Ralph and my double life


The day church and seminary came together

Terry L. Brensinger

I felt at times as though I was living a double life. On Sunday mornings, I stood behind the podium at Fellowship Chapel and preached to my rather motley looking congregation. The vice president of St. Barnabas Hospital was often in attendance, as was an executive from the New York Bible Society. Everyone else was rather nondescript. Few earned little more than minimum wage, and most had either lost a loved one to drugs or violence or knew someone who had. People of all colors, shapes and sizes, looking to God to get by in the challenging neighborhoods of the South Bronx.  

Then, on Monday morning, I drove my car to the seminary, attended my classes and bunkered down in the library. There, a small group of highly privileged individuals and I read theology books, analyzed pottery from the time of David and even learned how to read some of the languages that the Israelites and their neighbors spoke. It was as though I had left one world and entered a totally different one—two lives with no apparent points of contact.

One Sunday morning, however, something happened to narrow the gap. A young man who had earlier in life fried at least half of his brain on heroin shared a prayer concern with the congregation. Before long, others joined in—Bob, Iris, Willa, Ralph—requesting prayer, not so much for physical healing but for the courage to persevere through the difficulties of life.  Strikingly, they feared, not cancer or heart disease, but unfaithfulness.  They worried about following devilish voices that promised better days than God could ever provide.

As I listened, my thoughts drifted back to one of my classes the week before. We were translating ancient texts about Baal, a foreign god mentioned with some regularity in the Bible. Following Baal was always a temptation for the people of Israel, but the biblical writers never really explained why. According to these texts, the reason was simple. Baal was the god of fertility, the god who “rode on the clouds.” Baal was the one who hurled lightning bolts through the sky and sent rain to water the earth. When life got tough and you struggled to put food on the table, Baal was the one to know. 

“Ralph,” I chimed in excitedly when I regained my senses. “Your struggles are not unfamiliar to God. The Israelites wrestled with the very same issues of security and survival. Why, just this week in class, I learned that the reason the Israelites found Baal so enticing was that he promised wealth and prosperity when even God seemed hopelessly silent.”

“Really?” Ralph replied with unbridled curiosity and keen interest. “And what did God do to help them?” he continued. As I began answering the question, I sensed my double-life worldview and all of its artificial distinctions melt away. With a new degree of freedom, I looked appreciatively into Ralph’s eyes and thanked God for the insight that my education enabled me to provide.

Don’t get me wrong. “Double-life” tension still shows its ugly face once in a while. I occasionally find myself defending the value of a good, theological education when I hang out, as I often do, in various church settings.  I likewise feel like an odd ball from time to time when I encourage theologians and biblical scholars to keep the transformative mission of the church first and foremost in their minds as they teach and write. For the most part, however, I am now at peace with myself. I’ve come to realize, largely through Ralph and everyone else at Fellowship Chapel, that we—the church and seminary—really can work together.

Terry L. Brensinger is president of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, the Mennonite Brethren seminary located in Fresno, Calif.
















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