discernment: behold the bookshelf

Growing up, I was taught that God lived in church and we spoke to him in prayers that only counted if our hands were folded and eyes closed. It’s taken me years to unlearn this, to realize that for those who are listening, God’s voice can be found anywhere and everywhere, and spoken to through all manner of actions. Meditators find Her in silence, musicians hear Her in rhythm, yogis touch Her in asanas.

I’m a reader through and through. Even before I could read, I loved the pictures in books, the worlds they contain. That love, combined with a mildly developing case of obsessive compulsion, led to an obvious career choice by the time I hit middle school: librarianship. My father suggested it, not as a matter of discernment or dreaming, but as a practicality: it fit our community’s standard of professionalism, and the skills required seemed to fit my natural abilities. So the plan was set: I would be a librarian. Specifically, I would be Dean of Libraries in an university, by the time I hit middle-age.

Occasionally I doubted my career path, but I would look at my crammed two-rows-deep bookshelf and be reassured. Certainly my towering collection of literature from all eras and for all ages pointed in this direction. Sure, there was that shelf holding works of Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, C.S. Lewis, and Donald Miller (alphabetical by last name, as compulsion demanded), but Christianity was only an aspect of my life, an interest. It had nothing to do with my search for a vocation.

My last semester of undergrad I began searching for a library science program. I drove around the midwest touring. I don’t entirely know what I was looking for on those campuses—I had compared programs and costs, pros and cons, all in an elaborate spreadsheet—but no school I toured felt right. Finally I made the thirteen-hour drive to UNC Chapel Hill, where my sister was about to start a graduate program. On paper it was the perfect option: top-ranked in the nation, my sister nearby to help me adjust, the only city in the world my parents were guaranteed to visit.

It felt wrong. The moment I set foot on campus. I still kept my appointment with admissions, of course; I politely took the brochure and application and scholarship forms, but I knew I wouldn’t be enrolling, or even applying. I told my family that I didn’t think I was “supposed to be” a librarian; they thought that I was irrational, made some comments about “that church” I had been attending.

Back in Michigan, I restlessly tried to settle myself enough to listen and discern. Despite my parents’ outspoken skepticism, I knew God would call me to something if I could stop planning long enough to hear.

I read a lot. I looked into my books for an answer.

It took a few weeks to realize that I was looking too closely, peering through a microscope when all I needed were glasses. I put the books down and took a step away from the bookcase. I started noticing a weird slant in my recent literature choices: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by Saramago; Malamud’s God’s Grace; Lamb by Moore. As I looked again at the shelf of theology, so readily ignored in past moments of discernment, the obviousness of my call broke me.

It wasn’t just the bookshelf, it was that so many things converged in my life that I hadn’t noticed until that moment. In those same weeks that I had been uncomfortably waiting for some sort of direction, I had been asked to lead a small church group in which I was a member (which I fought every step of the way; “I’m a woman” was my first excuse), asked to be involved in other parts of the church, told by my pastor that my baptism statement “changed lives”, and was approached by enough people in the congregation to begin believing his statement; I had become a kind of figure in my church, much to my surprise and my parents concern. The bookshelf broke me because, although God had been whispering in other aspects of my life, it was here that She shouted.

Of course, that’s not the end of my discernment process. There were lots of conversations and tears and prayers before the choice to enter seminary. Even now, I accept the call to study and learn of God, but there are still many questions about what’s next. Some people call being in seminary without wanting to be a pastor “denial”, but for me it’s just life. One graduating student recommended that I find a niche in which to direct my assignments, an area of focus that will guide my work and maybe lead to vocation when it’s time. This time I knew where to look: my bookcase, sorted now into literature, theology, and general nonfiction (although still by author’s last name). So many of the books in all three categories are on themes of bodyliness, physicality, complications of sex and sexuality. Which is where I’m choosing to start, averting my gaze from the stack of writing about writing, books on producing books.

And yet, that little stack nags at me, interrogates me. What are you doing at this school? Is this a four-year Resistance, delaying the work you know needs to be done? The work you were meant to do? In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says,

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Is my education in a new field something that is saving me, or a masochistic continuation of refusing to bring forth what is within me?

Unfortunately, these questions can’t be answered by my bookshelf. My theology studies epiphany came into an area into which my community had spoken and experiences were directing me. Now, my little stack of books is asking questions that I must bring outward into a community for evaluation and consideration. I must learn to have ears to hear all over the place, beyond churches and libraries.

This piece was originally written for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write on discernment; I specifically was asked to not do any more research, but to write on my experience.

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