Thursday, September 28, 2006

Scary Jesus

I just saw quite possibly the most frightening movie I have ever viewed. I went to a screening of the documentary "Jesus Camp" at a nearby theater. The film follows a few fundamentalist, evangelical Christian kids to a "camp" in North Dakota. It shows the kids engaging in pentacostal worship, taking part in altar calls, singing, and preaching. While the style of worship wasn't something I feel comfortable with, that part wouldn't have been so bad. However, the leaders of the camp were using manipulation and guilt to elicit extreme emotional responses from the children. Beyond that, they were preaching on political issues, particularly abortion, alongside Scripture, as though both their position on the issues and the word of God held the same importance and place of truth. Without a real explanation of what abortion means, children as young as 5 were being ordered to put an end to the practice.

At one point, the director of the camp explained that she and her fellow leaders were simply teaching the children their beliefs and values as all parents should. Now, I have never been a parent, but I believe there is a line between teaching children values and brainwashing them to a particular political and theological viewpoint. My parents raised me in the church and encouraged my faith, but they always reminded me that faith is a choice. I was never forced into a mindset. My parents encouraged me to go to church, but they didn't use guilt and fear as tools to make me believe in God. They certainly never pushed a political agenda as part of religion.

As though that manipulation weren't bad enough, the children were shown bowing down in front of a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush and praying for him, and smashing mugs with the word "government" on them to symbolize breaking the hold of the secular on the government. The children were being taught to do away with the separation of church and state, which is one of the central tenets of our governmental system. And, as the film went on, the language used by both the adult leaders and the children became increasingly violent. The kids described themselves as "soldiers" and "warriors", and the camp directors spoke of building "an army for Christ." I hated the way such language was used. I am terrified at the thought of children being indoctrinated and sent out with such a violent mentality. It was so reminiscent of the religious extremism that has caused the recent outbreaks of terrorism that I shuddered.

I want to think that the film exaggerated this phenomenon. I know that most evangelical Christians are not like the people in this film. But at the same time, most Muslims are not like the extremists who bomb buildings. This film illustrated the mentality that creates terrorism present in Christians in America, and I, for one, am terrified.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Stars Before My Eyes

I went to see President Jimmy Carter speak to the student body last week. It's amazing that this highly educated, passionate man is willing to hold an annual town hall meeting with a bunch of college students. He was asked questions ranging from his favorite type of peanut (he used to be a peanut farmer) to his opinions of Bush's recent actions. I was amazed by his straightforward, honest answers. When he criticized someone or something (like Bush) he listed specific criticisms with evidence and examples. When he gave his opinion on an issue, his passion was obvious. The more I think about his incredible contributions, including the Carter Center, Habitat for Humanity, and his diplomatic efforts, the more I am impressed by this former president. Jimmy Carter would definitely have my vote.

I have also been impressed by the seminary faculty. While they don't have Carter's fame and influence, they astound me on a daily basis. When professors preach in chapel, they always have incredible insight and conviction, and it is clear that they have not only thought through the theological and historical impact of the text, but also its applications in life. Beyond that, they are remarkably accessible. One professor, who is the head of the Women in Theology and Ministry Certificate program, held a retreat for all the students interested in the certificate program at her family's vacation home in the mountains. She opened her home to 20 women, cooked for us and arranged for incredible, relaxing sessions on yoga, liturgical dance, photgraphy, and meditation. She also seems genuinely interested in getting to know the students and their interests beyond class, including music and creative writing. Another professor, a retired United Methodist bishop who teaches my polity course, enriches the course with stories from his vast personal experience, that bring the phrases in the Book of Discipline to life. Yet another professor allows the class to discuss openly for nearly the entire two-hour period, with only a few guiding remarks. He seems truly caring and takes the time to talk whenever students approach him for any reason. While not all of the professors are so open and passionate, there are many who make seminary life a joy.

But the people who have impressed me when I least expected it have been my fellow students. The richness of their experiences and their diversity of perspectives blows my mind. Each person I meet introduces me to new ideas, tells me stories of their faith and experiences, and demonstrates a perspective that I hadn't considered. I feel honored to have such wonderful peers.

My recent accomplishments are less exciting and impressive, but I feel good about them. I have managed to cook several meals, including making a casserole, several chicken dishes, inventing a sort of "stone soup" with things we had tucked away in our kitchen, and even made dinner for friends. My roommate and I have managed to keep our dishes clean without a dishwasher, and nothing in the apartment is terribly filthy or even that cluttered. I found a church and joined their choir. I'm the youngest person in the choir by a decade, but it's a fun group. I found a small, independent coffee shop where I can go to study and relax. I've even written my first few grad. school papers without freaking out.

Life is not perfect. Seminary is not perfect. None of these people are perfect. I'm sure I'll be striking all of these statements by midterms, but I'm certainly enjoying myself so far!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Station for the Soul Train?

The chapel at my new school is a phenomenal architectural structure and the first time I saw it, I hated it. Allow me to explain. It is made almost entirely of concrete, with copper railings and things throughout and a very open floor plan. The balconies make it resemble a theater-in-the-round, but the floor seating can be removed or rearranged very easily. But I gradually came to see the beauty in the meaning of the design.

The chapel looks like a train station. It has giant concrete columns and exposed venting, and it has the feel of several railway tunnels that run parallel to one another. Someone once told me that it was designed to look like a train station to remind us that we are perpetually in transition. Particularly at a seminary, we are in-between, traveling from one part of our life to another, learning to minister to people, and temporarily in community in this place. We won't stay at seminary, just as people never remain in a train station forever, it is merely a point on the way to another destination, or perhaps a pause on a long journey.

There are also, if one looks carefully, pieces missing throughout the chapel. There are chunks out of the pulpit and the altar, as well as pieces missing in the columns. All of these remind us that nothing on earth is complete. Nothing is ever perfect or totally put together, but the incompleteness is still beautiful.

There is also a lot of natural light in the chapel, both from the ceiling and from windows along the sides of the chapel that are invisible from 3 sides, which make it seem as though the walls are glowing slightly. The balconies rise in steps as they go around the main floor, demonstrating an ascent or, to my mind, growth. While concrete and venting systems aren't beautiful materials, their unfinished nature and the baring of things that are typically inside walls make the whole space feel a little vulnerable and unpolished, as though to remind us that humanity isn't about being complete or impenetrable.

I was used to churches with giant stained-glass windows and pews that are nailed down that felt old and reverent and invincible. It's refreshing to worship in a space that is simpler. The totally different feel of the room challenges me to consider the service more carefully instead of just going through the traditional motions. At the same time, the space is not necessarily designed for contemporary worship, as many more recent church buildings are. The open floor plan allows it to be adjusted for any type of worship.

What a blessing to be able to meet God and the community of faith in such a unique space!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Week 1: Happies and Crappies

At every ASP summer staff meeting, each staffer names one good and one bad thing from his or her day. These are referred to as "Happies and Crappies" or "Yoes and Woes" or "Chocolate and Broccoli" or some other pairing of positive and negative items. In that spirit (and because I'm a bit short on time) I am going to give you the weekly update in this ASP-meeting format.

Dr. Frank's speech at Opening Convocation
Dinner at Golden Buddha with the girls
Going to see the Braves play the Cubs at Turner Field
Dinner with Aunt Marsha
Activities Carnival
My professors' excellent senses of humor
Clean dishes
Lunch with Rev. Sarah and Frank
Phone calls and AIM conversations with distant friends
Mixed Signals Boy
Chilling in the apartment with Beth
Incredible weather
New friends every day

Overwhelming reading assignments
Having a cold
Lost certification paperwork
Killing trees by printing off reading assignments
Realizing that taking all the classes I want is impossible, even if I max out my hours every semester
Buying gas before prices dropped $0.20
Not enough hugs
Feeling both incredibly old and disappointingly young at the same time

Further information and commentary (or whatever I think to say) when I find time to write again. Until then, "Yay heresy!"

Monday, September 04, 2006

More Like Laborless Day

I don't know what the origins of Labor Day are. I think it was probably created to give some sort of vague recognition to the workers of the country and those whose work allowed this civilization to be formed. But, for all I know, it COULD have been created to celebrate the unionization or even the birthing process. I, however, see Labor Day as a bit of a misnomer. After all, why would you call a nationwide day off "work day"?

That, however, is a question that I doubt I'll ever care enough about to seek out an answer. And I'm certainly not complaining about the existence of another holiday, I'm a huge fan of getting a day to relax. Instead, I'm going to focus my energies on this Laborless Day on reflection. I want to remember this day as a point of closure on the last four years and a point of beginning for the next three.

On the last four years: I would definitely classify them as a whirlwind. I moved for the first time in my life and began a new life. I attended classes, learned how to live with myself and both good and bad roommates, learned to walk, eat, shop, and entertain myself alone, and made a lot of interesting acquaintances, both good and bad. I traveled to three new countries, failed miserably at learning an ancient language, altered and crystallized many of my beliefs, and even got a college degree. I made plenty of mistakes, but thinking back I wouldn't change a thing. I like where I am and appreciate my growth so far. I made some fantastic friends that I really admire, others that I know I can rely on, and many that, while I may never encounter them again, have made immeasurable impacts on my life. I've also met people who challenged, angered, and hurt me, but whom I value for the lessons they forced me to learn. I had my first real jobs and never got fired, but learned what I do and don't want to do for employment. I learned to recognize the smell of weed and the taste of alcohol without ever being drunk or high. I can officially state that, while I'm not convinced that college is "the best years of your life", I value my experience there and believe that the vast majority of it was incredibly positive.

As for the next three years: I want to discern the next steps with wisdom and faith. I want to learn how to fall in love while maintaining the strength and independence that I value so highly. I want to go to the Middle East or Great Britain (or both) and see the legacy of my faith present in those places. I want to get to know my relatives as people, not just names on the family tree. I want to learn how to minister to a congregation, get my MDiv, and be assigned to my first church (even if it is probationary). I want to make friends with a huge spectrum of people and have friends who both love and challenge me. I want to grow in my faith and my understandings of God, myself, and the world around me. I want to learn to play the guitar and give a sermon that moves people to think, feel, and act. I want to realize my capacity to be an adult while retaining the hope and simplicity of youth. Above all, I want to be able to look back at the end and know that I have grown and loved and to be able to go forward at the end of three years to serve in whichever church God and the church select for me.