Gimme an M! F! A!

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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.

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A Child Says…

file0001628333441byiamagooatmorguefileI’ve been told that I can stretch the boundaries of people’s understanding or comfort. Last spring, after I preached a sermon using a vulture as a metaphor for disciple, I was advised to keep in mind that depending on my audience, I may need to scaffold listeners’ understanding for things that may rock their world. Maybe I’m just a naive judge of what will rock people’s worlds.

I’m still relatively new at my church, where I’ve been attending and working as their Sunday school teacher for about a month. The church is excited to have a relative abundance (thirteen!) of kids participating, ages 4-11, compared to recent past. The congregation and its leaders are trying to embrace this, and expand kids’ involvement to worship. For World Communion Sunday this past weekend, the kids played a special role in two parts of the liturgy, and I was asked to offer the Prayer of the People during worship.

I prayed and thought a lot about this before I wrote the prayer. There is so much to pray for these days! I thought about some of the worries the kids vocalized in just our first few gatherings together. I reflected on a visit to the Georgia Aquarium with my own kids. I prayed about the transition the church is in of figuring out how to more fully live into its perceived identity of offering a wide welcome to a diversity of people in a personable way. I recalled my participation in this majority-white church’s first intentional conversation about race following Charlottesville.  I reflected on how I am inspired by the interim minister’s leadership. I connected all that I’ve been reading in my seminary classes, particularly pastoral care. I thought about the conversations swirling at the seminary. I attended to news and current events. I tried to intuit how these things intersected with all the people around the world gathering to break bread together at God’s table. I prayed some more as I wrote and tweaked the prayer.

On World Communion Sunday, I prayed for the People of my congregation, from my heart.

There seemed to be a heightened alertness during most of the prayer. Following worship, I had flashbacks to the conversation from last spring. I received a few general, “I liked your prayer” comments following the service, but I also heard, in tones ranging from excitement to OMG, words like, “bold,” “fearless,” “yeah, pretty bold.” Or, “moments like these will help you grow.”

I didn’t feel like I prayed anything that earth shattering. I went where the Spirit led. Did I really misread my context? Was it bold? And if so, might that be okay?

What I do know is that the intersection of prayer, Spirit, people, and life during worship is a mysterious place. I am thankful to have the opportunity to enter this mystery. Join me. Let us pray:

A Child says,
“I hope the man who fell and broke his hip at the roller skating rink is okay.”

God, this life we lead is not easy.
For the everyday trials, accidents, and discomforts of life, we ask your presence and healing.

 

 A Child sits in front of a window into the world’s largest aquarium and says, “Whoa! Look how big that fish is! Daddy, look, a shark, a shark!”

God of light and dark, water and earth, we are in awe of your creation.
We are also at a loss in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires.
Your earth and your people cry out.
We hear, God, but as you move mountains and waters, move us, oh God, to care for your creation. LORD, your love knows no bounds.
Let us show this boundless love in our response to your people in Puerto Rico and around the world who cry out for help.

 

 A child says,
“Some white people don’t like black people.”

Oh, LORD, we kneel before you, mourning for our sisters and brothers
who bear the physical and emotional wounds and scars of hate and oppression.
We lift up broken systems and institutions, lynched by nooses of white supremacy and greed.
In lifting them up, help us see how our own thoughts and actions support these structures,
so that we instead transform them in ways
that show black lives matter as much as they do to you.

 

A child says, “There are refugees here from Syria.”
A child asks, “What’s a refugee?”
A child responds, “People in wars.”
Another child adds, “Yes, they move because they are hurt, or hungry….or because of a hurricane.”

God, we mourn that people are on the move in this world because of horrors we can barely begin to comprehend. Remind us that we are all refugees from hate of our own making. As people of the Exodus, help us remember to love and care for all your people, even those who appear from places we don’t understand and who may not look, like, love, believe, or act like us.

 

A child asks,
“Why would refugees come here? We’re going to start World War 3!”

God, we admit that we fail at following Christ’s example of love and peace.  Forgive us oh LORD, for wielding words and weapons in a way that puts fear in the hearts of children and adults alike.

 

A child says,
“Yeah, there’s going to be a nuclear bomb!”

God of abundance, we thank you for your provision,
for the intelligence with which you’ve gifted us,
for the ability to imagine and build so many technologies with what you’ve provided.
Remind us of your ultimate authority.
Show us how to choose your way of peace.
Nurture the restraint of our world leaders, reveal to them the wisdom in using their positions for good not evil.

 

A child says,
“God loves us.”

We, along with millions of other Christians around the world, come to your table of grace today, bearing all of our imperfections, hurts, hopes and joy.
We meet at the Table because we have already been met and loved by you, a God who welcomes us to a table bigger and more abundant than we can imagine[1].
Let us come to this table with the open eyes, ears, and hearts of our children.

Amen.

This line adapted from: [1] de Jong, Patricia. “Unity Amidst Diversity.” First Church, Berkeley, CA. http://firstchurchberkeley.org/written-sermon/unity-amidst-diversity (accessed September 31, 2017).

The Still: Spring 2017 Edition

The fall semester is just around the corner. I’m on campus now preparing to welcome the new incoming class to Columbia next week. Before the new eclipses the old, here’s a recap of last semester.

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 The Still: Spring 2017 Edition

Small moments, great reads, and faith on the journey…

******

Think Spring

Christmas vacation in Florida gave me time to regroup from my first semester at Columbia Theological Seminary. I was so numb, dumbfounded, tired, and unsure after first semester, I don’t really remember much from the vacation. I think I just buried my head in the sand at the beach and tried to forget. I came back and did a January term class and loved it. Things were looking up for spring semester.

 Seminary Itinerary

Spring Semester 2017 at Columbia Theological Seminary:

  • Intro to Christian Worship
  • Intro to Old Testament II
  • Preaching and Proclamation

Spring Semester 2017 at Earlham School of Religion (ESR):

  • Writing for God and God’s People

Travel Plans

What I thought would happen:

  • 2nd Semester would be easier than 1st
  • I could manage 4 classes since I wasn’t taking Hebrew
  • I wouldn’t think about quitting seminary anymore
  • I’d settle on a church home

Travel Plans Revised

What actually happened:

  • 2nd Semester was just as hard
  • 3 classes is more realistic for this wife and mom of 3
  • I wanted to quit and write full-time
  • Maybe I’m Episcopal?

Mode of Travel—Car:

I thought when I started seminary that I could just go back to being a student again like when I was in college. I told myself if I could juggle all the responsibilities of part-time work and motherhood at the whims of everyone but myself, certainly I could handle school again, especially with all three of my kids finally in school themselves.

I’ve heard it said that a car is the safest place in a storm. My first year of seminary was a perfect storm of my weaknesses colliding with accountability and expectation the likes of which I hadn’t seen for a long time. In the chaos, my car represented what I craved. My hybrid was a compact and ordered bubble. It muffled distractions and kept me within reach of sunlight’s touch. If necessary, it promised a quick getaway. And when I was ready to face the to-dos outside my teal LL Bean backpack from 1995 on the passenger seat, all I had to do was open the door.

It started as a way to warm up after Monday Scripture Reading Practicums on early, crisp fall mornings. I’d bolt to my car and crank up my heated seat. Not wanting to venture out until I had to, I stayed put and studied Hebrew vocabulary. I looked forward to my quiet bubble of calm. Eventually, I found myself other days using my car as my office. But still I struggled.

I thought it was an issue of discipline, because it was clear first semester that I hadn’t practiced that for awhile. But even in 2nd semester, Hebrew behind me, my newly polished discipline skills back in use, I struggled in ways that went beyond how I saw other first year students struggling.

My car wasn’t safe enough. So I cashed in my trip insurance.

Trip Insurance:

Shifting in my hard plastic chair in a gray-green exam room looking sheepishly at my doctor, cashing in my trip insurance sounded like this:

Me: “You know a few months ago when you asked if I was ever assessed for ADHD and I laughed at you? Well, IF I were to check into this, what would that entail?” (Because come on, I was about to turn 40! Wouldn’t I know this by now?!)

It’s taken almost six months since then to see this process through to get answers and workable interventions, and to figure out how this interacts with my anxiety/depression. I’m still wrapping my mind around those letters, ADHD, and coming to grips with what they mean for my future and me.

 Pit Stop:

Where: Elijay, GA. I hosted a weekend retreat in celebration of my 40th birthday. I invited my dearest friends. Each person became my friend at a different life stage or around a different interest. As a result, my friends are all remarkably unique. Very few knew each other. I thought it would be fun to see what would happen if they all were together. I designed the weekend so they felt a little pampered: we stayed at a finely appointed Airbnb in a rustic setting with beautiful views, good food/drinks, opportunities for relaxation and fun. I was nervous. What if they all just sat and stared uncomfortably at each other?

Take-Aways: Oh my gosh. It was amazing. As uniquely challenging as it is to make close friends as an adult, this is proof that as you age, the easier it gets to connect around the things that may have divided us as eager twenty-somethings. Or, I just have awesome friends. Actually, I think both are true. I also wonder if I have a future in the women’s retreat business.

Best Reads for the Journey

The Journey by Mary Oliver     This is the poem that kept me moving forward, and the one that keeps me dancing to the beat of my own drummer. That line, “The only life I can save…” goes straight to my heart every time.

Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey      Read it and understand. 

Martha’s Vineyard: Isle of Dreams by Susan Branch     Branch is a girl after my own heart. Lives in a cabin in the woods, a writer, she was unsure of self at midlife and had to learn not to wrap her identity in her spouse’s. She’s an avid quote collector. Reminded me how much I need writing and deep prayer for my spiritual and creative health. Her accompanying art has a folksy quality that isn’t really my taste, but her writing is fresh and timeless.

Along with Susan Branch, authors Brian Doyle and Barbara Brown Taylor have helped my vision for myself as a writer take shape.

Trip Highlight

Clubbing (first time ever!) in downtown Atlanta and ubering (first time ever!) with my 20-something-year-old seminary friends.

Best Trip Guide

Google search: “40-year-old mom goes clubbing clothes”

Most Worthwhile Side Trip

Subscribing to spring season of the Atlanta Ballet (student discounts, y’all)!!! This rocked my world and blew apart my preconceived notions about this dance form. Add watching an Atlanta Ballet Co. rehearsal to my bucket list. I love to see how artists hone their craft.

Favorite Places

Aside from the nighttime view of the Atlanta cityscape, favorite places in our new home include Piedmont Park (a nature oasis in the city, awesome dog park) and Stone Mountain Park (so many trails—it’s not just about the summit).

 Traffic Jam

Since our move to Decatur in 2015, my family hasn’t settled on a church home. Somewhere along the way I started wondering if I’m really Presbyterian. After all, Catholics, Unitarians, Quakers, Evangelicals, and most recently Episcopals have all been part of my journey. My first year of seminary heightened my constant struggle of

  • not wanting to peg myself with a label, but wanting to belong to a community
  • not wanting to fit the mold, but wanting the security of tradition
  • not wanting to do what my parents did but wanting to trust their wisdom

This struggle pits my steadfast belief that God’s vision dazzles with diversity with my fear that aligning myself in one denomination will make this vision less likely to be realized (as if I have that much control!).

My Intro to Worship class got me thinking about why I worship. I realized I needed to stop getting hung up on denomination. Whatever church or denomination I’m part of, that’s not the ultimate source of my identity. The more relevant question might just be WHOSE I am and what it means to live into the answer.

Not entirely surprising, this change of mindset took a weight off my shoulders. I think God breathed a sigh of relief, too, as I’m now trusting God will lead me where I need to be.

 Unexpected Detour

In one of my first semester classes my small group did a project at Threshold Ministry serving people who face issues of poverty and homelessness. I didn’t want to do the project there. I wanted to work with a “flashier” ministry more in my comfort zone. But that’s not how it worked out. And I was really intrigued by what I heard and saw. I kept thinking about it. And the more I learned about my faith in seminary, the less I felt I can serve the “least” of these without ever developing relationships with the people who have this label. Thanks to the enthusiasm and willingness of my friend Rachel by my side, I volunteered. I am changed, and my outlook on ministry fundamentally changed. There are so many thoughts I have about this but they are still in the infant stage. Stay tuned.

 Souvenirs

New hashtag created by my husband after he thought I’d turned our home into a hostel this summer #lifewithamanda
I say, if you have the room and ability to host several seminary graduates in transition awaiting calls, #WWJD

Said by my 11-year-old daughter when returning to a Presbyterian church to hear my friend preach: “I thought we were Episcopal now.”

Overheard in my worship class by a future pastor:
“I’m not much of church person, actually.”

Me in my journal:
What is it about me that wants to challenge everything?!

 

 Are we there yet?

I had to laugh when I read Clementine’s words in Truly Madly Guilty by Lianne Moriarty this spring: “Everyone had another sort of life up their sleeve that might have made them happy.”

Because all school year I really wanted to quit. And write full-time. Or just be a mom. Or something.

But I had wanted this for so long, hadn’t I?

Yes. And I still do. But now I really know how much. So the time has come to focus on the life I have so I don’t need a second one up my sleeve.

 Homeward Bound

“There’s always pain when a child is born.” —Marlena Graves

This has not been an easy first year of seminary. At its conclusion, I know I’m meant to be here, but I’m much less sure about what exactly I am birthing during these contractions of mind, body, and soul. For now, I breathe, before labor begins again.

 

 

Journey Revisited–The Still: Fall 2016 Edition

(formerly published on one of my retired blogs)

The small moments, great reads, and experiences on the journey…. 


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ITINERARY

Semester 1 2016:

  • Intro to Practical Theology
  • Intro to Old Testament I
  • Introductory Biblical Hebrew
  • Imagination and Resilience for God’s Changing World
  • Scripture Reading Practicum

January Term 2017:

  • Postmodernism and Why It Matters to Preaching

GETTING READY

I drew the line between the before and after, an inky delineation down the middle of my narrative. Still-tender shoots of writer-self on one side, seeds of pastor-self on the other.  I laid down my pen.

TRAVEL PLANS

What I thought would happen:

  • My call would only become clearer
  • I’d question my beliefs
  • My marriage would be tested
  • I would not like Scripture Reading Practicum (the practice of interpreting Scripture orally)

TRAVEL PLANS REVISED

What actually happened:

  • I questioned my call altogether
  • My beliefs were affirmed and expanded
  • My hubby and I are in a groove!
  • Scripture Reading Practicum was the reason I didn’t quit seminary

PIT STOP:

Where: Write-In at The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, GA, October 2016 (an integrative exercise of writing and activism, the first in Columbia Seminary’s Cultivating Courageous Communicators series)

Take-Aways: The power of the written word to affect change spoke loudly in a silent exhibit of letters and other correspondence written between Dr. King and other peacemakers “behind-the-scenes” during the civil rights movement. Change did not toll from one cacophonous bell of collective protest, but from the persistent chimes of individuals wielding small but mighty mallets of justice. Little things=big things.

BEST READS ON THE JOURNEY:

Forever changed how I look at death, resurrection, and atonement

  • “Prayer for the Impossible,” in  What Would Jesus De-Construct? by James K.A. Smith

Now I get why I pray in Jesus’ name

  • Christian Prayer for Today, by Martha Moore-Keish

A beautiful call to action and work of hope and possibility:

  • “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On women’s writing and subversion of male dominated systems. Gorgeous poetic language. An anecdote for the Trump era. A gift that keeps on giving.

  • “The Laugh of the Medusa”, essay by Hélène Cixous

ROAD BUMPS

On the hard stuff: Before my depression was diagnosed and managed, parenting sucked. I wrote a piece about it. People who read it in its original form either loved it (they could identify) or hated it (they couldn’t identify). Both reactions were strong. My feelings didn’t scare me, but it scared me that my writing could make people uncomfortable. I polished the raw out of it. A member of my writer’s group recommended I revisit it at some point. The time for that has come.

On optimism: In my PCUSA tradition people pursuing a call to ministry undergo a battery of psychological testing to identify areas of potential strength and weakness well before you move on through the process to ordination. I did this during this past summer. Not surprisingly, I’m an optimist! As with anything, taken to an extreme, optimism can be negative. Since my results came back, several people made some assumptions that don’t ring true with how I feel, process, and share the hard stuff. This experience forced me to examine my optimism critically. Interestingly, others sometimes are rattled by things relatively low on my “hard feelings” meter and skate over others I’d rate as more critical in the “hard things” rink. A Letter to a Pessimist from an Optimist is in the works.

On failure: Never have I earned a B-, let alone been overjoyed about it. Oh, Hebrew. Oh, first semester. Everyone told me how good it is for me to experience failure. I have some things to say about that, about when failure slides the slippery slope from an earned measure of aptitude to an arbitrary construct where an idealized rite of passage reigns supreme. I have some things to say about making failure a goal, and its potential implications for one who will pastor people for whom passing or failing a class is a cake walk compared to the hard stuff they face every day.

SCENIC DIVERSIONS:

Binge-watched the first season of Designated Survivor with my mom and I finished Parenthood. My husband and I finished The Good Wife (what a disappointing series finale!). Movies Stork and Trolls good wholesome fun with kids. Lion the best kind of thinker movie I love.

DETOUR

Destination: 2016 Writer’s Colloquium at Earlham School of Religion, Richmond, IN

Highlight: Writer Marlena Graves spilled water on my manuscript. That inky line down the middle bled all directions, blurring the “before” and “after”, the “was” and “to be”, the “done” and “to do”, the “writer” and the “pastor”. The burgeoning mark of the now, the is, the doing, the preacher in all its vibrant multiplicity stares back, ready for me to pick up my pen and turn the page.

A NEW YEAR’S LAYOVER

Celebration: The “First” of my first year in seminary is over. The “First” chiseled my intentions and attention into pointed focus. The “First” whittled away layers of stagnation and preoccupation.  The “First” revealed potential.

Found in my dirty laundry: Excess. Too much eating out, too much diet pop, too little quality interactions with family.  Hoping 2nd Semester has a laundromat.

Best thing I DIDN’T do to pass the time: Installing Facebook on my new phone.

Best Luggage Tag Logo:  STEWARDSHIP. This is so going to be my word of the year. Stewardship of mind, body, and resources or bust, baby!

SIGHT-SEEING NOW!

Post-modernism philosophy. Absolutely breathtaking and life-giving for tumultuous times. So many allusions to the Christian narrative. It is rocking my world. Hélène Cixous is my travel companion from now on.

SOUVENIRS:

Written on my faith statement paper in the class Imagination and Resilience:

“You”ll probably have to make some substantial changes (and, sadly, be less creative) to get through the ordination process.”

A favorite quote from the book What Would Jesus De-Construct? by James K.A. Smith:

“When is faith really faith? Not when it is looking more and more like we are right, but when the situation is beginning to look impossible, in the darkest night of the soul. The more credible things are, the less faith is needed, but the more incredible things seem, the more faith is required, the faith that is said to move mountains.”

A conversation:

OTHERS (WITH COMPASSION) “It’s okay to admit you’re struggling. We’ll support you, that’s what we’re here for.”

AMANDA: Shares struggles.

OTHERS (WITH PANIC): You do know that will happen as a pastor. How do you plan to handle that!

A conversation about my background and maybe returning to camp someday:

LISTENER: So how does one with a heart for Quakers and who considers a Unitarian Universalist camp for her kids end up Presbyterian? Isn’t there something in between?

ME: That is the million dollar question.

From my new travel companion, Hélène:

“I, too, overflow; my desires have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst-burst with forms much more beautiful than those which are put up in frames and sold for a fortune. And I, too, said nothing, showed nothing; I didn’t open my mouth, I didn’t repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was afraid, and I swallowed my shame and my fear. I said to myself: You are mad! What’s the meaning of these waves, these floods, these outbursts? Where is the ebullient infinite woman who…hasn’t been ashamed of her strength? Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives (for she was made to believe that a well-adjusted normal woman has a …divine composure), hasn’t accused herself of being a monster? Who, feeling a funny desire stirring inside her (to sing, to write, to dare to speak, in short, to bring out something new), hasn’t thought that she was sick? Well, her shameful sickness is that she resists death, that she makes trouble.”  Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa

A hopeful reminder:

 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.   –NRSV 1 Cor 13:12