Oct 26 2012

The God Variable

I find the question, how did I get here? utterly fascinating. As a person of faith, tracing the myriad trajectories of my past becomes a theologically important exercise. How can I make sense of my life thus far? Where do I see God’s hand? See, we Christians are not free to believe that our lives are merely the sum of our choices. We really believe we worship a God that intervenes, even intrudes into our lives in subtle, unexpected ways. I cannot answer how did I get here? with, “because I as a free, moral agent willed it.” Sometimes, the chief culprit is most likely “the God Variable.” I recently became acutely aware of its influence, but only in hindsight. Let me explain.

How did I get here? The question comes rushing at me. I scan the classroom of uniformed women and glance at James, my teaching partner, dear friend, and fellow MTS student at Candler. We are in prison. Namely, the Arrendale State Prison about an hour’s drive from familiar, cosmopolitan Atlanta. Coming from California, living in the South is strange enough; teaching at a women’s prison in rural Georgia only compounds the strangeness. We’re also reading a strange story. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson. It’s a story about a pleasant, homey town that holds an annual “lottery” in which the “winner” is immediately stoned to death. The reader doesn’t find out until the end of the story—which is now rapidly approaching. I chuckle nervously. The story suddenly seems inappropriate. I’m not entirely sure how the women will react to the story’s bizarre, violent denouement. Seriously, how did I get here?

See, being here at Candler is unsurprising. My father is a religion teacher, I majored in religious studies, Candler is a good school, I didn’t want to find a real job after college, etc., etc. But teaching here in prison—that is unprecedented. I just don’t do things that interesting. I came to Candler to get on the fast-track to a Ph.D; dusty scholarship was in my future. But something happened, or better yet, somethings happened, and the future is suddenly more mysterious than if I had been left to my own devices.

As it turned out my worry was entirely misplaced. The women in our class attacked “The Lottery” with gusto, incisively assessing the text from all angles. But still, how did I get here? The question lingered. I could point to a few things I remember: the women’s choir performance from the prison at chapel last year, James and I excitedly discussing classes we would want to co-teach some day in the future, seeing the ad soliciting teachers in the Candler Chronicle—none of these adequately explains how we got here. Only something as radical, as wonderful, as grace-filled as “the God Variable” can account for our presence here in this prison. The truth is, about a million different coincidences had to occur to lead me to this very moment. And like Jesus’ signs, if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Mathematicians may insist that attempting to detect patterns of divine prescience is absurd—what I imagine I’m seeing is merely the unraveling of an infinite series. Ergo, an unlikely event (even one as unlikely as a California boy teaming up with a North Carolina mountain man to teach literature at a women’s prison) is actually likely to occur. This illogical habit of theological retrospection is what makes me an “innumerate,” colloquially and pejoratively speaking. As the great Plutarch observes, “It is no great wonder if, in the long process of time, while fortune takes her course hither and thither, numerous coincidences should spontaneously occur.” I respectfully disagree. The God Variable is always present.

- David Ranzolin

David is a second year MTS student from the Bay Area of California and a Student Ambassador.


Oct 19 2012

Broken over Breaking Amish

My roommate and I love TV.  Good TV, bad TV, and TV on DVD. It is how we relax when we are not working, going to class, or studying.  Since moving in together, Carrie (2nd year) and I have a few TV shows that we have been trying to keep up with.

“Breaking Amish” is a show about five young people who have decided to move away from their religious families and find out how to live life away from the rules and restrictions.  Tuesday night, I walked into the living room and Carrie was watching the show.  She turned to me and said “it’s fake.”

My jaw dropped.

She explained that apparently, all the subjects of the show have been out of their communities for years.  Why my immediate response was to be shocked and offended I don’t know.  We all know that reality shows are often anything but “real.” For some reason I felt like my favorite TV channel had pulled wool over my eyes and I was not happy about it.

Authenticity can be hard to find.  Luckily, this hasn’t been my experience at Candler.

Last week in Introduction to Public Worship we had to write from memory the prayer that the presider of communion says in our denomination.  As a United Methodist, I have heard this at least once a month since I joined the church when I was young.  But reciting the liturgy and learning the ins and outs of running a worship service has got me looking forward to graduation in May with both excitement and anxiety.  I have been doing practical things at Candler from day one and it is one of my favorite parts about Candler.

But now I wonder, am I prepared? Will I ever be prepared?  Lucky for me, Dr. Phillips our Worship professor has given us the good news of being in ministry.  He told us that to walk away from the class with only the preparations would be a loss.  He encourages us to be people of prayer and people who are authentic because those things are just as important for defining who we are as people in ministry.

I started to think of my every day life.  We encounter teachers, classmates, church members, and family.  We have the opportunity to rush through the rituals with those people or to stop and be in a relationship that is honest and glorifies God.  We encounter papers, exams, and tasks at work.  How many times do we just fake our way through these things?  I know that for me all of these happen an unfortunate amount.

Thank God that is not the end of the conversation.  It is important for us to be vigilant in the ways in which we are real with God and our community.  But we must not forget to lean on God and our community to fill our gaps with grace.  The difficult part of this blog is that I have no answer; we only have trust in God and our community of faith who have promised to help mold us into the most authentic servants of Christ that we can be.

All I can say for today is… Praise God for progress!

- Marissa Teauseau

Marissa is a third year MDiv student, a graduate of Centenary College in Shreveport, LA, and a Candler Student Ambassador.


Oct 12 2012

Any questions?

While studying in Panera the other day I was cornered by a talkative stranger. (How people think open books and vigorous typing on the laptop is an invitation for dialogue, I’ll never know…)

Unfortunately, I missed the warning signals telling me not to divulge my current course of study to this person, and he wasted no time in rattling off every negative stereotype and over-generalization about Christians he could think of. (Nice to meet you, too…) Luckily, I had just been working on a small group study about engaging in difficult conversations, so I listened patiently to his critiques and concerns. As it turns out, virtually everything he dislikes (ok, hates) about Christianity I am not so fond of either.

It is incredibly disheartening to meet people who are curious about faith –often deeply spiritual– who have for one reason or another been completely turned off to the Church. Some examples my new friend mentioned include arrogance, hypocrisy, judgment (especially regarding persons who identify LGBTQ), and general closed-mindedness. For someone like him with deep philosophical questions about the roots and guts and core of life, the faith presented to him by Christians seemed presumptive and shallow.

If there is anything I have learned in seminary thus far it is that this faith is not shallow….

Not having a background in religious studies upon entering Candler, I have found my Old and New Testament classes to be extremely challenging (and I don’t just mean the work-load). The Bible is meant to be our most instructive, concrete illustrator of the character and works of God. But as such, it is a conflictive, confounding document– creating in us more questions than answers every time we read it.

Studying the scriptures in such an academic environment has instilled in me a greater awareness of all that I still don’t know. Adding to biblical knowledge centuries worth of theological nuance and doctrinal subtlety, ethical standards and practice, liturgical tradition and the arts of care, I wonder how I might ever be well-enough equipped to bear the Good News, the Word of God, to the world in a way that is not only faithful, but honest and true.

There is just so much to learn.

Conversations like the one today, with strangers or even close friends and family, remind me why this work in seminary is so important. It is not only a time to receive information (though one might often feel reduced to a sponge-like existence), but to wrestle with the meaning behind the text, biblical or otherwise. It is a time to test the waters. To push against things to see how far they will lean before toppling over. To discover one’s own boundaries, and explore those set by others as well. Because in the real world people have real questions, and I know I cannot in good conscience ever claim to have all the answers.

But I can say I have wrestled, and have been faithful in listening for God’s voice among the multitudes of others. And I can do my best to provide the space and encouragement for others to do the same.

God bless us all on the journey.

- Darin Arntson

Darin is a second year MDiv student from Southern California and a Student Ambassador.


Oct 5 2012

A First Year’s Lessons

Aaron preaching at the Festival of Young PreachersI think there’s a secret meeting that all Candler students go to at the end of their first years. At that meeting, I think every member of the divinity school covenants to scare the living daylights out of every incoming student, especially when those new students arrive for orientation.

I didn’t believe the hype. Coming fresh from a strong undergraduate program in religious studies, I had no doubt about my ability to handle the work load. And I had done several ministry internships as an undergrad, so I imagined that I could handle anything Contextual Education could throw at me. And for the most part, I’ve been handling the transition well. Take that, secret Candler intimidation meeting.

This week, however, hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. I accidently over-committed myself to a number of curricular and extra-curricular activities, and I spent nearly an hour Monday morning trying to figure out how I was going to get it all done. Between recovering from last week’s Old Testament exam and handling the new week’s work, I wondered if the secret intimidation meeting had actually been right. Was I really about to watch my careful control of the Candler experience come crumbling down around my ears?

In the end, it didn’t. I survived the last four days, and I’m looking forward to a relaxed weekend. But in the process I learned two valuable lessons, both of which happened to be lessons I thought I already knew.

The first lesson was about failure. There were several things this week that simply didn’t get done, and more things that didn’t get done to the degree that I would have liked. And that felt bad. Or, at the very least, not good. But it was okay. Most of the things that didn’t get done, in the end, didn’t matter. And when it came to the few things that did matter, I got over it really quickly. Every once in a while, it’s perfectly okay to fail. Life goes on, even when that task falls by the wayside. Of course, it’s not a good habit to cultivate, but in the middle of chaos it can be very helpful to know that failure and incompletion are both natural parts of life.

The second lesson was completely different, and it was really more of a revelation occasioned by an experience in Old Testament this morning. When it comes to OT, I’ve been in serious study mode for the past few days. We had our first exam last Thursday, and I guess I’m still coming down from the experience. Today, however, Dr. LeMon shook things up a bit. Today, we sang.

We sang an ancient Hebrew song that goes like this:

Ashira la adonay ki ga’oh ga’ah
Ashira la adonay ki ga’oh ga’ah
Mi kamochah ba’elim adonay
Mi kamochah ne’dar baqqodesh
Nachita bechasdekah am zu ga’alta
Nachita bechasdekah am zu ga’alta
Ashira! Ashria! Ashira!

 I was flooded with a sense of joy because of that simple melody. In one moment, I was reminded that this school of theology is not just a place of intense academic formation (although it is that, and it was what attracted me to Candler in the first place), but it is also a place where the whole person is embraced. In singing that song, we tapped in to one of the most ancient Hebrew expressions of faith. We also watched the song be interpreted in the film The Prince of Egypt. And then we discussed its theological significance, both in the Exodus context and in the modern American context. As I watched my classmates clap and sing, the week’s anxiety melted away.

In English, the lyrics to the song mean something like this:

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously
I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously
 
Who is like you among the Gods, O Lord?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness?
 
 You led in your steadfast love the people whom you redeemed
You led in your steadfast love the people whom you redeemed
 I will sing! I will sing! I will sing!

I’m sure it will be stuck in my head for the next several days, but every time I find myself humming that tune, I’ll also be remembering the lessons of this week. Because the Lord has triumphed gloriously, I can find peace in failing. It’s a part of my existence, and it doesn’t change who God is or how we relate. And I’ll also remember the school where I first learned this song, a school where my whole person is embraced and I am taught both to think and to sing.

Thanks be to God for these lessons.

-Aaron Carr

Aaron is a first year student from Cumming, GA, a graduate of Samford University, and a Candler Student Ambassador.  He is also a member of the Gospel Catalyst Network of the Academy of Preachers.