Alumni Reflection for Iliff School of Theology Board of Trustees, Former and Current, on August 18, 2016
[full disclosure: this is an blend of my prepared remarks with the spontaneous ones that come in the moment of being with people]
I bring you greetings from the good people of Augustana Lutheran Church on East Alameda in Denver.
I’m going to begin at the beginning but, hang with me, it won’t take that long. Born in Boston, raised in Pasadena, married a Nebraskan, and now in Denver for the past 23 years, I’ve covered a lot of ground…literally, personally, professionally, and theologically. A…lot…of…ground…
I worked as a Registered Nurse for 16 years in pediatric oncology and home hospice. During that time, I received a Master’s in Nursing from UCLA in pediatric oncology and pain management. I loved nursing. Still do. I carry a current R.N. license in my wallet because I promised my mother I would. I knew I wanted to be a nurse when I was 13 years old and didn’t look back for almost 25 years. But something else was happening along the way, too.
Baptized through the Roman Catholic Church while living with my first father, then baptized again through the fundamentalist Christian tradition of my step-father, I spent about ten years as an adult religious refugee of sorts. I moved to Colorado and married Rob in 1995. When our two children were born, Rob’s unscathed Lutheran memories, and my fond memories of older church ladies, drew us into an ELCA Lutheran church…along with Rob’s mom asking us when we were going to baptize those babies.
I’d never heard anything like what I heard there – that there was nothing I could do to make God love me any more or any less. Turns out it’s much easier to love Jesus once I heard that Jesus actually does love me. About 5 years into it, 2002, my pastor invited me to preach. After that, the people at church started pestering me with the idea of seminary. Of course, I thought they were crazy. My children only came up as high as my knees, so small.
Eventually, I got online and looked at what it meant to be pastor. A few months went by…truly, a few months…before I mustered up the courage to tell Rob that I thought I was supposed to be a pastor. It sounded absurd even to my own ears. When I did, he said without pause, “Of course you are.”
So, while starting the process with the ELCA, I also started seminary at Iliff adding required Lutheran classes taken in Minnesota at Luther Seminary for three summers and a Fall semester. The Master’s of Divinity part of becoming a pastor took me four and a half years. I graduated with that M. Div. from Iliff in 2011.
It was interesting attending two seminaries with such different assumptions. Yes, they both have them – some examined and some not. Any institution can do a better job challenging their own assumptions, including Iliff. But here’s why I’m grateful that Iliff was part of my seminary training.
It’s because I carry multiple theological fluencies in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t. This means I can hear the words people use and hear how they understand truth – gifts, inconsistencies, all of it. In large part this is because I was challenged to examine my own. The infamous process of deconstruction. That is a gift from Iliff. Is it a perfect gift? No, but that’s a conversation for a different day.
Here are a few paraphrased lessons from Iliff professors that stick with me:
Ted Vial: Every theological system plays a mystery card, it’s just a matter of where.
Jacob Kinnard: Religions around the world blend together in ways that are very complex resulting in multiple forms within any single tradition. Think Christianities, plural.
Pam Eisenbaum: The Biblical writings of the Apostle Paul may not mean what you think they mean.
Edward Antonio: Colonization is oppressive, no question. But if we stop at blaming the colonizer then we further oppress people by robbing them of their own agency.
Cathie Kelsey: Most people have a tendency to compare the best of their own traditions with the worst of other people’s traditions.
Mark George: People put their religious views into a Bible story that simply aren’t in the text.
Katherine Turpin: Try experiencing an event without simultaneously critiquing it…hard to do, but so worth it.
And, lastly, Vincent Harding: [turning to colleague in a panel, naming him by first name and saying,] “Dr. _____, I am going to disagree with you in love.”
The list could go on and on and on. Whether or not I agree with a professor is beside the point. Learning their particular fluency became the point. Those lessons and fluencies stick. And they make a difference when I’m part of a one-on-one conversation in a coffee shop or Sunday morning worship or community organizing. Those are not theoretical examples.
On any given Sunday, the people in the pews are thinking as many different things as there are people. I don’t see it as my task to convince them otherwise. My task is preaching and living with integrity at multiple levels – from my commitment to a confessional denomination to my own individual confession of faith.
Being educated at Iliff has been a key to that integrity. Just as it’s been a key to pastoral care as well as justice work in the community. I’m grateful for it. Looking back, I might wish to alter some logistics of attending two seminaries. I would not change receiving my degree from Iliff.