Friday, July 19, 2013

Fuller Commencement

When I graduated with my M.Div. from Fuller Seminary Northwest on June 8, 2013 (Woohoo!  Finally!), I was asked to be one of the two student speakers.  My task was to reflect on my seminary experience.  Since some of my friends and family have asked for it, here is the text of my address.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the word home.  What is home?  Where is home?

My father was a military man.  By the time I was in kindergarten, I had lived on three continents.  I was conceived in Texas and born in Connecticut.  I was a crawler in Japan, a toddler in California, a preschooler in Colorado, and a kindergartner in Germany.  Elementary school took me from Germany to Virginia to Japan again, JH back to Connecticut, and high school and college to two different cities in Arizona.  My young adult life was spent in Phoenix, Arizona, with a husband and eventually three children. 

When I moved with my family from Phoenix to Seattle in August of 1998, I said to myself it would be the last move I would ever make.  Since then I have moved four times, the last time just this past October.  Graduation and a new vocation probably mean that we will be moving again soon, and not necessarily in the Seattle area.  When you move a lot, you eventually ask yourself the question, “Where is home?”

Early in my life, in some ways, home was wherever my parents were.  In other ways home was my grandmother’s house in Connecticut, because that’s where we always returned for a time between other homes.  But eventually Grandma followed us to Arizona, so “Grandma’s house” was no longer home.  As an adult, I sometimes think, “Home is where my children are.”  But now our six adult children are spread out across Washington, California, and Hawaii.  Which one is home?

I asked my Facebook friends to complete the sentence, “Home is where fill in the blank.”  Here are some of their responses:

Home is where the heart is. 
Home is where you belong.
Home is where each lives for the other and all live for God.
Home is where you hang your hat. 
Home is where your muddy boots can finally rest.
Home is where my family is.
Home is where they know you and love you anyway.
Home is where you can steal quarters from the couch cushions and feel totally justified.
Home is where I can take my shoes off.
Home is where we are all together with our tortoise and our espresso machine.
Home is where you can scratch where it itches.
Home is where you can be 100% yourself.

I like that last one:  Home is where you can be yourself.  The problem is that a few years ago I discovered that my house—the one where I lived with my husband and children, the people I loved—was no longer a place where I could be myself, where it was safe to be myself. I often felt like Cinderella’s stepsisters, who contorted themselves to the point of self-destruction to fit their feet into the glass slipper for the right to be claimed by the prince.  And as any woman who has worn a pair of killer high heels can tell you, it is very difficult to be yourself when your feet hurt!

I remember quite clearly the day when the counselor I had been seeing said, “We have to find a way to stop this abuse.”  

“Abuse,” I said.  “That’s a very strong word.”  

She said, “It’s the right word.”  

I had thought that it was all my responsibility to adjust:  if I could just be more selfless, more submissive, more supportive.  But in the attempt to do so, I had contorted myself beyond recognition, trying to fit into someone else’s idea of what I should be.  And there was no way in that context I could have heard a call to vocational ministry.

It took me another year to come to terms with the fact that, like Hester Prynne, I was wearing a big scarlet A on my chest, only mine did not stand for adultery; it stood for abuse.  It took time and new courage to name it:  I was an emotionally abused woman.  I begged God to change my situation, but it is the nature of God’s love that it doesn’t coerce.  So instead God answered my prayer, not by fixing my situation, but by removing me from it—from a marriage that had become oppressive and unresponsive in what should have been a quest for mutuality, growth, and love.

But now my scarlet letter was a D—for divorced. The church can be a lonely place for a divorced woman, no matter the reason.  I was told it would have been better for me to endure the abuse than to divorce.  I was told I could never remarry.  I was asked to step down from the worship team, the one task that gave me joy and hope.  And although people tried their best to love me, the church became a place where I could not be myself, where I was somehow too damaged to serve God in any meaningful capacity, where I was suspected of somehow not being enough, where I was no longer at home.

Yet God had a future for me that I could not have imagined for myself, would not have even dared to ask for myself.  Honestly, just learning how to breathe again felt like a great gift.  But God had plans to do a new thing, to remake home for me, a place where I could be myself.  It was going to be different and somehow better than it had been before, and maybe even more importantly, different than the way I thought God was supposed to act. 

He gave me a new neighbor, whose name was Darrel, and whose front door was mere inches from mine.  My new neighbor became a new friend, and we discovered we had many things in common:  we were both teachers, both Christians, both divorced for similar reasons, both with three kids nearly the same ages, and both of us were planning to remain single for the rest of our lives.  The surprise was that God gave us to each other, in a new marriage, and a new home.  From the beginning we have said to each other, “You never have to stop being who you are for my sake.”  And we discovered what God intended for marriage, and that in his kingdom reality, even in this already-not yet that we live in, crazy, happy love is possible.  And with the new marriage came a new church, a place that felt like home, where my past did not render me unfit for service in God’s kingdom.

So what does all this have to with seminary?

In the safety of this new home and this new community of faith, I began to hear God’s voice again.  I began to realize that there was yet another “new thing” for me, a next thing.  I began to pray about what it might be.  As I considered my career as a teacher and the things I most loved to teach, to write, and to speak about, I realized that I kept returning to spiritual themes.  I found the most joy in my work when it was about the truth of God’s sustaining love and his word.  I thought, “Maybe I’ll take a couple of seminary classes, so I can do those things with a little more accuracy and authority.”  I had no intention of changing careers or even getting a degree. 

My best friend’s mother was a pastor, and I knew she had gone to Fuller, so on my lunch break one day I Googled it, found the Fuller website, read the statement of faith and the statement on marriage and divorce, and filled out the application; that was the extent of my discernment process to decide where to attend!  Then I emailed my husband to say:  “I hope it’s okay, but I just applied for seminary.”  We had been married for less than a year, and our future was about to change even more than we expected.

I thought God was telling me to take a couple of classes.  For the first year I took one class each quarter.  But something happened.  I wanted more.  A longing for something new awoke in me.  I realized God was calling me to get an actual degree.  My pastors said, “Yes, do it, and we’ll set up your internship!”  I thought at my age it was going to take me until retirement to finish a degree one class at a time, but my daughter and her husband said, “It’s not the worst thing in the world to live on student loans for awhile.”  And my husband said, “It seems like God is in this; you better do it.”  So I left my career as a teacher to attend seminary full-time and begin my internship.

And some amazing things happened.  I found biblical language for my life, for my experiences with God, for the surprising ways he handled my circumstances, for his faithfulness and sustaining love that in one way or another I had always known. 

I learned that God called the children of Abraham out of Egypt, out of slavery, out of mistreatment and oppression and abuse, and into a new place where they could become his people. 

I learned that when Job cried out in the raw, honest, painful, unfair messiness of his life and demanded that God explain himself, God instead gave Job God’s very self, and that was the answer!  God himself is the answer!

I learned that when the people of Judah stopped living into their calling as God’s chosen people, when they rejected the “becomingness” that God had planned for them, and God sent them into exile, his plan all along was to create a new way for them to be his people.  God retains his freedom to act in new ways and to find new avenues of restoration for us.

I learned that the gospel is more than a get out of jail free card; it is the pronouncement that the kingdom of God is now at hand, that we are not bound by the domain of darkness and sin and death, that God is in the business of setting things right, and that Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection is the down payment on the rightness that is rightfully ours.  It is about finding true shalom in and among our selves, our communities, and creation.

I learned that Paul said, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone,” because sometimes in the brokenness of this world it is NOT possible.

I learned that God’s forgiveness has been built into the fabric of human existence since the dawn of creation and it continues to echo throughout scripture.  I learned that God’s heart can be broken, and he weeps over our brokenness and our stubbornness, and he longs to gather us into his healing arms.  And I learned how to forgive, how to accept that the past cannot be changed no matter how much pain it has caused, how to respond with compassion to the brokenness in the cosmos that sometimes causes us to hurt one another.

I learned that it is all meant to be worked out in community, that iron sharpens iron, that diversity in its various manifestations can make us stronger and wiser and able to see more of God than when we choose to do it on our own.  I learned that I need you, all of you, professors, classmates, church mates, coworkers, friends, family, to see more of God than I can see on my own.

I learned that writing an extra credit paper for Systematic Theology 2 entitled, “Winter Isn’t Over Until Easter: Christological Motifs in the Film Lars and the Real Girl,” could actually have something to do with understanding the church’s role in addressing the deep pain of the world.

I learned that God does not name us by our failures but by himself!  We are not our addictions, our broken relationships, our missed opportunities, our indecisions, our perfectionism, our phobias, our short tempers, our laziness, our spending habits.  We are God’s children, and we are called by his name.  Our claim to fame is not that we love him or serve him, but that God loves us—with an extravagant, lavish, merciful, compassionate, forgiving, restoring, ridiculous love!  And only out of that abundance are we able to offer him ourselves.

I learned that God wants more for us than we dare to hope for ourselves.

I learned that God can use me to love and serve him by loving and serving others. 

I learned that God wants to make a pastor out of me—even though I’m too old, even though I am a woman, even though I’m divorced.

And I am daily learning all these things and more.  God continues to do new things and make a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. 

So where is home? Yes, home is where you can be yourself, but I have a new answer that works for me.  Home is where you can become your best self, where you can move towards becoming all that God has created you to be because of God’s great love.

I came to seminary expecting to learn more about God; I didn’t expect to learn to know God more.

I came to seminary expecting it to be instructive; I didn’t expect it to be transformative.

I came to seminary with a faint call from God to take a couple of classes; I didn’t expect to hear a much louder call from God to vocational ministry.

In Proverbs 24:3-4 we read:  "By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled 
with rare and beautiful treasures."

So thank you.  Thank you, Faculty and Staff, for building with God’s wisdom the house that is Fuller Seminary Northwest, and for establishing us in understanding, for filling our rooms with rare and beautiful treasures.  Thank you for equipping us to shine a flashlight on the path for others, to give them a few more inches of light for their journeys, as you have shined a light for us.  Thank you, Classmates, for being partners on this journey, for shining your flashlights on my path; when we put all our flashlights together, the light is very bright and the way becomes quite clear.  Thank you, Church, for giving us opportunities to discover and practice our gifts, in spite of our histories, in spite of our flaws.  Thank you, Family and Friends, for walking alongside us and loving us and creating space for us.  Thank you, Jesus, for doing the new thing.  Thank you all for helping us move towards becoming all that God has created us to be. Thank you for being a safe place.  Thank you for helping me to hear God’s voice anew.  Thank you for being my home for a quarter, for a season, for a lifetime, for eternity, but especially for the last four years. 

I no longer have to contort my foot to fit into the glass slipper for the right to be claimed by the prince.  I have been claimed by the King! “He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,” and he has given me the right to be called his child.

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