Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Arrows 2008

It's the time of year again for making lists, for looking both forward and backward as we mark the passing of time. And so, as usual, I make my annual evaluation.

↑ Graduate School
I'm now just one semester away from the completion of my masters, and I can't believe how much this program has changed me. I've learned so much in the last two years about what faith and community mean, about how to read, think, write, and speak, and about how to understand myself and others as children of God. This year, in particular, I learned to preach. In the process, I discovered that I'm beginning to get over my old fears of public speaking. Despite its trials, this year has been the best yet. I'm going to miss this place when I leave.

↓ Thesis
The only downside of this semester was the fact that, while I volunteered to write a thesis and had every intention of starting on it, I made almost no progress on in this semester. That is going to make next semester a whole lot more stressful. I think that signing up to write a thesis while writing my commissioning papers was a bit of a mistake.

↑ Travel
This year I had the experience of a lifetime traveling to the Middle East on the Middle East Travel Seminar. As I explained in earlier posts, I got to travel through 5 countries in the course of three weeks, alongside seminarians and professionals from across the country. It was a blast. When I returned from that, I got to go on a road trip from Georgia to Iowa to visit old friends, which was a lot of fun as well.

↔ Weddings
This year marked the beginning of the year of weddings. I watched a friend and my sister walk down the aisle, and next year several more people who are important to me will gown- or suit-up and make lifetime commitments. For the most part, I'm happy for those getting married. On the other hand, it's difficult to watch so many friends and family members pair off when I'm single.

↑ Work
I continued to work as a tutor for international students in my program. It is sometimes frustrating work, especially when I have to explain strange rules in the English language (even I don't know why we ride "on" a bus, but "in" a car) but the students are wonderful. I learn just from reading their papers, and getting to talk with them about life in Korea and living as international students is fascinating.

? The Future
2009 will bring many changes for me. I'm going to finish graduate school and go on to the work world. I'll face an interview that will determine my future and, hopefully, get my first full-time non-summer job. I'll move away, not just to school, but in a much more permanent capacity. I might even have to change my residency and lose my swing-voter status. I don't know what that will be like. I don't know for sure where I'll be or what I'll be doing this time next year. I just go forward with a prayer for all of us to have a peaceful and blessed 2009.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Cheer

Christmas has been my favorite holiday for as long as I can remember. It was always the holiday with the biggest family gatherings, the one when we got to have ham instead of turkey, the one with the best desserts, and none of that pumpkin pie nonsense. This year, however, was a little different.

My Christmas spirit arrived just in the nick of time (groan away, it was a terrible Christmas pun). As I walked into the choir room of my home church on Wednesday night, I was greeted by the faces of people I can't remember not knowing. I was welcomed with hugs and smiles, and enthusiastically encouraged to join the choir for the evening service. As we sat rehearsing the music for the service, I was reminded of the deep passion and faith with which these people use the gifts God has given them. As they lifted their voices in beautiful harmonies, I felt my heart rising heavenward as well.

As we stood in the choir loft and sang hymns and anthems appropriate to advent and Christmas, I began to imagine how the shepherds felt as they heard the heavenly host singing to announce the birth of Christ. As the readers pronounced the words of Scripture that I've heard so many times before, I had a new appreciation for the awe and wonder of the season.

You see, I was more alert this year, more prepared to savor the moments of worship, because I was consciously making a memory. This is probably the last Christmas that I will have at my home church, since next year I will hopefully be serving a church somewhere else. I'm going to miss simply worshiping on Christmas Eve, being able to sit with my family as I hear the words of the gospel proclaiming Christ's birth. While I'm excited to serve, I'm sad that this chapter in my life is probably closing.

Some of the changes are arriving already, in fact. Instead of just four of us at Christmas this year, we welcomed my new brother-in-law to our family Christmas. It was like putting on a pair of new jeans: you're excited about the newness, but the fit is strange, the style and color are slightly different, and it's difficult to say goodbye to your old favorite pair. There's grief in the loss of the old ways. But having a new person in the family (a wonderful person, in case you were wondering) also meant that we got to explain the traditions and retell the family stories. I was reminded of the Haggadah, the tradition of Passover in which the family re-tells the stories and re-explains the rituals of Passover for children and newcomers. As strange as it was, there was something beautiful about explaining the rituals of negotiating the use of the china, of telling the stories of Tina and the cream pitcher and my maternal grandmother's tradition of the red bag. In telling the stories again, I was reminded of why my family is so special to me, and of how much those experiences have shaped how I understand Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Rest of the (Call) Story

For the sometimes-enlightening, often-exasperating, and always-complicated commissioning process, I had to write my "call story". Through the course of seminary and the ministry process, you end up writing and telling this story again and again in various forms to a large number of people. Over time, it becomes streamlined into a brief tale that hits briefly on the highlights on the way to saying, "So, can and will you help me keep writing the story?". However, in that streamlining, important bits of the story are lost. There are small anecdotes, rabbit trails off the main path, that I have to bypass in getting to the main points. Yet, these rabbit trails helped me to get to the main points. Without them, I might never have had call story to tell. Not to mention that, while there was a required bibliography for that section of my papers, it was aimed at books; my call was as much shaped by films as books, but that part is harder to describe. So, since I had to leave these influences out of my papers, but I still want to get them out there, I'll include them here.

The first time I really showed any evidence of a call was in early elementary. My parents heard noises from my room one night after they'd put me to bed and turned out the light, and came into the room only to find me singing to my stuffed animals. I had my illustrated children's book of Bible stories, from which I had done a reading. I had explained the passage to my plush congregation, and I was going on to the closing hymn when my parents came in to check on me. They told me that I could continue the service in the morning, but I had to go to sleep. I don't think I got around to giving the benediction the next day, and the incident was forgotten for many years.

When I was in junior high, my two favorite movies were "Auntie Mame" and "The Trouble with Angels". Interestingly, both of these movies starred Rosalyn Russell, and both gave me an image of who I wanted to become. I loved the way Auntie Mame found the joy in situations and lived a life full of adventure, travel, and exciting people. I loved that her escapades were considered unacceptable by some, yet she was incredibly loving and compassionate, if in her strange, disorganized way. I wanted to be just like her. I particularly liked "The Trouble with Angels" because of the mischief that Mary and Rachel got into. I wanted to emulate their cool, trouble-making ways. I was always a bit saddened by the end, though. I couldn't understand how Mary could make the choice she made. I didn't see how she could be both troublemaker and devout religious servant. Only later, as I began to discern my own call, did I begin to understand how I could be both Mame and Mary at the same time.

High school brought participation in ASP, which was one of the most formative experiences in my faith development. In the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee, I wrote about faith, sweat, and sawdust. I saw God in the faces of Appalachian teenagers and heard God's voice in the buzz of circular saws. I watched hopes come to fruition and I began to recognize that God was working in my heart and through my blistered hands. Most of all, I saw God in JB, a man whose house I worked on my first summer as a volunteer. JB was a carpenter by trade, and he could have done all the work we were doing both better and faster. But he had developed a rare lung disease and could no longer work. As we worked on his home, he explained things and guided our work with a patience and a humility that amazed me. He sat on the porch with his oxygen tank, encouraging me as I used a power drill for the first time. Through ASP, I learned that God uses all parts of us: our brokenness and our strength, our skills and our inexperience, for a glory that we often do not recognize or understand.

As strange as it might sound, performing in a competitive showchoir also prepared me for ministry in ways I never would have anticipated. I was never a particularly good singer or dancer, but performing helped me to gain a confidence in front of people that I would otherwise have lacked. I learned how to use my facial expressions and body language as communication tools. I learned to disguise my nervousness and have poise, even when wearing sequins and fake eyelashes.

In early college, I was fascinated by semi-religious movies. I watched Saved!, Keeping the Faith, and Dogma over and over again, pulling out themes of religious life. I was fascinated at the way the characters in Saved! managed to hold their faith and their questions in tension and I was challenged by the responsibilities of call and commitment to church in Keeping the Faith.

By odd coincidence (or divine providence, I don't know which) I picked up a copy of a book called Grace at a publisher's booth at the Earth Day festival my sophomore year of college. As a sometimes-pianist, the keyboard on the cover caught my eye, and I bought a copy. I then promptly put it on my shelf and forgot about it for a few months. By the time I picked it up again, I had begun to discern my call to ministry, but didn't really know what to do about it. As I read, I saw connections with my own life, and gained the courage to pursue my vocation.

When I went home for Thanksgiving, just after I recognized my call for the first time, I was terrified to tell my parents. My father is Catholic, and I had never thought to ask him what he thought of women in ministry. So, when I got home, I told my parents to sit down, and I told them a very abbreviated version of my call story. When I finished, my father replied with, "Of course. We knew." I was stunned. I hadn't told them anything. When I asked about it, he continued, "Well, it was revealed to me in meditation a few weeks ago. I told your mother (at this point, Mom nodded) but we didn't want to tell you and mess up your discernment." I didn't know how to respond. I've never been one to put a lot of stock in mystical experiences, but that gave me an affirmation that was very valuable to me.

Then a stranger gave me a great gift: a district superintendent from a conference other than my own, after some consultation with me, assigned me a candidacy mentor. In our process, candidacy mentors can be either helpful or exasperating, but mine was an incredible blessing for me. I looked up to that mentor, who seemed at times to be the person I wanted to grow into in a few years. I saw a woman who was close to my age working in ministry, which I had never seen before. She showed me that I could be in ministry and still be myself. She inspired me to make progress in an arduous process of bureaucracy, which has allowed me to get as far as I am by this point. If we could put people in our bibliographies, she'd be on mine.

I'm sad that I had to leave these bits out of my explanation of my call for commissioning. The page limits on my commissioning papers forced me to leave out several bits of myself, my story, and my beliefs that I think would give the church a more accurate picture of who I am. And in all the paperwork, I often lost track of the call and the passion that led me to writing them in the first place. These help me to remember that God was forming me long before I began the process, and God will continue to shape me through and after it. For now, I think it's enough that I know where I've been and I believe in the road I'm on (at least most days).

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Long Advent

Christmas snuck up on me this year. Somewhere between my sister's wedding, writing my commissioning papers, and getting through a tough spate of finals, I lost track of the calendar. By the time I woke up from my stress-coma, there were less than 10 days left before the holiday: 10 days in which to do all my Christmas shopping, 10 days to get emotionally prepared for the first Christmas with a new family member, 10 days to get ready for Santa and the baby Jesus to arrive. It's strange, too, because Christmas is my favorite holiday. I usually spend the entire period between Thanksgiving and Christmas being excited, madly decorating, baking, and listening to Christmas carols (I know, I know, I'm not supposed to do that until Christmas, but the Advent music just isn't as good!) Yet this year, I don't seem to be able to get into the holiday spirit.

Instead of getting caught up in the joy of the season, I've been rushing madly, just trying to meet the next deadline, finish the next project. But, in some ways, that has been a good thing. It has left me longing for the holiday to come, desperately wanting the peace of home, break, and holiday to arrive. Now, finally, the break is here, and I'm at home, but still Christmas doesn't seem to be sinking in. Finally I understand the yearning, the longing of advent. For the first time this year, I truly feel that this is a season of waiting and watching, of hoping for peace and joy to arrive. I just hope that in 3 days, as I light a candle at the Christmas Eve Service, I'll finally feel the joy and closeness of Christ that I've been longing for.