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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

Learnings from the Road

I was more-or-less out of touch for a couple weeks in May. Pat and I were on a “Turbo Tour” of Europe, touching the soil of eleven different countries in the company of other Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders. Most of the Americans were contemporaries of ours, meaning folks who can remember when Dwight David Eisenhower was president and your television picture, if you were fortunate enough to have one of those new-fangled devices, came in two colors: black and white.

Pat and I had a ball, but some of our fellow travelers did not. They were troubled by the fact that Europeans just plain do things wrong. Ice, for example. Europeans don’t put ice in their drinks. Can you imagine? And face clothes. Some of the hotels did not provide face clothes. The scrambled eggs were too thin. The bacon wasn’t cooked enough. The Europeans insist on calling a “bus” a “coach.”

Our guide, a remarkable Englishman named Chris, had more patience with this than the complainers deserved, but finally he began pointing out that “different” does not mean “wrong.” “This is the way we do things in Europe,” he said. “Just because it isn’t the same way things are done in America doesn’t mean that it is wrong.” It shut them up…a little.

Church people often have trouble distinguishing between “different” and “wrong.” It is easy for us to get into the mind-set that those individuals or congregations who do things differently from the way we do them are “wrong.” Maybe it is time for us to be more broad-minded. High liturgy or praise band? Preach from the pulpit or the aisle? From a manuscript or free form? Wear a collar or jeans? The lectionary or the narrative lectionary or sermon series? Not right and wrong. Different.

(As a matter of fact, when you get right down to it, this business of denominations—Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Assemblies of God—maybe, just maybe, it is more a matter of “different” than “wrong.”)

Theological education is undergoing radical change. The shape of seminary education five years from now, ten years from now, will be very different from what it is today. There will be a temptation to call it “wrong.” Sorry. Different, but not necessarily wrong.

Traveling is a great education. Yes, Europe was different. And I loved it.

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