Living on the edges theme, alumni awards, and harpsichord dedication mark Spring Convocation
The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia’s (LTSP) Spring Convocation 2015 featured numerous highlights including three presentations about “Living (and worshiping) on the Edge as a Church,” awards honoring three distinguished LTSP alumni, and the heartwarming dedication during Easter Vespers of the refurbished harpsichord originally built in the early 1970s by the late Dr. Robert Bornemann, Anna Burkhalter Professor of Old Testament and originator of the seminary choir.
“The edges we encounter in ministry and life are both life-threatening and life-giving, and we find Jesus at the heart of it all,” explained the Rev. Louise Johnson in talking about the theme for the convocation. Johnson, Vice President for Mission Advancement at the school, had been just appointed President of Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, as the program began. “Living on the Edge,” she explained, “is both threat and promise. Edges create boundaries and protect lives, while at the same time threaten to overtake us with change and renewal.” Alumni prior to the event had identified edges in their lives as including cultural divides within the church, the realities of poverty and homelessness, the call for the church to be an incarnational presence of Jesus in the world, also the reminder that life and death strengthen and threaten the connections we have to our faith.
Three speakers took on the edges theme: the Rev. Dr. David J. Lose, LTSP’s president; the Rev. Kevin L. Strickland, the Director of Worship for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who focused on worship aspects; and the Rev. Leila Ortiz, an LTSP doctoral candidate and Associate Pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
The following summaries are highlights only of the presentations. You can view them in their entirety below. (scroll down for videos and slide shows from Spring Convocation)
Lose built much of his commentary about the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, headlining his talk “Jonah and the Whale and a Church on the Edge.”
He noted that in the larger culture, edges are regarded as places of “danger, scarcity, and fear … We are urged to stay near the center, not move beyond what we know. We’ve gotten comfortable with the symbols of power, too accustomed to being in the center. In the church we fear decline and not having the same status…” He raised the notion of perhaps not being faithful by staying at the center even though that practice is what we may have learned. “What if we were taught wrong?” Lose speculated.
Recounting Jonah’s story, Lose noted that “prophets don’t usually disobey God.” But rather than going to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, to preach repentance as God asked, Jonah fled. Lose said Jonah didn’t think God should care about other nations besides Israel. Jonah held onto the idea of scarcity, “…that there wasn’t enough of God to go around. His answer was to hoard power.” He said some readers get lost in the whale part of the Jonah story, but that a critical part of the story deals with Jonah’s worldview of scarcity and not being willing to change.
“Will we change?” Lose mused. “Or will we be dominated by a worldview of inadequacy and scarcity?” He said such a view tells us, “You are not enough. You do not have enough.”
Lose showed his audience a series of commercials from days gone by that played upon a “tyranny of inadequacy.” The messages played upon themes of greed – “You don’t have enough,” fear – “You are not safe enough,” and insecurity – “You are not attractive enough.” (Remember the mouthwash commercials warning of halitosis?)
He said there is a risk that churches are becoming captive to the worldview of scarcity, and the “theology of lack.” He urged the “telling of a better story” to avoid becoming like Jonah whose view was caught up in the notion that “moving toward the edge becomes terrifying.”
Lose went on to identify a different marketing wisdom that had followed the period of advertising he first described. One ad for a small car urged consumers to “think small…You have enough, think small. You have everything you need…” It was a form of “empowerment marketing,” he said.
In terms of the church, the empowerment message becomes, “With love (of Christ) you are enough. You have enough. You can,” Lose said.
While Jonah’s view was “Take my life, I would rather die in a world I know than live in the world you (God) are imagining,” Lose said God’s response was to be concerned beyond Israel for Nineveh, its 120,000 people and animals. “No one gets excluded” from God’s love and caring, Lose said.
Lose went on to examine the various openings of the four Gospel books as each having a different “take” on the abundance of life.
He urged the church to define itself in light of abundance and “practices that ground listeners in the assurance that there is something more.” He noted that early Christians were known as the “people of the Way. The Way is not always easy. Preach and invite others to abundant life. Extend the promise God has made to us to others.”
In discussing ideas for worship, Kevin Strickland first said that “edges are not bad things.”
He asked the alumni audience, “Why do we worship?” Responses included “to give thanks,” “to practice being who we are,” “to be with others as we approach God,” “to have fun in praising God,” “to receive the means of grace,” and “to be transformed.”
Then he asked about how we define Christian worship, quoting former LTSP professor Gordon Lathrop in the process. “Christian worship is the communal encounter with the grace of God incarnate in Jesus Christ and it involves the encounter of those concrete flesh and blood things that connects us to the flesh of Jesus and so engages us in that grace.” That, Strickland said, is how we are being called to be on the edge. “It’s not about us, but about the whole world, the whole broken world.”
“Are large cathedrals necessary?” he asked. “Are large pipe organs the means? Do we need lofty pulpits? Do we need to wear fancy things?”
What’s essential? “In 1982, the World Council of Churches said to assemble and build up the body of Christ by proclaiming and teaching the word of God by celebrating the sacraments and by guiding the life of the community,” he said.
Working together, Strickland and the group defined worship in a variety of ways, including describing it as a practice in which “the whole broken world is made whole by Christ,” and that worship is “Jesus Christ proclaimed in Word and Sacrament amidst particular assemblies of singing, serving, and praying people.” And it doesn’t end when we leave worship to serve others, he said. “In fact that is often where the trouble starts.” We’re not in the world alone, he said.
Strickland raised the question for any church, “Is the door really open to worship?” He said worship is an active verb and not dead noun, life-giving and life-changing. “People are hungry for active, life-giving and life-changing church, not stagnant church,” he added. He said worship is ritual action, noting that people take comfort in rituals.
When entering worship, Strickland urged that we “be ready for God to shape, change and move us” through gathering, hearing the Word, receiving the meal, and our sending.
He said the greatest challenge for today is for believers through worship to be pushed toward the edge of transformational, life-giving mission. “Worship is the centripetal force that calls us to the center and then has us go to the edges where the people are.
“Go in peace, serve the Lord,” Strickland said. “Does worship ever end? No. We are formed again in worship and then sent out into the world that God loves to care for others.” He referenced the heartbreak produced by the earthquake in Nepal with its (at the time) 4,500 known dead. Through worship, Strickland noted, “we are brought into relationship with the Holy One and also with the least of these.”
Leila Ortiz, who serves on the Alumni Board for the seminary, first talked about her belief that it is “an exciting time to be the church. Living on the edge — I am excited about the theme.” She noted her enthusiasm for the theme in terms of the forthcoming anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
She asked the listeners to each come up with a word to explain what it means “to live on the edge.” The audience wrote words on poster sheets, which she displayed on the front wall. Then read out the hundreds of terms.
She noted she arrived at seminary as a pentecostal with a goal of becoming a Lutheran pastor. It was a struggle at the outset. (She has now been serving a Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg for the past eight months.) At one time she did not know what Lutheran meant, but while attending Wagner University in Staten Island, New York, she shifted her devotional life and decided to come to seminary at LTSP. She was born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx. When she came to seminary she felt like an “other,” she said.
“The first semester was difficult,” she said. Then came the second semester, studies of the Lutheran Confessions with Professor Timothy Wengert, writing papers about “conditional grace and love” and words from the professor: “When you understand that God chose you to be saved, you understand God’s amazing grace.” It was a conversion experience. “Grace made me free. It made me new,” she said. And she described how salvation then became for her not only about eternity, but also about the here and now. “I had been trapped before. It was upstairs that I became a Lutheran.” She said it is not unusual that people have not heard that full understanding of grace in that way. In relying on the Holy Spirit to feel and know God, she is aware that for her being on the edge has meant she is not fully Lutheran and no longer fully Pentecostal. (Ortiz is doing research on people like herself she references as “Luthercostals” — and there are a number of them.)
She urged her listeners to continue to go back to the scriptural texts for the deepest meaning. Ortiz talked about “a story I love,” II Kings 5: 1-14, the story of warrior Naaman’s leprosy cure, how he at first, despite being urged by a servant girl with no name to bathe in the Jordan, refused to wash himself in the (dirty) waters of the Jordan in order to be healed. “Naaman was so arrogant,” she said. His servants persisted that he follow as instructed, pointing out that they know him, and “he did not know everything,” Ortiz said. Eventually Naaman relented and “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”
Ortiz talked about the power of the text and the influence of a servant girl with no name and other servants, held the key for Naaman. “People on the margins, who knew him told him to jump in and see what happens.” Naaman jumps into the edge, she said. “His pride got in the way. But his skin was made clean because he was obedient.”
She talked about estuaries as the richest bodies of water even though the waters stink, and things “die in that space. But in that space new models can arise even though the waters are messy and stinky” like those of the Jordan.
She urged her audience to examine and reexamine what it means today to be a welcoming church when new and different people come to the door, people in their communities who are pushing them to be different. “How are you engaging with them?” Ortiz asked. “We need to be ready to change, not be threatened by what the spirit is doing,” she said. Ortiz added that sometimes that may mean engaging in the language of others with which believers may not be comfortable.
“The Spirit brings us together through the Resurrection to new life,” she said. “The different traditions in our culture are called to the watery Jordan to check our pride. We are called to the mess (in the world). We have been baptized in the muddy waters (where) the Spirit does work.”
Ortiz noted she has spent eight months in Gaithersburg in a context nothing like where she was raised. But regardless of the settings we occupy, she said, there are needs that call believers to dive into the “messy, stinking” circumstances of life that Naaman once resisted in the Jordan. She spoke of “domestic violence, gun violence” and challenges that invite Christians to breathe new life through Christ into the spaces and places they occupy.
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||View slide shows the lectures, Convocation Picnic, and of the Anniversary Classes:
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