Nov 30 2012

The Search for God at Seminary

It seems contradictory to say that I have needed to search for God during my first semester at seminary. I do not believe by any means that I have completely “lost” God at any time. Throughout my life, I have grown to believe that God is everywhere, at all times. However, whether or not we are actively seeking a relationship with God is a different story. While God always holds up his end of the bargain, since arriving at seminary, I do not know that I have always held up mine. It is no one’s fault but my own, because Candler has provided me with every opportunity for a deeper relationship with God.

In writing this blog, I am by no means trying to relieve my guilt by admitting to a lack of spirituality. However, at times it feels as though I am so busy learning about God that I forget to consider my relationship with Him. I have never had this problem in the past. I have always prayed and considered my relationship with God throughout the day, even when I have been overwhelmingly busy. Since coming to seminary, I thought that this sense of closeness to God would expand and grow. However, at first, it did just the opposite. I still prayed, but I did not allow myself to just “be” or to merely bask in the presence of the Lord. Every action I took had a purpose. Either I was in class, completing work for a class, preparing notes for JDSR, driving to my parish placement at St. Benedict’s in Smyrna, preparing lessons for the Path to Shine Program for at-risk Latino youth, interning for the Episcopal Studies program, or triathlon training. Even while sitting in chapel, I was often taking notes for an extra credit class assignment.

However, I have more recently learned that each practice I am participating in, including triathlon training, can be viewed using a spiritual lens. Each can, in some way, help me to develop a greater connection with God. However, I had been so focused on scheduling and checking each “task” off my list of things to do that I forgot the spiritual portion of each of those things. In a sense, I forgot to “search for God,” and I lost the reasons I was truly attending seminary in the hustle and bustle.

Each Wednesday night, the Episcopal Studies students host an Evensong Service. As a member of this certificate program, I help to lead this evening prayer service rendered chorally. Each week, we have the opportunity to play different roles – as acolytes, crucifers, thurifers, boats, deacons, presiders, etc. By Wednesday, I am usually a little stressed by my variety of “tasks” and have drifted from a focus on my spiritual life. It has become common for Bishop Whitmore, the director of the Episcopal Studies program, to tell me that “I don’t look so good,” even when I feel relatively rested. However, I have finally discovered the key for rejuvenation and “finding God.”

Last Wednesday, I was able to participate in the Evensong Service as a deacon. Standing before the altar and prayerfully preparing the elements before communion, I watched as the students in the chapel praised God. I felt so much joy in having the opportunity to stand before God in worship and to help my friends at seminary to share in that same worship. I felt a new connection to God in which I was not merely checking a task off the list. I was a member of a community in which each “task” could be viewed as a type of praise.

For the first time, I appreciated the fact that I am surrounded by individuals, who like me, want to dedicate their lives to Christ! This is, in fact, a privilege and a blessing! How many people have the opportunity to go through each day of school or work with the sole purpose of praising God and helping others to praise God? How many people have the opportunity to be surrounded by fellow Christians each day in praise? How many people can join their classmates and friends in prayer before a test? I finally felt so blessed to be at Candler and have this opportunity to strengthen my relationship with God in all that I do both in and out of the classroom.

The following morning, I put aside one of my usual tasks in order to attend the Episcopal Morning Prayer service. Just as I had been the night before at Evensong, I was fully present: not focusing on the tasks to complete but just on praising God. I smiled as I read scripture aloud and returned to a place of working on my relationship with God. Following Morning Prayer, Bishop Whitmore for the first time told me that I looked rested. I did not feel so much rested as at peace and spiritually fed.

Candler has provided me with so many amazing opportunities as a first year student. I am so blessed to be at a school where I can learn so much about God and participate in so many religious opportunities. I have realized that if I do not merely complete these opportunities as tasks on a list, I can grow each day in my love of Christ. The incredible thing that I have found about Candler is that if you choose to engage and depart on this search for God, you have the opportunity to discover God’s presence in crevices that you could have never imagined.

Search for God at seminary, and find Him in places that you never thought possible!

- Katie O’Dunne

 Katie is a first year MDiv student, a graduate of Elon University in North Carolina, and a Candler Student Ambassador.


Nov 16 2012

Windows to Christian Difference

WindowChurches seem to fight over a lot of things that in the grand scheme of things don’t matter (or at least seem unimportant to outsiders). One fight that goes on in most every church is over buildings and how buildings should be set up, what renovations should be made, what paint color should be used to repaint the Sunday school rooms, etc. Some of these arguments revolve around practical concerns and they must, since resources and physical location limit the church. The thing we often forget however, is that all of these seemingly insignificant or unimportant modifications and changes are architectural decisions that have heavy  theological implications to conveying the beliefs of the church. What does it mean if the Pulpit is center behind and elevated over the altar? What does it mean if the Altar is center and the pulpit is off to the side? What does it mean if there is center aisle or a central section of pews?

Many of the architectural features common to churches can be altered over the years. Pews can be moved, platforms added, altar position changed. One thing that will stand the test of time are the windows. Windows are often only redone when the walls themselves have to be moved. Even if stained glass windows are falling apart, a church will often choose to repair and maintain them as they always have been instead of altering them completely.

The windows in a Church stand as a permanent statement of the churches theology. Every time there is a reforming movement in the church, architecture and window style come under review.

Stained glass developed as a way to tell the stories of the Christian faith, and enliven and enhance the worship space. When light hits stained glass the result is often one of the most breathtaking views in the world. As the sun moves throughout the day the light in the sanctuary, chapel or cathedral moves with it, and the experience becomes new again. In each hour, we experience the light and the church in a whole new way. It is always the same, but it is always changing.

Some reformers saw the stained glass as a way that the church had gotten away from the fundamentals of the Christian faith. They see stained glass and the extravagant architectural often associated with it as a way to show off, as something done for the glory of humans and not for the glory of God. For this reason, several religious groups have constructed their churches with plain glass. They let the light stream into their places of worship unmolested by human creation or interpretation. Light is a sign of God, and does not need anything human added over it.

In some “modern” churches windows are excluded from the building plans all together, in order that the worship space might be completely controlled. If there is not natural light then screens, tvs, stage lights can be used to maximum effect. Darkness becomes darkness, and a single candle on the altar becomes a powerful symbol undimmed by an inflow of sunlight. But can humans every fully control God in this way? If there are no windows how do we understand God to be the creator of everything both outside and in? Can worship not become very insular?

What is interesting is that these viewpoints are absolutely valid. You can stand in a large cathedral and soak in the reds, blues, and purples of the stained glass and feel God, just as easily as you can experience the divine through clear panes of glass, or through the atmosphere created in a windowless church. None of these theological positions as demonstrated through architectural design choices prevents God from showing up in worship, or in the lives of the faithful. But these standpoints can be taken to an extreme where God is forgotten and pushed aside for human pride and posturing. The same is true of any theological doctrine or thought. What is the real difference between a high church Catholic with a view of transubstantiation of the Eucharist and a Baptist who sees communion as a remembrance that happens only in the hearts and minds of the faithful? They both believe that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and that Christ will come again. What is the difference between denominations that baptize infants vs. denominations that do not? They both believe that we are baptized by water and the Spirit.

What the argument of differences comes down to is conflicting emphasis. We choose what single aspect of the divine we find to be the most pivotal, and play it up. This division of focus is well and good, because there are so many aspects of the Christian faith and God that we would likely forget a part of our story if it were not for our brothers and sisters who believe differently from us. The shame of it is that we see these differences as making our ‘faiths’ incompatible, and we shut ourselves off to a whole section of our sisters and brothers. Maybe the issue is Eucharistic presence, architectural decisions, written vs. extemporaneous liturgy, the humanity or divinity of Christ, or Christianity’s response to the LGBTQ community.  What we see instead of our common beliefs are our differences on these issues and we stop talking, or worse we start yelling.

It is important that we as Christians, no matter our denomination, beliefs or background encourage an open dialogue on every issue. Behind every position and every stance that we don’t agree with, is a thought or idea that we hold about God and the church. When we speak to those we disagree with we might be infected by their passion, challenged to grow in our beliefs and/or reminded of an aspect of faith that we forgot about. Differences are good. We are not all the same person and We do serve the same God. A professor at Candler once said in a lecture that a peer stood up after he had given a presentation at a conference and before beginning to lambast this professor’s argument said “I completely disagree with what he has said, but I also recognize that there is a chance we will someday have to share heaven together….”

We have our differences, but we serve one God, a God who loves us despite our shortcomings and our inability to see the big picture. So the next time you encounter someone you do not agree with remind yourself that you serve the same God, and that there is a chance you will someday have to share heaven with people you disagree with. When it comes to the windows, remember that the same God gets in no matter what. That little reminder might just change things.

- Jonathan Gaylord

Jonathan is a third year MDiv student from Deland, Florida, a Student Ambassador, and the pastor at Providence United Methodist Church in Lavonia, Georgia as a part of Candler’s Teaching Parish Program.


Nov 2 2012

Freedom

MashaunI have always wondered, “If and when I had the chance to do one of these blog posts, what would I talk about exactly?” It may sound somewhat arrogant, but since I arrived at Candler I expected that at some point I would be writing for the Enthused Admissions blog. I just sort of expected it. And don’t get me wrong; I am not saying I sought out this opportunity – not at all. However, I just figured the time would come and when it did, what would I have to say. (Maybe I should shut up now and change the subject).

Anyway, so here we are. And, ummm, what am I going to say? There is so much I could talk about: the fact that it is half way through my next to last semester at Candler; or the fact that it is only early November but feels like it should be mid-April/May; or the experiences of being student body president of a Theology school, at this time, during an election year.

But then I think back to where I am right now in my life and what stands out to me is the importance of freedom. On September 22, 2012 I cut off eight years worth of hair. Yes, you read right. For the past eight years I had been growing my hair in locs. I had the idea many years ago while in undergrad; struggled with whether or not I should do, and how it would make me look; and then grew them out. In all, I have had locs for 10 years – growing them once, cutting and starting over a year later.

They were my claim to fame – my crowning glory (no pun intended). They – my hair – had become a part of me. They were part of my identity, and I had invested a lot of energy, time and money into my hairstyle.

Every month I would get them washed and retwisted. During special occasions in my life, or when I just felt like it, I would have them colored and styled in all sorts of designs on the top of my head. They had become my art piece, my form of expressing whom I thought I was. They had become my centerpiece. And then earlier this year, during the summer, I had this idea – maybe I would cut my hair.

No, no, no. Now wait a minute, Mashaun. What are you talking about? Your hair is your hair. You cannot cut it, is what I had told myself several times. And I was not alone. So many people, when I would tell them I was thinking of cutting my hair, would object as if the hair was theirs.

And then in early September, I was ready. I made up my mind, made the appointment and prepared myself for the experience of no longer having a head full of hair. That early afternoon I grabbed a pair of scissors and cut the hair off myself, one-loc-by-one. Much to my surprise, I did not have the emotional moment many people hard warned me about. I did not get emotional. I did not lose my strength like Samson when Delilah cut his hair.

Now, you may be wondering what does any of this have to do with Candler, theology and the past few years of being here in this space. Well, I am glad you asked. I think being here at Candler has prepared me for this moment in my life. I think my being here at Candler has provided me with not just this academic knowledge, practical ministerial skills, and a network of colleagues and lifelong ministerial friends. This experience has brought me closer to the man God created me to be.  This experience has provided me with a level of freedom I did not expect to have.

I came into Candler kicking and screaming with God. I know what happens in my community – the African American community – to people who become minsters, preachers and spiritual leaders. They are expected to be perfect. They are expected to have all of the answers. They are – well everything is expected of them. And I, if we are being honest, have never been excited about that reality.

However, in this time here at Candler my humanity has been validated, while at the same time my divine right has been affirmed. In this process, I have come closer to God’s Mashaun. I have the clarity and the vision now of who I am called to be, where I am to go into the world, and all of the abilities/gifts/skills I possess that can and will be used by God in God’s kingdom.

Candler freed me. Candler freed me so much so that I no longer needed to hide behind eight years of hair.

It all makes perfect sense now…at least to me!

- Mashaun D Simon

Mashaun is a native of Atlanta, GA, a graduate of Kennesaw State University, president of the Candler Coordinating Council, and a Student Ambassador.