Feb 25 2011

For the MTS student- Cultivating spiritualities

Allow me to begin this post with a necessary disclaimer. I am in the Master of Theological Studies program, but I certainly do not represent every student in it. My peers hail from quite a diverse number of religious traditions and denominational backgrounds, possessing an equally diverse number of theological sentiments. So it would be a disservice to them and a gross generalization if I wrote about the spiritual life without dissolving the implication that we share these notions in common. This is, however, one of the treasured attributes of the MTS program at Candler. It allows students to shape their own academic/research paths with an impressive degree of flexibility and individual tailoring.   Thus, we contribute an extensively plural and multivalent number of personalities, intellectual perspectives, and spiritual/religious orientations to the Candler community (and to the larger university as well). Because of the program’s embrace of individually crafted academic paths and lack of a more rigid structure (the kind one might encounter in a program like the MDiv), the personal responsibility to maintain and cultivate the spiritual life becomes a challenging and pertinent task.

I came to Candler after completing my BA at a small Pentecostal university in central Florida. The unflinching chapel attendance requirements, my involvement in spiritual formation and mentoring, and residing in a primarily on-campus residential school made spiritual cultivation a largely inevitable event. This strict, yet enriching experience ended in the Spring of 2010 and a much more open-ended but equally promising journey began at Candler in the Fall. I discovered that the Cannon chapel services offered the kind of diverse, ecumenical liturgical opportunities for which I had hoped. But apart from these worship settings, where tangible religious gestures are conveniently facilitated, the MTS student will inevitably discover opportunities for spiritual activity and reflection within the less explicitly worshipful classrooms of the CST (Candler School of Theology) building.

In my Luke course with Dr. Holladay last semester, I found new ways of thinking and meditating on episodes of Christological profundity in sacred texts. Thanks to my 1 and 2 Thessalonians Greek Exegesis course that I have with Dr. Kraftchick this semester, I am working with texts and developing exegetical skills that foster many Christian virtues . . . especially patience. I must say though that nothing has quite met the degree to which I am being spiritually challenged in Womanist Theology and Narrative Identity, which is taught by Dr. Andrea White. Every Monday, we (a couple dozen students of distinct racial, ethnic, gender, and religious identities) meet to engage in reflection on Womanist scholarship and the questions pertinent to the hermeneutic of Black women’s lived experiences. As a white male in the course, I have found the quest for accurate theological thinking, justice, and insight into a social and intellectual location with which I had not previously engaged to be a daunting, humbling, but infinitely rewarding spiritual endeavor.

Precisely how you will integrate spirituality into your life at Candler is not yet a realized dynamic. As I wrote above, the students in the MTS program all construct distinct and unique approaches to their religious lives, both within and outside of the school of theology. The process is open-ended and depends a great deal on the spiritual identity that you bring with you to the program. But I can assure you that Candler and the MTS program are optimal spatial and intellectual locations for that process, both effulgent with multitudinous opportunities for spiritual maturation and growth.

- Justin Rose

Justin is a 1st year MTS student from Navarre, FL and a Student Ambassador

Feb 18 2011

The (Not-so-) Hidden Treasures of Candler

As a second year MDiv student at Candler School of Theology, the outstanding aspects of the institution continue to reveal themselves to me.  Unfortunately, it has taken me over a year to realize that my academic course-load has the potential to envelop me, causing me to miss the many treasures on campus.  More overpowering than academia, however, is life.  Life is busy, life is fast, life is short. It seems that more often than not, I have deadline to meet and an agenda to fulfill.  I am constantly running on a tight schedule in an effort to accomplish the task at hand in a timely fashion.  This being the case, I have overlooked some of the most awesome displays of God’s presence in this place.

First, I have recently slowed down to appreciate the John August Swanson masterpieces that are scattered throughout the building.  John August Swanson is an artist and independent print-maker of limited edition serigraphs, lithographs, and etchings, of which Candler has the largest collection in the world.  His ability to capture scenes from Scripture with such vivid color and detail is truly remarkable.  His serigraphs are completed through an extensive process of stencils and layers of color – the number of colors in the painting is the number of stencils he must make.

Often times, these works of art are much more complex than any single image.  For instance, the “Ecclesiastes” masterpiece, which hangs on the third floor, contains almost 100 miniature works depicting the seasons of life, biblical images and symbols.  Upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that each and every minute detail was careful and intentional, just as every gift and flaw with which each individual has been blessed is purposeful.  Another exquisite example of John August Swanson’s attention to detail can be seen in the “Triptych of Noah,” which can be found on the fourth floor.  The word “triptych” means that this work is composed in three separate parts.  Each section of this illustration captures the chaos that is described during the flood in the Bible, or I would suggest the chaos that many of us experience in our daily lives!  It is far too easy to rush through the halls, ignoring the exceptional artwork that Candler is so fortunate to have.

Another aspect of Candler that I hate to admit I have missed during much of my time here is worship in Canon Chapel.  The internationally acclaimed architect Paul Rudolph designed this sacred space for Emory University in the late ‘70s.  Its appearance of being somewhat unfinished is intentional, and with great theological meaning.  Just as we, human beings, are unfinished and continuously being molded, so too is Canon Chapel.  We are constantly transformed by those with whom we come in contact, just as the chapel is shaped and changed by each moment of worship and each diverse class of students that passes through.

While classes are not even offered during the times in which worship occurs in Canon, stress is a constant excuse for missing these services.  Somehow writing a paper in the library, going to work, or even a nap seems more important than attending worship in the chapel, which is conveniently located next to the theology building!  The few times that I attended in the past year and a half have been incredibly moving experiences, for so many reasons.  The natural light that the architecture allows to shine in is breathtaking.  The diversity in worship styles and congregation members unifies the community.  I must confess that I have been brought to tears on multiple occasions in this space, and I am not an emotional person!  The ways in which the Spirit moves in that building is undeniable.  But one must take the time to slow down, and acknowledge its beauty.

All in all, I have come to deeply appreciate the abundant blessings that surround me at Candler.  It is just a matter of me not getting in the way of myself in order for me to experience such fortune.  I am now the biggest advocate for putting down your calendar and enjoying the wonders that surround us on a daily basis, because if we continue to cling to a tight schedule, we will remain blind to them all!

- Mia Northington

Mia is a 2nd Year MDiv student from Tennessee and a Student Ambassador.

Image copyright John August Swanson.

Feb 14 2011


As I entered Cannon Chapel, I was greeted by noise.  Several students were spread throughout the Brooks Commons foyer and up the staircase towards the Chapel.  They were reading, praying, meditating in unison.  I was surrounded by sound, but it was not the unpleasant sound of large crowds or chatty groups.  It was the sound of God ushering his children to worship, leading them towards Himself with His words.  I felt guided up the stairs, almost as if I was being moved forward by the nudge of scripture and praise.

The diversity of worship life at Candler allows for many different student groups and denominations to lead worship throughout the semester.  This week, the Black Student Caucus led of large group of students, faculty, and staff in yet another unique style of worship to help celebrate Black History Month.  Noise is of course a component of every worship experience in Cannon Chapel, but the noise this week had a certain power and force to it, as I noticed before I even entered the space of worship.  The noise seemed to move.  It moved in and out of mouths and ears, up and down walls and ceilings, over and around bodies and clasped hands.  It not only moved throughout the space, but forced the space to move with it.

The service began with singing.  An organ, a saxophone, a piano, a drum set accompanied rich, vibrant voices.  There were not words to read from a hymnal or off a screen.  The words of the song were on repeat, it seemed.  Everyone joined in, participating in the repetition of noise.  Some shouted the noise out of joy and happiness; others whispered it out of reverence and humility.  Different tones, different inflections floated around the chapel, offering themselves up to God in their diversity.   The variations of the noise became unified, for each distinct sounds moved in the same direction.  Upward.

Singing rarely involves just the movement of the mouth.  Arms, legs, and heads were moving, too, adding to the rhythm of the noise being created in the space.  The whole chapel was noisy with movement, from the swaying of hips to the raising of hands.  Bodies became instruments as they harmonized with the notes being played and sung.  Every single body participated in the song as it reacted to the noise.  Each person added their own personalized notes, creating a song that God had never heard before.

A time of prayer was sandwiched between the sounds of song.    Individuals approached the middle of the chapel floor one by one, uttering words of both praise and sorrow.   The Candler community gathered around these bodies and their noise as a petition to God, a petition to grow them closer and more unified.  Working to tear down boundaries and to end habits of division were the words of these few, but the cry of all.  The noise of both verbal and silent prayer rose, again, upward.

The loudest sound of the whole service was indeed the footsteps exiting the chapel – the sound of God’s noise moving out into the world.

-Sara LaDew

Sara is a 2nd year MTS student from Greensboro, NC and a Student Ambassador.

Feb 9 2011

The All-Encompassing Divine

A few weeks ago, Atlanta was pounded by the biggest snow it had seen in decades. Snowmen were built, roads turned to ice blocks, and frostbitten folk were sent seeking shelter indoors. Because of the extremes of the arctic conditions, my January class was cancelled for a solid week—SEVEN whole days of complete freedom. As you might guess, my initial perspective on the break from school wasn’t entirely negative. No, I didn’t go into mourning at the thought of spending time cuddled up by a fire with a hot chocolate in hand. In fact, as a soon-to-be graduating MDiv-er, I welcomed the premature break with open arms. My plan was to rest, relax, and do a little outside reading for fun. In short, I was stoked.

On Monday, my first day of freedom, I slept ‘til 1 pm (a confession I shamefully make to my early-rising Mom), cleaned my apartment to spick and span standards (still reading, Mom?), and settled in that night with a good read that was unrelated to coursework. The day was pure bliss.

By Tuesday, I was restless and decided I couldn’t take the stale air of my apartment any longer. I opened the front door to six feet of snow, plowed my way to my car, and was one of the insane and overconfident ATLians braving the conditions of the streets. I arrived (sufficiently frightened by my stupidity that only posed as bravery) at a cafe with my outside reading in hand, salivating over the smell of pressed coffee mixed with the sweat of sledders seeking shelter from the cold.

The book I was reading was Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, a development book that had been on my reading list since it first appeared in 2006. Easterly takes a fairly secular look at the field of international development, criticizing it profusely at times yet also managing to balance his writing with a few helpful ideas to transform the industry. As a student with a focused interest in international aid and religion, Easterly was a breath of fresh air compared to commentaries out there that uncritically moralize and patronize aid. My goal for the week, however, was to take on this book and my other outside reading with a perspective that overlooked religion and theology. It was, after all, the beginning of my sixth semester of divinity school. I thought I could use a break from the complexities that religious and theological analyses sometimes unearth.

By page 200 of Easterly’s book, I was punishing myself for thoughts that kept circling back to religion. Maria, I thought, take a break. Rest your mind and read this book for what it is. Fifty pages later, I was buzzed by my third cup ‘o joe and desperately wanting to engage in a conversation with my neighbor about the possible advantages local communities of faith have over large-scale, top-down aid organizations. Though not the subject of Easterly’s book, his analysis spoke to the experiences I knew firsthand, and my study of religion had provided me with ideas for ways forward at points where he had reached standstills. On page 260, only ten pages later, I gave up my quest, turned to my neighbor and asked for her perspective on religious mission work and its correlation (or lack thereof) to grassroots development. I realized it was hopeless to seek to remove myself from the perspective that so intimately formed me, the foundational questions I have been trained to ask at Candler, and the heart of my calling in this world. After two-and-a-half years of divinity school, I embraced the fact that the Divine is not just one element that can be pieced apart from a societal perspective, but it is an all-encompassing lens that enlightens societal perspective and provides hope to transform it anew.

From that point forward, I read my other books of the week with a commitment to honest questions—a commitment to critical engagement of all forms. When the snow melted, I returned to my classes all the better, equipped with theological and religious questions influenced by real world realities and with real world perspectives connected to undeniable theological and religious implications.

And to think, all it took for me to get to this place was a pot of hot coffee, a couple of the most amazing years of my life studying at Candler, and a few snow days that left me desperate for more.

-Maria Presley

Maria is a 3rd year MDiv student from Mississippi and a Student Ambassador.