This May I graduated from Bethel Seminary with a Master of Divinity Degree. The day before commencement the graduating seminary students, the staff, and faculty gather for a communion service. I was asked by the commencement committee to offer the student response to the scriptural texts for the weekend. While the seminary asked that I reflect on my own experience at Bethel, I thought those gathered together for the communion might benefit from a clearer picture of the church we were being called to serve in the near future. Here are my words to the 2017 graduating seminary class in their entirety:
I was asked to reflect on our time together at Bethel Seminary and my time at the seminary in specific. As many of you know, I entered seminary through the back door. Prior to moving back to Minnesota (where my wife and I grew up), I had completed a Master of Arts in Biblical Archaeology of the Old Testament. I spent three years applying to PhD programs in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. I always imagined that I would serve the church in ministry but, in my head, that would come after a long Academic career. When I wasn’t accepted to any of the top five schools for that field, and job prospects following a second-tier education were less than ideal, I spent a good amount of time grieving what I thought my life would be.
Perhaps some of you also know that I grew up as an atheist. I used to pick fights with Christians. One of those people that I used to pick fights with, told me in the last year, that she couldn’t believe that I was in seminary to be a pastor because I used to make her cry following our discussions. It wasn’t until my heart was softened at a regular youth group meeting that I came to know Jesus as my lord and savior. I quickly found myself thrust into leadership roles and I could think of no better way to spend my life than studying God’s redemptive history. Not from the moldy basement of a library but where it happened, in the dirt of Israel and the ancient near east.
While I could spend the remainder of my time talking about how impactful Bethel seminary was on my faith formation, I think that the texts chosen for our reflection this evening call us to focus on each of our futures in ministry and therapy instead. I am so thankful that the story of Esther was chosen for our reflection this evening. As we graduate from Bethel Seminary tomorrow we are entering one of the toughest church climates to be faced by the American Church. By almost every measure the religious “nones” are increasing among the youngest generations. Millennials and Generation Z (the current batch of freshmen over at the college) have serious reservations about the importance of the church and faith in their daily lives. Racial tension is at a significant high and the world faces the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II.
We have spent these years at Bethel Seminary “for such a time as this.” While the biblical text may not have been written to us, it was definitely written for us. As the unchurched and post-churched “nones” increasingly question the relevance of the Church in the world today we need to take what we have learned here: How to approach the text in a rigorous and theologically informed manner, drawing on our own experience of spiritual formation, in order to influence the church and culture through virtuous leadership.
Easy, one-line answers aren’t enough. Those who are on the margins of church and faith want to be listened to and they want to be called into a mission and vision that is greater than themselves! In response to those needs, I pray we, as the future church, begin to reclaim a robust praxis of Christian hospitality that seeks to see Jesus in the “least of these” around us – whether inside or outside the church. I’ll be honest, a praxis of hospitality is dangerous. It calls us to invite “others” into our lives of faith risking not only our possessions but the relationships closest to us. Fortunately, we need not look any further than Jesus for the normative practice of hospitality as both stranger and host. Hospitality calls us to engage the stranger and guest, but it also calls us to allow ourselves to be changed by that relationship as we practice presence with them. Hospitality demands that we listen to their story of pain and hurt, empathizing with their alien identity, for we are all seeking a homeland, all guests in the kingdom of God, subject to God’s gracious benevolence towards us. We have all been well-trained for the individual vocations that lay before us. While the challenges of graduate school are great, our greatest challenges lay in the future and we will have to draw on everything we have learned here to navigate that future well as we rely heavily on God’s grace through those challenges ahead.
As you face those challenges may you be sustained by God, in Jesus through the power of the Holy spirit. May you listen well, seeking to connect and empathize with those both inside and outside the church. And May you ever grow deeper in your life of faith as you lead others into deeper discipleship of Christ; for you have been trained “for such a time as this.”
Recovering the the art of hospitality has weighed heavily on my heart over the course of the last year. When we think of hospitality today, normally we think of professional services: hotels, hospitals andrestaurants. But it wasn’t always that way. Hospitality was one of the distinguishing marks of the early Christian communities. It set them apart from the rest of the Roman world that was dependent upon classism and patron/client relationships. The hospitality of the church meant that all waited for one another to share the Lord’s Table, regardless of class or ethnicity, and share they did – a full meal. If you would like to know more about the nature of Hospitality in the early church I can think of no better resource than Christine Pohl’s Making Room.