It has recently come to my attention that I might not know anything.
This is confusing. It’s potentially embarrassing.
And also, it presents problems.
For one thing, I have completed years of grad school. I have degrees. If those mean nothing specific in a practical sense (besides debt), they should at least signify some accumulated knowledge. Right?
“First Year of Seminary,” everydayimpastoring.com
Beyond that, I have a larger problem: this discovery is challenging to my narrative about beginning seminary. In fact, it’s challenging to framing the call to ministry—the rationalization of which has been a key part of being brave enough to embark on this adventure in the first place.
A short version of that story: A little over a year ago, I started to hear a vague internal whisper about ministry. It wasn’t unsettling—I didn’t think it meant me, exactly, or becoming a minister. I wondered why it was so curious, and what it wanted me to learn . . . and, amused, I tried to humor it. Then, last summer, someone gave that whisper a voice—to me, about me . . . or some version of me that he thought he saw.
At first, I was more amused than ever; in fact, this was hilarious. Then I discovered that the internal whisper was no longer whispering, and that I couldn’t turn it off. In the eternal words of Paul Simon: I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore.
I have wondered sometimes how one ought to distinguish between an internal voice that indicates a calling to ministry and an internal voice that suggests mental illness. Frankly, I’m still not always certain that I have made the distinction appropriately . . . and, during the past year, I have felt something akin to panic trying to figure it out.
In the midst of these questions, and determined to reign in my bizarre “church issue,” I hatched a plan: I would simply go back to work. Probably my mind—and my hands—just needed to be kept busier. It speaks to my desperation that despite the fact that I was already at-home parenting two small children and engaged in a raft of volunteer activities, this seemed totally reasonable. At least, it seemed worth a shot—and critically important to try. Soon. Before the voice got any louder. If I could just hang on until January, I thought, when I could be back in the classroom . . .
My therapist, however, was dubious, and suggested that I take a career assessment and consider the results carefully. This seemed unnecessary—I had taken career assessments and aptitude tests; I knew my Myers-Briggs and my Enneagram types. By late October, though, I couldn’t wait any longer. I guiltily watched all the UUA videos on Becoming a Unitarian Universalist Minister; I felt like I’d gone on a crack bender. Insufficiently deterred, I approached the MFC reading list as a potential “scared straight” program. I selected Congregational Polity as my first text, reasoning that I’d be bored to tears almost instantly—only to acknowledge, 60 pages in, that I was fascinated. Beguiled. In love.
Horrorstruck, I knew it was time for the big guns. Bring on the career assessment. I caved and took it online the week of an extended family trip to Florida.
The MAPP Assessment is a strange test. It has 70 questions, each with three potential answers, which in my memory are things like “sort mail” “drive snowplow” and “teach math class.” You mark one “most preferred,” one “least preferred,” and leave the third choice blank. Truly, I do not believe there was a single question about spiritual preferences. There were a lot of questions about heavy machinery.
Despite this apparent imbalance, and the lack of any narrative responses whatsoever, this assessment feels free to draw conclusions about you, your passions, interests, abilities, and suitability to various types of work. It’s like the Ouija board of career counseling, and honestly, I probably did it wrong—I was so distracted by the bizarre choices offered that my main objective while taking it was to emphasize my lack of facility with things with gears.
Results are delivered in a top-twenty fashion. In some ways–in retrospect, at least–the results were both interesting and affirming. Public interest legal practice was #14. That made sense. Numbers 12 through 5 were mostly various forms of teaching, with college at the far end and kindergarten and special education closer to the top. Perfect. Number four, and a few other random items were things focused on writing. That was understandable, too. Three and several others were in the area of guidance or career counseling—helping people achieve their goals. Slightly off the beaten track, but fine. And then, my top two. The first was “columnist or correspondent,” with a note appended that “this job may be a component of other employment rather than an independent occupation.” Ok, got it. On to item the second. Which was, as you may have anticipated, effing, I kid you not, minister.
This freaked me out, friends. So much so, that it is only after the fact that I learned these interesting details about my other matches. It was literally months later that I actually read any of the narrative descriptions. What I did in that particular moment was slam my computer shut, grab my shoes, and go for a long, long, long run down the beach.
I ran to the pier. I ran past the pier. I ran until the sun was setting and I couldn’t run anymore. And then I did what I do when I have a problem I can’t outrun: call someone who can help. In this case, my mom. And for the first time outside of my therapist’s office I said those scary words, the ones that felt like they had the power to rock the ground under my feet: I think I’m feeling a call to ministry.
I don’t remember a lot of that conversation. I know there was surprise (her) and listening (also her) and tears (only me, I think) . . . but I mostly just remember the end. I had flopped down rather dramatically, as I am wont to do while talking to my mom, and was lying on my back on the beach. The end of the conversation went as follows:
My mom: So you don’t really want to be a minister?
Me, sobbing: I don’t think so.
Mom: So . . . why can’t you just NOT?
Me: I don’t know! I feel like I’m saying no to God!
Mom: Well, if you don’t want to, say no to God.
Actually, before I say any more, let me just say that my level of mental trauma around what happened next is such that I have residual fear of typing it. I tell this story only Inshallah. Amen.
Me: How do I say no to God?
Mom: Just . . . say ‘No!’
Me: Like . . . ‘Screw you, God!?”
Me: [unto the heavens, the sand, and the assembled universe] Screw you, God!
And then, friends, I screamed. Because, just like that, I was IN. THE. OCEAN.
And the ocean was cold. And wet. And . . . not where it was supposed to be.
And then the water left—it had been a wave, of course, and not, as my baffled brain had initially informed me, the ocean itself—and I was once again on the beach, drenched and stammering.
As rude awakenings go, the experience was surprisingly gentle. I had been lying in dry sand up a steep incline from the surf, and the suddenly-present ocean surrounded me from underneath rather than washing over my face. My phone was ok. My mom was still on the line. I was, however, cold, confused, and more freaked out than ever (I also had the particular pleasure of washing sand from my hair for the next three days).
“I think,” said my mom, “You should probably talk to your minister.”
This seemed reasonable. I said I would, meaning in, say, a year. (I made it three more months . . . )
In the meantime, though, something else happened: I started this blog. I found a place to put some of my thoughts, and discovered I had more to say, and in so doing, I found a small glimmer of hope. This glimmer eventually got bigger: it became the idea that, just maybe, I have something to say.
This was an incredible relief. Frankly, there is nothing about the call to ministry that makes sense to me, not on its face. I have another career, one that I believe in and am good at. I have never considered leading a church—and in fact, my initial response to the soul-provocation I have felt in the last year was to consider leaving my church. And I have spent most of my life assiduously avoiding public speaking of any kind. The only thing I could vaguely link between my background and ministry was chaplaincy, and even that seemed like quite a reach. But—but!—perhaps my call was to be a Sayer of Profound Things.
Of course, I envisioned this not just a random something-or-other that I might pick up along the way, but as deep Truth from my inner being. And I didn’t have to look far for subjects. I’ve been gathering up Somethings nearly from the day I first set foot in a UU church. Thoughts. Suggestions. And, increasingly, ideas that I’d like our movement to consider. Like . . . NOW.
When I think about this in context . . . as a new seminarian . . . a convert to UU . . . a young adult . . . that small ocean wave seems a bit subtle. Much more subtle than I have been with some of my own words. God just might overestimate my receptiveness.
These days, however, I’m finding that God can be both subtle and firm. And what I am firmly hearing, again and again, everywhere I turn, is that I do not in fact have things to say. That my job at this point is to be quiet. To be still. To seek to understand. (Not to seek first to understand, with the assumption that then I get to talk. Simply to understand.) And so, I am wondering, again, what it is that I have that’s solid.
Not my congregation. Not stability. Not any clear answers. Not Truth or Something to Say. Not an answer to the “why” or the “when” or the “how.” Not a guarantee. And not a promise of another moment beyond this, the full and beautiful present.
But, thanks to the poet Hafiz, via the Rev. Chris Holton Jablonski, I do have some words. They’re not mine. They’re not something to say. They’re something to be listened to, now and going forward.
What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?
The saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God
And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move
That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”
Whereas, my dear,
I’m afraid you still think
You have a thousand serious moves.
I have hands. I have ears. I have an insistent inner voice that might indicate a tendency toward insanity.
And, maybe . . . again, Inshallah . . . I have a starting place.
I should be so lucky.