examples, and so is my individual life.”

The psalm moves from confession to appeal.  Images of cleansing appear over and over in the second half of the psalm, shifting then to ideas of singing (songs of joy rather than of sorrow), and then in turn to the promise to teach God’s ways of forgiveness to sinners, presumably so that they too can experience those very ways.

Finally, this psalm was not written as a mission text, in our sense, but there is something profoundly missional about the world it envisions.  In this world, forgiven people celebrate their forgiveness by telling others of the possibilities for it.  They pray for newly open lips (like Moses in Exodus 3-4).  They come to a deeper understanding of their relationship with God, which is not rooted in sacrifice but transcends it by recognizing that praise is more essential than the barbecue!  And they pray for a restoration of Zion and all it stands for.  You can’t get more mission-driven than that.

 

 

 

GST Talent Show, October 22, 6pm

by   |  10.07.11  |  Uncategorized

Graduate School of Theology Talent Show:

Date: Saturday, Oct. 22
Time: 6:00 pm
Location: University Church
Family Room (between main
building and gym)
Food: Dinner provided

Are you talented?
People need to know.
We want to believe.

So bring your talents or come to see the talents of others
in this community at our annual talent show.

If you have a talent, or just plan to attend, please email Eric at esg04b@acu.edu.
Also, let Eric know how many will be coming with you, so we can get a food count.

Dr. Jack Reese, Dean of the College of Biblical Studies, speaks in Graduate Chapel

by   |  10.07.11  |  Uncategorized

Click on this link to see the video of Dr. Reese’s Graduate Chapel talk.

Things Worth Clapping For: The Psalms in Our Worship 38

by   |  10.03.11  |  Bible, Mission, Prayer, Uncategorized

Applause is such a strange social phenomenon.  We clap for bone-crunching tackles, masterful gymnastics routines, six year-olds at their piano recitals and famous virtuosos at theirs, baptisms and bar mitzvahs, speeches (including sermons nowadays), and a range of other activities.  We signify our approval of sterling performance, a fact that assumes (1) that we have in our heads a set of standards about what constitutes excellence in a given field and (2) that the type of endeavor is secondary (so we applaud the open-field crushing of a receiver and a baptism of a young person, often on the same day — whoever said we humans were logical beings plainly didn’t know us!).  Yet surely what we applaud determines what sorts of people we are.

Psalm 47 invites Gentiles to join Israel in its applause of the Almighty, signaling the universal scope of the rule of providence.  Why should they applaud?  Because Yhwh has redeemed Israel, thus keeping age-old promises and insuring that peace and holiness have a chance in the world.  The psalm runs to the old image of God as king (and thus as guarantor of justice and human wholeness) by singing “Yhwh Most High is awesome, a great king over all the land” (v. 2; Hebrew 3) and “for Elohim is king over all the earth…. Elohim reigns o’er the nations; Elohim sits on his holy throne” (vv. 7-8; Hebrew 8-9).  The enthroned ruler is the one who brings about life-giving order.  A few observations:

  • The setting of the song is unclear.  Is it a celebration of a particular national victory, or a song sung in the midst of a festival (Tabernacles?) about a long-standing or recurring history of redemption?  The answer might matter for how we interpret the psalm, but there is no way of knowing for sure.  As it stands, the poem has gotten separated from its original setting and thus functions as a celebration of the world’s very structure as a place under the sovereign care of God.
  • The phrase in v. 9, “Elohim who sits on his holy throne,” evokes a very old theme, seen also in Egyptian theology, of a God who is in charge of the cosmos and keeps all threats to peace and justice at bay.  However difficult such a metaphor might be for us in our democratic age, the idea of God as the perfect ruler operates throughout the Bible and is a basic assumption of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, the religions that sprung from Israel.

Why is God’s kingship, brought to bear in history, worth celebrating?  If you assume that the infinite being cares perfectly for human beings and is incapable of corruption, ignorance, self-interest, inattentiveness, or any of the other frailties that mar human rule, then God’s rule sounds like very good news.  Surely for its beneficiaries this would be so.  Obedience to the dictates of such a ruler would be easy since they so obviously reflect a profound commitment to human well-being.  Obedience would not be experienced as obedience at all, but simply as the movement of the soul in response to virtue (Aristotle’s ideal).

Does the psalm assume that the nations somehow benefit from God’s salvation of Israel?  Certainly the text does not spell out how this would be so, but it is not necessary to assume that the poet was a naive xenophobe who imagined that others would enjoy his happiness, whatever their own condition.  If the non-violent, harmonious world imagined in the Psalms and prophets were to emerge, then surely everyone would benefit.  After all, the ravages of war fall on everyone in their path, not just one group.  So it does not seem too far-fetched to imagine that in the back of the psalmist’s mind — and in the minds of the congregations singing the psalm either in ancient Israel or subsequently — the prospect of divine settlement of wrongs would be an inviting idea.

Of course, the psalm is not engaging in political theorizing.  It is trying to get people to sing and enjoy the prospects of a new world.  In many ways, that option seems even more humanly inviting.  If we celebrated the possibilities of peace and justice, and celebrated the reality of such when we saw it, how would our lives and our world be different?  This week, I think I’ll try it.  Stay tuned for results!

A Sermon from an Alumnus

by   |  09.11.11  |  Uncategorized

On occasion, we like to publish something by one of our alumni.  Here is a brief homily by Ben Fike, a 2011 MDiv graduate and now campus minister of the University Church of Christ in Abilene.  Enjoy!  And, if you have a sermon of your own that you’re particularly proud of (it’s okay to be proud in this case!), send us a link or a manuscript.  We would like to collect such things for wider circulation.

 

Further Up and Further In: Psalm 1

By Ben Fike

at 9 o’clock worship service, UCC Abilene, 8/28/2011

 

“What’s next?” Every family, every group of friends, every road trip I’ve been on. There always seems to be someone asking the question, you know? “What’s next?” When I was growing up, it was my older brother. Every family vacation, every dinner, every outing “What’s next?” We’ve only just arrived at my grandpa’s farm, only just pulled into the parking lot of Walrus Ice Cream in downtown Fort Collins, CO where I grew up and he asks the question – “What’s next?”

Where do we go from here?

What happens after this?

Now that he’s 28 years old, my brother has long outgrown this. Although, I wonder if any of us ever really do. As human beings trapped within the constraints of time and space, it’s hard not to get caught up in the endless momentum of it all. Always moving forward, always pressing on. One year, one month, one day, one event, one moment to the next. And then what?

What’s next?

What classes are you taking next semester? What are you going to do after you finish your degree? What are your plans for the summer? What are you doing this weekend? What are we doing for dinner?

What’s next?

Perhaps it is no surprise then, that the Psalmist writing Psalm 1 imagines life as if it is a way, a road, a journey. Or more specifically, two ways – the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous,” he writes.  “But the way of the wicked will perish.” Of course, when he puts it that way, there’s really no choice is there? Do you want to walk the road of the righteous or take the path that sinners tread, follow the advice of the wicked, sit in the seat of scoffers? It’s like here’s two options: 1. You can jump off a cliff, or 2. You can go out to a nice steak dinner with friends. You decide.

I think we get this. We get that we would rather walk along the way of the righteous. We would rather God lead us ahead as we move forward through this life. If life is a way, a road, then we want to walk the path with God rather than without. I think we get this. Right?

But it strikes me, that the Psalmist is not content to keep us moving in one direction, as if the passing of time is the only force at play. As if forward momentum is the only direction we can grow. No, the image shifts, the metaphors mix. And in the poetry of the psalm we find the righteous pilgrims, whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on God’s law they meditate day and night” But they are not described as wanderers, troubadours traveling down the highway.

No, the psalmist tells us, “They are like trees.” Like trees?

Yes, “Like trees planted by streams of water,

which yield their fruit in its season,

and their leaves do not wither.

In all that they do they prosper.”

Like trees planted by streams of water. Can you imagine anything more stationary? Can you imagine anything more passive than a tree?

But then, maybe that’s part of the point. To be among the righteous is not merely to be busy, on the move, tracking forward, as if the passing of time controls all that we do. No, to be among the righteous also means to be rooted, to be deep, to sink our legs deep into the life-giving streams flowing from the throne of God. The water of life. Streams of mercy. Justice rolling like a river.

To live in the way of righteousness means God calls us forward, but also grows us deeper, deeper, deeper into God’s love.

The metaphors are mixed, but maybe this is what it means to live among the righteous. We are mixed metaphors. We are walking trees. We are stationary pilgrims. Traveling without moving. Roots sinking deeper into the soft soil as we follow God down the road. Maybe this is what it means to live among God’s people. Moving forward but growing deep.

My hunch is that if you’re like me, we often live as travelers. Pushing on down the road ahead. Always wondering what is just beyond the horizon. Wondering what God’s plan for us might be in the future. What’s next? Where are we going? What’s after this? But perhaps we get so busy sometimes, so caught up in the passing of time, that we fail to live also as trees. To be still. To meditate on God’s Word. To drink deeply from the life giving waters of God as they swish and swirl around our roots. To grow deeper into God.

My hope for us all as we begin the semester, is that we do not get so caught up in the forward momentum of life that we fail to let God grow us deep. Don’t become such a pilgrim that you fail also to be a tree. My hope for us all is that we do not get swept up into life on the road so much that we fail to let God’s streams of mercy sweep around us. My hope for us all is that as God leads us forward, God also grows us deeper. Deeper in God’s way of self-sacrificing love. Deeper into each other.

In the final book of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, The Last Battle, at the end of the world, all the characters “pass on” from the Old Narnia to the True Narnia. As the children and the creatures and talking animals of Narnia are met with the endless expanse of True Narnia – like a vision of heaven – so real, so green, so fresh it makes their old life seem like a dream. At the end of all things, Aslan, the Lion-King, calls out to those following him, and says, “Come further in! Come further up!”

Further up and further in. This is the way of the righteous. Walking trees. Stationary pilgrims. May God lead us forward. May God grow us deep.

Facing the Fray: A Head’s Up for Kingdom Workers

by   |  09.05.11  |  Uncategorized

Enjoy these thoughts from Kent Smith, who teaches missions (especially for North America) here at ACU.

The most vibrant, powerful and downright enjoyable people I know are those who are proactively engaged in God’s life and work. I’ve had the opportunity this summer to spend time with a number of these people across North America. But the challenges such people face often come without warning and go without telling.

And the challenges need to be told. To avoid being blindsided, I think it’s important to name the normal opposition that comes—sooner or later—to everyone engaged in significant Kingdom initiatives. If you are actively paying attention to what God is up to, and purposely joining God in that work, you can expect to be opposed.

The opposition comes in many forms. Some of the most difficult to face is internal—temptations, irrational fears and baseless bouts of depression. From long experience I know that whenever I am engaged in work that promises new Kingdom advancement, sleepless stretches in the middle of the night lie ahead. During those times I am made to witness vivid scenes of coming disaster and my inadequacy for the job.

If that were not enough, we often face daunting external opposition. People bail on us or openly resist and criticize our work. Carefully constructed plans go awry, things break without warning, even our bodies seem to betray us. At times it feels that, despite our best effort, we are accelerating away from where we hoped to go.

Though we shouldn’t be surprised by all this, it seems that often we are—and discouraged to the point of giving up. That, of course, is precisely the point of all this assault.

And make no mistake. Assault is what it is. The Opposition to God has a well-proven plan for taking you out of play: Distract—Discourage—Disable.  If the Enemy through opposition can redirect your attention from our good, strong and loving God and onto the problems and threats, you will be distracted. The longer you remain distracted, the more discouraged you will grow. At some point you will give up and be disabled for the work. This is standard tactics in the Enemy’s Kill, Steal and Destroy campaign.

The apostle Paul, no stranger to the worst opposition, saw the challenge differently:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day.  For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison—because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.   (1 Cor. 4:16-18)

Two thoughts stand out to me here.  The renewal we need in our corrosive world is day by day.  It is daily.  The inner perspective to carry on in the call of God is sustained in a relentless commitment to receive daily renewal. And—the key to that renewal lies in where we are looking. If our attention is riveted on the Eternal, attempts to distract us with the temporary will find little footing.

Can this really be done? Yes. Expect opposition—but refuse to let it distract you. Instead, face opposition by turning your daily attention to eternal truth, eternal community, to eternal God.  From that place you will see with growing clarity the forces aligned against you for the light, momentary distractions they are.

People who are learning this discover a key to lives of joy—not just in the absence of challenge—but in the face of it.

Spirituality for Religious People: Old Testament Perspectives

by   |  07.12.11  |  Uncategorized

Here are some thoughts on spirituality in the Old Testament, which I take to be spirituality for those of us who don’t make good mystics but would like to make good Christians.  This is from a talk given a few months ago to our faculty.  I’d welcome your comments.  (Mark Hamilton)

How do we speak of spiritual formation in the Old Testament?  It is much like talking about the wetness of water or the automobileness of Bugatti.  It seems redundant.  After all, the Old Testament is full of prayers, wise sayings, stories of exemplars and antiheroes, in short, of all the raw materials of a grammar of assent to the presence of God.  Still, if I must try to say something about all this in a few moments, the best and most obvious place to begin would be the Psalter, that magnificent collection of 150 laments, hymns, wisdom meditations, and so on scanning the spectrum of human emotions from anger to zaniness – or if not that, then at least delirious joy.  In these ancient songs, we see shiny bits and pieces of the human encounter with God, all of them merging together in a gorgeous mosaic of faith.

And what a faith!  The basic conviction of the Psalter, and indeed of all biblical faith, is that the race before us is not too long, nor the foes besetting us too fearsome, nor our own strength too small that we cannot finish with success.  Evil does not win, despite all appearances.  This is so because we tread the path laid out by the one who accompanies us through the valley of gloom, the God who created the cosmos and from time to time shakes it up a bit so as to leave Mount Zion secure and its citizens confident.

Perhaps a way to begin to understand the Psalms’ sense of the presence of God is to notice how the various psalms themselves begin.  It is never, of course, easy to begin a poem.  The only things harder than the beginning are the middle and the end!  I am often glad that I have been given a way to start prayers “Dear God” or “Our Father in Heaven” so that I didn’t have to think of one.

The beginnings of the various psalms say something about their spirituality: “blessed is the one”; “Why do the heathen rage?”; “Oh Lord, how numerous are my enemies!”; “when I call, answer me”; “Hear my utterances O Lord”; “O Lord, in your anger do not rebuke me”; “O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the land”; “I will praise the Lord with my whole heart”; “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?”  Those are the first ten entry points.  We could go on: “O Lord, I called you; notice me”; “I cry with my voice to the Lord”; “O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my petition”; “blessed be the Lord my rock”; “I shall exalt you, my God the King”; “Oh my soul, praise the Lord”; “for it is good to praise our God”; “praise the Lord from the heavens”; “sing to the Lord a new song”; and “Praise God in his sanctuary.”  Those are the last ten.  In between the Psalter moves those praying it from the desolation of life seemingly without God to ecstasy – all without escapism or sentimentalism or the life-denying pseudo-piety that so often passes for spirituality in our own time.  The Psalms are a nonsense-free zone.

But they can look life squarely in the eye because they can see round the corner.  The beginning of an honest piety leads us not to despair or cynicism but to hope.  Consider just two examples.  The 46th psalm boldly opens with an appeal to “our God a refuge and strength in crisis, found strongly to be a help during distress” – or as the KJV puts it so eloquently, “a very present help in trouble.”  It then offers a way of whistling through the graveyard: “therefore we shall not fear when the earth quakes or the mountains shake in the heart of the seas.”  Why such confidence, if it is confidence?  Or perhaps better, what spiritual values would lead one to think that perhaps we could steel ourselves in the face of adversity by appealing to God?  The Psalmist answers the unspoken question with a warrant for such faith: “there is a river whose streams make God’s city rejoice, the holy dwellings of the Most High.  God is in its midst.  It will not be shaken.”  The old poetic idea that a river flows through the heavenly mountain of God gets transferred to Zion – where the only rivers exist in the imagination – so that it can be surpassed as a symbol by that to which the symbol points: God’s presence.  And how does the one praying know when God is present, other than the gorgeous words sung by a believing community?  The psalmist answers “Go – masculine plural – observe the wonders of the Lord where he has done shocking things in the earth, stopping wars to the ends of the earth, snapping the bow and shattering the spear, torching carts.”  What evidence is there that God is present?  We can answer that in one word – peace.

The spirituality of the Psalms thus does not land in the calmness of the individual human soul, but in the trust of a community seeking the end of adversity, not just for itself, but for the “ends of the earth.”  The Psalms of the sons of Korah, of which this is one, long for a resolution of conflict, a worldwide calmness and condition of human wholeness.  Thus we read in another one from after the Exile, Psalm 85,

Oh Lord, you have rescued your land, you have reversed the reversals of Jacob.

You have removed the iniquity of your people; you have covered all their sins.

It then makes a most interesting move.  It says, “Return us O God of our salvation.”  Which is it?  Has God returned us, or must that occur sometime in the future?  Or perhaps the juxtaposition of time here – past and future – highlights a present, and indeed abiding reality.  In all new situations, we continue to need God’s help because we are in danger.

Now you might criticize the psalm’s understanding of the world, and any good modern person would raise questions.  Doesn’t the spirituality of dependence diminish the autonomy and integrity of the human person?  Isn’t it a form of escapism masquerading as piety, or even worse, a method for evading accountable action in the real world?  The answer, I think, is no.  No because claims of human perfectibility lack supporting evidence from our experience or history.  No because the peace sought in the Psalms never comes without a prior commitment to justice.  No because the dream of God’s presence does not repeal human dignity but rather consummates it.  Thus the psalm continues a few lines later:

How near is his rescue to those in awe of him, for his glory to dwell in our land.

Mercy and trustworthiness meet, justice and peace kiss.

Trustworthiness springs up from the ground, and justice bends down from heaven.

Yes, the Lord gives what is good, and our land gives its produce.

Justice goes forth before him and plants its footsteps on the trail.

The dream of this psalm, and of all the psalms, is not mere personal fulfillment.  Our spirituality does not consist of warm moments of personal satisfaction or the comfort of those who love us or a sense that all we do is right.  After all such things do the pagans seek.

Beginnings and endings and middles thus give us clues to the spirituality of the Psalms.  The vision of the individual praying with a community of people united across the barriers of time and space by a commitment to the creator and judge of the universe surely compels us.  But there is one more feature of the spirituality of the Psalms and the Old Testament that we must address.  It is not a quiet, passive, sweetness-and-light approach to God.  Sometimes quarrels break out between God and Israel.  Sometimes prophets persuade God to change God’s mind.  The praying community as a whole speaks openly of God’s absence and on occasion of God’s unreliability.  Sometimes God’s presence is experienced as anger, which was the ancient way of describing God’s radical commitment to the right.  (There are things about which we should be angry!)  Interpreters of these texts have long struggled with how to make sense of such ideas – Philo of Alexandria already worried about them – because they seem to be too dynamic and “hot” – the wire is a bit too live.

So what should we do with such a querulous and argumentative spirituality?  The Psalms, like the entire Bible in fact, express the deepest human longings so fittingly that it makes sense to introduce them not merely as our words but in some sense, God’s.  Our longing for God and thus for each other mirrors God’s creative work in the cosmos, which seems to express God’s movement toward beauty, radical variety, and fruitfulness.  Such goals cannot be reached by timid, Hummel-figurine, weak tea and vanilla cookie sorts of prayers.  God is not so distant or threatening or, alternatively, given to cheap grace that we must resort to platitudes and clichés in our approach.  We need not hide or pretend or pile up approved words and phrases because the spirituality displayed in the Old Testament does not confine its horizon to the human mind or even human society.  Rather, it opens the door to a vision of the world in which, despite our questioning or perhaps because of it, we ask with childlike eagerness, in the words of the hymn: “All things praise thee.  Lord, may we?”