Wednesday, September 9, 2015

My First Week in Seminary, Part II

Well, here I am, Labor Day enjoying one last night of relaxation before I begin my regular classes for the semester begin. Last week was one of the most intense, beautiful, emotional, and thought provoking weeks of my life.

So much happened in such a short period of time that the only way to make sure I don't miss anything is to chronicle this topsy-turvy week day by day.

Saturday, August 29th:

Today was the beginning of the Circle of Trust class, a two day intensive class designed to help build trust, listening skills, and self empowerment. From the course description I anticipated some kind of fluffy New Age self-help woo woo. Then I started reading the book assigned for the class. The author denounced the very thing I assumed this course was going to be in the book. But I was somehow sure it was still going to end up that way.

I was wrong. The class ended up being an intense 10 hour class on how to listen better to people and asking questions.

We were taught how to ask what they referred to as open and honest questions meaning that the questions weren't supposed to be closed questions aimed at fixing the problem. instead the questions

At the end of the day, we had to take objects that reminded us of our past. We were told to hold the objects and journal about where we've been in life. Specifically we were told to reflect on who we were as children, who we were as teenagers, and who we were as young adults.

I don't have the happiest of childhoods nor teen years and the first few years of my twenties weren't spectacular either. So, going over this in my head and journaling about it was pretty intense for me. Then as though that weren't emotional enough, I then had to tell two strangers I had met earlier that day about it.

I went home that night feeling drained.

Sunday, August 30th:

I went back for day two of the class. I had volunteered to be the focus person in one of the groups. The focus person was someone who brought a problem to the group and then the other members of the group were to ask open and honest questions not to resolve your problem but to help you think about your problem in ways you probably hadn't so you could do more to solve it.

I knew that would probably be an intense experience. I decided to bring up a very raw topic for myself, my guilt over not getting closure with my dad when I had the chance and how do I move on from this point? The session was two hours long, 15 minutes of me explaining the issue and the rest of the time, the other 4 people in our group asked me open and honest questions. Again, this was not to try to resolve my problem, but to help me think of it in different ways. It honestly opened up a whole new avenue of exploration of this issue and made me realize there may be a way to deal with this. For that I'm grateful.

After the Circle of Trust retreat, I felt really drained and didn't want to do anything else that night, but we still had the welcoming ceremony for the new students, called the Threshold Ceremony. I arrived back at the school after an hour and a number of second and third year students were there as well as a number of the faculty. They lined us up in a straight line and handed each of us a lit candle. Several members of the faculty said a few words about new beginnings and crossing into a new life.

They then started singing the famous adaptation of Rumi's words:

Come, come whoever you are!
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair.
Come, yet again, come.

As they sang we walked through the doors of the school into the chapel. The chapel was now centered around a fireplace against the walls. On the mantle of the fireplace and the hearth were nearly 100 unlit candles all held up by various types of candlesticks. directly above the altar was a stained glass window of a yellow spiral, the symbol of the school.

They continued singing the song and introduced several rounds of it. The energy in the room was electric as we sang it over and over again each word more intense than the last.

Finally the song was over and the president of the school wearing a black cassock with a flaming chalice embroidered in gold on the front of it. She welcomed all of us which was followed by a blessing by one of the faculty.

After this, we chanted:

There is a love holding us. 
There is a love holding all we love. 
There is a love holding us.
We rest in this love.

Then we new students were invited to come up one at a time as they called our name out and place our candles on the altar. We continued chanting and as they called out our names, we replaced the word "we" in the last line of the song with the name of the student approaching the altar to set their candle there. After we put our candles on the hearth, we were welcomed to the school by the class president and given a key to the school (a real key I can use any time, not a ceremonial one) and a sand dollar. The significance of the sand dollar wasn't explained, but it was a beautiful gesture.

This was followed by silent meditation and then a Jewish hymn called Hineh Ma Tov which is a song about sitting in unity and brotherhood.

After this, the provost of the school read some original poetry he had written about social justice. They were wonderful poems and I'm not going to slaughter them by trying to remember lines from them and put them down here. The topics were diversity, bodies mattering, lives mattering especially black lives and those of any other oppressed group.

This was followed by several beautiful songs and one of the faculty offering up words of hope while the choir sang. it was all so beautiful and so magical. It was like being swept away in an opera or a concert. I was overcome with emotion and it felt like I was engulfed in a current of peace and love. 

We were all invited to then come up and light a candle on the hearth or mantle as a candle of hope for the year. one by one, we lined up until the altar was dazzled with dozens of flickering flames all the while the choir chanted, 

Stay with me, 
Remain here with me, 
Watch and pray.

We continued chanting for a minute or two after all the candles were lit and just soaked in the atmosphere of it all.

The service ended with the president of the university giving a final blessing and then we all gathered in several tight, concentric circles around the center of the room holding hands and singing.

It seemed abrupt how it all ended, no final words, no dismissal, just this incredible energy left over from the ceremony.

After this there was a dinner for all the school's students. Dinner consisted of the best Indian food I've ever had in my life and great conversation and company.

This blog is turning out far longer and more detailed than I anticipated. I will have to pick this up in one final part, Part III: Orientation, Anointing, and Symposium.

Until next time, 
Peace be with you.

Monday, September 7, 2015

My first week of seminary, Part I

As promised here is the first blog about this atheist's first week in seminary. But before we get into that, I figured some introductions and housekeeping were in order.

First off, I'm going to assume a number of you aren't familiar with me. If you want to see how I got to this point, check out my previous blog where I visited 52 different religions.

My Background:

 I a young man now pushing 30. I'm originally from Utah, now living in Berkeley, California. I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called the Mormon Church or the LDS Church. When I was young, I was convinced that I belonged to the One True Church and that all other churches and religions were misguided.

When I was 15 years old, I went on a trip to Europe. The first place we stopped was Rome and I saw the Vatican and a number of other historical churches there. I was speechless as I saw this amazing tradition that was centuries old reaching back to the early days of Christianity. How could I say that a religion that old with over a billion members in the world was nothing compared to my faith? I wanted to know more about it so I came home and checked every book on Catholicism out from the public library. Several books on Catholicism led to books on Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam, eventually I was reading about every religion possible.

As I read on, I realized that my faith in my childhood faith was slowly dying. It scared me and I tried to deny it. But, by 17 I realized I didn't believe in it anymore. At 18, I told everybody. It was a hard experience. I lost friends, had people I respected suddenly shun me, got in fights with family, and ultimately wondered if it had all been worth it.

Starting around 17 I had begun looking into other religions. I at first was feeling drawn to Greek Orthodoxy and attended that church for nearly a year. But something told me that it wasn't my home. I ended up in the Roman Catholic Church after some more searching, the very church that had started my spiritual quest.

I threw myself wholeheartedly into the Catholic Church. It became the center of my life. I even felt called to be a priest. As part of that decision, I decided to read the Bible and found that it was a horrifying book filled with murder, human sacrifice, an unapologetic endorsement of slavery, war, genocide commanded by God, among other travesties. About the same time I was reading books about the origins of Judaism and Christianity and concluded that they were both made up religions.

I searched for meaning elsewhere, finding it for a while in Neo-Paganism. But eventually I began wondering if it was all just in my head. Especially when I learned more about how the brain worked. I wandered into agnosticism before becoming a full blown atheist. My atheism was brought on by a huge sense of injustice I saw in the world. How could God allow for the mass suffering of his people on earth? How could God sit idly by while his children suffered famine, poverty, rape, torture, and horrors the Western mind is barely able to conceive of yet are daily life among people in huge portions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

I became quite militant in my atheism. I told myself I wanted nothing more to do with religion again. For a while I was convinced that religion was a relic of the past that had no place in modern society and that those who still believed in God were part of a mass delusion. Yet at the same time, I couldn't stop studying religion.

Eventually, I softened toward religion. I realized that if I was going to make the changes I wanted to see in this world, I would have to engage the 6 billion other people on this planet that believed in some kind of god or supernatural force.

After a dark depression spell, I decided to do last year's blog, something I'd wanted to do for years, which led me to even further consider the value of religion and spirituality. I found myself being equal parts repulsed and entranced by the religiosity I saw. For every fundamentalist sermon on how slavery is a good thing if you have a good master; and Jesus Christ is a good master, there was an equally inspiring prayer for the dead in a synagogue filled with so much passion and emotion. For every sermon demonizing natural sexual impulses in people, there was an open and affirming clergy person saying, "Come, come whoever you are."

During the blog, I found myself considering becoming a minister again. I thought that such an idea was impossible. I was just an atheist with a silly blog. Then I started helping people through the blog with their own issues with religion and what they believed. It was clear to me I needed to be one.

So here I am, a brand new seminarian about to enter the experience of a lifetime.

Common questions and their answers:

How can you be an atheist and go to seminary to be a minister? The idea of a religious leader who doesn't believe in God isn't as radical as it sounds. Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, did not believe in God nor any being that created the universe, yet he founded the fourth largest religious tradition in the world. Mother Theresa was the founder of a spiritual order in the Catholic Church and devoted to great acts of charity and kindness. She has been beatified by the Catholic Church and is most likely going to become a saint in the next few decades. Yet, it has come out that Mother Theresa in private doubted the existence of God and from her personal writings appears to have had atheistic tendencies. I do not need God to be an effective minister, what I need is clear direction, love, compassion, wisdom, and training.

Why would an atheist want to be a minister? Aren't there more valuable things you could do with your time? I cannot think of any path more valuable to me than the one I have chosen. For too long in this country the primary voices of religion have been voices of fundamentalists neo-orthodoxy and those hellbent on an agenda of oppression and black and white thinking. These theologies often view the role of women as inferior and/or segregated from the role of a man. They demonize religions and philosophies outside of their own paradigm. Tend to be homophobic and transphobic. And most importantly, they build these foundations on an appeal to tradition which is groundless and a very elementary understanding of their own scriptures.

If these issues are religious issues, they need a religious solution. If people are seeking an alternative to the narrow views presented to them, then atheists hurling insults at religion and criticizing religion with an equally naive view of scripture will not present a long term solution. We must provide people with the spiritual nourishment they crave while not denying the realities of this world nor using faith as a tool of oppression.

Aren't you worried your seminary will find out your an atheist? I'm not worried about this at all. I told them in my application and my interviews that I am an atheist. It didn't bar me from acceptance.

What kind of seminary would accept an atheist? A damn good, progressive, and forward thinking seminary.

Is your seminary some kind of degree mill that would just accept anyone if they took an atheist? Nope. I'm actually attending a fully accredited, prestigious seminary that's been around for over 100 years and is allied with a number of other seminaries training clergy in many denominations including: Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian.

What denomination is your seminary? Unitarian Universalist.

Where can I find out more about Unitarian Universalism? Here:

How can I help you with this blog? You can donate to my Go Fund Me in order to get my initial setup here cemented.

Well, I didn't quite get to the events of this week. That will be up in a couple hours, but it's lunchtime. We will pick this back up soon.

Until then,
Peace be with you.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

My new blog

Hello everyone! I have started a new blog to chronicle my new adventure in seminary.

For those unfamiliar with my work, here is my previous blog:

I will be publishing the blog of my first week in seminary next week tomorrow and one blog per week from then on. I will be also including a Go Fund Me to help continue this project as it is a rather expensive endeavor.

Hope to see all of you soon.

Peace be with you.