Pondering our crisis at Luther

/ 27 February 2013

Some of you who read this blog will know that I teach at Luther Seminary, in St. Paul, MN. An even smaller number of you may be aware that Luther is currently living through an enormous financial crisis that is threatening all aspects of our shared vocation. Tension, anxiety, and the pain of pending loss are pervasive on campus these days, and I struggle to figure out how to live with faith in the middle of it all.

This morning I was reading a blog post written by Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles. I am always ambivalent as I read his words (for reasons too numerous to go into here), but his post was a gift because it led off to an essay written years ago by Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and the president of the Oblate School of Theology in Texas.

Rolheiser’s essay, which engaged the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church, has much to offer those of us who are struggling to live with the current financial crisis at Luther. I commend the entire essay to you, but I am particularly grateful for his definition of what it means “to ponder.” He writes that “to ponder in the biblical sense means to hold, carry and transform tension so as not to give it back in kind.” This is the task I need to give myself to as fully as possible here at Luther. Pondering our situation. Holding, carrying and seeking to transform the tension so as not to give it back in kind.

He also writes at length on what it means to “carry a scandal biblically.” I think there is perhaps no better word for what is happening at Luther right now than that of “scandal,” so Rolheiser’s wisdom is pertinent, direct and to me at least feels like water in a parched land.

Rolheiser’s essay spoke directly to the child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church. Please hear me: in what follows I am not trying to equate the soul devastation of that crisis to the financial mess Luther is in. Surely what we face at Luther is not as pervasively evil? But at the same time, we are in the midst of an overwhelming crisis, and I have experienced Rolheier’s words as offering a path through that crisis that is deeply rooted in the faith that we share.

Rolheiser suggests nine elements involved in “carrying a scandal biblically”:

  • naming the moment
  • a call to compassion
  • seeking healing rather than self-protection and security
  • carrying the crisis as a primary ministry and not a distraction to ministry
  • seeing painful humiliation as a grace-filled opportunity
  • recognizing that we are being asked to sing a "new song"
  • "pondering" as Mary did (see above)
  • reaffirming our faith in God as Lord
  • patiently staying with the pain </ul> Yes! These are actions I feel called to in the midst of the crisis unfolding at Luther. Several of them strike me as particularly important right now. We need to name the moment we are in, for instance, with truth and courage. Five years ago, when much of the rest of theological education was coming to grips with the converging tsunamis of financial recession and declining enrollments, Luther held itself apart and refused to see how deeply connected we were with all that was occurring. We need to name the arrogance of that stance, repent of our sinfulness, and find a way to accept in deep humility the pain that we must now acknowledge and bear. We should be seeking healing rather than self-protection and security. How is it that we got to this impasse? What and who were we ignoring in the long road to this crisis, and how might we move forward by carrying the scandal in the ways Rolheiser speaks of, rather than cloaking ourselves in self-protection? Healing often involves lancing the pus, or painfully retraining muscles that had lapsed from lack of use. Rather than avoiding the pain that comes from healthy self-criticism, we need to lean into it and learn from our blindness, learn to listen to what people tried to say and we refused to hear. We are, after all, a people of the Word and a people who stand at the foot of a Cross. We should fear nothing more than turning away from that Cross. So how did I turn away? What did I fail to do in the years leading up to this mess? What did I walk away from, or refuse to see, or discredit rather than respect? We need to be carrying this crisis as our primary ministry, not as a distraction. We aspire to be a learning community. Well, here is an opportunity to learn as we walk through the kind of life threatening financial crisis that many communities of faith are facing. I believe in being a community of truth, in teaching reflectively, in shaping environments of participatory knowing. Well, where was I when voices were being silenced? Where was I when we refused to hear what was being shared? And where am I now, when the wisdom and experience of a quarter of our faculty and a third of our staff may well be about to be lost from this community? How can my small set of skills contribute to participation, collaboration and shared knowing, rather than silence, tension, and fear -- both today, and in whatever number of future days are left to me here? My constant prayer these days comes from the Lenten liturgy: "Fill our minds, that we may know your wisdom; Touch our lips, that we may speak your truth; Hold our hearts, that we may always follow you; Come now, O Word of God." May it be so.