I am seven years old. It’s time for communion in my United Methodist Church in a small town in mid-Michigan. After watching communion by intinction happen for so many years from the sidelines, I am excited when my mom tells me it is ok for me to line up in the center aisle with her and slowly shuffle forward, waiting for my time to tear a piece of bread off the soft white loaf and dip it in the grape juice. I’m not sure why I didn’t take communion before this age–the UMC offers open communion. But I guess I just didn’t feel ready, whatever that meant to seven-year-old me.
So I get in line with my mom, our steps muffled by the plush red carpet as we slowly walk forward. I notice that as people approach Pastor Tom and the Lay Minister Joyce near the altar rail, the second person in line stops at the end of the pews and waits until the person in front of them has been served. I approach Joyce after my mom, who waits for me at the side aisle, since she isn’t in the habit of kneeling at the altar rail to pray. Joyce looks at me directly and lovingly, and says something, probably a traditional, “This is my body, broken for you” and “this is my blood, shed for you,” as I take a small piece of bread between my child fingers and pulled gently, shedding some crumbs as I separate the bit from the loaf and carefully dip the bread in the grape juice. The chalice contents rise into the pillowy layers of bread as soon as it touches the surface of the juice. It reminds me of the experiment we’ve done in school where the celery turned different colors if you added food coloring to its water. The juice drips onto my fingers, which I know will be sticky later. I tuck the wetted bread into my mouth and taste what years later I call a memory of the church where I grew up. Love, life, bread, blood…given…for me.
Several years later, a new pastor preaches on a communion Sunday. He says that he often observes people coming forward for communion and tear small bits off the large loaf, perhaps being too “Michigan-nice” and wanting to make sure there’s some left for the folks at the end of the line. I will never forget what Pastor Daniel says that day: “This bread, and this cup, are signs of God’s grace. That grace is for you. There’s nothing you can do about it! So take a big chunk of bread, grab a piece of the kingdom–this grace is for you.”
That day I started ripping off bigger pieces of bread. That day I started taking grace seriously.
I am thirteen years old. Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Scarlett have just asked me to be a junior Sunday school teacher for the preschool Sunday school class.
At the time, I am feeling angsty and frustrated about having to wake up early and go to church with my mom, while my atheist father sleeps in or lounges on the couch reading the funnies. He didn’t have to go to church. And the youth group doesn’t really interest me, as I think it’s much more like a clique of cool kids who say stuff about wanting to be welcoming to all and then never change who is invited to their lunch table…so I say yes.
Over the next five years, I will go from being a junior Sunday school teacher to a full Sunday school teacher when Mrs. Scarlett has to step back due to her declining eyesight. I will prepare simple snacks of “ants on a log” and play the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem and make up games with the three- and four-year-olds as they learn about Jesus….no, scratch that.
I soon learn it is really me who’s doing most of the learning. Sometimes I don’t understand why church, why Jesus, why the Bible, why God, has to be so complicated. The three-year-olds get it–love God, love yourself, love others. Be kind. Do good things. Just as I was training to be a first-rate teenage cynic, the preschoolers are making the core of Biblical teaching make sense to me.
I go through confirmation during Lent when I am thirteen. I am baptized before confirmed in a ceremony on Easter morning. As the water is sprinkled on my head, I think about all my questions, all my wonderings, all the things my soul hasn’t grasped yet, all the things that make me think, “do I really believe that?” A great chasm seems to open in front of me, as deep as the many things I do not know.
But as the droplets from the font trickle down my hair onto my face, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being held, aware that all my questions were welcome.
That’s the day I truly believed I was loved by God.
I am nineteen, and having a spiritual crisis. My grandpa had a serious stroke shortly after traveling to Ohio to hear my college Renaissance choir’s December concert. The stroke didn’t seem possible, and I’m still not sure what to think.
The grandpa who took me out for ice cream in the winter because the Michigan cold didn’t allow the Death by Chocolate to melt; the grandpa who played Wizard of Oz with me so many times, pretending to be the Wicked Witch of the West and scrunching his 6’3” frame down to the floor, crying “I’m melting!”; the grandpa who took me to the planetarium and then read me the Greek myths corresponding with the constellations we liked the best…this grandpa, this towering, brilliant man who knew everything there was to know about Midwestern botany and could whistle every North American birdsong, had lost control of the left side of his body. He would likely never walk again.
And in January, I find myself visiting the ecumenical monastery at Taize, France. I was so hesitant about traveling across the world when my grandpa was still unstable and his future wasn’t sure. But here I am, singing and praying and studying and cleaning and drinking tea with pilgrims from all over the world. My thoughts are only of an eighty-one year old man in a small town in Michigan.
One night, before taking a vow of silence for a week to pursue prayer and contemplation, I ask God to show me a sign. I’ve wanted to do that before, but never did, since I thought that meant I was weak in my faith. Who needs a sign of God’s existence and presence? If our faith was strong enough, we would be sure enough without a special sign, right?
But I need something to get me through that silent week. I am so scared of being alone in the silence, faced only with myself, faced only with my internal chaos, with my worry and fear about my grandfather, about aging, about mortality. And so, after meeting with a Sister who would usher me and my friends into our silent retreat, my heart cried out to God, if grandpa is going to be ok and if this week in silence is going to be worth it, give me a sign.
And I step outside into the most beautiful sunset I have seen in my life.
That was the day I learned that signs are real.
I am twenty-two, and ready to preach my first ever sermon. Preaching isn’t something that had ever crossed my mind before. And for good reason: I had never seen an ordained woman until I got to college. I had never heard a sermon from a woman’s voice until I got to college. In fact, sometimes I will say “I didn’t even know I didn’t know women could preach” because the idea of women in ministry had been so far removed from my frame of reference. And I most definitely had never ever thought about myself as a woman in ministry.
But throughout my college career, my pastors and friends and professors and mentors have kept saying things to me that made me wrinkle my nose at the idea of me as a minister.
“You’re very pastoral when you welcome new students to our campus ministry.”
“You are a theologian. Have you ever thought of going to seminary?”
“The way you accompanied your friend to the hospital was like what a chaplain does.”
“You write and speak about your faith so beautifully…would you like to preach sometime?”
So now, during the spring of my senior year of college, after realizing that somewhere deep inside myself I did want to preach, even though I had no idea what that meant, really, I prepare a sermon on the story of the road to Emmaus, creating a mashup with the story of the Good Samaritan. Looking back later, I realize I had no idea how to craft a sermon, how to fit my storytelling to my preaching voice, how to connect with the congregation and gauge their reactions.
But today, I preach. I preach some words, yes, that I’d researched and written and cried over and worried over. But I also preach with my presence. My presence in the pulpit as a young woman means that I could preach, was allowed to preach, that God could and did and is giving prophetic words to young women today. My presence as someone who never had role models of women in ministry until college means that representation matters, that after I found out about women preachers I realized that was a possibility for me, too. My presence in the pulpit doing something I never had ever dreamed was possible is a testament to God calling everyone to a particular ministry, no matter what plans we had made for ourselves.
I preach. And my beloved congregation, my church family, loves on me and affirms me and holds me as I blossom before their eyes.
After my sermon, I sit down next to my friends, who had lined up in the second pew on stage right, beaming at me the whole time. And I cried. Sobs rip from my chest as something deep inside me seems to click into place. A flame that has been burning in my belly for twenty two years suddenly is fanned…and what a bright light it casts.
That was the day I said “yes” to my call.
I am twenty six. I am kneeling on a small, square pillow at the front of the sanctuary. I’ve been attending this congregation for four years, during which I’d gone to divinity school, served as a church intern in two congregations, been a pulpit supply preacher, gone through the ordination process with my church’s Ordination Committee, and now I am ready to be ordained. Well, really, the moment ordination is conferred is when the congregation agreed by consensus to ordain me, and that was several weeks ago. But today, dressed in a solemn black dress and wearing my red preacher heels and kneeling on a pillow, I am being blessed by individuals and families coming forward to lay hands on me. The line, I am told later, lasted for about an hour, as person after person went forward to share a short blessing. The tears start, and they are mirrored on the faces of family, friends, peers, professors and congregants. My pastor April’s wife Deborah hands me her rainbow tie-dye handkerchief.
“May you know you are enough.”
“May God fill your soul with wisdom.”
“May you share hospitality with all you meet.”
Blessing after blessing comes, and I feel pressure on my head, shoulders and hands as folks kneel beside me or bend down to hug me or pray over me.
And I just take it all in. As someone accustomed to putting others first and being present in others’ pain, it is a challenge to kneel there for an hour, accepting the love and affirmation and hope gushing forth from my community. My only task is to receive, to be poured into, so that I may pour out from what I have been given.
That was the day I believed that I was enough to be a minister.
I am twenty eight now, and I am serving in my first call. Over the last two years, I have been ordained, graduated with my Master of Divinity degree, moved over 2,000 miles from home and become an Associate Pastor. I have left friends and made new ones, moved in with my partner, learned how to ride public transit (because Seattle has public transit!), learned what to do in an earthquake (because Seattle has earthquakes!), figured out how to pay clergy taxes and adopted a cat. My congregants compliment me on my sermons, pray for me, critiqued my hairstyles and my choice in lipstick color, bring me pies on Boxing Day, tell me they think of me as their granddaughter, challenge my Biblical interpretation, playe Simon Says in worship with me, cry with me and invite me to their Harry Potter movie marathons. The ups and the downs, the joys and frustrations, the challenges and the blessings of ministry are always right next to each other.
It is humbling to be called to witness the complexities of life lived in community.
The women who have made it possible for me to be a preacher are constantly in my heart: Marie, Joyce, Mary, Erin, Amy, April, Deborah, Harriet, LeDayne, Patricia, Chelsea, Drew, Claire, Kelsey. And so, whenever I preach, I remove my shoes and leave them under my pew. I approach the pulpit barefoot, or in sock feet, slowly, deliberately, because the pulpit is holy ground.
I am a woman. I am a millennial. I am a feminist. I am a writer. I am a preacher. I am a pastor. I am beloved by God. I will never take the call to ministry for granted.
This essay originally published by HerStry on March 24, 2020.