Honoring the Past. Forging the Future. Happy 90th Birthday Asbury Theological Seminary

In 1923 the Lord used Henry Clay Morrison to establish a school committed to spreading scriptural holiness throughout the world. From the outset it was clear that Asbury was not birthed to become merely another institution of higher learning that would grace the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Nor was Asbury established to be only a graduate theological institution, as noble of an endeavor as that may be. It was clear from the beginning that Asbury Theological Seminary was the birthing of a great Wesleyan vision. From our humble beginnings we were always enlivened by a mission that could not be completely captured by the word “education” alone. We were committed to sending forth Spirit-filled and sanctified men and women to the ends of the earth. We were both academy and church… we were both steeple and scroll… we were sound learning and vital piety… we were head and heart… we were mind and will… we were reflective scholarship and active mission… Never as two separate things…but as one grand integrated vision.

This is why H. C. Morrison, with only three students and a great vision, set the founding motto of the seminary as “The whole Bible for the whole world.” Yes, Asbury is a grand Wesleyan vision. Asbury is a God-sized, globally focused, biblically based, Wesleyan inspired vision of academic training and formation in holiness which 90 years later has not lost its sense of purpose and vitality.

Praise the Lord!

If you know anything about the history of graduate theological education in North America this is, in itself, one of the greatest miracles of all. This is not to say that we have not had our share of dark moments and difficult trials. But, even our greatest trials were shaping our vision in and through the cross of Jesus Christ and showing us anew the power of redemptive suffering, the urgency of prayerful dependence, the vitality of godly scholarship, and doing all of this by growing more and more into the grace of a joyful, generous community of faith and learning.

Tonight we stand one decade from 2023 and the 100th anniversary of Asbury Theological Seminary. We have a great and decisive decade ahead of us. In the decade ahead we will discover new ways to declare that “the world is our parish” as we train men and women from the ends of the earth and as professors from across the world stand in these hallowed halls to teach our students. In the decade ahead, we will grapple more fully with the reality that we live in a world where information flows horizontally, not vertically. The internet has fundamentally changed the way information flows throughout the world, and seminaries are not exempt from these forces of change. Every denomination that requires the MDiv is in decline and the profile of the pool of potential students is in a rapid state of change. In the decade ahead we must grapple with the growing reality that North America is one of the fastest growing mission fields in the world, even as we are simultaneously experiencing an exponential growth in Hispanic and Chinese and Korean and a host of other new church movements right here in N. America.

All of this requires fresh initiatives in evangelism, church planting and leadership development not seen since the days of Francis Asbury. But, as President of Asbury Theological Seminary, I want to say to every person here tonight: Asbury Theological Seminary is up to the challenge. I ask you, can Asbury advance its founding mission even when the church is global and the world is flat? I ask you, can Asbury advance its founding mission in the world of Google, Twitter, Facebook, iPhones, iPads and YouTube? I ask you, can Asbury advance its founding mission even when the church in N. America has mostly lost its courage and the Devil is roaring? The answer is yes, because God is still on the throne! The answer is yes because God has not lifted His divine anointing from this institution. The answer is yes because the gospel is still the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes! The answer is yes because never before has the world been in greater need of scriptural holiness than the broken world we live in. The answer is yes because we have always believed that the even the greatest No of the world is swallowed up in the greater Yes of Jesus Christ. The answer is yes because, as John Wesley said in his dying words, “The best of all, God is with us! Amen.

[This address was delivered on May 20, 2013, by Timothy C. Tennent on the Kentucky campus of Asbury Theological Seminary in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the founding of Asbury Theological Seminary.]

Charge to December 2012 Graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary

From the iconic Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz we learn afresh of the importance of courage.  Who can forget those memorable words, “what makes the muskrat guard his musk?  What makes the Hottentot so hot, or put the “ape” in apricot? Courage.

Like the Lion, we may feel we’re not very courageous, but with God’s help we can be women and men of great courage and boldness tempered with honest, “truth-telling” humility.

There are few traits more needed by pastors and full time Christian workers today than that of courage.  As the church in the West moves from the warm “high noon” light of Christian cultural consensus, to the long “sunset” shadows of post-Christendom, it is easy to lose one’s courage – the moral nerve to stand with Christ and the gospel.  We would much rather occupy the cultural center than the prophetic margins.  It takes courage to announce the gospel even as it is being decried as outrageous and offensive.  We live in a society enmeshed in deep spiritual and moral chaos.  It takes enormous patience and courage to lead someone from the gutter of despair to the high road of holiness, through the power of the gospel.  It takes courage to confess Christ when even big swaths of the church have lost the patience to listen to him.  It takes courage to preach the whole gospel, not just the warm, fuzzy bits.  It takes courage to preach Christ, and not ourselves.  It takes courage to stand firm on the Word of God, when the prevailing winds of culture are blowing hard in your face.

The redemption of the world is hard, toilsome work and God has decided to not redeem the world without us.  So, December 2012 graduates:  go forth as men and women of courage!   Preach the Word with courage!  Pray with Courage.  Love with Courage.  Serve with courage.  Be courageous in your life of holiness.

There is a day in Wesley’s journal where he gets up in the morning and he preaches to a group while loud mocking noises and jeers are going on around him.  He travels on to the next stop, but before he finishes preaching he is pelted with stones and run out of town.  On his third stop he preaches, but some opponents let their animals loose which dispersed the crowd and caused a great commotion.  His final stop that day was an evening service where several thousand people gathered and the Spirit’s presence was sweet and powerful as God did his work, hundreds responding to the gospel.  It took a lot of courage for Wesley to get through that day.  You are going to have days like that.

It was the great 16th century Reformer Martin Luther who once said, “If I confess with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.  Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all other battlefields besides is mere flight and disgrace if you flinch at that point.”

Courage.  Go forth with courage, class of 2012, and don’t give the Devil a chink of light.

Re-Imagining the Gospel

Many of us will remember the 1993 Re-Imagining conference held in Minneapolis which drew so much national attention.  The central purpose of the conference, as I recall, was to help the wider church more fully support the role of women in leadership in the church.  This was, and continues to be, an important conversation in the church and I, for one, support the full participation of women in the life and work of the church.  However, the conference (sponsored by the World Council of Churches) quickly became a time to “re-imagine” the doctrines of God, church, salvation and so forth.  So what could have been a careful reading of Scripture and the history of the church in light of new and real challenges, became an open denunciation of historic Christian faith.  Songs were sung to a God/dess Sophia.  One of the plenary speakers was famously asked about the doctrine of the atonement.  She replied that we “don’t need a theory of atonement” and then went on to say that “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses, and blood dripping and weird stuff.”  That statement speaks for itself.

It is perhaps time for a new Re-Imagining conference, but this time a call to re-imagine a church faithful to the gospel and historic faith. Perhaps this General Conference, or a future one, could truly become a re-imagining conference.  I would like to re-imagine a few things by invoking our collective memory of the following:

First, let’s remember that the United Methodist Church is the greatest church planting movement in the history of the United States.  No other denomination in our history has planted a church in every county in the country.  That is an astonishing feat.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great new church planting movement?

Second, let’s remember that our movement has produced some of the most effective, reproducible models for Christian nurture and discipleship in history.  Our very name, ‘Methodist’ was a reflection of the strict ‘method’ we used for discipling new believers.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great discipling movement?

Third, let’s not forget that the Wesleyan doctrine of salvation was fully Trinitarian.  It wasn’t enough to be justified by Christ.  One must be sanctified by the Holy Spirit.  It wasn’t enough to be “declared righteous” (alien, imputed righteousness), we must be “made righteous” (imparted righteousness).  The linking of prevenient, justifying, sanctifying and glorifying grace in the writings of Wesley remains one of his great legacies.  We have a message of transforming grace.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a movement of grace and life?

We live in a day when the church seems to work overtime to erase every possible distinction between the world and the church.  However, the world needs Jesus Christ.  The world needs to hear the gospel.  The world needs the wonderful ministry of the church as an embodied community living out all the realities of the New Creation in the midst of a broken world.  Let’s not forget this.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves with a prophetic imagination.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves as a gospel proclaiming, church planting, disciple making, grace filled movement bringing life and hope to all!

Is this possible?  Do I have hope for the United Methodist Church?  Yes it is.  The very Christ we proclaim in the gospel is the greatest impossibility made possible. In fact, the gospel emerges in the context of two “impossibilities.”  As someone once noted, He entered the world through a door marked “no entry” (a virgin womb).  He left through a door marked “no exit” (a tomb).  Two “impossibilities” made possible in Jesus Christ.   Yes, we can imagine the “impossible” made possible again!

Lessons my Mother taught me

There is an old African proverb which says, “the mother feeds the baby when it has no teeth so that the baby will someday feed the mother when she has no teeth.” The truth of that proverb came home to me powerfully this week when my 84 year old mother fell and broke her hip.

To get the full impact of this you have to know something of my mother. She is the most active 84 year old I have ever known. For example, about a year ago I went down to Atlanta to visit her. I couldn’t find her anywhere in the house. A quick check of the garage revealed the car still in its spot, so she had to be somewhere at home. I finally found her at the back of the house on top of a ladder cleaning leaves out of the gutter. I told her she might be a bit old to be carrying ladders around and cleaning gutters. She looked at me with incredulity that I would even raise the question.

She still holds the record for the oldest person to ever ride down Arvid Metcalf’s famous “zip line” here in Wilmore. She did that the week of my inauguration in 2009. Her house is famous in the circle of her friends for being a “better homes and gardens” type house. If you don’t know what that means, you’re probably under thirty years old. It means that her lawn is always immaculate with beautiful flowers and well trimmed bushes. Her house is so well appointed we could almost open up tours to show it to the public. It is such a picture of beauty. Whether it is the porcelain figurines on the mantle, beautifully filigreed frames on the wall or dainty lace carefully placed beneath every lamp, she has mastered the art of home presentation. All this happens because of my mother’s hard, daily work and commitment to excellence.

Whenever I come to Atlanta she always gives me a list of chores to do (just like old times). Now that I am President of Asbury, my schedule has kept me from always attending to this list as quickly as I once did. One of the items was a large tree in the backyard which needed to be taken down. Before I could arrange to come down I learned that she had taken the tree down herself. In amazement I asked how she did it (she doesn’t own a chain saw – at least not yet). She had taken a hand saw and sawed ten to twenty strokes each day for two months, finally bringing the tree down. This is a small snapshot of my mother. The idea that she is “old” has not yet crossed her mind. She knows how to make things happen and makes sure it happens with beauty, grace and excellence.

So, here I was this week, along with my two brothers taking care of my mother. I helped her to eat (remember the African proverb) and watched as she lay there unable to move. Within 24 hours of the operation she took her first step and now, several days later, she is walking with the aid of a walker. She is headed for two weeks of intensive physical and occupational therapy so, to use her phrase, “I can get back home where I belong.” The physical therapy people have been amazed at her strength – both physically and her inner drive – to get back to her former capacities. For my mother, her physical challenges are also causing her to trust in the Lord in ever deepening ways. Her faith in Christ has always been central to her identity. Indeed, everything she does she sees as an expression of her faith in Christ.

There are two kinds of age. There is outer age and there is inner age. The Apostle Paul says in 2 Cor. 4:16 that although our outward bodies are wasting away, our inner life is being renewed day by day. My mother may be getting old on the outside, but her inner life is vibrant and determined. I am now 52 years old, but my mother is still teaching me how to live in every season of life. She is teaching me how to live with determination and vigor. She is teaching me the meaning of the phrase, “never give up” and the beauty of spiritual growth in every season of life.

The doctor came in on Friday and gave her the good news that she was ready for rehab, but that “her ladder climbing days were over.” She gave him a little scowl. I don’t think she should ever get on a ladder again, or travel down zip lines. But I admire her capacity to embrace life, and she knows that whether in this life or in the one to come, there will be ladders to climb, work to be done, and glory to be revealed.

Scholars on Fire

Have you ever read something that you knew the minute you read it, you would never forget it.  I had that experience almost thirty years ago.  I read a statement in Christianity Today which I have never forgotten.  It was a letter to the editor.  Apparently, in a previous edition of Christianity Today, an article had appeared concerning some of the liberal scholars’ latest doubts about the authority of the N.T. and the historical Jesus.  The statement which riveted my attention was found the following month on the editorial page.  Some dear saint had written in a reply to Christianity Today. He was clearly upset with all of these so-called “findings” of enlightened liberal scholarship.  In his letter to the editor he shared that he was just a simple believer.  He remarked, I don’t know any Greek or any Hebrew or any of that stuff, he exclaimed, but I know these liberal scholars are dead wrong.  And it was then that he made his riveting statement which I’ve never forgotten.  He said, and I quote, “To these scholars, I’m probably just a simple-minded fool, but I’d rather be a fool on fire, than a scholar on ice“!  I’d rather be a fool on fire for Jesus than a scholar on ice!  I think many of us can appreciate and feel his angst.  But his choice is a tough one isn’t it… a fool on fire, or a scholar on ice… it’s like being given the choice to live in Hiroshima in Aug. of 1945,  or on the Titanic’s maiden voyage in 1912.

But his statement reveals an assumption that is all too often made in Christian circles.  The idea is that devotion to God often leads to a warm heart and an empty head.  The life of the mind is suspect and we should avoid scholarship in the interest of devotion to Christ and personal salvation:   Better to be a fool on fire, than a scholar on ice.  We forget that God has called us to something greater, something which transcends these kinds of classic divides and tensions.

Brothers and sisters, welcome to Asbury Theological Seminary – where scholarship is on fire… where the life of the mind enlarges the heart… and the devoted heart helps us capture the mind of Christ.   Welcome to Asbury Theological Seminary where the phrase “the mind and heart go hand in hand” is not just a slogan, but a description of who we are.  Welcome to the world of John Wesley where sound learning and vital piety are wedded in a nuptial embrace.  Welcome to scholarship on fire!

Someday, if you earn the privilege of earning a graduate degree from Asbury, you will be a thinking, thoughtful reflective Christian, with a heart on fire for Jesus Christ!   Indeed, this rare, but blessed bond of head and heart is precisely what God has called you and me to be.  You are not being called at Asbury seminary to check your brain at the door… you are not being called to give up your devotion to Jesus.. your love of Jesus… your desire to spread the good news….  To spread scriptural holiness throughout the world….  To be educated…   You’re not being called to keep the two in balance….  We’ re not talking about balance… but a  marriage… that was Wesley’s genius… the marriage of heart of head… Having, to use his words, “hearts aflame with the love of God” and a having “the mind of Christ.”  Your intellect and your affections are knit together in a holy matrimony with Jesus Christ.  Any man who gets up and reads Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ in the morning and the Greek New Testament in the afternoon and still be at the brickyards to preach at dusk is my kind of man, how about you?

This is an excerpt from a message given by Dr. Tennent at the Fall ’09 New Student Orientation.  Click here to listen to the entire message.

Ordinarily Extraordinary

I follow the church year.  The very idea of re-tracing the life of Jesus during the course of the year absolutely sets my heart ablaze.  It is one of those great “checks and balances” which lovingly reminds the church to remember – and to remember well.   In today’s world of emails, Facebook, blogging, twittering, IM, etc.. it is easy to get awash in a download of information and not take time to stop and remember.  G. K. Chesterton once said that “tradition is the greatest form of democracy.”  What he meant, I think, was that if we only listen to the voices which are clamoring around us (and with twitter we can now be in the constant presence of hundreds of voices!) then we shut ourselves off from the most important voices of all; namely, those who have gone before us.   Every generation has its share of blind spots.  When we include the voices and perspectives of those from the past, they expose our blind spots and, even more importantly, point their finger at the latent heresies which so easily shroud what we so glibly refer to as our “Christian” lives.

This blog is devoted to thinking about things.  I hope to allow the perspective of the church throughout the ages to weigh in regularly.

Oh, by the way, we are now in the season which the Methodists call Kingdomtide.  However, I like the older term, Ordinary Time.  For me, it reminds me that the lives we live are often in the “ordinary” zone rather than the “extra-ordinary” zone.  Blogs and twitters are one of the best reminders as to just how ordinary our lives can be.  Yet, this is the very context where the gospel must penetrate.  Just as the church year spans the “waiting” of Advent or the glorious “celebration” of Easter, it also reminds us of the ebb and flow of Ordinary Time – the time between the end of Pentecost and the beginning of Advent when we just have to follow Christ in day to day living.  All human enterprises, however noble, always end up slogging their way into the swamps of idolatry.  It is so easy – even in the church – especially in the church – to end up in the “swamp” even while we sing praises and go through all the motions.  Ordinary Time reminds us of the importance of walking with Christ each and every day.  Ordinary Time reminds us to be vigilant and spiritually awake long after the initial glory and victory of Easter begins to pass.  So, join me in the journey…I’m looking forward to it.

Passing the Torch

This morning, in my 2009 journey through the Bible, I found myself reading the opening chapters of Ecclesiastes. I’m an optimist, so I often find myself arguing with the man who wrote this book. I know why it is in the Scriptures but I still wish the author had been a bit more hopeful.

And then this morning I read his particular fears about what would happen to his work after he was gone. He decided that he hated all of his labors because “I must leave it to those who come after me — and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19)?

Suddenly I felt very sorry for the writer. I would be sad, too, if I were worried about the person following me in this position. The past nearly three years have been demanding in so many ways. They have taken their toll not only in time but in a huge investment of physical and spiritual energy. At this point, our seminary is in a place of great strength and promise. Now so much depends on the new leader.

So if I were wondering whether that leader will be “wise or foolish,” I think I would be almost as despondent as the writer of Ecclesiastes. Fortunately, I have no such worries. As I look at Timothy Tennent’s record, as I review his education and experience, as I talk with him and correspond with him, I rejoice that in the providence of God he will soon be Asbury’s eighth president.

I confess gladly that he will bring some gifts to this post that I do not have. I am confident of his ability, his dedication, his love for Christ and for the work of the kingdom, and his commitment to Wesleyan education and ministry.

So I will leave the sad song to Ecclesiastes. I look to Asbury’s future with glad excitement, grateful that I am privileged to be part of the continuing faculty as this new era unfolds.