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Moments of Integration

Viki Matson

Last year in one of the congregations on the thee-point charge that Tom was serving, there was a terrible accident.  A 45-year old woman, wife, mother of two, pillar in the church, was broadsided by a logging truck on a rainy day as she was on her way home from work.  She was life-flighted from rural Tennessee to Vanderbilt, and there was a stretch of weeks last spring when Tom would visit her every day in the hospital, in between his classes at the Divinity School.  In the twinkling of an eye her life, and that of her family and congregation, was changed forever as she will be many years in recovery from the massive injuries she sustained. 

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Also last year, just across the street at Scarritt Bennett Center, Jamie and Sarah were tucked away in an office, writing a curriculum for a project that the folks at Scarritt wanted to pilot.  Scarritt Bennett Center has a long history of opening up conversations around some of our most vexing social issues.  They host Study Circles, or Dialogue Groups, around such issues as race, and immigration, and now the leadership was ready to host a Study Circle around the issue of sexual orientation.  The model is that you get a group of people sitting in a circle, breaking open conversation around difficult issues – not necessarily to reach common ground, but to hear respectfully other points of view in hopes of seeing a bigger picture.  Jamie and Sarah spent months researching, thinking, getting ready for the pilot group, and last spring 10 folks sat together one evening a week and engaged in holy conversation around an issue that our churches have been tripping over for decades.

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Three years ago, a group of us were doing Maymester at the US/Mexico border, immersing ourselves into the issue of immigration, trying to come to terms with the theological and ethical dimensions of this problem which was at a fever-pitch in our national conversation. 

DJ was one of the students on that trip.  During one of our preparatory class sessions he announced to the class that he was completely biased against undocumented workers because he did not like it that “Hispanics came to this country and took jobs away from hard-working African Americans.”  His concern became one of the defining questions of the class, as we all had to struggle with questions of race and racism and the painful phenomenon of minority communities competing over a finite amount of resources.

One very hot day, part of our study involved walking around the edges of the city dump at Nogales.  We saw people squatting anywhere there was a flat spot, making a home out of things they had scavenged from the dump.  We saw children playing with garbage, and stray skinny dogs looking for anything that would keep them alive.  It was a tough day, and as a leader of the group, I could feel our class make a shift that day from, “This is the poverty we’ve been reading about,” to, “These are the poor.  Right here.”  A mom sitting on an old broken-down bucket, watching her children play in the trash.  An old man, stopping to pick up random things to put them in a plastic sack.   And it suddenly became very clear why people risk their lives to cross the border.

We were making our way back to the community center where we would have lunch and begin to process this experience, when DJ started walking beside me. He said, “You know, Viki….when we get back home…we’ll be on the same side of privilege, you and I.  I can’t think about immigration the same way anymore,” he said.  “I’ve got to tell the people in my congregation what I have seen this week because folks in the black church know a thing or two about coming to a land that was not ours, and trying to make a way of no way.  The black church could really make a difference,” he said.

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You know, I love telling stories about the kinds of things people encounter in field education, and it’s not just because they are compelling stories about the good work accomplished by our students. 

But I find these stories so amazing because of everything that fed into these moments, and everything that will flow from them.  These stories are simply moments in time of our students’ trajectory through their theological education, but they are moments when the dots start connecting, when things become a little less dim, when AHA! …that makes sense now….moments when theology and practice come together, Moments of integration.

For example, DJ might not have had that epiphany in the middle of the Nogales dump if he had not learned about the exile motif that weaves its way through the Hebrew Scriptures and chronicles the story of a whole people’s relationship with God.  Or if he did not know in pretty good detail the faith claims and theological positions that sustained the black church through many weary years.  Or if he had not wrestled with various theological anthropologies that (consciously or not) informed his understanding of the human person.  And he will have to give some careful thought to how it is that he interprets his experience to his home congregation.  Will he start with some of those exile stories, preaching his next sermon from Exodus?  Will he teach a series to the youth group about the history of the black church in America?  Will he find out who is working with immigrants in Nashville and explore possibilities for a congregational partnership? 

The compelling story is not the end of the story.

Jamie and Sarah could have not have done the good work they did at Scarritt Bennett Center if they had not deeply considered theologies of the body, the use and misuse of Scriptural texts, the role of religion in social movements, the power of language, and even epistemological questions about how we know what we know. 

Their story about the dialogue group was a moment in time of a deep and thick stewing cauldron of their theological education.

And Tom:  His compelling story required that he think through, if he hadn’t already, the question of theodicy, of human suffering, of what (if anything) God has to do with human tragedy.  He had to consider what to say and not to say to the woman in her moments of consciousness.  He had to be artful in his pastoral care.  And not only that, but when the lectionary text that presented itself for the next week was the Apostle Paul’s claim that “all things work together for good for those that love the Lord”, he had to think carefully about what he would say from the pulpit to a group of people still reeling from the accident. 

These stories are pieces of a larger story that is the whole of your theological education.

All the history, the theology and ethics, all the Biblical material, and all the courses in the arts of ministry, it really matters, because they have so much to do with seasons of human life.

It won’t always feel this way.  Let me give you fair warning as we launch another academic year:  there will be moments when you are up late reading or writing and thinking and you may wonder, “What does this have to do with anything?” You might be one who sees these three or four years of theological education as something to be endured so that you can be about the really important stuff that God has in store for you.  You might have even been warned by your friends and family before you came here to take all this stuff with a grain of salt because Vanderbilt will try to take away your faith.

Let me see if I can re-frame this for you.  In each of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is asked by someone, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?  Or what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In other words, “What is the thing that matters most?” “What ought my Ultimate Concern be?”  And each time Jesus replied with this, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” Heart, soul, mind.  They are not mutually exclusive.  One is not more important than others.  In fact they need each other to be about this work of religious leadership - heart, soul, and mind.

  • I invite you to think of these years of theological education as a season of loving God with your mind.  Make of study a spiritual practice, as important as your prayer, as important as your activism. 

  • Love God with your mind by cracking the code of some ancient thinkers, by reading something you would have never sought out on your own, by working with one text, or even one word, over time. 

  • Love God with your mind by entering into the history of a people, or an idea, or a movement, even if it’s not one you count as yours. 

  • Love God with your mind by taking intellectual risks, putting it out there, even if you receive criticism, because it is highly likely that you will receive criticism.  Stay with it. 

  • Love God with your mind by being open to the possibility that your mind will be changed, or that your heart will be moved, or that your soul will be stirred.  Live the questions that come your way; let them work on you. 

Because all of this matters in the heat of the moment which is our practice.  Your own compelling stories, which I promise you will be many, will make their marks on you.  And how you respond in all of those moments flows out, in very large part, from what you do here. 

Invest yourself here.  For God’s sake, for the sake of God’s people, and for this earth, invest yourself here.

Amen.

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