When I heard the news, I changed my facebook status to "Sara is getting an M.S. in MS!" Much to my amusement, my friend Krista's immediate thought was that I was currently in McGlothlin-Street Hall (on Emory's campus) contracting Multiple Sclerosis. Not quite. In reality, I was announcing that I'll be getting a Master's degree in Mississippi. And now that I think about it, the real story might not be any less random and unexpected than Krista's fictionalized account. I never, ever thought I would be moving to Mississippi.
Of course, this didn't happen all at once. All winter, I worked on applications to Ph.D. programs. My hopes were high, but I never really felt like it was going to work out. In the back of my mind was the idea that later, I would have to apply to Master's programs as a back-up, but my ego kept persuading me to put it off. Then I got this phone call from my boyfriend who was in Mississippi interviewing for a job he originally didn't think he wanted but was now quite excited about. He was in the car and had just driven by a (not the, we now know) campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. He was frantic, beseeching me to investigate this school immediately and find out if they had a program for me to apply to. I obliged him, and found that they do have a clinical psychology Ph.D. program... but the deadline had passed. They also have a counseling psychology Ph.D. program... but the deadline had passed. The deadline that wasn't passed was for the Master's program in counseling psychology. No. No, no, no. That's not what I want. At first, I didn't even want to consider applying. But I did consider it. And I prayed, and I thought, and I analyzed, and I over-analyzed, and I listened.... and I applied.
Alexander decided he wanted the job, and he got it. My brain was reeling for a long time, trying to figure out what I wanted. I was afraid of being away from him, afraid of losing him, but it was so unlike me to make a major life decision based on a guy. I couldn't even believe I was thinking that way. I didn't want to admit that I was. But I was. And I was ok with that. And that freaked me out. I never said it out loud, but at some point I realized that I want to be with him more than I want a Ph.D. And certainly more than I want a Ph.D. right now. But still, could I possibly turn down an offer to start a Ph.D. program? Even if I did, nobody would approve, and could I really blame them? So I prayed that that wouldn't happen--that there would be no decision to make. I prayed that if God wanted me in Mississippi, He wouldn't let me get in to a Ph.D. program. And much to the understandable chagrin of my parents, I decided not to apply to any other Master's programs. I prayed for discernment, and while I didn't get any audible answers from God, I kept feeling more and more at peace with my desire to go to Mississippi. I went. I interviewed. I loved it. I felt like I was clearly the best candidate. It was a done deal.
Except that I didn't get in. I got an email telling me I was an alternate. I was devastated. And so, so confused. I decided that it had to be because of my withdrawal from school, and I started getting very angry (again) about Graves' disease. Hadn't it already screwed up my life enough? Was I never going to be able to get past it? I didn't get along very well with God for a few days, but I tried to think that things would work out. I got a lot of love and support and prayer, and Dr. Qualls made a phone call for me which I think might have changed everything. Eventually, obviously, I got in. And I'm going! I'm going to live with Missy, a fellow Christian, fellow nerd, fellow grammarian who I bonded with at our interview day. I'll be about 80 miles from Alex, who will be in Ocean Springs, right on the gulf coast. I could not possibly be more excited. It's perfect. Completely perfect. And completely crazy.
I never thought I would get a degree in counseling psychology. I never thought I would move to Mississippi. But here's the thing: I never thought I would get sick and have a part of my body radioactively destroyed; I never thought I would leave school; I never thought I would live with my parents post-college; I never thought I would work at Pathways again; I never thought I would be a youth leader; I never thought I would sell art; I never thought I would fall in love with my friend's brother-in-law.
But here I am.
Paradoxically, it's actually quite comforting to be doing something so unlike what I ever predicted. It is because it's so crazy that I know it's God. It's nothing close to what I ever planned for myself, so it must be His plan. How else could I have ended up here? One of my favorite scriptures for a long time has been Matthew 10:39, in which Jesus says, "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." I've had lots of discussions about what exactly this means, and I think there are a lot of interpretations, all of which are probably valid. I used to think of it as a dichotomy: two sets of people. Finders of life, losers of life. Finders get lost, losers get found. But what I've found, it seems, is that I'm both. Or rather, I was one, and then I became the other. I did try to "find" my life. Though I certainly tried, I really can't say that I was ever able to completely surrender my life to Christ. I said I did, and sometimes I even thought I did, but really, in the back of my head, there were certain expectations I had--things I expected God to include in His plan because I wanted them. I wouldn't (couldn't?) totally "lose" my life, my plan. But then... well, I did lose it. This is where my understanding of the scripture has changed. I always thought this "losing" had to be a willful, purposeful surrender. For some people, of course, it is. Those people are stronger than me. My "loss" of life was something that happened to me, not something I chose. But who's to say that that means it wasn't lost "for Christ's sake," as in the scripture? I'm an imperfect, flawed, tremendously proud person, not righteous enough to hand over my whole life. But God, in his infinite, miraculous grace, took it from me anyway. Because he loves me so very much, he redirected my life, helped me find my life again--my real life, the one I'm meant for.
What a beautiful thing.
But what a long journey it has been to this point where I finally feel like I know at least a little bit of what God is doing. In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers wrote these words:
"God does not tell you what He is doing. He reveals to you Who He is."
I have found that to be so true. Through this whole process, I have felt so clueless as to what would happen, and yet God has shown me so much of his nature. One of the most poignant examples happened while I was in Mississippi for my interview. Late at night after the day of my interview, I was sitting outside our motel room, where I had been talking to Alexander on the phone. Even though I was optimistic about my qualifications, I was feeling very anxious about getting in to USM. We had had a wonderful conversation that only strengthened my desire to be in Mississippi--my desire to be with him. I'm going to sound like one of my borderline clients when I say this, but I was feeling downright desperate. So I started praying right there on the sidewalk. It went something like this: "God, please please please let me get in. I just want to be with him so badly. So badly, God. Do you understand me? That's what I want. Nothing else seems important. It's like I don't care about anything else except being with him. Even if I hated this place and hated this program and hated everyone here, I wouldn't care because I'd get to be with him. I just want to be with him so badly..." I was being illogical and emotional and yes, slightly ridiculous, but it was how I felt, and I kept going and going because I didn't think God understood. I didn't think he knew what this passionate, desperate feeling was like because, you know, he had never been in love. But then a funny thing happened: God laughed at me. Now, he wasn't laughing at my feelings, of course. He was laughing at the idea that I had to keep going on and on explaining things to Him as if he didn't know. I didn't realize this at first, though, and I just paused, confused about the distinctive sense I had that God was chuckling. Once I let my mind get quiet, I'm pretty sure what He said to me was, "Now you know how I feel."
It wasn't any sort of intellectual, theological idea, but it was as if I suddenly understood God's love in a whole new way. God didn't send Christ to die for us because of some sort of corporate love. It wasn't because it was "the right thing to do." It wasn't because God is "good" and he wants "what's best for us." These things are true, of course, but what God seemed to be telling me was that His love is romantic--erotic. Christ died because he wanted to be with us so badly. He was desperate. He was passionate. He was in love.
I am so thankful that he lets us participate in that love, to share it with each other in our measly little human way. After all, 1 John 4:19 tells us that "We love because He first loved us." All the love in my life--and yours--originated with Christ and is rooted in Him. The Lord has never ceased to amaze me. And if I've learned anything, it's that He never will.