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By Michelle Dayton

My Journey So Far
by Michelle Dayton

God writes straight with crooked lines. That could certainly be the title of my journey toward today, and my understanding of my call. 

Raised in St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Fairborn, Ohio, with flannel boards and youth retreats and being an acolyte, (which was a new thing for girls in the seventies) the church was a place where I felt I belonged. As a middle child, there weren’t a lot of those places. My mother sings in the choir, even today, when she is not wintering in a warmer climate. I remember someone from a New York diocese visiting us, and being somewhat critical of our diocese, because we accepted women as priests, which was something that his priest and bishop could not countenance. 

After high school graduation, I did not exactly run off to join the circus, but I did sort of a similar thing: I joined Covenant Players, a Christian repertory theatre company based out of Los Angeles. With them, I travelled in a variety of regions in the U.S., and also for two years in Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and for a year in French-speaking Europe. This group served churches of every stripe, schools, prisons, nursing homes, and the military, communicating the Gospel through drama. My understanding of the world was transformed by arriving in Kano, Nigeria at age 19, with three other Americans. 

After five and a half years of traveling, I settled in Oklahoma, worked with an evangelist in prison ministry, and helped out at a private Christian school. I returned to Ohio, as my parents were going to be sent to Europe (my father was a physician in the Air Force) and I wanted to reconnect with them. I worked and went to college, majoring in modern languages because I believe in playing one’s strong suit. But then I met my husband, Lee, also in the Air Force, and knew that I would not have the opportunity to live in a French-speaking country again, so my language skills would never be adequate to be a translator or interpreter. Lee began law school a few months after we married, and I changed my major to biology, so I could become a physician. 

At the beginning of my final year of school, my sights set on general surgery, Lee was diagnosed with a rare cancer that has a very low likelihood of recovery (3% five-year survival rate). If he was only going to be around for five years, I was determined not to spend that time exclusively at the hospital, in a surgical residency, so I changed my target to emergency medicine. This has made all the difference in my ability to pursue a theological education, because I do not take call. I may work 24-hour shifts, but when my shift is over, I am done: no more charts, no returning to the hospital until the next shift.

I continue to practice in a small hospital in Appalachia, and my husband, against all odds, is healthy, and totally supports this part of my journey. When people ask, how I manage to work full time, and take a full course load in seminary, I always credit Lee. If I had to run the household, or do the many “real life” things like go to the grocery or dry cleaners, I do not know that I could manage it. We have two marvelous daughters, one finishing her degree at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and the other in her senior year in high school.   

Along the way, I was trained as a spiritual director, and helped to train other spiritual directors through Healing Care Mandate International, based in Ashland, Ohio. We also returned, after decades in the Vineyard Movement, to the Episcopal Church. A number of years ago, I noticed that I really needed to find a place for some ashes at the beginning of Lent. I was hooked. Every Wednesday night, and at the early Mass, I was back. After the 8:00 service, I would drive down the road to the Vineyard for their services. My husband was also raised in the Episcopal Church, and after a few years of “double-dipping” we returned to our roots. 

One day, in contemplation, I considered the places in my life where I had the greatest sense of the presence of God, and they were: 1) short-term missions (I had been going to Central America for about a decade); 2) spiritual direction; and 3) the Eucharist. How to fill my life with these sacred spaces? Become a priest. And remain a physician. One lesson I learned during my husband’s illness was a sense of priorities, because life is short. We have two criteria for any decision we make: does it bring life? Does it bring joy? If the choice does not meet those two requirements, it is immediately off the table. 

My understanding of my calling is that I will continue to practice medicine, and so continue to support my family, but also be available to serve the small churches in the region that cannot afford full-time clergy. There are so many in the area, and so they are unable to celebrate Eucharist regularly. 

Several years ago, I had an experience where I had some word-finding difficulty. At the time, my medical mind wondered if it might be a stroke. (In retrospect, I had not slept in about 40 hours, so I was probably just very tired.) I recognized that if my brain did not adequately function, I could no longer be a physician. Good news: that is not my identity. If my husband and children are suddenly killed in a car crash, I would no longer be a wife and mother. Again, this is not my identity. I have learned that my identity is fully, and only: beloved child of God. My hope is to always help others see that identity as theirs, as well. This has been my work as a spiritual director, and welcoming folks into wholeness is kind of a doctor gig. 

How do I do it all? By grace alone. I have been blessed with the most wonderful partner/husband/cheerleader/encourager I could imagine, who facilitates life as I sit with my books and go to Chicago, and drive an hour to my field parish site. This is unmerited favor. I am aware of many of my “growing edges” and learning compassion for my own brokenness has provided space for me to hold others with more love and less judgment. Seminary and the ER: they both bring life, and they both bring joy. (Sleep? Not so much). Spiritual practices have saved my sanity, and maybe my life, especially the Welcoming Prayer. I learned about this through Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, and it is a pressing into places of discomfort, and welcoming and being present to those feelings and experiences. 

As someone said to me recently, inviting anxiety in for a cup of tea, sitting with it, and then putting it to bed. The four movements of this prayer have been transformational for me: I let go of the desire for esteem and affection; I let go the desire for safety and security; I let go the desire for power and control; and I let go the desire to change the situation. Even if it is only for the five or 25 minutes of prayer, relinquishing these desires has been a practice that floods me with peace. Silence and solitude are also places that allow me to center, and be centered, and are vital aspects of my rule of life. Besides, seminary is only about three years long, and I managed to survive a three-year residency in emergency medicine, and I gave birth during that time. This is simply giving birth to a new ministry, rather than a person.

Michelle Dayton 
MDiv Student at Bexley Seabury Seminary