“We were soldiers once and young …” “There were giants in the land in those days …” “Things are just not the same anymore …” “Now, back in my day …”
It is easy to become an ecclesiastic Eeyore. There have been times when I have listened to the echo of my recent pronouncements only to hear the somber donkey braying of that classic complaining character of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. And why not? There is not only a philosophical Michel-Foucault-deconstruction-of-all-things-sacred movement in our time, but an actual stripping of the Western altar before our eyes. It is distressing. Add to that, for me, another fact that I sometimes missed along the train-ride from yesterday to now: I am aging. I am not ancient, yet, but no one is mistaking me for an up-and-comer (more of a “down-and-out-er”). I often find myself in a position where my students in seminary are not just my children’s’ ages, but closer and closer to being my grandchildren. This causes me to be a bit removed from the trends, styles, language, and, therefore, even thinking of those who will soon be replacing my generation in the ministry (and in every other area of public leadership). There is a an inevitable and ever-present danger of chronological isolationism that occurs, I think, with the passing of time. While I must say that I relish the joys of assuming what has been called the “Keeper of Meaning” role (George E. Vaillant, Aging Well, 2002), I find myself struggling against the entropy of emotional levees, allowing dangerous flood waters of cynicism, a critical spirit, and a general dour disposition to leak in, sometimes pour in. The toxic waste waters of cynicism born out of loneliness and a feeling of being misunderstood can utterly destroy a lifetime of gratitude and forgiveness, which are surely the primary agents of a happy older life.
Now. Having admitted this I want to say that I have never been more optimistic about the future of the Church of our God and Savior Jesus Christ in our part of the world. Never? Well, never more than now and in this condition. No, I am not Pollyanna. I see the real issues that are uncontested and all quite apart from my own chronological transitions (i.e., “aging”). Yet, I see simultaneous examples of extraordinary emerging leadership. Let me point to one instance.
Young scholars using media to bring theological higher education to the populace help me to see that the Church will go on. I would point to brilliant young theological students like Jonathan Brack and Charles Williams and their The Apostolic Fathers podcast series. I recently listened to several of their episodes as they discussed the early church fathers, heresies, persecutions, and other foundational matters related to our faith and the Church. What I liked about their podcast is that they are taking student discussions that used to only happen in coffee shops (when I was in seminary we had deep theological conversations over endless bowls of tortilla chips and salsa) and, through this thoroughly modern means, allowing others to eavesdrop and learn. In the process I believe these students are raising the importance of theology in the Church.
I would also point to young pastor-scholars, like Dr. James J. Cassidy, who are bringing the fruit of their dissertations (in his case his Barth studies) to help the Church to think more reflectively and deeply about fundamental matters of the faith, like the Trinity (see his The Primacy of the Trinity in Theology and Apologetics).
These are but two examples of a growing, robust, and popular movement of student and young pastors helping to make theology accessible. There are so many others. Moreover, these youthful writers, speakers, broadcasters, and artists are showing signs of hopeful leadership for the Church. Since I have entered that irresistible and sometimes regrettably irrepressible phase of ministry that is often marked by offering (i.e., “telling others”) what they should do I will refrain from breaking out in any “Now when we were young theologians” kind of talk. I will, though, venture to encourage all to remember that just as medical school can produce experts on anatomy and medicine without necessarily producing healers, so, too, seminary and its environs can shape erudite Biblical and theological academics without necessarily making shepherds. Do the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5). Preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2). Abandon all to seek the lost with the Gospel of the Son (Luke 19:10). Let not thine head grow larger than thine heart, or worse, allow the silver cord that connects mind and heart to become severed. Love God and love people. Serve.
Yes, sin grows. And it can really bother those of us whose hair is now white (what’s left of it). The presence of evil reminds us that even when we have done our all we are unprofitable. We are wanting. Problems bother us because it tells us that we might have not only failed in addressing the respective problems, but—and this is all too likely—we just might have contributed to them. But thank God that “…where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20 NRSV). And God’s love will overcomes evil (Romans 12:21). Our Lord Jesus Christ will build His Church and the gates of Hell will not—cannot—prevail (Matthew 16:18). So, Fathers and Brethren, take time to look for these and the many other signs of leadership life in the Western Church. And give thanks.
I think I am going to break out in a happy dance after this; just as soon as my back medicine kicks in. No. No, I will really just smile and believe; believe in the beautiful and evergreen promise of the Church that is greater than the temptation in the lurking, shadowy moods of passing years.