Oct 29 2013

The Heart of Worship

CannonI sit in a room full of scholars and students asking hard questions, searching for justice, and hungry to engage their faith in the world. The architecture in this room is wonderfully symbolic. We sing from hymnbooks. We read liturgy. The organ is our lead singer. Sometimes we have choirs in robes, sometimes a drumline, sometimes a string quartet, and sometimes a soloist. We follow the liturgical calendar for preaching. There is a pulpit. There are no fancy lights. No fog machines. The room is full of contemplative focus.

Now I sit in a large auditorium that seats 2,500 people. It is full of many different types of people with many different agendas. There’s a full band, a billboard sized projection screen, and a backdrop to the stage that’s of the same quality found at a major rock concert. The band sounds like a professional rock band. The lyrics are on the screen, not in your hand. There are lights, lots of lights. There is fog rolling from the stage. There is not a pulpit when the preacher preaches, just a round bar table and a plasma screen to his left. The room is full of energy.

Now I sit in a room in Venezuela that serves as a bar or event space during the week and a church on Sundays. The people gathered are hungry for worship to begin. There is no A/C, only fans blowing at full speed. There is a band but no fancy lights, no flat screen TVs, no fog, and no pulpit. The sound system is loud for sure, but not of any great quality. We are led by a band of students with one adult guiding them. The words are not in our hands nor on a screen, but in the hearts of the people. The room is full of anticipation.BuckheadThis past year has been a journey for me in the realm of corporate worship. My first year at Candler was one of interesting paradox. I attended a mainline Methodist seminary with a chapel service that, most weeks, was liturgy-driven, with an organ as our worship leader. Then I would attend non-denominational churches such as Passion City Church or Buckhead Church, where worship was more like a rock concert and liturgy was hard to find. My weekly worship experience was drastically different most of the time. Then this summer, I went down with World Methodist Evangelism Institute and worshiped in a small charismatic Venezuelan Methodist church. Each one of these uniquely different worship spaces was meaningful and wonderful.

So, worship.

Is this a matter of style? Is this a matter of theology? Is this a matter of liberal vs. conservative? Traditional vs. modern? Fundamental vs. progressive? Is this a matter of what is the right/best/most real/most personal/most collective way of worshiping?

Well, in short, yes. Of course it is, and it would be a lie to ignore all of those things when considering what worship means to us. I wonder though if we, in our modern church culture, couldn’t do more to learn and appreciate from one another.

I grew up in a church that had three worship environments: “contemporary” “modern” and “traditional.” Putting aside that these are slightly ambiguous terms, I found myself naturally being pulled towards the “modern” worship. As I grew older (I’m only 26 now), the traditional service began to eat me alive. Why is this even around anymore? Who really sings these songs and means them? Is there any Spirit found here? So needless to say, I would put myself in the camp of people that didn’t like a high liturgical or “traditional” worship setting.

VenezuelaThis year has changed me. Candler has stretched me. I have experienced an authentic encounter with God in so many different spaces and styles. Whether that be at Candler’s chapel services, Passion conferences, or small Venezuelan congregations.

I don’t think it is about style, or low-church vs. high-church, or any of that. I think it’s about the heart of the worship.

So it comes to this. It’s not how I worship, but whom I am worshiping. Am I worshiping style, or am I worshiping the God of all creation? And this God of all creation, doesn’t this God deserve and need to be worshiped in a multitude of ways? It’s really less about my style and more about my heart.

I have found this to be true: a community that is singing with its heart makes worship powerful. The community gathered in that space makes it powerful. Sure, what happens in the worship is important and should be done well, but style and liturgical preference will never trump the community gathered and the Spirit they bring to the space. So, whether I’m singing “Take Me As I Am,” “Your Love Never Fails,” or “La Creacion Hoy Canta,” if the community is worshiping as one, it is truly a moment that is special. The body unleashing its heart in true praise to God gives us worship. Give me that, in any style, and that is something I want to be a part of!

–Mark Kimbrough

Mark is a second-year MDiv and student ambassador at Candler.  From Springdale, Arkansas, he completed his undergraduate studies at The University of Arkansas.


Oct 22 2013

Everyday Faithfulness

AtlantaI am a newly transplanted resident of Atlanta.  I rented this really great little condo that is nestled between a public library, bus stop, and the local Presbyterian church, that apparently runs some type of homeless ministry; I encounter a lot of foot traffic around my building. The other day, one of my dear friends from back home, who happens to live up here, came over to check out my new place. We decided to take our dogs on a walk to check out the neighborhood. As we exited the building, a ragged-looking old man who depended on the aid of a crutch approached us as we uncomfortably tried to hurry away.  In the distance, I heard him ask for 75 cents as we quickly moved along. Up the street, we stopped at a swanky pet store, and I got excited to see there were machines out front to get treats for the dogs. We started digging through our purses for quarters when the same man came hobbling up behind us asking some well-off-looking woman for 75 cents. Of course, at this moment, the machine malfunctions—I’m now flustered and trying to shove the quarters in the stupid thing with this whole exchange happening behind me.  It suddenly hit me—here I am taking time to buy a treat for my dog when I couldn’t even give this man the time of day. That normally still, small voice screamed at me saying, “You missed it! You missed who was right in front of you.”  We often miss the opportunity to see Jesus in others.

Mark 14:3-9 depicts Jesus’ anointing at Bethany. I picture Jesus relaxing at the table in the Leper’s house, likely tired from having just addressed the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes, when this woman enters and anoints Jesus with an entire jar of expensive nard. The Indignant others in the room, with good intentions mind you, freak out on the woman.  Jesus basically tells them,  “Look, guys! You’ve missed it! You’ve missed what’s happening right in front of you. This faithful act of service is beautiful as she has prepared my body for burial.” This woman acted on the opportunity to serve Jesus when the others didn’t recognize who was in their midst.

Mary Anoints JesusWho would have thought that seminary would complicate life so much?  Life does not stop and it’s beyond easy to get distracted with everyday life. Family, friends, children, church (you fill in the blanks) pull us in a million directions likely with good intentions.  Then, pile on school, and it’s easy to miss how God is calling to us in the moment.  We easily miss The Spirit present with us and present in the world around us—even in seminary believe it or not!

This woman who anointed Jesus exemplifies everyday faithful living in the present moment. She was aware of something whispering in her heart and she responded. She must have felt some call or pull, and she faithfully responded in that moment.  We are each here at Candler in response to the vocational call God has placed on our lives. In the midst of the craziness, when we intentionally seek a connection with the Holy Spirit, we can experience the fullness of transformation.  It is then we can claim The Spirit within us, woven into the very nature of who we are, and actually recognize God as a part of our makeup, present in who we are.

What is faithful living? How do we do it daily? My mother always gives the best advice. She told me this one time in response to my grumbling about discerning my call. She said, “Emily, when I get up, I pray ‘How can I be faithful to you today, God?  Not yesterday or tomorrow but today!’” I write with encouragement as we hit the middle of the semester, that we may be ever aware and recognize the Christ that is present with us.  Let us be intentionally aware of that still, small voice that is a part of our design, as we ask God, “How can we be faithful servants to you today?”

–Emily Edwards

Emily is a first-year MDiv and student ambassador at Candler. She lived and worked in Ocala, FL, before relocating to Atlanta.

Artwork: “Anointing His Feet” by Wayne Forte, oil and acrylic on canvas.


Oct 15 2013

Leaving Room for Rest

JessicaAs I sit here in Pitts Theology Library, trying not to freeze and frantically trying to get four articles read and a systematics paper written so I can get home with enough time to work out and eat dinner, I almost miss it. Out of the corner of my eye, I see something moving, so I look towards the back of the library. I see an older gentleman, probably in his 70s or 80s, who is engrossed in some dusty old book that I am sure thousands of students have overlooked. This sight, though perfectly ordinary, becomes beautiful to me. This older gentleman (we’ll call him Jack), looks completely content sitting in the library reading about theology. Jack doesn’t have to be here, but wants to be. As I broaden my gaze, I realize how lovely this dusty old library really is. It is a beautiful scene, and I almost missed it.

Life for me has been like that since the beginning of the semester. I have been consumed with busy-ness. People have told me that second year is the most difficult at Candler, and so far, they have been correct. Along with my five classes, I am spending eight hours a week interning with Emory Wesley Fellowship (the United Methodist campus ministry at Emory) and working fourteen hours a week in the Candler Admissions and Financial Aid office.  Each of these activities is wonderful, but takes up a lot of time. Add in studying and my days and nights seem much shorter. I have been rushing through one thing to get to the next thing.

All this is leading up to the fact that I needed rest. Rest is portrayed as such a lazy thing to do these days, isn’t it? Productivity is one of the most valued qualities in our American culture. Our Protestant work ethic is deeply engrained in our society. Just the other day, as one of my classes was ending, our professor announced that we really need to focus on the reading for the next class period, because it was extra-long and dense. As I sighed audibly and put my head on the table, one of my best friends asked me “Do you enjoy doing anything these days?” This question almost seemed to stab me in my heart. When was the last time I did something I enjoyed? I realized that I had been rushing through everything and not taking time to be in the moment, to take in what I was really doing. I realized that I forgot how lucky I was to be here at Candler. I am so lucky to be here among such a terrific and supportive community, studying theology under outstanding and well-known professors. This is a place that people yearn to be a part of, and those that do come here yearn to return. Jack in the library is a testament to this.

It was also in that moment that I realized I needed to rest. I needed to slow things down so I could hear the voice of God in the midst of my chaotic life. If you don’t take time for self-care, you begin to grow deaf to God’s voice and the voices of the people around you. It becomes all about you and how “productive” you can be. We need time and space to rejuvenate, to recharge, and to hear from God. In Psalm 46, God tells us to “Be still, and know that I am God.” By giving myself time to rest, I am better able to live in the moment and appreciate where I am and what I am doing. I can focus on what is going on in each of my classes and learn something new. I can take the time to listen to a student at Emory Wesley Fellowship and grow our relationship. I can really listen to prospective students’ concerns and help them figure out if Candler is where they are supposed to be. In short, instead of constantly thinking about what is next on my to-do list, I need to be present in the moment. Allowing time for rest helps me accomplish this.

Finding a balance between papers, work, class, internship, meetings and rest has still been hard, though. I have found that exercise, in a strange way, is a type of rest for me. I feel much more centered after a good run. Taking a few minutes during the day to sit in silence if I am feeling especially overwhelmed has also been helpful. I have realized that those times of so-called unproductivity can actually be productive. Most times, it is in nature that I find rest. Whether it is in a cornfield, on a volcano, at the beach, by the pool, in the woods, or on the top of Stone Mountain, I can seek refuge from the chaotic world and listen for the whispering voice of God. I can also reflect on how thankful I am to be here. Lynn Ungar wrote a beautiful poem about rest and refuge called Camas Lilies. A camas lily is a purple/bluish flower that blooms in the wild meadows of the western United States and Canada.

Consider the lilies of the field,
the blue banks of camas opening
into acres of sky along the road.
Would the longing to lie down
and be washed by that beauty
abate if you knew their usefulness,
how the natives ground their bulbs
for flour, how the settlers’ hogs
uprooted them, grunting in gleeful
oblivion as the flowers fell?

And you–what of your rushed and
useful life? Imagine setting it all down–
papers, plans, appointments, everything–
leaving only a note: “Gone
to the fields to be lovely. Be back
when I’m through with blooming….”

Even now, unneeded and uneaten,
the camas lilies gaze out above the grass
from their tender blue eyes.
Even in sleep your life will shine.
Make no mistake. Of course
your work will always matter.
Yet Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.

May we take the time out in our crazy, busy, hectic, “productive” lives to go into the fields, to simply be lovely and bloom.

–Jessica Beverstein

Jessica is a second-year MDiv and student ambassador at Candler. She graduated from Winthrop University in South Carolina with a BS in elementary education. She served as a volunteer missionary in Costa Rica and taught second grade in Atlanta before coming to Candler.


Oct 8 2013

Risky Business

Jenelle HolmesSeminary is risky business. It is risky financially, spiritually, and let’s just get this out there, ideologically.  Defined loosely, ideology concerns the manner in which a group thinks.  So often we tie ideologies to an ideal or statement of a specific group, but for this post, I will use ideology to mean the manner or way people think about their lives and the lives of those around them.

Because we are in seminary, our manner of thinking about God, others, and ourselves often abides in faith-talk. We write about faith, claim to live by faith, seek a definition of faith, and attempt not to destroy each other’s faith. Our ideologies cannot help but operate as a living out of faith.  The mixing of ideology, faith, and seminary, what a risky business!

In the recent conversations over the last few weeks involving the LGBTQ community, the risk that Candler students embody has been quite palpable.  But risk is not foreign ground for the besieged faithful. As Candler students think about living out faith in the walls of an open and accepting school of theology, let us consider other situations where danger and faith abide together. I want to take us back to the siege of Jerusalem.

Walls are peeling back before the eyes of Zion’s residents. No family is untouched by hunger, illness, bloodshed, tears and death on the city streets, or whatever is left of them.  The people within the walls of Jerusalem, once a city for the dwelling of YHWH, not only question the goodness of God but the very existence of God as rocks and spears daily fall from the sky.

CliffLast week Dr. Scheib preached on Jeremiah 32 where in a confounding move, Jeremiah, prophet to the besieged city, buys land.  He purchases land in the middle of what seems the death of that very ground. As an owner myself of undesirable property resulting from the economic collapse of 2008, I can name countless reasons why Jeremiah is crazy for making this purchase.  Will he ever be able to live there? Reap the economic benefits of that land? Rest and restore himself on the land? Sell it if the investment proves a faulty one?  Ah, the risk of such a purchase amidst a time of utter chaos! What would drive Jeremiah to do such a thing? Is it that despite the risk, he hopes for a break from the violence around him? Violence to the people, by the people, and even violence to the very land in which the people dwell? Is the uncertainty of Jeremiah’s action more than simply a desperate grasp at a fading hope of feeling at home?

Thanks to Hebrews 11, we often consider faith as the “certainty of things not seen.”  How we think about faith (our ideologies of faith) frequently operates with a seeking after certainty, regardless of the commotion around us.  While faith might call upon us to act in a risky manner, we often associate faith with the assurance we feel despite that risk.

But what, for Jeremiah, is assured? Money? No. Peace? No. Land? Not while the Babylonians knock on the gates of the city.  Risk, in a town besieged, is the only privilege Jeremiah can afford.  I think too often, especially amidst people who have not had to risk much in their lives, risk gets a bad reputation or is considered something to be avoided. But in Jeremiah’s circumstances, risk is a way to show his agency, to act, to have faith. A faith not experienced in certainty or assurance, but in risk.

In a preaching lecture from the spring of 2012 Eddie Glaude talks about witnessing “God’s love in the very act of risk.” At seminary, students act out their faith through risk by reading challenging authors, by listening to peers who experience life, let alone God, in entirely different manners of thinking, by sitting in lectures that make them squirm or better yet, forget to breath. At seminary, we risk our very conceptions of love, God, self, and others. Seminary embodies an ideology of faith that encourages risk.

But some risk more than others at seminary.  In the last few weeks with the upheaval surrounding the Eddie Fox award we are reminded of those in the LGBTQ community who often find themselves in a besieged institution; be it the church, school, or other places where they live out their lives.  We are reminded that voices, statements, and awards are little ramparts that weaken the bastions of Christian ministry being built here at Candler. Like other marginalized communities, they live in a besieged city.

But they too, like Jeremiah, have purchased land here at Candler (seriously, tuition is $19,800 this year). They have, amidst the tumult of marginalization, tokenism, and oppression, purchased the opportunity of learning, growing, and loving at this school of theology. What a courageous and faith-full way of thinking.

While we are occasionally a community besieged by the echoes of invasions elsewhere, we can see the tilling of God’s risky love in our ministries, sacred personhoods, and our experiences of community as we continually purchase land here at Candler.  May our living in risk during this time and this space honor and enable each student with the hope of a future healed landscape inside these walls and beyond.

–Jenelle Holmes

Jenelle is a second-year in Candler’s MTS program and a student ambassador. She graduated in 2006 with a degree in English from Whitworth University in Spokane, WA.


Oct 1 2013

La Familia as my First School

Josue as a boy

Family is the first institution that everyone enters without any registration requirements, admission fees, or recommendation letters. It’s completely loans-free. *Sigh* Thank God! It is in the family where we first learn: our first steps, our first words, our first writings, and our first signs of creativity (such as the Crayola marks on the white wall that mommy desperately tries to clean before the visitors come!). We don’t fail family, but we also don’t pass family. It is the Family University from which we are never able to graduate.

Families play an important role in our lives. Families shape our identity. Families create those values that we still hold on to today. And in the family we learn to take care of those members who long ago took care for us.

My family paved the road towards seminary as early as I can remember. As a preacher’s kid growing up in the church, I saw that the one of the main goals of the church was to create families. Create relationships. I first learned this when everyone called each other “Hermano” or “Hermana.” As a six-year-old this was so very odd to me. I couldn’t understand why everyone verbally related to each other as a sibling. It was not until later that I realized that the purpose of church was to create family.

Josue, the graduateMy family had a special role in my calling to seminary. My dad has been my role model not only as a father figure but also as a pastor, theologian, and teacher. My dad is like the father of the parable of the prodigal son: always depositing money in my bank account when I have spent everything and the balance shows up as negative. My mom, well, she is the role model of the best caregiver and counselor. She is more like Hannah. She never gives up on God in times of distress and uncertainty. Finally, my brother is an amazing worship leader. He is like David, always playing his guitar and composing songs for the soul.

Again, I am glad that I will never be able to graduate from Family University. Because that means that I will be with my family for a long time. And when my immediate family drops out and transfers to Heaven University, well, there is always a family to admit into our lives and there are others to welcome us. Again, this family is loans-free and no recommendation letters are required. That is, the church family.

–Josué Quintanilla

Josué is a first-year MDiv student at Candler. Originally from Monterrey, Mexico, he currently works for the North Georgia Conference of the UMC as a Hispanic Youth Coordinator.  He graduated from Reinhardt University with a major in sociology and minor in psychology.


Sep 27 2013

Laboring for the Kingdom

Aaron CarrTomorrow morning, on a rare day off from studying systematic theology, reading the New Testament, and parsing Hebrew nouns, I am headed to my Contextual Education site, Berea Mennonite Church, for a solid day of work. Unlike many of my peers, however, I won’t be keeping office hours or preparing a sermon for Sunday morning (though I certainly do those things). Instead, I’ll be wielding a hammer.

There’s a leaking well-head out behind the education building that needs to be fixed. I’ll build a concrete form so that someone else can pour the concrete and keep the plumbing stable. Additionally, the congregation is interested in growing its flock of chickens, so I’ll be researching and building a brooding box for the four-dozen chicks we hope to order before it gets too cold. Sheep pens need to be rotated on pastureland. Vegetables need to be harvested in the community garden. There is always work to do!

If this description of one (admittedly atypical) day doing Con. Ed. sounds a little different, it is because Berea is a different congregation. Our two simple buildings (one for education and fellowship) occupy roughly nine acres of land on the borders of East Atlanta Village and Gresham Park. Much of the land is rented to a commercial farmer who shares our ethical convictions about food (sustainable, local, organic), and the rest is used by the church for its own farm project. We maintain a flock of chickens, a herd of sheep, and a large permaculture garden out front. It is a different kind of congregation.

At first, I was nervous about how doing Con. Ed. at Berea might shape up. After all, I’m taking a degree in theology, not horticulture, and there are important ministerial skills one needs to acquire during this yearlong internship. I didn’t (and still don’t) want to function as just a theologically reflective farm hand. Thankfully, this hasn’t been the case. Instead, my time at Berea has helped me reconcile old divisions in my thinking, especially the gap between theological (read: intellectual) activity and physical labor.

I’ll begin with the theological. We typically take communion once a month at Berea. One of the things I’ve come to realize during these moments is that Jesus is mediated to us by means of a meal (I was raised in churches without much focus on the table, so it’s taken me a while to get this one). Of course, this statement is full of theological meaning. To meet with someone at the table is to share intimacy and vulnerability, and it is amazing to think of God sharing that kind of life with us in the bread and wine.

But this theological claim – that God meets with us at table – also reveals important claims about human labor. If we insist that God reveals God’s self in a meal, we come to realize that, in a profound way, God cares about food. And if God cares about food, God must also care about the way that food is grown, transported, prepared, and consumed. This is where the labor comes in. We mustn’t be content to simply claim that God cares about food. We must be willing to work at creating just food systems in the world. That’s why tomorrow is a work day. The well-head provides water for our livestock. The new chickens will be raised ethically and will provide fresh, cage-free eggs to the congregation and the neighborhood. The sheep remind us where our food actually comes from, and challenge us to remember our place as creatures in this creation.

At a deeper level than all of this, however, is the simple fact that labor can be a good and holy thing. It is not a failure for a well-off, modern, educated human being to work with his or her hands. In labor, there is a sense of accomplishment and the deep fatigue that comes from expending energy in a positive way. There is a fellowship in common labor that I have rarely encountered anywhere else. Even when working alone, there is fellowship with God, who labors with us to build a kingdom where everyone will have enough to eat.

In many ways, I am still unlearning the old division between the life of the mind and the work of the body. Join me in thanking God that communities like Berea exist, that Candler sends its students to work in those places, and that there is good work to do, wherever you are.

–Aaron Carr

Aaron is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a student ambassador. Originally from Cumming, GA, Aaron was a religion major as an undergraduate at Samford University.


Sep 17 2013

African Americans and Esther

The book of Esther provides a deep explanation that dissimulation is a legitimate technique by which a marginalized population can gain access to political power. Steed Vernyl Davidson suggests that dissimulation can be defined as concealing cultural identity in order to rise to political power. When Esther concealed her identity in Esther 2:10, she in essence unlocked her future. She was able to thwart the extermination of the Jews by Haman, and at the end of the book was heralded as influential within society. Esther essentially gained access to power by hiding her identity.

Many African Americans over time have used this concept of dissimulation to gain access to White American political power. Based upon my experience as an African American male, America constantly presents barriers and obstacles that make it difficult for African Americans to advance. Furthermore, concealment is often necessary for cultural survival because it eases those oppressive barriers.

Many marginalized individuals deem that the social system is not designed for the minority to gain political power. To some degree that is accurate because there seems to be this notion of the “richer getting richer and the poorer getting poorer.” Even though a marginalized person has access to education and various resources, there has to be some level of dissimulation to fit into a societal mode of success and power.

In the book of Esther, it was imperative for Esther to conceal her identity in order to advance and survive in society. In both the African American community as well as the book of Esther, political power and influence is not an easy concept. For example, if Esther maintained good work and optimism as a minority in Persia, the Jews may have ultimately been killed by the decree of Haman. However, it was their strategic mindset that allowed them to conceal their Jewish identity in order to avert death and ultimately gain access to political power within the royal court. It could also be suggested that Mordecai believed that the Persian Empire political system was designed to keep provinces, especially those populated by Jews, from advancing in power.

The book of Esther provides an important concept of identity that can be delineated in other social realms. Through my cultural experience as an African American male, I am able to see convergence between the rise to power in Esther as well as my own community. Some African Americans are constantly hiding their “trueness” or “blackness” in order to fit into the larger mold of society. One could suggest that dissimulation is similar to W.E.B. Dubois’ notion of double consciousness because both ideas wrestle with dualism of identity. Like Esther, African Americans who dissimulate into power have to deal with keeping their “trueness” as well as adapting to a different cultural framework. Several African Americans conceal certain aspects of their cultural identity in order to gain status and acceptance in certain power structures. I suggest that this concept of dissimulation is a means to gain power, but it is essential that an individual maintains their “trueness.” It is vital to always remember who you are regardless of your achieved level of status.

–Lawrence Waters

Lawrence is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a student ambassador. He is a licensed minister in the American Baptist Churches (USA) and has served as a youth pastor for several years.  He earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Artwork: “Queen Esther Revealing Her True Identity,” mosaic by Canadian artist Lilian Broca.


Sep 13 2013

The Word of God in the Country of Paradox

(For a version of this text in Spanish, see below)

On a sunny morning in a working class neighborhood of Medellín, we set plastic chairs out along the walls of a scrubbed, white-tiled garage. We sit down facing each other around a wooden table decorated with a Bible and flowers. Each Sunday, a handful of dedicated, socially conscious Christians gather here at El Gozo de Dios Methodist Church and try to contextualize the gospel amongst the paradoxes of Colombian society. Theirs is the country of the richest resources and the sharpest inequalities. They enjoy vibrant cultural diversity and are beholden to homogenizing global consumerism. They were ranked last year as the happiest people in the world and they continue to suffer one of the world’s longest, most fragmenting civil wars.

We sit beneath the logo of the Colombian Methodist Church, in which the old familiar cross and flame morph into a dove: the Holy Spirit straining its wings towards peace, in the yellow, red and blue of the Colombian flag. We sing praises over the calls of the mazamorra vendor passing in the street. His wooden cart is full of the thick boiled corn drink that sustains Colombians with the very substance that some of their indigenous ancestors believed that God used to form human beings.

El Gozo worship

Our singing and the mazamorra vendor both compete with the bells of the Catholic Church a few blocks away. Here in the department (equivalent to a state or province) of Antioquía, home of the most picturesque colonial towns and the biggest drug lords, traditionalism reigns and the majority remain Catholic. However, in isolated villages in the coastal regions, the crossfire between guerilla groups, paramilitaries and the military have become so intense that even the Catholic Church has fled. In some of these communities, the Colombian Methodist Church is the only religious and social organization that has had the courage and the faithfulness to accompany populations ravaged by violence, land appropriation and lack of basic amenities, such as health and education.

When we arrive to the reading of the word, we talk first about what we’ve read in the news as part of the “contextual reading” that God is speaking to us that day, and then we read the lectionary texts. Afterwards, someone stands up and gives a sermon, often peppered with interjections from other congregants. One member of the congregation is the internationally renowned feminist Biblical scholar Elsa Tamez; another is an ordained reverend, theologian and former dean of the Latin American Biblical University, José Duque; another is a disabled man named Jorge with garbled speech and incorrigible jokes; another is a 9-year-old girl named Gabriela who directs herself to “lovely little God” when she prays over the offerings every Sunday. All of these voices are given equal space to offer their thoughts during the sermon.

Sari wth logoThe conversational sermons at El Gozo de Dios reflect an even more intentionally democratic method of Christian education called “Popular and Communal Bible Reading,” or in Spanish, Lectura Popular y Comunitaria de la Biblia (LPCB). I immerse myself in an LPCB group on Tuesday nights, up on a little farm in the municipality of La Estrella, which climbs a foothill surrounding Medellín. La Estrella gives the impression of a relaxed, ecologically friendly little town, yet it also seethes beneath the surface with drug trafficking and violent crime. The farm is home to Juan Esteban Londoño, a humble spirit who has sought an alternative to the culture of violence that surrounded him as he grew up in La Estrella, and has become a brilliant theologian, philosopher and goth-metal musician. Juan Esteban and his wife Natalia act as hosts of this space where pastors, musicians, students, hairdressers, blue-collar workers, and high school teachers gather in the crisp mountain air, surrounded by tangerine trees and sleepy dogs who plead for the food we bring to share. We read a text and then the facilitator, usually Juan Esteban himself, uses a series of questions to lead the participants through analyzing the original context and then applying it to their own contexts and lives. This way of reading involves the critical thinking and wisdom of all members to arrive at collective interpretations of the scriptures. Juan Esteban takes notes and sometimes he synthesizes our theological reflections and publishes them in his blog: teologiaunderground.blogspot.com.

FarmA large part of the work I did in Colombia over this summer was furthering the practice of LPCB and others processes of social and spiritual formation. Thanks to a Candler Advantage grant, I was able to immerse myself in this work and gain invaluable insights into the connection between Christian education and social transformation in the local church. I was inspired by the work of the local church and LPCB groups to bring the challenges facing their society to the light of God’s word. The difficulty, as I have found in progressive churches in the US, is that we often discuss and discern how things ought to be, without actually translating our discoveries into transformative actions. But one of the most important things I learned is that translating education into action is a gradual process, much more gradual than an intensive ten-week internship. Therefore, during this semester off, I have chosen to continue living in Colombia so that I can witness the gradual growth of the Kingdom of God in this beautifully paradoxical place.

—Sari Brown

Sari Brown is a third-year MDiv student at Candler. A native of Michigan, Sari majored in anthropology and religion at Marlboro College in Vermont, and has carried out anthropological research and mission work in Bolivia. Through the Candler Advantage program, she served the Colombian Methodist Church for a ten-week internship. Next year she will be studying abroad in São Paulo, Brazil through the Luce Program, where she plans to work in ministry with Bolivian immigrants.

 

Versión en español: La palabra de Dios en el país de paradoja

En una mañana soleada de un barrio de la clase trabajadora en Medellín, ponemos sillas de plástico contra las paredes en un garaje bien aseado de baldosa blanca. Nos sentamos cara a cara, alrededor de una mesa decorada con una Biblia y flores. Cada domingo, unos cuantos dedicados cristianos de consciencia social se reúnen aquí en la Iglesia Metodista El Gozo de Dios y tratan de contextualizar el evangelio en medio de las paradojas de la sociedad colombiana. Su país es el de los recursos más ricos y las desigualdades más marcadas. Gozan de vibrante diversidad cultural y se someten al consumismo global homogenizadora. Fueron calificados el año pasado de la gente más feliz del mundo y siguen sufriendo una de las guerras civiles más largas y divisivas del mundo.

Nos sentamos bajo el logotipo de la Iglesia Colombiana Metodista, en la que la conocida cruz y llama se transforma en una paloma: el Espíritu Santo estirando sus alas hacia la paz, en el amarillo, el rojo y el azul de la bandera colombiana. Cantamos alabanzas sobre las llamadas del vendedor de mazamorra que pasa por la calle. Su carreta de madera está llena de la bebida espesa de maíz que sostiene a los colombianos con la misma sustancia que algunos de sus ancestros indígenas creían que Dios utilizó para formar los seres humanos.

Tanto nuestro canto como el vendedor de mazamorra compiten con las campanas de la Iglesia Católica a un par de cuadras de nosotros. Aquí en el departamento de Antioquia, hogar de los pueblos coloniales más pintorescos y los narcotraficantes más grandes, el tradicionalismo reina y la mayoría sigue siendo católica. Sin embargo, en pueblos aislados de las regiones costales, el cruce de fuego entre la guerrilla, los paramilitares y los militares se intensificó a tal punto que hasta la Iglesia Católico huyó. En muchas de estas comunidades, la Iglesia Colombiana Metodista es la única organización religiosa y social que ha tenido la valentía y fidelidad para acompañar a poblaciones acosadas por violencia, apropiación de tierras, y falta de necesidades básicas, como la salud y la educación.

Al llegar a la lectura de la palabra, hablamos primero de lo que hemos leído en las noticias como parte de la “lectura contextual” que Dios nos está hablando en este día, y luego leemos los textos del leccionario. Después, alguien se para y da la predicación, lo que resulta muchas veces intercalada con interrupciones de otros congregantes. Un miembro de la iglesia es la biblista feminista de renombre internacional, Elsa Tamez; otro es un reverendo ordenado, teólogo y decano anterior de la Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana, José Duque; otro es un hombre discapacitado llamado Jorge con una forma de hablar borrosa y chistes incansables; otro es una niña de 9 años llamada Gabriela que se dirige a “Diosito lindo” cuando ora por las ofrendas cada domingo. A todas estas voces se les otorga espacio igual para ofrecer sus pensamientos durante la prédica.

Las prédicas conversacionales en El Gozo de Dios reflejan un método de educación cristiana todavía más democrático, denominado “Lectura Popular y Comunitaria de la Biblia (LPCB). Participo en un grupo de LPCB los martes por la noche, en una pequeña finca en el municipio de La Estrella, que se encuentra subiendo un cerro de los alrededores de Medellín. La Estrella aparenta ser un pueblito tranquilo y ecológico, pero a la misma vez se agita bajo la superficie con narcotráfico y crimen violento. La finca es el hogar de Juan Esteban Londoño, un hombre de espíritu humilde que ha buscado una alternativa a la cultura de violencia que le rodeaba desde su nacimiento en La Estrella, y se ha convertido en un brillante teólogo, filósofo, y músico de metal gótico. Juan Esteban y su esposa Natalia son los anfitriones de este espacio donde pastores, músicos, estudiantes, estilistas, trabajadores, y profesores del colegio se reúnen en el aire fresco de montaña, rodeados por mandarinos y perros soñolientos que nos ruegan la comida que traemos para compartir. Leemos un texto y después el facilitador, normalmente el mismo Juan Esteban, utiliza una serie de preguntas para guiar a los participantes por el proceso de analizar el contexto original y después aplicarlo a nuestros propios contextos y vidas. Esta forma de leer conlleva el pensamiento crítico y la sabiduría de todos los miembros del grupo para sacar interpretaciones colectivas de las escrituras. Juan Esteban toma notas y a veces sintetiza nuestras reflexiones teológicas y las publica en su blog: teologiaunderground.blogspot.com.

Gran parte del trabajo que hice en Colombia durante este verano fue desarrollar la práctica de LPCB y otros procesos de formación espiritual y social. Gracias a un beca de Candler Advantage, pude dedicarme por completo a este trabajo y sacar entendimientos inestimables de la conexión entre la educación cristiana y la transformación social en la iglesia local. Me inspiraban la iglesia local y los grupos de LPCB en su esfuerzo por considerar los desafíos que se presentan a su sociedad a la luz de la palabra de Dios. Lo difícil, como he visto también en iglesias progresistas de los EEUU, es que muchas veces discutimos y discernimos cómo las cosas deben ser, sin verdaderamente convertir nuestros descubrimientos en acciones transformativas. Pero una de las cosas más importantes que aprendí es que convertir la educación en acción es un proceso paulatino, mucho más paulatino que una pasantía intensiva de dos semanas. Por lo tanto, durante este semestre libre, elegí seguir viviendo en Colombia para poder presenciar el crecimiento paulatino del reino de Dios en este lugar hermosamente paradójico.

—Sari Brown

Sari Brown es una estudiante en su tercer año del programa de Maestría de Divinidad en Candler. Oriunda de Michigan, Sari estudió antropología y religión en Marlboro College en Vermont, y ha realizado investigación antropológica y trabajo de misionera en Bolivia. A través del programa Candler Advantage, sirvió a la Iglesia Colombiana Metodista en una pasantía de diez semanas. El próximo año estudiará en extranjero en São Paulo, Brasil a través del Luce Program, donde piensa obrar en ministerios con inmigrantes bolivianos.


Sep 10 2013

Brooks Was Here, So Was Red

Many of you may recognize the title of this post as the defining moment in The Shawshank Redemption.  Underneath this etching in a halfway house, Morgan Freeman (Red), an ex-con of 40 years, confronts fear and despair and chooses hope in the very spot where Brooks, a similar man in a similar situation, chose to take his own life.  It is the tipping point of the film; a dramatic moment where the promise of hope triumphant outweighs the danger and futility of losing hope.  It is both moving and powerful to watch and I quickly find myself conjuring up my own stories of hope triumphant, including and especially the Christian idea that though troubles may fill the night, joy comes in the morning.

However, bringing this metaphor out of the script and into the present causes me great trouble.  Certainly there are times in our collective, societal memory that we can recall such real-life stories of hope triumphing over despair.  This past week, as we honored the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington, we were served a wonderful reminder of such an account of hope overcoming overwhelmingly negative odds.  However, as Syrian children are gassed in senseless acts of violence, broken systems of democracy exclude the rights and voices of the poor and hungry, and Bangladeshi buildings crash to the ground claiming the lives of thousands and declaring the ultimate reign of horrific and inhumane forms of global capitalism, I find the metaphor to be broken, or at least, misleading.  It is not the fact that hope cannot overcome injustice that gives me trouble, for I suppose, in certain times it can and does.  Rather it is the perceived simplicity of the choice and subsequent nullification of circumstance and complexity that causes a gag reflex to well up inside of me.

As theologians and citizens of the world in the twenty-first century, it is our responsibility to introduce a third character into the room, one that meticulously and responsibly presents hope while also being accountable to the devastating particularities of modern circumstances.  This character must stand firmly at the same crossroads of hope and despair, where Brooks and Red once stood, and reject the futility of blindly embarking down either road.  And in doing such, this character must creatively re-shape and re-imagine faith, hope, and love.

However, as I write this post, I do not pretend to know what this character might look like, say, or do.  Nor do I imagine that I am, in some way or another, this character.  But, I do know this:  today, many Syrian parents will be reminded that their precious young children are never coming home to them again.  No more family dinners.  No more nighttime prayers.  No more innocent, precious smiles.  Not today, not tonight, and not in the morning.

As the leaders of America meet on Capitol Hill this very minute to discuss the use of force in Syria, this metaphor deserves at least a moment of thought, especially from those who follow the way and example of Jesus Christ.  Surely Christianity has more to offer the world than bombs, which only lead to the perpetuation of violence, and flimsy hymns of metaphorical hope which only fall flat as tears pour onto breathless children.

But then again, for some things, I imagine, there are no words.

–George Kernodle

George is a second-year student in the Master of Theological Studies (MTS) program and a Student Ambassador at Candler. A graduate of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, George has traveled to China as part of a language learning exchange program and to El Salvador with the Global Health Organization. After Candler he hopes to pursue his interest in health policy and management.

Photo credits:

(Top) Movie still from The Shawshank Redemption with Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins;

(Bottom) Photo by Craig Ruttle, a Syrian child at a refugee camp in Yayladagi, Turkey, April 4, 2012.


Sep 3 2013

America’s Great Default

Fearless Dialogue

“Fearless Dialogue” at Candler

Fifty years ago, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King stated that “America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check that has come back marked insufficient funds…” In many ways, it is true that America has defaulted on its promise to “provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare” (indiscriminately). It can be seen in the disproportionate crime statistics, the staggering graduation and incarceration rates, and the unbelievable poverty statistics that have always existed among races and social classes. It is evident in the underfunded education system that serves as a pipeline to prison for lower class students of color. And it is permanently fixed in the biased and bigoted laws that undergird our entire system. But what does that have to do with Candler, education, and theological formation?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that “Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity,” yet the education experience, much like any other experience, does not exist in a vacuum but is susceptible to the mores and ills of society. The most vivid recollections of my childhood education experience do not occur in a desk filled classroom with textbooks and chalkboards, but on a school bus with peers and classmates who were steeped in culture, bias, and prejudice.

One cool autumn afternoon in 1995, I was a fifth grader riding the bus home from my rural elementary school in Perdido, Alabama. I shared a seat with my friend Less Wilson a young white student who was also in the fifth grade. As we sped down the narrow two-lane country street past pine trees and dirt roads, Less leaned over to me and whispered beneath the raucous chatter, “My uncle has a gun, and he’s a member of the KKK.” I chuckled. Surely Less had failed at an attempt to be humorous but I did not make light of his failure nor of my disapproval, but instead smiled and waited for the subject to change. Then Less asked me if I knew what N.A.A.C.P stood for. As I struggled to remember if “Advancement” came before or after “Association,” Less interjected, “It stands for N*ggers, Apes, Alligators, Coons, and Possums.” I wasn’t laughing anymore. I wasn’t angry, I was hurt. My friend Less had showed me just how he felt about me.

HoodieIn 1997, not long after that bus incident with Less, my mom moved our family even deeper into the rural forest of Alabama to live with my grandmother who had suffered a major stroke. It was on the 45-minute bus ride from school to the small town of Little River, AL that we learned two black churches had been vandalized and burned less than a mile from where we were living. They were churches I knew well and had visited many times with my family. Many family members and friends attended both churches on a regular basis. A Ku Klux Klan rally the previous weekend had sparked racial animus and a group of five young white teens ages 15-20, decided to send a message to the African-American community that conveyed just how they felt about us.

Earlier this summer I was disappointed but not surprised to hear the verdict in a Florida case concerning the death of a 17-year-old black teen. The Florida law was very clear, that at any time during an altercation, if George Zimmerman, the defendant, felt he was in danger of great harm, he was justified to use deadly force against Trayvon Martin, the victim. Although the attorneys did not argue a “Stand Your Ground” defense, the jury was ordered to consider it in their deliberations. While I am concerned about the legitimacy of the law itself, I am more concerned with the stereotypes and pigeonholes that exist which led to this tragedy.

In many instances, society reflects the George Zimmerman case. For many, culture’s forceful and disproportionately callous treatment of brown and black persons is justified because of a perceived fear of danger. We suspend school bus programs to keep certain children out because of fear. We pass intrusive laws such as “stop-and-frisk” that only affect subsets of the population because of fear. We enact discriminatory immigration laws that harass and profile because of fear. The fear is perpetuated because of the stereotype. Trayvon Martin died because one fear provoked another.

Since the age of ten, I have witnessed time and time again, these and other experiences that expose a fraudulent social morality. Trayvon, myself, and many others have demanded payment on America’s worthless check only to be taxed with penalties that burden us with stereotypes and assumptions—penalties that allow only a cadre to narrowly succeed in the shadows of ghettos, poverty, and the threat of deportation—penalties that fill our prisons, empty our schools, and continue to segregate our churches—penalties that demand assimilation, silence, double consciousness, and death.

It wasn’t until my first year of theological education at Candler that I experienced, with great continuity, a small portion of beloved community; or the ability to reside in a metaphorical house whose substructure is love. Whether it is genuine conversation with my white brothers George or Andrew, or lunch with my Korean brothers Jayesung and Sang Hyun, chapel rehearsal with my Black, African, or White Sisters Alisha, Shelia, or Allison, laughter filled moments with my African American brothers Shannon and Lawrence, or fellowship with my many brothers and sisters of the LGBT community, there are no penalties.

While we are not perfect, the communities we have forged here at Candler give us hope. Perpetual fear is dispossessed by meaningful discourse and the dispensation of intentional love. Each day that we strive to create this community we are sending a clear message: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt… so we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

–Sam White

Sam is a second-year MDiv student at Candler and a member of the Student Ambassador team for 2013-14. A native of Alabama, he earned a bachelor in communication sciences at the University of Alabama. Sam is a preacher and worship leader who hopes to purse a PhD in Sociology of Social Movements and Race and Ethnicity.