Monday, March 26, 2012

OMG! You're a priest!

It's always amusing to me when people don't know what I am and then find out in some roundabout way. I was posting on Facebook under a fellow clergy's comment having something to do with living our faith authentically when I ended up in a back and forth conversation with a friend of this clergyperson in another state. The friend described himself as a "recovering Catholic" and we kicked a few ideas back and forth (in true versicle response style). After a few postings, he posted the following:
OMG! I just looked up your FB profile ... you're a priest!!! Why didn't you tell me that??
Me: Um ... yeah. You were expecting?????
It's not like I'm hiding it or anything (really, check it out here). He admitted his surprise was more about his Catholic upbringing where women had no business being ordained and also said he thought it was pretty cool that the Episcopal Church recognizes the ministerial gifts of all people.

I'd like to think that after 33 years of ordaining women in the Episcopal Church (traditionally, as many years as Jesus walked this planet), this wouldn't come as much of a surprise. But I guess it still does catch folks off guard. Or maybe it's just they can't believe I'm a priest - that still surprises me too. Not that I didn't feel the priestly ministry within - I had a call when I was 12 years old (back when "no girls were allowed"). More like I'm surprised that I'm getting to live this vocation out in the Church where I feel most at home now. It wasn't that way for a long time.

One of our beloved home bound members told me when I initially visited her, "I gotta tell you something. I don't like women priests." That came at the end of a pastoral visit that appeared to go pretty well. I said, "Well, it's not like I haven't heard that before." She replied, "Well, I'm old school and thought women should be nuns." I said, "That could be a just a wee bit of a problem for my husband and children." She laughed and said, "I know. But you're different - I like you! You come back any time you want to." We've since built a relationship where she told me recently, "You know, you're not like any other priest we've ever had. I feel like I can tell you anything and I've never felt like that with a priest." I was humbled ... and deeply honored. I'm blessed to be where I am being what God created me to be.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Don't it always seem to go ...

I've had the song Big Yellow Taxi going through my head today. I'm old enough to remember Joni Mitchell's original recording of this song but young enough to give props to Counting Crows for their respectable cover of it. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone?

I lost a fellow sojourner in the faith this week. The Rev. Mary Pat Ashby was well beloved in the Diocese of Maryland and certainly there were many who knew her better than I did; however, she graced me with time and care, especially in my call to serve as a priest.

I met Mary Pat+ at Diocesan Center in the summer of 1996. I had been selected to be part of a five woman delegation to the Diocese of Tokyo to discuss women's ordination to the priesthood which had been considered by their national synod convention the prior year. The vote was split with the House of Deputies (lay persons, deacons and priests) voting in favor of full ordination for women and the House of Bishops voting against. There was discouragement among the people, especially those women who felt called to the priesthood and had to continue waiting.

That September, the five of us journeyed to Tokyo for a whirlwind 12 day trip. I say whirlwind not just because of the pace of all our visits and presentations (and there were many panel discussions with lots of question and answer sessions), but also because Typhoon Violet made an appearance that first Sunday we were to visit our sister congregations! We all made it to our various churches in spite of wind, downed trees and flooded streets. We were all greeted most warmly and shown amazing hospitality.

Midway through the trip, we went into the Japanese Alps (yes, they have serious mountains there!). There we spent two days with women and men in retreat where we were housed in a dormitory style setting. Mary Pat+ and I went walking early the first morning we were there ... and found ourselves locked out of the building. No matter, there was an open window and with a boost, up Mary Pat+ went and scrambled through the window. We had a hard time stifling our laughter so as not to wake our companions.

After the retreat, Mary Pat+ and I were slated to go on to Nagoya for a Sunday service and to speak at "St. Matthew's Church" while the rest of our group went to Osaka. Our guide was Yoko Tachikawa - a very short Japanese woman who spoke no English. We figured we stood out in a crowd, so English or no English, Yoko would be able to find us if we got separated. We boarded the train to Gifu City where Yoko's husband Paul+ was the priest at the local Anglican church. Paul+ spoke a little English and drove us from the train station to our hotel. As Paul+ sped along the narrow road, he got just a bit too close to the railing on the right side of the car and BAM! off went the side mirror! Mary Pat+ and I about jumped out of our skin but Paul+ seemed rather nonplussed about the whole thing ... which made us politely stifle our laughter until we got into our hotel room. I swear we laughed until it hurt!

In hindsight, that trip, and our misadventures on it, inched me closer to ordination to the priesthood. Mary Pat+ quietly supported me and gave me encouragement. As a former transitional ministries officer, she helped review my resume and my CDO profile with helpful suggestions. She knew how difficult my first year of ordained ministry was. Closing a church is never on a new priest's radar and to find myself on Good Friday saying good-bye to the members of that church and knowing I had nowhere to go on Easter Sunday was just devastating. My first Easter as a priest ... all dressed up and nowhere to go.

Last year, Mary Pat+ retired from Grace Episcopal in New Market. She called me before she left and basically set me up to be the supply priest for a few months while the congregation took the time to call an interim. It was the first Easter where I was the chief celebrant at the Eucharist. Yes, I had assisted in other congregations in prior years, but it wasn't quite the same. Mary Pat+ made sure I would be chief celebrant at Grace on the holiest day of the Christian year - and for that I will always be grateful.

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone? I will miss Mary Pat+ and will wait with patient expectation for the day when we will see each other again.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How'd you get into the business?

In his book Have a Little Faith: A True Story, Mitch Albom asks his rabbi Albert Lewis this question: "How'd you get into the business?" How indeed? Tweaking this question a bit, how did we get to this point in our life and faith journey?

I don't have some kind of Pauline Damascus Road story of conversion. I was baptized as an infant and I've never known a time when I was not part of the Church - and that's the "capital C" Church universal. I certainly had my time of straying away in late high school and my college years. But in 1988, I moved to Maryland to be with my beloved husband. On the morning when I left my home and my parents, amid many tears, my mother said, "Find yourself a good church when you get to Maryland. The church will be your family when we are far apart." No truer or wiser words could have been said in that moment.

I joined All Saints Episcopal in Frederick when I arrived in Maryland. I'll be honest - the reason I chose them was because of the size of their ad in the Yellow Pages (remember, web sites weren't around then!). Having come from California where the churches are all large, this was the milieu in which I was most comfortable. I had a morbid fear that if I joined a small church, I'd be asked to run for vestry the minute I darkened the door. Yes, an unfounded prejudice, but I was only 24 years old so chalk it up to inexperience.

I spent 13 years at All Saints and in that time my husband was baptized and confirmed, I gave birth to two daughters (both of whom were baptized there), I served as an usher, assisted the altar guild, taught Sunday School (for middle schoolers, no less) and served a three year term on the vestry. But with the arrival of our daughters and a move west of the city, our lives changed and All Saints was no longer a fit with our schedules.

About that time, we started looking at other churches. OK, in fairness, we only looked at one - St. Mark's Lappans. After our second visit, our oldest daughter asked if we were "going to stay here forever." I told her forever was a long time, and she replied, "Well can we at least come back next week? We're in the Sunday School program." I thought that any church which could make room for my kids that quickly was where we needed to be. Case closed!

It was during my time at St. Mark's, a church much smaller than any I had ever attended, that God's call to priestly ministry became unavoidable. I had wrestled off and on with this call since I was 12, back when women could not even serve at the altar, let alone be ordained. In the end, God persisted and I surrendered. I had no idea how God would make this work ... I could not see a way forward.

Well, long story short ... God did make the way. It was the roundabout way which seems to be God's preference (Deuteronomy 2). I was ordained a deacon in June 2007 and a priest in February 2008. But ministry was roundabout too. My first call resulted in shepherding a congregation to a healthy closure, followed by an uncertain period of semi-employment as a supply priest, a short stint as an interim in an inner-city church, a year as a part-time visitation minister at Calvary United Methodist in Frederick, part-time assistant at St. Mark's, Lappans and then almost two years as a hospice chaplain ... before landing in my current call at Grace Episcopal in Brunswick, Maryland.

So, how'd I get into the business? God called and I questioned. God called and I reminded God of my inadequacy. God called and I tried a few lame excuses. God called and I said ... "OK, you got me."