The Slurping of Coffee. The Turning of Pages.

It’s a cool November Saturday on campus. The sun is shining and there are children playing between Red Bud and Osage Orange (two of the new apartment buildings). Construction on all four apartments is finally complete and a sense of gratitude is in the air.

We are well into the second quarter of the year now. Between Church History I, New Testament II, Old Testament I, and an elective of our choosing, the work load is mounting for our class. In the library and the coffee shop, dorm rooms and apartments, one can hear the slurping of coffee and the turning of pages.

I have not written in a while. The pace of chapel, class, lunch, work study, homework, cooking, family time, sleep, wake up, repeat is all consuming. Even more than the overwhelming work load, though, I wanted to be able to say, “It was a rough start, but things are going great now!” But it seems like just as one stressor eases, another takes it’s place. Life is messy. Transition is hard. And living comfortably in my new reality cannot be forced.

I still have some grieving to do. I miss living near friends who know and love me deeply. I miss having work I am really good at. I miss seeing the children of St. Mary’s grow. I miss financial security. I miss knowing each holiday will be spent with the people I’ve celebrated with for twenty-seven years.

I keep thinking if I didn’t have some much school work I would make time to cry for those losses. I keep missing the job where taking time to care for my soul was expected because you cannot pour into your ministry from an empty cup. But perhaps you cannot pour into your own learning from an empty cup either. Perhaps it is not structures around us that prevent us from caring for our souls, but our own priorities. Perhaps God is calling me to a transformative seminary experience that is about more than completing the required reading. I can say for sure that at the end of these three years I would rather be able to say that I loved myself and those around me well than that I completed all the reading.

This balance is not easy. Holding the tension between soul tending and “productivity” is a life long practice. When I stop to grieve I know that all over the campus of Virginia Theological Seminary pages keep turning and coffee keeps dripping. But today I am steeping a cup of tea.

Photo Credit: Richard Allred

Advertisements

Where is your sending parish?

I am thrilled to be writing this morning from my favorite chair in our permanent, three-year apartment at Virginia Theological Seminary. We moved in on September 27th after 7 1/2 weeks in temporary accommodations on campus. It is everything we could have hoped for and more: spacious, well designed, well lit, quiet, beautiful, sanctuary. I am so excited to get everything in order.

As we make our home in apartment 203, Richard and I continue to settle into the rhythms of life at VTS. Richard is setting up a home office in the second bedroom of our apartment, getting to know the local disc golf courses, and riding his bike in the evenings. He also attended his first S.P.I.R.I.T. meeting, Significants Participating in Really Interesting Things. I am beginning to navigate the many expectations of students at VTS a bit more gracefully. I am enjoying my classes, especially New Testament, and I am loving getting to know my classmates on a deeper level.

As I continue to meet members of the VTS community who were not on campus during August, I have found myself in the following conversation over and over again:

Community Member: Nice to meet you!

Me: Nice to meet you too.

Community Member: Where is your sending parish?

Me: Actually, I do not have a sending parish. I have been living in the Diocese of North Carolina, but my home parish is in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia.

Community Member: Oh, are you an M.A. (Master of Arts) student?

Me: No, I am an MDiv (Master in Divinity) student, but I am not a postulant (a person seeking Holy Orders).

Community Member: Oh. Tell me about that.

While it can feel lonely to be the only MDiv student in my class of thirty-five who is not in the ordination process, my sense of purpose seems to grow with each retelling of my story and I am grateful for the opportunity to share it.

Why I am a non-postulant seeking a Master in Divinity at VTS

I had been working competently as the Director of Children’s and Youth Ministries at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church for two years before the work really came alive for me. When I arrived we had volunteers in place to lead the children’s formation program, Godly Play, although the class was not thriving. In the fall of 2014 we switched the program to week day afternoons and I had to recruit an entirely new group of leaders. We created a wonderful team, but no one knew the stories so I began to lead weekly. I did not realize at the time how God would use this situation to call me deeper into relationship with God, others, and the Church.

My growth did not happen rapidly, but the sacred space of our Godly Play classroom was fertile ground. The support of parents, church staff, and Godly Play leaders began to rain down and the inquisitive children forced my roots deep into the ground and leaves up towards the sky. “What is a parable?” they asked, and “Why did they kill Jesus?” “Why did Jesus send out the disciples if he knew they were going to die?” “How did Abraham live that long?” As their wonder increased, so did mine.

I began to live for the moment of connection I saw in Godly Play and feel the presence of God as soon as I sat down in the circle. I saw God when one child saved the blue and purple pillow for another child who would only sit on that pillow during the story. I saw God when one child was finally able to wait for another to finish their work before taking it to her own mat. I saw God when I began the story and a child cried, “You forgot to ask me about the best part of my day!” I saw God in the mother who left work early to bring her son to class. I saw God in the prayers the children said before the feast and the stories they told during work time.

Somehow, along the way those classes became the most joyful moments of my week. Although I often left exhausted and there were many moments of excruciating frustration, when I sat down in the circle to begin the story everything else in the world melted away. I think that I was able to come close to the person God created me to be in those classes. When I talked to people about Godly Play my heart actually began to beat faster and I could go on and on. In response to the joy I was experiencing I rooted into the rich soil, spending hours writing notes to each child, emailing parents, and hand-making story sets.

Sometimes calling is a deep sense of internal peace, sometimes calling is a feeling of inadequacy or excitement, sometimes calling is a deep furry, and often it is a combination. The experience of leading Godly Play called me to children’s ministry first through excitement and astonishment as I watched the children grown and then a deep sense of inadequacy. Their theological questions amazed me. I wanted to give more than I was able. I realized that I needed more education in order to nurture children’s spiritual development to the best of my ability.

When I first began hearing the call to seminary, it seemed like a call to personally provide the best children’s formation possible by engaging in theological education. But over the course of a year or so, the call began to expand. I witnessed St. Mary’s Godly Play program grow from five children a week to thirty-four, while other churches programs dwindled. I saw our parents marvel at the Bible stories their children could recount while parents outside our congregation yearned for a way to engage their children in spiritual growth. I watched our clergy teach from a strong Biblical and theological foundation and found lay formation leaders around the diocese often lacked the training needed to give young people a firm foundation for spiritual development.

Noticing these dynamics, a deep frustration grew within my soul. I dreamed of vibrant, deep and transformative Episcopal ministry with children, but heard about failing Sunday School programs. I dreamed of collaboration between parishes that gave young people experiences of serving, but heard about toxic charity. I dreamed of systems of support for children’s ministry in our diocese, but I found nothing. I dreamed of Episcopal scholarships that would enable children’s and youth ministers to receive Masters in Divinity and found few.

At Baptism, the celebrant addresses the congregation saying, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” I have answered, “We will!” with congregations dozens of times. This is a big promise. Supporting children in their life in Christ requires teaching them the stories of our faith in a developmentally appropriate way. Supporting children in their life in Christ requires meeting families where they are and supporting parenting as a spiritual practice. Supporting children in their life in Christ requires answering deep questions about the Bible, the Episcopal Church, history, and theology. Supporting children in their life in Christ requires letting go of traditions and programs that no longer have energy. And so, there is much work to be done.

I am a non-postulant in the Master in Divinity program at VTS first and foremost in response God’s call to be the best provider of Christian formation I can be and secondly, to advocate for increased theological education and support for lay Christian formation leaders.

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

Living into Enough

Richard and I left Charlotte the morning of July 31st sweaty, grumpy, and exhausted from two days of POD loading in ninety degree heat. Cars packed to the brim, four hundred miles of road stretched out in front of us. The trip was peppered with bathroom breaks, food stops, and one fantastic visit with old friends. At 9:15PM we finally pulled up in front of a two story house with the porch light on. It did not take long for my relief at arriving to slip into anxiety.

To be honest, I spent most of the first week worrying about one thing or another. As we unpacked I thought of all the things left in storage that I wish had made it into the car (we will be sharing a four-bedroom home with another couple until the on-campus apartments for students with families are completed). As we met my classmates I felt unprepared for seminary in comparison. As we sat through orientation I thought about how paying for the next three years seems impossible. As we heard the construction update I yearned for a move in date.

With the beginning of classes on August 8th I started to feel as though I had been dropped into a fast moving river. All VTS MDiv students are required to take an intensive course in Greek or Hebrew during August of their first year. I chose Greek. I’m glad I didn’t know exactly how “intensive” the class would be before we got here. The class moves so fast that each time we get our feet under us we are knocked over by the next lecture.

This image of being dropped in a rushing river has come to me often over the past few weeks. When it seems overwhelming to balance the academic demands and spending time with my new husband I think of the rocks that bump your backside as you speed down stream. When I sit staring at a Greek quiz with no idea how to translate the foreign sentence I think of the waves that smack your face as you go through rapids.

But I know from my countless trips with the River Adventure Program of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia that when your canoe flips, you get on your back with your feet pointing down stream, toes out of the water. You keep your head up, relax, paddle with your hands to avoid large objects, and wait until you wash out in calmer water.

What does this look like for a new seminarian with a little over a week left in Greek intensive? I am still figuring that out. But the idea of “enough” I came across when reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown has been floating to mind often (check out this great blog post for a recap). Brown suggests our lives could look very different if we change our internal narrative from scarcity to enough. When we come from a perspective of enough, “I am not smart enough to learn Greek” becomes “I have what I need to learn Greek” and “There is not enough time for everything I need to do today” becomes, “There will be enough time in this day for what needs to be accomplished.”

Day by day I am trying to live into enough. Just like life, rivers are uncertain. Each time you paddle a stretch of the river it looks slightly different. That is one of the amazing gifts of this part of God’s creation. One’s anxiety about what might be around the bend does nothing to prevent it from appearing or allow you to navigate it more successfully. And yet for many of us living into enough and managing anxiety is one of the ongoing struggles of life.

I am beyond grateful that I am not alone, I have the most amazing classmates who are rushing down river in the “lazy swimmer” position right beside me. I feel blessed to be surrounded by family and friends, new and old, who remind me daily in small and large ways that I am enough. That anxiety does not define me. That I will wash out in calmer water.  Perhaps, with their help, I can relax enough to enjoy the ride.

Photo: Classmates During Orientation (photo credit: Maurice Dyer)

Charlotte in the Rearview

As I meticulously pack framed photos between layers of bubble wrap and stack sheets and towels in boxes, I can’t help but reflect on the whirlwind of the past three months. It has been a season of letting go. A season of learning what it means to take leave with grace and gratitude. A season of giving thanks for people, places, belongings, experiences, and opportunities while embracing the impending changes in my life.

Just twelve weeks ago I was working on a notebook for my successor at St. Mary’s and writing notes to the children in Godly Play. Even though I knew my replacement was the perfect person for the job, even though I knew I was called to seminary, even though the celebration of my ministry on May 15th was an overwhelming and joyous occasion, it was hard to leave. St. Mary’s is often in my thoughts and always in my prayers. I am grateful beyond words for the opportunity to serve there. Ministering with the staff and parishioners of St. Mary’s over the past four years led me directly to my next calling and pushed me to work for the betterment of the Diocese of North Carolina and the Episcopal Church.

Although there were a few weeks in between, I feel as though I drove straight from my last day at St. Mary’s to Hendersonville for our wedding. Over a year of planning came to a head so quickly! Our photographers, Jen Yuson Photography, captured the fantastic day so well, it was all I could have hoped for. Throughout the weekend feeling of excitement, love, gratitude, and joy were mixed with a sense of letting go. As we join our lives in marriage to another we gain a life partner, but we let go of our family of origin as our primary relationship. We let go of personal dreams and independence in order to dream and form a life together. I don’t think this can be anything but a leap of faith. Richard and I have taken the leap with excitement, but we are already praying for the support, strength, courage, and love needed in the challenges that will come.

After a fantastic honeymoon in Jamaica we began to plan for our second leap of faith this summer: moving to Virginia Theological Seminary. I am thrilled to be starting the three-year Master in Divinity program this August and so grateful for Richard’s support. He will be leaving behind a city he loves, family, friends, co-workers, favorite restaurants and disc golf courses to join me in the unknown. Moving this year was not his first choice and I am thankful beyond words for his willingness to sacrifice so that I can follow my passion.

As of today…

Boxes are stacked up all around our apartment, mail forwarding is set up, cable and utilities cut off at the end of the month, and the movers are schedule for Saturday. We will be packing everything in a POD, which will be shipped to Alexandria, then driving our cars up on Sunday. We will move into temporary housing at VTS while the new married student apartments are being completed. The current timeline for our building, Osage Orange, is the end of August.

As I have been going through this season of letting go the New York Times best seller “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has given me a unique framework for processing the changes in my life. The author, Marie Kondo, suggests that when we take stock of our belongings instead of asking, “Do I need this?” or “Will I use this at some point?” we start asking, “Does this bring me joy?” By trashing or donating the household items that no longer bring us joy, the things that do bring us joy become visible. Instead of letting things that we don’t even like pile up around us, we can choose to surround ourselves with the things that bring us joy. This summer I have realized that the concept applies to much more that belongings. Letting go of the commitments that no longer bring us joy makes time for the things that do bring us joy. Letting go of the relationships that no longer bring joy to our lives makes room for the people that do. As The Church we should also follow Kondo’s advice, letting go of the ministries and programs that no longer touch people in a meaningful and spiritual way in order to spend more time, talent, and treasure on those ministries that bring transformation and joy. 

As we head north on Sunday with Charlotte fading in the rearview I am newly committed to  filling my life with joy. I look forward to filling my walls with photos and artwork that make me smile. I look forward to finding time for the activities that make my heart glad. I look forward to strengthening my relationships with the people that make my life in this sometimes terrifying world not only bearable but joy-filled.