Shortly after my appointment to start the Pilgrimage with Missions Door, someone, who I think was trying to be sympathetic, said, “I don’t know of anyone who has struggled as much as you to know God’s will for your life! It sounds as though it’s becoming clearer, though.”
I’ve done a lot of different stuff and been a lot of different things in my adult life, so I guess I can see why it would look like that. Maybe it really is like that. Or maybe trying to do God’s will doesn’t always (for every person) look like doing exactly the same thing your whole life, but more like, say, a Pilgrimage–where the goal is always the same, but the path meanders through different places and looks different accordingly. (There might also be different understandings of “God’s will.”) But–I don’t know–I guess I used to think all the things I’d ever done were unrelated except that I did them because I thought or hoped God was asking me to at the time. From this vantage point, though, I’m wondering if they’ve really just been different iterations of one thing all along.
At the beginning of my summer CPE internship, we had to write a short paper on our first impressions, and at the end of mine, I said, “I like meeting new people and hearing their stories, but I hate initiating introductions. And I have just signed myself up for an entire summer of doing basically that. What was I thinking?” Maybe this. Observe:
London, late 90’s
“Hi, my name is Jenn and this is ____________. We belong to [Local Church]. We are right around the corner from you and we wanted to let you know about some of the services we offer our community which are available to you … ”
Living History Museum, early aughts
“Good day, my name is Anna Russell. I’m the minister’s daughter … ”
Starbucks, mid aughts
“Hi there–how’s it going? What can I get for you today?” [I pretty much never had to actually introduce myself to anyone at Starbucks. Enough people are regulars that names were more or less learned by osmosis. Lots of conversations happened, though.]
Previous Church, late aughts
“Hi, my name is Jenn, and I’m the director of Christian education. Would your kids like to join our Sunday school? … Would your teens like to join our youth group? … Would you like to buy a loaf of Mission Bread? … Would your company like to donate items for our next fundraiser? … How about volunteering?”
The Hospital, 2015
“Hi, my name is Jenn, and I’m a chaplain intern. I’m visiting the patients in this unit today and was wondering if you’d like some company …”
Okay. I don’t actually know how I’m going to introduce the Pilgrimage to participants yet, exactly. Although I’ve been doing a whole lot of putting myself out there for the support-raising piece so far, I guess.
Evidently at least part of God’s will for my life has to do with getting out of my comfort zone. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s God’s will for everybody’s life. It’s how we learn to trust God better–when the Comfortable is not around. Maybe another piece of God’s will that’s consistent through all of the above is that, by getting me out of my comfort zone, opportunities are created for conversations and interactions in which God can show up. At least, I hope so. I like meeting new people and hearing their stories, but I hate initiating introductions. If God shows up, though, I’m in. He’s worth it.
The Pilgrimage is funded by your generosity. Recurring or special tax deductible donations may be sent to: Missions Door, 2530 Washington St, Denver CO 80205 or visit www.the-pilgrimage.org and click “Donate.”
This is the latest newsletter I sent out…
On New Year’s Eve, one of the students I mentor at Worcester State updated her Facebook status. “This year was rough,” she admitted. “Senioritis and depression and anxiety abound, but you know what? I made it through. This year was hard, but it was also pretty amazing. I found my way back to God with the help of some very important people. I found a family in Campus Ambassadors … I was able to attend two retreats and find where I belong with God.” After listing a number of other events and accomplishments, she said, “I’m generally feeling pretty good about life right now. Happy New Year y’all, hope it is a great one and that God blesses us all.”
This young woman is one reason I’ve been appointed to begin The Pilgrimage for Missions Door. She just started the last semester of her senior year. She’s growing in her faith and I mentor her once a week. She attends a local church which she enjoys very much. At some point, she and other college students like her will take on leadership roles in their churches. We should hope they will, anyway.
In fact, however, many young adults, even if they manage to retain or gain a living faith in college, find it challenged on all sides when they graduate. Sometimes they don’t feel ready to take leadership in church. Sometimes their churches are frankly not ready for them to take that leadership, either.
“The Pilgrimage” is intended to help campus ministry alumni, as well as others on the fringes of church life, to deepen their relationship with Jesus and be empowered to engage both their Christian and surrounding communities with His transforming, loving presence.
I will develop the Pilgrimage once I have raised my financial support. For now, ministry consists primarily of discovering the people God is leading to join this path through prayer and finances so we can journey well without false starts. However, I am blessed to spend a little time on the local state university’s campus, thanks to my chaplaincy supervisor’s generosity and creativity in allowing me to apply time there toward my chaplaincy training. I am also grateful and amazed to see the ways God is already providing support—through many of you! Thank you for your prayers and gifts which are already gearing us up for our spiritual trek. Travel well!
The Pilgrimage is funded by your generosity. Recurring or special tax deductible donations may be sent to: Missions Door, 2530 Washington St, Denver CO 80205 or visit www.the-pilgrimage.com and click “Donate.”
At some point last autumn, it dawned on me that I was really busy. I mean really busy. It was different than having a lot of stuff going on in my head and my spirit, which is what mostly made up the “soul garden” I talked to the Spiritual Director about at the beginning of that season. I was overwhelmed, and I just wasn’t sure how to get my arms around everything I was supposed to be doing.
But it was time to see the Spiritual Director again, and so I told him about it. I’m training as a chaplain, I said. And I’m training as a spiritual director myself. And I’m newly appointed to begin The Pilgrimage. And I have to read books for all these trainings–which I like to do, but takes me forever. And I will be working with college students. And I have to start support-raising, which was really kind of easy when I did it before moving to London in 1997, but seemed like it might be more work this time around. And I have this one freelance tutoring job. And we just joined a new church that we’re trying to get involved in…
I had gone round and round in my head trying to figure out which pieces to take out of this crazy life-puzzle, but every time I did that, something like what happened with the $500 would happen again, and I would realize the two-or-however-many things I had just decided to give up were two things I was really supposed to be doing. And actually, I liked all of these things, but I just wasn’t sure how to make them all happen at once.
The Spiritual Director listened. He threw out a couple of possible images and biblical parallels to see if they might help me get a handle on everything I was trying to do, but I couldn’t quite seem to grab onto any of them. “What it sounds like you really need,” he suggested, “is some way to break everything down into manageable pieces.”
“Sandwiches,” I said, suddenly realizing.
“What?” he asked.
“Sandwiches,” I said. “I don’t like sandwiches. I was just telling my CPE group this today. I like all the ingredients of sandwiches–usually, because I eat almost anything. But I don’t like eating them all together. I don’t like biting into the whole thing and having it all get stuck in my teeth, and not being able to taste the individual things.” I’ve been told before that I’m un-American for this quirk, and maybe that’s true. I will eat sandwiches. I just don’t prefer them.
“How would you prefer to eat a sandwich if you could?” asked my Spiritual Director.
I thought for a minute. “With a fork,” I said at last. Which is weird, because I will happily eat curry with my fingers, but whatever.
“So,” said the Spiritual Director, “your life is a sandwich, and you need to figure out how to take it apart so you can get to the ingredients one at a time, instead of all at once.” He wasn’t even laughing at me. Nor did he insist I find a Bible verse to bolster this unusual spiritual analogy, although he blessed me with one, later.
Now it’s February, and a whole new year, and guess what? I’m still engaged in exactly all of those same activities which were overwhelming me in the autumn … and I’m actually engaging them. I think one reason is that I’ve taken them apart like a sandwich and am addressing them one at a time. Maybe with a fork.
The Barenaked Ladies sing about what they would do with a million dollars, and they probably actually have that (or have had it, or could have had it if they had made better choices or whatever), but all I wanted was five hundred. I wasn’t going to keep it, or buy a real green dress with it (even though I like green, and I like dresses). I needed it to pay for my current CPE internship.
I had stopped working at Previous Church (formerly known as Now Church) back in May, and although I had picked up the odd freelance job over the summer, I wasn’t exactly making regular–or living wage–paychecks. (I’m still not, but I’m way less stressed about it–but that’s another story for another time.) Five hundred dollars is a really reasonable amount for one unit of training of the caliber that CPE is, but I was having a hard time scraping that together without dipping into savings, and had already put off paying it for about a month. Now it was November, and I finally had just enough in the bank, and was about to write it onto a check…and then the floor rotted out of my car. Guess how much it cost to fix it? $535.
“Well,” I thought to myself, before jogging to the autobody shop to pick up and pay for the car (I threw that in there to impress you, but I think I only went for a run twice last year), “I guess they can wait for me to pay for CPE for another month.”
I picked up the car. I brought it back. I checked the mail. There was a letter from a friend. Inside the letter was a check. Guess how much the check was for?
It was written because I had just been appointed to Campus Ambassadors/Missions Door. But it was what I needed right that second to pay for CPE. Somehow God–and this discerning friend of mine–managed to confirm both trajectories in one fell swoop. I was pretty quiet for a minute. Then, a little breathlessly, I thanked God, and I thanked my friend. And then I paid for CPE.
Also, happy New Year!
I had this grand plan to resume blogging here on New Year’s Day, but here’s the thing. Although I have a lot to say (per usual), most of it these days has to do with my new ministry venture–thoughts about it, and bits of it–and I can’t actually properly begin that until I’m “funded.” This means all my time which isn’t going to my chaplaincy internships, and 100% of Writing Brain, is dedicated to raising financial support at this moment. I have a lot to say about that, actually, but at the moment, I’m mostly highly conscious of the fact that one day last autumn I was talking about living the dream and starting a nonprofit, and then another day last month I started talking about how I had joined an existing one, and most if not all of you have no idea of what happened to get from Point A to Point B.
The day after I wrote about what I (or maybe you) might do if I (or maybe you) could do anything, I had a conversation with someone from Previous Church (which, at the moment, is the only alternative nickname I can think of for Now Church which is no longer where I work or attend). I was still looking for a Regular Job a the time. You know. The kind where you go to work and the company pays you and it might not be quite what you had in mind, but it’s a paying job and it’s sort of related to what you wanted to do, so you just stick with it. So I asked this friend from PC (Previous Church), who was contemplating retirement, whether or not I could take over her job when she retired.
“Well, you could,” she said. “But you wouldn’t like it. Why don’t you talk to Campus Ambassador Guy? I’m sure he’d have something you could do.”
I forgot that we both knew Campus Ambassador Guy. I guess she didn’t know that Campus Ambassadors, like many other nonprofit organizations, requires their employees to raise their own work expenses and salaries. But I guess she also didn’t know that I was about to meet with Campus Ambassador Guy’s Boss that very day, to talk about other stuff related to chaplaincy. I knew I was, though, and I knew Campus Ambassador Guy’s Boss would invite me to join Campus Ambassadors that day (because she had before) and somehow it didn’t seem entirely coincidental that I was having this conversation with PC Friend right before meeting with Campus Ambassadors Guy’s Boss.
It seemed less coincidental when Boss said, “If you could design your own ministry, what would it look like?” I mean, given the fact I had just blogged about questions like that.
It seemed even less coincidental when Campus Ambassadors Guy’s Boss talked to Campus Ambassadors Guy himself and he told her how he’d been praying for someone to develop a ministry focusing on Campus Ambassadors’ alumni, because, he was noticing, a lot of them were graduating from college after a good track record with their Christian campus group, only to drop out of church and Christian community completely when they left. (You might know that this Church drop-out demographic is kind of important to me.) Campus Ambassadors Guy didn’t have the time to create such a ministry himself, but he thought my ideas sounded like something that would work really well for the group of people he was hoping to reconnect.
Numerous long conversations, a lot of prayer, and a full-blown application process later, I now find myself part of a team of likeminded people, on the verge of starting something new–to help expand both their ministry and mine, God willing. I am privileged to be able to apply a limited amount of time with college students on a state college campus toward my CPE chaplaincy training, so some of my ministry is already happening, which is not something to take for granted. But I don’t really get to embark on the Pilgrimage (the post-college spiritual formation coaching project I’ve been appointed to develop) until my salary (including what is needed to pay at the end of the year for taxes, worker’s compensation, benefits, etc) has been raised.
It’s a little daunting, and like I said, I have thoughts about this process, and things to say. But if I’d started my own nonprofit, I’d be doing this same thing, and I wouldn’t already have a team of people to work with and to keep me accountable and bounce ideas off of, and I would end up spending all my time trying to do my own accounting (something I have no clue about!), and not ever being able to get this Dream off the ground. Or (if the door to one had finally opened, which frankly wasn’t happening even a little bit for all of 2015) I’d be working at a Regular Job, still with this nagging feeling that there was something else I really Needed to do, that wasn’t quite happening where I was.
So, I’m thankful for how this has shaped up, even though there’s a whole lot of Unknown in it. I’m hoping to have a chance to share more about this with you. I’m hoping you might want to join me on this Pilgrimage by being a part of my monthly finance team (donations are tax-deductible!). Most of all, I’m looking forward to seeing what God does with this. (He’s already doing stuff, by the way.) There are a whole lot of things that seem presumptuous or ridiculous, but these are the doors that seem to keep bursting open, so He’s got to have something in mind. I will do my best to keep you posted. Please help as you feel “nudged.” We’re on this journey together, as always.
Oh. And did I mention happy New Year? Happy New Year!
I’ll bet you thought I was never going to blog again.
I’ll bet you thought I was back.
Or you’re just used to my blogging fickleness, so that whenever I post something, you think, “She’ll be gone again.” And whenever I stop, you think, “She’ll be back.”
Or you just haven’t noticed.
Anyway, pretty immediately after my last three posts, there was a turn of events that both fulfilled and altered the non-profit-starting trajectory I was on. There are many tales I could tell you about all this, and I feel like I intend to, but I’m not making any promises. For now, see here the newsletter I have sent to many of my friends, relations, and acquaintances. Consider yourself a recipient, too!
If you are intrigued and would like to receive more of these missives (or even join me on this new Pilgrimage), please visit my new website and sign yourself up!
Last Thursday I went to see my Spiritual Director. After a few moments of silence, which I requested but during which I discovered my brain was very very noisy, he asked me, as he always does, “What do you want to talk about today?”
So, as frequently happens when I think I want to blog, I suddenly thought of so many things to “talk about today” that I couldn’t say anything. So I looked out the window instead, and noticed it was raining. I thought about how good it was that it was raining because, in spite of record-breaking snows last winter, it’s been a pretty dry summer and the garden needs the rain. Then I thought about the garden.
Then I said, “So, we have this garden. Paul’s been working on it for months–really hard–and it is going crazy. I mean, it is super-fruitful. There were a couple things that didn’t come out so well–the corn and the pole beans–but everything grew–and there is a ton of it all. The heirloom tomatoes are huge, and the zucchinis are still growing, we had a bunch of cucumbers, and there are a million spaghetti squashes coming in. But,” I went on, “it’s a mess. Everything has been growing so well and so madly that all the plants are all tangled up together. You can’t tell where one plant ends or another begins. Sometimes it looks like the tomatoes are bearing peppers, and the morning glories are growing tomatoes, and … You can’t even walk around in there without hacking down some vines to get through and pick stuff.
My Spiritual Director sat there waiting for me to come to the point, but he probably already knew what it was, because he’s pretty good at being a spiritual director.
“I guess,” I said, “I feel like the garden is a picture of my life right now. This has been a really rough year, but the whole time Jesus has felt very present, and like He’s doing a lot of work on me–and I think stuff is happening. Like, maybe there’s some ultimately useless stuff going on, like the beans and the corn, but also lots and lots of produce. I’m just not totally sure how to get in there and figure out what’s all in there, because it’s so productive and so crazy, everything’s all tangled up.”
The more we talked about it, the more apt we felt this analogy was–and the more I still do. But since I can’t take pictures of my soul, you can look at the garden (and the produce) of a few weeks ago, instead.
I spent eleven weeks this summer in the hospital.
But I wasn’t a patient. At the end of May, after saying farewell to the church where I’d worked for seven years, and after visiting The BroFam for a week, I embarked on the first of four internships toward hospital chaplaincy certification. (It’s called CPE–Clinical Pastoral Education–and now you can say you just learned something this summer, too!) I started it because it seemed pretty closely related to my interest in spiritual direction (it still seems like it), and because I figured it might help me gauge what’s next, vocation-wise. I think it might have, because I’m now enrolled in the next unit of CPE, to start at the end of this month.
I can’t tell you all about my “summer vacation” (it wasn’t a vacation, by the way), because it was mostly other people’s stories, but here’s what I can tell you about the other people’s stories:
It’s easy to get jaded about people. For example, when you work at Starbucks and half the customers act entitled and arrogant and it’s just coffee, people. But if you have a chance to sit with a person who is going through a time of great pain, or even a time of great joy (I got to see a lot of new babies this summer), and really listen to their story–well, it’s hard not to be somewhat in awe.
It is, as someone hypothesized to me this afternoon, pretty humbling when a complete stranger bares their soul to you–or even just shares a little bit about themselves. My main takeaway from my summer has been that I just spent nearly three months sitting in the presence of greatness–a whole lot of people created in the image of God, with all their life experiences, all their pain and glory. I guess giving people the opportunity to tell their stories (“I have a story?” many of them said, and “Everyone has a story. I’d be honoured to hear yours,” I said) is providing a service for others. But I’m not sure whether I didn’t benefit the more. There’s no way I’m remotely like Mother Teresa, but I think I caught a glimpse of what people like her talk about, meeting Jesus in everyone.
I’m still not really sure where, specifically, I’m going vocationally, but I’m looking forward to the next internship.
The weirdest thing about this whole church shopping phase we’re in is that I have consciously to ask what I can get out of it. I never wanted to be a “what’s in it for me?” person.
Yes, yes, I’m familiar with the idea that some people like to espouse which says that even altruistic acts are never entirely altruistic because you always get something out of it. And I guess if you want to be that guy and say that somehow doing something for love of someone else (or Someone Else) is still “getting something out of it,” you can be that guy. Either way, I know myself well enough to be able to admit that even if a truly altruistic act is possible, and even though I don’t think the question a person asks when they’re looking for a church should be “What’s in it for me?” it’s entirely plausible that my current preference for small mainline orthodox churches indicates that I get something out of that type of worship and community–although I still have to figure out what that is. And I’m also not sure that that type of church is where we’ll end up at the end of all this. We might. We might not. We’re not making our decision based on that preference, is the thing–although it’s still a factor, as will be seen.
The real problem is this very conscious need I have for a church to officially endorse me. I don’t like having to base our decision so largely on something that sounds so self-centered and even mercenary. But that’s what it’s looking like right now.
As you will know, if you’ve been paying attention over the vast swathes of time elapsing between each post here this year, during the summer I did a unit of CPE. It was great. I am hoping to be able to blog about that for a while after this post, but anyway, it seems like a good vocational fit (which might actually, in three or four years (!) lead to a small income, unlike spiritual direction which is an even better fit and even less financially viable). The thing about chaplaincy certification is that it’s pretty “hoop-y.” There are seminary credit hoops, and equivalency hoops (if you don’t have the sufficient amount of seminary credit, which apparently a Master’s in Theological Studies doesn’t provide), and church membership and endorsement hoops.
This is awkward for someone who has always been active in church and highly endorse-able and now, suddenly when she needs it, doesn’t currently belong to a church that can endorse her. This is further complicated by the fact that even though it appears that the accrediting body for chaplains will accept any form endorsement from a recognised church entity, each church itself has different requirements for endorsement.
Most of the small mainline churches that my Paul and I like so much belong to denominations with even hoop-ier requirements for endorsement than chaplaincy accreditation has, including, say, extra (and expensive) higher education through one of their denomination’s own seminaries (as opposed to that unaffiliated one I graduated from). And I mean, I get that if I’m going to join a denomination of which I’ve never been a part, and one of whose churches I just attended one or two times, I should get some solid info about where they came from and where they think they’re going and whether or not we’re a good fit for each other. But some of these processes cost around $10,000–and I just finished seminary. Also, some of the denominations and I are probably not a good fit for each other. Just that one little church and I would be. And so I wish that the one little church itself could get to know me, and I them, and they could endorse me by themselves.
On the other hand, there are independent (or loosely affiliated) churches which might well endorse me without any of that stuff if I spent some time investing in their community (also a reasonable expectation–I certainly don’t expect anyone to endorse someone they have no actual connection with or benefit from), but–well, here’s where our preference comes in after all. These churches are excellent, and faithful, and love God and people, but they are big. (Well, I mean, for New England, where there might be like 3 megachurches in the whole region and those are probably tiny compared to anywhere else.) They have contemporary worship. Which is fine, and I used to like that and I’ve even played the flute on “worship teams” in such settings, and if we went to one of these churches, I’d probably offer to do so again, but if we’re talking about preferences, I’m in the hymn camp. They have lots of ministries and lots of great people but–well, they don’t need us to help them with any of those things because if we don’t, they have a couple hundred other people who might or could or should.
The little churches my Paul and I would like to go to are lucky if they have a hundred people. They are located near halfway houses and they reach out to the people there, and contribute to food banks and homeless communities. And it’s not that these bigger churches don’t, but the littler churches are right in those neighbourhoods, and need the person-power. And both types of churches may be expressing deep and challenging faith in God, but–maybe as a function of my church-planting upbringing–I just get motivated by the small-church, all-band-together, close-knit, down-home kind of faith expression.
In the end, though, we’re open to going to either kind–as long as there’s some hope of endorsement for me eventually, but even more as long as we’re certain we’re where God wants us to be for this time. It’s tough, not to be certain, and it makes the hoops and the mercenariness of the process feel even more stressful and hoopy and mercenary. But we’re both praying and asking God to help us discern where He wants us to invest. We’re in this for Him in the end, after all. And in the end I hope we’ll discover that what was in it for us was actually Him.