"ICS taught me to listen and converse — to entrust myself before
God to a dialogue the product of which I could not control."
Daniel Napier goes beyond the ICS classroom
and into the Croatian community.
Six years ago my wife, Karly, and I moved from California, USA to Zagreb, Croatia (formerly part of Yugoslavia) to serve as missionaries and where I have been teaching at Biblijski Institut, a small evangelical seminary.
We live in a world where nearly everyone over the age of thirty has post-traumatic stress syndrome. In living memory, neighbors suddenly turned upon those with whom they had shared childhood sports, office camaraderie, and coffee-scented conversations. They dragged others into the streets and kicked open their skulls. Why? Because they belonged to different religious and ethnic groups.
This conflict was like a tidal wave of insanity swelling up from basic beliefs about how to deal with difference. The residual scars are deep. The guilt is buried but not expunged. Unsurprisingly, hostilities and suspicions still abound. Commitment to listening and conversing well with others, together with the humility and forgiveness that process presupposes, are scarce in these climes. Scarce, but never more needed.
At the seminary we seek to shape a new generation of spiritual and moral leaders within this society. Of course, much of the process is unspectacular to behold. Delivering lectures in theology, historical philosophy and organizing spiritual formation sequences for seminarians take a goodly portion of my time. When not in formal teaching settings, I am engaged in mentoring young pastors and local church planters, both in personal conversation and through site visits. Nobody would waste footage on filming this process. But, like the message Jesus diminutively described as a mustard seed, the effects in terms of personal transformation are often disproportionately powerful and unsettling.
Some of the most basic lessons I teach in these settings were learned at the ICS. Through each interaction I strive to pass on a commitment to openly interacting with those who are different from me, and to do so with a grace that blesses others rather than seeking to swallow them up. This was bequeathed to me by the ICS.
I came to ICS knowing how to preach. ICS taught me to listen and converse--to entrust myself before God to a dialogue the product of which I could not control. Of course, I learned many other things at ICS. With some help from the associated schools of the Toronto School of Theology, ICS instructors guided me in acquiring the basic methods, languages and content of two disciplines— ancient and medieval philosophy and patristic theology. I cherish this disciplinary competence and am grateful to the ICS for it. However, basic disciplinary competence could have been acquired from many other schools. What made the ICS irreplaceable was at once less tangible and more precious. It is something one 'catches' from the ethos of the Senior Members more than something one would write down in a seminar paper.
I will try to gesture toward it. The Senior Members, especially Bob Sweetman and Jim Olthuis, modeled how to enter into an open dialogue across boundaries of academic discipline, religious commitments and socio- cultural assumptions. At the ICS one learns how to sniff out and articulate the underlying assumptions and thus allow the conversation to move forward with greater clarity concerning core issues. I learned how to recognize when I was indeed refuted and to cede with grace and gratitude for the things learned thereby. Throughout this experience the Senior Members modeled gentleness and respect in teaching. This taught me how to integrate personal care with corrective instruction. Such features of the ICS infuse my current ministry and mentoring in this war torn part of the world.
Of course, I am still learning these virtues even as I pass them to a new generation in Eastern Europe. And the transformation required is always great. But just imagine: if even a handful of leaders acquired a charitable openness to difference and passed it on to the communities they serve, what hostilities might be defused? What evils averted? I know. It sounds tenuous. So much could go wrong. But mustard seeds never have looked very impressive going in, and I've found nothing other than the slow transformation of human hearts to be capable of changing much in this society. So I am staking my claim on this approach and voicing my prayer with this intention. And I invite you to also cry heavenward with a prayer of healing for Eastern Europe and of gratitude for the life- changing ways of the ICS.
~ Blessings, Daniel Napier