The last time I wrote (back in mid-February) there had only been 4 feet of snow on the ground. Yes, only 4 feet. In the weeks that followed, those snow banks would grow and grow until we reached the snowiest February in Boston’s history: 110 inches, or over 9 feet! It was hard to explain to friends and family around the country just what 9 feet of snow did to our city, but when the MBTA (our public transportation including subway, busses, and commuter rail) completely shuts down for days, driving and parking in the city is prohibited, people are unable to get to work, children cannot attend school, the governor declares a national emergency (more than once), and funds are requested from FEMA to help with snow removal… you know it’s bad.
So it’s for this reason that I hope you’ll forgive me for not writing since February. It would not be an exaggeration to say that all of this snow threw the rest of the semester out of whack. Andover Newton closed the school on 6 different days (interestingly they were mostly Mondays and Tuesdays, since a lot of our storms arrived early each week) so there were several courses that couldn’t even begin until close to the end of February, weeks after the semester began. Taking the T to and from Memorial Church for field education became an adventure each week. Every week students would gather in our parking lots with shovels in hand to help one another shovel out our cars. As a student worker in our dining hall, I also know that sometimes our weekly food delivery trucks couldn’t even make it up the steep hill to campus, so my boss had to be really creative in what she could serve for meals!
With all of that in mind, it was a busy winter and spring despite the many days of feeling trapped inside an ever-growing igloo. I continued with my field education at the Memorial Church at Harvard, including participating in Sunday morning worship, leading Morning Prayers every Friday, and meeting with the other seminarians and my supervisor weekly. I also added two additional projects this semester at church. First, I connected with and conducted interviews with 3 different Harvard Chaplains to discuss their methods and experiences of pastoral care with students. Since Harvard has over 30 different chaplains from various faith traditions serving the community, I was curious to get a small sample of what pastoral and spiritual care for students looked like. I met with the Episcopal chaplain, the Hindu chaplain, and the Baha’i chaplain, and in each interview I learned more about Harvard culture, the faith traditions of the communities these chaplains serve, and how students are being nurtured and cared for while they are on campus. To sum up these interviews I wrote two different articles highlighting themes that arose during our discussions.
My second new project this semester was supporting a student-initiated discussion series for Harvard first-years. An undergraduate student who is very active at Memorial Church had the idea to begin a weekly discussion called Leading Lives of Joy and Purpose, aimed around ideas of vocation and meaning. In my role as Seminarian I mostly served as a support to her, since she did most of the planning and advertising, as well as guiding our discussions each week. It was a joy to work with this bright student and encourage her and she developed her own skills and confidence.
Another highlight of my time at Memorial Church this year was the opportunity to preach, along with the other Seminarians, during the Seven Last Words of Christ service on Good Friday. This is a service that often takes place in churches on Good Friday and it focuses around the seven last phrases that Jesus uttered on the cross. Along with each “word” there is a hymn, prayer, and several moments of silence before moving on to the next word. This year the word that I preached was John 19:30, “It is finished.” It was a unique challenge and blessing to preach during this service along with the other Seminarians at Memorial Church.
My last day at the Memorial Church for this semester will be this coming Sunday, May 17. However I am going to continue serving there as a Seminarian next fall, so I am looking forward to deepening my experience there and hopefully continuing some of the ministries that I was involved with this year.
In terms of courses this semester I took 3 classes in addition to my credits for field education. First on the docket was the second semester of Systematic Theology, in which we covered soteriology (salvation), ecclesiology (the Church), and eschatology (end times). This semester was also slightly different because we were a pilot course for a new grant that ANTS received called Science for Seminaries. In addition to our regular readings and assignments, we participated in 3 new modules where local scientists would join our course to lead a seminar on scientific material related to that unit’s topic. Specifically we looked at scientific suggestions of the existence of God and the interconnectedness of the universe (during the salvation unit) as well as advances in biology and technology, climate change, and the trajectory of the cosmos that all influence where humanity and our world is headed in the future (during the end times unit). These modules added a unique flavor to our theological discussions. Even though science was never really my favorite subject, the modules were always interesting and I can say that there are probably very few other seminaries where these kinds of topics are discussed alongside Christian doctrine.
I also completed my final scriptural requirement, a course called The River: Latter Prophets and Writings. This is a Hebrew Bible or Old Testament class and as the title suggests we learned about the latter prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Hosea as well as books that fall under the category of “Writings:” Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, to name a few. Many of my classmates found this course and the professor to be challenging but personally I loved it! I thought the material was taught with a blend of poetry and prose, and even though I grew up reading the Bible and even studied the Bible as an undergrad, I learned so much from this semester. One of our assignments was to create a detailed timeline of the prophets and kings of Israel and Judah between 800 and 400 BCE, along with other major events in Israelite history and in the Ancient Near East at that time. This was one of the most practical and useful Biblical assignments I will probably complete during my time in seminary. Now anytime that I preach or lead a Bible study from one of these texts, I’ll have a clear timeline in front of me to better understand the context and setting of the prophets’ words.
My last class was an online course on Clergy Ethics. Online courses are always a little tricky because the majority of the work involves completing the reading each week, posting to a discussion forum in response to the reading, and replying to your classmates’ posts. Unlike in-person classes, where you can sometimes get away with just skimming the reading or not participating in class every week, in an online course you must contribute and participate every week in a public way, at least if you want a good grade! This course was a nice mix of reading, assignments such as a vocational autobiography and an interview with a religious leader, and a few case studies. We discussed topics such as character and virtue, trustworthiness, boundaries, and the public nature of ministry (aka the pastor’s life in the fishbowl). Even though it wasn’t always the most engaging material, it was a worthy class and I was glad to have the opportunity to reflect deeper on things like professional boundaries and the character of the minister.
So that was all for coursework and field ed! As you might remember, I also had a CIRCLE Fellowship this year, in which I partnered with a person of a different faith to complete a year-long project. My partner, a Muslim PhD student named Basma, and I quickly became friends and deeply enjoyed working together this year. Our project was a monthly interfaith peer group called “Portrayal of the Religious Other in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Scriptures.” During these meetings we looked at one or more than one passage of scripture that portrayed a person or community that would be considered a religious outsider to that faith tradition. Basma brought several passages from the Qur’an that instruct Muslims on how to interact with the “People of the Book,” (aka Jews and Christians) as well as a passage that mentions the Christian prophet Jesus, and she facilitated discussion around those passages. I provided several passages from the New Testament, one story of Jesus interacting with a Gentile woman (in Mark 7) and one parable of Jesus that portrays a Religious Other (Luke 10), and led discussion of those texts. We also invited another CIRCLE Fellow from Hebrew College to join us one month with a Jewish text to discuss, and he brought a passage from midrash that includes commentary on Jews going to non-Jews for medical care. From month to month our attendance varied, but we averaged around 3 or 4 people, not including us, during each of our discussions. The small groups were a nice way to really explore the texts together, and there is something special about studying scripture with those who are not your own faith. I gained some insights from my Muslim neighbors when they read stories from the New Testament that I might never had thought about before!
Another opportunity that I was given this semester came as a result of my role as a Contributing Scholar on the interfaith blog, State of Formation. SoF is also a program of CIRCLE, and they have an ongoing relationship with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I was invited to join other State of Formation writers on a personalized tour of the museum as well as conversations on religion, genocide, and the implications for our own interfaith work. So at the end of March, I flew to DC for this opportunity to meet other 10 other SoF Contributing Scholars and editors, tour the museum, and participate in these frank but important discussions. Even though the museum is a heavy and heart-wrenching experience, I was encouraged by the thoughtfulness and intentionality of my Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and humanist peers as we wrestled with this material together. As a result of our trip, we each paired up to write a collaborative piece for State of Formation about our experience and what we learned. The piece I wrote with Wendy Webber of the Yale Humanist Community can be found here.
A handful of other things that kept me busy this semester: organizing and leading an ANTS chapel service with my classmates about our border-crossing experience in Myanmar this past January, serving on a Tenure and Promotion Review committee for two ANTS faculty members, continuing to work as a student cashier in our campus dining hall, leading two workshops with Basma during the Andover Newton/Hebrew College Joint Community Day, meeting once a week with my prayer group to support and hold one another in prayer, traveling to New York City for a family girls’ weekend in March to celebrate my aunt’s birthday (the Thomas gals… so much fun!), and spending a long weekend with my parents when they visited in April!
There are so many other things I could write about, including some exciting plans for the summer, but I think I’ll leave that for a future post (that I won’t wait 3 months to write)! The good news is I’ve officially finished my second year of seminary, and because of the credits I transferred from Bethany Theological Seminary, I only have one more semester and then I’ll be finished in December 2015. Looking back, this was one of my busiest years yet. But I know that busy doesn’t equal successful or faithful. (I need to remind myself of this, more often than I’d like to admit).
I’ll leave you with something that I wrote in my final evaluation for field education, and I think this is a good summary of one of my most important theological lessons this year:
“Perhaps my most profound discovery this year has been the role of the minister to see every moment or interaction as an act of worship or an opportunity for transformation. This is obviously easier said than done. But many times when I have reflected back on a certain conversation or on an internal struggle, it has been my personal challenge to find God’s presence, somehow, in the middle of it. This phenomenon has been called the intersection of the secular and the sacred. There is a kind of pastoral imagination that is required to do ministry well, and I believe that while that the soil of the imagination can always be cultivated and enriched through theological reflection, the initial seed was planted inside of me by God.”