I should probably start by admitting something I’ve been having a difficult time admitting to myself recently: finding a home in the denomination that raised me is harder than it has ever been. I’m struggling; I’m trying really, really hard. But being a young person in a rapidly changing world situated in a denomination that doesn’t always do a great job at telling the truth about the changing world is no easy journey. But it’s a journey I haven’t quite given up on yet.
Many people my age write angry letters and vicious blog posts that list their grievances on shattered tablets of stone. I must confess that I have been tempted to do the same thing. “You could but change the rocks into bread.” But I think I’d rather just tell you my story – the story of an odd bunch of holiness people convinced that God has called them to be a blessing to the world, people convinced that the name “Church of the Nazarene” means something – that we are the church for the ones nobody thought anything good could come from. These are the people that raised me, and this story is why I’m longing to stay.
I was raised in a little Church of the Nazarene in South Charleston, West Virginia. I learned the Beatitudes in that church long before I learned that growing up in West Virginia attending a small country church is supposed to somehow make your faith journey second-rate, like choosing a state college over a public university. I would learn that unfortunate perception later. To me it wasn’t “country,” “rural,” or “backwards.” To me it was just home.
Starting at a young age, I began riding donkeys through Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Most people would call it a “live nativity.” Looking back, I call it walking through the story that shaped me with my own flesh and blood. I didn’t care if they were props or not. I didn’t care that the Roman soldiers took hot chocolate breaks when the snow poured. To me – I was in Bethlehem. I saw baby Jesus – sometimes real, sometimes fake – and there’s no way you’d convince me I wasn’t really seeing incarnation happen before my eyes. You still couldn’t convince me as a seminarian. Whatever it was we did, the whole village gathered every year for the thousands of cars that drove by. It was our mission. It was somehow a calling to us. It was an ecclesiological act of love for our community. Of course, we didn’t actually see the cars. They didn’t have cars in Bethlehem in 3 B.C. (or 0 A.D.). Duh.
This is the church that surrounded me with love and encouragement the first time I squawked my first notes on a saxophone. I apologize to all of you. But you kept letting me play – and, if I may say so myself – after a couple years, it wasn’t so hard on the ears anymore. Many churches guard “special music” like the soldiers at the tomb – it’s reserved for the people that are actually good, that will make a beautiful sound. Everyone else gets the evening service. But the denomination I know has always said the most true and beautiful sound is a young person squawking as best they can in a joyful noise to their creator. It’s a kind of support and love that the Church of the Nazarene has always extended so dearly to children. And pretty soon, those children don’t play like children anymore.
Most importantly, this little Church of the Nazarene was where I was baptized. I remember not thinking it would be a big deal as a middle schooler. And then I remember being wrong. I left my glasses on so I could see the faces of the people that were calling me as their own. Years later, I would visit the Jordan River with a group from my alma mater. Looking back, I see that the waters in the baptismal font in West Virginia were just as powerful as the waters that baptized Jesus. After I came up out of the water, the metaphoric Nazarene dove descended on me. The community gathered around and said, “Well, now you’re one of us.”
Throughout the years at Davis Creek Church of the Nazarene, I had fun, I went to trunk or treat, I attended youth group, the choir director became my high school biology teacher. But the seeds were planted that would lead others to say that ministry was more than a habit to me – it was a vocational call that I had never seen before. I would have never sensed that calling without those people in West Virginia. I hope and pray they were right. Because if not – this is all your fault!
Life changed when I went to college. And no, I did not start college at Trevecca. When I soon learned that the large public university I chose to attend wasn’t going to be a good fit, Trevecca called me and asked me to find a better story with them. Before I ever knew there was a Trevecca Nazarene University, Trevecca Nazarene University knew there was a me. And the love that I found in a small church in West Virginia, somehow I found on a college campus in Nashville. I never dreamed college would be a place where professors came alongside you as a mentor and friend to journey in the faith alongside you – but by the grace of God, I didn’t have to go looking for that fellowship. That fellowship came looking for me. And I’m so glad they did. I also didn’t know it was possible to have that much fun, especially with a bunch of Nazarenes. My first week on campus I ended up on the front porch of Dan Boone’s house with a group of friends while we held a contract for the return of a stuffed horse I had suggested to my roommates we steal from a girls’ dorm. (It’s a long story – trust me.) I expected that the college president would be infuriated. Instead, he just laughed and signed the document. (I’m not suggesting such a tactic to the current students of Trevecca, though. Definitely not.)
More than being a family, though, my professors reminded me of a calling to ministry I had moved on from. I entered Trevecca as a music business major, but after taking the intro-level Gen Ed course for religion, some of the professors lovingly told me that I was in the wrong field of study. I didn’t really want to believe them, because I was worried about life as a pastor. Those professors encouraged me that college itself is a calling – that one goes to college to get an education, not a job. And then my philosophy professor asked me what the one thing was that I needed out of my education – did I want to learn a skill set, or did I want to find a new story? I changed my major the next day. All because Nazarene women and men cared.
Trevecca gave me opportunities to lead, to explore and wrestle with my faith tradition, and to dance (scandalous!). I made lifelong friends that included me in a community that lived and breathed by the rule of its worship – but there was also plenty of times for play. Perhaps most impactful to me, though was the opportunity to preach. Trevecca has a knack for training its preachers by baptism through fire. I wobbled up to the front of a chapel service one morning on jelly legs and preached my first sermon in Boone Convocation Center. One sermon followed another, and then I stood in front of a group of students as the student body chaplain. A ministry was discovered because of a family of Nazarene students and teachers affirming me and my calling.
These days my journey continues at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Seminary has blessed me with the opportunity to continue growing theologically and pastorally as I respond to a call I can’t seem to get away from. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a sort of Nazarene exile – except this time they’re not Babylonians, they’re just Methodists! (Don’t worry; I’m working for the good of my own country.) Candler has given me the extraordinary chance to engage in prison chaplaincy, to study under renown scholars, and to find a diverse and vibrant community of faith. Yet I still haven’t lost touch with my Nazarene roots. I still worship with Nazarenes, commune with Nazarenes, and minister with Nazarenes as we seek out those places of brokenness and helplessness and then “take on flesh and move into the neighborhood.”
Yet now is the time I must be deeply honest with you. As I have grown, I have seen far more of the world than I ever could have imagined I would see by age 23. And as I have seen more of the world, I have seen more of its people – its beautiful, variegated, and multifaceted people. And as I have grown, I have seen how the people I love, this Church of the Nazarene that I call home – I have seen how we have not always been faithful to our call to be called unto holiness to be a blessing to the world.
As I look at the world around me and see all the despair that permeates every square inch of the atmosphere on planet earth, I have been looking to my denomination for hope. I find that hope in who we are, yes – but sadly, I also see a people struggling with legalism (we still haven’t gotten past prohibition), a people afraid, stubborn, and unwilling to have necessary and bold conversations about human sexuality, and a people disconnected from their roots to seek out messiness. I see a people that proudly affirms women in ministry but does not always treat them well, nor peoples and minorities of all language and color. But most painfully, I see a people who, in the efforts of not becoming a stumbling block to those in need, have used doctrines and policies to hurt those in need – and in turn have become a stumbling block.
I want you to know that I’m really, really trying to make a difference. But I need you to know that it’s hard right now. It’s hard to see my people struggle to face the hard questions of the 21st Century. It’s hard to see my people systematically lose track of their young people, especially their young clergy. It’s hard to sit back and see so many companions flock to the UMC or other denominations that are having the conversations we tend to avoid.
But you are my people. You walked through Bethlehem with me, taught me to love my neighbor, submerged me in water and then raised me again to new life, educated my mind, body, and soul, and sent me to preach the Gospel. You raised me. And you have my word that I am going to stick around as long as I can. I only pray that you can see the faces of so many young people you have raised that are walking in the same shoes as me right now – people that need the denomination to speak the truth in love about the progress we need to make. So, so many of us are longing to stay.
I and so many other young people in the Church of the Nazarene want to be a part of this thing God is doing to use a called out people to be an instrument of blessing to all creation. We want to partner in the work of God alongside a people that believes with everything in them that holiness is not a curse to live by, but an instrument of redemption which finds that the most abundant form of joy is the kind that sojourns with the world’s suffering. We’re ready and willing to take up that call.
Would you help us stay?
With Grace and Peace, and as one of your own,