Images kept popping up in my mind as I thought about whether we would take a falsely intimate selfie or if we would appear stiff as the strangers we were in photograph captured by another stranger, anxiously awaiting his own 30 seconds with the famous preacher. I knew I would get to meet Barbara Brown Taylor (BBT) before her afternoon session at my seminary’s lectureships, and all I wanted was a parcel of time with one of the women who has inspired me to be both more authentically myself and a Christian.
I wanted both to experience the moment and to be able to
brag share it with people after the moment was over.
Walking to the venue, however, I’m struck with the ethical dilemma I now had to face. You see, my Sunday mornings are spent leading a book discussion on BBT’s An Altar in the World and just the day before this parcel of time presented itself to me, I had lead the discussion of paying attention. We talked about how humans have trouble enjoying things without wanting to devour them, as she mentions in the second chapter of her book; the example I gave was that of the constant picture taker. They are those people who, like me, have trouble enjoying and experiencing a moment without letting the fear of loosing the moment overtake the experience.
Feeling convicted both by my desire to live more authentically and by the reality of the author I was about to meet, I decided against asking for a picture.
We both have strong handshakes, and she is taller than I am, which is rare; her eyes shine brightly and warmly through her stark glasses and I feel all together both star struck and instantly connected. We talk briefly about what I’m doing in seminary, and she reflected shortly on her own experience by saying, “Yeah, those Episcopalians really put you through the grinder, don’t they?” and we quickly moved on to discuss the long road to discernment, both formal and informal, of a call to ministry. I thanked her for her sermon that morning and her willingness to come, and she offered polite blessings on my discernment and the rest of my time in seminary.
The whole exchange took no more than 30 seconds.
As I walked away, I almost instantly regretted my decision not to get a picture with her. When would I have a chance to have my picture taken with BBT again? I swapped a picture for a 30 second exchange in which I was likely extremely awkward? What a waste, what would it matter that I had spent 30 seconds Barbara Brown Taylor if I didn’t even have a picture to prove it?
Later, as I was reflecting on it, two things emerged from recalling what she had said of her own discernment process:
(1) This is a really hard process to go through, even for one of the most talented preachers in our country.
(2) She made it through and is alright.
Such a simple, seemingly flippant remark reminded me that I am not the first to go through this process and I cannot will it to be easy. It was both encouraging and a reality check: a tiny, 30 second sermon; ever the preacher, that BBT.
It says a lot about her that she was able to have such a profound impact in a 30 second exchange AND that she was the inspiration to put down the camera.
If I had spent my little snippet of time taking a picture with her, I would have a shiny photo that I would probably never print out but would look great with a Mayfair filter. Instead, I received some invaluable things in that short amount of time.
I walked away with the reminder that experiences truly are better than artifacts from things you never actually experience.
I walked away with the assurance that discerning a call is never easy, and that’s the point.
I walked away having gotten to have an actual exchange with someone I deeply admire.
And I walked away with a blessing for both of my life and my calling, which is far better than any picture.
Pictures or It Didn’t Happen is illustrated by Sarah Tunstall Brown, because you know, pictures or it didn’t happen, and this actually happened! She’s an Atlanta-based photographer and good friend who once dubbed me the Godfatheress. She’s as talented behind the camera as she is with pencil and crayon, maybe even more. Find her photo blogging here: Sarah Tunstall Photography