Charting a Course Alone
“You can be anything you want,” they said. “If you can dream it, you can be it,” we were told. My generation grew up believing we could follow our bliss, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and every other cliche of the American dream. We were led to believe we were the masters of our own destinies.
I remember a moment I realized we’d been fed lies. I was standing with a friend I had been close to all through high school and college. I was on a break from grad school and he had been in the workforce before heading to law school. We stood on a balcony talking about where our lives had gone since college, about to go our separate ways again. Barely into our twenties, we had weariness in our voices already. “Nothing has turned out the way I thought it would,” he said. I saw the disillusionment in his eyes that mirrored my own. We had been launched out into a world we weren’t ready for, ill-equipped to face reality, and had no one to guide us when everything went topsy-turvy. I felt so alone.
Twenty years later, I watch nieces and nephews graduate and step into the same uncertainty. I watch my eldest with dread, realizing her turn to step into the great unknown is closer than I want to think. How can we help the next generation face reality better than we did? How can we equip them to chart a course that works? I am getting tiny glimpses into the answers to those questions as I, myself, navigate my next steps.
When Our Maps No Longer Work
My personal and professional life has been fraught with life-altering decisions I have second and twenty-second guessed. Two international moves around the world and back, my husband’s mid-life career change, and a late-in-life change of church traditions for myself have left me reeling in the past few years. I’ve been asking God for assurances that I made the right decisions or to show me how to make better ones in the days ahead.
My family felt alone in making many of these massive decisions. No one in the non-profit we just left or our home church helped us figure out how to re-enter life in the United States after two years living in South Asia. Confused and alone, we reached out and felt a void reaching back for us. The map we’d been given didn’t work and we didn’t know where to turn.
Stopping to Ask for Directions
I knew God was moving me into something deeper but I didn’t know what or how to figure that out by myself. I sent out a cry for help and took steps to surround myself with people to walk beside me. I needed some fresh eyes to help me see what I couldn’t see clearly for myself. I joined a new church where I felt I could really open my life to others. I found a spiritual director and a mentor. I returned to seminary, determined to finish the degree I started all those years ago as that idealistic twenty-something.
When people asked why I was back in school (meaning, what financial return would there be and what job would it lead to), I responded that I didn’t yet know. I just knew this was a step God had led me to and I knew I needed some guidance to figure out what might come next. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel like I needed all the answers. I began to understand what Barbara Brown Taylor meant when she said, “We are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection.”
Trusting the Guideposts
As I immersed myself in conversations, prayer, and listening a clear way forward didn’t just open up for me. Yet, one step at a time became illuminated as I went. My new priest encouraged me to consider preaching, something I had been told in my previous baptist church was closed to me as a woman. I shrugged it off until another and another and another suggested I had God-given gifts I was neglecting. I met weekly with strong women leaders who poured into me and helped me deal with doubt, loss, and anxiety that had followed me for years. Any fellow students that would take the time to jump on a zoom call with me shared their stories and I soaked them up.
After the third spiritual gift test I was given in various classes told me I had gifts in teaching and shepherding, I started to take notice. After the fourth woman who has spent decades in ministry and got to know me in the past year suggested I take homiletics (preaching class), I enrolled. Two years after that first gentle nudge, I am loving every minute of studying the art of preaching. In two weeks I will preach at my church for the first time.
Am I terrified? Yes. Do I take this seriously? More than any decision I have made in a long time. Am I sure this is the right path? Without a doubt.
What is different this time? Why am I not second-guessing this when there are people in my life who disagree with this decision? The people who have taken the time to walk with me through the measured and prayerful walk to this place are hearing the same answer from God that I am. In all honesty, they’ve had to reassure me that I can do this, that God is in this. It’s as if we’re all seeing the same guideposts leading in the same direction, and I am trusting that.
We Were Never Meant to Walk Alone
I am working to trust those who have gone on this road before to help me find my way. I am taking seriously the notion that our lives are not our own but that we belong to a Body of Christ that helps us when our footing isn’t sure.
“As we grow in spiritual maturity, we move beyond the need for specific rules and answers into the darkness of God where we must act in faith rather than certainty,” I read recently in Listening Hearts: Discerning a Call in Community. “Discernment does not imply fully comprehending God’s will, but rather it raises the question, What is the next step God wants me to take?”
I am reading this book along with six other church members. We are meeting together over the summer to pray and discuss the next steps in my official ministry with the church. This is a required step with my denomination if I want to move toward ordained ministry. I am so thankful for those who are sitting with me to map out a plan. I am trusting them to walk with me as we ask God together how I can best serve the church. And I am trusting God to make it clear to us in community.
Charting a Course Together
If I could go back and tell my young self anything and if I can give my daughter any tool as she prepares for the road ahead, it would be this: Travel with others. There’s no need to try to go it alone! It’s not safe or wise.
Find others who have been where you want to go and ask them for guidance. Place yourself in friendships and in faith communities that help you get to know yourself and others and who help you make careful, prayerful decisions. Ask for help over and over again. Be humble enough to listen and take wise advice. Believe what others see in you because they have wisdom you do not and perspectives you don’t have. Then, take each step as it comes.