Many of us working in theological education trace our roots to passionate forebears who built seminaries at great personal expense. Their vibrant faith, costly commitments, theological sensibilities, accomplishments in music and the arts, and divisive battles belong to the lore of families and church bodies alike.
I grew up fingering a heavy rectangular bronze medallion with a bas relief of "Concordia Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Mo." that sat on my father's desk in our Long Island parsonage. On its back, in minuscule, tarnished print, I can still read that "its board of control has authorized the striking of this medallion" in honor of the seminary's new campus, dedicated on June 13, 1926. Formed in 1839 by Saxon immigrants, Concordia became the "divinity school" of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio and Other States and was "the parent of nearly a score of soundly Lutheran colleges in this and other lands."
These days, I could easily be maudlin about my roots. In July, my 90-year old father died of his infirmities; my 85-year-old mother followed him in October. They had met on Concordia's campus in the early 1940s. My father's grandfather, Franz Pieper, was the reigning systematic theologian and its president from 1887 to 1931. My mother's father, Paul Martin Bretscher, taught philosophy and New Testament there from 1941 to 1969. Both my parents devoted their lives to ministry -- he as a pastor, she as a parochial school teacher, church musician, and finally consecrated deacon.
I know much about the quest to live with white-hot theological orthodoxy and the way that such a quest can consume physical and mental health, dividing and scarring families while also putting them in the presence of the living Lord. I do not dismiss that quest as too costly, nor do I psychologize or historicize it as mere parochialism or the growing pains of a patriarchal immigrant church whose descendants, now enlightened, can escape their past.
Without denying elements of pain and self-righteousness, or "sin, death, and the devil," to quote Martin Luther's catechism, I give thanks for the faith and deep sense of the church that marked the lives, marriages, and deaths of my parents and their parents and grandparents. And for the seminary experience that prepared them for service in a church and world forever in need of God's saving grace.
They endowed me with an unquenchable thirst for Christ's truth -- one that has driven me deeper into our Christian past. And like many North Americans, and many in theological education, I'm a "switcher."
The sociological term hardly does justice to the journey of faith, but it does accurately capture the disjuncture and sense of betrayal that families know well when one of their own leaves the cradle tradition for another. Telling my elderly parents several years ago that I was being received into the Roman Catholic Church was very painful for all three of us.
Yet even though we were living the brokenness of Christ's body, we could also lean into the common language of Scripture, hymnody, and prayer in the face of sickness and death. I know first hand that the reference to Ezekiel 47:12 on my father's medallion holds hope for all of us who labor in the faith for theological schools:
And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.