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.