I turned forty last Sunday and then left for St. Louis for my D.Min. co-hort meeting the next morning on Monday May 23rd to return to Lincoln yesterday on Friday May 27th. There were six D.Min. students, two instructors and multiple conversation partners we participated with throughout the week.
The students were Warren Mayer who is an I.T. guy who works at the journalism department at the University of Missouri; Jay Simmons who is a pastor of a downtown church in St. Louis called South City Church; Richard Vise who has been on staff with Reformed University Ministries at the University of Auburn for over ten years; Cristano DeSousa who is a Navy Chaplain; Don Johnson who is a pastor of Hanna City Presbyterian Church in rural Illinois, just outside Peoria (also not the 80s icon you probably are thinking about at this point) and, finally, yours truly.
Our instructors were Steven Garber of the Washington Institute and Donald Guthrie of Covenant Seminary, the institution from which I am pursuing my degree.
Some of our conversation partners, often over skype and teleconference calling, were: Tom Nelson of Christ Community Church in Kansas City; Michael Williams of Covenant Seminary, author of Far as the Curse is Found; Amy Sherman, author, who works for a think tank called Center on Faith in Communities; Sean Lucas who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Mississsippi; Ryan Laughlin of Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, partner with the Fellows Program that seeks to give college graduates a nine-month internship helping them to integrate faith and vocation; and a few others as well.
Basically we spent five days from 9am-5pm in conversation with one other, our instructors and our conversation partners; the reading we did served as material through which we interacted.
I'm going to try and articulate something that words may not be able to capture: perhaps only the imagination, perhaps your intuition as you read and as I try to explain.
If you have been a Christian for a long-time now (I've been one for over 21 years), I have a question. Have you ever walked through a moment when you felt like you were converted again, that you really hadn't understood the Gospel or the Holy Scriptures until that point (despite the fact that there is much that you HAD understood to that point about the love of God, the Gospel of Christ, Jesus and the Bible)? Have you ever walked through that moment understanding that God had "held" you for a very long time (in my case for the last 21 years tracing back to my conversion, ... from the vantage point of eternity, from "before the creation of the world"- Eph. 1:4), ... but that perhaps you were still unable to "see" a huge part of the Christian faith to that point in your life?
I walked through that moment as I walked into my 40s last week.
What do you know about John Newton? Perhaps that he penned the famous and much-loved hymn Amazing Grace? that he was a friend of William Wilberforce who worked hard for the abolition of slavery in Great Britain? that he was a slave owner converted to Christ? Steven Garber shared that from the best of his research, that it took Newton nearly 25 years following his conversion to Christ to come to the deep conviction that slavery was wrong. I wonder what that moment of "conversion" was like for Newton.... oh the patience and mercy of God.
Steven Garber asks this basic question in his book The Fabric of Faithfulness, what will give you a moral vision for life that is large enough to make sense of life? What does it mean to live as a responsible participant in a universe that God made? Garber uses the language that we live in a covenantal cosmos, one that God made with all sorts of opportunities and freedoms to participate in a way that acknowledges that God is God and that we are not. Think with me on the original instruction given to our first parents; they were free to eat of any tree in the Garden, save one and the reason they could not partake in that one tree was simple: because God is God and we are not. The mercy and grace of God was such that they could participate in any and every tree otherwise; however, they chose to shrug off the responsibility to live faithfully to what they knew to be true and everything descended into chaos and brokenness from that point forward. The early church father St. Augustine said that in Christ we are once again able not to sin, so the question that is before each of us as those who bear the image of God and especially for those who are now in Christ is this: what are you going to do with what you know? In the world that God made, how will you live responsibly towards Him, towards your neighbor and towards His creation?
Steven Garber talks about the crabs in Chesapeake Bay "crying out" after generations of overfishing. Now, there are certain days when crab-catching is not allowed, and those in other places like Denver, Co., who once upon a time could have crab anytime all the time, assuming willingness to pay the fair market value, now no longer can do so as the crabs have "cried out." You see, the wisdom that comes from the Great Economy (that which Wendell Berry calls the "Kingdom of God," the deepest of all realities, the world that really is there) now calls the "Lesser Economy" of the fishing industry in the Bay to account; this is how the world that God made... works.
I turned forty this last week- in some ways, I've passed the "formative years" Garber speaks of in his book as I am 18 years removed from the University years; however, in many other ways I'm like John Newton only now beginning to see a comprehensive vision of the moral fabric of my life and heart that is integrally connected to the warp and woof of the universe; and, not only am I so aware of how I am connected to the brokenness of it all, but I also hold forth the hope that as I await the restoration of all things, I very well might be a part of what is right about the coming of the Great Economy too- are you kidding me? I've cried a lot this week thinking about the size of that hope. Who I am in my heart matters- it matters to my wife, my children, my church, my community- it matters to the world and above all it matters to the One who made all things in the first place to matter.
No more pulling life apart and putting parts of it into little boxes friends. No more. Oh Lord have mercy on us. Have mercy.