Chancellor’s Dinner Principal’s Address

Principal’s Address

Chancellor’s Dinner
UBC Golf Club
Thursday September 25, 2014
Richard Topping

It is just wonderful to have a packed room this evening. (Thanks to our development department – David McMillan Shannon Lythgoe and Lisa Wittman) for their hard work, and also to our Chancellor for his kind support this evening)

So many people the food had to go in the hall. That’s a problem we’ve been praying for. We’re so grateful for your interest in our school and, no doubt, in our speaker for this evening, Stevie Cameron. We thank you for your support and for your partnership.

I drove my son to Castlegar, about six years ago, where he enrolled in wildlife and fisheries management. He loves animals. He loves the out of doors. His bent in life was to do this from the time he could move. I’d say, it was his calling. On the way to the school, we noticed things like mountains, trees, flowers and wildlife. We observed the world, as far as we could.

Three years later, I went to pick him up and bring him home. Had to take a truck. He accumulated all kinds of stuff – snow-shoes, skiis, a large back-pack, heaps of outdoor camping equipment, and books, tons of books. The drive home was different than the drive there. It wasn’t just the load of stuff we carried in the car. He brought home a load of learning. The conversation went something like this:

Dad, ‘will you look at that: the angeosperms are blooming.’ What? ‘And did you see that path through the woods, undulates love corridors.’ Uh? ‘And dad, did you know that the pinus ponderosa has tout needles growing in scopulate (bushy, tuft-like) fascicles of two to three with flame retardant bark.’ ‘Well no, I didn’t know that.’

I have to say as I stand before you this evening: I am in awe of his educators. I couldn’t even get him to do the dishes; and these strangers, these educators altered his world! Coming home this son of mine had a new take on reality because of his training. They did not just educate him – populate his brain with new ideas, they formed him. He saw a different world coming home than he was able to see when he left.

My son lives and acts in the world differently now – he cares, he knows watersheds, he does live releases of sturgeon early in the morning, rides on a bike to the Fraser just to watch sea lions, gets up at 5:30 a.m. to go whale watching and enthusiast that he is, he drags me with him. He tries to get me to see what he sees. His joy just pulls other people into the wake of his love for the delights of the created world; he’s even latched onto other people who love what he loves.

We can’t eat fish in a restaurant unless he sees the ocean wise endorsement on the menu. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that his imaginative repertoire was enlarged by his education. He’s now got more purchase on the world. In fact, I think he sees a different world now and seeing that different world means he engages the world in new ways, humane ways, even more loving ways, at least most of the time.

Why would I tell you that?

Because that’s the kind of transformation we’re after in theological education at Vancouver School of Theology;

  • that’s why we’d build a 21st century facility to support theological education;
  • that’s why we’d hire outstanding new faculty to serve with us this past year;
  • that’s why we’d set up a foundation to manage proceeds from the sale of Iona building and for donors to make lasting contributions to the school.

We’re not just giving people a few ideas to hold in their heads to satisfy an immobile curiosity at an antiseptic distance from the world. Not at all.

Vancouver School of Theology is called to thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian faith forming thoughtful, engaged and generous leaders for the sake of transformation.

Our vision is that students who attend this school will see a different world when they leave than the one they saw when they arrived.

Our vision is that students who attend this school will have such joy in their calling that other people will be moved by what moves them.

Our vision is that students who are formed by thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian faith will imagine the humane and flourishing life that scripture imagines in Jesus’ name, and lean toward it, full-throttle, here and now.

Through disciplined thinking, hard study, critical analysis our students engage the big issues of our time out of the deep resources of the Christian faith. Issues like climate change, reconciliation, poverty, peace and isolation. We’re stoking the imaginations of our students so they can do’ traditioned innovation’ in the church and the world when they leave. We want them to be able to think, not for or by themselves, but with the church, with Aboriginal partners and friends of other faith traditions, for the love of God and the world. We want our students to give wheels to their thinking together with people who also work for justice and peace in the world.

And so as instructors, we’re helping them put on the spectacles of scripture so they can see the world as the theatre of the glory of God writ large, and so help other people see what they see with sheer delight.

We’re teaching that people, all people, are made in God’s image and so are loved by God. And that means we’re obliged to respect other people, even to look out for their flourishing. That takes biblical and theological education and formation, the refinement of God’s calling on a life.

Just this week, a class I teach in Theology read a wonderful piece by a theological educator, Serene Jones, the President of Union Seminary. She talks about her own theological education, and the way it shaped her vision of the world.

“It is impossible for me to imagine a world without God . . . I cannot look at another person without seeing Jesus loving him or her . . . it is impossible for me to frame humanity in any other way than as Jesus-loved. . . . I see Jesus looking up at Zacchaeus in the tree or toward the lepers living in caves outside the city walls [and it] moves me toward the edge of what we normally see. It is an impulse that drove me toward feminism, liberation theology, a deep commitment to radical justice and a suspicion of the exclusions and repressions that religion itself is constantly enacting . . .”

I think I’d called that ‘holy imagination’: here’s person so stoked in the stories of Jesus, so formed by worship and God-talk, that a frame of reference for how to move and act and see the world is built. Wow! To form a person like this can’t be done in a series of weekend alone. It requires intentional community, exposure to exemplars, sustained scholarship through time to form this compassionate imagination.

When the new students arrived this fall, we had orientation. One morning we sat in a circle and answered the question, so why are you here? Around the circle we went listening to the stories of students’ calls to serve God.

‘A year ago, if you told me I’d be here, I would have just laughed. Well. here I am. God has a sense of humour.’

Another said, ‘I was afraid to tell my husband that God was calling me to theological education and service in the church, when I did, he said, “well it is about time, I knew it 20 years ago.”

We’ve got a group of students whose registrations have been, well divinely solicited. Another Professor who was sitting in the circle next to me said to me, ‘well, God’s been busy with this mob.’ The whole event made me hopeful for the church and for all kinds of God service in the world.

Our task at VST is now to stoke the call to service, with thoughtful, engaged and generous theological formation. Our task is to work hard so that the world that these students see when they are done is rich, God centred, a place for gracious and humane action, a joyous and solicitous reality.

And we can use your help. Theological education requires not just the funding of imagination, but the funding of the program. Donations of all sizes help us with our core project of preparing leaders for the church and world for this time.

Promising students and accomplished Professors are a priority.

We want to prepare students for service who have promise for ministry in the church and the world. Scholarships allow excellent students to finish debt free and to give the whole of their time to studies so they can complete their programs in a timely fashion.

Student awards, like the one just established by West Van U. for excellence in preaching and pastoral theology in honour of their former minister and now St. Andrew’s Hall professor, Ross Lockhart, help the school recognize excellence in our graduates.

Professorial chairs are crucial – great professors attract outstanding students for the good of the church and the world. We’re delighted at the Butler Chair in preaching. It was established by a gift of over three million dollars from Ralph and Laura Butler. We’re seeking its first incumbent this year. We’d love to have a chair in Christian Spirituality since it is especially important to the formation of thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian leaders.

Students learn at VST from a distance so we need to invest more heavily in technology that allows us to deliver theological education virtually, at least for part of the program.

We would, I would, love to talk to you about these and other ways in which you can support the vitality of the school, as a leading 21st century real-life centre of theological education and formation.

In the middle of your table there are envelopes you can use to help support the work of VST. We hope you will use them, now, or take them with you in order to consider how you might contribute to our work of education and formation for service to God – the church and the world.

In conclusion, let me introduce five students (there are more and they are sitting around the room): they all exemplify thoughtful, engaged and generous leadership –

First a couple of our recent graduates, who now carry their formation at VST to the church and the world.

Meet Mark Munn one of our graduates, who works at Covenant House. It’s a place where homeless youth – sometimes rejected by their families and with addictions find sanctuary, love and a brighter future. Mark has told me several times that his theological education prepared him for his work of compassion, outreach and mercy at Covenant House. Forming thoughtful, engaged and generous faith in our students changes how they see and act in the world.

Meet Liz Hamel, a wonderful musician, just ordained a deacon. She came to us with a second-career calling to the deaconate and refined it, stoked it, fired it up with theological vision and now she’s engaged in it at Christ Church Cathedral. Liz does pastoral care in the parish.

Let me introduce you to three of our current students:

Meet Jillian Jackson who realized her life was called into a new direction when after the birth of her daughter, Poppy, she found herself consuming books on Christian theology. Jill and her husband came to Canada from Melbourne, she now works as a Nurse at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS at St. Paul’s Hospital at the same time as she pursues her theological studies in preparation for UCC ministry.

Meet The Rev. Mary Fontaine. She is both a graduate and a current student and a Volunteer at VST. Mary is working on an advanced degree in indigenous and inter-religious studies. At the same time, Mary is Director of Hummingbird Ministries, a work dedicated to furthering reconciliation and healing between Canada’a aboriginal peoples and the PCC. In her spare time, Mary is Chair of the Native Ministries Consortium, which has created new and effective ways of developing native leaders for native congregations – through an extension M. Div and NMC summer school held at VST. Proceeds from this evening’s event will go to the support of the NMC summer school for next summer.

Ribka Makuba-Mayor came to us two years ago from West Papua, Indonesia. Ribka is the third student from Indonesia recently to attend VST. Ribka is doing an MAIIS degree, Master of Arts in Indigenous and Inter-Religious studies. Ribka found a welcoming community with Aboriginal students in our NMC programs since she is a First Nation’s person from Papua. She’s enriched us with her stories, and accumulated theological tools to do scholarly analysis of her own West Papua culture – where life is not easy.

Ribka thought she was going home in June this summer. However, because of medical complications, Ribka gave birth to her daughter, Indemina 3 months early! The little one has just been released from hospital. We have been thanking God that she was here, because of the measure of medical care required.

We also thank God for a special fund for Indonesian students established by the late Dien Horstman Pieters-East that helped make Ribka’s time at VST possible. Bringing students from elsewhere in the world requires considerable resources, and scholarships enable us to do so.

Friends, VST strives to deliver on its promise to form thoughtful, engaged and generous leaders for the church and the world. Please take the time to talk to our students and professors around the room. I invite you to support the vision and the mission of Vancouver School of Theology. Thank you!