Headlines from First Thoughts

Saturday, September 30, 2006

In Memory of Ruth Ann Foster

Ruth Ann Foster, one of the founding faculty of Baylor's Truett Seminary, died Thursday after a long bout with cancer. I was her first student grader at Truett. A few reflections on a professor-friend....

When I first met Ruth Ann Foster, I was sitting in Christian Scriptures 1, trying to decide what the name "Christian Scriptures" meant, and asking myself, "Why didn't they just call this class 'Old Testament'?" On the first day of class, she announced that we would write 7 exegetical papers in one semester. After all, this was Truett Seminary, not that other one. A couple of days later, one of our fellow students evened the score by embarrasing her at El Chico in front of our Dean, Robert Sloan. It was the beginning of a long friendship of laughter and scholarship.

We became friends, not because of anything I did; but I think she and I could relate to one another. We were both non-Texans. Both of us attended fundamentalist schools in the past, and both were just grateful to be in Waco instead of Fort Worth. I married a girl from Ruth Ann's home state of Kentucky. Kelly and Ruth Ann shared a love of Kentucky basketball.

Ruth Ann helped me continue to unbox and bless my past and figure out how to use it in the future. She asked me to be her grader, and she put up with my bad habit of leaving every file drawer open at her desk. I tolerated her "office" (really a cubicle) that she kept a minimum of -32 or as low as the First Baptist Waco air conditioner would let her. I think Nancy de-Claisse Walford, who shared the other side of the office, wrote her dissertation in about 9 months just to keep warm.

More than anything, Ruth Ann was our pastor when I was in seminary. When the other professors took interims and preached on Sundays, Ruth Ann preached and pastored the students. She did not need a pulpit; she used her desk and her classroom to exhort us in our callings. Yes, she could hold her own against every Calvinist, closed minded, anti-women-in-ministry student she taught. But she handled every confrontation the way Bonhoeffer prescribed in Life Together, with honesty, grace, poise, and candor. And she showed each student how to disagree and still remain friends with some of the very people with whom she debated.

She helped us create the Truett Community. When the administration handed down another change, Ruth Ann kept us going. When Conyers couldn't find the right room, Ruth Ann laughed right along with us. When none of us liked the covenant groups, Ruth Ann let down her guard and was transparent enough to be a part of the groups. When students had problems, Ruth Ann hid her own private pain and showed up every time she could, even though she didn't feel like it.

Quietly behind her has been her mother Alice who played the best piano in Kentucky or Texas if you pressed her. She has cared for and loved on Ruth Ann and on every student that has walked into her home and helped them change a light bulb.

Sloan, Creed, Conyers, Foster, Dilday, Houser, deClaisse-Walford, Harbour-- all of them arrived in 1994; and all have a very significant place in my heart and in the formation of Truett Seminary.

The glue that held us together was Ruth Ann Foster. She leaves a legacy that we should all emulate.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sabbath Jars

Most people begin practicing Sabbath by trying to find a 24-hour slot. They schedule the time, try to take a break, and feel guilty about the laundry or the email for an entire week. That feels more like time management to me, not observing Sabbath. In the wilderness, the Israelites first practiced Sabbath by trusting that God would provide manna—twice as much before their day off, and the regular amount afterward. Sabbath begins with acknowledging God’s provision and trusting God during a day off.

Last Sunday, I shared ways that individuals and families can recognize that God will always supply their needs. I suggested following a method similar to the one in Exodus 16. Find a jar (or use the one given to children and youth), and fill it with symbols of the ways God has provided for you in the past. Focus on the intangible gifts: a picture of family, a timely email of encouragement, a token of laughter or love. Display the jar in your home; discuss it with roommates, friends, and family. Every time you see it, you’re preparing for Sabbath. You will know that God will take care of you before and after your day of rest.

As a church, we have a similar assignment. Last year, God demonstrated his provision tangibly through our pledges to the capital campaign. We used “Fulfilling the Promise” flower pots with prints of FBC children’s hands to decorate the breakfast that day. The flower pots are back; but this time, we don’t need pledge cards or balloons. I want to know other ways that God has provided for our church. We share a collective memory of several hundreds of years of service at 1B. How have you seen God provide? Drop something in the flower pot: a picture, a note, a memento. Note paper is provided nearby each flower pot; scribble a phrase or two and added to the soil. These pots are placed throughout the church.

The Sabbath Series ends October 1 with communion. On that day, people bring their jars of God’s provision to worship. We will also share the blessings of God’s provision that they have left in the “Fulfilling the Promise” pots. Every time we remember God’s provision, we celebrate Sabbath. Let’s remember for generations to come.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Sabbath Definitions

I'm preaching a series of messages on Sabbath over the next month. If you announce the topic of Sabbath, suddenly everyone has a definition.

I heard a few comments in the hallway Sunday:

“Dr. Shiell just gave everyone permission to sleep in church.”

“This means I get out of laundry and cooking today.”

“If we’re supposed to keep the Sabbath, where do I put it?”

Part of the fun of Sabbath is dusting off an old treasure, much like finding a gift in the attic left unopened for years. The other part comes in redefining what Sabbath means for our time and our generation. Each generation has had to do so. Much of the furor over the Sabbath in the Pentateuch began over adapting a commandment to a wilderness tribe. When Jesus arrived, the Pharisees were still trying to figure it out and missed the point entirely; and they did not care for his definition too much.

I can tell you what Sabbath is not. It’s not counting footsteps, passing more Blue Laws, or skipping movies. All those things limit the gift to a few simple things we can check off a list and say, “Ok! I got one out of 10 commands right.”

I can’t tell you how to define Sabbath personally. Church staff and others who work on Sunday know that Sabbath goes beyond one day of the week.

Part of the joy of rediscovery comes in studying the concept and redefining it. As you do, several themes of Sabbath should be remembered, observed, and practiced as you find the joy in the gift. (I reserve the right to add to these as we move through the series, and I welcome your additions and comments on these themes.)

Sabbath is a time.

Sabbath brings people together. From creation forward, Sabbath is about reuniting a community-- whether tribe, church, friends, or family.

Sabbath is different than the ordinary routine. We spend most of our time sleeping and working for pay; and if we don’t, someone is providing both for us. The Sabbath breaks whatever makes up the bumping, grinding, and draining parts of your life.

Sabbath points to eternity. One day a week reminds us that this is partly what heaven feels like.

Sabbath is stewardship. It says, “I know God will provide even if I take a break.”

Sabbath is generosity. It extends rest to those worn by the labors of life.

Sabbath is dependence. The world goes on without us because God is in charge.

Sabbath is more than a 24-hour period on a calendar; it’s a lifestyle of finding restful moments throughout the week.

According to Abraham Heschel, the rabbis described Sabbath as a man getting lost in the woods only to find a large palace in the middle of the forest. This month, in the thicket of your schedule, may you find a palace in time.

A Sabbath for Cal

Life in Knoxville after a football game is combination recovery, therapy (depending on the final score), post-game analysis, and victory party (again depending on the final score). When I planned to start a sermon series on Sabbath yesterday, I knew what I was getting into. Football and Sabbath don't mix. It's not very restful dealing with traffic congestion, pre and post game stress, and the reality that football like Sabbath rolls around every week. Sometimes several times a week. But I thought, "It's Labor Day weekend; what a better time to focus on this Gift from God."

The last thing I expected to see on Sunday after UT's route of Cal on the river was a Cal fan plunked right in the middle of the sanctuary for the first service. At first, I didn't recognize our blue-and-yellow-clad guest. He feverishly took notes during the sermon and found me in the library after the service. He identified himself and told me that he had flown in from Berkely for the game. He was very complimentary of the people and the warm welcome, but he especially liked the prayer before the football game. "We couldn't do that in California. The believers there just gather under the trees and pray before the game-- much like that prayer yesterday, for the important things. It's just football, you know."

It's just football. The guy on the losing end of Saturday just stole my sermon. On Sunday, the scoreboard doesn't matter. Even in the midst of the fun of cheering on a team, football needs a Sabbath. For one guy from Berkely, who hopped a plane to watch his team learn about life in the SEC, he found true rest. Thanks for the gift.

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