Can a president be a prophet?

Can a president be a prophet?

My wife often gives me the look when I come out of the closet dressed for the day. The look means, “You can’t wear that with that.” And I get it. Some things do not go together, and the clash between them is unsettling. I think this is true for me in more ways than clothing. I believe our world is in need of prophetic voices, yet I find myself most often titled president of a university.  

So I was reading the Richard Rohr online devotional guide last week and his guest editor, John Dear, was writing about prophets. And he wrote, “Prophets cannot be at the center of any social structure. Rather, they are on the edge of the outside. They cannot be fully insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from the outside either. Throughout history, they have spoken truth to power, regardless of the ruler’s political persuasion. They are able to lovingly criticize their own group, recognizing their own complicity….”

A president is the ultimate insider, at the center of a social structure, and far from the outside edge. So…can a president be a prophet? 

The same writer suggests these 12 signs of a true prophet.

  1. A prophet is someone who listens attentively to the word of God, a contemplative, a mystic who hears God and takes God at God’s word, and then goes into the world to tell the world God’s message. So a prophet speaks God’s message fearlessly, publicly, without compromise, despite the times, whether fair or foul.
  2. The prophet is centered on God. The prophet does not do his or her own will or speak his or her own message.
  3. A prophet interprets the signs of the times. The prophet is concerned with the world, here and now, in the daily events of the whole human race, not just our little backyard or some ineffable hereafter. The prophet sees the big picture—war, starvation, poverty, corporate greed, nationalism, systemic violence, nuclear weapons, and environmental destruction. The prophet interprets these current realities through God’s eyes, not through the eyes of analysts or pundits or Pentagon press spokespeople.
  4. A prophet takes sides (the “bias toward the bottom” or the “preferential option for the poor”). A prophet stands in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized. . . . A prophet becomes a voice for the voiceless.
  5. All the prophets of the Hebrew Bible are concerned with one main question: justice and peace. They call people to act justly and create a new world of social and economic justice, which will be the basis for a new world of peace.
  6. Prophets simultaneously announce and denounce.
  7. A prophet confronts the status quo. With the prophet, there is no sitting back. The powerful are challenged, empires resisted, systemic justices exposed. Prophets vigorously rock the leaky ship of the state and shake our somnolent complacency. . . .
  8. For the prophet, the secure life is usually denied. More often than not the prophet is in trouble. Consequently, the prophet ends up outcast, rejected, harassed, and marginalized—and, eventually, punished, threatened, targeted, bugged, followed, jailed, and sometimes killed.
  9. Prophets bring the incandescent word to the very heart of grudging religious institutions. There the prophet confronts the blindness and complacency of the religious leader—the bishops and priests who keep silent amid national crimes; the ministers who trace a cross over industries of death and rake blood money into churchly coffers. The institution that goes by the name of God often turns away the prophet of God.
  10. True prophets take no delight in calling down heavenly bolts. Rather, they bear an aura of compassion and gentleness. They are good and decent, kind and generous.
  11. Prophets are visionaries. In a culture of blindness, they offer insight. In a time of darkness, they light our path. When no one else can see, the prophet can. And what they see is a world imbued with God’s purposes: a world of justice and peace and security for all, a world where all of creation is safe and at rest. The prophet holds aloft the vision—it’s ours for the asking. The prophet makes it seem possible, saying “Let’s make it come true and we shall be blessed.”
  12. Finally, the prophet offers hope. Now and then, they might sound despairing, but only because they have a heightened awareness of the world’s darkest realities. These things overwhelm us; we would rather not hear. But hearing is our only hope. For behind the prophet’s unvarnished vision lies a hope we seldom understand—the knowledge that God is with us, that the kingdom of God is at hand. To realize that hope, we must trust ourselves to plumb the depths and trust God to see us through. (John Dear, Center for Action and Contemplation Meditations@cac.org)

I read this list and fall short in so many ways. I can hear my friends saying, “I know Amos and Micah. I’ve preached Amos and Micah. And you, sir, are no Amos or Micah.” And I would not protest this estimation. Yet I find myself refusing to believe that the leaders of our educational institutions (yes, us ultimate insiders) can refuse to be prophetic and, at the same time, hope for a better world.

Maybe this is why I talk to myself a lot. Most of the time it sounds like a prophet arguing with a president. I believe that the leaders of educational institutions are important voices for public critique, moral clarity, compassion for the weakest among us, and a just world. If we presidents just run the machinery of institutions and stay off everyone’s sensitivity radar, how will a new generation taste the kingdom of God?   

In the Old Testament, the prophet, priest, and king were three different people and each could play a separate role. Yet in the New Testament, Jesus fulfills all three simultaneously. And this prophet-priest-king Jesus among the flock becomes the pattern for Christian leaders in the church. As a pastor I tried to embrace all three roles: the healing/sacramental work of the priest, the justice-doing/resource-tending work of the king, and the culture-critiquing/hope-bearing work of the prophet. 

But in our culture, the president of a social structure (like a university) is viewed as a political figure whose every move is judged to be in alliance with powers other than the kingdom of God. And it is impossible to work in institutions and not be somehow complicit in the dark powers of the world. Sometimes a university president sees this and sometimes we are blind to ourselves. This work humbles me like nothing I’ve ever done before – to hold power that appears to be this-world political but then to exercise the same as an expression of the kingdom of God breaking into the world through critique and hope. 

After 12 years, I should have this figured out. But I don’t. Maybe the secret is to live in the tension between the two. Maybe I can wear that with that. Here’s hoping.

 

Knowledge as Love

Knowledge as Love

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Robert Oppenheimer was one of the scientists who worked on the production of the first atomic bomb. During my doctoral work on the campus of The University of Chicago in Hyde Park, I walked past the building each day that he and his team of physicists worked in. In his reflection on their work, he wrote this:

“I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands— to release the energy that fuels the stars. To let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles—to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people the illusion of illimitable power and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles. This is what you might call technical arrogance that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.” (The Day after Trinity, p. 30)

When we want to know without accountability, responsibility and community—without God—we can blow up the world.

Parker Palmer has always been one of my favorite authors. I reread his book To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey this summer. In it, he wrote: “We are well-educated people who have been schooled in a way of knowing that treats the world as an object to be dissected and manipulated, a way of knowing that gives us power over the world … In my own way, I have used my knowledge to rearrange the world to satisfy my drive for power, distorting and deranging life rather than loving it for the gift it is.” (p. 2)

Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we pursue knowledge as power, knowledge without responsibility for each other, knowledge that is ours, not a gift received from God. When knowledge becomes nothing more than objective, cold, hard fact, it slips beyond the vibrant connection to our Creator.

For, you see, knowledge is truth that is more than a formula or a verbal construct. Knowledge is flesh and blood, embodied in the Christ who said, “I am the way, the truth, the life.” For Christian higher education, then, knowledge is embodied, incarnated, shared, humbly received, and responsibly used—all for restoring a broken world.

Our educational enterprise is distinctively different precisely because we are Christians. We engage our students in knowing because God has graciously engaged us in knowing. We love them because we are loved by God. We lay down our lives in service to them because Christ laid down His life for us. We engage them in redeeming the world because this is what God has called us to.

And to teach students, we must love them.

And what might this love look like? It’s definitely not a don’t-worry-about-your-grades, kum-ba-yah, slop-excusing, buddy/buddy, easy-grade, cheap diploma factory. That is the antithesis of love.

Love looks more like a faculty research symposium, a faculty-led research project, writing a grant application, restoring an Honor Society or Phi Delta Lambda tradition, a student research symposium, The Cumberland River Review, balloon launches, beekeeping, 3-D printers, a documentary film in Israel, a student-composed opera, Trevecca around the Globe, mission trips, an undocumented student testifying before political leaders, iWork, Trevecca Authors Celebration, the openness of a professor to notice depression or a sudden disinterest, the mentoring of academic support personnel to relieve testing anxiety! It looks like residence directors, University employees, Plant Ops personnel, and others engaging students in life lessons. It looks like an admissions team raising the entrance standards as a truth-telling act. Rather than taking anyone’s money, we honestly confront them with their capacity for college work. It looks like the School of Graduate and Continuing Studies recognizing the learning differences of the 35-year-old mom with two kids working full time while trying to finish college.

We do this, not just for ourselves, and not just for our students, but for the sake of the world. Think of the educational possibilities that exist in the coming 12 months. As Christian educators, we will engage our students around world-altering issues such as the upcoming U.S. presidential election, immigration and the future of our undocumented neighbors, minority issues and the proper use of police force, ISIS and terrorism, cancer research, global warming, urban food production, a collapsing music industry model and the refugee crisis.

Can we as Christian educators keep going to class day after day in a world like this with 10-year-old notes and not educate students to live responsibly in this world, loving God, serving humankind? Academic excellence calls us to hard work in order to love our students as God loves us— so that we participate in the redemption of the world.

David Brooks, the NY Times columnist, spoke eloquently at the January CCCU Presidents’ Forum. His words encapsulate what I’m trying to say.

“Some Christian institutions adopt an adversarial posture toward the mainstream culture because things seem to be going against them. From my vantage point, it’s the exact opposite for you (CCCU institutions). You guys are the avant-garde of 21st century culture. You have what everybody else is desperate to have: a way of talking about and educating the human person in a way that integrates faith, emotion, and intellect. You have a recipe to nurture human beings who have a devoted heart, a courageous mind, and a purposeful soul. …

“For Christian universities, this holistic development is your bread and butter. This is the curriculum. This is the chapel service. This is the conversation students are having late at night. It’s lived out. Now, you in this room, have the Gospel. You have the example of Jesus Christ. You have the beatitudes; the fire of the Holy Spirit; you believe in a personal God who is still redeeming the world.

“Carrying the Gospel is your central mission to your students, but that’s not all you have. You have a way of being that is not all about self. You have a counterculture to the excessive individualism of our age. You offer an ideal more fulfilling and more true and higher than the ideal of individual autonomy. You offer lessons in the art of commitment.

“… A commitment is falling in love with something and then building a structure of behavior around it for those moments when love falters. It arises as a deep sensation of certainty, a moral and spiritual sensation that something is right, that you’ve been called to something.” (David Brooks, “The Cultural Value of Christian Higher Education,” Advance Magazine, CCCU)

 

The Higher Calling of Christian Higher Education

The Higher Calling of Christian Higher Education

As the president of a Christian university, it’s my job to communicate the vision what a Christian university should be to our faculty and staff. In my mind, Christian universities should be places that nurture and mentor, but also challenge.

Our mission is simple: Christian higher education and doing it with excellence. In the world of higher education, many things can vie for our attention, but our primary focus is students, both traditional undergrad and adult. Take them away, and we’re not here. As Christian educators, we exist for more than ourselves.

I think we need to be reminded of this because other loves often trump our love for students. These mistresses can be compelling. I’ll name three.

For some of us, our field of study is the mistress that seduces us from meaningful interaction with students. Content fascinates us –and to land a gig that pays us to follow our academic interests is a good job. We love music or math or film or philosophy more than we love our students. To be honest, students are a bother at times … because they refuse to love our field as much as we love our field. They distract us. Loving theories and facts and books is so much easier than loving students.

Others of us love our leisure more than we love our students. We get weekends off, a ton of holidays, a long winter’s nap and, for some, a partial year contract. So we easily fall into the minimalist routine– show up, lecture, attend some meetings, keep the grades flowing, and slide to the parking lot as early as possible. Students are a pain when it comes to our schedules –especially when they want our time, our applause at their ballgame or play or concert, our worshipping presence in community chapels, our wisdom for their issues. And lots of times they want it after 9 p.m., which really messes with us.

And then others of us love the idea of retirement more than we love our students. We just can’t pull the trigger yet, so we hold on for the day we can get the rocking chair and open our TIAA-Cref mail. If we could retire tonight, we would—because the love of educating students is no longer a passion that propels us from our beds every morning.

Lots of loves –our field of study, our research, our leisure, our schedule, our retirement–lots of loves can supersede the love for students and our work of forming them by way of Christian higher education.

I want to call Christian educators to embrace the love of students and to do the hard work of educating them with excellence. Why?

Because we are loved by God and entrusted with human life.

Because education is being done in destructive ways all over the world and we have a chance to do it better.

Because the culture of darkness needs our graduates if there is to be hope and light.

April 7 Is World Health Day 2015

April 7 Is World Health Day 2015

I’ve been drinking water from a bottle that says “Drop by Drop.” During Lent, the students at Trevecca Nazarene University took up the cause of clean water for the masses who do not have it. The university students in our J. V. Morsch Center for Social Justice won an award from Nazarene Compassion International for the campaign idea. We are now field testing it for others to use. We are drinking water instead of tea and soft drinks and coffee. OK, I cheated on the coffee. The idea is that we donate the difference to the cause of wells in villages where good drinking water is not available. There are lots of Drop by Drop bottles around.

This cause hits my family in the heart. Anna Ryan, our granddaughter, has personally earned enough money to place two wells in Central American villages. One time she made bracelets out of rubber bands and sold them. The other time she did chores and made some more bracelets. We bought a lot. I don’t wear them, but I have lots of extra rubber bands if you need any. I hope I have not caused a worse human crisis over a dwindling supply of rubber bands.

So on this World Health Day 2015 (this year highlighting the theme of food safety), I encourage you to also consider the importance of safe water.

Think twice and pray at least once when you tip a cup to your lips. Good health begins with clean water. And like our friends in the Salvation Army, we are all called to “Do the Most Good.”

World Health Day 2015 #safefood