The Spirit in “Worldly Things”

TiffanyBy Tiffany Ashworth

For my first two years out of high school, I read N.T. Wright at every opportunity. People close to me, starting on the road to seminary themselves, introduced him and other authors to me that I had never encountered in my conservative evangelical upbringing. A new world of theological possibilities opened to me, further igniting yet significantly shaping my passion for ministry.

It was around that time I felt God leading me toward formal biblical and theological studies. I sat down with my best friend over cold sandwiches in a local café in Southern California and told her of my decision to major in Bible at Biola (Bible Institute of Los Angeles) and follow God’s call on my life into church ministry.

That was eleven years ago. I enrolled in Biola and left after one semester, disillusioned when a professor left me in tears after publicly announcing that he would pity me on judgment day because I questioned inerrancy. I moved on to study dance and English, earn my California and North Carolina teaching licenses in both subjects, teach public middle and high school Language Arts for five years, coach a dance team, become a mom, and support my husband through seminary and then the Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) program at Duke University.

I actually decided to give up on formally studying Bible during my first week on Biola’s campus. My mom and I stumbled into the crowded bookstore to gather my course texts. I was piling books on top of her, and I believe it was at the moment that we began hauling the Hebrew and Greek books off the shelf that she paused: “Tiffany, are you sure you want to do this?” She proceeded to nudge me with questions about whether this was really a wise career choice for a woman. We argued, and when she asked a man nearby to confirm her concerns, he giggled as I feistily asserted that I wasn’t too interested in his opinion. My parents are loving, devout Christians, but there isn’t room in their theology for a skinny blonde girl to study Greek and Hebrew.

It wasn’t just the lack of my mom’s full approval that dissuaded me. That alone wouldn’t have been enough. I also was starting to react against the notion that Christian faith meant saving souls and had always thought of my passion for dance and literature as inferior to my ministerial commitment. But once I learned of God’s in-breaking Kingdom and no longer considered Earth something to be ultimately discarded but instead redeemed, my faith took on an urgency that was marked not by convincing people to be saved for a disembodied heaven but by attentiveness to both “heavenly spaces” and the still-dark places in need of God’s healing work here and now.

Art, in the form of dance and literature, seemed to be a remarkable medium for doing both of these things: providing glimpses of God’s Kingdom and giving voice to where it desperately needs to be realized. I poured myself into English and dance studies for the next three years. Having always thought of my interest in these subjects as merely peripheral to my Christian mission, I finally felt permission to cultivate my artistic and academic self that had been previously sidelined. My studies enlivened me, and whether I was writing about the tragic disintegration of the created order in Macbeth and King Lear or acting as a comedic yet deeply lost clown in a commedia dell’arte piece, I was certain of the theological significance of my work.

If my collegiate studies confronted me with Christian tensions through stories and dance, my years of teaching and living in Durham, North Carolina have done so through the far messier pedagogy of real people. For the past five and a half years, I have found myself a long way from my white affluent suburban home. Stuart, for example, was in my standard English IV class. He was a fifth year senior trying to graduate while managing the football team and working at Jimmy John’s. He was a jovial presence with sharp insights, impossible not to love.

One day, Stuart launched into a story during the last five minutes of class. The prior day at his work an older white man had come to get a sandwich. He was the only customer, and after noting that there were “a lot of African Americans working,” the man asked whether “anyone else” could prepare his food. Stuart politely offered to get his manager, the only white person who was currently cleaning the bathrooms, but the man declined and decided he’d “come back another time.”

We didn’t process it much. Instead, I listened to multiple stories of others standing nearby who instinctively related their everyday experiences to Stuart’s. It wasn’t an emotional moment of testimony but a casual conversation among peers—students sharing what was, simply, life. Stuart’s story didn’t surprise his friends, and by that point of my time in Durham, it didn’t shock me either. It was one of hundreds like them I had heard in recent years from students, colleagues, and friends. Since the vast majority of my students and colleagues have been people of color, it has been rare for me to have many interactions in the past five and a half years where race does not surface in an organic and personal way.

We grew increasingly uneasy attending our white, affluent Episcopal church in Chapel Hill and longed to connect with Christians who wanted to be a part of Jesus moving not only in the individual spiritual lives of the congregation but in the lives of those vulnerable to the broken systems and heinous histories of our world.

We were introduced to Durham Presbyterian Church and, on our first official Sunday there, I wept throughout the service. Here was a place that loved Jesus and justice. It was immediately evident that this community wasn’t afraid to confront the whole of sin because of their belief in a gospel with the capacity to do so. My first service eatableshed an expectation that continues to be met each week: I will intimately experience the love of Jesus when I or others share vulnerably but will be equally unsettled as I am regularly confronted with my participation in a system that marginalizes others sitting next to me. We didn’t find the perfect church. But we did find a community of people committed to struggling with the multilayered personal and systemic sin that afflicts us.

I didn’t shed tears that first Sunday at Durham Church only because of a fiery sermon on immigration. I cried because the one preaching it was a skinny blonde woman a year older than me. This young female pastor represented a ministerial possibility to me I had not yet encountered or been able to envision.

On the afternoon of the first official Sunday we attended Durham Church, I called my best friend—the same person I told I was going to follow God’s call into ministry all those years ago. I now told her: “It’s not a matter of whether I go to seminary anymore; it’s a matter of when.” I was a devoted educator but, in my quietest moments and most intimate conversations, continued to feel pulled toward ministry.

For twenty years, I was trained to live gazing upward with blinders to any “worldly things” that might distract me. But throughout the past several years, the hands of writers, friends, teachers, community, colleagues and students have lowered my eyes to behold God’s world. I hope to take this perspective into ministry to help people see God in the places I previously would have least expected and in the faces of those I wouldn’t have dared to know.

Tiffany Ashworth is a former high school English teacher living in Durham, North Carolina where she moved so her husband could complete a Doctorate of Theology at Duke University. She currently stays at home with her eleven month old son and has hopes of pursuing her own formal theological education in the near future.

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