Diaconal Ministry Formation Event 2013, Gettysburg PA

Philip Melancthon, featured on stained glass in the chapel, teaching, preaching, and looking devilishly handsome. A good icon for the event, perhaps?

Philip Melancthon, featured on stained glass in the chapel, teaching, preaching, and looking devilishly handsome. A good icon for the event, perhaps?

Two weeks of discernment and introspection (presented here in stream-of-conscious-paragraphs)

Having had a (far too) brief Christmas break at home with my family, I drove with my mom to Gettysburg across Highway 30… which was filled with lovely scenery amidst CONSTANT warning signs and run-offs for semi-trucks whose brakes gave out on the 15 degree+ inclines.  A somewhat harrowing introduction to the event itself, but it was good to spend additional quality time with my mother.  Arriving at my hotel across the street from the Seminary, I found out that the central building of the hotel was General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters during the battle; the fighting did indeed take place around the Seminary (and in fact damaged some of the Seminary buildings of that time).  To match the pace of the event, I will do away with any further introduction and speak to the grueling speed and nature of attending the Diaconal Ministry Formation Event (DMFE).

To give you some sense of what I mean by “grueling,” please consider the following abbreviated list of lectures and events we were required to attend:
-chapel twice daily
-a total of 9 spiritual practices lectures
-2 lectures per day on a WIDE variety of topics
-daily meetings of my small group (approx. half of the attendants in each group, to facilitate easier discussion)
-a day spent “In Context,” learning about diaconal ministry from practitioners of it
-And Many, Many More! Call Now To Place An Order!!

The pain of that schedule dulled slightly by having shared it and having survived it, I must admit I learned a great deal from the various experiences at the DMFE.  The opening evening fell on the eve of Epiphany, and we heard a sermon preached by the President of LTSG, Michael Cooper-White.  The Gospel reading came from Matthew 2, and in a rather clever way, we heard a sermon focused almost exclusively on the peculiar ending to that passage about the magi going to Herod, then to Jesus, and then (most importantly) “they left for their own country by a different road.”  Gettysburg was a Civil War battlefield almost solely because of its central location to ten different crossroads; the homiletic implication that we as DMFE participants would experience a similar effect during the event was made clear to us.  It would be disingenuous to say I didn’t find his oratory compelling and rather neat in its eloquence; that said, I must also speak to the fact that the most important meaning of his words only became clear to me as the week went on.  I went into the event worried deeply about the possibility of the event shifting my discernment process away from “Continuing With The Plan,” which for years has seemed to point me towards a specific sort of clergy membership, within a specific timeframe, towards a specific set of career goals.  What his sermon helped me realize, upon a good deal of introspection, is that “leaving by a different road” from the event is ACTUALLY a live option; I can leave my jaw-pain-from-stress behind and simply follow my own advice, to “play the cards as they’re dealt.”  It is one thing to be in a process of discernment and actually discern; it is another to be in the process under the (rather unconscious) assumption that entering it necessitates a certain outcome.  This was, and continues to be, a powerful sense of freedom for me, as I look into the weeks and months ahead and continue to try and discern my vocational calling.

To avoid dipping too deeply into the well of seriousness to water this post, I would also reference a handful of the extremely entertaining moments from the event.  From a lecture where we were informed that “at its core, Lutheran theology informs us that the Cross of Jesus is like a benign One True Ring,” to a talk wherein we heard that “if you’re a pickpocket, the WHOLE world is a pocket. If you’re a Lutheran, the WHOLE world is a neighbor [who needs our help, and we theirs].”  Indeed, we also learned that “we should be excited to consider the pathway to being a diaconal minister, due to the prestige that comes with joining the ‘Greco-Roman hybrid redundancy roster’ of the clergy, as “Diaconal Minister” is translated as “serving servant” or “ministering minister” but also that Lutheran theology is a peculiar institution that insists on being sound, and yet makes such an outrageous core claim about a God best hidden AND found on the awful cross that it cannot settle into any extreme, but instead reside in the tenuous middle ground.  Quite a bit to learn about in a short time (it was actually a 3 credit hour course), but the event organizers were nice enough to give us binders with all the materials we would need for the event!

There was another sermon, later in the week, that performed one of those awfully interesting rhetorical moves that I thrive upon: taking a very close reading of the text and a knowledge of the context within the book of the Bible, and then making a profoundly important point based on an extremely simple reference.  In this case, the text of John 1:29-42 is fascinating by itself to the careful reader, especially with its account of Jesus’ baptism (and the differences from the Synoptic accounts)… but the preacher then made the observation that Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of John are “what are you looking for,” spoken to those who had found him at his baptism.  For full disclosure, I am *not* a person to smile and admit the ~flowery beauty~ of notions of searching and seeking… but in this case, the confluence of being exhausted by the event and having my discernment-sensors on high alert meant that  the homily caught me a bit off-guard… what *AM* I looking for, indeed?

The people at the event, my fellow attendees and organizers and visiting lecturers, were all quite lovely.  I knew a handful of them, as my fellows from the Washington DC Metro Synod of the ELCA, but the remainder were new faces for me.  The majority of us stayed at the General Lee hotel across the street, and so from random roommate assignments to the communal meals and small group formation daily meetings, we all had plenty of time to really open up to one another and gain a certain sort of intimacy that mere academic coursework is too anemic to sustain; the event was profoundly a spiritual exercise and thus could be the foundation for a deeper sort of friendship.  The grueling pace of lectures and discussions was offset in large part by the constantly rotating voices leading discussions – pastors, laity, professors and professionals, from all corners of the US came to speak about this peculiar issue of the diaconate.

Finally, I would speak to a sermon that referenced the content of Mark 2:1-12, the story of a paralytic lowered down into a house from the roof by his friends to receive healing by Jesus.  The sermon again matched the tendency of the homilies of this event, to provide an extraordinarily clever and close reading of the text to elucidate a vital theme to the process of discerning one’s vocational calling, and at the same time presenting a profoundly Lutheran outlook on the faith and life.  In this case, the preacher focused on the fact that as the text tells the story, the healing of the paralytic had nothing to do with the paralytic himself, nor his faith (or lack thereof).  Instead, we heard, the text has Jesus pronouncing that the faith of the paralytic’s friends was apparently causal in the healing that took place, part and parcel of the lesson about the Son of Man as forgiver of sins.  This is a fascinating implication, both about the inaccuracies of a more Baptist or non-denominational “I must secure my own salvation” neurotic outlook, but also about the primacy of forgiving sins and how the faith of a community can assist that process (the South African experience of the Truth and Reconciliation, a “miracle” as they say, comes to mind).

The road ahead

So, with all of the above in mind, what is one to make of all of this?  The “one” who needs to do some “making” of the above could be you, but it is *certainly* me, and that is both exciting and nerve-wracking.  Though I didn’t speak at length above in order to explain what a diaconal minister in the ELCA is (that took me two weeks to learn, and would be a lengthy explanation indeed), I would quickly point out two things heavy on my mind as I continue this discernment process in the post-DMFE life:

1) one of our lecturers was a professor of history, and she explained that in the medieval church, there was an understood set of meanings to each church office: the bishop stood in as God the Father for their flock; the presbyters (priests) stood in as the Apostles; and the deacon was to serve as the stand-in for Jesus.  This is actually the discovery from the event that is pulling me most towards the completion of the candidacy process over time, the notion of being unfettered by politicking and the stuffiness of decorum and titles in my pursuit of doing actual good in the world and helping equip others to do so.

2) the ELCA has information about the diaconal minister community, and they specifically explain the importance of the ‘6 Marks of Diaconal Ministry‘ which was a focus of the DMFE.  In many ways I find synergy between the dictates of these Marks and my own outlook and dispositions.  The core problem, as this event helped focus for my mind, stems from an old set of battle scars when it comes to the issue of pledging allegiance to any group of any sort – I am deeply, *deeply* uncomfortable with the notion of binding myself to a group, not least of all for the visceral distaste I hold for being judged on the account of people associated  with me.  I am not sure what to make of this realization, either, but at the very least I find myself (very) slightly less worried, having recorded all of these thoughts here.

Photos

A smattering of photographs of all types of things from the two whirlwind weeks in the ‘Burg:

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Attending Trinity Lutheran in New Haven

A Lutheran HQ in NH, CT (etc)

Abbreviations aside, I wanted to quickly post about Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven, where I have been attending services while going to Yale Divinity School.  My good friend and fellow student Matt is attending Trinity, and in fact was installed as the intern for this academic year there, this very morning (congratulations again, Matt!).  He speaks very highly of the location, and having visited it a few times myself in the past, I find it is a great place: a lovely building (almost like a cathedral, given its very tall dimensions and vaulted ceilings) with a rather skillful choir and good organ; the people there are all quite nice, and my car-borrowing from my housemate Ryan this semester for krav maga emboldened me to ask to borrow the car for Sunday mornings as well (being a good guy, Ryan is cool with it).

To anyone in New Haven interested in checking out Trinity, you’re always welcome to come with me; just drop me a line and let me know you’re interested!

Photos

A couple of quick shots of the church from the interior, and one of the outside – more photos are available on their website, which is a link given above.

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Preaching at St Pauls down in DC

This is certainly getting posted after the fact, having actually taken place right at the end of January this year.  I had the opportunity to go down and visit friends and professors, and also to go preach at my home church in DC.  I jumped on this chance, enjoying the train ride, and particularly enjoying my time in DC itself.  From spending time with old friends and roommates (the place I stayed all weekend belonged to a good old friend, and another guest there was a mutual old friend), to visiting with professors (and their wives and children in some cases), it was certainly good to go visit DC.  There was even a little bit of snow during my time there, which was refreshing after such a disappointing New England “winter” up until that point.  The evening before I preached featured a screening of “Last Action Hero,” which I had never seen previously and thoroughly enjoyed.  I ended up staying up far too late into the night making last minute changes and additions to the sermon because of an anecdote that I wanted to make central; a story I had experienced earlier that day, while visiting the National Zoo for the first time.   All told, an enjoyable and action-packed weekend in the District.

The text of my sermon is available here, for those who are interested.  I am pleased to report that this variation on my usual theme (generally, that although bad things do happen, it is through these experiences that we are able to grow and in fact become better) seems to have been well-received.

Photos

A couple of photos from the weekend, featuring My Old Couch (now in the hands of my good friend Chris), as well as the bulletin from the service where I preached!

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2nd trip to DC for candidacy; successfully Entranced!

Another whirlwind candidacy weekend in DC

The variety of experiences over this past weekend was a good one; from friends to old AU professors to candidacy committees to the as-per-usual delightful AMTRAK conversation that feeds my soul, a successful trip in relationship building alone.  That said, I would like to recount some of the more memorable specifics for you now, starting with the train ride.  I have consistently commented on this, but would like to reiterate it here: AMTRAK is the best thing that has ever happened to anyone.  As someone who needs to take a little bit more of Sabbath theology to heart, my experiences on the trains have always been intensely restful and peaceful, neither of which I consistently have in droves.  After a delightful ride to DC, I took the Metro over to Twinbrook to meet my good friend Casey, who, being a REALLY good friend, was willing to drive me up to Frederick, Maryland, to the hotel I had reserved there.  For whatever reason, even though it is the Metropolitan DC synod, the church has liked to hold its events in Maryland thus far during my candidacy process experience.

Friday was the core reason for my trip, and it involved meeting the entire candidacy committee for the first time, and then interviewing with them.  The committee, approximately 15 individuals, was mostly ordained ministers (some of whom were Reverend Doctors), a small number of laypeople, and finally the bishop of Washington, DC.  The event was held at Hallowood Retreat Center, way out into Maryland, located way out on the edge of Sugarloaf Mountain (which did indeed translate into some SERIOUS cab fees to get there).  A gorgeous little getaway, one would literally never find it (not even if searching for Christian retreats in that general vicinity); there is a strong chance that the bunker from the movie Terminator 3 was patterned on this place in terms of “far enough away from everything to survive Judgement Day.”  Inside, I got to wait in front of a roaring fire for the other individuals getting interviewed to go through their respective processes, and then it was my turn.  I knew this because everyone on the committee came out of the room, got water/coffee and stretched, and then informed me that they would come get me in 10 minutes or so (they wanted to review my background/experiences as a group and thus be better armed to ask me specific questions).  Let me assure you: once I was in there, I got the most zesty mix of specific questions one might imagine, from “explain how you feel when dealing with money” to the entertaining question posed by the bishop (a Harvard Divinity School alum) “do they still, you know, do that whole ‘faith’ thing up at Yale?”  I got to speak for maybe an hour and 10 minutes, answering all manner of questions, and then I got to go and wait for their decision.  I am very pleased to report that they voted in my favor, and thus I am successfully “entranced” (which translates to my being 1/3 done with the vetting process to become a diaconal minister, eventually).  This was followed by Saturday’s event, which is the DC synod’s yearly Candidacy Day.  The main speaker was a professor of homiletics from the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia, and she was very interesting; this was paired with the chance to get to know the other candidates (regardless of which roster, or which step in the process they were at), and the time we all needed to make sure we were on-track in our respective processes.  A good pair of days.

Perhaps best of all, I got the chance, as per my last trip to DC, to visit a few friends in between the varying scheduled events on my calendar, and that was a real blessing; combining the train rides’ peacefulness with the chance to joyfully reunite with people I haven’t seen in months, I do believe this trip to DC was the closest thing I have had to a Sabbath (albeit a working Sabbath) I have had in a long time; given that the candidacy committee’s specific requirement of me was to take more Sabbaths, that bodes well for the future of this diaconal ministry endeavor, I should think 😀

Photos

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Trip to DC: Candidacy Business, Part 1

Photo finish arrival to a wedding; church at St. Paul’s; and initial interview

This weekend was truly a whirlwind of activity; this blog post is assuredly going to mirror that pattern and pace.  To start, I departed New Haven with the assistance of my wonderful housemate Ryan, who was nice enough to drive me over to the train station.  After getting a LOT of reading done for Pastoral Care & Addiction, as well as delightful AMTRAK-style nap, we pulled into DC slightly ahead of schedule.  This was key for the next step; two individuals from the mission trip to Zambia I helped plan and lead, Gail and Karen, were getting married at my church in DC, St. Paul’s, and although the wedding started before I arrived on the train (4:30pm), the reception was set to end an hour after my arrival (6:30pm).  With this goal in mind, I moved like some kind of lightning/wind amalgamation, running to the Metro like Tom Hanks in The Terminal due to being laden with my possessions.  Therein, I was blessed with a quickly-arriving train, and only slight delays.  All told, I was somewhat unpresentable (sweating due to carrying my stuff from the Metro to church, and wearing the shorts/t-shirt I had on for the train ride), but the bride and groom weren’t expecting me to be able to make it, so it was a great surprise.

After the wedding, I made my way south towards Franconia/Springfield, the southmost Metro stop on the Blue Line.  My friends Erika and David Stoner, were wonderfully gracious and offered me a space to stay while I was in town on Saturday night.  I arrived after a lengthy trip (the Metro was CRAZY due to fear-mongering “security” measures which had people’s bags getting checked during the busiest time of the night), and we watched part of Young Frankenstein before heading to sleep.  In the morning, we departed en masse to church at St. Paul’s.

While at St. Paul’s, I would like to take a moment and speak to the high quality of the service for the combination of Rally Day and the commemoration of 9/11.  The first reading was Genesis 50:15-21, the second reading was Romans 14:1-12, and the Gospel reading was Matthew 18:21-35.  This was all towards the end of commemorating 9/11 with the underlying theme of forgiveness, and Pastor Tom accomplished this with a masterful sermon; it was amongst the best I have ever heard him preach.  Similarly, the focus of the liturgy was on this concept of really wrestling with how radical this notion of forgiveness, as presented by Jesus, really is; I think a lot of people in the congregation benefited from the experience.  Finally, it was genuinely a pleasure to be back in church there, and many families and individuals I know well were delighted to see me, and made me feel quite loved!

After church, I had Part 1 of my Lutheran candidacy process, an initial interview that seemed to go quite well. More on this as I hear back from them!  I also had the brief chance to visit with some old friends, which was grand.

The Friendly Cabbie

On the way to AMTRAK for my trip out of DC, I had a fantastically nice and engaging cabbie to chat with.  Its an old habit of mine, drawn from my time in Israel/Palestine, to get to know cabbies as much as possible; it is also a tendency that has paid off in getting to know cities better.  This gentleman, I learned after our ~20 minute conversation, was an older black man who was an atheist and a conscripted veteran of Vietnam (and this religious outlook was related to his experiences there).  In short, we discussed everything from the nature of the “security” response to terrorism by the government, to the issue of ethical international development, to my personal sense of vocational calling and how it rests upon the border of the secular and the sacred.  At the end of the conversation, I was immensely complimented; he said that I am one of the first religious leaders (albeit in-training) he has ever been able to respect, after conversation.  I mention this for the sole reason of establishing a comparison for the next event in my evening…

The Obtuse Cabbie

…which happened after my brief AMTRAK trip from DC to BWI, which was peaceful, timely, and enjoyable (it IS AMTRAK, after all). Got off of the train, walked up to the first cab in line, and the cabbie comes over. He is wearing a kilt 3 sizes too big.

::imagine an internal Civil Defense Force siren here::

For better or worse, my cab fate was sealed. He had a “COEXIST” sticker on the back window, which I thought meant we could have a talk about religion, and my clergy intentions.

Boy, was I wrong.

To make a long story short, he was interested and let me explain part of The Plan (in terms of what I am studying and the like). Then, he interjected and mentioned he is a member of the Universal Life Church (the folks who will send you official paperwork claiming you are an ordained clergy member in whatever religion, scam-style). Then, he mentioned he is a nudist (and gave this as an explanation for the kilt. Lovely.). Then, he explained that he is Wiccan, and started calling me out on problems caused by Christians. Highlights included him accusing all Christians of certain traits and outlooks (hating the environment, the poor, and more!), and was rounded out by his seemingly entirely-genuine dissolution at “Christians who rudely  generalize about us non-Christians.”  This continued for 10 minutes in the parking lot of my hotel here, until he got a phone call and I was able to escape the unorganized verbal assault that was in progress. I left him a $4 tip, to avoid having to touch change from his hands.  Never a dull moment. Never.

The Motivated Cabbie

As a quick side note, my hotel stay was mostly pleasant.  The staff was nice, and my room was in mostly nice condition. The only exception: the air conditioner was installed wrong, so that when the fan in it spooled up, but particularly when it spooled down after cooling the room, would shake that wall of the room.  The first time it happened, I nearly crapped in my pants, as it sounded as though someone was trying to bust down the door with a crowbar.  This happened every ~15 minutes or so, so needless to say I slept lightly on Sunday evening.  On Monday morning, the cabbie I called was there early at the hotel, which was a good sign.  He was airing a VERY Pentecostal radio station, and so we chatted about non-religious things (as I have been roped into zealous arguments with Pentecostal cabbies before) on the way to the place (more on the event, the ELCA psychological evaluation, below).  I liked the guy and gave him a big tip, so that he would be willing to drive all the way over to get me whenever I was finished.  The trip away from the office, back to the BWI AMTRAK station, though, was fantastic.  At that point, I mentioned why I was in DC, what I was studying, and what I hoped to do.  This fascinated him, and he started bubbling over with stories of his own along the same lines.  While driving on the highway with one hand (I was bracing for impact), he reached down to the front passenger seat floor and grabbed a copy of his business plan for a development company in his native Ghana (photo of this below); in short, he is working to get money invested to help him set up a localized home construction company, designed to teach useful skills to people while also giving them and their neighbors safer, better quality housing.  He also mentioned that he was an ordained Pentecostal preacher for 20 or so years in Ghana, and set up 5 churches before coming to the US; all in all, he was an amazing man with a great story; and yet more evidence as to my strong insistence on getting to know cabbies any- and every-where!

The Ecumenical Cabbie

The final taxi of my whirlwind of a weekend was from the New Haven AMTRAK to my home; the gentleman was a Muslim who was very interested in why I looked so tired and yet so well-dressed coming off the train (at least I did one thing right this weekend!).  I explained the story of what I am studying and how that landed me in DC for the weekend; we proceeded to have a fantastic and open discussion about how each of our respective faiths have done better or worse at things like flexibility to exist within a changing world, versus the issue of not losing sight of the purpose of the faith.  We parted quite amicably, and he thanked me for an excellent conversation that got him thinking about his faith; I thanked him for the same.  I have his business card, and will likely garner additional installments to this dialogue over future trips to the train station.

Psychological evaluation; return to AMTRAK

There was a large serving of multiple choice questions for me to fill out the bubbles (approximately 900 of them!) for during my visit to the office.  To establish the proper mood of what I am referring to, please watch this informational video on the subject of questionnaire length.  That said, a small sample of what tests I went through included a lengthy career interest survey; the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2); the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-R); and then several puzzle, math, and spatial reasoning-based miniature tests.  I know two things about the experience: I finished an hour early (an old, bad habit from first grade; finish fast without checking my work), and I will eventually receive a full copy of the report that this event will generate.  I, like many who are following this candidacy process I am in the midst of, find myself quite interested to see just what this report ends up saying; more on this as I get a copy!

Photographs: Yale paraphernalia,time in DC, etc

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