When criticism gets in God’s way

criticismBy Emily Holladay

This post was originally featured on Call and Response, a blog sponsored by Duke Divinity’s Faith & Leadership program. Two years after I wrote this post, I find myself searching for ways to extend learning and mentoring relationships so that there is a place for the young, energetic minister and the wise, seasoned minister (maybe even from different churches!) to share together in the learning process.

This year, my home church started its first contemplative service on Thursday nights. Going to seminary, working at a church and maintaining regular hours at my weekday job makes it difficult to get back, but my ministers talked all semester about how great the service was and how much they wished I could come be a part of it. So once my classes were over and I had some extra time, I decided to make the trek home for the contemplative service and extended visiting with friends.

Apparently I picked the wrong week. Out of the two ministers who normally planned the service, one was at a meeting and the other (who normally played piano for the service) was recovering from wrist surgery. Instead of the tranquil lilt of piano music guiding our thoughts and prayers, we were serenaded with recordings of contemporary music I have been taught to scrutinize for lacking theological depth. We were asked to sing with piano accompaniment recordings but could not find our place because the melody was indistinguishable.

The contemplative service was meant to be a time of rest and reflection after a busy week, but the many distractions impeded my worship.

As a seminary student, it is often difficult to sit through any worship service without critiquing every little detail. I just spent a semester in worship class, engaging every element of a good worship service and noting those moments that fall below our incredibly high standards. I learned to think about the subliminal messages we, as ministers, send our congregation when we do not approach worship planning with intentionality and care.

Sitting in my church’s contemplative service, all my worship class instincts infected my mind. By the end, I had a list of things I thought could have been done better, should have been done differently or should have been left out altogether. I had criticized the service but missed out on the worship.

Afterward, I went out to dinner with one of the ministers, who admitted that the service was not the best and wished I had come on a different night. I refrained from recounting my list of faux pas with her, and simply said, “I wish I were still here so I could help out!”

And I meant it without a hint of irony. I need a place where I can share my perspective, a place where I can question and engage, a place where I can try new things and see what happens. My church needs me, too. The church needs someone eager with fresh views, someone who will question and prod in ways that helps worship become deeper and more meaningful. I can only imagine what I could bring to the table if I were invited!

But I wish I could be there for one more important reason: so my church could remind me how to worship.

Perhaps more than I need a space to engage what I’ve learned, I need my ministers to help me see church and worship through spiritual eyes, rather than academic goggles. I need their wisdom to help me worship, instead of criticizing. I need this because I am not sure how long it will take to unlearn my classroom instincts once I am serving in a ministry position post-seminary.

I am not unique. I don’t know a seminary student who doesn’t struggle to sit through worship or a sermon without running through the checklist of things they learned in class to judge how good it was. And it’s hard to find God on a checklist.

Churches and students could benefit from a mentoring model that allows students to critically engage worship, while receiving wisdom on how to simply be in worship. In the end, churches would be stronger, and the students would be more well-rounded and prepared for their own church ministry.

The Magic of Baptism

Nerves taking hold!

By Emily Holladay

“Can I just put my toe in real quick?” the girls squeaked as we waited behind the baptistry for the service to begin. Nervous energy invaded the space between each of us and the girls wanted to do something… anything to feel prepared.

With a twinkle in my eye and a knowing smile on my face, I replied, “Yes, but just your toe and don’t let anyone see you.”

“Oh! Miss Emily – it’s so warm! It feels so good. Did you feel it? You have to come feel it!”

I didn’t feel it. As the girls ran in succession to get closer to the water, I backed further away. Because the closer I was to the water – the more I could feel the humidity rising through each strand of my hair – the more I could sense the magic and wonder of the cleansing waters calling out to me.

Today, I will stand in those waters as God’s chosen vessel, welcoming three young girls into the body of Christ. Today, I will lead in the ritual that all ministers love to do and none get to nearly enough. Today, I will be bonded to three beautiful, innocent, eager children forever.

But, as I look at the water, I am scared out of my mind. I was 7-years-old the last time I stood in front of a sanctuary full of people soaked in water. Twenty years have passed since that day and now I am on the other side.

When I was 7, my dad stood beside me, holding me up and guiding me into the waters. His arm kept me steady as I became submerged, kicking my feet up (even thought he told me not to).

Twenty years later, my dad is not here, and I am the one called to stand beside these jittery young ladies as their robes absorb the warm water and their eyes take in the number of faces staring back at them – many with tear stained eyes. I am the one who will rub their back as their little fingers shake and their stomachs turn to knots. And I will be the one to hold them steady as they lean back and take the plunge into the holy waters of baptism.

When they come back up, I will be the first face they see, smiling back at them, reminding them of God’s words just for them, “You Morgan. You Lily. You Carli – are my child whom I love. With you, I am well pleased.”

Some people will tell you that there’s no magic in the water – that we’re Baptist, so it’s just a symbol. But, today, as I creep toward the water, hesitant to stick my toe in and claim my role as God’s minister, I know those people are wrong.

Baptist or not, there is magic in those waters, and I know because I can see it in the eyes of three little girls who are as eager as they are nervous. I know because I sense it in the pride of the community gathered in the sanctuary, knowing that in this moment, these three girls join them on a journey that transcends generations.

I know that there is magic in the water, because I feel it in the presence of the saints like Amanda and Madison, Kim and Mike, Truett and Ernie, and all those who have entered the water before as baptized and baptizer alike.

This water is full of magic, and as I dip my toe, foot, ankle, leg, and body down the stairs and into the pool, I feel the hand of God resting on my back, holding me up and guiding me through the water. I know that my Father God is standing beside me, just as my own dad stood firmly planted to my left those 20-years-ago, and more than ever before, I am aware of my ordination and my calling to be God’s messenger and to share God’s story for such a time as this.

The Reverend Emily Holladay is an ordained Baptist Minister and author from Decatur, Georgia.  This article is reprinted with permission.  It first appeared under the title, “There is Magic in the Water,” on Rev. Holladay’s blog, Rev On the Edge.