“Ministers, I came to realize, are of necessity those familiar with the strange and who open themselves to the God-bearing power of strangeness itself.”
Robert C. Dykstra in Images of Pastoral Care 
Who is Robert Dykstra?
Professor. Pastoral Theologian. Editor of one of the primary textbooks in my pastoral care class last semester. His book compiles the ideas of key contributors to and concepts of the field of pastoral theology.
Why This Person:
Because he said something that gets truer by the moment.
Why this quote:
I don’t know what I expected seminary to be. I was just so happy to finally be here. But I didn’t expect this. And it just gets stranger by the moment, in the most break-me-open-in-a-good-but-devastatingly-challenging-kind-of-way. The work is so much more than biblical studies, theology, history, and practice. But somehow in the study of all these things and interactions with peers in the same strange world, seminary turns what you thought you knew about yourself and the world upside down. In the process of trying to right side it, you find that maybe who you are and how you fit in the world is different than what you thought or expected. This is so strange. Stranger still, God is wrapped up in all this strangeness. And there is power in that.
 Dykstra, Robert C., ed. Images of Pastoral Care (Chalice Press, 2005), 74.
you are our beginning and you will be our end;
we are made in your image and likeness.
We praise and thank you for this day.
This is the day on which you created light
and saw that it was good.
This is the day in whose early morning light
we discovered the tomb was empty,
and encountered Christ, the world’s true light.
This is the day you have made;
we shall rejoice and be glad in it.”
from A New Zealand Prayer Book/He Karakia Mibinare oAotearou 
What is A New Zealand Prayer Book:
My muse this week is not a person, but a collection of prayers and liturgy from the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia.
Why This Book:
Coming from a faith tradition that does not use a prayer book in worship, I am intrigued by the concept of prayer books and designated prayers or liturgies for specific times of day, days of the week, and seasons of the year. Always one to play with words and experiment with ways to say old things in new ways, I appreciate the prayer book’s innovation with words and use of inclusive language, while never straying too far from its biblical foundations. I am fascinated by its incorporation of the Maori language.
This prayer is in a section of daily devotions and liturgies of the Word. Each devotion uses a portion of the LORD’s Prayer as the introductory theme, followed by a prayer that highlights and expands on that theme. The excerpt of the prayer above is based on the beginning and end of the LORD’s Prayer, “Our Father in heaven, the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and for ever.”
Why this prayer:
I love that in the course of a few sentences, the prayer spans the first and new testaments and resonates with language from multiple psalms and biblical passages. Until recently I thought one could only learn the language of the Bible from the Bible itself. My worship classes taught me that liturgy, too, can bathe us in the biblical tradition. This excerpt is only one-third of the entire prayer yet it is so scripturally rich! The language and imagery makes my heart flutter (i.e. the writer in me meets the seminarian in me)!
 The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia, A New Zealand Prayer Book (Harper Collins, 1989), 106.
 The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia, A New Zealand Prayer Book (Harper Collins, 1989), 106.
Lest I forget the small moments on this big journey, I distill my experience in seminary and life every semester or season (e.g. Fall 2016, Spring 2017, Summer 2017). Every time I write these text-heavy blog posts, I think it would be so cool to turn them into a magazine. Drumroll, please…I did it!
The Still: Fall/Winter 2017 is an online magazine. This was an experiment with free MadMagz software, so please let me know what you think.
Read my reflections on fall/winter 2017 here.
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.
I’m at the midpoint of the fall semester next week. Which means I have my hands in many projects right now. I’m writing a lot, but the fruits of my work seem to be academic work, forms, communications, or journal entries.
I think that still counts. Here’s some excerpts of what I’ve written recently:
From an email, on discernment:
“Not really knowing what “practical theology” was when I began the Intro to Practical Theology course last summer, I was surprised to learn how well it fit with what I perceive as my pastoral identity. As I experienced the field of homiletics in the spring, I felt I was getting even closer to who I am. I am in Intro to Pastoral Care this fall, and I have finally discovered what I am! A pastoral theologian!! “
From my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) application for a hospital chaplaincy internship, on vocational identity:
“One need that stems from my ministry and call is to know whether I am suited for ministry in contexts of suffering. The majority of my work until this point has been in “positive,” “growth-minded” contexts. Teaching, for example, focused on community building and learning outcomes, camp focused on fun and camaraderie, even children and youth ministry focused primarily on the good things that come from following God. Not that there wasn’t suffering. At camp, for example, I worked with staff members who suffered from mental illness, another who faced an unexpected pregnancy, and others devastated by the news of subway bombings in their London hometown. I worked with campers whose mom was in jail, others whose parents beat them, and another whose dad had terminal cancer. Reflecting on this, I suspect that my skills will transfer and I likely have already used many of them. Combined with fond memories of the pace and duties as a camp director—no day was ever the same…and I had to respond and think on my feet, which I loved—I think chaplaincy could very well be an important aspect of my future vocation.”
From my Committee on Preparation for Ministry annual review forms, on unexpected personal transformation:
“I am so immensely thankful that I ended up in the Atlanta area at Columbia Seminary, even though it’s not what I planned. The cultural shift from a suburban to metropolitan area and northern to southern United States locale is impacting me in subtle but profound ways. My views on race and justice have been cracked open. I’m being transformed. Not just because of the increased exposure I have to these issues on account of my geographical move, but because of the friendships and collegial relationships I’m developing with a great diversity of people among seminary colleagues and in the community.”
From my journal, on my reality right now:
“I never expected seminary to be such a testing ground.”
“I didn’t expect to feel so raw in seminary.”
From a poem I wrote about hope as flame, spark, smoke, and heat:
a hope-fueled she-dragon,
breathing fire into a world
pregnant with longing.”
I hope you’re dancing, too. –-AE
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.
Ten Tips for the Mom in Seminary
It’s your turn to go back to school. You slogged through the late night trenches of parenting three young children. You steered the family ship through the choppy waters of your spouse’s educational and professional advancement. You kept your passion in check, biding your time. An opening occurred.
You walk across the seminary lawn, hiding a smile, in awe that you are finally here. The moms and dads at school drop-off don’t know your mind is on the weekly reading assignment instead of the weekly grocery run. The deadlines and appointments of a busy household still need your attention. But a glimmer is in your eye. You are a mom in seminary.
Your brain percolates with new ideas. Paper-writing flexes unused muscles. You hope you can make this seminary-learning-thing work. Here are some tips to guide your way:
Tip #1: Buy school supplies. Go! Go to Target, Walmart, or your favorite five and dime. Inhale the starchy goodness of new notebooks. Run your fingers over the svelte lines of wooden pencils. Hear the satisfying thwack of a 3-ring binder closing. Ogle your favorite folder colors. Buy them. Haul out your favorite backpack from undergrad, or buy something new. Lug those books proudly during the daily carpool.
Tip #2: Binge now. Netflix and Hulu fans, you watch more TV than you think. You can’t keep it up. Have that Empire or Game of Thrones marathon now because you won’t for months. If you just can’t peel yourself away, exercise while you watch, because you won’t get much of that either.
Tip #3: Believe it–you CAN’T do it all. You made adjustments to your schedule. You prepped your family for the increased work load. You believe this is enough to carry on your old life and integrate it with coursework. You squeeze in a blog post, you attend a monthly social outing, you give your volunteer commitment your all. But quality slips, attention lags, focus blurs. The adjustments and prep you made are not enough to sustain the family/work/school balance. It’s okay to let something go.
Tip #4: Be intentional. Talk to fellow students’ between classes, attend chapel when you can. Read the weekly seminary email blasts. You will see others skip class and squander time. You don’t have to. You may not be involved or on campus as much as your younger peers, but you can still be fully present and engaged when you are.
Tip # 5: Learn the vocabulary of self-preservation. “No. I don’t think so.” “No, that doesn’t work for me.” Work within the hours of your job, even when you could do more, even when you would be good at that extra thing. You have given, given, given for the benefit of others. It is okay now to turn inward and draw a line around you. Guard this line like a warrior.
Tip #6: Value every minute. Yes, all three kids are in school and it’s so much easier to run that errand now, even though you have reading and papers to write. It seems you need the support coffee with a friend provides. Beware. Sleep deprivation and stress hormones lurk. Protect each minute like a three year old protecting her favorite toy.
Tip #7: Change your priorities. At Costco you try to nonchalantly slip the thousand-pack of Ziplocs into your cart so no one sees you no longer use reusable containers in kids’ lunches. It’s only a matter of time before that $2 hot lunch at your kids’ school becomes your idol, worshipped every morning for the twenty+ minutes of time it saves you, because as you’ve learned, every minute is valuable.
Tip #8: Lower your standards. In your past life you were that top student who read every book and devoted your all to studying. Life has changed you. Parenthood has changed you. Now you, too, will experience the thrill of writing a paper without having read the whole book, or maybe even having read it at all. And you’ll do it all with kids running amok around you. Make a donation to the PBS gods now. They charge less than babysitters.
Tip #9: Be patient. You feel like you have something to prove. For so long, you defined yourself through others. But as you make your way towards your own identity, let the flames you feel you walk through do their work. Don’t rush. Yes, seminary challenges you. It changes you. It surprises you in ways you don’t see coming. Your own identity awaits, but it is different than you think. Be patient with yourself, and with God.
Tip #10: Accept grace. This is your journey. You have wanted it for so long. You want to show you can do it on your own, with perfection. You envy those younger students unfettered by children and life. There will be moments it seems the only one struggling is you. But every seminarian struggles, because we are all burdened by divine call warped by human pressures. Seminary doesn’t have to be the warping tool. There is wisdom around you in your peers and professors. Lean into it. Accept the grace that comes, one imperfect moment at a time.
At the end of the semester you are exhausted. You collapse into your family’s embrace. Caffeine and adrenaline blur your eyes, but a glimmer remains. You are a mom in seminary.