Monday, September 22, 2014

Spiritual Autobiography

I grew up in a small, conservative town where NASCAR was prime entertainment, and pickup trucks filled my high school parking lot. Church was just expected of all "good" folks, and if there were churches outside of the Southern Baptists, I was scarcely aware of them. I entered church as a baby in the "cradle roll" nursery, and the congregation became family early on when my father died. I spent the day of his funeral with church friends as my mom feared me being present at the funeral would scar me too much, as I was only five years old. Many men in the church stepped up as "surrogate" fathers, and I always felt safe within the church walls.

My baptism at age six brought the first twinges of fear as I was anxious to avoid the flames of hell that peppered the sermons and revivals I attended. I was scared of the water, too, as I couldn't swim and worried about being submerged. But there were welcoming arms to receive me and it felt like home. I took on leadership roles early on; leading children's church shortly after I "graduated" from it and asking permission to join the youth group early at age 12, around the time I also joined the adult choir. I went on to teach the youth, occasionally teach the adults, attended every Bible study, and volunteered for every Vacation Bible School.

While I worked so hard at church, I was also striving at school to be the top and to earn a ticket out of town.  While I understood in part that faith was a gift, I latched on a little too strongly to the “faith without works is dead” verse from James and in my perfectionist nature, I felt that I could earn recognition, control, or salvation at least from the difficulties my family faced.   I knew that with our financial situation, scholarships to college would be my only opportunity to break the cycle, and to leave behind the narrow-mindedness that I felt characterized my hometown. For the first time, though, I felt I didn't have the wholehearted support of my church family. They seemed confused about why I would leave, and I was one of the first to go away to college. Wasn't the Bible enough for me? Wouldn't a secular school draw me away from God?

Perhaps it was rebellion (my first minor attempt) that led me to choose science as my course of study, but still a "good girl", my first excursions at The College of William and Mary were to the Baptist Student Union (BSU). There I found Baptists (and others) like I had never encountered. They drank, danced, joked, and most surprisingly, were open to discussing and questioning their faith. This did not send them into a crisis (or into the hands of the devil), but instead, seemed to deepen their walk with God. I started to understand that it was okay to search, to question, to wrestle, to doubt, but to also embrace the mystery of what I could not understand.

I found myself secure within a community again, which was comforting as I detached myself from home. As I experienced independence, I grew to love being responsible for only myself and for the freedom to think for myself. My relationship with God grew with me. I felt at home in my faith (which continued to evolve) and in my developing understanding of who I was and who I was becoming. My struggles came, though, as graduation neared and the future I had dreamed of was not falling into place as I had planned. My years of goal sheets and to-do lists, of picturing myself as a scientific researcher, and believing that I could "be anything I wanted to be" seemed fruitless as I was ill-suited for research and was despondent over how much I abhorred it and the time I had wasted pursuing it. I was graduating from my dream school with my coveted degree and without job prospects or aspirations.

I followed a group of BSU friends to Richmond, where they were moving to attend seminary. I roomed with other seminary folks and found at couple of menial jobs (at Kinko's and the mall) to pay the bills while I continued to commute weekly to Williamsburg to volunteer with my church’s youth group. I found that I was spending all my free time (and my job time) dreaming of youth ideas, planning lessons, and praying for these teenagers that had grabbed my heart. During a week of camp with them that summer, we reached the emotional pinnacle of the event, the last altar call. I remember praying to God with passion and confusion, "God, I love this so much. Why can't I do this all the time?" And the still small voice within me (which can be surprisingly snarky) answered, "Well, why can't you?" And with that, I answered the call to ministry and was filled with a peace and excitement that I hadn't felt in months.

In my enthusiasm, I imagined it would be all light and glory. It was for a while. My family was thrilled (my grandmother commented, "I always pictured you as a missionary!" even though that was the farthest thing from my mind). My church was not so enthusiastic, however. Although they didn't talk about it with me (perhaps because I was still keeping my distance from home), I heard about the pastor arguing with my mom and grandmother about how women weren't allowed to be ministers.  I was encouraged by the way my mom, normally submissive and self-conscious, defended me and my calling. I was proud of the way my grandmother exhibited her feistiness and Biblical and church knowledge in her vocal support.

Seminary for me was another time of coming home to community. I dove in with enthusiasm and passion. I loved the classes; I loved the people around me. I loved how my faith was tested, challenged, and strengthened. I loved working towards something that was more than an interest, but was a passion and a calling. I had the opportunity to experience many kinds of ministry from youth work to college ministry, and church ministry to non-profit. I felt a strong calling to work with young women outside the church, but had no idea of what form that would take in my vocation. For the first time, I had no plan, and yet, there was still peace.

The greatest gift of seminary, though, was discovering a different Call, my John Call, the man I would marry. From the beginning of our friendship, a deep connection was formed. It took only a couple of dates to realize that God was drawing us together. After six weeks we were engaged, and we married a year later on the quad of the seminary, with the dean playing our processional on guitar, our (female) internship and preaching professor officiating, and a small handful of friends and family as participants and guests. It was a lovely beginning to a chapter of my story that continues to grow more and more beautiful over the years. From our ceremony, we walked hand in hand the 100 or so yards to the first apartment we shared on the campus.

A year into our marriage, John graduated and we begin exploring our first vocational calls together. We decided to move back closer to "home" for both of us, picking a city between our two families. We dreamed of starting a family together and it seemed ideal when we both found jobs that we loved within a short time span. John served as the Associate Pastor and Minister to Youth and Children at a church for 5 years while I started as Assistant Director of Christian Education at a residential group home for at-risk youth and developmentally disabled adults, and moved to the full Director of Christian Education and chaplain over a period of 8 years. I loved the variety, particularly working with the youth in the girls' wilderness program, and offering pastoral care and weekly worship and devotions for staff and residents.

Things were not always smooth. There were stressful transitions and times of uncertainty.  As I sought ordination, there was a boycott of sorts by my associational council, leaving only two local ministers plus the supporters from my church with whom to share my call and theology. My family faced many hurts and questions as things in the church didn't end well and John was forced to resign when I was 9 months pregnant with our second child. Parenthood itself was a relentless lesson to us in sacrificing our own needs and wants (and often control) for the sake of our children. There were times of darkness when my calling seemed so hazy and my work seemed so futile. I questioned and doubted into the silence and was not comforted. I felt it was time for me to move on as I was growing stagnant in my faith and apathetic and hopeless in my ministry. And yet nothing opened up. There was no voice (quiet, loud, or snarky) from God and I felt alone and incapable of juggling home, an empty faith, and a job that no longer fulfilled any sense of calling or passion.

The darkness of depression can be overwhelming, but I continued to pray and to seek.  I had to trust that God had a greater plan since my plans had come to naught yet again.  Again and again I was drawn to the verses that I had selected for my seminary application essay:
   “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.” (Exodus 13:17-18)
I could definitely relate to spending years wandering aimlessly in the darkness of the desert, going round and round in circles and getting nowhere.  And then one day there was a burst of light in the most unexpected place, an oasis in the desert that would become my Promised Land.  I was visiting Hollins University for my son’s preschool play.  This was my first visit to campus, and yet, it just clicked, and once again I felt the sense of “home” that some places just naturally evoke in us.  My heart said, “It would be great to work here one day”.  After I left that day, I couldn’t get the place, or the calling, out of my mind.  I “friended” the chaplain at the time on Facebook, hoping that she might serve as a mentor to me and point me to opportunities in the future.  A week after accepting my friend request, she announced on Facebook that she would be leaving the university (after 24 years) for a new calling. 

After a moment of awestruck prayers of gratitude, I contacted her, updated my résumé, and sent it to the school the following day.  Four months after first feeling at home in the DuPont Chapel of Hollins University, I began ministering there as interim university chaplain.   It has been an amazing journey of learning, building relationships, and being inspired by passion and God-given creativity once again.  After a year of serving, feeling God’s assurance of my calling, and receiving the support and affirmation of the university, I was named university chaplain.

God is full of surprises.  I used to think I didn’t enjoy surprise, but I have to admit I like the ways that God “intrudes” into my well-made plans, wreaks havoc, and then points me to a beautiful new path that I never would have discovered on my own.  Sometimes God whispers into my heart, and sometimes God stomps loudly through the circumstances of my life.  Sometimes we wander together in the desert, and sometimes we celebrate on the mountaintop.  Through it all, I’m learning (slowly, painfully, gracelessly) how to cede control (or at least recognize that I never really had it to begin with).  Through the roundabout journey, I’ve gained strength, and I’ve learned to look beyond myself.  Ironically (or perhaps not, as God is the orchestrator of this), the Hollins University motto is “Levavi Oculos” (“I lift up my eyes”) from Psalm 121:

Psalm 121
Assurance of God’s Protection
A Song of Ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
   from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
   who made heaven and earth. 

He will not let your foot be moved;
   he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
   will neither slumber nor sleep. 

The Lord is your keeper;
   the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
   nor the moon by night. 

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
   he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
   your going out and your coming in
   from this time on and for evermore.

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