Aug 24 2011

Surrender, Peace & Grandma

I keep searching for a guide, something to gauge my thoughts and emotions by. I cannot put my finger on it, but I feel it. There is a rawness inside of me that is just tumbling up and down the walls of my stomach. I’m nervous and excited, relieved and burdened, all at the same time.

For the past 6 years, I have done nothing but spin my wheels. I’ve dug myself quite a deep pit over here in the mud; and I’m ready to leave it. After entertaining option after option after option, I realize all roads would have pulled me out by now if I had committed to them, but I couldn’t. The awfulness that never ceased to rise up inside of me while trekking the wrong path would not allow me to wander just anywhere.

So now, again, I’m attempting to climb out; poising myself to step into one more thing that’s new. This one, however, is perhaps the most uncertain of all. Perhaps the most unclear with a conclusion that is the most unconceivable of all. With no foresight (no, not ONE context clue of how this will turn out), taking these steps into the grey throw me into an emotional fit; but somehow, I know I have to walk this walk.

Given this is the case, I am granting myself an “Oprah moment” and simply bringing myself into surrender. I am accepting the fact that there are some things I will not know, understand or even clearly see until I get there. Obviously, I have no choice but to “see through the glass darkly” and, for the first time in my life, I am coming to grips with the ‘unknown’ which is a huge step on so many levels for me and for so many more reasons. Fortunately, as I go along, I am also learning that with surrender comes its wonderful partner, peace.

As a child, I spent summers with my grandparents in Delaware. An evangelist and deacon, they taught me as much of the Word as they could. On Sundays, Grandma would preach like she was going to grow wings and take off for heaven at any second; while Grandpa prayerfully minded his seat on the first or side pew; but with us grandchildren, the preaching boiled down to simple reading and memorization, which, of course, is all we needed since the baggage of reasoning had not yet taken a toll on our minds. To this day, I can hear my grandmother’s voice when I read certain scriptures from the Bible. Lately, and even as I write this, I can feel her pointing her finger in my chest and hear her saying, “Trust in the Lord with your whole heart and lean not to thine own understanding; but in all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path.” (Prov 3:5-6)

So many times since entering my 30s over four years ago, Grandma’s voice has whispered the most appropriate points of faith and power in my ear as I’ve rolled along.  Although she’s been gone for almost a decade now, still today, she never fails.

This week, as I wander through the streets of Emory, hoping I’ve chosen the right (and by right I mean ‘closest’) parking deck, or meander through the halls of Candler, praying I’ll find all the books I need at this stage of the game and that my professors will be a million times more enthralling than the ones I’ve had in all the ill-fitting grad programs of prior, I will carry grandma’s voice and finger-poking with me. I will allow it to calm me when I feel my heart begin to flutter with anxiety over this decision; or when the subject matter causes me to bust a capillary or two in the wee hours of the morning. I am going to enjoy and most importantly, COMPLETE this journey with this newfound peace thanks to continuous surrender, which, I admit, I may have to do more than a few times throughout this experience. And if nothing more comes of this than the opportunity to know I finally trusted and acknowledged Him, in all His glory and all-knowing splendor, just like Grandma told me to, I will be just fine with that.

- Lynnett Glass

Lynnett is an entering MDiv student from Jonesboro, GA.

Aug 22 2011

On Being Clumsy (Or, How Theological Education Works)

Photo by Steven Depolo

Orientations. “How could I have forgotten how to do this?,” I wondered, as I stumbled around the dance studio. My balance was off, I couldn’t keep up with the choreography, the turns made me dizzy. It was my first time in a dance studio in several years and while I was not naïve about how quickly I could regain my footing in that semi-sacred place, I had hoped it would feel better than this. I wanted to leave.

I mean, I really wanted to leave. This was the place to which I’d been longing to return, and here I was, wanting collect my clumsy self and run out the door.

But this is how it is, isn’t it, when you start something new, or return to something after a long sojourn? It is clumsy, and awkward, and sometimes you just want to run out the door. You may be feeling this way as you make your way into a new school year at Candler—whether it is your first or your fifth—and you may be wondering exactly when you’ll stop stumbling around and find your sure footing here.

This is my first year as a member of the Candler faculty. Before arriving here this summer, I was teaching at another institution for four years. This is not, however, a brand new place for me: I did my graduate work in the Graduate Division of Religion here at Emory. In some ways, I am coming home. I know and love this place, and yet… I am a stranger. It is just a little bit disorienting!

Disorientation assumes a contrasting sense of orientation. A boat at sea gains its orientation, even in the midst of a storm, from the place from whence it came, the lighthouse on the shore toward which it sails, and the resources (like maps and compasses) available to its crew. A dancer’s orientation gives her grounding when she is (even intentionally) off-balance. As a novice dancer practices her turns, balance does not come easily. Once she learns how to fix her gaze on a stable object, however, the situation changes. Over time, she develops a deep awareness of the relative position of her body on the studio floor. It is in the midst of the space between disorientation and reorientation that the art of dance is expressed.

In our faculty retreat this past week, Dr. Joel Lemon suggested that theological education is also, in part, about the dialectic between disorientation and reorientation. As students, you may find yourselves disoriented by a seemingly strange idea or way of thinking in a seminary classroom, vigorous and challenging discussions with your colleagues, unfamiliar practices in our shared worship life, or the dynamics of building a new community. At the same time, you likely will find yourselves unexpectedly reoriented in the very same places: a new insight that puts together long disconnected ideas, the community gathered for the communion meal, or the discovery of shared experiences or values in the midst of rich diversity.

Both of these moments—disorientation and reorientation—find their meaning in our core orientation. In the Christian tradition, we are grounded—oriented—in our baptism, where we receive both grace and challenge, where we are both embraced and sent. We emerge from the waters of baptism with our core identity:  we are children of God and members of the Body of Christ.

And so here, in the midst of Candler’s orientation week, I invite you to dive whole-heartedly into that dialectic between disorientation and reorientation, trusting in the deep identity given in baptism. Allow yourself to stumble around a bit, and embrace the disorientation that comes with significant moments in one’s process of vocational discovery. When those moments of reorientation arise, whether unbidden or through deeply intentional practices, offer thanks for them.

Be your full, flourishing, and clumsy self.

- Dr. Jennifer Ayres

Dr. Ayres is Assistant Professor of Religious Education and Director of the Program in Religious Education at Candler and a graduate of Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion.

Aug 18 2011

Called “From” and “For”

This summer 14 Candler students are serving in ministry through Candler Advantage, a paid summer internship in conjunction with Candler’s Contextual Education Program.  Over the course of the summer many of these students will be sharing their experiences here on the blog.

My call to a life of faith has been hardly ordinary.  Born and raised a Jehovah’s Witness, I grew up in a strict and unhealthy religious environment.  Every week, my family had to fill out time cards recording how many hours we spent in “service” (door-to-door evangelization).  I was forbidden from hanging out with kids who weren’t “one of us,” and was deprived of the usual childhood joys of birthday cakes, Christmas morning gifts, and Easter egg hunts.  The worst moment, however, came when my brother was disfellowshipped – a process of excommunication, or shunning, that forbids family and friends from associating with lapsed members.  As a child, I dearly loved and looked up to my brother; when he was disfellowshipped, I was told that we could no longer be seen together in public.

When I was 15, my parents called our family into the kitchen for what would be a life-changing announcement: they told us that they were leaving the Witnesses.  For me, a 15-year-old who was bitter and angry, I was simply happy that I could finally hang out with my brother again.  I was also happy that I would no longer have to attend five meetings a week, and would no longer be forced to engage in the mind-numbing chore of preparing for them.  While I knew that we still had very close relatives in the Witnesses, and that our leaving would greatly impact our relationships with them, I was excited by the possibility of living a normal life.

For the next four years, however, life was hardly normal.  My parents, who no doubt felt guilty about the restrictive lives to which my siblings and I had been subjected, allowed me a tremendous amount of freedom.  I had no curfews (none that were enforced anyways), and no limits on whom I could or couldn’t hang out with.  I was allowed access to my mother’s car to the point where it was basically mine; I could come and go with it, whenever I wanted, without permission.  I was also given unearned money on a regular basis, without any questioning with regard to what it would buy.  All of this amounted to a recipe for disaster.  I became addicted to drugs, and eventually started selling them.  Toward the beginning of this phase, I hung out with the “party crowd” – kids who drank a little here, smoked a little weed there – but quickly found myself surrounded by hardcore criminals.  Three of my closest friends from this time ended up dead (long after I stopped hanging out with them); all shot, I presume, over drug deals gone wrong (officially, these cases are all unsolved).

When I was 18, my life took a drastic turn.  One night, after getting high with a friend, I was in my car, alone, driving home.  I always struggle to describe what came next.  All I can say is that suddenly, with no warning, I felt a very strong presence with me.  This presence had a voice – not an audible voice, but a voice I could, in the strangest imaginable way, feel.  The voice’s message was simple: “You must stop this, or you will die.”  Whatever happened that night, I believe that it saved my life.  It shook me up so much that I went home, told my parents everything that had been going on, and left all of my friends in the dust.  The next several months would be spent in isolation, reflecting on God, my future, and how the two might be related.  I believed I had been spared for something.  This was the initial call.   This experience, although only 10 years ago, seems like a scene from a movie I barely remember.  But I must not let myself forget.  I firmly believe that our present is shaped by our past and motivated by our future.  The “call” is dynamic, as God calls his people from and for.

Preparation and Discernment

As of late, I’m learning that the call entails a perpetual cycle of preparation and discernment.  For the past six years, I’ve been preparing for ministry through academic training.  I have a B.A. in Pastoral Ministries and Biblical Studies, and I’m two years into my MDiv program at Candler (two down, one to go!).  Sounds like I’ve had a clear understanding of my vocational calling all along, right?  Not exactly.  While I’ve rarely questioned whether I’ve been called to ministry, the form of ministry to which I’m being called at any given time is something that I’m continuously discerning.  Thanks to the Candler Advantage program, I just spent the entire summer working (while getting paid…WOO WOO!) at a local United Methodist congregation in Decatur, GA.  This experience affirmed my specific call to parish ministry – at least for a time.  But let me be clear: I will never make the decision to be a “career pastor,” or a career anything else.  Maybe God will call me to be a pastor my entire life, but maybe not.  I cannot determine today what God will call me to do tomorrow.  The Spirit of God is exciting, unpredictable, even dangerous.  God may call a person to one form of ministry for a season, and to a completely different form for the next.  The Spirit that calls us is the same Spirit who hovered over primitive waters, who appeared as a roaring wind and as flaming tongues.   The call is an invitation from a mysterious God who promises, if we’re willing to take the risk, to give us an abundant life.  So let the narrative continue!

- Angelo Mante

Angelo is a rising third year MDiv student and a graduate of Taylor University.

Aug 10 2011

Slow Dancing with Seminary

United States Botanic Garden

My favorite place in Washington, DC is the United States Botanic Garden. Squeezed in between the House of Representatives and our Nation’s Capitol, it is a large greenhouse filled with exotic plants and the wet, cool smell of the Amazon rainforest. Beautiful flora of all shapes and sizes coexist magically, sharing common soil and interweaving their root systems —a connectedness the rest of Capitol Hill could certainly benefit from. My favorite thing about the Garden is the millions of colors that show up there. Just a quick walk around and I am left with a great sense of awe at the complexity of life and color. The millions of shades of green alone are surely more than we could ever fully label or classify. Leaving the greenhouse and walking back into the bustle of the city never fails to present a stark contrast. It is like going from a box of 96 Crayola crayons into a world of only primary colors.

I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend in American culture and language today. We categorize and dichotomize most everything: Democrat/Republican, Public Sphere/Private Sphere, Rich/Poor, Educated/Uneducated, Politics/Religion, Male/Female, and the list goes on. These dichotomies often create a lack of ability to see outside the established boxes. It is easy to get so fixed in seeing through these lenses—in primary colors, if you will—that we forget that the people and ideas we encounter are far more complex than the categories we place them in. The language of dichotomies helps us to order our lives—divisions provide us a way of defining and clarifying our world and our everyday encounters—but I’m beginning to wonder if these binaries have maimed our capacity for creative and integrated thinking. Instead of connections, we see divisions. Instead of issues, we see political parties. Instead of people, we see opinions. There is little space for the millions of shades of green in between the “blue” category and the “yellow” category. We are living in a primary-color world.

The Church, in all her complexity, is not exempt from this type of narrow categorical thinking. Like society, we classify our doctrines, our denominations, and our practices. We dichotomize humanity/divinity, belief/praxis, personal piety/social justice, sacred/secular, charismatic/liturgical. And let’s not forget the one that many of us ministerial students fear (and hear) the most: the Church and the Academy. Despite the fact that we tend to function in these divided spheres, I find hope in the various people and institutions that are unafraid to explore the overlap between them. These individuals and organizations are acutely aware that their faithfulness is to a God that transcends our categories and defies our logic. Their work restores brilliant shades of color to an increasingly primary-color world. Candler is one of these institutions. An integrated curriculum and faithful faculty beautifully blend ministerial excellence with academic rigor, a commitment to spiritual formation as well as public praxis, and an understanding of ministry that transcends the walls of the Church. As an entering seminarian, it was my frustrations with traditional dichotomies that led me to apply to Candler, and Candler’s ability to expose the complexity of colors alive in our world that took me from a perspective student to an enrolled Candler seminarian. What a colorful paradise this School of Theology is in the Kingdom-garden!

The Church and the Academy

The division between the Church and the Academy perplexed me as undergrad. For those who thought being a Religion major would be something similar to Sunday School, boy did they have a rude awakening! The world of Christian Education inside the church differs drastically from Religion or Biblical Studies as an academic disciple. In fact, we often think of these two institutions as having two very different purposes: the Academy is to educate, and the Church is to incarnate. The problem lies in that fact that these are often seen as mutually exclusive endeavors and the relationship between the two institutions is jagged, at best. This poses a problem for many of us who wish to serve the Church but are at the mercy of the Academy. I mean, if we didn’t believe that the sacred was somehow spilling into the secular, would we really be pursuing a career built on the spiritual life? In my seminary selection process, I craved a place that valued both academic rigor and ministerial excellence—and I heard this desire echoed by many friends with similar frustrations. I hoped to find a school that saw the Church and the Academy as two sides of the same institutional coin, engaged in a beautiful dance that informs hearts and minds simultaneously. My craving led me to Candler—a seminary that is practically slow-dancing with the Church! The work of blending academic excellence and ministerial integrity is truly an art form. My experience of Candler has been revealed the school’s dedication to this delicate balance. While Candler’s academic excellence ranks at the top of most charts, it is not at the cost of ministerial integrity. The school’s faculty is a blend of pastor-theologians, community leaders, and lay leaders who have a personal investment in the life of the Church. They teach from podium and pulpit alike. Candler’s commitment to holistic contextual education is paired with demanding coursework that integrates theology and praxis in an unparalleled way. It is this marriage, of education and incarnation that produces true ministerial excellence. It is this unification than led me to Candler.

Personal Piety & Social Justice

I was raised in a thoroughly Evangelical household, and one of the byproducts of this upbringing was the deeply relational spirituality I inherited. Even the language we used to talk about conversion reflects this: phrases like “asking Jesus to live in your heart” and having “a personal relationship with God.” While these platitudes often get a bad rap due to their stale overuse, they are remarkably revolutionary! They speak of an inconceivably intimate God—whose covenantal marriage-like relationship with the Israelites births redemption; who incarnates the holy and lives among us in the form of a carpenter. But I was often taught this relational and personal piety at the cost of a lived theology—a spirituality of action and social justice, a love of neighbor and care for the least of these.

During my time in college, I spent a few semesters in a not-so-evangelical context. A passion for incarnational ministry and social justice pervaded the Church’s mission and focus. I was at home among my kinda’ people—people who saw God’s redemptive work as much bigger than personal salvation. Despite my resonance with this activism-oriented congregation, I missed the intimacy of the tradition I was raised in. A focus on action and justice often came at the cost of personal spiritual formation. Too often, categorizing and dichotomizing leads to this sort of imbalance, a separation between congregations who believe in Jesus (the spiritual) and those who believe Jesus (the practitioners). As I looked for a home in which to continue my theological education, I wanted to find a place that exposed the complex variety of colors and hues that exist in the overlap between personal piety and social justice. I wanted to find a school in which both were seen as necessary components of faith—as flowing from one another like James 2 (faith without works is dead) and 1 Corinthians 13 (without love as the source of action, works are useless) suggest. My visit to Candler this spring was an inspiring embodiment of such a blend. Before I even stepped foot on campus, I had examined and dissected Candler’s curriculum. It seemed obvious to me that the school cared deeply about justice and activism. Candler’s contextual education program encourages diverse ministerial experiences in parachurch contexts addressing issues of poverty and homelessness, paired with classes that teach the art of preaching as a prophetic necessity or provide insight on community ministry. But being on Candler soil—meeting with students, sitting in on classes, and experiencing worship—I was moved by the institutional and individual commitment to spiritual formation that I encountered. Candler is a place that worships together, prays together, and breaks bread together. My visit was filled with prayers—before the beginning of a class, before a meal, in a meeting—and a deep sense of value for worship as a transcended experience necessary for the hard work that is theology, both studied and lived. I caught just a glimpse of this beautiful merger of inner spirituality and outward action, but it was an infections taste that stuck with me and came back to me. As I was contemplating my seminary decision with a minister-friend, she said—“God’s will is for you to go where you can love God best,” and the place that came to mind was Candler—a place that loves God in the most holistic sense.

The Church and the World

The same categorizing and dichotomizing that is typically applied to Church/Academy or personal piety/social justice, also occurs in the broader academic world. Disciplines are sorted and relegated to particular fields of study—designating health to science, policy to law, and corporate affairs to the business world. While there is no denying that this methodology is practical, I sometimes wonder if it creates leaders who are unprepared for the complexity of the world, trained solely in one discipline and taught to keep their interests tapered. When education is approached in this primary-color way, it is easy to miss the beauty of the brilliant hues that are created when disciples overlap and ideological lenses converge. One of my favorite things about Candler is the strong desire for interdisciplinary theology that characterizes the students and professors alike. If you peruse through Candler’s list of degree programs or the M.Div concentration guide, it quickly becomes apparent that Candler’s definition of minister reaches far beyond the walls of the Church. Candler pairs ministry with science, politics, business, ethics, sociology, and psychology (just to name a few), empowering ministers in a variety of vocations—even if their profession isn’t blatantly theological. This interdisciplinary approach does more than just blend diverse areas of study, it also serves as a reminder, at least to me, that faith is meant to permeate far beyond the walls of the Church. Theology should inform every aspect of our lives, from the way we do business, to what we buy and how we vote. Candler is not only committed to a voice in the Church, but also to engaging the Church and the world.

I am acutely aware that my expectations for Candler may seem impossibly high. I mean, really? What institution can live up to this romanticized version of theological education? Maybe it sounds like I am a marketer selling an ideal or a naive undergrad with unrealistic expectations. And maybe these are true, in some way or another. But believe me, trying to articulate why you made a choice before you’ve actually experienced its ramifications is quite a challenge! The core components that led me to Candler—a dedication to the church and ministerial excellence, an integrated and holistic curriculum, and a desire to see theology reach beyond the private sphere—might say more about me than the actual than it does about the school. I feel called to a life that exposes the brilliant colors that we sometimes miss with our narrow labels. I want to work in the margins between Church and Academy, formation and ministry, and politics and religion. I chose Candler because it was a place committed to the millions of shades of green that lie outside our everyday classifications. It is a place I could find a home in the margins, and be supported in a call to the Church and to the world.

-Meg Lacy

Meg is an entering 1st year MDiv student and a graduate of Samford University.  She spent this summer as a CBF Fellow at Bread for the World in Washington, DC.

Aug 5 2011

Living History

Neo-Assyrian soldiers stretch out naked foes on the ground, preparing to flay them alive. Captive children witness the gruesome display.

One of the highlights of my trip to Israel this summer was visiting the site of ancient Lachish, about thirty-five miles southwest of Jerusalem. This Judahite city was the last to fall to the mighty Neo-Assyrian army before it set its sights squarely on Jerusalem (701 B.C.E.). King Sennacherib was so proud of this conquest that he had scenes from the siege of Lachish etched into the walls at his palace at Nineveh. Now displayed in the British Museum in London, these reliefs depict (among other things) the execution and torture of Judahite soldiers and dignitaries as well as the forced migration of the city’s inhabitants.

Neo-Assyrian troops impale citizens of Lachish on long poles while archers and soldiers armed with slings ascend the siege ramp.

Neo-Assyrian troops in a siege engine attack the fortified gates of Lachish. Torches and boulders rain down on the attackers, but to no avail.

I visited Tel Lachish late in the afternoon on a scorching day in July. Except for the birds and the occasional lizard that skittered by, I was completely alone at the site. It was eerily quiet. And as I stood atop the tel, I let my historical imagination run wild.

One can still see very clearly the huge earthen ramp that the Neo-Assyrians built to surmount the city’s walls. It is massive and an impressive feat of engineering even now. I imagined the dread that the citizens must have felt looking down from the walls to see below the greatest fighting force that the world had ever known. As Sennacherib’s troops slowly assembled the siege ramp rock by rock, the city surely knew what was coming. Once the ramp was finished, there could be no repelling Sennacherib’s raiders.

Remains of the Neo-Assyrian siege ramp leading up to the city walls.

Sennacherib resting comfortably on his throne in his camp outside of Lachish.

As I saw this historical drama playing itself out before me, I could picture the Neo-Assyrian soldiers in full armor, with a taste for blood and a lust for loot. I imagined a smug Sennacherib munching some grapes in his plush camp just out of range of Lachish’s archers. Why did he have to come all the way from Nineveh to wreak so much havoc here? Looking down on the site of Sennacherib’s camp, I had the urge to utter a curse against those damn Neo-Assyrians. And suddenly, quite unexpectedly, I felt a new kinship with old Jonah, who certainly had no love lost on these people (cf. Jonah 3-4). The memory of violence, even violence from thousands of year ago, can still have profound and disturbing effects.

Another very different highlight of my trip was visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I wasn’t really planning on visiting the church, intending instead to focus on the numerous Old Testament “places of interest” in and around Jerusalem (like Lachish). Yet when I happened upon the church, I just couldn’t resist going in.

I have to admit that once inside I found the people far more interesting than the architecture, relics, and this or that shrine. As I navigated the various holy sites within the church, I realized I was walking alongside people from all over the world. It struck me powerfully that millions of Christians over hundreds of years had travelled to this very building and had walked on these very stones.

Why had we all come? Was it curiosity? Devotion? Adventure? And who were we exactly? Pilgrims? Or tourists? Or worse, crusaders? Or were we something in between, some mixture of all three? I couldn’t tell, but walking through the church gave me the sense that I was participating in something that was far bigger than me. To be sure, that something was very messy and complicated and rife with contradiction, but also somehow profoundly true.

Crosses etched into the walls by pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Of all the images from the church that day, what most struck me was seeing the thousands of crosses cut in the stone blocks on the stairway down to the crypt of St. Helen. Those simple etchings testified to the presence and faith of so many who had come before me. Even in the few minutes I stood at the steps there taking it all in, scores of new pilgrims walked by.

- Dr. Joel LeMon


Dr. LeMon is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Candler and will be teaching OT501 this year.  His research focuses on the Psalms, Hebrew and Ugaritic poetry, and (as you can tell) ancient Near Eastern history, literature, and art. He is the author of Yahweh’s Winged Form in the Psalms (Academic Press, 2010) and the co-editor of Method Matters (with Kent H. Richards, Society of Biblical Literature, 2009). LeMon is an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.