Archive for November, 2018

What have we heard?

ICETE Triennial Listening Team report

2 November 2018

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein. (Ps. 24.1 ESV)

This is the note that has been sounded, at least as the psalmist might well have expressed it were he listening in, during these days together in Panama.

While that note has rung, in plenary addresses and workshops and mealtime conversations and walks along this ocean that YHWH has created for his enjoyment and for ours, a group of your friends has been listening in as well.

I think I’d better explain …

Among the curious thoughts banging about inside Riad’s febrile brain over the past year has been the notion that for the second ICETE triennial in a row, a Listening Group should attempt to discern God’s voice amid the warp and woof of presentation and conversation … and then to dare the unthinkable ambition of reporting back to you on what we think you … that is, we … have heard.

It has been a labor of love carried out somewhat clandestinely by these otherwise very un-spy-like people.


Shadi Fatehi, Pars Theological Centre

Elias Ghazal, Middle East and North African Association for Theological Education

Evan Hunter, ScholarLeaders International

Mardochée Nadoumngar, Overseas Council

Daniel Owens, Hanoi Bible College & reSource Leadership International

Ivan Rusin, Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary

Prabhu Singh, South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies

Joanna Feliciano-Soberano, Asian Theological Seminary

Mariel Deluca Voth, Global Associates for Transformative Education


Although these wonderful friends have made this a boisterously pleasant task, it has not been a simple one.

What image, after all, captures the task of summarizing what five days of conversation have wrought?

  • Is this a ‘striving after the wind’—Qohelet/Ecclesiates—a grasping at the fleeting thing that does not allow its own capture?
  • Is it a narrow impoverishment of what has in fact been a broad abundance?
  • In the light of my appearance and accent, is this a neo-colonialist appropriation of other people’s stories and then a retelling in my own interests?
  • Is it a behavior very much unlikethat of David Corbin’s ant, one which does not know its own limitations and so engages in self-destructive behavior and even community-destroying conduct?
  • Or, after five long days of words, it is tropical pelting of the ground with more and more rain long after the soil has exhausted its capacity for absorption?

Well, I hope it is none of these things.

Instead, I hope that what you will hear from me on behalf of ten sisters and brothers who have listened for you is a little bit like the task of a delightful United World Mission colleague of mine who is among us in these days.

Jocabed Solano is a Panamanian follower of Jesus. Like a few of the hotel workers who have looked after us this week, Jocabed is also a member of the Cuna Nation, a people who once owned the land on which this hotel is built.

Jocabed works for Memoria IndígenaIndigenous Memory. She visits with the communities of her people and of other indigenous people in this part of the Lord’s world and they recount to her their collective memory of the indigenous Christian workers who have sown, watered, nourished and harvested the grace of Jesus among them. Because most of these people do not write, Jocabed listens very carefully and then writes down the stories they have told her. Although she is the writerof these wonderful narratives that come to her in spoken form, she is not the authorof the stories that these narratives bear. She has merely captured and then given to her people a record of what they have known.

Jocabed’s ministry—the exercise of her vocation—rescues the story of thisAmerica’s indigenous peoples from the vagaries of declining memory. More importantly, it provides each community with a shared version of its own story. Jocabed says the very best thing is that her work helps the communities of her people to recover and then hold fast to their own identity.

Jocabed’s loving labors are not unlike what our … well, your … Listening Team has attempted to do this week. I would now like to tell you about what we think you have known … so that you can consider it, contest it, debate it, celebrate it, refute it, ponder it … and so remember who you … well,we … are becoming.

So here is what we have heard: seven things.

One: We’re all on the same side.

This worries me a little.

I wonder how many of you participated in our ICETE Triennial in 2015.

In Turkey we debated whether the end results of theological education can be measured … should be measured … whether assessment is a cancer invading the sacred heart of what we do … or a necessary obedience to assure its fruitfulness.

As we pursued the argument, I felt as though my heart was being torn out. Every loud declaration seemed to require a qualification.  Every bold pass of the brush and its color felt like it could only be looked at if first seasoned with nuance … every point seemed like it could be debated, must be debated, and that the very debate of it was both essential for our survival as theological educators … and the potential seed of polarization among us who carry our vocation around like a birthmark.

The air, as I recall it, was thick with three words: ‘Well, yes, but …’

Not so the Secular-Sacred Divide.

Who is for it? Where are its partisans and cheerleaders and intellectual defenders?

Where are the desperate cries that something precious will be lost if we make the tragic misstep of actually preparing our students for the world outside, if we actually mold their lives to the calling that occupies them Monday through Saturday?

We all agree on this one, we’re all on the same side. We may need help with means, but the end, it would seem, is a blissful consensus.

History is over. Let’s just figure out our methods.

This worries me a little.

There is much to celebrate in this Hallelujah Choir of ours. Few among us will regret the demise of impassioned arguments about the priority of evangelism over social action … what was that? Who would hold up to an admiring light some of the evangelical escapism that abandoned our Abrahamic vocation in YHWH’s world in favor of lifeboat survival plans? That was a malady that has taken some of us decades to outgrow. Who could be found insisting that it really is a better and more important thing to be a preacher or a biblical scholar than an engineer or a nurse or a gardener?

As a veteran of the Antalya Listening Group, I can tell you that our gathering on one side of the matter here in Panama—at least our gathering there in theory— has changed the nature of our task this time around.  But more of that as we move ahead.

Now of course history has notended. We have much to learn and a world of challenges to face, methods to change, and opportunities to redeem.

We have so very much to discover, plenty of which to repent, and lifetimes or significant portions of them to invest in a world whose very fulness testifies to the Creator’s glory.

But let us not miss the small detail … or is it a very large one? … that nasty dragons hang out in places where we all think we agree.


Two: We (still) don’t integrate enough.

Maybe paradoxically, this was the point that was heard at highest volume by our Listening Group. It generated some very earnest self-criticism on your behalf.

As a community, we don’t believe in false dichotomies involving sacred and secular, yet we keep practicing them as though we do.

Here’s where I think the soul of the matter rests: we don’t need to be persuaded to integrate. We need to be shown how …to integrate.

This, I think, is why Ruth’s language of towers of power and eradication—and Ruth, you know I say this with great respect—fails to convince some of us. Those words sound us-and-them-ishwhen in fact our failings are internal and much regretted.  The enemy is not at the gates. He is in fact inside of us, as daughters and sons of cultures that are afflicted with false dichotomies that are, arguably, the very definition of ‘sin’.

So even though we heard that the topic of the Secular-Sacred Divide may not have had the legs to run well for the full four and a half days that were loaded into it … we detected a certain hunger for the kinds of ‘here’s how you could do it’ examplingthat came in some plenaries and not a few workshops.

Perhaps our truest prayer is this: Lord, we believe in bridging the SSD. Help our unbelief.

Three: Tell Us Why and How

Maybe this thirst for exampling explains why Gordon blew us away with his plenary address. Gordon spoke as a man in full discovery mode as he chronicled a kind of Gordonian break-out in Calgary.

If you’ll pardon a bit of rat-a-tat delivery,

  1. Learn how to preach for Monday morning.
  2. Develop the capacity to speak hope against the backdrop of lament.
  3. We witness to the in-breaking of the kingdom in word and deed.
  4. Learn how to navigate the political sphere // how to engage in principled compromise.
  5. When a society becomes more secularized, it becomes more and more polarized/fragmented. May we be known as peacemakers.
  6. We won’t be instruments of transformative change as long as we stay in our own spheres of theological and spiritual conviction. Let’s learn the skills of engaging ecumenism.

Then this: ‘Will we have the courage … will we be the Daniels and Esthers of our day?  … our students come to us riddled with fear … Yet we know that Christ sits on the throne of the universe …’

Gordon on faculty recruitment: ‘Will this person lower the anxiety level in our house?’

Somehow, Gordon’s talk struck us as … will you pardon me a bit of jargon … actionable data. We felt as though we could do that thing that Gordon said.

I still do, as I stand here.

This very morning, Terry’s slide ‘Can we Imagine Practical Solutions?’ is as provocative a slide as I have ever seen on a screen. I intend to take Terry’s paper back to Medellín, Colombia to an informal conversation circle that I shepherd along among a few colleagues on my patio.

This is not rocket science, it seems to me. Yet Terry’s presentation is fulsome with viable possibilities that seem to be very much within reach.


Four. Theology is an action formed in community for the sake of obedience.

Our Listening Group was about the most non-sloganish group of human beings you could imagine assembling. Still, we loved this phrase from Ruth’s community in Costa Rica.

The language helped us to register the fact that theology is directional. It is purposeful rather than simply there. It is dynamic rather than static. It is, as we have learned to observe under the tutelage of Chris Wright and others, missional.

Aligned with Ruth’s words, theology is a verb rather than a noun. Those of us whose souls naturally grin to Latin Americantunes will be reminded of Arjona’s ‘Jesús,hermanos míos,es verbo, no sustantivo.’ (translation: Jesus, my brothers is a verb not a noun.)

Furthermore, theology is communal property and communal activity.

Now a guy like me who eats caveats for breakfast is always going to battle to find an honored space for the individual scholarwho is jolted awake at 3:15 a.m. with an explanation for that particular Hebrew infinitive absolute right there where it seems never to have belonged …!

Yet the steady rhythm of theology as a community affair that we’ve heard … or at least we think we’ve heard … is essential to the wresting of the community’s faith and identity from clergy hands in those places—high church and very, very low—where it has too long been the property of our priests. And more importantly, since many of those priests will be happy to be relieved of their burden, this theology must be placed in the hands of the avocado salesman and the architect and the stay-at-home mother and the civil servant and the bright young philosophy student who plays the drums in church on Sundays.


Five: It takes grit.

We found encouragement somehow, in the prospect of steady advance towards the dismantling of the secular-sacred divide.

There were Mark & Ian, reminding us that overcoming SSD will take ‘determination and skill over many years’ … something like digging a really big canal in order to join two oceans in a country with a little land and a lot of water.

That had the ring of reality to it. It sounded like a long campaign we could commit to.

After Ian had used that delectable phrase about ‘inducing change in our students without starting a revolution’, an African brother leaned over to Listening Group member Evan Hunter and asked ‘What, can’t we have revolutions now?’ or words to that effect.

I suspect our Listening Group would agree with me that bridging theological education’s secular-sacred divide will require a revolution or two … but that most of the heavy lifting will be done by sheer grit. If this is so, then we may be more helpfully supported along our journey by our sages thanby our prophets. Terry Halliday’s superb—in fact, stirring—address this morning encourages this intuition.


Six: Marvin should pray more.

I feel like I should explain that I don’t actually mean that Marvin doesn’t pray enough. Even if I knew Marvin well enough to think that, I probably wouldn’t address it in this context.

What I refer to is that prayer… on Thursday morning. He thanked our Maker and Divine Blesser for all those foods … and all that human ingenuity … all that Common Grace.

Maybe this dot connects with the earlier one about needing examples and some hand-holding. When Marvin prayed like that, I felt that, ‘Hey, I could pray like that, too ….’.

It wouldn’t be in Italian and so the food parts wouldn’t sound nearly as good, but I could deploy the liturgical exercise of prayer as gratitude for God’s Monday-through-Sunday blessings … and my students, if they heard me pray like Marvin, could do that, too.

Maybe we’d win a small victory … Maybe the Lord would be elevated on the praises of his people … Maybe the sacred-secular divide would slip just a little bit into our history. Maybe the earth really is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.

And maybe it’s on the tip of our tongues to say so. To God. To each other. And to a sad and tired world.


Seven: Secularism is shot through with paradoxes.

I thought of my beautiful Christian brothers and sisters in the little Pennsylvania German community where I grew up, scared to death at losing what they would call ‘the Christian values that have sustained our nation’, when I heard … for example ….

  • a German-speaking Russian Mennonite say ‘secularism is a great blessing to the Free Churches …’
  • an Indian seminary principal say ‘In India, we always want a secular culture’.

Rooted in their context, my dear Pennsylvanian friends would have no idea what these two brothers were talking about …

So let us not imagine when we talk about secularism as self-conscious participants in a global church that we are agreeing with each other … at least not until we have had a good, long conversation sufficient to make ourselves understood.

Indeed, members of our Listening Group got a real charge out of hearing the stories of our brothers and sisters in exploration of the many facets of secularism … and of God’s presence with them in places where ‘secular’ is a many-splendored thing.

Sometimes, when the sacred has become life-denying, there is deep Providence in the secular.

Secularism is shot through with paradoxes.


What we didn’t hear …

Not what I have delivered myself of those seven things we’ve heard, our Listening Group has met the lion’s share of its obligations.

Yet it would be irresponsible to stop here, since some of our observations fit best into the category of things we did not hear. These are things we expected to hear, but in the course of our week together, our listening for them was met with silence.

Just two things, and then a concluding thought …


One: We didn’t hear adequate definitions of terms.

Over and over, I heard members of our Listening Group say that too many assumptions were being made about words like ‘secular’, ‘sacred’, and the ‘secular-sacred divide’.

It was almost as though the conference topic was pregnant with more than one baby, and the quintuplets all spilled out at the same time. There they were, squirming around and pooping on the carpet, and we were chasing them in circles without really ever catching up with any one of them.

For example …

  • Does ‘SSD’ refer to a regrettable retreat into a small and exclusive piety that denies the fullness of God’s world?
  • Or ought the reference lead us rather to strategizing about how to live in a world where Christian privilege is absent and the biblical saints that come most to mind are the Jeremiahs, the Esthers, and the Daniels?
  • Or is the enemy to be confronted a Western weed that has grown prolifically in the soil of non-western landscapes? One that makes it easy to regret the arrival of the missionary boots that carried the germ?
  • Or is a creation-denying dualism the problem, one that invites us to await the destruction of earth that is really little more than the stage upon which personal redemptive drama is rehearsed?
  • Or is secularism rather a malady that afflicts followers of Jesus in all places, but which takes a different form in each of them, a kind of rough approximation to ‘sin’ or to something like it?
  • Or is it more, as one Listening Group member suggested, that we’re simply not yet very good at reading our context(s)?
  • Or are we referring to our disappointment that the church in countries with lots of Christians is not having a greater impact on society in those places, many of which remain as corrupt and dehumanizing as ever?

Different speakers seemed to us to make their own assumptions about the topic at hand. We missed what might have been an orienting definition of terms at the outset.


Two: What about the Bible’s own secular-sacred divide?

Agreement and consensus can be a very beautiful thing indeed.

But ‘groupspeak’, if I may for a moment deploy that pejorative adjective in a community as beautiful as this one, always leads eventually to smug self-confidence.

So I wonder: On what flanks are we open to risks to which we are blind, particularly because the biblical witness itself is shot through with the categories of sacred and profane?

… and profane does not often mean ‘bad’, ‘evil’, or ‘ugly.’ It means ‘common’ and can mean ‘good’ … even those familiar words ‘the common good’.

One member wondered about the ingrained differentiating notion of biblical concepts like priesthood and of those ‘dedicated to ministering the Word of God’.

What does this biblical current aim to teach us about reality when it traffics in its own sacred-profane distinctions? And do we run any risks to ourselves and others by happily ‘moving beyond’ the possibility that such distinctions have any enduring pertinence for the people of God in our day?

You’ll understand that this is a question rather than an accusation. But it is a genuine question. We listened … but we didn’t hear anything about that.

It strikes me as something other than a fruitful silence. Perhaps it is one that begs filling up with careful deliberation.


Conclusion: What do the seraphim see?

For some years, I’ve been fascinated by Isaiah’s throne-room vision in chapter six of the book that bears his name.

In that vision, the Seraphim—thundering, burning figures who seem somehow to stand in as princes of Creation itself—cry endlessly together about a reality that is difficult to see in this torn, dark, thrusting world here below.

The Seraphim seem never to tire of declaring that Yahweh—whose supremacy their own greatness does not challenge—is Qadosh, Qadosh, Qadosh … Holy, Holy, Holy.

Then they say this of creation. ‘The whole earth is full of his glory.’

The problem is that it is not self-evident that the text actually says that. The Hebrew grammar and the syntax are strange. Although it taxes conventional understanding, it is more than possible that the second half of the Seraphims’ unending declaration is that ‘The fulness of the earth is his glory.’

In my opinion, this meaning would accord well with the long prophetic book’s juxtaposition of the glory of fulness, on the one hand, with the tragedy of disintegration and negation and emptiness, on the other…

Every flurry of biodiversity, every engineer’s fresh insight, every gardener’s loving touch of leaf and petal, every baby nursing at her mother’s breast, every student’s wide-eyed discovery, every geneticists’s pregnant intuition, every tree growing unobserved by human eyes to and through the canopy of a Panamanian rain forest, every Colombian vallenato, every life-giving hallway conversation, every lover’s sigh, every Onesimus’ principled subservience, every Monday-morning commute, every theologian’s response to Terry’s Macedonian Call, every …

Well, you get the picture.

‘Holy … Holy … Holy … the fulness of the earth is his glory.’

Maybe … just maybe … our flawed and awkward efforts at meaningful reflection this week … limping representatives of Jesus’ global church … have made the Seraphims’ creed a little less ludicrous … a little more plausible … a little more to be longed-for and made real here below … in word and in deed.

May it be so, dear ICETE family.

These are the things we think that we have heard.


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