“But do you believe in you?”
The question landed like a punch in my mid-section, my throat constricting around the rising emotion. “I am trying,” I croaked in response as I attempted to force down tears.
The question was posed by one member of the commission charged with interviewing prospective Priests like myself, those who believed God was calling them into the holy vows of ordained ministry.
I told him how I ended up in that very interview carried on the belief of others, because I chose to listen to what they said they saw in me. I never would have entered the discernment process last year if other people had not spurred me on, saying they saw gifts in me that I couldn’t yet see in myself.
It was the year in which the word “explore” was embodied in every area of my life and I was discovering new lands at every turn. The Priesthood was not a destination I ever imagined for myself, but I committed to following the arrows God placed before me, like the compass that pointed ever true North.
Now at the threshold between years, I look back on the year of exploration, content. I didn’t reach a destination, but I found something more precious: myself.
I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to fit myself into the mold others made for me. I floated between roles in the church and non-profits, and between countries and cultures seamlessly. The adaptability that has been a gift in my ministry across denominations and on three continents has been a curse, too. My chameleon skin, able to take on the color of my surroundings, has changed so many times I didn’t remember the hue of my own flesh anymore.
As I peeled away the layers of others’ expectations, my own fears, a lack of boundaries, and the need for control—I found someone I had forgotten.
She loves God fiercely. She is a gifted communicator. She lights up when she’s among people who have a similar disdain for small talk and want to go deep in spiritual conversation. She loves to help and serve, but she is also a leader. She is a learner at heart but enjoys sharing what she’s learned with others. That makes her a teacher. She’s a bridge builder, able to reach across divides. Her smile is contagious. She has the gift of faith, and can see God working in places others overlook.
It is work every day to believe in myself, to trust that this is who God made me to be, and admit the good things God is working out in me. But after two decades of shrinking back and making myself smaller, I am planting a stake in the ground right here.
Parker Palmer said before we can tell our lives what we want to do with them, we must listen to our lives telling us who we are. “I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity,” he said, “not the standards by which I must live—but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”
My word for 2023 came quickly and firmly into my mind in late December. It feels like a risky word and I admit it scares me more than a little.
“You are incapable of being okay being still, spinning your wheels,” she said. “You are only happy when you are moving forward.”
She is right. This friend has heard me process all my ups and downs during this year of exploration. She has been a safe place to process all my fears, to talk through off-the-wall dissertation ideas, and has just shown up and said, “I see you” when I feel like no one else does.
Her comment about my need for forward motion came after hearing my voice lilt with sadness all week and then pick up with a note of excitement when I told her about the possibility of some new adventures ahead.
The ache I’d been nursing in my heart came from an answer I didn’t want to hear: wait. I’d been so used to the momentum that the screeching halt sent me reeling down a sideroad to dark places that week.
The word “explore” launched me down a trajectory this year that has been often dizzying. I chose it as my One Word for 2022, perhaps hopeful like most people that this year would be the year the world started moving again after nearly two years of holding our breath.
I knew the Spirit was stirring up something deep in my soul that I couldn’t yet name. So, I was determined to follow the path forward until I figured it out. No part of my life remained untouched this year by change and I was committed to riding that transformation into a new, exciting purpose.
Trying to Fit Into Someone Else’s Clothes
You know that feeling, the burning desire to make it fit even though you know it won’t? You wiggle; you inhale, and you try just one more time.
Here I sit, a bundle of fur warming my side, basking in the warm glow of the Christmas tree—and it all looks picture-perfect. Yet, I’ve always felt like I inhabit the fringes of life.
Even as I round middle age, I feel like I fit awkwardly into this life I’ve worn for decades like a pair of hand-me-down jeans a little too long for my short legs and too tight around my wide hips.
This year I’ve spent a lot of time exploring who I really am, peeling away the layers of false selves I have worn over the years. We all put them on, that baggy coat to hide our flaws. That glamorous dress to divert their eyes from our insecurities.
Maybe it’s the don’t-care attitude I’ve heard we take on in our later years. Perhaps it’s the liminal space of being back in graduate school and wrestling with a twenty-year-old calling to ministry that has seen its share of detours, diversions, and dead-ends.
Either way, I’ve been throwing off the distortions and trying to find the right fit. And for the first time, I’ve realized I’m not the only fringe-dweller in the spaces I long to find a home.
Getting Naked In Front of Strangers
When I’m nervous and out of place, I ramble. I feel compelled to fill the awkward silence with a lumbering monologue instead. As anxious as I was, I spent a lot of time listening this year instead.
Forced to slow down and seek the wisdom of others as I entered the discernment process with my church, I found myself with others in the same uncomfortable limbo as myself. I was one of a dozen people who felt compelled to pursue a possible journey into ordained ministry. Thrown together in this vulnerable process, we stripped down to our barest selves in front of strangers.
We sat in Zoom rooms and conference rooms, the offices of our church leaders, and in intimidating interviews with Commission on Ministry members. We told our raw and unfiltered stories, with trembling and a few tears.
Trying Jesus on For Size
For me, it was a year of uncovering layers of my complicated history with the Body of Christ. I was a child who didn’t know who the Jesus figure that came out in manger scenes was. I knew there was something important about him and longed to know more. The youth group of my teens nurtured me and then discarded me like an ill-fitting pair of pants.
I was introduced to versions of Jesus who wanted me to do all the right things and ones who loved me like a best friend. There were ones who kept records of my sins in heavenly file cabinets, waiting to judge my failings—and ones who held no record of wrongs. I did my best to decipher who Jesus was when I wasn’t even sure who I was.
I thought I had it all figured out by the time I was on staff at the mega-church I’d spend a large portion of my life in. On the outside, I looked like a perfectly-polished Christian. Husband and two kids, the van, the Christian preschool, and obligatory Insta-worthy birthday parties. I looked just like everyone else so that meant I belonged, right?
Never mind the uneasiness that rattled around my soul, the lack of connection with the Jesus I longed to know intimately, and the theological issues I thought would go away if I ignored them.
It was a beautiful place; it was just not the place I belonged. And I knew it and pretended not to. It was easier that way—until it wasn’t. Until my desperate, dry, lonely soul cried out to move from the fringes to the place where the Spirit could live and move in me...
I held the plastic cup of juice in one hand, a tiny square cracker in the other. In my chair, I tried to focus all my thoughts on God and let all else fall away. This symbolic act of taking communion was designed to bring me closer to the Lord. Head bowed, it was just me and Jesus. Until I realized it wasn’t…
Countless throngs of angels stand before you to serve you night and day; and, beholding the glory of your presence, they offer you unceasing praise. Joining with them, and giving voice to every creature under heaven, we acclaim you, and glorify your Name…
I came of age in my faith in a tradition that didn’t place a strong emphasis on what is sometimes called The Lord’s Supper, Communion, or the Eucharist. A few times a year we would come to a service to find trays of individual juice and wafers had been placed around the room. Like the other elements of the Baptist worship I experienced, it was an emphasis on each of us connecting with the Lord, individually. Communion was largely seen as a symbol of remembrance, reminding us of the sacrifice Jesus made for each of us and allowing us an opportunity to evaluate our personal relationship with God.
In your mercy you came to our help, so that in seeking you we might find you. Again and again, you called us into covenant with you, and through the prophets you taught us to hope for salvation…
I hold out my hands in expectation, waiting alongside others. I smile at the little girl to my right, excitedly squirming as her mom whispers instructions in her ear. The person kneeling to my left brushes against me as he makes the sign of the cross and places his elbow close to mine on the rail. I look around the circle at members of my community. I’ve only been a member of this Episcopal parish for a year, so I’m still getting to know everyone. But the Priest knows every name. I listen as she makes her way around to me, stopping to look each person in the eye.
After she hands a wafer to the family to my right, she reaches back to the silver plate stacked with wafers and picks one up. She winks and smiles as she places it in my palm. “Nicole, the body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” she says. Here I receive communion; I don’t take it. It is given to me, a gift each week—the centerpiece of our worship. The chalice bearer follows behind her, wipes the edge of the cup, and turns it before offering it to my upturned face. Slowly, the wine crosses my lips as he reminds me this is the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.
To fulfill your purpose, he gave himself up to death; and, rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new. And, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all…
When I found myself no longer able to pray, in the throes of depression and anxiety, I reached out to friends around the world. They promised to pray the words I couldn’t, to carry me through my wilderness. I lived 8000 miles from home in South Asia when I realized how desperately I needed a community around me. Just me and Jesus alone weren’t enough; we were never meant to be.
In a time when I felt more alone than ever, I discovered the gift the Body of Christ can be. It was the prayers of friends, the wisdom of a Spiritual Director, and the listening ear of a counselor who pulled me from the abyss. I needed someone to stand before me and remind me Jesus was present. I needed someone to set a place at the table for me, to hold out the cup to my thirsty lips.
After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and said, "Drink this, all of you…
The Eucharist isn’t only a remembrance of the Last Supper when Jesus said the words hear repeated each week. It is meant to be a foretaste of the Great Banquet that is to come. Jesus reminds us that one day he will eat the Passover again with us when it “finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” The disciples would have understood Jesus’ reference to a Great Feast to come, a time when “the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples.” Jesus often spoke to his followers about preparing for the feast that is to come. I spent so much of my life thinking this meant preparing myself alone—personal reflection, personal growth, and personal worship.
A feast is not to be eaten alone. A banquet table is not set for one...
If you've been following along my seminary journey, you know this is a BIG month for me. Today is my last day of Homiletics (the art of preaching) class and will graduate with my Master of Arts in Practical Theology from Winebrenner Theological Seminary on July 30! Emails are flowing right now about graduation details AND fall registration details. That's because I received my official admission letter to the Doctor of Ministry program at Winebrenner this morning!
I actually finished my Master's level courses in the fall but because I have a MA and not an MDiv, I needed two more classes to qualify for admission into the program and I have been praying about the next steps. God's direction has become clear this year as leaders at Winebrenner allowed me to take a Doctoral level class in January, and I have entered the Discernment process with the Episcopal Church.
Through it all, I received many confirmations that I am on the right path. I know there is something new happening in this next season, though I don't yet know what that will look like. I am taking one step at a time as God makes it clear.
After years of writing publically and being afraid to call myself a real writer because it's not my full-time job, I have been able to claim the title of writer because I believe it is a gift God has given me that I am using for God's glory. I am learning to accept my own unique voice in the world.
After years of studying religion and theology but not having the credentials behind my name or feeling equipped to claim it, I am claiming the title of Theologian. I know God has gifted me with this desire to always learn and dive deeper into the study of God. I know God has equipped me with the longing and ability to help others learn to listen to God, learn from others, and lead lives that love.
So, here I am. Theologian. Writer. Discerner. And in the fall, Doctoral student!
Winebrenner is a wonderful school where I've found my place! It is a small Evangelical school. But wait, I am Episcopalean. Yes, but I've attended many churches throughout my life and travels, with my main home being the Evangelical church for most of my life. Take any time to poke around my writings and you will see my passion for Ecumenism and the Global Church. I believe the diversity of the church is part of the strength of the church, not a weakness.
No, division and in-fighting is not a strength. But diversity is about so much more than that. Each denomination and cultural expression of the Christian tradition has a piece of the puzzle and has strengths that reflect the complex and mysterious nature of God. I believe we can and should learn from each other. We can be stronger together. We can have a whole picture, instead of just one piece of the puzzle, if we will look to others' strengths to cover our weaknesses. None of us has it all right, and we can find value in each other.
That's why I love Winrebrenner—because they value diversity and welcome those of us from other traditions to come to learn alongside them. I believe whatever my future in the church may be, it will not be solely in the Episcopal church, but in writing, speaking, or learning from and teaching the breadth of the Body of Christ. And so, I want to keep learning in a diverse community. Not to mention, I love the faculty and staff who have encouraged me and helped me grow more in the last year and a half than ever before. Winebrenner has been a place I have flourished and drawn close to God. I can't wait to continue to do so over the next few years.
My family’s support carries me through the long days of work and the nights of class and writing. When I get that old familiar mom guilt that says I should not be investing in school when I have a teen who will be entering college in a few years (shh, I am in denial that she is old enough for that, anyway), I talk to my daughter about class. Her eyes light up as she says, “Mom, you’re going to be a Doctor? Did you ever believe you would do this?” She says she sees how happy I am in the Episcopal church, how at home I look in the pulpit. These are the moments I cling to in times of doubt.
It is a sacrifice of time and money for our family as we are still rebuilding our life in the U.S. after moving home from Bangladesh three years ago. God has provided at every turn with government grants during COVID that allowed for affordable monthly tuition rates. I was able to finish my entire Master’s program remotely. A few unexpected scholarships cushioned the cost. As I begin my Doctoral program, I will need to travel only twice to take classes in the low-residency program. I will take classes and research for two years and finish my Dissertation in the third year.
This part is exceedingly hard for me - the finances. God has shown me over and over that I'm in exactly the right place. Last year I received a scholarship that covered half my tuition. I didn't know how we would afford it going back up to full price this year when we had to buy a house last fall. But, I just got the news that my scholarship has been renewed for this year!! I expect I need around $2500 to cover this year’s tuition, books, and in-person class this summer. If anyone feels compelled to give toward these expenses, I can provide Venmo, Paypal, or Zelle account information (just shoot me an email - firstname.lastname@example.org). I’ve spent my life amazed at the generosity of those who believed in our family’s calling and partnered with us to make our support-based service in non-profits overseas possible. It never gets easier to ask for partners to come alongside our ministry. It also never gets less amazing when God provides in surprising ways, so please reach out if you feel led. I am so excited for this journey and to see where God takes us together!
Listening with you,