September 25, 2017

Does Everything Really Happen for a Reason?

The Israelites gathering MannaArtist: Ercole de’ RobertiDate made: probably 1490sSource: © The National Gallery, London

Among some Christians you will often hear the aphorism: “Everything happens for a reason.”  Really?  How in the wake of hurricanes, internally displaced persons, floods, earthquakes, and shattered infrastructures does one maintain this?  It seems to infer divine intent in even the most devastating circumstances.
            The Bible does teach that suffering is instructive; however, it does not suggest that that there is divine purpose behind every natural cataclysm.  Horrific events are part of a groaning, unfinished creation.  God is involved in human history, to be sure, yet more times in a hidden, nearly imperceptible way. Usually, we understand the divine hand in things retrospectively; and we also understand the role our human choices play.

“Gathering the Manna in the Desert” by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

            Divine testing is a theme of Scripture, and at times God does use the exigency of a human situation to explore the level of trust humans have in holy providence.  Take the situation of the Israelites in the wilderness.  After the magnificent Red Sea crossing, the people might have imagined a straight shot into the land of promise, with God clearing every obstacle for them.
            It does not quite unfold in that way.  Soon the provisions packed in Egypt run out, and they face desperate circumstances.  Their complaint rises to God, by way of Moses and Aaron.  Nostalgic for Egypt, the people idealize their settled existence there—forgetting their ravaging bondage and indignity.
            God does not question their need, and thus promises that bread and meat will be available daily, except for the Sabbath.  “In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not” (Exodus 16:4b).  Will they be willing to depend upon God for provision?  Will they try to hoard, or will they trust there will be sufficient delivery of essential food? God does not test them by placing them in a tenuous position; the test has to do with following instruction about the method of accessing what God is providing.

Christensen, C. C. A. (Carl Christian Anton), 1831-1912. Catching Quails, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

            Wilderness is a dangerous place, and even traveling through it presents a test.  It is a time of refining the identity of the congregation of the Israelites, but it is fraught with unfaithfulness and oblivion to the covenant God is forging.  Rebellion erodes trust in the story of prolonged wandering, and many things occur that God does not will but eventuate because of human sinfulness.
            Nonetheless, God does accompany in every human situation and helps us try to make meaning even of our failure. Tragedy, however, usually eludes the explanation of “happened for a reason,” and we should be very reticent to rationalize the suffering of others with this glib interpretation.
            Thankfully, American Baptists are acting with boldness to rebuild Puerto Rico.  That is the right response.

            Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares leaders for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.

August 28, 2017

Our Mission as a Seminary


            Central’s faculty spent concentrated time at Conception Abbey this past weekend.  Our annual faculty retreat is the time when we take stock of all the ways we are pursuing the academic mission of the seminary.  Our Provost and Associate Dean plan well and find ways to maximize the time as we gather for business and for prayer with the Benedictine monks at the Abbey.  Leaders from other sites of Central attend, and it is a constructive way to integrate our system more fully.

            Central’s mission is to prepare leaders for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.  It is an ambitious mission, and one faculty member remarked that it seemed more like a movement than a narrow academic pursuit.  Our mission statement deliberately articulates that seeking God undergirds ministry--in all its forms.  Spiritual formation is at the heart of theological education, and the faithful witness of faculty members models what seeking God looks like over a life time of Christian vocation.  Every challenge is ultimately a question about God’s presence and agency.

“Shaping church” reminds us that the Body of Christ is a dynamic reality, and old forms must give way to the transformation the Spirit evokes.  Baptist theologian McClendon taught us that doctrine is “what the church needs to teach NOW in order to be the church.”  Thus, shaping church is about more than conserving “the faith once delivered”; it is discerning the way the Gospel may take shape in the discrete contexts of congregations, at this time. Our graduates enter ministry at a time when many question the relevance of churches; their understanding of the how congregations can be instruments of grace within God is larger mission is essential.

“Serving humanity” takes many forms, and ministry extends far beyond the walls of the church.  In older days, the only persons who came to seminary were preparing to be pastors, chaplains, or missionaries. Many of our graduates will continue to serve in professions such as pharmacy, law, occupational therapy, business, engineering, and education.  They believe that their calling is to be Christian in the workplace, and they shine their faith throughout their professional lives.  In addition, they provide the leadership for churches who cannot afford to call a full-time pastor. These leaders serve their communities in varied ways.

One of the strategic priorities for Central is to hire and retain qualified and diverse personnel.  As I looked around the room at the varied ethnicities of our faculty, my heart rejoiced.  We are beginning to look like the global Body of Christ, as well we should. God has set before us remarkable opportunities to fulfill our mission.  Since 1901, God has continued to lead us to prepare persons for Christian ministry in an ever-changing world.  We pray for wisdom and courage “for the facing of this hour.”

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares leaders for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.