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.


Mar 25 2011

The Worship that Surrounds Us

It is no small thing to ascend the stairs behind a pulpit.

When I walk up those two maroon-carpeted steps at my contextual education church, Haygood Memorial UMC, I shake with something other than nerves. If I quake for any reason, it is for the fear of God–the good kind–and my vast unworthiness to approach such a lectern and stand before the people of God . Yet it is my calling to be there all the same. Taking the pulpit is a privilege of the highest regard–what an amazing thing to be called upon to do–truly a sacred task.

My voice was one thing that did not waver or falter (even as I question my decision to wear heels on those steps!). The first thing I did as liturgist at Haygood was read an opening collect taken from the Hebrew Bible. There is a power and an authority that flows from the thousands of years of tradition in those words, a power to which I am privileged to lend my voice–in this time, in this language, in this context, for these people. Hear, O Israel! Shema, Y’Israel! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.

It was the Shema that I was asked to read. The beauty of these words nearly brought me to tears when we sang it in Hebrew at the Shabbat service I attended as a part of Beth Corrie’s world religions course. This is the text that is at the core of the Jewish faith, the text, too, that Christian children know from  Vacation Bible School songs, the text that has initiated in me the practice of writing reminders of God’s love for me on my inner wrists, the text that led me to hang the cross I received from my church upon graduating high school on the upper door frame in my room–a living reminder of the faith I carry whether I’m in my room or without.

It is no small thing to read these words. And as I did, I was reminded of the first time I ever read Scripture in church. As part of my sixth grade confirmation class, we each were required to read in big church, and though I didn’t know really anything of its context at the time, I still remember that my text as sixth grade liturgist was Isaiah 6. It is poignant now, to think of reading this famous call narrative, not knowing then of the call I myself would come to answer when I came to Candler. And like Isaiah, still even today as I approach the pulpit, I feel the truth of the words, “Woe to me, I am a woman of unclean lips!”

Yet we know God’s M.O. in these call narratives: the prophet complains, but God offers reassurance. Eventually we might get it, God–we will never be worthy of the tasks you call us to do. But still you want us. You cleanse our lips and put words in our mouths.

While these experience of Sunday morning worship with Con-Ed II have been such concentrated little bursts of ministerial formation, I was reminded today, too, that the awesome thing about the kingdom of God is that it is everywhere among us. I can have church while I’m listening to Ingrid Michaelson in my car, because she sings the words that are otherwise trapped in my soul. I can have church while I’m sitting with one of my best friends outside at Starbucks, and we’re talking about our frustrations with ourselves and with the church and with seminary. We say that maybe it’s okay if she decides to someday walk away from the faith of her upbringing, that faith that was once so sure but now seems distant–it’s okay because it’s a part of the journey. And as we say those things, God is so tangibly near to us that I can taste it in the air (and I pray that she, too, will feel God again, soon, close enough to taste and feel and sense). And there we are, having church, just being friends and loving one another.

Emily Dickinson has a poem that talks about the worship that happens everywhere, all around us. Some might use such a poem as an excuse to not come to Sunday morning worship–a trend that is becoming all too real in our society. I think we need to be in church on Sunday mornings, worshiping God corporately and coming before God’s presence with a bit of fear and trembling every now and again. But it is good, too, to see the God-force all around us. It is a reminder that yes, the pulpit is a sacred space of intoning the words of God before the gathered assembly, but (as any good Methodist will tell you) the world is our parish, and the words we say and the God we meet in our everyday moments, with each breath in and out, with those words we also can preach.

What is it, then, that I am saying?

-Whitney Pierce

Whitney is a 2nd year MDiv student from North Carolina and a regular contributor to the Beatitudes Society blog.