The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, the controversial Episcopal bishop, once claimed his early spiritual search was simply a means to seeking security for his anxious and insecure soul. He would discover he was only partially correct, as he wrote in his autobiography, “I discovered not security, but the expansion of life, and the radical challenges that life brings when one is open to the depths of God who is for me the very Ground of All Being.” Those life challenges can be better met and more fully lived with the help of Education for Ministry (EfM). The classes are a wonderful tool, designed and oriented to help one discern and carry out one’s own ministry.
EfM, grounded in scripture but equally reliant on and open to critical thinking, historical scholarship, and modern theological studies, allows a student to re-experience and re-visit what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have not only said to the Church and its followers, but more importantly, how those words have been heard, received, shaped, and understood – for better and for worse. Those same words can become ideas and thoughts better analyzed and understood with the help and collective insights of a committed group and its well trained mentors. EfM provides the necessary space for a community that longs to understand the Christian story and its impact on human lives over an extended timeframe and in distant places.
EfM allows us to see that Christians alone have no monopoly on God. Students examine their beliefs and their relationship to our culture, and the tradition of our Christian faith, making us more effective ministers in and to the world, in societies and communities increasingly described as post-Christian yet still yearning for justice and a need to turn away from the harshness, coarseness, and incivility we may experience in daily life.
In practical and personal terms, EfM helped me through a greatly changing course of life events, some involving unbounded happiness and gratitude for friends, work, and family; and others that brought a dark despair, with the unexpected illness and death of my wife of 32 years, and the mother of our two adult children. Classmates supported me through aspects of life that sometimes seemed so drama-filled and emotion laden, and so lacking any sense of control. But as a friend once told me: “That’s not drama. That’s life.” EfM can help us with a new way of seeing life, in both its daily and dramatic forms. After all, doesn’t our tradition tell us that God is equally present in both?
The enjoyable familiarity an EfM class provides never felt forced to me, and was always nurturing and comforting. EfM provided a welcome respite to a sometimes hectic and troubled world. This proved especially true in the cyclical and repeated context of having all four years of the students and their specific yearly focus together in the same setting each week, hearing in one evening’s session what you had thought you read and understood before, but now with a new outlook and an enhanced appreciation that only another’s voice provides. This method ensures there are both welcome changes of perspective, along with an equally important constancy of purpose.
Revisiting Bishop Spong, I would like to think that the course helps both the anxious and the secure, as we all hopefully find an expansion of life that accompanies true fellowship, a diversity of thought, and an emphasis on the dignity of every human being.
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