Dean Still on Baylor Connections: Extended Interview Notes

April 10, 2020

Read Dean Todd Still's full interview notes below for the Baylor Connections podcast airing on Good Friday, April 10, 2020. Listen to the podcast here.

How are you, your faculty and students handling the transitions surrounding COVID-19?

Thank you for asking. Taken together, on the whole, we are doing well. Up until now, no one associated with the Truett Seminary family of whom we are aware has contracted the illness. This is a blessing. Be that as it may, we are knowledgeable and mindful of those who have, and our hearts go out to them even as our prayers go up for them.

That being said, we miss being together day in and day out. We miss in-person instruction and interaction, corporate worship and table fellowship, studying and sharing, praying and listening, laughing and learning, and many other intangibles of life together as a residential seminary community. Transitioning our classes to an online environment has been a rather heavy lift for us, but we are bearing with one another and are growing more adept and accustom to this mode of delivery day by day.

Meanwhile, a number of our students are struggling with lack of or loss of work. In an effort to mitigate and ameliorate their hardship, seminary faculty, staff, alumni, and friends have generously and even sacrificially given funds to meet some of their basic needs such as food, medicine, and the like. We are a tight-knit community looking out for one another even as we seek to look to the LORD from whom our help ultimately comes.

What elements of ministry and education are brought into sharper focus by an event like this?

So much of education is relational and so much of pastoral ministry is incarnational. Baylor rightly speaks of itself as a caring community. One of my favorite passages in the Gospel of John is found in the first chapter in the Prolog. There, the evangelist declares, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:1, 14). To take an additional example, the Apostle Paul wrote letters as a substitute and as a surrogate for his presence. If he could have been, for example, at Corinth in person, then there would have been no need for written communication.

I, for one, am grateful for the technologies that have enabled us to remain connected in these days of social distancing and shelter-in-place, but no digital device or remote connection can rival or replicate face-to-face interaction, non-verbal communication, and personal attention. Humanity craves community, and living in isolation can be debilitating, even soul-destroying. “It is not good for us to be alone,” and we are learning this afresh in these days. The myth of the autonomous self is being further revealed as untrue.

As we celebrate Easter weekend, I want to dive into more specific questions later on, but broadly, what are some of the things on your heart and mind as we prepare for Easter in 2020?

I suspect that I am feeling and thinking in ways similar to scores of Christ-followers the world over. On the one hand, I am sad. I hunger to go to church, to gather with other believers, not least on Easter. On the other hand, I am glad. The reality of Jesus Christ’s resurrection is not contingent upon Christians’ gathering together in person to celebrate the same. To this extent, I cannot help but wonder if the range of thoughts and emotions that I am experiencing is similar to the first Easter, where Mary Magdalene’s mourning in the garden gave way to her declaring to the disciples after Jesus revealed himself to her, “I have seen the Lord!” What Jesus said to his disciples in the Upper Room Discourse in John’s Gospel seems altogether applicable just now: “You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:22).

We’re reminded in a time like this that the Church is more than a building and the place we go on Sundays. Regardless of where, or if, we meet in person, what are we talking about when we talk about the Church as an individual congregation or the broader global body?

Growing up, many of us learned with hand motions this saying, “Here is the church; here is the steeple; open the doors, and see all the people.” That simple, little rhyme was seeking to teach us that the church is about far more than bricks and sticks, nickels and noses. At its core, the church is about people who are being transformed and conformed into the character and likeness of Christ. We know this in principle, but we are learning this afresh in practice. Christians do not go to the Lord’s house; by the indwelling Spirit of the Risen Jesus, they are the Lord’s house.

Over the years, I have found it helpful to think of the church local and universal, visible and invisible, gathered and scattered. I have found it valuable to view the church as in the world, seeking the welfare of the city as Jeremiah might put it, yet not ultimately defined or constrained by the world, for as Revelation reminds, “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11:15).

What are the binding elements of the Church, set on a foundation of faith, that perhaps we sometimes lose sight of when we get lost in the routines of our lives?

When writing to the Corinthians, Paul instructs, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). A number of those who listen to this broadcast will know the hymn, “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord.” One of the church’s first confessions was “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). That basic, bedrock confession unites believers near and far across denominational and geographical lines.

In addition to a common confession, believers are meant to be bound together by an uncommon care for one another and for others. We, like Jesus, should seek not to be served but to serve. We do well to be continually mindful that Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Are there times in Church history that provide us with a model of how people of faith and church bodies have navigated challenging situations before?

There are many, and they are being noted and circulated with some regularity in these days of acute challenge and change. As it happens, Baylor’s own Rodney Stark and Philip Jenkins have written insightfully and compellingly on such matters.

Allow me to offer but two examples. The so-called Plague of Cyprian was a pandemic that swept the Roman Empire from roughly AD 249-262. At the height of the outbreak, 5,000 people per day were said to be dying in Rome. In the midst of this plague, according to Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, believers the empire over showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead (see Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 7.22).

According to Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity, the response of early Christ-followers to one another and to others in times of plague and pandemic was one of the cardinal reasons that Christianity grew from a significant yet small movement in the 2nd century AD to some 6 million strong by the year 300.

Another inspiring example about which I have recently read is the response of Protestant Reformer Martin Luther and his pregnant wife, Katharina, to a plague that struck Wittenburg, Germany in 1527. In a letter dated 19 August 1527, Luther wrote:

We must respect the word of Christ, “I was sick and you did not visit me.” According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.

He continues,

We are here alone with the deacons, but Christ is present too, that we may not be alone, and he will triumph in us over that old serpent, murderer, and author of sin, however much he may bruise Christ’s heel. Pray for us, and farewell.

I find these two examples, among others, to be inspiring and instructive, if not immediately and wholly applicable in our particular historical context.

Are there questions that can be helpful for church leaders to ask themselves right now?

It has been said that questions can tell us more than answers. Good questions, even unanswered ones, are always in order, perhaps even more so now. Here are five:

  • How can I personally and our church collectively be faithful to the Lord in these days?
  • How can I personally and our church collectively support others, both spiritually and materially?
  • How long, O Lord, how long? (This is a biblical question. Psalm 13:1-2; 79:5; 89:46; Habakkuk 1:2)
  • Should our congregation or organization receive support from the United States Federal Government made possible through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the so-called CARES Act)
  • How can we be ready to pivot once this pandemic passes?
What are some of the ways you see churches utilizing creativity and leveraging technology to stay connected?

They are reaching in to one another through email, phone calls, and video conferencing and are reaching out to each other and to others also through live-streaming and recording worship services, Bible studies, and the like. I am inclined to agree with James K.A. Smith of Calvin University, who recently tweeted:

While the pandemic is pushing churches to forms of digital/remote worship, you’d expect this to foster disembodiment, giving license for further “ex-carnation” as Charles Taylor puts it. But I’m seeing the opposite: remote worship is revivifying the “parish” [that is, cause people to grow more connected with their own local churches as they worship online].

What about service? How do churches serve their communities in a time where we’re supposed to stay physically separate?

Churches can, and many have, continued, with appropriate and adequate caution, to feed the hungry and the homeless and to deliver on doorsteps of church members and associates needed foodstuffs and medicines. In addition to active care, one way that all believers can serve others is through fervent prayer. God remains a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).

Many of us can sometimes be guilty of a consumer mentality of church and its role in our lives. For individuals, how can this focus the way we consider church and our role in it?

Derek, as I see it, the COVID-19 pandemic has afforded us the opportunity to examine our own commitments and to ask anew, “What matters most in life and in death?” St. Paul exclaimed, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Jesus himself instructs us that love of God and of neighbor are preeminent (Mark 11:28-34). He also teaches us to live our lives by losing them for the growth of the gospel, the good of others, and the glory of God. This is life worth living and church worth having.

How can families, particularly those with children, navigate this time in a meaningful way and help children learn some of these lessons about what the Church truly is?

Although my wife Carolyn and I are now empty-nesters (our eldest son Samuel is a second-year Truett Seminary student and our younger son Andrew is a junior at Baylor), we have been reading and reflecting upon Scripture together, particularly the Psalms, at mealtimes. We have also been praying for others, checking on others, giving to others, and worshipping with others. We have also, I might note, combined ongoing exercise, chores around the house, and playing with and taking care of our dogs with our daily, demanding work. Thus, we have been able to preserve some of the rhythms and essential functions of church at home. These, however, are not suitable nor sustainable substitutes for life in and with the church.

We spoke about this at the top of the show briefly, but let’s talk about Easter and its meaning, particularly in light of current events. Does the current reality of COVID-19 bring into sharper focus for you any elements of the Easter story and Christ’s sacrifice?

In what is likely the earliest written gospel, the Gospel of Mark, it is recorded in 15:34 that from the cross, as he was dying, Jesus cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” This Aramaic phrase, meaning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, is a citation of Psalm 22:1. Without question, Jesus felt himself despised, rejected, and alone on Golgatha; without question, Jesus’ resurrection signals God steadfast, unfailing love for his Son and for the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him would not perish but would have everlasting life” (John 3:16). If, in this time of pandemic we might feel alone, we can rest assured that we are never alone. Jesus assures us of his promised presence even until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). He is Emmanuel and not only at Christmas and Easter. This is true of Jesus, the one who is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (so Hebrews 13:8), 24/7/365.

This year will, by nature, strip away a lot of the traditions surrounding Easter that have formed over the years—not only going to Church in person, but things like Easter dinner with extended family, dresses, Easter egg hunts, etc. What can that mean for Christians individually, as a family and as a body?

I like the traditions that have grown up around Easter (and Christmas for that matter) and enjoy participating in them. That being said, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, Easter is not about bunnies or bonnets, dresses and dinners, eggs and extravagances. It is about the resurrected, reigning, returning Lord Jesus Christ, and it is vital that we remember this both in season and out of season.

Each year, Truett Seminary sends out an Easter Card. This year on the outside of the card is a single word followed with an exclamation mark: “Alleluia!” Inside the card, it says, among other things, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!” This so-called Easter Acclamation or Paschal Greeting is a suitable, succinct summary of what Easter is all about.

To close, are there verses or stories from the Bible that particularly speak to you or spark hope during this time?

Derek, it seems to me that we do well to read and to recall the resurrection accounts from the four-fold gospel witness time and again. These appear at the end of each gospel, reminding us that it is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, even if it is the end of the beginning.

Additionally and finally, at the conclusion of 1 Corinthians 15, the most protracted treatment of the subject of the resurrection in sacred Scripture, Paul offers the Corinthians, and by way of extension us, this word of encouragement and hope when he writes, “Therefore, beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (15:58). This reminder that we are more than conquerors in Christ, who conquered death and the grave, rings especially true at this particular time. It may be Good Friday, but Easter Sunday is just around the chronological and theological corner.

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