Friday, March 30, 2012

What have I learned?

It's been an interesting week, low-key but revealing in perhaps unexpected ways.  Due to a "progress report" I had to turn in as part of my advising process, I have been compelled to engage in a bit of reflection about seminary so far.  What follows is not stuff that necessarily went into that report, but other thoughts and realizations that bobbed to the surface as part of that reflection; take it for what you will.

1. There are at least some aspects of doing this M.Div. degree that have actually been more difficult than doing my Ph.D. all those years ago.  Please be sure you do not engage in sloppy reading comprehension (which I consider an unpardonable offense); I did not say that an M.Div. degree is harder than a Ph.D.  In my particular situation, however, there have been some ways in which the M.Div. has so far presented challenges that the Ph.D. in musicology did not.  One way is encapsulated in the phrase at the end of that sentence, "all those years ago."  It's been a few years since I was last a full-time student, and being a faculty member does not exercise those same muscles, so there has been some adjustment necessary.  Those adjustments are somewhat complicated by the advancing years; for example, I just don't read as fast as I used to be able to do.  Another factor that I had to recognize is that, for that Ph.D., I was prepared by years of study in the general area of music, represented by a Bachelor's in music ed and a master's degree in church music.  I did take one year off to work between each degree, but that still represents a fairly continuous chain of study in musical areas.  For this master of divinity degree, I came with zero preparation in such fields as theology or academic study of the Old or New Testaments.  I, like other students out in "real life" for some time, am catching up on the fly with those kids who came straight from a religion degree in college, for example.  I'm not making excuses, and I'm frankly doing pretty well so far, but these were a couple of adjustments I've had to make without even realizing it.

2.  Still, having been in academia all this time has helped.  If nothing else, I'm still accustomed to the demands of collegiate or graduate study, even if I've been the one doing the demanding for the past several years instead of the one trying to meet those demands.  The requirement to read x number of pages per week just doesn't faze me.  I have to learn to prioritize what assignments get priority and which ones get a quicker skimming, to be blunt about it (I'm sure my students in the past were doing likewise), but it generally gets done to some degree.

3.  What I expected to enjoy most and what I've enjoyed most are not quite the same.  Coming from a career studying and teaching music history, I expected some crossover effect to cause me to take the most pleasure in studying church history this first year.  While I've enjoyed that subject, I have to admit that my other classes this year, New Testament and Theology (I and II for both), have actually proved as stimulating and even more at times.  At their best the studies required of me in Theology I and II and History of Christianity I and II have overlapped and informed other to a surprising and beneficial degree.  I know on one midterm I answered a couple of questions (correctly, mind you) not because I remembered them from that class, but from the other.  Juggling the reading for both has been a brain blowout, but I think it's helped, strangely enough.

4.  In some ways it's been depressingly easy to revert to being a "college student" again.  I'll admit it; I enjoy being able to throw on a t-shirt and shorts and being good to go.  I don't always do that, particularly not on days when I have something to do in chapel, but I enjoy being able to get away with it.  Grad-student poverty, ehh, not so much, but there are other things I've been able to enjoy about being out from behind the lectern, at least for now.  I don't think this is what the dean of the KU music school meant when at my last faculty meeting he congratulated me on my "promotion to being a student again," but I do take my pleasures where I can get them.

5.  Small is beautiful.  Union Presbyterian Seminary is quite small in enrollment.  I have found this most beneficial.  One simply can't slip through the cracks no matter how much one tries (and I've not been above trying to do so at times in my life--I do put the 'I' in 'INTP' after all).  The opportunities to get experience in things one has never done before are hard to miss in such an atmosphere, and by the time this year is over I'll have done many things I've never done before (more on some of that in a later post).

6.  It is possible to miss what you used to do tremendously and yet at the same time know that you are in the right place and doing the right thing.  This is my experience.  I do miss being at KU, even knowing I'd be in the throes of tenure terror right now.  I know Lawrence has been a fun place to be with the Jayhawks making their unexpected Final Four run (but then, it's almost always a fun place to be, except perhaps in the midst of a blizzard or heat wave).  But I could not be more at peace with where I am, and I'd even say at times the experience is joy.

There are many more thoughts on this that occur to me at different times.  For now, it's getting late, and six such reflections are plenty.  There is so much left to do, of course, and so much more to learn.  But the thing is, I'm looking forward to it, no matter how crazy or unsettling it may be.  And so, onward.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A bit of random mental gathering, ending up in a strange place (as random mental gathering often does)

Spring break, as well as "March summer," is over, and I've been a week back in class.  I've also attended the PC(USA)'s Compassion, Peace, and Justice training day in Washington, DC, which was alternately thought-provoking, confusing, stimulating, a little bit frustrating, and quite educational for someone like me, who has for a few years been distant from the heavier aspects of social justice issues.

I had to wrestle for a bit over whether to add the clause "not by choice" to that last sentence.  Part of me wants to, but a larger part isn't willing to let myself off the hook so easily.  Before embarking on this fool's errand I was of course a college professor, which the two or three of you who follow this blog already know more thoroughly than you care to.  A key modifier is missing; I was a tenure-track college professor.  Leaving aside the mechanics of tenure, the practical result for me was a fearful unwillingness to engage in any kind of activity that had the potential to involve a major time commitment.  It was fine to sing in the church choir, say, but anything that might represent an ongoing, intensive commitment that might require time and energy of me, I ran from like a scared cat.  Hey, I'm on the tenure clock!  I've got classes to create and books to write and other stuff to publish!  I can't be going off to the shelter or the soup kitchen every week for three hours at a time! I'm slow enough to write as it is!  Not saying it was right; in fact, I'm pretty sure I'm saying it wasn't right.  But that was how my mind worked.

At any rate, the current result is that I am playing catch-up on learning what is what with large issues like hunger, war and peace, and other big-ticket items that (I now can understand) the church had darn well better addressing if it wants to claim to be Christlike.  The event in Washington was something of a jump start for me in that catching-up process, for which I am grateful.

Other random bits; it was held at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, which counts as one of its historical adherents none other than Abraham Lincoln, who was pretty regularly in attendance with his family during his administration.  NYAPC doesn't shy from pointing out that history, right down to rooms named the "Lincoln Parlor" and "Lincoln Chapel," the "Lincoln pew" maintained in its sanctuary, and the early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in its possession.  They even maintain a hitching post said to have been used by Lincoln when attending the church, though clearly the surroundings of said hitching post aren't what they used to be...
Far better historians than I have spilled much ink debating and dissecting Lincoln's spirituality and religious beliefs.  I won't pretend to add anything useful to the debate.  I can only note that (1) Lincoln evidently had a fairly vigorous and profound spirituality, no matter how unorthodox, and (2) at least while in Washington he found it most useful to work it out (or at least to show it) in a church.  That it was a Presbyterian church is kind of cool, too.

Interestingly, according to an aside in church history class, Benjamin Franklin also affiliated with a Presbyterian church for a time.  His spirituality is even less likely than Lincoln's for many historians, but at least for a time he did apparently affiliate with a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia (my bet is it was a way of getting a wife off his back?), because being a Presbyterian in the Philadelphia of the time was a good nonconformist thing to do.  Part of me can't help chuckling even as I type that.  How long has it been since being a Presbyterian anywhere was a good nonconformist thing to do?  Heh.

Of course, PC(USA) may well be heading into that territory.  Churches and presbyteries are still sizing up options and preparing to jump ship in the wake of 10-A, and the denomination wasn't exactly growing leaps and bounds before that.  Given time, being a Presbyterian, of the PC(USA) stripe in particular, may well be a fairly profound act of nonconformity.

It could be worse, I guess.  It isn't necessarily congruent with the hot 'n' heavy evangelicalism that defines so much of the religious (and political) discourse in this country these days.  If you want to be part of the power elite these days you don't run out and join a PC(USA) church.  That might have been true seventy-five or a hundred years ago (referring of course to the previous iterations of American Presbyterianism out of which PC(USA) appeared), but it isn't now.  Judging by the folks running for president this year you'd want to be a Catholic, a Mormon, or some kind of independent evangelical.  (Then again, this might not be the campaign to judge by.)  At the same time, it also stays away from the easy cynicism of too much secular discourse of the day.  It does require some level of faith commitment to be a member of this messed-up and fallible bunch.

Being an old-fashioned, un-trendy denomination which insists on churches connecting with and cooperating with other churches, PC(USA) doesn't have the "it factor" of the independent, stand-alone church that the cool kids prefer.  It isn't powerful, it isn't "cool," it isn't big or hip or growing or "next" or anything much to some people.  But it is, to my eye, faithful, even when doing risky and unpopular things.  For that I have learned to love it in all its vexing frailty.  For good or ill, it is my home.  

Union Presbyterian Seminary has two chapels.  Lake Chapel, the newer of the two, is a flexible space (in name at least; the pulpit and table and font aren't exactly what I'd call "flexible" to move) with a good airy quality and the latest technological capability, two good-sized screens for projection and so forth.  Watts Chapel, the older space, is very fixed.  Lots of wood.  A balcony extending all around the chapel space itself.  It creaks in places.  For gosh sakes, it even has an organ (though it is seldom used because it is rather out of repair; I'm sure Union would gladly accept a nice hefty gift towards its repair...anybody?).  Some might even call its space "gothic."

As to the exterior, see for yourself.
You can probably guess which space I prefer.  After all, I creak a bit these days myself.

So I try to learn what is what and where good missional justice-doing things happen, I keep wrestling with Calvin, and I keep listening, waiting, hoping, and praying (and blogging).  I suppose I feel a fit in this denomination to some degree; I would not particularly call myself trendy or cool or "next" in any particular way.  But I am (or at least want to be) faithful, even when that doesn't fit with other people's definitions of the word.  I suppose I'm not convinced that the past has no more lessons to teach us (duh, coming from a former music historian), or that all traditions have lost their power to move the soul towards faithfulness.  After, all, the idea of "reformed and always reforming" is pretty traditional.

My, but this must sound crotchety to some of you.  Pardon me while I go tell some kids to get off my lawn.  But I'm here anyway, and so far God has not lobotomized me, so I suppose I shall remain a somewhat old-fashioned (or at least tradition-respecting) pastor-hopefully-to-be in a world that probably doesn't see any need for it.  Still, to borrow from one of the speakers at yesterday's workshop, I see the opportunity to commit ministry, which is of course a subversive act.  So, onward.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Spring break (or as a classmate calls it, spring reading days) is here, and the weather has been kind enough to match itself to the occasion.  Gorgeous so far, and even approaching the warm side of comfortable.

While I have some serious things to accomplish over the break, there is hopefully room for some activity more for pleasure than work.  I can use the internet to procure some spring training baseball for myself, and even though it doesn't have the you-are-there quality of being, well, there, it does offer some small harbinger of hope.  I actually opened a book to read for pleasure.  I think the last time I did that was...actually, I can't remember the last time I did that.  Frivolous Facebook postings and mucking about with fantasy baseball teams may get four or five minutes, as opposed to one or two or three.

I am even allowing myself a second reversion to musicologist behavior this weekend, taking myself down to Charlotte to hover on the fringes of the annual meeting of the Society for American Music.  I shall have to remember, though, that my newfound freedom to express, shall we say, certain unpopular opinions on this composer or that musical style are probably best held in check for the duration of the meeting or my time there.  Still, I hope to have fun and to catch up with some people I haven't seen in a year or more, knowing that the next time I see them may be far longer from now than that.

I can't necessarily say I'm any closer to resolution on how my musicological self will co-exist with my ministerial self.  I can see intersections between the two, certainly.  I continue to be curious about Samuel Barber and some of his works which exhibit something like a theological side or hint of one.  How to explore that, and to what benefit other than my own pleasure, is less clear.  Barber, wonderful and powerful as much of his music is, is not exactly a chart-topper these days.  If I wanted to cross the musical and theological streams (yes, I just dropped a Ghostbusters-based metaphor) on the subject of, say, U2 or some similar band, I could get published more places than I can count.  And I'd be bored out of my skull.

I like U2 fine.  Their music never particularly provoked a musicological itch I needed to scratch, and there's no indication they will provoke that kind of theological itch.  Plenty of other people have addressed both sides of U2 and I'm quite content to let them and their passion speak.  Whether there's anybody out there who particularly cares about how Barber heightened and even "theologically" interpreted the inherent paradox in Kierkegaard's writing in Prayers of Kierkegaard I don't know, but I tend to doubt.  So in short, where that "crossing the streams" will happen in my life is not yet clear.  It may well be a simple matter of a part-time pastorate paired with some kind of adjunct teaching, which is o.k. if that's where the fool's errand leads.

In the meantime, here's to seeking financial aid, taking a little trip, and finding some moments for silliness, whether it be reading The Two Georges for the tenth time; managing to leave early enough on Friday to have just enough time to detour to a Biscuitville between here and Charlotte; finding all the green I have to wear between now and Saturday (which is, of course, St. Patrick's Day, which cannot be ignored by a native Dubliner even if the Dublin in question is in Georgia and not Ireland); catching some March Madness, of course (and being confused about whether to invest more hope in Kansas or FSU); or who knows what, but some level of frivolity is required before classes foist themselves upon me Monday.

Let the quest for silliness continue!

Friday, March 9, 2012

My name is Ananias

My name is Ananias.  I am not important.

Right now I live in Damascus, in the province of Cilicia and Syria under the rule of the Roman Empire.  

I am on my way to do something incredibly foolish.  

We have heard from our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem that a man named Saul is on his way here.  This Saul is already widely known as a persecutor of those of us who have chosen to follow the rabbi known as Jesus.  That rabbi was executed in Jerusalem some weeks ago, which was as awful and agonizing a blow as we who loved and followed him could ever have felt.  But a few days later, some of the disciples and some others began to report that he was no longer dead; somehow, he had risen out of the tomb and walked with his friends and disciples, before being taken up into heaven.

A few days later, when some of those disciples were gathered together in Jerusalem, an amazing thing, that I still cannot describe, happened, with the result that a great influx of new followers joined that first community there.  It did not take too long, though, for events to turn against that band.  The authorities first arrested James and had him killed.  They were going to do the same to Peter, so we are told, but somehow he got out of jail before he was killed.  Finally, a fellow named Stephen was stoned to death by a mob.  This wave of deaths scattered many of the brothers and sisters out of Jerusalem.  Some ended up here in Damascus, others continued to travel to places like Antioch and even further.  

The death of Stephen seems to be where this Saul enters the picture.  He was there that day, supporting those who stoned him.  It seems as though somehow he got the taste of blood in his mouth, so to speak.  From that time he has been on a rampage against our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.  Many have been seized and bound over to the authorities, or worse.  

Now it seems that Jerusalem wasn't enough of a challenge.  This Saul got a certification from the Temple authorities in Jerusalem to come here to Damascus and round up more of us.  Supposedly we are to be bound up and hauled off to Jerusalem to be bound over for imprisonment...or worse.

Saul seems to be the fiercest, most vicious enemy of our community that there is.
And I am going to meet him.

It was a vision, or a dream, I don't know.  I don't have visions, and I usually don't remember dreams.  This is all new to me, and I don't claim to understand it.

But it was the Lord, I know that much.  I won't pretend I can convince you; all I know is it was the Lord.  And when the Lord speaks to you -- I mean really speaks -- you say "here I am."  What else can you say?

It seemed a strange vision at first (but then, what do I know from visions?), just instructions to go to the house of a man named Judas on Straight Street.  But then the Lord told me to find Saul there.  The Lord says Saul is praying and in a vision has seen me -- me! -- coming to make him able to see again.  He's having visions about me, and I'm having visions about him.  Too many visions for a practical person like me.

And Saul is blind?  The great persecutor is blind?  That should be our deliverance, right?  He can't go on with his terror campaign if he's blind, can he?  But why did the Lord tell me to go lay hands on him so he could get his sight back?  

We've heard about this Saul, and I told the Lord so.  Do you know what a terrifying thing it is to talk back to God, in person (so to speak, if these visions count as "in person")?  I don't mean like muttering under your breath when some Roman pig mocks you, or shouting an epithet when you stub your toe, or crying out against God when your closest friend dies.  I mean having a direct command from God and...well, not quite saying "no" but I know I wasn't saying "yes" at that point.  

But the Lord says, and this I simply could not at first believe, that this terrorist Saul is his "chosen vessel."  Our Lord is going to use Saul.  Use him for WHAT?  Wiping out the last few of us who still follow the rabbi Jesus?  Is this our punishment?  Are we really that far astray?

No, the Lord says that this beast Saul is going to be his instrument for proclaiming the story, to foreign nations and kings and even to the people of Israel.  

My mind can't comprehend this.  Saul has been killing and arresting and spilling out all sorts of brutal threats and slanders against us, and now it sounds like the Lord is going to make him one of us?

What could I do?  I took up my cloak and left for Straight Street.  

And here I am.  I'm pretty sure this is Judas's house.  Inside that house is a man who, as far as I know, wants to destroy me.  And I am supposed to go put my hands on him and help him see again.  (I'm not stupid, I know I'm not going to "heal" him.  We know that those kinds of signs are the work of the Lord, and we're just the tools, ... or the "chosen vessels" ... .) As far as I know, he might well jump up and kill me the moment I do it.  Or maybe he has a gang of thugs waiting to jump me the moment he has his sight back.  

Am I betraying my brothers and sisters here?  I have to believe the Lord wouldn't put me in this spot to do that.  I have to believe the Lord is seriously going to this amazing thing with this butcher and that we won't all be killed because of what I'm about to do.  But part of me still doesn't believe it, as much as I have to, as much as I want to.  

Why me?  I'm not important, not at all.  There are certainly stronger brothers and sisters here who could handle this better than I am.  You should have called sister Joanna, Lord.  She'd be kicking down the door and whacking this Saul in the head until his sight came back and putting the fear into him so that he wouldn't dare harm a fly.  He'd probably have to change his name after that.  Why me?  I don't want to die, Lord.  

But here I am.  What else can I do?  The Lord, the LORD Lord, gave me a job to do.  And it doesn't matter how scared I am, if everything the rabbi Jesus taught is ever going to mean anything, it's not my place to wimp out when I'm on call.  Supposedly this Saul is going to play a big part in the story going all over our world, and I couldn't bear to stand in the way of that.  Even if it does get me killed.  And even if Saul doesn't turn out to be all that?  Would the rabbi Jesus turn away from a person in need?  You are a hard teacher to follow, rabbi Jesus.

What do I do?  I've never done anything remotely like this.  Do I say something when I put my hands on him?  Do I put my hands directly on his eyes?  

O.K.  It's time to do this.

<knocks on door>