Reflecting on My First Year in Seminary: Church has Been More Difficult Than School

So this is an edit of a weekly reflection that I turned in for Seminary. I do not normally post these, but I may start doing so. This reading comes from Feminist & Womanist Pastoral Theology edited by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore and Brita L. Gill-Austern, and it is chapter three “Always an Outsider? Feminist, Female, Lay, and Roman Catholic” by Roslyn A. Karaban. Chapter four by Miller-McLemore is also used a bit in the post. This book is available on Amazon.com is anyone wishes to read it themselves. Chapter three reached out to me on a very personal level and that is why I choose to post here. Maybe posting things and sharing them will help things along.

I found these chapters, especially chapter three, difficult to analyze “academically” because they really spoke to me personally. From the time I got to the middle of the first page of Karaban’s chapter I was solidly engaged in the chapter because I started to recognize my personal story coming out of the pages. To start in chapter four, the biggest thing that jumped out at me was “At the end of my preface of Also a Mother, I express a prevalent sentiment: ‘I, for one, want to hear other voices, voices different from my own’”1 This quote is very much a summary of my entire process this semester in particular, but really my entire time in school so far. I read items from people who I would have never read without coming to school.

From Karaban, when I read “With this rejection of me as a laywoman, I was able to articulate what I would call an experience of contradiction, or what Leon Festinger called experience of ‘cognitive dissonance’–a feeling of distress that occurs when two beliefs fail to align. I had already experienced this dissonance in my belief that I was called to ordained priesthood in a church that denied even the existence of that call, let alone the fulfillment of that call.”2 Certainly this is something that one would experience in the Roman Catholic church and also in the LDS Church. Indeed, both denominations are currently engaged in conversations on various levels trying to determine how “we” wish to fit female members into our various ministries. Certainly many other denominations have and are functioning quite well and growing with women ordained in ministry and I believe that these are good conversations to have within the church body.

I can also relate to Karaban’s view on the lack of understanding of her call from members around her. Being from a tradition without what I would call “traditional” ordained clergy, a huge portion of the church is not even aware that we have professional military chaplains much less know what they do and how to move forward with the process of becoming one. This goes from lay folk all the way up to local leaders. I’ve had folks ask me in church as I’m attending with my entire family if I am a baptized member because they simply do not know what a chaplain is. I’ve had folks in online communities tell me that I need to sit down with missionaries so that I can find the error in my ways because I must not be a member and that the LDS church does not have paid clergy. I haven’t many nice things to say about these folks on the online communities…

Next, Karaban wrote “A number of church documents appeared when I was beginning my teaching career as a pastoral theologian that restricted the academic freedom of the Catholic theologian in a Catholic university or college and discouraged dissent from hierarchical traditional teachings of the magisterium.”3 While I strongly suspect that this was discouraging to her, it is not uncommon among church bodies. Virtually all church bodies prevent folks, especially those who are ordained, from speaking and writing things that are against “orthodox” thought. This has been seen recently in the United Methodist church where an Elder was defrocked due to presiding over a same-sex marriage. Within the LDS Church, a woman was recently excommunicated due to her pressuring leaders to ordain women to office and encouraging women to stage public demonstrations asking for ordination. So, in some ways, I saw some similarities to Karaban’s entrance into counseling and the difficulties facing academics in that field to my initial entrance into the field of chaplaincy and the ever-present line that I have to walk in what I say publicly and what I write.

However, as I read her work, Karaban really caught me when she wrote “Although I felt connected to the other women in my field, I realized that as a Roman Catholic, my history, my orientation, and my concerns would often differ from my Protestant, feminist colleagues.”4 Certainly this can be a universal among pastors and professors in that perhaps an African American professor of religion might feel isolated in fields that may be predominantly white, but this one spoke to me personally. As a prospective chaplain within the LDS Church where we do not have professional clergy, and most folk are unaware that we even have military chaplains, I internalize her statement because I feel like I fall into a grey area where I have relatively few shared experiences with my lay LDS church-going friends and few shared with my Protestant military chaplain brothers. Certainly this is something I am still working with as I move along with process.

Almost piggy-backing on this statement, then, she writes “As a professor of pastoral theology, I still face issues similar to those I faced as a pastoral minister—twenty years ago. Just as I was part of the first generation of Roman Catholic women preparing for professional lay ministry, I am now part of the first generation of female pastoral theologians. I still struggle to find mentors, or at least colleagues, with similar experiences and interests. I still struggle with finding resources that are written by women—specifically Roman Catholic women—that both speak to and affirm who I am.”5 Same as before, this can apply to many people. To use a specific example from a class, a white student mentioned that he saw a black theological writer on the book list and thought “oh…another black guy.” His words were softer than the words make it seem, but an African American student in class made the comment that he was reading from writers outside his particular context in every single class because the majority of writers are white. The difficulty that I find personally is that there is only a single book listed on various online bookseller websites that speaks directly to the context of a LDS person in military chaplaincy. However, much more relevant to me than written books is the difficulty of finding peers and mentors. My current mentor, our chaplain in New York, is quite possibly the closest person who I will find to myself in that he completed his graduate seminary studies while on active duty in the military and is now serving in the Navy, yet he is conservative and evangelical and I am LDS, so our ministry contexts and traditions are far different. That said, however, he is an awesome mentor and I am thankful that he is willing to take his time to work with me. Among the LDS Chaplains who I know, they are graduates of BYU, all served two-year missions, and have been church members since birth, while I have never attended BYU and I did not serve a mission because I did not join the LDS Church until I was twenty-four years old. So in spite of our shared faith, I have very little in common with them either. So, on a personal level, I can understand the isolation that it seems like she felt as a female Catholic theologian and pastoral care-giver.

I also find a certain degree of isolation within the congregations. I find that often times I have questions about theological or spiritual matters that I would like to discuss openly just for the sake of working them through in my mind but I do not feel as though others are willing to have the discussion. I feel that folks want to attack opinions that even slightly dissent from the standard and then move forward to the stock answer of “pray about it.” Well, I have prayed about it, I would just like to discuss it aloud. But I can not, or so I feel. Part of this is that I don’t think that folks like to engage in conversations that cannot be answered with the “canned answers” that we hear each week in Sunday School and partly because I am not sure if I really want to vocalize my opinion on a topic like theodicy because I am not sure what they would think about me if I did. So, as I said, in a lot of ways, I feel like I am somewhat isolated within the church community.

So, the major difficulty for me in this chapter is that I simply cannot separate academics and personal impact. This chapter speaks to me on a highly personal level. I know what the rejection that she writes about feels like. I am currently going through the struggle of finding mentors and peers with whom I have shared experiences. While she does not write about it, I suspect that she had experiences similar to my own when someone asks about chaplaincy and I respond that it is a professional ministry, the person responds with something like “oh, that’s nice” in the same tone that a teenage boy might use when his three year old niece shows him a picture she has just drawn. This chapter really transcended academics for me. It was somewhat comforting to read about someone else having some of the same experiences that I have had. Yet, at the same time, it is not very comforting at all because it causes me to face the potential reality of a long career where I have effectively no peers or folks who I can be truly honest with. This is not the easiest thing for me to work with but one that I will need to deal with moving forward.

1 Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, “Feminist Theory in Pastoral Theology,” in Feminist and Womanist Pastoral Theology, ed. Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore and Brita L. Gill-Austern (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 89.

2 Roslyn A. Karaban, “Always an Outsider? Feminist, Female, Lay, and Roman Catholic,” in in Feminist and Womanist Pastoral Theology, ed. Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore and Brita L. Gill-Austern (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 66-67.

3 Ibid., 67.

4 Ibid., 71-72.

5 Ibid., 75.

Godhead, in My Theological Opinion

Godhead

I believe that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three distinct beings united in a singular purpose.  I believe that God the Father directed Jesus Christ to form the Earth and create mankind in God’s image.  In the same way that Jesus Christ once dwelled with God the Father in Heaven, all of us did as well.  We are all created in the image of God the Father.

I believe that Jesus Christ came to Earth as the Savior for all mankind.  He lived among us, worked among us, and taught among us so that we could have a more complete understanding of the full gospel.  Eventually, he died on the cross to atone for all of our sins and it is through that atonement that we can find salvation and exaltation.

I believe that the Holy Ghost is a spirit being who can speak to us individually. By listening to the Holy Ghost we can discern the message of God as it relates to us and our specific situation.  It is also through the Holy Ghost that we can receive inspiration when reading the scriptures.  The Holy Ghost is God the Father’s way of communicating with us and is the way we can receive revelation for ourselves, our families, and our ministerial charges.

I believe that while Latter-day Saints do not fit into the orthodox definition of the Trinity, we are not a non-Trinitarian faith.  To me, a closer look at the historical texts shows that Latter-day Saints are homoiosian Trinitarians opposed to orthodox homoousian Trinitarians.  I believe in the Godhead with three members, God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, but that the relationship between the three is different.  I believe that I am not a strict monotheist because Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are gods, deified beings, they are not worshiped like God the Father.  In that way, I believe that I am henotheist, I worship only one God but I believe in the existence of multiple other gods and deities.

I believe that, while separate in being, the three members of the Godhead are singular in purpose.  Without one, the system cannot function.  Without God the Father, there could not have been creation.  Without Jesus Christ, there can be no salvation.  Without the Holy Ghost, there can be no communication or inspiration.

A New Year of Seminary Begins

So today was my first day back in Seminary after the summer break. It really occurred to me today how much I missed the spiritual growth that comes, for me, from Seminary education. Being in a community of faith as I am, even if we are of different denominations, and growing together is something that I simply have not been able to find in my local congregations, though I wish I could. It never ceases to amaze me the stories that people bring to Seminary education. The paths they took in finding their call to ministry. Many folks who I study with indicate that they ran away from the call to ministry for many years. Some indicate that it took years of running before an event triggered something in them that led them back to the church, back to Jesus Christ, and into the ministry. It really is amazing being around these folks and being able to learn from them and grow with them.

Once again, I am the only non-United Methodist in my group and one of the few in the entire school. Certainly, being Mormon, I bring some differing view points to the table when we discuss theology and other things. I always find that I grow from conversations with others. I feel like I have grown a great deal in faith in the past year. Something interesting that I have noticed is that I feel that I am stronger in my faith, I feel like my testimony is stronger, yet I feel much more comfortable in the idea that what I believe or hold to be true might just be wrong. Certainly I do not believe that I am wrong (otherwise, why would I continue attending the LDS church?) but I do not feel like I would have my faith and existence shaken to the point of no return by having something I believe proven wrong.

This is certainly a growing experience for me. I’m far from perfect. I don’t pray as often as I should. I’m horrible at actually fasting on Fast Sunday, though I will say that I give a fast offering anyway. I don’t read my Scriptures every night. But the truth is, I try to improve on that every day. I find it interesting to learn more about other denominations and faith traditions because, eventually, I am going to have to work side by side with these folks and minister to these folks. I am very thankful for the growth that this experience provides and I hope and pray that I can continue to grow in my faith journey every day.

Kate Kelly Excommunicated

http://news.yahoo.com/mormon-church-excommunicates-womens-group-founder-202755739.html

Well…was that really unexpected? Come on folks, let’s be real for a minute. Advocating for women’s ordination is one thing, something that I’m not necessarily against…but I’ve explained that before on here. I don’t get bound up about it either way. No, I should say that it’s fairly obvious that it was the demonstrations that led to this. She seems like she wants to continue attending church…I hope she really keeps going. I guess the truth with this situation is that while the communications within the church and talk about leaders and so forth has changed in recent years with social media and blogs, there is a limit to what is acceptable. I think we’re seeing just how close we can get to a boundary before we go too far.

Church Response to NYT Article and Additional Commentary

http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-responds-to-church-discipline-questions

Church Responds to Church Discipline Questions
SALT LAKE CITY — 

The Church issued the following statement today in response to questions from the news media regarding Church discipline:

“The Church is a family made up of millions of individuals with diverse backgrounds and opinions. There is room for questions and we welcome sincere conversations. We hope those seeking answers will find them and happiness through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Sometimes members’ actions contradict Church doctrine and lead others astray. While uncommon, some members in effect choose to take themselves out of the Church by actively teaching and publicly attempting to change doctrine to comply with their personal beliefs. This saddens leaders and fellow members. In these rare cases, local leaders have the responsibility to clarify false teachings and prevent other members from being misled. Decisions are made by local leaders and not directed or coordinated by Church headquarters.

“Actions to address a person’s membership and standing in their congregation are convened after lengthy periods of counseling and encouragement to reconsider behavior. Ultimately, the door is always open for people to return to the Church.”

 

This statement is not unexpected. It also reads like something of a “canned” message, which is also not unexpected. The Church has long ago established that disciplinary hearings are not public information. The difficulty with this situation is that it’s being played out in the public news and the only side that will be heard is that of the accused individuals. The sides of the situation are also fairly well established already, the liberal groups supporting the individuals in question and the conservatives supporting the Church proper. Moderates will be torn, I suppose.

Ms. Kelly has a couple informative posts up on the Ordain Women website if you want to look at them. Again, the problem here is that this is her side only. Her Bishop will almost certainly not comment on the matter, nor will anyone else. In this situation, I stand by my comments last night that her hearing is the result of the organized actions in Salt Lake City during General Conference. Without those, I suspect she would not be here.

There seems to be less information out there from Mr. Dehlin. At least a couple of websites in the ex-Mormon community indicate that he has gone through periods of inactivity in the past. Here and here. This seems to be something that is not new to him. In the New Order Mormon forum, Mr. Dehlin posted that he no longer believes (or believed at the time) in the Restoration of the Church, Priesthood, and so forth. To say that belief in that is fundamental to the church would be an understatement. It’s equivalent to one of my United Methodist friends not believing in the teachings of Wesley. I guess I find it difficult to self-identify as a Mormon while lacking belief in such a fundamental church teaching. If that belief, or lack of belief, is still the case, it should come as no surprise that this is happening to him. 

In this same sense, I would say that I suspect supporters of these organizations, along with supporters of organizations like Affirmation, will be fine. I actually just “liked” the Affirmation New York City page on Facebook today. At the core of all of this, regardless of female leadership or the Church’s acceptance of the LBGT community in a membership context, WE, as members, must be willing to accept them into our congregations. 

To me, the outcome of the situations with Ms. Kelly and Mr. Dehlin is not really in question. Truth is, believing something that is different from orthodox Church teachings and even writing about it is different from actively recruiting people to stage a demonstration on Temple Square or freely admitting that you no longer believe in the Restoration. I think we all need to remember the difference during this time.

Possible Church Discipline Against Two Members

So I read an article from the New York Times a little while ago:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/12/us/two-activists-within-mormon-church-threatened-with-excommunication.html?_r=3

Then I saw a blog post by LDS blogger Jana Riess:

http://janariess.religionnews.com/2014/06/11/facing-mormon-purge/

I wonder if this entire situation might have turned out differently? My personal view is that the problem here has been the methods of “protest” rather than the message. My thought is that Ms. Kelly advocating something of a sit-in at General Conference got her here, not the message of asking for the ordination of women. I have nothing really against the ordination of women. It is not really something that would “bother” me. I do have some serious questions for the organizers about how they would propose reorganizing the entire church if we went to a universal priesthood, i.e. would Relief Society go away and ladies meet with the equally aged men, would Young Men and Young Women become a single youth group, does the Priesthood become “diluted” if everyone has it, etc? But I am not against this as an idea. I was, however, against them attempting to attend General Conference. I think the first time they tried to do it was something of an oddity. They were politely told that they would not be granted admission. Coming back for a second time became something different. My view is that had they stopped at the single appearance and then taken back to words, I do not think this would be happening.

I am not quite as familiar with Mr. Dehlin’s situation. I know from his public Facebook page he self-identifies as a “Cultural Mormon” rather than simply “Mormon” or “Latter-day Saint.” I also know that he runs the website Mormon Voices. The New York Times article said that a letter from his Stake President dated June 7 that “cited an Internet posting in which Mr. Dehlin wrote that he no longer believes many fundamental “truth claims” the church makes.” Personally, I think Mr. Dehlin erred in providing that letter to the New York Times. I also do not think providing the letter will help his cause. I also quite honestly wonder why he attends if he “no longer believes many fundamental ‘truth claims’” of the church. Now, I am not trying to say that he SHOULD leave, simply asking the question. I would also as this question of a United Methodist who no longer believed the teachings of John Wesley, a Presbyterian who no longer believed the teachings of John Calvin, or a Lutheran who no longer believed the teachings of Martin Luther. It is difficult for me to understand how a person who does not believe in or accept the fundamental beliefs of a denomination would still attend that particular denomination. Perhaps this is not quite the case with Mr. Dehlin, but it seems that way to me. It seems to me that this is the “problem” that the Church may have with him.

His message of acceptance for the LGBT community seems to be a good one. We certainly need to be more welcoming of these people. I feel that we fall short in this area quite a bit. I am not necessarily trying to say that we should baptize an openly LGBT person, this is a highly divisive issue in the Mainline churches, while the modern Evangelical churches, along with the Roman Catholic church, are generally against the practice. Same goes with same-sex marriage. These issues are divisive, to a degree, in the LDS Church as well, we can’t deny that. What should not be divisive, however, is that we should welcome ALL persons into our congregations if they wish to attend. The sign on the front of every building says “Visitors Welcome.” I would sincerely ask if they really are? Not by the Church as a body, but as members. Do members really welcome the odd and strange people into our mix? In this way, his message was right on. We, as a church community, need to be more welcoming of the people who don’t fit the standard mold of our church. They need to feel welcome to attend and hear the message of the Gospel. If they are not then we, as members, are doing something wrong. I have to wonder if there is information about Mr. Dehlin what we do not know. 

Truly, it’s a shame either way that these folks may no longer be a part of the church membership. Obviously the majority of liberal LDS bloggers will come down on the side of these individuals while the conservative bloggers will be against them. I suppose I am in the conservative camp, but because of their methods (at least Ms. Kelly’s methods) rather than their message. We will have to see how this turns out.

Service of the Passion (Twelve Gospels)- Greek Orthodox Church

So this is going to be interesting to write. I want to walk the line of being respectful to the traditions of the Greek Church and actually going through how I felt during the service.

So I went to the church after work and I was one of the first people in the nave (chapel or sanctuary would be the relevant Low Church term). I got to watch as folks came in to sit down. Some of them went to the front of the nave and sort of bowed in front of each of six icons (pictures) on the front wall. I see after some research this wall is called an Iconostasis and separates the Nave from the Sanctuary (different from Low Church sanctuary). Some bowed, touched the floor, and crossed their chest three times at the middle four icons, then only once for the outer two. After the bowing and crossing, they kissed the icon. Some only bowed and crossed once prior to kissing the icon. This was very interesting to see.

So at exactly 7pm, the service starts. It starts without introductions of any kind. Two men just started with chanting and I am virtually certain they were chanting in Greek. I had no idea what they were doing. I wouldn’t find out for about an hour and a half, but there were books in the foyer (Narthex if we’re being technical) that lays out the service word for word. VERY High Church tradition. So they chant for a little while longer, read some Psalms which were numbered in the book, but they didn’t announce which Psalms they were reading. After a fair amount of singing/chanting in Greek and English, I start to hear bells.

Once again, I have no idea what is going on. After 30 seconds or so, the Priest (I think he was the Priest, certainly a clergyman) comes out from the Sanctuary carrying an incense burner. I don’t know what this was called. It was handheld and looked something like a small kettle. So he walks all around the nave with this and goes back into the Sanctuary. He then opens some doors in the center of the Iconostasis, called Beautiful Gates, and sets up a podium. He begins the first Gospel reading, I wish I had a copy of the book that we all used, there was something very specific that he said prior to every Gospel reading. I remember part of it was “let us be attentive.”

The first Gospel reading was quite long, being the better part of four chapters in the Gospel of John. He finishes this reading and the folks in the choirs, two men on one side of the Iconostasis and one on the other, start reading and chanting again, in Greek and English. After they have started the chants, one of the men who had been standing on either side of the podium lights one of twelve candles that are in front of the Iconostasis. There were twelve, seemingly for the twelve Gospel readings, but I am not sure of the significance. This procedure, minus the incense, went on for the next 4 readings. After the fifth reading, however, something different happened. The priest came out again with the incense and walked around the Nave. After going back into the Sanctuary, he and others begin a procession out. There were two of the candle bearers in front carrying fans, a man behind them walking in reverse carrying a thurible, a chained incense burner, behind him is the priest who had been doing the readings carrying a large cross (about 7-8 feet tall) with the image of Jesus Christ nailed on it, behind him was an older man in a different set of ecclesiastical vestments.  They walk around the entire nave as we all kneel on kneelers behind the pews and then place the cross in the center of the church in front of the Iconostasis and Beautiful Gates.

After this, we started with more Gospel readings and each of these took place in the same manner as before. Priest would read, candle would be lit, choirs would begin chanting other parts of the service. It should be noted, I forgot to mention this earlier, that the priest chants/sings the entire Gospel reading each time. Very, very interesting. Eventually, the Twelve Gospels were read to the congregation and the service was concluded with a liturgically defined prayer.

So, what did I learn? Well, this service was three hours long, first. There was no preaching of any kind. It was simply High Church readings of the Gospels with various interludes. The Gospels told the story of the last day of Christ. From the Last Supper, to His trial, to the cross, and finally to being placed in the tomb. The manner of service was quite unnerving at first because I lacked a liturgical book to follow along with the service. While this was certainly different, it was indeed spiritual. I honestly don’t know the symbolism of everything that went on. Once I had a book to read from and follow along, it became easier to follow. I’d actually like to get a copy of one and read it over again. Being from a church that is effectively a Low Church tradition, this was a very unique service. One day I may go back and try to sit through a more routine service. But overall, I had an enjoyable, if quite befuddling, evening.