November 6, 2017

Saints Among Us

            As I was thinking over the many persons who have helped shape me, I remember the custodian of my elementary school.  Mr. Shanahan served Longfellow School for over 40 years, mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms with good cheer (mostly) as rowdy children created their daily mess.  I remember him for his kindness—and the fact that he gave me a job.  I would ring the bell just after lunch, calling all back into the building for afternoon classes.  He paid me a dollar a month in quarters.  I felt exceedingly important—and responsible.

Nine Ethiopian saints, ceiling fresco in Abuna Yamata Guh cave church, Tigray, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

            Saints are not unapproachable figures, but regular folks around us through whom goodness shines. (You don’t have to be dead to be a saint!) They are the ones who notice children, slow down for elderly to catch up, offer words of blessing to the discouraged, perceive unrealized potential in others, provide hospitality to strangers, and make themselves available to God for continuing usefulness.

Sheets, Millard, 1907-1989. Word of Life mural, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

            The Gospel Lesson for All Saints (Matthew 25:1-13) recounts how Jesus blesses these saints among us: those whose spirituality retains questions; those who grieve over the violence of this world; those who live by the values of the reign of God, with meekness; those who cannot get enough of God’s goodness; those who do not judge their neighbors; those who pursue peace; those who suffer for doing good; and those who endure false charges against their character for the sake of following Jesus.  These are saints, and they make the world bearable as they point to the patterns God imagines for human flourishing.
            Yesterday as many churches celebrated All Saints Day, we heard again of a massive shooting at a small Texas church. The regularity of such carnage tests any complacency about the evil in our world.  Access to assault rifles is a scourge, and we must call upon our legislators to enact stringent laws.  The violence inscribed in armed service for our nation also contributes to diminished regard for human life, and moral injury contributes to impaired mental health.

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            Saints swarmed the site, seeking ways to protect the parishioners, alleviate suffering, and provide emergency care.  Serving as the hands and feet of Christ, these will do the hard work of burying, comforting, healing, and rebuilding community in the days ahead.  We pray for their strength and courage.

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            Frederick Buechner writes: “in holy flirtation with the world, God sometimes drops a handkerchief.  These handkerchiefs are called saints.”  These handkerchiefs help dry the eyes of the grieving; they bind up wounds of the bleeding; and they remind us that God moves in our midst.

Molly T. Marshall

October 23, 2017

We Care About Our City


            When Central moved from Kansas City, Kansas, which had been its home for 105 years, some critics (and faithful friends) thought this meant we were turning our back on urban life.  Some suggested that we did not care about minority populations. Granted, we did move to western Shawnee, a growing suburb on the southwestern side of the metropolitan area, which is hardly a white enclave. 
Intentionally, we lodged the seminary within the Central Region of the ABC, our historic and faithful partner.  Deferred maintenance and innovative mission required us move to a non-residential model of theological education, and we were able to find a new home.
            Yet our love of the city continued.  We first addressed this institutional move by beginning the Urban Core Initiative that met in churches in Kansas City, Kansas.  It was a way of declaring that Central has not abandoned its concern to prepare ministers who would serve in this challenging context where density, diversity, and discouragement prevail.

            This was not enough, however.  Under the visionary leadership of Dr. Wallace Hartsfield II, Central recast its perspective and developed the Urban Missional Institute.  Research, deep conversations, and thoughtful symposia would invite varied voices to engage critical issues cities face. Dr. Terrell Carter has brought organizational expertise to this initiative, and he now serves as the co-director of this arm of Central’s outreach.

            On Friday evening, local pastors, educators, students, and community activists gathered in Central’s chapel to hear the prophetic encouragement of Dr. John Perkins. Long in the fray for civil rights, Dr. Perkins suggested that we are at a wonderful time.  He remarked, “I am beginning to hear the same words in prayer in both black and white churches.”  At 87 year of age, he is the harbinger of hope.

            Strongly he reminded us that this racial divide cannot be solved unless friendship and shared purpose emerge.  He believes that his “long longing” is being fulfilled as white churches begin to understand that the black church emerged as a result of white oppression.  As we acknowledge our shared brokenness together, he observed, we have the possibility of getting back together as one people of God.

            We all have a stake in caring for our city, especially when the suffering is so great.  Dr. Perkins reminded us that if a black child lies on the street, we have all failed.  Compassion comes from touch, from drawing near one another and igniting common cause, which should produce joy.  Making friends that lead us to touch one another is essential.

            “Joy should be the energy of the Christian,” Perkins proclaimed, noting that there is far too little joy surrounding the greatest story of the coming of the Christ.  This is the story, we all agree, that creates the condition for transformation of our fractious history.
            Dr. Perkins is eager to anchor this generation back into the Gospel and the church, for he rightly fears the intrusion of individualism.  Our understanding of salvation has neglected that we must participate in God’s justice-making enterprise as a sign of our faith, for Christianity is ultimately a behavior.

            It has been a good weekend at Central, and once again we have demonstrated that we care for our city.  I trust we will engage in the incarnational presence needed to serve and learn in our dense diversity.

Molly T. Marshall