I am who I am, spiritually, because of the spiritual DNA I carry. My journey has been a circuitous one. I have traveled from the church of my birth, the Episcopal Church, to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the church of my mature years. Along the way, I’ve been part of several other faith communities, including Pentecostals, Baptists, Presbyterians, and the Evangelical Covenant Church. My theology is eclectic. I’ve suggested this eclecticism is due to my being a historical theologian rather than a systematic one. My theology professor in seminary, Colin Brown, reinforced the idea that there is no one system of theology, which is why we didn’t have a specific textbook. Over the years, I’ve borrowed from Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jon Sobrino, Elizabeth Johnson, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine, John Calvin, Open Theists, and many more. I know that these can be strange bedfellows (think of Calvin and Augustine alongside Tom Oord), but I’ve come to believe that few of us are theological purists. Another way of describing my journey is to use the word “pilgrim.” Diana Butler Bass writes that “becoming a pilgrim means becoming a local who adopts a new place and new identity by learning a new language and new rhythms and practices. Unlike the tourist, a pilgrim’s goal is not to escape life, but to embrace it more deeply, to be transformed wholly as a person, with new ways of being in community and new hopes for the world.”
It is said by some that we should live in the present. That is true, but it’s important to remember that the present only exists for a moment before it becomes the past. As for the future, it is always beckoning us forward. Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, “Original and true Christianity is a movement of hope in this world, which is often so arrogant and yet so despairing. That also makes it a movement of healing for sick souls and bodies. And not least, it is a movement of liberation for life, in opposition to the violence which oppresses the people.” Whatever spiritual DNA we draw from these founding visions, if it’s true to the calling given to Abraham and his descendants, then it will be a vision of hope, healing, and liberation. Thus, it will be a call to bless.
What is true of us as individuals is also true for congregations. Congregations are formed by people who bring their various spiritual journeys and life experiences into the community. Some participants grow up in the church and others do not. Some spend their entire lives in one tradition, while others have been wanderers (much like Abraham, the wandering Aramean, who is the father of Israel). When we gather together as a community, or better yet, as siblings in the family of God, we contribute our diverse spiritual DNA into the church’s existence. This contributes to the diversity and complexity of the congregation, even one steeped in a particular tradition. The members/participants in a congregation contribute their spiritual DNA, but so does the Tradition of which they are part.
So, for example, consider my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Contributors to our identity as a movement and denomination include the Presbyterian heritage of the Disciples founders. It also includes the time spent by the Campbellites among the Baptists. They drew from the Reformation, along with the British Enlightenment (John Locke, for example). Then there is the secular DNA contributed by their American context. The movement emerged shortly after the birth of the new nation. Thomas Campbell contributed a founding document to the movement that he titled The Declaration and Address. The word “Declaration” was used purposely as a signal that this was a revolutionary document. Sometimes we Disciples see ourselves as part of the Reformed tradition, but if so, we aren’t an “orthodox” version of that tradition. The founders purposely threw off the creeds and faith statements prized by their Presbyterian colleagues and ancestors.
If we take this a step further, individual believers and the congregations of which they are members contribute their spiritual DNA to the larger church, making the Christian “religion” a rather complex organism. In our diversity and complexity, we find our purpose as a community in that call given to Abraham and Sarah. Their call is our founding vision, one that was embodied and renewed and passed on to us in Christ Jesus. That calling, which required them to leave their homes and set out for an unknown land, eventuated in a fountain of descendants, who are called to be a blessing to the nations. It is a calling that has been passed on from generation to generation until it incorporated we the readers of this book, whether Jew or gentile, for all of us are heirs of this call to be a blessing to humanity and all of creation. While the future might be open, might we envision that moment when all things come together, and the blessings promised to Abraham and Sarah reach their fulfillment?
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. (Rev 21:22–26, NIV)
Praise for Called To Bless
“What does a Bapti-costal, Episco-matic, Presby-vangelical, Disciple of Christ, and Covenanted Follower of Jesus look or sound like? Perhaps a child of Abraham who has inherited the divine mandate of being a blessing to others, even indeed to the ends of the earth. Anyone seeking to make sense of their varied spiritual journey will find Robert Cornwall a sure guide and companion.”
—Amos Yong, Professor of Theology and Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary
“To get at who we are, we must tell stories. Even in the telling, we shape who we might become in the future. In this story-oriented book, Bob Cornwall draws together diverse stories in hopes of explaining our identities. Cornwall’s narration is worth the listening!”
—Thomas Jay Oord, author of The Uncontrolling Love of God, God Can’t, and other books
“This is an insightful book, designed for people who want to examine and explore their faith. It is written by one of the most perceptive pastoral theologians of our time, whose work makes us think deeply about ideas of tradition and continuity of faith in the modern world. It is also a book which draws Christians together rather than divides or separates.”
—William Gibson, Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Director of the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History, Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom
“Bob Cornwall asks, ‘Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? What is my purpose in life?’ Such questions are entrenched in the early twenty-first century. Cornwall points to Abram and Sarai as foreparents who were given the gracious call from God to show the way of blessing to others. By demonstrating the way of blessing, the couple would be blessed. Two things happen. (1) The number of paths to blessing expands as human experience becomes more diverse. (2) Communities lose blessing as life wears them down. Cornwall shows readers how to rediscover the generative power of the founding blessing and to witness to blessing in new forms in new contexts.”
—Ronald J. Allen, Professor of Gospels and Letters, Emeritus, Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis
“This book provides a theologically informed case study, based on the author’s life experiences, that is intended to show individual Christians, pastors, church leaders, and congregations how to find a fruitful balance between their past traditions and their Christian witness for the future while living faithfully in the present. Reflection questions for individuals and congregations following each chapter are designed to help readers as they respond to this challenge.”
—Keith Watkins, Professor Emeritus of Practical Parish Ministry, Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis
About the Author
Robert D. Cornwall is Minister-at-Large, having retired as Senior Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan in June, 2021). He is the Editor of Sharing the Practice (Academy of Parish Clergy). He received his PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary in Historical Theology. His books include Religion, Politics and Dissent, 1660-1832, co-edited with William Gibson (2010), Freedom in Covenant (2015), and Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, 2nd edition, (2021).