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Thoughtful for Engagement

President's Remarks, Convocation 2023

Chancellor Evans, VST Board of Governors, Graduates, Faculty, VST staff, distinguished guests, families of our graduates, friends of VST both here in person and online, welcome to Convocation 2023. 

My words for today were not generated by ChatGPT! 

Today we honour the hard work and determination of 36 graduates of our programs. To graduate means to take a step – and today you take a big one. We are proud of you – we love you. You have persisted during grueling and exhausting times to complete your studies for the sake of the church and the world. Online and offline, synchronous and asynchronous, profound formation for the love of God, the upbuilding of the church and the healing of the world takes place through the ministry of VST. 

Today is a day of thanksgiving. You did it! Thank God and thank your families, thank your churches, your communities of support and professors and friends. No one takes this big step, graduates, without the help of all of them.

Today we thank VST professors, staff and our generous donors for their commitment to our students. We thank our Board of Governors for their investment in the vitality of our school. Thank you to Bishop David Lehmann and to The Rev. Dr. Jean Morris for taking on the roles of Chair and Vice Chair of our board. We offer warm appreciation to our denominational friends – Anglican, United and Presbyterian – for your faith and partnership in the project of theological education at VST. We thank the staff and clergy, Rev. Dave Moors, here at Shaughnessy Heights United Church for their welcome to this beautiful sanctuary.

Our mission at VST is to educate and form thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian leaders. We do it because it is our institutional calling – it is a requirement and a gift that we believe God has laid on us. If the church and its leaders are going to be mission ready, able and willing to step out, to lead, to comfort, to disrupt and to bear witness to the peaceful and just ways of the Gospel in this world, without losing hope, deep engagement with the faith is crucial. To arrive at missional, theological education has to be formational. 

Sometimes I wonder, and perhaps I speak personally, whether ecclesiastical and public square busyness are the result of the lack of formation? 

Have you noticed busyness is not hard to achieve? We admire it. We wear it as a badge. Document it on social media. Sociologist Hartmut Rosa makes the point that the West lives in the midst of “dynamic equilibrium.” What he means is that life is like running up the down escalator. Just to stay where you are takes incredible effort. Acceleration he claims is the problem of late modernity. Modernity is the constant process of speeding things up. We’re addicted to growth and to sustain it takes constant activity, much travel, full calendars, Rolaids. 

Research shows that people admire busy churches. In fact, busy churches are where people would go – if they weren’t so busy. And have you noticed the liturgical greeting that exchange with friends and colleagues? I say, “how are you?” And you answer with the refrain, “I am so busy,” usually ccompanied by an itemized recitation of your things-to-do list, a short reading from your CV. 

Canadian Scholar and social justice activist Heather Menzies in her book No Time writes, 

Many people feel they have no choice but to keep going: they are mortgaged to the hilt, they’ve maxed out their credit cards, and they’re putting the kids through school. Plus, well . . . fast, convenient, high-end living is cool. It’s seductive, too. Many people feel twitchy when they aren’t  multitasking. 

And yet, busyness speeds up my life to the point where I feel like I’m no longer in my life. Busyness alienates us from living.

One of the reasons we include ‘thoughtful’ in our mission is that we want to inculcate reflectiveness, slowed down, deliberate consideration, discernment of calling to what is worth doing. We are all giving our lives to something larger than our own little lives and so it ought to be something worthy of our lives.

If our graduates are going to be engaged with the church and the world, we want it to be with matters of importance. More activity isn’t hard to generate. Worthwhile activity (God service) that isn’t just the scattering of a life requires that our students, our graduates learn to be theo-logical (logical in a God- centered way).

Formation in scripture and theology and tradition and liturgy in their colourful variety help our students spot God’s MO (modus operandi) in the world so that we all get with God’s program in the world rather than trying to establish our own.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor speaks about “the ethics of inarticulacy;” what he means is that it is tempting to occupy ourselves with causes of more or less gravity without any rationale for doing so. The result is unfocused busyness and activity that alienates and exhausts and discourages, and it is never enough. An inarticulate faith is also pretty tough to pass on to another generation!

A primary purpose of theological education is immersion in the good news that God loves the world, that God is active in the world and that we are caught up in the big moves of reconciliation and justice that God is working on the world. It isn’t all up to us! Deep formation in that news, sensuous wholistic engagement with scripture, theological texts, multiple traditions and liturgies and diverse voices can form resilient people, keep us going when results are meagre, relevance delayed, disappointment profound. We aren’t learning a few principles – but inscribing the gospel on lives so they become resonant manifolds – reverberating with the mercy and peace and justice of God. 

Engagement with culture has got to happen. It is a sensibility of mainline Protestants rooted in God’s love for the world. Knowing that God is active in the midst of the world means that we ought to expect to find beauty and delight beyond telling. Knowing that God is active in the world for its healing means hopeful and humane participation in God’s program. We can exhale and hope in God. God makes human words and witness count for the good of the world. God adds amplitude to our engagements for the love of the world in the service of the transformation of all things! That’s why we are prisoners of hope! God is always already at work.

At Easter we read that strange text at the end of John. The risen Jesus appears to the disciples; Thomas is not there. Jesus says “peace” twice to the fearful followers all hunkered down in an upper room, door bolted. He then breathes the Holy Spirit onto them and says, “as the Father sent me, so I send you.” That’s a commissioning to bear witness to life
in the world. All amped up, the ten go to Thomas, the easiest mark in the world. He was also with them and with Jesus for years, so of course he will also get caught up in resurrection life. Right? With all their words, they can’t make a dent. “Unless I see and touch, I won’t believe.” That’s mission failure!

A week later Jesus shows up and Thomas is there, and Thomas gets caught up in the mission of transformation. He gets dibs on the punch line for the whole gospel of John. “My Lord and My God.” 

Jesus is present to the words and actions of his disciples, and it makes all the transforming difference in the world. 

A theological education that is thoughtful never forgets Jesus is present. It can depend on that, is lost without it, and hopeful because of it. 

Dr. Rev. Richard Topping is the President and Vice-Chancellor of the Vancouver School of Theology. He also is the Professor of Studies in the Reformed Tradition.