August 20, 2009

My Calling...

While some people are born into a church and live their entire lives in that context, my faith journey didn’t begin until my sophomore year in high school. My family has never been extremely religious; although both of my parents grew up within the United Methodist Church they did not make it a priority within their relationship or for our family. Yet during the middle of high school we decided to start attending church. I was baptized and confirmed at a United Methodist Chruch as a junior and quickly found myself in leadership positions within the church, serving on committees and eventually even co-chairing the Youth Annual Conference.

My experiences within the church planted the seeds for my calling. One of the values instilled early in youth group was that Christianity comes in many shapes and sizes. We sang Native American hymns and looked for God in secular music; we learned that asking questions was as much a sign of faith as having answers; we traveled across the country and as far away as Peru and experienced how God was working in all parts of the world. In Peru, I experienced true forgiveness for the first time on a mission trip. After our covenant was broken one night, we came together as a group and prayed over what the “punishment” should be. Reflecting on our own sins, we realized the forgiveness freely offered to us through Christ was meant to be shared. Grace has since been the foundation of my theology.

I later attended Simpson College, where I majored in religion and speech and rhetoric communications. My experience with the Religious Life Council (RLC) put me into ministry, bringing out my gifts of listening, speaking, leading and planning, as well as giving me amazing mentors. My class work in the religion department, as well as communications cultivated a quest for more knowledge and a deeper understanding of my relationship with God. They also led me to see the importance of diversity and to value the story and experience of an individual or group. I was challenged in my beliefs, which only served to strengthen them. RLC helped me to explore discipleship in entirely new ways: covenant discipleship groups provided accountability; a retreat to a monastery opened my eyes to the liturgical hours; communion became a weekly ritual.

I was also involved with a group (the Progressive Action Coalition or PAC) that encouraged awareness and action on behalf of political, environmental, and social injustices. I went to protests and rallies, volunteered, researched various topics and was enabled to speak with and teach others. We even lived in cardboard boxes for a week in November during National Homelessness Awareness Week. Issues like poverty became real, had faces, and forced me to live out the Christian faith I had previously only thought about.

But there were also difficult times. I helped students from both the chapel and PAC create a memorial of crosses during the initial weeks of the war in Iraq, providing a space to express the emotions and feelings surrounding us, not intending to make an anti-war or pro-war statement. However, many students on campus were upset by the display. The first night, the crosses were torn down and the broken pieces used to spell out “God Bless the USA.” Realizing I stood on one side of the issue and that others held the exact opposite viewpoint, both for religious reasons, was difficult and I struggled with how to be a leader for the RLC and stand up for what I believed. Above all, it helped me realize that negotiating religious views on a political issue, whatever it may be, is never easy. We cannot avoid them; we must speak the truth to one another in love and through our communal process of discernment, move forward with what we feel is God’s will. In my later work in church ministry, these divides have come up again, specifically around the issues of homosexuality; I have gained more confidence in navigating these conflicts and helping the various parties listen to one another.

I have often related to the call of Samuel, because it took me a long time to hear my call to ministry as something authentically of God. While I had dismissed those who encouraged me into ministry, hearing the Samuel scripture read at an Exploration event opened my eyes. I can still hear the voice of the Latina woman who read that morning as I finally realized my calling was from God. My decision to go to divinity school and continue in this process has been my way of saying, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

So I went to Vanderbilt Divinity School, an institution known as the Schola Prophetarum or “School of the Prophets.” The Divinity School’s history of being a driving force in the fight against racism and segregation in the South showed me it was a place where I could learn how to speak out of my faith to the world. Yet it also has a very strong academic reputation, which was important to me.

My experience at Vanderbilt helped me tie these pieces together, particularly through field education and my United Methodist courses. Wesley’s vision of uniting “knowledge and vital piety” is fundamentally about the importance of inward and outward expressions of faith. The language of the academy helped me understand the tension I experienced at Simpson between “religious” and “activist” communities as a struggle with practice and belief and gave me the theological resources to navigate and unite the two.

It is the embodiment of our faith that demonstrates to the world that we are Christians, not simply our assent to a belief. I learned at Vanderbilt how important bodies are to theology, especially in contexts of suffering and illness, and how we need a church that is willing to address not only the spiritual, but also the mental and physical aspects of our human condition.

On a very personal level, I have experienced how taking seriously that embodiment is necessary for ministry. My grandmother died at home after spending months under hospice care. The ability for our family to be with one another and for us to experience “dying well” was a blessing and it would not have been possible without hospice. Completing Clinical Pastoral Education in a Nashville hospital helped me to understand the power of pain, but also the power of touch and presence. Shortly afterwards, my grandfather died after months in a hospital (in many ways the opposite experience of my grandma). I was far from home, but the times I was able to be there and minister to my family and my grandfather were meaningful.

Recognizing that it is not always possible, I feel called to help create community and wholeness in the midst of illness and death and know I will have the opportunity to do so in my ministry.

Vocational decisions can never be made without impacting those we love. My husband, struggles against the beliefs of his childhood and the institutions that perpetuated them. Yet, in spite of all of his reservations about the church, he is very supportive of my decision to be in ministry and understands this is my call. Our conversations have helped us understand how we start fundamentally in the same place, with a concern for the hypocrisy of a Christian culture that wears WWJD t-shirts yet fails to support the poor and needy in our midst. The difference is that he chooses to not participate in the institution and I seek to transform it.

For the past year and a half, I have served as the pastor of a small town congregation. And I LOVE it. I love baptizing babies and holding them in my arms. I absolutely love speaking God's grace and comfort and peace to families at funerals of their loved ones. I love standing in front of the congregation and letting God's love flow through me as I break bread or speak God's word. My experience in the church has been one of encouragement, learning, support, and growth. My congregation is full of grace and has been an amazing place to learn how to be a pastor.

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