This fall I had the privilege of reading Scripture every week with a group of first year seminary students. They shared their firsts, and I watched them grow into confident proclaimers and oral interpreters of scripture. To be part of this birthing process is an honor. I am so proud of these students for making it through their first semester. I found a piece I’d written a year ago when I finished my first semester of seminary. I offer an adaptation here, in honor of first year seminary students everywhere. –AE
December 2016: These days I find myself saying to others, “It’s been a harrowing semester.” It does not escape me that the only other time I described something as “harrowing” was following the unmedicated birth of my first child. Since it is Advent, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on my first semester of seminary in light of Mary’s journey to motherhood .
A brush of angel’s wings accompanied notification of my acceptance to seminary in February. I pinched myself in disbelief. After striving to be in seminary, on-campus, in-person, financials and family accounted for, for so long, I started to think it could never happen. I sat with my news awhile, unsure when to tell the masses. I shared gradually. Talking about it made it more real, even though, save for the acceptance letter, I had nothing yet to show; no parking permit, no ID badge, no Hebrew textbooks to lug around. And yet anticipation bore preparation. I savored last moments in order to pave the way for firsts. Time with children became more poignant. I took stock of my beliefs. I rested. I played. I prayed.
By September, parking permit affixed, ID in hand, weighted down with textbooks, I stopped pinching myself and believed my dream really was coming true. A few weeks into the semester, the pressure built. Contractions of scholarly muscles intensified, no longer in fits, but in ongoing swells of labor. Betrayed, I cried out, pleading for the pain to subside. Forceful waves, already in motion, pulled me under against my will. No matter who held my hand, no matter how similar the cries from classmates, I felt alone. I had to figure out a way through. Finally, I succumbed, letting the leading edge of faith carve my body anew.
I focused my breath for the final pushes. When, just as suddenly as I was awash in the news of my seminary acceptance, the first semester was over.
I stare in disbelief at my dream for the future cradled in my arms. I gaze at it like a babe in swaddling clothes, my call all wrapped up in it, the agony of its birth gradually becoming a distant memory. I wonder who she’ll be. I hope her heart will reflect more God than the world, and pray for her journey ahead. I sit. I rock. I wait, humbled by the mystery of birth and becoming, and the mysterious transformation in between.
Almost a year ago I attended a writer’s conference that made clear I’m meant to be both writer and pastor. Two months earlier when I started at Columbia Seminary, I thought it was one or the other. God’s call is rarely so simple, so I’ve spent the year since the conference trying to figure out how to live fully into both.
Recently, like a book being opened to the exact right passage, I found the field in ministry that speaks my language, Pastoral Theology. After much doubt my first year of seminary about my pastoral identity, I cry tears of joyous relief.
But what to do about that crazy idea that still cheers at the sidelines, its pompoms shaking as it shouts, “M! F! A!” ? Last year, I wanted to join its team. I was tempted to quit and pursue an M.F.A. degree. Certainly the loudest cheerleader must be God herself! But let’s be real—just because I’m in seminary doesn’t necessarily mean everything is a “God thing”!
What to do with these phantom cheerleaders? Better at least pay attention. When I see an MFA, I see uninterrupted time and an established structure to write. What does that tell me? That I’m not getting enough writing in my current situation. Not because I’m in seminary, but because I’m choosing to use seminary pressures as an excuse not to do even 20 minutes of writing each day—the kind of honest, hard-won writing that does not come in the form of papers or academic reflections, or rushed journal entries.
This realization shifts how I perceive God. Maybe God is speaking through phantom cheerleaders shouting “M! F! A!” But perhaps her message is not necessarily one that tells me what to do (quit and get an MFA), but is an enthusiastic attempt to spell out how I am or am not meeting my present needs.
Reluctantly, I get off the bench and leave behind by program of easy answers. On the field I stretch my muscles, preparing to do the practice and run the complicated plays that will help move me to the end goal of touching down in the future as both writer and pastor. In less than two days, I, too, will cheer—celebrating the complexity, challenge, and wonder of this call at the writer’s conference that pointed me in this mysterious direction a year ago.
Three years ago, my prayers to attend seminary in person weren’t granted. My family stayed in Iowa and I took part-time classes in a distance learning program.
Sept 9, 2014 I wrote a letter to God in my grief (posted on one of my former blogs). In it, among other things, I said,
“God, let me remind you about Naomi and Ruth. Moses. The fishermen. These unassuming people who heard your call and answered. They followed. They went.
God, to me, following a call means you stop what you are doing, you get out of your boat, you pick up, and you go. You follow Jesus. Someplace else.
But instead, I’m docking my boat in order to follow you right back where I started: home.
Now I have to disentangle myself from the threads of other dreams. Dreams of new opportunities in exciting and prestigious places.
God, during the final night ceremony at Camp Woodbrooke, each camper and staff person sends off a little wooden boat into the starlit pond, its single candle blazing brightly. A wish propels each boat. I am standing on the shores of home and ready to release my boat into the night. My wish is that I release the weight of second guesses, what-ifs, and could-have-beens right along with it. I wish to remember that you are everywhere. I wish that by staying here, I might actually embark on one of the most significant journeys of my lifetime.”
Three years later, I’m attending seminary in person in a place I never thought I’d be.
God answers prayers, but not always in the order they are received or in the way we expect.
I am accompanying six new seminary students on a journey with scripture this semester. The reality of the first year of seminary is sinking in for them. As they proclaim the Word, furtive glances sneak across the room, trepidation about coursework and work-life balance surfaces in prayer requests, and one can see the wheels turning as they ask themselves if this is where they really belong.
The text we read last week was Genesis 32: 22-32, when Jacob wrestles with God. Most students felt some personal connection with the text as they are at the beginning of wrestling their seminary existence into being. Jacob will not let go until he is blessed. In the process, God strikes Jacob’s hip, hurting him.
My hip still hurts from my first-year-of-seminary-wrestling match. Oh how I wanted to let go. I wanted to let go, even though as my prayer from three years ago attests, I wanted nothing more than to be in seminary in a new place.
As I pray with these brave new seminary students, I ask God for their strength and stamina during their own wrestling matches this year. As they depart our weekly gathering, they face challenges still tender enough to cut them at the quicks of their lives. I remind them, “Blessing awaits. Hold on. Don’t let go.”
Small moments, great reads, and faith on the journey.
Home to Georgia
What I thought would happen:
Travel Plans Revised
What actually happened:
As often as I long for the life I left behind in Iowa, and the way the sunrise warmed the front porch of the house I loved, or how the grassy, humid fragrance rolled from nearby fields along my suburban street, my longing is fleeting. Surprisingly I don’t miss Iowa like I thought I would. What made Iowa home for me was family. Since my family spends the summer in Wisconsin, to Wisconsin we went.
I startled awake one late July morning in Wisconsin with a severe bout of homesickness. Not for Iowa, but for Georgia. Were it not for my kids’ last art and nature classes the following week I would have packed up and headed south then. I wrestled and played with this unexpected feeling. This longing for a place that is still so new confounded me. What was different?
Last summer the unknown of starting seminary loomed and the anxiety of moving into a new home mounted. Last summer was a prelude to new things—a life in my imagination, not reality.
This summer was different. I knew where I was headed. I knew the neighbors that would greet me, which steps would creak as I hauled our luggage inside, which flowers I’d cut first and put in a vase. I knew the rigor that awaited at seminary, but this time also knew the names of people I can count on.
I was ready to return home.
Seminary is a process of reshaping who you were and molding it into who you are called to be. This process produces excess clay. Letting go of even little pieces can be hard. I let go of several things this summer.
Ever since my oldest child was in the NICU and we stayed at Ronald McDonald House, I’ve been saving pop tabs. Diligently washing out cans, spinning the tabs until they break free, adding them to the jar for Ronald McDonald House Charities who gets money for each one. That’s right, almost twelve years later I still drop them into a jar. The same jar. The same one jar. Almost twelve years later. But not anymore.
Same thing goes for Box Tops. No more cutting out stiff cardboard rectangles on the back of cereal boxes. No having to remember to trim them and turn them into my kids’ school only during the exact right two-week window each year.
I’m letting go, knowing I will give back, and okay that it might look different than jars of metal and baggies of cardboard.
Sometimes letting go means big things. Witnessing a dear friend’s ordination at the end of summer, trusting that God holds this person on the new journey ahead. Being aware of the emptiness on campus without the presence of last year’s seniors you didn’t realize you looked up to so much. Feeling reluctant to let the new students’ energy and enthusiasm soothe the void.
Best Reads for the Journey:
How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids (How It Works) by Carol Pasternak
Get this for the kids (and adults) in your life.
Urban Jungle: Living and Styling with Plants
The book itself is a piece of art. But not pretentious. Practical with unusual flavor influenced by its non-American contributors.
Expands my cultural lens and framework.
The Crisis Magazine
Deep, thorough coverage of racial and justice issues that matter, written from a non-white perspective. Should be required reading for whites.
anything by Lianne Moriarty
My new favorite author! Complex plots, fascinating characterizations.
Zen Garden by David Holzer
A beautiful little book. I now have a vision for my backyard.
Any and all interior design mags
Summer is when I get my creative fix.
Best Moment on the Journey—The Eclipse:
Normally it’s the Perseid Meteor Shower on my mind in August. Not this year. Still, I was not prepared for the eclipse. I was not prepared that it would coincide with a soular eclipse. Read about it here.
Normally my souvenirs are words. Quotes that spoke to me. But summer is different. It is blissful and beautiful in its own unique way. So instead I offer a list of gratitude for all the blissful and beautiful people, places, and experiences this summer. I am thankful for:
Most of time I find following call to be a wrestling match, the ultimate push and pull with God in trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do instead of what I think I want to do. But sometimes… sometimes you just know. Sometimes God’s voice speaks clear as day when you least expect it.
I’ve struggled with my call and denominational identity way more than I’d like to admit in seminary. It wasn’t until this spring when I starting living into my identity as a child of God first, that the stress of where I belong dissipated. This release of pressure created an opening for God to speak. It came in the form of a job description for a position I wasn’t looking for. Sunday School Teacher. At a Presbyterian church. The description of what they were looking for had enough whimsy to it that I knew my out-of-box, creative approach might actually be welcomed.
After I’d already committed a year of Sunday mornings to this church and the children, because I just knew it was right, I attended for the first time. And I knew again. This small, quirky church in Atlanta with a gracious heart in the midst of big transitions, is exactly where I am supposed to be.
There is still mystery. Is this God’s declaration of my ultimate denominational identity? Will this be my family’s church home for the duration of my seminary career? I don’t know. But I’m sure that God spoke, I listened, and I’m in exactly the right spot…for now.
Please prepare for landing:
“Everyone had to grow into themselves before they could offer anything.” –Susan Branch in Martha’s Vineyard: Isle of Dreams
I still have a lot of growing to do. But, as summer came to an end, I released my adolescent-like angst that erodes my trust in the God who leads me on a mysterious journey. I trust I’m going in the right direction, even when the landing is bumpy.