Finding a living faith in seminary

August 28, 2011

Fifty years ago this week I began my thirty-three-year career on the faculty of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Our purpose was to provide a teaching-learning environment for men and women preparing to serve in ministries of the church.

My memories of these years have been prodded this week by statements published during the past two years by graduates of the seminary, both of whom took one or more of my courses and now serve as pastors of churches.

Statement One: In my final year of graduate work I, along with my fellow students, was required to write a thesis describing my theology…Seventeen years later, as I was sorting through old papers, I happened upon a copy of my thesis and read it. While my life’s experience confirmed some of my previous observations, much of what I had written years before made little sense now. Assertions about the character and activity of God, prayer, the purpose of the church, the nature of sin, knowing God’s will, the person of Jesus, and the afterlife now seemed implausible, if not impossible. I could no longer affirm what I once believed…Even as I reflected on the theological evolution in my life, I was also conscious of the language of my thesis, noting it was incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t studied theology.

Statement Two: Christian Theological Seminary brought me back to Jesus and saved my soul. I had been raised in the church. I was born on the mission field to two people who had done more brave things for Christ’s sake by the time they were 30 than I will ever manage to do. But by the time I had arrived in the office of my academic advisor at CTS, at the ripe old age of 23, life had dealt enough serious blows that I no longer believed. I’d seen enough of death and disappointment that I didn’t much like the God of my Sunday School teachers, the magical God who could reach down into the world to save one of them from being killed in a runaway automobile…It took me nine semesters to finish seminary. I took almost 120 credit hours (even though only 90 were required) four and a half years…But I have never regretted a single one of these courses. And I continue to feel incredibly privileged that I was able to take that much of my life to learn to think, to sit with incredibly gifted minds and hearts and souls in order to learn to love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Other graduates of the seminary would probably line up along side each of these graduates. For some seminary took hold and for others it did not. Some people in churches today argue that seminary does a disservice to prospective ministers, and some very large churches are pastored by men who have stayed away from the disciplined and technical theological study provided by graduate level seminaries.

Many people in the churches, however, believe that serious, disciplined study is important. They pay attention to where their physicians studied and trained and to the law school and formal clerkships their lawyers have in their background.

We ought not be surprised, therefore, that many of these same people search out spiritual guides—pastors of their churches—who are deeply rooted in Scripture, Tradition, and the literature of theology and pastoral care, and who hope that these disciplines were learned while participating in communities where the Christian life was lived fully and deeply. They want pastors who combine deep learning, vibrant spirituality, and practical intelligence, the very qualities that seminaries seek to impart.

The two students quoted above have continued to be pastors and spiritual guides, one (it would seem) in spite of seminary and the other because of seminary.

This very week, one of them will become interim pastor of my church. I’m looking forward to this change of roles as the former student becomes teacher of the one-time professor, confident that the person who delved so deeply into the church’s treasury of learning and wisdom will now minister to me and mine as we move into life’s late years.

Can you guess from my hopeful anticipation which of the graduates is coming?    

Love Affair with the Bicycle: John Howard’s Testimony

August 24, 2011

Hard-core bicycling is a combination of muscle and mind, of disciplined technique and enduring attitude. While many books–including Mastering Cycling by John Howard–offer advice about the muscle-technique side of cycling, many of them tend to overlook the mind-attitude aspect. Howard, who is described as “legendary cyclist and coach,” is distinctive in that his book includes both kinds of material. The book is intended to instruct competitive cyclists as they move through middle age into their older years. It also intends to encourage them. Born in 1947, Howard was 62 when this book was published and therefore understood what it is like to be growing old.

More important is his evident love of bicycling, an activity that he started in childhood before he could have imagined entering into the race-oriented aspects of the sport. “Life in itself is a miracle,” Howard exclaims, “and I have found cycling to be a great way to enjoy the many miracles of living life on this planet. Ever since I first discovered cycling, I have loved feeling my heart pumping energy into my limbs and covering mile after mile by my own power. I began pedaling through the beautiful Ozark Mountains and rural countryside near Springfield, Missouri, and now I frequent the sunlit coastal beauty of southern California. I have had a lifelong love affair with the bicycle…Any bike will do. For me, it’s about feeling the joy of being alive and living life to the fullest.

Howard believes that a love for bicycles needs to be matched with demanding goals if cyclists are to reach and maintain their potential. Because he has been a competitive cyclist, with remarkable records in Ironman Triathlons, RAAM (Race Across America), and other extreme cycling events, Howard focuses upon ways that older cyclists can continue to enjoy competitive cycling. He devotes chapters to training on and off of the bike, indoors and out of doors. He discusses a performance diet, preparing to race, strategies for every event, and dealing with injuries. As proof that competition-focused cycling can serve older cyclists well, Howard includes brief descriptions of several cyclists in their seventies and eighties who have continued to race.

Although I have never been a competitive cyclist of the kind that Howard describes, I believe that challenging goals also provide an important dynamic factor for all of us whom Howard refers to as recreational cyclists. Because they are physically challenging, long tours require that cyclists prepare body and mind in anticipation of the events. Many of the same training patterns that Howard describes in full detail are as beneficial for bicycle touring as they are for racing. When we are on the road all day, day after day, we have to pay attention to what we eat and drink, and give serious attention to how we ride.

Whereas race-oriented cycling focuses attention upon the physicality of the sport, tour-oriented cycling focuses attention upon the thinking-feeling aspects of life. Whether or not we were competitive cyclists at some point in our cycling career, we can benefit from non-competitive but demanding touring. In that process this easily read book by John Howard will help us improve in the basic skills of two-wheeled travel.

How fast is fast enough?

August 18, 2011

On a 25-mile bike trip through the center of Portland, I kept thinking about how fast is fast enough. These meditations were prompted by Dave Moulton’s recent blog on the virtues of slowing down, stopping, and losing momentum when the circumstances call for it. Dave tells of one San Francisco cyclist who didn’t do it. He hit a pedestrian who was crossing the street with a green light and she died of her injuries.

During my 40 years as an urban cyclist, I haven’t hit anyone whether they were walking, cycling, or driving. There have been close calls, and honesty requires confession. Often, I’m the one who was at fault, and the alertness of the other person was what prevented the impact. This despite the fact that as a general rule, I try to cycle according to the recognized rules of the road that motorists are supposed to follow.

So what causes hits and near misses? Dave’s answer is the cyclist’s desire not to lose momentum, to keep going at close to full speed regardless of the conditions. I recognize the tendency even though I know that I can’t keep up with younger, better-trained cyclists who zip past me. Riding home on Williams Avenue, I mingle with other cyclists. Here I am in fancy attire, riding an expensive bike, and some guy whistles past me even when he’s mounted on a knobby tired clunker, with single pannier tilting his bike a little to the left. You just can’t let that happen without challenge, can you?

Some cyclists don’t drive up the desire to keep up. Like one guy on this same trip through town who rode up onto the sidewalk back from the intersection to wait for the light to change. Anticipating the change he hit the pedals hard and virtually catapulted over the curb and bolted through the intersection as though he were the only person in the world.

Doing stupid stuff like that isn’t what gets me into trouble. Rather, it is pushing faster than I can manage while traveling through city streets. On this day’s ride, I realized that when cycling at a reasonable rate of speed, I’m in control of myself and of my bike. I can see and hear what’s happening all around me and take defensive actions as may be called for. Pushing to go beyond that speed, however, and I’m no longer in control. I can’t swing out of the way of trouble or stop. I miss the cues of what may be about to happen. I might not notice a stop sign coming up or a jaywalker, or a road hazard. That’s when trouble is likely to come.

How fast is the right speed? It will vary depending upon the cyclist. I think that the right speed is a percentage of what the same cyclist would be doing on the open road when going at the speed that he or she could keep up for hours. Maybe two-thirds to three-fourths of the road speed. On the open road, I ordinarily do 17 to 19 mph. In the city today, I seemed to be fully aware of everything when I was traveling at 12 to 15 mph.

Instead of covering the ten miles from home to downtown in 33 minutes, it is likely to take 40. The life I save may be my own—and that’s worth a lot more than seven minutes.

Liturgy and the Free Church

August 16, 2011

Fifty years ago this year, in the fall of 1961, I began my 33-year career as professor of worship at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. I had been interviewed for the position on campus the previous November. Flying back to California where I was engaged in my doctoral studies, I read an essay in the seminary’s journal, Encounter, written  by Ralph Wilburn, a Disciples scholar who was dean at another Disciples of Christ seminary. Wilburn made a case for the church of our time to be Catholic in substance and Protestant in spirit.

Instantly, I saw in this polarity the makings of a principle that could guide my work in the field of Christian worship. It was a long plane ride in those days before jet aircraft were prevalent. By the time my plane landed in Oakland, I had roughed out an essay explaining my adaptation of this principle. I talked about worship that would be liturgical in substance and free in spirit.

Soon after moving to Indianapolis, I finished the essay and gave it to Ronald E. Osborn, dean of the seminary and editor of its journal. He liked it well enough to publish it in an issue a few months later. This was my first published work after beginning my work as teacher and scholar. If publish or perish is a rule of academic life, I was at least getting my survival apparatus started.

Reading the paper now, I see evidences of my immaturity (I wouldn’t turn thirty until a few months after beginning my work as professor), but the principle that I presented in this paper has continued to be one of my guidelines ever since. Most of the Protestant liturgical movement and the significant liturgical development of Vatican II happened after this paper was written. My approach in 1961 allowed me to work with relative freedom and increasing contentment during one of the most remarkable periods of liturgical development in the history of the church.

I’m republishing the essay essentially as it appeared half a century ago. I have, however, edited it so as to revise the gender-biased language that still was in use when it was written. My book on this subject, Faithful and Fair: Transcending Sexist Language in Worship, didn’t come out until 1981, twenty years after I wrote the paper on liturgy and the free church. I have also added an extended prefatory note that provides a context for the paper.

To read the paper click Liturgy and Free Church.

Bike Challenges for My Octogenarian Year

August 11, 2011

I’ve been wondering lately how to inaugurate my first year as an octogenarian bicyclist. An electronic newsletter this week points the way: two good cycling expeditions with PAC Tour, a company that provides “bicycle expeditions across America for the Exceptional Cyclist.”

The year would start February 18, 2012, with Week # One of Desert Camp, which PAC Tour will be conducting for the 17th year. It travels from Tucson, Arizona, to Gila Bend and Wickenburg and back. Much of this ride traverses desert roads that I cycled during our post-retirement years in Arizona. I’d like to ride through this country another time while there still is a little muscle in the old man’s legs.

Week # Two Border to Border also sounds interesting. It’s a new program this year and will take cyclists through border towns of southern Arizona. The itinerary has not yet been posted, so it’s too soon to decide whether I want to do the trip. But the country is fascinating and it would be challenging to do back-to-back weeks of Desert Camp.

These two weeks would be a build up for the climactic tour, Route 66 (the western half): beginning in Santa Monica, California, and continuing to Amarillo, Texas, reaching there in early May.

“This nostalgic tour follows the history of the old highway across the western States. Our route is filled with historic landmarks and museums.  Most meals are in classic cafes. Many guest speakers and Route 66 programs make this a fun and interesting way to learn about the historic road.  Bikes with 32mm tires are required for gravel sections and rough pavement.”  

I’ve traveled four times with PAC Tour and like the way they run their bike trips. Other cyclists are younger than I, and faster (especially on hills), but so far I’ve been able to stay within the time boundaries that Lon and Susan post. When the need arises, they even let the slow ones ride a few miles in one of the support vehicles in order to stay with the group.

Between now and then, there’s much to do. Most important is to resume a more dedicated training program. Saving up some money will have to take on a new priority. I’ll begin reading about Route 66, a little history and probably even more the legend and the lore. And spend lots of time on my bike. Yesterday’s 45 miles (Vancouver to Springdale on the Columbia River Highway and back) left me more fatigued than I like to admit.

Maybe it will be easier when I turn 80.

Church Culture: A Strategy for Change

August 9, 2011

“Our church has a deeply ingrained culture,” my friend declared after a recent breakfast meeting, “and it is highly resistant to change.”

“Not only our church,” I responded, “but many others are in the same situation.” Later, I remembered a comment by one of the presenters a few months ago in a conference entitled Theology After Google. “Mainline churches are flexible about theology and fixed with respect to culture and ethos, whereas Evangelical churches are absolutely fixed in their conservative theology and absolutely flexible and entrepreneurial in style and methodology.” The speaker was hoping that the conference would encourage mainline pastors to be as open in their congregational culture as they already are in their theologies.

Twenty years ago, I wrote an essay, which bears upon this condition. After summarizing why many “First Churches” had declined in membership and attendance, I described three strategic tasks for churches that wanted to recover vitality. If only the first one is done, I said, the trajectory toward death will continue unabated. If only the second is done, the existing congregation will likely collapse before the new one can be born. If both of these strategic tasks are done, then the third one becomes increasingly necessary.

  Confirm the existing congregation

 Generate new constituencies who will become the congregation in another decade

Redistribute power in the congregation

The article was published in the quarterly journal Encounter. Even though it is twenty years old, based on research of that period, much of the essay is still pertinent for pastors and church leaders today. Its title: “Pastoral Leadership for Congregational Vitality.” To read it, click Pastoral Leadership.

Fixing up a fixie

August 4, 2011

No matter how many miles I rack up in Portland traffic, my credentials as a genuine Portland bicyclist are deficient until I can course through town on a fixie. The real bikies do it; young kids in scruffy cut-offs, middle-aged professional men with street shoes and loosened ties, and young women in short skirts and high heels. But so far, not me. All three of my bikes are serious roadies equipped with an old man’s triple cranksets and oversize cassettes so that I can conquer hills.

Fixies are single speed bicycles on which the cranks have to turn whenever the wheels turn. In their purest form, they don’t even have brakes because you slow down or stop by backpedaling, thus forcing the forward motion to slow down, stop, and reverse. The chief advantage of a fixie is that it trains the cyclist to keep legs moving rather than coasting (loafing) on the job. Fixies, so their aficionados claim, are a purer and therefore superior way to bicycle. Since much of metropolitan Portland consists of relatively level land with only moderate climbs, fixies work pretty well for cyclists in good training.

A less demanding approach is a single speed bicycle with a freewheeling hub. These bikes allow cyclists to coast when they feel like it, and they require brakes, which become the primary means of slowing down or stopping.

Most people acquire fixies or single speed bikes by modifying a geared machine, and that’s what brings me to this column.

“By bringing this bike frame down to you,” my friend told me, “I’m making one wife happy and another unhappy.” He had bought the Alan aluminum bike twenty years ago, ridden it for a while, put on a newer style carbon fiber fork, and then retired the bike from service. It was cluttering up his storage area and he had to get rid of it. So down to my place it came, stripped of all components except fork, headset, and seat post.

It is absolutely beautiful, Italian-made, lightweight and limber, designed for all-Campagnolo components. In many ways, it is exactly right to fix up as a fixie.

Why did he quit riding it? One answer is implied in the question a bike shop mechanic asked when I took it in to talk about making it rideable again. “What are you going to do with it? Hang it on the wall as sculpture?” He explained that the original editions were wimpy and quickly came apart when ridden hard. After looking this one over, however, he concluded that it was a later, OK model, and we talked a little about making it work again.

There are two challenges, however, that I must first resolve, even to make it a fixie I would enjoy riding..

1)    The frame is a smidgeon too small for me. The 54 cm seat tube can be made to work by extending the seat post to its full safe distance. The forward reach, however, is nearly 5 cm shorter than on my other bikes. Maybe bullhorn bars, which sometimes are used on fixies, would be just right. Or, I could decide that since this bike is mostly for fun an upright position is OK.

2)    Clearances are so tight that 700 cm wheels (including a spare set I have in storage) use up all of the space. There isn’t room to accommodate the 28 or 30 cm tires I would prefer to use. Worth considering for a fixie would be the increasingly popular 650 cm wheels. They would require long reach brakes. Even with the smaller wheels, there probably wouldn’t be room for fenders. But on a your basic urban fixie why would anyone mount fenders, anyway? What’s a little rain (or a lot) to a real webfooted bicycle rider in Portland and the Northwest?

Will this beautiful Alan frameset soon grace the streets of Portland? Too soon to tell. Advice, anyone?