Saturday, May 19, 2012

Creating Sacred Space for Social Justice

We were called into silence and asked to say the words from texts, songs, or leaders that keep us going in our justice work. My eyes were closed and a busy morning rush of hanging direction signs and helping lost guests navigate the building quickly dropped from my mind and body.
The sacred space we entered was a gift I gladly received. Voices called out Biblical verses, well-known lines from ballots and hymns, poetry, and lines from public addresses. We were 110 faith leaders from thirteen different traditions hosted at United for a day to learn about storytelling, effective listening, and organizing within our faith communities to defeat a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman in MN. That powerful opening reminded of what happens when people of faith come together to work for justice and equality. I was reminded of why I chose to be in seminary instead of other places of higher education such as a school of public policy or law school where I could also work for justice.
I was proud to share more about United as participants of who knew I was a seminary student asked me more about the school. There were many reasons to feel proud. The night before the training an interfaith group of leaders hosted a worship service at a local synagogue. United alumni were among 29 clergy who lit candles in remembrance of the 29 states where we have lost similar ballot measures; two United students raised their voices in powerful words of reflection and reconciliation; I had the distinct honor of asking for financial contributions to support the faith work; and another classmate opened the service. The day after at the faith leader’s training the United chapel’s beauty comforted and held us as we heard the somber news of where we stand today in terms of polling numbers. I can feel my connection with United deepen and I move from a student in the classroom to a faith leader out in the world.
It inspires me to see other United colleagues actively engaged in the world. There are seven Center for Public Ministry interns working on faith organizing to defeat the constitutional amendment in November 2012. The Center launched last year and is dedicated to equipping the church to be a powerful and sustained force for social justice. I am grateful for the opportunity to weave together my classroom learning, my love of prayer and ritual, and my desire to actively work to create a more just world supported by United. Framing this work in a faith perspective pushes all of us to do this work from a deeper place focused on connection, healing and love.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field.  I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.

- Laura Smidzik, MDiv student

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Creating Spaces

We’re in the last two weeks of the semester, when the tension over papers and projects due comes on us in earnest. The greetings and responses we give as we pass each other in the hall bear the same themes: anxiety, commiseration, encouragement. Sometimes we stop and tick off the list of our projects for each other: “Two long papers, one shorter paper, and a final.” It is a way of relieving anxiety, at least for a moment: if we are all similarly burdened, it must be because what we have been assigned is in the realm of the possible, and we will get through it, right? Somehow?

In the middle of my own anxiety this week, a memory came to me unbidden from my internship last year at a local church. I was assisting my field instructor in serving communion. A line of parishioners gathered at the altar rail. As I stood before each individual, citing the words, “Take and drink from the cup of life,” I was struck by the vulnerability in their raised faces, expressions of solemnity and tenderness, expressions that seemed universal in this moment, common to all.

My readings in Constructive Theology for the next day were on the sacraments – I didn’t know that was the topic; I was writing a paper and waited until the last minute, I admit, to read them -- so my remembrance of the communion service the day before seemed apt. Eucharist theology usually centers on the ways that the bread and wine are transformed during the sacrament (or not). But what happens to us during the sacrament, I wonder? What was the beauty that came into each face as the parishioners waited by the altar rail? And how can we give life to that expression beyond this moment?

My sentiments toward our common humanity are not always so charitable. Earlier in the week I was reading the news, which often turns out to be a day’s tally of our common inhumanity. At the same time, I was musing over thoughts for a theological paper which has, as its purpose, a scope I think of in the words of the Dishwalla song: “Tell me all your thoughts on God, and tell me am I very far.”  The litany of destructive human behavior in the news collided with my own thoughts on God and I blurted out the words: “Really? God just loves everybody?” My partner, who is used to sudden bursts of theology on my part, answered, “No.” (This is why he is a good foil for my musings.) “Well, I can’t believe it at the moment,” I said, “Regardless of how much we talk about God as love at seminary.”

Lest I am misunderstood, we don’t, as a rule, spend our class time simply talking about God as love. If we did, these papers I’m struggling to write would be done in a snap. But I think that, as a rule, we do believe it. How does belief become action? How does bread become a body? How can love overcome the merciless marks of our destruction in the world?

What was the beauty that came into each face?

I may try to answer that question in my paper. Or, I may not be able to answer it. Not yet; maybe not ever. I have seen it, is all I can say. Even if we don’t know how to say what it is, we can make spaces for it to happen in the world. In our Worship class, we are learning how to create such spaces, and for a chapel service planned with my small group in the class we chose a theme of centering, rest and silence for this last rush of the semester. What could be more incongruous? But the space worked, at least for a time; I saw expressions of calm in the faces of those around me.

And now, I must write, and fast. I have one long paper due, one shorter paper, a reflection, and a project. We will get through it, right? I thought so.    

- Kathryn Price, MDiv student

Friday, April 27, 2012

First Deconstruct, then Reconstruct

Every semester here seems to get harder as it goes on.  There’s the workload, of course, but I have come to think it’s also due to something else.  

For most courses I’ve taken at United, earlier on in the semester students are asked to read books and understand what other people have said.  For many classes, as the semester progresses, we are eventually asked to read less and write more.  I’ve come to realize that – at least for me – writing takes more oomph than reading does.  It takes more effort to get myself to sit down and focus.  I’m not being asked to consume but to create or at least to synthesize. 
But then there are different kinds of papers.  Right now, I am working on two.  One you might call a research paper – that’s not quite the right word but it’s close enough.  From the books I have read this semester, I have set myself the task (it’s an independent study course) of closely stating what Karl Barth, Rudolph Bultmann, and Reinhold Niebuhr each have to say – and why each cares  – about the freedom of humanity and then to state my own reaction.  Not so bad.  The only catch is that in order to do that I have to read them a bit more closely than I would John Steinbeck or John Sanford!   

Early on in my seminary career, I came to feel that the other kind paper was much easier.  Here we call it a reflection paper.  I don’t have to state my understanding of the function of the word “house” in Nathan’s prophecy to David or articulate the polity and ethos of the United Church of Christ with meticulous footnotes for everything.  I just organize my thoughts. “How did your faith journey lead you to seminary” might be an example.

In the paper I am writing right now for another class we are being asked to state – essentially – “knowing what you know now, how would you formulate your theology and the church’s role in fulfilling it?”  My task is to construct something coherent that will pull together the years of reading I have done and the many components of my view of religious life.  That would include, among other things, how I make sense of God and evil, the role of the church, scripture, and the sacraments, the creation and the Second Coming.  You could say I am being asked to articulate my beliefs, make sure they all fit together, and express them all in a way that is inspiring for someone else.  Maybe it’s just me but papers seem more difficult than they used to!  

But in a way, it’s a chance to do what I have always dreamed of but never taken the time to do.  I’m being asked to sit down and make sense of life – okay, not all of life, just the eternal aspects!  Yes, it’s huge but, if I can come up with something that satisfies me, it will be worth it.  Will I come up with something to give Paul Tillich a run for his money?  Most likely not.  I may just come out knowing myself and my God a bit better.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Stick a Fork in Me…I’m Done

I’ve been a student in one way shape of form for four decades. I don’t just mean, I’m an avid reader, or I’m a student of humanity. I mean, I’ve gone through the public education system, graduated, and have shelled out many thousands of dollars and collected any number of degrees, certificates, licenses and certifications.  To be sure, I love to learn, but the other thing is that I couldn’t quite figure out what I wanted to do with my life and kept trying on new careers and skills, hoping something would stick. 

With just a few weeks left to go of my clinical pastoral education (CPE) unit in a large teaching hospital, I can finally say, I think I’ve figured it out. I think some sort of chaplaincy work is in my future. Here’s the kicker—I have a lot of schooling to finish up before I can even begin doing a year-long residency to get me closer what I believe may be my future vocation.  A lot of schooling. 

Even a year ago, it didn’t bother me greatly that I was on the slow road to a Master of Divinity. I mean, it’s not like it’s my first master’s degree. The diploma would simply join the collection on my living room wall. Now, I’m finding myself growing ever-more impatient as I consider my future, which currently looks like this: Continue working full-time in my office job while cobbling together my classes, graduate in a couple of years, cool my heels until the next time a residency program opens up (typically in the fall), do a year of residency and finally be ready to search for a chaplaincy gig. We’re talking 2015 or thereabouts.

Good things may come to those who wait, but I think I may have reached a point where I’d like to see the good things happen sooner. I’m seriously considering cutting my hours at work to take on more classes and try to wrap things up (except one straggler of a requirement) in about a year. Cutting work hours would do nothing for my already impressive sleep deficit; it does, however act as a way to rob Peter to pay Paul – I’m trying to tip the scales enough in work hours to up my course load. 

No, we can’t afford this “solution” from a monetary stand point, but I’m not sure my soul can afford to keep going like I have in the last year. My family and I have made so many sacrifices to get me this far in my United experience. While I feel like a zombie—albeit a well-learned zombie—some of the most fulfilling experiences in my educational and personal life have happened this year.

There’s no way United could describe the intensity of what some of its students will go through on their way to completing their program. I’ve been told mothers often forget the agony of childbirth almost immediately after cradling their children in their arms, and that if they didn’t, the world would be devoid of humanity. 

I sometimes wonder if there’s a kernel of truth in the childbirth analogy for those seeking a Master of Divinity—if we were to remember the harshest hours of writing papers, walking with patients or congregants in their darkest hours during our internships, trying to keep our heads above a tsunami of books that never seem to stop flowing—if we were to remember these things, would any of us ever graduate and live out our ministry in the world? I don’t know. 

What I do know is that the semester is winding down, my lease is almost up, there is still a pile of unread books, papers and final projects to complete, a handful of clinical hours to finish up, and there’s no time to really process. But then, maybe like a newborn, keeping busy keeps us from dwelling too long.  By the time we look back, the pains have subsided and all we’re left with are snapshots of moments where we can see our hard work from the perspective of the new life in our midst. That’s all flowery talk for now. If you asked me today how I feel about school, I’d have to say, “Stick a fork in me. I’m done.”
- Jayne Helgevold, MDiv student

Monday, April 9, 2012

Caution: Deconstruction in Process

We were warned.  Last fall during the new student orientation, we were told that during seminary we will be going through a process called deconstruction.  This is how I understand it: It is a process where our theology and faith will be stretched, poked, torn apart and thrown against the wall, broken into pieces and left on the ground. (ok, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic)  After this happens, then reconstruction takes its place.  This, I have heard, is where we, the students, will slowly walk out to where our pieces have been scattered, pick them up one by one and then attempt to put them back together resulting in a cohesive theology.  Hard to believe, you say? Nah, all in the lifecycle of a seminarian.

It is now the middle of my second semester and the deconstruction process is well underway. I feel like I’ve been poked, pulled, and torn apart and this is just the beginning.  I have been learning things that have shaken my identity as a Christian, struggling with concepts that affect the very foundation of my faith, and engaging in discussions that often times gracefully nurture and deeply challenge my spirit simultaneously.  However, I am having the time of my life, seriously.  Even though the process sounds utterly devastating. . .and it is, it is happening in a community where the process is coupled with an outpouring of support coming from professors and students alike.  As I journey through this semester, I know I am in good company and rely on the interaction I receive when I am on campus.

To update you, the courses I am taking are, New Testament Texts in Context, American Religious Histories, and the second of the integrative theology courses that consists of volunteering in a community setting as well as class hours commonly known as “IS 152.”  Needless to say, I am a busy bee this spring.  I still have the challenge of balancing my family life with UTS and know that it is ongoing and sometimes takes more patience than I expect.  Pulling myself together after an intense day of classes is not always a smooth transition.  The contrast from the seminary classroom to being the mom of two growing boys sometimes requires more patience than I think I have.   

All in all, I am struck with all the different points of view that I am exposed to at UTS and grateful for this unique experience.  For now, I am content with being deconstructed and not yet ready to begin reconstructing anytime soon.

Peace be with you.

- Sarah Kronkvist, MARL student

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Signs of Fidelity

My courses this semester, which are American Religious Histories, Constructive Theology, and Worship, sometimes seem to be remarkably, synergistically related:  weaving together a comprehension of our faith traditions historically, building on what we know to construct what we are reaching towards theologically, and applying how we will give shape to these understandings liturgically. At other times, I look at the books for these courses and they seem like disparate chunks that only serve to threaten my efforts to concentrate on any one of them: how can I focus on all of these subjects at once? And at still other times (and there comes such a moment in every semester) I decide that my otherwise lovely teachers are mad, that they have lost all sense of proportion in terms of the amount of reading and writing that they assign, and that, incredibly, they persist under the illusion that their class is the only class their students are taking. (Such moments pass.)
One of my favorite parts of campus is the native prairie restoration area in front of the parking lot. When I pull into a parking space, I sometimes linger for a moment after shutting off the car. At sunrise and sunset especially, the long, arching grasses glow in the angled, golden light. If I were to put voice to my experience of those moments, it would translate largely as “Thank you.” I have heard that this same slice of prairie caused a resident of the neighborhood to wonder if the school, in fact, was still in operation, taking the long grasses for signs of neglect.  I take them as a sign of fidelity.
Once, when I was a hospice volunteer on the inpatient unit of a hospital, a doctor I had not previously met came to the nurses’ station, and seeing me there, he pretended to answer a nearby phone with this greeting: “Hi, I’m a hospice volunteer, I can’t tell you anything.” The truth is, as a hospice volunteer, I wasn’t allowed to give out patient information. His little pantomime seemed so belittling and outrageous that I decided I’d do him one better than deliver a scathing remark in response: I turned my face firmly, angrily away; not exactly the other cheek, but a resolute sign of dismissal. A nurse, seeing my expression, hurried over and whispered, “He’s a fabulous oncologist who used to be a comedian; his patients love him.” Before I could decipher the logic of this message, the doctor walked over to me and held out his hand, smiling. It turned out that he had worked as a standup comic in New York before becoming an oncologist. In explaining this unusual trajectory, he said that it was observing the caring manner of his father’s doctor when his father had cancer that made him want to become one. He wanted to know why I had become a hospice volunteer since nothing in my life at the time indicated an organic connection. My answer had something to do with the stories of people, that at a time in life when people most needed to tell their stories, I was afraid that no one might be listening. Such are the beginnings of vocations, the tracings that we may not perceive at the time as hints towards a different future. Some vocations declare themselves in whispers rather than calls. I am not entirely sure of my future goals, and sometimes this concerns me. I am investing so much of myself in seminary: where will it take me?  But just as I once signed up for hospice training without really knowing why, it seems that my response to this uncertainty can only be fidelity: a continued fidelity to the whisperings that I do hear. 
In the prairie restoration on campus, someone heard the call of the earth to be itself and they responded, even if in only this one small patch of ground. Sometimes that’s how I think of seminary, and vocation. I think I must do the same.  

- Kathryn Price, MDiv student

Friday, March 9, 2012

Erosion, Shifting - Holy, if not Wholly

My seminary experience has had a way of slowly shifting my theology.  Prior to seminary, I had come to develop a collection of what I once thought were original questions, home brewed on the premises!  But many a new encounter with a writer from the past erodes that sense of originality.  Most recently, I have been reading Rudolph Bultmann who – in 1941 – was struggling with how to reconcile the “modern”, scientific mindset with a New Testament which some had come to think as more akin to mythology.  How do you preserve Christianity with intellectual integrity?  Can you?  Bultmann’s answer is “yes.”  So, I read on, somewhat humbled to realize that one of my questions might be seventy years behind the times.

That might seem like a fairly typical insight coming from a student at a liberal seminary like United.  But, as with parenting, how a student’s ideas mature isn’t always predictable.   Perhaps more surprising for me is to find my thinking about the Trinity changing.  Besides the in-depth (read: labyrinthine) analysis that Karl Barth gives of the Apostle’s Creed, I have also been reading (second hand) about Jurgen Moltmann.  Not only does he share my concern for preserving the physical environment but he frames his concerns in Trinitarian terms. 

Had enough talk of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost yet?  I have!  But, get this – though I’m a bit overwhelmed, I’m also starting to actually get a little interested and (dare I say) inspired by that way of looking at things!

My twice-weekly visits at the hospital continue and I find my theological views changing there too.  I have come to see my primary function during visits with patients as one of guaranteed listening – often following them whenever they want to go.  Conversations can range from high school hockey to intractable disagreements with siblings or children to fear of dying to a shared appreciation of the afternoon sun.  Of course, since I’m a chaplain intern, there is also a tacit acknowledgement that what matters most – something holy – may be at play in all that they are dealing with.  For some patients, they feel most complete with a visit when we close with prayer.  Rather than assuming, I always ask what they would like to pray for.  Not surprisingly, some of those requesting prayer are evangelical patients.  In those instances, I do my best to pray in a way that is natural for me and works for them.  After months of such visits, I have been surprised to discover a change in my own prayer life.  I have begun to think of the Spirit as actively moving among us all.  Something holy is expressed through the care we attempt to offer each other.  From time to time, we arrive at a peace that passes all understanding.

Imagine that!

-Karl Jones, MDiv student