A New Year Is Under Way

15 09 2014

Last week I was walking through the halls listening (eavesdropping, really) to our professors and students. Dr. Hall was teaching a session on congregational leadership. Students from across the Graduate Theological Union were present. Horacio Da Valle was teaching Contextual Theology down the hall. When you walk through the halls of ABSW you’ll hear English, Spanish, and Korean spoken. Our student body is local and global. That night was no exception.Ron 13

We’re entering our third week of study here at ABSW and things are humming along nicely. Our on-line courses, Baptist Polity and Intro to The Old Testament, are going very well. As I write this, Dr. Flesher and her Teaching Assistant are diligently recording the lectures for the on-line students in Old Testament. We’re on campus and on-line.

Should we start calling it “on-campus”? Perhaps!

You’ll see us on social media a little more, too. You can follow the seminary at @ABSWBerkeley. Our Dean, Dr. Flesher is on Twitter (@lasnow52) as is our Professor of Worship and Theology, Dr. Davidson (@momentofbeing). They have been encouraging their students to share their work if they are also on social media. Follow the hashtags #ABSWBible, #ABSWTheology, and #ABSWChapel to learn more! It’s a good way to get to know our professors and some of our students. And, of course, we’re also on Facebook.

If you’d like to visit us on-campus, please don’t hesitate to reach out. You can e-mail (admission (at) absw (dot) edu) me or give us a call. Plan a visit. Mondays are an especially good day to visit. Chapel is held at 6:00pm and there is a meal that follows. You can sit in on a class as well. We’d love to welcome you as our guest. And keep your eyes and ears open. We’re planning an event in late October featuring saxophonist and Church History Professor, Dr. Ron Burris.

There will be more news to follow!

Tripp Hudgins
Director of Admissions

Commemorating 9/11, Commemorating Christ

11 09 2014

Churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2001, and people gathered on that day, and for some days later. There was a draw to sacred space in the midst of our everyday space being turned into dust–profane, unholy, hollowed out. The liturgies I attended in those days that followed were stripped down, bare, and profoundly vulnerable. The psalms were prayed. People wept together. We clung close. We resisted asking questions of meaning, and allowed ourselves to grieve, to lament.

A lot fewer churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2002. And even fewer today. The gravitational pull to gather in sacred space has waned. And it has become impossible, for the most part, to disentangle our liturgies from our politics. No longer gathering together out of unvarnished need for the divine presence, some of us gather now precisely to ascribe meaning to the unfathomable through the inextricable linking of nationalism with religion.

In his book How Societies Remember, Paul Connerton observes that commemorative ceremonies serve to remind a community “of its identity as represented and told in a master narrative.” More, this remembered (and re-enacted) identity is a way of “making sense of the past as a kind of collective autobiography.” Commemorative ceremonies, therefore, are not impotent. And, no matter how earnestly we participate in them, they are also not necessarily benign.

Christian liturgy is a form of commemorative ceremony. In our retelling, and re-singing, and remembering of the grand narrative of Christ’s life, ministry, suffering, execution, resurrection, and gifting of the Spirit we are participating in our collective autobiography as followers of Jesus. In the centrality of the cross, the impenetrable darkness of the tomb, and the bursting forth of life as God’s final judgment, we are called into our deepest identities. This identity is one that resists death, destruction, and violence as tools of the state. This identity is one that claims fullness of life, reconciliation, and healing as movements of the Spirit. This identity is also one that does not gloss over or engage in any kind of cover-up about the pain, rage, oppression, grassroots terror, or state-sponsored and police-sponsored terror, racism, domestic violence, and poverty that infiltrate every moment on this beautiful planet. This identity calls us to name these atrocities, and to do so in the light of Christ’s ministry, suffering, tomb, and resurrection.

We are challenged in the liturgies we design and participate in, particularly when they may have the intention of commemorating horrific moments like September 11, 2001, never to allow our collective autobiography to be shaped by those events alone. Rather, always to let the gospel be that which shapes us through-and-through. Let our memories of September 11, 2001, be equally informed by the continuing atrocities that have happened since that day – both in its name and not. Name the terrors that surround us at all times.

And claim, above all, our identities as followers of Jesus. Seek fullness of life (for others as well as ourselves), reconciliation, and healing in all that we do.

Dr. Jennifer W. Davidson
Associate Professor of Worship & Theology and Director of Chapel
Follow her on Twitter: @momentofbeing

ABSW Stands With Ferguson

2 09 2014

Dear Friends of American Baptist Seminary of the West:

ABSW stands in solidarity with Ferguson, MO: The Faculty, Administration, Staff, and a majority of the Board of Trustees of American Baptist Seminary of the West, a member school of the Graduate Theological Union, are compelled by conscience to concur with the following statement from the Racial Justice and Multiculturalism Community of the Alliance of Baptists.

On Saturday, August 9, 2014, we witnessed yet another unarmed Black teenager killed by police in a U.S. city. We are outraged by Michael Brown’s death: the slaying of another innocent beloved of God. Beyond Brown’s death, the events following in Ferguson, Mo., have revealed a panoply of problems that threaten the lives and well-being of multitudes of African Americans in this country and call our democratic commitments into question. Brown’s death refuels our anger over the ongoing institutionalized racism and injustice that Black citizens face at all levels of the justice system.

There remains a sickness at the heart of our national soul. Thus, there is a great need for the American Baptist Seminary of the West to strengthen its commitment to prepare leaders who are able to address this sickness in ways consistent with the mandates of the gospel, the leading of the Spirit and the values of the faith traditions represented in our family. It is our intent to stand in solidarity with those who advocate for justice in oppressed and disenfranchised communities in the following ways: peaceful assembly to demonstrate and protest against the racism and injustice that prevails in society; support of those efforts to bring to justice those who commit murder and mayhem in our culture; and to stand with those who continually pray for peace to prevail in our land. We will pray, and when the time comes to get up from our knees and act, we will do that too.

Our Savior taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We remain committed to raising up leaders for whom this prayer is an active pursuit rather than an empty platitude. We remain committed to raising up leaders who can both describe the profound justice at the heart of the Reign of God and deliver programs and policies which embody this justice.

Paul Martin
President/CEO, ABSW

H. James Hopkins
Chair, ABSW Board of Trustees

Questioning America with Fannie Lou Hamer

27 08 2014

This came across our desk today. It’s an important reminder of how far we have yet to go. Follow the link for the whole article. 

“I question America ” — the famous words spoken by civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer fifty years ago this week at the tumultuous Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City — is a fitting reflection of the soul-searching that the country is once again going through in the wake of the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri.

To understand both the progress America has made, and the many challenges it now faces, in terms of racial justice, it is useful to remind ourselves of the battle that occurred a half century ago and the life of Ms. Hamer, a sharecropper and activist from the Mississippi Delta who galvanized the country with her stirring words and her remarkable courage.


In her testimony before the credentials committee at the Democratic Party’s convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Hamer explained why the committee should recognize the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party over the state’s segregated official party delegation. Her statement made her a national figure and a symbol of the struggle for civil rights.


Why Are You Here?

23 08 2014

Director of Admissions, Rev. Tripp Hudgins, offered this devotional to our incoming students this morning.

Good morning. My name is Tripp Hudgins. I’m the Director of Admissions here at ABSW. I’m the guy who sends you the nagging e-mails about matriculation forms and I-20 worksheets.


I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Table in 2004 at North Shore Baptist Church in Chicago, IL. I am also a student here at the GTU working on a PhD in Liturgy and Ethnomusicology.


“In the beginning,” the Gospel of John begins with a song, a hymn. “In the beginning.” I like the idea that all creation begins with a song…a moving, sustained, pitched, Word; a sound.

It is a time for beginnings. Welcome. We’ve been waiting and preparing for you. And we’re very glad you are here. It is an exciting time in the life of a seminary when the new class of students arrives. It also makes us a little nervous.

Like you, we too will be changed by our time spent together over the next few years. We learn together in seminary. Learning is never a one-way street. We are excited and nervous. Perhaps, you have some idea what that feels like.


When Dr. Miles-Tribble asked me if I wanted to lead a devotional for you, our incoming students, I immediately said, “yes.”

It’s the preacher’s curse, you know.

“Do you want to say something?” they ask.

“Yes!” we shout without thinking about how wise it is to jump at such an opportunity. Maybe a little more caution would be the better course….a question or two in return.

Perhaps the response should be “Why?” or “Maybe. What do you have in mind?” We’ll have to be ready for the possible reply to those questions, of course.

“Because the Spirit has told me to ask you” (the least common but most often imagined response to the question, “Why?”).

The more common response goes something like this…

“Well, you were standing there looking like you needed something to do…so…how about it?”

As with a great many things, preaching always a little bit of both; ministry is comprised of the movement of the Holy Spirit and the need to get something done.

Welcome to the reality of this holy labor we call “seminary.” It is not glamorous, no matter how we try to spruce it up. It’s hard work, plain and simple. As the old song goes, “Jordan is a hard road to travel.” But it is always a labor of love for we serve the God of Love.

But you already know this.

You’ve likely been at the work of ministry for some time, working in your congregations, leading worship, teaching, or taking care of those in need. Of course you have. This is what it means to follow Christ Jesus, to follow the footsteps of the Savior, to do justice and to love mercy. You know that this road well.

Incoming Students 2014

The 2014 Incoming Class

This is what it means to be one of the baptized.

But the question remains…why are you here? Why this work? Why now?

Why are you in seminary?

Maybe you were just standing there looking like you needed something to do.
Or, maybe, the Spirit has asked you to do a new thing.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and
the Word was God.

Sometimes we’re simply called to begin again.

Look at the faculty. Take a moment. Look around you. They too had a first day of seminary. They too had this very beginning. They weren’t born with doctoral degrees.

They know the road. They know the work, the fun and the difficulty of it.

So, we know where you are. We are with you, even at the beginning.

I remember when I started seminary in 2001 (It was the second time I had started seminary, but that’s another story for another time). I was in Chicago. I remember that it was only a month after the Twin Towers were destroyed in New York City. I remember the media coverage. I remember what it felt like to begin seminary when it seemed like so much was changing in the world all at once.

I remember that beginning. And I call it to mind for us this morning because of the news of the last couple of weeks.

It’s hard to avoid the news in the United States.

It blares from every screen in every home, airport terminal, and sports bar. It tweets and updates at us relentlessly. So, it is likely you know about what’s happening in Iraq and Missouri. You know what’s happening in Kiev and Syria. You know about what is happening right here in Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco.

You know what’s happening here and back home.

And you know what’s happening in The Church, our congregations and seminaries, the challenges we all face. This is in the news, too.

This is why I have to ask you, at such a time as this, why are you here?
What are you responding to? Who are you responding to?

All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.

Not one thing…
Not one thing…
Not one beginning…
…begins without God being present within it.
Not one beginning is uttered without the Word being in it.
Every word a new Beginning
and every new beginning
full with the promise of the Word.

But it’s not an easy thing to live into, is it?
In the face of violence and racism;
of state-sponsored murder and
armed religious extremism,
the beginning can be an uneasy place.

Poet Langston Hughes wrote:

There are words like Freedom
Sweet and wonderful to say.
On my heartstrings freedom sings
All day everyday.

There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry
If you had known what I know
You would know why.

When I asked Dean Flesher what this devotional should be about, she said something like “Get them excited about theological education.” I don’t know if I’m doing that yet. So, let’s get back to the text for a moment longer.

What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

There is darkness and there is light. John’s Gospel makes it very clear right from the beginning that people have the power to choose the light or the dark. We can act justly or we can act unjustly. We can live in the world as if love were real or as if getting our share were the only thing that mattered. But John’s Gospel remembers for us the reality of creation, the beginning of it…no matter what we have made of it since the beginning, but it’s purpose, it’s nature.

So, you will study Church history. You will study scripture. You will read several translations of this very passage at some point. You may even come to me and say, “Tripp, what you said about the Prologue to John’s Gospel doesn’t follow my translation of the Greek.” You may ask, “How did you come to your hermeneutical approach and the interpretation you presented to us?”

I will likely respond with something about banjos and Jesus.

You will learn more about worship leadership. You will construct theology. You will sing and pray and read and write, and write, and write, and read some more. You will learn what it means to serve a congregation. You will learn what it means to renew a neighborhood. You will learn what “liberation” means when freedom walks with pierced hands and feet. You will learn all this and so much more.

This is your labor of love for the next few years.

And here is where I rest my hope for you and for all of us here today.

In the beginning, God’s Word offered us a song.
And in the song was light.
And as The Voice was raised in a shout of praise,
the light spread throughout Creation
and the Song was called Promise,
and the song was called Peace,
Justice and Mercy.
The Song was called Truth,
The Song was called Beauty,
The Song was called Goodness.
The Song was Life and the Life is Christ Jesus
the prophet,
the poet,
the poor teacher
with no place to rest his head.

“What are you doing here?”
My prayer for you is that you will, in your time with us, find that song.

2014 Commencement Address

22 08 2014

This is the text of the Commencement Address preached by Rev. Debora Jackson, DMin. at the 2014 Commencement Service at Lake Shore Baptist Church, Oakland, CA. 

To the President of American Baptist Seminary of the West, the Rev. Dr. Paul Martin,
To you, the members of the Board of Trustees and distinguished faculty,
To you, the members of the graduating class of American Baptist Seminary of the West, 2014
To you, the family and friends of the graduates and seminary
Good Afternoon

I am here today to share a word with you on this beautiful afternoon, but my job is made all the more difficult because I am…discouraged. That’s right, I’m discouraged. Here I am at the ABSW Commencement – this is supposed to be the pinnacle of your seminary experience, a defining moment, what you have spent the last several years – your blood, your sweat, your tears, your prayers working to complete, this is supposed to be like the cherry on top, but I’m here as your speaker admittedly discouraged.

And I’m sure you’re thinking, “Well, what’s up with that?”

But allow me to explain myself. I’m discouraged because I worry and fear that we failed you – you the graduating class. I mean think about it: You are here because you have completed your studies to achieve your Master of Divinity, Master of Arts, or even Doctor of Ministry degree. Your education has prepared you to serve the church – maybe as pastor, or associate, maybe in Christian Education, or Mission Leadership. And in your heart of hearts, you hoped to serve a
nice suburban church in a small community, maybe with about 150 people. Well guess what? Those churches don’t exist – or increasingly they don’t. And even if they do, they can’t afford full time staff.

Maybe you wanted to serve in urban ministry. You felt called to serve an urban church in the city. Maybe you felt called to lead a city mission. Maybe you hoped to minister in a non profit organization that supports the poor and underserved. Well
guess what? Those churches are in decline, those mission organizations can’t afford staff, and those non-profit organizations; they don’t have any money.

And then the overwhelming majority of you as graduates are women. Oh my sisters, I hate to say it, but churches aren’t really looking for us. For many of us, the phone does not ring. And if it does, it’s a call from someone who wants you to speak on Women’s Day, or it’s a call from someone who wants to you “speak” for $100 when the standard honorarium is $300, or it’s a call from a church that’s on it’s last legs and with it’s last gasp is calling you in hopes that you will serve.

And I haven’t even gotten to the finances. Many of you are leaving seminary with thousands of dollars of debt. And if you are fortunate enough to receive a call, the majority of you will not be paid enough to offset and pay back the debt that you have amassed.

So yes, I am discouraged.

And the sad truth of the matter is that after my tirade, I would imagine that you are discouraged too. We’ve been prepared for assignments that do not exist. That full time pastorate is increasingly moving to extinction as churches continue to face decline.

We are filled with knowledge for which there is little application. Oh sure, I’m glad that I learned of Origen and Augustine, Eusebius, and Tertullian, but truth be told, I’ve yet to meet anyone outside of my Systematic Theology courses who has ever
cared anything about what any of these people said.

We are members of the most over-educated and yet least paid professions in the country. We’ve amassed more education than medical doctors, psychologists, even lawyers, and yet we command a starting salary that’s sadly equivalent to what is being made by kids who have received their high school diploma.

These are the realities that discourage us. These are the realities that try our hearts and souls. These are the realities that make us question our call and sometimes question our God. Ah, but if we could only step back. If we could take some time to reflect, we might start to see some new patterns emerge.

Think about it. God told us not to remember the former things or to consider the things of old. God said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God says, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the
desert.” These words are as relevant today as they were when first inspired. I believe that God is truly saying them in our midst. See there’s a reason why the “traditional” pastoral roles of the past are decreasingly able to be found. There is a reason that the standard roles in urban and suburban churches aren’t there and that the non profits are being limited in their tried and true approaches. God has a new plan and a new way for us to do ministry. God has a new notion about how the gospel is to be forwarded.

God has something else for us to do. And I am convinced that as we are discerning and seeking of that new way, God will faithfully reveal his plan to us. Then more people will come to know our God. Then more people will come to believe in our
God. Then more people will a part of the coming kingdom of our God. But we need to understand that the new ways will not fit into the old paradigms, just as new wine doesn’t fit in the old wine skins. We need women and men with a burning desire to discern God’s plan. We need women and men with a hunger and willingness to blaze new trails in the wilderness. We need women and men who will fearlessly and boldly step forward saying, “Here am I send me!” You are those men and women.

You are those leaders.
You are the ones who won’t see the limits.
You are the ones who will see the possibilities. You are the ones who can see the potential.
You are the ones who will lead us into new ways of ministry, new ways of mission, new ways of service and new ways of being.

And because God is doing a new thing, he is extending a new call.

I remember when I first acknowledged my call into ministry. Almost from the moment that I acknowledged that call, I felt compelled that I would be a pastor to pastors. Yes, I was sure that God was calling me to be a pastor to pastors. But I also remember the ambivalence I felt in response to that call, because I remember thinking, “What job is that? Is there even such a thing as a pastor to pastors?” After all, I am a Baptist – we don’t have bishops and such hierarchy – or at least not supposedly – and in that regard, I found myself sort of doubting my call, thinking, “God can’t be calling me to that because that job that doesn’t even exist.” It didn’t make sense. Well, one day, I was in my office – I had yet to surrender my corporate job even though I was in seminary, because after all I was the Chief Information Officer of an Energy Services Company. It pays a little better than ministry… My phone rang. It was a woman who had received my name and contact information from a friend.

She was relocating to the Boston area and reached out to me to make connection. Interested in why she was coming to the area, I asked, “So, what do you do? What is bringing you to Massachusetts?” She said, “Well, the best way to describe my job is that I’m a pastor to pastors.” Well I tell you, I actually dropped the phone. I couldn’t believe it. It was as if I was hearing God say, “Why would I call you to something that doesn’t exist?”

That might be your story today – to what is God calling you? What new endeavor, what new ministry, what new mission field is God making space for which you will fill? You see, God gave me a heart and a burden for clergy recognizing that so many
of us are so busy ministering to others that we do not recognize the need to be ministered to ourselves. And so this is what God has called me to do and I’ll tell you, when I first felt that tug, I was certain that there was no such job.

But God can make a way out of no way.
God can make streams in the desert.
God can make pathways through what is impassable.
God can exalt the valleys.
God can level the mountains.

God can do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or imagine by the power that works in us.

Step out in your call and trust God to fulfill that call in you. And really that’s my third point. You see, it has not yet been revealed what you will be. Your ministry may not look like mine. Your experiences won’t be just like mine.

Your call is not exactly like mine. But that is a good thing because God is doing a new thing. And while you may not know what it’s going to look like, and while you may not be sure about how you will proceed, you may not even know where you will go or what you will do, I know that we serve a God of increase. I know that we serve a God of addition and multiplication. I know that what is to be will be greater than what has been. And while it may not yet be revealed, I believe that it’s going to be greater.

I believe that it’s going to be better. I believe it’s going to be glorious. Why. because I believe in you.

So let me tell you something – you may not be certain of the application of your degree, you may not know where you will go from here, you may have debt up to your eyeballs, but trust God’s call on your life, because if God brought you to it, then
he will bring you through it.

You may feel a call for a roll that you’ve never heard of before, but be emboldened by simply saying, “I’ll go where you want me to go and I’ll do what you want me to do.” You see nothing but decline in your midst, but trust that you’re part of remnant, you are like Gideon’s winnowed forces, you have been called for such a time as this and God is about to do a new thing in you because you’re open to receiving it and open to believing it.

Go from this place with the boldness of God. Go from this place with the courage of your conviction. Go from this place with the power of the Holy Spirit. Go from this place with the love of Jesus Christ. Go with a full heart. Go and know that I am no
longer discouraged for when I look at you by the grace of God, I can only be encouraged.

The Bible & The News

22 08 2014

In the past few weeks we have heard alarming reports concerning several devastating events around the world. There is an Ebola epidemic in some of the poverty stricken areas of West Africa that, if not controlled, could become a pandemic. Michael Brown, an 18 year old African American male, was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, MO and riots have ensued. President Obama has sent weapons, drones, and jets to destroy ISIS convoys and artillery in northern Iraq. ISIS responded a few days later by sending a video of the beheading of US journalist James Foley.

As a seminary community we are keenly aware that we have been called for such a time as this. Accordingly, we have been asking the question “How can we address these events and the ethical issues they embody to help our students, our alumni, our constituent pastors, and our seminary friends weed through the conflicting ideas about these atrocities in order to develop their own conclusions and commitments that they will then act upon?”

In response to this question established courses have been tweaked and new courses created. Here are a few examples:

Fall 2014

OT 8174 Introduction to the Old Testament (online). A socio-cultural and theological overview of the Old Testament with foci on basic content, exegetical (interpretive) methodologies, and hermeneutical
(application) approaches related to the most critical issues of our day (violence, war, poverty, immigration, eschatology, and the role of the church). Professors: Flesher/ Guerrero/ Melgar

FT1130 Church Leadership. Developing leadership by providing the tools necessary for administering the churchPillar as a transformational agent in today’s culture. Professor: Martin

ST2198 Contextual Theology. A survey of major figures, themes, methods, and theological constructions of Liberation, Black, Latino/a, as well as Mujerista and Womanist theologies. That emerge from contexts of suffering and economic, racial, social, and cultural oppression. Professor: Da Valle

Spring 2015

NT2860 Parable Theory and African American Hermeneutics. Reading parables through the lens of African American and Womanist hermeneutics that take seriously the everyday experiences of being African American in the diaspora, and hold commitments to the survival and wholeness of African American females, males, and families. Professor: Amen

BS2??? The Bible and the Newspaper: Poverty, Violence, War and the Bible. A new course that will focus on Hermeneutics, the Bible and the daily news. Professor: Flesher

FT2537 How to Lead Almost Anything: Honing your Leadership Style and Skills to Build Consensus not Chaos. Understanding power vs influence and position vs relationship will enable students to build consensus, cohesiveness, and community. Professor: Miles-Tribble

HM2240 Theology of Preaching. What is preaching in this post-modern, multicultural, and multi-religious world? Students will be guided to formulate their own theology of preaching in their own cultural context. Professor: Park

We are living in a volatile time. The way we think, ideologically and theologically, about the events and crises of our days effects how and where we lead. People’s lives, as well as the health and well-being of our nation, have been threatened for hundreds of years.
Today’s crises are an expression of the pent up energies from injustices suffered. You are invited to join us in the conversation.


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