Saturday, January 30, 2010

My Call to a Radical Ministry of Non-Ministry

Dear friends,

I am fake updating my blog again. I just recently had to apply for a summer internship (field education placement). I was asked to to describe my call to full-time Christian service. Some of you are familiar with bits of this from my chapel speech in NW's Christ Chapel, but also some of the bits at the end are slightly, but not terribly, new developments.

One of the reason I have not been blogging lately is that I would probably sound like a gigantic Debbie Downer. For the older generations:
I still carry around my GuestCheck pad that I stole from the coffee shop and write down ideas for what would make a great blog. And then I just never write them. I still have goals to get into a routine of posting. Hold out hope.

Much love,

[Oh, and the last paragraph is 1/4 true and 3/4 fanciful rhetoric.]

The task of narrating my journey into ministry seems as though it might be quite simple. I need not consult secondary sources, refer to the most recent journal article, or even footnote my sources properly. I must merely explain how I have been led to enter full-time Christian service. The problem, however, is that I never have been led to do so. Not even a little.

The task at hand, then, seems to be narrating how I ended up at Duke Divinity School and why I am spending my time trying to find the reference room in the library, learning why the Eucharist was important to Ignatius, and applying for a field education placement. That story is perhaps one I can tell.

The first course of my college career began at 9:25 AM. A boy wore a Star Wars shirt. A girl in the front row had a feather pen. I saw my first purity ring on the finger of the guy next to me. The professor had curly, medieval locks and began to teach me philosophy. I did not fall in love with learning that day. Rather, it was several months later, when feather pen girl and purity ring boy had long since dropped the class, that I began to develop a passion for learning that I had not known previously. While other girls in my dorm scrawled jokes and uplifting messages on the decorated bathroom stall walls, I took the opportunity to pose the problem of evil to them in purple crayon. I went to the wing Bible studies, clutching my Good News Bible, and wondered aloud why we were simply assuming the existence of God. I quickly became that girl whom people thanked for “challenging” them.

I continued on this trajectory and ended up declaring a religion major at the end of my sophomore year. I sat in my advisor’s office, just in front of his books about Gnosticism, and told him I might like to become a religion professor myself someday. After all, I had recently scored 103% on my Greek exam. Shouldn’t I go on to teach participles and the special uses of the dative case? I said that last part only in my head, but perhaps sensing my arrogance, he offered me a piece of chocolate and talked to me for 2 hours about how difficult the road to academia would be. “There are a lot of people with doctorates working at Pizza Hut,” he said. “If you’re going to do this, you’ll need to be the best of the best.” After that, I didn’t leave the library for a year. I didn’t see the sky or trees or people because I flipped through my Greek or Hebrew flashcards wherever I went. I began to legitimately wish that I had been a member of the Johannine community so I could know who the secessionists were. I steeped myself in Pauline literature, pondering if I should adopt the New Perspective. A past essay of mine reveals my attitude through the following excerpt:

Recently, one of my roommates scrawled upon the whiteboard in our apartment, ‘Academia Blows.’ An attack to one of my most fervent passions glared at me in coarse, black letters. I was appalled. ‘How could you say that?’ I scrawled back in my own passionate words. Since I have discovered the delights of learning, my passion becomes stronger with every book I read, every paper I write, and every discussion I have.

Someday, I was going to be the one teaching the feather pen girls and the purity ring guys. With everything that I had, I knew that I had “found my vocare.”

Of course, while diligently studying the Bible, I didn’t actually read the Bible. The secondary literature summed it all up in a less frustrating way. An attempt to actually read Paul resulted in the Bible being thrown to the floor and pronounced to be nonsensical. As my college was a distinctly Christian school, chapel attendance was required. Thus, I went, but sat in the pew sullenly, crossing my arms hard across my chest when we rose to sing, and continuing to study my flash cards throughout the preaching. I did all of the right things in the religion department, but mostly failed to care whether the content I was studying was practical or significant to anyone’s life. Sometimes I failed to care because I found it irrelevant and stinkingly evangelical, but mostly I failed to care because I was too busy pursuing my goal of getting into a top divinity school so that I would not have to work at Pizza Hut someday.

I did attend a church regularly at this time, which I loved deeply, and I went on to do an internship there under the guise of exploring my capacity for ministry. Really, though, I did it so that I could write something under the “Religious Work” section of my seminary applications, and because they were going to write me a check at the end. I stood at the pulpit to deliver a sermon, and I felt as I had when I had delivered a paper about the Johannine community at an academic conference. It came as no surprise: I had not been called to parish ministry.

Time continued to pass, and my desire to further my theological training remained strong. Although I have described my attitude toward Christianity to be a bit of a cold one, I never seriously considered renouncing my faith. I regularly thought that perhaps I was not a Christian, but at the end of the day, it turned out that I still was. I didn’t really do many of the things Christians are “supposed” to do, and I did a lot of the things Christians aren’t supposed to do. Yet, I liked the idea of early believers wandering around and spreading good news. I found the theology of the cross powerful. I had an embarrassing habit of watching a country music video that promoted substitutionary atonement. I latched onto the model of Israel “wrestling with God” and believed that I was to wrestle with God in order to properly honor God, and I desired to provoke others to the same sort of engagement. I had a love for the idea of the biblical narrative, and (as fanciful as it sounds) I wanted to walk alongside the biblical characters on the continuum of God’s Kingdom work. I could get behind these people of God who have been revealed to us in Scripture as living, breathing, and thinking screw-ups through which God still willingly worked. I did value the church and felt strongly that in my future role in academia, I must interact with others, caring for them and teaching them in a meaningful and sincere manner.

Thus, come decision time, Duke Divinity School seemed the right place for me. I signed my first lease, traversed the country to Durham, and walked into the Gray building for the first time. My first day of school was different this time. The first class of my graduate school career started at 2:30 PM. The Star Wars t-shirt was replaced by a worn flannel and a rustic-looking, brown leather satchel. The guy next to me had a wedding band. Another thing was different as well. My passion for learning had waned and was waning every day. I did my work, but I was not enthused as I had formerly been. I navigated papers and tests successfully, but I didn’t care about any of them. I was deciding more definitively each day that I was not meant to be a professor. This was impossibly difficult to admit at first. What about that year when I had lived in the dreary basement of the library and looked at my flashcards instead of the sky? What about all the time my professors had spent actively forming me into the person I needed to be to succeed? How could I work so hard to be the best of the best and instead result a failure?

The main question for me still looms large: if I am not called to full-time Christian ministry and if I am not to pursue doctoral work, have I any reason to be in seminary? Maybe I ought to become a person without a doctorate working at Pizza Hut. However, I can’t yet justify any decision to withdraw from my seminary education at this time. I so badly wanted to be here and felt so passionate about biblical studies and theology. I can’t let myself believe that when I had felt so passionately that I had found my vocare, that I was really just going through a phase out of which nothing would come into fruition.

So what does this all mean for a field education placement? If I am to use Christian language, it means that I am discerning God’s purpose for my life. I am discerning a great deal. And I am hoping fervently that there might be purpose for me out there somewhere. I wish to approach the summer with an open mind and see where I might be led, and I am excited to be a part of a new people and a new community among whom I can learn.