Wow, where to even begin? The past two weeks have been a whirlwind, a roller coaster, and everything in between. I hope that I can reflect in ways that are helpful and hopeful.
It might be best to start with the basics: my courses. Last week began the first week of classes at Andover Newton. This semester I am taking a full course load: 12 credits, or 4 classes. For those of you who work with (or are) undergraduates at a college or university, this is usually considered the minimum number of credits for a full time semester. At seminary, however, 12 credits is probably considered to be around the maximum number of credits. Many seminary students are part time and/or commuter students, so taking only one or two classes a semester is not unusual. But considering the fact that I made the move to Boston and I am living on campus (and would ideally like to finish the program in 3 years), I chose to enroll in 4 classes.
Here is what I’m taking for the Fall 2013 semester:
1) Pastoral Care On the Edge: Fostering Resiliency in Crisis and Trauma. Woah, I know. This is a practical class that looks at instances of crisis and trauma in people’s lives, and how the minister can be a life-giving and meaningful presence during these situations. It will involve many role-plays of crisis scenarios, such as death of a loved one, financial instability, suicide, unwanted pregnancy, terminal illness, domestic violence, etc. One of the key takeaways so far for me has been the importance of a horizontal form of care, rather than a vertical one. This means that the minister should not see him or herself as the sole and primary resource for individuals during a crisis situation. Instead, the minister should look around at what resources, services, and relationships, such as a faith community or a support group, can serve to help the person cope with the crisis and change their perspective in order to move forward.
2) Introduction to Scripture: Torah and the Former Prophets: This is a basic Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) course in which we will not only read much of the Torah and early Prophets, but also look at the influence of Mesopotamian culture and similar stories from the time in which these texts were written, in order to get a better understanding of the context of these texts and why they matter today. We’ll look at the texts through three frames: the world behind the text (the background and context of when the books were written), the world of the text (the literature, characters, symbols, metaphors of the text), and the world in front of the text (how this matters for us as religious people today in terms of social justice, power struggles, culture, etc.). I am confident that I have a solid background in the first two of the three frames already, having taken many Bible courses, including Old Testament as History and Literature, with Dr. Bob Miller at Juniata. What I am most looking forward to is discussing the third frame, the world in front of the text, the concerns and meanings of the scriptures, then and now.
3) History of Christian Spirituality Through the Lives of Women: Aww, yeah. This is actually a course that is completely online, and it is taught by Dr. Jenny Peace, who is the inaugural professor of interfaith studies at ANTS. (Ding, ding, ding, one of the reasons why I chose this seminary in the first place!) In this class we discuss (through online forums and posts) spirituality as it emerged and persisted throughout the early church all the way to modern times. Spirituality is a funny word; today many Christians are wary of it, perhaps because of the growing number of folks who are “spiritual but not religious.” So to some people spirituality seems like it doesn’t have a place in Christianity, but au contraire. (Don’t ask me why I suddenly started speaking in French, it just felt appropriate and I don’t know any other French phrases.) Spirituality, expressed in themes like martyrdom, mysticism, monasticism, and feminism, has always been part of the Christian faith, and we will learn about these expressions through the lives of extraordinary women like Perpetua and Felicitas, Julian of Norwich, and Teresa of Avila.
4) Ministry as a Profession: This is a course that looks at ministry as not only a calling, but also as a profession, and therefore serves as a course in leadership. Through four modules that meet once a month for an evening and a full day, we will discuss important qualities like professional jurisdiction, time management, leadership, and communication styles. We are placed into groups with the task of interviewing ministers who serve in various contexts (churches, hospitals, nonprofits, etc.), and assembling a ministry leadership profiles for those individuals, noting what we can learn from their stories and their experiences. Also a very practical course.
So! That’s just my coursework and what I can expect to be learning in the classroom this semester. I’m looing forward to digging in more deeply to these subjects, and anyone who knows me well knows that one of my happy places is in a classroom, taking notes and excited to be learning from others. (Nerd alert, I know.)
In addition to this full schedule of classes, I also started a new job last week. I’ve been fortunate enough to begin working as a cashier in the campus dining hall, which is conveniently located right next to the building where I live. Not only are the people that I work with friendly and fun-loving, but I have the opportunity to meet many smiling students as they come in for a meal. It looks like I will work most breakfast shifts (waking from my slumber at 6:30am, yay!), and one or two lunch or dinner shifts during the week. I am very grateful for this job, as it gives me a bit of a mental break from the intensity of classes, and it also means I’ll have a small but reliable source of money for groceries and other expenses. The other HUGE perk is that I get free meals during any shift I work, which also means I can reduce my meal plan to a less expensive option. (These student loans add up, can I get an amen?!)
Another important reason why I love seeing so many faces in the dining hall is because the people here are Such. Nice. People. The community here is multigenerational, multi-faith, diverse in gender and sexual orientation, and sincerely interested in each others’ stories and call to ministry. We worship together, study together, eat together, and (we will, I am quite sure) commiserate together when the pot containing our many academic and spiritual tensions begin to bubble over. It has been such a joy to jump in to this community, especially after my last post about my struggles with loneliness at the beginning of the month. As it turns out, there were many students on campus during the two weeks before classes started, but we each thought we were the only ones. How funny is that?
I have so much more that I can say, but this post is already pretty long. At a later point I will plan to write more in depth on some of the conversations I’ve been having and the thoughts I’ve been pondering. So for now I’ll leave you with a thought on something that was said at chapel yesterday. On Wednesday afternoons, students, faculty, and staff gather for weekly worship in the beautiful Wilson Chapel on campus. This week was a celebration of teachers and learners, and many professors shared their memories of influential teachers and instructors they have had over the years. One professor concluded the service with a powerful thought, one that a former teacher had instilled in her, and one that I will paraphrase here. Take it with a grain of salt, as food for thought, or as motivation, your choice:
I don’t care what you believe. What I do care about is the repercussions of what you believe, and what it means for you and for the world.
Do me a favor. Ask yourself: Is what I believe influencing my life and the world around me in negative ways? Are my religious doctrines, or my beliefs about scripture, or my understandings of Christ (or Muhammad or Moses) creating division, promoting hatred, encouraging social inequality, or increasing the marginalization of others? Or is what I believe empowering me to restore brokenness, mend relationships, work for justice, and promote peace in this world that God created?
With hugs and gratitude,