Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

What Greensburg Teaches Me

In this virtual world that is the Internet, physical location often seems increasingly irrelevant.  Today, however, on this day after Thanksgiving, 2011, my physical location is significant.  It offers a poignant context for my thoughts.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop, Green Bean Coffee Company, in Greensburg, Kansas. It’s at the corner of Main Street and Federal Highway 54 (http://www.notyourmommascoffee.com/).

Greensburg was all but completely destroyed by a massive tornado in May, 2007.  The entire business district was leveled.  Every tree was completely denuded, with only trunks and major branches still standing.  About 2/3 to 3/4 of the entire town of roughly 1200 people blew away.  Among the buildings destroyed was the United Methodist Church.

About a month after the tornado, I had the awesome (and I do mean awesome, literally) privilege and challenge of preaching on the site where the church building was.  We met in a tent, on a corner of the property, using hymnbooks salvaged from the wreckage.  There were about 50 people there, as I now recall it.  Many of the church members were living elsewhere, since nearly everyone’s home had been destroyed, so the congregation was some diminished from what they generally knew.

What would I have to say to people who had lost all their material possessions?  One of the amazing facts about the tornado’s destructiveness is that so few people were injured and only one or two (again, going on faulty memory) died.  Any death is tragic, but given the magnitude of this tornado, it’s truly a wonder that not more perished.  Still, these dear folk were devastated.

Yes, so, what would I have to say that might be of help?  I didn’t have to worry.  What I said was largely irrelevant.  The people gathered in that tent were so thankful just to be together,  just to have community intact though buildings were gone; thankful that so few had lost their lives; thankful that God’s presence was and is ever near and especially so now as they worked on cleaning up and rebuilding.  I will never forget listening to them pray that day.

Now, four years later, I am, for just a moment, back in Greensburg.  I haven’t been here, I think, since moving to Texas and I am amazed at the changes.  There is a new hospital, a new complex of school buildings, a new downtown (it looks like what suburban folk might think of as a smallish shopping area in their neighborhood), and lots of new houses.  One still sees plenty of empty lots and naked foundations left over from the storm.  I know this town has suffered many difficulties in rebuilding, including being scammed by dishonest “builders.”  I cannot imagine all the challenges they have faced and I am confident there are more to come.

But here I am, in a town that is rebuilding.  I cry fairly easily, anyway, and when I pulled into town, I started.  It is inspiring.

By the way, here’s a photo of the United Methodist Church that now stands on the same spot as before.

And now for what Greensburg teaches me.  I am deeply troubled by the gap between the biblical vision of the Christian life and the reality many of us (most?) experience.  I have recently published on this matter and I have much more to attempt. ( If you’re interested, go to (https://wipfandstock.com/store/Aiming_at_Maturity_The_Goal_of_the_Christian_Life).  I feel a parallel concern about church-related higher education, our UM colleges and universities.  I love the academy.  I love the church.  But I have some bones to pick and I’ve started picking them.  Stay tuned.

Today, though, sitting in Greensburg, KS, I ponder what this town teaches.  It does not matter how big the challenge is.  God’s grace is sufficient.  We can rebuild.  And we can rebuild better than what we were and had.  (Greensburg has received national attention because of its commitment to environmentally sustainable construction.)  We can change.

Yes, we can change.  And the world – at least those parts of it where we live and work – will be better for our trying.

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November 25, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Ministry, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Affirm People, Acknowledge Diversity

Working on a college campus puts one in the position of hearing lots of talk about diversity: racial diversity, national and ethnic diversity, cultural diversity, religious diversity, gender diversity.  These are among the standard referents for folk in higher education.

In a chapter on the importance of student affairs programs for developing college students’ spirituality, Jennifer Capeheart-Meninghall writes, “Programs and services that offer activities that affirm diversity (emphasis added), establish and hold students accountable for conduct, celebrate campus traditions, and join various constitutencies together will help build community,” (Spirituality in Higher Education, p. 35).  For all the value and importance of her aim at building community and developing spirituality (an aim I completely support), I’m stuck on the difficult notion of affirming diversity.  Who sets the criteria to determine that diversity has been affirmed?

As much as I appreciate the sentiment, I think it is ultimately misdirected.  I think what we should affirm is people.  People are diverse.  Because we are diverse racially, ethnically, socio-economically, culturally, and so on, we should affirm people as they demonstrate a wide range of characteristics and qualities.  We affirm people and, in doing so, acknowledge that we’re different, diverse.

Some people might consider my point nothing more than pious cant, a clever-sounding rhetorical sleight-of-hand.  (Some may find it completely obvious and not clever at all!)  In the current climate, am I just one more white, male, middle-class traditional/conservative complaining about losing power?  I don’t think so.  I hope not.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs.  Maybe “affirm” and “acknowledge” mean the same.  A quick check of the dictionary suggests the contrary.  To affirm something is to state it positively, to validate it or legitimate it and, furthermore, to “express dedication” (Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary) to whatever is being affirmed.  To acknowledge is to recognize, to own up to (Ibid).

Because all people are created in God’s image, we value them.  We value their characteristics, cultural and otherwise.  We affirm them.  We recognize that we come from a wide range of nations, backgrounds, worldviews and religious commitments.  We accept our diversity, but we value people and we commit ourselves to living together in peace.

Why does my distinction matter?  Well, in my little mind, it seems to be a step in the right direction of disentangling us from some of the political animosities that infect Christians.  It’s too easy to come up with the grocery list of qualities that “proves” one “affirms diversity.”  (By the way, how diverse is the group making that list?)  Then people can make preemptive judgments: if you don’t accept the list, you don’t accept diversity and you’re disqualified from the conversation.  If, on the other hand, we affirm people while acknowledging diversity, then we don’t prematurely disqualify.  We listen with compassion and generosity – and take their ideas seriously.

“Diversity,” sadly, is a politically loaded term.  It shouldn’t be.  We are a nation of diverse peoples.  That’s an uncontroversial fact.  What we value is people, who always bring with them their cultural, ethnic, and other (diverse) qualities.  We don’t ignore diversity.  We acknowledge it; accept it.  But we affirm people.

September 23, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, General, Higher and Theological Education | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Everybody Has to Be Someplace, Or Why I Don’t Buy the Interfaith Perspective

Are Christians with an “exclusivist” view (a term used for the idea that Jesus is the only way to salvation) incapable of interfaith dialogue? I heard exactly this claim a few days ago at a conference of college professors and administrators and I’ve been stuck on it ever since.

The same man who made this claim also said that one needs an “interfaith perspective” to be able to engage in such dialogue. I pressed him, saying that he is simply privileging another opinion about religion over the exclusivist position, so he is actually making the same move as the exclusivists. He qualified: the “interfaith perspective” is a not a position but a “conversation tool” (his phrase) requiring openness of all parties to having their minds changed by the others’ viewpoints.

What we have here, folks, is an artful dodge. I am not saying anything about the man’s motive. I don’t know him. I am talking about the line of conversation itself, which has been repeated countless times in such settings. The interfaith perspective is popular on college campuses. It is profoundly misleading, though it sounds compellingly true to our culture of knee-jerk relativists.

First, even though the man said that the interfaith perspective is not a position but a conversation tool, he continued to use the word “perspective.” Doesn’t it imply a position, an opinion? If I have a perspective about something, then I have an opinion, no?

If I have an opinion, then I think my opinion is right. I privilege it over other opinions which I find, in some way, deficient. My opponent criticized exclusivism, ergo he likes his interfaith dialogue position better than exclusivism.

Lying behind the ostensible generosity of the interfaith perspective is the basic pluralist claim: no one religion is adequate to encompass legitimate, saving (to use a Christian word) forms of spirituality. Every major world religion is both right and wrong. If I’m convinced by the pluralist view, then I have two options: (1) I can try to live in a constant state of suspended belief. I can try to stay on a spirituality quest without ever identifying with one religion. (This position sounds familiarly American and Baby-Boomerish.) (2) I can settle for some kind of lowest common denominator “faith” – a set of attitudes (like loving one’s neighbor) that basically all the world religions affirm. In spite of how it seems, there is an identifiable theological position at work even here.

Thus, each of these two positions still say something about God, even if it’s a negative (i.e. we cannot really know God as God is). Now, if one prefers this opinion over the claim that Jesus fully reveals God, then preferring one over the other is the same as believing one is superior to the other, hence my contention that my opponent was actually doing the same thing for which he criticized exclusivists.

For people who have given sustained, careful thought to these questions, the notion that true dialogue requires a degree of open-mindedness that risks conversion is impossible. There is nothing new under the sun. If I have studied carefully and with humility, then I have come to some careful conclusions that elicit confidence in me about those conclusions. I cannot pretend as if I do not believe what I believe.

Thus, the “interfaith perspective” as I heard it last week, anyway, is incoherent. Everybody has to be someplace. My opponent has an interfaith perspective. I, on the other hand, believe in Jesus as the full revelation of God. This disagreement is the honest starting place for dialogue.

March 16, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, General, Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments