December 19, 2013
Two astounding, must-read books from my D.Min. program have newly illuminated how small I am.
The first is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Hunter adroitly demonstrates how quantity and even quality of cultural output does not shape a culture, nor does the size of the consumer base. Rather, the culture is shaped by the few institutions, locations, and social circles that all, including those who resent them, tacitly agree are more prestigious than the rest.
I am small and far from these high points. I am not close to the center of my denomination’s culture. I am unimportant to the evangelical subculture—you won’t see my mug on conference junk mail anytime soon. I live in an ignored part of the country. Almost no one in any of my subcultures has the regard of elites in Hollywood, Harvard Yard, and Midtown Manhattan.
I am small in another direction too, as revealed by Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. As Christianity drains out of Europe, it is exploding in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, partly because of the fecund demographics of those regions but also through a burgeoning wave of conversions. Christianity in the United States is holding steady because of help from immigration from those continents as the faith resumes its ancient position as one of the great Eastern religions. The awakening and the miraculous seem to be going on almost everywhere but here, and I can’t read Jenkins’ statistics about 10 million of this and a hundred million of that for long before feeling very small again.
I don’t call myself small out of self-pity—well, I hope I don’t—but from a healthy dose of reality for the sake of humility. I need that. But this is not the whole story.
No matter whom I am small by comparison to, I am big to someone else. My town, a modestly affluent county seat, gets more undeserved attention than any other in my region. I’m an evangelical nobody, but unlike many I actually know a few somebodies, and they know even better-known somebodies. And wherever I live in the United States, to the Mexican believer peering around our southern wall I’m at the center of it all.
More importantly, no matter how small I am in my profession because I see only 50 people on a Sunday, I am huge to those 50 people. My significance is enormous to the sick for whom I pray, the weary to whom I speak the gospel of hope, and the children who call me pastor. And to my own children and to my wife, I’m colossal—to them, whether or not I exist is the whole world.
Finally, and most importantly, I am staggeringly valuable to the infinitely large God. As David observed, his thoughts about me are beyond comprehension—not only their number and their content but his desire to think about me at all.
At the beginning of Matthew 2, men come from a foreign power to find the king of the Jews, whose birth alarms Jerusalem’s elite and triggers a state crisis. At the end of the chapter he is called a Nazarene, a no-name denizen of a backwater town.
The paradox of Jesus’ incarnation is not only metaphysical—the union of complete and unadulterated deity and humanity in one person. It is a cultural paradox too: the one who is the center of all things lives simultaneously at the extreme margin; he really bears the name above every name while he really is a no-name. This both-and image is the one that God is conforming me to—I shrink while I expand, plunging lower, rising higher.
Cory Hartman grew up in a suburb of Syracuse, New York, and serves as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Hollidaysburg in the Pennsylvania county where his family has lived for generations. (Go Orange. Go Bucs. Go Steelers.) He is an M.Div. alumnus (’03), a current D.Min. student, and the author of On Freedom and Destiny: How God’s Will and Yours Intersect. Cory and his wife, Kelly, notch National Park sites visited with their four children.
December 17, 2013
There are moments like these, coming at the end of an academic day, that make all the world seem to halt. I've had Hebrew and flipped flashcards and read books and articles and syllabi. The whirr of academics is constant and becomes merely background noise, going almost unnoticed as the semester takes is shape and pace.
I've been reading here all day, and took in words of Your wonder and majesty from the pens of saints long ago—mothers and fathers of our faith who knew the same You and wrote of the very same You in a setting anything but the same. I've translated the Text and furrowed my brow at the philosophical theologians of modernity and tried to wrap my head around the complexities of spiritual formation.
And then I looked up and looked out the window. A storm is rolling in. Thick and rich clouds are churning above make me feel all so very small.
And I'm reminded again that Your ways are mysterious and wonderful. They can be written about, but there are not books enough to hold them. They can be preached about, but not human language can encapsulate them. Arguments can be formed and persuasions can be attempted, but this day has no lesson better than sitting beneath Your threatening sky.
Hi, friend. I'm Amy. Mostly, I’m just another twenty-something trying to figure out the stuff of life. I am a nerdy seminary student who loves the smell of old books and early mornings in the library. I am an artist wanabee, a liberal to the conservative and conservative to the liberal, guilty social justice groupie, and a recovering Bible know-it-all with the unreal ability to put my foot in my mouth an astonishing number of times each day. I am a sister to eight of the most hysterical creatures ever created. Good theology, used book stores, and autumn make me giddy. I preach passionately, think deeply, and ask too many questions. I write prayers, poetry and prose. I write about preaching bad and good, gender roles in the Church, the sacraments, stupid things we do on Sunday, politics, and almost everything else that you are not supposed to discuss in polite company. I also blog at oneyellowbird.blogspot.com. Welcome to the journey.
December 12, 2013
It’s Christmastime—which means that we get to spend time celebrating Advent, attending church services and singing carols. It also means that we dress up in wintery colors and make our way from the chilly weather into warm homes to trim trees and eat together. We don our Christmas sweaters and drink eggnog and Instagram things too much.
There is something spectacular that happens when we enjoy one another’s company over food. We are fed physically, but also relationally. I’ve always adored the idea of dinner parties and the chance to spend the season of Advent with people that I care for.
I arrived in Cambridge right on time, which meant that I was the first one there (fashionably late would have, perhaps, served me better socially in this scenario) and made my way inside. Beautifully and festively decorated, I found it to be something very familiar to me. The house of a host at Christmas.
What was different about this house was that it was the house of my professor who serves as the Minister at The Memorial Church at Harvard University. It was a gathering for the students in the class that I took this semester called, “Peasants and Proletarians: Black Religions and the Social Sciences in the 20th Century.”
As a part of the Boston Theological Institute, Gordon-Conwell students have the opportunity to take classes through other grad schools and seminaries in the Boston area. My friend from Gordon-Conwell and I decided to take one at Harvard Divinity School. While I will admit that much of the allure was the promise of Ivy League education, I soon found that the education I had the chance of experiencing was something new that would change the way that I learn completely.
When other people (especially outside the Gordon-Conwell community) hear that I’m taking a class at Harvard, they assume a few things. First, that I’m unrealistically brilliant; second, that I’m somehow more intellectually worth something for gaining a “legitimate academic experience.”
This view of BTI is harmful because it degrades the seminary and it glorifies one college experience (based, I’m sure, on movies like “Legally Blonde” and “The Social Network”) over another. It divides us into groups of “them” and “us.”
I had that mindset going into this class. I was intimidated and overwhelmed by something different and during the break on my very first day, I called my brother-in-law. A seminary graduate himself, he reassured me as I blurted out, “These people are brilliant! And I don’t know what on earth I am doing here. I know nothing about black sociology and I feel like I can’t do it.”
He lovingly said, “If you are in this class, you can do it.”
He was right. These students, while more well-versed in the topic of the class, were still fellow students. They were still learning and eager to do so. I swallowed my pride and continued on with my class.
It became clear to me that what was keeping me from fully pouring into the BTI experience was a division between academia and humanity. These were students with more intellectual experience than I, but they have parents and histories and passions and dreams and personalities. As weeks went on, we learned to understand one another better and from a different perspective than that of Gordon-Conwell and I believe that it made me a better person. And isn’t that the point of education?
C.S. Lewis once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I realized that I was robbing myself of truly connecting with other pilgrims by acting like I was a Gordon-Conwell student who was sitting in on a class at Harvard Divinity School. Instead, I needed to fully invest myself into being a part of that class as a peer and fellow traveler.
More guests arrived at the house and I felt myself relax a little more with every familiar face that entered into conversation. I asked if I could capture a few images and felt a little mom-ish asking everyone to get together for one group photo, but I am so glad that I did. It reminds me that the people we once knew nothing about can become peers, daresay friends. It reminds me that there is a great deal of unnecessary pressure that we can put on ourselves when we see things through a lens of stereotypes and ignorance. And it reminds me that one a cold night in December, I celebrated the holidays and the pursuit of knowledge in true holiday fashion.
We laughed and we engaged in good conversation and we ate food. We took pictures and we trimmed the tree. And while some of these souls are the most brilliant I may have encountered, the great honor of knowing them does not come from their GPA’s or their aspirations. The honor comes from the realization that we learn best when we learn from one another.
Melissa Zaldivar is an MATH student from California. She loves golf, theology, Jewish holidays, people falling in love, Jonathan Edwards, chocolate chip cookies, her adorable niece and telling stories. When she's not filming and photographing weddings, you can find her reading news articles, watching Parks and Recreation or playing Super Smash Bros.
December 10, 2013
We had 25 people at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. Seventeen of my Kentucky relatives converged on Ocala, Florida, and packed the place with the bustle of the holidays that I know too well. Rich southern drawls echoed the halls of my childhood, guitar jam sessions on the porch, and food for days stretched the extent of the weekend. One night, after a day of the merriment, I was laying in my bed, almost asleep, when my eyes fell on my longbow hanging on the wall beside my bed. My mind started to race with the glisten of fascination that had been lying dormant for so many years. I love archery. Before I went off to college, I spent hours in a hunting shop that housed a full-blown archery range and tore their targets to pieces.
I never hunted anything. For me, the gold was never in the kill, but in the art of the process. Archery always seemed really straightforward to me. But it wasn’t until I really got into it, that I discovered that it’s a pretty complex and takes a boat-load of practice to master. The primal, earthy wonder of it seemed even deeper than that. So the next day, I decided to wake my longbow from its slumber and see if I could put words to it.
My family spends the day after Thanksgiving as far away from the Black Friday melee as humanly possible. We do some fishing. We make sugar cane syrup. The men go hunting. I slipped off on my own for a little while and set up my target. The early morning quiet was a welcome to my ringing ears as the only noise seemed to be far off-voices and the dew’s soft brush against my boots. I laced up my finger guards and set an arrow to the string on my longbow. I pulled back slowly and took aim. I was pleased to feel the muscle memory spill through my arms as I took my first shot. The seductive pang of the string sent the arrow soaring smoothly through the air and thwacked just off center on my target.
I set another arrow and took aim. It was then in the seconds before I’d release the string that I discovered it: the magic of this sport that touched me so deeply.
Balancing your grip on the bow and the pull of the string is a lot to ask of your arms, so taking aim can’t be a long process or you’ll sacrifice the accuracy of the shot. In that moment when the string is back, there are still so many things that could go wrong. One last-second pull on the bow upon release could destroy the aim you worked so hard for. Any subtle motion, or quick glance elsewhere could make you lose your line of sight and send the arrow off course. For success, you must ask your entire body to focus in silence and stillness. There’s an unspeakable vulnerability here, one that, through a few stormy years of my life, shelved something I loved because it asked for just that.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood in the middle of my life, even at its most chaotic points, and cried out to God with little hope that He’d answer. I almost grew defensive with the idea that I would need to make any steps toward Him. That He could actually bother to ask me to do something in order to get to Him, like read His word or pray. My aim didn’t go any further than the length of my own nose. I wanted God to satisfy what I needed for what I wanted without surrendering myself to Him or His will at all. And since I knew He could do it, I’d get mad when He didn’t. He wasn’t my target. I was my target. And it was pulling me further and further away from Him.
It wasn’t long before He took me down. The next thing I knew, I was flat on my face before His transcendence. That transcendence only furthered by the glory of what it means to have Him as my focus. Because it’s in that moment, when the arrow is set and the string is back, it’s not MY strength or the soundness of MY aim that I’m leaning into.
It’s His. And He never misses.
Kate Hightower is writing to you from the middle of her Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Christian Thought pursuit at Gordon-Conwell—Jacksonville, where she is also a Byington Scholar. She’s an avid Bob Dylan fan, and can always be counted upon for decadent French cooking. And she’s madly in love with her giant, brilliant golden retriever, Stella.
December 03, 2013
This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here.
Facts don’t normally make for reading that is as interesting as stories, but sometimes facts are the best way to tell a story. Or perhaps, facts are the best way to expose the need to change the way we tell a familiar story. Such is the case with our understanding of the early church. Even though we know that Christianity arose in what is today the Middle East, we tend to think that the early church was primarily a European phenomenon, or at least a phenomenon limited to the Roman Empire. Some pertinent facts (or at least likely facts—there is controversy about some of them) quickly show the problem with that version of the early Christian story:
Again, there is controversy about some of these “facts,” but with that caveat registered, it is still clear that Christianity has—from the very beginning—been a faith for the whole world. The details of the story of Christianity outside of Europe are largely unknown to us in the West, but that is changing today. As the contemporary Christian world is more and more centered outside the West, the early history of Christianity in Africa and Asia is garnering increasing—and long overdue—attention. Ancient works never before available in “Western” languages are being translated, and the rest of the early Christian story is coming to our notice.
What will our story of the early church look like 50 years from now? Well, many elements familiar to Westerners will be the same, but a whole new dimension to the story will likely become familiar, giving us an ever fuller glimpse of the vastness of what the Lord has done in leading his people through the ages.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.