Category Archives: spirituality

Talk to the Rock

A while back, I wanted to learn what the Bible said about the various types of spiritual expressions we commonly call gifts. And, I didn’t want to use the usual lists of various gifts that Paul talks about. Rather, I wanted to see how gifts were expressed in the Bible. What does it mean to be a prophet? Well, I looked at the prophets. What does it mean to be someone who has discernment? Well, I looked at the men and women who were commended for seeing truth even when there were shadows and mists. What does it mean to be a leader? I looked at the leaders in the Bible.

This latter study was more than a little bit disconcerting. There are a lot of leaders in the Bible, be it kings or priests or judges or generals.

Leaders of all kinds abound in the stories. The trouble is that the percentage of leaders leading the people to God is pretty small. Most of the leaders in the Bible did not serve God. The other trouble is that their negative example does not mean they were bad leaders.

For instance, we have someone like King Omri of Israel. First Kings 16:25 has this to say about him: “Omri did evil in the eyes of the LORD and sinned more than all those before him.” On the other hand, archaeologists and others who study the history say that as a leader, he was pretty good! He orchestrated a lot of building projects and otherwise secured enough wealth and support to pass the kingdom on to his son, Ahab.

How about an example from the New Testament? Paul had to confront Peter when he learned that Peter stopped eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11ff). Peter influenced Barnabas and others, and had to be corrected, because they, as Paul puts it, “were not following the truth of the Good News” (Gal. 2:14). The practice of Peter was not reflecting the call of God in or for the church.

With this in mind, I now turn to the topic of worship. It’s not uncommon for me to be singing along during a service and realize I’ve just sung something I didn’t, or shouldn’t, believe. This isn’t limited to singing, either. For the most part, many of the approaches, use of space, wording, and other aspects of our gathering together are more like Peter’s faults than Paul’s goal. They might be engaging, or they might be traditional, or they might be functional, or whatever reason under the sun, but they are not when examined more closely, “following the truth of the Good News.”

Now more formally, this “truth of the Good News” could be gathered together under the theme of theology. That’s what I think theology is and should be about, at least. It is the reflection on the actions of God and his declarations that point to a more cohesive expression of God’s work and being. It can be expressed using four syllable words or it can be expressed in a dance, or in a liturgy, story, or song. But, in being expressed in some ways it is saying that it is reflecting the God who is. Theology, then, should be a pretty important issue in discussions of worship.

God does not, we learn from Scripture, like to be misrepresented in word or deed.

This is probably most clearly expressed in the story of Moses. In Numbers 20 we read a very disturbing story. The people were complaining, again, about having no water (the nerve of them!). They rebelled, Moses prayed at the Tabernacle, and God told him what to do.

Moses gathered the people, stood before them, shouted at them for their rebellious ways, and then hit the rock twice. Water gushed out.

But God was not happy. “Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel,” he said to Moses, “you will not lead them into the land I am giving them.”

Moses, you see, was supposed to command the rock to bring forth water. He wasn’t supposed to hit it. God was not just interested in the result. His holiness is about the method, the act, the approach, the whole context. God’s revelation is holistic and he calls those who would lead his people to reflect this holiness in ways that match how he has chosen to reveal himself.

We can’t just hit the rock and say that’s God’s work, even if water comes out. Because the method is as much part of the message as the result. He’s telling a different story in the midst of this world and that means leading people to live in particular ways, ways that might not immediately make sense. But it makes a difference in the long run. Just as the method of the cross makes a difference not only in salvation but also in how we respond to the systems of this world.

We have to listen to God, reflect on his ways, and then we have to talk to the rock.

Posted in everyday theology, liberation, politics, Scripture, spirituality, theology | Leave a comment

Imaging Theology (part 2)

When I began teaching full-time I put together powerpoint presentations on various topics, so the imaging of theology and church history became a regular task. For the last class of my undergraduate theology gen ed class I wanted to pull all the themes of the Apostle’s Creed and theological method together.

For some reason, a particular image came to mind that I then spent quite a while trying to find in my archives.  I spent so long trying to find it because it so perfectly captured my sense of what we were about.  When I thought about the theological task for the sake of my students and myself, this is the image that came to mind:

 

I took this picture about ten years ago or so while camping on Santa Rosa Island. Santa Rosa is part of the Channel Islands National Park, five islands off the coast of Southern California. I first visited during my first quarter of seminary, and they remain one of my treasured places of discovery and renewal.

This picture evokes the theological task with its narrow winding path and brown grass, which becomes a lush green with rain. The trail seems in the middle of an endless field but I know that eventually one meets up with the ocean.  It also seems lonely, but I was with two friends at the time, walking nearby, just past the airfield on the island that drops off supplies for the national park service and occasional day-hikers.

With all that in mind, the task takes shape. A winding journey with memories and community yet still calling for a lonely kind of participation, a journey that may involve beauty and accomplishment or thirsty trudging through barren landscapes. Keep walking. It is mystical and it is wonderful. But I can’t prove it unless you go there yourself.

So, this image  has been with me for the last four years or so.  It is my longest stretch without visiting the Channel Islands and a very long stretch that has pulled me out of contemplation and into a frenzied busyness of teaching, where constant new courses have left me little time of focus or reflection.

It is a slog, but not without its own worth. And that worth pulls me back into a re-evaluation, a recovery in the midst of the busyness. A remembering. I’ve been trying to remember my own calling in theology.  I’ve gotten caught up in the images of others, the way they suggest things have to be in order to make it in this competitive world.

Today is the first day of Winter Quarter. I’m teaching another new-to-me class, my eighth since starting full time at Fuller in Fall 2015.  I’ve taught my other class a couple times before, so only have the regular tweaking and responding.  I got back from a trip to Oregon this past Friday, bringing with me a bad cold. Getting back into the swing of things hasn’t been easy. But rather than being a distraction, it’s part of the equation.

Theology isn’t separate from life, it’s how we engage in life, how we see the world and how we invest back into it at moments of success or defeat, focus or frustration.  It’s a Way and this way involves a cast of characters and experiences that might seem to pull us away from the rarefied world of theological reflection if we’re not intentional about keeping on task.

Only, what I’m learning, is that the task of theology is this cast of characters and struggles and investing the rarefied reflections into the mundane everyday.

Which isn’t an easy realization for me.  Because I’m a very strong introvert, struggling to establish a lasting place in my vocation, pulled this way and that by all sorts of forces that keep me from writing, reading, indwelling the theological depths.  I’m spread thin and while performing well in my teaching, keeping up with it all–and family, and all the demands of lived life–deflates the thrill of the quest, the renewal of the contemplation, the discovery of new vistas.

I want to seclude, to hide, to take up the pattern I’ve seen so many others in history adopt, the isolated control of time and space that allows for sustained research and complex integration of ideas. I want to drink deeply of the beauty and riches of God’s being and goodness and complexity.  I thrill in this, become alive in the exploration.

Just let me be and my mind comes alive, my hopes renewed.  But my very engagement with theology, the work of God in my life and in those around me, leads me outwards not inwards, involved not isolated.  My batteries are nearly always on the edge of empty.  But rather than run away from this, I’m learning to run with it.  Somehow.

I can’t escape the earthiness of a Christian theology that not only calls for community but highlights participation with others as a central theme.  It leads me away from what I want towards what I know I need, even as I struggle with how this might work out in that nagging interest in a permanent position.

I hate that nagging.  The future should be one of hope not frustration, of earnest expectation, not nervous agitation about what might go wrong or not work out. If my vision is of the Living God, then I should be living in freedom in the midst of this present opportunity.  I’ve misplaced that joy, that waking up with excitement about the tasks at hand. I’ve forgotten the love of theology that animated all my best steps over the years.

Which isn’t exactly the truth either. I’ve poured myself out in my teaching and in my family, trying to be faithful to these callings in ways that I’ve not always seen in theological/ministry, where teaching is deprecated and families are ignored.

It hasn’t resulted in substantive writing and publishing over the last couple years, however.  So, in my low moments, I’ve pondered needing to isolate, to put up walls, to invest in more obviously professional tasks, the kind that also animate my love of writing and sense of self in accomplishment.

I ended the year with this tension. And begin this new one with it unresolved. That’s probably why I was excited to bring back from Oregon a new image of theology, one that brings together my developing sense of my own calling and goals in this new year.  I saw this picture and it helped me recover a sense of both my calling and my love, renewing a sense of the theological task in my personal and professional life.

I stand before an endless ocean, full of bounty and danger.  It extends beyond the horizon, yet meets up with me in varying depth.  I can stand or walk forward or along the beach, expanding what I experience at every step.

But I’m not alone. It’s not just me and the ocean.  I stand with my little girl, Vianne, whose love for life explodes onto the scene every morning and extends through her day.  She is brave, willing to stand with me, yet scared when the waves crash and overpower. I’m responsible for her in this place. Yet, she’s responsible for me too, calling me out of my selfish isolation. We stand together, learning with each other, each in our own way.

The image speaks more deeply than what I can write, a new image that has only begun to work in my sense of calling and efforts as this new year, and new quarter, begin.  I can likely reflect more on it but I’ll end with Vianne’s refrain that calls out to life and reminds me of what I’ve been missing about theology for a while.

“Bring on the fun!”

Today is also my eight year wedding anniversary. God could have worked in a lot of ways, keeping me focused in isolation, in solitude, in asocial discovery.  Only that’s not the work God did in my life. He opened the door to life with Amy, whose love for God led her likewise down winding paths and challenging seasons.  Our trails joined up and in this we find a daily discovery of God’s inviting promise, doing more and more in our midst than we can imagine, even as we struggle with holding onto that sense of focus that we assume we need in order to pursue our calling.

This is our calling, together, now with Vianne and Oliver. And that’s part of the fun. I’m thankful for it. Bring it on.

Posted in academia, adventures, everyday theology, seminary, spirituality, teaching, theology | Leave a comment

Imaging Theology

What do you see when you think about pursuing God?

I remember the professor in my first theology at Wheaton asking a similar question.  He asked what image of God do we find most appealing: lord, king, savior, and so on, drawing from different expressions of God in the Bible. I answered, “King,” reflecting my sense of calling at the time to go questing in search of light, wisdom, pursuing obedience. I was reading a lot of Stephen Lawhead back then too and I found his King Arthur trilogy particularly inspiring.  So, I liked the royal attributes of God and the associated chivalry of the Christian life. At least as I understood it.

A lot was uncertain in life, then, and I wanted to make sense of it, and make sense of it in a way that brought meaning and hope in the midst of overwhelming and impossible struggles. Clinging to the stories of great adventures, purpose, meaning, helping me navigate the great swath of senselessness  and yearning that had characterized my life up to that point.  Life almost kept working out, doors just about opened, opportunities mostly resolved. I was drawn just far enough to keep on, always defeated enough to prevent satisfaction.   It had to mean something, because I knew there was something more drawing me onward.

It was chivalry of Quest not battle. I knew there was truth and falsehood, good and evil, heroes and villains. But I didn’t want to conquer others or really even debate them.

I saw Christ as King, and myself as a dogged, if imperfect, servant.  So now, when I think about what my image of theology was in my earlier years, this one probably fits, though I wouldn’t have understood the question the same way then.

It’s not very sophisticated. It is quite earnest. And it was an image that kept me going through uncertainty and a myriad of distractions. I identified with Galahad and his search for the grail, so maybe this one is even more particular.

It probably didn’t help I read books like The Interpretation of the New Testament with its mentions of champions, and entering the lists, and suchlikes. Made it feel like a struggle worth fighting for. Though not initially in theology.

That was an image that sparked my interest in law school–fight for justice–through my senior year and onwards. Only after continued reflection on that direction did I make left turn into seminary, as the Quest kept driving me. The image stayed, mostly, the same. AA service. A sacrifice. A goal. A noble path.

A Quest.

Theology was about doing, performing, accomplishing, advancing, discovering and transforming.

I saw the grail. But I couldn’t take hold of it during my seminary years.

Toward the end of that season, I was feeling burned out by church politics and dysfunctions.  I was enthralled by the depth and hope in my study of theology and Scripture.  What I was seeing as the possibilities in and with God was finding expression in ministry but kept running against a wall of something that I couldn’t address or even name.  Every time the grail would near it would dissipate. I was nearing exhaustion in the Quest and went to the Getty museum to find some restoration.

I wandered through the halls, letting my thoughts wander amidst the art and scenery. Not seeking anything, just wanting a break from the usual.

Then I saw this small painting by Caspar David Friedrich:

It was like a cool pool of water on a hot day.  I dove into it.  Stood there for a while taking it in before moving on to continue my museum wandering. The painting stuck with me, tugging at me well after I got home. This was it, I realized.  What? I asked myself.  I don’t know, I replied.

I have a lot of conversations like this with myself.  The thoughts morph into a prayer of sorts, asking for wisdom.

It came to me after a while. Be, don’t do.  God is asking me to be with him, not do for him.  To rest in him, to walk with him, to seek him, not perform or accomplish. Being, not doing. The image clarified a driving whisper in my soul to enter into prayer, restoration, amid nature. I found myself drawn away from the city and the busyness of social expectations. I visited the mountains and found the same melody played by wind and trees and raven calls.  A theologian is one who prays truly, Evagrios once wrote.  And that was the call that came through that painting.  It was my new image of theology that replaced the quest.

So, I moved to the mountains beginning an extended season of theological refocusing, a neo-monastic approach to life and theology that was alternately breaking and exhilarating, renewing and frustrating, all of it exposing my self to my self, no longer offering distractions to avoid dealing with the inner chaos. The wave crashed over me, carried away a great deal of clutter, leaving me emptier and free.  A walk in an extended dusk, sun always on the horizon, never setting, risking being for the sake of being.

The light switch turned on in 2007.  I felt drawn back to the world, back into a form of busyness without chaos. Doors perpetually closed began to swing open, paths revealed themselves, opportunities awakened.  Yet the theological task was not fully illuminated.  I was being called to go, but to where?  To what? The old assumptions of the Quest tried to marshal their forces, but that wasn’t the image I had anymore.  It was more of a Way, a journey, a walk into the mists.  The images were also now more my own. As I thought about how I conceived this new season a picture from a hike came to mind:

I walked along this dirt road fairly regularly during my time in the mountains, with it also often one of my jogging trails.  Forests have moods and on this foggy day it was a somber place, wet and still.  I couldn’t see too far, but kept walking, knowing there was beauty at every step.

I went off trail, to places I hadn’t gone before, trusting in what I did know to orient my journey.  I didn’t have a goal besides the journey itself, entering into the mystery with expectation.  This is the image of theology I had through my PhD studies, and one that in part continues to call to me.

More recent imaging of theology in the next post.

 

 

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Past speaking into the present

Something I wrote exactly 12 years ago:

Very early Thanksgiving morning yesterday, around four am, I woke up feeling very thankful. For what? That’s always the question, and something I can easily beat myself down with. This wasn’t the point in that moment. There wasn’t a ‘for what’ there was simply a thankfulness, a full, cleansing thankfulness that had no object only a direction, and so I prayed and prayed for others.

I spent the morning cooking, something I don’t do very often, so I try to have a bit of adventure when I try it. My contribution to the family feast was salmon cakes with a walnut and pomegranate sauce. It indeed turned out well, better than I thought. The whole morning was filled with delight, and the day went by with that glow of thankfulness.

Then evening came, brother and sister-in-law came over, and I slowly descended. Until today when a fog rolled in over my soul, clouding my insights and delights. It was the kind of day that wanted to be wasted, which wanted to waste me. But, somehow I pressed on, turned direction, and spent the day building a renewed spiritual habit. I didn’t feel the pull of the Spirit, nor did my soul look outwards and upwards, but I did work to facilitate the habits which would keep my eyes focused even during the days of storm and fog.

I looked to the Daily Hours for inspiration and renewed the habit of posting the daily Bible. So, the fog rolled in, and I rolled onward, seeking God and Christ and the Holy Spirit no matter the emotion or frame of mind.

Tonight there is a full moon reflecting on the snow which still fairly covers the land. It is an eerie glow, a mystical light that the soul embraces without knowing why, or caring. A breeze picks up every once in a while, catching me by surprise as it stirs the branches and rattles the needles in the trees. I love the sound of the wind rushing through the trees at night, I love to look at the wan light of the moon reflecting palely off the snow. I need to dwell on this more, and dwell less on those things which God has called me towards but has not revealed. I need to dwell in the present, and embrace the work of the Spirit in the now.

This is the goal of time formatted to reflect a Spiritual yearning, and one which has encouraged countless seekers after Christ to find their rest in him. So, given that I was going to end the day with no thoughts and little encouragement, and after reading my through the evening prayers by candelight I sit and write this with a kernel of delight renewing in my soul, I figure it is precisely the course I was supposed to take.

God calls, and it does us well to listen.

Old Toll Road

When I wrote that I was 30 years old, living with my parents, unemployed, all my hopes and dreams had stalled. I had become so frustrated with the frustrations I stopped fighting to keep up appearances. Moved to the mountains where there was beauty and time to be found.  I wrote this after a year there, when God’s work was still much more about breaking me down than finding light and progress.  I was reformed in the forest, in the midst of having to come to terms with my own self, finding who God wanted me to be more than focused on what I wanted to do. I had to let go my calling in order to find my becoming. It wasn’t a quick journey, full of promise and discouragement, glimpses of progress and awareness of deep deficiency.

It was hard to find hope in the midst of nothingness.  I am glad I listened to words of faith and of the whispering promise of redemption and renewal.

It was indeed precisely the course I was supposed to take, though circuitous and uncertain.

A good reminder as I continue to journey into the fog-filled path ahead.  Even as my current path has much less of the loneliness and much more of the two-year old clamoring in the background, “I don’t want to.” I know the feeling, Oliver.  But we do it anyhow.

Hope is not a privilege, it is a calling.  It is the daily step, the “forgetting what is behind and pressing toward what is ahead” because that is the way of life.

Ignore anyone who preaches despair to the broken and hopelessness to the outcast. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

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election advice

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and I advised them: 1) To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy: 2) To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And, 3) To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those who voted on the other side.”

~John Wesley, October 6, 1774.

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Right Passions

I begin each week of my online courses with a reflection on the theme of the week. It is a devotional beginning, a way of getting the students to think about the topic in light of Scripture, often more pastoral and personal than specifically theological. Of course, the theological is part and parcel with those elements, even as the conventional approaches to theology these days are more academic in tone.

In my class on the Holy Spirit this week, we’re looking more closely at the topic of orthopathy, which means “right passions” in theological parlance.  Along with orthodoxy (right beliefs) and orthopraxy (right actions), it is one of the ways the Spirit works to orient our self, in our community, with God.

In case you’re interested in what I’m up to in my teaching, here’s my reflection that begins this week’s discussion:

Consideration of Week 4

Read: 1 Kings 19:1-18; Jeremiah 20:7-18; Acts 16:11-34; Ephesians 5:15-20

When I was in college, I experienced a roller coaster in my relationship with God.  I went to a Christian school in the Chicago area because I felt God leading me there. And God had plans for me while there but they didn’t seem to fit into the expected college experience. It was a place of training and training often involves breaking.  Which came. Harshly. Before that there was an awakening.  Moments and days in which I felt my heart and mind and whole being opening up in a new vision of God’s work, a deep awareness of God’s presence, an assurance of God’s being.

There were moments of theophany, of discovering a deep truth behind the apparent truths, a perception of complete coherence. I didn’t have words for these experiences even as I knew they were real. I felt my very being stretch and expand, feeling at times both loosely connected to this world and utterly embedded, a part of God’s creation.  Then a turn.

Everything crumbled, the light went from on to off, the presence of God departed.  At least that’s how it felt. A turn to loneliness deepened by even the absence of God’s encouragement and hope. I felt destitute. Empty.  Prayers extending into shadows and emptiness.  Feeling lost in my faith, my being, my hope.

Carried on by that earlier divine presence. There’s something there. I knew it. But could not see it or feel it.  All was dark.

I refused to let go, even in the pain and frustration.  I read more, sought answers, asked for counsel.  Reading helped but only to show that my experience was not unique. It was a common experience through Scripture, throughout the stories of women and men in history. They were close to God and then they encountered a wide ditch of God’s absence. No way forward. No way back.

I knew the facts about God, the story about God’s work in Scripture and history, the doctrines of faith.  But where was the life?  I missed it but knew there was something there.  I pressed on, not giving up, not running away.

A path was there but it was surrounded by dangers and thorns and troubles.  Encouragement came in fleeting glimpses, the fifth door on the left slightly ajar. Just enough sense of joy to become bread crumbs of discovery, a persistent discouragement at every other turn to prevent me from walking down distracting roads.

God kept me on the path, but did so by a dynamic interaction that led me through ups and downs, through college, into seminary, at churches, in the mountains, back for more study and then teaching.  The ups and downs were not required by God, but were my experiences of being buffeted in too many directions, competing narratives and goals pulling me left and right, out and in, up and down, rather than steady in my faith and patient in the journey.

My heart variously strangely warm and strangely cold, a roller coaster turning into a refined palate, increasingly able to attune myself in God’s grace, centering in Christ, navigating in the whispers and moves of the Spirit.

Such dynamic experiences tend to resist intellectual analysis, resulting in those groans and utterances of tongues or music, trying to express that which is indeterminate at first, then indescribable.  Trying to find the words leads deeper down the path. I discovered and was given words not so that I can manage God but so that I can come alongside, able to be a voice of comfort, hope, counsel, a heart transformed by the Spirit better able to participate with the Spirit in my context.

The presence of God is indeed more than a validation for us. The Spirit calls us and is shaping the whole of our being to be renewed in light of God’s life and mission.  Becoming attuned to this mission reaches into the deepest parts of ourselves, places we are most vulnerable and broken, places we may also be the most strong and full of meaning. Our spirit in the presence of God’s Spirit.

What are your desires on this day? What is your mood? What are your passions and hopes and fears?  Lay these out, call them by name, seek wisdom about what is oriented in God and what needs redirection towards God. Let the Spirit comfort, let the Spirit transform.  It is not easy, ohttp://dualravens.com/ravens/wp-admin/post-new.phpften difficult, though sometimes it is wonderful.

The promise of this journey is peace and stillness, even in troubles, hope in times of mystery, rest in times of comfort.  When our desires and emotions match the mission of God in the moment we begin to dance, no longer tossed and torn by the storms. We become effective in the moment, in the place, in the purpose.  At the end of all things, still standing (Eph. 6:13).

Posted in academia, Holy Spirit, spirituality, teaching, theology | Leave a comment

The making of pastors in seminary

The making of pastors in seminary: Pastors aren’t born into the role. Sure, of course, there’s often a family business of sorts, where son follows father, who followed his father, with assorted uncles and cousins added to the mix. Increasingly we find sisters and mothers and aunts in the lists too.

Even still, it’s not hereditary. It’s not like the priests of Israel who were priests because they were born into a tribe of priests, each one having a turn of service.

Pastors are trained. Where does this happen?

Seminary.

That’s what a seminary is at its core: a place to train pastors for ministry. There’s more that happens, of course, all sorts of accompanying projects and activities.

But if a seminary isn’t training pastors, it’s not really a seminary.

Not every education about theology has the same goal. Which is likewise where the various models run into problems. The Berlin model may be entirely appropriate for one goal where the Athens model another, etc. and so on. If the goal is to train pastors but all that is happening is training people to fit into the academy, that’s a problem.

If the goal is to train pastors, but you’re only training people to discover and use their own gifts, then that’s a problem. If the goal is to train pastors, but you’re only training people to be good citizens, then that’s a problem. I could go on, but you get the point.

If the goal is clear and singular, then an institution can easily focus its time and energy in that direction.

With its primary goal of training pastors, however, a seminary has a much more complex mission. Especially in contemporary understanding of a pastor. There’s a lot to being a pastor.

Let’s take, for instance, the role of a vocational minister, the pastor of a church. They are to teach and preach, so need to understand the content of Christianity. They are to offer counseling and support. They are to help encourage, shepherd, train those within their church in their faith and expression of this faith. They are to help people understand how to best translate their faith within the context of their culture and society. They are to keep up with their own life of prayer and personal study and expressions of holy living.

This is why seminary education is a subset of ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. Training ministers is a function of the church. It flows out of catechesis, raising up those in the faith to become among those who train and shepherd others. We train pastors so as to help edify those who edify others within every church communities.

The very name of pastor (shepherd) suggests a leadership role for a community of Christians, a role that requires a fair mix of different responsibilities. Indeed, all the various separate emphases have their place in a well-rounded seminary education. A pastor has to live in Berlin, Athens, Azusa, generally Geneva, hopefully Jerusalem, and ideally Skete. Each city grabs for attention–for tourist dollars–and so we see pastors becoming unbalanced, overwhelmed, under-trained if they are pulled one direction too far away from others.

In older models, as a citadel designed for a single purpose, theological education could deposit the requisite information and then send students out to do something with it.

In continuing service for the church, however, a seminary is doing more than sending out graduates to sink or swim. The church invests in these men and women in order to be contributing participants in the health and growth of the church. The seminary is given this charge and asked to take care that those who are called are able to carry on in this calling. It creates a deepening depth of wisdom that provides balance in light of competing demands.

If seminaries are not adapting to changing realities then they are not living up to their role and indeed their mission.

One of those changing realities is the fact that an increasing number, maybe even a majority, of seminary graduates will not be vocational ministers. This doesn’t mean they won’t be pastors, it just means they will be pastors and _______, with the blank filled with all manner of different jobs, callings, roles.

Gone are the days where we expect pastors to go into a parish ministry. Fuller, for instance, already broadened this early in its lifetime when it opened the School of Psychology. Graduates finish with a degree in psychology but take quite a number of Bible, theology, ministry classes, generally enough for even an additional masters degree.

Even in the School of Theology, a great many of my students are not interested in full time vocationally ministry, but are active in other vocations, in nonprofits, in missional communities, or in building their own understanding of their faith as a way of contributing to the lives of those around them. Fuller along with many other seminaries have long recognized this reality, even if the general structure of seminary education has stayed much the same.

I like the statement it posts at the bottom of its online course pages:

“With deep roots in orthodoxy and branches in innovation, we are committed to forming Christian women and men to be faithful, courageous, innovative, collaborative, and fruitful leaders who will make an exponential impact for Jesus in any context.”

That’s a big task. Which theological education “city” does all this fit into? We want a city in the mountains, by the coast, with good skiing and mild winters and nice restaurants and low prices, with ancient history and modern sensibilities.

We want it all, which sounds impossible.

And maybe in most places it its. But this is California. In California you can ski and surf on the same day. There’s a possibility of the impossible in California.

Which is why Fuller came into being to begin with and continued to innovate over the decades.

In his book on Fuller Seminary and the (then) New Evangelicalism, George Marsden has this to say on David Allan Hubbard, president of Fuller from 1963-1993:

“Probably also relevant to Hubbard’s broader view was that, unlike every other major figure in the seminary’s history excepting the Fullers, he was a native Californian. California seemed on the edge of Western civilization in that its institutional traditions were not firmly fixed. Hubbard clearly reflected this trait of the region. Like Charles Fuller before him, he saw that with the proper resources institutions could become almost anything one wanted. Unlike the easterners (and vastly more than the Britishers), both Fuller and Hubbard tended not to see traditional structures as inevitable.”

While times and settings have changed–Pasadena is a very different place than it was in the 20th century–so have opportunities. We are not stuck with the innovations of the past, locked in place as if that is our settled identity.

Traditional structures, conventional frameworks, are not the way things have to be, as if we have to fight over increasingly small amounts of the parish pastors pie. Both the context and innovation invites seminary education to broaden its perception of its ecclesial role in training ministers within a broad range of callings and vocations. Seminaries don’t have to keep the same model and then just add on elements of technology to stay alive, staying relevant as they try to keep being what they have always been.

Technology opens up opportunities to become something new, and break free of the boundaries and assumptions which create possibilities from formerly absolute limits. Such possibilities don’t detract from the overall mission, they can help us fulfill it even more thoroughly than ever before. Seminaries can engage the church with transformative networks of learning, training, and support.

As I continue with discussing the network model in my next post I’ll talk about how seminary education can better integrate both faith and context as it emphasizes orthopraxy and orthopathy alongside orthodoxy. Maybe it’s finally time to leave the city walls behind. We don’t need them anymore and they’ve never been quite as helpful as we assumed.

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Beyond the Citadel of Theological Education

Using cities as analogies for theological education is very evocative.  They speak of a place, a way, an era, a narrative all at once.

The sights and smells and food and language of one city is different than other cities.  Pasadena is not Paris and Paris is not London, London is not Los Angeles, Los Angeles is not Tokyo, which is not Mexico City, which is not Shanghai, which is not Mumbai, which is not like Chicago, which is different than Athens, Berlin, and Rio.  Istanbul (not Constantinople) is different than Rome which isn’t like Madrid or Havana or Topeka.

Very different in different ways but very still having a core reality in common. They are cities. If you want to experience them, you have to travel to see them.

Cities became cities by being places of gathering and often places of protection. Early on they were walled fortresses, able to gather in those who were near so as to keep them safe–at least for a time–from marauders or armies.Me at Carcassonne

These cities were only rarely fully surrounded by walls. They had citadels, little cities, within their limits.

Learning was also seen as vulnerable to assault and so colleges became little cities of their own. Colleges were quite literally citadels.

Be it castle or college, there was a place within a place where the body or the mind was protected and nourished.

The analogy of a city for different theological education models isn’t just an analogy. They also represent real places. Places where people left their homes and traveled to in order to study the ways of God with the gathered experts alongside fellow students. Athens, Berlin, Geneva, Jerusalem, Azusa St, and Skete drew people, pulled them from their homes, shaped them into a new kind of person for a new kind of world, formed a barrier from the outside.

Theological institutions likewise formed as citadels within their context. They are a place to educate the chosen and elites (because who else can afford the cost or time). They  gathered in, marked with a degree of learnedness, inaugurated each student into the narrative of what was deemed most important in a particular Christianity.

0421bb10A person learned the content of theology and also the culture of theological education. They then went outward back to home or other settings, sharing the content with others.  We teach as we have been taught. We share that which we have been shown important. We prioritize that which we know best.

Some were trained as pastors, to manage the parish they were assigned. Others became missionaries, sent out to begin new churches. Should any of these be successful enough to raise up new leaders within their context, they sent such promising students there to the citadel and back again.

Citadels of theological learning express the theological priorities of different traditions. Yes, we can categorize citadels in terms of specific models. But they remain the same basic method.  Go there. Learn. Finish. Then go elsewhere. Manage on your own.

This was the way it had to be. How else could someone learn from experts? How else to become a master of a long-established tradition? One must go to where the teachers are and learn however the teachers taught.

So, the different models became patterns throughout history, where people learned in different cities than where they were from or where they were going to minister.  It was demanding, and often limiting. Who is able to pack up and leave their homes? Who is able to devote themselves to a full load of study while in a new location?

To alleviate some of the pressure on this demand, some of the citadels set up outposts which provided access to at least some of the material and experts. They offered classes in a micro-model of the citadel.  They weren’t ideal but often made the difference for students.wheaton_628239983

This isn’t unique to theological education, of course. For most of history, education was based on a citadel model, little cities that used distinct language and emphases, inviting men and later women to come stay within their zone of training and protection.

Citadels were the only substantive model out there, some small and some large, but the same basic approach. The little cities boasting big city terminology like university. The big cities claiming small city values like authenticity and community.  Move to our city, the literature invited.

Then something changed. Everything changed. Just like heavy artillery and then airpower ended the use of walled cities, the information age has radically changed the need to physically go somewhere and live there in order to learn. Over the last ten years, this has caught up to higher education with online learning becoming a major force.  Almost everyone prefers a live classroom experience, but with so many other factors involved, taking a class online increasingly becomes the chosen option.

The foundations of the citadels have crumbled, replaced by a web that reaches around the world.

But we still tend to think of theological education in terms of cities, expressed as citadels, projecting force from a headquarters outward and onward. The reach is global though the  students get the fullest experience within the old, beaten but not yet broken citadel walls.  The great bulk of resources are spent to maintain the walls, bolster the citadel approach.

And this is what so many of the current representatives of the theological cities have in common. They are citadels in an information age, finding it increasingly difficult to sustain the established models but not yet able to determine how else to express their chosen “city” but as a city within a city.  Yes, we may have different modalities, but we are the city we were founded in.

But rather than thinking of theological education as a city, a city that expresses a particular element within the framework, maybe a way has opened up to hold onto that which made the cities great while going beyond their many limitations. Such an approach can integrate technology and other possibilities in ways that citadels never could, and marshal resources that blend together the various “city” emphases in a holistic, transformative way.Hubbard Library

Rather than thinking of theological education as a citadel, maybe we should think of theological education as a network, small hubs that bring together the depth and bounty of an established institution while allowing a local context to stay integrated.

Those who learn, serve; those who graduate, teach; those who minister, are ministered to; honoring the sanctity of a community by letting those called to the community find their calling within the community.

By participating in a network based at a hub, someone can pursue theological education alongside others who they may very well stay alongside for the rest of their lives. This can be a growing, deepening community of learners who facilitate a lifelong connection to the depth and breadth of the Christian faith.

I think seeing theological education in terms of such a network brings the discussion back within ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church.  Those who are called to go elsewhere certainly can, but we shouldn’t insist that those who are called to a place must leave that place and break their ties for an extended time just to go to a place where they have no roots and little connection. Before, there wasn’t a choice. Now there is. And it is indeed an opportunity.

Theological education is traditionally set up as a citadel.  Maybe it is time to break the city model entirely and think in terms of a network.  A difficult transition, but I think there are places that can pursue this well, having many elements already in place. It’s a radical idea, but I’m a Californian theologian, so I don’t see why that is a problem.

Long posts are indeed a problem, so I’ll sketch some more thoughts about the network concept in another post.

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Theological Education in Skete (part 2)

“A theologian is one who prays truly, one who prays truly is a theologian,” Evagrius wrote.

I was very good at theological education in the Berlin model. I finished seminary with 144 quarter units, a 3.9 GPA, and a Masters of Divinity.  But, I wanted theology to do something, to make something, to be put in service of a task, a means to an end.  Theological education, in all its various topics, spurred me to insight and accomplishment, creative exploration and incisive critique. My ambition, my sense of self, intermingling in my continued delight in studying the ways of God that could, that should, make the world, or at the very least the church, run more smoothly.  I yearned.  It was a yearning of frenzy not of peace, of chaos not stillness, of fruitfulness not acceptance.  God said stop. And I finally listened.

Then God began to remake me.  I left behind the rational life and entered into a mountain life. I lived higher and dug deeper. Writing helped.  I read along the trails of theology and monastic life. I was single. I was, mostly, focused. I wasn’t content, but that wasn’t the issue anymore. I was called. Called to be where I was even if where I was didn’t make sense to anyone else, even me.  I was full of chaos and I was broken.

Where was I in the midst of this rebuilding of my theological self? I was in a new mode of substantive, if not formal, education. I had to face myself and face my complications and face my frustration and face my ambitions and, ultimately, face my God.  I put facing others well behind on the list.  I was physically in the mountains, a mile high, surrounded by trees, birds, refreshing hikes and infuriating neighbors who thought weekly reconstruction of their home was a good use of the space. For five years I lived among the trees, birds, refreshing hikes, and infuriating neighbors.  I was deepened and I was honed, facing my depression and anger and hopes and disappointments, temptations all while free to pursue creative fancy.

Where was I in terms of a theological education? I was in Skete.

Skete is a place in Egypt where monks found loose community in the midst of relative isolation. They were able to spend a lot of time in private prayer, wrestling with temptations, often (if able) reading Scripture, working at basic tasks to keep the acedia away. This wasn’t done alone, as the community allowed for a flexibility of discussion, prayer, confession, education. Conferences as John Cassian and his friend Germanus found most fruitful.  They learned in a community of informal education in ways that led them to deeper truths about God and themselves, able to engage this pursuit proactively and giving space to fight against the passions that led to frenzy and frustration.

My Skete wasn’t in a desert. I had snow in winter and I kayaked on a nearby lake and jogged on forested trails for exercise. But I was isolated from formal theological april20Cconversations (though my parents were quite adept at informal conversation, guiding me with much wisdom).  I was distant from a practical expression of my profession. I had a Master of divinity but was hardly even a master of my self.  I lost friends as they thought I had abandoned sense and practical responsibility. Maybe I had. Indeed I did.

A hermit said, “When you flee from the company of other people, or when you despise the world and worldlings, take care to do so as if it were you who was being idiotic.”

I was in pursuit of something deeper, something more. I had seen the Face and it had turned away. I knew there was something more–stillness, heaven, centering–but I never was in the right place to find it. I was in the wrong city. I was using the wrong maps.  I found myself constantly running from the tidal wave of discontent.

Rather than running away from the crashing wave, I turned around at let it crash over me. I was left to discover myself, to find God in the midst of the whispers and shadows, the singing of wind blowing through trees, the scratchings of men and women long dead.  And, on occasion, fruitful conversations with other women and men who may not have understood what I was about but who were curious enough to stay in touch and encouraging me that there was indeed something worth discovering.  I shared with them, they shared with me, an exchange of counsel and prayer and words of hope and wisdom.  Some I talked with on the phone, some I wrote online, some took me to literal mountaintops and real islands off the coast where contemplation could be indulged alongside exploration and a fair bit of silliness.

Skete isn’t a bad place if you find the right people.

Skete is the city where independent learners can find conversation and connection in their pursuit of understanding God and God’s call.  This is a place where becoming whole in God is the priority, not to accomplish a task but to participate in a calling of being who God wants you to be, a particular discovery in the unity of shared goals.

Where Berlin (intellectual) emphasizes orthodoxy and Jerusalem (missional) emphasicoptic-hermit-2zes orthopraxy, Skete prioritizes discovering orthopathy, a right understanding and expression of passions, including the fruit of the Spirit as part of faith, hope, and love.

I think the city of Skete has the most people, even though they’re spread out.  There are independent learners everywhere who are not finding their core theological education in either church or in an institution. Many have graduated such institutions and are left to fend for themselves. Other have experienced abuse or disregard in churches and institutions so to find God they enter the desert.  They love Jesus, seek Jesus, but don’t have a formal place to deepen their relationship with him once they go beyond the shallows of contemporary ecclesial life.  Some assume there is no more depth to be found. Those who know better begin a journey of discovery, using previous education, or suggestions from others, following rabbit trails of recommendations in footnotes or conversations.

This used to be a very solitary pursuit indeed. It doesn’t have to be anymore. The internet allows communities of such learners to find connection and conversation. It did for me.

And the fruit of my time in Skete was writing two published books and receiving a fully paid fellowship at Fuller for my PhD.  I went back to Berlin Pasadena, but often visited Skete in times of frustration or emptiness. Skete is my hometown now, the place I find peace, and given the uncertainty of academic careers, may be the place I return to more permanently at some point.  I don’t think this is God’s plans, but I’ve learned not to anticipate.

The dangers of Skete are manrays14y.  A person has to be able to self-tutor and self-navigate the many pitfalls and distractions. They have to be able to focus, as there’s no demand to stay on course. They have to be willing to risk relationships in the pursuit of the unknown and stay the course when all is dark.  Stay in one’s cell and there one will learn everything the desert fathers said. The cell is a slow teacher, unhurried and without immediate reward.

It is easy to fall away, get lost in the shuffle, get pulled out of the process. It is also easy to be lulled by one’s own sense of progress into assuming more maturity than one possesses.  It is easy to be arrogant and easy to be depressed, easy to be to rigorous and easy to be all too lax.

But the views in Skete are marvelous to behold and it seems to be a place where many people find themselves when they don’t know where else to go.  So is well worth considering as a key city in the framework of theological education.

And that’s that’s the last city I have to talk about. I’ve presented a brief map and tour guide of these places, sharing my experiences with them.  At the end of this tour, however, I’m not convinced these are the best way to talk about theological education. While these cities are descriptive I am not sure they are the best way to understand the future of theological education. I think cities are the wrong analogy in our era.

So, I’ll keep sketching out my thoughts in the next post in this series.

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“It is a confused prejudice to judge the degree of contemplation by whether the object of contemplation appears more or less sacred, more or less internal, more or less spiritual. That would mean assuming that God is more present, more readily heard or contemplated in the internal silence of idleness than in committed action.  This may not be so, and there is no reason why it should be so.  It may be that it is on the road to Emmaus that one finds the person one was looking for in the past or in the memory of sacred actions; or on the road to Damascus a false and Pharisaic religiosity may be broken in favor of a contemplation and conversion qualitatively incomparable with any prior experience. It is not certain that Christian transcendence can be found in the temple better than in the city, in concern for oneself than in concern for others.”

~Ignacio Ellacuría

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