This is the first in a two part series. I went to Bishop's School when I was 16 and had the most awesome time ever. This letter is a letter I wrote all those years ago to my congregation thanking them for their financial support. The second part is the sermon I wrote there. I figured you would need some context before you read the sermon, so this gives a fairly accurate depiction of what I did there and the impact it had on me. It shows the variations in the Lutheran Church and the unique flavor of all involved. Just remember, I wrote this when I was 16- so no judging! Have an ever so marvelous day!
What Did I Do At Bishop’s School?
All Saints Congregation-
“What did you do at Bishop’s School?” It’s really not so much a question of what I did there, as it is what I learned there. I learned that “amen” is not just a term to be used solemnly at the end of a prayer, but rather, a wholehearted statement of affirmation. I learned that a seventeenth-century, four-four time, tongue twister of a dirge can be equally as powerful as a hip-swaying, toe-tapping, “How Jesus is a-coming to save my soul, Oh Lord, can it be true?” gospel song. I learned that people worship in different ways, but it is ultimately to reach the same aim. Through dirges or spirituals, tear-ridden sermons or stoic faith, Lutherans (and others), have important ways that they communicate and pass on their faith.
Bishop’s School is a one-week experience, complete with life in a dorm, daily Eucharist and vespers, theological discussions, classes on various issues and fun. After sending my application in to the depths of the Region 9 office, through much goading by Pastor Matt, I received my acceptance letter that outlined not only how wonderful the experience was to be, but also how much I would have to pay. All Saints was kind enough to arrange for the monetary part of it to be covered. So for that, I must thank you profusely. So after all was said and done, I arrived in early June to Columbia, where Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary is located.
From the start, there was a feeling that this event was something special. People came up to me to help as I lugged my suitcase, sleeping bag, pillow, required flashlight that I never used, the blanket for these actually cold dormitories, my towels, other personal toilet articles, my umbrella that I never used, and, of course, my Bible. People instantly started chatting about where everyone was from, what they did, how they got there, why they came. It was an instantly warm and welcome environment. As my Religion professor, Dr. Wayne Kannaday, explained it at the end of the week, “You came in here, and you skipped all of the superficial stuff, and you went to the nitty-gritty part of being friends and being there for one another.” Bishop’s School was a creating of a fellowship. We silently, tearfully listened to the problems of our friends. We came upon hardships that tested faith, things that I could never imagine. And I saw amazing people who triumphed over that, and I saw amazing people who still struggle with it daily.
Besides the 25 participants, there were over 16 adults to help guide us through this week. These people were bishops, pastors from across Region 9, professors, seminarians and staff at the seminary and Region 9 office. Daily I started out with the breakfast of champions- communion. With all of the clergy there, it was designated that each would do a different service. I personally believe that the whole gamut of Lutheran church services was run. We experienced everything from a high-church service with chanting and incense to Pastor Vicki Hamilton’s inner city Jacksonville, Say It To Me Sister! service. It was in all of these services that we came to recognize that the spirit can be felt, or can come in such different ways. Not to mention the preaching was so good that we started to bring whole boxes Kleenex to church. I promise, everyone had cried by the end of the week. Promise. Well, three fourths of us had started crying by day four (but you have to give some of the guys a little extra time). This is certainly not to say that we were depressed all of the time. While they made us cry, the pastors also made us laugh.
Take Pastor Vicki for example. Her service came later in the week, after some fairly traditional services. By this point in time, we all filed in to Chapel not knowing what to expect and sat down in our pews. I don’t believe we were handed any sort of bulletin or printout as to what we were to expect, if we were, there wasn’t much on it, other than some psalms and hymns. Being Lutheran, we’ve all got our pants in a bunch now. We don’t know when we’re supposed to sit. We don’t know when we’re supposed to stand. We don’t know when we’re supposed to kneel. We don’t really have a specific time frame for getting out of church. Basically, the Apocalypse has come. Oh, but that was just the beginning. Scene: opening hymn. We all stand straight as telephone poles, singing with all of the emotion of a telephone pole. Pastor Vicki will not stand for that. Oh no. If we are to sing, we are to be excited about it. If we are to say “amen,” also known as “so be it,” then let us say it like we mean it. Not “amen.” But “AMEN!!!!!” By the time we got out of there, we were throwing around “amen” like a tennis ball. Pastor Vicki would say something that was inspiring, someone would say “amen, sister” and then everyone else would start up too, until the very last little bounce was gone. There might even be a few “ummm humms” thrown in there too. There cannot be a time frame on that kind of service. So she showed us how to put a little emotion into our worship. A little swing to our hips during a good song. I though she was right. When you really think about it, we’ve got pretty much the best news in the world. Jesus isn’t half-bad when you want something to be excited about. So we are pretty happy. You just watch me in church sometime. Since in our service, an “amen” might be a little disruptive, I’ve taken to nodding my head during the sermon. I’ve caught myself one or two times looking like a bobble-head doll on a dashboard. I didn’t know this, but there is a bobble-head of Martin Luther. So if you feel like it, join in with a few nods.
During the day at Bishop’s School we participated in classes taught by the celebrities of the Lutheran theological circuit. Dr. Wayne Kannaday, a professor of religion at Newberry College is a genius. I have never met someone who explained a book of the Bible in layman’s terms so well. He has quite a talent for teaching. Dr. Carl Ficken introduced us to Religion in the South, as it has grown and developed into what it is today. Dr. Tony Everett, who has lead at All Saints before, gave us a class on Evangelism. You will now notice my W.I.G.I.A.T. (Where Is God In All This) bumper sticker, proudly displayed on the back of my car, next to my “Grace Happens” sticker. The pastors and professors there gladly allowed us to partake in their knowledge everyday, with questions, stories, comments and, above all, encouragement for our faith journeys.
Speaking of faith journeys, I embarked on one of my own this summer. Besides our morning service, we also had vespers at night. The responsibility of vespers lay upon the shoulders of the Small Groups that were composed of about 6 participants, one seminarian, and one pastor. My group got to go first. As we sat in the Refectory, munching and lunching and planning for Vespers, two nights away, I some how got volunteered for a sermonette, as we called it. Here I was, sitting smug and content, for all I had to do was write a prayer and work on music to be played during the service. I should have learned from the Bible that it is always the time when God chooses to lay some large thing down upon you. In this case, I got stuck with a sermon. I don’t know how many of you have ever tried to write a sermon before, but it’s hard. I cannot explain the massive amount of patience and time that it takes. Two days and nights worth of patience. But I also don’t know if I can explain the sense of wonder that comes over you when people come up and say that they connected with something that you said. It makes staying up late and coming up with crazy connections to early 70’s love songs (oh yes, you’d have to read it to believe it) and light bulbs worthwhile. To see the Spirit work through me to get to other people, it just sent shivers down my spine. Apparently there were even people crying! Crying! At something I wrote!
Bishop’s School was incredible. Every single person there wanted to be there, and by the end of the week, we knew for certain that every one of us was meant to be there. We all grew in faith and community. As one of my new found friends said, “God loves us enough to let us be who we are, but He loves us too much to let us stay as we are.” As the week drew to a close, we were all anxious to get back home, but at the same time, we were very scared to go back. The week was so intense. Friendships were made so fast and so strong, and we all grew in innumerable ways; ways that we wouldn’t be able to see for a while. But Naomi, a seminarian at LTSS said something that I will never forget. “Pastor Jim may talk today at the closing service of going back out into the real world. I want to assure you that this is the real world. Christ is the real world, the world that is, the world to come. These people that you met this week, the ones you grew so close to, this is the real world. And they will be your support.”
This was, by far, one of the most memorable experiences of my life, but it was the best of my summer. Bishop’s School was an event that I really needed for where I was spiritually at the beginning of this summer. I can say with assurance and happiness that I have grown up quite a bit this summer, into someone who is far more confident of herself and where she sees herself going. I cannot thank the congregation of All Saints enough for allowing me to partake in this experience. I wish that I could share everything with you all at once, but instead, I invite you to come up and ask me questions about my experience at Bishop’s School, now that you know what it was generally about. Come and ask me about Pastors Vicki and “Ham” Hamilton’s Church in Jacksonville, or our little outing to St. John’s Baptist Church, the day after we arrived (oh, that was a sight to see!), or my Religion class on the book of Revelation, or my scary experience with the air vents in the dorm room. So thank you so much for this.