When I shared the first draft of my Marks narrative with my mentor, Rev. Henrietta Andrews, her remarks to me during our meeting were—as is her nature—spiritual, theological, kind, and incisive. “What you have written captures your journey and struggles along your discernment process as they relate to the Marks. As you have written your narrative, it is an academic, secular account. How do you identify that God works through you in all this? How can you bring God into your stories, showing how God calls and you in your humanness respond?” “What images or stories from the Bible perhaps,” she asked me, “do you hold as you imagine your ordination, the promises you make to God, the Church, and yourself?” These are the essential questions the Marks are getting at. She’s right: throughout the narrative, there is one struggle after another—until struggle becomes the through line of the narrative. So it remains for me to ask at points in the struggle, what was God trying to do with me? I will try to speak to that question here, and although I am writing this summary last, I am putting it at the beginning. All the stories, background, and contexts are in the essays that follow. I hope you will read it and see something of the Marks in me. But here is the short version.
I’m guessing not many writers of Marks would demonstrate fit and call to ministry through the story of the rich young ruler, a story so important it was included in all three synoptic Gospels. Like me, he could check all the boxes of belief and practice. The Bible says Jesus looked upon him and loved him, and I believe with all my heart God is calling me. Jesus told the young man, “Ok, now go sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” But the young man walked away sad, for he was rich. I’m not rich nor a ruler. But the struggles I describe within the Marks essays are, I realize, struggles about how to hold onto something rather than loving God and others with my whole self. Jesus says you must lose your life for My sake. You must give your self away. “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:39). I struggled so long to find my life—college, advanced degrees, profession, relationships, more perfect relationships, possessions, money, writing—that I could not see God was holding me in God’s hand along the way—working in my life to get me here.
Where exactly is here? In my call story, below, the question was put on my heart, “What does it really mean to live?” Where I had been coming from a perspective of deficiency and lack, God is showing me life, life abundantly (Jn 10:10). Looking back at my Marks Memoir, it reads to me like a confessional—as though I had to name the tumultuous striving to correct something lacking in my life. Now, as I ask God to show me clearly God’s Way for my life, in my reluctance to let go of the money, the prestige, the job, the revelry, and the consumerism, I did not see that I would also be letting go of that gnawing ache for earthly “more.” The divine More is always already with me, working, coaxing, loving.
How the rich young ruler must have struggled with God as he began to understand what letting go meant for him. Why couldn’t he follow Jesus and keep his money? Couldn’t a person in a position of power also follow The Way? Look at all the good he could do if he kept control of his wealth! And Jesus, loving him, may have been thinking to himself, “C’mon, c’mon, man—you can do it! Make the choice…” God has blessed me with a deep appreciation for an early faith community of simplicity and lots of singing. God has shown me how I and those around me are flawed and have the capacity to disappoint—and to surprisingly not disappoint. God gave me intellect and insight for perception, judgement, and discernment—and loved me even as I became prideful. God allowed me to accumulate—and then feel the vacuousness of possessing. God placed me so that people know my name and what I have written—and then gave me the gift of being passed over. God has let me have relationships I have asked for—and the grace to let them play out and go away. God put a teenager in my daily life for one year—long enough for me to realize that seminary was the path I must not pass by. The only time I ever received a full scholarship for work was at McAfee School of Theology. I believe in “God things.”
God continues to place people in my life who tell me how wonderful I would be at pastoral work—and not one soul who has asked me, “Gee, are you sure?” And, there is no other explanation for why I would choose to enter ministry as a vocation so near my sixth decade. Neither was there a soul to affirm what I really wanted to hear: “Well, you are kind of old for that.” Finally, God has given me every opportunity for fifty-seven years to glimpse love as God loves and is love, yet most of the time, I put selfish, self-centered limits on love—believing there to be more, better, deeper if only I looked hard enough. I was reminded recently that love means risking the pain of loss and failure. Love is putting ourselves in a state of intentional vulnerability, in day-to-day relations with one another and in commitments to justice and mercy to humanity. To love is to be alive. It is to be fully human. Love is how we connect with the God within, among, and beyond our selves.
The preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “If you can do anything else, do it. If you can stay out of the ministry, stay out of the ministry.” Throughout my discernment process, I’ve been asking whether or not I can stay out of the ministry. How can I be sure that I’m not bored and needing a change? Is it my “want” or God’s will? Because there is a big difference! The rich young ruler walked away grieving. It’s too simple to say that he was sad because he had to make a choice. He grieved for himself because he knew what he had just lost. He had a discernment problem. Perhaps that is the greatest working of God in my life; I know that if I walk away—yes, sad like the young man—I will know what I have not chosen. In my half-century of this “fever called living” (Poe), maybe it is not that God is not speaking, but that God is. And maybe it is not that I do not hear it, but that I do. And maybe it is not that I am afraid of what I will lose should I follow, but that I am afraid that it will overpower me and that I will be unable to bear it.
Our Sunday School class studied Amy Jill-Levine’s Light of the World: A Beginner’s Guide to Advent for Advent. The concluding chapter, “The Gift of the Gentiles,” included Jesus’s genealogies, noting that his “begats” held clues and nuances first century Jewish readers would have easily understood. Our conversation led to how the Virgin Birth has become a litmus test requirement of fundamentalist Christian “right belief.” The discussion seemed to take on a tacit understanding that literal and inerrant beliefs were primitive at best. We have all kinds of backgrounds in the class: people who grew up Catholic, several Methodists, and a lifelong UCC member or two. I’m the only fundamentalist, which was easily apparent to me. I know I am sensitive to it, but I heard the familiar tones in people’s voices as they tried very hard not to outright mock and condemn literalists. I could see the shakes of head and smiles (that most often come across to me as smirks). I did a quick check to see what I was feeling, and best I could tell it was loyalty. I did not want to be on the progressive team just then. I shared how I usually wait in classes and worships and discussions—and at academic conferences—to hear the disparaging remark about fundamentalists that inevitably crops up. I understand, I told them, the politicization of theology and the extremes to which ideologies can be taken. “An asshole is an asshole,” I said (yes, in Sunday School—another luxury of being a progressive). But judging others and imposing our “right ideology” or ideological purity, as our teacher put it, is its own form of idolatry, rather than a bridge of people into unity.
One of my classmates said, “I am always intrigued by others’ experience and perspective and love how it opens my mind, which was once very closed.” I replied, “yeah me too—everybody has some kind of closedness,” to which she replied, “…usually from fear of something.” Then it dawned on me—how to conclude my Marks Memoir. That’s what ordination is to me: to disrupt the misplaced mission of correcting bad theology with good theology, which is as polarizing as political ideologies and equally as fraught with violence—spiritual violence. I know how I feel when I’m being pounded with good, better, theology. It is not very unifying; it is in fact divisive—and I am open to being formed! I will be a bridge. I will bring people together. And, for love’s sake as God is love, I will soften fear and be with. I want to end with a poem that my minister sent to me during a difficult point in my discernment process. I was torn at whether to remain an academic or be realistically open to vocational ministry. She astutely intuited that the issue at the core of my resistance was one of prestige—of being published, sought out, revered, famous. The poem is “Famous,” by Naomi Shihab Nye.
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
I think writing these Marks in the way I have written them has helped me understand I don’t need to do anything that registers with academia or the world as spectacular. They remind me that somewhere along the way I had forgotten what I could do, and for me, today—this year, this is the Advent message I receive.
In the end, the Marks do not ask me to prove that I love God and the Church more than I love myself–the do not because they cannot. If that task were easy, the Bible would not keep commanding us to do it. They are asking me if I am sure I am ready to go through the world in front of God, and the Church, and everybody, showing them what it looks like when someone lives their life trying to live out that love.
Naomi Shihab Nye, “Famous” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, copyright © 1995.