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.”

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.

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!

A Corinthian Conversation

I am part of an interfaith peer group through Andover Newton and Hebrew College’s CIRCLE program (Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education). The group is called “Engaging Sacred Sources of Violence” and we examine scripture, rituals, and stories from the Jewish and Christian traditions that are violent or otherwise not life-affirming for women. Julie, an ANTS student, and Salem, a rabbinical student at HC, are the two intelligent and thoughtful CIRCLE Fellows and co-leaders for this peer group. When we met in February, I was asked to lead the discussion and chose to examine 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, part of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, as recorded in the New Testament. Last month our conversation around this text was so engaging that we could not get to all of the material in just 45 minutes, so we continued our discussion today. The text is as follows:

2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husbanda is the head of his wife,b and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflectionc of God; but woman is the reflectiond of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol ofe authority on her head,f because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

a The same Greek work means man or husband
b Or head of the woman
c Or glory
d Or glory
e Greek lacks a symbol of
f Or have freedom of choice regarding her head

Obviously this is a difficult text, especially for women. I mean, verse 7 alone: “For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man”… ouch. I wish I had the space (and your attention span!) to recount everything that I researched and, more importantly, everything that we discussed about this passage over two different sessions. If I was going to share everything…

…We could go in depth about the historical, geographical, and religious context of the Corinthian church to whom this letter was written: what head coverings and hairstyles meant and symbolized for the rituals of Greek and Roman religions, and how physical gender differentiation was important for many writers of that time, not just Paul.

…Furthermore, we might examine the rhetorical devices and language that Paul uses in this text: how he balances and frames his argument (when men pray with their heads uncovered, they pray properly, but when women pray with their heads uncovered, they are not praying properly), how certain Greek words can have various English translations and what those translations imply about the meaning of the passage (biblical scholars have found verse 10 to be an especially tricky verse to translate).

…We could also note how Paul appears to change his mind halfway through this text. He does argue in in verses 8 and 9 that “man was not made from woman but woman from man” and “neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.” These words are troubling to hear, no doubt. But just a few sentences later… “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman but all things come from God.” This is a striking reversal of the statement he just made in verses 8 and 9, implying mutuality or even equality between men and women. So what does Paul really think about relationships between men and women in this passage, let alone his thoughts on head coverings? If you really look, it is challenging to come up with one argument to sum it all up, without any sort of nuance or qualifiers.

Now, I know that an in-depth text study might not be the thing that you are most excited to read about (what can I say… seminarians and rabbinical students tend to like this sort of thing). But what made our discussions around this passage so engaging, and what I hope you’ll find interesting as well, was not so much the text per se, but the individuals and perspectives in the conversation itself. We discussed varying values and authority of scripture, how Jews and Christians look at and understand their sacred texts in different ways, and how we use scripture in worship and in our personal and daily lives.

For example, Salem shared that, in some Jewish communities, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is read in worship all the way through in a year. This means that (theoretically) all Jews read and hear each part of the Torah at least once a year, including the texts that are encouraging and affirming, and also the texts that are troubling, confusing, or violent. In one way, this can be empowering because even if each specific passage is not preached on, you still hear each passage, and, as Salem put it, “the onus is on all the people,” to hear and acknowledge each part of the Torah. Yet as Salem reminded us, the fact that each year the community is “forced” to listen to certain stories and passages without much choice could also be considered a kind of violence.

In turn, Julie and I thought about the practice of reading scripture in Christian worship, and the variations of doing so. Some churches follow the lectionary, where the texts and scripture lessons are already planned, and any Christian community anywhere in the world who is following that lectionary is hearing and preaching on the same text that day. This has many similarities to the reading of the Torah that Salem described. Other churches (like the Church of the Brethren) do not follow a lectionary, and thus pastors and worship leaders choose which passage and lesson will be the focus of worship each week. Some of the questions we raised were: What does it mean when a faith community can pick and choose which passages to read? Is there freedom or is there censorship in those choices? Life-affirming or not, who gets to decide which texts are preached on and which texts are ignored or never taught?

But really, you’re asking…what does all this have to do with this passage from 1 Corinthians? Well, for one, we were wondering what we might do with a passage like this on a Sunday morning, a passage that clearly gives some mixed messages about gender relations, but also has significant theological implications that have been pervasive throughout church history. Some of the theology of this text (God > Christ > Man > Woman, in verse 3) has been used to justify gendered hierarchy within the church, patriarchy in Christendom and beyond, and oppression and violence toward women because they are not “in the image and reflection of God” as men are, according to verse 7 of this passage. But as Christians we cannot deny that such a troubling passage is still part of our sacred scriptures. Do we say that this theology and this specific passage is sacred? From the pulpit? (What about in a bible study, or during a one-on-one with a women who has experienced domestic violence?) Or do we choose to reject this passage and passages like it as being from a different time and culture than ours and therefore irrelevant and untrue in the 21st century world? Or do we intentionally choose to engage with this text, examine the complexities and nuance in the words and translation, acknowledge and lament the ways in which this text has been used to subjugate and harm women, and work as a community to figure out if or how 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 can be part of our holy and sacred scriptures?

If you couldn’t tell, I am just brushing up against the surface of what is really an iceberg of a discussion. There is so much more that could be said, and I’m choosing a small part to share with you here. Also, I am not claiming in any way to have this figured out, for myself or others. But I’m curious: what do you think? If you are a Christian, has this text (or texts like it) ever been preached on or discussed in your church or bible study? Have you yourself preached on this text? How might this passage be handled in a faith community that also considers other, life-affirming words of Paul (such as Galatians 3:28) to be inspired teaching? If you are committed to a different faith or worldview than Christianity, how does your community approach challenging texts or sacred sources that justify or at least imply subjugation, oppression, or violence?

Thanks for learning with me, and supporting my ongoing lessons about God, faith, and community.

Spring! …Semester, That Is

Spring has sprung! At least for the academic year, anyway. (The current temperature begs to differ.) I’m gearing up for what looks to be an exciting semester, and before things become too hectic around here, I thought I’d share a little about what I have to look forward to and what’s been on my mind.

I’m taking 4 courses again, and continuing to work as a cashier in the campus dining hall. In addition to classes and work, I am also becoming more involved in an interfaith peer group through a program of Andover Newton and Hebrew College called CIRCLE (Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education). This semester I am very happy that I am able to participate in the community choir that sings at our weekly worship services. Oh, and did I mention that throughout the semester I will be researching, interviewing, and eventually confirming a ministry site where I’ll complete next year’s required field education? There are many exciting possibilities that this spring will bring!

My classes this semester include: Introduction to Christian Social Ethics (which involves reading important people like Reinhold Niebuhr and Chimamanda Adichie); A Hundred Years of Preaching: 20th Century U.S. Sermons (paying special attention to progressive mainline preaching, Pentecostal preaching, and African-American preaching); Jesus, Paul, and Judaism (a New Testament course examining how Judaism influenced Jesus and Paul in the shaping of early Christianity); and Understanding Interfaith (an online course that unpacks “interfaith” personally, historically, theologically, and practically). Sounds like a fun course load to me!

Just a FEW of my books for the semester

Just a FEW of my books for the semester

I mentioned that I am part of an interfaith peer group through the CIRCLE program. The topic for my group is Engaging Sacred Sources of Violence, and it is co-led by an MA student from Andover Newton and a rabbinical student from Hebrew College. The goal is to explore and interrogate sources from our Christian and Jewish traditions that are not and have not been interpreted as life affirming for women, and this includes not just scripture but also traditions and practices. On Monday I am taking a turn leading our discussion, and in preparation I’ve been researching 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, where Paul writes about women covering their heads while they pray. (If you aren’t sure what this passage has to do with violence, go ahead and read it… Or better yet, perhaps I will blog about it in the future!) This group has been a great way to form significant relationships and to immerse myself in a different type of learning outside of the classroom setting. I would love to lead a CIRCLE peer group of my own in the future.

All of these priorities and commitments (class, work, CIRCLE, choir, planning for next year…etc. etc. etc.) can add up to very full days and not much room for self-care. And admittedly, at times I can be pretty lax about taking care of ME, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That’s where community and discipline come in to play. In the middle of finals week last December, a few friends of mine decided to be intentional about self-care in community with others. We started a small prayer group where we can come together to care for and hold each other in sacred time and space. Without our trying, it even turned out to be an interfaith group, with two women from the United Church of Christ, two who are Unitarian Universalist, and one who is Church of the Brethren (you get one guess as to who that one is…) But while it might seem like a small thing, what an enormous amount of support and love a group like this can generate. I am so grateful! Additionally I have started practicing yoga most mornings, with the guidance and suggestions of a friend who is trained in yoga therapy. When we met for the first time, she asked me, “Does practicing yoga conflict with any of your Christian beliefs?” In my opinion, for too long the Church has frowned on our earthly bodies, or the “flesh,” as separate and sinful compared to our “spirit.” But to what end? Our bodies are real, our hands serve and our arms hold others in love, our feet walk and run to do the work that brings the restoration of God’s kingdom. By using yoga as a spiritual practice, I do my part to redeem the flesh and body that is mine, to be thankful for my body and my soul that was created in the image of God.

So there are many things to look forward to this semester, and I am grateful to be back in a routine with my classmates and friends. But… can I be honest? I am still worried and can become quite stressed about things that, in all honesty, are out of my control right now. Where will I be and what will I be doing this summer? How can I pay the extra rent to keep my same apartment next year? How much am I in debt, and how much more debt am I accumulating right now? When these questions and concerns arise, I do well to remember that God is faithful. Be still, I read in Psalm 46, and know that I am God. And yet I ask, will you pray with me? Pray that I find Christ’s peace in this time and place, that I feel the Spirit’s assuring presence, and that I rest in God’s faithfulness and promise in this call. Amen and amen. Your prayers are felt and welcomed. Thank you.