Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Problem of History

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”-- George Santayana

Symbols are powerful and it is often difficult to separate them from the meanings originally attached to them. We find ourselves in the midst of great discussion about what we should do with the past, especially how we should handle symbols identified with particular causes.  If we continue to display them, are we espousing the same causes or are we simply acknowledging their role at a particular time in history?

How do we deal with historical figures?  They also become symbols rather than people.  Are they one dimensional figures defined by a certain set of actions or are they multi-faceted, flawed human beings who struggled to find clarity in the midst of turbulence?

I am a son of the South.  In grade school, we were always reminded that the conflict of 1861-1865 was not “the Civil War” but the “War Between the States.”  We observed Confederate Memorial Day.  When I went to college, the Confederate Battle Flag was part of our college’s identity.  Our mascot was none other than General Nathan Bedford Forrest and our ROTC drill team was the Southern Generals.

In college, after dropping another major, I studied history.  I have always been fascinated by the people and events of the past.  Through my college studies, I began to deal with the social, political, and economic implications of historical events.  I also learned that there is no such thing as an objective study of history—it is always colored by one’s perspectives, presuppositions, and prejudices.  History can be a very subjective discipline.

Historical figures are often interpreted in light of what the writer or speaker wants to prove.  Was John Brown a terrorist or a freedom fighter?  Was Robert E. Lee a man of honor or a traitor?  Was Forrest a brilliant strategist or a murderous racist?  At this point, we have no way of knowing the mind and motivations of any of these men, so we provide our own interpretation.

When Rita and I visited New Orleans recently, we visited the Cabildo, a museum adjacent to St. Louis Cathedral with a permanent exhibit on the Battle of New Orleans (1814-1815).  A good bit of space is devoted to privateer Jean Lafitte who supported the American forces under General Andrew Jackson in the battle.  Although many present Lafitte as a hero of the battle and he is even depicted in one large wall-sized painting of the conflict, there is no proof that he was even there.  This fact has not stood in the way of novelists and movie makers who have elevated him above Jackson in determining the outcome of the conflict.

As Christians, we argue that Christianity is an historical religion but our understanding is refracted through the lens of faith.  We gloss over the atrocities committed by professed Christians in the past and dismiss them as aberrations.  Many native peoples have suffered in order to assure their “conversion” to the faith because some group felt that they would be “better off” as Christians.

Perhaps my argument here is that very often the persons, events and symbols of the past become fodder for those with creative imaginations to support their own cause.  We are selective in the events we use and the accounts we embrace as authentic.  The reality is rarely as noble and clear-cut as we would like.

My own perspective about the Civil War (or War Between the States, if you wish) is that I honor those brave men and women on both sides—both black and white—who saw their duty and accepted their responsibilities.  In any war, soldiers rarely fight for great causes.  They fight to defend their families, their homes, and their comrades.  We can interpret the conflict however we wish, but we must always remember that when one person raises a hand in anger to another, no one really wins.

On this July the Fourth, I acknowledge the blessing of being an American citizen.  Although the U.S. government usurped the land of my Native American ancestors and some of my forebears undoubtedly supported the Confederacy, the only country I have promised to defend, supported with my service, and pledged my allegiance to is the United States of America.  Getting to this point as a nation has been a long and tortured path.  Many have made personal sacrifices to get us to where we are today.  Mistakes have certainly been made but by acknowledging them, we become stronger.  Let’s not be too quick to take a simplistic approach to our history.  It is much more complex than we like to admit.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Moving of the Spirit in Theological Education

Yesterday I taught a summer class on coaching and co-facilitated two peer groups of seminary students without leaving my home office.  Using online technology and the telephone, I was able to pursue my work as an adjunct professor for Central Baptist Theological Seminary.  Increasingly, this is the face of theological education in the early 21st century.  How did we get here?

First, God calls. God continues to call out women and men as ministers.  This call comes at the most unexpected times to the most surprised people.  The subject of the call may be a businessman in his fifties, a single mother in her thirties, or a professional nurse in her forties. God calls people of all races and ethnicities.  Certainly God continues to call young men and women to the ministry but not every person who receives the call is right out of college.  God is funny that way.

Second, life happens.  Even those who have been called to the ministry have lives beyond the church.  They are wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, and employees and employers.  They have families to support and nurture, jobs to do in order to provide financially for themselves and others, and churches to serve.  Very often those who are called to ministry later in life are firmly involved in their communities and their churches.  Relocating to pursue seminary education is often not only difficult but impossible.

Third, churches need leaders.  One can minister in a congregation without a theological education, but one can be a better minister with a theological education.  Seminary is about studying the Bible, theology, and church history, but it is also about formation—understanding with increase clarity the call of God, learning skills to serve God’s people, and broadening one’s vision for Kingdom work.  Can a minister lead a congregation without a seminary degree?  Of course. Will that person be a better minister with seminary study?  Yes, without a doubt.

Fourth, money is tight.  Seminary education, like any quality education, is not cheap.  Denominations do not provide as much support to seminaries as they did in the past because the financial gifts they receive from churches have declined.  Churches don’t provide direct support to seminaries because they have other things to deal with—increased insurance for staff, building repairs, and local ministries.  Big donors are few and far between.  The competition to obtain grants from foundations is intense.

What does all this mean?  God is still calling people to ministry and churches need leaders.  At the same time, the traditional forms of providing theological education must change to meet the realities of individual lifestyles without sacrificing quality.  What’s the answer?

Theological institutions like Central Baptist Theological Seminary are taking the initiative to address these concerns.  Several years ago, Central began offering courses in satellite centers and online.  More recently, the seminary began classes for Korean students in several locations as well as short-term theological training for Burmese immigrants. This past year, a Women’s Leadership Cohort was launched in Nashville to empower women to “break the stained glass ceiling.”   In the fall of 2015, Central will launch a new Master of Divinity degree program this will be highly accessible, competency-based, and entrepreneurial.

This is the future of theological education—providing quality education and formation in creative and innovative ways to those God calls.  The Spirit moves where the Spirit wishes and we are invited to come along on the ride.  Those who train ministers are beginning to understand the commitment and flexibility that journey requires.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Finding Life Elsewhere

Last Saturday night was my first in-person experience with a professional soccer match.  I was not disappointed.  Tied 0-0 with the Seattle Sounders at the 83 minute mark, Sporting KC scored on a penalty and went on to win the game 1-0.  We were right behind the goal when the point was scored.  During the game, it was announced that there was a record attendance that night.  The atmosphere was family friendly and welcoming.  I will be back!

I was reflecting on this experience on Sunday and thinking about church participation.  The church I attended on Sunday morning was not packed with people and the atmosphere was—well--worshipful.  This contrast often leads commentators to talk about decline of churches, denominations, and organized religion in general.  If we were doing the right thing, more people would attend our services.  Let’s not compare apples and oranges.  Certainly we do not often find the kind of enthusiasm and participation in organized religion that we find at concerts, sporting contests, and other mass events; however, I attend a mass event in a stadium with far different expectations than I take to a worshipping community. 

This does not mean that churches cannot and should not change, but if we are just trying to make the church bigger, louder, and more enthusiastic, our criteria are misplaced. 

In a recent blog, Tom Ehrich wrote:

“Much of the ‘dying’ we worry about [in the church] is the normal passing away of structures and ideas that no longer convey meaning. The big downtown church isn’t empty because church leaders failed or people were unappreciative. It’s empty because people are finding life elsewhere.”

Ehrich suggests that rather than dying, we may well see manifestations of the church in new ways that meet people where they actually are rather than where we wish that they were.  He goes on to write about possible “faith communities” that would be characterized by action, drawing closer to God, living simply, and powered by true enthusiasm (“possessed by God”).

People go where they are challenged, where they are welcomed, and where they find life.  This does not call Christians to accommodate themselves to the marketplace but to become servants to the world.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Return on Investment

“What’s in it for me?” is a question asked in business.  What is the return on investment?  Although it may not be verbalized, people in the church often ask the same question.  Whenever we engage in ministry with the marginalized, step outside the doors of the church or offer help to the impoverished, or take off to some other part of the country or world to serve, someone is thinking, “What’s in it for us?”

One answer can be found in one of my favorite passages in the Book of Acts.  The church at Antioch is doing well. God is blessing.  People of varying ethnic and social backgrounds are responding to the Gospel, they are involved in spirited worship of God, and they are impacting their community.  In Acts 13, we read these words.

“Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul.  While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’  Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. “(NRSV)

The Spirit always seems to step in and shake things up when everything is going well.  Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were key leaders in the church.  They were making a difference in the community.  Suddenly, the Holy Spirit comes along and upsets things by calling these two men to a mission (and we are not even sure that they or the church knew exactly what that mission was!).

There are many amazing aspects to this account but one that speaks to us is that no one in the church seemed to object.  What was the church at Antioch going to get out of it?  Nothing.  They weren’t going to get any new church members and someone else would have to step in and fill the vacuum left by Barnabas and Saul.  

Although the church would not see immediate results of this action, what they did by setting aside these two leaders for mission made a difference for the Kingdom of God.  The Gospel would be taken into new geographic areas, Saul would emerge as the “apostle to the Gentiles,” and Barnabas would find new leaders to mentor.  The church at Antioch would hear reports of their work and would rejoice over the spread of the Gospel.  Did this make an impact in Antioch?  The impact was seeing how big God’s plan but how they could be part of it by blessing others.

Don’t miss a blessing.  When God opens the door, walk through.