Monthly Archives: September 2012

Who are Our Ninevites?

John & Pebbles

It has been almost a week since I last posted. I was very excited to post about my PLTS Chapel experience last Wednesday, but I have been busy preparing for classes, and when I did have time, I lost my motivation. I suspect it has something to do with being eager for this week to be over because I am heading home this weekend!! I am SO excited to see my hubby and pets. John and Pebbles are in the “feature” picture above, and Bamm-Bamm and Carmel are below. My heart literally aches for all of them. I need some serious snuggle time.

Bamm-Bamm & Carmel

I did, though, want to tell you a little about Chapel last week. As I mentioned in a previous post, we Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) students are required to attend Chapel every Wednesday with the seminarian community. I have joined the choir here, and we sing during service. People were very excited about last week because we were expecting a couple guests who are well known by the community here. I kept hearing about how much the choir enjoys singing with Donnie, and how much the community enjoys Pastor Jim’s sermons. I didn’t know anything about them, but I gathered that the music would be gospel. I stereotypically pictured both Donnie and Pastor Jim as African-American. Donnie is. Pastor Jim is not.

Pastor Jim and Donnie were here from Los Angeles where they serve at their own church, Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church. Everyone was right…I was in for a huge treat. As I entered the chapel around 10am (service was at 11), the choir was just getting started. Donnie is the choir director at Holy Trinity, and was playing piano, helping us run through one of the songs. Now…this was the day after 9/11, and I was feeling a bit morose. I had been surprised that PLTS didn’t do anything special in memory of 9/11, and no one had really spoken about it. I think this is a basic difference between east coast and west coast…west coast folks don’t feel that tragedy the way east coast folks do. Although I was in Seattle on 9/11/o1, I had previously and briefly worked in the World Trade Center when I lived in New Jersey, I knew/know people in NYC, and I felt it deeply. Anyway, suffice it to say that I was feeling down. Looking back, I think I really needed an outlet to mourn.

The music that Donnie was playing was a Medley that Donnie had arranged. It included parts of “O Beautiful,” and was a patriotic tribute to the United States. It was upbeat, though, and… well… evangelical; this was just what I needed. The problem was, the choir’s energy was NOT matching the music or Donnie. You see, one of the things that seems to be pretty common among most Lutherans is our stoic nature. Our services are very traditional and formal. You don’t hear people yelling, “Amen!” in response to the Pastor (or anything, really). When my home church choir sings, we joke about the inability of the choir to move in time with the music. We just don’t “loosen up” the way I’ve seen some Evangelical churches loosen up. I’ve always envied that.

Donnie was singing a solo throughout the song (Donnie’s voice is INCREDIBLE) and had that gorgeous gospel sound. The PLTS choir… didn’t. But we practiced, and I started to get it… a little. I really wanted to open up and just let myself go with the gospel feeling and emotion, but I was very conscious of the people around me… I rarely enjoy bringing attention to myself and besides, what would others think? We finished rehearsing, and then gathered for a group prayer circle. As part of the prayer, everyone is invited to share any specific prayers/intercessions they have. As a few people entered their own personal pleas, I gathered up the courage and added my prayer for all the people affected by the tragedy of 9/11 eleven years ago, and I heard Pastor Jim respond with, “Mmmm-hmmmm.” Hearing him helped me realize I was not the only one there thinking about NYC, DC, and all those lives lost. We ended our rehearsal, and people started entering for service.

The service began with some hymns for the entire community. But here’s where things really got interesting. As we sang the first hymn in typical straightforward, stoic, “Lutheran” fashion, Pastor Jim had us pause. He proposed that we sing that verse again, but slowly, allowing all of us to really feel the music, and sing from the heart. What was nice about slowing it down was that I didn’t need to look at the music. I could glance down to see what was next, and then put the book down. I closed my eyes, and I felt the words, the music, and the emotion flowing through me. The hymn was Sweet, Sweet Spirit, and I finally began to release. Pastor Jim had us sing that first verse over and over. Each time, with each repetition, influenced by Donnie’s gospel lead, the entire group loosened up a bit more. By the end, there were harmonies being sung, ad hoc responses thrown in, and every voice raised with its own emotion ringing through. It was amazing; I was tearing up from all the emotion while singing.

When the beginning hymns were over, Pastor Jim greeted everyone, and then we began a Song of Praise called The Lord is Blessing Me. Now, this was another song that the choir had rehearsed that really needed a little soul, and we had failed miserably. The plan was for the song to begin, Donnie to start, and then the choir to get up from the seats (we were scattered throughout the community), and come up on the chancel (the front of the church that’s elevated by a few steps). As the song began, I got up, and I felt nervous, but also still full of all the emotion from the opening hymn. As I walked up to join the rest of the choir, singing as I walked, I forced myself to move a little… just a little swaying at first. As I began to move, my body continued to loosen up. I closed my eyes and pretty soon, I found myself singing, swaying, clapping, and smiling without any concern or regard for what the people watching me would think. I finally let myself go, and it was such a sweet release!! I noticed Donnie smiling up at us, and the community in the chairs were all beaming, and clapping along. We all just fed off of each other, and pretty soon, that church did NOT feel quite so stoically Lutheran!! Now, to put this in perspective, we were NOTHING like this gospel choir singing the same hymn we sang, but it was marvelous just the same.

And it wasn’t just the music, that sermon ROCKED! Pastor Jim is amazing!!! I wish they had recorded it so I could share it with you. Pastor Jim’s gospel affinity flowed through his words, his intonation, and somehow, we were all saying, “Amen!” in response. He talked about the tragic events of 9/11. He talked about how often we do not follow the path God has laid out for us; and how God always gets us in the end. He talked about the call that Jonah had to preach to the Ninevites; a people who were considered dangerous enemies, and Jonah’s reluctance (to put it lightly…think “whale”). He asked us… who are our Ninevites? Who does God call us to embrace, and yet we resist because they are the enemy, they are the threat. He reminded us that God tells us to love above all else, and that means to love even when it’s hard, even when it hurts and we don’t think our Ninevites deserve our love. After all, if we are worthy of God’s love, then (God knows) our enemies deserve ours. Speaking about this need to love our enemies really hit home in the context of 9/11. It hit home even more when I read the news the next day.

There is no way for me to do justice to this experience. It was emotional, soul-filling, and tension-releasing. There is no doubt in my mind… Jesus was definitely in that place. Amen!

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The More Things Change…

First, I want to thank everyone for the great feedback on my last post on my Mormonism class. I especially appreciated the posts from some Mormons who gave us all a little more understanding about the Mormon faith. My next class is tomorrow, and I am looking forward to learning more!

Today, I had a class on Paul, and a class called “Reading Congregations.” The Reading Congregations looks to be a very interesting class, but I’m going to save that for another day’s blog entry. For tonight, I thought I would talk a little about my Paul class.

Being a Lutheran, and considering that Martin Luther had a huge appreciate for Paul, it makes sense that I would be required to take a class on Paul. I was feeling a bit apprehensive about the class, though; partly because Paul is generally known as being anti-woman, pro-slavery, and lots of other beliefs where I disagree. And yet, I have also been interested to learn more about Paul, the context of his writings, and how and why he wrote the things he wrote. I have actually already come to terms with his more radical writings as writings that must be considered within the context that he wrote… but I have also always guessed there’s still more to it. And now I get to learn a little bit about the “more.”

Today’s class was only the beginning of our second week, and so we have not gotten very far. At this point, we are talking about how Paul reads and understands the Torah, and how this compares with what the typical Jewish understanding was at that time. We have also discussed (and are still discussing) other influences on Paul. Although there have been scholars who have argued that all you need to understand Paul is the Jewish perspective, most other scholars have pointed out that Paul lived in Rome, in Roman times. Yes, he may be Jewish, but he would be quite influenced by Roman thought and beliefs, as well.

We have discussed how there were many different groups of Jews at the time, as well. The ones we often hear about are the Pharisees, which is what Paul was before his conversion. It is the Pharisees who Jesus often rebukes, and it is the Pharisees who were known for being very strict to the Law. They were quick to tell those who were sinning that they were unpure, and to basically “shun” them. The Pharisees were big into separation in order to keep holy; separation of meat/cheese, cloths, and people. The Romans, on the other hand, were much more inclusive. They took a more, “anything goes” attitude. And yet, these Pharisees and Romans were living together in the same city.

My professor pointed out today that this really isn’t that different from what we often see today. We were talking about the controversy in Paul’s writings and in Acts regarding circumcision. Jewish belief and custom demanded circumcision, and of course, at the beginning of Christianity, there wasn’t really a separate religion for Christians… it was an extension of Judaism. And so, the question was, as people became Christians, must they follow Jewish law, also? Must they also be circumcised? The Apostles in general (all Jews) said yes, but Paul said no. My professor explained that we must understand that the uncircumcised were seen as the “other,” they were unholy… unclean. They were not trusted and excluded. They were outcasts. Then my professor said, “It’s like how Muslims are treated today by many North Americans.”

Boom. That hit me. Now, I should explain, he was not trying to say that all North Americans exclude Muslims. However, he was pointing out that many people, especially in North America, do not trust Muslims. Many believe all Muslims are terrorists… or at least are suspicious. Most of us do not understand the Muslim faith. And so, that lack of understanding, and the fear of our own safety, translates into our exclusion of an entire group of people because they believe differently than we do, and because some people who claim that faith, are violent against us.

I think this is more clear than ever when you consider the accusation that is often thrown that President Obama is a Muslim. Where it is clear, though, is not in the accusation, but in the response. The response I usually hear is, “No, President Obama is Christian,” which is true. However, that response assumes that there is something wrong with being Muslim. Even those who do not mean to exclude or imply any negativity about Islam do actually contribute to the exclusion and fear associated with Muslim when we respond in this way. Why do we not say, “So what if he was Muslim? Why would it matter ?” I think we are more concerned with protecting the reputation of our president than we are with changing the perception of Islam and its followers.

But I digress. The point is, my professor used our current day prejudice/fear/exclusion of Muslims to help explain the ancient day prejudice/fear/exclusion of the uncircumcised, and I found this to be quite compelling. He does this often… find modern day equivalents to the issues that are being discussed in Paul’s letters. It makes me wonder… how much have things really changed?

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My first class on Mormonism

Greetings, all. I just finished taking all the chips in a friendly seminarian game of Texas Hold ‘Em and when I came upstairs, I figured I would get ready for bed. But then I remembered… I had promised to post about my first Mormonism class today. Since there are only about 30 minutes left in the day, I better get posting.

First, allow me to say that I think this class is going to be amazing. Of course, we didn’t cover very much in the first class. It basically went the way that all first classes go… the professor introduces her/himself (himself in this case), we walk through the syllabus, we go around the room with everyone telling a little bit about themselves (in this case, we gave our names, what seminary we are in, and why we are interested in this class), then we take a break. When we come back, the professor gives us a little intro to the subject.

One reason I’m excited about this class is simply because I am very interested to learn more about the Mormon religion. I think it gets a bad “rap,” and I’ve always wanted to have a better understanding than I do. My exposure to Mormonism has been somewhat scarce. In high school, my best friend’s little brother converted to Mormonism, much to his family’s dismay. I still remember talking to him some years after his conversion, and being incredibly surprised to find out that he does drink caffeine and sometimes drinks alcohol. He explained that of course, just like any other religion, there are those who are more conservative, and those who are more liberal. I had never thought about that before, and thought he made a great point. It opened my eyes to look at many religions differently.

Then, while I worked at Microsoft, I had a friend who was diagnosed with cancer who was Mormon. He beat the cancer the first time around, but he didn’t make it the second time. I went to his funeral/memorial service and was incredibly struck by the community that was present. It was tangible, and I felt filled with the incredible love that surrounded every person in that room; love not just for Steve, but for everyone. I was very touched and, again, it made me want to know more.

At my seminary, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, we are required to take one class in a religion that is different from our own, and it must be taught by a person of that faith. Since PLTS is part of the Graduate Theological Union, where many seminaries of different faiths and denominations join together to offer classes to seminarians from any seminary, there are many opportunities for me. I will be taking two such classes: Mormonism this semester, and Buddhism next semester. I am excited and eager for both.

A few days before class, the professor emailed the students the syllabus and a couple of readings that he suggested we read before class, if possible. (If anyone would like a copy of the syllabus and/or readings, just let me know and I will email it/them to you.) I enjoyed the readings and was struck that neither one of them spoke specifically about Mormonism. Instead, the one that sticks out (a lecture given by William James) was about how we humans tend to respond to beliefs that are different from our own. We are struck with how odd they are, we make fun of the others for thinking such strange and fantastic things, and we separate ourselves from them. He points out that we do all of this even though we ourselves often have our own very strange and fantastic beliefs. His lecture struck me as very true.

The minute I walked into class, I felt immediately welcomed and comfortable. There aren’t many people in this world who make me feel that way, but our professor definitely did that. He greeted me warmly, I sat down, and conversation came easily to all of us who were waiting for class to begin. When class did begin, our professor began as I stated above, and he seemed just so incredibly open and genuinely interested in every one of us. He talked about how he loves teaching this class because it is always full of people from other faiths, and he gets to learn as much about us and our beliefs as we get to learn about him and his. He spoke of his incredible passion for learning, and how he hoped we would get as much out of the class as he knew he would. He let us know that he has been Mormon all of his life, as he grew up Mormon and also earned his undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University. He has traveled all over the world in his studies and earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin. He taught at Cal State – Berkeley for many years.

As each student introduced themselves, I was pleased to find that we have students from many different seminaries, including a monk, a Jew, and some other Mormons. Some students are Masters students, some are PhD students, and a few are undergraduates. The Mormons spoke about how they have actually taken this class before, and learned much more about Mormonism than they ever knew from growing up in the faith. I believe our professor asked them to join us again so that we would get to hear about the Mormon experience from some people other than himself. I love the diversity!

As we introduced ourselves, each student had a different story to tell about their exposure to Mormonism so far. Most spoke of very warm, welcoming and loving experiences. Typically, someone knew someone else who was Mormon, and was struck by the friendship they developed with that person. A couple of people spoke of conversations they had with someone on a plane when they sat down next to a Mormon who was going to or from a mission. One person spoke of his father’s death, and how his family’s Mormon neighbors were incredibly present, available, and helpful to his family during their grieving process. And one person spoke of memories of being a child when representatives from LDS would come knocking on the front door, and her mom would hide her in the closet until they went away. We all laughed, including the professor and the other mormons. She said she remembers being confused as to why her mom would hide her, and thoughtfully said, “I should ask her why….” I love how we can talk about these things, sharing our stories and past responses, some emotional, some humorous, some seemingly irrational, and everyone seemed to be at ease, open with one another, and ready to laugh. It just felt … comfortable.

When we came back from our break, our professor filled the last hour by showing us a video that gives an introduction to how Mormonism began. The video walked through Joseph Smith’s life. We learned that his father was Universality and his mother Presbyterian. He had his first vision at 14 years old, but the story of that vision, what it was and why he had it, evolved over time. The video said that it started as Joseph’s request for forgiveness, but by the time the evolution was over, it was Joseph asking God to tell him which religion was true, and God telling him that none of them had it right (I had heard about the end story before). During the gold rush times, Joseph was a gold seer (I did not know this). He would lead people to where gold was buried, which was cillegal. He was tried for doing this (I assume because it was thought to be a swindle), but many people testified that they believed Joseph really did have this ability. Then, three years after the first vision, another one came. This one told him that there were golden plates buried, which Joseph found, and then translated into the Book of Mormon.

The biography continues and covers the city and temple that Joseph built in Kirkland, OH, how he left in debt and moved to Missouri, where Joseph believed was the actual place that Adam and Eve lievd in the garden of Eden. As the Mormons grew, those who lived in Missouri eventually became violent, and the governor of Missouri issued an extermination order (the only one ever issued in the US), demanding that the Mormons leave. The Mormons went to Illinois next, where they were at first welcomed by people who were shocked at their treatment in Missouri. It was there in Missouri that Joseph Smith had more revelations such as being able to baptize the dead and the call for celestial marriage (polygamy). Joseph Smith gains more and more power. When someone throws some accusations against Joseph Smith in a local paper, Joseph orders the destruction of that paper. It is then that Joseph Smith is to be arrested, but he has an opportunity to flee. Apparently, he starts to flee, but then turns around and turns himself in. It is while he was arrested, I believe, that he was killed by a mob.

And then we ran out of time. If you’re interested in watching the video yourself (we only watched about an hour of the two hour video, I found it online here. I wish I had more to share with you, but I suppose it was only one class :-). I will say this, though…. I admit that I am one of those people who has heard about all of these beliefs that Joseph Smith had and that I have understood Mormons believe, and I have thought… “That is just crazy. Why in the world would they believe THAT?”

But… I think the lecturer William James makes a good point. Don’t we all believe some pretty crazy stuff? Most Christians seem to believe it’s no big deal to believe that God impregnated a virgin so that God could be human for 30+ years on Earth. That’s pretty crazy, too. How about Moses parting the Red Sea? And it’s not just Christians. How many people believe that there are, truly, ghosts in some shape or form? Maybe we don’t call them ghosts… they are some sort of spirits or souls left from those who have departed who somehow watch over us or communicate with us. At the beginning of class, we spoke a little about  IONS, the Institute of Noetic Sciences (I had never heard of IONS). They do research on things that seem paranormal. One experiment that was explained to me was how they would put someone in a room, video tape them, and see how that person responded when someone else would stare at them from behind them. Would they notice? become uncomfortable? turn around? Apparently, most people DID notice.

My point is not to say that the paranormal really does exist (although I do believe it does), but to point out that most people in this world do believe in something “strange,” “unusual,” or “out of this world.” And yet, we all tend to put down the “crazy” beliefs of others.

I love that everyone in this class seems to come to the class with an open mind. I don’t mean to say that I think any of us are going to be converted. But I do believe that we are all ready to listen, try to understand, learn, and respect the beliefs of the others who are in the room. That, alone, excites me.

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Rude Awakenings can be gifts…

This will be a short post…mostly because John left to go home this morning, and I’m feeling down…and tired. It was so great to have him here, and it will be another two weeks + before I see him again. This is the part of going away to seminary that I hate.

I am posting today, though, because something happened today that I thought was notable and interesting enough to post.

Every Wednesday, we have 11am chapel for the entire seminary…students are required, although they are not taking roll call or anything. The faculty and staff are there, too. Today was my second time attending this service; both times, faculty have presided with a few students helping. The picture above is the chapel. It is set at the very top of the hill on which the seminary resides, and although the chapel really is not at all far from the neighboring buildings, there’s something about the way it is situated that makes it feel very remote and embedded in the beautiful nature that surrounds it.

When you enter the chapel, though, you feel as though you have somehow “escaped” nature. There are hardly any windows (just some slivers where a bit of light comes in), and very little color as the furnishings are basically all wood or white cement/stucco wall. It sounds drab, but there is some beauty to it. It feels very “high church,” if you know what I mean… very pious and sacred…but not really very warm. The largest object(s) in the chapel is the organ and its pipes. They are a bit overwhelming, really. There is also a beautiful, tall, simple wooden cross. But it is dwarfed by the organ pipes.

I was sitting up front, feeling melancholy with the loss of my husband for the next couple weeks, waiting for the service to begin. The organ was playing some music while everyone got situated. Then, the organ finished, the service began from the back of the chapel with a simple prayer at the baptismal font, and then… as those who were presiding began to process up to the front of the chapel, the organist, of course, began to play the entrance canticle “Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!” This was quite notable, though, because it was

LOUD!!!!

I don’t mean loud like how commercials sometimes are a bit abrasive at a louder volume than the tv shows. I mean loud as in every single person in the room winced, and many instinctively put their hands over their ears. It literally hurt my ears (of course, I was sitting very close to the organ). I’m not sure what happened, but it pretty much jerked everyone to attention (and somewhat painfully). It wasn’t just the volume, though, it was also the hymn. “Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!” is a very… well… maybe the right word is jovial, or festive. It is a very upbeat celebration hymn, and with the organ sound in that very acoustic room, it was as though we were IN the organ. Those who were processing visibly jumped and looked over at the organ, but then continued to process. The best part, though, the reason I’m writing this story, is what happened when the procession was over.

The faculty member who was presiding (who I believe is going to be my favorite faculty member here for many reasons), before continuing with the liturgy, said, “Wow,” with a somewhat shocked look on her face, “Wasn’t that wonderful?” Now, please keep in mind that “wonderful” was not the word that jumped to my mind. I was actually a bit annoyed by the sounds that did not sound like “church music” to me. Then, the faculty member continued, “It’s like the Carousel of Christ!”

Her description was perfect. Yes. The Christ Carousel. My descriptions above of festive and jovial are my attempts to describe the carousel music that we hear being blasted at the top volume when going to festivals. The entire idea of a Christ Carousel was so humorous to me; I immediately forgot my annoyance and found a slight appreciation for that awful reverberating, banging, too-loud organ. It even jerked me just a bit out of my melancholy mood. The Christ Carousel… perfect. 🙂

I don’t think I’m doing the story justice here, but it was the funniest part of my day. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll blog a bit about the fascinating Mormonism class I had tonight. 🙂

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Weekend with hubby…

This will be a short post, but I wanted to post something since it has been a few days. John arrived for his first visit on Friday, and I have been away from my computer ever since! We have spent most of our time exploring and shopping. Shopping for the final touches for my dorm room, and exploring the neighboring areas. There are two “downtown” areas close by. We call them by their main streets. The closest one is Solano, and the further one is Shattuck. Those are street names that have many businesses lining them. Solano is a bit smaller and more quaint, and Shattuck is busier. Shattuck goes right through University Ave., which is the main street that ends at University of California – Berkeley. John has been quite the perfect husband by accompanying me into many stores, as I look for just the perfect purchase for my dorm room to try and make it feel more like home.

The highlight of the weekend so far, though, has been our hike. There is a spectacular park right next to PLTS called Tilden Park. John and I hiked yesterday, up to and partly around Lake Anza, and then up to the highest hill in the area. We hiked all the way up where there are wonderful 360 views of the San Francisco Bay (with the bridges: Golden Gate, Bay Bridge, and Richmond Bridge) as well as the San Pablo Bay on the east side. By the time we got back to the dorm, we were very dirty and very tired. 🙂

Today, we took it a bit easier. A little strolling, a little walking, and a little relaxing on a blanket on campus in the sun. We ended the day by dining with my two close comrades from STM, Chelsea and Mary-Alyce, at a very nice French bistro on Shattuck. Unfortunately, I am currently hit with a bit of congestion which is hopefully NOT a cold, and so I am writing a short blog and heading to bed. My first class is tomorrow – all three of us have the same first class, Paul, tomorrow morning at 9:40am on the PLTS campus. I will also have Reading Congregations immediately afterwards, and then I plan to spend the rest of the day with John. He heads home early Wednesday morning. I’m trying not to think about that part – I will miss him sooo much.

OK, heading to bed. Good night, all.

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