Called to Serve

"We should take very seriously what the dreadful past can tell us
about our blindness and predilections. The haunting fact is we are
morally free. If everyone around us is calling for Barabbas, it is only
probable, never necessary, that some of us join in. Since we have not
yet burned the taper of earthly existence down to its end, we still
have time to muster the dignity and graciousness and courage that
are uniquely our gift. If we are making the last testament to human
life, or if we are only one more beleaguered generation in a series
whose end we cannot foresee, each of us and all of us know what
human beauty would look like. We could let it have its moment.
Fine, but would this solve the world's problems? It might solve a
good many of them. I think."

"Awakening" by Marilynne Robinson, FT Weekend

I am writing this while flying back from Seattle, where I spent two days at a conference of A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE).

I was invited because I serve on the seminary board of Seattle Pacific University (SPU), an institution of high learning of the Free Methodist Church, a small Christian denomination that in 1860 had its beginnings in Pekin, New York; a denomination started by Methodist clergy removed from their pulpits because they believed slavery immoral and refused to compromise their beliefs and the Methodist church, disliking controversy, booted them out. (I do not expect you to know that history, but to know that that history matters.)

The conference began Sunday afternoon on campus at SPU and ended Tuesday afternoon; a conference that featured, among others, Reverend Craig Brown, senior minister at First United Methodist Church of San Diego; Dr. Kenneth H. Carter, bishop of the Florida area of the United Methodist Church, author of eight books; Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean, professor of Youth & Culture, Princeton Theological Seminary, author of seven books and considered the nation's leading authority on religion and youth; Dr. L. Gregory Jones, senior strategist for Leadership Education at Duke Seminary (and former dean), author of five books; and SPU's own seminary dean, Dr. Douglas M. Strong, the convener of the conference.

Participants came from California, Idaho, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington. At the table where I sat I was surrounded by Ph.Ds on my left, Ph.Ds on my right, and Ph.Ds across the table; indeed, a conference room full of Ph.Ds (I had no occasion to mention my Litt.D. from Point Loma Nazarene University).

In short, this was a conference of incredibly smart and hugely accomplished human beings; all of whom traveled to the Pacific Northwest for one purpose - how do we improve Christian higher education to better serve society?

If you're still with me, since I'm not writing about Donald Trump or Ben Carson, of Carley Fiorina or Hillary Clinton, of Vladimir Putin or ISIS, of America's immoral wealth divide or one percenters, but rather ask you to focus on that line - "to better serve society."

I served for two years as president of the San Diego County Ecumenical Council, an organization of more than 100 Christian churches.

The Council included churches big and small; churches that met in Cathedrals and those that met in hotel ballrooms; Protestant and Catholic churches; Orthodox and Mainline churches; churches theologically liberal and theologically conservative - but joined as one in their common commitment to serve society.

Which is to say, to serve a secular society overwhelmingly clueless on the services provided by Christian churches and the faith community.

In my two years of leading the Council I came to understand this essential and fundamental truth - absent Christian churches and the faith community the social fabric of American society tears apart; or to put in less elegant language, that absent their presence in our midst, we are totally screwed.

But that wasn't the focus of the conference, as the good and even extraordinary deeds done by churches and faith communities wasn't in question; but whether that remains a given depends upon, first, the willingness of churches to change, and, secondly, their ability to implement change - and neither is certain.

What these remarkably intelligent men and women were trying to accomplish was to look at where churches are and where they need to go; that the "back to Egypt" mindset characteristics of too many in today's churches, Dr. Jones said, won't work in our postmodern world; that a new paradigm is required.

A great deal was said about "millennials", a generation largely in rejection of the institutional church; a generation confused about the meaning of God, yet wanting, at the same time, acceptance, love, and a purposeful life.

But while "millennials" was often invoked, another word was more often heard - and that word was, "reconciliation."

Dr. Jones talked about the need for reconciliation through relationships; that in an impersonal age people are desperate to relate; of the need to feel acceptance, of being loved - especially young people.

He spoke of a time when some children were educated in one-room school houses, where teachers had to teach grades first through nine, which required the skill of being able to reach each child at the level of their need. He used this example to emphasize how impersonal education has become, where teachers barely know their students' names, much less their stories (an undeniable fact, I believe, of too many public schools and non-Christian secular institutions of higher learning).

In colloquies that followed these forceful presentations, including SPU's Jeffrey Keuss, the younger academics and clergy at the conference kept coming back to the Christian churches' calling to be a welcoming and accepting and loving community; that absent that moral standing, many in our society will increasingly find the church irrelevant - as too many already have.

I stand in awe of these men and women who have committed their lives to preparing the next generation of church and faith leaders for service to others; to bind the wounds of those broken in both body and soul, to heal the hurt in our society - and provide others with a chance to make it in our troubled and uncertain world.

"We could let it have its moment. "Fine", Marilynne Robinson wrote, "but would this solve the world's problems? It might solve a good many of them. I think."

Yes, I also think. Don't you?

The conference ended with a service of communion, with Doug Strong and SPU's Celeste Cranston, offering the bread and wine at a table open to all; a reminder that out of our brokenness the church and faith communities offer healing and forgiveness - and they do this because they are called to serve.