Liberty to Duke.

The best way I can think to describe how my experience at Liberty University fits into my life now, four years after being a student there, is with the image of an onion – the experience, or rather, the repercussions of the experience, has layers, and to say that a giant layer of this onion has been pealed back since coming to seminary would be an understatement. This is not a bad thing at all, as I believe it needed to happen in order for me to continue healing & growing, but like most things, it is a process. That’s something I’m learning a lot about right now through being in seminary – a lot of things are, “a process.”

I didn’t study Religion in undergrad, I studied psychology, and I am so, so grateful for that; I love psychology and studying it opened my eyes to a whole other passion of mine that I wasn’t aware of before. But because the only academic experience I had had with the Bible prior to coming to seminary was my one year at Liberty, I didn’t realize how rather eccentric some of my theology was from there, until now. It’s almost as though I was so focused on defending my call that I essentially blindly accepted everything else that I was being taught in my Bible classes. Thankfully, I’m finding that seminary is, indeed, a place where your theology is able to be reconstructed. In addition, I had gotten so used to being in an environment like Liberty that the idea of ever being in a religious institution that was affirming of my call was completely foreign, so now that I’m in one, it’s overwhelming in a very beautiful way. The quote, “Remember that you once prayed to be where you are right now” has never felt so applicable.

My Old Testament professor gave a lecture on Adam & Eve last week, for example, and it was the most refreshing lecture on the topic I’ve ever heard, my eyes were filled with tears by the end of it. In my Old Testament classes at Liberty, all I was ever taught was how Eve was the weaker vessel; that she was to be Adam’s helper, and that she was the literal cause of “The Fall,” not to be given any leadership over a man because she ate the fruit first and therefore cannot be trusted to make decisions on her own. In my ministry, Bible, and even psychology classes I was learning about gender roles and how men are at the head of the church and the house. We filled out worksheets about what women can and cannot do in ministry,  and of course, we all remember the infamous multiple choice test question I took in my biblical worldview class  –

“Women can do all of the following except: a) pastor a church”

It doesn’t take much to understand why I get emotional listening to lectures like the one I heard last week, or why I keep tearing up as I walk around Duke’s campus simply because I cannot believe I’m here, as I still remember the times professors at Liberty would tell me not only to refrain from being a pastor, but specifically to refrain from going to Duke because of its open-mindedness. It doesn’t surprise me that it made my day when my church history professor simply wanted to be sure that I, as a woman, feel my call is being taken seriously here at Duke. It doesn’t surprise me that every single day when I arrive on campus I look up at our big beautiful chapel and smile because by the literal grace of God, I am here, in a place I am infinitely happy & proud to be  (so sappy, I know).

It may be four years now since I’ve been a student at Liberty but I’m realizing that it’s not always time that does the healing. It takes time, but in addition, it also takes patience, God’s grace, hard work, and more of God’s grace. It takes talking it out & crying it out to people who listen and lift you up. It takes writing it out, re-learning, and having what was “struck down but not destroyed” built back up again. I think there might always be a scar from my year there but I am okay with that because scars tell stories and Liberty is never going to stop being part of my story. I know I used to hate that; for the longest time I kept wondering when I was going to magically stop remembering every single negative encounter I had there. But that is always going to be how I spent my freshman year of college and maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason for that. It’s because of this that I am grateful to God for that year, because ironic as it might be given that this was the exact opposite of Liberty’s goal, I am so confident that my experience at Liberty will make me a better pastor one day.

I know I will always, from time to time, encounter men and women who don’t think I can be a pastor because of my gender. But I also know it will never be as bad or as consistent as it was that year. I also know that I’m able to receive words about that view on women in ministry with much more grace and patience than I ever was able to before. With that, though, I do know I still have internal work to do. I was back in Lynchburg this past weekend and realized I still have a lot of bitterness towards the university. As much as I wish that seeing or hearing “Liberty University” online or in the news didn’t still make me a little sick to my stomach and as much as I’m embarrassed that after four years I’m still not “over it,” I am hopeful and expectant about what God will do with this story someday, and perhaps even what God’s already done with it.

I think maybe one of the reasons seminary has brought up things from Liberty for me to process is because God isn’t done teaching me all that God wants me to learn from my year there, and I’m okay with that. God is doing God’s thing in God’s time, and I know God is with me as I figure out how to continue growing from Liberty.

I don’t wish that my year there didn’t happen. I don’t think it’s “unfair” that I went through that, as many people tend to say to me. I don’t hate Liberty and I’m not angry at myself for choosing to go there. I couldn’t say any of those things three years ago, or even two years ago, and for that I’m proud – I’m proud that I’m here. Because while I never doubted God was in the midst of my year there, and while I never doubted God was calling me to ministry, I did often doubt whether it was worth it, particularly because of how difficult it already was, and I wasn’t even in candidacy yet at that point. So to be where I am now, even though I know I have a ways to go in my ministry journey, I remember those nights I spent in my dorm room at Liberty, crying out to God, “How in the world am I going to do this?” and it is for that reason this is something I’ll never ever take for granted. Just as affirmation has a whole new meaning post-Liberty, so does “gratitude” when it comes to my call to ministry and every step I take in this journey.

I thank God for the lessons and the strength I have now as a result of Liberty, and for the ways in which I’ve been able to bring those lessons and strength with me into Duke. I thank God for the experience I’ve already had and will have here at this seminary – Duke has already far exceeded my expectations and given me a new & beautiful picture of what a theological education should look like. That’s something I needed after Liberty but something freshman year Ashley was never able to envision. I thank God for the people at this school and the people in my life who strive not to undo what Liberty has done, but rather, strive to heal what Liberty has done by affirming & listening to me, and challenging me because they care & want me to be better and not because they want me to give up my call to ministry.

Above all, I’m very thankful that we have a God who walks beside us through every season and every “process” we go through, feeling every joy & every pain with us. Our God is an awesome God, indeed.