Friday, August 30, 2013

Seminary, Year Four, Day One: Back to the Basics

Yesterday was the first day of my last year of seminary. Ironically (or perhaps not), I started it not feeling triumphant and superior, grinning down my nose at the cute first-years, but small and weak. More like a needy child, awkward in my attempt to do this whole "Christian life" thing, than an expert with all the answers. And as much as I know this is exactly how my seminary is teaching me approach a life of ministry, it still catches me off guard. Sure, I like to talk about humility, living into the reality that God is God and I am not, and ministering to others from a place of lowliness-- but deep down, experiencing that reality makes me uncomfortable. Because deep down, I like to be in control. I like to feel "good" at this, like I've got it figured out. I like to have the answers and have it together. 

The past month has stretched me in ways that have exposed my sin (living out of a suitcase makes me a pretty unpleasant person), my unbelief (when I get less than 7 hours of sleep, I throw in the towel on God's ability to sustain me through the day), my limitations (life outside the classroom reminds me that there are questions that I can't answer), and my need for a Savior (all of these things remind me that I'm not Him). And my despair in light of it all has exposed that in some ways, my deepest held belief is that I'm only as good as I perform. So if I'm going into vocational ministry but can't even perform "up to standards" as a Christian, who am I kidding? In other words, if I'm not "useful" to God, then what would He want to do with me?

But yesterday, God was good to remind me that my deepest held belief actually flies in the face of the gospel. In chapel, one of our professors taught out of Romans 8: "For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” In other words, God reminded me that my performance is not the reason He loves me, and it's not what sustains our relationship. I'm not primarily God's employee or intern, working to earn a spot higher up on the ladder in His sight; no, I am His child. And that relationship is predicated not on my performance, but on His. He is the One who invited me into His family, because of His goodness and love-- not because of all the fancy stuff I know or all the talents I possess or all the good deeds I have done. 

And the major news for this fourth-year seminary student is: my call to ministry doesn't change any of that. This month has shown me that the extent to which I move forward with the expectation that ministry is about how well I "perform" as a Christian-- having all the right answers, being sin free, living above the limitations of a person in still in need of a Savior-- is the extent to which I will face nothing but disappointment and disillusionment. Why? Because a ministry that is about me and my performance is one that doesn't have much room for Jesus-- and He is the One we all need.

So as I complete my final year of seminary, will you pray for me? Pray that when I graduate and leave, my deepest held belief will no longer be that my performance defines me. Pray that my deepest held belief be that God's unconditional love defines me, and that His performance is what my ministry is all about. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Too Small

When our family went to the beach this past month, my mom took three-year-old Abbey—my niece, her granddaughter— out into the ocean with her. The waves were particularly intense that day, and my brother, Abbey’s father, kept shouting at my mom, "Hold on to Abbey!" Hold on to her!" My mom later reflected that Abbey, though concerned for her own safety, was too little to keep a firm grasp on my mom when the waves hit. She wanted to hold on, but the ocean was too powerful for her. So it was my mom’s responsibility to hold on to her.

In the past few months, I have felt a bit like Abbey. The waves have been particularly intense, and successive in their coming. I have been wanting—desperately wanting—to cling to my Jesus in the midst of the upheaval, but find myself too small. My grasp is too weak, the force of life’s breakers too powerful for me. But the picture of my mom and little Abbey remind me that in the end, it’s not about my grasp anyway. I am too small, yes, but He is not. I am weak, but He is strong.

And maybe this season, more than anything, is an opportunity for me to realize that that’s OK.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Update and A Few Words about Communion

From Greenville, to the beach, back to Dallas, and now in Houston, the past few weeks have been a whirlwind! (In a good way). I hope to write some about my trip(s) soon but I have not had the time or brain power to process it all yet. Currently, my mom and I are at MD Anderson, a world renowned cancer center in Houston. It is amazing! All I've been able to squeak out so far is a post I had to write for my church this week, so I'm going to share it here. Thoughts about communion have been on my mind a lot lately as I've traveled from one place to another, but feeling sustained by the constancy of Christ's presence wherever I am.

Why Weekly Communion?

At All Saints, we celebrate the Eucharist every week. For some of our congregants, this is what they’ve always known.  For others of us— who come from different church traditions— the weekly breaking of bread might feel foreign. There are many reasons the church throughout history has prioritized this important practice, but I would like to share just a few ways it has shaped my own worship, and why I’ve come to love celebrating it weekly.

First, it is a tangible reminder that we all belong to each other. The next time you are at the rail, look around you. All the faces, all the hands outstretched—these are people for whom Jesus died. That means they are your family. Breaking bread together every week reminds us that to be a Christian is to be a part of a community: the community of Christ’s body.

Second, it is an anchor in the midst of our ups and downs. Let’s face it, being a Christian is hard. Some days following Jesus feels easy and natural; other days are so difficult, we feel like frauds. The beauty of communion is that whatever the season, whatever our current state—whether we’ve been “good” or “bad” any given week—Jesus offers Himself to us fully and freely. He invites us to His table without hesitation because our fellowship with Him is based on His goodness, not ours.

Third, it reminds us what the Christian life is really all about: communion. Christ paid for our sins by sacrificing Himself, and the bread and wine remind us of that. But why did He do it in the first place? So that we can commune with Him.  The ultimate reward and treasure of the Christian life is not knowing information about God or even understanding what He did for us, but knowing Him and being one with Him. Jesus said as much in his prayer for all believers: “And this is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God.” (John 17:3) As a seminary student, this is an especially important reminder for me. If I spend four years studying His Word just to get more information, if I learn about God but fail to actually encounter Him and abide in Him, I will be missing the point. Communion forces me not to think of God as merely an idea or a subject of study— an “it” or “He,” but as a Person who invites me into relationship— a “You.” That is what the Christian life is all about.

How has participating in the Eucharist been meaningful in your life?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A New Picture

It is somewhat ironic that the earth-shattering news of my mom's cancer came while I was on my way to vacation in Vail, CO. I obviously had certain expectations about our trip to the mountains, and a certain picture as to what "vacation" would-- or should-- look like. So when I got the phone call about my mom's condition, I was torn: should we turn around and come home? Should we keep going to, er, our vacation? What will we even do when we get there now that we know this

As odd as it sounds, God gave me a vacation to digest the news. He sent me literally to the mountain top-- not to escape, to plug my eyes and ears to reality, or to hide from it-- but to meet God in the midst of it. To sit and stare at Him and have time to feel everything alone with Him; to literally have no distractions from what was going on in my family and inside of me. In doing so, I realized that is exactly what I needed, and that He provided it beyond my understanding. So I left with a new picture: Moses, and how his ministry to Israel began alone on a mountain. During that week, God shared His presence with me in a way that equipped me to come back down off the mountain with something to give people. Without that time to process and feel and heal and hear, I don't know how I could be here in SC without breaking down. 


It is somewhat ironic that my family has had a beach trip planned for months and it starts today. With my mom's leukemia scare over, she is out of the hospital and has permission to go have a week of vacation. But obviously, we had certain expectations about our family beach trip, and a certain picture of what "vacation" would-- or should-- look like. As I've watched my mom the past few days, I can tell that she feels torn: should she laugh or cry about this? And is it in some way pretending to pack a swimsuit and sunscreen and board games when her hair is falling out? Should we still go? And with pending results of her most recent scan-- waiting to hear from the doctor if her cancer has spread-- what will we even do when we get there? 

As odd as it sounds, I think God gave us a vacation to digest the news. Even more blatantly this time, as the beach house we rented happens to have formerly been a retreat center and still has a name: Sea of Peace. As I've prayed this morning about our week there, God has given me another picture. Jesus, sleeping in the middle of a storm and Peter, walking on water. I don't know what He has in store for this week but I know that He knows full well what we bring with us, and He has orchestrated it nonetheless.