by Rev. Dr. Tiffany McClung
When I was about eleven years old, give or take a year, my parents took me to see a high school stage production of a play called “The Drunkard.” My youth minister, Lou Smith, was the drama teacher at Minor High School just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. My parents were not bad parents. The title is deceiving to a 2016 American culture. It was a farce played out before our eyes in hilarity by teenagers. It was the first play I ever saw outside of our annual school trip to the Birmingham Children’s Theatre. This was something different. Performed by amateurs, for sure, but it wasn’t a giant coliseum and I wasn’t what felt like miles away from the stage. For “The Drunkard,” I was center of the house and so close to the stage that it felt like I could have reached out to touch the cute boy playing the lead! I could see the sweat on the actors faces. And, I remember absolutely nothing about the content of the play.
I can’t explain why this was such a formative experience for me. While I can’t remember the plot or any of the lines that caused us all to laugh, I remember vividly when the lights went down at the end of the show. It was total black, just for a few seconds, but long enough to feel it. I began clapping like a good audience member along with all the parents and friends in the cafeteria-turned-theater. When the lights came back up on the actors standing in a line taking their bows, I was crying. Yes, crying! I had no idea why but I was filled with such great emotion that as I applauded these teenage efforts at theater, I had tears streaming down my face.
The closest I can come to explaining this very strange phenomenon is that at that young age in a darkened make-shift theater, I was called. The Holy Spirit reached into me and shifted things around and made me love theater in a way I didn’t know possible. And, so began my call in the arts. I would go on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a concentration in performance and was certain I knew where this call was taking me in life.
Reenter the Holy Spirit to reach in and shift things around again!
One month away from graduating college with my B.F.A., sitting on the pew up against the back wall on Easter Sunday morning, I was filled with emotion again. As my husband baptized two young men as part of our Easter celebration, I heard a voice that was my own but wasn’t me at all. “You have to go to seminary.” And, there were once again tears. Unlike the tears that flowed in the darkened theater, these tears brought with them confusion and anger. I had my plans. I knew what I was called to do and it had NOTHING to do with seminary.
Overcome again by emotion that confused me and felt pressed down on me from another Source, I knew regardless of what I thought the plan had been, I was called to attend seminary and seek ordination. How this fit in with my previous call was uncertain. No, more than that, it was impossible to see and I was mad. I KNEW my call to the arts and I was not ready to let that go!
As I began taking classes at Memphis Theological Seminary, it was once again clear to me that God’s plan, though not always evident, is always best. Immediately, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. How it would fit in with my undergrad degree would not become clear for some time. I remained active in a theatre company, Voices of the South, in which I am a company member with several of my dearest friends from college. And, I continued to nurture my artistic side, but these two paths still felt separated, like I had one foot in one world and the other in a different one. I would get glimpses of the ways in which the two callings came together in preaching classes where my performance skills aided my preaching abilities, but still I felt I lived in two different worlds at the same time.
I earned my Master of Divinity and went out to be a pastor. After a few ministry settings, eight years of ordained ministry and giving birth to two children, I found myself back at the same seminary again. This time as its Chaplain. I absolutely love planning worship for this unique community and began to bring the arts into our worship setting, but still the two paths remained separate. Then, the seminary introduced the first Theology and Arts track for the Doctor of Ministry program. Confluence!
God must find it humorous when we are complaining about all that we can’t see while God can see how it all really fits together. I went on to earn that D.Min. in Theology and Arts and am now the Director of the Program! These were never two separate callings in my life. It was always one. To find the intersections where theology and arts come together. It is an intersection at which amazing things happen – like an eleven year old crying after watching a farce.