Aug 18 2011

Called “From” and “For”

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.

My call to a life of faith has been hardly ordinary.  Born and raised a Jehovah’s Witness, I grew up in a strict and unhealthy religious environment.  Every week, my family had to fill out time cards recording how many hours we spent in “service” (door-to-door evangelization).  I was forbidden from hanging out with kids who weren’t “one of us,” and was deprived of the usual childhood joys of birthday cakes, Christmas morning gifts, and Easter egg hunts.  The worst moment, however, came when my brother was disfellowshipped – a process of excommunication, or shunning, that forbids family and friends from associating with lapsed members.  As a child, I dearly loved and looked up to my brother; when he was disfellowshipped, I was told that we could no longer be seen together in public.

When I was 15, my parents called our family into the kitchen for what would be a life-changing announcement: they told us that they were leaving the Witnesses.  For me, a 15-year-old who was bitter and angry, I was simply happy that I could finally hang out with my brother again.  I was also happy that I would no longer have to attend five meetings a week, and would no longer be forced to engage in the mind-numbing chore of preparing for them.  While I knew that we still had very close relatives in the Witnesses, and that our leaving would greatly impact our relationships with them, I was excited by the possibility of living a normal life.

For the next four years, however, life was hardly normal.  My parents, who no doubt felt guilty about the restrictive lives to which my siblings and I had been subjected, allowed me a tremendous amount of freedom.  I had no curfews (none that were enforced anyways), and no limits on whom I could or couldn’t hang out with.  I was allowed access to my mother’s car to the point where it was basically mine; I could come and go with it, whenever I wanted, without permission.  I was also given unearned money on a regular basis, without any questioning with regard to what it would buy.  All of this amounted to a recipe for disaster.  I became addicted to drugs, and eventually started selling them.  Toward the beginning of this phase, I hung out with the “party crowd” – kids who drank a little here, smoked a little weed there – but quickly found myself surrounded by hardcore criminals.  Three of my closest friends from this time ended up dead (long after I stopped hanging out with them); all shot, I presume, over drug deals gone wrong (officially, these cases are all unsolved).

When I was 18, my life took a drastic turn.  One night, after getting high with a friend, I was in my car, alone, driving home.  I always struggle to describe what came next.  All I can say is that suddenly, with no warning, I felt a very strong presence with me.  This presence had a voice – not an audible voice, but a voice I could, in the strangest imaginable way, feel.  The voice’s message was simple: “You must stop this, or you will die.”  Whatever happened that night, I believe that it saved my life.  It shook me up so much that I went home, told my parents everything that had been going on, and left all of my friends in the dust.  The next several months would be spent in isolation, reflecting on God, my future, and how the two might be related.  I believed I had been spared for something.  This was the initial call.   This experience, although only 10 years ago, seems like a scene from a movie I barely remember.  But I must not let myself forget.  I firmly believe that our present is shaped by our past and motivated by our future.  The “call” is dynamic, as God calls his people from and for.

Preparation and Discernment

As of late, I’m learning that the call entails a perpetual cycle of preparation and discernment.  For the past six years, I’ve been preparing for ministry through academic training.  I have a B.A. in Pastoral Ministries and Biblical Studies, and I’m two years into my MDiv program at Candler (two down, one to go!).  Sounds like I’ve had a clear understanding of my vocational calling all along, right?  Not exactly.  While I’ve rarely questioned whether I’ve been called to ministry, the form of ministry to which I’m being called at any given time is something that I’m continuously discerning.  Thanks to the Candler Advantage program, I just spent the entire summer working (while getting paid…WOO WOO!) at a local United Methodist congregation in Decatur, GA.  This experience affirmed my specific call to parish ministry – at least for a time.  But let me be clear: I will never make the decision to be a “career pastor,” or a career anything else.  Maybe God will call me to be a pastor my entire life, but maybe not.  I cannot determine today what God will call me to do tomorrow.  The Spirit of God is exciting, unpredictable, even dangerous.  God may call a person to one form of ministry for a season, and to a completely different form for the next.  The Spirit that calls us is the same Spirit who hovered over primitive waters, who appeared as a roaring wind and as flaming tongues.   The call is an invitation from a mysterious God who promises, if we’re willing to take the risk, to give us an abundant life.  So let the narrative continue!

- Angelo Mante

Angelo is a rising third year MDiv student and a graduate of Taylor University.


Aug 5 2011

Living History

Neo-Assyrian soldiers stretch out naked foes on the ground, preparing to flay them alive. Captive children witness the gruesome display.

One of the highlights of my trip to Israel this summer was visiting the site of ancient Lachish, about thirty-five miles southwest of Jerusalem. This Judahite city was the last to fall to the mighty Neo-Assyrian army before it set its sights squarely on Jerusalem (701 B.C.E.). King Sennacherib was so proud of this conquest that he had scenes from the siege of Lachish etched into the walls at his palace at Nineveh. Now displayed in the British Museum in London, these reliefs depict (among other things) the execution and torture of Judahite soldiers and dignitaries as well as the forced migration of the city’s inhabitants.

Neo-Assyrian troops impale citizens of Lachish on long poles while archers and soldiers armed with slings ascend the siege ramp.

Neo-Assyrian troops in a siege engine attack the fortified gates of Lachish. Torches and boulders rain down on the attackers, but to no avail.

I visited Tel Lachish late in the afternoon on a scorching day in July. Except for the birds and the occasional lizard that skittered by, I was completely alone at the site. It was eerily quiet. And as I stood atop the tel, I let my historical imagination run wild.

One can still see very clearly the huge earthen ramp that the Neo-Assyrians built to surmount the city’s walls. It is massive and an impressive feat of engineering even now. I imagined the dread that the citizens must have felt looking down from the walls to see below the greatest fighting force that the world had ever known. As Sennacherib’s troops slowly assembled the siege ramp rock by rock, the city surely knew what was coming. Once the ramp was finished, there could be no repelling Sennacherib’s raiders.

Remains of the Neo-Assyrian siege ramp leading up to the city walls.

Sennacherib resting comfortably on his throne in his camp outside of Lachish.

As I saw this historical drama playing itself out before me, I could picture the Neo-Assyrian soldiers in full armor, with a taste for blood and a lust for loot. I imagined a smug Sennacherib munching some grapes in his plush camp just out of range of Lachish’s archers. Why did he have to come all the way from Nineveh to wreak so much havoc here? Looking down on the site of Sennacherib’s camp, I had the urge to utter a curse against those damn Neo-Assyrians. And suddenly, quite unexpectedly, I felt a new kinship with old Jonah, who certainly had no love lost on these people (cf. Jonah 3-4). The memory of violence, even violence from thousands of year ago, can still have profound and disturbing effects.

Another very different highlight of my trip was visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I wasn’t really planning on visiting the church, intending instead to focus on the numerous Old Testament “places of interest” in and around Jerusalem (like Lachish). Yet when I happened upon the church, I just couldn’t resist going in.

I have to admit that once inside I found the people far more interesting than the architecture, relics, and this or that shrine. As I navigated the various holy sites within the church, I realized I was walking alongside people from all over the world. It struck me powerfully that millions of Christians over hundreds of years had travelled to this very building and had walked on these very stones.

Why had we all come? Was it curiosity? Devotion? Adventure? And who were we exactly? Pilgrims? Or tourists? Or worse, crusaders? Or were we something in between, some mixture of all three? I couldn’t tell, but walking through the church gave me the sense that I was participating in something that was far bigger than me. To be sure, that something was very messy and complicated and rife with contradiction, but also somehow profoundly true.

Crosses etched into the walls by pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Of all the images from the church that day, what most struck me was seeing the thousands of crosses cut in the stone blocks on the stairway down to the crypt of St. Helen. Those simple etchings testified to the presence and faith of so many who had come before me. Even in the few minutes I stood at the steps there taking it all in, scores of new pilgrims walked by.

- Dr. Joel LeMon

 

Dr. LeMon is Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Candler and will be teaching OT501 this year.  His research focuses on the Psalms, Hebrew and Ugaritic poetry, and (as you can tell) ancient Near Eastern history, literature, and art. He is the author of Yahweh’s Winged Form in the Psalms (Academic Press, 2010) and the co-editor of Method Matters (with Kent H. Richards, Society of Biblical Literature, 2009). LeMon is an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.


Jul 29 2011

Where’s Loganville?

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.

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you” Psalm 32:8

This summer I have had the opportunity through the Office of Contextual Education to serve at Loganville First United Methodist Church.  When I tell Candler students about my position, their first response is… “Where is Loganville?”  If you are from Atlanta and in the market for a new or used car, you might know where Loganville is.  For everyone who doesn’t know, Loganville is located roughly halfway between Atlanta and Athens.

Loganville is a historically small country town that has been absorbed by the growth of metro Atlanta.  Loganville First UMC was my Contextual Education site last year, and now I am serving the church full time for the summer.  There is something that happens when you begin to work in a church full time.  Those stories that pastors tell about their congregants that seem ridiculous all of a sudden seem to make sense.  I seem to be in the middle of issues I once distanced myself from.  Even when conflict arises and nothing seems to be going right, God reveals God’s self in the people of the church every single day.  Most importantly, for me, the church that was a small part of my life has become a challenging and sustaining part.

One of the many great things about this congregation is that they have accepted a call to help support and train young people in ministry.  This congregation has welcomed me with open arms and has allowed me to be a part of every area of ministry.  They have been very supportive of me in my successes and in my failures.  This summer at Loganville First has helped me further define my call.  Now, I see more clearly my gifts with youth and young adults as well as areas in which more growth is needed.

This experience this summer has been challenge, rewarding, and life changing.  I hope and pray that Loganville First will continue to support young ministry, and any Candler student wishing to pursue full time ministry will seriously consider the Candler Advantage program.

- Andrew Wolfe

Andrew is a rising 3rd year MDiv student from South Carolina and a graduate of Clemson University.


Jul 18 2011

Laying Down Roots

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.

Summers at the Candler School of Theology almost always result in events to tell stories about. When I’m coming back each fall, I anticipate running into friends who’ve been working in international development in Cambodia or Laos, studying abroad in England or Germany, or working with a progressive Christian organization like Bread for the World in Washington, D.C. The stories, blogs, pictures and videos that result from these experiences are always eye-opening and make me excited for the folks who come out of each place with a new call or purpose.

As happy as I am that Candler offers these opportunities, I have yet to take them up on it. Even though I love traveling and meeting new people, my vocation is all about laying down roots. For me, it’s a spiritual discipline to stay in a place past its novelty, and to walk with people even when their spiritual growth is about as perceptible as the growth of a tree. So I was excited when Candler offered me an opportunity to stay at St Paul United Methodist Church, where I spent my second year of Contextual Education, through the Candler Advantage internship program.

Friends have asked me all summer how my internship is going and what I’m learning. I think the number one thing I’ve learned is this: ministry in familiar spaces can be just as surprising as ministry in brand new, exciting contexts. When I started my internship, I knew I’d be working with the same youth group I worked with all year, and the same adult Sunday School class I taught many times. I don’t think I started my summer really looking to see those around me as I would if I were getting to know people in a new context. But slowly, people started surprising me as they offered whole new parts of themselves and their faith journey I’d never known were there. Having even just an extra ten weeks to spend ministering with this congregation has proved to me that having the time to spend with people (especially non-school time) is like having eyes to see the beauty of God’s imaginatively unfolding creation. Of course, time alone doesn’t do it; it also takes a fair amount of awkwardness and persistence. But time makes the space. So I’ve added to my list of spiritual disciplines to cultivate; in addition to staying put, I also mean to practice a lack of hurriedness. After all, what important ministry goal could I accomplish apart from knowing, seeing and loving those whom God has made?

I don’t mean to say that other parts of ministry aren’t important. Mostly, I’ve just begun to understand that seeing the people around me, really seeing them, is a constant and daily part of my vocation. It is so much easier for me to plan my Bible studies and classes based on what I think I know about people, what I’ve learned from classes, or what I think would work based on my own experience; but being a religious educator means constantly reshaping my methods in response to those I’m teaching and learning with.

- LauraBeth Jones

LauraBeth is a third year MDiv student, a member of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.


Jul 11 2011

The Root Level

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.

Hello, I am Patrick McLaughlin and I am working this summer through the Candler Advanced Summer Internship program.  My aim is to further explore how the church can be a community health promoter by better understanding the determinants of health that lie in our agriculture communities.  I have spent time with friends and family who are farmers, seed distributors, fertilizer salespeople, ranchers, feedlot operators, ethanol producers to gain their perspective on sustainability, health of people and the land, and life with God.  Check out my video to see how my summer is going and keep an eye out in August for a follow up video!

-Patrick McLaughlin

Patrick is a third year United Methodist MDiv student from Kansas and a Student Ambassador


Jul 6 2011

A Sustaining Relationship

“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God…” Ruth 1:16

A few weeks ago, I got to read those words from the pulpit in Cannon Chapel at the wedding of Kate Floyd (’07) and Kyle Tau (‘10). I was one of six women sitting in the front in white albs – women who have gathered before to celebrate occasions like this, who stayed up all night together writing papers at Candler just a few years ago, who have consumed unearthly amounts of chocolate while watching overly dramatic television, who have laughed and cried together to the point of exhaustion, who have gathered yearly since we graduated to re-center and find rest.

At Lane Cotton Winn’s (’07) wedding a couple years ago, the same group of us who walked to the front in white robes were called “The Big Six” by a friend of her family. And so, adding Lane in, one of the names we call ourselves is The Big Seven.

We like to name things, like each other (we all have nicknames). We also take great care to name the occasions in our lives, to mark them intentionally, to set the space and prepare our hearts – to channel our inner MEM (as we are influenced heavily by Mary Elizabeth Moore, who directed the Women in Theology and Ministry program in our day) or our inner BDM (as we create liturgy to bring into our celebrations in classic Barbara Day Miller style). We are, after all, Candler Women, scattered as we may be around the country.

I’m not sure how we became a group exactly. All of these women filtered into my life at different stages of my seminary career. Lane sauntered into the first day of CT501 wearing a pink “Mary is My Homegirl” tshirt, and I knew instantly that we’d be friends. Along with Lane, Kate and Nicole Christopher (’07) were in most of my classes first year and in the WTM program. I remember meeting Anjie Peek Woodworth (’08) first year during our orientation – all confident and cheerful and wearing overalls – but somehow we didn’t get to know each other until second year.

My second year at Candler was also when Sara Pugh (’08) moved into an apartment two floors above mine at the retirement community that had become a Candler outpost. Candace Hirsch (’08) danced in to my life soon after Sara, and they quickly became part of the crowd who usually hung out in my apartment.

We gathered to study, to put off studying, to celebrate being done studying… And in the midst of classes and papers and random adventures around the city, we built strong bonds. Several of us have taken mission trips together, particularly to Lane’s hometown, New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina.  Some of us have traveled to other continents together. And all seven of us have lived with someone else in the group at some point, but Candace takes (and usually bakes) the cake, having lived with four of us.

By my last semester in spring of 2007, our relationships had cemented. We were a group by the time we arrived early in the morning (kind of a big deal for some of us) to Bishops 211 on the first day of Don Salier’s last Public Worship class to scope out the primo seats. And by the time some of us were packing up to move to our respective Conferences and varied ministry settings a couple years later, we decided to be intentional about remaining a group, staying connected, and continuing to be a sounding board and support system even when we unpacked our boxes in different states.

We had our first Sabbath Retreat in the spring of 2008. We’ve had four now, and they follow a pattern. We each spend time sharing about the craziness of our year, the curveballs of ministry and family and relationships. We eat far too much, but it’s all delicious. We stay up until we’re falling asleep, and then we sleep until we wake up. We each create something to remind us of that particular gathering. And we celebrate the milestones in our lives – birthdays, engagements, pregnancy, ordinations…  Although we keep in touch during the year, these Sabbath Retreats are like cramming a year’s worth of in-person friendship into a couple of days.

I can’t fully express what I’ve learned from these women, and what I miss most living so far flung – the empathy and energy that take Candace away from what she may want to do and place her where someone needs her; the care with which Sara attends to every word someone says to her; the precision and insight of Anjie’s questions, opening a conversation wider; the grace and thoughtfulness with which Kate points to deeper systemic issues; the bodaciousness of Lane’s prophetic voice, calling us to think bigger; the glint in Nicole’s eye when she’s just thought of something mischievous and awesome for us to do… and the living room dance parties that ensue whenever we gather together. Sometimes I turn up the music and dance alone on the hardwood in my living room in Miami, channeling Candace’s moves and Sara’s laughter and the presence of these delightful women.

My first year at Candler, I heard the 3rd year students repeat over and over, “It’s all about relationship.” I kept waiting for the class where that phrase would be used. But that lesson wasn’t from a class. For me, that lesson came from the experience of Candler – the willingness of most everyone to be in relationship even when we disagreed vehemently in classes, talking theology wherever we were and whatever we were doing, the closeness of the community, the emphasis on lovingly engaging our brothers and sisters throughout the city and world, and the call to intentional devotion to God.

These friends, and so many others, shared and shaped my time at Candler. The strength of these relationships encourages me as I keep working to build myself a community in Miami, a city with an abundance of tropical fruit and adventure. It’s easy to find people, but difficult to make meaningful connections. But even as I find new friendships, those Candler relationships sustain me knowingly, as we all embrace the adventure that is ministry. Every day I discover something else I don’t know, and I’m still figuring out how to do campus ministry both faithfully and relevantly. The words and love of these women spur me on as I try to convey to my students that it really is all about relationship – our relationship with God and with each other.

Our Sabbath gatherings are like water in a parched land, as we regroup after another year of living out this rigorous call to love and serve.  A few months ago during this year’s Sabbath, I stood in Cannon Chapel with the rest of The Big Seven, and we sang “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” And when we part, it really does give me inward pain. But these people are my people, and their God is my God. Where I go, in some way, they go.

- Beth Bostrom

Beth is a 2007 graduate of the Candler School of Theology and currently serves as the chaplain/campus minister/director/goofy lady with the random ideas of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Miami.


Jun 28 2011

Being Church in the City

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.

I am incredibly grateful that Candler has provided the time and resources to allow me to delve much deeper into parish ministry this summer. So far, the summer has been challenging, inspiring, HOT, and yes, even fun.

I am serving at Birmingham First United Methodist Church in Alabama. First Church is a fairly large church situated at the heart of downtown Birmingham. Like all institutions in Birmingham it carries both a noble and broken history. Today, however, the church leads the city in many ways with its dynamic vision to create an engaging, authentic experience of worship, discipleship and service. It truly is an open place for all to worship, grow and serve.

My personal project this summer is, broadly, to explore what it means to be Church in an urban setting with a diverse, yet dominantly suburban membership. The congregation represents different income levels, locations, education systems, political views, theological views, races, and sexual orientations. The driving question for me has been, “How can this type of church build community both amongst its diverse congregation and with its particular context?”

My work on this has begun with building relationships with members so that we may, as a community, fruitfully explore how First Church responds/should respond to the realities of homelessness, working poverty, and transportation and food access in our immediate context. The church is currently testing a “Listen-Learn-Serve” model, which provides education, discussion, and chances to serve in each of these areas of need in our community. This model is going well, but there is a desire amongst some of the congregation to engage the whole congregation about these issues and to move to a more sustained relationship model. I am working this summer to envision what that might look like for First Church.

The strongest relationship that the church has with its surrounding communities has been initiated by the youth. The Community Church Without Walls is a United Methodist congregation in Birmingham’s West End, a neighborhood with the highest crime/violent crime rates in the state. The youth from the two churches for the past two years have done mission work together, gone on retreats together, and visit each other’s church and homes. I am working primarily with adult ministries this summer, and not directly with the youth. However, my husband is the pastor of Community Church Without Walls and our home is in West End. Thus, my personal life is intimately bound to this relationship between the youth of the two churches. I think the adults have a lot to learn from these amazing kids on what “Church” is.

Check out this clip to get a better idea of how the youth are leading both churches in answering the call to do and be church in Birmingham.

(Note: it is sad that the appeal of the story is its racial categorization, but perhaps this evidences some of the brokenness that still remains in Birmingham: http://www2.alabamas13.com/news/2011/jun/21/teens-help-recovery-effort-ar-2008012/)

- Mary Page Wilson-Lyons

Mary Page, a graduate of Birmingham-Southern College, is a rising 3rd year MDiv student at Candler and a member of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.


Jun 24 2011

Healing from Tragedy

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.

On April 27 of this year I sat in the living room of my third story, Decatur apartment and wondered where I would go if a tornado hit. I am sure many can recall that day, and the events of the night are etched into my mind. While I was safe in Atlanta, I knew that my home church community of Apison, Tennessee, was being ravaged by the spring storms. I had no idea the extent of the damage until the pastor of Apison UMC began to post updates on congregation members. He wrote things like, I have heard from the Smith, Jones, and Thompson families; Gene and Roxie are still missing; the two homes in front of Mark are no longer there. This news feed ran through the evening. He sent me a message telling me to pray for the community and that it was hit badly by the storms. I did not know the extent of the damage. When I saw that Atlanta’s Fox 5 was sending a news truck to Ringgold, Georgia (Apison and Ringgold are neighbors separated by only a state line on the map), I knew that things must be bad.

During the following days I heard it described as a war zone. I saw pictures and everyone cried that the pictures do not accurately capture the magnitude of the devastation. My heart grieved for the church family that is sponsoring and praying for me during my seminary education. The emotions were crazy; I felt lonely, guilty, and angry for not being with the people I loved. Disasters are disasters when they hit cities, but when they hit home disasters have faces, disasters have breath, disasters have names, and disasters have feelings. Still it is hard to describe how I actually felt while I watched my church family dig through trauma.

The only thing that gave me solace was that I knew that as soon as the semester was out I would be traveling back home to work in a neighboring church. This summer I am interning through the Candler Advantage program at Ooltewah United Methodist Church, which is in a community neighboring Apison. Through my position at Ooltewah, I have been blessed to be part of the relief efforts that will continue for the foreseeable future in the Apison community. In the midst of this tragedy I have seen strangers become friends and neighbors become heroes. People from as far away as New York and California have come to Apison to give of their time, talent, and energy.

While I am not working at Apison UMC, I am very blessed to be a part of a recovery and healing in my home community. The stories of everyday miracles are endless, from a dad and son lifting an unmovable safe off a trapped family to a church whose annual budget is barely $100,000 distributing over $20,000 in aid within five weeks of the tornado. God is at work, and I am so amazed that I have been graced with the unexpected opportunity to see the face of grace. Each week I ride my bicycle through the community. During my first ride, I cried; Saturday I smiled the smile of foundations being poured and Sheetrock being hung.

When I applied for the Candler Advantage program I thought that I knew what my summer was going to look like. April 27th changed all of that, but because of support of Candler I am engaged in life altering and world shaking ministry. The grace of humanity that I am witnessing through this disaster is shaping my ministry and giving life to my theological education. This experience is recreating me into a new person. Thanks be to God.

-Will Conner

Will is a rising third year MDiv student at Candler and a member of the  Holston Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.


Jun 3 2011

Exploring the World’s Parish: An Indonesian Journey

The journeys God takes us on, and the unexpected pit stops along the way, are rarely ever dull, and rarer still are they purposeless. My recent trip to Indonesia with the World Methodist Evangelism Institute reminded me of this. Traveling with four fellow students, Candler professor Dr. Arun Jones, and a stellar team of Institute staff and volunteers, I spent ten days in capital city Jakarta learning about Christianity and ministry in the South Asian context. This was more than just an educational endeavor, however. In the truest sense of the word, travel itself is a process of self-refinement and personal growth.

This process began for me before we ever left Atlanta. I struggled with the conflicting desires of wanting to break out of my ordinary routine and wanting to stay safely within it. School had just ended for the summer and I craved the freedom of lazy evenings, fiction novels, and movie marathons. Instead, I was packing my bags for a seminar halfway across the world. A strange blend of emotions churned within me: the longing for adventure and new experiences mixed with an unsettling anxiety about traveling such a great distance and stepping so far outside my comfort zone.

Indonesia is about as far away in the world from Atlanta as you can go. However, after disembarking in Jakarta and spending ten days there, I came to discover that, in some ways, Indonesia is not so different from our fair southern state. In Indonesia, the air is just as heavy with humidity, the tea is just as sweet (though served piping hot!) and the hospitality is warm and welcoming. Our hosts made us feel right at home, even many thousands of miles away. For example, our host mother made us hamburgers and French fries for breakfast one morning! She also gifted one of us with a package of Kraft singles after he mused that he had been missing cheese. These seemingly small and somewhat quirky gifts of hospitality that brought a piece of America to Indonesia warmed our hearts as much as our later gifts of handmade traditional shawls that assured we would bring something of Indonesia back to America.

Many of my anxieties crumbled in the face of the overwhelming hospitality of my new Indonesian friends. What was left of my defenses toppled as I heard more and more ministry stories from local church leaders. There was the pastor who had baptized a young woman from a Muslim family who now has to mediate between her and her displeased father. Then there was the woman who is pastoring in an area devastated by a recent volcanic explosion; she loves and cares for her neighbors (physically and spiritually) without expecting anything in return. There was also the passionate young pastor with a skill for church planting who has his sights set next on the province of Papua. The challenges facing Indonesian pastors seem daunting to American Christians whose greatest fears in evangelism are embarrassment and rejection; Indonesian Christians work within a majority Muslim context in which Christianity is still considered taboo from its colonial associations. Yet these Methodist pastors are filled with God’s fire and minister to their communities with a zeal that would make John Wesley proud.

Before we left Atlanta, our group was asked to share what our greatest expectation was for the trip—our purpose in going. My answer was that, as an aspiring United Methodist minister, I have a responsibility to engage myself in the work of the global church. No Methodist pastor is an island, to borrow from Donne, and our connectional ties should extend beyond annual conference lines. To be a Methodist minister anywhere implies a bond with Methodist ministers everywhere. The struggles and triumphs of my Indonesian brothers and sisters should be mine, and mine theirs. I found this to be overwhelmingly the case; my greatest teachers were the pastors in my Wesley group (a small group of intimate sharing and accountability) during the seminar. They candidly shared the stories of their ministries and exposed their own vulnerabilities and challenges. Not only will I always remember them in my prayers, but I will remember them also during my studies of preparation for ministry. They are my ‘on-the-ground’ teachers, the ones who have shown me what passion for ministry looks like.

There are great things happening in Indonesia. And it is amazing how God can use a powerful tide of faith in a distant country to impact the singular faith journey of this one seminary student. With one more year of school before me and the looming question of “what’s next?” pressing ever closer, there are as many challenging months before me as there are behind. But I have been renewed in the living remembrance of what ministry is all about: living a passionate, infectious life of discipleship. It has taken a journey away from the familiarity of home to show me how to renew the faithfulness of my life and service. Our home environments can easily become all too comfortable so that even the most stretching of callings—that of the pastor—can ease into dull routine and habit. I thank God for the education that takes us outside of ourselves and shows us the bigger picture in which and towards which we are working: the very kingdom of God on earth.

-Whitney Pierce

Whitney is a 3rd year MDiv student from North Carolina and a regular contributor to the Beatitudes Society blog.


May 17 2011

Looking Back to Help Others Look Forward

They say all jokes have a hint of truth in them. That’s what makes them funny. There was a joke I heard when I started seminary three years ago that goes something like this:

Seminary is much like the Easter Story. The first year they’ll crucify you and things you believe in. The second year they’ll bury you in the tomb of major classes, lots of reading and papers. And the third year you’ll finally be resurrected.

It seems like yesterday I was in my first semester of classes at Candler. I can remember the conversations about classes, professors, and all of the work required to pass. If I think about it really hard, I can remember the feeling that three years would be an eternity. Graduation wasn’t even on the horizon—it was nowhere close to conceptualization.

Over that year, I can remember seemingly endless hours of reading and writing. I can remember assignments that made no sense at all and being asked to write papers on matters I could hardly spell, much less articulate with any sort of coherent or precise thought. All the while I was asked to sit through some of the most uncomfortable, and seemingly unending, sessions with people I did not know from Adam’s house cat (I’m from South Georgia so you’ll have to forgive the colloquialism) as we reflected on things we were experiencing at our Contextual Education sites or in the classroom.

I can remember the first time I was asked to critically consider some of the quant Sunday School lessons of my childhood in a classroom setting. It was as though someone had the audacity to walk right up to me and ask for the cloak off my back. How dare they ask me critically examine the stories of my childhood! But engaging in such critical thinking caused me to have a wonderfully scary encounter with foundational beliefs beginning to crack. I intentionally mean that it was both wonderful and scary all at once. It became clear early on that who I was when I came to seminary was not going to identical to who I would be after the rigors of the program. And that was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

By my second year I began to experiment with trying on various voices. Amid the burying underneath mounds of materials and thinkers, one begins to find that some of the thinkers resonate with them. Some have special qualities that tickle the fancy of budding theologians in such a way that often, you try their voice on for size. It’s okay to do that. Some voices fit better than others. Some you will quickly outgrow like a child can outgrow clothes in a single season. Others stay with you, like old friends. Either way, the array of voices has the ability to cause mass confusion in the life of the “in-process” seminarian. But you continue to listen for in the middle of the confusion are sometimes subtle, yet profound moments when they surprise you and sing in a melodious chorus together.

And then comes the glorious possibilities of being in your final year. By this time you have successfully questioned and re-questioned much of what you came to seminary believing and thinking. Some you have kept because, after all, Candler will never take the easy road of simply telling you what to believe. You will form relationships with professors and peers and, dare I say it, you will enjoy classes. As the end of seminary comes closer and closer you will even have days where you’re sad that what seemed like such a distant possibility is slowly, but surely becoming an all-too-close reality. You are, all at once, a bumbling mess of mixed emotions. Job possibilities hang in the balance. Ordination pressures arrive. The end of school means the exciting end to deadlines and never-ending papers. And then it hits you—you will soon no longer be able to hide under a guise of safety at Candler. You will learn that you will soon have to enter the world and do this ministry thing on your own.

You realize a couple of important things after your time at Candler is finished. First, after I realized how scary it will be to finish and “do this ministry thing on my own,” I remembered, “I’m not on my own at all.” God is with us no matter where we go. And we have the opportunity to be a valued member of a division of the “communion of saints” at Candler. And so you are never, ever alone in the world. Secondly, there will come a day that you will speak and it will not be the voice of Barth, Luther, Luke Timothy Johnson, Tom Long, Carol Newsome, Athanasius, James Cone or Howard Thurman. It will be you. And it might scare you the first time you hear it. It will sound like you, but not the you that you once knew. And it will also sound like those wonderful conversation partners you developed in your studies, but not exactly because none of them will ever be a perfect fit. It will be a you that is not finished developing yet. In fact, you’ll realize that seminary is only the beginning this new you.

But don’t let me spoil the ending too much. Enjoy your ride and know that you have a community of saints, both past and present, lifting you up in prayer through the deadlines, pressures, all-night study sessions, and exams that will ultimately lead toward a transformation that you never thought possible.

Maybe folks are right in that all jokes have a hint of truth in them. Maybe seminary can and will reflect a smaller version of the grand and glorious story of redemption in the lives of each and every student ready to embark on the journey.

Grace and Peace,

- Rev. Ben Gosden, 11T

Ben is a 2011 MDiv graduate from Candler and the Associate Pastor of Mulberry Street United Methodist Church in Macon, GA. He blogs regularly on issues of faith, life, and being a young adult pastor in a postmodern world. You can find his website at www.mastersdust.com.