Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Lead me not into temptation: Restorative Theology after grad school

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
"not many of you were wise by human standards... God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise"
(1 Cor. 1:26-27)
The sands are shifting. This blog was born in the first half of four grueling years of graduate school, which came to a close this past weekend. My writing on this blog thus far often served as a testing ground for applying in-class reading to pressing issues and concerns. It's where I applied William T. Cavanaugh's "myth of religious violence" thesis to U.S. military adventurism and James K.A. Smith's "sacred/secular liturgies" thesis to the military-consumerist complex in American society and its cultural practices, as I began describing myself as a "Christological, theopolitical pacifist" and "neo-Anabaptist." Writing here landed me my first writing assignment for a scholarly journal.

But before grad school I was a minister in the church. Now after grad school, I continue to be a minister in the church. This is a lifelong vocation. There has been a ministerial intent underlying my theological writing here, but now the framework of graduate studies is falling away, and whatever framework is coming next is still somewhat opaque, and unshaped.

So what will I do with this blog now that I can place "MDiv, MA" after my signature, in my CV, and in my online profiles?

"Fools for the Gospel"

This is the chosen theme for the 2012 graduating class of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, of which I was a part. As class treasurer, I was involved with the communal discernment and eventual choice of theme. At first suggestion, it seemed like a rather ridiculous choice for a batch of graduate students to self-describe themselves with. But it seemed to strike a chord within the group. We eventually settled on the following two verses of Scripture:
"Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord." (Jeremiah 9:23-24a, NRSV)
"For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Corinthians 1:18, NRSV)
We then asked two of our professor-mentors, Mark and Mary Thiessen Nation, to write and then lead during commencement the litany of commissioning. Their liturgical prayer was beautifully written, and carried forward the theme faithfully. In addition to their leading the prayer, it included readings for graduates, faculty, family and friends, and then everyone together; the gathered parts of the body each having a word to lift up in prayer. At one point in the prayer, we were told after some celebratory words:
"And yet we pause: for your degrees provide a new set of temptations. You may appear to be wise by human standards. You may be assigned titles or given status and power. You will be tempted, as we all are, to forget that God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God's weakness is stronger than human strength."
I need this prayer to be a grounding thread to whatever emerges in my concrete ministerial work in the church, which will hopefully include writing on this blog. These prayers and biblical texts need to be worked deeply into my body, lest my life-long temptation of seeking attention, glory, and honor lead me into vice (as it has many times before).

Naming, not honoring

So with that biblical lens for humility in view, let me "read" two things that happened during graduation weekend. First, during seminary commencement on Saturday, I was among seven students receiving awards for academic excellence, mine being in "theological studies with a focus on peacebuilding." These awards are determined by the seminary faculty in the weeks leading up to graduation, which includes the man who's had the most influence on my intellectual development these past four years, Mark Thiessen Nation. It's to him that I can point for my becoming neo-Anabaptist in a broad, ecumenical sense, following thinkers like Yoder, Hauerwas, and MacIntyre.

Next came the "naming ceremony" for graduates of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. In a service following university commencement on Sunday, CJP folks gathered for a celebration and sending service. CJP faculty members took a group of students and prepared three words or phrases to describe what is unique and important about each person. My mentor, "grandpa" Howard Zehr, named these three things about me:
  1. Restorative theologian
  2. Unflappable moderator
  3. Un-geekiest web geek I've known
The last two relate to the online restorative justice class I recently helped plan and carry out, but it's the first one that really got me, for reasons that should be obvious in light of this blog's name. As I mentioned a month ago, Howard is largely responsible for "ruining my life in all the right ways," so to hear this from him was deeply humbling. In a way, Howard served as book-ends to my journey to and from graduate studies at EMU. Seeing him speak at an RJ conference in Des Moines four years ago set in motion a flood of events that brought us here to Virginia, and it was Howard whom I embraced in the last ceremonial event of graduation, after receiving from him these three "namings."

Sojourning on

So what about this blog will change? At this point, so close to graduation and looking forward to a few more months of discernment, I have no idea; but it will no doubt change. Whatever follows, though, I hope can be shaped heavily by the biblical lens for humility, in light of all the degrees, awards, and such that have and may continue to come my way. Now to close in prayer...

Lord, keep me humble and pressed into faithful service within your body, the church, for the sake of this world longing for healing, and in search of your emerging kingdom and peaceable reign. Keep me grounded in meaningful relationships with those closest to me, lest I sow the wind and reap the whirlwind, abandoning those dear to me. Brothers and sisters who happen to read this blog and walk alongside, I welcome your company, conversation, correction, and shared work toward that end! Thanks to you all, and thanks to God for the strength and merciful grace to lead my family through these past four years. Now to the next chapter...

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