A Public Theologian: 10 Years Since Seminary Graduation

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Graduation Day 2005 the little guy is no other than our Andrew Seth

It has been so much fun watching all the graduation excitement. I am blessed to have a number of sojourners this year that are graduating from my alma mater, Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, GA. Following their journey there has been filled with joy. There is something about a community’s ethos, rhythms, and ways of life together that does not change throughout time. As I watched the newsfeeds on facebook, the quotes, the pictures, the stories. It reminded me of my own graduation 10 years ago.

I have to say it’s really hard to believe that it has been that long!

It seems like the other day that I was immersed in that community of learning, struggle, and growth. Talking theology, complaining about the church, and dreaming dreams for my own contribution in the future. The rhythms of worship, prayer, study, and life together strengthened our souls in ways that I did not recognize at the time. It was a time to get to know who I was, to meet God again and to learn about my role in the community of faith. Class by class, conversation by conversation, paper by paper, text by text I was being shaped into a public theologian. A “god talker” for the common good.

More importantly I was being shaped into a gatherer of people on behalf of God’s kingdom. These gathered people could indeed make a difference in a neighborhood, city, nation, and world. My role was to be a truth teller, story sharer and ritual leader. At each of those moments pointing toward the larger and mysterious reality that is God in the world. In some real ways 10 years later I miss that community. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t miss the papers, the deadlines, nor the mac and cheese or ramen noodles. I guess I miss the community that we rehearsed week after week.

For 10 years now I have been attempting to live into the theologian-pastor I have been shaped into. At each stop, I’ve learned something new about God, God’s people, and my own human condition. Each community has shaped me into a more deeply rooted pastor. But also each community has made me dig deeper into the well that was dug long ago through the halls of Bishop’s Hall.

On graduation day 2005 I had no idea what my sojourn would bring. No idea that my faith would be tested, my theological understanding stretched, my perseverance developed. No idea that 10 years later I would be more thankful for the foundation received by professors, mentors, and most importantly by my friends!

The study of God is still needed in the world today. We must continue to shape pastoral leaders into faithful public theologians. Into a people who are connecting the great story of faith to our continued shared work towards the common good, towards human flourishing. Continue to shape pastoral leaders into a kingdom imagination, into a healthy use of power and authority, into a call for God’s people to be peace-makers (makers of shalom) in for the life of the world.

I keep on going to the deep well that was dug long ago . . . I keep on reading, preaching, conversing, making space, and saying prayers. When the difficulties of pastoral life arise I remind myself that there has been a long line of faithful servants that have gone before me and have faithfully led God’s people. When things are going well I ask myself if maybe I should be more courageous, bolder if I’m really calling God’s people to our God-call in our city?

Most of the time though is spent living alongside God’s people constantly being reminded to stay close to the well that is theology and allow the Holy Spirit to sanctify my meager attempts to talk about God, to share good news, and to lead God’s people faithfully: a practiced, public, pastoral, theology.
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Coming Soon: Ten Years as a Pastor: What I Wish the Very Young Man in the Picture Would Know

Holy Saturday

"One Afternoon In January" by Nick Kenrick CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“One Afternoon In January”
by Nick Kenrick CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I often think about the disciples on Holy Saturday. I see them heartbroken, confused, and defeated. They had heard Jesus say that he would be resurrected but now that promise seemed like false hope and empty naiveté. Their savior changed them, helped them see a new way, but now it seems like that’s all that this savior would do. Now he is dead and Rome is suspicious of those who gathered around Jesus, so the best chance to survive and not suffer Jesus’ fate is to go back to life as they knew it before.

For those of us who know the end of the story it is easy to hold the tension of Holy Saturday. We are getting prepared for Easter. Cooking, getting outfits ready, and those of us who are pastors might be practicing the Easter sermon. But today over two thousand years ago, followers of Jesus did not know, the world did not know, creation longing, aching for salvation yet salvation now seemed farther away than ever. Sin’s winter attempting a hostile takeover over spring!

We too go back to our old ways. Maybe we have tried to start again so many times that we feel defeated, maybe life has thrown a few twists that we did not expect, maybe we are just tired of trying again.

This Holy Saturday hold still . . . look around . . . know that there are many who get it, who have been hopeless, who are afraid, who think that maybe all these years of following Jesus have been for naught, who now think that their savior was a sham.

This Holy Saturday hold still . . . look around . . . creation too is longing with you! Pay attention for morning is coming . . .

The Energy is Gone: A Good Friday Reflection

Adapted from “Agnus Dei” by Roley van Loenen CC BY-NC 2.0

“The Altar should be completely bare, without cloths, candles, or cross.”
Good Friday rubric from the Roman Missal

There is a tradition for Holy Thursday called the “stripping of the altar,” where as a last sign-act of preparation for Good Friday all decorations are removed from the sanctuary. For those of us who have participated in such a solemn action it is truly life changing, the beauty of purple paraments, candles, crosses, bibles, banners, and plants now being replaced with nothing. The bareness of the space in itself a sign-act of the agony that we are about to rehearse. The beauty and pomp of Palm Sunday now history, the energy of the ministry of Jesus only a memory, now replaced by the possibility of sin and death having the last say.

What do we do when the energy is gone?

I’ve been wondering that too. What happens when the excitement is no longer present, when the Spirit no longer seems to be moving, when coldness, struggle, and brokenness settles in?

Our tendency is to move on to the next place where energy is found. We do this in our relationships, in our jobs, in our hobbies, so it should not surprise us that we have the same reaction in church. I guess we tend to believe that it is about geography, that if we just change spaces or places that we will find that which we are longing for, the next fix, buzz, the next spiritual high.

Good Friday stops us in our tracks! It forces us to recognize that the brokenness, dryness, and our tendency to cut and run are rooted in sin and death. In the human tendency to make life about us, not recognizing our beloved-ness, and our unwillingness to live in covenant with others.

In order to find new life, to find redemption, we must be willing to live through those times when the energy is not there, when the euphoria is gone, when our mortality comes knocking. It turns out that it is during those moments that God can be most present in our lives for it is in those moments that we are most aware of our desperate need for divine grace.

The story of our faith is filled with the ups and downs of the human condition. Let us not be afraid to settle into the stillness of these moments, let us hear the still small voice, the outstretched arms for the life of the world. Always remembering that salvation is near!

Maundy Thursday

"River God Tyne" from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

“River God Tyne”
from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

34 So I give you a new command: Love each other deeply and fully. Remember the ways that I have loved you, and demonstrate your love for others in those same ways.35 Everyone will know you as My followers if you demonstrate your love to others.

John 13:34-35, The Voice Bible

“Mandatum novum,” a new commandment, a simple commandment, to love. In case we need a reminder the apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is not: envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, insist in its own way, irritable, resentful, and it does not rejoice in wrongdoing. Instead love is patient, kind, rejoices in truth, bears, believes, and endures all things. This is the new commandment that we have been given.

In case we needed a sign act for how this commandment was to be lived out Jesus gave us one:

And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.

John 13:2b-4, NRSV

During the meal of thanksgiving, the meal that we are to partake as often as we gather, the meal where we meet Jesus, he chose to show us the way. To remove all of our pride, masks, pretenses, and security and take the form of a servant to all. The way of love is the way of humility before others, and I would say especially those that are not easy to love.

It is this sign-act that begins what the church has traditionally called the Triduum (The Three Days). These three days walk the faith community through a string of commemorations that begin with the service of Maundy Thursday at sundown today and end with the first service of Easter which traditionally has been the Easter Vigil.

At its cornerstone today reminds us of the reason why Jesus came, died, and rose again. So that we would know we are loved, so that we become the way of love in the world. The message of these days is still needed today. We often find ourselves immersed in sin and death out of our hunger to be loved. The world is filled with violence, hatred, war, and domination because it does not live the way of love. Instead so often that which the apostle Paul described as “love is not” is the human experience for so many.

One of the current conversations in our national life is around religious freedom. How do we live together in a growingly diverse community? How do we worship, live our discipleship in the world, and make a living as well as make a life? How are Christian people to behave when confronted with the other whom they disagree with in the marketplace?

We take off our outer garments, wrap a towel around our waist, and wash the feet of all that come our way. We don’t turn anyone away, we don’t become coercive with our political power, we don’t boast, become arrogant, or rude. We don’t insist on our own way . . . we follow Jesus’ new commandment.

May this Triduum birth new life in you . . .

Holy Wednesday

"Jesus, Judas, and the Others" from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

“Jesus, Judas, and the Others”
from Art in the Christian Tradition a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

21 Jesus was becoming visibly distressed.
Jesus: I tell you the truth: one of you will betray Me.

John 13:21, The Voice Bible

I’m sure by now we are ready for the feasting. Enough with sacrifice, visions of death, and endings! We get it, we are ready, let’s go to resurrection!

Then as we gather we recognize that it is not so simple. That there is still much work ahead, still decisions to make, and stories to tell. We must face some realities before we are truly ready to experience new life. Among the toughest of those realities is our tendency to betray.

We betray ourselves, each other, and God often. We, with our own agendas, we with our figured out religion, we with our righteous indignation, we betray. We do it out of our own brokenness, our own insecurities and our own fears. Our of our sinful tendency to want to make God’s kingdom in our own image, where we get to choose who is in and who is out, where we get to place ourselves in the forefront, at the right hand.

On this Holy Wednesday we are asked to wait a bit longer. To examine our hearts and life and see how we are agents of betrayal for ourselves, others, and God. How time and time again we fail to love like God loves, to serve like Christ serves, to sacrifice like Christ sacrificed, to die to self like Christ did . . . we must get ready, for a last meal is around the corner, death imminent, despair around the corner, the ingredients of hope, of new life, coming together!

“Move us from the grip of that deathly squeeze,
move by your innocence,
move by your weakness,
move by your passion.”

Walter Brueggemann
in  Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth (156)