Welcome to the Abundant Table | Perkins Fellow, Isabella Hall '19

This blog post is reprinted with permission from The Project on Lived Theology.

Ventura, California, is a coastal city where grandmotherly mountains morph seamlessly into the seemingly infinite Pacific ocean. The water’s cool breath mitigates the heat of the ever-present sun and creates a consistently seventy degree oasis. It feels fitting to compare Ventura to Eden with its year-round growing season and nutrient rich sandy-loam soil, a product millions of years in the making as mountains gave way to erosion by winds, rains, and the slow tectonic shifts of the land. In case I have not described a place befitting of the Eden comparison, Ventura country is an agricultural epicenter known as a global supplier of strawberries. The extensive strawberry fields, their neat rows populated by teams of harvesters, are visible from the California 101 freeway and almost every other roadway in the county.

In the past week, I myself have become intimately acquainted with the process of plucking these red-ripened strawberries from their leafy habitations. My work is punctuated with pauses here and there in order to taste the warm flesh of a berry nurtured to maturation by the light of the sun and expert care by the hands of farmers Reyna and Guadalupe, the two farmers who manage The Abundant Table’s small organic farm. If I’m honest, the sublime scene I described above—standing tall in the fields with a box of freshly picked strawberries on my hip, sweat on neck, and dirt all over—was precisely the romantic vision which initially kindled my interest in farming. Can you relate to this confession? Have you ever read poetry by Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, or Annie Dillard and then resolved to live more connected with and attentive to the land? Have you ever thought of uprooting your current constraints and pioneering a new path as a wildflower farmer, an urban agrarian, or a naturalist poet? I have a sense I’m not alone in this. The earth enchants the soul; its holiness at once both mysterious and self-evident. Wendell Berry remarks, “We did not make it. We know little about it. In fact, we don’t, and will never, know enough to make our survival sure or our lives carefree.”[1]And yet for the overwhelming majority of Americans, connectivity to the land is a remote reality.

Many live, at best, removed from and insulated against the rhythms of the natural world and, at worst, with worldviews which assert humankind’s right to dominate, commodify, and deplete the land. As someone located within the Christian tradition, it grieves me to witness how scriptures, doctrine, and tradition have been co-opted by colonialism and capitalism to perpetuate a “functional Docetism” which “has numbed Christians to the escalating horrors of both ecological and social violence, because spiritual or doctrinal matters always trump terrestrial or somatic ones.”[2] Contrastingly, the Bible and the Hebrew scriptures in particular offer “a story and a discourse about the connection of a people to a place” and ecological stewardship as “implicit in that story’s insistence upon the land’s sanctity.”[3] In this vein, Ellen Davis, Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School and author of Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, suggests agrarianism as a hermeneutic, or in other words, a lens through which one might read the scriptures and thus distill pertinent interpretations, meaning, and wisdom. Furthermore Davis claims, “Reading the work of contemporary agrarians can make us better readers of Scripture.”[4] That is a surprising suggestion amid a historical moment when most folks have little connection to the elements, let alone the process of food production. However, I wonder if each of us is nearer to the ethics of land and food than we might imagine:

Our largest and most indispensable industry, food production entails at every stage judgments and practices that bear directly on the health of the earth and living creatures, on the emotional, economic, and physical well-being of families and communities and ultimately on their survival. Therefore, sound agricultural practices depend upon knowledge that is at one and the same time chemical and biological, economic, cultural, philosophical, and (following the understanding of most farmers in most places and times) religious. Agriculture involved questions of value and therefore moral choice, whether or not we care to admit it.[5]

Davis’ framework, which connects spiritual matters with the physical matter of land and its proper or improper usage, invites me to revisit my strawberry scene and tease out some of the unseen complexities.

For one, my experience on The Abundant Table’s farm is inextricably shaped by social location as a college-educated white woman endowed with various sorts of capital which have allowed for my educational and immersive internship experience. My willful presence is so viscerally contrasted from the overwhelming majority of farmers in Ventura County, many of whom are Latino/a and working grueling 12-hour shifts for shockingly low wages. The gravity of the realization pains me when I feel the ache of my thighs and lower back from just a few hours of farm work. Farmer Reyna has shared with me a small glimpse of her experience working within conventional agricultural operations where farmers like herself monotonously harvest hundreds of acres of monocrops dusted with chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. These conditions lead to horrendous illnesses, such as various cancers and late-onset asthma, not to mention the devastating effects upon the soil and the pollution to the surrounding air and water supply. Reyna compares these experiences to her time at The Abundant Table, where farmers are paid living wages and organic practices are used in ways that are honoring of the land and what it grants. She affirms, “It’s important that all work be dignified…My dirty clothes are my professional uniform. I believe it’s very important that youth have opportunities to work in the field and grow their own understanding of farm work, so they can begin to respect and value this work and the tremendous physical strength and earth-literacy it requires.”[6]

The earth-literacy Reyna describes is a lexicon I am continuously cultivating. As I explore and experience the uniqueness of this bioregion—where mountains dissipate into ocean and an intricate network of estuaries and waterways form a living, breathing watershed—I simultaneously encounter the historical, cultural, and religious narratives which have grown over these lands, and in the midst of all this newness I, a visitor, ask, what does this place and its people have to teach me about encountering the Triune God? What does it mean to join The Abundant Table community in the work of doing justice and loving mercy by transforming existing food systems? How can I live into the divine calling to recognize my location within creation and my responsibility to it, and to grow into a disciple of this particular watershed?

[1] Wendell Berry, foreword to Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. David (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), ix.

[2] Ched Myers, introduction to Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice, edited by Ched Myers (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016), 5.

[3] Berry, foreword to Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, xi.

[4] Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 22.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sarah Nolan, Erynn Smith, and Reyna Ortega in “Growing from the Edges” from Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice, edited by Ched Myers (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016), 151.

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 Perkins Fellows out on the town in Richmond!

Perkins Fellows out on the town in Richmond!

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In Transition: A Mother's Perspective

Annesley Macfarlane is the mother of three sons: Sammy (UVa grad), William and Jamie.  She and her family live in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Summer is a time when many of us---parents, children, faculty---are in transition.   We've asked Annesley to talk about the changes her family experienced during the boys' college years and where she found God in the midst of it all.: I have a new motto: "Try and enjoy all you can about the minutes because they soon become years". I made it up last week as I reflected on the realities and emotions that often come in early June. June brings transition. Graduation. First jobs. Spring to summer. School to camps or summer internships. Most of these transitions are celebrations but many  can be tinged, or even paralleled, with sadness.  Where have the years gone?

Transition can't stall time, as perhaps we would wish, but it often fosters consideration of how we have lived. Should we have done things differently this past year, or years? Could we have done things better? Have we  built a strong enough Faith foundation? Were we attentive to God's direction for our family?

I watched our middle son drive out of our driveway this afternoon for his summer job 5 hours away. His last college exam was yesterday, he took the red-eye, and I picked him up at the airport this morning.  We washed his clothes and repacked them all day, squeezing in a few appointments he needed in town. We also managed to fit in a birthday celebration for my husband and a 5 minute family prayer time that felt too rushed. Our son was here 8 hours and then gone.

I knew today was precious.  I tried to absorb the minutes but the day has come and gone  and my heart aches. Yes, he is doing something wonderful this summer, even God-centered,  but it still hurts to see him go. Family is a beautiful design God gave us and it can be painful when the family no longer resides together most of the time.

I don't transition well. I am pretty sure I needed tissues at Pre-K graduation. I tend to prefer the "old days" and the "old ways" to all the change that is constantly thrust upon me. I am learning to store things up in my heart and to recognize that embracing what is ahead doesn't diminish what is behind. God gives us seasons. New adventures for us and for our children.

Colossians 1:10-12 is a wonderful passage and I pray it for our three boys. "And we pray this in order that you many live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light." Amen

Ginger, the Bonhoeffer House dog

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"Happiness is a warm puppy." This old saying proves true at the Bonhoeffer House, where Ginger waits at the door, hoping desperately that you will come to visit.  Ring the doorbell and she goes wild, barking/beckoning the rest of the family to come greet you, too.  

Ginger can't boast a fancy breed.  She came to the Bonhoeffer House through an ad on Craig's List.  She dreams of biting the mail carrier.  She can shake paws, but that's it on the tricks.  She tends to shed. Her breath is not the freshest.  But Ginger can be relied upon to welcome each and every person who steps through the door (unless you're the mail carrier). 

Ginger doesn't ask for much.  For students away from home, missing their own dogs, Ginger is at the ready with her leash, delighted to go on walks around Grounds.  She patrols the crowd during weekly Vintage lunches, on the off chance that a bite of chicken will hit the floor.  She'll lie next to you as you study.  Her love is uncomplicated.

Ginger is our Theological Horizons mascot, a warm puppy of happiness.  She'll be looking out for you!

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Backyard Baptisms | Reflections by Becca Pryor '17

“I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”

Breathe in, close eyes, go under, come up, breathe out, open eyes, smile.

“…Amen!”

Underneath the mid-July sun, I found myself standing in the backyard of my host-family’s home in Richmond, looking upon the baptisms of 20 new brothers and sisters in Christ.  It was incredible how such a powerful and beautiful commitment could happen in the swimming pool that I passed by every single morning on my way to work as an intern for a local church.

Cheers, tears, and the applause of family members and friends echoed through the neighborhood after each person emerged from the water.  I looked up at my friend and fellow intern, Katie, and smiled at her through the tears that ran down my face.  Once we locked eyes we both started laughing amidst our tears; our hearts were exploding with joy and we took comfort in the other’s similar emotional response to what was happening in front of us.  

As I stood next to the pool I gazed upon the individuals getting baptized with eyes full of wonder and a heart full of love.  Children in elementary school and adults with decades of stories to be told walked into the water one by one, each ready to be fully submerged and commit their lives to Christ.

The group of individuals newly baptized gathered together on the steps of the pool once it was all over and I couldn’t help but feel overcome with a sense of connectedness toward each of them.  In that moment I felt the joy that radiated out of their hearts and saw God in each of them; the reflection of His image in them shined brightly that afternoon.  From the youngest boy to the oldest woman, God crafted each one of them carefully and thoughtfully in a way that magnificently mirrors who He is.  I looked upon the group and saw them as my siblings, as fellow human beings adopted into son-ship and daughter-ship by Jesus Christ, our Savior.  The bear-hugs and celebrating that took place once they came out can most accurately be described as familial and I mean that in the most whole and perfect sense of the word.

After most everyone headed home, all of us college-aged interns jumped into the pool and played water basketball, laughing alongside one another.  One of the interns amongst us was baptized just 30 minutes prior to the horseplay; how sweet an image it was to see her to freely play and celebrate in the water in which she had just made an eternal commitment to Christ.  The water used to welcome her into the family of Christ was also a space of freedom and joy, a space to share with others in community and laughter.

This past Sunday, I returned to Richmond to attend a second round of baptisms.  The same overwhelming sensations filled my heart; what an absolute honor it was to witness and celebrate new commitments to Christ yet again!  That morning, before baptisms, the pastor preached about the beauty that comes with being more God-aware and less self-aware.  The freedom that comes from focusing on a vision and purpose greater than us as individuals allows a ruthless trust in God to manifest itself in how we live out our lives and love one another.  As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to run fast next to one another in the path that God has laid out before us. 

The freedom that was experienced in the fun of playing in the pool that mid-July afternoon reflects the freedom and joy that comes along with aligning our hearts and minds towards God in a posture of worship, commitment, and love.  I am eternally thankful that God crossed my path with those whom I met this summer and am even more excited to spend an eternity with them in heaven.     

-Becca was a Horizons Fellow as well as Theological Horizons' Development Intern from '16-'17

SEEKING INCOMING UVa STUDENTS! Share the love!

We love to WELCOME the new Hoos to the Bonhoeffer House---a warm home away from home in Charlottesville--at the intersection of faith, thought & life.  

If you know a student headed for UVa, EMAIL US NOW at info@theologicalhorizons.org 

or FILL OUT THIS FORM NOW.

We'll send a hand written note before they even get here!

We personally deliver homemade cookies to dorms on Move In Day

We'll roll out the red carpet with a Wahoo Welcome Lunch on August 31: 12-2

We'll keep the invitations coming--for 4 years!

And for you new kids, here are some words from Sarah---a student who wants to tell you about why she keeps coming to the Bonhoeffer House...

It seems like the summer just got underway, but soon, Charlottesville will again be bustling with students new and old.

Come August, you will move into your new dorm home, you will meet all kinds of people with different stories, and you will experience new things. To some, this whirl of activity is exciting, while others find it unsettling and exhausting.

For many Christians, the start of college is a time to think about their faith, what it means, and how it intersects with their academic and social lives. At college your faith will be challenged differently than in past years. You will ask harder questions. You might even face doubt at times.

Theological Horizons serves the academic community by providing a welcoming place for engaging faith, thought and life. As a student, the Bonhoeffer House quickly became a place for me to rest in the midst of an otherwise busy week and to think about what it means to live the Christ-centered life.

I came to Vintage lunches on Fridays, in part to eat a delicious home cooked meal, but also, and perhaps more significantly, to feed on the wisdom and experience of Christian thinkers who came before me, who asked the hard questions and who fought to think well.

We serve a God who hears us in our sadness and in our joy. The readings at Vintage were a reminder of how God speaks and works both in my life and in the lives of so many people before me in all seasons. Think C.S. Lewis, Jean Vanier, St. Benedict, and Frederica Mathews-Greene. You will get the chance to know them too.

Their stories will encourage and impact you—telling you of the amazing and certainly real ways our God can work and speak. Their stories will remind you that you are not alone. The questions that might plague you now, have likely been asked before.

As Bonhoeffer said, “God has willed that we should seek and find his living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of a person. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.”

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Should you decide to come (and I hope you do), you will learn from fellow students, but also people who lived and thought long before our time. As a recent graduate, I thank God for the gift that Theological Horizons was to me.

So please, come August, whether you are an incoming first year or not, make plans to visit Vintage, attend Evening Prayer on the Lawn, or participate in any one of the programs that Theological Horizons hosts at the Bonhoeffer House and around town.  Email Karen at info@theologicalhorizons.org and she'll put you on the invite list--then you won't miss anything!!

Seek First. Reflections by Fellow, Logan Haley '18

Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

 – Matthew 6:33

I feel as though I could let words of Jesus in the above verse just speak for itself. However, I suppose I should elaborate on how special and sweet, how comforting and challenging these words really are. They certainly have been that weighty for me, and I pray that they sink down deep into your soul as you read them. Take a minute… meditate on those words. Let them refresh you like a warm sip of your favorite hot drink. If you are looking for a simple life motto to live by, my hope is that perhaps this is what you can cling to.

When I reflect on my time at UVa (which I know many of us fourth-years are doing right now too), I think back through four years of fond memories: late night Cookout runs with friends, studying for exams while eating snacks at the Stud, laughing with housemates over ridiculous shenanigans, fall retreats, praying and reading Scripture in a garden by the Lawn at sunset, hugs from Miss Kathy, brother-sister small group hikes up Humpback… Then, I remember the many difficult moments as well: the nights of anxiety and immense stress; entire seasons of loneliness and depression, and the mornings where I would wake up wondering how I would get through the day. 

No matter the memory, I am overwhelmed with a recurring theme: God’s grace. His favor, which frankly, I don’t deserve. Yet there it is. God's grace is a common thread through every one of my lived experiences, even when I am completely unaware of it. Even in this moment, I zoom out to realize that I am… alive. I exist. I am breathing with the breath God breathed in me. Hundreds of millions of alveoli in my lungs are participating in gas exchange, while my heart’s ventricles and atria pump blood together in perfect harmony over 100,000 times a day to distribute oxygen to my body. (Okay, the pre-med geek in me is showing…) There are tens of thousands of daily miracles occurring to sustain our physical bodies. I wonder, how many more daily miracles sustain my soul

I so often take for granted just how good the Good News really is. When I think about it though… I was utterly dead in my sin and rebellion, which left me longing and empty; and now, I’m alive in Jesus. Because God Himself was willing to humble Himself to become a human, live a perfect life, and die the humiliating death I deserved, I am able to live in restored shalom (true peace and wholeness) with my Creator, presently and for eternity after death. Not only that – but we, as broken and flawed individuals, now get to partner with that same Creator in the greatest redemptive story of all time, sharing this reckless God-love with others. 

Wait. Stop. Really? What the heck! That is such good news! If you stop reading this post right now, but took away just how good the simple Gospel is, it would be more than enough.

I am reminded of the words my friend Jonah once told me: “The Gospel isn’t the old news, it’s the good news.”The Gospel is not simply a message that we hear once, but rather a daily reality of which we get to be a part. The Gospel is past, present, and future. The Gospel is Jesus, nothing else. Following Jesus is not a one-time decision, but a choice we get to make each morning when we wake up. We have the privilege of making the radical choice each day to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. And this is something that recently has meant a lot to me. My friend Abigail put it this way: “Choosing to wake up and follow Jesus each day is always a radical decision – just as radical as the day you decided to follow Him.” My friends, the pressure is off! We don’t have to try to perform big acts of righteousness for God to get Him to love us. The Apostle Paul said at the end of Romans 8 that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus. The Gospel really is that simple. Yet, it is the most profound reality in the world, taking an entire lifetime to understand and then live out.

Having a solid grasp of who God is and who we are will help us in every nook and cranny of our lives. Once we know who we are, we don’t have to worry about what to do, because we will naturally move in our identity as sons and daughters of the King. What is it, then, that makes Matthew 6:33 so significant? 

My second year, I was a part of a small group of guys that each latched onto a catchphrase throughout the year – “Seek First.” It became a way of life. Whenever we were trying to align our hearts with God or grow closer to Him as a group, we would encourage each other by asking, “How are we seeking first?” Whether it was relationships, friendships, academics, life goals, future plans, personal struggles, it seemed to always apply to everything: “I just need to seek first.” I have often pondered why the words “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” centered me so much.

Have you ever had too much to do, and not enough time to do it? Or have you ever done all you need to do, but still felt worried about how something would turn out? In most modern American contexts, especially in academic or professional settings, sorting out our priorities (plural) is a common practice due to hectic schedules and time constraints. What if it were simpler, and we had only one priority (singular) – the Kingdom of God and His righteousness? This way, our faith isn’t reduced to a To-Do List, perpetually checking off boxes like the Pharisees did. Matthew 6:33 comes right at the end of a passage where Jesus teaches about not worrying. To detach us from the subtle, yet heavy undertow of materialism, and to derail us from our cyclical patterns of worry, Jesus points us to the birds of the air or the lilies of the field. Jesus speaks to the Kingdom value of simplicity.[1]

Immediately, it is easy for me to counter Jesus’ words with thoughts like, “What about making sure I fulfill your exact calling on my life?” or, “What if I don’t make enough money?” or maybe, “I have been seeking first your kingdom and righteousness – look at all that I am doing for you!” (I don’t know if those thoughts resonate with you, too). But Jesus’ words have this way of debunking the lies and fears within me, working their way into each circumstance.

When I think of His kingdom, my mind quickly jumps to the external – how Jesus impacted others around Him for God’s glory. When I think of His righteousness, I think of the internal – how Jesus related to the Father, and of His character. Perhaps this is a helpful distinction in our pursuit of living this verse, but perhaps not. The question still remains: How exactly does one go about seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness? Is it to prioritize serving the poor and administering justice for the oppressed? Is it to serve in a church, or join a small group? Is it all about reading the Bible, prayer, and worship? Or maybe it’s to proclaim to everyone the good news about Jesus, and to make disciples. That must be it right? Theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in his book Christian Discourses,responds to this by saying: “No, thou shalt first seek God’s kingdom.But then in a certain sense it is nothing I shall do. Yes, certainly, in a certain sense it is nothing, become nothing before God, learn to keep silent; in this silence is the beginning, which is firstto seek God’s kingdom.”[2]

Seeking firstis more of a heart posture – a way to be. We must remember we were not created as “human doings,” but rather as “human beings.” What a relief this is! No longer is our faith only about doing all the right things, making sure each area of our life is aligned with God’s will – like trying to keep a bunch of cats in a full bathtub (which wouldn’t work very well…) If we align our hearts with His heart, we will naturally move in His will. 

However, this is perhaps the hardest part of seeking first: it’s dying to all our preconceived notions of what we think His kingdom and righteousness look like, and listening to God Himself to direct our steps. Then, and only then, will our actions be able to align with Matthew 6:33. God’s great irony (exemplified through the crucifixion and the resurrection) is: the extent that we die to ourselves is the extent that we truly live. Jesus taught this concept – humility leads to exaltation, and exaltation leads to humility (Matthew 23:12).

In my heart I have wrestled with God just as Jacob did over this whole concept. Matthew 6:33 challenges me to consider my own heart posture in everything – in putting others first, in serving the poor, in giving voice to the voiceless, in racial reconciliation, in disciple-making and reaching the lost, as well as in using my vocation and the opportunities God has given me for His glory. Having meaningful discussions this year in the Horizons Fellows Program about each of these things and more has made me more aware of that which God calls us out ofand calls us to. And it drives me back all the more to Matthew 6:33. I’ve learned so much from our Horizons Fellows community. One of the biggest things is how God’s will for our lives is not as much a linear path as many see it, but more of a green pasture to dance within – the type in which David was made to lie down (Psalm 23:2). 

Hopefully you find this as an encouragement in whatever season of life you find yourself in. For graduating fourth years especially, who may still be figuring out their next steps, or having doubts about the plans they have made, I hope this meets you right where you are. Though God may not bring perfect clarity about our futures, He brings something better – trust. Ultimately, seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness is the chief means for the liberation of our souls. Though nothing is more challenging, nothing is simpler either. Though nothing demands more of you, nothing will be as rewarding either. It was the way we were created to live. Seek God, and all the rest will fall into place.

 

 

[1]Wallace, Mary. The Live Dead Journal | Day 3 – Simplicity: Seek First His Kingdom. (Salubris, 2016.)

Edited by Dick Brogden.

[2]Kierkegaard, Søren. Christian Discourses(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940) 322-344.

Reflections on being a Perkins Fellow & a Perkins House Resident | Sade Akinbayo '19

It is difficult for me to summarize my reflections as a Perkins Fellow and a member of the Perkins House as I enjoy allotting myself an ample amount of time to reflect, time I do not currently have. So much has happened this academic year and I know if I event attempt to list a few events that occurred within the past eight months, I would end up producing a 15-page report. It's best for me to allow two brief essays I recently wrote to speak to my experiences as a Fellow and member of the Perkins House. I was asked to describe my most meaningful leadership experience and my greatest contribution to the Charlottesville community in 250 words or less for each essay. Without a doubt, I wrote about my experience as a Perkins Fellow and Perkins House member despite the word limit restricting the transformative events to which I could attest.

Essay 1: In 250 words or less, describe your most meaningful leadership experience. 

"As a college student, it is difficult not to conflate leadership with the number of executive positions one holds throughout their years as an undergraduate student. Leadership, certainly, includes assuming a role within an organization or group that demonstrates one’s ability to guide individuals to the completion of a task. Yet, I believe that leaders are most impacted, cultivated, and strengthened through the act of service: whether that be through volunteering or simply being one who dedicates time to support and engage others. 

My third year at the University of Virginia has been defined by collective and individual service to the Charlottesville community through two programs supported by Theological Horizons: The Perkins House (located in the Venable neighborhood on Grady Avenue), an intentional community of university students honoring civil rights activist John M. Perkins by building bridges between the UVa and Charlottesville community; and The Perkins Fellowship, a Fellows program centered on vocational discernment through community engagement and training by community service innovators in cross-cultural engagement and community development. I can wholeheartedly say that my experience as an inaugural member of both The Perkins House and The Perkins Fellowship has proven to mark a transformative point in my personal growth. 

Through my participation in these programs, I have a greater understanding about how to utilize the roles I assume during my time at the University to best contribute and pour into the communities I so dearly love and to which I belong. "

Essay 2: In 250 words or less, describe your greatest contribution to the Charlottesville community. 

"Though I have spent most my time contributing to the establishment of The Perkins House, my most significant service to the Charlottesville community has been supporting and investing love and time into some of Charlottesville’s youth.

As a tutor and mentor at Friendship Court’s Community Center, I assist students with mathematics and language arts and also aid the Community Center’s Coordinator with the Girls’ Mentoring Program. One of my favorite memories as a tutor occurred last year when I helped Naylia, a kindergartener at the time, solve math problems from a deck of addition flash cards. She was, at first, unenthusiastic to solve the problems and became frustrated as she perceived them to be too difficult for her to solve. However, the more problems we worked on together, the greater her desire was to solve more equations. She even wanted to solve equations she previously thought were too hard for her! The moment I saw Naylia’s face beam with a beautiful smile after I told her she solved the equations correctly, I made a commitment to do whatever I could to help her, and her peers, excel in school.

Knowledge is power and we all are well aware of the power the youth yield in challenging and changing societal norms. I know these students will have a large impact in their communities and I will continue assisting them in their growth, one equation at a time, one conversation at a time, throughout the rest of my time here in Charlottesville."

There are a couple things I must add in addition to what I expressed in these essays. First, I felt quite indifferent when asked to write about "my greatest contribution" to the Charlottesville community. The language used in this prompt certainly implies that certain "contributions" are more valued and praised than others (but that is another conversation to be had). I decided to rather describe an activity, conducted outside the UVa bubble, that rejuvenates my spirit day-in and day-out: tutoring and mentoring the youngens at Friendship Court. Words cannot describe how much I LOVE the kids I spend time with throughout the week. I can wholeheartedly say that my experience as a Perkins Fellow and Perkins House member has given me a desire to incorporate the same intentionality we honor within theses programs to my time spent with the kids at Friendship Court.

I am excited to spend at least another year with them... If only they knew that they had me at hello.

The struggle against racism & the reality of Jesus | Perkins Fellow '18

“THE PROBLEM of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line…”

(W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903).

If you were to become a neonatologist, you would observe a strange phenomenon.  As you would deliver babies, you would notice increasingly that babies of African American women would, on average, be born twice as likely premature or with a lower birth weight than those of white women (yes, this is a statistically significant study).  Even if you were to control for socioeconomic status, you would find an even more harrowing statistic: African American women of higher socioeconomic status (those who have obtained bachelors and masters degrees, respectively) were three times as likely to have a baby born premature or with lower birth weight than their white counterparts. Further, this same group of African American women would still have a higher premature and lower birth weight rate than white women who have dropped out or never complete high school education.  In a study by Collins and David, they point to racism and the stress it produces in African American women as the main factor that increases the rates of premature birth.  But this would be hard to explain to many in our country, of which around 70% of white Americans believe racism to be a product of the past.  It would even be more of a surprise to explain to the Charlottesville community, where our own University was one of the centers of the highly racialized eugenics movement in the early 1900s.

I came to the University of Virginia in 2014 from a relatively homogenous area in Virginia Beach.  I remember reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. my junior year and feeling the searing conviction of his words addressed to the “white moderates”.  “When you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’,” King writes, “—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait”.  I remember sitting by my fireplace and feeling the burn upon my back of the relevancy of King’s words to our country, still.  It wasn’t long before my veil was further torn away when one of our classmates, Martese Johnson, was unjustly aprehended at the Corner in Charlottesville, a block away from the edge of our campus.  The boulder began to roll faster and faster as Theological Horizons brought John Perkins to U.Va. to speak, the shootings of the black men by police in the summer of 2015 (and on), and finally culminated with the election of Donald Trump where I found one of my black brothers crying in my room, and I held one of my black sisters as she wept in fear and pain. Tears, pain, heaviness – everywhere.  And if that wasn’t enough of a burden to handle, the slave-built grounds churned as the white supremecists marched through the epicenter of the Rotunda.  Everyday, I felt the weight of America upon my shoulders, and the sins of our country were still reverberating… loudly. 

I was reminded of the story of Jesus.  When Jesus had told his disciples he was going to suffer and die on the cross, Peter rebuked him saying he couldn’t possibly do that – we all know what Jesus said to Peter next: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 6:23, NIV).  Why did Peter say this, and why did Jesus respond that way?  Peter thought Jesus was going to be a political messiah; he thought Jesus was coming to overcome the Romans and become the new political leader.  In reality, Jesus came to suffer and die because the Kingdom he was coming to build was not only physical, but it was spiritual, it was in our hearts – it was a war in the heavens.  Jesus came to renew our country, yes, but not at the expense of renewing our hearts, minds and souls.  Suffering was neccesary for the atonement

But Jesus was clear, that the Kingdom he has brought to Earth is a spiritual reality.  I began to stray away from prayer and devotion to God and replace it with my works.  I began to tire myself out.  Paul wrote it succinctly, which seems to be a thorn in the enlightened side of America:

For we do not wrestly against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12, NIV).

How are we supposed to fight this force of racism, then, that has such real and dark physical manifestations?  How do we fight a phenomenon that has plagued our country for years?  We need to be renewed, and we need to cling to the cross.  We need to humble ourselves and collectively repent.  We desperately need to seek the face of God and not fall wayward to the dirty rags of works.  Our turning from our sin and our selves towards the cross is what should inform our work. 

In my time as a Perkins Fellow, I learned this.  That if I am to do the work of the Kingdom, I need to have my heart right before God.  And that is something I want to encourage you all in.  It is obvious that our country has sins of racism still so evident, and we can see tangible manifestations of that nearly everyday.  One response would be to just go out and start working to solve it.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, but you will become tired and you will hit a wall.  If you are working for God, stop.  You are already justified before him, and I would encourage you to repent and get your heart before him.  To others, they may interpret salvation as a reason to not do work in the community.  Brothers and sisters, our eschatology has not yet been realized.  The Kingdom of God is a dynamic and ever-present reality that needs to be brought about by us, the church.  So to those who see the racial division in our country but fail to act, please get before God as well and ask Him what your role is in the beautiful, ever-unfolding picture.  The reality of Jesus and his salvific power at the cross should always be what informs our lived theologies.  As my dear friend Ross Byrd once told me, “Theology doesn’t neccessarily make good obedience, rather obedience makes for good theology”.  I would encourage you to take a deep look at our country and ask God how it is he wants to use you to bring shalom to our country.  Following Jesus is wildly fascinating, but it should also be restful.  We need to rest before the cross.  I will leave you with one verse to meditate upon.  Our country is hurting, and we desperately need Jesus now more than ever.

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14, NIV).

 

On practicing resurrection by Fellow SK Doyle '18

As my last year of college is drawing near to a close and as we as Christians are approaching the season of Easter, I’ve been reflecting on all the ways that newness and resurrection have enriched my life this year. Entering into my fourth year, I had expected to spend a lot of time with the old: to spend time with wonderful old friends, reflect on old memories, and relish in my final times doing the same old things in the same old places. And while I have certainly done a lot of that and am grateful for the roots I’ve put down here, what has surprised me in this year has been the opportunities to dwell in the new. I moved into a new house with five other women who quickly became new friends and taught me new things about food justice, Instagram meme accounts, gratitude, and love. I discovered new bands and started listening to new podcasts. I made other new friends in classes where I continue to learn about new ways of seeing the world. I learned new ways of taking care of myself and giving myself to others, and it is comforting to know that even a place I thought I had gotten to know so deeply could have such vitality to continue to surprise and challenge me.

I have felt this newness deeply in the relationships I’ve built with the other eleven Horizons Fellows I have had the pleasure of getting to know this year. Spending time with these Fellows in our monthly meetings, over s’mores on the Lawn on a Friday night or late-night study sessions in the Theological Horizons office, I have deepened my belief that our triune God is fundamentally relational and reveals Herself in the relationships we stumble upon and cultivate. Some of the Fellows I’ve known for all four years at UVa, but many of them I likely would never have met without Theological Horizons. I’m grateful for the ways they’ve brought to life new ways of loving myself, others, and God. Earlier this year, we read Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” together. The last stanza has become something of a mantra for me:

Be like the fox

Who makes more tracks than necessary,

Some in the wrong direction

Practice resurrection.

I have felt closely and deeply connected with God and Her constant newness and vitality in the relationships that have continued to be born and reborn even as my time in this place comes to a close. I have made lots of tracks, many in the wrong direction, as I’ve learned from and done life alongside the Horizon Fellows. We’ve practiced resurrection together and I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the role these eleven fellows and our fearless leader Christy have played in filling me with excitement for all of the new I will encounter after I leave this place. 

Worry, Maslow's pyramid and resting in Christ | Reflections from Fellow Sam Kesting, '18

As I continue to move through life, I have found that there are quite a few areas which lack consistency.  Relationships, academic performance, athletic skill, and even housing situations all seem to be in flux, for better or for worse.  With all of these facets of life on a roller coaster, often times the only thing that seems to be constant is worry and ironically, it is the uncertainties of life that feed the ever-present nagging in the back of one’s mind.

Just like a love of sunsets or a fear of deep, dark water, worry is one of those things that is uniquely human and just comes naturally to us.  It is impossible to fully escape its clutches and can even be incapacitating at times.  I often think about worry as it corresponds to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: a pyramid of what are considered to be necessities to an enriched and fulfilling human life.  While the pyramid is by no means a perfect illustration of needs for all cultures and societies, it is helpful when conceptualizing and compartmentalizing worry.

Principally, our existence is predicated on being able to anticipate answers to questions of survival such as when we will have our next meal, where we be able to find water, and how we will stay warm, dry and out of harms way.  From these physiological needs, the tiers of the pyramid ascend up through needs of safety, love and belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization at the top.  While I certainly cannot speak for everyone, I would posit that most of the individuals reading this post do not live with daily worry regarding food and shelter, especially those of us reading this on the screen of an electronic device.  Many of us are blessed to be well-fed and sheltered regularly.  However, the upper four tiers on Maslow’s hierarchical pyramid are where things begin to fall apart.  Worry quickly descends into our minds and begins to grow dark, cold roots around our hearts.

First, we struggle with needs of safety.  Financial woes, abuse, and poor health (both mental and physical) plague our society.  Everyone is touched by these ills on a daily basis in some way and they can cripple the mind and soul with fear and worry.  Next, we are confronted by a yearning to belong.  Anywhere.  Spousal relationships, church groups, sports teams, book clubs, yoga class, or even a night out with a group of friends are all manifestations of attempts to meet this need.  On many occasions throughout life, it can feel like we are each one of the least wanted in our respective communities.  We also wrestle with problems of esteem.  We fail at work, in school, or in a relationship.  Our capacity for “success” as the world would define it crumbles and we see ourselves as worthless and with nothing to show for the years of life behind us.  Finally, we face challenges to self-actualization.  Work is often not fulfilling, our potential seems stifled, and we still do not have the slightest clue what we want to be when we grow up.  It is clear to see these upper four needs going unmet in those around us and even clearer still within our own persons.  Universities are environments replete with worry regarding these necessities and having been at one for the last four years, I can tell you it is ubiquitous.

The obvious question that follows these unmet needs asks how we fix them.  Do we not have seminars and counselors?  Medicines and therapies?  Clubs, dating websites, and self-help books?  Why do all of them fail us?  What are we missing?  Why do we continue to worry?

I have been blessed to have grown up in a family of faith and many wise voices have poured into my life over the last 22 years.  From them, I have identified two methods for combating debilitating worry: resting in Christ and practicing thankfulness to learn to give generously.

Being a young kid dealing with worry and fear, I memorized 1 Peter 3:5 and Matthew 11:28.  These verses speak of casting anxiety and burdens on Christ and receiving rest and care in return.  As a child, this brought some comfort but in growing older these words become far easier said than done.  It can be difficult to see the Lord’s plan come to fruition in a tangible way, especially on His timeline.  Ultimately for me, resting in Christ has meant prayerfully laying plans, expectations, and worry at his feet and trusting that He knows what he is doing with them.  There have been many occasions in which I was filled with strife about the future and Christ has revealed His better way for my life.  Although there is and will be plenty of uncertainty, I can be free from trying to have it all figured out.

Thankfulness is like a muscle: left alone, it decays into nothing but when exercised, it flourishes.  It is far easier to dwell on what we do not have than what we do, especially in a state of constant comparison with those around us.  We will always be able to see the bigger, better, and more successful and our circumstances are rarely exactly to our liking.  I once had a director at a camp I worked at tell me that he was thankful for rainy days.  When I first heard this, I was a bit taken aback.  As a counselor, rainy days were usually the toughest.  It was always colder, kids got wet and frustrated, and activities were cancelled.  The director went on to explain how the rain watered the earth, reminded you that you were alive through discomfort, and led to more time indoors where important conversations could be had with the campers.  This taught me to find opportunity to be thankful in all things.  Much like thankfulness, generosity does not come easy.  We are selfish creatures and any extra time, money, or other resources that we have tend to immediately be used on our favorite person (ourselves).  However, in thankfulness, the seeds of generosity are sown.  Being thankful for our circumstances surely leads to the realization of the abundance that has already been given to us.  From this abundance, we are called to be open-handed and freely distribute what we have to others.

The worry that corresponds to the tiers of Maslow’s pyramid is countered through Christ and His church.  Safety, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization are found through prayer, study of scripture, and community with likeminded Christians.  Resting in Christ provides safety and belonging, thankfulness builds esteem, and generosity provides purpose.  Although a perfect and complete picture of needs being met will never occur on this fallen earth, glimpses can be realized through a relationship with Christ and interactions with those who love Him.  I have been blessed to be able to see these glimpses through others and in my own life at school and will hopefully continue to see them as I move on from this place.  While worry will never fully be dispelled, this perspective has helped to keep it in its place.

 

 

Holy Week: The things that make for peace

And throwing their garments on the colt, they set Jesus upon it. And as he rode along, they spread their garments on the road. 

The disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!" 

… And when Jesus drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, "Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace!"     (Luke 19)

"Blessed be the King who comes in the name of the Lord," the cry goes up.  People throw palm branches into the road in front of him as Jesus approaches, a poor man's ticker-tape parade.

Around a bend, there suddenly is Jerusalem. Jesus draws back on the reins. Crying disfigures his face. "Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace." 

The things that make for peace.  We do not know these things, Jesus says, and God knows he's right. The absence of peace within our own skins no less than within our nations testifies to that. 

So as Holy Week begins, let us name instead the one who is himself the Prince of Peace.

Jesus is our only hope: the hope that finally by the grace of God the impossible will happen. 

Despair and hope. They travel the road to Jerusalem together, as together they travel every road we take ---despair at what we bring down upon our own heads and hope in him who travels the road with us and for us.  

Hope in the King who approaches every human heart like a city. And it is a very great hope as hopes go and well worth all our singing and dancing and sad little palms because not even death can prevail against this King and not even the end of the world, when end it does, will be the end of him and of the mystery and majesty of his love. 

Blessed be he.            (adapted from Frederick Buechner)

Lent 5: Your ordinary desert

The Christian religion asks us to put our trust not in ideas, and certainly not in ideologies, but in a God who was vulnerable enough to become human and die, a God who desires to be present in our ordinary circumstances.  {Kathleen Norris}

Captured by pirates and enslaved in Ireland, the son of a respectable British family was wrenched from his comfortable Christian faith & home.  Yet in the "desert"  captivity, that teenager met God in ordinary--yet extraordinary--ways. That man who would be called Saint Patrick wrote:

I was made to shepherd the flocks day after day, and, as I did so, I would pray all the time, right through the day. More and more the love of God and fear of him grew strong within me, and as my faith grew, so the Spirit became more and more active...Although I might be staying in a forest or out on a mountainside, it would be the same; even before dawn broke, I would be aroused to pray.  In snow, in frost in rain, I was always full of energy, due to the fervor of the Spirit within me. 

Ordinary life, with its contraints and routines, can be a desert of its own kind.  Where are you encountering God there?

Karen Wright Marsh, Executive Director                  

Let us remember that the life in which we ought to be interested is 'daily' life.  We can, each of us, only call the present time our own...Our Lord tells us to pray for today, and so God prevents us from tormenting ourselves about tomorrow.  It is as if God were to say to us, "It is I who gives you this day and will also give you what you need for this day.  It is I who makes the sun to rise.  It is I who scatters the darkness of night and reveals to you the rays of the sun." {Gregory of Nyssa, 4th century}

On Trusting God’s Plan | Reflections by Fellow Sam McCorkle '18

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6

Sitting in the comfort of Lone Light Coffee, sweetly perfumed by the pie shop sharing its tenancy, an idea I heard plenty about began making sense to me—God’s plan. I was meeting with Reggie, the mentor with whom I was paired through the Horizon Fellows program, for the first time. Reggie, although small in stature, is an impressive man. He is a career counselor at the University of Virginia’s Data Science Institute, an active member in Charlottesville’s young adult Christian community, a loyal friend, and now my mentor. As he opened up about his experiences, I was beyond impressed how a man his age has lived such an interesting life. Interesting for reasons like his extensive networking skills—which have, for instance, allowed him to see one of my favorite bands at an intimate house concert in my hometown—as well as the amount he has traveled. And not just for work. He intentionally plans visits to see his many friends and family located across the country and globe. He is a genuine delight to talk to and our conversation on this hot May afternoon was wonderful.

As an eager undergrad unsure of his future, I was curious about how someone like Reggie was so calm and trusting with whatever came his way. As if God heard my thoughts, my mentor entertained my curiosity by sharing about how he came to Charlottesville. For him, it was a bold move full of uncertainty, but he described it in a way I can simply paraphrase as trusting in God’s plan for him. I have heard this idea of God’s plan before, but there is something transformative about hearing a firsthand experience explained with the kind of confidence achieved only through practice. The practice of trusting what God is going to throw at you next.

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3:21-22

Fast forward a few weeks later. After hearing the wisdom Reggie offered, which I was still ruminating on, I was now in a foreign environment for the entire summer. This was daunting for me. About six weeks in to my summer, however, my outlook shifted. The catalyst for this change was a new friend and mentor, Bill. Bill, a few years older than Reggie, has a wonderful wife, four kids, and an incredible career teaching high school Latin. Conversations with Bill are on par with counseling, as I am able to speak my mind free of judgment. He has the rare gift of making you feel heard and loved, as well as the wisdom to instill a sense of direction in you. Our one-on-one talks every week were my favorite part of the summer. It was during our early conversations about Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved when I began to internalize what it meant to trust in God’s plan.

What is funny to me about Nouwen’s book is that he wrote it with the intention of helping his non-Christian friend, Fred, and other secular minds, understand the deep spiritual love Christians experience from God. Perhaps to Nouwen’s dismay, Fred reported to Nouwen that the book was wonderful…but not what he expected. Fred described the book as “for the converted” and that is exactly what it has become; a simply put and popular conceptualization for understanding who we are—the Beloved children of God. Regardless of the book’s intentions and reputation, I ate up every word of it. At the heart of the book is the idea that God is calling us His Beloved and we must follow that voice. And this voice is everywhere. It is in our families, relationships, studies, church, and conversations with friends or strangers. It is that “voice” that tells us we are worth it, we are special, we are chosen. I cannot begin to do the book much justice, so all I will further say is that Nouwen’s understanding of God’s love for us pushed me to search for voices in my life that call me Beloved and subsequently make me feel special. Cliché, probably, but when I linked this message with trusting God’s plan, the idea of having God in my life became practical for the first time.

Heading into my fourth year, I remembered how enthralling Reggie’s story was. Although everything for him seemed well-directed and planned, there was that spice of invited uncertainty that I admired and yearned for. Incapable of grasping on to the future’s unknown, I am often frustrated with the thought of what comes next. Given all of this, and the fact that my fourth year would be marked by discerning post-graduation plans, I sought a way to mitigate the fear of the unknown in order to welcome it as a necessary part of my life. I merged the ideas I had been pondering since May to realize that following the voice of God calling me Beloved is synonymous with trusting God’s plan. Though it is unlikely I will ever have an “aha!” moment when I figure out my calling, I am learning to trust God’s voice more than my own these days. 

Mystery & Doubt. Reflections by Horizons Fellow Ben Noble '18

“No one gets a 100 on the quiz. No one.”

I sank back into a chair in my advisor’s office on a Thursday afternoon during my Third Year. “No one gets a 100 on the quiz.” My advisor’s words echoed in my mind and hit like a truck. Still, I knew that they were true. He and I had been discussing religion, death, the afterlife—light conversation for a late-August day.

Over the past year, I had been trying to make sense of a faith that no longer felt feasible to me. The months leading up to that conversation with my advisor had been characterized by struggle and skepticism. I had quit going to church. I had stopped praying. I had put Henri Nouwen on the bookshelf and picked up Christopher Hitchens instead.

Retrospectively, a lot of my doubt was born out of emotional resentment. At the time, I felt like I had been hurt by Christians. In response, I nurtured animosity towards the Church, and, over time, towards God. However, unresolved bitterness and anger eventually turned into intellectual doubt. I transitioned from being angry with God to questioning whether God was even real.

How could I know, with assurance, that the Bible and all the stuff it said about God and humanity and history and morality were undeniably true? Moreover, was it worth following even if it was true?

Having sat on these thoughts for some time, there was a brief period during the summer before my Third Year when I considered myself an atheist. I thought that giving up on belief would make me feel free—free from resentment, free from ignorance, free from God. However, rather than feeling free, I felt an internal emptiness instead. Life felt grey and dull. I felt alone, too—more alone than I had ever felt.

Fast-forward a few months.

Time passed and I eventually came around to being open to faith again—though not without some low points and a substantial amount of existential anxiety. Still, even though I was open to belief, I couldn’t shake my feelings of uncertainty and I didn’t have a strong sense of confidence about any particular belief. Despite my doubt, I wanted desperately to trust in something again.

I walked into my advisor’s office on that day hoping that he would speak some magical words that would inspire me and give me a sense of hope once more. I walked out feeling neither a greater sense of clarity nor a renewed hope.

So what’s happened since the day that I left that office?

Although I would like to say that a couple weeks passed by and then, out of no where, God arrived on a white horse and I had a profound moment of conversion where my doubt was put to rest and my faith restored, I can’t say with any honesty that that was the case. Nearly a year and a half has elapsed since that meeting with my advisor and I still have yet to experience that “Eureka!” moment where everything is reinstated as it once was.

A lot has changed for me since then. The time in between has brought new hopes, more doubts, fresh experiences, moments of deep sadness, and moments of unparalleled beauty. Still, God has yet to ride in on a white horse and answer every single one of my questions. Maybe He will, some day, but I’m not so sure that it’s a safe bet.

God didn’t show up in the way that I was hoping, but despite this, I have found God in ways that are deeper and richer than I could ever have imagined on that day in August 2016. The ways in which I experience God are nuanced and unique and everywhere. I see God in a poem or song, from time to time. I see God in a Sunday drive through the Blue Ridge. I experience God when I have a really rich, deep conversation with a friend over a cigarette (Sorry Mom!) Most of all, however, I experience the reality of God through others. The moments when I see and experience the way that people truly love and care for each other and for me are the moments when I’m convinced, beyond of shadow of doubt, that God is real and alive and present.

This may sound a bit esoteric. I won’t disagree with that. My times of doubt have created an uncertainty about God in ways that can be frustrating, but the same uncertainty that causes me distress has also made space for me to experience the mystery of God. In many ways, the reality of uncertainty has shown me that my advisor was correct when he said, “No one gets a 100 on a quiz.” At the same time, this uncertainty has made God indefinable and illimitable and has animated life with mystery and excitement in ways that I didn’t think were possible.

In an essay entitled, “Circles,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” I used to desire certainty about life. I wanted to have all the answers. I wanted to understand God and, in a way, I wanted to control God. Now, I think about things differently. I’m more at ease with the fact that I won’t ever know and understand everything. Now, I’m invigorated by the fact that God is far beyond my understanding. Rather than seeking to be the master of knowledge and truth, I tend to think of a life lived well as, like Emerson writes, “an apprenticeship to the truth.”

Each day brings with it the possibility of seeing the world and experiencing God in myriad ways that are new and fresh and exhilarating. Of course, this brings the possibility that yesterday’s way of understanding may require reconsideration and perhaps abandonment. In my experience, the “apprenticeship to truth” often entails a constant expansion and reconsideration of what I considered true one year ago or last week or even yesterday. I’m not going to suggest that this pursuit of truth doesn’t pose the possibility of anxiety and doubt and despair—that’s an inherent risk. Uncertainty is scary and there often isn’t an easy solution to dealing with it. However, despite the uncertainty and fear that the journey towards truth may bring, I am convinced whole-heartedly that the journey is vitally and comprehensively worthwhile. At the end of the day, what I think makes this way of navigating life invaluable is that it creates an opportunity for growth—personal growth, intellectual growth, and spiritual growth.

To me, for the time being, this is far better than getting a 100 on the quiz.

 

The most joyful thing: Lent 4

Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.  "The time has come!" he said.  "The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe the good news."  {Mark 1:14}


TO REPENT is to adopt God's viewpoint in place of your own.  Far from being sorrowful, repentance is the most joyful thing in the world, because when you have done it you have adopted the viewpoint of truth itself; you are in fellowship with God. 

{William Temple, 1881-1944}

goodness of god repentance graphic.jpg

Do you remember how Jesus said over and over again, "Repent"?  Repent: that is, evaluate the whole way you are living your life in light of this great fact: "The kingdom of God is at hand."
Now that is not a way of saying that the kingdom of heaven almost came but didn't quite make it---and now we're in some kind of divine parenthesis, that have to muddle through as best we can and wait for heaven after we die.  That's not what Jesus meant.

Imagine that you and I were walking along the street and I said to you, "Behold, the restaurant is near at hand. Let's eat!"  It's more like that.  The kingdom of heaven has been made available to you and me.  And God is right here, at hand: with us now.

{adapted from Richard Foster}
 

Faith, justice and coding. Reflections by Sarah Bland '19

Standing on the rooftop bar of Squarespace’s office building in NYC’s SoHo district, I looked out over the foggy scene of bustling traffic in the intersection below and felt, in a word, overwhelmed. The week leading up to that moment had been filled with many new people, intense full-stack development classes, and challenging conversations. I was in New York City for a program called The Impact Fellowship, an intense, two-week coding experience for “the next generation of social entrepreneurs.” I went, intending to engage with issues of injustice, meet similarly motivated peers/ mentors, and ascertain whether computer science could be a viable field for those seeking to “love God and love people” well. And yet, here I was, visiting the posh downtown office of a company with millions of users, nearly half a billion in net worth, and hundreds of employees earning six digits. Questions about the computer science industry dizzyingly crowded my mind: “Can ethics and industry intersect meaningfully, or is CS too obfuscated by desire for wealth, glory, and power?” “Am I competitive enough to be a software engineer? Powerful and faithful enough to do SWE for God’s glory?” “Is CS intrinsically too abstracted away from immediate aid and love for those who need it most?” My mental state was perfectly mirrored in the confused honking, peddling, and shouting below.

 

Overwhelming as the moment was, these sensations of cognitive, emotional, and spiritual dissonance in relation to my vocation and calling were not incongruent with prior experience. While it may be true that we often don’t understand God’s ways, we can sometimes [if we’re fortunate] begin to see patterns. One that’s repeated itself again and again in my life has been God’s calling to go and do in cities. In college alone, I’ve been called to Greensboro, NC for a service trip, Chicago for a spring break social justice plunge, Chicago [again] for a summer of urban ministry, the Perkins House Charlottesville, and New York City for a winter break spent learning about coding for social impact. Lord willing, I will spend this coming summer in Detroit, Michigan, working at the intersection of justice and SWE (e.g. teaching coding skills  through a startup like Grand Circus to people who’d otherwise not have access to tech education). Each of these cities have taught me particular lessons; nonetheless, persistent threads have woven themselves throughout all of my experiences. Predominantly, I have been struck in each location by the confluence of human brokenness and excellence on all scales. The paradoxical coexistence of vibrancy and pain in the human experience are nowhere more evident than in the multitudes living in places such as Chicago and New York City; nowhere are the broken, hungry, and alone more visible.

It may not be immediately obvious how computer science, or the tech scene at large, plays into all of this. It is the case that NYC, perhaps more than any other city I have encountered, exhibits a bold demarcation between countably infinite numbers of exceptionally wealthy individuals and (seemingly) uncountably infinite numbers of needy individuals. Certain fields within computer science, such as financial and informational technology, play a significant role in this divide, as they contribute to ever-widening wealth and access gaps within the city. Now, more than ever, NYC’s Silicon Alley is burgeoning into a multi-billion value parallel to California’s Silicon Valley. Even impressive companies such as Squarespace are overshadowed by nearby Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft offices. To be sure, some of these tech companies are impacting the world positively through their products and research. Almost all, however, are explicitly negative in terms of their diversity, inclusion, and ethical resource acquisition (think: precious metals like Coltan, important for building hardware). Certainly, many are neutral. Regardless, it is inevitable that computer science is changing the world (and quickly); the only variable that remains to be defined is the moral and ethical direction in which it does so.

It is the multidimensionality of this problem, as well as the role that I [may or may not] play in it, that caused my overwhelmed and anxious state that afternoon in New York City. I know that God has given me a mind and desire for computer science. I believe that CS has the potential to change the world on a broad and powerful scale, but I personally possess a limited understanding about what that could look like and have no certainty whatsoever about what part I could play. I know that God tends to call me to go and do. I also know that God is training me to think about and engage with issues of injustice; He is ever-breaking my hubris, white privilege, and false self-sufficiency through prodding my heart to better love my neighbor. Finally, I know that God often asks more questions than He provides answers and am learning to be still in that discomfort. My mother, at the end of a long conversation discussing these themes, said to me: “Sarah, you are a warrior being trained for the forefront of some battle.” Ultimately, I can only pray that God will arm me well in preparation and that I will be able to discern His voice when He calls.

When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”

And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward.”

Exodus 14:10-15 (ESV)


P.S. Have an interest in learning more about some cutting-edge tech projects that actually are promising vectors for change? Check out WePower’s decentralized energy network (built using blockchain technology), this research project on protecting victims of intimate partner violence from surveillance by abusers, or Bad Batch Alert. Or send me an email at scb4ga@virginia.edu and we can chat!

Are you thirsty? Lent 3

O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you...O God, you are my God.  I seek you.  My soul thirsts for you.  {Psalm 38}

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The one who relies on mere human strength is like a stunted shrub in the desert, living in the barren, salt-encrusted wilderness with no hope for the future.

But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose hope and confidence is in the Lord.  That person is like a tree planted along a riverbank, with its roots reaching deep into the water--a tree that is not bothered by the heat, not worried by long months of drought, whose leaves stay green.  A tree that goes right on producing luscious fruit.  {Jeremiah 7}


LORD, I know not what to ask of You.
You alone know what my true needs are.
You love me more than I myself know how to love.
Help me to see my real needs, which may be hidden from me.
I dare not ask for either a cross or consolation.
I can only wait upon You; my heart is open to You.
Visit and help me in Your steadfast love.
Strike me & heal me; cast me down & raise me up.
I worship in silence Your holy will.
I offer myself to You as a living sacrifice.
I put all my trust in You.
I have no other desire than to fulfill Your will.
Teach me to pray.  Pray Yourself in me.  {Metropolitan of Philaret of Moscow}

Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who thirst."  Come and drink deep of the living water; let Christ fill your heart and heal your wounds.
 

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Lent 2: lessons of the desert

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"I cared for you in the wilderness, in the dry desert where no water was." Hosea 13:5

God chooses to meet us where we are, even in our loneliest places.  Instead of expecting us to find God, God comes to us.  God cares for us in our wilderness, in the dry desert where no water is.  God longs to bring us home to green pastures--rejoicing.

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The lesson of the desert is that we are not in control of everything.
We must first acknowledge our weakness so that we may lean upon the strength of God.  
We must admit our fear so that we may receive the courage of God.
We must declare ourselves lost so that we may take the leading hand of God.
In the desert we discover that it is not God who has abandoned us but we who have abandoned God through our neglect and our way of life.
In the desert we begin to let go of all that is not of God and attach to everything that is.  
We begin to learn that life is really all about loving God with all of our hearts and being open to God's love for us.  What is the desert teaching you?
 


Be silent.
Be still.
Alone.
Empty
Before your God.
Say nothing.
Ask nothing.
Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Quiet.
Still.
Be. 
Let your God—
Love you.                  {Denise Levertov}