It’s December 20. Already. How did that happen? This semester flew by so quickly. I feel like I say that with every blog post, and each time it remains just as true. Finals are over and I actually have a minute to breathe and reflect on the past few months. I am currently in Huntingdon, spending time with Jason and feeling so thankful for winter break with him and our families for Christmas.
As you might have gathered from my post in early October, it was gearing up to be my busiest semester yet. I wasn’t wrong, and I must admit that it was my most difficult semester as well. More often than not, at the end of each week I felt as if I was barely keeping my head above the quickly moving water that was made up of classes, field education, work, my fellowship, preparing for my January course in Myanmar, and oh yeah, maintaining long distance relationships with loved ones and my friendships on campus. Looking back I feel exhausted and relieved to have made it through, while simultaneously feeling grateful and overwhelmingly fortunate.
First: classes. My courses this semester included New Testament Foundations, Spiritual Practices for Healing and Wholeness, and Systematic Theology Part I. In all honestly, my New Testament class probably took up the least amount of time. It was the basic, required Intro to NT, and after all of my undergraduate courses in Christian and Hebrew Scriptures and my upper level NT class that I took last spring, I felt very prepared. To boot, the class was graded 10% for attendance and participation and 90% for the final exegesis, which is an in-depth analysis of a specific biblical passage. So other than writing the final paper during the last two weeks of the semester, I really had very minimal work for the class. The material itself was not very challenging for me, but what did made the class slightly difficult was the extremely varied makeup of the students in the class itself. Because it was an introductory course, the backgrounds, assumptions, and knowledge of my classmates varied greatly. So this diversity within the class made each week both exciting and challenging.
Spiritual Practices for Healing and Wholeness was probably the most unique class I will ever take in seminary. In addition to reading about and trying various types of spiritual practices in the Christian tradition in class, such as centering prayer, lectio divina, lament, keeping the Sabbath, play, forgiveness, and walking the labyrinth, we each chose a spiritual practice to try outside of class and we met with a partner (a spiritual companion) once a week to talk about bow our personal spiritual practices were going. After discussing it with the professor I chose to practice insight or Vipassana meditation for 20-30 minutes a day. The reasons why I chose this practice is because this is the type of meditation that we will be practicing at a Buddhist monastery in Myanmar (more about my trip below). So we thought it would be a good way to familiarize myself with the practice before becoming completely immersed in it for several full days. It has been a challenge, for sure. As I wrote in my final reflection, one of the hardest parts of the practice has been to actually remember to do it each day! But I believe that maintaining a regular practice of meditation was good for me this semester. To sit for 20-30 minutes in silence is so counter-cultural and against every urge in my body to be productive, to get things done, to check things off my To-Do list. This is part of the “magic” of meditation. Just the act of resisting those impulses is good for the brain and for the body.
My third class this semester was by far my favorite and also my most time-intensive: Systematic Theology. This is a course that is mandatory for MDiv candidates, and it is broken into two parts, one in the fall and one in the spring. In the fall we look at 4 major topics in Christian theology and how theologians have understood these topics and what has been written about them (both historically and today): revelation and authority, human nature, Christology (theology about Jesus), and God. For three of these topics (humanity, Christology, and God) we wrote 3000-word essays explaining what the Christian theologial tradition has believed and then explaining what we believe. If this sounds difficult, that’s because it is, and not because it is hard to write 3000 words. Rather, the opposite is true: try fitting the major strands of the Christian tradition regarding Christ and your own theology and beliefs about Christ into just about 10 pages. Trust me, these were not easy tasks, however I loved the reading, the class material, the professor, and (if I really admit it) the challenge of articulating my own theological tradition in light of what the church has professed over the years. I have been pretty proud of my papers this semester, and I’ll actually look forward to going back, years from now, to re-read them and see how my understandings have changed and evolved. I’m looking forward to taking Part II in the spring.
In addition to those 3 fall courses, I also had several meetings and assignments in preparation for my upcoming January course in Myanmar, so it was almost like having a fourth course. In case you haven’t heard, in January I will be traveling with 10 other students and 2 professors for a two-week course in Myanmar (also known as Burma). This course is called “Walking the Path of Nonviolence in Myanmar: Christian and Buddhist Approaches.” As the title suggests, we will be meeting and learning from Buddhists (who are the religious majority in this country) and Christians (the minority) and their actions and responses to what has, until recently, been one of the most repressive governments in the world. We will primarily be focused in the capital, Yangon, at the Myanmar Theological Institute and their Peace Study Center and Judson Center for interfaith relations. We will also spend time at the Pwo Kayin Seminary, which is the seminary of one of the most persecuted groups in Myanmar, the Karen people. In addition, we will, as I mentioned earlier, be spending three days in a Theravada Buddhist monastery sharing in the life and practices of the monks who live there.
In preparation for this immersion, the students and professors of this course have been meeting once a month. We have been reading books and articles about the different elements of this course: Theravada Buddhism; Aung San Suu Syi, the Burmese Nobel Peace Prize winner who lived under house arrest for most of the 1990s; Vipassana meditation; and Adoniram Judson, the Baptist missionary who was a graduate of Andover Newton in the early 1800s (then called Andover Theological Seminary) and who first brought Christianity to Burma. In addition to the academic preparation for this trip, there has been logistical planning as well, including applying for visas and acquiring various vaccinations.
Throughout this entire semester I have been fundraising in order to afford both the $3300 course fee as well as the fees for the visa and vaccinations (which were not inexpensive). I am so pleased and grateful that I received over 20 donations that totaled over $2000, from friends, family, my congregation Stone Church of the Brethren, mentors, classmates, and even a few anonymous gifts. I can honestly say that I would not be completing this course without this amazing display of generosity, and I am so very grateful.
So! If all that doesn’t seem like enough, no worries, because there were plenty more things to keep me excited and busy this semester! My largest and most exciting endeavor was my field education internship at the Memorial Church of Harvard University. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is such an honor to serve at such a historic and significant church. I still have to pinch myself sometimes to remember that I am indeed working at Harvard and helping to lead worship where so many outstanding leaders have before. In early December I had to write a mid-year evaluation (mid-year… already…?!) about my experience so far and how I am reaching my learning goals that we set at the beginning of the semester. In this evaluation, I wrote about how much I love leading Morning Prayers every Friday: “Morning Prayers has quickly become one of my favorite and most challenging parts of my week. I love the routine of preparing Appleton Chapel, the rhythm and flow of the Morning Prayers liturgy, the diversity of speakers and topics, and the music of the Choral Fellows. The regular attendees of Morning Prayers are a loyal and passionate group of people, which has proven to be both a blessing and an opportunity for ministerial growth. Many of our seminarian seminars, as well as one-on-one supervisor meetings, have involved discussion about ministerial presence, ethics, and boundaries in regards to Morning Prayers attendees. I look forward to the gifts and opportunities that leading this service will continue to offer in the spring semester.”
Other opportunities I have had through Memorial Church include attending Graduate Student Day at the church during the Association for College and University Religious Affairs (ACURA) conference on October 28. This was a unique opportunity for networking and hearing from religious professionals about the changing face of ministry and religious life on college campuses around the country, and I was very pleased to be part of the day.
In addition to other regular responsibilities each week or each month, arguably my biggest project as a Seminarian has been a collaboration with Memorial Church’s Multi-Faith Engagement Intern, a Muslim Harvard Divinity School student named Usra. This semester I have helped Usra plan a new program for Harvard students, and this program takes the form of a monthly interfaith storytelling series called “This One Time…” Imagined with NPR’s The Moth in mind, these interfaith storytelling hours are designed with a theme, an open mic, and topics for discussion and response following the shared stories. Usra and I have been working together to come up with themes and dates, to contact and meet with a variety of host and partnering organizations, and to recruit Harvard students to serve as discussion facilitators. We kicked off our first interfaith storytelling hour at Memorial Church on November 13th, with the theme, “Food, Faith and Justice.” On December 11th we had our second event at the Center for the Study of World Religions at HDS and the theme was “Home Sweet Home: Stories of Inherited and Adopted Family.” Storytelling is a huge element of interfaith work, and it is so fun to plan these events with Usra and to listen to the stories and lived experiences of students from a variety of faith and cultural backgrounds.
My interfaith encounters this semester have not been limited to Harvard and the Memorial Church though. A highlight of my second year so far has been my CIRCLE Fellowship. Just a reminder, CIRCLE (the Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education) is a joint initiative of Andover Newton and Hebrew College & Rabbinical School, with whom we share a campus. As it states on the CIRCLE webpage: “Each year CIRCLE welcomes a cohort of 12 new fellows who are knowledgeable and articulate about their own religious tradition, increasingly adept at organizing and facilitating religious educational programming, and committed to working collaboratively with a team of students and faculty from Andover Newton, Hebrew College, and Muslim community partners.” This year I am partnering with a Muslim community member named Basma, who is an Egyptian mother and PhD student. Our shared project is a peer group that meets once a month for an inter-religious text study. We invite students from HC, ANTS, and the community to join as we look at scripture together, and our theme as we study scripture is the “Portrayal of the Religious Other in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Scriptures.” So far we have had 3 meetings (October, November, and December) and we have averaged between 4 and 8 participants each month. Most recently, at Basma’s leading, we have examined passages in the Qur’an that talk about the “People of the Book,” aka Jews and Christians. Members of our group have been surprised to learn how positively the Qur’an portrays Jewish and Christian scriptures, prophets (such as Moses and Jesus), and how Muslims are instructed to interact peacefully with practitioners of those faiths. It has been such a joy to both study scripture in an interfaith context and to work with Basma as my partner. She is bright, articulate, and always willing to learn and ask questions. We have been working well together and are quickly becoming friends in addition to partners. This, in fact, is one of the main goals of the CIRCLE Fellowships, to create relationships between leaders of different faiths, and I would say that Basma and I are meeting that goal already!
Finally, in between courses, field ed, and CIRCLE, I have still been working part-time as a cashier at our campus dining hall, between 15-25 hours a week depending on whether we have special events or unusual circumstances. I am grateful to have this job and for the friendships that I am gaining as a result. I am also still blessed to meet with a small group of friends for a weekly prayer group. Trying to coordinate six women’s class and work schedules was challenging, and the best time for everyone ended up being Thursday nights from 9pm until around 11 or 12pm. Even though this wasn’t an ideal time, each week was still life giving and provided the spiritual support that we each needed.
This has already been way too long of a post, however I want to quickly point out just a few other opportunities I had this semester. In early September, I traveled to Woodstock, Vermont for a kick-off retreat with the other Seminarians at Memorial Church. Our supervisor, Rev. Lucy, and our Ministry Fellow, Alanna, organized a great 24 hours of sharing and learning from one another. It was an important way to start off our year of field ed. On September 21st, I organized a small gathering in honor of International Day of Prayer for Peace, in which several students met in our interfaith garden to read prayers, sing songs, and share statements about building peace in our world. In early October I flew to Baltimore to attend a wedding with Jason, and later that month I traveled to New Hampshire for another retreat, but this time it was for CIRCLE, with the co-directors and other Fellows. Jason also came to visit for a few days in October. In early November I again flew to Baltimore, but this time it was for celebrations with Jason’s family: one of his grandmothers turned 90 and another grandmother turned 100! I was very thankful that his parents offered to fly me down that weekend so that I could attend those parties. Oh!…I also turned 26 in November. 🙂 In December CIRCLE sponsored an event on campus with Eboo Patel, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and one of the persons who first inspired me to care about interfaith work. I was so pleased to hear him speak and attend the event with Basma as a CIRCLE Fellow.
Looking back, it was obviously a full semester, but I know that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Each opportunity and responsibility was something that I deeply love, and that is making me a better human, a more equipped minister, and a deeper person of faith. Right now, I am soaking up the start of my two-week break until I return to Boston to catch our flight to Myanmar on January 2. Don’t worry: I will be sure to write (probably more than one) post about my experiences in Myanmar, as I am positive that I will have beautiful things to share, as well as many hardships and challenges. Until then, I thank you so much for taking the time to read about and pray for my theological education. Your love and support really does make a difference.
I want to leave you with a story about a powerful moment that I had this semester. It happened on a Friday morning. I had just finished leading Morning Prayers at Memorial Church and I was walking back through Harvard Yard to catch the T back home. It had been an especially busy week, Morning Prayers had been my last major responsibility, and I was exhausted. As I walked through the Yard I was thinking to myself, “Alright! You did it. You made it through the week. And you did a pretty good job this week, with everything you did. Great job!” Suddenly in the middle of my little mental pep talk, I suddenly realized something, and I heard myself thinking, “Yes, you did it. But that’s not why you have worth. That’s not why you are loved.” I realized, in that moment, that it wasn’t my busy schedule, my grades, my feedback from my field ed supervisor, or the approval of anyone that gave me dignity and made me matter. In God’s eyes, I have worth because I exist. I am loved because God loves me. Nothing that I can do makes me earn that worth. Rather, I am worthy simply because I am.
Likewise, during this busy holiday season, you might be patting yourself on the back for staying on top of your To Do List, or you might be beating yourself up because you don’t feel accomplished, or wealthy, or smart enough. Let me assure you: your grades, your performance, your Christmas gifts, or your productivity do not make you worthy of love. You are worthy of love simply because you are. Because you exist, and because you are created in the image of God, you are worthy, you have dignity, and you are loved. May this be an encouragement to you, this season, and always.