Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My Homage To Phillips Theological Seminary, or How an Ecumenical "Mainline" Seminary Can Be A Fertile Ground For Missional Organic Incarnational Stuff

A few days ago I was part of a panel at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa comprised of alumni from different years since 2001 and faculty discussing the transition years after graduation, how our ministries developed and how we were prepared or not for them, and what we had learned to pass on to those about to graduate. The bulk of it all is worthwhile but isn't the subject of this post. But it got me thinking about how at root all that we are involved with here in our missional organic incarnational way of being the church I learned at PTS. But bear with me first before I get to the what.

That is surprising because if you go to http://www.ptstulsa.edu/ and I hope you will and I hope you will pass it on to anyone interested not only in ministry but in religious and theological education and spiritual formation, and if there you do a search for terms such as missional church, church planting, incarnational church, organic church, you will get directed to zero pages. In this way, Phillips, as a seminary in the tradition of the "mainline" and "liberal" church, is not unusual, as seminaries often take their lead from the churches they are connected with, and as you probably know, particularly if you have read this blog over the years, such churches in general have not put resources into the cutting edge of being church. The fact that seminaries haven't been leading the churches in this arena, as they have in the "thinking" arena of theology and biblical studies, is also not a post for this post...but, ironically, as you will see, it is especially in the areas of theology and biblical studies of a progressive Christian bent that sowed the seeds of all this in me.

If you go to Fuller Theological Seminary's website, for example, church planting search pops up 52 entries; missional church 127 entries; organic church 10 entries; incarnational church 19. At Southern Baptist Theological in Louisville, church planting entries stopped showing at 256 with more possible. If you go to the Unitarian Universalist seminaries, it is much like at Phillips: church planting search at Meadville led to nothing about church planting, and missional church led to an interesting essay by Michael Hogue about the malaise and promise of liberal religion which of course is, in an absent sort of way, of course about the lack of church planting, but it wasn't anywhere directly "about" what we describe as the missional church; at Starr King same as at Phillips the search turned up nothing; the search engines found nothing about the phrases so they broke up the phrase such as incarnational and church in order to find some pages at all.

Do I think the situation needs to be reversed? Definitely Yes. I would love for the ethos to change so that at PTS and ML and SK etc. a search for those phrases would generate hundreds of links. I think the life of the liberal church depends on it. It should automatically go to courses each semester with those titles, or to how these manifestations of church are being intentionally incorporated into the existing courses be they theological, biblical, pastoral, practical, prophetic. The seminary needs to challenge the church to transform itself by giving its self away in the very form of the church, and needs to comfort the church by providing guidance and support as it does so. And there are seeds at work I know, and am sure; they just need to be watered more and perhaps with a sign pointing to their spot in the garden which is, of course, named seminary for what it seeds and plants and grows.

Having said all the above, here is my homage to Phillips in particular, and if what we do here can be germinated there, back when I was there even, then I believe it can sprout from anywhere through anyone, practically. We have done and are doing what we do because:

1. I learned, through 27 hours of study with Joe Bessler, to think, talk, breathe theology as a lens to see through: to see God, the world, the church, myself, etc. through the lens. Specifically to grasp the inherent and interdependent connections of the constructive theological worldview; to know that one's image of God will result in one's default mode image and purpose, for example, of the church. Somewhere else on this blog I have probably laid it all out; if not, another blog post will be required to show the linkages. But here is what I know: if God is that which makes all things new, that relates all things, that especially relates with those with the least power, if God is about creating, freeing, liberating, renewing, transforming, healing, forming community, if God is not about being some distant principle of abstraction but embodies and incarnates, and if we want to, to use an old wonderful term, obey that God, be in alignment with such a God, in right relationship with such a One, so that God can flow through us and what we open up with God, then we must shape ourselves and our communities in ways that are as in synch with such a God as we humanly can do or try. What would a people do and how would they behave in such an image? Call them a missional community of faithfulness or simply the church, they will turn themselves inside out. Now a lot of folks who follow the Christian Community Development Association's 3Rs of relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation do not have such an image of God, at least not exactly, or wouldn't use my kind of process relational liberationist language, though I think there can be some common ground, but what we do here in Turley and surrounding area is definitely a theological initiative of a certain kind.

2. Related to the more obvious theological understanding, I also got an education at PTS that used such books as the social work students I work with now used, principally John McKnight's Building Communities From the Inside Out. That was in Care in Christian Community class with Roy Steinhoff Smith whose book The Mutuality of Care I have revisited more than once since leaving PTS. His class helped me to look at a community, and the people in the community, from many different lens, which has given me insights in understanding the history and current systems in place and at work that have led this community to becoming so endangered. Speaking of systems, it was at PTS that I learned about family systems and congregational systems and all of those learnings have helped to see and helped to respond as we find the places within our place where we can intervene with a non-anxious presence of generosity amidst so much feelings and so much reality of scarcity. Thanks to Unitarian Universalist minister and former PTS professor and now minister of University Christian Church, independent congregational, in Wichita, Gary Blaine for his church administration and transformational church classes and especially for his ecumenical internship where we not only got to get out and study churches of all sizes and types in the Tulsa area but we put that study into readings of works by people like William Stringfellow, Reinhold Niehbur, and Bill Easum. Immersing myself during seminary in those early books by Easum and Bandy and after them by Leonard Sweet began to show me how church could be, and must become, different. My final seminary class was new techniques in conflict management; there can be no growth without change no change without conflict, so how you embody conflict matters if you want to be a part of something new and growing. And you can best use conflict well if you cultivate a core of non-anxious self-differentiated peaceful generous abundance, i.e. live in the Spirit, let prayer and practices grow in you, and so those classes in spiritual formation by Mady Fraser and Janet Parachin and Leslie Penrose were foundational. Speaking of Leslie, her former church Community of Hope in Tulsa was an early role model of missional church for me with its practice of giving away half of its offerings, and its location serving those abandoned by much of culture, in its case persons with HIV/AIDS and GLBT persons.

3. Finally, all the time in all that we do and dream of doing, I am grounded in what I know of Jesus and Paul. One of our short mission expressions, borrowed from The Simple Way in Philadelphia, is that we seek to make Jesus visible in the world. Well that of course all depends on what your understanding of Jesus is how that visibility will be known. And so to Brandon Scott and Rick Lowery and all the biblical teachers, what we are and do here is because of what you taught. I had started a church before I came to seminary, but I wouldn't have even gone to seminary I think if it hadn't been for a seminary Brandon Scott taught that wove in new understandings of the parables and of film; it wasn't just that I realized PTS could be a seminary home for me after that, but I returned home with a calling toward the "kingdom of God" because of the power of the parables. At PTS I grew in that understanding and calling coming from the parables even more; the parables that are about turning God upside down, Empires upside down, and inside out. And so it is the Jesus of the parables, as best and challenging as I can understand those, that we seek to make visible as best we can. And it was at PTS that I first heard about the new perspective, the original perspective, on and of the Apostle Paul. And about the shape and nature of his communities, and their radically hospitable way. Much of my study of Paul continued after my seminary years, but it started there. Jesus took the kingdom of God to the abandoned places of Empire and its God and to the abandoned people there; Paul took the spirit of that Jesus into the face of and into the shadow of the Empire itself to form communities of the Christ in the heart of the realms of Ceaser; he wrote the book, or letters, on "edge communities" and "shadow communities". And both of them were immersed in the lens of the Hebrew prophets before them, and so my study as a graduate assistant particularly with Rick Lowery in Genesis' creation liberation sabbath spirituality, and Jeremiah, and what it means to live as a resident alien, to be in exile but not completely dominated by that experience, all of that finds its way into envisioning community today.

There were other, post and extra seminary experiences that have shaped my growing understanding of church (time spent with Carl Scovel and the notion of the simplicities of the christian church; my wife Bonnie of course and exposure to ecological organic gardening and life; and the tipping point of a workshop with Reggie McNeal on the calling of mission)...but because I have sometimes written, as above, about the lack of intentionality in addressing some of these ways of being church that are in the more mainline and liberal churches and especially at their seminaries, I wanted to reflect really on what the grounding was that I received there that I go back to much more often than I do my shelves of books in my library (that I adore all about organic missional incarnational emerging etc), or to the online resources even.

It has been nine years since I was graduated from Phillips, and spoke during commencement about the calling toward a new kind of church for a new kind of times, and maybe one of the best things that PTS gave me was that I didn't then have a clear model of what I would be doing, no roadmap except the theological map, unlike some of the more popular church planting places of the more conservative where you might go through the training like becoming the owner of a franchise. Instead, what I had was all that I wrote about in the paragraphs above: time spent at an intersection of theology, culture, and scripture, and an even stronger committment to imitate and initiate the kingdom of God.

If you want to see where it has taken some of us, read below, or follow along at http://www.turleyok.blogspot.com/ or www.facebook.com/revronrobinson and the FB page for A Third Place Community. End.

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