I was ordained today.
Fear not, my conservative friends. There are few Southern Baptist churches in Texas that will convene an ordination ceremony for a woman and mine is not one of them. No, I did not stand before an elder body, nor did I receive questions from an assembly of deacons, nor did I have the hands of ministers laid upon my shoulders. I would be honored to be a part of any such service but, for now, that is not to be. My ordination was something far more subtle, far more fragile, far more precious. Allow me to explain.
Every week I serve as a student chaplain in a hospital in Waco under the supervision of the pastoral care department. This service is a part of my clinical pastoral orientation class for Truett Seminary. Although my anxiety about this class exceeded my anxiety about any other class at Truett, I have found that the hour I spend listening, sharing, and praying with patients is among my most fulfilling every week. In this way, my experience appears to differ sharply from that of a number of my classmates, who, frankly, view their visits as burdensome interludes to be endured.
Deborah Gonzalez (not her real name) welcomed me into her room this afternoon with tentative eyes. When I introduced myself as the chaplain, her countenance changed and I could see a wave of relief pass across her face. As we spoke, I discovered that Deborah has been ill for many years. She lives with chronic pain from a number of internal problems, all of which are degenerating quickly.
When I knocked on her door, Deborah had just learned from her doctor that the end is very near. That is to say, a transplant appears to be out of the question and there is little more the doctors can do. Over the course of the next 30 minutes, Deborah opened up her heart and shared with me fears and pains that she has not had the courage to share with anyone else.
After a profoundly honest and meaningful visit, I read Romans 8:26-39 aloud. "The Spirit intercedes for us in our weakness...We know that in all things God is working for the good of those who love him...We are more than conquerors through him who loved us...Nothing can seperate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." I offered to pray with her and Deborah placed her hand in mine.
When we said "Amen," and looked back up into each other's eyes, Deborah had a strength in her face that had not been there before. Her eyes were steady and her countenance calm. She was still very ill, still in great pain. But, something had happened in her soul during our visit. The Spirit had met us there and applied healing to her and I could see it.
Then, without hesitation or contrivance, Deborah placed her hand on top of mine and offered me a benediction of sorts: "The Lord bless you and keep you and make his face shine upon you. The Lord use you to bring comfort and peace to others in the way you have brought comfort and peace to me." It was a beautiful, dreamlike moment: Deborah in her blue hospital gown, hair disheveled and make-up smeared from tears, laying her hands upon me and pronouncing a word of blessing, a prophecy of consecration, to a young, confused seminarian.
I went to Criswell College believing myself to be called to pastoral ministry. I know, its quite humorous to imagine me ignorantly choosing such a conservative Bible college with this aim. Indeed, I have to laugh at the confusion of the faculty advisor on my very first day as he tried vainly to conceal his shock at my stated goal. However, in my time at Criswell, it didn't take long to become convinced of the conservative reading of scripture that God prohibits women from serving as pastors or preachers. So, the issue was settled in my mind. I was not called to pastor. My attention turned to other things.
Under the mentorship of one kind and brilliant professor, and with the vocal support of many others, I was encouraged to pursue writing and teaching, both of which came quite naturally to me. I quickly realized that the world of academia was far less closed to women than that of church. So, although I was not aware of my motivation at the time, I see now that choosing the role of teacher was my "out," my way to minister to God's church without having the "baggage" associated with pastoral ministry.
Then I came to Truett. I will not detail the many years of toil and struggle I experienced as I finally arrived at the conclusion that my professors at Criswell, who I love and trust and respect to this very day, are wrong. Indeed, I flinch even now simply writing the words. But, it is what I have concluded from seeking truth and studying the Word: "Here I stand, I can do no other."
Even with my change of mind, though, I remained certain that God did not intend pastoral ministry of any kind for my future. I'm better with books, I thought. I will teach and write, but shepherding is dirty and difficult and not "my thing." Ronnie can pastor, I will teach.
Then, I began to shepherd a women's Sunday School class. Then, I began to know and love a few profoundly broken and fantastically gifted women who actually look to me--me!--for wisdom and guidance. Oh, I'm just teaching a class, I said. I'm just being a good friend. I'm just doing this for now.
Then, I enrolled in a semester of ministry courses: preaching, preaching the parables, Christian ministry, clinical pastoral orientation, and spiritual formation. I thought I would be bored to tears in these "practical" classes. I was certain I would ache for theology and theory. I was wrong.
For all my certainty that the scholarly realm is my "cup of tea," I have found that I find great joy and fulfillment in ministry--dirty, complicated, rough and tumble, pastoral ministry. I find joy in preaching. I find joy in visiting the sick. I find joy in praying for the troubled, confused, and hurting. I find joy in laboring over the formation of souls. And, not only is there joy and peace as I encounter and embrace these tasks, but I am overwhelmed with the incredible privilege it is to do so. I weep even now imagining that God would permit me, little ole me, to be used to care for the soul of another. What an astonishing thing.
As reflected with my supervisor at the hospital about my time with Deborah and my new discoveries about pastoral ministry, he was silent for a while and then made this statement: "Well, Emily, it seems as though you have received your ordination." Observing my confusion, he clarified: "I know in your context you cannot be ordained, but it seems as though God used this woman to affirm your calling to you. She laid hands on you and spoke the truth. Are you ready to receive it?"
Now, hear me, my friends. I am not saying that I think I am called to be a pastor. I am not saying that I am not called to be a teacher. What I am saying is that I don't know what I'm called to do anymore. And, for now, that's ok. I can rest in the unknowing. I can stand firm in my ignorance.
For today, what matters is that Deborah Gonzalez received a touch from God through me. What matters is that through her bruised, sickly hands, God quietly and inconspicuously consecrated me for ministry, something I didn't think would ever happen. May he now grant wisdom as I figure out what to do next.