I heard a remarkable story the other day from Dan Aleshire, the President of the Association of Theological Schools. Aleshire recently interviewed three pastors from Newtown, Connecticut, about their experiences following the shootings there in December.
He spoke about the tremendous privilege and awesome (a correct use of this trivialized word) responsibility the pastors carried. If I heard the story right, on that horrific Friday the parents from the Sandy Hook Elementary School were sent to the community firehouse to meet (or possibly not meet) their children. Besides first responders and local officials, the only other people invited into the firehouse were the town’s pastors. The pastors said all they could do was be present; indeed, all they could do was embody the ministry of presence.
What struck me as I listened to this beautiful story was that the pastors were from vastly different traditions. They hold different positions on any number of theological, social and political issues. But in the face of the Newtown tragedy, those pastors made a conscious decision to act as one body. They decided one community memorial would be held, and until President Obama invited himself to the memorial, they had decided no one would preach. The shootings happened two days before the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday traditionally marked by lighting the pink candle that represents joy. They decided none of them would light that candle that Sunday. The Catholic Church was hardest hit – nearly half the victims were Catholic – and other congregations opened their buildings to host visitations and post-funeral receptions for Catholic families.
Dan Aleshire’s point in telling these stories was to argue for the significance of pastors (and by implication the significance of theological education) in modern life. While I certainly agree with him, I was also moved by the beauty of the pastors working as one body.
I’m currently working on the marketing plan for my seminary. One of the first tasks in marketing is to differentiate yourself, to tell the world why and how you are different from others. I feel that pull all the time in a variety of ways. It’s not necessarily bad. But how does that fit with the great New Testament theme of unity? And why does it take a tragedy for us to stop heading in the direction of proclaiming our differences and turn around and act as one body?
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a day spent with Kathleen Norris and her interest in etymology. One of the words she did an etymology of was dogma. She told us that originally dogma meant the things a group of people agreed on. It was a unifying word. Today, dogma seems to send us in the opposite direction. The word feels divisive, not unifying.
I’m the naïve guy who wrote in this space a year ago that I thought the Christian Reformed Church in North America and the Reformed Church in America should merge. I wrote that piece in those halcyon days before last summer’s RCA General Synod, which cast shadows on whether or not the RCA can even hold together, let alone merge with others. General Synod is on the horizon again, and the word on the street is that in the various Classes fracturing overtures are being prepared for this summer. I wonder how further dividing and subdividing will help the witness of the body of Christ? Before you answer too quickly, consider how dividing simply mirrors a world already so split. Those on the “dogmatic purity” side of things want to save us from cultural capitulation, but isn’t it cultural capitulation to act like everyone else? Around the globe nations joust with nations, at home our political system is stuck (and now the whole nation learns the word “sequestration”) and in any neighborhood disaffected people regularly murder their fellow citizens. Can we differentiate ourselves by staying together despite our differences? Can we model respectful and loving disagreement without dividing? Can we be one body?
Since I heard Dan Aleshire’s message, I can’t get the image of those Newtown pastors acting as one body out of my mind. Somehow the words “Gonna lay down my sword and shield” and “Ain’t gonna study war no more” seem appropriate. May it be so.