Family / Musings / Reflections

“That’s PASTOR Mom to you, missy.”

The newly-minted Pastor Karen is the one in with blue in her stole, getting hugged by the guy with the crook and the cape (either a bishop or a superhero).

On Holy Cross Day, just two scant weeks ago, my mom was ordained into the office of Word and Sacrament by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.  Which makes me a late-bloomin’ PK (Pastor’s-Kid)!

Several people have asked me how the service of ordination was, and the answer is: beautiful.  We were blessed to be able to hold the service at my home congregation, St. Paul’s, and in attendance were people from all walks of my mom’s life; high school friends of hers I’d never met before, members of the first congregation they belonged to after moving to Pennsylvania, even Mom’s best friend, who lives in California.  The service, the ordination, the music, the people–all were beautiful.  But to me, none were quite so beautiful as the woman who was that day ordained into an office that has been calling her for more than 20 years; a vocation toward which she has slowly and patiently worked despite many setbacks and delays.

I am so blessed to have a mother who is a parent, friend, and role model, and with her permission, I’d like to share parts of her story that put me in awe of her accumulated wisdom and gentle spirit.

When people ask if my family’s always been Lutheran (which happens more than you’d think, since I have a Scandinavian surname) I answer “I was raised Lutheran, but my mom was a Catholic and my dad was a southern Baptist.  When they got married, they thought that Lutheranism was a good compromise.”  This is true enough, but the real story is longer and more complex (as real stories so often are).

My mom was raised Catholic, and her religion meant so much to her that there was a time when she seriously contemplated entering a sisterhood.  But a year and a half into college, she married a military man, necessitating a move from her home in Connecticut to South Carolina, and then to Oklahoma.  The man she married turned abusive shortly after they moved; he also sabotaged her attempts to re-enroll in college in South Carolina.  When Mom realized that she feared the possibility of having a child with this man, she initiated a separation, and found herself divorced and far from home in Oklahoma at age 21, and too emotionally wounded to begin the complex and painful process of annulment within the Catholic church. Ostracized by the Catholic parish she was attending, she began attending a local Lutheran church (LCMS) where she began to feel at home.

Mom met Dad when she was invited by a co-worker to a New Year’s Eve party; Dad’s brother was the host of the party.  Despite Mom’s protests that she need to move slowly, that she was freshly divorced and not ready for another relationship, Dad proposed to her in March and they married in September of 1978 at that Lutheran church that Dad had started attending with Mom.  (Go, Dad!)

Money was tight while Dad was finishing medical school, and though Mom initially hoped to return to school after Dad graduated and began earning, the arrival of my older brother in September of 1979 reoriented my mom’s plans.  Mom has been truly committed to her vocation as mother, and consciously chose to try to be a stay-at-home mom as long as financial conditions allowed.  That meant that she delayed the completion of her degree (a prerequisite for going to seminary) until after all three of us kids had graduated from high school–the last of us did so in 2006.

Mom describes her call to seminary as something she wrestled with for a really long time.  My home pastor played devil’s advocate for her (while always, I hasten to add, being supportive of her choices), pointing out that there were many ways that she could do ministry as a layperson.  And Mom has done just that; she has been a certified Stephen’s Minister; she’s sung in choir, edited the church newsletter, organized the assisting ministers’ roster, and created a healing ministry team at our home congregation, to name a few.  Yet throughout all these ministries, Mom still wrestled with a call to pastoral ministry.

She wondered if she was being selfish; why was she feeling like she needed to do something that would call her away from her family?  She wondered if she was being self-important: why wasn’t the ministry she was already doing enough for her?  She wondered if she were being wasteful; why spend resources to fund a theological education for a person already in her fifties?

Somehow God still managed to get Mom out the door and into seminary, where she started classes in 2008.  She found it hard; she was academically rusty AND a perfectionist, a killing combination for a woman suddenly confronted with a full graduate classload, kicking off with (of all things!) an intensive two-week seminar on biblical Greek, as is the norm at our seminary.  Despite her recurring conviction that she would fail everything, Mom instead came to shine in seminary, developing a reputation not only as a kick-butt student, but as a truly kind and genuine person.

She also brought me to seminary.  She asked me to come with her when she visited Gettysburg as a prospective student, and after she enrolled, she invited me to visit her and sit in on classes.  These chances to be immersed in the seminary environment were a turning point for me in my discernment process.  Without her, I don’t know how long it would have taken for the artful nudgings of the Spirit to finally get my recalcitrant rear-end to seminary.

So when I saw her kneeling before the bishop of our synod to receive the stole I’d made her as a symbol of the office she would bear, I saw a woman who had been in (sometimes agonized) conversation with this call and the Holy Spirit for over thirty years.  She has struggled with and overcome abuse, self-doubt, academic challenge, separation from her home and family, and health issues, and she’s done it all while still handling the responsibilities being a mother, a wife, and a homemaker.

My mom is an amazing person.  I know that sometimes she still wrestles with the questions that plagued her in the beginning of her vocational discernment: the questions of self-interest, selfishness, and waste.  That’s one of the reasons that the rite of ordination was so powerful to me; in that small ceremony, God through the church was answering her doubts, as God has so often done before.  My mother is not selfish; she is one of the most self-giving people I know, and now she will give and serve through this precious office and certain call.  My mother is not self-interested; she is committed to preserving and announcing the gospel to the point of her own self-negation (in a good, Pauline kind of way).  She is not wasteful; she brings with her into her call such richness of character and wisdom that only comes through long, profound, and often painful experience.

My mother’s ordination was beautiful because she is so beautiful; her courage, commitment, integrity, and persistence are qualities I can only hope to emulate in my own ministry. I am so, so proud of her, and grateful for God’s call and her brave answer.

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7 thoughts on ““That’s PASTOR Mom to you, missy.”

  1. This is beautiful, Victoria. Thank you so much for sharing. And give your mom a hug for me the next time you see her. She has been a model for me too (as a 50-something seminarian myself). May God bless you both.

  2. I am sorry for your mother’s choices. She should repent and return to
    the Catholic Church. She endangers her salvation and those who follow
    her. I hope she turns from her ways.

    • Wow.

      Just had to get that off my chest.

      Karl, I know that you are not alone in your interpretation of this piece of Catholic doctrine of “outside the Church, no salvation.” I also know that nothing I say in reply will be likely to sway your opinion. So if not for you, then for anyone who reads your comments and has my reaction, I’d like to offer the encouragement that not all members the Catholic church universally condemn all who are not Catholic–for example, I never encountered comments such as yours, ever, during four years of Catholic education. Even the Catholic Catechism makes room for such as myself and my mom: “All men are called to this catholic unity of the People of God. . . . And to it, in different ways, belong or are ordered: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by grace to salvation” (page no. 836). Well, except for the fact that we’re not men. But the Catholic church’s issues with gender inclusion are a conversation for another day.

      I’d also like to point out that my mom, in the wake of her abusive marriage, separation, a divorce, did agonize over her decision and repent her divorce–or more accurately, the marriage she entered with a man who broke his vows to her. To this day, she describes divorce as the “sinful solution to a sinful problem.” But in turning to her local Catholic parish in the midst of her need, she encountered not forgiveness or acceptance, but judgment and rejection. Perhaps you skimmed over that part in reading my mom’s story, but in view of that lack of compassion from the parish, I do find your comment to be the height of hubris. My mother did not reject Christ’s salvation–she rediscovered the reality of it in a different denomination.

      I also believe that this body of Christ has many parts. Some are Catholic, some are Lutheran, and some are beyond our imagining, Karl, but all are a reflection of the gorgeous diversity of God’s creation and our universal call to grace freely given.

  3. Changing a “denomination” is another way of changing a “spouse”. It is adultery, no matter how you cut it! To deny that, is an utter falsehood and not defensible, except through rationalization with an unhealthy does of emotion.

    By the way, I was divorced against my will more than two decades ago. I remain faithful to those vows. My wife, like the reformers, chose adultery and refuses to repent. So be it. Her wrong, does not
    give me a “right” to be wrong and violate our marriage the way she has and continues to. Like the Catholic Church does for those who have been unfaithful to her, I wait, too, for my wife to repent. I live a
    witness to our five children and the two children she had/has with her adulterous partner. I know, well, divorce and ALL it brings. I know how it ravages the faith, especially, of children. I am far, far from uncaring. I simply, along the way, had to face the truth and decide to follow Christ.

    Your “gorgeous diversity of God’s creation” is silly and is simply retro justification for your mother’s behavior and its results. It is a prime example of emotional rationalization. Two wrongs do not cancel each other to make a right. You mom needs to repent. Her souls depends upon it. She needs to leave the silliness of Luther’s inability to cope with his sinfulness and return to her home. The sooner the better.

    I am not anyone’s judge. I am just speaking the truth. The Church calls those who have fallen away via the reformation, “separated
    brethren”. It always prays for their repentance and reunion with the Catholic Church, fully. There is a semblance of accuracy to your words but you are not correct in that “room is made” for other sects. Rather, the separation is duly noted, not to include such sects as “outside the Body of Christ” but rather as not in “full communion”
    with the Catholic Church. I say that, not condescendingly, but as a
    statement of how things really are.

    The state of the Body of Christ is appalling. We are all sinners. Were I without sin, likely, I would be living with my wife.

  4. By the way, as I ponder your comment and my comments:

    I meant no harm in my posts and ask your forgiveness if my words were not chosen carefully enough. The hard lessons of life bear witness to the wisdom of being truthful AND thoughtful, simultaneously, in what is said, as well as HOW it is said. Remember,
    if I was perfect, I would still be living with my wife. God bless.

    • Karl, thank you for sharing a little more for your story. I see that you are truly wrestling with the reality of human brokenness, and I respect the strength you draw from your faith.

      Though I appreciate your just-in-case request for forgiveness, I’m not sure how to respond. You ask for it only if your words were not chosen with enough care, and it’s not your word choice that I find objectionable. It is your implication that my mother’s spiritual path–and my own–is not only invalid, but damaging to the spiritual wellbeing of others. I mean, saying that to a pastor and a seminarian? Ouch. If you were to ask me to forgive you for that, I’d find that justifiable, and would certainly forgive you. But in your words, I hear that your own life experience is only justified by a very narrow interpretation of Catholic doctrine , and so I fear we’re going to have to agree to disagree on what in your comments requires forgiveness.

      That said, my mother isn’t here to speak for herself, so please consider this the end of our conversation about her life and choices.

      I am sorry that you continue to struggle with the pain of your divorce. I hope that one day you will find a peace and wholeness that is independent of your ex-wife’s choice. God’s peace to you.

  5. Victoria, I’m going to invite Kate Lawler-Wunsch, our precious daughter-in-law, to read about your mom and more on this page. Kate grew up at Holy Cross in Auburn MA and was married to our son by the same priest who baptized her, but, lo and behold, Kate is now a Lutheran with all the kaleidoscopic Catholic background to choose from, like Taize. Rev. Vodokoliz had an office on the same floor as Kate’s dad, a retired Shakespeare professor (who loves the Red Sox).

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