Rev Jennifer A G Layte
“We actually get to help Jesus prepare the rooms.”
A whole bunch of metaphors get mixed in this sermon, but it all works out in the end.
Rev Jennifer A G Layte
“We actually get to help Jesus prepare the rooms.”
A whole bunch of metaphors get mixed in this sermon, but it all works out in the end.
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:
“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 … ”
“Good day, my name is Anna Russell. I’m the minister’s daughter … ”
“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.]
“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?”
“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.”
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!
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.
A few months ago now, before I turned in my resignation at Now Church, a friend of mine shared the link to a 1989 Laing lecture by N.T. Wright. It’s about whether and how the Bible can be authoritative, and I thought it was fascinating because I like to think about things like that. I regret that I haven’t read enough of his stuff to be able to tell you with any certainty whether his views on the topic have shifted since 1989, although I can say that my views on nearly everything have changed since then, so it’s probably somewhat likely. Regardless, I really liked his play analogy.
In the lecture, Wright suggests that the Bible is authoritative, but not in the way a rule book might be considered by some to be authoritative. That is, not in such a way that rules need to be extrapolated out of every word of it and then slavishly followed. He posits that it is authoritative in the way that a work of art by a master is authoritative. Wright imagines a scenario where a Shakespeare play is written through three or four (I forget which and I’m too lazy to look it back up) acts, and contains some notes for the final act but that last act hasn’t been written. Shakespeare is no longer with us (at least not in this plane of reality), and so if some actors felt compelled to perform and finish this play, they would have to know the already-written bits intimately in order to finish it up in such a way for it to reflect the true playwright. They would have to know the already written part so intimately that its ethos, worldview, language, essentially became a part of them.
It would be glaringly tasteless for them to dismiss everything that had gone before and make something up off the tops of their heads. In fact, what would be the point of performing the play in the first place, if they didn’t respect the existent work well enough to take any account of it at the end? It would be equally useless, however, for these actors to simply re-perform one of the existing acts at the end of the play because they were terrified of “doing it wrong.”
I’m still pondering this analogy, but I think it’s kind of a good one for the way I approach and understand the Bible–way better than to say that I “take the Bible literally,” for example. I do take a lot if not all of even the more fantastical stories pretty literally. That is to say, I believe they actually happened. I really do. But I don’t feel like I “apply” them to life or understand them or read them, the way that “people who take the Bible literally” are supposed to. The unfinished (or still-being-written) play keeps God the Writer of the Bible and even history, particularly if the “actors” in it who are trying to keep to the “authority” of what’s gone before are actually imbued with the Spirit of the Author, which I believe we are. This final act isn’t in the canonical Bible, and I don’t believe it will be or should be. But thinking of life as a play that is, at least from one perspective, still being written, allows for the Bible to remain authoritative, for God still to be the ultimate Author, and also takes into account human agency and the need to immerse in the word and story and connection to God. Like any analogy, it isn’t perfect, but it’s kind of my favourite way to think about this stuff right now.
This is another piece of my nebulous non-profit puzzle–another one of the images and concepts I’m playing with. And this is why I can’t settle only on journey or hospitality imagery to describe what it is I want to do. I’d love to provide space for … what? People to learn their lines? People to get to know the foregoing script in ways that helps them live out their part of the rest of it?
I love the Bible. I have a lot of favourite books but it tops the list, not because I’m religious and I “have” to say that, but because it’s magnificent and unique (and, as it says itself, “living and active“) and it allows people to be a part of its story–a real, integrated part of it. But I’m increasingly aware of the difficulty Christians (at least American ones) across the full spectrum of the Church Universal have with getting into the life of the Bible, and getting the life of the Bible into us. I’m not foolish enough to think I can “make” people encounter God and themselves through the Bible the way they’re “supposed to.” The Holy Spirit is the real Director, not me. But I know I have experienced God through His Book (and I do still wholeheartedly believe it is His Book), and that I am learning more and more by practice and prayer, not how to “apply” its “principles,” but to be transformed to live its story in this part of the history of the world that I inhabit. And so I guess sometimes I wonder if there’s a part I can play that involves bringing some of the actors together in a way that fosters this kind of transforming encounter with God and each other through the Bible.
Let me say right now that I do not know how (even though I believe He did it) Jesus managed not to cave into any temptation even once in his physical life as a human being on earth. Because in the 40 days of Lent that just happened, commemorating His 40 days and not-giving-into-temptation in the desert, I have had a very hard time giving up what I decided to give up for Lent. By which I mean it was impossible.
Let’s be honest here. Most of the time, if I’m giving up something for Lent, I pick something that doesn’t actually matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. Giving up coffee while working at Starbucks? Is kind of a drag, but it’s almost more like a dare than a spiritual discipline, and if I got up at 3.45 a.m. for an opening shift and sucked down a tall Pike Place one morning, well, I might be miffed at myself for not accomplishing what I’d set out to do, but I’d also know that God was going to forgive me for this lapse of coffee, and so I could forgive myself.
It’s when you pick something that’s actually about real character formation (or, as may happen, it picks you) and you actually fail–multiple times and somewhat glaringly–and not only that, but it happens while you’re in the process of imagining a nonprofit where you’re going to help people deepen their connexion to God (or you really hope you are) … Well, that’s at least one of the times when you find out if you really believe all that stuff you say about your own self being a sinner and Jesus dying for your sins and those sins actually being annihilated by His perfection being strung up on that cross.
I don’t think I could actually be more specific about this if I tried, and anyway, it doesn’t really matter what I was trying unsuccessfully to accomplish during this intense spiritual workout of a Lent. The point is, after the dust cleared of mostly having failed, I realised that maybe that failure–much as I hate ever to admit to having failed at anything–makes the message of Lent, of the Crucifixion, and ultimately of Easter, all the more poignant and all the more essential–as if to let go of it would be to give up on life. The discipline I chose (or which chose me) was not something I could accomplish. I just couldn’t. And it was important. It was about who I am–in relation to God, to God’s people, to myself. But the message of Lent, of the Crucifixion, and ultimately of Easter is that of course I couldn’t. And of course I can’t. That’s the whole reason I need this spiritual character formation in the first place–but I can’t change myself.
Thing is, God can. And God does. And He came down here that Friday those millennia ago, and hoisted my failures and rebellions on His back, and died for them. And then He kicked Death to the curb and sent His Holy Spirit to work with me on the transformation.
There’s probably not too much about this post that makes any sense. I guess I’m just saying I’m grateful for what Jesus did on that cross today, because I needed it, much as it hurts my pride to admit it. And it’s enough, and more than enough, to get me moving into tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, knowing that He wants to make me better–and He will.
Jeff posted one more thought about my projected on- and offline spiritual venture on Friday night, and it went like this:
Thought number 3 (perhaps the final one for now): Is your bliss around building a new community, or does the idea of equipping and empowering existent communities fire you up? On the ground, creating a new community would look like building up a church; empowering existent communities might look like partnering with churches that are out there, and serving as a consultant who either as a one time thing facilitates discipleship, small group ministries, etc…. or on an ongoing basis, provides these ministries with the possibilities of retreats, ongoing communication, etc.
Of all three thoughts, I think this is my favourite. It’s also the one I have the hardest time figuring out how to talk about, but it’s super-important. It might be easier to write about if I had already written a post about what I believe the significance and cosmic importance of the Church is, even though I have never been part of a church that has been easy to be a part of (in spite of all of them having wonderful aspects, too) and quite often I have toyed with the idea of giving up on church altogether. I mean, plenty of other people do.
But I do believe the church is cosmically significant, and what’s more, it is beloved by Jesus the Beloved (though He alone knows why, frankly). So, whether this sounds counterintuitive after that claim or not, I do NOT want to create a new or another church. I would love to consult with existing churches (and actually had not really thought of that angle, but it’s a really good one). I would also, however, like to provide a “landing space” or safe haven for three types of people. First, for people who are not currently in a church but are intrigued by Jesus. I mean those who consider themselves “Spiritual But Not Religious” and are Jesus-friendly. Second, for people who who used to be active participants in the life of a church and still love Jesus but are just totally over the whole church thing. (In some circles these two groups are called the “Nones”–those with no religious affiliation–and the “Dones”–those who have been there and done that and have no intention of going back.) I would finally like to serve people who are persisting with membership and participation in a specific church but feel like they need support to hang in there (I’ve been there!), and/or who don’t quite feel like they fit in either the liberal or conservative church mold (I’ve been there, too!). A few weeks ago, I was trying to figure out “my demographic” and it dawned on me that I’m not just compelled to write stories about displacement and hope-of-home, but to live that story myself, and enter other peoples’. It dawned on me that I need to revisit this theme of displacement and bring it into my current pending project.
I don’t really want to sneakily create Alternative Church with my little project, but I do want to create a space for people in these categories (no matter why they’re in them) to pursue Jesus and be pursued by Him without the presuppositions (either theirs or a church’s) so inextricably linked to the term and the institution of Church. I imagine that at some point according to the individual’s context, I would encourage them to become involved, again or for the first time, in a community looking more traditionally like church, but my hope and even prayer would be that by that time, our interactions with God together would have equipped us all to interact with Church in a more mutually beneficial way–such that we could benefit, and also bring greater health and strength and God’s love to whatever church we enter.
It’s a big goal–and did I tell you I don’t really know how to describe it very well? I know I can’t do any of this myself–without the assistance of other people, but especially without the direction and supernatural aid of God. Nevertheless, this is really where my heart is: 1) to help foster and deepen the relationship between the spiritually disenfranchised and the Triune God, and 2) to help build up the Church and individual churches up with spiritually grounded and growing and transforming people who have found Home in the God who gives meaning both to us and to the Church.