Over the past few weeks in worship, we’ve been talking together about calling — Jesus’ calling of the disciples and his own call as God’s presence in this world. These past few days, I joined with about 30 other Baptist women in ministry to inaugurate a season of mentoring, and together, we shared stories about how God called and continues to call each and every one of us. Call has been on my mind, and as such, I wanted to share with you a piece I wrote last year for a book entitled Call Stories: Hearing and Responding to God’s Call, edited by Barry Howard. Together with dozens of other ministers — including, beautifully, my parents! — I appreciated the invitation to reflect in writing my experience of the dawning sense of call in my life. In this Epiphany season, I wonder — how might God beckon you yet anew? 
Together in God’s work of Love,
Pastor Emily

“Home By Another Way” 

“If you could see the journey whole,” Jan Richardson says, “you might never undertake it, might never dare the first step that propels you from the place you have known toward the place you know not.”

Here I sit a dozen years out from the first step of the journey I now know to be a calling, and what comes clearly into mind is not the memory of a lightning strike or flash of realization, that one clear juncture to pinpoint in which the swing of one’s life changed in an instant. Much like my experience of coming to faith and calling Christ my own, my experience of God’s calling for ministry unfolded in a collection of moments, flashes in what felt at the time like a dizzying jumble of unrelated experiences, yearnings, convictions, griefs, but with distance and time with which to draw meaning, look now like the journey of discovery and vocation. God’s calling on my life was a dawning.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that I write this reflection during Epiphany, that season of the church year where Christians understand the unfolding of God’s revelation in Jesus. Epiphany illuminates for us his identity as Son and Savior, Liberator and Rescuer, and in his unfolding identity we find our own. In his, I found my own, spreading into a call to God’s work of Love. It announced itself like a rising sun into the dark: first with the slightest slivers of dawn, then a growing awakening of the created world, all coming alive by the Light which shines into the darkness, finally bursting over the horizon in fiery flame. 

My sense of call simply cannot be separated from the context in which it came. For I am a preacher’s kid, now a third-generation Baptist pastor who has stepped into the well-worn path by the great cloud of witnesses gone ahead of me, the best of whom I call granddaddy, aunt, mom, and dad. In the churches of my adolescence — the rural parish next to a pig farm in Shelby County, Kentucky; the new church plant in suburban Charlotte; the charming county seat congregation in small-town Laurens, SC; the urban church in the center of downtown Knoxville — our family of four rooted our lives within the church.

My dad served each of these churches as pastor, his time among them filled with his steady wisdom for communal life, strategic mind for organizational transformation, and big heart for God’s good news. And with “laborers together with God” my parents’ north star vision for shared ministry and marriage, my mom’s vast gifts for ministry and unparalleled capacity to love people with the boldness of God came to life in all forms during these years. While her role varied along the way — ministries of music, youth, children, seniors all saw her flourishing — she modeled for me the very best of what a minister should be. 

My younger brother Andrew and I were folded into these congregational villages, raised up from the cradle roll by Sunday School teachers, R.A. & G.A. leaders, Bible drill coaches, missions educators, choir directors, and volunteers who loved God and loved God’s church. Our experience of faith took root in colorful measure: biblical characters cheerfully arranged on felt boards in Sunday School, Wednesday night snacktimes of red kool-aid and those flower-shaped shortbread cookies you could stick your pointer finger into, outdoor hymn-sings fueled by funeral home fans and homemade ice cream, musicals of grand scope that gave us space to celebrate life, and youth camps and trips that reminded us of who and whose we were. 

Even as my questions about God continued to increase as I grew older, I honestly never felt anything but genuine love in the church, my particular place in the shape of our common life together secure and celebrated. So complete was my affirmation as a young Christian girl — enhanced, in part I’m sure, due to members’ love for my minister parents — it never occurred to me that this wasn’t normal for any child of the church. That is, until God beckoned me down a different road.

My long love of music-making led me to pursue back-to-back music degrees in vocal performance — the first a Bachelor’s at Furman University, the second a Master’s degree at Northwestern University in Chicago. In both of these seasons of my life but especially the latter, I began to hear a different story about the church from the dear friends I made along the way. They were artists and creatives, vibrant members of the LGBTQ community, irreverent and cynical, loyal and fun. And gratefully, they loved me well. Bound together by a common experience in a particular season of life, we became a family.

As we grew together, I learned that every one of these friends had grown up in the Christian church, and without fail, every one of them save for a couple had walked away from it. Their church stories were of indifference and suffering, neglect and abuse, simply because of who they were. It’s not that my friends didn’t want to talk about God or faith — quite the opposite. They seemed hungry for God and God’s long story of justice and reconciliation. They wanted to reckon with scripture, dig into the problem of evil, and imagine God’s dream for this world. We talked about faith often, but we did so lavishly, loudly, safely outside the church, certainly not within it. 

Reconciling this deep chasm between the loving churches of my experience and the rejecting churches of my friends’ experience utterly transformed me. I saw clearly the point of tension between deprivation and flourishing, between exclusion and embrace. It burdened me and burned within me. “Someone should do something about this!,” I remember thinking. And right there for me, the first hints of light, of revelation, of calling began to streak for me across the darkened sky of my life. 

With these moments were others. There was the late-night phone call to mom and dad, made when driving home from an audition. My words were as jumbled and disjointed as my unexpected tears, the latter articulating for me what I couldn’t yet — that the musical dream I had for my life was dimming. I loved the creation of music: the rapturous beauty and hope it captured in the imagination of the listener, the community of artists with whom I could share it, and the process of honing the craft. I did not, however, love the business of music: the never-ending, uncertain cycle of audition circuits and hyper-critical judges, sharp competition that stacked a huge supply of great young singers in an acutely-narrowing demand, random jobs taken simply to support the singing habit.

There were the hours spent watching news coverage of Hurricane Katrina shortly thereafter as it hit, weeping in horror at my desk as I sat hopelessly disconnected from such real human suffering. My day job was as an insurance company receptionist, nestled high and safe on the 18th floor of a downtown Chicago high-rise a block from the Sears Tower. I watched and wondered, ‘what in the world am I even doing here?!’

There were the other wonderings-out-loud with parents and friends, a growing curiosity to imagine what the shape of my life could look like if not singing, to — despite my surprise! — maybe think about seminary. My folks met and fell in love at Southern Seminary decades ago, and throughout my life, they spoke of those years as some of their best. In my wonderings, I allowed myself to articulate a truth I think I’d known for years but just never said out loud. What if I should go to seminary too?

There was that one snowy and unforgettable afternoon spent at the coffeeshop right near my apartment, finally writing my admissions essays for divinity school. Somehow simply the prompt itself — a prompt to put words to these wonderings — contained a spark of the Spirit’s ember that allowed my heart to grow strangely warmed. Somehow the star now shone a ways overhead, unmistakeable, beckoning me to summon the courage to take the first step. 

There were the visits to divinity schools, chances to articulate whatever this thing was that was causing me to be there. (In still such an uncertain state, did I dare start using the word ‘call’?) Lunches with students in whom I heard reflections of my own story. Conversations with faculty, especially those now immortalized in my communion of saints — Drs. Leonard, Tupper, Lipsett, Crainshaw, and Dunn. Worship that brought me to my knees with its earthy, incarnational truth. The powerful dawning upon me that were I to leave singing for seminary, were I to move from Chicago to Winston-Salem, were I to step away from the road less traveled to join a familiar, familial path, it would be a journey leading me home … but for me, now, a journey home by another way. 

I wish I could say such a rising epiphany of calling crowded out my fears of such a transition, made me more trusting, softer and more supple for God to take and use for the work of Love in the world. But even as God’s persistent call became louder if not yet clearer with every passing day I spent at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, I still pressed stubbornly against the thought of parish ministry. 

I remember my defiant announcement to the family: “Now just because I’m going to divinity school does NOT mean I’m going to work in a church, and it definitely does not mean I’m going to become a minister! I’m not! I mean it! Really!” (The lady doth protest too much, methinks!)

I remember the time my Granddaddy Bill, hot with a rare flash of anger, responded correctively to a comment I made, flippantly and with privilege I had yet to see or understand. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life arguing with Baptists about women in ministry, I had declared to him, so I’d just as soon go be a Methodist instead. A decade later, his words humble me still. 

I remember talking with my parents and my aunt Susan, trying to sort out how to fashion a real job in ministry from the unformed clay I held: a love for God and neighbor, a renewed hopefulness about God’s church, a handful of fierce convictions, a tug towards people in a similar life stage and outlook, and an imperfect-yet-hopeful vessel. 

And I remember the surge of resurrecting boldness that saw among the people of Highland Baptist Church a shared place to claim honestly together — a calling that carried me to my first job out of seminary there as Minister to Young Adults.

Since that extended season, God’s calling on my life has shifted and stirred, sometimes flooding my life with clarity and conviction, other times illuminating paths I would never have taken on my own. “Call it one of the mercies of the road,” Jan Richardson writes, “that we see it only by stages as it comes into our keeping, step by single step.” But when I remember that first light of calling, I give thanks for the God who calls and keeps, the God who beckoned me to follow the star at its rising, the God who comes as the Light of the World. 

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