Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Day 24: On Slacking Off....

I have been woefully remiss. Lenten discipline fail. Having spring break fall within the season of Lent proved just as troublesome as the first UNC-Dook game falling on Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day falling on Lent day #2 (for those who gave up chocolate). As hard as this discipline has been for me, I also know that writing reflectively has been incredibly helpful and has opened a true lens of introspection that I desperately need. So this is me trying to jump back on the wagon of my Lenten discipline. (Bear with me: though spring break is now over, I’ve picked up another distraction along the way. A 6’3 distraction. Oh dear. )

Though it is in no way the same, here are the highlights from these days I’ve missed:

Day 16 (Mar 2)          
I successfully completed my first 10K! And in the snow, no less! This was a 2012 goal of mine that I rolled over into the new year, but I’m proud for finally pushing myself to do this and knocking it out of the park! I managed to run the whole thing and kept a much better pace than I anticipated. I know if I really commit to a training schedule, I could tackle a half marathon sometime in the next year. (Well wishes to two friends running a marathon this weekend!)

Sunday repost (Mar 3)
An old blog post (from 8-29-10) on the rhythms of running and of life

Day 17 (Mar 4)
Mom was in town for the weekend and we shared brunch at one of my favorite Atlanta spots. Nutella and banana pancakes FTW J

Day 18 (Mar 5)
A delightful day during which I met three friends for coffee/froyo/dinner back to back. I always love being reminded of the wonderful friendships I have built over the past 3-4 years in Atlanta. Also, all three of these get-togethers were with guy friends. I never used to have many guy friends, but post-seminary, I have a lot. Less drama. More honesty. I like it.

Day 19 (Mar 6)
A day at home. Got lots of chores done (amazing how satisfactory this can be!) and then made lasagna for 15 people! My small group came over for dinner and there is nothing more uplifting than a house full of dear friends, food, and good conversation.

Day 20 (Mar 7)
Mobile-bound! Addie and I drove down to southern Alabama to visit my former roommate and Candler bestie, Amanda (and her dear husband). We shared a pitcher of margaritas and swapped stories. I love falling back into the rhythm of a friendship so easily.

Day 21 (Mar 8)
Tour of Mobile’s hot spots with Amanda and Jody! It was a beautiful day and we spent a good portion of it outside. I love these two so much! And Mobile is a pretty fun town. One of the highlights of the day was seeing a movie in a downtown one-screen theater. We got there early enough to get the “good” seats—leather recliners right down front! Add to that a cold bottle of beer and some popcorn, and there isn’t much else I could ask for!

Day 22 (Mar 9)
Amanda and I spent the morning getting pedicures (always a treat) and then I said goodbye. It’s hard to only visit for a short while, but Addie and I had to get back for church on Sunday morning. The drive wasn’t too bad—just looong.

Sunday repost (Mar 10)
An old blog post (from 12-23-09), including another small town theater. 

Day 23 (Mar 11)
Back to school! 6am came early but it’s been nice to get back into the swing of things. I’ve been feeling a little under the weather the past few days, so getting going early on Monday was tough. After picking up some Allegra-D, it’s been a good week! I feel like we’re in the home stretch of the school year, as crazy as that seems. Granted, there is still a lot of time left before June. But our major breaks are over (we do have a long weekend for Easter), so in many ways it is just one big push to the end. Everyone keeps telling me how time flies after spring break. Hard to believe I’ll soon have my first year of teaching under my belt. It’s been quite a year—many transitions, of all sorts, but I am content and thankful as I sit here today reflecting back on it all—and that is a very good feeling J No matter the breakups, no matter the people who still won’t smile at me in the halls at school, life really is pretty good. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Day 15: Fifth Grade Artwork

I'm working on a Stations of the Cross project with my 5th graders. Part of the project will involve each of them drawing their own image of one of the stations. I wanted to share a few of these today because I think they're turning out pretty well.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Day 14: On Fasting

Isaiah 55 is one of my very favorite passages in the entire Bible. So, when I saw that it was one of the lectionary texts for Sunday, I knew I wanted to write this week’s reflection on it, even though I’ve engaged this text several times previously. I wrote my first exegetical paper of my seminary career on this text, and I preached on it a couple years ago, too, when the lectionary paired it with the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. This passage is so rich with imagery that it’s refreshing to return to it again and again.

Here are verses 1 and 2 only. The whole passage is beautiful but today I found enough to ponder in the opening lines:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts,
   come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
   come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
   without money and without price.
 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
   and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food. “

It makes sense to read this passage during Lent. This opening stanza invites those who are hungry and thirsty to come and eat and drink without money. In a season of fasting, to hear this call to come and dine at a banquet table is a beautiful reminder of the abundance God intends for each of us. Yet what does it mean to read this passage when one truly does not have enough food, or enough money to buy basic necessities, or access to clean drinking water? When I read the opening verses of Isaiah 55, I can enjoy the imagery and delight in the promises offered there, mostly because the language is lovely and because it offers an idyllic, pastoral image of the kingdom of God. But I do have food, and money, and water and wine. I want for nothing. What might it mean for those for whom these seemingly rhetorical questions echo in the reality of the present? Is it beautiful or does it serve as a stark reminder that one is hungry?  

These thoughts have led me to the question, is fasting itself not a privilege? The idea of denying oneself, especially from an overindulgence (chocolate/sweets, fast food, soda, etc), implies that there is opportunity to abuse something which one has access to in abundance. What of those whose fasts are not voluntary? What might they make of this practice of giving up these nonessential luxury goods as a means of spiritual practice? There’s something deeply ironic about that. I know the popular practice of Lenten fasting has devolved a bit from the truest intent of the practice of fasting, so perhaps the irony is most at home within our American-Christian manipulation of a meaningful spiritual discipline, but I still think that any form of voluntary fasting might be considered a privilege or serve as a reminder of the blessings one normally has at ones disposal to enjoy.

I think these opening verses of Isaiah 55 shouldn’t just be read with a spiritual understanding of feasting. I believe God’s promises here are very corporal. As such, I think we can find in this passage a call to action. How can people on this earth, those who have no money and no food, experience the blessings this passage promises? It’s not enough to look forward to the “richest of fare” at a heavenly banquet when you are hungry right now. There are enough resources in the world to ensure that all people have just as equal and ample access to material blessings and they do to spiritual ones.

As many of us fast during Lent from things we experience in abundance, may we remember the great privilege it is to practice the self-denying exercise, for it means that there are things from which we must actively work to abstain. For those whose fasts are involuntary, we pray, that the promises of Isaiah 55 would be realized in the kingdom of this world. 

Day 13: On "Other" Religions

Okay, no excuses--late again. It's been a really full week--full of good stuff, but I've just been going from one thing to the next nonstop (wait, I think that was an excuse...). So for Wednesday's post, I decided to share the response I wrote to my student whose question I shared a few days ago. I came off pretty darn universalist in my answer, so I'm curious to hear what you think about my response. I think in wanting to encourage his spiritual curiosity and engagement, I decided to leave things open and make things possible instead of drawing boundary lines for thinking about other religions. I think this would likely be his natural tendency anyway, based on the nature of his question, but my hope for him is that he'll be able to engage other religions and enter inter-religious dialogue with an open mind instead of the foregone assumption of "as a Christian, I'm always right" or "as a Christian, my only job is to proselytize those of other faiths." Of course, you can't get into all the finer points of this huge theological issue in a brief note to a fourth grader, but this was my best shot.

Here's his question again: 

"How do we know God is real when so many other religions could be right, and [how do we know] there can be only one religion that can be right because if there was several, someone in the Bible like Joseph would write in the Bible, 'it is not just one religion that's right, there are millions that are right.' PS-I need this answer as soon as possible."

Dear M.,

Thank you for this good question. I will do my best to answer it—it’s not an easy question and many people spend a lot of time thinking about it. Here’s what I think:

I know sometimes we might hear that Christianity is the only religion that is right or is the only religion that can lead us to God. I disagree with this belief. Though I am a Christian and believe that the Christian way of doing things is the best way to encounter God for me, I think there is a lot of truth and good things about other religions. I do not think only one religion can be “right.” I also do not think that each religion is worshiping a different God. I think we all recognize the same God or divine being but we describe or understand God in different ways.

Imagine in your mind a mountain. Now picture God on the top of that mountain. There are many different “paths” or ways to climb the mountain—just like there are many different religions. Each path is going to be a little different and is going to have a different perspective or vision about what God looks like and what it takes to get to the top. But everyone sees God on the top of the mountain and wants to live life in a way that will bring him or her closer to God.

To answer your question about someone in the Bible, like Joseph, writing that only one religion can be right—remember that people in the Bible were just like you and me. Their understandings of God and of religion were not really any different or better than ours. They were people, too, and were trying to make sense of God and religion just like we are. Now the Bible certainly will argue that Christianity is the best religion (and some places in the Bible say this explicitly). Those are some of the hardest verses in the Bible for me to understand, personally. Again, I think it’s best to remember that even the Bible represents only one perspective or “path” up the mountain.

I hope this is somewhat helpful, M. If you would like to talk about it with me further, please feel free to ask. I am always available before or after school, or by email.

-Ms. Pierce


Thank you, Eric M., for the mountain metaphor :) 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Day 12: On Children's Chapel

I wanted to take some time today to share a little about my favorite part of my school week. Every Monday morning, we have two chapel services at school. The first is for grades 1-8. I participate in this service primarily as an assistant to the chaplain. The second service is for our Early Childhood students, who range in age from 3 to 7. In chapel, we are able to pause together and dwell within the wonder, curiosity, and awe that characterize the spirits of young children. Our service progresses through a simple order of prayers, songs, and readings that teaches children how to worship with both quiet reverence and joyous enthusiasm. Students participate in each element of chapel: from serving as acolytes to reciting the lines of a psalm or prayer, from singing joyfully to aiding in the telling of each week’s Bible story. As we learn together about God’s great love for us, our hope is that children will learn not only about God, Jesus, and all of God’s people, but also about their own hearts of worship.

I have more of a leadership role during the Early Childhood. I lead responsive prayers and Bible readings (our kids now know Psalm 100 and the Lord’s Prayer from memory as a result of this weekly service!), in addition to telling the Bible story most weeks. I leave this place renewed each week with the reminder of the great and joyful task with which I have been entrusted. I get to walk alongside these dear young children as they take the very beginning steps of their faith journeys. They are so alive and full of wonder, ready to absorb everything and question everything. To see them gathered together in one space is a beautiful vision of the kingdom—a reminder that Jesus calls each of us to be like little children if we are to enter the kingdom ourselves.

It is my every hope that SOMEDAY the children’s ministry at Eastside can support a children’s chapel of this caliber. It is so important for children not only to learn together, but worship together. It is a good goal to work toward as our church continues to grow. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Day 11: On Communion

There are so many ways we can experience the sacred in this world, even within the parameters of one act, repeated again and again—a ritual. Over the last two days, I have seen God in profound new ways within the ritual of communion.

One of the things I love most about my church is that we celebrate communion together each week. This is somewhat abnormal for Methodists. Even more so for that reason, I think, do I appreciate the time being taken for this ritual in each and every service.

Yesterday, following a sermon on the pure in heart (Mt. 5:8) and a beautiful time of reflection and prayer led by a friend (who happened to be liturgist), I was feeling a little bit worn down on myself. That’s happened several times lately—the sanctuary at Eastside is so tangibly sacred to me and I get this sense of myself that wells up and I become aware of every imperfection, mistake, and regret because it stands so starkly in contrast to the beauty of worship and community and God’s self, there among it all. (This has been a largely healthy in-tune-ness with myself, I think—it’s good that I’ve allowed myself to feel those things). This stark self-awareness was expressed yesterday through the repetition in prayer of the phrase, “Woe to me, I am a woman of unclean lips.” This is a phrase taken from the prophet Isaiah’s call narrative, in Isaiah 6, in which Isaiah approaches the throne of God and thusly bewails his inadequacy to be there. Woe to me, he says, I daren’t even approach the place of God’s dwelling due to my uncleanliness and profanity. How deeply true I felt that to be of myself yesterday. And as this phrase echoed in my mind in the moments leading up to the celebration of communion, I saw in a new way how terribly unworthy I am to be loved by such a holy God. And yet I am offered a place at the table of grace, I share in this holy meal. Me, the woman of unclean lips, tastes and shares in the feast of God. Somehow, the implications of that paradox of grace struck me in a new and mighty way yesterday—this paradox that is always and constantly true.

During the communion liturgy, we sing a sanctus hymn that also has resonances in Isaiah 6. “Holy you are/you are holy.” This is my favorite part of the liturgy because, besides being a huge fan of actually singing the responses, I also find something despairingly beautiful about the way in which we, profane beings save for God’s grace, gather together to hymn the ineffable holiness of our great God. We join together in doing so, as the liturgy says, with all the host of heaven and earth—I love that, too.

My experience of communion at church on Sunday was primarily that of a recipient. Today, in school chapel, we had a Eucharist service during I served as one of the chalice bearers. I’ve always been touched by the act of serving communion, and it is no exception to serve hundreds of young children, many of whom are students of mine. I am again humbled to be a part of this great mystery during which God draws so near to us, regardless of who we are or what it is that we carry with us when we come.  

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sunday Re-post #2: The World's Parish

This afternoon at church I attended a membership class with a group of folks looking to call Eastside their home congregation. This kind of meeting necessarily entails a crash course in United Methodism, and my allegiance to the Methodist "tribe" (as Pastor Tim calls it) was invigorated. The whole conversation reminded me of this little ode to global Methodist connectionalism that I wrote upon returning from a trip to Indonesia in 2011. I decided to make that my Sunday re-post for today (Originally posted on Candler School of Theology's admission blog, June 3, 2011)

"Exploring the World's Parish: An Indonesian Journey"

The journeys God takes us on, and the unexpected pit stops along the way, are rarely ever dull, and rarer still are they purposeless. My recent trip to Indonesia with the World Methodist Evangelism Institute reminded me of this. Traveling with four fellow students, Candler professor Dr. Arun Jones, and a stellar team of Institute staff and volunteers, I spent ten days in capital city Jakarta learning about Christianity and ministry in the South Asian context. This was more than just an educational endeavor, however. In the truest sense of the word, travel itself is a process of self-refinement and personal growth.

This process began for me before we ever left Atlanta. I struggled with the conflicting desires of wanting to break out of my ordinary routine and wanting to stay safely within it. School had just ended for the summer and I craved the freedom of lazy evenings, fiction novels, and movie marathons. Instead, I was packing my bags for a seminar halfway across the world. A strange blend of emotions churned within me: the longing for adventure and new experiences mixed with an unsettling anxiety about traveling such a great distance and stepping so far outside my comfort zone.

Indonesia is about as far away in the world from Atlanta as you can go. However, after disembarking in Jakarta and spending ten days there, I came to discover that, in some ways, Indonesia is not so different from our fair southern state. In Indonesia, the air is just as heavy with humidity, the tea is just as sweet (though served piping hot!) and the hospitality is warm and welcoming. Our hosts made us feel right at home, even many thousands of miles away. For example, our host mother made us hamburgers and French fries for breakfast one morning! She also gifted one of us with a package of Kraft singles after he mused that he had been missing cheese. These seemingly small and somewhat quirky gifts of hospitality that brought a piece of America to Indonesia warmed our hearts as much as our later gifts of handmade traditional shawls that assured we would bring something of Indonesia back to America.

Many of my anxieties crumbled in the face of the overwhelming hospitality of my new Indonesian friends. What was left of my defenses toppled as I heard more and more ministry stories from local church leaders. There was the pastor who had baptized a young woman from a Muslim family who now has to mediate between her and her displeased father. Then there was the woman who is pastoring in an area devastated by a recent volcanic explosion; she loves and cares for her neighbors (physically and spiritually) without expecting anything in return. There was also the passionate young pastor with a skill for church planting who has his sights set next on the province of Papua. The challenges facing Indonesian pastors seem daunting to American Christians whose greatest fears in evangelism are embarrassment and rejection; Indonesian Christians work within a majority Muslim context in which Christianity is still considered taboo from its colonial associations. Yet these Methodist pastors are filled with God’s fire and minister to their communities with a zeal that would make John Wesley proud.

Before we left Atlanta, our group was asked to share what our greatest expectation was for the trip—our purpose in going. My answer was that, as an aspiring United Methodist minister, I have a responsibility to engage myself in the work of the global church. No Methodist pastor is an island, to borrow from Donne, and our connectional ties should extend beyond annual conference lines. To be a Methodist minister anywhere implies a bond with Methodist ministers everywhere. The struggles and triumphs of my Indonesian brothers and sisters should be mine, and mine theirs. I found this to be overwhelmingly the case; my greatest teachers were the pastors in my Wesley group (a small group of intimate sharing and accountability) during the seminar. They candidly shared the stories of their ministries and exposed their own vulnerabilities and challenges. Not only will I always remember them in my prayers, but I will remember them also during my studies of preparation for ministry. They are my ‘on-the-ground’ teachers, the ones who have shown me what passion for ministry looks like.

There are great things happening in Indonesia. And it is amazing how God can use a powerful tide of faith in a distant country to impact the singular faith journey of this one seminary student. With one more year of school before me and the looming question of “what’s next?” pressing ever closer, there are as many challenging months before me as there are behind. But I have been renewed in the living remembrance of what ministry is all about: living a passionate, infectious life of discipleship. It has taken a journey away from the familiarity of home to show me how to renew the faithfulness of my life and service. Our home environments can easily become all too comfortable so that even the most stretching of callings—that of the pastor—can ease into dull routine and habit. I thank God for the education that takes us outside of ourselves and shows us the bigger picture in which and towards which we are working: the very kingdom of God on earth.