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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

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The Blessing of Time

October 02, 2013

Deo gratias. Time is a precious gift. 24 hours is the daily dosage all are given to manage. Of course, there variance exists in our individual responsibilities, involvements, and desires. The socio-cultural and economic realities of geographic location come into play. Age and health may help or hinder. But the seconds, minutes, and hours are the same in rural Montana as a downtown east coast metropolis. It ticks and tocks away with no sympathy, no tears shed for the complex challenges we face.

Any sum of time that allows for rest and renewal is a rarity to be cherished. That is the gift that I was blessed to unwrap recently in being selected as a Guthrie Scholar at Columbia Theological Seminary. Alongside two other participants, seasoned pastors with backgrounds in the United Church of Christ and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, respectively, the opportunity afforded weeklong on campus room and board, and full library privileges at no cost. We were able to arrange meetings with faculty members, attend student-led chapel worship, and pursue other activities and rhythms that help recalibrate us for service. Short of a sabbatical or extended vacation, this is as close to professional respite that pastors can get, a time to heal from our calling's demands while reflecting theologically on pressing issues.

Shirley C. Guthrie, in whose honor the scholarship is named, was a graduate of Austin College and Princeton Theological Seminary, and earned the Th.D. from the University of Basel in Switzerland, where he studied under Karl Barth. A steadfast voice of the Christian witness in the Reformed tradition, Guthrie taught theology at Columbia Theological Seminary for nearly 40 years, along the way writing Christian Doctrine,[1] a theological treatise that has become a classic. I find it both reassuring and disappointing that some of what scholars like Guthrie lobbied for Christians to better understand about the world and one another still escapes us:

We must listen with respect to other Christians and to the church, both in the past and in the present. It is very difficult for any individual Christian or group of Christians to be aware, much less critical, of their own limitations, prejudices, and presuppositions in interpreting scripture. One way to allow them to be exposed and corrected is to listen to how other Christians and the whole community of Christians have interpreted it in the past and interpret it in the present.[2]

The scholarship allows pastoral leaders from an amalgam of Christian traditions to establish meaningful dialogue in authentic ways that point to the biblical idea of iron sharpening iron.[3] Alone on our denominational islands ministering to our particular pastoral context, it is easy to "run out of strong." But united in conversation and cooperation with colleagues, sisters and brothers of the same "faith, Lord, and baptism," we are a family collectively serving God in powerful ways.[4] Heaven's residents are surely waiting on us with teary eyes to live out this aspect of our faith more fully.

Free though they were, the three hot meals each day in the refectory were my kind of manna. I devoured more slices of chocolate cake than my normal allowance, but I have been duly informed that grace through faith in Jesus extends even to dessert. Sarah Flynn Erickson and Israel Galindo coordinated the program and provided timely guidance, inspiring me to look at my research from different angles. You couldn't ask for more engaged staff and faculty members. It was a joy to spend time with Kimberly B. Long exploring shared interests in what, if anything, ought to be distinct about the preparation, vows, and substance of Christian marriage in a society so increasingly postmodern and individualistic. Come to find out we have even more in common, us both being graduates of the University of Maryland who are fond of the state's Eastern Shore.

I met with Paul Johnson at the Care and Counseling Center of Georgia, where for two-fifths of his time he is the director of training in addition to teaching at the seminary. As a reservoir for pastoral theology and clinical counseling, he further impressed upon me that caring for others, noble as it is, is only possible when we, first, truly commit to caring for ourselves. President of Columbia Theological Seminary, Stephen A. Hayner and I discussed what it means to lead doxologically as a pastor. If "only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord" is able to keep anyone from falling, then as those entrusted with authority and influence, shouldn't leadership in Jesus' name look starkly different than the kind the world clamors for?[5] Hearing faculty members share how God has guided them personally and professionally, and what of life's questions have them praying, pondering, and writing late into the night or the morning's wee hours was reassurance to me that I, too, have a voice capable of speaking powerfully to my generation.[6] My experience with the faculty was like meeting old friends for the first-time.

I was determined to make good use of my stay on the seminary's beautiful Decatur, Georgia campus. And I did, leisurely making my way from guest housing to the library, to the refectory (yes, for more cake!) and onward, lingering and exploring devoid of any demanding schedule. It was lovely! In-between reading, writing, conversations, and naps, I carved out time for some excursions. I meditated in the chapel of nearby Agnes Scott College, hopeful that residue from prayers offered by so many women over the years might rub off on me.[7] I ventured to Taqueria del Sol for three tacos in soft flour tortillas, an experience that I highly recommend. Always dabbling in photography (the very amateur kind), I made the acquaintance of a professional glassblower, Nathan Nardi. A graduate of Jacksonville University (B.F.A.) and Kent State University (M.F.A.), last year he decided to open Decatur Glassblowing. The art form's process is fascinating and he does remarkable work. If you are every in Decatur do yourself a favor and visit his studio.

Since the seminary is only a stone's throw from Atlanta, it made a perfect sense to reconnect with some people there who inspire me. Day1 has relocated its office and studio onto the grounds of Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, so I met Peter Wallace there to tour the new digs and catch-up. As the company's president, executive producer, and host, he is on the move like few people I know, but handles it with excellence and grace that many people notice. He truly loves his job, which involves serving as a pastoral advocate, communicating collaboratively on behalf of mainline Protestantism. Daniel Vestal directs the Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership at Mercer University, while also serving as interim pastor of Peachtree Baptist Church. He has a delightful office space at Mercer, decorated as only Texas lovers can appreciate. But more importantly, he has a heart to see people empowered, changed by God's grace and truth. I can't thank him enough for his words of encouragement that God doesn't allow any moments of our lives to be wasted.[8]

Last but not least, I visited Emmanuel McCall at his home. A prominent figure in Baptist life for decades now, he is semi-retired and serving as interim pastor of Friendship Baptist Church. At 77-years-young, like many of my mentors, all that he has done for the advancement of God's kingdom, and that which he continues to do is awe-inspiring. I enjoy talking with him about the nuances of vocational ministry, but also about marriage. He and his wife have been married for 55 years and are still going strong. If that alone doesn't deserve a "Hallelujah," then there is something wrong. To place their union in a bit of context, by comparison my wife and I have been married for six years. But as Dr. McCall reminds me, "Every couple has to start somewhere."

These women and men I am privileged to know approach communicating God's word in churches and academia as shepherds. Full of flawed, two-legged sheep as they as are, it is no secret that in either setting is the grace-filled call to "a long obedience in the same direction" [9] consistently understood, taught, or implemented. This is why the wisdom of these colleagues is so essential. They have reminded me of my salvation in and only in Jesus. And they have not only affirmed my work's importance, but cheered me on to go about that work uniquely, precisely how God has gifted me to. Serving as a Guthrie Scholar enabled me to merge back into the congested traffic of life with renewed concentration, having asked myself questions like, "Where is my treasure and what do I love most in life? What do I hate most in life and to what am I true?[10] The fast-food ethos of our culture where people are commoditized, will plug its three-pronged extension cord into our psyche every chance it gets. It is unapologetic and relentless in its pursuit of us. This experience has taught me that God hasn't created anyone to live at that level.

As Christians, and pastoral leaders especially, we must embrace new rhythms for life that reflect the new covenant. This will likely result in the world labeling us as weirdos even more than it has, but such is the witness of those captured by "Good News." It has been said that 'time and tide wait for no man.' Perhaps. But who controls time and tide?

Thanks (be) to God.


[1] See Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1994).
[2] Shirley C. Guthrie, Diversity in Faith, Unity in Christ (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1986), 19.
[3] Proverbs 27:17.
[4] See Mark 3:35, Ephesians 4:5.
[5] Jude 1:24-25.
[6] Acts 13:36.
[7] Agnes Scott College is a liberal arts institution for women, founded in 1889, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA).
[8] Romans 8:28.
[9] See Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000).
[10] Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1999), 29.


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