I created this blog as a way to process and record my experience as a seminary student. I also hope it will provide a platform for my friends and family to participate in the journey. Some of the entries are kind of long, but what can I say--I was in graduate school, they made us do that...


Thursday, January 17, 2008

First Semester Reflection Paper

What a semester this has been. What a decade this has been. Sometimes I wonder if my twenty-year-old self, my twenty-five year old self, and my thirty-year-old self would be friends. They would obviously have some historical similarities and be able to understand crazy family life, but would they be friends? Could they be friends? They are so different. Twenty and twenty-five would have hated each other, but I’m happy to report that my thirty year old self can deal with all three. I’ve certainly mellowed out. I’ve come to a place where I don’t need to change people. I’ve given up my fanaticism. So, here I am: a seminary student in Richmond, IN. I have good friends here. A nice house. My husband is able to teach at a university. Life is good. I have suffered some incredible internal struggles over the past 3 months, and yet, I’m happy. For some reason though, I find this calm happiness suspicious. It’s as if I can’t possibly be happy amidst personal confusion. It’s odd.
The personal confusion, of course, comes from my seven-year roller coaster ride with religion. So, why did I make the choice to come to seminary? I suppose because I find religion to be fascinating. And I’m still interested in faith. It’s what to have faith in that leaves me confused. I’ve come to a few conclusions about what I don’t have faith in that seem helpful. Here’s my working list: I don’t believe in an afterlife. Obviously, since I’ve never died or talked with anyone who’s died, I can’t be sure. But it doesn’t seem plausible to me. It seems to be a means of comfort for the living. And there is plenty of heaven and hell right here on earth. We don’t need to waste time worrying about them in the afterlife. I also don’t know how the universe got here, but I don’t think a creator God made it. Space is confusing and always leaves my head spinning. The universe is just too big and too old for my brain to understand. I also can’t wrap my mind around the idea of a personal God. The world gives me no indication that such a thing exists. And if it does, I’m not sure it’s worthy to be praised. And then of course, there’s Jesus—who I actually really like. When I was first becoming a Christian, I was embarrassed to even say his name out loud. It was a personal hurdle to learn to think of Jesus as someone to love and worship and depend on for salvation. While I’m no longer ashamed of him, I don’t think he was God. I don’t think he thought he was God. I think he was a world changing radical not unlike Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.; however, I do concede his message has probably brought about more change and has been more far reaching. I often wonder what Jesus would think of his legacy if he could see us today—and what he would tell me to have faith in.
One thing I do know is that I, along with almost every other human in history, feel a pull towards spirituality. Humanity seems to need divinity. Of course, from our place in the spacetime continuum, we can’t imagine life without the idea of divinity. So ultimately, our question becomes not whether or not religion is all made up, but rather, whether or not it’s useful. While I’ve witnessed several damaging and dangerous aspects of religion (we’ll have to save those thoughts and details for another paper), I appreciate the lofty goal that religion has of helping us to become better human beings:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15)

Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, and gratitude. If this is what religion brings to people, then what do I care if it’s all made up? It would not be a waste of my life to strive after the attributes listed here in Colossians, but also found in Galatians, Philippians, and several other holy books. I view the Bible and other sacred scriptures as historical records of humanity’s search for truth and goodness in a scary, uncontrollable world. The scriptures can prove helpful for those of us currently searching the unknowable.
There are, of course, several other things that can aid in our lifelong, sometimes painful search for the mysterious. Journaling is a method that has helped people through the centuries. I have grand dreams of my steady, continuous journal, but so far, it hasn’t manifested. I have one journal that spans the last five years and contains entries that are sometimes entered daily and sometimes separated by over a year. I love to read back through it and I’m not sure why I can’t commit to it. Like so many other disciplines, it just seems difficult to maintain. Why? Why do we lose motivation for things that we love? This is one of my persistent questions. In our final class discussion in Spiritual Preparation for Ministry, we examined the following quote by Howard Thurman, “Don’t worry about what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” I get a sense that truly knowing what makes us come alive has to come from a deep reservoir within, otherwise we run the risk of merely doing what makes us feel good.
What truthfully and authentically makes me come alive isn’t going to be obvious if I’m living a scattered life. So I ask, what are the basic disciplines I need in place before I even reach a grounded enough place to discern what makes me come alive? A good list begins with healthy food, lots of water, plenty of exercise, enough rest. A deeper list contains regular meditation and quiet time. Add in regular reading of challenging books, and regular reflection in a personal journal and you’re probably getting somewhere. This list, if completed with regularity, would not make me a super-human, but it would at least help to ground me. Which in turn, would allow me space to discover what truly makes me come alive.
Of course, we don’t live in a bubble. And one of the most helpful tools we have access to is other human beings. Finding people with similar questions and goals has proven an integral part of my journey. I now have friends in four cities across the country that can attest to where I’ve been. They have helped me and pushed me and challenged me. Without them, I doubt my journey would have brought me here. While I didn’t start using the term spiritual friend until a couple of years ago, when I look at the pictures on my wall, I see several people befitting of the title. I’ve participated in spiritual nurture groups, but this is the first time I’ve participated in intentional one-on-one spiritual friendships. I find it an amazing undertaking. Caring for someone’s spiritual life who in turn cares for my spiritual life, creates a bond between people not often found in the average friendship. My current spiritual friend and I meet at the Main Street Diner every Wednesday morning for an early breakfast. We end up staying for almost two hours, talking about everything. We listen to each other’s questions and struggle through ways of thinking, believing, and behaving. I find this kind of consistent, mutual sharing and listening to be one of the most stretching and growing experiences people can have.
Other people not only challenge us, they help hold us accountable. I’m not a person that lives well inside my head. I need people around to share ideas and questions with. This is one of the biggest reasons I am currently combining my spiritual search with my academic journey. For almost a year, I’ve been thinking about writing a devotional book. I know that sounds odd coming from someone who’s given up her traditional faith. But who says what a devotional has to be devoted to? And I think my current environment is the perfect one to undertake such a goal. I’m not in a vacuum. I’m surrounded by people also concerned with academics and spirituality. I’m surrounded by people that I can question and who question me. I’m surrounded by ideas that I find constantly interesting. The history of religion captivates me and I would like to write a book about how we ended up with the traditions we currently celebrate in America. How did we end up with the Easter bunny and the Easter egg? How about Santa Claus, the Christmas tree and Christmas presents? Why is turkey the food of choice on Thanksgiving? And what about the roots of New Year’s Eve, Halloween, and the Fourth of July? What roles have both paganism and consumerism played in the formation of our modern holidays? How do the very secular and the very religious celebrate the same traditions? I’m not after dense, academic prose, rather, I want the narratives. I want to share the stories of how we’ve ended up with what we have in an accessible, reflective way. Right now, I’m envisioning the book to be ordered like a calendar year with each holiday in order. Each section would contain history of how we came to the tradition that we have, personal stories of celebrating that tradition from several points of view, and space for the reader to reflect on their own traditions. My hope is that the book would help connect people to a more sacred and intentional way of viewing tradition in general. I want to notice and to help other people notice how we mark our days, months, and years.
This of course isn’t my only upcoming goal. I also hope to continue to focus on the basic disciplines of exercise and meditation. Both things that will help energize and calm my mind and body as I search for what makes me come alive. I look forward to an interesting and challenging semester in the spring. Not only because I have a great set of classes scheduled, but also because I won’t be a first semester student anymore. It will be a semester without the major transition bumps of my first. I have learned a lot in the past 3 months. I have figured out some important things about myself. And I feel ready to let a few things go. Whatever direction I travel in, I will be better served and better able to serve if I give up my constant need for self-definition. I rationally know that I do not need everyone I meet to know my “labels,” now it’s time to put that understanding into practice. I have also turned a corner in my approach to spirituality. Over the past year, I have let go of several beliefs and while I might always mourn the loss of some of them, I feel ready to start focusing on the positives of my faith, rather than the negatives.

Spiritual Preparation for Ministry has asked me to consider my spiritual practices and disciplines. In doing so, I have had to consider my faith under a microscope. While I no longer identify myself as a Christian, I am fully aware that I swim in Christian waters. If I am to have a spiritual life—and I hope to—it is inevitably going to be influenced by Christianity and Christians. At this point in my life, I am interested in pursuing spirituality in both academic and personal ways. So here I am, among the Quakers, pursuing my Master of Divinity degree. What a funny title—Master of Divinity.

1 comment:

Ally said...

Wow, Summer. Wow. I can feel all of the self-examination that you've been doing, and I'm excited to hear about your journey. I love your conclusion about needing to let go of defining/labeling yourself. We have much to talk about at Easter (but then, I suppose we've never lacked for conversation...) xoxo