The formation process, year 1.
It’s educational. It’s beautiful.
It’s really damned hard.
There is something different, challenging, not what I expected every single day.
Often that something is small.
Wow, I wrote about religious community last fall from that perspective . . . but now I wonder if it looks more like this.
Or, hmm, I notice that I would dearly love to tell this person off. Previous response: do it. More likely current response: I wonder if I can sit with this feeling . . .
Occasionally, there are bigger issues. My internship just started, and we’re not on campus again until January, so these come up most often in my congregational life. They are issues along the lines of what Rev. Patrick McLaughlin referred to in this post about the bumps on the road from “congregant” to “seminarian.” This can be a challenging path to navigate, and with two new seminarians—my congregation’s first, ever—it looks like we’re all in for an interesting church year.
And then, every once in awhile, there are Other Things. Really Big Things. They are things unanticipated—or worse, feared—that mean real sacrifice. These things aren’t merely interesting, or uncomfortable, or even humbling and embarrassing—they are true gamechangers. They are shifts so big that they affect not just me but my whole family–our daily lives, our friends, our support system, and our plans for the future.
After the latest earthquake, one that rates at least a 7 on the richter scale of unpleasant seminary-related adjustments, I had a realization. It was horrifying.
My God. This process is going to take everything. There will be nothing left.
The words came, unbidden, into my head, in a moment that felt a bit like despair. And yet my tendency, in times of fear and uncertainty, is to consider the worst case scenario and work backward from that, and I felt sure that I’d soon realize that “everything” is a an overstatement.
I will tell you, friends: I haven’t realized that, at least not in any way that offers solace to my scared self. Instead, the words–and the changing reality behind them–have settled into my stomach with the weight of truth.
This calling—this process of being made and remade—it’s going to lay claim to everything that isn’t tied down. Perhaps it will take even more than that—I am starting to picture a wave of flames washing over me, over my family, consuming whatever isn’t fireproof. It will change our relationships. It will alter the way we live.
I’m not worried for our lives, themselves. The flames are intimidating, but they are truly scary only where I’m wrestling with them to hang on to all that is now. This fire won’t harm us . . . but it is intent on consuming some things that feel very important to me.
And, get this: I’m just supposed to watch. No, that’s not right. I’m supposed to offer, willingly. Take them. Take this, and that . . . take everything holding me back, everything tying us to this place, everything standing between now and the future into which we must walk.
And it is so very hard.
It is hard to stop wrestling. It is hard not to fight for the Things and all that they stand for—hard not to yell “MINE!” and cling to what I’ve earned, or paid for, or helped create. It’s hard to let go of the dreams that are attached to those things, balloons of my hopes tethered to what are now someone else’s shiny prizes.
It is hard—it’s extraordinarily hard—to relinquish the “me” that I have been. And it is hard—stunningly, choking-back-tears and struggling-to-inhale hard—to let go also of the things I thought I was going to be in the future. To watch my family—to watch my husband—let go of those things, too.
What can you do when the fire comes? Not beforehand, but now, in this moment, when it is too late for extinguishers or insurance, when it is too late to change anything that matters?
This question, of course, isn’t just about the formation process. A congregation I know recently received the news that their minister is leaving at the end of this church year. The announcement has caught them by surprise, and on one level, they’re scrambling to get ready. On another, deeper level, they know that there is not enough time—perhaps you can save the family pictures, but not the cherished furniture. On a deeper level, they know that there are some things for which you cannot truly prepare . . . and changes that you cannot hope to prevent.
Outside of congregational life, the fire awaits us, too. An unexpected death. A serious illness. An adaptive challenge that gives us no real choice but to stand and face it, breathing and hoping and taking one more step until the smoke has cleared and we can count the costs.
So what does one do?
Here is my family’s answer: we will hold tight to each other, release everything else, and lean into the flames. We will find out what is fireproof. We will find out what is made to stay, what will be forever changed, and what will live only in our memories.
And we will remind ourselves of what we know . . . what we learned in the kind of community so special that it made firewalkers of us:
We have what we need. We will have what we need.
We see it coming over the horizon, bright, hot, bigger than we imagined. We do not run.
Instead, we take one more step. We crouch low. We hold hands.