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.


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