Sunday, May 22, 2011

ANTS Commencement - Student Address

Andover Newton Theological School
Commencement – May 21, 2011

“Our Theological Fingerprints”

Good afternoon graduates, friends and family, and members of the faculty and staff. It is an honor to be standing before you today as the student speaker for the Andover Newton graduating class of 2011. As we all know, I am but one voice among many, as any one of us could have gotten up here today to say those oh so precious words: “Thank God, I’m finally graduating!”

On my laptop computer I have a little calendar app that has been counting the days since I started seminary in September of 2008.
This morning the counter stopped at 992 days. 

992 days spent writing papers, attending classes, and adding more and more books to the teetering pile just waiting to be read;
992 days spent procrastinating, lingering for hours in the cafeteria, hanging out in upper Noyes, and soaking up the sun on the quad;
992 days spent living in this wonderful community, where life long friendships have taken root, new relationships have blossomed, and old relationships have buckled under the stress of growth and change; we’ve celebrated marriages, welcomed new babies, prayed for each other during times of illness and struggle, and grieved the unexpected death of one of our own.
992 days spent off the hill - serving as student ministers in churches, working as chaplains at CPE sites, and answering the phones at non-profits - taking advantage of every opportunity to practice, practice, practice this thing called ministry that many of us feel called to do.

Now, for some of us it’s been a lot longer than 992 days.
I’ll do the math for you, Kathy Cunliffe, for you it’s been approximately 2,920 days. 
Kimberly and Nancy, you’ve been at this for 2,555 days.
Whether we’ve carried the label of “seminarian” for 3 years, 5 years, 8 years, or more, the counter has now ticked over for the last time. We’ve reached the end of this journey.

As I begin the next step on my journey, and enter the Search & Call process and seek ordination in the United Church of Christ, the one question that the folks back home, and the people on my Committee on Ministry have been asking is:  “How has seminary prepared you to do ministry in the real world?”

Some folks are naturally skeptical that the hours we spend pouring over theological texts, writing papers on Christian history, and discussing the nuances of the Trinity are going to be of any use when we’re sitting in a hospital emergency room holding up the weight of an inconsolable parent who has just lost a child.

But as we all know, the learning that takes place in seminary happens both inside and outside of the classroom walls.
As a seminarian, I learned that if one has any doubt as to whether the Communion table should be open to all, one should spend some time in the ANTS cafeteria, where you’ll find yourself sharing a meal with Christians and Jews, Buddhists and Pagans, Theists and non-theists, and Unitarian Universalists who could be any or all of the above.

On my first day at Andover Newton I walked into to the cafeteria and soon realized that as diverse as my own UCC tradition is, the folks I met here have push pins all over the theological map.

On that first day I sat with Jordan Daigle, a new student like myself, and the first American Baptist I had ever met.
Sitting across from Jordan was Lydia McIntosh, a staff member, and the first practicing Buddhist I had ever met.

And sitting at the end of the table, was Joy Honan, Andover Newton’s artist in residence, and the first post-denominational, progressive, Christ-oriented, metaphorical, monastic, mystic (with a concentration in squirrel theology) that I’ve ever met….and probably will EVER meet.

In the cafeteria, in the classroom, and in community, I learned that even though we’ve all come together in this same place, at this same time in history to study this academic discipline known as theology - no two of us have the same theological fingerprint.
Like our actual fingerprints, our theological fingerprints have distinctive lines, ridges and swirls spinning off in every direction.
And we leave evidence of our unique presence behind, on every situation, and on every person, that we touch.
Our papers, our sermons, our conversations, our actions, all betray who we are as people, and who we are as religious believers.

It is in living in this community that I learned that we sometimes leave our messy fingerprints in areas that others would rather not have us touch.
But leaving smudges on the glass is the risk we take when we make the effort to extend our hand in friendship to those who are different.
If we instead walk around with our hands in our pockets, and keep our unique theological fingerprints hidden in an effort to avoid conflict and possible offense, then we have done ourselves and our community a disservice, and made the world a lot less interesting place in which to live.

As much as I’ve learned from the student body here at ANTS, I’ve learned even more from the faculty and staff. Which is a good thing, because when I begin to pay back my student loans in six months - I can honestly say that it was money well spent.

From Professor Mark Heim I learned that when considering the nature of the substance of Christ, there is homoousia and homoiousia, and between the two, there is only one iota of a difference.
I also learned that despite what some may say, it IS possible to sit through two semesters of Systematic Theology, a total of 26 three-hour lectures, and still be left wanting more.

From Professor Greg Mobley, I learned that monotheism is not monochromatic; that reading scripture in the original Hebrew is an eye opening experience, even if we do end up pronouncing the words with a Kentucky accent; and from Greg I learned that God took Job on a magic carpet ride above Creation, to show him that for our living, changing, joyous world to exist, there has to be space for chaos to play its tune as well.

From Professors Simon Lee and Bill Herzog I learned that Paul, the hated foe of many progressive thinkers, may not have been such a bad guy after all. That he was certainly a product of the patriarchal culture in which he lived, but if we can look past his blemishes we will see that he was actually a brilliant pastoral strategist who had just as many difficult situations and difficult people to deal with in his congregation as we will have in ours.

From Professors Mark Burrows and Beth Nordbeck, I learned that history is not just about digging around in our past, its also about discovering the roots of what we’re experiencing in our present, and examining the ways in which those roots will inform our future. As Mark says of Christian history, “In the beginning, Diversity” and as Beth says of Puritan history, “In the beginning, Total Depravity.”

From Professor Mary Luti I learned that Easter is not one day on the Christian calendar, but 50 days, and as worship leaders we are charged with the task of planting the seeds of liturgical renewal in our congregations through the revitalization of ritual, sacrament, and a newfound adherence to the celebrations of the seasons.
From Mary I learned that having 19 years experience as a Roman Catholic nun instills in one immense wisdom and humor, and there is no such thing as being “Too Catholic” for the UCC.

From Professor Burns Stanfield I learned how to preach a sermon without a manuscript or notes, and I discovered that if half way through the sermon you completely forget what you were going to say and are silent for an inexplicable amount of time, what you think is a major faux pas appears to others to be just a dramatic pause.

From Professor Bob Pazmino I learned that having a passion and love for teaching is contagious. That teaching what we love, with love, helps others to love it as well… and if one comes prepared to spread that love with multiple handouts, a pile of recommended books and an overhead projector, all the better.

From Professor Brita Gill-Austern I learned that even 10 days spent driving around Kentucky in a van with 12 chattering and singing seminarians will not tire her out. There will always be time left at the end of the day to reflect on our experiences, and its never not a good time to do lectio divina.

It was from Professor Leanne Tigert that I learned that pastors have the unique responsibility to be beacons of hope in times of crisis, and in all pastoral care situations we must know our limitations and repeat the mantra: refer, refer, refer.

From Professors Sharon Thornton and Margaret Benefiel I learned what it means to embody a non-anxious, pastoral presence. It is through observing Sharon and Margaret’s immense compassion and gentleness that I learned that one doesn’t need to be a font of profundity to sit with another in awareness of God’s presence and grace.

From Professor Nancy Nienhuis I learned that one out of three women in our congregations has experienced or is experiencing abuse within a domestic partnership, and that as many as 60% of domestic partnerships experience some form of abuse during the life of the relationship. I also learned that we as clergy are woefully uniformed and unprepared to handle the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of both the abused and the abusers, and that needs to change.

And finally, from interfaith classes taken with students from Hebrew College I learned of the old rabbinical teaching that says as people of faith we should greet each day with two slips of paper in our pockets:
In one pocket we should keep a note that reads: 
“God created the world for me”
and in the other pocket we should keep a note that reads:
“I am but dust and ashes.”
As always, responsibility and humility go hand and hand.

These are just a few of the things that I’ve learned in my 992 days here at ANTS, but I am but one voice among many. The experiences that we’ve each had, and the lessons we’ve learned are as unique to us as we are to each other.

Graduates, as we leave this hill, we walk into the world covered in fingerprints.
The fingerprints of our fellow students and this wonderful faculty and staff are all over us.
And to the faculty and staff, we graduates hope that our fingerprints are all over you. We hope that you carry those smudges proudly, as reminders of those students who caused you to look at theology, ministry, and the world, in a slightly different way.

To my fellow graduates, the time has finally come.
Its time to take off these hats and roll up our sleeves, and do the work that God has called us to do.
Like the disciples who met the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, we have had our eyes opened to a world in which Resurrection is not only possible, but just the thought of it makes our hearts burn deep inside of us.
Our job as pastors, chaplains, teachers, community builders, and advocates for social change is to be the guardians of hope in the world.
Hope in the understanding that working together, with God’s help, we can make this world a more loving, more compassionate, more just, world in which to live.

With every hand we hold, every word we write, and every life we touch, we will leave our fingerprints behind.

And all that we’ve learned on this hill will be left there as well.

Thanks be to God!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tick Tick Tick Tick Tick Tick....

Ahh, freedom, it was fun while it lasted.
See that little counter I have in my sidebar over there?
Right now it says I have 5 days, 5 hours, and 5 minutes until graduation.

Normally I would be kicking back and doing nothing right now just waiting for it to get here, like all the other graduates in my class, but I have a @$#& speech to write! (whose idea was that?)
Thankfully, because I led worship/preached in Bridgeport, CT yesterday and will do the same in Danbury the Sunday after graduation, I have had other things to think about....that and finishing up the lengthy list of papers that I had due at the end of the semester. Speech? What speech? "Oh, that's the LAST thing on my list" is what I've been telling people.
Well, guess what....I've reached the last thing on my list.

Oh, but then I have to finish writing my Profile.
And haul all my furniture/stuff home from Boston. 
And do CPE (chaplaincy internship).
And find a job.

I'm still looking for a place to add "kicking back and doing nothing" to that list.
Perhaps next fall.
Perhaps right now.
The speech can wait.
I wonder who's on Oprah today.....

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Don't be afraid of your freedom!

That's it. It's over. I'm done. I'm free to do whatever I want any old time!
I emailed the LAST paper of my seminary career last night. I have no more papers due. No more books to read. No more obligations to fulfill to obtain my Master of Divinity degree. All I have to do is show up at graduation and get the piece of paper that has my name on it followed by "M.Div".

I can not believe that I'm finally here.
I remember ten years ago, taking a lunch time walk at my job at Cannondale Bicycles. I was trudging up a hill contemplating what I would need to to do to pursue this call to ministry that everyone was telling me I had received....a call that I was just starting to hear myself. 
I didn't have a bachelor's degree, I had been out of school for 18 years. How would I even get into a 4-year college? I ticked off the steps in my mind and named them with each footfall up the hill - 2 years of Community college, transfer to a 4-year university, complete my bachelor's degree in 5 years, go to seminary, get my M.Div. in 3 years, find a call, get ordained, be a pastor.

It seemed like an impossible dream. A fairy tale. One of those "if only" scenarios that we play in our minds, especially when we're trying to pass the time on a lunchtime walk, and trying not to think about the drudgery of the job that awaits us back at our desk. 

I did it. 
I made the dream a reality. 
I managed to do it without the Community college step, but other than that I've pretty much stuck to the plan that I rattled off climbing up that hill. 
I still have a couple of steps left on that list....but the longest part of the journey is over. I would say the hardest part, but I know the part that lies ahead is going to be pretty darn tough at times. But just like the longest part of the journey, it will also be full of rewards. 

Look Ma! Top of the world!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Passed Inspection!

I received word from my Committee on Church and Ministry that they have voted to accept my Ordination Paper "as submitted" with no revisions needed. I have received permission to circulate my Profile (which means I can now look for a job!) with an Ecclesiastical Council to follow once I complete my chaplaincy internship this summer. 

Fantastic news to receive on the day that I attended my last class in seminary, and had an emotional last chapel service in which all the seniors were honored. We had the chance to share in a Communion of "milk and honey" as a symbol of our completing our wandering in the wilderness, as we stand and look out on the  Promised Land. 

Somewhere out there is a congregation that will be my Promised Land. 
I just need to remember that when they're fighting over hymnals and carpet...and complaining about the length/content of my sermons.
I can't wait! :)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Fresh from the Grill...

Big day! I presented my Ordination Paper to my Committee on Church and Ministry this morning. 
This is the meeting where the Committee members review my paper, ask me a LOT of questions about my theology, seminary experience, and ministerial gifts/potential (which I'm expected to answer on the spot, orally), and they then decide whether I'm ready to move on to the next step. The next step will be releasing my "Profile" to the churches that are currently looking for pastors, and scheduling an Ecclesiastical Council - where I will have the privilege of receiving a further grilling by the pastors and members of the local churches in our association. If all goes well there, I will be approved for Ordination "pending call" - which means once I find a job I will be ordained by the church that calls me.

For those who are wondering what kind of questions are asked by the Committee on Church and Ministry when they review an Ordination Paper, here's a sampling of the questions I received:

  • If a congregant asked you what it means to be "born again," how would you respond?
  • What is your cosmic understanding of salvation? 
  • What challenges and/or conflicts have you experienced in ministry?
  • How would you handle a congregant who is difficult to deal with - who is essentially a "pain in the butt" - knowing that their issues stem from a feeling of deep pain?
  • You've said that at times you feel Jesus walking beside you, and you feel the Holy Spirit moving through you, and both are guiding forces - How do you distinguish between the two?
  • Who is your favorite theologian?
  • How do you view the role of pastor in the church, keeping in mind its privileges and responsibilities? 
  • Pastors often wrestle with feelings of loneliness. How have you experienced this in your ministry and how do you expect to deal with it when you have your own church?
  • You used the image of a gardener and talked about "pruning" your theology, "cutting away" what is no longer needed - What elements of your theology have you pruned - both in seminary and prior to that?
  • If you had written your Ordination Paper in your first year of seminary, in what ways would it be different from what you've written now? 
  • If a child came to you and said, "My parents told me that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny don't exist, and now I'm afraid that in a few years I'll find out that God doesn't exist either." - What would you say to that child?

Yikes! There are some tough questions here. And these are just the ones I can remember. But I feel I did an adequate job of answering them (and my pastor and adviser who were both present said I did well, so I'll take their word for it!). 
Having never witnessed one of these grill sessions before I can't say how these questions compare to others that have been asked or how my answers compared to those given by other seminarians.
I'm just glad it's over and I can move on to the next step....I hope! ;)

Another hurdle cleared.