I stared at the post card I held in my hand. It was a picture of Richard Foster! I blinked and looked again! It really was Richard Foster. And in large print were the words Get a degree in Soul. It was an ad for a new on-line master’s level program in spiritual formation at Spring Arbor University. I knew instantly that this was the answer to 18 months of confusion.
For more than a year I had known that I was being called out of a job I had held for 10 years with a state-wide non-profit. A dysfunctional leadership team made life unbearable and other staff members were leaving in in droves. But I needed to work and, more to the point, I didn’t know what I was being called into. My companions in a Renovare Spiritual Formation group had been praying with me for direction. And here it was! I was certain that this was God’s call.
I showed my group the card and they all encouraged me to investigate the program even though I had no money for another degree, worked full-time, spent two hours a day commuting and had a husband on disability. In addition to all that, I was 65 years old and scared to death of the technology that might be required for an on-line program.
Finally, I made the long trip to Spring Arbor to meet with the director of the program. He spent two hours with me explaining the program, calming my fears, telling me they wanted people my age in the cohort, saying I was a perfect candidate. I was sold! But there was one problem. The annual tuition was $11,000. I had no possible way to raise that kind of money. He said, “Let’s pray about it.” So he did. I was bathed in 20 minutes of warm and encouraging prayers for the funding and the confidence I would need to take this giant step.
The next Sunday I went back to my group and reported on my visit. Everyone was very supportive. They were confident that this was God’s call for the next step in my life. We went on with our group meeting. My heart was full, but my brain was skeptical. Then as the meeting ended, one member handed me a piece of paper torn off her bulletin. It was her pledge to give me $1,000 for tuition if I decided to enroll.
As she left the room, a couple came up to me with a card. I started to put it in my purse. But Nancy said, “Open it now!” As I did, something fell out of the card and fluttered to the floor. I picked it up and discovered that I was holding a check for $10,000. My group had given me exactly enough for a year’s tuition. I was stunned and overwhelmed by the certainty that God was providing a way for me to move into a new phase of my life, armed with a degree in Spiritual Formation and Leadership.
FOLLOWING THE DREAM
The next year flew by. I got up at 4:30 AM to read, write and post the many comments needed to keep up with the classes I was taking before leaving for work. I continued working full-time during the first semester and decided to retire early so I could devote myself to learning – which meant that we had to learn to live on my Social Security. I was growing in many ways , spiritually and emotionally, and thriving in my first experience with a cohort. I loved every minute of it, especially the two-week on-site classes taught by none other than Richard Foster. I couldn’t believe I the privilege I had been given.
When the second year rolled around, I had to take out student loans. Pretty risky at my age when I had no job and no real savings, but I believed that I would be able to pay the loans back with my share of the sale of my mother’s property when she died, which my family had all recognized would happen soon. I sat down in excitement at my computer to start the first day of class, when I “heard” in my soul the words, “Karen, you can’t do this anymore.” I knew instantly that these words were from the same source that had told me to “Get a degree in soul.” And, somehow, though I was aghast, I withdrew from the program.
For the next year I was miserable! Why had God let me down? What could God possibly be thinking ? I missed the members of my cohort, I missed the thrill of learning, I missed the sense of direction I had felt. How could I have been so wrong? I was sure that God had called me to the spiritual formation world. I recognized that I was experiencing what Ignatius of Loyola called “desolation.” I tried to find part-time work and was turned down for everything, even in those fields for which my training and experience had perfectly prepared me.
I had developed a friendship with the Adult Ministries Pastor at my church which eventually led to some volunteer work in his department. This turned into a 20-hour a week unpaid internship. After about 18 months, he decided to make a lateral move to become Pastor of the Care network. I was asked to be the interim Director of Adult Discipleship. After three 6-month contracts, this eventually became a full-time position and the interim came off the title. My cohort graduated and I was again bereft. They had met the challenge, and I had not. And then my good friend in the cohort pointed out to me that I was the envy of the cohort. I had a job in the spiritual formation field and none of them did. They had a degree, but nowhere to use it.
Finally the reality of how God was working in my life sunk in. I was doing the work I loved, even though I never got a degree! Had I had stayed in the program, I would have missed the opportunity to volunteer and be in the right place at the right time for a job that I loved. I began to trust the verse that was becoming my touchstone, Hebrews 2:28, which assured me that I live in an unshakable kingdom, and that no matter what happens to me, I am safe. But I was just beginning to learn that truth.
Soon after this, my mother died, right in the middle of the recession and during the rapid decrease of housing and property values. The inheritance that was supposed to pay off two years of student loans shrunk by two thirds. There is no way I would have ever been able to pay off my loans. Once again, I knew that God’s plan had been far better than mine and that I can trust that no matter what happens to me, I am safe.
“DO YOU SEE WHAT WE’VE GOT? AN UNSHAKABLE KINGDOM! AND DO YOU SEE HOW THANKFUL WE MUST BE? NOT ONLY THANKFUL BUT BRIMMING WITH WOWRSHIP DEEPLY REVERNENT BEFORE GOD.” (Hebrews 12:28 – The Message)