What I Did on My Summer Vacation

A week on a sailboat.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.  My two sons and I spent a week sailing out of Constitution Harbor in Boston on a CSY44, a 44-foot sailboat. Joining us as honorary skipper: my 90-year-old father.

After a stint flying B24s in the European theater, Pop married Mom 65 years ago. They served 45 years as missionaries. (I was born in Tokyo.) Pop’s a terrific leader. Today he walks 50 minutes a day. He volunteers weekly with young people. He preaches at his church when asked. He and Mom count over 40 descendants, including a dozen great grandchildren.

Sitting at anchor, we asked Pop for wisdom.

We asked Pop: “What one message do you want us to pass on to the great grandchildren?”

Pop said he hopes each one would trust in Jesus Christ. He wants them to enjoy eternal life. And then he encouraged each one to abide in Christ. He spoke from John 15. He talked about the vine and the branches. The branches gain life from the vine. The Gardener’s pruning shapes their lives. Their lives produce fruit. And the fruit pleases the Gardener.

My sons and I soaked up the wisdom.

You’ll find many definitions for ‘leadership.’

I see leadership, at its core, as influence. Leaders influence people to change. Organizational leaders, says John Kotter, bring change. They set new directions for organizations, align people and resources to those directions, and motivate and inspire those people to contribute their best to those directions.

Leadership includes emotions, surprisingly. Motivating and inspiring are relational activities that require emotional bonding with others. The process for setting direction involves connecting with followers. In their research, Kouzes and Posner identify as a core leadership activity: “inspiring a shared vision.”

This is why leadership starts with relationships.

At Bethel, we see the heart of leadership as relationship—relationship with God, others, and self.

Relationship with God means connecting intimately with Christ and following the Spirit’s guidance. So divine wisdom, motives, power, and vitality fill the leader.

Relationships with others mean that godly leaders connect with followers’ deepest longings, giving followers the opportunity to do what they do best. Godly leaders are givers, not takers, and they sacrifice so that followers benefit.

All of this shows the importance of healthy self-leadership. Healthy self-leadership means following a discipline, a purposeful pursuit of growth in self-awareness, self-control, and self-care. Self-leadership is the most difficult kind of leadership. But spiritual and personal development of leaders is critical, for only a person who leads her own life well earns the right to influence others.

The Servant Leader paradoxically combines commitment and humility.

Some people have a stereotype of leadership. They think of leaders as dominating drivers (best case) or tyrannical egotists (worst case). The heart of leadership, in this stereotype, is pushing people to do what benefits the leader.

It is true that great leaders are tenaciously committed to mission. But an egotistical view of leadership is completely at odds with Servant Leadership. Servant Leaders combine tenacity for mission with investment in people. They follow God’s invitation into leadership in order that others may gain. See I Peter 5:1-4: “Be shepherds of God’s flock … not because you must, but because you are willing … eager to serve … not lording it over … but being examples.”

Becoming a Servant Leader is a spiritual formation process.

To grow in ministry leadership, then, absolutely requires, above all else, becoming a person of spiritual vitality, moral character, and emotional maturity.

Without these kinds of maturing, leaders will be tempted to use their influence to fill up an emptiness or neediness in their own lives. This is always dysfunctional.

Godly leaders, by contrast, are so filled up with Christ that they can lead out of that overflow. They steadfastly guide people and organizations to their God-intended purposes. This can involve correction and challenge. But followers trust such leaders because they lead from a place of fullness and satisfaction in Christ.

And that’s why we sat in awe as Pop shared his wisdom.

My sons and I felt the warm sun of God’s blessing, listening to a man we love. By living a life of humble self-leadership , Pop earned the right to influence us, and we delight to honor him.

Now imagine the purpose of seminary education.

Imagine a transformative Bethel Seminary education that puts you on a life-long trajectory toward becoming a Servant Leader like that.

 

 

 

The Heart of a Bethel Seminary Education

Change is happening at Bethel Seminary.

Most days I find the opportunities exciting, though other days they feel more like challenges. But change is happening.

Lately it has left me wondering what this means to you – pastors, leaders, scholars, and others who are considering studying for a seminary degree or recommending a seminary to others. You may be wondering, with all the changes at Bethel, will it still be a great place to grow? My answer is: I truly believe it will.

Let me tell you why.

Bethel Seminary educates for holistic transformation.

“Training” focuses on information and technique. “Education” focuses on full-person development—spiritual, intellectual, emotional, physical, and vocational growth. Education goes beyond providing information in one-way speech to processing wisdom in two-way dialogue. This kind of education must include spiritual formation, including an honest look at each person’s capacities and vulnerabilities. Honest dialogue and spiritual formation create challenge, even anxiety at times, but they also produce transformation.

Bethel Seminary embraces evangelical theology in an irenic spirit.

Non-negotiable core convictions guide a Bethel education: the Triune God, the full truthfulness and authority of the Bible, the separation of humans from God by sin, redemption through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the power of the Spirit, the centrality of the church, the command to service and mission, and the hope of eternal life. But outside core doctrines, on secondary issues, Bethel cultivates an irenic spirit. (‘Irenic’ comes from the Greek for ‘shalom.’) It provides space to grow, in a context that is uncompromisingly biblical.

Bethel Seminary pursues excellence through constant improvement.

A Bethel education today is not yet what it will be tomorrow. Driving our improvement is deep interest in increasing impact and relevance in the contemporary world. We’re listening to stakeholders to connect offerings more closely with their deep needs. We’re using assessment to improve offerings to students. We’re constantly drawing on who we are to become who the church needs us to be.

Bethel Seminary serves the church in all its expressions.

A Bethel education serves the church. We focus on preparing individuals who work full-time in churches, ministry agencies, and non-profits of all sizes, colors, and forms. In addition, because the “church” isn’t just a building or institution, but people, we resource Christ-followers who do other work. Bethel’s Work With Purpose project (generously funded by the Kern Family Foundation) lifts up the Kingdom-building call of God for every single Christian. Every person’s daily work, whether paid or unpaid, contributes to the Kingdom of God if it’s done in Jesus’ name.

Bethel Seminary develops leaders who are humble, persistent, and healthy.

The Vision for Bethel Seminary focuses on developing the whole leader. We’re about preparing leaders first and foremost. The goal of this development isn’t just enjoyment of the process, but extends to deployment in mission. Our goal is preparing “Three Centered” leaders—deeply and biblically wise, emotionally and spiritual mature, and skilled in godly influence. Effective leaders aren’t dictatorial or egocentric. They’re persons of character. They can both follow and lead. They put others ahead of self. They build strong relationships. They’re spiritually, emotionally, and relationally mature. And they’re devoted to mission. They’re tireless in helping organizations achieve goals. They overcome all odds to help others taste success. Bethel challenges such leaders to give their lives to the gospel of passionate trust in the Triune God through Christ and of compassionate ministry to the world in Jesus’ name.

Through transformative experiences, we help students and clients move toward becoming the most dynamic and mature versions of who God created them to be. They’re Servant Leaders. And the world needs every Servant Leader possible.

The future will be different … and better.

What does the future hold for Bethel? Bethel has embarked on a Strategic Process to guide transformational change. As a community that loves God, and loves the world God loves, our deeply rooted commitments are guiding the changes required for maximum impact and relevance. The Strategic Process is inclusive. Stakeholders of all kinds are putting their fingerprints on Bethel’s future. So we’re deeply grounded in unchanging values, and we’re working to creating a more vibrant version of Bethel.

Bethel serves the people of God, and through them the world God loves. We live out the whole biblical gospel. We provide transformational experiences for students and clients. And we develop leaders who grow toward the vision God has for them through a seminary education rooted in biblical wisdom, leadership insight, and Spirit-empowered transformation.

This is an exciting journey. I invite you to come along.

“UnChristians”- An Examination

What do we say about “UnChristians”?

I just read about “UnChristians,” former Christians who have walked away or drifted away from faith. Many are 20- or 30-somethings.

Commentators can’t agree on whether this trend is new.

Some researchers who are watching young people leave Christianity say this is a normal, “life stage” pattern. In past generations, those who left the faith came back, often when they entered marriage, bore children, or started a career. These researchers say the same is true today.

Other scholars sound alarm bells. Those starting adulthood do naturally “pull away” from their family or community of origin, they say. But the rate of faith abandonment is unprecedented. Today’s 20- and 30-somethings are leaving in larger numbers and coming back in smaller numbers. The number of UnChristians who come back to faith when Junior is born is remarkably smaller today.

Based on what I’m seeing, I think the reality is between these extremes. I’m not an alarmist. But something broader is going on today, compared to past generations.

What causes all this?

This question is obvious. The answer isn’t. I agree some life stage issues in previous generations are still in play today. I also think our culture is shifting in fundamental ways.

I think an historic Judeo-Christian consensus in Western culture is eroding. I don’t mean that fewer people are Christians; I just don’t know that. I do mean that the Christian way of thought and life is not culturally supported or socially respected as it was in the past. I’m not wringing my hands about this. I’m just describing what I think is true.

I do feel confident about one thing: today’s UnChristians aren’t getting deep wisdom regarding the truth of our faith.

At an American Sociological Association meeting a few years ago, a team of scholars from the University of Connecticut and Oregon State University claimed that “the most frequently mentioned role of Christians in de-conversion was in amplifying existing doubt.” That is, the new UnChristians who are walking away from faith often shared “burgeoning doubts with a Christian friend or family member … only to receive trite, unhelpful answers” (cited in CT, ).

This is tragic. Here’s why: the intellectual grounding of the Christian faith is profound. But that message isn’t getting to where it’s needed. The long-dominant myth that faith and thought oppose each other still carries weight.

I long for a day when the church gets it right: deep wisdom, when it digs all the way to the fundamental assumptions of thought, supports faith. Admittedly, narrowly-defined technical knowledge can often contradict the Christian faith. But the knowledge claims that seem to negate Christian teaching typically overlook more fundamental assumptions. And when we dig up and examine these buried assumptions, the conflict between faith and knowledge dissolves.

Let me give one example.

I just make a pretty bold claim. I can’t produce a full meal of a response. Let me give an appetizer.

I’ve heard people combine these statements into an argument:

· If you can’t prove something scientifically, then it can’t be true.

· The claim “God exists” can’t be proved scientifically.

· So the claim “God exists” is false … meaning God does not exist.

Now this argument sounds impressive. We all believe in science. Science is intellectually powerful. So the argument seems irrefutable. So atheists, following this scientific line of thinking, feel justified in their atheism. And believers, following the same logic, feel embarrassed about their faith.

This cluster of claims is deeply flawed. It feels irrefutable, but that’s only if we leave a key assumption deeply buried. The way to refute the argument is to dig up this assumption and examine it carefully.

So let’s reexamine the claim, “If you can’t prove something scientifically, then it can’t be true.” The whole train of thought hinges on that.

This assumption sets up a rule a thought requiring us to support every belief scientifically. But the question is: Has the assumption itself been supported scientifically? Well, no! In fact, it can’t be supported scientifically because it’s not that sort of claim. So it doesn’t (can’t) meet its own requirement, and on its own ground, it’s self-refuting. All that means that the train of thought I cited above will never even leave the station—let alone reach the destination which says there is good reason to disbelieve in God.

This is just one example. It’s a single point among hundreds that Christians can weave together to form a web of belief which shows the Christian faith is not just consistent with the deepest human wisdom, but is strongly supported by that wisdom.

All of which means that UnChristians who feel knowledge fails to support wisdom have it backwards.

And that means that the current patterns of faith abandonment demand, among other things, a humble but well-conceived strategy for spreading the good news: the deepest wisdom supports the Christian faith.

Theology Spectrum

What do Baptists have to do with Anglicans?

Bethel Seminary in San Diego, a Baptist school, offers a program for Anglicans preparing for ministry. Does this make sense? Is this part of some new 21st century reality?

I’m noticing that theology trends today don’t line up with denominational histories.

Historically, the great streams of Protestant theology coincided with the rise of denominations. Lutheran. Presbyterian and Reformed. Baptists, Mennonites, and Quakers. Episcopal, Methodist, and Pentecostal. The Lutherans started this in the 1500s; the Pentecostals wrapped it up in the 1900s.

The theologies of these movements often followed dynamic theologian/leaders. These leaders started a renewal movement, and soon that leader’s followers settled into a denomination that preserved his theology.

I’ve been toying with new ways to organize these traditions.

But the link between denominations and theologies has weakened. So very conservative Lutherans (like WELS) share more with fundamentalist Baptists (like GARB). Progressive Presbyterians (like PCUSA) share more with progressive Lutherans (like ELCA) than they do with conservative Presbyterians.

(Don’t worry if the alphabet soup doesn’t make sense. The point is that theologies just don’t line up with denominations.)

Let me propose a way of organizing theological views on a continuum from fundamentalist to liberal.

The spectrum I’ve been playing with starts on the most conservative end with fundamentalist. Moving across the line are spaces for conservative, then centrist, progressive, and finally liberal.

A fundamentalist tends to interpret the Bible very literally, to see moral issues in very stark, either/or terms (legalism), and to avoid cooperating with anyone who doesn’t share their fundamentalism. And fundamentalists—whether Lutheran or Baptist or Methodist or independent, it doesn’t seem to matter—fundamentalists seem to share these qualities.

Centrists carve a niche between conservative and progressive.

Advocates for the five stances need to define their space, so to speak. But I’ve been thinking that perhaps a centrist stance might be most challenging to define.

On the one side, a centrist might say (against conservatives) that a woman should serve as a senior minister if she is gifted, qualified, and called to that role. Centrists would never say, without qualification, that women should be senior pastors. But they’d argue that only those who are gifted, qualified, and called should be pastors. They might say that such persons, be they female or male, should be senior pastors … as a matter of faithfulness to God.

On the other side, a centrist might say (against progressives) that anything the Bible genuinely teaches must command our allegiance. In other words, the Bible is fully authoritative.

I still don’t know whether all the spots on the spectrum can be marked out clearly.

Not long ago I saw a survey that asked people to describe their theological perspective as either conservative, moderate, or liberal. I feel quite sure that this threefold continuum is just too limited. There’s much more nuance on the theological spectrum. (And there are other relevant nuances of cultural identify and generational identity, and so on.)

I’m going to keep pushing to see whether the five spaces are really distinct. I’m more confident that the threefold continuum is too limiting than I am that my fivefold continuum is really helpful. I think it’ll require looking at test cases to see whether I can spot a set of characteristics that really define each stance. And I’ll have to test it in the different denominational families. So I admit my initial suggestion for a theological continuum needs a lot more work. I’d be happy for any guidance.

Welcome from Dr. David Clark

Settling in to our second semester, I want to send a quick greeting. I pray that this semester will be rich and full of growth for you.

 

Welcome from David Clark

 

Peace,

Dr. David Clark, Ph.D.
Vice President and Dean

How big is your dream?

Really? “I have a dream” is 50 years old?

Can it actually be true that Martin Luther King’s famous speech is now aged 50 plus? August 28, 1968, was indeed more than five decades ago.

Now obviously, different people today have different views on what will successfully lead to the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. I’m not here to decide among those views. But in spite of the differences, last Monday was a day to remember the dream.

We haven’t achieved the dream. And based on what we read in Scripture, it will not be fulfilled in this fallen world. While we may not achieve the dream in our lifetimes, the experience of reconciliation through God’s people remains a worthy goal. As believers, our failure in this area is tragic. Every step forward toward reconciliation is worth taking.

For my money, King’s dream is a faint foreshadowing of something greater. As in Jesus’ prayer: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Apostle John describes that something greater in Revelation 7:9-10: “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, for every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

I just heard a great insight about dreams.

As part of a celebration of Martin Luther King Day, Jerry Sheveland, President of Converge Worldwide, pointed to Joel 2:28-32. This passage is quoted in Acts 2:17-21.

“In the last days, God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

“Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

“Your young men will see visions,

“You old men will dream dreams.”

Then President Sheveland said something I found very challenging. It’s not surprising to find young people dreaming dreams. But old people dreaming dreams? This is rare. Why?

Old people rarely dream because “most people outlive their dreams, and they replace their dreams with more manageable plans.”

Wow. Busted!

How big is your dream?

We all face a problem: there are always people around to stomp on our dreams. Which is why young people often have dreams, but old people often don’t.

If you don’t have a dream that’s bigger than you … your personal interests … your pet issues … you will outlive your dream.

Martin Luther King’s dream was big.

Do you have the courage to ask God to give you a dream that’s bigger than you?

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

I just experienced something I never experienced before.

We, Sandy and I, became grandparents for the first time this week. We put some CLARK bars out in celebration. Somewhat more healthy than cigars.

And yes, we’re as annoying as you’d expect. My colleagues have heard the news about seven times as I keep trying, ever so subtly, to work the news into conversations. My friends are ready to move on.

The waiting is what kills you.

We went from zero to two in the grandchild count. Our beautiful daughter-in-law, Rachel, delivered twins. Before they came, we waited each week, wondering whether she would be able to carry Griffin and Norah to full term. We celebrated each passing week, even each day.

With twins, there’s some risk they’ll come early and need extra care. So we passed 32 weeks, then 33, then 34. Each milestone a celebration … and an invitation to further worry. Rachel almost made it to 35 weeks. But not quite. And then her doctor, Megan, said, “It’s time.”

So off they went to the hospital. And then we had to wait at the hospital. First the pre-op. Then the surgery. (Rachel had to have a C-section.) Then 30 minutes of wait time to stabilize before the father (our son, Ryan) could see the babes. Then another hour before we could see them.

We stood in the hall. We strained, looking through the window in the NICU door. We could see Ryan. He looked calm. That felt reassuring.

A nurse came by and said, “You can sit in the waiting room down the hall, if you’d like.” We didn’t like. We kept straining of tiptoes, looking for clues.

A few minutes later, another said, “You’d be more comfortable in the waiting room.” We didn’t want to be comfortable.

Finally, ten minutes later, a supervisor type nurse came and said, “Please wait in the waiting room. It’s about security. It’s policy.” Honestly, we didn’t think we were a security risk of any sort. We finally moved. But we didn’t stop worrying and wondering.

Waiting for the Christ child has a new meaning for me.

When will Messiah come? I think of Simeon and Anna, mentioned in the gospels. They spend lifetimes waiting for Messiah.

The people of God waited for Messiah for generations. It seems God’s timing is not nearly so urgent as ours. Simeon and Anna strained to see. Wondering and worrying. God had his plan.

I think of our world today. And I’m reminded that I often think God should show up sooner than he does. I’m thinking that right about now.

And often God doesn’t show up for years. I know friends dealing with longstanding issues. And it seems the Almighty just waits.

I’m reminded again, this year more forcefully than others, that God reigns over all things, and I don’t. Being a person of faith requires admitting that God guides all things on a heavenly rhythm I may never fully grasp.

Good things will come to those who wait on God.

But good will come. Every tear will be wiped away. Not today. But someday. That’s the promise.

Good will come. I don’t mean this in a quid pro quo kind of way: if I do a good thing, God will give me a reward. I just mean that as people of faith, we believe God will bring good, even in the face of contrary evidence at times, and we trust God to work in God’s good timing

And I don’t say it will be easy. It is the reality of this world: many (most?) things are not easy. Most things worth doing or worth having will require us to go against our culturally conditioned tendency to want what we want and to want it now.

Waiting for Norah and Griffin has reminded me, deeply and viscerally, what it’s like to agonize for something good to come to completion. Waiting for God’s timing is almost never easy. Even so, waiting for God’s timing, in the end, is always good.

Both / And

The concept of ambiguous loss is new to me.

Friends recently shared with me the idea of ambiguous loss. Dr. Pauline Boss, who spent some time on faculty at the University of Minnesota, apparently coined this phrase.

Unambiguous loss occurs when the reason for the feeling of loss is obvious. If a beloved family member dies, and we view her body in the casket, it’s clear why we feel the agony we feel.

But with ambiguous loss, we may feel stuck because the reality that causes our feeling of loss is unclear. The source of our grief is an open-ended situation. Something is unresolved. And Boss suggests this open-ended feeling changes the experience of grief. In such cases, a person may feel less able to move forward with the grieving process.

If a parent develops Alzheimer’s, that creates an experience of ambiguous loss.

For example, suppose a beloved father has Alzheimer’s. So Dad is physically present but psychologically absent. That can be ambiguous loss. Or suppose a dear friend goes to war and becomes MIA. John is physically gone, and yet remains in my heart because I’m not certain he has died. He might be in a prison camp. He might be in the very process of escaping right now. That too can be ambiguous loss.

Boss claims that with ambiguous loss, there is an uncertainty about whether the loved one will ever return or return to how they used to be. That’s what changes how grieving happens.

Would it make sense to think that a different kind of grief calls for a different kind of response?

Boss says it does. The ambiguity changes the nature of the grief and the nature of the response.

A key strategy, she suggests, is holding seemingly opposite truths in tension. Holding on to “both/and” seems to help. So if John is MIA, it helps to say: “I’ll never know what happened to John. And also, I will move on as though I know what happened to John.”

Apparently, it seems to help if a person is able to keep these two ideas in tension.

An article about Penn State seems connected.

I just read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It talks about a “both/and” strategy for leading organizations. The article describes chancellors or presidents who take over universities that have experienced a crisis. Like Penn State after the sex scandal.

The Sandusky episode is real. It’s part of Penn State’s history. And also, it’s not the whole of Penn State’s history. Another part of that history is all the social good, academic research, and educational innovation that has made Penn State a unique and special place.

Both/and. Thinking this way seems to help.

This terrible thing has happened at Penn State. The new president needs to acknowledge that. And also, Penn State needs to move forward. And the new president must push for that. A new president cannot focus only on the scandal. And a new president cannot ignore the scandal.

Life is a mixed bag. Several truths stand in tension. The several truths don’t logically contradict. That’s not possible. But they pull us in opposite emotional directions. Neither truth can be denied. Both must be affirmed. Neither of the truths should so grip our minds and souls that we ignore the other.

Theologically, we live in a fallen world. We were made for a redeemed world. Both of these ideas are true. We ignore either one at our peril.

Both/and.

The “both/and” may apply in cases that are not ambiguous loss.

It seems to me that this principle applies to many of life’s experiences, and not just to cases of ambiguous loss. Certainly, “both/and” thinking helps in the specific instances Boss discusses. And also, I can see how it can apply to the task of combining appropriate community healing and forward organizational momentum at a place like Penn State.

I wonder about many other possible applications this way of thinking and being might have.

Who is ‘called’?

Are nurses or architects, businessmen or diplomats ‘called’?

I remember picking up the following idea somehow: if you’re a pastor, you’re called. If you’re not a pastor, you’re not called. (OK, there are missionaries, too—they’re also definitely called.) But the idea is, if you’re a full-time religious person—someone who gets paid to lead in a religious organization—you’re called. Otherwise, you’re not.

I was never actually taught this idea. It just seemed to be in the air … just built into the way people talked.

Today I question this idea.

What I picked up sounds like Catholic theology.

Catholic thinking divides Christians into two categories, clergy and laity. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the two groups as people who belong to the same society, but occupy different ranks. Clergy are ordained to a higher class, and so populate a higher rank in the spiritual hierarchy.

Clergy teach, lead in worship, and govern over the laity; lay persons learn and follow. Clergy are the shepherds; laity are the sheep. Translating this two-tiered system into a Protestant way of speaking: full-time ministers are called; others aren’t.

But what if everyone’s called?

I think there might be two senses to this idea of a ‘calling.’

First, the NT uses the word ‘call’ to mean the invitation to follow Jesus. I’ve been thinking more and more about the metaphor of the Kingdom. I think of ‘calling,’ in this sense, as the invitation to join the Kingdom of God.

Many traditional phrases describe the invitation to become a follower of Christ: “receiving Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior”; “trusting in Jesus Christ for eternal life”; “being born again”; “saying ‘Yes’ to Christ.” They all mean roughly the same thing: to commit one’s life to, to promise loyalty to, to trust one’s destiny to Christ. These phrases all denote the act of exercising faith in Jesus Christ.

But second, in everyday language, people more often use the word ‘call’ to talk about someone’s life work or passion. People have a ‘calling,’ a ‘vocation’ (the Latin vocatio just means ‘calling.’) Some think teaching kindergarten (or any of dozens of other jobs) can be a ‘calling.’

These two concepts both matter.

Not long ago, I heard a friend focus on the second meaning to the exclusion of the first. He said ‘calling’ refers to your life work. He’s a Christian, but he wanted to push back on the idea of “receiving Jesus as Lord and Savior” or “saying ‘Yes’ to Christ.” He wanted no part of that.

For me, I’ve always thought the two senses of the word ‘calling’ are related. But how?

So I’ve been thinking perhaps the idea of God’s Kingdom pulls them together. The Kingdom of God is the realm of God’s rule. And the two kinds of calling are both related to that divine rule.

It seems the first calling (the invitation to receive Christ, to say “Yes” to Jesus, to be born again—I don’t care how you say it) as a summons to join the Kingdom. And that means the second calling (the life work God lays out for someone) is a command to build the Kingdom.

Why not agree with my friend? Why isn’t a great life calling—like curing cancer—enough?Why isn’t it enough to just do good in the world? Or why isn’t it enough just to dedicate your life to feeding the hungry or caring for prisoners? (Jesus said we should do those things.) How does a life calling connect to “receiving Christ as Lord and Savior”?

Last week, a part of the relationship between these ideas dawned on me. If I only pursue the second calling, as noble as it may be, I’d be pursuing that calling, in a way, as an act of building my kingdom. (If I give my body to be burned, as St Paul said in the “Love Chapter,” that amounts to nothing more than a tinkling sound, if the object of my life’s love is unclear.)

If I put my life’s work first—even if my life work is more noble than Mother Teresa’s—it’s still my life work.

In a nutshell: the first calling makes clear whose Kingdom I’m building. Before I get into the Kingdom-building business, the Lord wants me to be clear that it’s His Kingdom I’m building. After we establish that, then he sets me to doing my life’s work.

So that’s what I’ve been noddling: maybe the two callings are connected in that the second calling is about what I shall do with my life. And the first calling is more about why. Seems to me that these two issues are connected, and both of them matter.

Theology Matters. Really?

Thomas Aquinas, the 14th century Catholic theologian, is credited with exploring the question: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

Many people think this question typifies the idea that theology doesn’t matter. The word ‘theology’ can be like the word ‘academic.’ As in the sentence, “That’s an academic issue.” In this negative sense, the word ‘academic’ means “a theoretical issue that makes no real difference.”

I’ve been thinking that theology might actually matter less than some people think. Some people live for theological debate. Bad idea. Theology says we should live for God … a very different thing.

It might surprise you that I agree theology is sometimes irrelevant.

Some theological debates are about differences that make no difference. They’re ‘academic’ in the bad sense. (The word ‘academic’ also has a good sense.)

I should give you an example. Every Christian knows God is the Creator of all things. There are debates about when God did what he did. Was it long ago? Was it more recent? I have fairly settled opinions here. But maybe, at the end of the day, the exact date of God’s work of creation isn’t all that important.

That God created the world matters hugely. Doesn’t it seem that when God created the world matters less?

So is theology ever really that important?

Here’s another example. Humans experience the freedom to make decisions. Humans make choices to resist a temptation or to cave in to that temptation.

Now I don’t mean this freedom is absolute. It’s actually limited. It’s shaped by a person’s circumstances. It’s influenced by her strength of character. It’s even affected by her current state of mind. (A man who just experienced a huge setback might choose to do something in a weak moment that he would not otherwise do.)

Still, as humans, our choices (I believe) do affect our world. And we are rightly held accountable for these choices.

But there are big debates about the exact nature of this freedom. Is it compatibilist freedom, or is it libertarian freedom? I have an opinion here, too. (No surprise!) I do think this opinion is important for theoretical reasons (which aren’t important to my example).

Many don’t understand the debate between compatibilist freedom and libertarian freedom. (And if you’re in that group, don’t worry.) What’s important is the practical reality: we do have freedom to act, and we are responsible for how we act. Wise people choose to live consistently with that truth.

When theology matters supremely.

Theology is our best attempt to describe, to explain, to interpret, what is real (and Who is Real!). All of that matters supremely. In exercising our freedom, we will flourish only as we make choices that fit in with what’s truly and ultimately real.

An example: gravity describes the real physical world. If I choose to attempt unaided human flight by launching myself off a skyscraper, gravity will ground me … because my choice will not line up with the truth about how physical reality actually is.

That’s a silly example that makes an important point. I have to choose to live my life according to what’s actually true about reality.

Theology is simply the truth about what’s real—it’s truth about our world and more fundamentally, it’s truth about its Creator.

Biblical theology teaches: “I came into existence through God’s creative will, and God created me to find my purpose in loving my Creator.” If my life choices fit with this biblical theology, I will thrive.

An alternative teaching says: “I came into existence by a series of unguided, physical events, and I will flourish if I choose loving myself as my ultimate purpose.” If my choices live out this philosophy of life, that’s like having a go at unaided human flight.

Thinking theologically shapes a life of intentionality and meaning.

Theology isn’t an end in itself. No arena of knowledge is. Knowledge claims, including knowledge claims about God, matter when they shape life choices. There are the “angels-on-the-heads-of-pins” questions out there. They might have answers. I don’t actually know. But they’re largely irrelevant.

But this doesn’t show all theology is irrelevant. Theology forms the parameters of meaning which shape the lives of persons and families, communities and cultures, for good. That sort of theology isn’t to be despised. It really matters.