Monday, August 18, 2008

Signs of Spring in South America

From the Gettysburg PO

By the Rev. Michael L. Cooper-White, M.Div., D.D.


Here in mid-August, for the third time in the past year, it is my privilege to sojourn for a few days among the saints of Argentinas Iglesia Evangelica Luterana Unida (United Evangelical Lutheran Church).  IELU leaders and executives of the ELCA’s Global Mission unit have kindly invited me to serve as consultant or "coach" for an ongoing process of strategic planning and ecclesial restructuring--part of a comprehensive effort to achieve long-term sustainability amidst a challenging context of limited financial and human resources.


With all genuineness, I conclude each session with our Argentine sisters and brothers assuring them that I receive far more from these encounters than I could possibly contribute.  Such is the nature of the ELCA’s approach to global mission, encapsulated and summarized succinctly in one unusual word: "accompaniment."  We accompany one another on the journey of faith, as Luther put it, "showing one another where to find bread."


South of the equator, where the seasons are reversed from the northland cycle, my "summer sojourn" occurs late winter, on the verge of springtime in Buenos Aires.  As I ponder all I have seen and heard over the course of the past 13 months since first coming back to South America (after a hiatus of more than three decades since I interned in Chile), I am struck that "springtime" is an apt metaphor for much that is occurring, both in the churches and wider societies.


Both Chile and Argentina are ahead of the global curve, served by women presidents.  Unthinkable in societies dominated by "machismo" just a generation ago, what many thought impossible seems to be working out quite well.  This societal embrace of women’s leadership is mirrored in the churches, with Pastor Gloria Rojas the Lutheran bishop in Chile, and women a majority in the lay leadership gathering I co-keynoted here in Argentina with ELCA colleague Raquel Rodriguez, who heads the Latin America work for Global Mission.


Church leadership has shifted in just one generation from being "foreign missionary dominated" to indigenous and contextual.  Whereas I served my South American internship in the mid-1970s surrounded by American and German pastors, today the churches leadership is solidly in the hands of South Americans.  Yet these are by no means mono-cultural faith communities.  The clerical cadres in each country contain the names of pastors from other Latin American nations.  And students from all over Latin America, as well as "overseas" study here at Argentinas ISEDET seminary, my base of operation while in Buenos Aires. 


Just as they have swirled among us in the ELCA and broader North American scene, so the Spirit-winds of liturgical and evangelical renewal are blowing in the southern hemisphere.  In every IELU arena where I have been privileged to observe and interact, I hear and see signs of renewal and a passionate mission-mindedness.  The questions raised in the leadership development retreat for congregational presidents and treasurers were exciting ones: "How can our parochial schools develop a greater sense of evangelism and community outreach?  What concrete steps can we take to welcome spiritual seekers from our neighborhoods and broader communities?  What changes do we need to make in our parish life in order to deconstruct barriers that are keeping non-members from crossing the threshold? 


In this one short P.O. piece with a Buenos Aires "postmark," it’s simply not possible to share all I’m seeing, hearing and feeling.  Upon my return to the U.S. and LTSG campus, I will seek opportunities to share further my “learnings” from this South American sojourn.  Suffice it for now to pass along these few reflections and glimpses into the signs of impending springtime, hoping that as the fall season is upon us in the northland, you too are seeing many signs of ever-greening Gospel!


P.S. When you see me, ask about my encounter with the world’s oldest living Olympic gold medalist, followed in short order by my first tango lesson . . .


Friday, August 15, 2008

A Marriage of Seven Decades

A Marriage of Seven Decades

From the Gettysburg PO by Michael L. Cooper-White

Gettysburg Seminary President


At the end of the service, the pastor offered an addendum to Jesus’ long list of parables in Matthew 13 concerning the nature of the Realm and Reign of God: “The Kingdom of God,” Kirk Anderson declared, “is like a couple married for 70 years!”  The couple to whom he referred are my parents, Alice and Bennie Cooper, married in Milbank, South Dakota on July 30, 1938. 


A GOOGLE search reveals the nature of the times in that year when Time Magazine concluded Adolf Hitler was “man of the year” who most influenced the world for good or evil.  War was on the near horizon.  That the Great Depression still lingered was evident both societally, with unemployment at 19%, and personally, with my folks “hiring out” together to a local farmer for $450 per year.  Their early decades together were ones of perennial hardship.  Their stories still abound with recollections of scarcity, back-breaking farm labor on summers’ most sweltering afternoons and winters’ coldest mornings, and periods of prolonged prairie isolation for a teen-age bride and her young husband.


On occasions like the one we celebrated the last weekend in July, it is only natural to pose questions to and seek wisdom from the actors at center stage.  “So tell us the secret to staying married for 70 years.”  “What were the hardest times?  How about the best?”  As the years have gone by since we celebrated Mom’s and Dad’s 50th two decades ago, I have noticed each has gradually become a person of fewer words.  Often the response to our queries these days is only a smile, a nod, or a sigh.  “We just kept on loving each other through thick and thin,” is about the essence of their testimony.  Perhaps Alice offered the most profound witness at Emmanuel Church when prayer concerns were invited by the assisting minister: “I want to thank God for our 70 years together,” she said simply, then added, “I have thanked God every morning for this man named Bennie.”


Among the cardinal virtues long espoused by Christians and others are the tandem pair of constancy and fidelity—“staying put, hanging in there, keeping on keeping on”—however you wish to define them.  They can, of course, be exercised to a fault and exploited to an unhealthy or even dangerous degree.  No one should stay in a relationship that has become abusive or death-dealing.  Even a vociferously anti-divorce theologian/professor once said to a group of us seminarians about marriage and divorce, “We promise ‘til death do us part and if it’s killing you, you may need to get out.”  Perhaps it is because they recognize a long-lasting marriage is more gift than something merited or even earned by fidelity and constancy, my parents have long been among the most understanding and accepting of others whose relationships end painfully.


In this year’s Summer Institute at the Seminary, Roy Oswald reported on the decades-long research he and others of the Alban Institute have conducted surrounding “long-term pastorates.”  “We learned of their value for vital, thriving congregations,” would be a succinct summary of a far more complicated conclusion.  Rome was not built in a day.  Significant pastoral and leader-follower relationships do not deepen to the point of fostering long-term systemic congregational health and vitality in even a few years, the typical duration of a vast majority of pastorates.  “Go and plant your feet with a commitment to constancy,” is the advice of the Alban folks, many bishops, and this seminary president who in one fashion or another tries to include that message in almost every annual commencement address.

I am fully and humbly cognizant of the extraordinary gift my brother and I and our large extended family enjoy in the continuing presence among us of Bennie and Alice (now—following our sister’s death a decade ago—known to us alone as Mom and Dad).    Given life expectancies in his era, of course Jesus did not include in his laundry list of “like-the-Kingdom” parables one about a couple married for 70 years.  But if he knew back then, what Dave and I and a small minority of other children whose parents reach such milestones in marriage know now, I suspect our Lord might have added Pastor Anderson’s example to his declarations about mustard seeds, yeast, pearls, nets and hidden treasures . . .