Nov 7 2011

Experiencing The Realness of God

There are some things I may not know
There are some places I cannot go; but I am sure of this one thing,
That God is real for I can feel God deep within
Yes God is real, REAL IN MY SOUL. 
Yes, God is real 
for God has washed and made me whole.

God’s love for me is like pure gold,

Yes, God is real 
for I can feel God in my soul.      

 -Kenneth Morris

These are the lyrics to one of the most recognizable Southern gospel songs and hymns “Yes God is Real.” Embodied in this song is an attempt to communicate a storied tradition. A tradition rooted in both personal and communal experience that expresses an assurance of the presence of God. How does one communicate the  “realness” of God to others? Or a better question is how does ones story come alive through singing a song?

Before you’re tempted to raise a brow, grimace, or go off into deep theological reflection, I would like to suggest that music, as one internalizes the lyrics, and gives way to the intonations and rhythms not only evokes a emotive or physiological response, but it elicits and communicates ones innermost (experiential) truths.

This was evident in the Black Church Studies Fall Worship Service, spearheaded by Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, Professor of Homiletics and Director of Black Church Studies at Candler. God’s presence began to manifest itself in very distinctive ways as the body of people gathered- some familiar with the songs and rituals of the Black Church, while others were not- began to release their experiential truths into the atmosphere through the singing of hymns and spiritual songs.

I observed from the choir, Shouts of “hallelujah” and “amen”, raised hands, bodies swaying and stooped over, feet thumping, tears flowing, and above all an energetic communication of the “realness” of God within the soul of the community. The program was organized in such a way that we traveled through a virtual archive of the Black Church experiences, covering all from the traditional lining out of hymns, which is a form of call and response; an a capella hymn-singing in which a leader, gives each line of a hymn as it is to be sung, to contemporary praise and worship, communal prayer, and good ole preaching, which on this occasion was from the Baptist tradition. Despite ones cultural or denominational background, by the end of the service one was oriented to a day in life and worship in the Black Church.

Each round went higher and higher as students led us in worship and praise through word, reading, and song. The Voices of Imani, under the leadership of Erica Deloney, a second year MDIV student at Candler really personified their name and communicated the very essence of gospel through their fervent worship and melodious sound. They sang “For Every Mountain” and “The Lord is Blessing Me.”

The Reverend Dr. Marcus Cosby was the elect speaker for the occasion. Dr. Cosby is one of the most renowned and celebrated preachers in the Black Church. A graduate of Morehouse School of Religion at the Interdenominational Theological Center and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Illinois, Dr. Cosby was inducted into Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse School of College. Dr. Cosby currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston, Texas.

Dr. Cosby preached a very timely word for the student body at Candler. He preached: “The Process of Progress.” Using Luke 5: 1-11 as a central text, Dr. Cosby exhorted us to continue to cast our nets into the deep waters despite failed attempts in the past. He provided three points of reflection that I will delineate below:

Ignore past failures: Be willing to acknowledge and own past failures, but don’t allow them to hinder your progress. Instead of being held hostage by the fear, shame, or humiliation of the past, one would do well to reframe past failures, inquiring of them the critical lessons that are to be gained in the process of progress.

Initiate the possibilities of the future: Try “it” again. Dare to do something that you’ve never done before. Even if it is the same task that one is attempting, try approaching it with a different expectation of the outcome and employ different strategies to accomplish the end goal.

Ignite faith- Anticipate God’s faithfulness. Expect that if we leave the shore (representation of shallow places in ones life) and go into the deep waters that God will sustain and provide for us beyond our wildest imaginations. “If we would dare to plunge deeper into the theological waters in which we are treading, expect that God will meet us there.”

This was a very appropriate message for Candler students as we have survived and come through the currents of midterms only to face the quickly approaching tidal wave of finals. I encourage us to contemplate and employ the things Dr. Cosby suggested above in our attempt to press forward and complete this race with integrity and sanity of mind.

Just as the fisherman, appeared to have caught absolutely nothing, until they connected with and surrendered to the directives of Jesus, let us too surrender to the voice of wisdom, trusting that God will fill every void, and enable us to accomplish more than we’d ever hoped to accomplish.

Press forward with the renewed hope that the race is not given to the swift, or the prize given to the expert, but to the one who endures and has ascertained the necessary skills and knowledge to move forward.

- Ashely Thomas

Ashley is a second year MDiv student from Atlanta and a Student Ambassador.

Mar 4 2011

Wrestling with Self and God

Let me begin by saying that I am not a proponent of violence or abuse in any form. However, I would like to use the analogy of wrestling in order to illustrate and describe my encounters with self and God this Spring Semester. Perhaps the story of Jacob will serve as a great point of entry.

When we encounter Jacob in Genesis 32 he is preparing to go home to meet his brother Esau. For those who are familiar with the story of Jacob before he left home, we know that the condition in which Jacob left home did not make the journey to return home look pleasant. Jacob was aware of this, but still decided to go home taking his family along with him. He received bad news from a messenger along the way that Esau was coming with about 400 men to greet him. This troubled him. If you will allow me to fast forward to verse 22, we see that Jacob has made the decision to send his family ahead of him in order to appease Esau, and he remained behind. He was alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak; “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” The story goes on to reveal that Jacob was not going to give in until he received a blessing. What Jacob received in the end was a greater revelation of self and God.

Like Jacob, I had to make some tough decisions in preparation for coming to Candler. I left my full time job as a primary school educator along with all the benefits that came with this position in the hope that I would enter into the rest and peace of God. In light of the struggle that I had in accepting my call to ministry, leaving my job and coming to Candler, and enduring the transition during my first semester at Candler, I thought that the battle was (somewhat) over. Not so! What I presumed to be an embodiment of the peace of God this semester and a free ticket to receiving a little more rest at night than last semester, was only a camouflage for what was actually an intermission or breaking between rounds in a wrestling match.

Little did I know three weeks into the semester I would encounter readings, assignments, and presentations in classes that would cause me to arise from my “false resting place” to be thrown back into the ring with readings and discourse that would challenge, bring greater awareness of my capabilities, and bruise (or dismantle ideologies within) me in this process of learning. In my Images of God class, I have been challenged to reflect on how the image of the God to which I pray and how I interact with this God is but a mere reflection of the life experiences, formative relationships, and the doctrine that I have encountered up until this point in my life. Also in my Contextual Education Seminar, I have wrestled with developing theologies of care, home, and hope, for those who are the disinherited and marginalized. While it would seem as if one could just embody the spirit of Christ and provide food, shelter, and clothing in order to aid those in poverty, this is but one small step, and does not seek to eradicate the structures and systems that perpetuate poverty, but merely manage it.

I thought that I would have some concrete answers concerning issues of injustice and how to tackle systemic issues that plague our society, but I am left searching and (re) discerning the fresh message that the biblical text speaks to such a fragmented, displaced, and hopeless people in a postmodern world. Even more so, I am left searching for God and discovering how my gifts can best meet the needs of those in our local and global society.  I am left unsettled in my being. Yet, like Jacob, I continue to hold on tight and endure this process at Candler, because the call continues to resound even though the “what” and the “how-to” dimension of this calling are yet to appear.

One thing that I have learned on this journey is that honesty with self and God is necessary. When the man or angel asked Jacob, “What is your name?” Jacob, with his history of trickery and dishonesty, could have answered my name is Victor, but he told the truth. In that very moment of confrontation and struggle, he was faced with the truth about who he was and even received a new name, Israel. This was symbolic of transformation.

In moments of wrestling with self and God, and being bruised in the process one can either choose to give up or surrender. One can continue to rely on self or see how interdependent and interconnected he or she really is and turn to a community of reliable others, or The Reliable Other, which is God. Instead of complaining during moments of wrestling with self and God, I want to encourage you to pay attention to what is being revealed during those moments. For in wrestling we find our true voice and become aware of our weaknesses and strengths. Despite the exhaustion, choose to prevail until the end! In the end you will be conditioned, equipped, and even energized to face both the war against social ills and fulfill the calling ahead.

Know that I am in solidarity with you on this journey!

-Ashley Thomas

Ashley is a first year MDiv student from Atlanta and a Student Ambassador.

Nov 19 2010

Finding Strength in Intentional Moments

As we near the end of what is for some of us our first semester in seminary and for others the first semester of their second or last year, I sense a great level of stress and burn out from a number of my colleagues. Whereas many began this journey excited, eager to fulfill their call to be at Candler, and confident in their ability to think and write critically, many are now doubting their competence and are trying to cope with the fact that they may not be receiving the grades in which they are use to receiving. Have we become so consumed with academics, meeting our own high expectations, making A’s, and passing exams at the expense of our well being that we have forgotten the very thing that we should be critically attentive to on this journey? “Self.”

I along with several of my colleagues have been privileged to take Introduction to Pastoral Care and Counseling with a master practitioner and constructivist Dr. Gregory Ellison. This class has played an integral part in rejuvenating my personal faith, regenerating hope, and transforming my spiritual life. One of the most powerful components of this course is the contemplative journey that we embark upon as a class to become more self-aware and reflective as caregivers who consciously give care to self and others.  As we go on pilgrimage with individuals that we know and many of whom we are getting to know while engaging readings surrounding theories and practices of care in pastoral care and related disciplines, students are challenged to not only develop models of care for the unacknowledged groups in which we will serve in ministry, but to begin to be attentive to their own voice and establish for themselves healthy practices of self-care.

Seminary should be a time in which we begin to foster and nurture a rich life in which we can draw strength. Self-awareness and self-care is critical to how pastors and leaders best serve others. One puts themselves and others at risk when self-care is not a priority. In carrying out our preoccupations whether in ministry, studying, or other work, we can divert our attention to the point where there is literally no time for the essential experience of being attentive to self. Yet, the truth is that in order to flourish in our studies, ministry, and other endeavors, we must make time for the experience of centering down and caring for self.

The journey of a Seminarian does not solely involve thinking critically and theologically, wrestling with difficult texts, and developing and critiquing arguments, its also involves one’s intentionality to create moments where they participate in leisure activities and develop spiritual disciplines that will empower them for the tasks above.

For those who are in Dr. Ellison’s course, we know that we are on the last part of our journey where we are returning home, which is symbolic for returning back to familiar places and familiar material, but looking at it with a different perspective. Some of us return home with a profound appreciation for some of the things and people that we left behind on the journey. As I return home for the holidays, I would like to share some of the wisdom that I received while on pilgrimage in this course. Hopefully this will help the rest of my fellow colleagues endure the race until the end of the semester.

  • Our greatest glory is not in ever falling, but in rising every time we fall. (Confucius)
  • It is one thing to be informed about the things that heal you, but it is another thing to give yourself liberally or freely to them.
  • Vocation is a response that a person makes with his or her total self to the address of God and to the calling to partnership. (Katherine Turpin)
  • While ability is important, ones willingness and capacity to be tenacious is what helps them to succeed.
  • So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap a harvest time, if we do not give up (Galatians 6:9)

Remember to care for yourself!!!

-Ashley Thomas

Ashley is a first year MDiv student from Atlanta and a Student Ambassador.