Being the Elephant in the Room
I am so excited about our church leadership this year.
And our new staff—Teresa and Elyse—wonderful!
These ladies are truly amazing.
Truly. I can’t wait for you all to work with Teresa
when you volunteer for our food program.
And many of you already know Elyse.
Who is phenomenal.
Elyse is in a PhD program at Drew University, so she’s a smarty pants.
And she’s also pursing ordination in the United Methodist Church,
Which means in the spring she is going to have to go through
this crazy process they make us all go through.
She’ll go off to some “retreat” center
And sit for three days in front of like 100 different strangers
and tell them over and over
why she thinks God has called her to be “The Rev. Elyse Ambrose”.
And when she successfully convinces them that she is truly called,
she’ll kneel awkwardly before the bishop this summer
and become “The Rev. Elyse Ambrose.”
In the ordination process, we have to do this many times.
And, at every one of those interviews,
we are going to have to tell what is known as our “call story”.
And, don’t worry, Elyse, by the end of your ordination process,
you will have had to sit in front of so many people
with butterflies in your tummy telling them your call story
that you will be a virtuoso call storyteller.
Yesterday, I was on the other side of those stories for the first time.
I’m on this delegation that chooses the bishops of the church,
and yesterday I sat in a room from 8 in the morning to 9:30 at night
interviewing people about their call to become a bishop of the church.
And, Elyse, all I have to say is pray for your interviewers
because they are tired and conflicted people.
I’m really just whining now…
The gold standard of call stories are in the Bible.
Like Jeremiah’s call story which was read this morning.
It’s a sweet call story.
Typical of what you would think when your hear the word “call”.
Jeremiah actually hears the voice of God call out to him and say very clearly,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
And Jeremiah responds with his insecurities,
like any sane person would,
if appointed a prophet to the nations by a voice from the sky.
He famously says, “But God, I’m just a child.”
Maybe he’s thinking, you know I’m tall for my age. People often mistake me for a prophet to the nations or some other adult role,
but I actually still wear Converse sneakers
and will eat chocolate chip cookies as an entire meal
if given the opportunity.
I am a child.
And God is just like,
“You do not have to be this tall to ride this prophet train.
You’re gonna go where I send you and say what I tell you to say.”
And then God touches Jeremiah’s mouth,
I imagine in a kind of “shhhh” “stop talking” sort of way,
and says these super serious things to this self-identified child:
“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
Now isn’t that a nice call story?
It’s nice that it was nice
because some of the things Jeremiah was called to do were not nice.
One nice thing about Jeremiah’s call story is that it’s short.
It took me a really long time to whittle down my call story, and it’s still not very short.
This is a tip to Elyse and anyone else who’s going to go
to these ordination committees:
short and sweet.
I used to start off telling my whole life’s story.
“Vicki, tell us about your call to ministry.”
And I’d start with “Well, I was born a pink, slimy little baby Christian
in the north of an island called Taiwan…”
And I’d tell them about my ancestors
and how I hated youth group but found my place
in Christian puppeteering competitions.
(Was anyone else in Christian puppeteering or clowning?
Did you know that was a thing? It is!)
Elyse, whittle it down. Do not talk about puppets.
But I thought today, I kind of want to tell Church of the Village
some of my call story today.
Is that ok?
I want to tell you about my call to ministry partly because Pastor Jeff
has been telling some great stories lately
about the big spiritual moments in his life,
which has me reflecting on my own.
And partly because we are celebrating the call to ministry of our 2016 leaders.
And partly because I announced this week in a blog post
that I will be leaving Church of the Village this July to try to plant a new church,
and I want to give you a sense of where I’ve been and where I’m headed.
My call story has three key parts to it—
a woman I’ll call Sam,
and the Vagina Monologues.
When I felt called to ministry,
I never heard a voice calling me out of the sky like Jeremiah.
I heard instead the kind voice of a woman I’ll call Sam
reading the first pages of the basic book of Narcotics Anonymous.
Sam was a woman I tutored at a women’s shelter on the South Side of Chicago.
The shelter was run by white Catholic nuns,
and its residents were homeless largely African American women
who were getting their lives together
by doing things like getting sober and getting their GED’s.
I was a college student at the University of Chicago.
I used to naively walk down to the shelter from my school
on a street that was no stranger to gang violence.
I had been placed through a college program to work for the nuns,
who asked me to help Sam learn to read.
So every week, I would sit with Sam in the living room of the shelter,
and she would ever so slowly sound out the words
to the first pages of the NA book.
I don’t remember ever finding out why Sam was living in the shelter
or what had happened in her life,
but something told me she had suffered in ways I will never understand.
Sam was quiet but really kind and I loved her.
I had never sat with anyone like Sam.
I was a college freshman at an elite school,
and I had grown up my entire life in Missouri
surrounded by middle class white people
who successfully segregated themselves almost completely
from the black population that lived in our town.
And if anyone in my town struggled with addiction or homelessness or illiteracy,
no one talked about it.
Those were the problems of places far away,
and we would take long bus rides to foreign places like St. Louis and Alabama
to engage with people who suffered in those ways.
So I went away to college completely sheltered from the realities
of racial and economic inequity, addiction, violence.
In fact, I went away to college completely convinced
that my life’s passion was going to be science.
Astrobiology in particular–the study of possibilities of life outside of our own planet. Physics, astronomy, evolutionary biology–I ate that for dinner.
I loved it.
And that is some peoples’ true calling.
But after sitting so many afternoons with Sam,
after seeing with my own eyes the stark difference
between the opportunities given to Sam
and the opportunities given to me and my elite classmates,
my passion for science just drained from my body,
and I became completely focused on what I was going to do
to make the world different—
to make it more equal, more loving, more righteous.
Every Christian, Jesus-following bone in my body told me
I needed to be a part of some serious world transformation.
(This is the story of a lot of privileged kids
when they encounter inequity for the first time.)
One day, I read this thick little book called
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Alex Haley.
And, in reading about how religion changed Malcolm’s life
and how Malcolm and other Black Muslims truly
transformed lives and the world around them
in fundamental, sustained ways through religious community,
I had this moment of spiritual clarity–
I realized that religion doesn’t have to be something
that makes us feel good that we’re going to heaven
while at the same time creating segregated communities
that keep us comfortably separated from the suffering of others—
that’s what I had experienced of religion up to then.
But through this book, I realized that God could actually use religious communities
to fundamentally change peoples’ hearts and the world.
And that was when I felt called to go to seminary. So I did.
Now, I was not convinced at this point that I wanted to be a preacher.
There was this little thing that bothered me about being a preacher.
It was this one small thing that preachers do–preaching.
I was not a public speaker.
In class, if I was supposed to give an oral presentation,
I would completely freeze,
I would look down at my paper that I could no longer read,
and I would just float up above my body and look down at myself thinking,
“Wow. You are not talking for a long, really awkward period of time!”
And I used to get this terrible performance flatulence.
If I had to get on a stage, my stomach would turn in knots
and I would get so gassy and let out these really stinky farts.
It was bad.
So my strategy in life was to generally avoid speaking to a crowd.
But then I felt called to go to seminary.
And it was kind of this nudge to do something that sounded crazy
because there was this whole freeze up, flatulence public speaking situation.
But there was this tiny nudging inside of me that just said,
“Don’t worry about that now.
Just take the next step for today,
and tomorrow’s next step will come…tomorrow.”
So I took the step.
And my first year in seminary,
The Women’s Center of my seminary announced
that it was going to stage a performance
of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues in the chapel of our school,
and they were inviting any woman at the school to audition for the show.
Now, this was the first I had ever heard of the Vagina Monologues,
and, again, I had the flatulence, freeze up thing going on.
But I decided, I’d better find out if this call from God included public speaking.
So, and this is something I would have NEVER done before,
I decided to audition for the Vagina Monologues!
Now, I soon found out what the Vagina Monologues were.
If any of you don’t know, it is a show of lots of monologues
of a diverse group of women basically talking about their vaginas.
So that was new to me.
It was all very new to me.
But I felt this spiritual peace about it.
I felt this spiritual clarity–like this is what I am supposed to be doing,
however crazy and new it might be.
And so, a few months later, I sat in the chapel of Yale Divinity School
on a little stool in front of a microphone,
in front of my professors and friends, and lots of strangers,
wearing a black t-shirt printed with the words “God Hearts Vaginas”,
opening the show with a grand meditation on pubic hair.
And I loved it.
It was the first time ever I felt comfortable and fully myself
speaking in front of people.
I consider it my first sermon.
…And that’s my call story in three parts:
a woman I call Sam, Malcolm X, and the Vagina Monologues.
Each of those parts was a moment of spiritual clarity,
when I felt like God cleared out the clutter and the distractions of my life,
when God spoke through the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals of my world,
and spoke clearly and I got it.
And, while this sermon is admittedly kind of focused on my own story,
what I want to say today is about you—
especially those of you who are being called to leadership in this church.
But all of you are called to some kind of ministry,
whether it’s at your job, in your family, in your community organizations,
every single one of us is called to do things to further God’s mission in the world.
And every call comes out of those moments of spiritual clarity.
Many of us have had a moment of spiritual clarity in this very church community.
When God has reached through the clutter and distractions of our life,
sat us down in these pews,
or put a hair net on our head
and stood us behind the serving line at Community Meal,
and God spoke clearly–this is where you belong.
I love you.
I love everyone around you, no matter how different they may be from you.
You have value and purpose in the world I am trying to build.
Or maybe your moment of spiritual clarity came when you gave birth to your child
or when you got sober
or maybe that clarity is still on its way.
But a key to the spiritual life is to identify those moments of clarity,
and to put them in your pocket.
My toddler has just discovered pockets, and they are magical.
You can put something special in a pocket,
and then walk around living your life,
but anytime you want, you can find that special thing right there
in your POCKET.
Put those moments of spiritual clarity in your pocket,
and pull them out frequently to remind you
of what God has called you to do in this world.
Because there will come many many moments in your ministry here,
in your ministry in other parts of your life,
when things will not be so clear,
when the cares and anxieties and demands of the world will clutter and clang,
and the voice of God will be hard to distinguish from the distractions,
and in those moments especially,
it must be your practice to be the bearer of the memory
of the moments in your life
when you have known God’s love and grace and direction.
I know in the sermon title and on the bulletin cover,
there was a promise of elephant talk.
So I wanted to bring up this study of elephants.
There was a study of elephant herds during a severe drought in Tanzania,
And the study found that elephant herds who had older matriarchs,
older female leaders,
had a higher survival rate during the drought
than the herds with younger matriarchs.
And the reason was that the older matriarchs were old enough
to remember the last time there was a drought,
and so they were able to remember the paths that led
to the alternative watering hole.
They were able to pull out of their pockets the last time they found
that clear path to the life-saving water,
and that clarity was what they needed to get through the dry spell.
(I know the metaphor would work better if elephants actually had pockets,
but you know what I mean–imagine elephants wearing jeans.)
Pulling the moments of spiritual clarity out of your pockets
is what is going to get you through dry spells.
And there will be dry spells in any ministry–including in being a leader in the church.
You will have spiritual dry spells. Things will cloud your clarity.
People will disappoint you.
Pastor Jeff and Pastor Elyse and I will disappoint you.
You’re going to get fed up with someone’s behavior.
You won’t like every worship service you experience here.
You’ll get really busy with whatever it is you’re helping out with.
Looking at budgets, reading the vision plan for the 10th time,
eating pizza AGAIN at that Tuesday night meeting…
And that spiritual clarity, that happy, euphoric spiritual feeling will fade.
And there will be noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.
Balancing budgets and organizing volunteers
will sometimes feel more important than making it to worship
and spending time in prayer…
And this is what you must do to survive these spiritual dry spells:
You have to REMEMBER the moments of clarity.
You have to put your hand in your elephant jeans pocket and pull out that memory
of knowing for sure that God was working in your life,
of knowing the direction and purpose God had in your life,
of knowing the power of love,
of knowing for sure that
you are amazing and valued in God’s sight, and so is everyone else here.
If you aren’t able to do that, you risk getting lost in the dryness,
you risk being overwhelmed by the noisy gongs and the clanging cymbals
and won’t be able to distinguish God’s quiet voice of love in the middle of it all.
I had a drought moment like that six years ago, when I started at my first church.
A couple in my church had asked me to conduct their wedding–two women.
And my mentors and people who cared about me protectively convinced me not to do it,
not to risk getting in trouble with the church,
which prohibits our clergy from conducting same-sex weddings,
not to risk losing my job and my ordination
and the power that might come with my ordination
to make change…in due time.
So I told the couple I couldn’t conduct their wedding.
The couple was hurt, but they understood
and they still asked me to bless the cake at their wedding.
So I remember standing there in a hotel ballroom,
at the wedding of two faithful members of my church,
giving the only appeal to God’s blessing on this hugely important
day in the life of two very religious people–
the only appeal to God’s blessing being a blessing of the cake–
I remember just standing there, knowing in every ounce of my being,
that what I had done was wrong, was sin.
And that was a tough, spiritual drought that I had to go through.
I felt so confused and unclear about what I was doing
for at least a year after that cake blessing.
And I remember pulling out from my pocket that memory
of why I started this journey in the first place,
that time when I was sure about God’s purpose in my life,
I remembered sitting with Sam and reading Malcolm X
and remembering that I wasn’t in this to be ordained
or to have power or a pension or a salary or fancy robes
or “R-E-V” in front of my name.
I was in this to change the world, to ease suffering, to transform evil into righteousness.
All that other stuff was distraction.
And it was then that I decided to join in earnest
the movement for LGBT equality in the church,
and that has been one of the most spiritually rewarding things I have ever done.
Today, I am finding there is another chapter in my story of call.
For the last few years, I have been feeling a nudge in my life
to plant new progressive Christian communities,
and that’s what I am hoping to do.
I’ve never done anything like that, and I have no idea what I’m doing, truly.
My ignorance of church planting is the spiritual equivalent of flatulence while public speaking.
I’m not sure how I’m going to get through it.
But I have pockets,
and I have a memory here that says that this feeling has come before,
and it has been of God.
So I’m going with it.
As someone who is digging in my pockets these days for directions to the life-giving water,
I want to just say to any of you who are feeling called today,
any of you who are feeling spiritual clarity,
spiritual beauty on this day,
in this month,
in this year of your life.
Those moments aren’t just meant to bring you life right now on this day.
These moments are for remembering,
for folding up and putting in your pocket,
in anticipation for that spiritual drought that will come,
for that day when the distractions get too noisy and the clear waters turn to drying mud,
These moments are for that day too,
so that you might be find your way to the clear waters of life once again.
Photo Credit: Casey Allen