Sibling rivalry–hiccups in my ordination process and being a pain-in-the-butt sister

The great thing about hanging out with people who think just like you is that you don’t have to think about the people who don’t think just like you.

The problem with hanging out with people who think just like you is that you forget that other people don’t think just like you.

The intersection of the great and the problem hit me straight between the eyes during my ordination process.

So…the people who think just like me:

See, the thing about seminary, or at least the thing about the seminary I went to, is that people can get into passionate and heated debates about such small minutiae (and have fun doing so) that you forget that you all agree on 90% of the important stuff.

Until your ordination interview.

One of my favorite jokes (and it KILLS at regional church events) is that I left Washington DC to go into ministry because I was tired of politics. (Seriously, that joke KILLS in my circles.)

So I checked my politics at the door when I wrote my first ordination essay. We were to write a spiritual autobiography. I’m NOT SAYING I thought it was fluff. I’m just saying it was a nice change of pace to be vulnerable and transparent and share my experience without having to filter it for the many ways it could be used against me.

And, if you’ll forgive the foreshadowing, I’ll remind you that I had been lulled into a false sense of security by hanging out with my freakishly smart but by and large incredibly progressive classmates into believing that thoughtful people of faith from our particular tradition viewed the world pretty much the same way I did. After all, my evangelical friends had all but given up on me for pursuing ordination in a denomination that would allow me to pursue ordination. (Their concern wasn’t exclusively my gender but also my crazy politics and interfaith commitments.)

So I wrote a heartfelt reflection on my journey related to what my brainy friends would later teach me is called “soteriology,” or basically, “who gets saved and who goes to hell.” Now I think it’s worth noting that I love me some Jesus. Because of my politics (and my language, and my fondness for the fellas), people sometimes forget that I’m a little bit of a Jesus freak. So when I was in third grade, I naturally made friends with some very kind evangelical kids at school; one in particular, Debbie, helped me make my own profession of faith even when my church (and my mother) didn’t do stuff like that. I wrote about this in my spiritual autobiography and also wrote about how, when my grandmother in India died when I was in fifth grade, my good friend Debbie saw me on the playground and asked why I was sad. When I told her, she said, “I’m sorry.” Then she asked, “Was she a Christian?” “No,” I responded, a little defensively. “Like all of my family in India, she was Hindu.” “Well then I’m even more sorry she’s going to spend eternity in hell,” she responded genuinely, and skipped off to play on the monkey bars.

I wrote in my spiritual autobiography about how that conversation opened up a sometimes tortured spiritual path for me around who is saved, an issue of particular importance to a Jesus-loving girl whose Hindu father is a far better model for a Christ-like life than many of the professed Christians she has known. I wrote about how and why I have come to believe that Christ was my path to salvation but is not the only path to salvation and how I believe this to be consistent with my savior’s teachings.

And I eagerly looked forward to a meeting of hearts and minds with my ordination committee.

“That girl in the story, she made a lot of sense; how do you reconcile your current beliefs with Jesus’ teaching that he is the way, the truth and the light and no one comes to the Father except through him?” That was the first question I got after exchanging names.

So I learned the hard way why my little joke is so funny; all of those political skills I had honed in Congress and in advocating for religious liberty legislation in Washington DC were skills I should not have checked at the door. I continued to GENTLY push boundaries while following the rules during my ordination process, but I did so consciously and with a greater awareness I was being vetted, not cultivated.

 

In addition to going through a regional ordination committee, we were encouraged to meet with a nurture committee in our home congregation, the congregation that would officially ordain us if we made it through the whole process. Now I was a member of our denomination’s “cathedral” (said tongue-in-cheek since we are such a low church tradition), a beautiful building in the heart of our nation’s capital, where Lyndon Johnson had worshipped, with a commitment (while I was a member) to progressive social outreach and advocacy. So I sent the elders of the church my first ordination essay and sat down with them over the holidays for my dose of nurture in the midst of the strains and stresses of my seminary education. The second question I got was, “What was that girl’s name in the essay? Debbie? I liked that girl.” (The first question, directed at my pastor instead of me, was, “Isn’t the University of Chicago [my seminary] viewed with some suspicion among us Disciples of Christ?” The pastor said it was often on the theological forefront and sometimes the theological left but in recent years had been solidly within the Disciples fold.)

At the time, I remember thinking, “WTF?” but not in acronym.

My home congregation’s nurture committee had decided I’d be better served by more vetting rather than nurture. At the time I was resentful and probably a little churlish about how the church seemed determined to protect itself from someone whose primary interest was serving in ministry contexts few others wanted to serve in for very little pay despite the fact that she had lots of other options. A pretty embarrassing fact about my cocky (spiritually immature) self back then is I suspect I felt a bit like the prom queen who was getting blown off by a math nerd.

 

Years later, I can look back on all of this fondly. I look back on it fondly for three reasons (beyond the fact that I am a lot less arrogant than I was back then):

I also encountered bold and inclusive leadership that joined me in pushing boundaries: When I got ordained (in my home region, but a different region than had vetted me for ordination), I added ordination vows that committed my life to standing for and with people of ALL faiths, and those vows were given to me by a rabbi and a Muslim leader I had worked with in DC. My Hindu father also read the scripture alongside my Presbyterian mother and Disciples ministry colleague. And people of many faiths attended my ordination. I didn’t really ask the regional minister’s permission, but he said to me, “there are going to be a lot of non-Christians at your ordination. What’s communion going to look like?”

I was still fairly new to the Disciples, so I said what I thought was as far as I was allowed to push the theological envelope. “I’ll invite all who seek a deeper relationship with Jesus to come forward.”

The regional minister, the closest thing we have in my tradition to a bishop, paused and said, “I think God would want you to offer a more expansive invitation than that, don’t you?”

My faith was made better by Debbie and her crew even if I think they got some stuff wrong. Don’t get me wrong—I think my childhood friend’s understanding of how God works and loves is out of kilter with how I’ve experienced God working in the world. I think that kind of belief can actually in some cases be harmful. But Debbie and my other evangelical friends gave me permission to love with abandon, to love fully. I was raised to love respectfully, appropriately, and in ways that were in no way overwrought. I know for a fact I am a better minister today because I was given permission to open myself fully to God’s love and to create space for emotion. And that helped me recognize authentic love in whatever form it showed up. I suspect I was able to hear God calling me to Oakland because of the clearing my evangelical friends made for me with God all those years ago. I’m glad to finally be able to appreciate that.

And the final reason I can look back on those ordination interviews fondly is that I now realize that

The great thing about/the problem with hanging out with people who think just like you is that you don’t have to think about the people who don’t think just like you.

You get to choose your friends, but you don’t get to choose your family. And belief in Jesus makes for a really zany wacky diverse family. I’m sister with those insane awful people burning gay people in Uganda. I’m sister with people who believe my father is going to hell. I’m sister with people who pray for my soul and pray with a vengeance. I’m sister with people who have long since given hope in the potential salvation of my heretical soul.

And they’re all brothers and sisters with me, too, whether they like it or not.

There aren’t many places we’re going to rub shoulders in a world designed to make enemies of us.

But if we’re actually being the church, then we have to figure out how to fight well with each other because we are obligated to break bread together if we want to actually follow in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior who enthusiastically shared a meal with people he knew would aid in his murder.

Which is why I should probably find more opportunities to hang out with people who don’t think just like me. For their salvation and for mine. And because we may not ever be friends, but damned if I’m not going to take the chance every so often to remind them they’re stuck with me as their sister.

Comments (2)

  1. heidi

    My dear Sandhya,
    One of the joys of my life is the sure knowledge that you are my sister. And please note, we are all on a journey and even though Debbie and other evangelicals you have known started off in one place doesn’t mean that her understanding of scripture and belief in certain tenets of the faith are still in that rather narrow space.
    Speaking for myself, I am still discovering how many ways God surpasses my expectation and understanding of Him.

  2. Sandhya (Post author)

    Heidi, you’ve offered me a whole bunch of spiritual wisdom over the years; I’m so grateful for that. And I was just telling somebody about your communion bread at my ordination. 🙂 It’s true–we get to spiritually mature, but the people in our narratives stay frozen in time, don’t they? Even when we continue to be in relationship, if we don’t circle back to an issue every so often, we can lock people into beliefs that may have changed. God keeps getting bigger, the more I continue to explore. (Or, my awareness of how big God is keeps expanding, anyhow. 🙂 )

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