Ben Sparks: Mentor, challenging editorialist

I have read The Presbyterian Outlook since I was a student at Union Theological Seminary, and have continually been grateful for its usefulness. But I must say that when Ben Sparks was announced as its interim editor in February of 2004, the Outlook became much more fun to read.  

Ben Sparks: Colleague in ministry and friend

Ben Sparks first introduced himself to me on the campus of Union Theological Seminary in the fall of 1968 or 1969. I was in my first or second year of seminary; Ben was a member of the Board of Trustees, one of the youngest trustees ever to serve on the board of Union, now Union-PSCE. Ben was living in Roanoke, serving as Urban Minister for Montgomery Presbytery staff. After college, I had spent a year working with an inner city Presbyterian congregation in Brooklyn, New York. Ben wanted to talk with me about that experience. As we visited that afternoon on the Union campus, a friendship based on mutual respect began. 

Quickly, I realized that Ben had read more books than I, many more books; he kept up with journals far more than I. A member of the Iona Community in Scotland, Ben treasured participation in that worldwide ecumenical group. Those attributes, along with a keen mind, quick memory, and fun spirit made me eager to let the friendship grow.

The Last Role of Twilight Paper

On prospective board members my institution desires to make a good impression.  This is not easy because the standard campus tour includes classroom time, and I seem to be the only instructor teaching at the hour guests are free to attend a lecture.  Over the years these classy people regularly show up at my classy room five minutes before the lecture begins.

Independent voice, independent Outlook

It would be easy to name the churches that Ben Sparks has served, list the baptisms, recall the weddings, remember the funerals, appreciate his faithful service to presbyteries and synods, as well as to the church as a whole. Ben is without a doubt hitting his stride.

But that would be the easy part. There is no difficulty in adding the numbers and citing the impressive facts. What is far more important is the distinctive character of the service that he has given to all of these. And there is still more. It is the special quality of life that both he and Annette contribute to all of these activities that make the essential difference.

In some respects it was a natural thing for Ben to become involved with The Presbyterian Outlook. Second Church had not only been the closest neighbor to the Outlook but also its supportive landlord for many years. And as the senior pastor there, Ben had assumed the responsibility of being a special friend and guardian of the publication.

Pronouncing Touareg

Among the obscure items I collect to amaze my students and annoy my colleagues is the by-now-long-useless fact that in 1869 Alexandrine Tinne was hacked to death by the Touaregs.  Alexine was an incredibly rich, incredibly beautiful, incredibly brave woman who, at enormous expense, attempted to explore the White Nile and its tributaries. 

The Porpoise-Driven Life

Obligatory summer visits to our family requires a road trip from Pittsburgh to Nashville to Albuquerque to Denver to Milwaukee.  This duty is rendered pleasant by minor league baseball games all across the country.  In my secret heart I still believe if I had not gone to the seminary I might have gone to the baseball hall of fame.

The Flying Chaucer

Every body, or to be precise – every mind, needs three reading lists.  The first will contain the essential books of your field.  The second list will offer solid insights into and felicitous expressions of one's individual and community interests.  The third is just plain fun to read.

On being shown the door

As I listened to John Bell's sermon (link) I thought I was being ushered back into the remembered richness of the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition that nourished my beginnings as a pastor, a tradition that the Outlook has maintained fearlessly over many decades. That emerging tradition was patiently replacing a spurious ecclesiology that supported social injustice. The Outlook was courageous in that enterprise, and was willing, for the gospel and the church's sake, to "be shown the door" if necessary, to speak the truth about church and society.

Ernest Trice Thompson and Aubrey Brown, the first two editors of this paper, in teaching, preaching, and writing, helped to establish in the warp and woof of the church the overturning of the noxious doctrine of the "spirituality of the church" that had become the confessional stance of the PCUS (Southern Church) when we broke away from the national body. As we formed the new denomination in 1861 at Augusta, Ga., we declared that the church's vocation was not to be concerned with the outward condition of human beings, but with their souls only -- which were destined for salvation or damnation. That "faith statement" set the church on a course separating not only charity from justice, but even of separating charity from evangelism. And it was a long, hard road on which to return to the whole gospel for the whole church, and officially to repudiate (in the 1930s) that separation.

Maxwell’s House – Good to the Last Drop

The scientists in my family have devoted considerable time and effort to educating me in the rudiments of modern physics.  For example, "Einstein's Theory of Relativity" is widely mentioned but some of us do not know exactly what to make of it.  I rather assumed that Einstein had somehow demonstrated to the satisfaction of the scientific community that everything in the physical world is in relation to everything else in the physical world, which theologians have understood for a long time.

Response from the Leadership Team of the Presbyterian College Commission

Editor's Note:  In the October 31 issue of The Presbyterian Outlook, Nelle McCorkle Bordeaux, a member of the Presbyterian College Commission, wrote a guest viewpoint on her concerns about the commission final report. The leadership team of the commission now responds to her concerns.


As the leaders of the team that guided the work of the Presbyterian College Commission to explore what it means to be a liberal arts college in covenant with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we wish to respond to the recent "Guest viewpoint" of Rev. Nelle Bordeaux.

We are deeply disappointed that a member of the Commission has so significantly misrepresented the recommendations of the Commission and the intent of the college's Board of Trustees in regard to the criteria for faculty membership at Presbyterian College. The Commission did not recommend that the faculty of Presbyterian College 'no longer need to be Christian,' but just the opposite. In the 'Findings' regarding 'Faculty Membership' we state, 'We agree that the expectation should be that 'faculty will be members of a Christian church...'' We do then go on to say that, while we "support the initiative of the Board of Trustees to make a limited number of specific exceptions to the requirement of membership in a Christian church,' we 'encourage the Board to state more clearly and concisely its intention to have a faculty of committed Christian scholars with appropriate exceptions being made for outstanding scholars of other faith traditions who would enrich the life and mission of the college.'