When I decided to go back to school in my 30’s, I was (blissfully) unaware of how hard it would be…how the crunch of learning how to learn again would feel a lot like getting back on the treadmill after being out of shape for years. But just like we get pumped at the start of a new year to join a gym and get healthy, I was excited about the adventure ahead and ready to buy all the books and get going.
Once my classes started and I got acquainted with how to do college online (self-pacing of work, communication almost entirely through email, terrible web format, and all), I felt pretty good about my new learning community. I had found a place to grow alongside others, and even in our diversity of locations and career paths, we were on an even playing field, together. Yes, I was in the minority as a woman studying theology, and yes, it felt a little odd to be among (already employed) pastors and ministry leaders as a stay-at-home-mom-who-studies, but most of that anxiety was calmed by the sheer enjoyment of the experience. We were students, plain and simple. All disclaimers aside, we were eager to learn the scripture and church history and all that came with it.
But then life happened. I had the opportunity to start a new job –one that had my heart– and I went for it. It seemed as if my vocational path was stretching before me and I could faintly make out the contours of the road. Oh yes! That makes sense! I thought.
And then our family had another great “life” moment and I had the hilariously uncomfortable conversation with my new boss (of two weeks) that actually, I was pregnant again.
Which, of course, eventually put the school track on hold. I studied and worked and grew our third son for the majority of 2017 and it was amazing really, a year of so much growth (literally and figuratively! ha) until I couldn’t any longer. He was ready to be born and everything had to be laid down, to be put on “pause,” for as long as it took to adjust to our new normal. He came into this world and our family was made whole, all over again. I was exhausted, happy, and not a bit perplexed about what had just happened. It had been a whirlwind of a year.
As soon as I was gaining my footing as a mother of three, I began to feel the draw back to my books. After much prayer and uncertainty (where would the tuition money come from? what about the dream job? how would it affect my children’s education?), I re-applied and waited. There was a “fleece” put out, if you get what I mean, and then the Lord made it clear that He was providing a way forward. So I stepped out again, less sure of myself than when I first began.
For the sake of your time and this post, I will skip forward to where I am today. I have been back in school for 16 months now, but because of the gap year after having our son, I have been delayed from my peer group for our original graduation date. They will walk this May–I will not. My finish line will likely be sometime next spring, and for my high-achieving type personality, this has not been an easy thing to settle in my heart. It has challenged the part of me that loves schedules, goals, ways of measuring my own success by my own strength. It has caused me to separate from the pack, to go on my own unique timeline and journey, and it hasn’t been without tears. The twisting and turning of the path has caused me to ask questions like, Why does it seem like God has lead me on a wild goose chase? This doesn’t make sense to my brain…is it okay to feel lonely? Where is my place in this whole story? Can someone please explain my own life to me?
At this point, I want to bring you into my personal study of Romans 1:1-7 from earlier this week. I believe that the Lord wants to encourage our hearts with a specific aspect of truth that gets often overlooked.
“And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”
(Rom. 1:6-7, NIV)
It was standard protocol for ancient Greco-Roman writers to begin their letters with the pattern of– “Sender to Recipient, Greetings.” It would be as if I began my blog to you with– “Sara, writer of blog, to You, dear readers of blog, Welcome!” Or something like that, but probably a bit more poetic.
This was the general letter form for ancient (1st and 2nd century) writers and we see the evidence of it throughout the Biblical epistles to the early church. Where the author of a letter might not be fully acquainted with the recipients just yet (say, if the author is sending the letter before he is able to visit the church), he may take the opportunity to expound on his own credentials, and even to foreshadow the theme of the letter. The letter to Rome was no exception.
When we are reading the New Testament epistles, sometimes it’s easy to kind of skim over the greeting and just rush on to the good stuff. I don’t blame you, this is just how our email-trained 21st century brains are accustomed to behaving (skim over greeting, catch the bullet points, totally ignore the closing), but if we can take a moment to slow down in our scripture reading, we might be surprised at what speaks life to our hearts.
As a brief side note, the ancient Christian practice of lectio divina (Latin phrase for “spiritual reading”) simply means that we approach the study of scripture with a heart posture to receive, to learn, to be transformed by what we read–not to master the material. In a sense, we are submitting ourselves to the text, as we recognize it to be the living word of God, and to the work of the Holy Spirit in that moment. So as we read a portion of the letter that could easily be dismissed as insignificant, we are instead invited to see something more (a treasure for those who are seeking!)
In Paul’s salutation to the Romans (ch. 1) he accomplishes three things.
First, he establishes the “Christological formula” in v. 3-4 by detailing Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection, thus proving his authority as the Christ/Messiah.
“…regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Second, Paul establishes himself in v. 5 as both a recipient and a mediator of Jesus’ empowerment by the Spirit (“grace”) and call/authority (“apostleship”) to take the gospel to the Gentiles (which is basically everyone beyond the Jews/Israel.) Paul makes the point that it is only by faith (πίστεως, pisteōs, active belief, trust) that we can live lives that honor the call.
“Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.”
And finally, we see this precious phrase and invitation in v. 6,
“And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”
This is the crux of what the Lord desires for his people–that we would wake up to the reality of what we’ve been called to; or shall I phrase it this way–WHO we’ve been called to!
But what I am talking about is both/and here; we are both called to belong to Jesus Christ himself as disciples and even slaves, and we are called to be resurrected by his Spirit to carry the gospel to the world for his names sake.
My belonging to Christ has little to do with my theology training–only as it has been (and continues to be) a tool that he is using to separate me from anything else that I would want to give myself or “belong to,” whether it be a doctrine or ideological position, or a degree or vocational title, or a group of people, or even just a preference. Any such thing that rears its head to come between my heart and the Lord becomes a target for his purifying Spirit.
Our belonging to Christ puts us on the path of real transformation, by his Spirit, as we are being sanctified and conformed to the image of Christ. This is what we see in the final verse of the greeting (v. 7),
“To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now imagine yourselves as citizens of Rome, because many of us stand very nearby as Western/American believers, and receive this truth.
You are loved by God.
You are called to be his.
And you are called to be a holy people.
It is only by his grace, and by his steady indwelling peace, that we may truly call him God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. As the knowledge of our belonging to Christ permeates our hearts, we will be changed. We will recognize the love of God because of his unrelenting pursuit of our entire selves–heart, soul, mind, and body. He wants all of us and will not settle for a people who are divided by our priorities, ambitions, whatever.
My story is still unfolding. I don’t have a tidy ending other than to say this: every day that passes brings me less “clarity” on my plans or career path ahead, but also, as the days pass, I am gaining a clearer vision of Jesus as my Lord. He is filling my view.
This is the gospel we are called to take, all of us who belong to him: Jesus Christ as reality and as very good news for those that need it (that would be me, and probably you, too.)