I’ve been thinking more about my ordination day this year than I have on any of my ten prior “ordiversaries.” Maybe the fact that I’m transitioning (gradually) from full time ministry to retirement is making me more reflective than usual. I have some thoughts about the eleven years of ministry that I’ve been able to serve since then, and I’ll share those with you in another post. Today my mind is on the path that got me there in the first place. It was a rather long path, so this might be a rather long post.
I was not a likely choice for ministry; I didn’t have any of the usual credentials. There’s only one person in my family tree who is a pastor; I didn’t major in religion in college; and I hated my weeks at Bible camp as a kid. Still, God is not in the business of fitting in the boxes we build. So one day in college, my campus pastor told me that I should consider attending seminary after I graduated. I thanked him for the compliment; but privately, I was pretty sure he had me confused with someone else. And my life went on.
Over the next 30 years, I continued hearing (and ignoring) the same message from other people. (God is nothing if not persistent.) One Sunday, I was driving home from church after an encounter with someone who told me – again – that I should be a pastor. I was on Interstate 35W in Minneapolis, near the 35th street exit, when I reached into the back of my mind to pull out the list of all the good reasons I shouldn’t go to seminary. I came up empty. And so it was decided, that quickly. No drama, no harps, no angel voices, not even any angry car horns (I had actually managed to stay in my own lane). I changed at my core, from being a computer software trainer to being a future pastor.
For the next few years, God opened the doors that needed opening and closed those that might have distracted me. I moved into campus student housing and enrolled as a full-time student. In the spring of 2007, I was assigned to the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA to pursue my first call. After interviewing a few places, I accepted the call of Minnesota Valley Lutheran Church and Borgund Lutheran Church to serve as their pastor. I would be living just a few hours away from my home town, where my elderly mother was living. I began making plans for my ordination to take place at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Sioux City, where I had grown up, so that Mom would be able to attend.
The next few months were a roller coaster of events, from sublime highs to lose-your-lunch drops to the lowest of lows. I don’t think I’ve ever again been able to look at one of those magazine articles that lists life events and assigns points, in an attempt to tell you how stressed you are.
The church that had been my home for over 30 years was Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. It was considered one of the “big steeple” churches, a reflection on both the church’s imposing architecture and its reputation in the larger Lutheran world. Every year on “Seminary Sunday” in the spring, a graduating senior was invited to preach at the Sunday services. That year, the invitation came to me. I had preached in other places, but there was something about that pulpit in that worship space, with its history of great pastors and preachers who had stood in the very same spot. I was struck by how big this calling really was.
At the end of May, I was back in that same worship space as one of 178 people graduating from Luther Seminary. I got to share the day with two of my favorite study-buddies, Meredith McGrath and Wayne Gallipo. We had all met on the first day of my first class in seminary, we’ve supported one another through all kinds of life “stuff,” and we’re still the closest of friends.
After graduation, I took some time to spend a few days with my mother. While I was visiting her, she fell and broke her hip. She was recovering well after surgery, and was to be transferred to a rehab facility in a couple of days. She was determined to be strong enough to attend my ordination in July. She bought my red ordination stole as a gift for me, and she had even picked out what dress she was going to wear. With everything looking so hopeful, I felt safe heading back to my seminary apartment to start packing for my upcoming move. Sometime over the weekend, there were some questionable (probably even irresponsible) decisions made about Mom’s medications. The new (unnecessary) meds knocked her flat on her back and pinned a “Pneumonia Welcome Here” sign to her chest. When I had left, she was walking up and down the hall to build up her strength, and three days later she was in the ICU. I still harbor a lot of anger about the medical “care” she received. She died just three weeks before my ordination date.
The next few weeks were a blur of tears and travel, of packing my things to move for my first call and packing Mom’s things to be sold or donated, of planning Mom’s funeral and planning my ordination service. I’m sure there were points when I couldn’t have told you my own name.
My ordination day was… I’ve actually started this sentence about a dozen times and backspaced over all of them. There just aren’t words (even from a wordsmith) to capture the ways that I was carried along by all the circles of community in my life. The people of that congregation, whose fierce love for my mother had brought us together in grief just three weeks earlier, gathered around me with equally fierce love to bless me into my ministry. People from my Minneapolis church family, people from my internship congregation, family members, people from the synod where I would be serving, a motorhome full of people from my new congregations, pastors who had welcomed me into their text study groups, my internship supervisor, my Sunday School classmate and friend who had been my parents’ pastor for about three decades, the Bishop of the synod where I would be serving, one of my seminary best friends and one of my long-before-seminary best friends… we all gathered to worship and sing and pray and grieve and rejoice.
There are some big moments and some funny details that stick in my mind from that day. I remember kneeling with a score of pastors surrounding me and laying hands on me… and I remember wishing that the kneeling pads were a little thicker because my knees were sore from kneeling for a long time. I remember that one colleague had just finished a graveside service for a member of her congregation, so the funeral director brought her to church in a hearse. I remember the bittersweet moment when my mother’s pastor presented the red stole that my mother had purchased for that day, and we both wept a bit at her absence. I remember another pastor-friend working absolute magic from the organ bench and my internship supervisor’s sermon wrapped around a story about sharing the light we’ve been given.
Most of all, I remember being carried along by a cloud of witnesses surrounding me, filled with love and joy and hope. And song… oh my, did we sing:
“Gather us in, the lost and forsaken.
Gather us in, the blind and the lame.
Call to us now, and we shall awaken.
We shall arise at the sound of our name.”
Gather Us In, words and music by Marty Haugen, © 1982, GIA Publications, Inc.