When I received the email inviting me to apply for one of the scholarships offered via the Arkansas United Methodist Church foundation to attend the Perkins Theological School for the Laity, I didn’t hesitate. Yes, I wrote back, I was most definitely interested.
It may have been 40 years since I graduated from college, but I have never lost my love for learning. I don’t miss a chance to go back to school.
Then I looked at PTSL’s website – and I knew I HAD to go. Besides hearing Dr. Adam Hamilton in the wake of the 2019 General Conference, the array of classes spanned the Bible and many of my major interests. Choosing my courses wasn’t easy; I opted for the class on Abraham, because of my fascination with history, and the class on intercessory prayer, because, well, prayer, and I can always learn more about THAT.
So Wednesday morning, March 27, found me settling into my car to head for Dallas. That night, I met several of a group of 15 Arkansas Methodists with whom I’d spend the next three days worshiping, learning, praying, eating, sharing fellowship, having fun.
And Thursday afternoon, class began.
Hamilton was, as expected, excellent. Ever since General Conference, I have been fretting about what would happen to the Methodist Church into which I was born and to which my family has belonged since circuit riders ranged across West Tennessee in the early 1800s. After hearing Hamilton, I still do not have the answer, but I have more of a sense of peace about the subject. The Church, he noted, has been subject to conflict since the big debate over circumcision Luke details in Acts, and compromises, throughout the centuries, have not always worked. But it is possible, he reminded us, to be orthodox United Methodists and read the Bible differently; we don’t have to agree as long as we love people. And, he noted, the Bible must always be interpreted in the context of the times, and what we believe must be consistent with what we know of the heart of God as manifested in Jesus.
In other words, we can disagree on the Discipline as long as we agree on love.
Next up was Abraham’s Righteousness, an all-day seminar on Friday from Perkins professor Roy Heller. Viewing the stories of Abraham through the triple lens of obedience, faithfulness and righteousness, the class both stretched my mind and altered my view of the Biblical patriarch. While Abraham knocked it out of the park on obedience, Heller noted, he did not do so well on faithfulness, and fell far short, in many of the stories, of righteousness. The class challenged my assumptions and gave me an entirely new way of looking at characters of the Bible, from the perspective that righteousness is always the most important thing, from which obedience and faithfulness will flow. It was a huge step beyond the Vacation Bible School-level understanding many of us have of characters in the Old Testament. I’d always been taught, for example, that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was him passing God’s test of obedience; but, Heller said, it could be seen just as easily as Abraham failing God’s test of righteousness.
Mind blown for the evening.
The next day was Mark Stamm’s class on Intercessory Prayer. It opened with exploring our Biblical directives to pray, moved on toward the link between prayer and baptism, and finally, focused on prayer as a means of transforming the world. Prayer is one step, he said, toward realizing the Kingdom of God. He urged students to pray regularly for those suffering, noting the praying for the suffering leads to ministering to them, as if we were ministering to the needs of Jesus on the cross. It expanded my understanding of prayer, and encouraged me to be more faithful to and methodical in my prayer schedule; as he noted, “It may be that showing up is the critical thing.”
Evenings were filled with lots of conversation over dinner, and part of the group braved an unseasonable cold front to attend a Rangers-Cubs baseball game. As we scattered Saturday evening and Sunday morning, we agreed we wanted to remain connected in a community of faith and to look for other opportunities for Bible study and learning, both together and in our own congregations.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call the weekend a life-changing experience. I know it has greatly expanded my understanding of the Scriptures and has left me hungry for the next opportunity. I cannot express my thanks sufficiently to the Arkansas Methodist Foundation, the Arkansas Conference, and Perkins School of Theology for making it possible.