DDH House Blog
ALUMNUS OF THE YEAR REMARKS-DON A. PITTMAN
Remarks by Don A. Pittman on the Occasion of the Alumnus of the Year Award
Presented by Disciples Divinity House at Vanderbilt University
July 15, 2013, Orlando, Florida
Dean Mark Miller-McLemore; members of the Disciples Divinity House Board of Trustees; fellow alumni/ae of Vanderbilt University Divinity School; and friends of DDH: Thank you. I am truly grateful for this award and the affirmation of my ministry that it represents. I am especially honored and humbled and surprised to receive an award which in past years has recognized the achievements of distinguished Disciples scholars and leaders Bill Paulsell, Fred Harris, and Fred Craddock.
My surprise is, in part, related to the fact that . . . well . . . I don’t know some of you very well. That is primarily because, as Mark suggested in his introductory remarks, during my professional years, I’ve been able to attend only a very few of the General Assembly luncheons like this sponsored by DDH-Vanderbilt, where alumni/ae and friends of the University and House have been able to nurture old friendships and share stories about how it used to be “when we were there.”
I have been a seminary administrator most of my career, including the years I spent in Taiwan as a DOM missionary. And my administrative appointments at DDH-Chicago, Brite Divinity School, and Phillips Theological Seminary have all entailed the expectation that I would help host the General Assembly meal functions of those institutions of theological education, which have invariably been scheduled at the same time on the assembly docket. In fact, I think the last DDH-Vanderbilt luncheon that I was actually able to attend was sometime during Joe Hough’s deanship of VDS during the 1990s. So there are a number of you whom I can only look forward to meeting and to getting to know in the future.
Of course, in terms of looking back, which is my assignment, there is a fundamental challenge embedded in the dean’s invitation for me to say a few words about my time at Vanderbilt. That challenge is whether or not I can remember anything that far back. It’s one of those “sounds easy but isn’t” kind of tasks. For despite my youthful appearance, in fact, it has been 43 years since I followed a well-worn path – which still exists – from TCU’s undergraduate department of religious studies to Vanderbilt University’s ecumenical divinity school and Disciples Divinity House in preparation for ordination to ministry through the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). My good friend, Jim Atwood, made the trip from Fort Worth to Nashville with me that fall semester. Forty-three years ago! The fall of 1970! It doesn’t really seem that it could be that long ago!
When Mark asked me if I could make a few remarks as a part of the program today − if I could miss the Phillips luncheon just once! − it didn’t really take me too long to decide what I wanted to say, only how I wanted to say it. For what I wished to acknowledge from the beginning was how fortunate I was − how fortunate all of us alumni/ae were − to have studied for ministry with a world-class, ecumenical faculty at a divinity school like Vanderbilt’s, in the center of a great research university, while our denominational formation was facilitated by sharing life within a caring House community supported by so many generous people, past and present, related to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which for all the disturbing signs to the contrary, does, I think, want an educated clergy.
How blessed we have been to have had the resources, human and financial, to pursue higher education for ministry, to learn to think critically and theologically, to advance a reasoned and reasonable faith, and to lead a progressive Christian movement dedicated to Christian unity, our “polar star,” and committed to the struggle toward a more “just, participatory, and sustainable global society.”
Recently, when packing up my office, in preparation for the incoming dean, I happened across a copy of an old syllabus designed by a friend of mine for a course that she named: “Makers of Christianity in the 20th Century.” That same afternoon, I received in the mail the DDH announcement for this luncheon event with an attractive color photo of the House’s most recent graduates in their caps and gowns . . . makers of Christianity in the 21st Century!
The juxtaposition of the old syllabus and the photograph of the new seminary graduates reminded me of something that, in my day, professors Jack Forstman, Wilhelm Pauck, Dale Johnson, and others emphasized -- that Christianity is not a single, fixed, and unchanging religio-philosophical system, which can be boxed up and handed on to the next generation much as we received it. Rather, what we name when we name “Christianity” is a dynamic and evolving set of religious beliefs and practices, a complex set of religious traditions (plural). Expressing both an appreciation for and a critical appraisal of elements of those diverse traditions – all of which are said to be ultimately rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus and in the ministries of his earliest followers -- “makers of Christianity” who exercise leadership roles will try to conceptualize clearly and embody compellingly their own understandings of Jesus, as decisively disclosive of the divine, and of the ministry of reconciliation to which they have been called within church and society. At the same time, displaying a generosity of spirit, they are called respectfully to listen to and learn from others whose perspectives and commitments are often quite different from their own. For, Christianity, as an historical reality, is still under construction, as it were. And your witness and mine will contribute to what anyone might mean in the future by the abstract term “Christianity.”
In fact, what I remember most about being a student in Vanderbilt’s divinity school and a member of the DDH community is that each one of us was continually being challenged, in light of the school’s rich ecumenical and counter-cultural ethos, to reexamine, reconsider, and perhaps reshape aspects of our own Christian identities; that in dialogue with our seminary colleagues, congregational lay leaders, pastoral mentors, and scholars in theological education, we pledged our respect and support for one another while testing the limits of acceptable diversity; and that we were willing to trust that in the process of prayerful discernment of God’s transformative work in the world, we would, indeed, be led by the Holy Spirit toward a more faithful perspective on the gospel and a more responsible and abundant life in this world and in the world to come.
For our conversation partners – all of them -- we are surely grateful. In fact, some of us even maintain lists of those persons whom we need to thank, people who have helped us become who we are, friends we need to remember in prayer. I just want to quickly mention several on my list – for the last 43 years!
1. Student colleagues.
First, I remember with gratitude my seminary colleagues, even if I cannot any longer remember many of them by name. Good colleagues from a number of different Protestant denominations, with differing theological orientations and liturgical styles, they were my teachers, and they taught me a great deal, as they shared their faith commitments and pressed me to say what I believed and, most troublesome, why.
At the heart of my Vanderbilt experience was my Presbyterian friend, Dent C. Davis III. Dent and I lived across the hall from each other in university housing and we took many of the same courses. Our theological perspectives were markedly different and we were constantly arguing about anything and everything. He was schooled in Reformed theology and I was attracted to Process thought. We were engaged in serious disagreements, most of the time, but it was also great fun, almost all of the time. We shared who we were; why discipleship mattered; our unique stories growing up in different church communities; our wrestlings with God. We argued about everything, but we appreciated and loved each other for it.
Since he was not any more familiar with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) than I was with the contemporary theological perspectives and practices of the various Presbyterian communions, at some point during our first semester on campus we agreed to visit one another’s churches. We started with the Disciples, and Dent was actually very much impressed by the service of worship at Vine Street Christian Church and the sermon delivered by the senior minister, Wayne Bell. In fact, everything was going along swimmingly . . . until Dent witnessed an adult baptism . . . by immersion! That, he thought, was just way too “disorderly.” So, you can be sure, we had a lot to process after that experience.
2. Three lay leaders.
Beginning with my second year in the MDiv program, I served for three years as the Associate Minister of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Columbia, Tennessee, a congregation which Fred Craddock had served during his years at Vanderbilt, but which, unfortunately, has since left the Disciples. In those days, I spent weekdays in Nashville and most weekends in Columbia. Tom and Fannie Mae Hogan often invited me to stay in their home when in town, which I was delighted to do. They took good care of me. Fannie Mae was a retired primary school teacher and Tom a retired tobacco farmer.
My first sermon in Columbia was delivered on Race Relations Sunday in the fall of 1971. Racial discrimination was a significant issue in the region – still is -- and I had spent quite a bit of time writing the sermon and practicing its delivery. In fact, John Killinger had already given me an “A” for the sermon in my Introduction to Preaching class, along with a nice personal note on my use of imagery, which I still have.
However, after the service in Columbia, Tom came up to offer his assessment. He warmly shook my hand and said: “Son, I was really impressed with how well you said that! But . . . I don’t think I agreed with a single thing you said!” And he went on, with a grin: “You’re a very good speaker. It’s just that you’re so often wrong about things.”
One of the most respected elders in the congregation, Bronston Boone, usually took a different tack, as he did that Sunday. “Well, that wasn’t bad,” he said, “but let me tell you how Fred Craddock would have probably handled that in the pulpit.” Well-intended all three lay leaders were. And I learned a great deal from their perspectives. They and many others in the congregation, I like to say, “loved me into ministry” and I am grateful.
3. A pastoral mentor.
The Senior Minister of Central Christian Church at the time was Bill Reed, who officially served as my mentor in supervised ministry. Not only did we quickly develop a mutually supportive working relationship, we soon became like family to one another. I still remain in contact with his widow, Betty, and their children. Bill gave me self-confidence when, discouraged, I wondered if I could really do ministry effectively, and, on the contrary, he taught me humility when I started to think that it depended all on me, and not on the Holy Spirit.
In terms of Bill’s approach to mentoring, most significant for me was his effort to include me in many important practical theological conversations on ministry which arose in the life of the congregation. To cite only one example, at one point, an elder in the church was dying of cancer, and having appealed to James 5: 14-16, he requested that the elders come to his home, anoint his body with oil, and pray for him, so that his sins would be forgiven and he would be healed. The elders were of very different minds about their participation in such a rite – a practice which was virtually unknown in our tradition -- and of different minds even about the reasons, pro and con, which should potentially be considered in response to the request. Without detailing the result, it is sufficient to say here that Bill modeled a compassionate approach to ministry with all those concerned, with the elder with cancer and his family, as well as with the board of elders.
4. A final “thank you” to my dean.
It was raining that Sunday morning in May of 1973, the day of my ordination in Columbia. Herman Norton, the dean of DDH-Vanderbilt 1951-1986, was to preach. But the appointed hour had come, and Herman was not there. I was worried.
However, I happened to overhear a comment about someone smoking a cigar on the side porch. Yes, that was all the confirmation I needed. Herman was there; I just needed to get him in line with the other participants. In fact, his cigar smoke found us before we found him. “You alright,” I asked. “Sure,” he replied, “I was just thinking through my sermon to get the message straight in my mind one more time.”
I’ve always liked that answer. Isn’t it what links all the “makers of Christianity,” I’ve named today for whom I’m grateful, and many more, just as it surely links the “makers of Christianity” on your “thank-you” list. Those on my list all wanted to think, to think through the gospel one more time, in order to get it right. They wanted to understand it; to talk about it; to apply it appropriately in relevant contexts; to live into it; to be transformed by it; to share it, as only they could, with me, that I might help others in my own ministry, to the best of my ability. Thank God for each one of them; and for the Disciples Divinity House of Vanderbilt University which brought us all together.