Apr 11 2008

Famous Last Words

A new, end-of-the-year tradition came into being around the time I enrolled at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Each April, as the dogwoods blossom and graduation seems just around the corner, the Candler community gathers to honor the faculty members who are retiring that year in an event known as “Famous Last Words.” This year, Dr. Jon P. Gunnemann, Professor of Social Ethics, and Dr. M. Thomas Thangaraj, the D.W. and Ruth Brooks Associate Professor of World Christianity, are both retiring from Candler and shared some of their “last words” with this us on Wednesday. As Dr. Thangaraj started he said, “Famous words?…certainly not. Last words?…I hope not!” Both professors playfully shared some of their fondest memories and celebrations from their time at the seminary. The luncheon was a wonderful reminder of how special Candler is, not only to its students, but to the faculty and staff who are living out their vocational call here.

Both Dr. Gunnemann and Dr. Thangaraj reflected on their time of teaching and being in community at Candler. It was evident through their words, laughter, and memories that Candler has shaped them and their theology in profound ways. Not only have they been shaped by Candler, but the Candler community has also been shaped and reshaped during the years they taught here. One of the classes Dr. Thangaraj teaches each year is Images of Christ in World Christianity. He shared with us that the first semester he taught at Candler in 1988, he had eight students in the class from six different countries. In his final semester teaching, he offered an open enrollment so that every student who wanted could take the class. Dr. Thangaraj has 80 students in his Images of Christ in World Christianity class this semester. As he said, “It took 20 years to perfect it.”

In a similar vain, Dr. Gunnemann talked about the variety of changes and transformations of Candler and Emory during the 26 years he has taught here. As he named all the people, projects, and resources he was grateful for during his tenure at Candler, he opened by reflecting on the faculty who were already at Candler when he arrived in 1981. These courageous faculty members laid the groundwork for change and social justice, particularly in helping integrate Candler, which was the first school at Emory to admit African American students. That naturally led into him celebrating Candler’s commitment to diversity.

Dr. Gunnemann shared that when he first arrived at Candler in 1981, only 5% of the student body was African American and only 26% of students were woman. We have certainly come a long way in nearly 3 decades, and we can proudly boast that 50% of our student body is women, 25% is African American, and 10% is international students. Just over 40% of our students are United Methodist, and we represent over 50 different denominations and faith traditions throughout our student body. Dr. Thangaraj described that when he first arrived at Candler, when anyone mentioned the word “world” everyone would look as him, “as if I was in charge of it,” he said. But now he and Dr. Gunnemann both celebrated that we are all talking about the world and realize that the whole world matters, particularly as we prepare students for Christian service and leadership.

Both Dr. Gunnemann and Dr. Thangaraj spent significant time talking about how much they love teaching. Each, in his own way, thanked the generations of students who have helped teach them a thing or two. As Dr. Thangaraj put it, “Teaching has become my way of learning.” Dr. Gunnemann is grateful for those students who have pushed him and have also been receptive to thinking about the world and theology differently.

Dr. Gunnemann closed by encouraging us to boldly live out the Great Commandment and ended by quoting Micah 6:8 by saying, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” These famous words from scripture resound in my heart and continue to call me to action every time I hear them. On further reflection, we did hear some famous (last) words on Wednesday—words that have been taught, preached, and lived out for generations; words from the living gospel; words that heal, offer hope, and call us forward. Dr. Gunnemann and Dr. Thangaraj’s words offer a witness to how words can become a living truth and move us to a deeper relationship with God and with our neighbors here at Candler and in the world.

There will be many more opportunities to hear famous words spoken, prayed, and taught here at Candler. If you are discerning if seminary is the next step in your faith journey, we hope that you will seriously consider Candler School of Theology. For more information about applying to Candler, please visit our website, email us at candleradmissions@emory.edu, or call us at 404.727.6326. You can also find us on Facebook, MySpace, and Second Life and would enjoy interacting with you through those social networking sites.

Mar 21 2008

Holy Week

“Sometimes the right person, reading the right text, at the right time makes all the difference,” said Dr. Don E. Saliers, Faculty Emeritus, William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Theology and Worship and retired Director of the Master of Sacred Music Program at Candler School of Theology of Emory University, during a workshop held this week on inclusive worship practices. This workshop, which was sponsored by Sacred Worth, one of Candler School of Theology’s student organizations, focused on incorporating inclusivity into worship services, through song, prayers, hymns, and other elements of worship.

To get the conversation started, Don Saliers outlined some basic questions that we as worship planners and leaders should ask: Who is gathering for worship? What is the time, space, and occasion of the worship? What are the central images, texts, songs available in the community? What are the pastoral needs of the community or of particular individuals? What conception of the divine and human relationality is in focus?

As we pondered the first of his various questions, he reminded us, many of whom are future church pastors, that so much of inclusive worship planning depends on who is gathering. Though the congregation may appear homogenous, there is such diversity of interpretation and experience within every worshipping community. In fact, even before we, the learned seminary graduates, arrive to lead a congregation, there is rich knowledge and “stuff,” as Saliers put it, in the congregation before we get there. This is, of course, a true statement but is a good reminder, too.

Though he highlighted and suggested various song and hymn resources that offer new music and more inclusive language, Saliers encouraged us to look to existing hymnals and songbooks, which are familiar to worshippers, because it may allow us to take old words and put them into a new context. In fact, the most useful and tangible suggestion I believe he made during the workshop was to host informal hymn sing-alongs, inviting congregants to introduce, in a safe space, their attachments to certain favorite hymns. What a beautifully melodic way for the congregation to share part of its story with us and each other. Saliers taught that, “Sometimes an image in a song or psalm will say something that a person can’t.”

That statement certainly rings true for me, one who is a lover of words. A poem, hymn, or psalm can speak the thoughts and prayers on my heart that I cannot always verbally articulate. I am sure that you too have had deeply divine moments of clarity and awareness during corporate worship, while reading liturgy, or as you mouth the words of a favorite biblical text during a stressful time.

Saliers rhetorically asked, “If liturgy can’t touch the hurts, then where will we go?” Though it was designed to discuss inclusive worship practices, the workshop became much more in that moment. We dialogued about suffering and how deep and honest prayer can uncover what is hidden within each of us. During Holy Week, we, as Christians, are keenly aware of Jesus’ suffering as well as his deep and honest prayers to God as he made his way to the cross. As we prepare for Easter, I invite you to find ways to touch your own text and song imagination with things that can really make a difference in your worship and life.

Dr. Thomas Thangaraj, the D.W. and Ruth Brooks Associate Professor of World Christianity, wrote a Passion Week Prayer, that you will find below. I hope it encourages you to slow down and dwell in the uncomfortable before the resurrection on Sunday.

O God, we are always in a hurry -
reluctant to stop, linger, or wait.
We are in a hurry to race from Passion Sunday to Easter morning,
never stopping on the way.
Slow us down, Lord, during this week;
Slow us down.

May we pause to hear your judgment on our temples of greed
and on our tables of selfish desire;

May we linger and listen to your curse

on our leaf-full appearances and our fruit-less lives;

May we stay with the community of disciples

and wash one another’s feet;

May we tarry at the table while you break bread,

sip wine, and call us to remember you at every meal;

May we wait at the foot of the cross

and hear your words of forgiveness, acceptance, forsakenness, and fulfillment;

May we halt a while to experience the deadening silence of the tomb –

our tombs of loneliness and helplessness;

Slow us down, Lord, during this week;

Slow us down.

That renewed in the spirit, we may face the coming Easter morning with joy and hope.


For more information about Candler School of Theology, visit our website at www.candler.emory.edu, or email the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid at candleradmissions@emory.edu. In addition, you can call us at 404.727.6326, or learn more about the admissions process at Candler by clicking here. Look for my profile on Facebook (Candler Intern-Theology) and the Candler School of Theology Group at www.facebook.com. We recently started a group on MySpace too, so hopefully we’ll connect with you soon online or in person.