Associate Pastor for Cruise Direction?

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I took a cruise once, and I did not particularly enjoy it. I love the people who went with me. I love the amount of sunbathing and swimming I got to do, but I did not particularly enjoy the loud-speaker that was above my bed. The loud-speaker rang true and clear each morning as the captain updated us on our course and the weather for that day. I had to work through some of the terminology like knots and starboard, but I got the gist, “We are moving forward.” But then came the cruise director, Party Dan.

Party Dan’s voice would come across the loudspeaker informing us of the activities for that day: casino games, lunch on Bravo Deck, entertainment, excursions, and of course, the evening parties. Some people probably really liked Party Dan’s saccharine enthusiasm, but I did not. I grew to hate it.

Now, I understand that as a pastor, I might think about different things than the average person. I am called to provide spiritual guidance for a community. Even before being ordained,  I do find myself in that situation quite a bit. But I also find myself wondering if my role sometimes slips toward Party Dan. I’m sure I’m not as cool (or annoying) as Party Dan, but I hope that I never have to be that cool or annoying as Pastor Krystal.

There are many different hats that pastors wear. When we train in seminary, we learn about these different roles. We read about pastor as priest (worship leader) or pastor as caregiver. We read about pastor as teacher, preacher, administrator, and even toilet-paper-replenisher.  But I don’t remember pastor as cruise director.

My job title, Director of Campus Ministries, concerns me. I share this same title, “director,” with many people, and I find myself under the “Programmatic Staff” heading in our bulletin. Sometimes I wonder if pastor as program director starts to look a little like pastor as Party Dan. Could the piece of my brain that wants so badly to be theologically thoughtful get lost in the meal count for the next campus ministry event?

Are we offering so many programs that we are bombarding people with church advertising? Each week there is a meeting, a meal, a Bible study, a service project, a special event, a party. Bulletins and emails and announcements on Sunday morning become that loudspeaker over my cruiseship bed. All these events are good things, but I wonder at what point we go overboard with this stuff. In meetings, we talk about how we are going to do things rather than why. And, honestly, when I ask people how they are doing spiritually, I usually get the answer, “Fine.” At what point do food, fun, and fellowship turn into ways to ignore what is really going on with us? What if all our programs give people something to do rather than someone to be?

I wonder, as I await ordination, if event planning makes it difficult for “program staff” of churches to take on a pastoral role? How do pastors, consumed with the details of programs, remind themselves of what it means to be pastoral? It’s deeper than “being nice.” I understand that potlucks and parties have a place in the life of the community,  but I want to make sure the point of being a pastor is about care, guidance, study, and theological thought instead of “The next party on Aledo deck starts in 20 minutes!”

Stepping Out

like buttonI came out recently on facebook.  Not as gay.  That would have been no big deal to the vast majority of my friends.  I came out as a religious Christian.

I didn’t really mean to come out.  I just got the email saying I was invited to the candidacy site of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church.  I’d been waiting for that email for months.  I’d considered asking for it for years.  At long last the slow cogs of my heart and church beauracracy clicked into place, and I was so excited I just wanted to celebrate.

“I’m officially a candidate!” I posted.

“For?” was the first response.  Then silence.

I decided I had to answer.  I thought about how much I wanted to say.  I have lots of friends who are spiritual but not religious.  I have some friends who have been hurt by the church.  I have a few friends who are downright hostile towards what they consider to be the idiocy of organized religion.  A herd of fears thundered by, and my excitement fled into the nearest bushes to hide.

“Ministry in the United Methodist Church,” I typed with trepidation.  The words looked clear and confident on the screen.  Post.

I should explain.  As the click echoed off into the void of cyberland, I felt possessed with the need to explain.  I should explain that I might become a pastor, but I still believe in science.  And a woman’s right to choose.  And the full equality of marriage.  I should explain that God calls me, but I haven’t started hearing voices at night.  I’m not going to start asking people if they’re saved.  I haven’t forgotten my screw-ups.  I don’t think I’m better than you.

I should explain that I’m still me.

I decided not to.  I decided my friends, the good ones anyway – the ones who have seen me morph from starry-eyed teenager, to nerdy college girl, to idealistic-to-cynical-then-back-again Peace Corps volunteer, to working actresss, to English teacher – could probably figure that out.

I came back to the computer at the end of the day and was humbled by all the “Congratulations!” and “I’m so excited for you!”  My fears, in their thunderous roar, had underestimated my friends.  Many in my circle have their well-earned doubts about what the church can offer.  But they could tell I was happy, and so they were happy for me.

So I’m out.  Sort of.  I still wrestle, really wrestle, daily, with this new identity I’m trying on for size.  (Do I say I’m working on applications for “grad school” or for “seminary”? Do I say I’m planning on “studying to become a pastor” or “studying theology”?)  Often I wait and see, hedge my bets, depending on who I’m talking to, and go vague rather than face the explanation urges.

It’s getting easier, though.  I don’t see candidacy for ministry as a radical departure from who I’ve always been, but a thrilling synthesis of everything that has always been at the heart of who I am.  The less I explain, the more I come out, the easier I think it will be for my friends to see that too.

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Keep the Faith

email inboxDuring the months of my brother’s deployment, his email correspondence was often my sustenance during a string of bad days. What began as simple ‘catching up’ turned into much deeper conversations, with me furiously typing my faith struggles – those questions that abound in the first year of seminary – tossing doubts and ideas into his inbox. It helped him, he said, because the “outside world” was something he missed. Thinking about something besides his duties in the isolated world of deployment was a welcome change.

Meanwhile, I was suffering from idea overload here in Atlanta. Classes, conversations with friends, and even the thoughts that settle in my mind as I drift to sleep revolve around the same questions of theology and faith. How can my cynicism be overridden by love and acceptance? What is the point of pain and suffering? And most frequently asked of all: What do I know anyway? Doubt is the one unifying theme that reverberates in my brain like a broken record.

Seminary has forced me to become acquainted with the feeling of not knowing. You don’t have a choice, really. It is alternating periods of adjustment, waiting, praise, frustration, and more adjustment. You write papers and take exams that measure your learning, simply continuing the academic environment of college. Yet seminary has an accompanying, and incredibly sly, type of test. You begin to evaluate what parts of your faith need to be overhauled. What used to be an absolute truth becomes questionable. What you never learned to begin with becomes painfully obvious. Your beliefs about the church become a construction zone lined with caution tape. And often these experiences blindside you on a random Tuesday, leaving you gasping for air, and hoping for some kind of answer that will assuage your fears.

Seminary is both my exhilarating dream and my burden. When asked in sermons, “What are you doing in your life for Christ?”, there is a part of me screaming. My sarcastic self emerges with a retort: well Pastor, my whole life has been changed, I moved to a new city and left my old friends, changed my lifestyle, and when I think about it, drained my bank account too! The days when I am weary, it is difficult to really feel the benefit of the life I’ve chosen. We are reminded again and again in our classes that the life we have chosen is filled with challenges, and are told to carry this burden with joy and gratitude. As young future ministers, we face a broken body of Christ, with churches struggling to heal and be effective witnesses of the Gospel. Facing this environment, I find it difficult to continue down the path with joy. How can I help change such a broken place when I myself feel so incomplete?

I am an inspirational quote junkie, and I often rely on those for sustenance. I would write the words of Rumi or Frederick Buechner on post-its and stick them anywhere and everywhere. But on these recent bad days when I threw a pity party that could rival Kirsten Wiig’s character Annie in “Bridesmaids,” those quotes would only frustrate me. I needed something more concrete.

In his emails, my brother always signed off with the phrase “Keep the faith.” It was an encouraging signature coming from him, something I’m sure he had to repeat over and over to himself just to get through the day. It was almost a command, a standard he hoped I would hold myself up to. It inspired me and comforted me when I needed it. I took it on as a promise to him. Despite the loneliness and confusion that the day might bring, I would keep the faith.

The more my brother wrote that encouraging line, the more I began to notice where the spirit of God silenced the broken record of doubt. It seemed that once I stopped focusing on what I didn’t know, it allowed space for rest and joy. Now I find the most solace in the worship music at church on Sunday mornings. In this setting, no answer is required of me. My faith is not tested, but reenergized. It is simply my time to praise my God, open my hands and just ask the Lord to renew my heart for another week. And it is the time when I can really feel God’s spirit giving me life. My faith may be changing, but its strength is not threatened. It still resides deep within my soul, and it bursts to the surface and fills me with life during those songs. And in those moments of worship I am reminded of the endurance of faith, the faith that I have to let go and still hold close to me.

My frustration still exists, and I’ve accepted it as a part of the calling. Yet it never takes the place of the foundation of faith that’s been laid as a response to the immense doubt within my first year of seminary. It is truly amazing how the human spirit defends itself against the toxicity of fear. Despite the fact that my faith is under construction, its foundation has not moved. As seminarians, we have to trust that power. We have to keep the faith.

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All in God’s Time

storm cloudsI am caught in a strange place these days. In one moment I feel both ahead of the game and behind the curve.

I am 29 years old. I am one of the youngest people at my seminary. This is not a second career for me. Memories of papers and lengthy reading assignments are still fresh. School has defined all but a few years of my life.

I am 29 years old. My fellow religion majors in college have already finished their M.Div., been ordained, found a place to serve. Some have started families. I never thought I would stray from that same straightforward path.

For a while, I stuck to my plan. Despite the burnout my senior year of college. Despite the doubts and dread. I graduated. I spent a summer at home. Then I moved a thousand miles away to start seminary.

I had pledged to myself that grad school would be different. I would study to learn, to grow, and not just to pass the next test. I wouldn’t let my perfectionism in the classroom get in the way of true education. Then the scholarship changed all that. Maintaining a 3.75 GPA meant no room for learning, just succeeding.

As I struggled to find a space for myself among my classmates, as I tried to reinvent myself as someone I wasn’t, I prayed for a boat to come so I could run away like Jonah. I told myself I would keep going but began to plan to teach instead of preach. Began to look for a way out. In class I talked about theology and the God of the Bible but my soul and my heart were so disconnected, it all felt like an intellectual exercise, not reality.

In the midst of this spiritual void, my heart burned with guilt, with fear. The morning phone calls from home telling me Dad was back in the hospital became more frequent and more alarming.

The end of my second semester I had a panic attack. Failed to finish a final paper, reduced to tears in the professor’s office, begging for an incomplete.

Shortly thereafter I went home for Father’s Day, two weeks at home. From the airport we went straight to the hospital. It wasn’t long before the news finally came: the cancer really was back. My trip home extended for two more weeks. More bad news came. I went back to school only long enough to pack.

The boat had come, but so had the storm.

A semester off became a year. A year waiting for the stem cell transplant. A year of being unable to walk into a church without being overwhelmed by guilt and fear. The place that was once a refuge became an emotional warzone, an ever-present reminder that I had failed. The only future I had imaged for my life had fallen down around me. So for a time I ran from all vestiges of that path – God, church, school – scared and burned out.

The year waiting was followed by a year of treatment. Then a slow road to recovery.

No longer needed as a caregiver, I tried the “real world.” Maybe, someday, I would go back for my M.Div. No time soon. Give me a cubicle instead of a pulpit. I was too damaged for ministry.

So I spent my time in the belly of the fish. Hearing the voices of mentors in the darkness. They saw my running for what it was. Affirmed the gifts I had come to deny. Healed the hurt and patiently waited as I learned to pray again, to serve again.

Before I knew what was happening, the fish plopped me back on land and pointed me towards the open door. A congregation that would love and support me. An online program, led by people I trusted. The opportunity to follow my call again, right where I was.

God must have known what I did not. I hadn’t been ready, but I wasn’t hopeless.  God granted me time to recover, to refresh, to renew. A time of hardship and growth, time to “remember the Lord.”

In the end, I took a detour, a painful side trip. One that has left me feeling desperately behind.

And yet, I acknowledge and give thanks that I was not left to wander the wilderness for 40 years.

Though I struggle daily with where I should be versus where I am, I am reminded of one thing.

It is all in God’s time.

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A Prayer Before Writing for Academia

God Above All Things,

 In these moments while the document loads and my fingers rest on the keyboard grant me first an emptiness.
Remove the to-do list that waits impatiently in the corner of my mind.

Quiet the voice saying, “You’re not ready, you’re not good enough, you don’t have anything to say.”

Shield me from the imagined judgmental gaze of my advisor.
Grant me first an emptiness, an openness, a mind unchained by anxiety.

Grant me then a fullness. Where insecurity lurks, pour out confidence and curiosity.
Where there is fatigue, fill me with generosity and energy. Where there is fear, fill me with courage.

 Shelter me in your strength and quiet the world around me.
For these few hours grant me peace and solitude in my thoughts.

 Bless this mind you’ve given and help me use it fully. Help me seek and push the limits of my abilities.
Remind me that I have read enough, I have enough, I am enough,
and with time this paper will come to a place where it, too, is enough (at least for now).

 In Your name I pray,
Amen.

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McKinna Daugherty is a commissioned minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and will be ordained this August. She will graduate in June with an M. Div from the University of Chicago Divinity School where she has studied as a Disciples Divinity House Scholar. Her thesis is an ethical constructive of sexuality education curriculums in Protestant contexts. In her current ministry she serves as the Chapel Coordinator for the Divinity School’s multi-faith prayer service, and is actively seeking her next ministry context .

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Spring Comes

seedlingHas anyone else noticed that the liturgical calendar and the academic calendar seem to sync up from time to time? Think about Advent… The eager awaiting spirit we hold as we celebrate the birth of Jesus lines up with the anticipation of surviving fall exam week and beginning Winter Break. As a last semester divinity student, Lent’s unique spirit of endurance, intentional discipline, and dim-yet-present hope echo within my soul (and on my calendar) as graduation approaches.

This final year of Divinity School has been the most challenging of the three for me. I battle daily with self-doubt, fear, and answerless questions. Beyond the countless theological questions, I cannot run from the unanswered questions within my own self that ceaselessly bombard me as I traverse these last few months. Am I really cut out for ministry? Was what I interpreted to be a call really a call? Is ordination on the horizon in the coming years? What is this ever-elusive thing I keep hearing about called self-care? What can ministry look like in non-congregational settings? Am I going to find a position in a nonprofit or organization that gives me life? Has this all been worth it? Am I any more spiritual or knowledgeable than when I started classes two and a half years ago?

As I’m thrown into a place of reflection nearing graduation (as if the entirety of divinity school wasn’t reflective enough…), I think of the richness in images found in nature, particularly gardening. I’m planning spring/summer garden for this year and have been amazed over and over at the mystery of the growth process. Like planting and working a garden, my divinity school career has met its fair share of messiness, inconvenience, and failure. Plans were subverted, unexpected barriers sprung up, and chaos seemed to rule. Yet, I cannot deny that I have caught a glimpse of the breathtaking potential of beauty out of chaos, and growth out of the dirt. I may be overstating the divinity school experience, but as I think of the journey I’ve made throughout the years, I think of myself as a seed being gently placed into the earth. Watching the growth of a plant from its beginning as a seed to its fullness as a productive plant is undeniably an incredible experience. I feel like a rooted yet fragile sprout, not yet blooming; I have weathered an undoubtedly treacherous part of the journey with much nurture and maintenance, but I have much growth ahead of me.

Though the slow, steady walk toward my diploma this semester is nothing really like the slow, steady walk of Jesus to the cross (and resurrection), I see some parallels. The human Jesus must have had questions, doubts, and fears, wondering if his life and journey were worth it. Yet, there he was, in a particular place and time, for distinct, yet seemingly invisible purposes. This Lenten season, I await the beauty and renewal of Easter. I find myself here during Lent, in my final semester, actively waiting for the renewal of the earth in spring, the celebration of God’s living presence in Easter, and a completed chapter of my life in graduation. I traverse this academic season with a similar spirit as I do the liturgical season of Lent; I walk the divinity school halls daily with the hope of endurance, strained discipline, and a dim-yet-present hope that this bud will bloom, that graduation (and the set of adventures thereafter) is coming.

Baylee Smith will be graduating with her Master of Divinity degree from Wake Forest University School of Divinity in May. She graduated from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Ancient Greek in 2010. Baylee served as a Pastoral Intern at Salem Presbyterian Church and as a Garden Ministry Intern at First Christian Church in Greensboro. She serves on the Board of Directors at The Shalom Project, a nonprofit that seeks to meet the needs of members of the greater West Salem neighborhood in Winston-Salem. She serves on student government at the School of Divinity and sits on the Hunger Advisory Board at WFU. At Forsyth Futures, Baylee is working as Lead Researcher and intern on the Faith-Based Community Organization Community Engagement Initiative linking Forsyth County congregations to one another and gathering data regarding outreach initiatives.

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A Good Friday

Lent cross“It is finished,” I said, turning toward the altar. It was sparse and striking, with only a black cloth and a candle. A crown of thorns pierced the wax, seeming to hang as some horrible halo around the flame. The Good Friday service I had planned and preached was drawing to a close. I blew out the Christ light, and turned to the worshippers gathered in the chapel. As far as the bulletin showed—and as far as my own planning was concerned—the service was over. I simply had to step down from the chancel, signaling that people were free to leave or to sit in contemplative silence. Instead, an image from the morning flashed in my mind, and I heard myself saying, “Let me offer a benediction…”

Two years prior, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what Good Friday was all about. I was your classic unchurched Millennial, having attended church only a handful of times growing up. It wasn’t until I married my husband (a good United Methodist boy) that I attended church with any intentionality. But we found ourselves in a community where I began to feel the stirrings of something deeply meaningful, and at the age of 24, I was baptized as a Christian and joined a community of faith.

In the ensuing months, I was caught up in the whirlwind that is the Holy Spirit. Before I knew it, I found myself heading up the adult Christian education ministry of a large church. I was in the midst of that glorious time of discovering that faith is real, that there is a palpable spiritual force in the world, and that I could be a part of it. It was exciting in the way a new romance is: all stomach-flutters and awe. The Christian story was true, and I was learning how to live it out each day.

But when I found out that part of my job duties included planning and leading the Good Friday service, I was terrified. Perhaps if it had been the Pentecost service, I would have felt more at ease with the task before me. I could connect with the idea of the Holy Spirit being poured out, of being pulled into a new life. But Good Friday? Wasn’t it basically a memorial service for Jesus?

You might think I’m kidding, but I didn’t have a clue as to where to start. This is it, I remember thinking. This is the moment when everyone figures out that I have no business being in ministry. And so, desperate to keep from looking completely incompetent, I turned to the resource I knew wouldn’t laugh at me when I asked a few dumb questions: Google. (Again, not kidding.) An afternoon of internet-perusal later, I felt like I had an idea of what was expected of me, but I still didn’t know what I would say.

To this point in my faith life, I had focused on all the lovely stories in Scripture: The poetry of the Psalms, the great heroics of Exodus, the healings and parables of Jesus. I had read the passion narratives. I just didn’t know what I thought about them, and so I didn’t think about them. But now? Now I was expected to say something about Jesus’ death—something meaningful, something true. I just had to figure out what that was, exactly.

As Lent progressed, I read as many commentaries as I could get my hands on. I felt like I was making up for decades of missed Sunday school lessons in a matter of weeks. I chose two texts: Matthew 27: 28-50 and Psalm 22. I put together a sermon. I chose hymns, created a liturgy. I planned the altar. I proofed the bulletins. But there was still a certain emptiness I sensed in the service, a disconnect between the service and the joyful faith I had begun to experience firsthand. Was this just the way Good Friday was supposed to go? Was it just supposed to feel off?

With the arrival of Holy Week also came a turn toward spring, and I could finally begin to putter around my yard. On Palm Sunday, I cut back all the shrubs and grasses in the plant beds. On Monday, I cleared away dead leaves from all the hosta and ferns. Tuesday and Wednesday, I plotted a new bed. And on Holy Thursday, I mulched. I laid the ground work for many plans I had for the coming planting season, and I was satisfied with my work.

On Friday morning, to calm my nerves, I paced the yard, surveying my work. I admired the straight rake grooves winding their way around the sweet gum tree, and as my eye followed their path, I saw something that made me pause. I stepped closer and bent down. There, where there was nothing the day before, a tightly wound, perfect fern frond had popped up. Its greenness was startling against the dark mulch, and I experienced a rush of excitement at the coming spring, the summer to follow, the march of days that would unfurl like the frond—unknown but anticipated, guided by God’s grace.

It was this image that I shared as a benediction. In the places where it seems there is nothingness, where hopes are crushed and all seems lost, suddenly there is a miracle. Good Friday, I explained, was necessary to the joy of Easter. Without its emptiness, how could we experience the fullness of Easter?

At the end of the service, I breathed a sigh of relief: I would not have to preach again until next Good Friday. Little did I know that the frond of my calling to ministry had begun to unfurl. Though as I began planning the Good Friday service I was convinced of my certain failure, in retrospect I can see that God was working to show me that even unqualified, unchurched, uncertain me could find a way to say something meaningful, something true about faith. After facing Jesus’ death, other new experiences in ministry seemed less daunting. But it took feeling hopeless, feeling lost, feeling out of my depths to really understand how God moves us beyond those trappings toward something new.

The Lenten season is a powerful time for me as a woman discerning her call. It reminds me that I am a simple human, imperfect and impermanent. But it also reminds me to search for the spaces in my life that seem barren, to claim them honestly, and then to watch for God to bring about the miracle of new life. Just as God brought life to what I thought was an empty Good Friday service and to the fern lying beneath the soil, God brings life to us in the most unexpected of ways.

Chelsey D. Hillyer is a student at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, where she is pursuing her Master’s of Divinity. She is a candidate for ministry in the United Methodist Church, and currently serves as Student Minister at Union UMC in St. Louis. She and her husband also recently answered another calling: to become parents to their daughter Jo Elizabeth.

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Outside the Box

LAH_2729Riding in the car with a close friend from home the other day, I was engaged in a lively conversation with her about some of our friends and their charismatic religious beliefs.  A few recent Facebook status updates triggered our bewilderment on the possibility of physical healing.

“I just don’t know if I believe it,” she mentioned.

I knew my automatic response would be to affirm and reciprocate her doubt.  But as I opened my mouth to say, “Yeah, that’s absurd,” I felt embarrassed for beginning to respond in that way.  I started to think about the beautiful tapestry of traditions that represents my school’s student body, and I remembered how strong that makes us.  I recalled my visits to divinity schools when trying to decide where to go for my higher theological education, and I remembered the pull of unfamiliar history that captivated me about McAfee’s students.  This was a place where I knew my comfortable places would be challenged by both my professors and my peers.

My school is Baptist, upholding the principles of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but our student body represents many more denominations.  We look for the diversity in our community because we know it makes our personal faiths stronger.  This community affirms the gifts God has given each of us, and we challenge each other’s accepted notions of faith.

It makes for a super exciting education.  There’s talk back to the professor: “That’ll preach, Dr. Johnson!”  There’s banjo in chapel, and there are stories of God’s intercession that sometimes make me raise my eyebrow.  This community, though, which is so excited about my calling and very believing in God’s work on my life, has transformed me.

Growing up, I assembled a Baptist understanding of the Creator God, built a box around it, and placed my God up high in the sky so that when I prayed I knew where I was aiming.  If ever I needed to see God, I would look high up in the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of that box I put up there.  I knew all along that God is present and working in our world, but my faith was too small to visualize that reality.  Then God made some movements that were a little outside that box I knew, and I found myself in seminary.

As a Baptist, I believe in a freedom of the soul; I believe in the body of Christ as my community of burden-bearing help.  My peers at school have shown me that I’m not in this faith alone.  Slowly, through conversations and holy moments, I begin to find the ability to tear that box down.  Class by class, it comes tumbling down.  Prayer by prayer…tumbling down.  Sorrow borne on behalf of another, open arms and open doors, real stories shared and eager listening ears…piece by piece, that box disappears.  And slowly, I begin to see the world around me as flooded with God’s energy.  Every face I pass is one of God’s faces.

“The otherness in you is the only chance I have to grow.”  My spiritual formation professor quoted this line to us, encouraging us to learn from each other and step outside our comfortable understandings of God.  I am learning that God is way bigger than my box in the sky.  My charismatic and Pentecostal brothers and sisters are teaching me that God dances and God heals.  My Episcopal brothers and sisters are teaching me that God is present and powerfully receptive in liturgy.  My Disciples of Christ brothers and sisters are teaching me that God is energizing and grace-fulfilling in the Eucharist.  My Catholic brothers and sisters are teaching me to worship and feel comfortable sitting in the mystery of God.  My evangelical brothers and sisters are teaching me the joys in carrying another’s burden.  And my Baptist brothers and sisters hold my hands as I am washed in waters of unimaginable communal transformation.

Lesley-Ann is a second year MDiv student at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, GA.  She is focusing her studies through the Global Christianity track and so she gets to spend the summer in Chile.  She works as an admissions representative for the school and design editor of the school’s online magazine publication.

Photo by Lesley-Ann Hix

Carry the Light

I am twenty-eight years old, and my father still reads to me.

It’s only once a year, but each Christmas Eve, my father still reads to me and my brother. We hop on the couch in our pajamas, glass of eggnog in hand (the bourbon is a relatively recent addition), and sit back to listen. My father picks up our copy of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. It is torn and tattered, and has crayon marks across the pages where I had undoubtedly decided to “improve” the illustrations. My father, originally a reluctant father now basking in parenthood after three decades, clears his throat and begins to read…

I was raised by a family obsessed with traditions, and our connection to our church was no exception. When I was just a baby, my parents became deeply devoted members of our local church, and my brother and I experienced year after year of holiday traditions. I know them all: water at homecoming, thanksgiving in the fall, Easter eggs in the spring, the annual trip to Maine in early summer. But my most beloved memory comes from Christmas.

I am a young child, sitting in the pew at on a Christmas Eve like so many others. It is an exciting night, filled with anticipation and parties and joy. But at that moment, the minister is finishing his sermon, and with an audible click, the lights in the sanctuary go out. The minister steps down from the high pulpit to the advent wreath and Christmas candle at the foot of the stairs. I have been playing with my little white candle, feeling the wax beneath my fingertips and playing with the paper ring that surrounds it. I watch quietly as the teenagers – so adult, so grown-up in that moment—come forward with their long tapers to share the light from the Christmas candle. The organ music begins to play, and the dark, quiet sanctuary begins to fill with the soft sound of song. I watch eagerly as the teenagers go down the aisles of the church, bringing the light to the end of each pew, where I sit awaiting them. I prepare myself— “keep the lit candle upright, tilt the unlit candle.” The teenager stoops before me, the glow from the candle giving her face a halo of light.

It is ten years later, and I am the teenager. I am less excited about Santa, and more focused on myself. How I look, what clothes I wear, which friends I will see, what older youth will be home from college. At the end of the service, the lights darken, and our minister steps to the Advent candle. I step forward; it is my turn to carry the light, my turn to have the glowing candle bathe my face. I am in heels, and the carpet is soft underfoot, but I hold the long taper with confidence, carefully. We have divided the huge sanctuary into sections, and I head down one aisle, stopping at each pew to share the light. Keep the lit candle upright, tilt the unlit candle. I can see the faces of my church family as the light travels slowly in the darkened room. Dressed in sweaters and suits, friendly faces lit by the light from my candle. I move slowly, a step or two at a time, from pew to pew. I am singing Silent Night from memory, the words and melody coming unbidden to me under my breath. The candlelighters make their way through the congregation; I go upstairs to the balcony to see if anyone needs more light. I come down the carpeted steps as the last verse finishes, standing in the back of the sanctuary and looking out over a sea of tiny golden flames.

It is ten years later yet again, and this time I spent the first half of the service in the pulpit with our minister. After expressing my first call to ministry, he seizes the opportunity and asks for a little help on the busiest night of our year. I take a deep breath in, looking out through the darkness at all the faces waiting expectantly. The hall is dark and deep with quiet, and my voice breaks that silence. I read Scripture in front of over five hundred people, my words clear and steady, if a little too fast. After a couple years practice, I begin to speak slower, starting to savor my time at that pulpit, sharing with those people.

At the end of the service, I am sitting with my family, this time a grown woman in her first year of seminary. I am holding my own little white candle again, the paper ring slightly crooked from being passed from hand to hand. I watch as the candle light spreads throughout the darkened sanctuary, the light glowing on faces of teenagers I used to babysit.

At the end of the hymn, the minister steps to the pulpit and lifts his candle in silence. We all do the same in response, as we have every year, as I did with my long candlelighting taper, and as a young child. In that moment, I am lit from within, the golden power of holiness holding all of us in that warm, intimate embrace. I am at home. I am at peace. I am with God. The minister gives a quiet benediction to the candlelit room, and we extinguish our flames.

This year I am starting my required denominational internship at a local congregation. My mother mentioned that I would not be joining the family for Christmas Eve, and my father turned to me, a stricken look on his face. “You won’t?” He asked, befuddled. After all, it was tradition. “Why not?” I took a deep breath in and reminded him gently that this year, I would need to be with my new congregation, serving as a ministerial intern. “Oh,” he nods quietly.

If I’m lucky, I will be able to preside over the afternoon service with my internship, and then scoot across town to join my family for the late night service at my home church, and then my father’s annual reading afterwards. But it won’t always be that way, and I am preparing myself for the changes that lie in store for me. Traditions can be adapted, and holidays change. Things you learn when you are in ministry, I guess.

But for this season, I might hang on to the glow of the candle for one more year. Somewhere, within me, I will always carry that glowing light. The view from the back of the sanctuary, the tiny flames held by a gathered family, one by one, becoming much more than the sum of their parts. I hold in my heart the congregation that shaped me, that loved me unconditionally, that raised me to be the child of God that I have become. I carry that flame. Then we depart, holding our light in that holy and quiet darkness.

wall clock - black and white

Between

wall clock - black and whiteMay 17 – Almost exactly five years after my husband proposed to me, we flipped over a pregnancy test to see a small plus sign.  In that moment our life changed.  We had taken one huge step toward being parents.  I found myself between simply being an adult who could focus almost completely on my wants and needs, on my plans, and being a mother who must consider the wants and needs of this unknown child.

May 20 – I graduated from seminary with my M.Div.  After attending my husband’s graduation from pharmacy school the year before and seeing how that day marked the achievement of all that he had worked for – his Pharm.D. – I was ready for my special day.  I was ready to receive my own velvety hood.  I was ready to hold my over-sized and embellished diploma and place it in the specially bought frame.  I was ready to no longer be Mrs. Young but the Rev. Young.  I was ready to hear the resounding trumpets sound to tell the world what I had done, what I had become, but they never sounded.  Though I felt like the sky should turn gold to tell all the world all the papers I had written, all the hoops I had jumped through, graduation was a little underwhelming.  The hoods were narrower and less lustrous than I had expected.  The diploma was smaller and plainer than I had imagined.  The lack of superfluous language and no mention of my emphasis left me deflated.  The bookstore didn’t even sell diploma frames.  My title wouldn’t change until after I was called to a specific church and ordained.  I just wanted something to cling to that told the world that I was different.  I had changed.

In reality, graduation catapulted me between.  Now I existed in some space between being a pastor and being a parishioner.  I had my M.Div., but wasn’t ordained.  I still lived on seminary campus.  I still had the same student worker job.  I was still just waiting for a bishop or church call committee member to call me and say, “We might have something here.”  Until that moment, I waited to complete my metamorphosis into the Rev. Young.

June 23 – My husband and I moved from our home on seminary campus sandwiched between Minneapolis and St. Paul to an apartment in a small town where my husband has his job.  We moved with no intention of being there long since I had not been cleared to accept a call in the area.  We moved so that we could continue to wait for our new church home to appear.  We moved to a place between our two homes – our home at seminary and our new home by our church.  Now I am trying to do more than just exist in this town and enjoy my time while knowing that this is temporary.

In the course of one whirlwind month, I have found myself between so many aspects of life.  I am almost a mother, almost a pastor, and almost home.  But not yet.  And, as seminary has trained me to always ask, where is God in all of this?

All I can say as the seasons change and I am still waiting for a call, is that I have no idea.  And that is okay.  Seminary also trained me not to pretend like I have all the answers.

During my between time, I have been reading a few more of Anne McCaffrey’s dragonrider stories set in the world of Pern.  In these stories, the dragons have the ability to teleport, but it is not instantaneous. After the dragon and their rider blink away from their departure point, but before arriving at their destination, they enter a place called betweenBetween is frigid and lightless, with no air to breathe.

I feel like one of those dragonriders carried between, holding my breath until I come out the other side where I am a confident and loving mother and a capable and encouraging pastor, where I am home.  And hopefully God will make some modicum of sense again.

Until then, I’m counting the seconds to see just how far God is taking me – one…two…three…

Courtney Young is a first-call candidate in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American (ELCA) and a graduate of Luther Seminary (M. Div., 2012).  She recently moved to Winsted, MN with her husband, and they are attending Bethel Lutheran Church in Lester Prairie.  She hopes to be called to a church soon.  They are also expecting a baby in January 2013.

photo credit: Nina Matthews Photography via photopin cc