Thursday, January 30, 2020

Why I Like Worshiping at Candler's Cannon Chapel

Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Fry Brown
Worshiping at Cannon Chapel is one of the things I like most in my life as a professor at Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. In the past two years as a visiting professor, I have attended chapel frequently on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

During the week in which we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy, I listened to inspiring sermons by Baptist minister the Rev. Dr. Damon P. Williams and by the Rev. Dr. Teresa L. Fry Brown, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler. They demonstrated the power of the word and deeply moving and engaging black preaching styles. Dr. Fry Brown, who belongs to the African Methodist Episcopal tradition, used Psalm 27 as her text. When she linked the suffering of African Americans to the beginning of the psalm, “The Lord is my light and my salvation-Whom shall I fear?” she provided a new context for me to listen to the words of the Psalmist with new insights.

Bishop Karen Oliveto spoke at Candler
Then this past week, Bishop Karen Oliveto, Bishop of the Western Jurisdiction, Mountain Sky Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church (UMC), came to visit the school and preached about how God’s table is open to all. As the first openly gay bishop in the UMC, she asked us to think about whether the church is “united” or “untied.” Her message was especially important for our GLBTQIA students, who are pondering about their future ministry and vocation in a church that is in the process of splitting over the issue of human sexuality.

This morning Dr. Andrew L. Prevot, an African American Catholic theologian and associate professor of theology at Boston College, preached about the Beatitudes, focusing on the verse, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). He said many people think that we have to wait to go to heaven to see God. But we need to train ourselves to see God in this world. This can only be done if we can see with mercy and compassion. The message was particularly poignant, coming from Dr. Prevot who suffered from many eye problems as a child. He used to carry a card of Saint Lucy and frequently prayed for his eyesight when he was growing up.

Just within the short span of two weeks, I have experienced preaching from four different traditions as well as gospel music, Catholic chants, and evangelical hymns. These worshiping experiences opened me to a spiritual world that is vibrating, inviting, and full of grace.

From left: Dr. Antonio Alonso, Dr. Andrew Prevot, and me
As an Anglican, I am used to following the set liturgy in the Book of Common Prayers. I have not experienced different kinds of ecumenical worship on a consistent basis. My faculty colleagues and students, led by the Rev. Dr. Khalia J. Williams, Assistant Dean of Worship and Music, have put their soul and energy in planning for these worship services. These services and the weekly evensong offered by the Episcopal and Anglican Studies at the school have enriched my spiritual life and sustained my academic pursuit. They provide a supportive and welcoming environment for me to explore the hidden face of God that has yet to be revealed.

As a theologian, I consider theology and spirituality as deeply integrated, partly because I come from a Chinese background. The neo-Confucian philosophers in the medieval period debated about the relationship between knowing and doing. I am firmly with the camp that emphasized that knowing and doing should go hand in hand. I so admired Dr. Prevot’s sermon because he demonstrated that one can combine vigorous theological thinking with the deepest longing for God.

Candler’s worship also challenges me to think about how we can live into God’s realm, embracing differences in race, language, custom, class, gender, and sexuality. It is not easy to study together; it is even harder to worship together. I, for one, can’t clap and sing and move my body. For others, it is so natural.

As I was thinking about this, I remembered the address given by Dr. Rebecca Chopp, who was once a professor at Candler and Emory University’s Provost. In her convocation address, she used the theme of abiding to talk about our faith and loyalty. Coming to seminary and divinity school, she said, provides an opportunity for us to listen to abiding of other people, and to learn to dwell in our own abiding.

Abiding means a sense of belonging and community. In our time of rootlessness and isolation, when we have to check our mobile devices so many times a day to stay “connected,” the opportunity to sing, move, worship together enables us to experience the epiphany of God’s grace.

Without drinking from the spiritual wells of our many traditions, it will be much harder to live in community, to honor difference, and to work together to change the world. Prophet Micah exhorted us “to do justice, and love mercy.” Both justice and mercy can only be nurtured by sustainable practices.* Worshiping together is one such practice to help us see each other as God’s beloved.

*I am grateful to my former student Julian Reid for this term. He mentioned this in the context of discussing how to integrate what we have learned in divinity school and in our different ministries and vocations.