Friday, November 8, 2013

Notes from Biking

So, this year I've been biking to class every day.  I want to share some of my struggles and joys.

The biker's shoe: No laces, off the chain.
Baggy pants are also a foul.
I bike for 40 minutes or so one way, using this route (although playing with Google maps just now makes me want to switch to Glendale over Church after Medlock).  It involves a beautiful trail by a creek, complete with graffiti on overgrown ruins and boardwalks overlooking a creek.  So, for much of my route my concern is running over long-leashed dogs, not keeping an eye out for negligent drivers.  At North Decatur and Scott I see the most cars, when I cross both streets at once using the much smaller Medlock Rd.  I have just enough time there during a green light to cross the gigantic intersection, but on the plus side, I cross the two biggest roads of my commute in one go.

I have a one-eared headphone so that I can listen to music or radio without disengaging aurally from my surroundings.  My favorite commutes are usually before 9:00 am so I can catch some NPR programming on 90.5. If I'm too late for that, I'll go for energetic music I know well like Aqualung, Close to the Edge, or Black Holes & Revelations (the albums), occasionally throwing in some Erlkoenig (sung by Thomas Quasthoff).

I was stung by a wasp for the first time on Tuesday 10/29.  I assume it was a wasp not because I saw it but because I saw many wasps near me on my commute after I was stung, one of which crashed into my glasses.  It was a scary day, the first warm one in a while.

The scariest moment of my commutes so far was when I took a sharp corner too quickly on a wet day, and the boardwalk which had just betrayed my tires greeted my already disappointed face.  But wood is pretty bouncy.  I am, too, and only my elbow and my pride were bruised.  After looking around and seeing no one, I decided my reputation for exemplary coordination was safe and continued on my way.

Finally, a word to cars.  I once thought the "give us 3 feet" campaign (not this one) asked too much; I didn't want to slow up traffic because I cannot reach the speed limit.  Now, though, realizing that most roads and traffic situations allow for 3 feet of clearance (if the car allows a few seconds to wait for a break as it would for slow-moving lawn tractors or construction vehicles), I have changed my mind.  For one thing, my left turn signal, my outstretched left arm, is not quite 3 feet long, and it would be tragic to lose a finger because I was signaling a turn.  Second, a luxury request considering my mad MTB bunny-hopping skills, it's nice to have the option to avoid potholes.

So, in sum, I love biking, and I arrive at school invigorated and ready for the day (pending a change of shirt, of course).

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Questions from a fellow churchgoer, part 2

5. How did the year in Kenya help your seminary experience? Do you hope to go back?

The change of routine and life patterns transformed me (change of habits is the quickest way to change), as I saw a new way to organize society and began to love the idea of a village.  Yesterday in Kroger, someone noticed that I had an item for which she had an unused coupon, so she gave me the coupon.  The village mentalitylocal networks of mutual reciprocity and honorstill lurks in the subconscious of many in the US, but in Kenya, it was explicit.  At CTS, then, I was equipped to think of the seminary as a small town, where we were all struggling together for each others' good.

My year in Kenya built my confidence a lot, which equipped me to make more of opportunities to preach and teach here in seminary.  I learned a lot of communication skills from my roommate and my Kenyan friends.  To oversimplify, Kenya helped me find my voice, which meant I had something to train when I got to seminary.

Kenya also showed me a few really exciting examples of vibrant churcheschurches devoted to worship, to visiting the sick, to feeding the poor, to preaching the gospel, churches expressing the indwelling of the Spirit in different ways.  This got me excited about interdenominational cooperation in the US.  This model of spiritual cooperation empowered by diversity also prepared me to accept as legitimate (or at least, less than outlandish) the diverse historical strands of Christianity to which I was introduced in seminary classes.

I would love to go back sometime.  Kenya is often in my thoughts and prayers.  We will see what God does.

6. What's the best thing from CTS years?

Well, I got married.  That was pretty amazing.  Still is.  Every day.  Love you.

Also, friends.  I met some pretty amazing people with whom I hope to continue to share life and learning.

But if you want something more curricular, exegesis in the original languages.  What a phenomenal privilege to read texts that have been a huge part of my life in the languages they were written!  What a joy to see the wordplay in prophecy and parable, to connect meanings and symbols in a new way across the canon.  I don't mean to be elitistencounter with God through close reading of scripture is a typical way that God works in people's hearts.  Learning Hebrew and Greek enough to read scripture simply gave me a specific discipline through which to engage in the Christian practice of exegesis.

7. How was your first year of Seminary unmarried different from your second and third year when you were married?  Was it different?

I had a sweet roommate, I had a better room, I was no longer required to be on the meal plan so I got to cook like it was my job, and I did more homework during the day so I could usually be free in the evenings.  Those were the everyday details that made differences for me.  Other than that, I had a primary concern other than my faith.  One to whom my God had mysteriously called me for my sanctification and God's glory, but a person obviously not identical with my faith to whom I am also accountable.  I also met a new church family through my spouse, for which I give thanks to God.

So basically it changed everything.  But I was still extremely invested in my studies and in the life of the seminary community.  I had a new kind of partner for this engagement, though, who lived at the seminary but was not a seminarian.  Which I think was very healthy for me.  Again, translation is importantgetting stuck in seminary language for my life is not what I'm looking for, and not a hallmark of resilienceand having a wife to share stories with who does not attend the same classes or make the same theologeek jokes is a continuing process of translating what I learned.

8. Do you ever see yourself as a Pastor?

I am scared of capital letters there, even though I know in folk ontology the pastor is distinctly more godlike than the congregation.  That's probably not what you meant, questioner, but something I think about often.  The new Presbyterian terminology (which is a reversion to an old Reformed practice) reflects this: "teaching elder" / "ruling elder".  The pastor is ordained to exactly the same leadership office as the other elders, but with some different duties.

Anyway, yes. Often, actually.  And I hope to move to candidacy (the next step toward ordination) at the next Presbytery of East TN meeting!  If they want me to, of course.  All my interactions with the committee have been helpful and affirming; whatever the presbytery decides, I am sure God will use me in ways that play out the divine mission, to which I happily join my flag.

9. What is God calling you to ... ?

(I'm assuming the "to" does not introduce the infinitival "...", a verb with which I am not familiar, but instead acts with its object "what" as an inclusio a la trennbare)
Well, I have already talked about a lot of things to which God calls me: marriage, seminary, translation.  I will add self-giving love.  I think these are more than enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life.
I realize it may not seem like I've answered the question, so I will also tell you the patterns in which I plan to exercise these callings in the next few years (though for my own psyche separating the questions is a helpful way to dwell on God's providence over my vocational anxiety).  I am currently pursuing a ThM in order to further study the Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament).  I would love to begin a PhD program in Hebrew Bible in the next few years and eventually teach in a college or seminary.  As I said in 8, I am also continuing on the path toward ordination in the PCUSA, and would be honored to serve God's church as a pastor.  I'm also keeping my ears out for a "tentmaking" gig, that is, some full- or nearly-full time work (for which I'd be qualified as a college graduate) which would give me time to pursue local ministry and scholarship part-time.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Questions from a fellow churchgoer, part 1

Questions for Jacob: 5/22/13

1. Was seminary threatening to your faith? To other seminary students'?

There is an oft-quoted schema of seminary wherein the first year they cut you down, the second year they build a foundation, and the third year you actually get to learn some things.  As far as "threatening," I would say no--professors and other students gave testimony--words from their own experience, but did not expect through discussion to overpower you.  I came in with the assumption that my assumptions would change, and some did.  But my faith has deepened in seminary precisely because I encountered others with very different (and deep--simple difference is interesting but not usually productive) ways of doing faith.  It is hard to call it "threatening" after the fact, since I was party to the change.

Other students have had difficulties and may be more willing to apply the word "threatening"--a few especially trying moments in seminary are:
1) OT survey, Fall semester first year, where we are introduced to critical ways of reading the Bible.  ("Critical" in Biblical studies does not necessarily mean "disapproving" or "essential" but rather refers to a specific toolkit--for example, literary criticism looks at plot, genre, characters, historical criticism looks at archaeology and history, text criticism looks at different manuscripts of the biblical texts)
2) Theology, second year all year.  Besides an intense reading schedule, the theology class requires you to take a stand and defend an opinion each week about the topics covered.  It is often difficult to argue well without being disrespectful, or to analyze historical movements in theology in ways that honor rather than dismiss.
3) CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education, where students intern as hospital chaplains for 400 hours (can be taken any time, usually second or third year--full time in the summer or half time during a semester).  CPE is difficult because there are difficult circumstances (deaths, illness, economic hardship) to be dealt with in pastoral ways, but there are also other people with other theologies and habits doing the same work with you and sharing stories and support with you.  That is to say, in CPE you encounter not only patients' difficulties, but your own and those of your peer group.  It is personally intense.

In case you were curious, the time in which I assume people take these classes is according to the plan for the M.Div. degree, which I finished in May.

2. How did your faith change?

One way my faith has changed has been in my approach to scripture--I have become less confident that I read it right the first time I read it, but no less passionate about how it connects to my life.  I have new tools to bring to the scripture, not so I can take it apart and dismiss it, but so I can interpret it more appropriately.

I have thus adjusted my theology to compensate in a somewhat (but not rigorously) Barthian direction.  I say now with the Confession of 1967 that the Bible is the "witness without parallel" to the Word of God, Jesus Christ.  Thus, the Word of God is first of all a person, whom we experience by the Spirit through the word of God (the Bible) read and proclaimed.  I don't see this as a diminishment--when we hear the scriptures as the Word of God, we truly encounter the divine Christ.  One difficulty with my adolescent theology of scripture was that it could not account for canonization, except with the silly caveat that the Bible's Table of Contents is also scripture.  I like the Confession of 1967's words because it recognizes the prominence of the Bible in the life of faith, but does not claim that "The first way I read this text is the Word of God," but rather that the Spirit uses our faculties of interpretation to reveal to us Jesus Christ.

Another way my faith has changed is in my excitement for public disciplines as spiritual disciplines.  I'm grateful for the importance the religion of my youth placed on personal study of scripture and prayer, as it is a huge part of my response to God.  In seminary, I have seen that public worship is just as essential for me, not simply as an expression of faith but as a practice which forms faith in the first place.

3. Are there any atheist professors at CTS?

I've heard that rumor, too.  Not that came out as such to me.  There are some who think that God's existence is of a category distinct from human existence.  But that seems so acceptable as to be orthodox, depending on what category that is.  There was one who professed the "empty tomb" stories to be unhistorical, but that one still professed faith in the resurrection.

4. How does Seminary affect the international students? and vice versa?

Good question.  CTS has a good few exchange students every year as well as international students.  Some I have gotten to know quite well, others I have not.  International students are a wonderful presence in the academic and residence life on campus.  Partially, they teach domestic students how to be hospitable in discussions, speaking in ways that are relevant across borders and cultures.  This is no simple issue of politeness, as hermeneutics is in a large part translation--biblical interpretation is communication across cultures.  International students also testify in this place that God's work is bigger than we see in any of our individual churches.

There is room for growth in our inclusion of students for whom English is a second language.  A lot of the social scene at Columbia is very geared toward casual conversation, so sometimes even extroverts who simply don't have confidence in their English can be excluded by fast-talking native speakers in class and in social settings.

I'll post more questions and answers later--this is plenty for a first post.

Hello World

I have done at least two things today that I have been meaning to do for a while:
1) Make a blog
2) Answer a bunch of questions from a friend at church

The two are related because I want to be more intentional about my communication with my church family and how my learning is affecting the way I relate to the church and the world.  Thus, answering questions about my time at seminary is an appropriate first line of communication.  When I blog I also get to practice explaining myself clearly and intelligibly.  Intricate technical languages may bring great benefit (for example, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems), but the benefit must be translatable into everyday language (continuing ad absurdam with example, "Oops, missed one" or "I can't decide").

Anyway, I look forward to discussions.  Keep me honest--don't let me get by with theology-geek-techno-babble.