Jan 25 2013

Light Amidst the Darkness

It often becomes difficult for us to appreciate what we have when everything in our lives is going well. We take those around us for granted and seem to look directly past the abundant blessings in our lives. However, during times of struggle, we witness the blessings we have in our lives in a new way: more specifically, the people we have in our lives.

At times, I became stressed during my first semester at Candler, as I sought to balance a difficult academic schedule with a variety of other activities. Towards the end of the semester, I learned that each “task” was a blessing from God to be cherished and a new way to connect with my Lord and Savior. However, even in the midst of this significant discovery regarding my daily tasks, I breezed by another significant part of my first semester at Candler: the people that I had encountered.

I am not by any means suggesting that I did not feel close to those at Candler after my first semester. In particular, my Episcopal Studies cohort seemed like family. I was the youngest, and the group always seemed to look out for me. However, since everything seemed to go well my first semester, I feel as though I took the concept of this group always being present in my life for granted.

Katie and MomThis past Friday, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. While my mom has had a number of health problems since I was in the second grade, this particular case cut like a knife. I am 12 hours away and have been filled with guilt that I am unable to physically be there in support of my mom. However, I have had difficulty discovering how I am “supposed” to feel. I have always been the strong one and the positive one. Even amongst my Episcopal Studies cohort, I feel like I am known for positivity and “holding it together.” I wondered if it was acceptable not to “hold it together” for even a few moments.

I was comfortable enough with the Episcopal Studies group at Candler, after knowing them only four months, to share the news in our private Facebook group. To my surprise, I received a public or private message from almost every one of the 18 students within a matter of hours, even though it was a holiday weekend. While each one was comforting and expressed sorrow for my family, one private message in particular touched me. One of my peers had written me a letter within the message. She told me that she hoped I would be able to find solace through those reminding me of God’s love, God’s purpose, and God’s comfort for those who suffer. However, she also told me that if these things did not help and felt like hollow reassurances during this time of darkness, that was completely fine. She would be there for me regardless.

This particular message gave me permission to be myself in front of my family, my peers, and God. I did not have to “hold it together” for anyone, especially my friends at seminary. Throughout my spiritual journey, I have typically been in the position of a caregiver. However, for the first time, I have been put in the position of someone who realistically needs the support of others. The response of my classmates to my newfound role has showed me what incredible friends I am surrounded by at Candler.

It is comforting to know that the Candler students will always be there for each other in good times, such as my first semester, and in more difficult times of struggle. It is even more comforting to know that these same individuals reaching out to me will reach out to the world as priests and as workers of God. As a result of Candler students, I have found a glimmer of light amidst the darkness.

-Katie O’Dunne

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


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.


Jul 23 2012

Grace Dances Amidst Holy Chaos

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.

Christopher Szarke at Haywood Street CongregationGrace dances amidst Holy Chaos.

This lesson doesn’t come naturally after previously embracing the structure of Roman Catholic religious life (Benedictine and Franciscan) and spending two years as the seminary intern in a calm Episcopal parish.   It has been the most challenging and freeing lesson of the ten-week Candler Advantage summer internship at Haywood Street Congregation, a United Methodist mission church that primarily ministers with homeless people in Asheville, North Carolina, population 85,000 people.   Pastor Brian Combs, a 2006 Candler graduate, founded the congregation three years ago and ministers with Co-Pastor Shannon Spencer.

Our motto is “Come as you are.”   This might mean not having showered for several days, being drunk or high, or without medication that keeps psychosis at bay.   Many members of our community have been asked to leave other churches, which is interpreted as rejection by God.    We understand that God embraces everyone and that we are called as Christians to embrace Jesus in our midst.   Each of us has our own brokenness and it’s better to err on the side of grace, leaving room for God to do the work that we cannot possibly accomplish on our own.

Grace dances amidst Holy Chaos.

The Welcome Table is a huge meal serving 275 to 455 people every Wednesday, followed by an optional worship service.   The choice for liturgy on Wednesday is intentional after receiving feedback that the opportunity to attend church in the middle of the week gives the strength to carry on through Sunday.   It’s a chance to encounter Jesus in the sacrament of communion, to be surrounded by community, and to gain support to remain sober another day.

A cross-section of Asheville is present at worship: business people, who may have hidden addictions to alcohol or prescription medications, and homeless people with addictions that society judges with less forgiveness; people who meet survival needs through prostitution; church grandmothers, youth groups, and formerly homeless people – including many veterans – who return to encourage our sisters and brothers along the journey.    I recognize God working through the congregation when a man is welcomed back after being incarcerated in the county jail.   We shake rattles in response to prayers and concerns of the people: hopes for housing, rejoicing at receiving housing for the first time in 22 years, remembering brothers and sisters who are not with us today because they are in jail or a hospital psychiatric unit or are recently deceased.

Sermons are conversational, with the pastor asking the congregation for responses to the Scripture reading.   Sometimes people are ramble on in response or are argumentative.   Somehow the pastor is able to affirm all of these voices and connect them back to Scripture and how this speaks to us today.

Grace dances amidst Holy Chaos.

I spend little time in an office, joining our congregation where they are throughout the week.   On Monday I am at a day center for homeless people, followed by serving lunch in Pritchard Park with Be Loved House (a nondenominational house church), where people ask for prayers about jobs, housing, or reconciliation with estranged family members.   I have joined Pastor Brian at the local shelter, staying overnight in the men’s dorm following a chapel service.    On Sundays I participate in liturgy at the Church of the Advocate, an Episcopal worshipping community that is primarily attended by homeless people.   Here communion extends beyond church walls.   Two of us leave the church and take communion to our sisters and brothers on the stairway, under the trees, and on the sidewalk.   I participate in two homeless advocacy groups; one promoting a Homeless Bill of Rights similar to the one recently passed in Rhode Island.   Members of Haywood Street Congregation gather once a month at Habitat for Humanity.   I am humbled by the people who work on homes for people while they themselves are sleeping by the river or in the shelter.

I lead the offertory by calling out to Haywood Street Congregation, “What does God love?”    They respond with shouts and shaking rattles, “A cheerful giver!”   I describe how each of us is called to share our blessings, whether it’s the gift of patience and kindness, or praying for each other, or sharing a few coins, or boiling three hundred eggs to pass out at the Welcome Table, or writing to our friends in jail, or gathering trash in the parking lot.   People write on the service bulletin about how they share, coming forward to put notes and coins in a basket.   I hold the basket above my head and pray for God to bless and multiply the offerings so they may continue the ministry of Jesus in our congregation and the larger community.

Grace dances amidst Holy Chaos.    The Incarnate Jesus is present with us each day and I remain in awe of this blessing.

– Christopher Szarke

Christopher Szarke, a rising third year M.Div. student in the Episcopal Studies and Faith and Health Certificate Programs, is currently in the discernment process with the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.


Jul 3 2012

Go far, together

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.

Kenyan Children

“We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now.  And it’s not only the creation.  We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free.” Romans 8:25-26.

You know that scene in The Sound of Music when Maria Von Trapp leaves the convent for the first time and bursts into the song, “I Have Confidence”? That’s kind of been my life lately—minus the tacky tweed outfit and hat.  From the moment I boarded the plane to Nairobi until now, I have had to silence this quiet, anxious voice inside me that says, “You really don’t know what you’re doing- do you?”  I hate that voice.  It’s so lonely! With that voice, all of my successes and failures become mine and mine alone.  But this past month, when I shush that voice inside me and listen, really listen to the Spirit move and work around me, I realize that I am far from alone.  It’s the stories and people around me that give me confidence that God really is at work through God’s people and if look closely, you can see it right in front of you.

Emmy in KenyaThis summer, through Candler Advantage, I have the opportunity to work at New Life Home Trust in Kenya.  New Life Homes has six homes across Kenya that provides care and support for abandoned and orphaned children.  New Life has been a part of my life since 2004, when my parents adopted my youngest brother and sister there.  Over the years, I have gotten to watch sickly, malnourished infants grow into healthy, happy family members.  Most of the children at the homes are adopted into Kenyan families.  But, there are twenty-five children who are in two family-style homes that have not been adopted due to special needs.  Though the majority of these children are HIV positive, some have been diagnosed with other developmental or behavioral disorders.  Over the years, only a handful of these children have been adopted.

Before I arrived, I tried to put together the perfect religious education curriculum that would take care of everything—feelings of loss and abandonment, Anti-retro viral adherence, self-love and acceptance, etc.  Here is an exaggerated example, “Class 1 Theme-Parents; Goal-Help kids understand that God is a father and a mother.  So, even if they never are adopted by parents, they will feel loved by God.”  Pretty lofty goal for one Saturday afternoon, eh? It should come as no surprise that my first few classes were relative failures.  Fortunately, those experiences have forced me to listen and watch those around me.  “Pole, pole” (slowly slowly in Swahili), I am realizing that what I am part of is a process that began long before I came here and will continue long after I leave.  In the meantime, being a part of this community has made me watch the Spirit groan, but it has also let me watch the Spirit dance in the lives of these children and their caregivers. There’s a Kenyan proverb that reads, “If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.”  I’m realizing lately just how far you can go, together.

-Emmy Corey

Emmy is a rising third year MDiv student and a graduate of Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, AL.


Jun 11 2012

What’s in a Name?

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.

As my friend Jonathan explained in the previous post, we are part of the Candler Advantage program this summer. My placement is at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church, a church that has a strong connection with Candler and has hosted Contextual Education 1 and 2 students. It is a mission of the Episcopal Church, meaning it is not a regular congregation (whatever regular means). Most of the people who fill the pews on Sundays and who are involved in church activities throughout the week are adults with mental illness. They live in group homes or are homeless, some also suffer from various addiction issues. It isn’t a “regular” congregation because the members do not support the church financially but congregants are very much a part of nearly every aspect of church life. Holy Comforter also has a day-program called The Friendship Center that has opportunities for all kinds of art projects and two meals twice a week.

I chose Holy Comforter despite not being Episcopalian (I grew up in and also attend a United Church of Christ congregation) and despite having no experience with caring for and working with people with mental illness. I knew that this would be a challenge for me, but I had seen so many of my Candler colleagues fall in love with Holy Comforter, so I wanted in on it. I was still a little nervous as I began coming to worship services and meals, slowly learning people’s names and learning the songs and responses of the liturgy.

The people of my new congregation were not people I normally encountered in my day-to-day life, I would sometimes see people like them in a grocery store or maybe a fast food place but would try and discreetly avoid their gaze and perhaps offer a wan smile if I accidentally made eye contact. I was simply uncomfortable in their presence, unsure of how to interact with them and unsure of what my responsibility was to respond to their mumbling or confusing speech. I knew Jesus wanted me to be with “the least of these,” even if it made me uneasy. I knew this in my head but I still had no idea what it really might mean, or even how condescending that bumper sticker theology might be.

One of the deacons at Holy Comforter asked me how I was feeling after my first few days, if I was beginning to feel more at ease. I nodded, actually unsure of how comfortable I was feeling. He said, “Good, you know Holy Comforter is a place you can really be yourself. It is a place of rest, a place of acceptance.” I realized I had been looking at Holy Comforter too much like my own personal mission to comfort the afflicted. I was focused on caring for people; of responsibly saying the right thing after someone had just told be they were in fact married to a famous celebrity. I had not opened myself up to receive the respite this unique congregation had to offer. I did not have to worry about judgment if I did something wrong in the liturgy or sang off key. I did not have to worry if people would want to talk to me. I didn’t have to worry about my painting looking amateurish- I could just paint.

Holy Comforter is an aptly named church. It is a place that everyone and anyone can go to be welcomed, fed, loved, and respected with an honesty that I do not encounter in many other places in my life. Although it is still an adjustment for me to be with the congregation and I still find myself second-guessing things I do and sometimes catch myself feeling particularly saintly for helping someone with a walker, I have started to open up myself to the rest, freedom, and acceptance at Holy Comforter.

- Megan Worthman

Megan is a rising third year MDiv student and a graduate of Hastings College in Hastings, NE.