When I was training to be a private pilot, here was an important lesson: When you are taking off, the runway behind you is useless. Keep focused on the runway ahead of you. I have taken that to heart, and most of my life has been spent looking ahead, not back. Obviously there are lessons to be learned from history, particularly one’s own. We are the sum total of our experiences. But even if my life’s runway is far, far longer behind me than it is ahead of me, my inclination is to keep looking forward.
Nevertheless, I have just completed two trips into my history. I went to Chicago for the funeral of one of my best and oldest friends. We were colleagues in ministry at the marvelous University Church in that city. I became the pastor there in 1967—that’s almost half a century ago. I know a lot of people in that church, but most of them are in the courtyard memorial garden. The funeral did evoke many vivid memories, as did my tour of the building. I remembered when we did this, installed that, had this service, recalled that fire. And I enjoyed conversations with a few old friends.
But what struck me was the vitality of that church. While the membership has never been large, it is still a vibrant home for a great variety of people, and a witness to what Jesus described as the Kingdom of God. The week before my arrival, a group from the church journeyed to a town in Guatemala, where for years there has been a vigorous partnership.
The church is not only open to gay and lesbian people, it also celebrates their relationships. As is the Hyde Park community, the church is racially inclusive with about half its members being white. The minister is a brilliant African American young man, who is nationally sought after preacher and a rap artist! I returned home thrilled about what I found there. Everything about that church points to the future. Even with three former pastors in attendance at the memorial service and Sunday worship the next day, little attention was given to the past. It was the runway out ahead that consumed the imagination. In an age where there is a dismal grey cloud hanging over the mainline church, this 120-year-old congregation is faced toward tomorrow. What a happy experience for me!
My second visit was for the 60th anniversary of my graduation from a seminary, now located in Tulsa. Not many of us from that class are still alive, and those who are find traveling difficult. So only three of us showed up. The highlight for me was an hour with the Seminary’s President, and another couple of hours with the faculty. Early in our visit the President, in a lecture, talked about how the school needed to be preparing ministers for forms of church life that are just beginning to emerge. Our later conversation focused on just how this seminary is redoing its curriculum to reflect what is beginning to happen in the church world. Newly hatched clergy will be the core leaders in what is being called “the emerging church.” At least at this seminary the direction is looking ahead down the runway in front of it. Even the three old-timers who met spent little time thinking and talking about how it was back then.
I must admit that I have long been pessimistic about the future of American church life. These two visits offered me a fresh look at what I might have assumed has been a moribund institution focused on what lay behind What I found was two vibrant entities looking to the runway ahead and eager to take off.