Tony’s comment on my previous post has led me to reflect further on why I maintain hope in the United Methodist tradition that I am a part of. Again and again I hear folks bemoan the intransigence of their religious traditions. Likewise, a common refrain is the lack of connection with their theological education and life in this new world.
My experience has been different.
I attended seminary in the late 1990’s as a second career person (after some 12 years working as a denominational employee). I originally started at a relatively liberal divinity school located here in Nashville. My experience there was less than stellar. It was a good place, with good people, but it was clear that that environment was devoid from the reality of life in the local church. Well over two-thirds of the student population had no intention of working in a parish, rather the M.Div was a step along the way to a PhD and ultimately a teaching position. For a variety of reasons, from transition at this school to my own personal turmoil, I withdrew and thought that I had been able to extract myself from this call to ministry.
When it was clear that was not the case, I entered the candidacy process and decided to attend a denominational seminary. I knew Tex Sample through my work, and he put the hard sell on me to attend St. Paul in Kansas City. However, mainly due to proximity and the offer of good scholarships, I ended up at Candler at Emory in Atlanta.
It was certainly a denominationally affiliated school, in that a high percentage of the student body was United Methodist. For one planning on inhabiting a denominational tradition this was helpful in the availability of resources about that tradition as well as developing networks of relationships in the denomination.
Yet, I found it a place that was more than willing to deal with the hard questions of faith, a place that wasn’t satisfied with the status quo, a place that nurtured me to become the person that I am.
- Sitting in Introduction to Christian Thought under Bill Mallard and Roberta Bondi, learning for the first time that there was both a Western and an Eastern tradition of theology, and discovering that I was indeed “orthodox” (whatever that means).
- Hearing my homiletics professors eschew a particular method of preaching, encouraging students to discover their own authentic voices, and especially encouraging a narrative approach to sermons. It was in these classes that I first encountered Wendell Berry, perhaps the first emerging prophet.
- Leading a retreat with Luke Timothy Johnson on discernment and scripture, helping folks to not only approach the scripture academically, but in ways that affect our lives.
- Sponsoring a conversation between conservatives and liberals on “Sexuality and the Sacred,” attempting to form a new and consistent post-Augustinian ethic on sexuality.
- Studying theology a liberal, Mennonite woman who introduced me to Barth and Tillich, but then also to a whole host of contextual theologians who broadened my view of how God speaks in the world.
- Discovering Howard Thurman, especially his writings on community, and learning about his congregation in San Francisco which maintained many of the values of current emerging churches back in the 1950’s.
- Sitting with a group of students wrestling with the theodicy question and realizing that the problem wasn’t with God, but with our belief that we are somehow in control of our own destinies. That was about the same time that I was introduced to Stanley Hauerwas.
- Sitting in a strange worship space, experiencing the mystery of the eucharist, the joy of African American celebration, the contemplation of the Brothers from Taize, and hearing the best sermon I have ever heard preached by Vashti MacKenzie, the first African American female bishop in the AME.
So many memories, and so many of them were good. It wasn’t an easy time. I had a young child. My wife served a church and our parsonage was 65 miles from the school. Yet, throughout that time I had a sense that I was being formed, and that formation would serve me well in the world. So far, those feelings have been true.
There have been other signs of hope along the way in my denomination. Of course, there has also been a lot of pain as well. I still hold on, remembering those I was in seminary with and knowing the character of their ministry. This past week, I sat with a group of United Methodist pastors listening to Tom Long, the preaching professor at Candler, paint a vision for preaching and worship that is in line with the things that we are talking about. He told me about a former classmate who is leading a thriving parish in which he has combined the high mass with contemporary musical forms in a way that is authentic and vibrant. Others are leading small rural parishes, but offering them a view of faith that takes seriously the radical call of Christ. There is hope, especially at the congregational level. Unfortunately, those visions of hope are rarely seen.