Noticing the Fireflies

Last Friday, October 24, I was honored to give the address at The Memorial Church’s Morning Prayers service. Morning Prayers is one of the oldest traditions at Harvard University, dating back to seventeenth century, and while school is in session it occurs every Monday through Saturday from 8:45-9:00am. These brief yet meaningful services involve a psalm, a hymn, a passage of scripture or an inspirational reading, an anthem by Choral Fellows of Harvard University Choir, and a 5 minute address by a member or friend of the Harvard community. As a Seminarian in the Memorial Church (aka completing my field education there this year), part of my regular responsibilities involve leading Morning Prayers once a week, and usually my days to lead are Fridays. This involves setting up the chapel in the morning, serving as a host to that morning’s guest speaker, and leading the service itself. However this past Friday the tables were turned as I had the opportunity to be the guest speaker. I’d like to share with you my short message from that morning. Truth be told, this was something that I had written a few years ago, but I just had not shared it anywhere since. (If you’d like to listen to the entire 15 minute service, you can click here. My address begins a little after 7 minutes in.)

One July night, a few summers ago, I was driving home along a rural highway in central Pennsylvania. It had been one of those summers with its fair share of wet and rainy days, especially recently. But all of a sudden during this week in July, the heat and sun and humidity seemed to remember its place, and was determined to remind everyone that it was indeed July. That night was especially warm and heavy as I guided my car across the winding two-lane highway that weaved between farmlands and sleepy towns.

As I drove, the last remaining traces of daylight were stretching themselves thin. Suddenly, my eyes were drawn past the racing yellow lines on the road into the darkening, shadowy boundaries beyond the road, where flickering lights illuminated the meadows and fields. Fireflies. Like the heads of tiny, glowing needles in long, bushy pincushions, the insects flickered and shimmered in dark places and green hideaways, seen by their temporary but ever-returning glows.

These mini spotlights accompanied me on my drive through rural Pennsylvania, all the way to my destination. I wondered why I had not noticed these friendly bugs as much on other evening drives. Had the intense heat of the week brought the firefly families forth from their hiding? Or had I just opened my eyes to the simple beauty of these creatures as they danced and beckoned me along my journey?

Like the firefly, how we must seem to an almighty God. We flicker, we shine as tiny beacons of light, of inspiration, reflecting God’s creation of light and goodness amidst our often darkening surroundings. But also, like the firefly, our light is always temporary, never constant, only in and out, on and off. We are, after all, only human; we have the small capacity to experience mere glimpses into the revealing of the beloved community and kingdom of God. A glimmer here, a flash of hope there. Our individual lights often shine at the same time as others, but more often do our lights go out only to let someone else’s shine. I am not a biologist, but I imagine that there is no algorithm or pattern for these insects to flash their lights. They simply shine, then wait their turn while their neighbor shines, then they shine again.

What a sight it would be to see a meadow or a field completely lit up with fireflies, whose light beams are all shining at once, constant and simultaneous! Though, I think, perhaps this is more beautiful: a dark, green-black field of flickering, shimmering fireflies. What if, instead of a fortissimo chorus of simultaneous lights, God prefers the view of a glittering blanket of lights on this earth, each of our bursts of light and inspirations only temporary, waiting, as we flicker on and off, for the beautiful revealing and unveiling of the Divine kingdom?

I don’t know about you, but I am now looking for fireflies. Since that July night a couple years ago, I have had to navigate the unknowns of moving to a new city, adjusting to the life of a full-time seminary student, nurturing long-distance relationships with loved ones, and being open to new connections and experiences. Amidst all of this, I must also be noticing and seeking the flashes of inspiration, the flickering lights that come in temporary but beautiful ways, assuring me that I am on the right road on this journey, heading with faith towards my destination.

Will you notice your fireflies, too?

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Year 2 is Already Under Way!

Well we are already into week 5 of the fall semester and I apologize that it’s taken me this long to sit down and write an update! It’s already been an exciting, unusual, and eventful semester of my second year of seminary at Andover Newton Theological School. I’ll do my best to recap the past few weeks and give you a rundown of what this year will look like!

This year my biggest time commitment and most exciting ministry experience will be my 6 credits of field education, 3 in the fall and 3 in the spring. Basically what this amounts to is 15 hours/week of an internship in a ministry setting. Field education (or contextual education, or ministry formation… whatever you want to call it, different seminaries have different names but they are all the same idea) is arguably the most important experience one can have in theological school, because it gives you practical, hands-on ministry experience with intentional supervision and theological reflection built into each semester. Fun fact: the field ed program at Andover Newton is actually one of the oldest and most innovative programs of its kind, as one of the first to offer on-campus courses associated with field experiences, which is a significant piece of our field ed year.

Anyway, I am so pleased to share that this year I will be completing field ed at the Memorial Church of Harvard University. Located right in the middle of Harvard Yard, Memorial Church is a non-denominational congregation and “space of grace” for Harvard students, faculty, staff, local alumni, and friends of the university. The Harvard University chaplains (there are around 30 chaplains representing multiple faiths and traditions) have office space in this building and the Harvard University choir provides sacred music for the almost all of the services (can I say it is an absolute privilege to hear this outstanding choir every…single…week?). For decades the late Rev. Peter Gomes was the face of Memorial Church and he was known around the country for his outstanding preaching before he died unexpectedly in 2011. Today the church is led by Professor Jonathan Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, and by Rev. Lucy Forster-Smith, Sedgwick Chaplain to the University and Senior Minister in the Memorial Church. Rev. Lucy is my supervisor, and full of wisdom and years of campus ministry experience, she leads me and six other seminarians/interns serving the Memorial Church this year.

The Memorial Church of Harvard University

The Memorial Church of Harvard University

My view from the front of the church (obviously on Sunday mornings the pews aren't empty!)

My view from the front of the church (obviously on Sunday mornings the pews aren’t empty!)

The view from the back of the church

The view from the back of the church

Along with helping to lead Sunday morning services, as a Seminarian in the Memorial Church I lead a Morning Prayers service one day a week, help with other special services, serve as a host for guest speakers and preachers, participate in a weekly seminar with other seminarians/interns, meet for one-on-one supervision with Lucy, and complete one or two additional personal projects that take the form of ministry to college students and/or the Memorial Church community. Whew! It makes for a busy week, and that’s just field ed! I’m still in the beginning stages of this experience, trying to learn as much as I can about the congregation and history of Memorial Church, the culture at Harvard, the role of the Harvard chaplains, the flow of worship, and how I fit into it all. Please pray for me as I continue to learn and grow in this exciting and challenging role.

In addition to field ed, I am taking 3 other courses this semester. On Monday mornings I am taking “New Testament Foundations,” which is the basic introductory course for New Testament. Last spring I already took an upper-level NT class, so I have to go back and take the intro course, which should be interesting and important but not one that I am too worried about.

On Wednesday mornings I take a unique class called “Spiritual Practices for Healing and Wholeness.” Like the title suggests, the goal of this class is to both learn about and practice spiritual disciplines like centering prayer, welcoming prayer, lectio divina, Sabbath, and other important practices. The idea is that we as ministers need to have a solid foundation in spiritual practices and intentionally connecting with God if we want to teach and support others to do the same. This is a four-hour class that begins with an hour of yoga each week, which I love. While it might sound like an easy course (and it is graded Pass/Fail), it really is a challenging class and one that will serve each of us in the long run probably more than any other class in seminary.

My third class takes place on Thursday mornings and it is Systematic Theology I. This is one of the few specifically required courses at Andover Newton and if you ask most students, it is one of the most intimidating. Basically systematic theology looks at various theological concepts throughout history and today in a systematic way, how they have changed and evolved, and how various theological perspectives have interpreted them over the years (liberation theology, feminist theology, etc.) At ANTS we take systematic theology over 2 semesters, so Part I is in the fall and Part II is in the spring. This fall we examine four concepts in depth: revelation and authority, human nature, God, and the person and work of Christ. We read theologians from the early centuries of Christianity, through the Reformation, to current theologians. Then we get to decide what we think about these concepts. No pressure, right? 😉

So those are my courses, which along with field ed, should keep me on my toes this semester! However I am super excited to share that I’m also participating in something else this year that has really been a goal of mine since I arrived at ANTS.

This year I am a CIRCLE Fellow. CIRCLE is the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education, a joint initiative between Andover Newton and Hebrew College, the two schools on our little hill. CIRCLE is pretty much responsible for all of the interfaith programming that occurs on our campuses, and it’s run by Rabbi Or Rose who is the Director of the Center for Global Judaism at HC, Celene Ayat Ibrahim-Lizzio who is an Islamic Scholar in Residence on the faculty of both HC and ANTS, and Dr. Jenny Peace who is the Assistant Professor of Interfaith Studies at ANTS (my advisor and the person whose work really drew me to ANTS in the first place.) The CIRCLE Fellowships go like this: we apply in partnership with a person of a faith different than ours, and we propose a project for the year that will engage students at ANTS, HC, and members from the surrounding community in interfaith learning and relationship building.

This year as a CIRCLE Fellow I am excited to partner with a bright and sweet woman named Basma, who is a Muslim community member and PhD student at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. Her family moved to Boston for her husband to complete his PhD at Brandies University and they will return to Cairo in a few years when he is finished. However in the mean time I am so excited to get to know Basma and to work in partnership with her this year! As Fellows, our project is an interfaith peer group called “Portrayal of the Religious Other in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Scriptures.” In a discussion group made up of students from HC, ANTS, and folks from the community, we will examine passages from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an that involve or portray a person of a different faith, what we can learn, and how we respond as people of faith. We will meet once a month, and our first gathering is next Monday! In addition to the learning and discovery that will take place in our peer group, all of the CIRCLE Fellows meet once a month for professional development, getting to know each other, and learning from our directors. Just this past weekend we all gathered at Celene’s home in New Hampshire for a retreat in which we ate delicious food, practiced storytelling with one another, and prepared for the exciting events in the year ahead.

So… that’s my semester! Of course, there are always other things going on, such as continuing to write monthly articles for State of Formation (find my most recent articles here), preparing for my upcoming Border-Crossing trip to Myanmar in January (click here to learn how to support this opportunity financially), resuming my part-time job in our campus dining hall, and continuing to meet once a week with my prayer group for a time of mutual support and holding one anther in prayer. There have also been some recent events related to our school and our new president that have truly shaken our students, faculty, and staff, in addition to many, many more people beyond our campus, and for certain reasons I am not ready to share about it on this blog. However if you could please keep Andover Newton and our leadership in your prayers, it will be needed and felt more than you know.

As always, I am so thankful for you, taking the time to read this and sending along your words of encouragement as I dive into the second year of my theological education. I have to keep reminding myself that seminary is a special time, and I will probably never have a community and an educational environment like this again in my life. While some days I wish I could fast forward to the day when my degree is completed, my student loans are being paid off (!!!), and I’m serving God in a ministry that is challenging and rewarding, I always need to remember to give thanks for this day, for THIS day, and the many lessons and life experiences that I am blessed to receive.

And just because I think it’s so cool, I’ll leave you with this, something I read in one of my books for systematic theology this week:

“To live in Christian hope is to live in the expectation that by God’s grace things can change, disease and death do not have the last word about human destiny, peace is possible, reconciliation between enemies can occur, and we are called to pray and work towards these ends.” – D. Migliore

Amen, and amen!