What is Christmas?
We have prepared. We have longed for the pieces of our brokenness to be restored. And in the midst of our waiting, hope has come. That is what happens when the sun goes down on December 24th and the fullness of love is found in the manger.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3, NRSV).
Why do I love Christmas so much? Because there it is a beautiful picture of the love that we are offered by our Creator. A fragile helpless baby, being presented as the conduit of grace. In the Christian tradition, the Christmas season (note…it is a SEASON, not a day) is a period beginning on December 25th and continuing through January 6th. If you have ever wondered why we sing about the 12 days of Christmas, this would be the explanation. To fully celebrate the miraculous transformation that the world experiences in the coming of Jesus, one day to unwrap gifts and eat ham just won’t suffice!
“Christmas commemorates the most momentous event in human history—the entry of God into the world he made, in the form of a baby. The Logos through whom the worlds were made took up his dwelling among us in a tabernacle of flesh. One of the prayers for Christmas Day in the Catholic liturgy encapsulates what Christmas means for all believers: “O God, who marvelously created and yet more marvelously restored the dignity of human nature, grant that we may share the divinity of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” In Christ, our human nature was united to God, and when Christ enters our hearts, he brings us into that union.”
-Edwin and Jennifer Woodruff Tait “The Real 12 Days of Christmas” Christianity Today –Aug 2008
If we have truly spent the four weeks of Advent preparing, we are ready for a good long party. We need the time to feel the party. We need the rhythm of celebration to be full. We need to take a holy and carved out moment to soak in the mystery of the gift, and the significance of the hope, that is being offered. Christmas is a season of feasting. It is a season that is designed to give us a foundation of hope that will help us to endure the darkness that inevitably will come.
On a modern note, many are ready for the decorations to be gone on December 26th because they have been glittering in our face since November. I get it. I would, however, encourage you to take the intentional posture of celebration in the midst of the seasonal unwind. As you repack your nativity and re-roll your outdoor lights, I wonder if the call to gratitude and presence can be manifested? Rather than rushing to rid your home of all signs of indoor snow and singing plush reindeer, the deliberate attention to pursue joy can abound.
It is a rare day in our fast paced world that we allow ourselves the gift of slowly celebrating. Perhaps, that’s what the season of Christmas is all about. Otherwise, we move right from candlelight to gifts to attic restocking and in the process, we fail to see how this miraculous season changed the world. It happened long ago, in a culture so different from mine, and yet a miracle was present in a moment that reoriented the life of a 17 year old teenager in Texas in 1992.
Joy to the world, the Lord has come.
A Gift Like No Other
If you have been around Christianity for any length of time, you have undoubtedly had the encounter with the question, “Are you saved?” Now, I love this questions for so many reasons, but may usual response is, “Saved from what?”
To tell today’s story, you must understand a bit more about the years from 1989-1991. During this season, the church of my childhood underwent massive changes. We were part of a denominational system where pastors (or clergy) are appointed by the bishop. While the needs of the local church are heard and considered, ultimately, the bishop makes the decision who will pastor a local congregation. During this two year season, our church received a new pastor. The appointment was not perceived as a “fit” by many in the congregation and a church division took place. Many of the faces that I had come to know and love were no longer there.
During the same season, I became a youth delegate to the Church Council. This is designed to give students the opportunity to develop leadership and ownership in the church. Unfortunately, the timing coincided with a season of division and heartache in church leadership. I saw what I politely refer to as the underbelly of the beast. At 14 and 15, I saw some of the hardest moments of church life.
After increasing unrest and a clear sign that it was time to move on, my family set off to find a new community of faith. Up to this point, I knew only one. When we made our home in a new community, I began to seek out relationships with the teenagers of that church. It took some adjustment, but when we settled, I was surrounded by adults that loved and encouraged me. While it was a significant and constant influence, the other factors of growing up life were spinning like china plates. With one wiggle or wobble, my delicately designed outsides may show the desperation of the wildly confused insides. The feelings of inadequacies, my desire to please people and my fear of disappointing God lead me to the constant worry that I was not saved. Otherwise, why would these trials continue to come my way, right?
This is where non-church people are so confused. Let me try and shed a little bit of southern Bible belt light. By this time, I was a pro at all things church. I knew the pattern of mess up, confess, recommit like the back of my hand. I had spent many Saturday nights at youth weekends with the altar call to commit your life to Jesus…again. And If you know how these moments play out, you are familiar with the sobbing teenager that needs 14 friends to walk with her to the front, therefore all of them are now on their knees and receiving counsel. This is a grand generalization, but sadly very accurate. By the time I reached my junior year in high school, I was long over this emotional manipulation and far more concerned that somehow these moments did not “work” on me.
I can remember telling my youth pastor that I didn’t know if my many attempts to change and be enough and let Jesus work in me were sufficient. I also expressed that somehow these camp like drama-fests were lacking in sincerity and hope for me. So, she stopped right there in the copy room of the church. There was no call to the altar. There was no highly dramatic moment. Instead, there was a sincere effort on my part to begin something new.
My best efforts were not getting me though with any great success. My attempts to succeed felt empty at best. I was longing for a next step and she promised me that in spite of the bumps and heartache that would surely be ahead, I could rest in the knowledge that I was not alone. This was good news. And while I didn’t fully understand it in July of 1992, that is the Gospel of Jesus. With a pause in the copy cycle and a prayer of trust, Christmas Day came in an empty church office for a struggling teenager with the longing for peace. I was saved that day, and I would be saved time and time and time again.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:4-5
The Gift of Purpose
Is there anything that can prepare you for the first time you encounter the career that you know you were created for? For some, it comes in the experience of meeting a doctor and knowing that you want to be a healer. For others, you see a student’s eyes light up with hope and your need to develop life learners calls you to education. For me, the presence and service of ministry was introduced in many forms. As with most first time encounters, the surface does not tell the complete story.
My first memory of a pastor was the very old guy that wore a robe and shoulder pads at church. Following him, the pulpit was filled by a younger man that placed a stool behind the podium. I always felt like he was trying to fill the big shoes of the tall old man. BUT, he had candy and Cracker Jacks, so what he lacked in experience and height, he made up for in excellent kid treats.
The pastoral role at a church is a curious position. As a kid that felt right at home in the church office, there was always one place that was mysteriously off limits. The Pastor’s Study was a combination library, counseling cubicle and living area. There was a private bathroom and a personal closet. All of these things seem important and special. That made the man that filled the office important and special.
I made a mental note at an early age that this unique and obviously important job was worthy of reverence. While it was not said out loud that I can recall, it was clear to me from all those that spoke of Jesus and the Church, that I failed to possess qualifying gender requirements to be the occupant of such an office. The issue of gender roles in ministry is an immensely complicated one that plagued my understanding of calling for many years. It was further complicated by the fact that the previously mentioned ill-fitting pastoral appointment was the first female ordained pastor that I had ever met. The events of this teenage encounter led to confusion and challenge, but for the time being, I looked to others for leadership. While I did not explore the role of the robe wearing boss, I was introduced early on to women that were serving in life giving, heart opening ways.
There were three women that played key roles in setting before me the fullness of calling as I began to serve in the church. When I reflect on my early understanding of ministry, I can see clearly the models of sacrifice and surrender that were instilled through the legacy of these women. In the church of my heritage, they were known as “Youth Directors.” Their formal education lacked a seminary degree and their position in the denomination did not give them access to lead in the sacraments, but their lives were every bit as pastoral as the robe wearing men of my childhood.
From their study of the Bible, to their faithful prayer life, they showed me how to do the work of ministry in my formative years. I moved from a place of dreamy admiration for all things Church, to the realistic awareness that laying your life down for others is a daily sacrifice. The countless hours of retreats and teenage drama, paired with the intense demands by the church for planning and creativity, showed me time and again that ministry was more than a job. It was something you did because you could not possibly do anything else. What I found from their example, was the desire to wrestle and dream and ask many questions. I would need the space for dreaming and these human models in the days to come. Because when you receive this kind or gift, what is the appropriate response?
The Gift of Waking Up
With all of my woes and teenage ups and downs, I entered the summer after high school graduation with a new lease on life. I was excited about going away to Baylor in the fall. I was committed to spending the summer doing things that gave me life and energy and courage. This included a stateside mission trip with my youth group, camps and trips with my sister and youth director, time at home with my immediate family and my graduation present from my parents, a trip to Jamaica.
This sounds like a Caribbean escape, right? I joined a team of adults from my church to travel for 10 days to do construction and host a VBS program in an impoverished hillside village. There was one other 18 year-old on the trip and he traveled with his dad. I felt invincible and courageous and bold and ready to travel outside of the USA for the first time. I should have known that the trip was going to be full of excitement when we landed at the airport and AK47s were on the shoulders of the men inspecting our luggage. This was certainly not Texas and apparently we talked funny.
There were many adults that I knew on the trip, but up until this point, I had always traveled with a sibling or parent or youth sponsor. I was officially a grown-up. I can remember thinking on the flight to Jamaica that I had arrived. If this was adult-ing, I had this thing covered.We were on the island for less than 48 hours when I experienced a night that I will never forget.
We stayed in houses in a high tourist area and had a night guard that patrolled the grounds. In my house, we had the father and son sleeping downstairs, and (3) two person teams in the bedrooms upstairs. My roommate and I had the room on the far end of the hall, and we had an air-conditioning shortage, so we left the door open for the fans to cool the room. At some point in the night, I woke up. It was rare for me to wake in the night, but I made my way to the bathroom in the dark and flipped on the light. When I did, I realized that something was off. In that moment, I had my first real encounter with trusting my intuition. I noticed that my pink sponge rollers were spread on the floor. I knew I did not leave them there, so I was immediately aware that something was not right. I walked back into the room, leaving the bathroom light on, and realized that my suitcase had been ransacked. Things were obviously missing and the alarm clock on my bedside table was gone. I don’t remember waking my roommate, but in no time, she was standing with me and we were terrified.
We quickly woke the other 4 that were sleeping on our floor. As we walked down the hall, I realized that my belongings were strewn down the stairs. One of the rooms upstairs was being shared by a middle age couple. He jumped into protector mode and quickly told us to stay behind. This was far from successful, as I can recall being steps behind him as we made our way to the bottom floor. Before we reached the room of our downstairs housemates, we passed the kitchen entrance. I could see my birth certificate on the floor with my empty money pouch and camera case. As my eyes came into focus and my brain began to register, I realized that the room was covered in blood. There was no sign of a victim, but someone was definitely hurt.
We quickly woke our housemates and by the time we assembled in the den, the lights were coming on outside and it was apparent that there was a problem. We came to learn that a gang of young men had come into our house. They had been inches away from my body and I never moved. A house of 8 people never stirred and no one startled awake as they trashed our house. There is not one argument or piece of evidence that can change my belief that God caused our sleep to be supernaturally deep. God protected our lives.
The blood in the kitchen belonged to the security officer. Our night guard, trying to trap the robbers for the police, reached his arm inside the slats of the shutters to lock them in our kitchen. We will discuss the merits of this plan another day, but the result of this action was that the men used their machetes to slash the guard’s arm and the evidence was the crime scene in the kitchen. When I let that sink in, I was even more convinced of the protective cloud that was over that house.
During the next 7 days, I had a crash course in the Jamaican court system. They captured two of the men (I’m quite sure one was 10-12 years old) with my belonging on their person. This meant that I had to go to the town police station and identify my belongings, by way of standing face to face with the ones that had them in their possession. I can remember standing on the dirt floor police station as they brought these “men” in front of me. They had beaten the bottoms of their feet so severely that they could hardly walk. I was devastated. The conclusion of the event was a trial that was held the day before we left to come home, whereby I testified in “court” against the gang.
To say that my first international trip and foreign mission experience was life changing is an understatement. I still check doors and windows nightly. 25 years later, I believe that when I am awakened in the night it is for a reason. Sometimes it is clear. Other times, it is just to be still. I do both with gratitude. But most of all, I am thankful for the gift of waking up. Until that moment, I did not appreciate our government or rights or justice. I had no concept that there were places in the world where safety was rare and there was nothing that approached secure. I had no appreciation for the privilege of my private school upbringing. I certainly didn’t appreciate the opportunities that were ahead of me in college.
In that 10 day trip, I woke up to a world with hatred and injustice and hopelessness. I had a new appreciation for poverty and scarcity and being willing to go to any lengths. On that trip, I learned many lessons, but the one that I am quick to recognize is that you can’t always run away. I’m sure my mom wanted me on the next flight back to Texas when she heard this story. And let’s be honest, there was a big part of me that wanted to run home to my parents. But there was also a part of me that knew that I needed this trip. I needed to know what being strong was like. I needed to face the unknown and uncertain with people that I was forced to depend on. I had no money. Many of my creature comforts were gone. This was a life defining moment that gave me insight into what it was like to stand on my own. This was a wakeup call that was a well timed gift from God.
How is this a Christmasy story? If Christmastide is about finding joy and receiving hope, this trip was a gift. Sometimes the hard and the unnerving and fear inducing moments are the very times that we can find joy and hope in a God that is bigger than our fear of the dark.
The Gift of Calling
As I prepared to go off to Baylor, I had done all that I could think of to serve my local church. I believed in the call of the Church from a young age. It was natural for me to want to serve and learn and grown in anyway that was offered. I was a leader in my youth group. I was a youth choir member. I served on committees and boards. I spoke on Youth Sunday. The Church was a very safe and warm place for me.
One of the last trips before I left for college was a large youth gathering on the University of Arkansas campus. We heard speakers and worshiped and learned. As camp was coming to a close, in true youth camp fashion, they had the service. This is the end of week service where they invite you to dedicate your life to God in a new way. I was a veteran, and I knew what to expect. As I sat through the muffled hormonal sobs of intense adolescent feelings, I watched and genuinely prayed for many that were open to seeking God for the first time. I assumed that they would be ushered to the waiting adults and the rest of us would be left to close the final night with a dance. We were Methodists, mind you.
But then the speaker offered another invitation. I don’t really remember exactly what the words were, but the message was something to the effect of, ‘if you can’t get away from this tugging that God has a big plan for you to serve the Church with all that you are, come on up here.’
I had no intention to move from my seat that night. And before I could realize what was happening, I was on that auditorium stage with other teenagers and they were praying over our lives and ministries and callings. I had no idea what that meant. Many days, I still don’t understand it. But I can tell you that my life was never the same. I knew from that moment forward that whatever road I traveled, I was supposed to do it in a way that serving God was the center of my journey.
When people describe a ‘call to ministry’ some are very specific about the call to preach or to pastoral care or evangelism. Some have a clear call to missions or music. In the summer of 1993, I knew that I loved students. I knew that I had been blessed by great models for ministry to teenagers. I still did not have certainty or affirmation that women could be called and gifted to be lead pastors of a church, but I knew that my love for walking with others was very real. I would spend many years clarifying my response to the moment, but on that big stage – in a way that I had always resisted – I stood up. I walked to the front of that auditorium and I lunged what little I had to offer, into the arms of a God that had work to do.
When I arrived on campus in Waco a few weeks later, I attended Welcome Week. During a service, I wrote on some piece of paper, at some time, a small check mark in a box about feeling a call to serve God in the context of ministry. This one act would be critical in years to come, but for now, I had an entire new world to explore. Sic ‘Em Bears!
The Gift of Friendship
I stepped foot on the Baylor campus with wide eyes and big dreams. I was the fourth generation to dawn the Green and Gold in my family and it was exciting to be a part of the legacy while forging my own path. Going pot luck for a roommate and immediately trying to distance myself from the patterns of high school, I wanted so badly to have the full college experience.
Having never been to a party with alcohol and never sneaking out or missing curfew, I was curious. Baylor is a Baptist university. When I arrived on campus in 1993, I lived in an all girls dorm that allowed co-ed visitation on Saturdays and Sundays from 1-6 pm. Until my junior year, there was no dancing on campus. By the world’s standards, we were far from a “normal” college experience. Having never tasted the life of a rebel, I found spontaneous trips to Dallas, late night pizza runs and dorm prank wars to be so entertaining. We had neighbors on our dorm hall that seemed to find another side of life on our very conservative campus. I can remember the first time I had to assist with post-party clean up. As one person purged their stomach in the sink, we were called to help a non-authorized visitor escape from our dorm. This was scandalous. And, I was so intrigued.
It was my intention to enter sorority rush after the Christmas break. Unfortunately my excitement to stay up late and learn about this great new thing called e-mail consumed more of my first semester than studying. I found myself on academic probation and unqualified for rush. I went back to campus with the firm desire to make grades. I spent most of the second semester watching my friends pledge sororities. With all of the parties and t-shirts and fun being had, I was more determined than ever to rush in the fall.
The best part of my freshman year was the foundation of independence that I forged. For the first time in my life, I was on my own. I had to make my own friends. I had no siblings or church group to fall back on. I chose to be a part of a Sunday night dinner group with a few others that had similar faith journeys. Each week, we would go to dinner at the home of a local woman who mothered and loved and encouraged us. What began in that living room is one of the truest friendships I know in life.
While we did not spend every waking moment together in our first year, we found our common lane. I can remember meeting her in my first days of college life and thinking to myself that she was beautiful and fun and full of life. I was immediately intimidated and sure that we would have nothing in common. She had long blond hair and I saw that hanging with her meant laughter and faith and stories and plenty of interested boys and Jesus. Yes, all of those things can go together, and in totality, it was the base of a sisterhood that would walk with me through the best and worst days ahead.We both came from families that loved Jesus and valued each other.
In our first conversations, I can remember thinking that she had something that I needed more of in my life. As our friendship grew, I knew what it was. She was real. She was the kind of friend that didn’t sugarcoat the chaos and at the same time, she refused to let my negative Nelly attitude devour a good time. She was going to stretch me to meet people and engage and walk down new paths, all with the grounding of a solid foundation. So in the fullness of celebration and joy, we jumped headlong into one of the best seasons of my life, together.
On a side, yet very vital note, this same friend is on the “do not pass go, do not have a crisis, do not have a celebration without calling her” list 24 years later. If you are lucky enough to have a friend that has seen you though college and dating and engagement and marriage and children and is now navigating ministry and raising teenagers with you, blessed does not even begin to cut it. When life falls apart or requires a costume, I know who to call.
The Gift of the Chase
I left Waco for the summer with one goal. I knew I was going back to rush and hopefully pledge a sorority. High goals, I know. I also had seen enough in year one to know that with those greek letters would come the opportunity to swim in adventurous ponds of new activities. My goal for the summer was to get ready. First on my list of things to achieve was the ability to enjoy alcohol. That was the responsible thing to do, right? Being the perfectionist planner that I am, I set off to master the skill. I planned the day, I planned the setting. I called the accomplices. I even sent the designated procurement agent off with a complete list of supplies.
Again, with the perfectionist nonsense, I studied alcohol volume and content and felt that starting slow would be beneficial. I still have a bit of twitch when I see B&J Strawberry Daiquiri wine coolers, but perhaps not for the reason you might think. After consuming a few, I realized that all of the horror stories about being drunk and the worries that had held the demon of alcohol at bay, did not seem to be affecting me. I just didn’t get the big deal. I was not woozy. I was not out of control. I actually just felt like I had a belly bloated with sugar.
In my attempt to reconcile this apparent discrepancy in storyline, I sought the council of a more experienced drinker. As I explained that there appeared to be no ill effects, it was suggested that I try something with a bit more punch. The mason jar was prepared and the Wild Turkey was poured. Erroneously assuming that the drink was completed, I took the jar and drank it down in one fast swallow. Apparently, I was supposed to wait for Diet Coke. But with my limited experience, mixers were not in my knowledge base. The brown stuff was in the jar and I thought it was my turn to drink. What happened next was a fork in the road of my story. Where most 19 year old novice drinkers would have spit out the bourbon based on smell alone, the moment the burn hit my throat, it was as if the universe announced, “GAME ON!” In that backyard experience, I felt like the weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders. For the first time in my life, I did not have to be in charge. In that moment, my very ordered, precise, black and white world came alive with a burn and a bad aftertaste.
I found myself with a lightness that I had never known. My words were freer. My cares were diminished. My fears of not being loved fled the scene like a The Ghost of Adolescence Past. I stood in that moment with a new world order that grew with each intake of ethanol. In a matter of minutes, I transformed from a thought obsessed, insecure girl to a careless, brave, bold grown-up. I was immediately drunk on being drunk. I knew that this feeling would solve many of the terrible ills that plagued my psyche. Much to the dismay of those who were around me, the morning also brought few ill effects. There was no vomiting. There was no light sensitivity. Rather, I woke with a keen awareness that I had a new best friend and his name was alcohol.
This was hardly a one time encounter. My desire to make up for lost time meant that I had work to do. With some additional experiences, I knew no moderation. Where I had seen adults have a drink at dinner or sip a glass of wine, that was never a desire for me. In contrast, my goal from day one was to pack as much power as I could behind each sip. I’m sure that I would have been much more enjoyable had I not required regular babysitting. What my friends discovered, even in those early days, was that given a dose of alcohol courage, my opinions were louder and my hostility more pronounced. I have never lacked for believing I was right, or that 90% of the general population was wrong. But with the non-filter of a drunk, I was not only willing to share my wisdom but to proclaim your stupidity.
When people talk about enjoying “a beer” that never crossed my mind. Like everything else about my personality and wiring, I carried a few life goals into my new world of alcohol:
- go big or go home
- if its worth doing, do it all the way
- if a little is good, then more is even better
And so began a love affair that was in the driver’s seat of my life for much of the next 12 years. Why, you may be asking, is this a story in the celebration of Christmas and considered a gift? Like so many things in life, the chase for the high that I experienced for the fist time at 19 became a focal point. And while the outcome and end result would play out in some very dark ways, in the birth of my love for the drink, it was a glorious thing. I felt happier. I felt freer. I felt more alive than I had ever been. That all changed when I came to realization that feelings are not facts. But for now, bottoms up because we were having a party of epic proportions.
The Gift of Sisterhood
“Rent a Friend, Join a Frat”
That is the wording on my husband’s favorite college t-shirt. And for many people that know me today, they have a hard time placing me in the context of southern sorority girl. Say what you will about the in’s and out’s of greek life, in this season, it was a great decision. In the fall of 1994, I returned for my sophomore year with excitement – an off campus apartment and the goal of wearing a jersey. Yes, my goals were high…sweat in pantyhose and polyester all for the sake of being a part.
Fall classes started and in the same breath rush parties did, as well. Fall rush is much less chaotic, but the day I received the bid to join my sorority I was elated. I knew a few initiated girls already, and I was beside myself to find out that my dear friend from last year, you know the pretty blonde one, had received one as well. Pictures tell the story of the smiles, but the I can still remember what I wore to acceptance night. There, among girls that came from a variety of cities and states with backgrounds just as varied, we found a common bond in silly rush songs and service hours and pledge meetings.
In a group of 120 women, there is always entertainment. Strong leaders and creative minds alike, I was taken by the women and their take-charge, can-do attitudes. Immediately, I found connection with a group of juniors and seniors that were by name and work ethic the leaders. I can remember watching them as they prepared for events and training sessions. They had such poise and when they spoke, people listened. The respect was immediate and commanding. But the best part was the willingness to do the hard work of leadership.
There are those that enjoy the title. And then there are those that by DNA are wired to jump in the middle of chaos and bring order and structure. There were two women in particular that taught me what it meant to lead. I can remember as I sat in our pledge meetings that the woman charged with bringing order to our nonsense was one of a kind. The title for the upper-class woman that walks you through this process is a Pledge Educator. Mine was a natural born leader. She was funny and well spoken. She moved with authority and yet was approachable and wanted to be your friend. She always had a smile, unless you were acting a fool and I loved her even more for that.
The second model of leadership was the woman that became our president the next semester and was preparing the chapter for rush that spring. She was smart and beautiful. While she was so friendly, she had a mode of operation that caused you to think twice before questioning her decisions. Not because of a perceived power trip, but because you trusted that she was leading you in the right direction. She never raised her voice and yet rarely was she questioned. She was one of those people that you just want to be on a team with because you know you will be better because of it. I didn’t know it at the time, but she would become a dear friend, a wise counsel and my big sister.
Sure, you can say that sorority life is “not real” and unnecessary. There are parts of it that make me cringe to think of the ways that my superficiality prevailed. What I can tell you about this season of my life in spite of the hiccups, is that in these years a gift for leadership was born. Deep in my spirit, I came to believe that I was capable and had gifts to offer the world. And then, best of all, I was empowered to lead and people believed in me. Only the best leaders can inspire others to do the same.
The Gift of Being Different
After a year and a half of running as far away from Church and ministry and calling as I could, I found myself at a crossroads. Every Baylor student had to take 6 hours of classes in the Religion Department. Most students chose to take a class in New Testament and a class in Old Testament. I found myself in an interesting dilemma in the middle of my junior year. As a first semester freshman, I took a class called Survey of the Bible. This call was designed for students that planned to take upper level courses in the department. At that time, I was excited to grown in my understanding of calling and faith and the Church. Since completing that class, I found myself trying all in my power to run from this calling.
When it came time to register for classes in the Spring of my 3rd year, I knew I needed to complete the other 3 hours of religion requirement. I found the course in the catalog that had the least to do with my call to serve the church and prepared for class registration day. When it was my turn to call in (yes, this was a forward thinking registration system…before everyone used the internet) I found out that my class of choice was full. Seeing this as simply a small challenge to avoid being still with God, I went the next day to the head of the religion department to have him override the course.
I can remember sitting in the office preparing my case:
“You see, Dr. Smarty-Jesus-Man, I am working hard to graduate in four years because I am a great daughter and I want to make sure that I complete my religion requirements this year. I know that the Modern Cults class is full, but I am more convinced that ever that building this knowledge base will help me as I familiarize myself with the temptations of my generation. I also know that there are other courses, but this one in particular peaks my interest in those that are far away from God and I want to be a part of speaking of their culture and context.”
I tried my best and instead of singing my paper, he produces a folder from his desk that contain a list of names.
*insert your most loving grandfatherly role model with a calm but firm voice*
“I see that you responded a few years ago to a perceived call on your life to serve God in the Church.”
(stunned silence fell over the office while I sheepishly nodded)
“I am not going to sign the paper for the cults class, but I have already placed you in the Intro to Ministry class that will give you an opportunity to further explore that call.”
If it is possible to be irritated and relieved at the same time, that is where I found myself. Most of me screamed, “NOOOOO!!!” The remaining 3% felt a small relief that maybe, just maybe I would quit trying to cram my ill-fitting skill set into a business or education degree.
I can remember walking into Dr. Slover’s Intro class in January with skepticism and a complete sarcastic crappy attitude. I knew that this had a huge possibility of crashing my well solidified rhythm of avoiding God. As I approached the room on the first day, proudly sporting my greek letters and the bloodshot eyes of a wild weekend, I was smacked with a new reality. The class had 12 students. While this is an adorable Biblical shout-out, it meant that there would be no hiding. Even worse, only two of the 12 were of the female variety. Things only got worse when the syllabus explained that I had to participate in an internship with a local church. There was no escaping this one. I was not going to avoid it any longer.
Within a week, I had the background on the other 11, and I quickly realized I was odd woman out. My only other gender compadre was very clear from her background and understanding of the Church that she was not equipped to be a “pastor” in any capacity. She was pursuing her call to foreign missions. Of the other 10, many were drawn to preaching, a few to music and one to full time evangelism. So when the first assignment was to tell my background and to explain your understanding of ‘your call’ I was terrified.
Most of my classmates were raised in and were responding to ministry leadings in churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. Having been raised in the United Methodist tradition, I had a framework for traditional views on women in leadership, but I was blessed with examples for inclusion as well. It never crossed my mind that saying that I felt called to ministry with students was going to be controversial or troublesome. When I stood to tell my story, the confusion came over the room. Many were offended, a few were curious and in the same moment, the shame gremlins crawled up my back and held on for a wild ride. Not only did I have so much to work out personally, but I was about to enter into a season where I was forced to examine my framework for life.
Although incredibly traditional, my teacher was kind and honored my place. But when it came time to choose an intern location, in order to have a female mentor, I was given the choice of a missionary or a children’s pastor. I opted for the later because my Jamaica experience was a little fresh in my memory bank. After 3 months of meeting with her, I learned so much. Including the fact that I am not called or created to me in ministry to children. I really wasn’t sure that I liked them. However, the season did remind me of the passion I had for serving and teaching and loving people in the midst of the struggles of faith.
It was clear, through this class, that I missed the Church. I missed learning from leaders and teachers. I knew that my passion for connectedness in the season of adolescence was my jam. So I did the best thing I knew to do, I interviewed with churches to serve a summer in youth ministry. I wrapped up junior year with one foot in full blown college crazy and one foot in vocational ministry. While not great long term partners, it was such a step forward from my place of disconnect that I could begin to see the light of day.
The Gift of Bubbles
It was 1996. I was a 21 year old youth intern. I had so much to learn and in the same breath was more enthusiastic than ever about doing ministry. One of the great jokes of youth ministry is that no one in the church understands what you do, so therefore you must not DO anything. As a college age summer intern you do many things, but to an outsider, most of them look like play and travel. True.
My first ministry job included planning and leading and organizing. It involved long bus rides and sleepless nights. I worked with another 20-something single person, our idea of good planning was securing the van keys and not losing kids. Most of the time the first was successful, but I cannot always stay the same for the second. Like the one time that the middle of the night game of hide and seek went south and we found a junior high boy climbing through the ceiling tiles to find the perfect hiding spot. Junior high is a special time.
That summer, I learned so much. Like how not to get caught wrapping the church trees. I also walked into the heartbreaking side of grown-up life in the real world. That summer I made a CPS reporting call for the first time, I walked alongside a suicidal teenager and I realized that sometimes growing up means recognizing when one season is over and the next season is beginning.
It was in this new season that I began making noise about a symbol of adulthood. While it hard to imagine in 2017, there was a time when not everyone had tattoos. In fact it was something that many rebellious folks were taking on, usually in quarter sized artwork that could often be found on a hip or ankle. For almost 3 years, I had been pondering an image in my mind. As I finished my first summer of ministry, it was time. My mother was appalled. I can remember calling an MRI imaging center, because in one of there lesser moments, she made a case for avoiding tattoo because you will NEVER be able to have a MRI if you get a tattoo. Wrong.
To conclude the already eventful summer, I spent a July Saturday night participating an a little permanent bonding with my boss. I tattooed an ichthus on my hip. But true to my own style, I added a unique element. The fish was in motion, alive and breathing out the breath of life. From its mouth came three bubbles – one for my childhood, one for my college years and one for the future. The original design had symbolically colored bubbles, but I settled on black. Years later, my mom told me it looked like a cockroach, but its still one of my favorite pieces. Skin art would be one of the many ways that I came to tell my story in the days ahead.
The Gift of the Back Porch
In the midst of seasons of change, there are defining relationships that mold and shape you. The ones that grow you. The ones that hurt you. The ones that leave a legacy of hope when you feel alone and unsure. It is a reoccurring theme in my story that relationships like this seem to take root on porches. While reflecting on the reason for the location, I came to the realization that my back porch friends are often creatures that overuse words and over think life. Porches are great for both. And for smoking.
As I returned for the final year of college, I was a bundle of contradiction. I knew that my life was not my own. I knew that the next step for me was to attend seminary and further my education and calling. But I still had 9 months of college life and I wasn’t sure how to compartmentalize this ever-growing clash of lifestyles. After a summer of full-time ministry, I drove into Waco with a conflicted spirit and unsure of how these next few months would play out.
I was a senior and my brother joined us at Baylor that semester. I was living in an apartment with 3 other girls, one being my sister. We were all sorority sisters and our apartment was known as a gathering post. #1104, as it was affectionately known, was notorious for late night and great times. With the addition of a handful of 18 year-old boys that were more than excited to have multiple ID wielding seniors around, our porch was never empty. These boys were characters. There was entertainment and stories when the guys from Penland were visiting. There as never a shortage of laughter, Swisher Sweets or Mad Dog 20/20. I have been sworn to uphold the code of sisterly silence for most of the tales, but I can still recall them quite well.
There was one particular personality that was bigger than the room. From the first time I met him, I was sure that the swagger, accent and lingo were an act. As I got to know him, I realized that not only was it the real deal, but it was what made him so damn endearing. Almost immediately I found myself in late night conversations about all things, well, just all things. We laughed and talked and most conversations included a sisterly “that’s not a good idea” or “you should think about that more.” Sometimes, I would just flat-out disagree with whatever the bright idea of the moment may have been. He didn’t seem to listen to me or care about my very advanced life stage and hard-earned wisdom. But I knew he did. On more than one occasion, I would be sleeping in my bed and hear pebbles hitting my window. The first time, this was endearing. By the fourth or fifth, I was annoyed. But every time I would go to the window, I would hear, “Hey, guuuurl!” That voice immediately meant less sleep and more porch time. And I didn’t care at all.
As I walked through this strange process of applying to seminary and leaving college, those talks on the porch reminded me of why I love people. I love to hear a good story. I loved to hear the whole thing – the good and the bad, the hard and the wonderful. Our porch stories were filled the epic tales of mischief and the longing of future hopes and dreams. They were bound together with laughter and maybe a tear or two, but always with the knowledge that whatever was to come would be enough. I cannot think of two college students that were at more different forks in the road, but there on that dirty furniture, the world’s problems seemed to be solved. I was writing essays to go across the country to pursue ministry as a vocation, while another’s ‘all in’ college experience was just beginning. And our common ground was the porch.
When I came back for my second semester, I was resigned that I was leaving the state. I was severing ties with my past. I had stopped drinking to honor the Ethos statement of the seminary to which I had applied. My life was changing rapidly and within a system of rules, I felt safe. I had devised a mental checklist of right and wrong that was easy delineated by standards rather than heart. I would quickly learn that the heart is a powerful thing.
What is Epiphany?
The word epiphany comes from the Greek noun epiphaneia, which means “shining forth,” “manifestation,” or “revelation.” The Epiphany of our Lord is the Christian festival that celebrates the many ways through signs, miracles, and preaching that Jesus revealed Himself to the world as Christ, God Incarnate, and King of kings.
Epiphany is the liturgical festival observed on January 6. Since January 6 is most often a weekday, many shift the celebration of Epiphany to the Sunday immediately following the 6th. Originally, Epiphany commemorated three incidents that portrayed the mission and divinity of Christ: the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the miracle at Cana.
In the season of Epiphany, we experience a shift. Epiphany moves us from the family celebrations and demands our inner circle to include “all the ends of the earth.” Just like the wise men, we are reminded to have the courage to follow the light of the star we have seen, however hazardous the journey. Epiphany reminds us that the light of our faith, like that of the wise men, should be so strong that we are able to see and recognize and our Savior in whatever form God uses to reveal hope, even that of a helpless baby.
This is the season that things move from a self focused expression of faith in God to the recognition that this gift is for the world. This life of saving faith is not just for the parents of this baby or those present that day. It is not just for those that have the correct DNA or born into the religious rules. Epiphany is a deliberate movement to enter into the fullness of salvation and the expectant hope that all of the world can be changed through the gift of Jesus.
In my life, this was when I realized that every step towards adulthood meant one more step closer to being fully devoted to serving Jesus and the Church. It was time to reach the ends of the earth.
A Higher Calling
When I decided that full time ministry was indeed a call to embrace, I began preparing my seminary applications. Having only been exposed to the United Methodist tradition, I immediately looked for a school that offered a Master’s in Youth Ministry. The associate pastor at the church that I interned with was a recent graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Coincidentally, my family was making a summer trip that included a stop in the area. I took a side trip by myself to a tiny town that looked nothing like Texas. I was intrigued.
I loved the feel of the small school. My interest to learn under veteran student ministry teachers was piqued. And even with my less that stellar cumulative PGA, I felt that I could make a case for admittance. While visiting, I met with an admissions officer and I was excited about this possibility.
Having spent the last 4 years in a theologically conservative environment, Asbury felt like a forward, yet not disruptive move. On the spectrum of traditional vs progressive, this seemed to be a safe middle ground. During the application process, I was asked to sign a statement upholding my desire to live in community free from alcohol and drugs, as well as hold tightly to traditional views on changing issues of the church. I found respite in both. I knew that in order to grow, removing stumbling blocks of argument and known challenges could only help my desire to pursue God’s call on my life. What I didn’t know at the time was that once again, rules and behavior codes would become the measuring stick for faithfulness.
With nerves in full motion, I mailed my application in the fall of 1996. And then the waiting started. Christmas came and went. Followed by the New Year’s holiday. I returned to school to start the last semester. When February 1st turned on the calendar, I knew a letter would be imminent.
On a breezy day during the first week of February, I opened the mailbox at my apartment and saw the letterhead. It was a thin letter and I knew that it contained the plans for the next step in my life. Was I leaving the security of family and friends and my church roots? Was I moving to Kentucky, where I knew no other students, with the hope of an educational background for my life? OR was I going to be looking for whatever plan ‘b’ might have been?
There on my familiar porch, I opened the letter that would set in motion my next steps. It was time for me to learn to drive on hills of ice because I was headed north. My excitement was uncontainable. My plans were coming to fruition. I was ready to fly. For the first time, I was actively dreaming about what life in vocational ministry would mean for me. This was so much bigger than any script I could have written. I finally felt like my life was in rhythm with my Creator and I was prepared to soar.
From my experience, it is smack in the middle of that moment that your plan can be detoured. Get ready, plan-it-out-girl, because sometimes the best gifts are complete surprises.
The Blind Gift
It was the Spring of my last semester at Baylor. I was ready to move on with life and head to Kentucky to be a grown up. I was still active in my sorority and being a senior, I was present in body but hardly engaged. We had our annual pledge dance scheduled for February 15th and while I planned to attend, I was not in a rush to find a date. I was just fine winning the costume contest all by myself. I had recently turned over my officer position to a precious sophomore and because of the transition, we spent many hours together. During that time she told me that she had a “tall friend” that I needed to meet. To a girl that is 6′, this is music to your ears.
Our mutual friend arranged for us to go to the dance on Saturday, February 15th. He was a sophomore at Texas A&M in College Station which is about 90 miles from Waco. When we talked on the phone about arrangements, he hesitantly asked if I had plans for Friday night. It was Valentine’s Day. To hear him tell this story, you would be belly laughing because he points out this could have gone south. Fast. One, who goes on a FIRST date on Valentine’s? Two, if she had no plans on Valentine’s perhaps there was a reason. Romanic, this guy…
We decided he would come to Waco on Friday night and we would have dinner at my apartment the night before the party. I was nervous. I am not a cook. I am not cook. Oh, did I mention I am not a cook? Why did I decide that cooking dinner for a blind date on Valentine’s was a good plan? I still question my decision making on this, but as the future would prove, he is always prepared for anything and ate “extra” before his arrival.
At this point in my life I has 3 NEVERs. I would never date a guy that drove an oversized truck. I would never date an athlete. And I would never, never ever, date an Aggie. This is where God lets out a big gigantic laugh. Rolling on the floor laugh. When the mystery man arrived, I could hear his truck a block away. The tires were so jacked up I needed a ladder to enter. His 6’4″ athletic build told me rule #2 was gone and the obnoxiously maroon sticker that obstructed the back window of said truck was the ultimate deal breaker. And, he had bad shoes. Really bad shoes.
This sounds like love at first sight, right?
If you know this blind date of mine from 21 years ago today, you know that it worked out. But he would affirm, and I would laugh with each story, that had we each set out on February 13, 1997 to describe the attributes and gifting of our future spouse, the picture would have been different. I would have coordination with a ball. Any ball. He would like glitter. And a few other things.
But on that night, 21 years ago, there was a look. There was moment that changed everything. Forever. Into my planned and singleminded world came this man (ok, he was pretty much a tall boy) with his own hopes and dreams and goals and hurts. And while we said we were not going to “get serious,” something happened on that blind date. The NEVERS in my life began to fade away in the face of a partner. Until that moment, I didn’t know what it meant to trust someone with my brokenness.
That’s what love is. Its not the cards or the roses or even the best gifts. It’s not the moments that take your breath away. Our love story is about two people that have very different gifts and wirings coming together to form a one-of-a-kind force that enters into brokenness and says we will fight for each other no matter the darkness that comes our way.
I can assure you that if we knew all those years ago that hair and trucks would be NOTHING in the face of the life we would live, our naive selves may have balked. But we have now been a team longer than we were individuals, and I can assure you that Lucas Hilbrich was nothing that I asked for and everything I needed in my life.