Saturday, April 24, 2010

Candidacy Essay

A friend reminded me recently that I hadn't ever posted my final essay. I'm really pleased with how it turned out - I put a ton of time and energy into it, and I think the result is authentic. Without further adieu...

“He poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” – John 13:5

During my second summer on staff at Sky Ranch Lutheran Camp, our Wednesday night worship included a foot washing modeled after the story in John 13. Staff members took turns washing campers’ feet at a basin on the floor near a makeshift altar. The ceremony was at once beautiful and bizarre for both the spectator and the participant. Each week, kids confirmed that it was an incredible experience for them, and yet so foreign. Their camp counselor washed their feet! They could identify with the awkwardness felt by Jesus’ disciples as Jesus sat on the floor before them. Maybe campers could begin to see the staff as Jesus’ presence in their lives.

The foot washing is one of my favorite stories. Jesus demonstrates so much love, and as usual, his method catches his disciples completely off-guard. As we know, foot washing was a rather mundane act in Jesus’ time; his disciples were not shocked by the gesture, but by the person who offered it. I think today that’s akin to throwing a dinner party in Jesus’ honor, only to have our Lord jump up from the table and wash the dishes. His disciples would be surprised and probably embarrassed; Peter would say, “No no, Jesus, let me get that, you sit down.” We would feel both blessed and confused, but it wouldn’t cause the discomfort we imagine when we think of Jesus touching our tired, dirty feet. Often, in our foot washing at camp, kids wouldn’t participate because of the insecurity they felt about their feet. If we translate the metaphor – if we teach kids to serve each other by washing each other’s dishes – the message is clear. In John 13:15, Jesus says, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” In a simple act of service, by scraping our plates, Jesus would show us how to love each other.

Many people, places, and events have shaped my own foot washing story. I was born on December 21, 1984, in Fort Collins, Colorado, the first child of my young parents. About a week later, I became the first baby baptized at Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church.

I was soon joined by a sister and two brothers – Courtney, now 23; Jeff, now 20; and Christian, who just turned 16. Courtney, my best friend and just 15 months my junior, studies social work at Colorado State University. Jeff is a Hospitality major at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins; he is one of the funniest, most articulate people I know, and the older we get, the better we get along. Christian doesn’t say much, but he is very bright, and he is truly one of my favorite people. My parents, Rick and Julie, are a study in contrast. Where my dad is steady and methodical, my mom is passionate and a little impulsive. Dad’s a thinker; Mom’s a talker. Dad drove a truck, and Mom bought a Prius. In their divine partnership, they don’t balance each other; rather, they complement each other. Each sees the other as the more important part of their relationship.

Jeff and Christian were both born with Fragile X Syndrome, a genetic disorder on the autistic spectrum. Christian also has Down’s syndrome. He is non-verbal, and his disabilities manifest themselves in an aggressive behavioral disorder. Because of the care he requires, Christian now lives in a group home. Raising children with intellectual disabilities is overwhelmingly difficult, yet my parents took every measure to ensure that all four of us had typical childhoods. Because of this, and the time we’ve spent together in the trenches of stress, we’ve gotten the best of both worlds – normal-kid experiences, plus an emotional interconnectedness unparalleled by any family I know. It shimmers. We’ve united through our unique experience; we all take turns washing each other’s feet. Truly, honestly, our family bond has shaped me into the person I am today.

I was raised in Spirit of Joy. Our family worshiped every Sunday, and I was confirmed there in May 2000. Because there was no youth group at my church, the only time I engaged with other Lutheran kids was the week I spent at Sky Ranch every summer.

Camp made me feel alive. I loved my counselors. I loved sleeping in cabins and helping clean dishes. I loved singing songs at worship, overcoming my paralyzing fear of the high ropes course, and walking through the woods at night. I made friends from faraway states with whom I still keep in touch. Camp, although just six days long, set the stage for my whole year. It was like an intensive retreat where I was re-baptized into the body of believers, and for the 12 months that followed I could go there in my mind and be reaffirmed in my faith. But that was it for me; other than Sky Ranch, my faith was stagnant.

For much of high school and college, I had something like cotton brain. Looking back, I see how I puttered through life, putting minimal thought into major decisions. In school, for example, I always did my homework on time, but I rarely studied for exams. Few things truly affected me, with the distinct exception of my experience on staff at Sky Ranch. For five summers – as kitchen staff, then a Mountain School Instructor, then the ropes course coordinator, and finally as the community director – I delved into the experience. I read, and I thought, and I ran, and I asked questions, and I played guitar and stayed up late and woke up early and scrubbed the floor and swam in the river. God was in every ounce of it. I had my feet washed, and I washed those of my friends. Living, working and playing in community – especially a community of Lutherans – changed my life.

During my second summer at camp, Joel Abenth – my boss, the program director at Sky Ranch – asked me to facilitate the adult Bible study we held each morning for our pastors and sponsors. Since I had never participated in a Bible study, I hesitated, but Joel said he needed someone “who liked to drink coffee and talk about God,” and I definitely fit that bill. Despite my reluctance, I loved it. I relished the chance to pick the brains of both doctors of philosophy and Nebraska farmers. It awed me that a conversation about John 1:1 could be completely different every week for two months. It felt like barebones faith, like it was exactly what Jesus wanted us to do – to gather together and trade ideas, and then share a prayer of thanksgiving that God had brought us into that fellowship. Our varied backgrounds shaped our faiths, and through dialogue we fostered further growth within each other.

Through college, every Wednesday night, I taught confirmation to seven girls at Spirit of Joy – Catie, Courtney, Elke, Kayla, Olivia, Stacey and Tonya. Each week we spent a couple of hours together sitting on the floor of the sanctuary. Sometimes we’d plunge into the lesson, and sometimes we’d just talk about life, but no matter the topic I always felt better for the energy and love the girls committed to me. When one of them was struggling, we’d cry together; in equal measure, we celebrated each other’s triumphs. Over those four years, I was supposed to teach them about Martin Luther, but more often than not we were confronted with life lessons – divorce, suicide, even just bad grades. In the foot washing story, Jesus says, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Now I realize that by helping the girls work through these lessons, I was learning them myself.

My college experience was marked by unprecedented learning and personal growth. It was also fraught with stress, as I struggled through my chosen field of study. I declared a major in Biochemistry, intending to follow a path to medical school, but before long it became clear that science was not my forte. It seemed like no matter how hard I studied, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the material – big concepts or small. For years I felt disheartened. I pressured myself to persevere, but for most of school I barely had my head above water. I threw myself into areas where I could be successful – I volunteered; I worked a part-time job; I was the founding secretary of the Biochemistry Club and planned all of its functions. I put medical school out of my mind, and I implored God to please speak up and tell me what, exactly, I was supposed to do with my life.

At my graduation, having earned a degree I didn't feel I'd achieved and with very little idea of how to move forward, I decided to think more radically: I prayed harder, and started planning a solo trek through Europe for the month after camp ended. I was certain God would clearly show me my path on a night train somewhere between Belgium and Switzerland. I wanted Holy Spirit bullets! Fortunately, God had other plans for me that summer. Since I was broke and Europe wasn’t really an option, I looked elsewhere for God’s call. Pastor Brian Bergum, our camp Chaplain, constantly nagged me to consider seminary. I didn’t feel a call to ordination, but Pastor Bergum thought God would eventually point me there. In my journal, I wrote of “a desperation for Christ – a longing I have never experienced before. A breakthrough of sorts. An ache so deep that only God could be any sort of help.” At this point, I was trying to listen, and God was talking. I just wasn’t quite ready to embrace the answer.

To my great fortune, God is persistent. Because I was resisting, I think God started to say the same things in different ways, and finally I’m beginning to understand the message. Right now, I don’t feel a strong call to a particular ministry. I consider this a blessing, because I feel even more open to the needs of the whole church. I feel a call to seminary: I want to study theology and get a Master’s degree in Divinity. Looking ahead, I see myself teaching at the collegiate level. I am open to – and maybe even hopeful for –the change and flexibility of this plan. I think that Jesus, in his infinite wisdom and wacky sense of humor, led me down this meandering path specifically so that my busy mind had more time to process the glory of God’s great plan. I feel like Peter, and God is still saying, “Later you will understand.” I see seminary not as the “be all, end all,” but as the next in the series of steps that is God’s will for my life. Although the plan is vague, I am confident that God will point me in the right direction when the time comes.

Last fall, I flew to Dubuque to attend the Conference on Ministry at Wartburg Seminary. The weekend was really one big conversation about discerning our call, and I realized God had given me a multitude of internal and external signs of mine. For example, over my tenure at camp, a number of pastors told me variations of “If med school doesn’t work out, you really ought to consider seminary” – an external sign. Because these comments seemed obscure at the time, I categorically dismissed them. I saw my love for the girls in my confirmation class as an internal sign. The students and faculty at Wartburg answered my questions and encouraged my discernment; they washed my feet. Flying back to Colorado, I knew a theological education was in my future.

By this point, I had plans to move to Aspen to be a ski instructor for the winter – the last in a footpath of steps toward independence. Packing my car on Thanksgiving, I made sure to take all of my candidacy files – applications, viewbooks, contact information and the like. But after a month in the mountains, I got cold feet thinking about going back to school. My whole existence was so stress-free (and fun!); the thought of being a student again made me anxious. I was Peter, telling Jesus, “You’ll never wash my feet!” I didn’t get it yet – I thought that God had the plan all wrong, that I should stay put for one more year.

My own plan pacified me for six months before I felt Jesus saying, “Unless I wash you, you won’t be part of what I’m doing.” The anxiety I felt thinking about returning to school became anxiety over not going back. So I read theology. I found myself in long “God conversations,” sometimes about the relationship between Jesus and Peter. My boss ensured I always had Sundays off – another external sign – and every week I drove the 49 miles to Good Shepherd in Glenwood Springs, the closest ELCA church to Aspen. I decided to get back in shape by training for a marathon, because my body and mind weren't in tune. Just like at camp, I read, and I wrote in my journal, and I prayed, and God was in it all. Little by little, I grew so excited about the future.

This brings me here: 24 years old, ecstatic to be alive and truly blessed beyond all reason. My people – my family, whom I adore; my relatives; my wonderful and extensive network of friends and peers and colleagues – enrich my life to a greater degree than I ever thought possible. Between working, running regularly, and really exploring my surroundings (hiking, biking, skiing and lots of travel), I have created a life that fulfills me. Making myself happy, healthy, and financially independent has shown me that I’ll be able to do that wherever I end up. Looking back on my life, I see the path that led me here; looking forward, the path I see leads to seminary. My eyes are wide with anticipation, and I'm ready and excited to move forward.