On Orientation

noun ori – en – ta – tion \ ȯr-ē-ən-ˈtā-shən
: a person’s feelings, interests, and beliefs
: a main interest, quality, or goal
: the process of giving people training and information about a new job, situation, etc.

I have a very intelligent friend who has done research in medical anthropology, with a focus on the values communicated to aspiring doctors during their medical school orientation.

compass-008As I write this, I have just completed 3 days of seminary orientation at Duke Divinity School. And I wonder: What would my researcher-friend be observing if she had been in my shoes (or perhaps I should say “in my pews”)? What is the orientation or “main interest, quality, or goal,” to quote Merriam-Webster, of these aspiring ministers around me?

The orientation is toward creativity. I heard a sermon that had such lyricism and imagery it may as well have been preached at a poetry slam. I heard a visionary lecture on “theological education for the future of the Church.” I see abstract art and sculptures and posters about all manner of creative and collaborative initiatives.

The orientation is toward integrity. One professor spoke on the school’s Conduct Covenant, calling community members to a high standard of academic and behavioral integrity — not just to avoid consequences but to honor God, self, and others with our actions. Two presenters spoke in detail about sexual harassment policies and prevention. All of us sang this morning that “we will guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

The orientation is toward diversity. On Wednesday, we sang gospel songs led by a small ensemble of singers — mostly black students, a couple white. On Thursday, we sang hymns, hymnals in our hands and pipe organ in our ears. On Friday, we sang songs by Chris Tomlin and Hillsong, led by a small band of guitar, drums, and vocals. Every day, I met folks of different racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, sexual, political, and denominational identities. Black, White, Asian, Hispanic. Gay, straight, trans, cis. Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, Episcopal, Catholic, Reformed, nondenominational. We are undeniably different from one another and undeniably called to respect one another.

The orientation is toward community. The Director of Admissions & Recruitment opened orientation by saying, “Listen to what I’m about to say: Welcome. Home.” Every faculty, staff, and student has been quick to say, “If you need help with anything, I’m here for you.” It’s as though that’s our last name around here, as in “Hi, I’m Sarah I’m-here-for-you!”

The orientation is toward Christ, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He’s the main interest, he’s the quality, he’s the goal.

Remind me to read this blog again in a couple months, when I’m in the middle of midterms and feeling less inspired. When the mind, heart, and soul are spinning in ten different directions like a broken compass in need of orientation.

Until then? I’m as oriented as I’ll ever be.

Why Seminary?

“A woman asked me at lunch today — not in a confrontational way, but just in the I’m-confused way in which it often comes — ‘And why are you going to seminary?'” – Dr. Greg Garrett, Crossing Myself: A Story of Spiritual Rebirth

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that (and asked myself that) I’d be a wealthy woman.

First, there’s the answer that, well, I think God told me to. Insert mic drop here.

Then there’s the professional, practical answer about pursuing education and experience to be equipped for work in my field of interest.

There’s the intellectual answer that, as Frederick Buechner writes in Now And Then: A Memoir of Vocation, I want “to learn about Christ — about the Old Testament, which had been his Bible, and the New Testament, which was the Bible about him; about the history of the church … about the theological systems that the passion of his original followers, and of Saint Paul in particular, had been distilled into. No intellectual pursuit had ever aroused in me such intense curiosity, and much more than my intellect was involved, much more than my curiosity aroused.

And then, there’s the stories. Oh the stories.

How I perked up in 9th grade world history, in which I was honestly apt to doze off, when I heard mention of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, a title that roughly translates into English as “the highest of theological knowledge” or “the sum total of theological knowledge.” I would later learn that this difficult work comes in multiple volumes totaling over 3,000 pages, and I will likely ever tackle only a tiny percent of it. But, I will never forget feeling so unnaturally fascinated nonetheless.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHow, when I was 16 years old, I stumbled into a youth program at Duke Divinity School which involved spending 2 weeks at the seminary praying, singing, serving, hearing theology lectures that were way over my head, and then attempting to discuss and apply them. At the end of the 2 weeks, I learned that it was possible to perhaps one day do that kind of thing for 2-3 years  — as an intensive training to perhaps do that kind of thing vocationally for all my years. My jaw dropped at the realization. And my spirit clenched onto the conviction that that’s precisely what I was going to do.

How the conviction has lived in the back of my mind for years while I play a life-size Game of Life, taking one step forward and two steps back, through college and first jobs and countless conversations and applications.

How, when I was 23 years old, my mom asked me to officiate a short graveside memorial on what would have been her father’s (my grandfather’s) 100th birthday. I pestered a priest for some advice and somehow patched together a quilt of Bible verses and BCP prayers for my part-Baptist, part-Episcopalian family. When I invited the tiny congregation to share their remembrances, all my grandma wanted to say was this: “You drank too much, old man.” My mom sighed and said something sweet and I said amen. It was undoubtedly awkward. And God was undoubtedly there.

How many times friends have asked me where God was when they were diagnosed with depression, date raped, or dealing with anorexia. Asked me what God thought about their Muslim friends or LGBTQ family. Asked me what the Church thought about such-and-such social issue or why we practice such-and-such sacrament. Over and over, my answer has been “I don’t know. But I’d like to sit with you and consider your questions just as much as we can.”

How very much, in those maybe-ministerial moments, I longed to engage those comrades’ concerns in a more robust, informed manner — something I believe seminary will help with.

I tell these stories to know who I am. We all have to, I think. Have to gather up our stories to know who we are. Whether aspiring to be a pastor or poet, professor or pediatrician, so many of us have stories of those moments when we just knew we had to do something. The career day, the field trip, the toy stethoscope or telescope or microscope we played with as children — longing all the while for the eventual real deal.

To return to Dr. Garrett, who opened this blog:

“Do I think that in [a couple] years when I complete seminary, I’ll be ordained as an Episcopal priest? I don’t know. And you know, it almost doesn’t matter. What I do know is that as long as I have life and breath, I’m going to try to be a Christian. I’m going to write and teach and preach and live in a fashion that shows how thankful I am. … I’m going to try to be the healing hands of Christ in a broken and hurting world. That’s all I know. And really, that matters more than anything else, any title you could put in front of my name, any collar you could put around my neck.”
As I start seminary next week (strange to say), life is going to look very different in some beautiful ways and busy ways, some sweet and some stressful. I don’t expect to blog as often, although hopefully still at least once per month. But I do expect to collect stories. Stories of trying, as Dr. Garrett said, “to be the healing hands of Christ in a broken and hurting world.”

Maybe We Belong Here

“How is this real life?”

I asked myself this question every day last week, while attending the Glen Workshop, which is self-described as “equal parts creative workshop, arts festival, and spiritual retreat.” My question emerged from a mixture of feeling awestruck and unworthy.


photo by Image Journal

It’s a feeling any of us might get if we happen to rub shoulders with our role models in real life, finding ourselves, say, at any kind of conference, class, or meeting with people we admire but can’t come to consider ourselves “on par” with. It’s a feeling clinical psychologists have called “impostor syndrome,” an experience “marked by an inability to internalize … accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.'”

When I’ve arrived at gatherings like the Glen, I’ve sometimes gone to bed on Day One thinking and praying and asking Google about impostor syndrome. And I’ve never found a solution. Until now.

Last week, at the Glen, I started learning to humanize my heroes. (Maybe I started learning to humanize all people — but that’s a story for another day.)

In my Spiritual Writing workshop, for instance, I sat next to some published authors I had previously only seen — or “seen” — on Facebook and Twitter. To be clear, the class included writers of varying experience levels. But certainly a few had published books and at first I struggled to bring these people down from the invisible pedestal on which I had placed them.

In this setting, thanks be to God (and to the Glen), it seemed we were all essentially equals. They other writers offered feedback on my writing and I offered feedback on theirs. They didn’t draw attention to the fact that they had book deals and definitely didn’t draw attention to the fact that I didn’t. On the contrary, they looked into my eyes and my words, and they saw vision and voice that they somehow blessedly believed in — sometimes more than me. They laughed and cried and drank countless cups of coffee and crafted countless drafts until reaching their point of publication. Our teacher, Kaya Oakes, a writing instructor at UC-Berkeley and author of at least 4 books, told us very frankly about her stage fright one day, knowing that she would be giving a reading and Q&A that evening to a large audience. We all nodded in understanding, being the writers and mostly-introverts that we were.

Outside of class too, in the cafeteria and poetry readings and evening worship services, I sat among “artists, writers, musicians, art appreciators, and spiritual wayfarers of all stripes,” as the Glen Workshop website puts it, all of whom sought similar kinds of sweet dreams and spoke of similar kinds of struggles and breathed the same Santa Fe air. One afternoon, an author and aspiring minister (like myself) prayed for me — like laid a hand on my shoulder and invited the Lord into our lives and our work kind of praying for me. Later, I prayed for her and have continued to. On the last day, poets Malcolm Guite and Luci Shaw anointed our hands to go and build beauty in the world. Because we can’t do it on our own; we need the seeking and the speaking, the praying and the anointing.

Fear and faith, doubt and do-it-anyway — these are paradoxes that apparently we are all familiar with.

When I spoke with another young lady at the Glen about impostor syndrome, she immediately said: “You too? I thought that was just me!” We talked and shared our sense that “I don’t deserve to be here” and eventually she said this:

“If we’re here, maybe we belong here.”

I think sometimes that’s true. If we get to thinking “I don’t deserve to be here,” wherever that “here” may be, maybe we should take a deep breath, sink our feet into the ground on which we stand, see the good-and-bad humanness of the people (even the initially intimidating people) around us, see some good-and-bad humanness in our own selves, and say this: “I’m here. An admissions committee decided I could be here or an employer hired me or God called me or whatever the case may be. But I’m here. So, maybe I belong here.”

I am not just an impostor with a syndrome. I’m a seeker with a spirit that is at once so scared and so strong. And so are you, friend. So are you. Maybe we belong.

Shifts in the Story: An Update on New Things Happening

Shift-buttonBig things are happening in my life, friends!

In June, I started a new job as part-time Blog Manager for EA Resources, a faith-based nonprofit organization dedicated to equipping churches and parents to meet the needs of emerging adults. In this position, I get to create and/or curate content for the organization’s blog, as well as possibly work on building the blog by recruiting guest contributors and developing social media strategy. It’s a new role, very part-time, and entirely remote work that has me working at a coffee shop one day and in my kitchen the next, so I’m learning a lot about content coordination and WordPress functionalities, as well as time management and self-discipline.

dukeChapelIn August, I will be moving to Durham, North Carolina to start a Master’s in Divinity (M.Div) at Duke Divinity School, with likely concentrations in Christian Spirituality and Anglican Studies. If you know me, you know that I’ve struggled with change and have said right here on this site that “this is not a travel blog.” But, you know what? “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). That includes time for travel blogs and time for staying-put blogs, time for putting down roots and time for putting out shoots. And always time for rooting ourselves in Christ and his Church. There’s plenty more that I could — and probably will — say about this process of starting seminary, but for now: I’m so excited for what this will do for my writing and my sense of calling toward vocational ministry.

Finally, because I’m not defined by just work or school (no one is), here’s what else I’ve been up to:

  • Writing. Several blogs. And several initial chapters of what I’ve long hoped will eventually be a book-length collection of personal essays about prayer. I’ll be workshopping a piece of this project next week (!) at the Glen Workshop, which is a combination arts conference and spiritual retreat in Santa Fe, so that’s provided a much-needed deadline on my recent writing journey!
  • Reading for fun just as much as I can before getting hit with an oncoming onslaught of academic reading.
  • Praying. Sometimes at morning prayer. Sometimes at evening prayer. Oftentimes whenever-I’m-panicking prayer.
  • Spending time with people. Celebrating birthdays, soaking up the simple sweetness of sitting around with friends, meeting with mentors as though their wisdom is on tap and about to run out.
  • Being a bit of a tourist in my own town to make sure the bucket list gets taken care of before moving day.
  • Going to counseling. I believe in counseling, y’all.
  • Eating chocolate. I also believe in chocolate.

Thanks to my friends, family, and YOU — whoever you may be — for sharing in my story. To keep being part of these new adventures, please take a second to follow my blog and/or pray for me (God knows I need it)!

5 Life Lessons from the Retail Industry

Over time, there have been seasons in life when I’ve worked retail jobs as my main or sole source of income. Recently, to my surprise, I’ve been truly grateful for my latest stint on staff at a store. Retail can be rough for many employees, but I’ve been blessed with fun co-workers, patient customers, decent pay, good benefits, and even — lo and behold — some life lessons that we can all use. Like this:

square-stand-900x5001. The five-foot rule. The five-foot rule goes like this: Whenever there’s a customer within a five-foot radius of where I’m standing, I’m supposed to acknowledge them. Acknowledge their presence, nod, smile, ask a question, something. Outside of the customer service context, too, consider this: the visitor at church sliding shyly into your pew, the neighbor walking their dog, the homeless person on the street. Five-foot ruleAcknowledge them.

2. “Can I help you find anything?” In customer service, this is the most important thing for me to say. And every time I do, I feel a little like Jesus. Because Jesus was always asking people questions, always compelling them to consider what they’re really looking for in life and who can help them find it. Generally, people don’t want to ask for help on their own; I know I don’t. But when I ask someone if they need help, they might just acknowledge that the answer is yes. Because of working in retail, I’ve found myself asking this question more than ever before. As a friend trying to help a friend, a lay leader at church trying to welcome newcomers, and a freelance writer trying to offer professional services, it always works to ask: “Can I help you with anything?”

3. “Are you still looking?” When customers look almost ready to check out, I used to ask them “Are you ready?” But, then, if they weren’t ready yet, they would suddenly look guilty and hurried. “Sorry, take your time,” I would try to assure them, as they grabbed their last granola bars. I’ve learned to rephrase my question and rework my assumptions, erring on the side of letting someone look for as long as they need rather than rushing them to make a decision. I imagine, too, in community and counseling and even evangelism, this is probably a good way to go. Let someone who’s seeking something — answers, Jesus, a new job, a better relationship — take their time with the labyrinth of looking.

4. You can never be too polite. At work, I can never be too polite to my customers. Moreover, what strikes me is when a customer is particularly polite to me. Like this one customer who, through the sheer chivalry of his respectful words and actions, makes me have some hope for humanity every time he comes in. It makes me want to assess how often — when I’m out and about, running errands myself — I say to my cashiers, servers, baristas, bartenders, and others pleasethank you, and have a great day.

5. Clean as you go. Technically, I got this lesson from my dad, recounting his days working at McDonald’s in high school. But I’ve had to practice some “clean as you go” doing my own work too. Seriously, if you leave dirt on the floor or crumbs on a table unattended for long it’s a real pain to clean. On the job, this is a literal truth. But in life, I take it metaphorically — meaning clean your heart as you go. Don’t let grudges or gossip or unspoken frustrations build up too long. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). When some mess in life comes up, clean it as soon as possible. Clean as you go.