The Uncomfortable Surrender of Discipleship

At the end of October, I will preach my very first sermon. I’ll preach first to a small group from my homiletics class and then in January I will preach at The Falls Church Episcopal where I am doing an internship. The text, Mark 1:14-20, is not a particularly difficult one in terms of “the preaching task.” It is a short, straightforward narrative and there are some clear implications for us as 21st century Christians. And yet. The implications of this passage are distinctly uncomfortable.

Just imagine the scene from this Gospel reading: a stranger sees two sets of brothers hard at work. He urgently calls them to leave their family business and follow him. And astonishingly, they do so. They leave fish still in the nets, their boats, their families, and their homes. They do not conduct a job search to fill the positions they are vacating, they do not fundraise for their new ministry, they do not pack a bag for the road. Immediately they leave everything and follow Jesus.

Even as someone who left a job and community to pursue a calling to theological education, this story makes me uncomfortable. Simon, Andrew, James, and John give up everything. They keep only their relationship with one brother. The rest of their life is utterly transformed. And Mark tells us nothing about this process. I am left with so many questions: Did they love their jobs as fishermen or hate them? Did they have spouses and children? Did they leave their families in economic distress? And most of all, do I have to leave everything, immediately, to follow Jesus?

I think we can discern one answer to this question by examining the first sentence of the passage. Mark 1:14-15 is significant for a number of reasons. First, these two verses situate the passage within the larger context of Mark. Jesus has just been baptized and been tempted in the desert for forty days. This story, the calling of the first disciples, marks the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ very first act of public ministry, before he has healed anyone or preformed a miracle, is gathering community. Simon, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee are not called into solitude, in fact they are called into community.

Second, these verses tell us that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Galilee was not a wealthy area. It was not a booming economic center. Galilee was filled with hardworking, oppressed, left out, and exploited people. Jesus did not begin ministry by calling the religious elite of the day, the chief priests, Pharisees, and scribes. The first disciples of our Lord, Jesus Christ were just regular people.

Third, these first two verses define for us the “good news” that Jesus proclaimed throughout his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe.” Much could be said about this one sentence. But what I find significant for us as 21st century disciples I glean from a single word: repent. This word, repent, connotes so much more than the definition on dictionary.com. Throughout the New Testament, to repent means to turn around. Repentance is the ongoing reorientation of ones life towards God. The continual surrender of self-centeredness in light of the Good News proclaimed through the life of Jesus.

So as Jesus traversed the sea shore in Galilee calling fishermen to follow him, his directive was repentance. His call was, “Surrender your self-centeredness. Surrender your grasp on worldly possessions. Surrender your life to God.”

After looking closely at this passage, I am no more comfortable than when I began. Discipleship is difficult. Discipleship comes at a cost. To surrender ones life to God may not look like literally, leaving everything, immediately, to follow Jesus. But our call is no less radical than that of Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Surrender, reorientation, transformation, change – are hard.

God calls all of us, regular people, to repent. To surrender everything we hold onto so tightly: our income, our relationships, our jobs, the success and material happiness we grapple for on a daily basis. In the midst of a culture that pressures us to produce more, buy more, spend more, and have more, Christians are called to surrender.

To surrender may not look like selling all you own, but it does mean holding what you have lightly. To surrender is to realize again and again that all we have belongs to God. To live generously. To give our whole-selves.

The good news in the midst of this uncomfortable passage is that we are not called alone. Like the first disciples we are called to this work as part of a Christian community. The call is urgent. The call is serious. The call is difficult. And we have the rest of our lives to practice. Amen.

Photo: An artistic representation of Mark 1:14-20 created for my Homiletics class. Photo Credit: Richard Allred

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Everyday Sounds

Tuesday morning a week ago, Richard completed his final session of radiation. And that evening we found ourselves on the front stoop of our apartment building with a group of neighbors, a potluck taco bar, and cocktails made in our new (refurbished) Vitamix.

As we delighted together over the blending power of the Vitamix, our downstairs neighbor Elizabeth asked, “Have you been making a smoothie every morning?” “Yes, we have.” I answered, “You can’t hear it, can you??” “We can.” She said laughing, “I actually hear a whole parade in the morning.”

Elizabeth went on to describe the sounds she hears from her living room after getting up with James, her one-year-old, around 5:00AM. There are the sounds of apartment doors clunking shut and the clicking of the door to our building as it closes. Our across the hall neighbor, Buck, takes his puppy out around 5:30 and Richard leaves for the gym about 6:00. Then there is the jingle of dog tags as I come downstairs with Grace about 6:30 and Tim, who lives across the hall from Elizabeth, leaves to walk his dog. Around 7:15 the noise escalates as Buck’s wife, Elisabeth, shepherds their two boys out the door for school. About that same time, Richard and I are back home making our smoothie. By 7:45, doors are clunking and clicking one after the other as we seminarians leave for chapel.

As Elizabeth described these morning noises, we all jumped into apologize. But she waved us off with a laugh. That conversation has returned to me again and again over the past week. I began to hear things differently. The everyday sounds of my life became joyful noise. Sounds of comfort. Signals that in one small part of the world, all is well.

When I began to notice the everyday sounds, I discovered a cacophony. There is the sound of Grace sniffing my face a few minutes before my alarm. And the sound of my alarm going off. There is the sound of other dog walkers wishing me a “good morning” as I attempt to stave off conversation with my earbuds and hoodie. The musical intro of my favorite podcasts. The sounds of bells ten minutes before chapel. The voices intoning “Most merciful God, we confess…” in unison that signal morning prayer has started without me. There is the sound of coffee dripping and hot water being poured over tea bags in the Welcome Center. There is the loud chatter of the refrectory at lunch. The pleading, “excuse me,” of the Uber driver, pizza delivery person, or parent looking for Episcopal High School next door. There is the sound of children playing outside our apartment after school. And the noise of the espresso machine at the campus coffee shop as students gather to study in the evening. As night falls, crickets are audible through open windows. And right before I fall asleep, I hear Richard’s heavy breathing beside me.

These are my everyday sounds. The sounds that, when absorbed with gratitude, bring comfort. These sounds remind me to give thanks for the ordinary. These are the sounds of a thousand small miracles of health, safety, peace, and joy.

Over the past week, I’ve been holding these everyday sounds closely. They are a gift. When I awake up to a dog in my face, I know I have lived through another night. When I hear my neighbors children shouting, I know they are home safely from school.

May I never forget the gift of a normal day. May the everyday sounds of traffic and bustle, children and barking dogs give me cause for joy instead of frustration. May I draw closer to God and those I love with everyday and every sound. Amen.

Layers of Memory

I’m sitting cross legged on a love seat in Plano, Illinois listening to the sound of crickets float through an open window and watching my husband and middle brother shoot basketball in the driveway. I have finally brought Richard to the place where my mother and my grandmother grew up. The rooms in this house and trails through these woods are layered with memories. Turning into the driveway reminds me of the nights I would fall asleep in the car on the way home after a long day playing in the woods. Pulling up to the house reminds me of learning to drive my grandfather’s old John Deer. And stepping into the kitchen I remember laughing with my cousins as we washed Thanksgiving dishes by hand. This remarkable property holds the memories of four generations of my family.

I can easily bring to mind many of these memories from the comfort of my couch at home. But being physically present where these memories took place is so powerful. Standing in the living room, where I celebrated many Christmases, brings back not just images from the past but smells, sensations, tastes, and emotions. The memory of drinking pineapple juice on the couch while the adults drank pre-dinner gin and tonics was so strong that I went out and bought a few cans this morning.

The next few days, which Richard and I will be spending here at Plano with my parents, my brother Alex, my aunt Judy, my aunt Nancy, and my cousin Chris, are my last days of summer. In less than a week I will start my second year at Virginia Theological Seminary. It has been nearly four months since I sat in a classroom, ate in the dining hall, studied in the library, or worshiped in the chapel. As I wander around Plano bathing in a lifetime of memories, I cannot help but wonder what memories will wash over me as I return to class, lunch, chapel and homework. And furthermore, what memories will be created in the coming months to layer upon those of last year?

Most of the memories I’ve had this week at Plano have warmed my heart. I have excitedly blurted out, “Oh Alex! Do you remember… ,” dozens of times. But when I think about our time in Alexandria over the past thirteen months, it is quite a mixed bag. There are many memories that make me smile, but just as many I don’t wish to claim. I don’t want to claim the fear, the anxiety, the over-functioning or the hours of counseling. But then I remember Brené Brown who says, “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.

And so, in hopes of a brave new ending: I claim those memories. Last year was hard. I was so anxious that I was often unable to be present to those around me. I sometimes felt my school work and even myself were not good enough. I compared myself to my classmates. I cared more about grades then about learning. I often did not tend my own soul.

That is how the story began. I cannot erase those memories. But I can layer them. I can layer them with experiences of VTS as an institution striving towards the Kingdom of God. I can layer them with memories of spending time with the incredible people I have met at seminary. I can layer them with practices of healthy eating, meditation, prayer, exercise, play, and rest. I can layer them with experiences of deep learning and new realizations. And when all is said and done, it is not that first layer that counts. It is the brave new ending.

Photo Credit: Richard Allred, “Trotter Bowl and Aspinwall,” Virginia Theological Seminary

Dust Is In The Air.

April was filled with final projects, papers, and exams. I breathed deeply through that last quarter of my first year of seminary – finally giving up the fight for perfection and allowing “done” to be enough. I completed those last four classes (Old Testament, Church History, Introduction to Practical Theology, and Music, Icons, and the Contemplative Life) in triumph. Not because of the satisfactory marks I received, but the sheer realization that a full year of graduate theological studies was complete!

As the school year ended I thought I would write another blog post after commencement, “when the dust settled.” But just as my academic work began to wrap up, health issues that Richard started experiencing in February became more serious. My focus shifted to doctors appointments and then Richard’s recovery from surgery to remove a mass in his right parotid gland (details available on his Caring Bridge). As we waited for the final pathology on the mass, I thought I would write another post after his full recovery, “when the dust settled.” But then Richard was diagnosed with low grade lymphoma.

On the one hand, you cannot know what learning a loved one has cancer will be like until it happens. But on the other, it’s pretty much exactly what you would imagine. Shock. Fear. A boatload of shameless prayer. And a scramble for more information, immediate appointments, and any possible comfort. I thought to myself, “if I can just figure out how to do ‘cancer spouse’ right – this will all work out. Everything will be ok.” Then I thought, “this is going to require a lot more coffee.”

We anxiously set up oncology appointments, contacted family and friends, put all future plans on hold, read about lymphoma, and waited. Cancer requires a lot of waiting. Waiting for appointments. Waiting for test results. Rooms upon rooms dedicated to just filling out paperwork and waiting.

Despite many cups of coffee, a lot of internet research, and numerous conversations with wise friends/family – I did not figure out “how to do cancer right.” Of course, it does not exist. It is simply the fantasy of an anxious overfunctioner. And so is the idea that one day “the dust will settle,” and our lives will suddenly be neatly organized and easily manageable. There is dust in the air. That is life. When it rains hard enough to clear the dust, then you are dealing with a flood. All plans, all of life is contingent. Our reality can change as quickly as the word cancer slips from the mouth of a doctor on the other end of the phone. What we have is the present moment.

So I am writing from the dust cloud. Richard’s PET Scan showed that he is cancer free. The mass that was already removed left behind such a small amount of cancer it is undetectable on a scan. This is great news! And now we are WAITING to meet with a radiologist to see if he will need precautionary radiation or not.

In the present moment we are drinking cardamon vanilla lattes at Rare Bird Coffee Roasters. Mine is hot, his is iced. We will probably get groceries later, sit on the porch with our amazing neighbors, and walk the dog. But who knows – dust is in the air. And sipping coffee across the table from this incredible man is certainly enough for this moment in life.

A Beautiful, Imperfect Collective Striving

I am sitting in Starbucks this evening. My first paper for New Testament is due Wednesday and I have a Greek test tomorrow, but my mind is wandering. I cannot stop thinking about the raw emotion reflected in the faces and voices of my classmates as we sat in an “Additional Student Housing Listening Session” this afternoon.

When we accepted the offer of admissions from VTS we expected to be moving into brand new apartments on August 1st with four days to unpack before orientation. But married students have been living in motel-size rooms or sharing houses with other families for the past seven weeks a midst transitioning back to school and mourning friends, family, churches, and jobs left behind.

We budgeted based on the Financial Aid letter we received. But many folks, myself not included, have had their aid cut because of some errors in calculation on the part of VTS.

We thought our needs as individuals with learning differences would be met. But upon arrival we realized that VTS currently has no formal system for assisting those with learning disabilities forcing the burden of acquiring accommodations on the student.

When the second and third year seminarians (called middlers and seniors) arrived on campus in September our class was a bit of a mess. Our anxieties about housing, money, and classes manifested in a variety of ways. Many of us began to divide into friend groups based on who seemed to have a similar theology or liturgical tradition. And it was easier to criticize those different from ourselves than to listen to their stories.

The many challenging layers of this current situation have overwhelmed me at times. Twice I’ve left a room when my chest has gotten tight, my shoulders tense, my breathing rapid and my thoughts have circle down a rabbit hole of “what ifs” until I could not focus on the present at all.

To my astonishment, God’s grace is breaking through everywhere I am open to see it. It is vibrant not in spite of the current situation, but precisely because it comes in stark contrast. Without the struggle, I would not be as grateful for the moments of connection, laughter, empathy, presence, kindness, and love. For the support of friends and family near and far. For the two classmates who recorded readings for me that I could not find on audio. For the professor who helped me find the right person to talk to about getting accommodations for my dyslexia. For the amazing things I have already learned. For my new counselor. For the simple pleasure of seeing dear in the woods across from our house almost every day. For the community blessing of two families expecting babies this fall. And for the upperclassmen who organized the “Additional Student Housing Listening Session” this afternoon so that frustrations could be heard and questions asked.

There have been days when I felt like coming to VTS was a huge mistake. Days when the institution seemed to be failing at one thing after another. Days when the community did not seem Christian at all. But from a slightly different angle I am beginning to see VTS as an institution beautifully, imperfectly collectively striving towards the kingdom of God. And perhaps that is all any of us can really do.

 

First Quarter Classes for Junior Year:

The Art of Learning with The Rev. Stacy Williams-Duncan Books:How We Learn by Benedict CareyReading Theologically by Eric D. Barreto (Editor)Thinking Theologically by Eric D. Barreto (Editor)Writing Theologically by Eric D. Barreto (Editor)

Basic Musicianship with The Rev. William Roberts Books: The Hymnal 1982 by Church Publishing Staff

Beginning Biblical Greek with The Rev. Katherine Grieb Books: A Primer of Biblical Greek by N. Clayton Croy

Foundations for Theology with The Rev. Katherine Sonderegger Books: Philosophy for Understanding Theology by Diogenes Allen; Eric O. SpringstedPrimary Readings in Philosophy for Understanding Theology by Diogenes Allen (Editor); Eric O. Springsted (Editor)Summa Theolgica by St. Thomas AquinasMens Creatrix by Macmillan and Co. Limited Staff (Created by); William Temple

Oral Interoperation of Scripture with The Rev. Ruthanna Hooke and The Rev. James Farwell

New Testament Interpretation I with The Rev. John Yieh Books: An Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond E. BrownThe Meaning of Jesus by Marcus J. Borg; N. T. WrightThe Shadow of the Galilean by Gerd TheissenMaking sense of the Sermon on the Mount by John Yieh

Photo Credit: KC Robertson