Here are my thoughts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, 3 October 2010. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Lamentations 1: 1 – 6, 2 Timothy 1: 1 – 14, and Luke 17: 5 – 10. Sorry for the delay
As you may know by now, I am an alumnus of Truman State University. But if you pressed me for specifics, I would point out that I really never attended Truman State University. Truman State University has only been in “existence” since 1995; before that, it was known as Northeast Missouri State University. But I only did graduate work at Northeast Missouri State University. I graduated in 1971 from Northeast Missouri State College, which was not the name of the school when I began my college studies. Over the years that I have been associated with Truman, its name has changed from Northeast Missouri State Teachers College to Northeast Missouri State College to Northeast Missouri State University and finally to Truman State University.
The changes in the name of Truman reflect not only its history but its mission. Founded in 1867, it was first known as First Missouri Normal School and Commercial College. It retained the designation as a Normal School until 1916 when it became Northeast Missouri State Teachers College. It became Truman State University when the mission of the school changed from teacher preparation to a more liberal arts direction.
I think that it was a good thing that these changes were made; I don’t know what people would say if I said I had graduated from a “normal” school and I am not entirely certain what it says about my degrees from the Universities of Missouri and Iowa.
But each name change in the 143 year history of the school reflects are change in the mission and purpose of the school, from a teacher’s training school to a liberal arts institution. Part of that change occurred in 1970 when Charles McClain was chosen as the President of the University. Now, many of the changes in the mission of the school and the resulting name changes occurred after I graduated so I cannot speak to those changes.
But the late 60s and early 70s were a time of immense change in this country. Long standing concepts about power and authority were being challenged. The changes that swept through this country at that time did not avoid Kirksville even if those who lived there may have wanted them to. In the spring of 1969, the Black Student Association organized a sit-in of the Administration Building (Baldwin Hall) in protest of the city of Kirksville’s housing policy and the college’s support for those policies rather than support the needs and desires of the students of the colleges. I participated in that sit-in as a supporter. Now, there are some who will tell you that this was a negative episode in the history of the school and the town but I saw it then and still see it today as part of the awakening of the college and of the college and the town becoming aware that there was a world outside the boundaries of northeast Missouri. I posted my own thoughts about this episode in the college’s history and my life in Side By Side.
I cannot speak as to what decisions were made that brought Dr. McClain to Kirksville in 1970 but I suspect that there were those who felt that a change was needed and it would have to come from outside the traditional sources. Dr. McClain’s predecessors as President tended to operate the office in what I would call a very autocratic and authoritarian, almost royal manner. There were to be no challenges to such power or any decisions that were made. This attitude, in part, lead to the Baldwin Hall sit-in.
But as Bob Dylan wrote “the times were a-changing”. And though I may not have known it at the time, my own personal encounter with Dr. McClain spoke of the things that were about to take place. For some reason, most likely the quality of the food in the dormitory cafeteria, I decided to invite Dr. McClain to be my guest for dinner one evening. So I went over to the administration building, went into his office and asked his secretary if he were available. He had a few moments free and I took the opportunity to invite him to be my guest for dinner in the dorm cafeteria that night. To my surprise, he accepted my invitation.
We met later that day and walked across campus to the dorm. I cannot recall what we talked about that night some forty years ago but it probably would have centered on college life. What I do remember is that, as we went through the serving line, everyone assumed that this man was my father.
It speaks to the times and the culture of the place that people (students, faculty, and staff) would think that way. It was a culture where the college president and upper level management very seldom ventured around campus and they most certainly did not eat in the dorm cafeteria with the students (they had their own private dining room). So it came as a shock to many when Dr. McClain ate dinner in the dorm with students that evening.
Did this little episode in the history of the school change anything? The dorm food really didn’t improve and I can’t speak to what happened after I graduated. But I would like to think it did or that it reflected the type of changes that were about to take place. I do know this; in 2009, when I posted a version of this story in a comment about the new presidential search taking place at Truman, I heard from Dr. McClain telling me that he remembered the invitation and the dinner. And what happened that night was a foretaste of things to come across this nation.
In the 80s there would be a flurry of articles and discussions about excellence in the workplace. One thing that came out of all of that discussion was the innovations came from the bottom up but were supported from the top down. Innovation could not take place unless those at the upper levels of management bought into the change and everyone in the organization was committed to the change. It does little good for a company, an organization, or an individual to say they are for change and then expect the change to occur without their full support or participation. Leaders cannot say that change will occur in their organization, whatever type of organization, and then maintain or continue what they have done in the past.
I wrote about the contradiction between the talk of change and the action of change back in 2006 with To Search for Excellence. The church is no exception. You cannot expect change to occur if it is driven from the top down and there is no support from the top. There is a discussion going on right now in response to a post by Dan Dick (“Make-No-Wave United Methodist Church”) that speaks to the conformity and complacency of the modern church, of the inability of the church, its leadership and its members to see beyond the walls of the church.
As many have pointed out in their comments to Dan Dick’s piece, we have been talking about the need to change the church for almost thirty years now. And all of the talk has been accompanied by a concern that we not rush the issue. But the people do not want the change; they are quite happy with what they have at the moment.
And until we realize that and then, having realized that, begin to make substantial changes in what happens, we are going to have in our churches the image that Jeremiah saw when he looked at Jerusalem at the beginning of the Babylonian exile. A once bustling and prosperous city is now empty because the people failed to heed the warnings given by countless prophets. Each prophet, including Jeremiah, pointed out that what the people were doing worked against rather than for the wishes of God. Each time an individual ignored another individual, an equal member of society in God’s eyes, was a strike against them.
But did not the prophets warn the people what was coming? How long will it take for the people today to heed the warnings given two thousand years ago? I see a church content in its life but afraid of what is outside the walls. I see a church that will not change, even when they hear the words of Christ.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus asks us if the owner of a business or a farm would invite his or her workers to dinner. The story signals a change in a relationship between people that would come with God’s kingdom, a change that was not always welcomed then and not always welcomed today. We have too many people today who echo the thoughts of two thousand years ago; that there is a structure to society and you best know where your place in society is.
We live in a world where we easily speak of equality but we are very hesitant to bring about such equality. We are quite content to let our church structure reflect the nature of society rather than the nature of God’s kingdom. It is a church where the workers are not welcome and the management has no desire to mingle or sit with the workers. It is, if you will, a mirror of what our society is and has become.
I am looking at a church that seems bent on bringing about its own death. It sees the people leaving but blames them. I am looking at a church that demands that its pastors preach a “feel-good” gospel, one that doesn’t demand much from the listeners. And I am looking at a church structure which tells those pastors who dare to move forward that they will not have much of a future. It is almost as if the church in its entirety is afraid of what might happen if the words of the Gospel were acted out instead of just spoken real quickly.
I know there are others who see what I see and know that we can no longer wait. And they are willing to seek movement where movement may not seem possible at the time. There are those in leadership positions, not many for sure but some, who know that such movement needs to be done right now. They know that the words of the prophets are meaningless if they are not followed by action. And the actions of the people outside the church tell us that most people are not listening. The change that must take place must take place now; it cannot wait.
Paul also warned us some two thousand years ago. He warned us that the presentation of the message would never be easy; that we could expect trials and tribulation; we could expect to be hated for wanting to do what is required of us.
It will take a lot of work to effect this change. It will require that we be willing to stand up and speak the truth, even if the truth works against what the people believe. Other discussions have taken place across the Methoblogosphere that tell me many of those who call themselves Methodists do not have a clue as to what Methodism is about. And when you consider the recent Pew Form on Religion and Public Life survey on knowledge of Christianity (see “What Do You Know? For some, apparently not much!”), then most of those who call themselves Christian don’t have a clue as to what Christianity is about.
There is a quote in Jeremiah that says that we are at a crossroads and we must make a choice as to which way to go. There are many today who are at the crossroad, trying to figure out which way to go. But I see a church at that same crossroad but closing its doors and refusing to help those who are lost and confused to find their way. Yes, it will be hard to make the changes that are necessary at this time. But that is because we have put them off for so long.
Still, I see many who are working for the change, who see the church as it once was, before Constantine and the imposition of a state church, working for all the people. What Jesus did more than anything else was show the people that God was open to all, no matter at what level of society they might be. It was a far cry from what the people saw in their lives and it was a far better vision.
Can we say the same thing today? Are we prepared to move in the direction that Jesus offered when He said to us to follow Him? Do we see that road?