Litany For Her

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I own a piece of art that isn’t worth much money but, it’s a conversation piece.  Handmade with small patches of fabrics varying in colors from red to the brightest orange it hangs on my wall. This gift is a modern version of American quilting.  On the black border you’ll find a hand stitched  words, “Follow the path with heart.”   My Aunt gave it to me when I graduated from seminary.  I carry it with me like the stories of the women who encouraged me to follow the path of Jesus with heart. We are woven together by faith and love.

One fateful night my friend Annie and I spread our books out on a kitchen table. We made piles with our notebooks and plugged in our laptops.  Coffee cups lined the table.  We lived on coffee.  Midterms loomed over our heads.  Feeling lost and overwhelmed by all the theological terms in our first year of seminary we decided to camp out. She was housesitting for a local family. The large windows let in light and air we couldn’t feel in our cramped dorm rooms. Quizzing each other never worked so we asked questions in the attempt to contextualize the large terms. Sparks flew. Laughter encased us. After a few quiet moments I shouted out a question, “Do you think Jesus has a body in heaven?” Annie scrunched up her face, sighed, and said, “I don’t know.”  In the bright light of a kitchen I would never see again we taught each other about theology and friendship.  To this day we reference that night almost ten years ago now.

My women friends in seminary surrounded me with prayer like a warm blanket that radiated the scent and glow of home.  I gathered with Bridgett, Annie, Kim and Aisha for prayer in our dorm rooms.  Kim always knew how to center us around God’s presence.  She could throw out jokes like the best of them, but when it came time to talk to God she knew how to welcome the holy into the most ordinary of circumstances.  With Kim I learned how to tap into the spirit of God that sustains me.  After finishing our finals one year we drove around the town of Princeton with the windows down shouting, “Hallelujah, we made it!”  When Bridget made dinner in her seminary apartment she gave me permission to be myself in a unique way.  Her faithfulness to God shined through in her encouraging words.  I saw her heart grow day by day.

The first time I heard Aisha sing my heart melted.  She is a jazz vocalist blessed with an undeniable gift. And when our friendship grew over the years in seminary I learned the story behind her voice.  We found a safe space to be the artsy and spirit filled women God made us to be.  I’ll never forget the courage I found in her friendship.

Meredith and I share more than a name.  The second year of seminary an effervescent group of women moved in on my floor.  I felt enlivened by their energy and desire to change the world.  It was over countless meals and endless cups of coffee I found a kindred spirit in Meredith.  She’s taught me to love my sometimes irrational and always searching self.

Truth is, I could decorate an entire wall with names of the women who were like steps on a staircase of faith for me in seminary.  Each one challenged, nurtured, and encouraged me in unique ways.  Meredith, Aisha, Bridgett, Kim and Annie are the women I can call in the middle of night with any question in my heart.  They light my path.  They show me that I don’t have to be perfect to serve God.  I learned how to listen to God amongst the noise because of their voices in my ear.  Each step I take on this beautiful and crazy journey of faith and vocation I take with them beside me. With God’s love we will go far.

I realized then that even when our arms drop off for a moment or a connection is missed, we are still standing in this thick river of Love that connects us. I also realized that if we’re standing together, it’s hard to walk away … Even when we slip or need a rest, we are not taken out of the River. We have a place and there are grace-filled arms all around to help carry us. We don’t stand in our own effort, but we stand in a divine Love…The Source is not our humanity that is finite (and can burn up pretty quickly), but it’s from a Greater Love that passes all understanding.

Not only do we stand in thick Love, even the atmosphere around us is Love. It’s grace and anointing. It’s kindness, patience, goodness. Faithfulness, humility and self-control. I’ve learned along the way that this kind of Love empowers. That when I know I am loved—even in my mistakes—I can move ahead in confidence. I know the Love is not dependent on my actions or perfect performance, but instead, this Love covers. It graces. It protects. It connects. So, my dear sisters, this Love we’re called to stand in, is rivers deep. It stretches far and wide, for as many of us would come and stand.

Idelette Walker, from SheLoves Magazine

Rev. Erin Hayes serves as the Pastor to a multicultural church in Rahway, NJ. Serving in Rahway helps her use her Hungarian and African-American heritage in many ways. She was nurtured in the Baptist church and became ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA just shy of a year ago. After 10 years in ministry in various churches she loves the challenge and blessing where she serves now. In her free time you will find her hanging out at the local Crossfit gym trying to find a way to work it into a sermon.

Being Restored and Re-Storied

20140224-215814.jpgI am in a hallway buzzing with energy after a day filled with amazing stories and lectures at the Network of Biblical Storytellers annual Festival Gathering. I can’t recall why or how it happened, but I find myself with one of the wonderful scholars associated with the network—a woman I have only seen lecture, but never really met formally in person. I somehow find myself recounting a particularly raw and painful story from my ministry. This woman reaches out her hand, places it on my shoulder, and gently says, “μακάριοι οἱ δεδιωγμένοι ἕνεκεν δικαιοσύνης, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.”

I stare blankly…I would call my Greek “rusty,” but that might be overstating how well I knew it in the first place. Finally, she translates: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:10). I flush because somehow this personal story has erupted from me to this stranger (and perhaps a little because I wish remembered Greek…at all). I blot the tears from my eyes, trying to keep my composure, but it proves difficult. It is 9 pm after a very full day and I am exhausted.

I give in and let myself be cared for—she has seen me, and met my own tale with God’s story. She is just one of many over the next few days who helps to restore me. Or, as I recently read, re-stories me.

When you spend your day hearing and telling the stories of God, it is hard not to be vulnerable—it is surprisingly easy to share not just stories from scripture, but the stories of one’s own life. It is remarkable to be a in a space with mostly strangers and to have a sense that this community is YOUR community. It is a testimony to the fact that something transcendent happens when people begin to share the stories of God.

I have only been a member of the Network of Biblical Storytellers for a few years, but the group has deepened my understanding of what can happen when people are gathered around the story of God. Here are just a few of the encounters I had at our last Festival Gathering:

• Folks boldly step onto the “stage” and tell the stories of God with deep and abiding love—making them their own;

• People from many denominations and theological backgrounds struggle in workshops with what it means to tell the more challenging texts;

• Many gather to explore how to do this ancient practice of storytelling in the digital age and seek out the wisdom of both the young and less young in doing so;

• A young woman from a church that does not allow for women’s ordination sits at the table with a bunch of female pastors, none of whom have ever met, and describes her love of liturgy-writing and her turmoil in balancing her call to family, love of her church, and burgeoning call into ministry—it is a holy space for us all;

• We hear of storytelling in prison ministry, in foreign countries with oral-based cultures, in outdoor churches where the “least of these” come to gather, with children and youth—and we challenge ourselves to take the stories even further;

• We play, we laugh, we cry, we tell…a lot.

I am gathered not with my fellow elders of the PC(USA)—not even primarily with pastors—I am gathered with people from many, many Christian (and a few non-Christian) backgrounds: stay-at-home-parents, farmers, pastors, a rabbi, Catholics, immigrants, artists, business men and women, professors—with people from every walk of life. During those three days, the people gathered become my cloud—my mentors, my friends, my confidants, my provokers, my champions. I am re-storied: my own stories are transformed in light of God’s stories. These brothers and sisters are not just giving me the skills and convictions to tell the stories of God, they are witnesses to our mutual transformation, our re-storying through sharing God’s story.

The word-made-flesh holds this community together—and I do believe that every time we are gathered in story Christ dwells among us, full of grace and truth. A great cloud of witnesses, indeed.

“Everybody has a home team: It’s the people you call when you get a flat tire or when something terrible happens. It’s the people who, near or far, know everything that’s wrong with you and love you anyways. These are the ones who tell you their secrets, who get themselves a glass of water without asking when they’re at your house. These are the people who cry when you cry. These are your people, your middle-of-the-night, no-matter-what people.”
― Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way

(Image used with permission from Creative Commons)

Telling the Old, Old Story

“Preparations were carefully made. All the people who expected to participate were very sure that their feet were already clean and had nice new hose.  White sheets were hung up separating the men from the women. A pan of water was provided for each group and two long towels.  Then one after another looped the towel about his waist, washed another’s feet and dried them with the towel until all had been washed.  It was a very solemn occasion, one felt very humble and I have seen the tears streaming down their faces as their feet were being washed.  They were thinking of the time the Savior washed his disciples’ feet. “~ From Big Sunday at Friendship Baptist Church, Ola Shields Deckard

 I have a binder; an old black one I pack away carefully in a crate filled with my journals as well as folders of papers I read only when I need a shot of self-confidence.  Every so often I pull the black binder out and leaf through it carefully as though turning pages might cause the papers to crumble.  The pages, type-written years ago on a word processor before computers were prevalent or affordable and rough with perforations from the dot matrix printer, carry the memories in story and poems of my maternal great-grandmother, Ola Shields Deckard.  A school teacher and farmer’s wife, Ola raised 6 children, the second-youngest of which was my grandmother.

She passed before I was born of course, but the binder is filled with her recollections of childhood, of raising her family, of travel and of church.  I’m not sure how old I was when I first read these pages, but I have carried them through four states and six different residences and they never fail to make me a bit teary.  They communicate not merely a sense of family history, but also a sense of scripture, as though somehow infused with holiness and speaking revelation.  The stories aren’t great masterpieces but they are vivid nonetheless, relating image and smell and texture and feeling in ways that ring true and broaden understanding.  Ola’s writings invite me into her world and, in turn, to see mine with her eyes.

At extended family gatherings, one only has to bring up her name to spend the next few hours listening to her grand and great-grand children share their own memories and contest each others’ versions of events or portrayals of her character.  For many she was harsh and intimidating, living in the second half of the 20th century but adhering to traditions and attitudes of the first.  My aunt, everyone agrees, was the favorite, somehow turning the strict schoolmarm into an indulgent granny.

 

It is here, in the midst of these stories that I learned to see the world in story form.

 

For better or worse I’m a story-teller, interpreting the world around me with a very particular type of structure, looking always for the narrator’s biases, for how the tale builds and falls. From sitting quietly listening to family stories, I understood before I could really articulate it that no one narrative is ever complete, that each narrator has a perspective and a purpose.  Ola writes about her father attending church regularly but deciding year after year to resist affirming his faith.  Eventually, he admits that while “the church can get along without me, I can’t do without the church any longer” and Ola believes that “no doubt there was rejoicing among the angels in heaven over one sinner coming home.”

It makes me wonder how the story would change if told by her father. Is it stage fright that keeps him from publicly declaring his faith that way? Did he simply believe that his faith did not need testimonial, that his life spoke his commitment? Or did he harbor questions and doubts that made him feel somehow unfit to call himself a Christian?  I read Ola’s description of a creek-side baptism service and wonder what it looks like through the eyes of the newly baptized or those waiting on the shore to go next.  How does the preacher feel, out there in the center with his arm around the man’s back, his hands clasped to his chest, guiding him below the waters and raising him to new life?

Through this I know the questions and fears many people harbor, the uncertainty and suspicion with which the church can be viewed.  I know that all of those things lie within me as well.  And because I know that my grandmother began attending First Christian Church because she wanted to be married in the biggest (and most beautiful, she thought) church in town, I know that it is not only community and security that motivates people to join churches, but also sometimes a self-serving agenda.

In the end, Ola’s stories strike me as scriptural because they reflect and bear witness to the true nature of the Biblical text as well.  The scope of scripture reveals the myriad narratives of humanity’s relationship to the Divine, to that which feels bigger than ourselves and manifests differently in different times and to different people.  This is how, and why, I fell in love with God’s grand story and why I keep trying to tell it again and again with a multitude of voices — one of which I know is Ola’s.

“Make up a story…
For our sake and yours forget your name in the street;
tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.
Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear.
Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
– Toni Morrison

Dear Joseph

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We are excited to introduce another new column to our line up at Fidelia’s Sisters!  “Our Cloud of Witnesses” is a venue for exchanging the stories of those who surround us with strength and grace.  Some may have gone before us. Some may be journeying right along side us. Some may have spoken to us out of history. Some may be our favorite characters out of a beloved book. Some may be those who are the most unexpected. Tell us who has shed light on your own journey of faith and vocation, and help us to see the many ways we are truly embraced and held up by a great cloud of witnesses. Submissions may be sent to witnesses(dot)ycw(at)gmail(dot)com. 

My dearest Joseph:

Do you remember that afternoon a few months ago, just after our betrothal?  We were walking outside together, my younger brother running ahead, when he suddenly stopped short, and shouted to you, to come quickly.  We hurried toward him and saw what had caught his attention.  A baby bird had fallen from his nest; he wanted to take him home, hoping to cage him and make him his own, but not you.  Joseph, you knew what that tiny creature needed, he needed to be home, with his family, with those that loved him; he needed compassion and love, not the curious hands of a six-year-old boy, and so you tenderly gathered him up, and you gently placed him in the nest above—softly whispering, “Shalom, baby bird.  May Yahweh keep you.”

Joseph, I write this letter to you, trembling, fearful, feeling just as that tiny, baby bird did, having fallen out of the only home I’ve ever known, and I pray for that same compassion, for that same love.  I sit trying to discover the words, somehow to soften them, to spare you, but they are too heavy upon my heart.  My future husband, my dear, loving friend, I am pregnant.

Now, please, I beg you before you throw this letter down in anger and shame.  I promise to you, I have known no man.  My dear Joseph, I know this seems too much to bear, but please, please I beg to you to listen.  For just a short time ago, I was sitting alone in the dim light of the evening, when this, and I’m not even sure how to describe it, but this presence entered my room, and the darkness was filled with this bright and radiant light.  And, I wanted so desperately to look away, but I couldn’t—Joseph, I couldn’t—and my eyes fell upon the most beautiful of creatures that I had ever seen, and so much of me wanted to run away and hide, but so much of me had to stay, to see what would happen next.

And then he spoke, and he said my name, and told me God loved me, and to not be afraid.  And Joseph, I was so very afraid, but at the same time I wasn’t—I can’t explain it, but my fear was overwhelmed by the excitement, and my terror was calmed by this great presence of wonder and peace, amazingly enough peace.  And this angel—for I think it was an angel—told me that I was going to bear a child, a baby boy, and he would be the one to reign over the house of David, over your ancestor’s throne, Joseph, and he would be called Son of the Most High.  And I was so confused, because…Oh Joseph, I could only think of you, and what you would think I had done, and then the angel said that the Holy Spirit would come upon me, and I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know what to say.  And then he told me about Elizabeth, that she and Zechariah were finally, after all these years, going to have a baby as well; a baby that they have waited for so long for.

And his words kept ringing in my years—for nothing is impossible with God; for nothing is impossible with God, and I had no doubt left, and I knew exactly what to say, God help me Joseph, I cried, “Here am I; I am the servant of Yahweh, let it be done to me, what you have said.”  And as quickly as his presence filled the room, he was gone.  And now, my friend, it’s been well over a month, and the angel’s words have been fulfilled.

I know you will find it so difficult to believe me—I know the thoughts that must be in your head.  And, I know, as well, what you could do to me.  I know the shame that I will bring upon you, upon your family, upon my family, and I know that you could send me away, that you could have me flogged or stoned or killed; I know that you could throw me upon the judgment of the merciless high courts.

And Joseph, no one would fault you, in fact all would pity you; for who could believe this tale of mine—But, from the depths of my soul know that I am yours and only yours, from the depth of my soul, know that I am God’s, and that despite our doubts, and our misgivings, and our fear, nothing is impossible with God.

And, I know, as well, that even if you do believe me, that if somehow we find a way forward, that our lives will never be the same.  We had all these plans, and hopes and dreams; our wedding, more time getting to know each other’s family; you had wanted to continue working at your father’s carpentry shop; we had wanted to spend time together, to create our own family together, a baby that would have your curly hair, and my deep brown eyes.  We had wanted to simply live through quiet, ordinary, simple years together and God has changed everything; God has come into our perfectly planned lives, and shattered all the hopes and dreams that we had for each other.  But, Joseph, I’m not sure why, but there is something within me that says this surprise, this interruption from God might be exactly what we need—it might be exactly what the world needs.

Joseph, if you’re still reading this, there is something in you that knows what I say is true.  So, I say to you this—I know, deep within that through this baby God is going to change the world.  And I simply cannot sit here and send the angel away; I cannot sit here and tell God to find someone new.  I am going to carry this child in my body; I am going to give him life, to watch him grow, to tend to his scrapes and his wounds, and the torments of his peers.  I am going to hug him and kiss him and send him off into the world.

And although I’m not sure where this will end, I know that so far God’s words have come to pass, and I am going to continue to trust; this life I am carrying will enter the world, and this life will change the world.  And Joseph I’m asking you to help me–as you tenderly gathered up that tiny bird, I plead with you to gather up God’s own son, and to place him back into that tree; I plead with you to nurture him and protect him as your own, until the time dawns for him to fly.

And now my dearest Joseph, it is time for me to close, for I leave in the morning to visit my cousin Elizabeth; I always find such comfort in her presence.  On my journey, I will never cease to pray for God to meet you as God has met me; I will never cease praying that upon my return our paths will continue as one; and I will never cease praying that as the angel proclaimed, this baby Jesus is hope for the entire world, that this baby reveals that nothing is impossible with God.

Until we meet again.

With All My Love,

Mary

My Real Grandmother

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As we head into the holiday season, I always remember my grandmother.  She was a Rev. She was a Dr.  She had all the credentials.  But more importantly, she had a lot of love.   In my journey to ordained ministry, from the earliest whispers of a call to my ordination day, I always knew she was there.  Her love and support were like spiritual life rafts that held me up, kept me going- a safety net that I always knew was there.  She devoted so much of her life to loving people better, not just me.  She wrote her dissertation, and later a book, on the nature of love.  I, and everyone who knew her, kept her atop a pedestal, and it seemed as if nobody doubted that is where she belonged.

She should be a top candidate to be in my female clergy cloud of witnesses.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” Hebrews 12:1-3

But my grandmother also had some other qualities that affected her calling to live a life of love.   She had a drive to be “perfect.”  She wanted everything to be “lovely.”  As a child, I thought of this trait as an asset, an outward expression of her wonderful love.  She loved to make things beautiful and wonderful- for others as well as for herself.   I remember her especially during the holidays because her search for perfect beauty really came out then.  She always had a stunning Christmas tree with perfectly matched ornaments and wrapping paper.  She even ordered fresh flowers to put on the tree.  There were no tacky colored lights or ornaments made of popsicle sticks.  It was “perfect.”  And she did that for all of us to enjoy right?  Who couldn’t admire that?

But after she died, three weeks after my ordination, I was left to face the cold reality that life and love really aren’t perfect.  In my grief I began to see that they should never be perfect.   You can’t decorate your life like a beautiful tree.  I was now facing the rest of my life without my role model.  I was without her love that I had sought to emulate, a love that had inspired me and carried me to this point.  I felt lost for a while.  I tried to tell myself, that her love could still support me, that she had become one of the great “cloud of witnesses” in my life.  But it’s much harder to tap into the great cloud once they have passed.  You can’t give them a hug or go to them for advice.

In her absence, I also began to face a challenging truth: my grandmother made mistakes.  In her desire to make everything “perfect” and even in her quest to express love, she often limited the freedom we had in our relationships with her.  She limited our ability to love her back in our own ways.  Most importantly, she missed that part of God’s love that is unpredictable, messy and working through flawed people.   Like the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree with one small ornament, sometimes it is the imperfect that reflects God’s love and beauty best.   Grandma had largely missed out on God moving through ordinary things and ordinary people.

How could my saint, the largest in my cloud, have gotten it so wrong sometimes?  What do I do with that now?  I felt like I had lost her again.

Thankfully, God was not finished with me either.   All around me, I was embracing imperfection, in my ministry and in my role as a spouse and as a mother.  I was decorating my own tree in a very different way.  But I couldn’t seem to embrace my grandmother’s mistakes.  In my mind, she was a saint and she couldn’t have made mistakes.  And since she did make mistakes, I guess she wasn’t a saint.  I couldn’t reconcile her in my mind.

I think my answer lies in the “cloud of witnesses” text from Hebrews .  The author doesn’t promise perfection in the great cloud of witnesses.   The text seems to know that nobody is perfect.  It assumes that we are prone to growing weary and losing heart.  I had lost heart with my grandmother and there was only one way forward: to cherish her strengths and flaws together, counting them all in my great cloud.  It is both the perfections and imperfections of our saints that shape and strengthen us.   Their assets motivate us and their lacks challenge us.   As we embrace the fullness of who they really were, we can push ourselves forward in our own great races.   The failings of the saints point us even more to Jesus, who is, as the author rightly notes, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”  Because of Jesus, I can “lay aside every weight.”  Because of Jesus, I can look at my wonderful cloud, sometimes dark, sometimes whispy and happy, and I can run.

So I am back to cherishing my grandmother and her memory- cherishing it even more so now that it is more real.  I feel her love and support again.  I feel challenged to go beyond her limits.  I can run my race with confidence, standing on the perfections and imperfections of my great cloud of witnesses, picking up the torch where they left off and trusting in “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

Passing the Torch

pastor_barbie_041310_facebook_g1My phone beeped the text message from my husband: “Jennifer Koenig passed away this morning.” I was out of town visiting my family and he knew that, on a morning when I was running around and not paying attention to the internets, this was something I’d like to know, and something I might prefer to hear from him.

I got the message while walking out of the building where my ninety-four-year-old grandpa lives. I’d spent one of those precious mornings chatting with him, the kind of morning where you think about how this could be the last time you see him, or he could live to 100. I was about to get in the car and drive twenty minutes to rendezvous with my mom so we could leave for a three-hour drive to a family wedding. Amidst the mostly good emotional effort of a family wedding, there wasn’t much room for grief, so I decided to blast a Requiem that I could sing along to while I rode down the Eisenhower Expressway. (Yes, I was jamming to Herbert Howells on the Ike.)

Jennifer was the associate pastor for my college (a church college, St. Olaf, where we actually had a church on campus). She arrived there while I was a college student, about the same age as I am now.

To be honest, we weren’t close. I’m not sure it’s fair to count her as a mentor. I attended church during college, but not much else. When I had a little crisis over seminary my senior year, it was the other college pastor who took me out for coffee and talked me down. But Jennifer was one of the first younger women pastors I ever saw on a regular basis.

She had been a dance major in college, and she moved that way. There was nothing clunky about her. She radiated grace from her physical self. It was the first time I realized that a female pastor could be beautiful, and that beautiful could be part of the gospel. I watched her and listened to her every week, and even if she didn’t know it, I was blessed and mentored.

She died earlier this fall, in an obvious affront to the way the world ought to be, after an up and down struggle with brain cancer, not yet fifty years old.

By the time the Requiem was over, I was on Lake Shore Drive, and as I leaned into the Oak Street Beach curve, I caught the briefest glimpse of Fourth Presbyterian Church, where I knew one of my other female mentors. I met Dana before I worked there as a resident pastor. She was one of the women pastors my aunt and uncle, who attend that congregation, wanted me to meet. By the time I worked there, Dana was the executive associate. She was the person who I skittishly told about my “surprise” pregnancy (who knew a couple could get pregnant the month after they went off the pill? I thought it took time) and who celebrated with me (and then offered to let me take naps on her office couch). She taught me the importance of filing prayers for later use, how to be a woman in charge, and to wear fabulous hosiery. When I wavered on my next call after my residency, she reminded me that, “Suburban people need Jesus, too.”

A few years later, Dana died, too. Also, too young. The day of her funeral, I was out of town officiating at a wedding, and the best I could do was to preach at that wedding, wearing some fabulous fishnet stockings.

I’m not one to pick up a phone and call a mentor the minute I’m in a ministry pinch. I have the gift of built-in mentoring from a father and grandfather who are pastors. But there are days when I think of a question I wish I’d asked Dana. There are seasons in ministry where I wish I had her counsel. These women who mentored me, even without realizing it, are gone.

The Requiem I listened to that day was as much for Dana as it was for Jennifer. But the plea to grant peace: that was for me. How could these two be gone so soon? And how is it that I am old enough to have some sort of torch-passing, to find that suddenly they are gone, and women in their 20’s begin to ask me for advice? Am I ready for the torch? Am I really old enough to be wise, or beautiful enough to embody the gospel?

I wish the torch didn’t pass like this. Dana and Jennifer had so many years of ministry that went unfulfilled. And yet, we go on, the church, surrounded by witnesses, part of that great cloud, looking forward to the time when death is no more, and we rest from our labors.

“Be calm. God awaits you at the door.”
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

Surrounded: More Than Cumulus

We are excited to introduce another new column to our line up at Fidelia’s Sisters!  “Our Cloud of Witnesses” is a venue for exchanging the stories of those who surround us with strength and grace.  Some may have gone before us. Some may be journeying right along side us. Some may have spoken to us out of history. Some may be our favorite characters out of a beloved book. Some may be those who are the most unexpected. Tell us who has shed light on your own journey of faith and vocation, and help us to see the many ways we are truly embraced and held up by a great cloud of witnesses. Submissions may be sent to witnesses(dot)ycw(at)gmail(dot)com. 

Those were some dark times.

No happy clouds. No rainbows or singing birds. No warm sunshine or flowers lining the path. I was in my junior year during my undergrad and trying to figure “it” all out. What was I supposed to do with my life? How would I deal with my parents disappointment? Could I really pursue ministry full-time as an actual job? 

I’d chosen the stereotypical path in college. I would go pre-med and double major in something science and English literature (for fun). And then I found myself utterly failing those science classes. Just doing horribly. And loving English. Religion. Philosophy. History. I kept thinking to myself, Who am I??? I had always thrived in math and sciences, and I was supposed to become a pediatrician. What was wrong with me? The days got darker as I vacillated back and forth between what I thought I should do and what I thought I wanted to do with my life. Something else was drawing me in a different direction.

 “You have a right to experiment with your life. You will make mistakes. And they are right too. No, I think there was too rigid a pattern. You came out of an education and are supposed to know your vocation. Your vocation is fixed, and maybe ten years later you find you are not a teacher anymore or you’re not a painter anymore. It may happen. It has happened. I mean Gauguin decided at a certain point he wasn’t a banker anymore; he was a painter. And so he walked away from banking. I think we have a right to change course. But society is the one that keeps demanding that we fit in and not disturb things. They would like you to fit in right away so that things work now.” 

― Anaïs Nin

I began to have conversations with an associate pastor at the large downtown Presbyterian church. Because the church was conservative there were no female pastors. But there was a kindness and openness in his presence. He would welcome me into his office weekly as I verbally struggled to explain family obligations, parental sacrifice, Korean cultural expectations, and trying to be faithful to God’s gifts. He listened attentively. One afternoon he gave me a worn out copy of The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson. I couldn’t put it down. There was something about the vocation of ministry – journeying with people, feeding people with Word and Sacrament and literally, food, caring for people in all situations – this work called to me. I didn’t know what it all meant though and what I’d have to do to pursue the possibility.

Later, I had a phone conversation with my father. I’ve told this same story so many times:

I would never have considered seriously pursuing full-time ministry in a million years until that one conversation with my father in the middle of my undergraduate studies. He was attending Princeton Seminary at the time and enjoying the classes and community with numerous women who were studying to also become…pastors. “Pastors??? But the Bible says that women are supposed to submit to men…and church leaders are just supposed to be only men; I can’t imagine a woman being able to do it!!!” I argued with him over the phone and we went back and forth.

My father – ironically the symbol of Asian patriarchy – was trying to persuade me, a woman, but a young girl at the time, that women could and should do much more in the church. My father argued for an egalitarian view on the role of men and women in the church, even in the Korean church. He told me stories of how women had been leaders of the church for a long time, and many were elders in the Presbyterian church, and also becoming pastors all around him…and he admired and respected them, in fact, supported them. He said something to me that I will never forget: The first people to preach the gospel after Jesus’ resurrection were women.  I had never thought of that before.

“And, you can be a leader, too, an elder, a pastor, anything you believe God is calling you to be in your own life…” he said to me.

I was in the middle of all these questions, and they were making the waters murky. The clouds that surrounded me eclipsed the steps I’d carved out in front of me. I got lost. I was groping along trying to find some remnant or part of that original path. But. When I thought I was going along all alone I realized that I was also surrounded by another cloud. The voices of pastors, and my father hemmed me in with peace and comfort. I took one tentative step forward.

“Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.” 
― Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead

It was a reminder that all the communities that fed me, cared for me, raised me – these were the clouds that would define me, and help me live into my call. I didn’t have to figure it out own my own, and wrestle with the proverbial angel of Jacob’s all-night brawl. And the clouds that surrounded me had much more substance than the whispy clouds that produced rain and even storms.

“I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure,
to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.” – Annie Dillard

I learned to not let go. Not let go of those words of affirmation and confirmation. Not let go of the stories that were spoken into my life by the people who not only knew me but truly wanted me to flourish in something meaningful. Not let go of those hands that held onto mine even when I didn’t want them. Because these witnesses would not let me go. Later on I would find men and women, young and old who would join this cloud of witnesses: Dr. Grace Ji-Sun KimErica Liu, my husband, Andy, other pastors and professors, artists and musicians, women in stories that are not “historical,” but feel more true than anything else. The more I reflect on their presence in my life especially in those moments I’m caught up in storms of anguish and angst about my life season these words from Hebrews nourish me: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

The cloud of flesh-and-blood that surrounds us is God-with-us, and who we are, who we are becoming is caught up in God-with-us because of those witnesses. May we be mindful and genuine to these stories, and let them be God’s power to our communities.

“It is easier to find guides, someone to tell you what to do, than someone to be with you
in a discerning, prayerful companionship as you work it out yourself.” 

― Eugene H. Peterson