Apply your Self

May 14, 2008

I'm going to share with you my application to Pacific School of Religion. I'm applying to their Masters of Divinity program (sounds like dessert school). I think this is a good way to introduce myself, since the application pretty-much forces you to talk about yourself and your history.

I'd haven't actually submitted these answers to PSR yet, so I'd love to hear some feedback.

What is your vocational goal (if you are uncertain of your vocational goal, please state what goals you are pursuing in applying to this program)?

I am applying to PSR's MDiv program because completion of the program will fulfill many of the requirements for ordination as an MCC Minister.

I don't yet know the exact shape my ministry as will take, but I believe it will involve music. I believe it will involve service to rural communities, especially in the southern U.S. I believe it will involve writing. And I believe it will involve things I haven't yet imagined.

I hope that my time at PSR will provide a broader context, more tools and resources, and a greater sense of history and community within which to prayerfully allow my ministry to take shape.

What and who have been the formative influences on your faith and life that led you to pursue these goals?

I would take a book to completely answer this question, but but for brevity's sake (and mercy's sake) I'll name a few names and hit the high points.

My grandmother was a kind and loving woman whose life modeled what I consider to be living Christianity. My memory of her is still an important touchstone in my decision-making.

My parents forced me to learn the piano and started me on the path of church musicianship, through which I was exposed to many Christian worship styles.

Socrates, through my college mentors Darrel Colson and Tom Samet, taught me how to question my faith and all the things I had been taught, then how to question the questions.

William Faulkner, through his work, spoke volumes to me. Born and raised in rural Louisiana, I found a lot of truth and resonance in his themes of sin and redemption, racial division, familial destiny, and the waste and cultural poverty of industrialization. His work helped me place my own life and times in a historical and intellectual context.

Jesus Christ is the most beloved historical, mythological, and faith figure in my life. As an icon, he me provides comfort and connection to the Sacred. As a man who once walked the Earth, he fascinates me. As a radical of his age, he inspires me. As a figure of mystery at the center of a powerful mythos, he's the center of my spiritual life.

Finally, there are people who are relatively recent influences in my life who are no less important for the shorter time I've known them. There's my partner of 14 years, Cody. Cody is devoutly secular, but it's only through his labor and understanding I'm able to pursue this lifelong goal. Growing up poor and gay and culturally isolated in Louisiana, I had been told--and come to believe-- that many of my life goals were simply not possible. These are people who by their very existence prove me wrong: Former Music Director of Peninsula MCC, Caroline Smith; Senior Pastor of Peninsula MCC, Reverend Terri Echelbarger; current PSR student Victor Floyd.

How have your faith and life been affected by the pluralistic (e.g., class, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation) nature of today's world?

When I visited your campus, the first sight I saw upon completing the trek up "Holy Hill" and turning into your courtyard was a young man dressed in what looked to me like traditional Amish garb. He was holding a Macbook. I grinned, feeling immediately like I had come to the right place.

I don't know the real story of that man or his garb, but the sight of him was a powerful symbol that reflected my own posture: one foot firmly planted in a rural, agrarian tradition and one foot placed at the bleeding edge of the digital age.

The pluralistic nature of today's world was not a factor in my life or faith during my formative years, due to a relative cultural and physical isolation. I only knew black people and white people. I only knew Baptists and Catholics and "Charistmatics". Even in terms of class, I only had contact with working-class people.

Even into my early adulthood, my exposure to the wider world was limited; when I came out as a gay man in college, I was at that time the only out gay person that institution had seen.

Given that context, I was driven--often by necessity--to seek out diversity and to find comfort there. My career in the field of Interaction Design and Web Strategy; my relationship; my eventual Bachelor's Degree--none of these things were possible in the environment where I began. I was required to seek them out in more pluralistic settings.

Experience, then, has taught me to always see diversity as very good news. Any movement to a more diverse setting, for me, has been accompanied by an expanding set of possibilities, a reduced set of headaches, and a sudden influx of new ideas and information.

Like most people, I find comfort in the familiar. My traditions ground my faith and still inform my sense of fairness, of justice, of goodness. But any significant growth in my career, faith, or understanding of the world has come from grappling with new ideas or ways of thinking that I hadn't yet seen.

Select what you understand to be one of today's most critical issues and reflect on it in terms of your own theological perspective.

"God Damn America". It's hard to see how a phrase from a pulpit could be more politically provocative, or how it could point more clearly to the struggle the Church will face in contributing constructively to the challenges and debates of this age. Indeed, it's hard to imagine another formulation in the English language that would have the same capacity to outrage such a diverse array of people. The Left blanches at the language of God in the public square, accustomed to godly denunciations from a generation of right-wing preachers. The Right abhors as traitorous any failure to be sufficiently nationalistic. In short, the Right is angry at "God damn AMERICA" and the Left is angry at "GOD damn America".

As politically difficult as Reverend Jeremiah Wright's words may have be, what's theologically interesting about them is how utterly common they are. Of course his infamous phrase is more pithy and direct than most, but the basic mechanism of that formulation is as old as Elijah and common to practically every pulpit in the nation: "There is a higher authority than the U.S. government and its people. That authority sits in judgement on us and has found us wanting".

This appeal to God's authority is not always a threat to political authority. In fact, much effort is expended to ensure that it isn't. From Constantine through Henry VII, to today's U.S. President, political leaders have always found it useful to appropriate religious clout. Likewise, leaders who claim religious authority have often found it useful to lease that authority to politicians for material gain.

But when a religious institution marries itself to kingly powers, there's always a crazy uncle at the wedding reception: the prophetic tradition. Elijah challenges his queen. Jesus vexes the Pharisees. King shames the white church's acquiescence to Jim Crow. Each time, the prophet says "there is a higher authority than you". And the reaction is usually the same: ridicule, outrage, violence--at first.

"God Damn America" may at last herald the return of the prophetic tradition as a major force in American public discourse. But this time may be quite different. The United States is a far more secular place than it was 40 years go, even despite--or perhaps because of--the religiosity that now seems to dominate our politics. Many sensible Americans are tired of religious objections to things like evolution and stem cell research. The Left admires many European nations where the role of religion has become largely ceremonial. The New Athiests like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are loudly demanding that religion be laughed from the public square entirely.

In this environment, the old appeal to a higher authority may simply find no takers. This will be a critical issue in the years to come: What is the appropriate role for Religion in a pluralistic, democratic society facing challenges of global scale and consequence, such as famine, environmental catastrophe, disease, and increased violent competition for finite resources? I believe the answer, from a political point of view, may disappoint many. The answer will likely be "None". In fact, a religious Left emerging to confront the religious Right may finally provoke Americans to simply be done with religious authority, political or prophetic. Even mainstream religious leaders will be required to chart a new course for religious dialogue--one that doesn't rely on appeals to Biblical authority or claims to speak for God, but instead leads individuals to find their own religious truth within the supporting environment of a religious community. Whether this approach will be effective enough for the Church to actively and effectively contribute to meeting the great challenges of our time remains to be seen.

Describe your leadership experience and/or your capacities for leadership. Have you had experiences where you took a stand which was different from others in a group organization? Have you had experiences where you have helped people work together toward a common goal?

I come to you with a wealth of leadership experience in the form of two long and sometimes contiguous careers. Both careers placed me in positions of leadership quite early, and both have provided numerous opportunities to take a unique stand or unify a group toward a common goal. I'll give two examples, one from each career.

Since the age of 14, I have served various churches as a Music Minister. In my faith tradition, "Music Minister" wasn't simply a fancy name for the church pianist; to the contrary, the Music Minister was considered one of the leaders of the congregation and was expected to participate fully in the life of the church.

I was working at a mid-sized, all-white Methodist church in a small town on the Texas/Louisiana border. As the holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. approached, I selected an arrangement of "We Shall Overcome" for an upcoming Anthem.

When I presented it to the choir, I had no idea that this would be a controversial selection. Imagine my surprise when distributing the music to the choir provoked a full-scale mutiny.

Lydia, my best soprano and the choir's most senior member, led the protest, and was by no means alone. She said: "I remember them marching downtown singing that song and how scared I felt as a young woman."

Lydia refused to sing or even rehearse the song, and others joined in her refusal. We debated the issue awhile, then we finished our rehearsal by working on other songs.

I consulted my Pastor, who wisely refrained from involving himself and allowed me to handle the issue. He counseled me to "pick my battles", which I thought was wise. After some thought, though, I decided that this was a battle worth picking.

The following rehearsal, I was able to convince the choir that the song was about hope, and that hope was not unique to one moment in history or one social movement. In the end, the choir sang the song, including Lydia. I learned something about the visceral nature of race relations and the way people identify with music. I like to think the choir learned something about the universality of sacred music, and found in that song a way to empathize with old enemies.

The more lucrative of my two careers has been my work as a Web Strategist and Interaction Designer. I was fortunate to work in the Online Commerce field starting in the days of the Internet's infancy right up through the .com boom and bust until recent days. My acme in this period was my role as VP of Operations for Motivo, a major Web Design and Development company in Ohio. In that role, I was responsible for the leading the conception or creation of enterprise-level web applications for large clients, such as Bacardi Global Brands, Anthem Blue Cross & Blue Shield, and the tourist board of the nation of Jamaica.

Development of any large-scale web application involves hundreds of people in dozens of different positions and roles. Success requires balancing the many competing priorities, conflicting personalities, and opposing visions. For example, the Bacardi website was a global marketing presence that had to be approved by the Bacardi marketing departments in every nation where Bacardi does business. Each office had a different vision for the site, and each office had separate list of requirements placing their priorities at the top.

In situations like this, it was always important to make sure each interested party had a stake in the project's eventual success. This was achieved, by finding common ground where it was possible--usually in the rewards for success and the price of failure, by serving as intermediary for conflicting positions and egos, and by being as open and communicative about the decision-making process as possible. This is how a web development project gets completed on time and on budget, with a satisfied client.

What is your reason for applying to Pacific School of Religion in particular?

I have several reasons for applying to PSR, and only to PSR. First is the compelling idea of the Graduate Theological Union, which will allow me to take a broad range of classes from a broad range of traditions. Second is PSR's historical and current leadership role within the progressive faith tradition. Third, but by no means least in importance, is the number of people I know and respect who have been through PSR's MDiv Program.

As a member of Peninsula MCC, where several PSR MDiv students have interned, I've watched many talented students grow in knowledge, confidence, and skill until they become Ministers before my very eyes. It's an inspiring sight.

How do you understand your ministry in the context of a community of faith?

In answer to an earlier question, I discussed the idea of Ministry that doesn't hold a special claim to God's word--a non-authoritarian approach to Ministry. I realize that this is by no means a new idea, but it was almost unheard-of in the faith traditions of my childhood.

At my current church, I see this non-authoritarian approach in practice all the time.

Our Pastor claims no relationship with God that's more exceptional than anyone else's. She leads not by virtue of a special claim to God's authority, but by virtue of her calling to serve our community--her willingness to spend more time in prayer, reading, writing and thinking on spiritual matters than life affords others.

She doesn't use the pulpit to either condemn or comfort political authorities, but to call people to effective lives of conscience within their political environment.

In our church, spiritual practice isn't dictated by appeal to higher authority, but by mutual agreement among we who choose to worship together. Our Pastor and other leaders help people navigate and explore the mutually shared framework that we as a community consciously create according to our shared traditions and beliefs.

This is the kind of ministry I envision for myself; a ministry of leadership through service, a fellow traveler with those who are seeking a deeper connection with the Sacred, and joyful laborer alongside those who are called to work for peace and justice.

How will serious academic study support your preparation for ministry?

In answering the first essay question, I wrote something that applies here, as well:

"I hope that my time at PSR will provide a broader context, more tools and resources, and a greater sense of history and community within which to prayerfully allow my ministry to take shape."

I expect that rigorous study of relevant history, philosophy, and religious practice will provide framework and context for my continued critical examination of my received religious traditions.

In addition, I expect that my time engaged in study within the PSR community will constitute a created, intentional opportunity to explore the history, practice, and scholarship of the non-authoritarian approach to Ministry I've begun to understand.

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