Thank God and Take Courage

Which pandemic word or phrase have you become weary of hearing? Unprecedented? Social distance? New normal? Uncertain? I think I would nominate “challenging days.” I know I have used the phrase plenty myself, but I have also stopped short several times when writing those words to ask, “When were the days that were not challenging?”

Our Seminary has been celebrating its 75th Anniversary through 2020, culminating in the commencement of our 75th graduating class on May 1st. Despite the challen … unprec … uncert … Hmmm, despite 2020, it has been wonderful to journey back through the story of Nazarene Theological Seminary. At the beginning of 2020, I underlined in my Bible a verse of Psalm 107 which reads, “… they will see in our history the faithful love of the Lord” (Ps 107:43, NLT).

Corlett

Dr. Lewis T Corlett
NTS President, 1952-66

This is my experience as I am inspired again and again by the testimonies of those who responded faithfully to God’s calling. One of the stories that means a great deal to me is the story of our second president, Dr. L. T. Corlett, our longest-serving president at fourteen years (1952-1966). He was previously president of Northwest Nazarene College, having also taught at Bethany-Peniel College and Arkansas Holiness College. He pastored local churches in five states across fourteen years.[1]

Dr. Corlett led NTS through some of the most “challenging days” the institution has known. Although he pressed the school toward accreditation, it was not achieved until after his tenure. He consistently championed accreditation in the face of considerable opposition to the idea. Corlett oversaw the construction of the building that still houses NTS. He also faced almost immediately the untimely death of beloved professor, Dr. L. A. Reed.

Corlett pressed the faculty to make sure their teaching was not narrowly parochial but connected to the pressing social issues of the day. He advocated for an ecumenical posture for NTS, recognizing, as he put it, that “holiness churches owe a great debt to the historic church.” He dealt with some turmoil and significant turnover among faculty during his years.

Dr. Corlett had to work through a serious and public controversy regarding the sale of land between the seminary and the neighboring hospital to a proposed junior college. Editorials were written in the Kansas City Star and one point, the Church of the Nazarene threatened to move its headquarters, seminary, and publishing house out of Kansas City if the sale went through. Crisis was averted when the denomination and the hospital made a joint offer on the property which was accepted.

Adding to the pressure, enrollment began to drop from a high of 245 to below 150 by the mid-sixties. And there was plenty of anxiety within the denomination in those days. Some, worried that the rising generation was compromising on holiness, began to call on church leaders to “preserve the old paths” even while students were asking why their church was not doing more on pressing social issues of the day, like racism, for example.

Considering these challenges and more, it may not be surprising to learn that when Dr. Corlett was looking back on this period nearly thirty years later, he would say, “While I appreciated the position as President of Nazarene Theological Seminary and I enjoyed the work, it turned out to be the most difficult one of all of my life.” Challenging days. They have always been with us.

What is most compelling to me in this story, however, is Dr. Corlett’s indefatigable spirit that was not born simply of his own determination or resilience. His testimony is one of “absolute dependence upon the Holy Spirit and true goodwill towards all persons.”[2] This included, for Corlett, the practice of forgiveness and the surrender of cynicism.

Dr. Corlett took as his guiding Bible text, Acts 28:15 which tells of Paul meeting up with believers in Rome: “On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage” (NRSV). From this simple note, Corlett adopted his oft-repeated affirmation: “Thank God and take courage!” Reflecting on this phrase, he later wrote, “This is the best atmosphere to live in for spiritual vitality.”

This commitment to gratitude and courage was tested deeply during Corlett’s leadership of NTS. In his 1956 report to the Board of Trustees, he admitted that he was “suffering from physical and nervous exhaustion.” Thankfully, he visited his physician, sought wise counsel, and canceled travel for a few months to recover and to protect space to hear a fresh word from the Lord.

At one point, a young seminarian, John Howald, asked him how he was possibly holding up under all the pressures that were coming at him. “Doc, how do you take it?” he asked. Corlett’s response, he wrote later, was prompted by the Spirit: “Johnny, God can take us through anything He asks us to do, if we don’t panic.” This seems to be what he had in mind when he would say, “Thank God and take courage.”

As 2020 and its attendant difficulties fade in our experience, and as we conclude our 75th Anniversary celebrations at NTS, perhaps there are lessons for us in our history that can guide us into the future that God is bringing to us. There will be more “challenging days” for sure, but grace-enabled gratitude and courage seem just the right spiritual resources to keep us joyful and faithful as we offer ourselves in service to the gospel.

Thank you, Dr. Corlett. We do see in your story the faithful love of the Lord.

NTS President Jeren Rowell

 

Dr. Jeren Rowell
President and Professor of Pastoral Ministry

 

 

[1] Historical notes and quotes are taken from Dr. Harold Raser, More Preachers and Better Preachers: The First Fifty Years of Nazarene Theological Seminary. (Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishing House, 1995).

[2] Further notes from Dr. Frank Carver’s edited publication of Dr. Corlett’s autobiography, Thank God and Take Courage: How the Holy Spirit Worked in My Life. (San Diego, CA: Point Loma Press, 1992).

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