A particular friendship:
I have a friend named Merle Strege, a doctor of the church and a teacher of my soul. Our relationship began in the first years of the 70s at the School of Theology, Anderson University, of the Church of God, Anderson, IN. It is a place of convergence—a point in space that resonates so deeply in my story.
I was responding to God’s call on my life. As I understood it, at the time, God (crazy God!) wanted me to become a pastor. Really—and, oddly enough, everyone else was as crazy as God because everyone I trusted said, Yea! Go for it! So, I did. I pulled up roots, packed my family, left Red Bluff, and headed east, hoping, like the Magi of old, that I was following a star. My traveling east story is an entirely different story than the old one; not everything went well. Life became hard for us, especially for Judy; I was in school and loving it; I was working for the Board of Christian Education and, eventually, loving it. But Judy had to work in the real world, our kids struggled, babysitters were challenging—it was hard. We didn’t stay. (That’s another long, formational story, that I've told parts of elsewhere in this blog.) We made it one year and moved back to the West Coast, Portland, and WPC, where I stayed for another very long time (before returning to the scene of the crime).
We made good friends there—lifetime friends. (A list would be very long and those still alive are still our friends.) One of these was Merle. I’m not sure why he and I are friends. (I mean by this: I understand why I would want to be his friend.) He’s smarter than I am. He’s more disciplined than I am. He’s more serious than I am. He’s a better story teller than I. We share a love of reading and talking about what we read, although he is more my teacher than I his. We both enjoy fishing, although he’s more committed to that than I.
(He says that the two hindrances to our relationship are that I don’t play golf and I do not have an appropriate appreciation of baseball—both of which are practices to which he is particularly devoted. I first wrote “both of which are ‘sports,’” but, honestly, they are for him spiritual practices.) We both love teaching and share many of the frustrations and deep, deep joys that come with teaching students subjects that many consider irrelevant. I don’t think one of us is better at this than the other; we are quite similar in why we teach but quite different in how. He challenges me and, I think, we both feel more often than not like fish out of water when it comes to the church that formed us. We are comfortable with each other. In some ways, we might be characterized as Lucky Jack and Stephen Matarin (characters in a wonderful series of books that we both love), but not so much in the details as in the relationship—it doesn’t make sense on so many levels but matters to me so much in so many important ways. He is a loyal friend. He can be counted on. Trustworthy. Demanding. Merle is a teacher—born to the craft.
Merle has taught me much about the centrality of story and the power of remembering. As a lover of story, I knew the power of narrative to shape and change and call and disorder and order. I experienced this power in so many ways; but I didn’t really understand the trans-formational power of narrative until Merle, as church historian, began to reflect on the central responsibility of the people of God to remember, which is clearly at the heart of God’s call to God’s people. He powerfully mined this theme from scripture as well as from other readings in, I generalize, the morality of a being a story formed people. Merle is currently working on a history of Anderson University; it is being developed with the 2017 centennial in mind. He works not only to capture the people, the events, influences, the times—the facts. He works to lay bare the moral narrative that inhabits the soul of that place.
(Even as I write this blog the latest issue of Communion today appeared in our mailbox; in this issue is an article, written by Merle, on the interpretative center opening this year during the Global Gathering. Here he writes, “The center’s fundamental premise is summed up in this observation by the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue: ‘I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do? If I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what stories am I a part?’” Relentlessly, Merle calls us to this central task of remembering because “We do not make up our own identity; we inherit it…[even as we] are also free to interpret and extend that identity for our own time” (Strege, Merle. (May/June 2013.) "Interpretative Center to Open." Communion Together. p. 14.)
He has worked to be a teacher of the church through his classroom and through his on-going, decades long, writing for the church’s Sunday schools. His articles for the unfortunately defunct Vital Christianity; his efforts for the aborted OneVoice; his own histories and revisions of histories—everything he has done (and the list is formidable) focuses on that one word—remember—and the centrality of all that is contained in that word.
I remember a meeting of the Commission on Higher Education of the Church of God (another unfortunately no longer available “tents” of the church). This annual meeting of presidents, deans, board chairs, agency leaders and others met for fellowship, mutual support and understanding, and conversation about the shared educational mission of the church—including not only the broader world of Christian education but also the church’s higher education institutions). At one of these meetings, Merle and I spoke out of our conviction and theology about how much more important the relationship of the church’s colleges to their church is than their relationship to such bodies as the, then, Christian College Coalition—which embodied a narrative very different than our own. Merle’s words were, I think, prophetic and, like most prophecy, unheeded, certainly misunderstood—perhaps considered irrelevant in a demanding recruitment world that thinks it needs more generic and less specific definitions. We needed to be more like others (regardless of the fundamentally different narrative, i.e., holiness theology v. reformed theology) than like ourselves.
How can we be who we are called to be if we cannot remember who we were?
Merle is a historian who has never simply called us to return to the past or raised a banner that says our best days are behind us. His is, rather, a message about roots and formation that contains a call to address the future in ways that continue to provide us stability in the midst of change so that we can discern well God’s call on God’s church today.
Another memory: For a few (too few) years, Merle was at Warner Pacific. He worked there as recruiter and, finally, as teacher. I’ve never forgotten a sermon he preached in chapel: “The Christ of God.” He reminded us that we cannot make Jesus the Christ into whatever Jesus we want him to be. This Jesus is grounded in a specific history—a peculiar story of a peculiar people who follow, usually not well, a peculiar God. This Jesus is rooted deeply in a cosmic narrative of relationship and revelation; this Jesus is formed by and can be understood only fully within that story.
He is not our Christ
to be what we want him to be;
he is God’s Christ.
We forget that to our peril.
I do not want to put words in his mouth, but I think he would say we have forgotten that and continue to act as if Jesus is, first, the Jesus we want him to be, and that the church, which belongs to Jesus and not to us, can be whatever we want it to be—and we stand in need of correction. A correction, I believe, he would say comes finally through acts of thoughtful discernment, that is, through acts of remembering, which is a practice he relentlessly calls the church to—a church that still tends to ignore him, unless he is telling one of those humorous old timey stories we all love to hear.
He is a particular friend because of all of these things. It is always good to be in his company. I cherish those times—in commission meetings, writer’s conferences, at CUS meetings, at Nipissing, in Florida, his family room, and at Eva’s with other good, long time friends. Few pleasures in life have been more continuously a pleasure than this friendship that began over forty years ago.
Thanks be to God!