I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to able to accomplish everything I’ve put my mind to. If I tried hard enough I could do anything. I’ve believed this about myself ever since I was a little girl. In high school, I may not have graduated at the top of my class but I did receive the “Extra Effort award, because out of all 31 students in my grade—I apparently tried the hardest. I was never particularly athletic so when I wanted to be a good softball player I bought a contraption that tethered a softball to a pole. I’d spend the majority of my evenings outside hitting this softball. Practice made perfect—and I wanted to be perfect. Except the tethering device swung at a weird angle and I developed the muscle memory to swing the bat at a weird angle. Practice, as I’m learning, doesn’t always make perfect. It’s sometimes not about trying hard enough–some behaviors and some actions are sometimes not effective.
Intellectually, I’d say I’m at least a B student. But I’ve always tried to compensate for that by working harder than everyone else. In school I’ve edged out A’s but working 3x as hard as was probably necessary. My hard work, thus far, has yielded a reasonable amount of success. I have a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in theology from Campbell and Gordon Conwell. But when it was time to move forward in academia at a top-tier school, Duke Divinity School—hard work, it seemed, wasn’t enough. When it came time to complete my Master’s thesis, I failed. My Master’s thesis was going to be my magnum opus. They asked for 50-60 pages—I wrote 100. They asked for a smaller topic, I went bigger. I ambitiously tackled what one professor said, the equivalent of three PhD dissertations or a series of books. I was passionate that I had something groundbreaking, original, and ambitious. I finished two weeks before. I read for grammar and clarity and had several people tell me how awesome, complex and original my work was. And it was rejected. The day I was to defend, I got an email saying that my ideas were great, but that it wasn’t ready. My advisors were kind enough to ignore the fact that I cried throughout the entire meeting telling me how to improve it. I walked at graduation without the degree—but my professors were kind enough to let me finish the thesis throughout the summer. But after receiving the rejection from Duke’s PhD and ThD program earlier that year—I was devastated.
So I turned my mind to other pursuits. I started applying for jobs. Maybe this was God telling me to pursue something other than academia. Maybe I just needed to find a day job? I went on countless interviews throughout the summer and became a finalist for two teaching jobs at Christian schools. Maybe this was it? I was excited to have money to buy a new car and to give Danny room to develop his legal career without worrying about money. When God opens a door—He opens a window, right? Nope. Months went by without a reply and I was rejected by both schools and countless other opportunities. Maybe ministry was the next step? I met with several pastor friends. Nope. I came to the conclusion that I have found myself in a theological persuasion that simply does not respect the gifts of theologically educated women. There’s just not a place in this denomination for me and my gifts. That is ok—I knew that coming into the denomination, disagree but yield to that Church authority. I never thought it would leave me jobless and purposeless. I greatly respect that this nameless denomination preaches the Gospel and is full of people who are committed to living a gospel life. But it hurts when I have an obvious passion for the Church and a set of skills and they just can’t seem to be used. It’s difficult to feel unwanted by Church or to feel like I don’t have a place to use my talents and skills. I really, really hope I’m wrong on this point. I maybe don’t even feel emotionally or spiritually mature/ready to jump into a hospital chaplaincy program or ministry position. It’s maybe even not the denomination, but just me. A sweet woman (who I don’t know very well) asked me politely, “So what are you doing after you finish your thesis?” I broke down in tears and told her—I have no idea.
During this season of frustration, the Psalms have provided me with the words to cry out to God. When I was scared as a little girl I often recited Psalm 23 to myself. As a way to quiet my anxious heart, I’ve taken up the habit again. When I think about post-academic life, it feels like I’m falling off a cliff into the unknown. I don’t know what the next steps are. I don’t even know what industry to apply to jobs for. I call it, in my mind, “the cliff of despair.” When this cliff overwhelms me, I repeat the words of life found in Psalm 23. David says that Christ follows me even into the shadows. Even when these thoughts overwhelm me and I find myself in the pits of despair life with mental illness brings—Christ pitches His tent in that place with me. Because even darkness is not dark to Him who calls Himself Light. David continues and he says that surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life. Looking into the uncertainty that the future brings, David says, surely this will be good because Christ is with me. The future might not be what I want—but it will be good because I know Christ’s character. I know that I am a sheep in His pasture. I know that He made me, chose me and I know that I am the very focus of His love. As long as the Author of life lives, He loves. And the only thing that He can’t do is forsake me. The future isn’t a matter of trying hard enough. It’s not a matter of me trying to make my life what I want to be. It’s a matter of knowing the character of the one who says my future is full of goodness and mercy. I might not know what to do with a failed thesis or failed academic plans. I might not know what to do with my career or with a frustrating denomination. I walk into a completely unplanned, unknown future. It’s horrifying. But I do know that surely goodness and mercy will follow me because I know the steadfast character of the one who holds all things in His hands. For right now, that’s enough.