Seminary in the Snow: Spring 2015

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.

Snow completely covering a bench at the Newton Centre T stop

Snow completely covering a bench at the Newton Centre T stop

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 prophets chart for The River

My prophets chart for The River

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!

Basma and I after leading two workshops on Community Day

Basma and I after leading two workshops on Community Day

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.

Wall showing tattoos of concentration camp prisoners

Wall showing tattoos of concentration camp prisoners

Dr. Victoria Barnett leading our tour

Dr. Victoria Barnett leading our tour

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.”

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When Snow Cancels Church

It’s amazing what 4 feet of snow can do.

It can drastically change the scenery outside your window. It can dictate your daily routine, adding an extra 30-60 minutes to shovel out your front door, sidewalks, driveway, and car. It can cause major holdups or terrible traffic on your morning commute. It can delay or cancel schools and businesses for days at a time. It can take city employees away from their families for days in order to plow highways, city streets, and back roads. It can cause the state’s largest mass transit system to literally shut down.

Four feet of snow can unite communities in common frustration and helplessness. It can give everyone something to complain about, together. Or it can ignite communities to work together to shovel out the homes of the elderly and shut-ins, to build snow people on the streets, or to donate items for the homeless who are especially vulnerable during this time.

For my community, it prompted a rare opportunity for Sunday morning worship, together.

In case you haven’t heard (i.e. you’ve been living under a rock), we have had some snow in Boston. It’s been a historic winter, with close to 4 feet of snow piling up just in the past three weeks. School cancellations have been the norm, it takes twice as long to travel anywhere both locally and statewide, and there is literally nowhere to put it all. The plow trucks can only pile the snow so high. Our streets and especially our sidewalks have become more and more narrow, almost disappearing altogether.

That’s why this past Sunday’s blizzard, during which we were only supposed to get a foot of snow (yeah, you read that right, ONLY a foot of snow. It’s all relative up here), caused most churches in the Boston area to defer to Mother Nature and cancel their services. The Memorial Church was one of these places, and many of my classmates’ churches and field education sites did the same.

So would you expect a bunch of seminarians with a rare Sunday morning off to use that time to sleep in or catch up on schoolwork? Heck, no! Instead we used it as an opportunity to gather in our student lounge for an informal time of worship and fellowship. We trekked to the lounge from our residence halls (literally trekked, the campus hadn’t been plowed yet) to sing, share poems and scripture, lift up prayers of joy and prayers of concern, and simply be together.

I was so refreshed and fed by this simple gathering. Each Sunday I have the privilege of helping to lead worship in the beautiful and historical Memorial Church, a community that takes pride in its legacy of intellectual Christianity and its high standard of excellence in music, preaching, and worship. Every week I don a black ministers’ robe and once a month serve Eucharist from the polished Harvard china. But there was something deeply satisfying and moving in Sunday’s change of scenery: sitting on a couch in my wool socks, holding the hands of my Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, and pluralist classmates, singing (by request, “In the Bleak Midwinter”) to a guitar instead of an organ, hearing the Word of God through slam poetry, the Mourner’s Kaddish, Mary Oliver, and Henri Nouwen, and cradling the many prayers around the circle in our hearts.

As we worshipped together, through the windows we could see the slow swirling and blowing around outside. Despite the many ways that this winter has been challenging, there have also been many blessings to find. Like I said, it’s amazing what 4 feet of snow can do.

Looking Back at Fall 2014

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.

A beautiful shot of the Memorial Church sanctuary from the balcony. You can also see Appleton Chapel behind the sanctuary, where Morning Prayers takes place

A beautiful shot of the Memorial Church sanctuary from the balcony. You can also see Appleton Chapel behind the sanctuary, where Morning Prayers takes place

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.

Me with Eboo Patel at Andover Newton

Me with Eboo Patel at Andover Newton

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.

Palms in the City

This morning, on Palm Sunday, I attended worship at the Memorial Church of Harvard University. With many others, I joined the procession to the front of the sanctuary to receive a palm branch as we remembered Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to begin the last week of his life on earth. As I spun around to return to my seat, branch in hand, I caught a glimpse of the back balcony where the Harvard University Choir was singing. The sounds of their harmonies accompanied the sight of quivering and dancing branches poking up between their robes and music folders. “Hosanna!” their voices rang, echoing the shouts of praise from two centuries ago.

When the service was over, I began my hour-long commute from Cambridge back to Newton Centre on Boston’s subway system, the T. As I waited beside the tracks, the crowd waiting with me steadily grew. A college student with chipped nail polish and an overstuffed book bag, a man with salt-and-pepper hair talking on his iPhone, a woman carrying bags of groceries, travelers with their suitcases and city maps. I noticed one or two other people with branches of various sizes and shapes, undoubtedly coming from a morning worship service as well. With my palm branch still in my hands, waiting for the T, I suddenly felt a connection to that crowd in Jerusalem long ago, waiting for the appearance of this man named Jesus. We too, are in the city, anticipating the start of a holy week. We too, gather to wait for the light and the dark, the meal and the mourning, the chaos of the cross and the rejoicing of the resurrection.

My small but sturdy palm branch might have seemed out of place on the busy platform or the crowded train, but didn’t Jesus seem out of place as he chose a slow and humble donkey to enter the bustling city of Jerusalem, its citizens hurriedly preparing for Passover? Crying “Hosanna” just a few days before we remember Jesus’ crucifixion on a Roman cross might appear strange or out of touch, but how much more counter-cultural is it to live in this city still recovering from the pain and darkness of the marathon bombings a year ago and yet proclaim resurrection and new life?

Entering into Holy Week, may the surprising and continual grace of God accompany you and me, as we wait for Jesus to enter our lives in new and unusual ways, and may our palm branches be ready to wave and dance in celebration and praise.

Do not be afraid; just believe.

Week 1 in Boston is in the books. Well, I don’t know if I would say it was one for the books, because it was a little anticlimactic, to be honest. If you’ll indulge me:

I moved here two weeks before classes started, and there were many reasons why. The lease for my campus apartment started on September 1st, my parents and Jason were all available to help me move that weekend, I was finished with AmeriCorps, I wanted to get to know the area a little before classes started: all good reasons. But having good reasons for moving two weeks before it was necessary doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be a hard transition. Because it was (and still is).

After Jason and my parents said their goodbyes and drove back to Pennsylvania, my first full day completely on my own was Labor Day, a day when few shops and places in Newton Centre were open and virtually no one was around campus. Talk about quiet. True, there is nothing wrong with quiet, and I often enjoy spending time by myself (aka reading). But for an extravert who moved to a brand new place on my own, the lack of substantial human contact for the first few days was disheartening.

This week I have found comfort in the story from Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus is asked to come to the house of Jarius, one of the synagogue rulers, to heal his small daughter who was close to death. While they are still on their way, some men from the synagogue come out to tell Jarius that his daughter has died, and there is no need to bother Jesus anymore. Ignoring the men, Jesus walks into the home and brings the child back to life, but not before assuring Jaruis, “Do not be afraid; just believe.”

Do not be afraid; just believe. That should be my mantra at the end of this challenging week, and as I look forward to another full week ahead before classes begin on September 16th. Today, Saturday, I struggle as my heart and thoughts are aching and full. I am thinking of friends and family who are dealing with various hardships, about which I can do little to nothing, and I am also rejoicing from afar as dear friends celebrate joys like weddings and birthdays. How I wish I wasn’t many hours and many more miles away from these loved ones. I struggle with guilt as I am so far removed from these important and challenging occasions and situations, while I also resist the urge for self pity, trusting that the God who holds the stars together also holds me when I feel unsure and vulnerable.

Do not be afraid; just believe.

This is not all a sob story: in the past few days I have indeed met a few folks from campus, explored a little of Newton Centre (a lot of cute restaurants, frozen yogurt shops, and an adorable locally owned bookstore that it took a lot of self discipline to walk out of without purchasing anything), and saw a few friends and family in the area, all of which have been wonderful and much needed. All the same, I thank you for your thoughts and your prayers as this transition continues to unfold and as I approach the start of the semester very soon.

Do not be afraid; just believe.

God of Inmost Thoughts, thank you for giving me a mind that continues to challenge my own complacency and clarify every uncertain feeling, as frustrating as that can be. Thank you for new adventures and especially for family and friends: new, near, far, and very far. Be here in this struggle and this place of unease. For you are in every joy, hardship, and all the sticky places in between, Amen.

Here’s the Story

The view from the top of 1000 Steps never gets old.

The view from the top of 1000 Steps never gets old.

This Saturday afternoon I am feeling especially blessed. My boyfriend, Jason, and I hiked 1000 Steps yesterday evening, which is a popular hike right outside Huntingdon. Technically climbing over 1000 stone steps to the first landing, and even more to the top, this is an adventure rewarded with some amazing views of Central Pennsylvania’s mountains. It’s a workout to the top, but always worth it. This morning we checked out a yard sale at Stone Church that benefited the youth group (snagged a few bargains for my new apartment in Boston!) and baked some chocolate chip cookies. Tonight I’m looking forward to celebrating with Huntingdon friends as we say “See you later” to another young professional moving away after she worked for a year at Juniata. Ah, the blessings of making memories and creating stories in this small town life.

I mentioned in my previous post that I would give more details about why I decided on Andover Newton and attending seminary in general. I am true to my word! Two years ago, when I first started looking into graduate and/or theological school, my college chaplain, mentor, and current boss (for another month), Dave, helped me look a few schools that could be a fit for my interests and calling. I considered Bethany Theological School in Indiana (the Church of the Brethren’s seminary), Princeton Theological School, Hartford Seminary (in Connecticut), Claremont School of Theology (in California), and Andover Newton Theological School.

Bethany Theological Seminary would have been the best choice for me if I felt called specifically to pastoral leadership in a Church of the Brethren congregation.  I love the Church of the Brethren, and will be licensed to ministry in less than a month. But I knew that I needed a seminary that could offer in depth studies rooted in interfaith understanding. So I decided to still take several Bethany classes, both intensives and online, over the past year. It was a wonderful experience to get my feet wet in theological education and to start building a foundation of Brethren coursework and theology. I met many inspiring people at Bethany and it will continue to be dear to my heart. However most of the other programs and schools mentioned above focus in one way or another on interfaith relationships and/or Christian leadership in a religiously pluralistic world. This is a direction that many seminaries and theological schools should be heading in the future, and many of the aforementioned schools are leaders in this area already.

One of the things that stuck out most to me during this decision-making process was a letter that I received from the president at Andover Newton, Nick Carter. Now I know that many of these letters go out to prospective students, but hear me out on this one. In describing the culture and atmosphere of the school, this line stayed with me, “A word of caution: if you are looking for a school where everyone looks the same, thinks the same and worships the same, don’t come to Andover Newton. I’m serious. But if you are interested in a diverse community that will make you think, challenge you to be clear about what you believe, and prepare you for a new kind of servant leadership in a complex and pluralistic world, then look no further.” I was intrigued.

I scheduled a visit in April of 2011, right around Easter. The first thing I noticed about the school was how similar it looked and felt to Juniata College, from where I was about to graduate. The school is small, located on a hill in Newton Centre, with several welcoming brick buildings lining a road that creates an oval-shaped loop through the campus. Everyone I met was approachable and friendly, from current students and faculty to the Dean of Students. Another unique aspect of ANTS that I appreciated was the fact that it shares a campus with Hebrew College & Rabbinical School, collaborating on many curricular and co-curricular opportunities. The culture of interfaith dialogue was physical one, as well as one that was interwoven with classes, service days, and ministry opportunities.

Seminary is in some ways very similar to graduate school, and in other ways it’s a whole other animal. Yes, seminary students are working diligently towards masters degrees or doctoral degrees, through fieldwork and/or intense research. Yes, we are placed into cohorts (in my case a Community Covent Group, or CCG), work with academic advisors, and move through career and vocational discernment. But Dave once described seminary versus graduate school to me like this: If I were to attend a graduate school for an MA in Religion or Biblical Studies, for example, I would take many of the same classes that a seminary offers: learning about religious texts, sacred rituals, and belief systems. I would receive a great education, no doubt. But seminary offers all of the academic and intellectual challenges of graduate school PLUS an additional spiritual formation piece that is the trademark of education for religious leaders. In other words, how does what you are studying impact your sense of call, or your place as a Christian leader, or your understanding of God and humankind? Seminary education provides and encourages spiritual support as well as academic achievement.

In preparation for this new chapter of my life, I am currently reading a book that was lent to me entitled, “The Close: A Young Woman’s First Year at Seminary”, by Chloe Breyer. While she is chronicling her journey to Episcopal priesthood at New York City’s General Theological Seminary, and I am embarking on my own journey at a different seminary and as part of a completely different Christian denomination, I am still connecting to her experience and inspired by her words. It is a beautifully written book that I am finding both excites and prepares me for the challenges and blessings of the next three years. In the first chapter, she attempts to describe her call to ministry and seminary, which is a task that every pastor, chaplain, and seminarian naturally must undertake. After relaying her personal story about when she experienced her call, and sharing a few stories from her classmates, she concludes in a way that I feel both summarizes her own sense of call and most likely mirrors the stories of every seminarian, past, present, and future:

“My reasons for attending seminary are uniquely my own. But what distinguishes everyone in my class from graduate students in secular fields is that each of us has a story woven into the Story that begins with Genesis and ends with Revelation. Our stories have distinctly personal settings…But they are also part of something archetypal. In our minds, they are Paul’s story or Mary Magdalene’s story, or Deborah’s or King David’s story. Our personal stories are linked to the Christian story about a God who would limit himself in time and space and whose life, death, and resurrection offer us grace—the fruit of which is service to one another” (xvii).

Thank you, once again, for your support and your prayers as my future classmates and I continue to discern how our stories weave within and throughout the Story of God’s divine love.

In the Beginning

Did you ever have one of those moments where you just knew, deep in your bones, at that moment, you were right where you were supposed to be? A moment of clarity, of affirmation, an Aha Moment, or a realization of yourself and your place in the world? These moments are not always permanent, nor are they always 100% clear, but somehow you just know that something clicked for you, and you also know that you want to do everything you can to follow this intuition.

I had one of those, a few years ago, while I was still in college. I was attending a conference, my first official interfaith gathering as a young person who was just beginning to explore what it meant to be a Christian in a religiously diverse world. As a college student, I was by far the youngest person at this convening that included Catholic campus ministers, Jewish spiritual directors, Sikh activists, and various other spiritual nomads, but we gathered because we all believed that interfaith dialogue was an important tool in working for peace. Towards the end of the week, I was walking from my room to another session when suddenly a wave of assurance washed over me. I realized, and I heard, from somewhere deep inside of me, “Yes, this is exactly where you are meant to be.” I was meant to be at this place for this conference, true, but I was also meant to be in this place where faith is a source of hope and cooperation, instead of a reason for dismissal or conflict. I was meant to be in this place where I begin to hear God’s call to ministry in my own life, and I was meant to be in this place where I seek mentorship and guidance from those who have gone before me. Yes. This is exactly where you are meant to be.

That was three years ago, and I still remember the intensity and clarity of that moment. I don’t know how often moments like that come along, but they can serve as inspirations and reminders that God does work in beautiful and often mysterious ways as we learn to navigate what Mary Oliver calls, “our one wild and precious life.”

For the past two years I have served as an AmeriCorps Member at my alma mater, Juniata College, in the Campus Ministry Office. I have been the Interfaith Service Coordinator, coordinating a program called Planting Seeds, in which students of different religious and non-religious backgrounds learn and serve their community together. Two years ago I was accepted for a Master of Divinity program at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, MA (right outside Boston). However, part of discerning a call to ministry is discerning the timing. I have since deferred my admission to ANTS twice, both times in order to continue my ministry and service at Juniata. However after two years, now is the time.

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Wilson Chapel on Andover Newton’s campus

At the end of August I will pack up my (relatively few) worldly belongings and make the 7.5 hour trek from Huntingdon to Boston, where I will live and study for the next three years. This is exciting, this is challenging, this is unknown! But I trust that this is the right place for me, and the place where God is calling me… deep, deep in my bones.

What is an MDiv, exactly? Is seminary different than graduate school? Why Andover Newton? What do you want to eventually do with your degree? And why is your blog called Agape Latte? These are all great questions and ones that I will be sure to delve into during future posts. (To answer the last question though, I recommend you check out the About Lauren tab above.) For now though, I thank you for your support and encouragement as I continue to be in conversation with God, and with you, about this journey of seminary, ministry, interfaith, and the adventures along the way.