Plans change

When I arrived at Vanderbilt Divinity School (VDS), I had a plan; I knew where my life was going and when it would go there.  My story in many ways is that of a quintessential divinity school student: Plans changed.  God happened, I guess.  What once so animated me—my time in the classroom—become more of a part of my vocation’s unfolding, not my vocation in and of itself.  I continue to love high-level rigorous academic reading, critical discussions, and creative theory and may even one day attempt to pursue PhD study, but for now, my concerns have shifted.  As closely as I can approximate, my deepest longing and the world’s greatest need do not meet in the academy, but somewhere on the periphery of the local congregation and its community.


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During one of our first meetings, my advisor asked me whether I preferred ask the questions or implement the answers.  Torn between the MTS and MDiv programs, I told her how I thought I wanted to continue with my graduate career but remained unsure about ordination.  Over the course of our conversation, I summarized the premise of my undergraduate thesis, noting that I had investigated how a pay-what-you-can café might provide a concrete instantiation of Christian gift economy.  Thereupon my advisor asked, Do you want to open the café or write about the café? Almost two years ago, I answered that I wanted to write about the café.  But I think I actually want to open that café.


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As I study any theory or—my favorite—theological reflection, I always have posed the question: How does that work on the ground?  What would that look like?  Theory for theory’s sake simply cannot move or excite me too much; while fun and playful, such abstraction fails to touch my primary questions.  When I read, I always think of my mother’s friends, the suburban, middle-aged women with the four bedroom houses, two kids, and the minivan.  I think of the two little boys who lived across the street from me during my summer in impoverished inner city Atlanta, how they did not have mattresses in their house.  I think of the second lieutenant from Texas who argued with me this summer about the ridiculousness of recycling.  Would they understand this?  How could I make this writer’s work relevant to them?  These questions spin around in my mind as the divinity school community speaks about postmodern interpretations of scripture or gender theory or social construction or atonement models.  It is not that I do not want to encounter Butler’s gender theory or Marxist ideological criticism but rather that I want to bridge the all-to-often sharp divide between the academy and the everyday.  As wonderful as the ideas we encounter may be, if they do not trickle down, they will remain locked within books for many years, and they deserve expression.  I want these ideas to breathe, to receive testing and correction, and that needs to happen in the lived experience of the suburbanite, the inner city boy, and the southern officer.  Perhaps I could say that I want to be more a part of the ideas’ trickle rather than their generation—at least for now.


All the while I have scrutinized whether or not I held a calling to the academic life, whether a life oriented around scholarship and subjected to the constant pressure to publish and accomplish could coincide with a life driven towards promoting justice and actively participating and furthering God’s kingdom.  For several years, I sought to obtain a doctoral degree so that I could introduce others to the rich, diverse work of Christian theologians and challenge students to consider the impact religious thought has exerted on society, for I firmly believed—and still believe—that theology holds tremendous power but with that enormous responsibility: it possesses the potential to yield positive, empowering effects but also risks legitimizing oppressive, narrow structures and the status quo.  Perhaps this conviction about theology’s extraordinary power steered me once more to consider ordained ministry.  Although I had dismissed the idea when it would occasionally surface in my thoughts during college, after graduation and during my time at divinity school, I wondered whether the priesthood was not my calling after all.  I searched and listened, searched and listened, sought guidance from the priest in my home diocese, and heeded the nagging, urgent feelings inside of me; I attempted and continue to attempt to discern how God lures me—how God lures every one of us—in this world.


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I am in the midst of discerning my call to ordination to the priesthood because I feel called to participate in the church’s ongoing mission to help individuals discern their special, distinctive vocations, but I also feel that I must voice my concern that the church misses opportunities to engage communities and individuals fully.  In academic theology and church congregations, I have found a tendency to reduce Christianity either to personal piety or social ethics, both essential, but neither sufficient to witness to God’s saving, healing reality. Serving in varied congregational settings—as a guide to visiting youth groups for an inner city Atlanta ministry, as part of the liturgical planning team in an affluent church in Charlottesville, as an assistant to the children’s ministry director in downtown Tuscaloosa, and as an intern in a suburban Nashville parish—has provided me insight into how the church might most effectively equip its members for service.  I believe the church ministers best when it assists individuals in cultivating their own spirituality and developing their unique gifts, which in turn they offer to God’s creation.


I have found that intentional practice within the church not only builds and creates new relationships within the church but points members outwards, into engagement with the world, for individuals know that they have the support of a committed community.  The institutional church becomes a space where human beings grow and challenge themselves, where they imagine how God calls them to contribute their talents to the flourishing of their local communities and all of creation: the couple who bake the communion bread later begin a city-wide Taize service, a church garden becomes a food source for a surrounding neighborhood, a small, student-led pancake event gives rise to a nationwide fundraiser for Parkinson’s Disease research.  Having experienced the eucharist’s transformative power firsthand—its ability to nourish one’s spirituality, enhance congregational community, and energize participants to expand their understandings of vocation beyond church walls—I find deep hope in the table liturgy and seek to lead the church to explore its depths and possibilities.  My classes on sacramental and liturgical theology have further enriched my understanding of ritual’s power and capacity to effect change, and I hold out hope that by inviting congregants not only to participate actively in the implementation but also the very design of worship services and church projects, ministerial leaders affirm each person’s dignity and creativity.  My desire to ensure that churches formulate deep, rich liturgies, my passion for articulating thoughtfully developed theologies, and my dedication to recognizing and employing individuals’ distinctive gifts continue to inform my sense of vocation.  I participate in God’s creation by encouraging and supporting others in embracing their special responsibilities as beloved creatures of God.


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Part of me wishes that I would emerge with some highly specialized, carefully honed skill when I complete my MDiv degree.  Instead, I am a jack-of-all-trades of sorts.  I can talk a little theology, a little church history, a little ethics, and a little counseling and care, and I can wax poetic with the best of them, but I cannot heal someone’s cancer or develop an alternative economy or amend the legal code.  Several months ago, I spoke with a professor about a joint trip that divinity and management students took several years ago in order to examine firsthand the potentialities and shortcomings of the Project Pyramid model.  She commented that when the divinity students returned, they felt helpless and resigned, reduced to voicing moral outrage, whereas the management students set to work on developing a concrete plan for attacking poverty that they intended to put into action.  I identified with her statements and noted that I too can feel stifled by the inability to see past the big picture, the vast, overlying structural problems and onwards to solutions.  Ironically, right now I find my most immediate satisfaction in working with some local community members and Vanderbilt students on implementing local housing trust fund legislation.  Although I knew nearly nothing about Nashville’s housing economy or housing trust funds upon entering the project, I have learned along the way, and I expect to see tangible results arise from our group’s many meetings and fundraising drives.  Such “results” and “solutions” do not develop from sermons or a liturgy or an academic paper.


I do not think this realization, however, has fundamentally challenged my understanding of vocation, but it has nuanced it.  I like having measureable improvement and concrete changes.  The type-A in me resists the nebulousness and ineffability that usually classifies ministry (and, to some extent, academic study).  Likely I will always have a foot in the community working on—and learning along the way—a more goal-oriented endeavor.  We speak all the time in divinity school about how theory gives rise to praxis, how praxis in turn informs theory, and how the symbol gives rise to thought in the first place.  We live in the space of these overlapping circles, yet this lived experience never remains solely on the cerebral plane. 


Sure, God approaches many of us in those suspect places and moments, like in the mystical joining together of the body of believers over Styrofoam-like disks of “bread” or in the huge outpouring of hugs, tears, and checks after the September 11th attacks.  And as academics and ministers, we reflect on and respond to these occasions and attempt to encourage the same in others.  But sometimes we find the most real in the mundane, the visceral.  I find meaning in lively, coffee-fueled conversations in the dank, cinder block walls of the divinity school, in the runs I enjoy with my evangelical friend from childhood every time I return to Tuscaloosa, in the eyes of the small-framed African-American man selling the Contributor on 21st Avenue.  I think I need more of the small things—or at least I need to notice them more and allow them to percolate through my mind.  More than wanting to take a course on the eucharist or to experience CPE I want some breathing room during my last year of divinity school so that I may think more about how the practical meets the theory meets the professional meets the layperson.  I want to let the loose ends dangle for a while.