Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mourning a Loss at Christmas: A Tale of Two Trees

For many people, Christmas is a season of loss and loneliness. As the days grow shorter, the darkness on the outside works it's way inside us by imperceptible degrees. In defiance, we string up twinkling lights and bake cookies to the soothing sounds of Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole. But all of our merry-making doesn't make a difference in the end. There are green trees aplenty, supposed symbols of life and hope. But we know the truth about these trees -- that there are only two kinds, namely, the ones that are dying and the ones that were never real to begin with.

I am mourning a loss this year. But its not the usual suspect. I am not mourning the loss of loved one, though I do always miss my grandfather the most this time of year. If he were here, he would be telling anyone who would listen that he didn't need anything and that he didn't care all that much about Christmas. And he would conclude his anti-holiday rant the way he always did, namely, by assuring us that he would be glad when the whole fuss was over and we could get back to the business of everyday life. 

The loss that I am mourning this year is more difficult to name. It's not the loss of any particular person so much as it is the loss of a way of life. The way of life that I have in mind, if I may put it somewhat crudely, has to do with giving a damn about the well-being of one's neighbors and one's community -- really giving a damn. I don't mean the kind of giving a damn that happens when we send a greeting card or drop a few wrinkled one dollar bills and some loose change in a Salvation Army bucket as we leave the grocery story with two loaded down shopping carts in tow. Rather, I have in mind a form of giving a damn that knows not the meaning of inconvenience. 

The sad truth is that most of us don't mind helping even a stranger at this time of year so long as it doesn't inconvenience us. But if our closest neighbors or fellow church members' needs happen at an inconvenient hour of the day, we will go out of our way to assure them after the fact that we really do wish we could have been there -- that we really do wish we could have helped -- but our kid had soccer practice.  

I recently witnessed the loss of this way of life in a most dramatic way. The United Methodist Church that I attend averages around 200 people on Sunday morning. For the last several weeks, the children and youth of the church met together early every Sunday morning to practice a special Christmas play. They worked very hard on costume and set design and on memorizing their lines. Unfortunately, the play was scheduled at an inconvenient time, namely, on a Sunday afternoon. I can not begin to describe how empty the sanctuary was, which is to say, how lonely. The pastor and his wife, a smattering of parents, and a few members of the hospitality committee who were tasked with organizing refreshments afterwards sat together on the front pews in an effort to mask the fact that no one had bothered to come.
A church that doesn't make supporting its children and youth a top priority can't expect to be around for very long. Thus I am tempted to say that my church is the first type of tree that I mentioned above -- the kind that is dying. But that is not the case. My church is actually the second kind of tree -- the kind that was never real to begin with. Hence, I am not sharing this story in order to shame the good people of my church. In fact, this story isn't even about my church.  

This is really a story about where my church is located, namely, the suburbs. Suburbs are those places in America that were never real to begin with. Like artificial trees, the whole point of suburban life is convenience. After all, the reason people move to the suburbs is to escape the inconveniences of rural and city life. However, over time, which is to say, by imperceptible degrees, the allure of convenience morphs into something far more insidious, namely, the spirit of not really giving a damn. To be sure, we never intended for this to happen. We are well-meaning types. And that is why I don't really blame anyone for not showing up. We simply don't realize what has happened to us.   

The good news is that there are places in America where people still give a damn, namely, those urban and rural areas from which so many of us have fled. The people who have lived long in those places know not the meaning of inconvenience. They will give you the shirts off their backs and not think twice about the time of day. The bad news is that, like fresh cut trees at Christmas, these places are dying. And we have only ourselves to blame.   

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How Rachel Held Evans Ruined a Perfectly Good Day

So this morning I shared with my wife that I had accepted an invitation to be one of two plenary speakers at a clergy event in Charleston, WV next fall. To this good news, my wife responded in the most matter of fact way, "Be sure to put it on your Google Calendar." I waited for her to ask me what I would be speaking on, but such an obvious question was not in the making.

A few minutes later, she asked, "Who's the other speaker?"

When I replied, "Rachel Held Evans," my previously expressionless wife went bananas.

About ten minutes later, as if I didn't get the message the first time, she looked up from her computer and said, "I will be able to go to that event, right?"

Rachel Held Evans, if you are reading this (and you know you are), you are officially out of my five.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What the Butcher Said (A Lesson in Gratitude)

I grew up in a family that loved to fish and hunt. As a boy, I did my share of both. Some of my fondest memories of my grandparents involve fishing at Clover Lake. Through the eyes of a child, Clover Lake was enormous. It was, in reality, just a farm pond. But it only cost a dollar to get in, and we routinely caught a dozen or more catfish. I have a cherished photo of myself posing proudly next to a whole passel of fish on the back steps of my nanny and papaw's house.

After college, I stopped fishing and hunting almost entirely. I had bigger and better things to do -- advanced degrees to earn, teaching jobs to acquire, books to write. In short, I had a career to build. 

A couple of years ago, I began to rediscover my love for the great outdoors. Last year, I did a lot of hiking and cycling, and I went paddle boarding for the first time This year, I have recovered my family's hunting heritage. 

What prompted this? Why did I return to the woods? 

I am the father of three children. My son, the oldest of the three, will be 8 in January. Every morning, when I walk into his bedroom, he looks bigger than the night before. He is growing up too fast. And this has led me to think carefully about the things I most want to pass on to him -- about the skills and capacities that I most want to teach him and his two younger sisters. I have a sense of urgency about this. I know their time at home will pass all too quickly.  

One of the things I most want to pass on to my children is a deep appreciation and love for God's good creation. I want them to enjoy the mountains and creeks and streams. I want them to be renewed and refreshed in the great outdoors. Along with this, I want them to appreciate where their food comes from. I want them to understand that eating requires great sacrifice. I want them to know that fruit and vegetables do not come from Kroger -- that they are the result of much labor and care for the land and for trees and crops. And I want them to know that meat does not come from a grocery store -- that it is always the result of the sacrifice of other living creatures. In other words, I want my children to experience a deeper level of gratitude when they say grace before meals.

This past weekend, I shot and killed a deer while hunting on some land that belongs to a farmer here in Ohio. I explained to the local butcher, who was helping me with the deer, my motivation for getting back into hunting. I told him that, when my son was of age, I wanted to be able to initiate him into the joys and difficulties of the hunting life (killing an animal is not easy). At first, the butcher did not respond, prompting me to wonder whether he was listening. A few minutes later, he informed me that, when he was ten years old, his own father had died in a combine accident just a few miles up the road. It had been more than 50 years since the accident, but it seemed liked yesterday.

As I prepared to leave the butcher's house, I asked him how much the processing would cost. Putting his hand on my shoulder, he replied, "You are doing this for your children; that is payment enough for me." 

Later that night, while kneeling beside my son's bed, I was the one who experienced a deeper level of gratitude. 

Now if I could only figure out how best to express my gratitude to the butcher.      

Monday, November 11, 2013

What's Wrong with Theological Education? (Or, what Prospective Seminary Students are Really Looking for)

Theological educators these days are like ducks gliding across a pond. To the naked eye, they appear utterly serene. Ask any seminary Dean how things are going and you will receive a glowing report. But under the surface, they are paddling like mad. Enrollments are trending downward and morale is at an all-time low. Many well-known seminaries have already closed their doors.

And so the race is on to find that one silver bullet that will cure all that ails our theological institutions. For many, the silver bullet is online or distance learning. The problem here is overcrowding. Early subscribers to online learning cleaned up for a decade (Asbury Theological Seminary comes to mind), but they are now in a crowded and noisy marketplace that, sooner or later, will succumb to the law of diminishing returns.

Another silver bullet is faculty diversification. The logic here is clear. If seminaries hire more women, they will be more likely to draw more female students. If seminaries hire more African-Americans, they will be more likely to attract more African-American students. But this clearly isn't working. There are plenty of schools with highly diverse faculties whose enrollments are tanking. Moreover, there are examples of seminaries who have diversified their faculties in response to growing female and racial minority student populations rather than as a means of trying to stimulate growth. In these cases, something else is clearly attracting the students.

A third silver bullet is time to degree completion. Over the last few years, a large number of seminaries have been slashing their curriculum from 90+ hours to 70+ hours for the MDiv. (the standard seminary degree frequently required for ordination). Like the online game, early subscribers to this marketing trick reaped benefits. However, virtually everyone has now made cuts to their MDiv. degree, so there is little competitive edge here.

A fourth silver bullet is extension campuses. Lots of seminaries have been tinkering with this approach for years. The results have been mixed at best. My sense is that very few extension campuses have been a resounding success. The reason for this is plain to see. Schools want maximum reward for minimal investment. Satellite campuses are rarely staffed at anything approaching the level of the parent school. And like the online and time to completion silver bullets, the marketplace gets more crowded everyday. What school isn't dreaming of opening a campus in Houston or Phoenix?

There are more silver bullets out there. But the point I want to make is this: if we could run ballistics on the silver bullets currently in favor among theological educators we would discover that they all derive from a common source, namely, sociological and economic analysis. In other words, theological educators think that their enrollment problems are strictly sociological and economic. It rarely occurs to them that their deepest problem might actually be theological.

This brings me back to ducks. Where I come from, there is an old saying. If something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, chances are its a duck!

What does this have to do with theological education? Prospective seminary students are not tabula rasas eager for theological educators to provide them with cognitive content for the first time. On the contrary, I think many prospective seminary students quickly see through the marketing gimmicks currently being employed by seminaries in a desperate attempt to save themselves. More to the point, most prospective students are good at discerning whether or not a school of theology is actually a school of theology rather than, say, a school of sociology and economics. In other words, they are good at figuring out whether a school has something theological to say.

Above all, my sense is that most prospective seminary students operate with a litmus test. But its not the litmus test that many theological educators suspect. Schooled in the ways of cynicism and skepticism, many theological educators are quick to say that prospective students want a seminary that will confirm everything they already believe. I don't share this view at all. To be sure, some prospective students think this way, but I think they are a minority. I believe the majority of prospective seminary students are more theologically and spiritually mature than that. I believe that what the majority of prospective students are looking for is a school whose faculty knows that "the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (Prov. 9:10). In short, they are looking for a school whose faculty demonstrate a humility that suggests they really do know God.       

Friday, November 8, 2013

The (Ongoing) Renewal of United Theological Seminary: A Theological Account

A little while ago, I received an email from a friend who teaches at another United Methodist seminary. My friend explained that she had been appointed to chair a special task force that her Dean had recently commissioned. The purpose of this new task force was to find a way to stop the steady enrollment decline that this particular school has been experiencing over the last decade or so.

Predictably, my friend wanted to ask me about the rather dramatic turnaround that United Theological Seminary (UTS) has experienced over the last eight years (during that time, UTS has gone from an enrollment of 130 to an enrollment of more than 600!). But it was clear to me that my friend had already decided that the primary cause of our enrollment growth was our distance education program (we offer hybrid and online courses alongside our traditional "face to face" courses). I understand this. If I were on the outside looking in, I would assume the same thing. And I would be wrong.

The truth is that UTS' enrollment had almost doubled before we began offering hybrid and online courses. So what changed in those first three years of growth? What were we doing differently?

There are two ways to answer this question. On the one hand, we can answer it from a business point of view. On the other hand, we can answer this question from a theological point of view. 

From a marketing point of view, here is what happened. About seven years ago, the faculty at United Theological Seminary made a conscious decision to be more inclusive. In our case, being more inclusive meant being more hospitable to evangelicals, Pentecostals, and charismatics. We didn't have many students, but the majority of our students at the time could be categorized as center-left mainline liberal-progressive. We were committed to diversity in theory but not in practice. The reality was that we were neither warm nor welcoming to the majority of Protestant Christians in the world, which is to say, to evangelicals, Pentecostals, and charismatics. From a business point of view, this was, in a word, stupid. We were fighting for a share of a rapidly shrinking pool, namely, center-left mainline liberal Protestants! 

We knew that if we were going to "reach out" to evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic Christians, we were going to have to re-brand ourselves (note the crass language of business). And so we agreed as a faculty to focus our branding on three things: 1) basic Christian Orthodoxy; 2) holiness; and 3) church renewal. Gradually, prospective evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic began to inquire about our school, and within a year, they began to show up. Of course, we did more than just paste these labels on our website. We also revised our curriculum to reflect these commitments. And we began to reach out to groups like Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (a charismatic oriented United Methodist renewal group).

I could go on and on. We were very strategic. We knew what we were doing. We knew there was a bigger market out there, and we were determined to grab a share.

From a theological point of view, there is a very different story to be told. I arrived at United Theological Seminary when it was on death's doorstep. Faculty and staff were leaving, and new people were coming on board. We knew that the school was in trouble, but we came anyway. What we didn't know is that God was at work behind the scenes. We didn't realize that the Holy Spirit was already assembling a group of people who were all committed to 1) basic Christian Orthodoxy; 2) holiness; and 3) church renewal. We didn't foresee that God was about to bring to United not only evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic students, but also evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic faculty and staff. And we certainly didn't know that we would eventually add online and hybrid courses that would help to make theological education accessible to students from all over the world!

Looking back, we knew what we were doing, but we didn't have a clue what God was doing. At the time, we formed special task forces and held special meetings. We even developed a new strategic plan. In short, we thought we were taking control. But God's plans turned out to be much bigger and greater than our plans. And as for control, let's just say that no one who works at United has any illusions. As we often say, God's holiness is like a wild fire! It will neither be contained nor controlled.

At United Theological Seminary, our main goal these days is to stay as close to the fire as possible, even if that means that we are constantly at risk of getting burned! 

Even so. Come, Holy Spirit.          

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Green Recliner: A Tribute

Yesterday, two men in a truck brought a new recliner to our home. Its a nice chair. I am sitting in it right now. But I would be lying if I said I didn't miss my old recliner, which those same two men took from me as they left. Here, then, is a loving tribute to a dear departed friend.

My old recliner was a La-z--boy. It wasn't a high end leather recliner. Far from it! It was cloth. It was entry level. And it was green.  

We purchased my old recliner when my son, Garrett, was just 6 months old. He will be 8 in January. I cannot begin to count the number of times that we watched the movie Cars together in that chair. And that's not to speak of Max and Ruby, Go! Diego Go!, and Dinosaur Train. 

For the last year or so, my green recliner was the site of a special ritual involving my daughter, McKenna. I'm an early riser. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, I would come downstairs, sit in my chair and drink coffee. Upon waking, McKenna would "sneak" downstairs and quickly scurry behind my chair. She would then make my chair rock back and forth, in response to which I would exclaim, "There's a monster behind my chair!" My wife would make my fears worse by letting me know that the monster had long hair and sharp teeth. McKenna would then pop out from behind the chair and say "Surprise!" I, in turn, would express my great relief that it wasn't a monster after all. We called it a "Mac Attack." And we did it every weekend as though it had never happened before.

My green recliner was faithful in sickness and in health, but especially in sickness. When I could not sleep in bed because of the flu or an upper-respiratory infection, I would make my way to the living room and sleep sitting up. Suffice it to say, when I was sick, there was no place I would rather be. 

I can't really explain it, but I had a special relationship with that chair. In fact, I'm pretty sure that my wife, Lacey, who has never been the jealous type, was threatened by the relationship. For instance, despite swearing that it was the most uncomfortable chair she had ever sat in, she would often plop down in it the moment I left the room to get another cup of coffee. When I would ask if I could have my chair back, she would say, "You're not the only one who gets to sit here," or "Its not YOUR chair." 

Over the last six months, my wife could no longer hide her true feelings. Time and again she made it abundantly clear that she loathed my chair. I managed to put off the inevitable for awhile, but my wife is very tenacious. Every other day or so she would ask, "When are you going to get rid of that thing?" 

In recent weeks, even I had to admit that the chair that I loved like no other had made the transition from "broken in" to "broken down." And so yesterday, I knew that the time had come. It was time to put her out of her misery. 

Eventually, I will fall in love with this new brown bomber. But that's just it. Its going to take time. I'm guessing around 7 years.   



Tuesday, November 5, 2013

On Teaching Children how to Hunt (and how to be Christians)

This past weekend, I took my 7 year old son quail hunting. In many ways, he is not ready for bird hunting. He can shoot a .22 rifle, but he is not ready for shotguns. His hand-eye coordination isn't sufficiently developed, and he doesn't like the "kick" of his .410. Above all, he lacks essential dispositional traits like patience and self-restraint. Indeed, I am far more concerned with making sure he knows when not to shoot than I am with helping him learn how to shoot. 

So why did I take him into the field? Why did I not leave him at home to play video games all day? 

I have lots of answers for these questions. Kids need fresh air. They need to get outside more. They need to get in touch with the "natural" world. But the real answer is that I am trying to evangelize and disciple my son. I want him to learn how to hunt and hopefully to enjoy hunting. Notice that I said "hopefully." I am fully prepared for the possibility that he might not learn to enjoy it. 

And so, together with an old college professor of mine and his 7 year old grandson, we set out for a farmer's field just outside Clarksville, TN. Upon arrival, we gave the boys two simple rules. First, we explained that Mr. Dan (my old college professor) was the only one who could talk to the dog while we were hunting. Second, we insisted that the boys remain directly behind us at all times. They were literally to stay so close that they could reach out and touch us. 

In addition to these two simple rules, we also gave the boys something easy to do. They were to pick up our spent shells and put them in their pockets as we went. With these simple rules and an easy task in place, we began what would turn out to be a very successful hunt. The boys shadowed us every step of the way. They watched the dog point. They saw us flush and shoot. They saw the dog retrieve the birds. 

From my perspective, one of the most important things they saw was the shot that we didn't take. Upon flushing, one particular bird never got more than a few feet off the ground. Champ, our dog, was giving chase. As I mounted my gun, I had a shot, but I could also see Champ. Instinctively, I yelled, "No Shot! No Shot!"Afterwards, my son asked me, "Why didn't you shoot that one?" I was able to explain that some shots aren't worth the risk -- that sometimes it is best to let a bird go.   

After we finished, we let the boys pose for some pictures. We then enjoyed the picnic lunch we had packed. Next, the boys watches as we cleaned the birds. Suffice it to say, they saw a lot of blood and guts. They didn't ask many questions. They simply took it all in, from the excitement of hunting to the sobering reality that the birds we shot really were dead. 

Looking back, I am deeply satisfied with all that the boys learned last weekend. But in the midst of my satisfaction, I can't help wondering, are we, the church, doing a good job teaching our children how to be Christians? Are we being intentional about modeling the Christian faith? Do we give our children a list of clear but manageable instructions? Do we limit the number of rules and tasks? Do we allow our children to see the more difficult aspects of being a Christian? Do we purposely put them in situations where they can come to grips with the the sheer messiness of our life together with one another and with the world? Or do we initiate them into a highly sanitized version of the Christian faith that they will one day struggle to reconcile with the disease and death all around them? Last but not least, in a viciously polarized and polemicized culture, do we help them to understand that some shots aren't worth taking?