Spring 2018 Convocation Address: An Ordinary Theological Education

February 5, 2018
The 2018 Spring Convocation Address was giving by visiting professor Dr. Daniel Aleshire on January 9, 2018.

The picture keeps revisiting me. It is not the one of the emergency vehicles parked with flashing lights nor the one of the yellow crime scene tape spread widely around the exterior of a church building. It is the picture of the interior of an unadorned space where people had gathered for church. It was freshly painted white to remove the stains of the tragedy, and empty of everything but 26 white folding chairs, each bearing a red cross and red rose situated where each of 26 people were sitting when they were killed in a Sunday morning massacre at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. It is a room where people likely once sang “There is a fountain filled with blood” - only this time, it was not from Immanuel’s veins; it was from their children, parents, spouses, and friends.

Only God knows how many sermons have made reference to the Sutherland Springs shooting and how many prayers have been offered for victims’ families. I’m sure that it has been mentioned in sermons and prayers from this pulpit and been the subject of more than a few classroom discussions. It raises issues about evil and human suffering, about gun violence and the responses it requires, about the frailty of the human condition and danger in the safest of all places. This morning, as the semester begins, I want to invite you to think with me about being educated for ministry in a world where evil shows its face and wields its power.

Because the shooting at First Baptist Church is so close in time and geography, I want to direct your attention to a similar incident that is more removed in time and place from us. The eight children and teenagers killed while sitting in Sunday services at Sutherland Springs was the largest number of children killed in a mass shooting since Sandy Hook Elementary School five years ago in Newtown, Connecticut. The same kind of weapon was used by both shooters, and the same number of persons died in both of the shootings. At Sandy Hook, however, twenty of the victims were first grade children, and if anything can made evil look even more sinister than murder of worshippers on Sunday morning, it would be the massacre of children on a December school day.

A few months after the Sandy Hook shooting, I called pastors of three Newtown congregations to ask them about ministry at this unthinkable event. Their reflections sketched the contours of tender ministry at a terrible time.

The morning of the shooting, parents rushed to the school as they heard the news. They were directed to meet their children at the fire station next door. As the day lengthened, the place that had been the scene for reunions of relief became the waiting room for unbearable but inevitable news. The police had summoned local clergy to the firehouse to be with parents as they waited. I cannot image what it must have been like to be in the firehouse. Matt Crebbin, the pastor of Newtown Congregational Church, was there, and I asked him about it. He responded that the afternoon became holy ground, sacred space, and as such, it was not something to talk about. Horrible moments can become holy moments, and when they do, they belong to God and individuals with whom God grieves.

The evening of the shooting, I watched television coverage of what had happened that day. Reporters interviewed psychologists and school safety experts, police and first responders, and a few parents whose children had survived. The newscast was desperately trying to provide some reasonable perspective on reasonless violence. Meanwhile, in the background, people were walking into a church for a service of prayer. Church is, after all, the one place in a community that can address tragic meaninglessness and not give into despair. I wished the reporters had talked with the pastor, but they just noted how many people were going into the church building.

On Saturday, the clergy in the community gathered to plan a community memorial service, and these pastors told me that they decided on a service of Scripture and prayer. People needed a place to gather. Sometimes, Scripture speaks more eloquently than our efforts to proclaim or exposit it. Sometimes, people need more than anything the presence of the Holy Spirit, whose name is “Comforter.”

The Sunday after the shooting was the third Sunday in Advent, when traditional Advent liturgy calls for lighting a candle for joy. Matt Crebbin said: “When everything is different, people are sustained by doing what is familiar.” In the ensuing weeks, a baby was baptized and new members were received into the church. In the middle of such an overwhelming event, “these normal religious practices were endowed with more meaning.”

By the end of the week, the media trucks had left but the community remained to deal with what had happened. Jack Tanner, pastor at Newtown Christian Church, got a call from someone in the city office building to ask if he would read some scripture and pray with them. The staff was feeling overwhelmed because everyone who came to pay a tax bill or do business was unable to talk about little else than the tragedy. The request and his experience deepened an awareness that ministry can be about being with the people as much as it is being in the pulpit. The continuing trauma of incomprehensible grief needs the Word, once again, to become flesh.

I asked these pastors how the events had influenced their theology. Mel Kawakami, the pastor of the Methodist church, said that as he began to address the theodicy issue, his first theological realization was new insight about grace. Matt Crebbin’s seminary education had helped him think about doubt as a part of faith. He had intellectually understood believing when it barely makes sense to believe — but he said that this event put the issue to him viscerally. “A tragedy like this is so hard to get our hearts and minds and spirits around.” He and his congregation “learned anew to live with the lament of the Psalmist and the protest of the prophets.”

I was struck by the pastoral sensitivity and skill that these three pastors shared. I wonder what they were thinking when they were seminary students, sitting in chapel, listening to someone like me, with their minds on their next class or what they should have read the night before. Is there anything that could have been said or taught in a semester like the one just beginning here at Truett that could have prepared them for that day when evil struck their congregations and community, or the weeks and the months that followed? It is not a hypothetical question, you know. Newtown was not evil’s last word, it is old news pushed down the list of terror: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where a white man joined a prayer service of African American church goers, then killed nine and injured two others; Virginia Tech, where 32 students were killed in a mass shooting late in the spring semester; Orlando, where 49 were killed at a night club; and last fall, Las Vegas, where 59 were killed and hundreds injured at an outdoor country music concert.

I suppose calling your attention to these tragic events is no way to start a new semester. This may be the only day this spring that no one is behind on reading assignments and all the course content looks like it could be interesting. We are here to celebrate the gift of beginning again, a fresh start, a clean slate. There are not many times in life when we have such an opportunity - so why begin with a tragic story and allusions to so many others? There are three reasons.

The first is that you have committed the time, expense, and effort to attend a theological school because there are Sandy Hooks and Sutherland Springs in the world. I hope none of you ever has to meet a parent at a firehouse like the pastors in Newtown did, or serve as the campus minister at a university where there is a mass shooting like Virginia Tech, or return after a Sunday away to a congregation that is shattered and diminished by a shooting like Sutherland Springs. Most of you, however, will not get through ministry absent Job-like tragedies. It may be the teenager who dies in an auto crash because of alcohol, or a young child with terminal cancer, or a marriage that ends in a tragic and bitter divorce, or adult children who break their parents hearts, or the untimely death of a truly good individual, or the ill-gotten wealth and undeserved privilege of a morally offensive one. It may be the fire, or the flood, or the fierce storm that destroys the most cherished artifacts of a life well lived. I am not sure what it will be, but sooner or later, you will stand with a family in front of the casket of a loved one, or sit in a hospital room with parents struggling with their child’s incurable illness, or mount a pulpit to declare a faith that people can bet their lives on when you have wondered if there is good reason to do so.

If you were medical students, you would likely spend a lot of time in a future practice with patients who have the flu, or colds, or aches and pains - mundane stuff. You would endure the demands of medical school, however, because there are times when a patient walks into the office with a life threatening illness that needs to be diagnosed and treated. Much of the work of ministry is mundane, routine, unmemorable, and for all of these moments, most any kind of education will do. Other moments in ministry – when ministers handle the holy, interpret evil, see grace at work — require the kind of education that tutors the human spirit, fashions a way of being in the world, and cultivates space in which, over time, wisdom can emerge.

If nothing bad ever happened, I suppose we could have a summer-camp-kind of theological education with an occasional weekend “how-to” conference to increase skills. But this semester, you will be asked to study difficult texts and thorny theology and master complex ministry skills because, as Martin Luther put in in a hymn text, “For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe. His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.”

Evil stalks pleasant communities and faithful families and good congregations and innocent bystanders. It may not come to you personally, but it will come to people around you, people who will need you to know when to pray, when to preach, what to say, and perhaps most importantly, when to be silent. There is no easy way for you to learn what you need to know for the hard moments of ministry. If you are theologically educated well this semester, your soul will be crunched and your heart moved, and those moments will prepare you for the horrible holy moment when you will need everything you have learned and then some. If you study hard and listen carefully, you will learn things that seem utterly useless, only to discover that, over time, they build perspective, provide ballast, and give you a foundation of stone.

Another reason that I told the Newtown story is that moments like this call on persons who dare interpret Christian faith to take seriously two important questions that guide the work of ministry. They are questions that my friend David Tiede, who served a long and distinguished career as president of Luther Seminary in Minnesota, called to my attention.

The first one is: “What in heaven’s name is going on?” It is a question to be taken literally. There has never been a time since the first moment of creation that God has not been at work. In the context of fundamental changes in the life and work of the church, our job is to ask: “What in heaven’s name is going on?” Where is the Spirit at work, as best we can discern, and what does that mean for the work and witness of God’s church in the world? God is up to something; you can count on that. If you listen, and watch expectantly, you will see the something is going on in heaven’s name. It would be tragic for grace and goodness to splash down on us and we not notice anything other than that we got wet. Remember the Methodist pastor who said that his first theological lesson in the middle of tragedy was new insight about the nature of grace? God is always at work, you can count on it — even in life’s most horrible moments.

The second question is equally important, and with a trigger warning for the pious, here it is: “What the hell is going on?” I taught at Southern Seminary during the Southern Baptist battles of the 1980s. Faculty members occasionally received surveys from well-meaning Baptist congregations with questions to which we were asked to answer “yes” or “no.” (Your studies at Truett may lead you to discover that not all theological questions can be answered with a categorical yes or no, but I digress.) One of the questions that was typically included on these surveys asked if I believed in a personal devil. I was to respond either with a “Yes” or “No.” We can argue theologically about how personal the devil is, but when you look at Newtown or Mother Emanuel, or Sutherland Springs, or the Holocaust, you understand that the effects of evil are always personal.

Evil is persistent and pervasive. Evil tears down trust, nurtures injustice, and scars human lives. Evil, in its craftiest moments, masquerades as good, and lures us into thinking we should bless it when we should curse it. Hell has its fury and engenders sin both in its original form and in creative new expressions. Our task as Christian ministers is to ask “What the hell is going on?” Racism and prejudice, greed and avarice, violence and deceit, death and destruction are Evil’s handiwork. Evil is always up to something, and faith requires us to recognize its work and name it for what it is.

You can’t ask one of these questions without the other. Both heaven and hell will make a claim on you and the Gospel you serve. A romantic faith that presumes that heaven will always win does not pray seriously the one prayer Jesus taught us to pray: “deliver us from evil.” A cynical faith that thinks good cannot defeat evil does not pray seriously another petition in the same prayer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

It is not enough to be vigilant about these two questions. It is also essential not to assume evil is the agent of good or good the agent of evil. Richard Mouw, long time president of Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote in a recent blog about a conversation with a cab driver in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They were driving by where the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Joseph used to be, before the flood destroyed it. The cab driver pointed out the empty lot with sadness because the sisters had educated and cared for him as a child. He told Mouw that, where he was living temporarily after the storm, “A local preacher had gotten some publicity...for proclaiming that the destruction caused by Katrina was a judgment from the Lord on New Orleans because of the city’s many sins. I get angry about that comment every time I pass this spot,” the taxi driver said with emotion. “The fact is that there was no damage done to...Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club...But the Sisters of Saint Joseph lost their Motherhouse. What kind of divine judgment is that?” Like the cab driver, you know that God is the author of “every good and perfect gift,” not the maker of destruction and tragedy.

Still a third reason I told the Newtown story is to remind you that seminary cannot teach you everything that you will need to know to be faithful ministers. Remember Matt Crebbin’s reflection? Seminary had instructed him about the problem of evil and the presence of doubt in the life of faith, but the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School became a theological education that forced him to learn in his gut what he had been taught in his head. Roger Shinn, a religious educator of another generation, once wrote that the most educational event in his life was being a soldier in World War II. It would not only have been impossible for any school to have prepared him for the misery and evil that he saw in the war, but it would have been immoral for a school to try to replicate them in order to teach them. Some things are important to learn that no school, however good, can teach you. You learn them by being in the middle of the joys and pains, burdens and trauma of your own lives and of the people with whom you work.

You will have faithfully learned your lessons here when you understand that no matter how much you learn — from school, from work in ministry, from your life, and from the lives of others — it will not be enough. The result of our most studious efforts at learning is humility more than knowledge. It is not a humility with its roots in failure or lack of effort; it is birthed from understanding that God is unknowable, that God’s ways are mysterious, that God’s grace is unfathomable, and that the sweep of God’s justice is incomprehensible. Ministers of the Christian Gospel can never be know-it-alls because the wisest of them understand that they are stewards of the unsearchable riches of God in Christ Jesus.

Sandy Hook Elementary School was torn down and a new school with a new name was built. The first graders who survived the shooting are in middle school now. Time does not give back what was lost, but it does heal. An article published last month on the fifth anniversary of the shooting noted that “to see Newtown in 2017 is to see how grief endures and evolves, and how a community can, however fitfully, negotiate a way forward. It is an uncomfortable process, involving a delicate dance between not wanting to dwell on the loss and not wanting to stray from a vow to never forget.”

Stephen Curry, the pastor at La Vernia United Methodist Church, seven miles west of Sutherland Springs First Baptist, wrote a New York Times OpEd the week after the shooting: “A church in Wilson County is a community center where good people strive to do good for fellow human beings. A church in Wilson County is a home for extended family to share their lives. A church in Wilson County is a place where we come to mourn losses, grieve the death of a friend or relative, celebrate the joys of life and love. A church in Wilson County is a place where we connect with the God who loves us, watches over us, and, in the end, welcomes us home.”

Authentic ministry requires learning lessons that can be hard, even painful. It requires entering human lives at the point of their worst tragedy, greatest sadness, and scariest moments. I wish I could say this is easy work; that you need not know much and that what knowledge you need requires little effort to obtain. Ministry is full of ordinary moments and joyful ones, but the human condition has a heavy side. We serve a Christ who was ridiculed, bruised, beaten, crucified. While we will not suffer his fate, we live in a world in which the evil that did that to him continues to be tirelessly and tenaciously active.

Your task this semester is to learn, and in the process, become more humble about what you know. It is to learn - not so much to accumulate information as to become a more whole human being, the kind that God had in mind when the human family was created. In the midst of hard learning, heavy work, and terribly tender times of life, you need to feel the embrace of the text that was read earlier in the service. You may have wondered if I was going to mention it or in what way it could possibly be related to anything that I have said. The connection is precisely in what I have said about evil and hardship, human failing and tragedy, and the hard tasks of ministry. These two verses are a text that we want to race to, but their truth comes slowly. It is after we are wearied and burdened that we hear the invitation of Christ: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It is after we have worked hard, faced issues that we cannot explain, learned all we can and realized that it is still not enough that we are ready to hear Christ’s command: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)

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