Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Narrative Theology

Since the day I began the ordination process, I have told my "faith story" a thousand times. I have broadcast it in commissioning papers, seminary spiritual formation groups, church meetings, and UMW circle programs. At first, I was excited to tell it- I wanted everyone to know the path that had led to my calling. But now, I admit, it has become routine, and I often do not enjoy feeling so narcissistic as I drone on about myself.

Despite that, I take comfort in two things: One, that our stories are important to God. Jesus' life was told the in the form of a story (four of them, actually). There are countless examples in Scripture and church history of spiritual autobiographies (my suggestion is to read Acts 6 and 7, and see how the story of Stephen is crafted to fit the passion story in Luke's gospel). It is simply important that we view our lives along a trajectory in which we "wrestle" with God (see Genesis 32), a trajectory in which we are confident that God will win us over in the end. This leads me to my second point. That is that God is not finished with my faith story. If God were, I would be a pathetic example of God's power, because I know that my potential of faithfulness has not yet been reached.

As such, forgive me if the following is narcissistic. I have posted below a version of my faith story which I recently wrote for another ordination assignment. It is brief because of page limits- I would add so much more otherwise. But nonetheless, I hope it encourages you to think of your story, how far you've come, and what God has left to do with you. Enjoy.

My spiritual pilgrimage began when I was baptized at Hickory Grove United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC. Since that moment, I have experienced the love and grace of God in many ways. I grew up in Charlotte at another, larger United Methodist Church (Matthews UMC). As a child, I was always interested in the various facets of worship, especially the sermon. I joyfully participated in worship and children’s programs at that church throughout my childhood. My joy was so great that I remember, as early as age 7, considering pastoral ministry as my future vocation . Many of my role models were United Methodist pastors and I even remember engaging in theological debates with my father at a young age! As such, I have felt God’s call on my life to ministry for a very long time.

In my teenage years however, I began to distance myself from the church. I attended worship services regularly and read religious books on my own, but rarely attended youth group as I felt that it was too cliquish to be an authentic faith community. Looking back, I feel like this was one of the biggest mistakes in my life of faith. At this impressionable age, I had allowed my faith to become an individual affair based on my own feelings and knowledge. Although I had held to most of the tenets of the faith during this time, I had lost sight of one of the most crucial of those tenets- God’s call for us to live in faithful community with one another.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I began to see the importance of the community of faith. During that year, I was immersed in a college ministry at a local United Methodist congregation. Within a matter of weeks of arriving on campus, I attended Sunday School for the first time in years, attended my first mission trip, and forged several key relationships with faithful Christians, all thanks to the ministry of that local church. It was there that I began to see the potential of God’s power at work through the local church. And it was there that I began to sense that I had certain gifts that would enable me to be a congregational leader.

Despite the wonderful experience I had in my undergraduate years, it was not long after graduation that my exuberance for God began to taper. A few months after graduation, I experienced an unexpected deviation in my life’s plan as my fiancĂ©e at the time called off our impending marriage. This caused me to move back home to North Carolina, where I did not have a job, friends, or a faith community. Furthermore, I began to experience depression. This confluence of events led to the lowest point in my spiritual journey. I did not question God, but I did deviate from the church. I had a hard time finding a young adult ministry where I belonged, and I also felt strong temptations to party and be influenced by an un-churched group of friends. Church became optional for me and my social life was informed more by the corporate culture of my new employer and by the social scene. Yet somehow, in the midst of my lack of participation in the church, I still felt that God was calling me into the ordained ministry. At that point, the image of that ministry in my mind was muddled, but I was sure that God was calling me to something greater than the life I was living.

What followed was certainly the single-most influential experience in God’s call on my life. In August of 2006, I attended a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico with my former college ministry group. In Juarez, I spent time with the poorest people I had ever encountered. Yet, their faith was so great amidst their circumstances in contrast to my own faith in the midst of my affluence, that I was convicted of how far God still had yet for me to go in my life of faith.

Over the next several months, I decided to test this newfound excitement to make sure that this was my calling from God. I took a leadership role in my church’s (Myers Park UMC in Charlotte) young adult ministry (where my relationship with my wife budded). I conversed with clergy, friends, and family about my future hopes. And after these experiences affirmed my calling, I finally applied to seminary. I soon found myself at Duke Divinity School in the fall of 2007.

What followed was three years of academic challenge and intense spiritual growth. I was even able to gain experience in leadership, preaching, and teaching in the local church setting through my two rural field education placements in the summers of 2008 and 2009 (at Palmyra UMC in Germanton, NC and Orange Chapel UMC in Chapel Hill, NC, respectively).

In the spring of 2010, after months of interviewing for associate positions in United Methodist Churches, I was offered and accepted the position of Minister of Evangelism and Young Adults at Trinity UMC in Homewood, AL
. Although this church was outside of my Annual Conference, I was confident that God called me to Trinity because of its need for an experienced minister to young adults (an area of ministry that had a profound influence on my call to ministry).

My experience at Trinity has been fantastic. I have made great strides as a church leader, preacher, and pastoral caregiver. I still have much to learn, but I am excited about my growth and the potential I have to grow in this particular ministry to which God has called me.