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.”

Myanmar Reflections, Part 1 of 3: The Church in Myanmar

Mingalaba! (Hello!) It has been a little over a week since we returned from Myanmar and I am so excited to share my experiences. Our two weeks in Southeast Asia were intense, filled with beauty, hospitality, and intentionality. There is no way that I can adequately describe the fullness of our trip in a few blog posts, and I am positive that some experiences can never be completely recounted, even though I will try my best. For the purposes of this blog, I have decided to write three separate posts around different themes that I found to be important and recurring. These posts are in no way comprehensive. I have so many more stories and I have learned so much beyond what I can share here. If you’d love to hear more, I would love to talk to you personally! Let’s find a time to talk on the phone or in person.

Before I begin, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank each person who prayed for our group while we were traveling. Your prayers were felt! And I especially want to thank each person who made a donation to my fundraiser to afford the cost of this course. I am so deeply grateful and humbled by your generosity, and I quite honestly wouldn’t have had this unique opportunity without you. Thank you!

So…we begin.

Part 1: The Myanmar Church

A mere twelve hours after arriving in Myanmar, our group of 13 Andover Newton students, faculty, and friends began our educational journey with a first hand look at what the Church looks like in Myanmar.

We first checked into our hotel around midnight on Saturday, and after a grateful night’s sleep we were warmly welcomed into Sunday morning worship at Ywama Baptist Church in Yangon. As we hopped out of the vans that transported us from the hotel to the church, we were ushered into a small room filled with medicine cabinets, chairs, and a desk. “This is the Charity Healthcare Clinic of the Ywama Baptist Church,” one of the church elders explained, who introduced herself as Dr. Mary. This congregation has been running a free health clinic for their community since 2003. There are several doctors and nurses in the congregation, and there is not adequate health care available in Myanmar, so anyone who walks through the doors of the clinic receives treatment, regardless of religion or ethnic group. According to a brochure about the clinic, about 9,000 patients are treated every year, and the congregation provides this outreach out of a deep conviction about the importance of Jesus’ healing ministry. If Jesus was a healer, why shouldn’t his church be in the healing business as well?

Dr. Mary telling us about the Health Clinic

Dr. Mary telling us about the Health Clinic

After a short tour of the clinic, we began to hear organ music, and I realized I was hearing old familiar hymns, such as How Great Thou Art. I immediately felt a connection to this community that I was visiting for the first time. Isn’t it amazing what music has the power to do? We were guided into a few rows toward the front of the sanctuary and I snuck a look behind me. The church was packed! There were hundreds of people filling the rows, and that was just the center room. To the left and the right of the main worship area I saw side porches with pews that were also filled to the edges. At the front of the church sat the choir, a pianist, an organist, and a small band comprised of a few teenagers playing flutes and violins. The service was conducted mainly in Burmese. One of the pastors of this church, Rev. Dr. Maung Maung Yin, is dear friend of one of the ANTS professors on the trip, Dr. Brita Gill-Austern. He introduced his guests from Andover Newton Theological School, adding in a few English sentences here and there so that we guests knew what was going on. We sang hymns such as Spirit of the Living God and All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, the congregation singing in Burmese and us singing along in English. And boy, can that congregation sing! I kept thinking of churches in the United States where you can hardly hear any folks in the pews. Not here! The joyful bellows from this congregation made my heart swell.

Ywama Baptist Church

Ywama Baptist Church

Our two ANTS professors, Dr. Brita and Dr. Mark Heim, gave words of greeting from Andover Newton and from the American Baptist Churches. During the sermon, a few church elders sitting next to us passed us notes (in English) describing the main points of the message so we wouldn’t feel too lost. Finally, to conclude the service, Holy Communion was served, Baptist-style (also, I would add, Brethren style!). It was a beautiful moment to partake in the bread and the cup, the symbols of Christ’s love and passion, across languages and across cultures, while still sitting at the same table of fellowship and faith.

Mark, Maung Maung, and Brita

Mark, Maung Maung, and Brita

Following worship a few members of the church led us to another building where we could hear the echoes of children chattering before we even reached the door. In addition to their free health clinic, another outreach of the Ywama Baptist Church is the Sharing Love Program, which serves children from the lowest and poorest neighborhoods in the area. We stepped inside the building to see a group of 60-70 children sitting on the floor listening to a story that a teacher was reading to them. Chatting with one of the younger female teachers beside me, I learned that the children of the Sharing Love program hear Bible stories, are taught lessons about health, hygiene, and moral values, learn songs and play games, and receive a meal. That morning, we had brought a suitcase full of children’s books that we had collected from the States, and when the teachers announced in Burmese that each of them could select a book to take home, they murmured excitedly and snuck us curious glances and shy smiles. Suddenly the teachers began singing a song, and the children all stood up and began to sing loudly, adding hand gestures and movements to the music. One of the songs they sang was one that we Americans immediately recognized: the Hokey Pokey! We began to join in, singing along in English and putting our left foot in, putting our left foot out, until they started to giggle at their silly guests! We couldn’t speak the same language but we could still shake their tiny hands and give each other great big smiles.

Children of the Sharing Love Program listening to a story

Children of the Sharing Love Program listening to a story

Ywama Baptist Church is just one example of the incredible witness of the church in Myanmar. Throughout that first week we also spent time at two different seminaries in Yangon: Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT for short) and Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary. In Myanmar, Buddhism is not just the majority religion; it is also the state religion. Furthermore Christians in Myanmar are not only religious minorities, but they are also usually ethnic minorities as well. One of the most important identity markers in Myanmar is your ethnic group: Chen, Kachin, Karen, Lisu, etc. The Burmese comprise about 45% of the population and are the largest ethnic group in the country. Most Burmese people also identify as Buddhist. Therefore, if you are a Christian in Myanmar, you are likely to be a member of both a minority religion and a minority ethnic group.

These ethnic and religious factors pose unique challenges and opportunities for the mission and work of the Church in this country. I admit that prior to meeting and getting to know the Christians of the Ywama Baptist Church, as well as the students and administration at MIT and at Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary, I expected to meet very conservative Christians with negative attitudes towards their Buddhist neighbors. After all, it was the work and mission of individuals like Andover Newton graduate and Baptist missionary Adoniram Judson that brought the gospel to the “heathen” peoples of South Asia in the early 19th century, so I anticipated finding a similar mindset among the 21st century descendants of those first Christian converts.

Yet it was quite the opposite. The Christians of these churches and theological schools were thoughtful, open-minded, justice-oriented, and committed to engaging critically with their neighbors and their society. When we talked with church elders and seminary students about mission and evangelism, we didn’t hear talk of conversion, sacrificial atonement, and the need to save their Buddhist neighbors from eternal damnation. (Now I’m sure there are Christians in Myanmar who would talk of those things, but I’m just sharing my interactions.) Instead, we heard talk of both interfaith dialogue and evangelism as storytelling. To evangelize and to witness meant sharing stories of the ways in which being a follower of Jesus has changed your life, and to engage in interfaith dialogue meant asking your Buddhist or Muslim neighbor to share their stories of the ways in which being a Buddhist or a Muslim has changed their life. At Ywama Baptist Church we saw outreach and mission take the form of providing basic human needs like education, health care, and childcare for all, without an expectation that those benefiting from those services accept Jesus as their personal savior. In the classrooms at MIT we heard talk of “God’s preferential option for the poor” and Gustavo Gutierrez’s liberation theology, which takes on a whole new meaning in one of the poorest South Asian countries.

Students of Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary dressed in traditional ethnic garb

Students of Pwo Kayin Theological Seminary dressed in traditional ethnic garb

Overall, I was inspired and deeply moved by the witness and mission of the Church in Myanmar. And if I’m honest, I can’t help but notice how Christianity in Myanmar is different from Christianity in the United States. It is clear that being a religious minority in a country will change your approach to doing and being the Church in the world. (Here are my Anabaptist, anti-Constantinian, post-Christendom roots shining through…I recommend reading Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith.) Even though the United States does not have an official religion like Myanmar, Christianity is still pervasive and is still the dominant religious framework in our culture. Has our majority status and our privilege affected our ability to be faithful disciples of Christ, healing the sick and feeding the hungry? Have we become more about self-preservation than about turning the world upside-down with the radical and counter-cultural love of Jesus?

I propose the Church in the United States has much to give thanks for and much to learn from the Church in Myanmar. Our sanctuaries may be bigger but their pews are fuller. Our organs may be louder but their songs are sung with fuller hearts. Our churches and theological schools may have more committees about “mission” and “evangelism,” but their churches and seminaries are out there in the trenches, living out their mission. May we be inspired and encouraged by our brothers and sisters in Yangon and in every small Christian village and town. Christ is alive, present, and at work through the busy hands and feet of the Christians in Myanmar.

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.

Sacred Encounter

Teaching is creating a community where truth is discovered. –Parker Palmer

Imagine this: You walk into a room full of people, most of whom you’ve never met. You come from different parts of the United States, and also from different parts of the world. Some of the people in the room come from a similar background and hold a similar worldview to your own. However, you are positive that there are many in the room who look at the world much differently, and who hold assumptions about faith, community, and identity in a much different way than you. You know you’ll disagree on more than one of these assumptions. Additionally, you’ve entered the room to engage in a topic with which you personally have very little experience, but you’re also pretty sure that a lot of the folks in the room have years and years of experience to draw from. And before anyone has officially met anyone else or begun a conversation around that topic, you have all committed to spending over 30 hours together in a five-day period.

Does that sound fun or what? Because that was a pretty accurate, although simplified, description of my experience last week!

During the month of January, Andover Newton has a winter session, during which students can opt to enroll in a two-week or a one-week intensive course before the spring semester begins. Several courses are offered during this time and I chose a class on religious education called “Teaching In and Across Religious Traditions.” What made this course unique was the fact that it was co-taught by a professor from Andover Newton and a rabbi from Hebrew College, the institution with which we share a campus. The students enrolled in the class were Jewish students from HC, and Christian and Unitarian Universalist students from ANTS. So in addition to exploring and practicing the art of religious education within our own faiths, we also discussed what is to be learned from interfaith encounters and ministries.

Obviously, it was an intense week; to fit an entire semester’s worth of class time, required reading, and assignments into five days was exhausting! There are so many moments and experiences that I would love to share with you: the little “interfaith moments” that occurred when one student would mention some aspect of their faith tradition and another student of a different faith would interrupt to ask a question or ask for an elaboration; the afternoon we spent visiting and observing classrooms, teachers, and students at a Jewish day school in the area; the various lessons that our small groups prepared throughout the week and then taught the class; the evening interfaith panel with guests sharing about teaching and learning in the presence of the religious “other;” the afternoon we learned from the Hebrew College students about the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat and then celebrated with a mini Seder in class…just to name a few!

For the sake of my own learning and hopefully to sum up my experiences and takeaways, I will share with you an adaptation of a short essay I wrote in class on the last day. As a result of our class discussions and learning opportunities, we were asked to reflect on our perception of ourselves as religious educators both within our own faith traditions and in exploring interactions and encounters across faith traditions. As you can see, I started this response timidly but eventually came to a stronger and more confident understanding by the end:

This is a hard question for me to answer, because truthfully I’ve never thought of myself as an educator, let alone a religious educator. I suppose after this week I see myself as a question-poser. This isn’t really a surprise, coming from the fact that in my Meyers Briggs profile, I am an N for Intuition, which means that in making sense of my day-to-day experiences, I am likely to interpret events in terms of inherent possibility for the future. I tend to value questions and speculation such as, “What if…”, “What might happen if…”, or “What this could mean is…” rather than definitive or absolute answers.

In class this week we talked a lot about education as question- or problem-posing. Educator and thinker Paulo Freire preferred the type of education that poses questions or problems and then invites creative response from the community. Jewish intellectual and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s most common response to questions in the classroom was, “Is that the right question?” Within the Christian tradition, when Jesus was asked a question by one of his disciples or followers, more often than not, he responded by asking another question. (Perhaps this was also a reflection of his Jewish-ness!)

Additionally, over the past six months of seminary, I have come to understand the jurisdiction of the minister as meaning-making. So perhaps my role as a religious educator is helping others to create and pose questions of meaning in community. In this way, the religious educator is not that much different from the minister. [ This probably isn’t a surprise, but cut me some slack here… I’m learning! 🙂 ]

I also want to take seriously the words of Jesus in Matthew 5. The Sermon on the Mount is a beloved part of the Christian scriptures and it is especially valued in the Church of the Brethren. Jesus’ words in verse 9 come from what have been called the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Personally, I look at the violence and animosity in this world as stemming, in part, from intolerance and hatred across religious and ideological differences. If I am to be a peacemaker as Christ calls me to be, I must take seriously this problem and use my framework and authority as a minister to educate and plant seeds of religious literacy, respect, and cooperation in Christians for other faith traditions.

In summation, standing on a foundation of my question-posing orientation, I understand my role as a religious educator to be one of opening up possibilities of both meaning-making within my own tradition and of living in peace with our religious and non-religious neighbors.

Our class on our visit to the Solomon Schechter of Greater Boston Jewish Day School

Our class on our visit to the Solomon Schechter of Greater Boston Jewish Day School

I feel so blessed to have experienced this time of sacred encounter with my religious neighbors, and I am still full with the lessons and stories shared throughout the week. As always, I am deeply grateful for your support and especially for your prayers during this challenging yet rewarding phase of my ministry journey. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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.

Image

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.