My teenage son, Garrison, called my attention to it, because I only glanced at the painting. He looked longer and more deeply. “Did you see that, Dad?” “What?” Pointing to one of dozens of paintings in “The Civil War and American Art” collection on tour from the Smithsonian at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. We’d seen hundreds of paintings already that day and this one did not catch my eye. “Look!” I still didn’t see what he was talking about. “The two boys have laid down their coats. One is a Confederate; the other Union. They are huddled together … ” Then it hit me. I finished his thought, “ … and they are building a small fire.” I looked at him and he smiled. I did too. We looked back at the painting. He whispered. “Dad, that’ll preach.” I smiled a little more broadly, patted him on the back, gulped and repeated what he said.
Painted by Jervis McEntee in 1862, the year the Civil War intensified and massive campaigns were authorized, “Fire of Leaves” was a reminder to his contemporaries and to us that future generations raised during warring times are able to lead us all in cooperation and reconciliation. As I surveyed the rest of the exhibit that included stunning photographs from the war, mostly of dead soldiers, the message sunk in a little deeper. My son, like the boys in the painting, is one of an emerging generation raised in the midst of wars around the globe, in American and international politics and in the church. His generation and younger generations will stoke another fire. I see in them a hope that will spread as the Spirit blows through their visions and dreams.
I see a similar glint in the eyes of current seminarians and recent graduates ready to serve the church. Many of them know how to lay down the baggage of the church that raised them and factions that have formed them, refuse to discard essentials of our Reformed tradition and hold on just as closely to marginalized neighbors that they view as part of the body of Christ. Their theological educations have taught them scripture, theology, history, and tradition. But, they have also learned how to shape new traditions for new days and ways in contexts they find themselves. They have a heart for proclaiming in word and deed the good news in God’s world and the portion of it known as the body of Christ, the Church.
Since 1918 the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) and its predecessors have partnered with seminaries in the U.S. and Canada “to promote the improvement and enhancement of theological schools to the benefit of communities of faith and the broader public.” In 2010 and 2012 accreditation standards were strengthened. Attention to theological scholarship and religious constituencies served remains, while a commitment to “engage students” in the global context is reinforced. More familiar ATS benchmarks include attention to understanding the life of the church, personal and spiritual formation, intellectual (theology and Bible) and ministerial/pastoral formation, that are each part of practicing the arts of ministry. The places seminarians are being prepared to serve has broadened as well as where and when they learn including various distance education formats including online. I find refreshing the renewed focus on how students are prepared to exegete their cultural and global context, along with capacities to serve as public as well as ministerial leaders. It is no wonder that the ATS is the only non-Presbyterian organization included in our Book of Order. Evidence of readiness to begin ministry as a teaching elder includes a transcript from a theological institution accredited by ATS (see G-2.0607). Including ATS, accreditation in the Book of Order ensures graduates of accredited schools are being prepared to serve in the church and the world that think theologically, biblically and globally while being attentive to a local context.
The ATS is a partner in ministry in the PC(USA) that many don’t recognize. They, too, are helping us stoke the fire for a ministry that matters today and in our tomorrows, a companion for our journey forward toward more promise in the church and ministry. Our PC(USA) seminaries lead the way by almost any ATS standard and measure.
On September 15, PC(USA) congregations are encouraged to celebrate Theological Education/Seminary Sunday. Exodus 32 is one of the lectionary passages suggested. In this text, Moses leads the way when he challenges God to turn from wrath: “Change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” He then reminds God of the divine promise to “multiply … the descendants (of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, God’s servants) like the stars of heaven … (and give them all the land that was promised) forever. And the LORD’s mind was changed.” The text does not say it, but I have to imagine Moses smiled when he got that answer.
Some say the church and/or the PC(USA) is dying or must die to rise again. They may be right, but there is so much of the church and the PC(USA) that I cannot imagine God wants to die. Maybe we need to change. Maybe we need to unwrap ourselves from some of the assumptions we have long kept buttoned. Could we expand our reach around unfamiliar shoulders? Now may be the time to lay down our instruments of war and look more closely in the eyes of companions in the body of Christ with us and rebuild a fire that resembles a burning bush: one that calls us to prepare ourselves and lead, one that makes room for new and emerging generations like those in our seminaries now.
When I asked Garrison later about what he remembered about the painting he proved once again he saw more than I did. “The two boys were in the wilderness and there was a long path ahead of them. They recognized the only way they were going to find their way out and back home was to work together.” We may be in the wilderness now as a church and a denomination. People of faith have been here before. Maybe it is time to stop and rebuild the fire and trust the partners we have, some of which are often unseen. Maybe it is time to step aside wherever we can and allow the descendants of people of faith to multiply. Now may well be the time to give permission for a new generation of well-prepared leaders, artists in ministry, to guide us in working together and finding our way out of the wilderness, down the long path, and back home to places of promise. I hope our daughters and sons think, “That’ll preach.”
LEE HINSON-HASTY is coordinator of theological education and seminary relations for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the PC(USA) Committee on Theological Education. A teaching elder member of the presbytery of Coastal Carolina, Lee writes the blog “a more expansive view: encounters with Presbyterians and our seminaries.”