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Daniel O. Aleshire: One God, two questions, and three things the church needs

The executive director of The Association of Theological Schools has three points for new seminary graduates about ministry in a time that has no name, for a future that is not yet here.

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August 6, 2013

Editor’s note: The following is an address by Daniel O. Aleshire, delivered May 10, 2013, at the commencement ceremony for graduates of Campbell University Divinity School, Buies Creek, N.C.

Acts 26:19-24 (CEB)

A few years ago, my wife and I, with our son, were sitting in the balcony of Radio City Music Hall for the commencement of our daughter and his sister from graduate school at New York University. There were more than a few speeches and a long line of graduates.

Our son, who had graduated from college the year before, leaned over and said, “Are all graduations this boring?” I said, “Yes.”

It is just the nature of these ceremonies. Someone is supposed to speak to an audience of graduates, friends and relatives who have come for the awarding of degrees, not to hear a speech. You can see the awkwardness of my task today. I am the last thing remaining between you graduates and your degrees. You have been listening to academic speeches for the last three or more years, and the conventions of academic life require that you suffer one more speech if you want your degree.

I am quite sure that, fresh from your last final exams, papers and the ever-popular integrative projects, you have learned enough. You don’t need to listen to anything else. You might even be thinking about the risk associated with knowing too much, a risk that was raised in the text that was read earlier in the service.

The apostle Paul has just given an eloquent testimony about his conversion to King Agrippa. When Paul takes a moment for a breath, Festus says to him, “You’ve lost your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you mad!” (Acts 26:24). Maybe after all these years of seminary learning, you graduates are at the edge of your sanity, and one more talk will push you past your limits. Maybe you should not listen at all, given the clear and present danger to your sanity. Given the risks to you, I have thought carefully about what to say.

Several years ago, I spoke at Campbell University Divinity School’s opening convocation. I took my 20 minutes then to say that the key to integrity in Christian ministry is in three things: loving God, loving the people you serve and knowing how to do the work. Dean Wakefield even mentioned that talk in his kind invitation for me to speak this evening.

I thought about giving the same talk so no one would risk new learning, if they happened to remember those three points. I decided against giving the same speech, but in continuity with that talk, I have decided to give a speech with three points! Three points -- you may not remember what I say, but you will remember years from now that there were three points!

Before I mention these points, I want to make an observation about this interesting moment in which you have chosen to graduate from seminary. No one is sure what the name should be for this era that we are in, but the one most commonly used is “postmodern.” It strikes me as odd that the only way we can identify this moment in time is by the name of the era that has passed. We are somewhere between the old modern that was and the new future that will be.

What do you remember as you leave this place? As you have already guessed, I will talk about three things.

1. One God

Here is Point 1: there is one God.

Whatever era this turns out to be, remember that the God who invented time and the God who will end time will be the God of this time. Ministry is deeply influenced by cultural moments, and to be effective, ministry must attend carefully to the way that culture shapes human lives and molds religious perspective.

Whatever this new era turns out to be, people of faith can affirm the central conviction of the Hebrew Scripture: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one.” What was true of God in the Gospels will be true of God in this era: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him … may have eternal life.”

The affirmation of the Epistle will be as true in this century as it was in the first: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:4-5 NRSV). Whatever the era of your ministry turns out to be, the God of all the other eras will be the God of this one, and you will be God’s servants and witnesses.

You have studied and prepared yourself for service at the end of a unique time. Congregational practices are changing, denominational connections are morphing and declining, and churches are finding new ways to do their ancient work. We are in the beginning of a time whose lasting characteristics have yet to be defined. I wish I could tell you the contours that ministry should take, what the sure path will be, what new forms of Christian community will become dominant -- but I can’t. What I can tell you is that the God who was is the God who will be, and that the God who has kept you to this very hour will be the God who will keep you in every hour of the future.

Point 1: There is one God, and you can bet your life on the wisdom, love and grace of that God.

2. Two important questions

My second point is that there are two questions that are crucial for you to ask in this changing era. They are not my questions. David Tiede, who served as president of Luther Seminary for 18 years, taught me to ask them.

Here is the first one: “What in heaven’s name is going on?”

I would encourage you to take the question literally. There has never been a time when God was not at work, doing one thing or another. God is at work now and will be at work in the future.

In the context of fundamental changes in the life and work of the church, our job is to ask, “What in heaven’s name is going on?” Where is the Spirit at work, as best we can discern, and what does that mean for the work and witness of God’s church in the world?

God is up to something; you can count on that. If you listen, and watch expectantly, you will see what in heaven’s name is going on.

The second question is just as important. Before I tell you what it is, however, I need to remind you that Lutherans, following Martin Luther’s lead, can be a little earthy. While Baptists are pious in all things, Lutherans talk about “simul justus et peccator” -- simultaneously sinners and justified -- and this kind of theology permits some earthier phrasing of a question than Baptist piety might.

So with adequate warning, here is the second question that Tiede taught me to ask: “What the hell is going on?”

It is important to take this question just as literally as the first one. The will of God is not the only influence in this world. There is evil, and it can be persistent and pervasive. It can even masquerade as good. Leadership in Christian communities requires us to search the horizon for those influences that tear down trust, that cause injustice, that prevent human flourishing and that scar human lives.

You better believe that hell has its fury and that sin is both original and creative. In uncertain times, when we can’t define the moment, it is religiously important to ask, “What the hell is going on?” Racism and prejudice, greed and avarice, violence and deceit, lies and larceny have never done much good or made anything better for anyone. But they are patterns of human behavior that persist. It is as if hell is always up to something, and faith requires us to be able to recognize its work and call it for what it is.

You can’t ask one of these questions without the other. Both heaven and hell will make a claim on this new era of human history. A romantic faith that presumes that heaven will always win does not pray seriously the one prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: “Deliver us from evil.” A cynical faith that thinks good cannot defeat evil does not pray seriously another phrase in the same prayer: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

3. Three things the church needs in this new era

My third point is about three things the church needs in this new era.

A few years ago, ATS convened a meeting of some seminary presidents and very talented pastors to talk about ministry in this uncertain time. One pastor said that the church needs “missional leaders who are gifted and who have the capacity to multiply their gifts.” I think he is right. Three needed qualities for ministry in this era are missional leadership, gifted leaders and leaders capable of multiplying their gifts.

Missional leaders believe that the gospel really matters, that something ultimately good for the human family is possible and that something terribly bad can be averted. Missional leaders are willing to lead when the way is not clear, when the culture is not supportive, when the work is hard and when results are ambiguous. They lead because they are passionately committed to the task, and their internal compass is oriented to the love, grace, justice and healing that compose the true north of the Christian faith.

Earlier eras could use leaders who were effective managers and caretakers of viable and culturally respected religious institutions. This new era needs leaders who will be unaffected by difficulty and uninterested in personal status.

Leaders also need to be gifted for the work that needs to be done, and these gifts are at their best when they have been tutored and educated. Learning cannot replace a lack of gifts for ministry, but gifts cannot be used effectively without learning. Despite what Festus thought, learning for faith won’t drive you insane. This new era requires tutored gifts that can be used as acts of faithful stewardship. This new era needs gifted leaders.

It also requires leaders who know how to multiply their gifts. I always worried about the poor fellow in the parable of the talents who was given only one talent, then buried it rather than risk losing it, then got into trouble with the master for not doing anything with it. It seems that he was dealt with harshly. After all, he held onto what he was given and returned it whole.

Maybe we should hear this parable as not so much about using gifts to get more gifts as about the importance of multiplying the gifts we have: cultivating them in the persons we serve. I am afraid that too many ministers take the gift of ministry and bury it when it needs to be multiplied. The church that seeks to share the gospel with the world needs many voices, many hands and many hearts.

Increasingly, the work of ministry is helping others learn the gifts by which grace can do its work in the world.

Conclusion

Well, there you have it -- three points about ministry in a time that has no name for a future that is not yet here. As you go, remember there is one God who goes before you. As you go, remember to ask two important questions; both good and evil are vying to claim the day. As you go, remember the three pressing needs of the church: missional leaders, gifted leaders and leaders who can multiply their gifts.

Days like this one mark simultaneously the end of one thing and the beginning of another. They remind us, once again, that God’s time is not so much about the passing of days as it is about the coming of tomorrows.

I don’t think there is any way that Campbell University Divinity School, or any theological school, could prepare you for the future that is coming. I also don’t think that you should leave this service with an ounce of fear.

The God of Abraham and Sarah will go before you and make the impossible laughable. The God of Joseph and Mary will bless you and find a place for you to rest in the night. The God of Paul and Phoebe will guide you on the journey and show you how to serve in new places and in new ways.

We do not know the name of this new age yet, but we know that this day, like all other days, is the day of the Lord. It is the day of the God who “has heard us, who has attended to the voice of our prayers.” It is the day of the God who “has healed us and we are healed, who has saved us and we are saved.” This is the day of the Lord, who by grace has made you salt and light that the world might taste and see that God is good.