Jun 11 2013

For You Are With Me

Hannah in AtlantaLast Friday I went walking. Starting at Central Outreach and Advocacy Center, a downtown organization dedicated to serving and advocating for the homeless in Atlanta, which I have had the pleasure of interning for over the summer, I traced a route from the Social Security Administration office, to the Fulton County Health Department, and back toward the Department of Driver Services. Perhaps not the most leisurely or entertaining walk, but a route I deliberately decided upon as I left work that afternoon. While Central OAC assists homeless men and women obtain birth certificates, Georgia identification cards, and various referrals to food pantries, clothing closets, and shelters, as I finish individual appointments with folks that come in off the street every morning, I often send them back out with a fistful of walking directions – pointing them toward churches, organizations, agencies, and offices. While I wish we could help with each and every need voiced by our guests, I know that collaboration is essential for the passionate, transforming, and empowering work that is happening at organizations like Central OAC.

The route I walked is a common one for those needing to get proper documentation in order to pick up their ID. An entire afternoon’s worth of walking and standing in lines, and only possible if one’s situation works out just perfectly. My walk that day, however, was easy. I was not carrying all of my belongings in a pack, there were no lines to wait in at offices, I am a young and able, and had the day been particularly warm I could have easily jumped into my car or dug into my pockets for public transportation fare. As I walked I considered the complexities of this seemingly common and monotonous activity. While I walk to my bus stop, around my neighborhood, and consistently tread the halls of Candler School of Theology, there are circumstances and settings in which walking is not so easy. I think of the Israelites walking and wandering in the wilderness, I think of Jesus and his followers who walked from city to city to preach and teach, and I think of the men and women in Atlanta who walk miles for work or a place to lay their head at night.

To walk alone is yet another circumstance that complicates one’s journey. While I made the long and foreign drive from Northern Iowa to Atlanta to begin my first year of seminary on my own, I immediately found community amongst classmates, professors, and advisors willing to walk beside me as I began studying, reflecting, and discerning my call in the world. My walk and journey through the year was not without missteps and obstacles. Yet, without those walking alongside me—through exams and study groups, from church pews to contextual education sites—I never would have made it.

Atlanta SkylineI was blessed with the chance to join a cohort of like-minded first year students as a Community Engagement Fellow. The fellowship has come with opportunities for reflection and discussion with brilliant and inspiring students who find themselves drawn to use their theological education in the community—in non-profit organizations, classrooms, on urban farms, and in other non-traditional ministries. It was with the support of those walking alongside me that I have found myself at Central OAC. While I am still walking this path, attempting to make sense of my place in the world and how to seek, serve, and share the Divine, I am consistently reminded of the importance of walking with others.

While I have learned much in my initial weeks as an intern—regarding circumstances that lead to poverty, policy and legislation surrounding issues of homelessness, and the complexities of non-profit work—an image of walking alongside another human being continues to shine brightest. Even as I send guests out with precise directions and am not able to physically walk beside them, I know how important it is to take the time to hear their stories, to simply listen, to encourage, or to advocate on their behalf. I know this because of the individuals at Candler that have taken the time to listen, encourage, and walk with me. I know this because of the guest who one day reminded me of the beauty and power in the book of Psalms. A text I had spent a portion of the semester devouring, was readily recited, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4 NRSV). For the guest, the Bible he carried was a symbol of the work of God and the work of people in the world attempting to overcome evil and injustice. For me, that morning, I was once again drawn to the act of walking—whether walking in the valley of death, in the wilderness, on the beautiful Emory campus, or on the streets of Atlanta. Such a common and everyday task for some can be an arduous journey for others. For those without transportation, for those with disabilities, and for those walking alone; it can be a long passage.

HannahMy walk has just begun. It has led me states away from family and friends, into classrooms with diverse theological perspectives, and into relationship with those who challenge me to make sense of my place in the world. With a year behind me at Candler, and a summer of learning with a passionate and Christ-centered ministry like Central OAC, I am prepared to continue walking—to walk alongside others, to walk this road as seminarian, and to reflect on how my interests and passions intersect with the world.

- Hannah Landgraf

Hannah is a graduate of Simpson College, a rising second year MDiv student at Candler, and passionate about feminist theology and bicycle transportation.


Apr 19 2013

Getting Dirty with Theology

Krista transplantingI recently spoke at my former high school’s chapel service on the topic of vocation and faith. I started the chapel by showing the students my e-mail signature lines of recent years. A year ago at this time, I would have signed my e-mail as: Krista Showalter Ehst, MDiv student, Candler School of Theology. Right now, I sign my business e-mails as: Krista Showalter Ehst, Farmer, Valley Run CSA. Quite the jump, right?

Those high schoolers, as well as many other folks who learn about my recent transition may wonder—what’s the connection? Three years of theological education and then…farming?

I’ll admit it. Sometimes when I’m feeding our pigs or collecting eggs, Candler’s classrooms seem a world away. But I don’t, in fact, think that these two pieces of my journey are disjointed. When I consider the recent shift from theological education to farming, I often remember Dean Love’s words at my Candler orientation– “we are,” she reminded us, “called to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength.” She went on to challenge us to consider the next three years as an opportunity to love and worship God with our minds.  That framework was helpful for my time at Candler, and it’s continued to be helpful in the current season of my life. While farming, I have the chance to worship God with my strength; with the work of my hands and of my body.

Of course, as a good non-dualist, I hope that the activity of my mind and body are connected. While at Candler, in fact, I began to discover the intersections between theology/ministry/biblical studies and the hands-on tasks of caring for our landscapes. Reading Ellen Davis’ Scripture, Culture, Agriculture in Dr. Strawn’s OT class; working on a gardening curriculum for Georgia Interfaith Power & Light during my Candler Advantage experience; taking a directed study with Dr. Ayres on Religious Ed. and Ecology; exploring my tradition’s relationship to rural identity and agriculture through my thesis paper. Each of these experiences helped me to discover that the world of Christian ministry and theological studies need not exclude my passions for sustainable farming and food justice.

But now I’m out of the classroom and into the time of weaving these worlds together on a daily basis. It’s not always easy. Now that I’m away from the context of engaged students, provocative lectures, and assigned readings, it is harder to find folks who share and support my passions. Now that I’m away from the resources of summer internships and an academic community, it’s more of a challenge to explore creative vocational pursuits.

There was a part of me that hoped that by the time I left Candler, all my vocational aspirations would crystallize and come together in some ideal job. For me at least, it’s proving to be much more of a process. I’m farming now. And some days, farming seems totally unrelated to my Candler classes. Other days, the weaving together happens. Sometimes in more explicit ways: when I serve on the board of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light or advise the Mennonite World Conference planning team on how they can make the gathering more “green;” or when I work with a local church to plan a week-long “Peace and the Earth” camp. Other times, it’s in less obvious ways—attempting to nurture the diversity of the Genesis 1 creation poem by cultivating a small, interdependent and diverse farm. Attempting to heed the prophetic call to feed the orphan and the widow and the poor by offering a sliding scale program through our CSA. And then other days, the weaving together happens in dreams—dreaming of the farm as a site for youth and adults to consider their Christian discipleship through the lens of their relationship to land; dreaming of the farm as a site where our local community can find both physical and spiritual nourishment.

For now, though, morning chores beckon and I must go tend to those chickens and pigs. The journey has not been an obvious one. It has not been easy. But I am trying to trust that God is in all facets of the journey, weaving them together in her mysterious ways. And I’m trying to find ways of continuing to cultivate the love of God with all of my being—heart, mind, soul and strength.

- Krista Showalter Ehst

Krista is a 2012 graduate of the Candler School of Theology and is currently a farmer in Pennsylvania.  In addition, she serves on the board of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light and acts as an adviser to the Mennonite World Conference planning team.


Mar 15 2013

Hearts were Made to be Broken…

My discovery of the tenacity of the human heart began in 7th grade. I was asked if I wanted to care for a family at church’s foster baby who I had fallen in love with over the summer. I remember my mother looking at me and asking, “You know you’re going to get hurt right?” and I said yes and did it anyways. I didn’t realize then that this would be a returning question in my life. I just have to tell people that I’m going to be a chaplain in a children’s hospital and the usual response is, “That sounds so hard/miserable/sad. I would never do that.” Add in the clinical child psych piece and wanting to work with abused/neglected children and then people start telling me that it will only break my heart, and I should consider doing something else. I know this is not a unique response. I have talked to people who are hospice chaplains or nurses in children’s hospitals or who work in Children’s advocacy centers or are social workers, and the response is similar. They are frequently asked why they do something that pretty much guarantees a broken heart. But here’s the thing, hearts were made to be broken.

Before you write me off as a complete masochist, let me explain. I believe that our hearts were made to break at the things that break God’s heart. If I could be present at the death of a child and not have my heart break, that would be a problem. It would mean that there was something wrong with my heart. If hearts are made to be broken it means two things – 1. hearts should break instead of harden and 2. If God designed hearts to break, then they are also made to be mended.

So thing 1, are hearts were made to break not harden. A heart that can break is a very different thing than a heart that gets so hard and bitter that it ultimately shatters. Pain (as I’ve been told) is meant to send a message to one’s body to stop or change what it’s doing. If you touch a hot stove, the pain tell you to get your hand off the stove before you do further damage. In the same way, a broken heart tells you something is wrong. When you learn that there are still millions of children in slavery in the world working in making chocolate we eat all the time, your heart should break. That’s a sign that you’re not numb to the suffering in the world. People can take this knowledge in different amounts before they become overwhelmed, but this just means people need to take in difficult information at different speeds, not that some people get to tune out of the world’s suffering because they’re sensitive.

Also, I believe we are called to build the Kingdom in different ways. Just because I am willing to have my heart broken working in a children’s hospital does not mean that is the place for everyone. There are some who care for the places the earth is broken and those who work alongside different groups of people who have been marginalized or oppressed. There are some whose jobs they get paid for are their direct work for the Kingdom, and there are others for whom that is not the case. I do believe we all have a place though.

People have different physical pain tolerances and different emotional pain tolerances as well. We all have a different place where we’re pushing our hearts past the breaking point to the brink of shattering. It’s important to acknowledge that and to consider all the other sources of hurt in one’s life at a time. Our hearts can also be broken in ways that we do not run headlong into like serving the Kingdom, such as loss, broken relationships, and life’s challenges. I am not suggesting that we are to be open to that pain in the same way. We are to adventure into life with courage even in the face of inevitable pain, but only as the natural consequence of making our way in the world. We are not to be victims and doormats. We will face breakups and failures and losses without any desire to do so, but the good news is that all types of heartbreak can be included in the mending.

I jokingly told people when applying to grad school that I am getting my PhD in clinical child psych to have my heart broken and going to seminary to learn how God can put it back together. This only proved to show my naiveté at how much heartbreak is involved in the process of theological education. Despite that, it has only served to further strengthen my belief in redemption. I strongly believe that God does not put suffering or pain in our lives (see All Good Gifts) but that God can redeem all situations. Redemption does not mean that the pain disappears and everything is all better. It does not mean that it “was all part of God’s plan” as if God needs tornados and AIDS to bring about God’s Kingdom. Instead, it is the idea that God can bring growth and love and hope into and out of the darkest situations. I believe this because I have seen it in my life and the life of others. Just think, we serve a God who was and is willing to have his heart broken for us and with us. We serve a God of the crucifixion– there was no heart more broken, but we also serve a God of the resurrection, and there was and is no better redemption. With God’s grace and with time, our hearts come back together and we are able to venture back into the world with the understanding that they might be broken again.

I’m not a med student, but I remember being told that where broken bones come back together they are stronger in the broken places. To me, that is redemption, not that we are back to where we were or that we don’t have sore places or scars, but that there are new places of strength that came despite the pain. It is with this promise that I can venture into dark places, not of my own strength.  And to be perfectly honest, I think the alternative, to never have your heart break, is much much worse.

You know the cliche, “It is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all?” I think most people will acknowledge that as true in the area of relationships. Most people will agree that, in a majority of cases, even in relationships that ended poorly, hopefully we learned something or enjoyed part of it, or experienced some personal growth. The idea is that some pain is a part of the learning process in romantic relationships. Well, some heartbreak is required in living a life for the Kingdom as well. There are things to be learned and work to be done that cannot happen if we stay on the sidelines covered in bubble wrap. It is a much more painful idea to think that I missed a chance to grow the Kingdom, to serve my neighbor, to be a source of peace or hope, than to experience pain from doing any of those things. This is because when we are working for the Kingdom we are open to sources of hope and joy and peace that are not available elsewhere. I found that, even going into rooms and places I could not walk into on my own, when all I could say was “Holy Spirit come,” I was never left empty.

So, what are we to do? First, I think we are to open our eyes wide enough to actually see things or learn things that might hurt. Awareness is the first step, but really only the first. If we stay there then we’ve fallen into the hardened heart category. Next we pray and act and ultimately leap. We buy fair trade coffee even when it’s more expensive, maybe we become foster parents even though we don’t know what will happen, maybe we volunteer to tutor children who’s life stories make us want to cry, maybe we work with refugees. Whatever it is, we enter with open arms, with the honest understanding that we might get hurt. We do not tiptoe into the work of the Kingdom, I’m pretty sure you can’t get in that way. We jump, we dance, we fall, we might even crawl in, but we move forward boldly knowing that there is work to be done in a hurting world but that we do not do it alone, and that the God of redemption is always there to help us pick up the pieces. And at the end of the day, all I can ask is that I live my life with a heart that can always be broken, for a Lord who will always redeem it.

- Katie Sack

Katie is a second year MDiv student from Kentucky and a graduate of Birmingham-Southern College.  This post originally appeared on her blog Musings From a Tiny Chaplain.


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.


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.


Sep 28 2012

Word of God Speak?

“And if we’re going to be faithful to scripture, we must learn to love it for what it is, not what we want it to be.” Rachel Held Evans

Jennifer ReadingThis might seem like an obvious statement for a seminarian to make, but I think about the Bible a lot. So much so that for a long time, the Bible had been mentally reduced to a seminary textbook which  I lugged begrudgingly  from class to class. After all, I have spent the last few years reading, exegeting, parsing, translating, exploring, preaching from, wrestling with and sometimes almost drowning in the Scriptures. And I should tell you that it is hard to love something when it’s your homework assignment.

But lately, I’ve noticed that the Bible has snuck up on me again.

Because I used to think that I understood the Bible (after all, I was the 8th grade Bible champion back in 2001). But in many ways that Bible I understood was so flat and I thought I had figured it out. I used to think I loved the Bible but I think in many ways, I had no idea what that even meant.

But now I spend my lazy Saturday afternoons with my Greek New Testament flipped open to Romans with multiple commentaries scattered around my kitchen table and I fall asleep at night thinking about Genesis creation stories and what they mean.  I struggle with the Bible all the time. I fight with it. I want it to say what I think it should say and when it doesn’t, I want to pretend that it does anyway.

It confuses me, because I don’t know what to do with Joshua…or Daniel and I certainly don’t know what to do with that story where Elijah has two bears eat all those children.

It overwhelms me, and I don’t know what to think about it. Because the claims it is making are too expansive for me to grasp.  So I just stop. I move on to Kierkegaard or Barth, but they never let me stay away for long. Before I know it, I’m back in Romans wondering what exactly Paul means when he talks about the righteousness of God.

But it also still finds ways to inspire me, like when I stumble upon verses in Jeremiah that say: “

Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)

And in all this struggle, I am beginning to see that the Bible is deeper than I ever imagined. It is more complex and beautiful that I ever gave it credit for being.  And now as I read it, I hear the different voices that speak out across the generations to tell me something about what it means to be a Child of God, and about who that God is. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it in her book, The Preaching Life:

“[Because of the Bible] I am not an orphan. I have a community, a history, a future, a God. The Bible is my birth certificate and my family tree, but it is more: it is the living vein that connects me to my Maker, pumping me the stories I need to know about who we have been to one another from the beginning of time, and who we are now, and who we shall be when time is no more.”

It is a testament to who God is, and just like God, it is too intricate to be condensed into devotional or even a textbook. And so, I’m learning how to love the Bible again, learning how to love it for it is in its entirety and not just love the pieces that fit into my little ideas about God and God’s people.

And I’m learning what it means to say that this book is the Word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God.

-Jennifer Wyant

Jennifer is a third year MDiv student from Atlanta and a Student Ambassador.


Aug 27 2012

From Educator to Educated

As my first year at Candler begins I recognize that I am about to enter a world very different from that where I have been living.  For the past three years, I taught Algebra 1 in the Arkansas Delta through a program called Teach for America. TFA places folks like me in low-income schools where students are traditionally not performing on grade level. The program charges recent college graduates with the task of motivating and galvanizing students and other teachers at their particular placement school with the goal to chip away at the achievement gap that exists between low-income and high-income schools in our nation.  While the Delta may be far from Atlanta in many ways, what I’ve seen, learned, and experienced teaching in Helena will likely inform the my forthcoming study of theology.  I’ve found a couple.

#1 – Character

“Learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

This comes from a New York Times article  that discusses how Dave Levin, co- founder of a the KIPP charter school network, partnered with the headmaster of a top-tiered NYC private school in seeking to teach students character. School in the KIPP network typically operate in low-income communities, working towards similar goals as Teacher for America. For the past year, I taught at a KIPP school in Helena and became more intimately familiar with this attempt to teach character. To fully internalize the weight of what the research has shown, go to the link and read it (heads up – its long) However – two key findings that this article speaks to that have given me insight into the overlap to which I previously alluded.

The article argues for teaching students character, not because of the moral preference of those in administration, but for very practical reasons. Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, refers to the importance of such teaching citing, “The true importance did not come from the relationship to any system of ethics or moral laws but from the practical benefit: cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to ‘the good life,’ a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.”

“I have come that they may have life and have it to the more abundantly.” -John 10:10. For the past three years, I’ve attempted to at some point speak some semblance of meaningful, fulfilling, and life strengthening values into my student’s lives. KIPP calls it character, Jesus called it life abundantly.

Whether I’m seeking to communicate character/ life abundant with students in a classroom, parishioners in church, orphans, seekers, deadbeats, burned out sinners, halo wearing saints, or self-righteous pietists, the hope of finding traces of such character and life remains constant regardless of the setting.

Levin and his counterpart seek to teach a general set of acquired traits referred to as “character.” Moving from the general to a specific trait led me to overlap number two.

#2 – Failure.

Failure is that which we seek to avoid at all costs. It is that which consumes so much of our time, worry, dread, anxiety, and stress.

For the past three years, I have been taught that this word is as fowl as its alliterative counterpart. Through the best of intentions I have been indoctrinated in the belief that my student’s failure was my failure. Failure was not an option. When only 8% of students in low-income families are graduating from college, failure is not an option. 8% is not ok.

Here’s the problem.

KIPP students at Auburn University“We thought, O.K., our first class was the fifth-highest-performing class in all of New York City,” (Dave) Levin said. “We got 90 percent into private and parochial schools. It’s all going to be solved. But it wasn’t.” Almost every member of the cohort did make it through high school, and more than 80 percent of them enrolled in college. But then the mountain grew steeper, and every few weeks, it seemed, Levin got word of another student who decided to drop out. According to a report that KIPP issued last spring, only 33 percent of students who graduated from a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college.”

As the article continues, it explores the notion that IQ and high test scores were not what was shown to be correlated with success in college. What did correlate, however, was grit – perseverance through failure. In true KIPP fashion, the network has taken to quantifying grit through a “Grit Scale” self-assessment that requires you to rate yourself on just 12 questions, from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” The “Grit Scale” has shown to be “remarkably predictive of success” according Penn Ph.D. graduate Angela Duckworth whose field test yielded the predictive data.

Grit moves us from failure to victory.

“Many of us are haunted by our failure to have done with our lives what we longed to accomplish. The disparity between our ideal self and our real self, the grim specter of past infidelities, the awareness that I am not living what I believe, the relentless pressure of conformity, and the nostalgia for lost innocence reinforces a nagging sense of existential guilt: I have failed. This is the cross we never expected, and the one we find hardest to bear.” -Brennan Manning

We’ve got to rethink our notion of failure and how we deal with it. In the world of education in which I was blessed to be a part, we’ve lost sight of how to teach kids that failure is inevitable and one of our greatest chances to learn and move forward. Instead, we fill students’ heads with facts and expect them to regurgitate them on tests that have been deemed important by a source that is not intimately connected to our students in our classrooms. Students cannot develop grit without experiencing failure.

In the church, we’ve lost sight of a God who is intimately connected with our shortcomings. We’ve forgotten the story of the prodigal son, whose unspeakably deep failure and missteps didn’t stop the father from running to meet his wayward son before the son could even speak one word of penitence. “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and hands and kissed him tenderly.” -Luke 15:20 The son failed, came back broken, and was granted forgiveness before he even could ask. Failure has never been a deal breaker for the Father.

“The person with depth is the one who has failed, learned to live with it, and continued to move forward.” – Brennan Manning

Failure will come. If we are to keep growing, we must keep risking failure throughout our lives and learning to mature out of what the failure has taught us. We can’t keep running away from failure in education or in our relationship with our Creator.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” -Winston Churchill

May I remember these lessons as I embark on a new journey at Candler.  May we all seek the character that comes from pursuing an abundant life and learn to live in a way that embraces the idea that only through learning from failure may we be propelled into greatness.

- Levi Rogers

 Levi is an entering MDiv student.  He spent three years teaching in the Arkansas Delta and is a graduate of Auburn University.


Aug 13 2012

Who am I to do this work?

“I’ve been hiding with this whole Battlestar Galactica thing,” I told my husband in an emotional heart to heart recently. It was the most shameful confession I’ve made in a long time. Not that there is anything wrong with the science fiction drama that’s been infiltrating the lives of countless hipsters of late. It wasn’t Battlestar Galatica’s fault. No, I can’t blame this one on Starbuck and Adama.

When I found out I was accepted to divinity school and made the decision to attend Candler, I was thrilled. That excitement carried me right through my wedding in May, the honeymoon, the squeaky newness of our marriage, and the lofty dreams of the next three years together. Life just kept getting better. Hooray! When the summer began, I had plans to read devotionally, work on my prayer life, and make my way through James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible all before setting foot on Emory’s immaculate campus. Instead, this summer I’ve allowed my free time to be taken over by Cylon invasions and intergalactic love triangles. How did that happen?

One of the best things about being married is having someone you love and trust tell you when you’re full of sh*t. I’ve been blessed to recently discover this overlooked benefit. My husband told me in the midst of a disagreement, in which I was being completely irrational, “I have disappointments too, Anna. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m disappointed in how little time you’ve spent preparing for Candler in your reading life.” It was like staring at myself in the mirror, and then realizing that I actually look like crap. And that’s when I confessed to the abuse of Battlestar Galactica – my inconspicuous drug of choice.

Now some of you reading may think I am blowing this all out of proportion. There is nothing wrong with Battlestar Galactica! Nothing wrong with spending your summer indulging in vices soon to be off limits when studies begin! And you would be right. But for me, choosing evenings with Battlestar Galactica over evenings with Kugel, with the Bible, and with God, meant that I was avoiding facing my own anxiety and fears about starting divinity school.

In one of the Candler information sessions I attended, Mary Lou Boice, Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, said something particularly profound. She said something along the lines of, “It takes a lot of guts to say you want to be a pastor, to overcome the question of, ‘Who am I to do this work?’” And she couldn’t be more right. When the wedding faded into the past, and I had only divinity school to look forward to – I began to fear what this new life would be. Who am I to do this work? I just recently became a Christian. I’ve had people read my blog and compare me to Dante’s Lucifer. I don’t know any of the party lines and denominational platforms. Who am I? I’m going to Candler and I don’t know anything about John Wesley! I was raised Unitarian in a humanist household. I barely know how to pray. My Christology is in flux. Who am I but just another lost sheep? Who am I to guide anyone to the Shepherd?

I’m just another child of God. That’s who I am, and it’s the hardest truth to reconcile. Maybe it’s the sheep who have once been lost who are best able to lead. Or maybe not. The truth is that going to divinity school is the biggest leap of faith I have taken. It’s the beginning of a not-my-will-but-thine life. Because I don’t know how God will use me to minister. I don’t know how God will work through me. But I have made a decision to give my life to be used for that purpose. And all I can do is try my best to be ready. All I can do is have the audacity to trust.

Now, pass me that remote. I’ve just got 3 more episodes to go before I finish Battlestar and begin the rest of my life.

Anna Flowers is an entering MDiv student. She has a degree in English Literature from the University of Chicago and currently lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband and cat.


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.