The Friday Five topic of the day at Rev Gal Blog Pals is Resolutions and Absolutions. It got me thinking about the resolutions I’ve made and the absolutions I’ve received in the last nine years. Today is the ninth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. In those nine years I have made many resolutions and have needed and received more than a few absolutions.
Early on the day of my ordination, I got up to walk the dogs–my morning chore. As we were turning the corner of Rose and McGee in Berkeley, CA, a verse of scripture shot into my head: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). It stopped me in my tracks. “What could this mean?” I wondered to myself. Little did I know.
Watching seminary classmates pull down plumb jobs while I continued to scramble was hard. Learning to live into my priesthood was harder still when I didn’t have a pulpit or an altar or even really a place to hang my alb. I searched job postings, networked like mad, wrote letter after letter and still no “first call” announcement for me in the Seminary magazine. I began to wonder if I had been deluded, if this three-year sojourn to seminary had been a big mistake.
Then I remembered a casual conversation at a clergy conference–something about helping out as an emergency room chaplain. At that point in my journey from (or is it into?) ordination, I was still set on getting “my first call” and settling into parish ministry. I was resolved and resolute in my resolutions. A few months later–a few months into ordination–I was ready to look in other directions–but who would have thought one of those directions was Highland Hospital, Oakland, California–a center of gunshot medicine. I had spent years avoiding the sight of blood and violence creeped me out. But “It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Turned out I loved the halls crowded with gurneys, deep human need pulsing out of every corner, the sounds, the smells, the rush, the fevered pace. But most of all I loved being with the poorest of the poor–so much need, so much pain, so much kindness, so much life. A wife gently oiling the dry and flaking skin on her husband’s paralyzed legs. He’d been hit by a car while riding his bicycle back from work. A mother waiting for word on her son who had been shot while sitting in his classroom. A man resigned to losing another toe to diabetes. In them I was seeing the face of God.
Finally that “first call” came–a school and church in Oakland no less. Not what I’d dreamed. Not what I’d planned but something I resolved to do. After all–the church was even equipped with a high pulpit, the school was “nationally known,” and both the congregation and the school amazingly diverse. I found a niche–noisy church for kids and kids at heart, chapels that were both interfaith and faithful to the school’s Anglican roots, and every so often a chance to preach from that high pulpit. At last, I was using all my gifts or so I thought. But I had fallen into the hands of a living God and things were about to change.
The rector retired and I was looking for work. Surely this time I would be a parish priest. That was my New Year’s Resolution–land a job as a parish priest–better yet, a rector. I set my jaw. I was on my way. A plumb job in a parish that needed my gifts. Another round at barrier breaking. The lure of it all made me forget the vow I’d taken to never again break the gender barrier. The call to my ego helped me forget that the first time I visited that small exurban town creeped me out. What did it matter that I had never lived in city of less than 500,000? It was the parish that called me, not the town. (I still seek absolution for my hubris and misplaced ambition.)
Jesuits talk of desolation and consolation as two guideposts in discerning the call of the Spirit. Desolation–the feeling that you are sinking in quick-sand, the sense that you are lost but don’t yet know it. And consolation–you’re in the groove, you and God are pulling in the same direction, the fruits of God’s work through your life are spilling out of the basket.
Four years into my ordination and I was meeting desolation. It was so clear that I was part of what my denomination names a “failed call.” Sometimes desolation shakes you right down to the core. Again I wondered, “Am I made for this?” But consolation abounds even at the center of desolation. After all, I had fallen into the hands of a living (and loving) God. A twinkling eye accompanied by a slightly naughty smile often met me when I got up to preach. “You go girl,” that smile seemed to say. People both old and young–not many but some–calling out and affirming the priest emerging in me. And throughout it all my husband by my side hurt too but confirming the call that I heard. Consolations steadying me for the desolation down the road.
The parish was rocked by scandal. An administrator caught stealing red-handed. It took months to unravel the depths of the crime. Through it all, the anger at me grew unabated. Desolation for sure–no doubt of that. Yet here is the rub–throughout it all God’s grace sustained me and helped me to grow. Consolation at the center of desolation. “Live by the Gospel as best as you can,” a friend said to me early on in the mess. That’s what I did. For the first time in my life. Weigh every word and act with the Gospel in mind. Though it hurt like hell for the parish and me, though absolutions are still needed by all involved, I came away from the moment convinced of the truth that a bruised reed God will not break.
And yet still I wondered casting about for direction, “Was I deluded in thinking God called me to priesthood?” Without altar or pulpit or people to pastor, I wondered just how I was to be priest. Desolation deepened. I felt sunk in quicksand right up to my neck. That for me was the turning point. A moment when I had to listen with ear and heart to how God was calling me to be priest.
Long before we set out for seminary in Berkeley, a wise priest had taught me the ABC’s–of priesthood that is. “Absolve, Bless and Consecrate that’s what you’re about,” she said to me the would be priest. Years later I puzzled about what that might mean when I had no place to practice my trade. Absolve, Bless and Consecrate that was the challenge. How to do that without an office, a pulpit, an altar. What does it look like to absolve from the street? How do I bless on the fly? Consecrate what–I had no bread or wine.
One day it occurred to me that a priest is a priest wherever she is. Declare God’s love and forgiveness–that’s what it means to absolve. Blessing–recognizing and affirming God’s presence in the person before us that’s all it is. Consecrate–that’s pointing to the holy. You don’t need bread and wine to consecrate. The world’s your oyster when it comes to that. I think that’s the moment I began to live into the ordination I’d received.
Today it’s nine years since I said the words, “I will with the help of God” as I made my ordination vows. It’s nine years since that morning I first heard clearly, “It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” And so it is. You loose control. God’s hand is on the rudder and God’s not letting go.
Who would have thought a woman like me would be so at home on the streets. And yet that’s where my consolation lies–in the hearts and voices and lives of those I serve. What a difference that consolation makes!