I grew up in a small town in east TN, in a Baptist family of the “every time the church doors were open” variety, in a congregation that embodied the meaning of “church family” for me. Becoming a Christian was something expected and accepted, with virtually no questions asked—though I’ve been making up for that pretty much ever since. I came to Southern Seminary in 1977 straight out of college, to the Carver School of Church Social Work—no surprise for a church-raised young woman with a strong desire to serve.
Among other things, Southern introduced me to the newly emerging hospice movement. Thirty-seven years in, I can say with gratitude that hospice work turned out to be my true calling, and the source of both heart-breaking challenges and heart-stretching gifts—with a succession of amazing colleagues as a bonus.
Southern also introduced me to the writing of Elizabeth O’Conner and a local church modeled after Church of the Savior. That strong ecumenical influence, unwelcome changes at Southern, mentoring by the Sister of Charity of Nazareth who founded hospice here and who introduced me to the tradition of spiritual direction, and the continued unfolding of my life and my faith, have shaped my path since then—guiding me to Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian churches; Catholic communities, Buddhist teachers, and several more spiritual directors, each the right one for its time. Actually, I’m a little surprised to find myself in a Baptist church again—but the label has never mattered as much to me as the soul of the congregation itself. (And I do love the soul of this one.)
I love music. The music of the church has engraved the words of Scripture and spiritual poetry into my heart and mind. More than once, it has been music that drew me to a particular congregation (including Highland), and that kept me connected during times of struggle. During one of those tenuous times, writer Kathleen Norris put it in words for me: “We go to church to sing; theology is secondary.” Well, maybe that’s not entirely true, but it has been music that has given me a way to pray when my own words fail me—for example, in the stunning setting of Dag Hammarskjold’s prayer, “Thou whom I do not comprehend, but whose I am.”
Most importantly, church has been a continuing source for teachers in whose company I come to know more of the life God needs Vicki to live, companions in work I cannot do alone, friends with whom to sing the songs of faith, fellow pilgrims who encourage one another using the language of mystery and hope and doubt to talk about what matters most deeply to us. It is with the church that I continue to learn incarnation—seeking and finding, and hopefully being, God’s visible, audible, touchable presence in the world.
I am honored to be asked to serve Highland as a deacon, to be with you through whatever life brings our ways, and I look forward to the further weaving-together of our stories of faith.
Thank you. ~ Vicki Runnion