"Out on a Limb" was the theme of this year's orientation.
Out on a Limb? — Not Yet!
by Bill J. Leonard
On July 7, 2005 terrorists blew up 3 subway trains and a city bus in downtown London. Over fifty people were killed. And you came to Divinity School.
In the spring of 2005, Pope John Paul II died and was buried in one of the great medieval spectacles of the 21st century. Millions of people went to Rome. And you came to Divinity School.
In July 2005, Joel Osteen led his 35,000 member congregation at Lakewood Church, Houston, into their new quarters at the Compaq Center, a former basketball arena, which they promptly packed out with over 20,000 people attending each weekend. Joel's never been to Divinity School, but you've decided to give it a try!
In August 2005 over 1850 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq; and only God knows how many Iraqis. And you came to Divinity School.
In August 2005 the mother of a 22 year old soldier killed in Iraq decided to camp out in front of the Texas White House outside Crawford, Texas in hopes of an audience with the President of the United States in order to urge that he brings the troops home. And you came to Divinity School.
In her New York Times column for August 10, 2005, commenting on that mother in that place, Maureen Dowd wrote that "the moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute." Can you exegete that haunting phrase or any of these events I've just described? Can you offer "an explanation or interpretation" (hence exegete) a medieval and a post-modern spectacle, both drawing huge numbers of people in the year of our Lord 2005? Can you exegete — offer an explanatory note — biblical, historical, theological, spiritual, pastoral, that says anything to a mother or father who's twenty-something son or daughter was snuffed out by a roadside bomb or suicide bomber? After a week, a semester or three years in this Divinity School will your exegesis of these texts and contexts be the same one you'd offer right now?
This Master of Divinity program which you are beginning does many things but one central issue is surely centered in this important question: Can you exegete texts and contexts past, present and future? Can you dig into the texts, the sources, the resources and struggle with the ideas that have engaged and divided religious communions from Canaan to Constantinople, from Syria to Saddleback Valley? Actually, we are less interested here in your opinion of these and other events, than we are in your ability to document that opinion, or build a case for it, or struggle with ancient ideas and primary sources that might in-form or re-form your opinion and analysis. In coming to terms with those sources and resources you will make yourselves very vulnerable to us as faculty (for sure), and also to each other, and to the sources themselves, both ancient and modern. In short, I suppose, we could say that you get out on a limb.
Vulnerability is at the heart of our communal experience here at the WFU Divinity School. Every graduate program requires a certain vulnerability from its students as they face examinations, papers, class discussions, and other evaluatory experiences. But at divinity school we add God, faith, dogma, doctrine, tradition, dissent, spirituality and doubt to the mix. Was it Martin Luther who reminded us that one becomes a theologian—by "living, dying and being damned?" (And that's just in the first semester!) Yes, you are out on a limb here. There will be classes when you wish you hadn't said what you said out loud and other classes where you wish you'd said something, anything, just to let people know you are thinking about these issues even when you aren't sure where it will take you. Yes, you are out on a limb, gambling that you can do this degree in three years apart from illness, family crisis, personal angst, and economics, economics, economics. What we hope and encourage you to do is to take advantage of the University infrastructure — student insurance, writing center, counseling center, basketball tickets — that will under-gird your pilgrimage here amid the vulnerabilities.
But in a much larger sense, during this next three years you are hardly out on a limb at all. Indeed, our hope for you is that this academic program and this community of pilgrims serves as an anchor, a foundation, or a tree trunk even, not a limb. For it is out there, in the world, in the thick of things that we are most vulnerable, most out on a limb as women and men "for others." Some of you will move from this degree to a church were you will crawl up into a pulpit at least 45 Sundays a year, climb down into a text taken from the lectionary or the sermon roulette process we Baptists often manifest, take your clothes off (theologically and homiletically speaking) in front of a group of people, and make yourself exceedingly vulnerable to differences of opinion, ethical division, theological dispute, and perhaps even charges of heresy before it is done! That's life on an ecclesiastical limb. We've got to help get you ready for that.
Or you'll find yourself in the emergency room at 2 a.m. when somebody's teenager has wrapped a car and perhaps themselves around a bridge or a lamp post and they need somebody, anybody to help them deal with life's, perhaps death's, unexpected turns. Can we do anything here that helps anchor you even slightly at that unpredictable moment? Or can you deal with the homeless and the city council in your particular locale in the name of justice and goodness and God? We'll hope to get you ready for that.
You've got plenty of company among that "cloud of witnesses" that went ahead of us. These days I think often about Ann Hasseltine, an early nineteenth century woman who as a young woman attended Branford Academy a "finishing school" for young women who couldn't go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. While there she read Jonathan Edwards' monumental work not yet a century in print entitled The History of the Work of Redemption. Caught up in that work she decided that she should go out as part of the fledgling missionary movement invigorating her generation of young Christians. But she was a woman and they weren't sending out women on these global endeavors so she looked around for a husband who was on the same theological page and found Adoniram Judson, a recent graduate of Williams College. The two went out to India in 1812, sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions a congregational agency founded in 1810. On the ship to India, they exegeted the Greek New Testament a bit and decided they should become Baptists, a scandalous act if ever there was one. Indeed, she hurriedly wrote to a New England friend, "Can you ever forgive me, my dear Nancy, when I tell you that I have become a Baptist?" Of their method, she wrote: "We procured the best authors on both sides, compared them with the Scriptures, examined and reexamined the sentiments of Baptists and Pedobaptists, and were finally compelled from a conviction of truth, to embrace the former. Thus, my dear Nancy, we are confirmed Baptists, not because we wished to be, [that's the truth then and now!] but because truth compelled us to be. We have endeavored to count the cost, and be prepared for the many severe trials resulting from this change of sentiment." (McBeth, sourcebook, 207-208)
And was there a cost. The Judsons went to Burma, began a new mission there and were ever out on a limb in need of funds, friends, and protection from hostile governments. She learned the language quicker than he by spending her time on the streets and in the markets. He was arrested and imprisoned; she bribed the guards to get him food and medicine. He was released and she died in childbirth in 1826 at the age of 37. But all that began perhaps because she read Jonathan Edwards in a woman's finishing school. Two centuries ago, a woman went out on a limb, apparently with exegesis, on changing denominations and heading for Burma. She died there. This summer I had dinner at the Baptist World Congress with the president of the Baptist Union of Myanmar who says he is the great-great-grandson of the Judsons in the Christian faith. Not all of Ann Hasseltine Judson's children were stillborn.
Now that's what it means to be out on a limb and that is the heritage that women and men take up as you begin your work here. The limb is out there, but the work begins here.
And then there's Jesus, whose stories are filled with people who venture out on assorted limbs, don't they? Good Samaritans who crawl down into the ditch with the abused one after holier people have 'passed by on the other side,' that great KJV line about the safe ones. A prodigal, even, who find life so miserable that he decides that he'd just as well make himself vulnerable to the parent whose economic legacy if not patience he'd used up considerably. And that impractical woman who spent most of what she had on perfume to anoint the Galilean's head and feet as if he really were the Christ of God. So Jesus says to them then and there and to us here and now: "As you go proclaim the message: "The Kingdom of Heaven is upon you.' Heal the sick, raise the dead (?), cleanse lepers, cast out devils. Your received without cost; give without charge. Provide no gold, silver, or copper to fill your purse, no pack for the road, no second coat, no shoes, no stick; the workers earns their keep....Look, I send you out like sheep among wolves; be wise as serpents, innocent as doves…. But when you are arrested, do not worry about what you are to say; when the time comes, the words you need will be given you; for it is not you who will be speaking: it will be the Spirit…speaking in you." (Matt 10: 6-10;16-20 NEB) Hearing those words it is clear that we are all "out on a limb" out there, in the world. We'll try to get ready for that, here, together.
And that brings me to one more story on this day of introductions and orientation. Not long ago I was asked to lecture to Lutheran ministers on pre-millennialism and the "left behind" series, that collection of non-fiction fiction volumes sweeping the best-seller lists with stories of the "end times," the "rapture" of the church, and the terrors of Armageddon. Reading those books, standing in Borders, I decided this: I think I'll write a one volume sequel called "Stayed Behind," that describes a group of Christians who decided that if the "rapture" came while they were in the world, they'd hold on to a tree (or perhaps a limb) and not go. They'd stay right here. Why? Because they read another story Jesus tells about the shepherd who had 100 sheep and although 99 were safe in "open pasture" as the New English Bible says, he would not rest until the "missing one" (somewhere out there in the wild) was home at last. They (dare we say we) stayed behind--no elitist rapture, no safe escape, but out on a limb, with Jesus, till the last one comes home. Now there's an exegesis worth pondering, if Jesus tarries and even if he doesn't.
Welcome "home" to the WFU Divinity School. Let's work to get there together.