February 9, 2010
Listen to/download Rev. Hamilton's acceptance speech and the introduction by Bishop Scott J. Jones, Episcopal leader of the Kansas Area of The United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, is the recipient of the 2010 Perkins School of Theology Distinguished Alumnus Award.
The award recognizes a Perkins graduate who has demonstrated effectiveness and integrity in service to the church, continuing support and involvement in the goals of Perkins School of Theology and SMU, distinguished service in the wider community, and exemplary character.
Rev. Hamilton was appointed in 1990 to a start-up mission in Leawood, Kansas, a southern suburb of Kansas City. He has overseen the growth of that congregation, the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, into one of the largest in United Methodism, with a membership of more than 12,000.
Following is the text of his acceptance speech. You may also hear/download a recording of the speech or read more about him.
Knocking Holes in the Darkness
Thank you, Dean Lawrence. Thank you, Bishop Jones, for your kind word. I am truly honored to be named Perkins Alumni of the Year – an honor I suspect a few of my professors would not have anticipated when I was a student here! I was 20 years old when I took my first class here and my time here was a rich and profound experience.
I think of all the amazing professors I was blessed to take courses with, and all the tools they gave me. They helped me think critically about the intersection of faith and life, broadened my faith, and challenged it. At moments I wasn’t sure whether my faith would withstand any more stretching. But to whatever degree I have been effective as a pastor, I owe so much of it to this place and these people. The ministry that has happened at the Church of the Resurrection has been shaped in large part by my Perkins experience.
Dean Lawrence has invited me to share a few comments with you. I thought I would loosely tie my comments to the theme of this year’s minister’s week – the nexus of science and faith. But I’m going to do that by speaking of three tasks I think we must be about if we are going to be effective Christian leaders today. We must,
• Preach sermons that speak to both the head and the heart
• Help people make sense of God in the light of their experience of the world
• Help churches move from an inward focus to an outward, missional focus.
Let’s consider each of these in turn…
I. Preaching sermons that speak to the head and the heart
We live in a time when many non-religious people are of the opinion that one has to choose between science and religion – one can embrace science, reason and rationality, or you can embrace religion and faith. The dominant voices in the Christian community in America have, for the last thirty years, supported this view. For Christians on the right one must choose either the Bible or Darwin. One must choose either an inerrant Bible that is “totally true and trustworthy” or scientific humanism that leaves no room for God. Too often we in the mainline have stood by silently watching the debate, conscious that it was a false dichotomy but unwilling or unable to make our voices heard. Yet today, more than ever, emerging generations need to know that it is not either science or religion but science and religion. Both are partners in the quest for knowledge and truth. For the Christians science is not the enemy, but a tool by which we understand the work of the Creator. Science cannot diminish the glory of God, but only add to our sense of the majesty and wonder of God.
Several years ago we prepared a series of sermons at Church of the Resurrection titled, Where Science and Religion Meet. Each week I interviewed a professor within a particular scientific discipline from leading universities in Kansas and Missouri – an astro-physicist, two evolutionary biologists and others. We announced the series on Christmas Eve when there were thousands of otherwise unchurched people in worship.
Among those present on Christmas Eve was an atheist named Scott Williamson. Scott attended with his wife Shannon at the invitation of Shannon’s parents. Scott was a researcher in the field of evolutionary biology at Cornell University. In 2007 he made a discovery related to recent evolutionary changes in the human genome that was selected by Discover Magazine as one of the 100 most important scientific discoveries of the year – actually, number 43 on the list of the 100 most important discoveries of the year.
Scott saw the sermon series promo for "Where Science and Religion Meet" and he was intrigued that a church would interview scientists at area universities. He found it fascinating that a church would, rather than debunking scientists, embrace them and value their work. He began watching the sermons on line, and, after the series, he came to the conclusion that science and faith were not mutually exclusive. He continued joining us on line, and one day I received this e-mail from him,
Dear Reverend Adam,
I wanted to write to let you know that, thanks to you and my wife, I now believe in God. I've been a lifelong atheist, but your sermon about the God of pure energy convinced me that, as a scientist and thinking person, the existence of God is possible. I really liked your story about your girls playing and trusting in you to jump on your back and how your love for them, and how that was like God’s love. I wanted to believe in that way, but was still uncertain.
I was diagnosed with a brain tumor this last year – inoperable. And what finally convinced me of the love of God was my wife – I felt God’s love through her and came to see her as a gift from God.
Anyway, my question for you is, since I've never believed before, I’ve never prayed. How do you pray? I've started by giving thanks for he things I'm thankful for, then making requests. Is this okay? Is it possible to ask for too much?
Thanks for your advice.
This began an ongoing e-mail relationship with Scott. He continued to worship with us online and then he would e-mail me his questions or comments. On a couple of occasions we would talk on the phone and, when he was in Kansas City, we met together to talk through questions of faith and doubt, life and death and hope.
Before Scott died he gave his children each a compass, the scientist in him, wanted to make sure his little ones could always find their way. He had it inscribed with these words, “I will be with you wherever, whenever, forever.” This promise was an expression, I believe, of his hope that there was a “forever” and that, with the Psalmist, he would “dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.” That hope came, in part, because he had heard a sermon series in which he found that science and faith are not enemies, but two different ways of knowing about reality. Perkins helped me to see that.
II. Helping people make sense of God in the light of their experience of the world
That leads to my second point – that we must help people make sense of God in the light of their experience of the world.
On the way to Dallas today, on a Southwest flight from San Antonio, I sat next to a woman who, I noticed, was crying. I asked if she was okay and she told me she was just thinking of her mother whose 70th birthday she was coming to Dallas to celebrate. She told me how much she loved her mom. We continued to talk about what a blessing it was to have a mother like this. After awhile she asked me the question that, for a pastor, determines whether the conversation stops cold or keeps going: “What line of work are you in?” I told her that I was a pastor and she had the look - most of you know what I’m talking about – the “Oh, no” look that anticipates that I’m going to start probing into the state of her soul.
Instead, I simply asked about her kids. We continued talking and, somewhere in the conversation, we began talking about Haiti. I told her I had been there last week and we talked about the tragedy. Then, as the plane was preparing to land she looked at me and said, “Could I ask you a question?” “Of course,” I replied. She asked, “How can you reconcile belief in God with the terrible things that happened there in Haiti?” She did not ask belligerently, but as one who had perhaps really wrestled with this question.
I said, “I believe God created this amazing planet. We know today something of how the planet operates. We know and understand that earthquakes occur as a result of the movement of the earth’s plates on top of the magma that flows under the surface. The magma near the core of the planet superheats, and then begins to rise, just like hot air. As it rises it begins to cool, as it cools it begins to fall. This process moves the earths plates. Without this process our planet would overheart and it could not sustain life. One result of this is that the tectonic plates eventually collide and, when enough energy builds up between two plates an earthquake occurs.
I believe God shaped this amazing planet and that these processes are essential to our life here. Without them there would be no life here. When we human beings come in conflict with these huge processes, the forces of nature win. It is not God’s will that people be hurt. It is not God punishing us, or trying to teach us something. It is the tragic conflict of the processes that sustain our planet with the creatures who live on it.
And where I see God in this is here: I see God in the hope that human life does not end at the grave. “When this life is over, we have a building, not made by human hands, eternal in the heavens.” “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble.” In the middle of the night, while our team was sleeping at the Methodist Guest House in Port au Prince, a 4.9 magnitude tremor occurred. There were 700 people sleeping in tents on the grounds. They cried out in fear. Some began to weep. But the very next thing they did, in the darkness of that night, was to begin to sing songs to God. When all else was gone, God was all they had left. They felt comfort in singing to him. I said that out of the ashes God was already calling his people to come alongside the people of Haiti. And the overarching story of the Bible is that God brings life out of death, good out of evil, resurrection out of death. He gives us, in the words of Isaiah, “Beauty for ashes, joy for mourning and a heart for praise in place of a spirit of grief.”
I told her, “If you take God away from the equation, you stlll have earthquakes, and tragedies – the only thing you’ve taken away is hope.”
She looked at me and said, “I’m Jewish, and I’ve been asking this question a lot lately and I’ve never heard an answer like that. That is beautiful. It helps me to believe that there is a God after all.”
I think people need pastors who can answer the kind of questions they’re asking about a wide range of topics because we’ve spent time in theological reflection on these things. Perkins helped me to do that.
III. Help churches move from an inward focus to an outward, missional focus.
Finally, I think today’s Christian leaders must help churches and Christians be outwardly and missionally focused. One of the dilemmas in a declining organization is that churches in the death spiral become very inwardly focused, which merely expedites their death. Today’s young adults and today’s non-religious people are drawn to churches with a compelling and outwardly focused mission.
It was at Perkins that I was schooled in the two halves to a whole Christian gospel – the evangelical and social gospels. Just as science and faith are not an either/or proposition but instead a both/and proposition, so too the evangelical and social gospels are meant to be held together. The social gospel without the evangelical gospel is like a flashlight without a battery – it has the appearance of religion but little or no power. But the evangelical gospel without the social gospel is nothing more than spiritual narcissism.
Four years ago I asked our congregation, “What do your friends say when you tell them you go to Church of the Resurrection?” They answered, “Oh, that’s that big church.” I said, “What would it take for people in Kansas City to say, not, “That’s that big church,” but instead, “That’s that church that cares for people; that is engaged with the poor; that is involved with people who are in need?” Today an increasing number of people in Kansas City say that about our church, and there is a vitality and energy there.
Sunday 347 adults and children joined the church – 70% were non-religious before they began attending. Many of these were drawn to our church because of our social outreach. I’ll mention several examples. Several years ago our church leadership voted to give away the entire offering on our highest attended weekend of the year – Christmas Eve. The offering supports our ministries serving children in poverty – half devoted to projects in Kansas City and the other half in sub-Saharan Africa. This past Christmas Eve worshipers gave $507,000 in this offering. One Christmas Eve a Buddhist stopped me after worship and said, “I loved this service – it was beautiful – but what blew me away was you guys are giving away the entire offering to children in need – I’ll be back.” This year we’ll be giving away the entire Easter offering as well.
But it is not just an offering here or there that we give away. We have thousands of people serving the poor in Kansas City each month. We have built over 100 Habitat Houses, taken hundreds of mission trips beyond Kansas City; we have teams of people on call when disaster strikes anywhere in the Midwest. We gave 85 tons of food to people in need in Kansas City last year. We’ve partnered with the Kansas City, Missouri School District – the only major school district in America to have their accreditation revoked by the state board of education – to partner with their lowest performing elementary schools. We had 1,100 volunteers work in this project last year painting, building playgrounds, providing school supplies for all of the children in six schools, providing backpacks with food for the weekends for children who were coming to school hungry on Mondays, providing computers and tutors for these schools. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. We ask every member to give 10 hours per year in ministry with the poor. If they all did this, this would be the equivelent of more than 3,000 people working full time as urban missionaries seeking to live out the justice, mercy and love of God. I tell you this not to impress you but to witness to ways we are seeking to be the church for our community.
In this way we hope to be, “the light of the world, a city set upon a hill that cannot be hidden.” And that leads me to one final story.
I was driving to church on Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend when I heard an interview with Rev. Billy Kyles on NPR. Billy was with Dr. King as he stood on the balcony of the Loraine Motel in Memphis that morning he was killed 41 years ago. He was asked what he was preaching on that morning. He told of something Robert Louis Stephenson had written – about a boy watching in the old days when the streetlights were gas – he was watching the man climb the ladder and carefully light each lamp. His father asked the boy, “What are you doing?” The boy said, “I’m watching that man knock holes in the darkness.”
This is our task. And we fulfill this task by preaching sermons that speak to people like Scott Williamson – sermons for the mind and for the heart. We fulfill this task when we help people make sense of God in the light of the events of the world around us. And we fulfill this task when we work to demonstrate God’s mercy, justice and love to a world in need of precisely these things.
So, as leaders of Christ’s church, let’s knock some holes in the darkness!
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