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.


Feb 15 2013

The Power of Ritual

This weekend, literally thousands of people connected with my alma mater, Samford University, will participate in a bizarre ritual known as “Step Sing.” Various groups – ranging from Greeks to independents to University Ministries – will dress themselves in shades of lycra I didn’t even know existed and then dance and sing an eight-minute show that revolves around a clever theme.

Step Sing

While I confess I’ve not always understood – or even liked – Step Sing, I cannot deny that I felt a profound desire to watch it this year, especially when my roommate (fellow Samford alum and Candler student Andrew Toney) suggested that we host a live-stream viewing in our living room. Aided by the twin perspectives of distance and nostalgia, I may be relearning something I always thought I knew: the profound power of ritual.

I’ve long considered myself to be a sacramental Christian. I’m used to the funny looks I get when I say words like “Eucharist,” or “chalice.” I’ve had a number of long, complicated conversations with my teetotaling Baptist brethren on the use of wine instead of watery grape juice. But it took Step Sing to teach me the real power of ritual.

Because Step Sing, despite the little changes in themes or the addition of a new group, is the same experience every year. Students involved in Step Sing disappear from more than few classrooms and generally droop around campus from mid-January to mid-February. I am irritated by this. Many professors are bewildered. Then, bam! Three nights of performance, the awards ceremony, and some lucky organization is bragging about how cool their moves are while others mumble, “next year.” It’s pretty much like clockwork, and somehow also like Eucharist.

Because the Eucharist is more or less the same every time. I know that, on most Tuesdays, someone will consecrate some bread and some wine on an altar in Canon Chapel. More often than not, I will be there, but it still happens, even when I cannot be present. Students will stream forth. Some practice intinction while others drink straight from the chalice. Many will cross themselves, but others will not. There will be a brief moment of holy chaos while everyone figures out exactly which station they wish to venture towards. Sure, there are small variations here and there, but it’s more or less like clockwork, and I’m finding that to be a beautiful thing.

When my week is dominated by the stress of paper writing (rather like this week, actually), when an incident at my Contextual Education site consumes my thought processes, when I’m trying to fit a new piece of text-critical information into my ever-broadening theological framework, the Eucharist is still there, and it’s still the same. Whatever chaos I’m dealing with as a minister and as a student, the bread and the cup represent a beautiful stability in the middle of a whirlwind.

AaronI am eminently thankful for a place like Candler, a place that makes this beautiful ritual available on a weekly basis. I am thankful for a place that continues to stretch my conceptions of God, sacrament, and just about everything else while also maintaining a place where the beautiful, dogged faithfulness of God is made known in the constancy of the Eucharist.

Thanks be to God for these lessons, and, oddly enough, thanks be to God for Step Sing.

- Aaron Carr

Aaron is a first year MDiv student from Cumming, GA, a graduate of Samford University, and a Candler Student Ambassador.

 


Oct 5 2012

A First Year’s Lessons

Aaron preaching at the Festival of Young PreachersI think there’s a secret meeting that all Candler students go to at the end of their first years. At that meeting, I think every member of the divinity school covenants to scare the living daylights out of every incoming student, especially when those new students arrive for orientation.

I didn’t believe the hype. Coming fresh from a strong undergraduate program in religious studies, I had no doubt about my ability to handle the work load. And I had done several ministry internships as an undergrad, so I imagined that I could handle anything Contextual Education could throw at me. And for the most part, I’ve been handling the transition well. Take that, secret Candler intimidation meeting.

This week, however, hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. I accidently over-committed myself to a number of curricular and extra-curricular activities, and I spent nearly an hour Monday morning trying to figure out how I was going to get it all done. Between recovering from last week’s Old Testament exam and handling the new week’s work, I wondered if the secret intimidation meeting had actually been right. Was I really about to watch my careful control of the Candler experience come crumbling down around my ears?

In the end, it didn’t. I survived the last four days, and I’m looking forward to a relaxed weekend. But in the process I learned two valuable lessons, both of which happened to be lessons I thought I already knew.

The first lesson was about failure. There were several things this week that simply didn’t get done, and more things that didn’t get done to the degree that I would have liked. And that felt bad. Or, at the very least, not good. But it was okay. Most of the things that didn’t get done, in the end, didn’t matter. And when it came to the few things that did matter, I got over it really quickly. Every once in a while, it’s perfectly okay to fail. Life goes on, even when that task falls by the wayside. Of course, it’s not a good habit to cultivate, but in the middle of chaos it can be very helpful to know that failure and incompletion are both natural parts of life.

The second lesson was completely different, and it was really more of a revelation occasioned by an experience in Old Testament this morning. When it comes to OT, I’ve been in serious study mode for the past few days. We had our first exam last Thursday, and I guess I’m still coming down from the experience. Today, however, Dr. LeMon shook things up a bit. Today, we sang.

We sang an ancient Hebrew song that goes like this:

Ashira la adonay ki ga’oh ga’ah
Ashira la adonay ki ga’oh ga’ah
Mi kamochah ba’elim adonay
Mi kamochah ne’dar baqqodesh
Nachita bechasdekah am zu ga’alta
Nachita bechasdekah am zu ga’alta
Ashira! Ashria! Ashira!

 I was flooded with a sense of joy because of that simple melody. In one moment, I was reminded that this school of theology is not just a place of intense academic formation (although it is that, and it was what attracted me to Candler in the first place), but it is also a place where the whole person is embraced. In singing that song, we tapped in to one of the most ancient Hebrew expressions of faith. We also watched the song be interpreted in the film The Prince of Egypt. And then we discussed its theological significance, both in the Exodus context and in the modern American context. As I watched my classmates clap and sing, the week’s anxiety melted away.

In English, the lyrics to the song mean something like this:

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously
I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously
 
Who is like you among the Gods, O Lord?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness?
 
 You led in your steadfast love the people whom you redeemed
You led in your steadfast love the people whom you redeemed
 I will sing! I will sing! I will sing!

I’m sure it will be stuck in my head for the next several days, but every time I find myself humming that tune, I’ll also be remembering the lessons of this week. Because the Lord has triumphed gloriously, I can find peace in failing. It’s a part of my existence, and it doesn’t change who God is or how we relate. And I’ll also remember the school where I first learned this song, a school where my whole person is embraced and I am taught both to think and to sing.

Thanks be to God for these lessons.

-Aaron Carr

Aaron is a first year student from Cumming, GA, a graduate of Samford University, and a Candler Student Ambassador.  He is also a member of the Gospel Catalyst Network of the Academy of Preachers.