Monday, September 22, 2014

The Best Source of Seminarian Pastoral Support? Other Seminarians

Throughout my journey of discernment over the past seven years, I have been blessed to have some amazing men and women - mentors, guides, and counselors - placed in my path. Some have taken just a few steps with me, others have walked many miles by my side. As  result, my life - my personal walk to Emmaus - has been richly blessed.

Now that I am well into my first semester as an Episcopal seminarian, I have been confronted with something new, a place my path has led me that is far from my comfort zone - vulnerability. For an admitted Type A who lives by lists, deadlines, and the certainty of those things in life of which I can be certain, the feeling of vulnerability, of being exposed and uncertain, is something for which I have no answers. And I would be lying if I said that it didn't scare the hell out of me.

The many hours of study, classwork, tests, exegesis papers, and translation are exciting, challenging, thrilling, and exhausting - and shared by all. Multiple daily opportunities for community worship are strengthening the bonds I'm building with the amazing men and women with whom I am sharing this experience. But despite all of this, of being in the same foxholes and trenches of formation with many other folks, talking about my vulnerability is something that I didn't initially want to do for fear of - you guessed it - making myself even more vulnerable.

My upcoming clinical pastoral education (CPE), a 12-week chaplaincy program next summer required of all seminarians, is something that had struck me particularly hard. My biggest fear grew out of the fact that, because I am such an emotional person, I would not be able to hold my emotions in check. Being in the moment with people when they most need prayers and support is something very important to me - but I'm worried that I will become too deeply involved in those moments of death and grief that many friends have experienced as part of their chaplaincy terms. Hearing stories of comforting husbands who have lost wives and parents who have lost young children moved me to tears - and made me wonder if I could be strong enough to do it.

And in the midst of this struggle, of wondering whether I would be able to keep it together for those who were in the midst of losing everything, I was embraced by my community. I was reminded of the good moments that are just as much a part of CPE as the sorrowful ones. I was reassured that emotion at a moment when others are emotional would be a blessing at those times when those in need are longing to be met in their moment. And I was reminded that I now have a new family that will be with me in my moments of need, of sorrow, of joy.

There have been days recently that have left me exhausted and feeling incomplete, a beaten traveler left on the side of the road to Jericho. It is at those moments that one Samaritan, then another, and still another, pass by and find me laying there - and without hesitation, they stop to bandage my wounds and get me back on my feet.

God knows what He is doing. When I wasn't sure it was me that He was calling to ordination, He knew what He was doing. In my moments of doubt, He knows what He was doing.

And in surrounding me with men and women who understand, who are walking the same three-year path of seminary, and who have been blessed with immeasurable pastoral gifts, He definitely knows what He is doing. My journey to Emmaus continues, carried aloft on the love, prayers, and support of my seminary family.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Shema Yisrael: A Story of Shabbat

For quite some time the statement "Shema Yisrael. Adoshem Elokeinu. Adoshem e'had." has been part of my email signature block. The phrase, which, loosely translated, means, "Hear, O Israel. God is our God. God is one and unique," embedded itself in me after reading Elie Wiesel's Open Heart a few years ago. Now, as an Episcopal seminarian studying Hebrew, the phrase is even more significant for me - the beginning marker of a highway on which I will learn to read the Old Testament not through modern translations and filters, but through the eyes of those for whom it was written thousands of years ago.

Five years ago, Amy and I attended a Shabbat service at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, an experience that I blogged about at that time. When I started at Virginia Theological Seminary last month, I was delighted to see another Jewish congregation, Beth El Hebrew Congregation, directly across the street from campus. My love of interfaith education and experiencing the religious customs of others once again kicked in, and a group of friends from VTS and I joyfully made the trek across the highway for last night's Soul Shabbat.

Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. Hear the voice of God calling.

The word "soul" in the title of the service was no accident, because that's exactly where it hit me - and there were more than a few tears shed. There was something almost indescribable in the sudden,  jarring realization that I wasn't just attending a Jewish service - I and all of my friends sharing the experience with me were being pulled back through the centuries to the very roots of our Christianity. The history of the Jewish people - of repression, of tragedy, of exile - is our history, and yet despite all that they endured, Judaism remains a faith of hope, a faith of joy, a faith of celebration. And the Shabbat, to flip that last phrase, is a celebration of faith.

Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. Hear the call of your past.

I so enjoyed watching the joy on the faces of my friends as they each experienced in their own way the wonder of what was happening. For one in particular, it was quite literally a transformative moment - an instance in which, as she said later, she suddenly felt reconnected to her own call after months of feeling separated from it.

Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. Hear the call to return to your beginning.

And the music - mournful, reflective, joyful. It literally ran the gamut, and as a result so did my emotions. The cantor's singing of Stephen Richards' "R'tzei" (a video of another performance of the song is linked here) brought me to tears (and made me question, just for an instant, whether I am too emotional to be a priest, since I am moved to tears so easily). And a rendition of this poem, with music playing just below the voice of the speaker, was equally moving:

Ein Li Eretz Acheret (I Have No Other Country)

I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul -
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.

I will not stay silent
because my country changed her face

I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes

I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul -
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.

I won't be silent because my country
has changed her face.
I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears
until she will open her eyes

I have no other country
until she will renew her glorious days
Until she will open her eyes

I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul -
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.

With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.

Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel. Hear the songs of your past, and your present, and your future.

It was a beautiful evening, with wonderful conversation after with the Rabbi. I left feeling renewed, relaxed, and centered, and with an urge to experience more of Judaism as a way of strengthening the foundation of my journey toward the priesthood.

It truly was Shabbat Shalom - a peaceful Sabbath.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Two Trains Running ... Right on Schedule


As much as I love drama, particularly those plays written by the masters of the 20th century, one of the great challenges for me (and, I assume, any other reader) has always been pulling the emotion and life of plays off the page. Reading "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is a far more challenging task when trying to combine dialogue and stage direction in your mind to achieve a picture of the action. The saving grace is finding that one perfect production that forever lingers with you and gives you the emotion and life you're seeking and can carry over into future readings.

The Round House Theatre's current production of August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" is one that will most definitely linger with me for a long time to come. In advance of seeing a performance this past weekend, I obtained a copy of the play and read it. This was my introductory foray into Wilson's work, and I enjoyed it immensely. The one thing missing, however - as expected - was the humor, drama, sadness, and intensity contained within the story. My reading of "Two Trains" was gratifying, but I knew it would be reinforced by seeing it live, when I could live the play.

And was it ever reinforced.

I'll start with the staging and sound design. The diner owned by Memphis is set in an area of Pittsburgh slowly being abandoned by its residents and demolished to make way for the future. It's one of the final links to the past for a deeply-rooted community of residents, and you expect to see it run down. Scenic designer Tony Cisek successfully achieved that, but it had an even more powerful and personal impact on me - it was a glimpse into some forgotten part of my past, reminiscent of old buildings and diners I've visited in my life, places struggling to survive but still somehow managing to hang on, and hanging on in my memory. And sound designer Matthew Nielson did an outstanding job in selecting just the right music to accentuate the story and the scene transitions. There is a particularly effective use of Aretha Franklin's "Take a Look" that comes at a particularly poignant moment of the story.

In many plays I've seen over the years, there have typically been one or two exceptionally strong actors and a few other ones that are "okay" and provide the underlying support. Not so with "Two Trains;" every single actor delivered powerful performances, and like a great cathedral whose weight cannot be supported if one stone is removed from an arch or buttress, I cannot envision seeing Round House's production stand up if one of these actors was changed. After three hours, you leave feeling as if they are interlocked and are crucial to supporting each other.

Jefferson Russell (Memphis) does a wonderful job in coming across as a man cynical enough to think that things won't change, but hopeful enough to dream that one day they will.  KenYatta Rogers (Wolf) is absolutely hysterical as the local numbers runner and resident ladies man. Michael Anthony Williams (Holloway) gives a great performance as the wise and somewhat cynical voice of experience - almost the play's version of a Greek chorus. Frank Britton (Hambone) does a lot with very few lines, and makes his character come alive as an even more tragic figure when sitting silently at a table lost in his own world. Ricardo Frederick Evans (Sterling) gives a great reading as an outspoken ex-con looking for a way to make a quick buck, but who matures over the course of the play into a man whose thoughts and actions are with others in mind, rather than himself. And Doug Brown (West) does a wonderful job as a man who has seen it all and, even with a hint of exhaustion from life, keeps on going.

And then there's Shannon Dorsey (Risa). With every other character in the play, we are given just enough insight to know a bit about their backgrounds - Memphis came from Mississippi and is divorced; Sterling has just gotten out of prison after serving time for a bank robbery; Holloway makes a living occasionally painting houses; West was a gambler before opening a successful funeral home; Hambone is a tragic figure who becomes permanently scarred because of not receiving payment for a job he had performed; Wolf has seemingly always run numbers. 

But we don't have that same background about Risa; we know she has faced some tragic circumstances, but we don't know what. And for that, I have to single out Dorsey for her performance. With so little background to go on, Dorsey creates a character who is defiant and independent in one moment and scared, lonely, and withdrawn in the very next. Her facial expressions and reactions when she doesn't have any lines are just as funny or heart-tugging (and sometimes more so) as when she is speaking. 

My only regret is that the play ends May 4. In retrospect, I would have loved to have seen it earlier in the run to be able to take in another performance. If I'm lucky, I may still. But if you have a chance to catch "Two Trains Running" during this final week of its run, do so - just leave a seat for me.

And kudos to the Round House Theatre team and everyone involved with the production. It's performances like the one I attended that will keep people coming back to the theater for years to come.

Monday, April 28, 2014

What Would Jesus Do, Governor Palin? Certainly Not What You Did...

Dear Governor Palin:

Let me quickly share two passages from the Gospels to set the context for this post.

Mark 1:8. "I will baptize you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

Luke 22:61. "And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, 'Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.'"

I will quickly note here that I speak only for myself, an independent who is firmly rooted in his Episcopal faith. In my view, in your haste to corrupt the first passage above to suit your purposes before the National Rifle Association, you have cast yourself as a denier of Christ in the vein of Peter. Mind you, you are not on the same level as the first among the apostles, nor would I ever attempt to put you there. But by twisting one of the sacraments of the church purely for applause, you are belittling and denying the importance of that sacrament - and by denying that importance, you are denying Christ.

And that is disgraceful. You were raised in the Assemblies of God church, one ordinance of which is - according to the Website of one Assemblies congregation - a belief in a baptism of complete immersion in water, because that was the way Jesus was baptized. And while you profess now to be a non-denominational Christian, your very words are a corruption of the very faith in which you were raised.

Think a moment about what you said (perhaps a moment longer than you thought about it before you spoke these words): "Waterboarding is our way of baptizing terrorists." Waterboarding and baptizing. Drowning and blessing. Torture and rebirth.

Are these synonymous in your mind?

Do I worry about terrorism? Of course. Have I seen first-hand - as have millions of others across the U.S. and around the world - the devastating impacts of terrorism? Absolutely. Have I forgotten that Jesus lived in a time of persecution, murder, and horrible brutality at the hands of the Roman Empire and yet still managed in his own life to seek out and forgive his enemies? Absolutely not.

Just as I would pray for my family and friends, I pray for my enemies. And I pray for those for whom reconciliation and peace are difficult to find. Yes, Governor, for a moment of applause that has created sadness and anger among many, I will pray for you.

In his life, Jesus wept. He saw death, disease, violence, and oppression, and he wept. Shouldn't we strive for a higher standard and a higher goal as Christians - as members of the human race - to do things to make Jesus smile?

I would share with you this final prayer, a prayer of reconciliation written by Larry Reimer. Governor, it is my prayer for you today.

O God of peace and healing,
We come before you feeling powerless to stop the hatred that divides races and nations.

We come before you saddened and angered by the denial of human rights in our land.
We come before you with wounds deep in our hearts that we long to have healed.
We come before you with struggles in our personal lives that it seems will not go way.
And we pray Lord, How long?
How long to peace?

And we hear, "Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
How long for racial justice? "Not long, because no lie can live forever.”
How long for our wounded hearts? Not long, I call you by name, you are with me; you are mine.
How long for our struggles? Not long, for my grace is sufficient. I hold you in my everlasting arms beneath which you cannot fall.
How long for the healing of what is broken inside and all around us? Not long, for we shall overcome, together in partnership, human holy partnership, we shall overcome.