This past week Jessica Chadwick Williams and I traveled to Pittsburgh for the ATS celebration of Women in Leadership. This is the reflection I offered at morning worship.
Seriously, you could not find something more useful to do than designing assessment procedures? Why would you spend countless hours writing reports for regional accrediting bodies that really don’t get what we do? Could you not put some of that fundraising experience into raising some for yourself? Sick of personnel issues yet? (You will be!) Why don’t foundations see our project as essential as we do? The Bible has a word for us—as word that was forbidden in my conservative Baptist home—“thou fool.”
And some of you (of us) have been doing this a really long time. We have lived into the reality that “something’s your vocation if it keeps making more out of you,” as Gail Godwin describes it in her lyrical book Evensong. Is it making us more foolish, this work of theological education where we undertake the daunting task for forming ministers for what we cannot yet fully see?
The fool has an interesting history in both literature and Christian heritage. In Shakespeare, the fool is the one who speaks bluntly to the monarch, subverting the other counsel being offered. It seems that the fool knows what it really going on.
No one took more seriously becoming “God’s fool” than St. Francis of Assisi. He earned the title because of his allegiance to the Gospel over his social system where imbalance of power prevailed according to wealth. Some contemporary Franciscans have observed, “If Francis had applied to religious life today, he’d never make it beyond the psychological exam!”
This sense of Christian foolishness was a truth that St. Paul recognized early in his ministry to first-century Gentiles who could not smoothly align the preaching of the crucified and risen Christ with their culture. Nor did the cross comport with religious expectations of Jews, as 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 recounts. And many today see Christian identity as so compromised by intellectual dishonesty, political alliances, and charlatan practitioners that it seems an exercise in folly.
If we truly follow Christ, our priorities will look odd to others. We know that theological education is not the “going Jessie” it was only a few decades ago. (That is an old Southern expression, which suggests a good “head of steam.”) Yet we persist because we believe in the gratuitous foolishness of God’s love; we believe that grace beckons us to form students for ministry, and that we are God’s embodied presence to make it so. We trust that living gracefully alongside colleagues and students is transformative. We tend the broken so they can be well enough to tend others.
So becoming a fool for God’s sake is a vocation to embrace as we reveal the love of God in our lives. And yes, this vocation will make more out of us—perhaps more foolish!
Molly T. Marshall