Saturday, September 13, 2003

Seminarian Identity Development

A recent conversation gives me the opportunity to reflect a little bit on the issue of identity -- particularly, what it means to self-identify as a seminarian. Perhaps this process is to be expected -- between a background in counseling & development and my current education, it is natural to try and observe this developmental process.

Then. In previous graduate programs, I worked full-time (at least 80%, typically 100%) and studied part-time. I was never sure how i identified myself: it often varied based upon how long of an answer I wanted to give. I could either state where I worked during the day; or sometimes, rarely, indicate that I was a graduate student. If i was particularly busy, I could state "lots of different things" and then start to explain which hat I wore on what basis.

This was frustrating. It was never that I didn't have a self-identity, but it was fluid, not sticky: it was hard to grasp hold of and claim for myself. When I was at work, I was thinking about work, but really distracted by what was going on academically (i.e., homework consistently lurked). When I was in class -- evening classes all -- I was typically tired from work, and didn't really focus on work. When I was in social settings, I would not think about anything really; and when I finally got to studying -- fatigue, burnout, and even some boredom.

It wasn't that I wasn't interested in what I was studying (the broader discipline at least, even if some classes droned.) I just felt very fragmented, and the few hours I pegged in my life for studying were already psychically depleted.

Now. Perhaps it is foolish to talk about a "Now" when I am only in my third full week of seminary (or rather, between weeks three and four.) But I can see some gleanings of identity formation.

I.e., at school, I fully identify myself as a seminarian. To other seminarians, it seems that is enough of a rubric. Sometimes I can go further into particular program, or goals, or denominational activities, but "seminarian" often suffices.

When I am at work: I am not truly at work. (Let me clarify that somewhat before I am fired.) I wear the skin of the person who works in my office; I even commit my mind to the work at hand. (Yes, sometimes I think about homework.) But i don't truly feel at home here: my work identity is almost emblematic of the notion of the pilgrim -- I am simply visiting, and my true home is elsewhere.

When I am at home, unless I am relaxing (something i've earned!), or taking care of chores, I am studying -- and not reluctantly or half-heartedly. I love studying. Specifically, I love what I am studying. True, some texts I may skim while others I'll immerse myself in, but I enjoy the process of learning. I enjoy reading from different courses -- worship, church history, bible -- and seeing everything slowly start to congeal and take a new cognitive shape. And if I'm on campus -- I love getting together with other students and talking about* what we've read, learned, or seen. In some respects, I feel like a very lucky person, to have the opportunity to work with such excellent texts and interesting people and slowly begin the process of developing a personal theological identity.

Its a nice feeling, and goes far to unravel any of those "am I doing the right thing" thoughts that were growing in prominence and frequency as the semester started.

*(Pardon me, the seminarian dialect does not say "get together and talk". It says "gather and reflect".)

Friday, September 05, 2003

Word, Worship, World and Wonder

I've decided that a potential useful -- to me, anyway -- aspect of this blog will be to record and review books as I come across them either in seminary or as part of my general reading. With this in mind, I'm going to submit my first item for consideration...

Word, Worship, World, and Wonder. Karen Lebacqz (1997). Abingdon. 103 pages.

Part of the required reading for my corporate worship class at Wesley, this slim volume discusses what brings people to church -- or does not, as the case sometimes may be. An ordained UCC minister, Lebacqz is better known for her work in ethics (particularly bioethics and feminist ethics) and writes this more as an educated layperson than a theologian.

Lebacqz identifies four key components to institutional worship that are instrumental in making individual churches thrive as communities and places of worship. The discerning reader might identify these four components as none other than... Word, Worship, World, and Wonder. I will address each very briefly in turn:

* Wonder -- Where has the sense of awe gone in our worship? How is it that praising the Good, the Beautiful, and the True has become so repetitive, so abstract and detached? Lebacqz writes (p. 28), "In Calvinist traditions, we are sometimes so word-oriented that we forget the power of images, of silence, of symbols, of scent, of sound, of taste, of touch." To bring back that sense of wonder, worshp must bring us to kairos, or sacred, non-linear time -- the time when all time takes on meaning a sense of emergence.

* Word -- To different degrees, Protestant denominations emphasize the centrality of preaching the Word as part of corporate worship. This Word -- and the words used to preach -- must be relevent to the needs of the people, must speak honest truths (sometimes even painful ones), must be meaningful and vital

* Worship -- or "Word Incarnate" -- Church is a community, not just an hourly gathering of individuals. Lebacqz writes about worship and liturgy not simply as a retreat from the world -- which it certainly can be -- but also as a way of remembering what meaning we should bring to that mundane world. It is an invitation to metanoia, or change and growth. And for this community to thrive, it must be truly welcoming, and remember the occasion to hospitality, to opening your space to Others -- and to being willing to let those others not merely "visit" but transform your space.

* World -- or "Word Incarnate, Again" -- As people of faith, we are not called out of this world, but into it. People of faith, Lebacqz writes, have pastoral, prophetic, and priestly roles in this world: to truly accompany the afflicted; to speak to the evils of society; and to work towards tranformation.

Lebacqz goes on to discuss the notion of separation from/participation in the world., and whether either is truly possible. She argues for Niebuhr's statement that the church's very existence is in fact political. While the kingdom of God cannot be achieved on earth, either to (a) expect it or (b) abandon it leads to despair. It is still something to be worked toward; humanity alone, without God, may not achieve shalom, but it is still a vision that must be worked toward.

Although Lebacqz begins discussing elements of worship, ultimately the book appears more about insitititional (Christian) identity and worldview. What does it mean to be a Christian outside of our weekly hour at Church, and how can our time in church guide that mission?

The UU factor. This book is written for Christians, and perhaps really for Christians in the Reformed tradition, though she does not actively exclude anyone. Some people position UUism outside of Christianity, and that is not an issue I will address here. Much of what Lebacqz addresses towards Reformed Christians actually might resonate with Unitarian Universalists, in particular the emphasis on the Word -- if not the Bible, than other readings, meditations, and then a thematic sermon and on the prophetic role of the church to speak out against the ills of society and to actively work towards tranformation. This book would likely be of value to UU Christians seeking to revitalize their corporate worship and their work, who have perhaps cast off some traditions but now are in need of something new yet still meaningful. Other UUs, if they are not so terribly offended by references to God or Christ, might still find that some of Lebacqz overall sociological commentary is still valid.