Interlude

Being a travel writer sounds like good fun. Go to exciting places and meet interesting people. Find out all sorts of new customs and try out flavors of foods you’ve never even heard of before.  Write about the exotic experiences to others, highlighting the good, maybe mentioning only a sliver of the negative.

It’s interesting that when we want to watch shows or read books about exciting destinations we tend to turn to expert travelers. It’s the residents who know more about a place. They’ve dwelled in its history, know the neighborhoods to visit and the neighborhoods to avoid.  But, they know it so well, that it is easy for them to get bogged down in description.  We want a quick overview, after all. What can we see in a day and where’s a good place for dinner.

Writing about theology has the same problem.  There are a lot of tour guides out there.  Offering a quick trip through various doctrines or topics. And there are a number of residents, who have lived a long time in the world of theology, providing an in-depth study of the history of a particular corner, but not really speaking a language most people can understand.

That’s the tension I’m feeling.  Give too quick of an overview of the various models–the “cities”–of theological education and I risk oversimplification. Say too much and I get bogged down without ever getting to my main goal in these musings.  It’s like being on a road trip and getting distracting by the sights along the way rather than getting to the destination.

But, to get somewhere you have to go through other places.  My hope in not just describing the models but sharing a bit about my own story with them was intended to give some brief depth. I’ve spent time in most of these “cities” (except Geneva) and so I’ve gone beyond the superficial and know what each place is like in different seasons.

On a personal note, I’m using this blog as a way of sketching out ideas and exploring themes.  Some have bemoaned blogs for their tendency to encourage unedited publishing.  That’s certainly a danger. My writing can certainly use editing. Yet, blogs have an immediacy that makes them useful, hopefully even a conversational encouragement.  Blogs aren’t a fully formed systematic theology. They’re much more like Table Talk, where the table can be as wide as the whole world.

I’m also trying to practice writing.  One of my goals is to get back into a more fluid, even conversational, style.  And that takes practice.  For instance, one of my problems in writing, speaking, and teaching is that I spend too much time on prefaces before getting to my main point. This post originally was intended to be my discussion of the “cities” of Azusa and Skete. But then I wrote a preface that’s too long.  Now the preface is its own post and doesn’t nearly as crowded.

I like places with less crowds.  My writing should have less crowds too.

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Live Your Creed

I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one any day.
I’d rather one walk with me than just to show the way.
The eye is a better pupil and more willing than the ear.
Advice may be misleading but examples are always clear.
And the very best of teachers are the ones who live their creed,
For to see good put into action is what everybody needs.
I can soon learn to do it if you let me see it done.
I can watch your hand in motion but your tongue too fast may run
And the lectures you deliver may be very fine and true
But I’d rather get my lesson by observing what you do.
For I may misunderstand you and the fine advice you give
But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.

by Langston Hughes

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“Confession is not about receiving a lesser sentence in some kind of cosmic documentation of rights and wrongs but is rather about becoming healthy. Confession is about acknowledging sin to work toward healing it.” A student in my summer class nicely sums up one of the core practices of worship we discussed.

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Jerusalem and Geneva

My formal theological education in theology began in Athens and carried on in Berlin. Not the actual cities, the framework cities of theological pedagogy. Wheaton, with its highly intentional integration of faith and learning in a liberal arts setting, sought to form the whole person. In looking back, the model of the ideal Christian was itself of a certain sort. If you fit into this mold, Wheaton was a place to thrive. If you didn’t, well, Wheaton was a place of shaping and sharpening, if not thriving. I never felt at home at Wheaton the place, even if I took as advantage of the intellectual offerings as much as possible. I found important mentors, though in my books not in person. I felt spiritual deepened and spiritual emptied in successive waves. Then instead of law school I went to Fuller, where the Berlin model was emphasized. But southern California was home, and I had my family, friends, my home church to provide a measure of grounding and community. But when church dysfunction started slashing and burning my ecclesial life, and continued life issues tugged at me from almost every direction, I didn’t have the resources to navigate my frustrations or my successes. Neither Athens nor Berlin were particularly contextualized for me, shaping and forming, but in general ways that didn’t give me a continued map in my calling.

These aren’t the only cities in a theology of theological education. Scholars have added a few more stops on this journey.

In a 2005 article titled “The Theology of Theological Education,” Brian Edgar adds Geneva as a model. In “Geneva,” theological training takes place in a confessional setting. Confessional means a context where a specific ecclesial tradition, liturgy, interpretation helps orient the seminary student in the life of this tradition. 50537Teaching involves including the student in a developed narrative, one filled with heroes, and conflicts, and priorities. As Edgar puts it, “Formation occurs through in-formation about the tradition and en-culturation within it.” The city of Geneva was the setting for Calvin’s great work and became a center for Reformed thought and practice. Life was not segmented into isolated fragments, rather every part of life was thought to be included in a new vision of ecclesial transformation. Edgar notes that theological education in Geneva is understood through contrasts. The context of theological education is a confessional seminary rather than a broader academic institution, where the training takes on the priorities and methods of this university. The goal in Geneva is for students to know God through the context of the confessional tradition. It is not about training the mind or the transformation of one’s own self. It may include these, but these are not the core values.

I can’t say that I’ve ever visited Geneva, either the real city or the theological model. My theological tradition is fairly diverse, rather than established in a set tradition. I consider myself a Wesleyan Pentecostal or a Pentecostal Wesleyan, as these form the bulk of my own ecclesial influences. My parents come from a Conservative Baptist background, Fundamentalist and Evangelical. It might even be said that my family religious tradition is emerging movements, as discontent with establishment leads towards embracing new patterns of devotion and community. We’re pioneers who made our way westward in geography and Christianity. I’m a Californian Theologian more than anything else, really.

In an American context, we can see the Geneva model expressed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. My family tradition has tended to play the part of Roger Williams in that story, valued participants who are either kicked out or happily leave for better soil. This family tendency really does resonate in my own life and thought, but I can’t imagine shaping a seminary after it. Of course, the fact that I’m very interested in exploring new models of theological education is likely driven by this in-formation and en-culturation.

A fourth city to consider is Jerusalem. Proposed by Robert Banks in his book Revisioning Theological Education, Jerusalem emphasizes a missional priority, where education takes place in the midst of outreach and praxis, seeing the reflection and expression going hand in hand in developed informed practitioners. While we had significant ministry opportunities at Wheaton, most were not embedded in a context, rather Wheaton was certainly more of a bubble (or rather a “citadel” as I’ll discuss in a later post). Fuller was much the same way for me. peter-preaching2Ministry was a secondary act, rather than a coordinating experience. That said, part of the tension I had with both Wheaton and Fuller was my own missional instincts. I am certainly not an evangelist, but I do have a drive to have an integration of my faith and life within the context of a community. My home church after high school had a very strong missional impetus, and I was radically shaped by the emerging/missional conversations that happened in the late nineties and then onward. Indeed, my dissertation, later book, argues for a transformative church that draws personal, communal, and contextual formation. That said, or maybe because of these experiences, I am not sure this is the best model for foundational theological and ministry training.

These settings are often very demanding and immediately pragmatic, about getting things done rather than developing as a whole person who can then contribute with discernment in a context. I know Banks doesn’t see this as necessarily the case, but in my experiences the busyness of missional life leaves integrated formation a distant goal. That is why so many missional communities tend to shine bright and burn out quickly, or have a high turnover rate, as people embrace but then wander elsewhere. Indeed, I’m not sure missional models are intended as theological formation. Paul the Apostle, for instance, was sent out as a missionary after spending many years in learning and reflection. Being grounded in an understanding of the faith and of one’s own self is key to persistence and deep transformation. We have to be grounded in order to not get co-opted by the many narratives of the context or established pragmatic patterns.

I have a couple more “cities” in my next post: The city of “Azusa,” as proposed by Jackie David Johns, and “Skete,” which is a city I’m adding to the list.

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Experiences in Theological Education I

I’ve been part of the Evangelical Christian world my whole life.  I grew up in a variety of sunday schools, children’s programs, student ministries.  I attended public schools from kindergarten through high school, so up through age 17, the church was my primary form of theological education.  My parents were both educated at fine Evangelical Christian institutions (my dad graduated from Wheaton, my mom graduated from Biola), so I had wonderful resources at home as well.  It wasn’t until I myself attended Wheaton that I entered into the institutional world of Christian education.

As I think about a theology of Christian education, I cannot help but think about my own experiences. I am not, after all, considering theological education purely from the standpoint of a teacher.  Before I started teaching, I had several decades of experience being taught, to varying degrees of success. In thinking about my experiences, I realize I’ve spent time living in each of the “cities” at various points.

For a great, succinct summary about the models of theological education see Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s article from a few years ago.  Really, for a great, succinct summary of almost any topic in Christian theology, see something he has written.

For now, I’ll offer just a brief recap and share about my time living in these cities.  David Kelsey got the framework started by using “Athens” and “Berlin.”  The Athens model reflects a classical approach exemplified in Greek education and later on was the model of the early church. The goal in “Athens” is to form character, to know God, to become a Christian in full–knowledge and practice.  This emphasizes personal development and spiritual formation.  Clement of Alexandria called a truly educated Christian a “gnostic,” one who truly knows, as he tried to redeem the term that had been co-opted by heretics.  The key is holistic learning.  Athens

From the first time I stepped onto Wheaton’s campus I was flooded with their emphasis on integrating faith and learning.  We had chapel three times a week, in which we would interupt the regular flow of campus life by sitting in our assigned seats and listening to great Christian leaders, Wheaton faculty, ministry teams.  I generally made full use of my allowed skips (I think we had 8 back in the day, but I can’t remember exactly), while even then valuing the opportunity for what it was. These chapels were inspirational, convicting, worshipful, community-building, and only very occasionally frustrating or numbing.  I generally got some coffee and a plain bagel from the STUPE on my way to chapel, so that likely helped.

We had a Pledge that mandated not doing certain activities.  It also encouraged doing other activities, but never with the same force.  There was strong peer encouragement to participate in a ministry, and even as this wasn’t required, most everyone I knew was involved in one or more teams.  Faith was integrated into every class, often passionately so, though never in ways that diminished the quality and depth of the teaching.  Wheaton had a lot of community activities, though I was not very connected. I had good friends (especially my junior and senior years), and yet I think back on Wheaton as characterized by radical loneliness.  God was shaping me, and that meant some radical deconstruction alongside intense learning in a broad liberal arts context.  Wheaton-Sign-Christ-and-his-Kingdom-Permission-300x200

That I was a very strong introvert and was dealing with untreated clinical depression (that was likely both neurochemical and related to current life issues), didn’t help my connection with others, but did seem to drive me deeper in Scripture, theology, and especially church history. I found counselors among the ancients and saints of the faith.  In almost every way, Wheaton was a profound time of transformation, and yet because I was so far from my roots, from what was a strong community back home in California, it wasn’t all good transformation.  I disconnected my spirituality from the experience of deep community and commitment.  God was certainly good even in my troubles–there are some truly good people I got to know there and I’m not sure I could find a better overall education–but I didn’t have guidance how to navigate the various hardships of my life and really finished quite a bit broken.

Which makes me see how holistic formation functions best in a context of committed community.  At home I had the committed community, but I didn’t have access to the depth of learning or exposure to the great teachings of the Church. I didn’t have guidance about how to truly integrate my faith, learning, and myself in a coherent way.  Wheaton was, as I look back, a white martyrdom, a giving up of what gave me security, what gave me comfort, what made sense (because it made very little sense that I would or could go to Wheaton for many reasons).  I was indeed crafted into a daily following of Christ that sustains me to this day.

Kelsey’s second model is “Berlin.”  This is the university model, especially in tersm of a research university. The goal here is learning and applying critical reasoning to categories of learning. It is a training of the intellect in accumulating and compiling information, an increasing pool of resources used to analyze and create understanding.  Such understanding then can be deployed in the professional tasks that require such learning. In theological education, this would be used in vocational ministry or academia.  Berlin

My MDiv studies very much reflected this model. Fuller Seminary was created as a new institution for Evangelicalism that emphasized critical learning and thinking.  The courses were structured to teach the essential categories of seminary education, namely Scripture, Church History, Theology, and Ministry. It was 144 quarter units of learning, about 3 classes per quarter.  There was a weekly chapel, but it was not mandatory.  As far as I can remember, there was little emphasis on prayer or personal spiritual formation. That’s not to say these were seen as irrelevant or unimportant. They were emphasized as vitally important! Just not seen as part of the course of formal study.

As a commuter student driving in from about 21 miles away, I very rarely attended chapel (they did not compare well to Wheaton chapels). While I had acquaintances and co-laborers, I did not develop deep friendships. There were some wan attempts at discussion groups, but these were stilted affairs, rigid and limited in scope.  Everyone attended classes for learning but then spiritual life was the role of the church. I did take an elective on Spiritual Disciplines at the end of my first year, which certainly did emphasis a more holistic approach, but it was indeed an elective. With generally very large class sizes, there was hardly any personal tutoring. I did make some key connections with Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, but the fruit of this did not really ripen until many years later.

I did learn a great deal.  I learned deeply of Scripture, the original languages, becoming pulled into systematic theology for the first time, finding resonance in church history, fuller-theological-seminarylearning about the vocation of ministry–how to preach, how to teach, how to respond to questions about faith struggles.  Unfortunately, this high quality of education was itself disconnected from my church experiences, which had varying levels of extreme dysfunction and success.  I was caught in the storm that is the church of our era, and I didn’t know how to navigate to a place of stillness and renewal.

Those are my experiences with the first two cities in the framework. I’ll save my discussion of the others for another post.

Before I go, though, it is worth noting that while Fuller was created firmly in the Berlin model and was still quite entrenched in this during my MDiv years, after my graduation it has gone through a shift.  There was a reduction of required credits for the MDiv, and it was mostly the core content classes that got cut or combined. Meanwhile there is now a set of four required classes with the title “integration studies” that bring together spiritual disciplines and pastoral/church practices.  These four classes respectively focus on calling, worship, community, and mission. They really do add a fair amount of holistic learning and reflection in the seminary process. Meaning that nowadays, theological education at Fuller might best be understood as “Budapest,” a city that is in between Athens and Berlin.

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Religion is everywhere.

People assume religion has something to do with having a deity. Not all religions have that. In teaching a world religions class, every so often I would start a class by asking what a religion is. At the beginning of the course there were a lot of opinions. By the end, after we had studied just 4-5 world religions, students were fairly flummoxed about finding an answer that would encompass every approach. There are even wide distinctions within a given religion about belief in deity or supernatural.

Mostly religion has to do with a conception of meaning and purpose for people. Religion is generally more anthropology than anything else.

What gives us identity? What fulfills us in our self? As a community? There are historic answers that are oriented in light of deep tradition. There are more contemporary answers that have more free-form, buffet quality. But how we answer that is still our “religion,” if we are to have anything other than a narrow, insular perspective on global religious life.

The various religions are, in fact, suggesting very different modes of being within the world, how to understand how we are being our true self and how reality is formed, and forming, around us.  Again, even within specific religions, answers can vary widely about what it means to be a real human, what values and priorities we should have, how we should understand and respond to those around us.  religions

This is a big reason why in each of the religions we studied, there’s always someone who says, “X isn’t a religion.” Those who are participating fully in a religion see their participation as encompassing their whole being.  Indeed, it’s a very narrow subset of Enlightenment assumptions that thought that religion only encompasses a small sphere of life, that it can be privatized at all.  In reality the only religion that can be truly privatized is that of a person in solitary confinement.

Everyone is oriented by some system of priorities and values and assumptions in which they can navigate their sense of self and progress in this sense of self.

This isn’t to say that religion is only anthropology, that there’s nothing of importance to the rest of the topics.  Indeed, Christianity grounds its anthropology in its understanding of a particular God who worked and works in particular ways within history–past, present, and future.

It is to say that coming up with an orienting philosophy doesn’t require a deity. We’re all oriented by some assumption of how the world is and how we fit in it.  Atheism isn’t a religion itself, but neither are atheists somehow absent a religion.  They just don’t have a god they believe in that is part of their orienting beliefs.  Neither do a good many Buddhists.

That’s the difficulty with many contemporary political and social discussions. There are distinctions made about religion that are themselves religious statements, often assuming a set definition about what gives a person meaning, how we should define ourselves and others, what part of our self is most important and what parts can be put into a box, private and hidden from view.

What does it mean to be truly ourselves? What should we pursue? What should we discipline or diminish? These are questions that frame religion in each person’s life, oriented by something or someone, though not always in coherent way.

Everyone has a religion.  Everyone has faith in some assumption, or idea, or goal, that that is what will bring satisfaction, giving them hope and purpose in their pursuit.

The question I ask isn’t whether someone is religious or not, but what their religion is. If it matches up with an established world religion, that sometimes makes understanding them a little bit easier but not always.  A fair amount of people speak one religion and live another.   And they don’t necessarily want this pointed out. A good many people have a vague amalgamation of goals, driven by separate systems in their life, many not at all cohesive.

Which is why prophets tend to have a difficult road. They are resisted by those who begin with different assumptions about humanity and the world. They are resisted by those who claim those assumptions but don’t particular want these to be their real orientation.

We’re all–well maybe almost all–most committed to justifying our own hypocrisies and pointing the finger elsewhere.  Avoiding blame has been a driving religious ideal throughout human history.

Where will our hope come from?

That’s the key religious question.  We. We’re in this together. Hope. Have a driving conception that things aren’t limited by our current experiences.

We hope. These are what makes us human, despite ourselves.

 

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Models of Seminary

I haven’t posted on my seminary musings for a while, but this doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned this topic. Indeed, as I’ve traveled, conferenced, worked on current classes and future courses, the theology of a seminary education has continued to burrow into my daily thoughts.  So much so that my problem isn’t as much what to say as it is where to start.

I’m tempted to jump into my own ideas about what a seminary education of the future should look like–and I do have some developing ideas–but that wouldn’t show any of the background to my thoughts nor the much wider conversations about a theology of seminary education. And as I’ve poked around the topic, I have found much of worth indeed.  So, in this post I’ll offer a brief summary of key themes and ideas I’ve encountered now in various directions.

First some key books. First is Between Athens and Berlin: the Theological Debate by David Kelsey.  In this book he offers two main types of theological education that exist in North America. The title of the book indicates his terminology. I’ll get to those more thoroughly in a little bit. Quickly, Athens is more concerned with personal formation and Berlin is more concerned with intellectual training.

Second, there is Reenvisioning Theological Education by Robert Banks.  In addition to the two suggested by Kelsey, Banks suggests “Jerusalem” as a third model. This model prioritizes a missional approach to theological education. It is worth noting that the first edition of Paul’s Idea of Community by Banks was a central text for me as a sophomore in college when I began to seriously wrestle with the purpose of the church. A number of theological impulses that later landed in my dissertation began with the research I did at that time and with this book in particular alongside Lesslie Newbigin’s works.

A third key resource is an article written by Brian Edgar titled, ” The Theology of Theological Education.” He summarizes the first three I mentioned and adds a fourth which he, following the pattern, calls “Geneva.” This model approaches theological education from a confessional standpoint, in which the student in taught initiated in a particular theological tradition, learning to live and teach within it.  Tradition is seen as the key avenue for knowing God, and so this model invites the student into the relationship with God and with the history of God’s particular work.

Here’s the helpful diagram Edgar uses in his article:
Theol_ed_diagramEach of these is helpful in different ways. That’s my struggle as I think about it.  And I continue to wrestle not only with these models but also how any such model might also be best established in a given context.  How do we approach these models in light of a global and connected world, where students may enter into seminary with different vocational goals, different theological traditions, different experiences and priorities of ministry?  Is it best for a particular seminary to specialize in one of these modes and leave other seminaries to carry the mission of the others?

And more particularly, I continue to wrestle with the way Fuller Seminary can best carry out its own mission, which does not fit neatly into any one of these categories while involving all of them. Here’s the current mission statement:

Fuller Theological Seminary, embracing the School of Theology, School of Psychology, and School of Intercultural Studies, is an evangelical, multidenominational, international, and multiethnic community dedicated to the equipping of men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his Church. Under the authority of Scripture we seek to fulfill our commitment to ministry through graduate education, professional development, and spiritual formation. In all of our activities, including instruction, nurture, worship, service, research, and publication, Fuller Theological Seminary strives for excellence in the service of Jesus Christ, under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father.

In reflecting on the context of Fuller in light of these models, I think about how best we can prioritize our time and resources to fulfill our mission. I am not an administrator at Fuller, I am a teacher, so my interest is more in those pragmatic directions.

A few things come to mind in light of this that contribute to my theological musings.

Theological education has to be relational, we are formed as persons in the context of a community.  It has to be transformational, otherwise why put in the time, effort, and money. This transformation should include the whole self, including the mind.  It has to be contextual, as students are not objects intended for a general setting but are formed in a context of a particular community located in a specific time and place. Without reflection on and from these contexts, the education will be unmoored and irrelevant.

We are participants in the Christian tradition called to help communicate and shape this tradition in light of current concerns and present struggles.  Becoming creative participants in this tradition is the only way we can balance the many strains placed on us from one side or another. We need to teach discernment and we need to teach engagement, both in light of Scripture, history, and current reality.

Does this mean picking one of the models and digging into it? Whether or not this is even possible, it still doesn’t help answer how any one or all of these models may best be applied in light of current technology and current cultural shifts. Which is why I’ll keep musing on a theology of seminary for a while longer.

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On Being a Theologian

It’s always a little uncomfortable when people I don’t know well ask me what I do for a living.

“I teach for Fuller Seminary,” I say.

“Oh? What do you teach,” they invariably respond.

“Theology and Church history,” I reply, not wanting to add the various other topics I teach to the list. Those sum up my specialties.

“…,” they generally respond, at least for an extended moment.

I’ve learned to expect this uncomfortable moment and that gives me pause in my responses. Which isn’t right, I know. I should be bold and confident in responding about what is both my vocation and my calling.

“Why I teach theology and church history!” I should say with expectant respect.

Yet, I know that when I give my answer about what I do most people don’t know what to say in response. I have a bit of an alienating job title when it comes to small talk.  Which is problematic because I have a fair bit of trouble with small talk to begin with.

I really could use a job title with a conversational hook, like my teacher friends whose jobs involve relatable subjects and relatable experiences with kids and learning.  Or my friend who works for the Grammys.  “Who have you worked with?” “What are they like in person?” Or a friend who leads art classes at wineries. Now that’s a job that can go all sorts of different conversational directions.  So many more come to mind.  Jobs that bring conversation with them.

theologianI teach theology. People don’t seem to know what to say about that.

I am, to be even more bold, a theologian.

I confess being insecure about using that title.  But what else should I call my job? I do, in fact, read about, write about, and teach theology.  Even still, I’m uncomfortable about that being my job title.

In contrast, most people are comfortable with their job titles (even if they don’t always like their jobs). Titles are usefully descriptive.

Job titles give an indication about how a person spends their time. How they make their money.

I doubt scientists trouble themselves too much with assuming the appellation of one who  studies and teaches science. That is a badge of honor.

Painters paint.  Bankers bank.  Plumbers plumb. Electricians electrify. Politicians politicize. Teachers teach.

Theologians theologize. They speak about God.

That is quite a weighty subject. A noble subject.  It is the driving subject of most of my life, taking center stage during the last twenty years.  I am, I might say, God-obsessed.

Though at times I might rather say I am God-haunted.  I can’t let go, not that doing such is a theoretical impossibility, rather that I am not necessarily the one who has been doing the holding.  I’ve been shaped, pulled, turned, bumped, cajoled, empowered, envigorated at various points to keep at this topic of theology. It is my profession, both vocational and confessional.

I am not insecure about the topic, that it is important and worthwhile. In thinking about the title “theologian” I am confronted with insecurity about myself.

I know myself, for the most part.  Dare I use the title “theologian” to describe who I am and how I live?  Do I genuinely theologize?

I remember what I’ve done. What I’ve said. My mistakes, my frustrations, my doubts, my sins. I think about others who have known me over the years, during seasons of confusion, instability, hypocrisy.  Not that I’m the worst of sinners or have some deep horrible secrets.  But enough to cause me to consider my current role with echoes of embarrassment and shame about who I’ve been at times, and who I sometimes still am.

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to theologies of hope, which do not discount the past but invite the past into a renewed reflection in light of God’s work in Christ.  I am not a theologian because I deserve the title, but because I seek to be someone who moves past the past into celebrating revitalization and experiencing new patterns and perspectives that are more fully oriented in God’s work and identity.

I speak, teach, write words about God as part of the continuing process of seeking what is more, better, possible in my life and in the lives of those around me. Like Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

A theologian is one who prays truly, the early Christian leader Evagrios wrote, adding, that one who prays truly is a theologian.  In and through my life I seek to pray and pray truly. Theology is not a destination, it’s a way, and being a theologian is about walking on the path, understanding how to use the map and compass, recognizing the flora and the fauna, sharing this with others who are interested.

Even if I am who I know I am–most unlearned and least among the faithful–God has invited me to be who I fully can be in light of the fullness of who he is.  It is a task I humbly embrace, a calling that compels me to live and learn and act and teach, daily entering into again my humility and my hope.

Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me.  In that prayer I find my confidence.

 

Posted in personal, teaching, theology | 19 Comments

A Political Lament

We are easily seduced by the forces who emphasize division and anxiety to rally against those who share our common confession of faith.

This political season exemplifies how easy we become Cain, or Joab, or Judas.

Left and Right both do it, finding it all too easy to establish identity and meaning and hope in a candidate. We rail against the other, making our brothers and sisters the others, condemning them for their intransigence even as we are exactly the same.

We assume we are on the side of Christ because we abhor the right people and their representatives.  Crucify them, we yell, they deserve it.

We say, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”
“Thank you I am not like those Trump supporters.”
Or, “Thank you I am not beguiled by the Clintons.”
“Thank God I  do not join with those evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.”

There is no liberation in this. There is no peace.

We are poseurs not disciples.

God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Because I am seduced in the same ways.

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Life of Oden

Last year around this time, the Oden family was packing up our house, getting ready to move to Sacramento.  I’ve barely stopped since.

After spending the last couple weeks in Oregon, this week feels like the beginning of a new year. Not a new calendar year, and not quite yet a new school year. It’s the beginning of a new intellectual year, one in which I (mostly) put behind me the teaching tasks of last year and take up new ones. Yes, there’s some overlap.  Lots of editing left to do on my book project. I’m still musing about a theology of seminary education (posts on that coming soon).  But with this new “year” is a new sense of freshness in mind and spirit, if not quite yet body.

I ended the school year fairly exhausted in all three.  I wrote the great bulk of my book from November through January, then had the emotionally draining news in February about the closing of Fuller Sacramento.  The news itself was discouraging and with it came all the processing, re-examined expectations, lack of clarity about the future for myself and my colleagues. A rhythm begun was quickly squelched and it was hard to regain a sense of excitement.  Fuller Sacramento

But in the midst of all of this I taught.  Of my tasks this past year, teaching was likely the most important and successful. I taught six different courses this past year, none of which I had taught before. Some were re-packaged versions of topics I had previously covered in other classes. Some were entirely new topics so I had to begin from scratch.

Here’s what I taught this past year:
Summer 15:
HT501 “The Church’s Understanding of God and Christ and Spirit in its Theological Reflection.” (2 sections)

Fall
HT502 “The Church’s Understanding of the Church, Humanity, and the Christian Life in its Historical Development”
IS502 “Practices of Community”

Winter
HT500″ “The Church’s Understanding of God and Christ and Spirit in its Historical Development”
HT501 The Church’s Understanding of God and Christ in its Theological Reflection.”

Spring
IS501 “Practices of Worship”
TH550 “World Religions in Christian Perspective”

Summer 16
IS501: “Practices of Worship”

That’s a lot of course prep.  Fortunately, I was blessed with gracious students who gave me rather good student evaluations, so even though I felt spread very thin throughout the year, these classes went well.  This feeling of being spread thin definitely plagues me at times, but it helped to think long term.  I am covering a lot of ground, so much that I tend to feel akin to the Platte River, “A mile wide and an inch deep.” Rather than being a net worry, this is pushing me to think in wider and integrative ways.  I can’t sit still in a narrow perspective of one topic or era, instead I am propelled to think in terms of history, ministry, theology.

That all ties into one of my prevailing intellectual and spiritual questions of late: What is the story God is writing in our era?  I have more to say on this in future posts, as well as musings on each of those courses and the big themes that stood out to me.

As I press on in thinking about this next school year, I am happy to have some returning courses. No new course prep for those!  Only 2 brand new courses for me, but these are topics I am quite familiar with. The first, TH559 is titles “Theologies of the Holy Spirit” and will be my first chance to focus entirely on my major area of personal and professional research over the last fifteen years.  Because it is part of a developing emphasis on spiritual dynamics, I am approaching it more holistically, seeing it ultimately as a class on discernment. How do we see, understand, and experience the Holy Spirit in our contexts? How can we discern where and how the Spirit is working and where the Spirit is not working?

I’m also going to be teaching a church class on the Apostle’s Creed during the Fall.  This class is for “lay” women and men who are interested in more theological discussion and depth.  It is based on a class I taught for Azusa Pacific, so it won’t require a lot of prep. It will provide (hopefully) some great discussions with those who are interested in a better understanding and expression of our faith but aren’t interested in more formal seminary education. I see this as a key part of my own passion to help bridge the gap between the church and the academy.

A lot of other professional irons in the fire for this next year that I’m working on. Now that I feel at least somewhat refreshed, I am genuinely excited about what is ahead, both the known and the unknown.  Both require a fair amount of faith, which is a good place to be in for a burgeoning theologian.

Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, LORD, to help me.

(for a recap of personal Oden adventures, see Amy’s family blog)

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