The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
September 16, 2007
First Congregational Church,
Scripture: Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.’
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
Every minister has two call stories. The first lasts about two minutes and answers the question “So what made you go into the ministry?”
The second call story, the one that takes longer to tell, the real one, is the one I want to tell you.
My call to the ministry was less a sudden thunderbolt than a steady soft rain that over the years nourished ground that had ceased to notice it. I used to mourn the absence of a thrilling call from the heavens to enter clerical life, just as I used to be embarrassed at my lack of a dramatic conversion experience. But now I view those gaps more kindly, as evidence of the care of the church universal over so many years that I dared to think it boring.
Growing up, the church was my one constant in a changing
world. By the time I reached high school, I had lived in seven countries and
attended eleven schools. My father had been a foreign correspondent, with
United Press International. After covering the civil rights movement in the South,
his ambitions and curiosity called him to cover the story that would dominate
the next decade, the Vietnam War. And so at the age of six months, my first
airplane ride took my mother and me from
When I look back to why I so loved the church as a child, it was because it was steady. Particularly since we were Episcopalians, which meant that in all those countries we worshipped as Anglicans. The ritual and rhythms of the Book of Common Prayer let each new church be old again, as dependable as lukewarm tea after services, sherry and sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Church was a port of comfort in the stormy seas of expatriate life.
Yet when people ask, “What made you want to be a minister?” my first response is “I didn’t.” I didn’t want to be a minister because, to be honest, I had initially hoped to be rich.
While I loved my small neighborhood Episcopal parish in the
By the end of college, I was a religion major, with an
acceptance letter to
But so far, I knew I wanted to study the church. I had no inkling what it might mean to lead one. I could barely put together the words to name a call to ministry. In fact, by that time, I had yet to lay eyes upon a woman minister. I had looked toward divinity school on the hunch that they existed, but as for naming a call to ministry for myself, the best I could articulate was a rather vague “call to divinity school.” But that acceptance letter did give me an alternative answer to provide to my parents’ friends at cocktail parties. In contrast to the certainty of plans made on the front end of college, here, on the other side of those four years, just having a plan was considered impressive.
I had a summer internship lined up for myself at a national news magazine, after which I would attend Yale. Sitting in the office cafeteria, a dozen fresh-faced college interns sat nervously awaiting our assignments in the magazine. As the editor of my college newspaper, I expected something plum in the news section. I was shocked to hear my spot would be “Advertising and Marketing.”
“You mean, writing about advertising and marketing?” I asked.
“No, you won’t be doing any writing. You’ll be working in Advertising and Marketing, on the business side of the magazine.”
And so I was ushered into a strange world of spreadsheets, magazine cover profitability studies and battles with the editors of the magazine, who in my opinion were generally right. In my father’s eyes they were right as well. Dinner conversations were at best awkward and at worst caustic. “I can’t believe you’re working with the bean counters,” the life long journalist grumbled, as I attempted to defend the practices he abhorred. In reality, I abhorred them too. But in my romantic vision of myself, I was a summer sojourner in a strange land, like Jesus, who ate with the tax collectors and sinners. My father and his journalist friends were the Pharisees who grumbled, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.' By now, you can guess who, in all my humility, I was in this narrative.
My soul had been nurtured by the generous Low Church Australian clergyman from my high school suburban congregation. But now, after college, I was drawn to my father’s urban church, where a homeless man would walk the aisles during the sermon announcing that he was God. He even had a cape.
At the end of the summer, I spoke to the new interim priest at my father’s church downtown and told him of my plans to attend divinity school. To which he responded with very little enthusiasm. He pointed out that I had advanced upon all this without the help of my church, that I was venturing out to divinity school alone, and that I had skipped the ecclesiastical steps toward ordination. He asked me about my call to the ministry and I could tell that what I articulated left him unimpressed, although I had no idea what would have sounded better. A lifetime in the church has not prepared me to give the right answer, whatever it was. And now my internship was over and it was time to leave my parent’s house.
I called up
“I’ve had a summer where I realize I don’t know anything about real life. I’ve been in an ivory tower at college, but this summer I did work that I never knew existed except to disapprove of it. Furthermore, I have no idea what I would do after those three years at divinity school, but if I did want to go into the ministry, I’ve skipped all the steps with my church, the priest doesn’t like me and I’ve messed all that up.”
“Oh, you don’t want to cancel,” she said. “In cases like this, one simply defers.”
“Defer? You mean, come later?”
“Of course,” she said. “We hold your place.”
“Well, what’s the longest time you can defer for?”
“Two years,” she responded.
“Ok, put me down for that. But I can tell you right now, I’m definitely not coming.”
“Very good, dear,” she said. “All the best, now.”
From that decisive move, I launched into a week of lying in bed, eating potato chips and watching one game show after another. It felt good to have finally made an adult decision, and finally take charge of my life. After a second week of this, my mother informed me I needed to move out and get a job.
The phone rang about that time, and it was the news magazine. “We heard you didn’t go to school after all. Would you like to take a job here?”
And I agreed. After all, if my summer work experience had been miserable enough to provide me with this much adult wisdom, imagine what a permanent position might bring.
It was indeed my shot to the young urban professional lifestyle. I got a new car, adopted three cats, and acquired both a workingwoman’s wardrobe and a new paragraph to recite to my parent’s friends. I was a grown up. I even bought a house. With my mother, that is.
I also worked with a committee of lay leaders from my church, pulled together by the priest, to meet monthly with me to discern my call. I met with the bishop, met with a psychiatrist for psychological tests, and decided not to tell either one that I was in a band. I entered into a period of discernment, in which it became clearer and clearer to me that I had a real call to the ministry.
Yet when my committee asked me about that call, I was never very good at expressing it, at least in ways that they could hear. I would talk about social justice and they would talk about the eucharist. I would talk about the prophets and they would ask me about the prayer book. It was as if we were all having conversations with someone else, not in the room, and not with one another. They asked me a lot about why I wanted to serve a local parish. I responded that I wasn’t sure that I did. When they asked me about obedience to the bishop, I said, “You’re kidding? We have to do that?” because that really was news to me. Teacups on laps rattled with the tension in the room, and after I left, it was only then that I would realize what it was that I should have said. I knew for instance, that when they asked me about my call to preside over the sacrament each week, my answer of “Sure, I could do that,” was wrong.
The committee chair, a committed lay leader who had devoted her MBA to serving the poor as the executive director of a church related non-profit, always looked at me with a strange eye. She was the one who delivered the news at the final meeting. Reading aloud from notes that I would later see in a typed report, she spoke on behalf of the people who were too nice to do so. They would not recommend me to go further in the process.
I could not hear the sentences, but the phrases came through with clarity. “No discernable gifts for ordained ministry whatsoever.” “No appreciation of the sacramental ministry of the church.” “A thrill seeker.” “Issues with authority.” “Immature”
When I asked them what they thought I should do with my life, they were surprisingly direct. Get an MBA, work in the non-profit world, and serve the wider church as a lay leader committed to justice in the world. In fact, our chair offered to serve as my mentor.
In contrast to their report, my issues with authority were
not as strong as they thought. I actually took their words with great
seriousness. So much so, that I finally did what I had been longing to do. I
quit the bean counter job at the magazine, and took a job at a non-profit
organization that helped at risk and homeless teenagers in
With the ordination process at a sudden end, a year out of school, I continued to attend church but felt increasingly disconnected from the priest behind the table. But in my new work, I was learning how to work with families in crisis, and discovering how hard life was for my fellow citizens in the nation’s capital. Gone was the high tech equipment and tidy cubicles of the news magazine. Here we shared second hand desks, crammed into shared offices, ate lunch on the run from the convenience store or snacked on potato chips in the homes of the clients. We learned our way around public housing projects and police stations, and discovered where kids hid on the way to becoming homeless. Downwardly mobile, I was on the highest learning curve of my life.
The people who worked at this agency came from every background. Some had lived hard and in poverty themselves, others were like me, recent college graduates fresh from the ivory tower. Social work veterans schooled us all and we bonded with one another in our lack of training and our desire to help a hurting world.
It took a while before I discovered that three of my
co-workers on this learning journey with me were
“This is preparing us for the ministry,” Roxanne explained.
“What kind of church would consider this preparation for the ministry?” I asked.
“What kind of church wouldn’t?” she retorted.
And there began my introduction to
The Episcopal Church, the one constant in my changing world,
had been so constant that I had mistaken it for the whole. In fact, if you had asked me which was the
largest Christian denomination in the world, I would have told you it was the
Anglican communion, simply because I had known no other. Despite all those
world religion classes, the conversations I was about to start having with the
Baptist divinity students were the ones that would most rock my world. They
listened to my story about the magazine, cancelled divinity school and no
discernable gifts for the ministry, as I listened to their stories about
missionary appointments in
Toward the end of my year at the agency, two years out of college, Roxanne pulled me aside, not to chat, but because she had something to say. “We’ve been praying for you,” she said, speaking for the small group from Howard. “And something has come to us from the Lord.”
I pulled forward. No one had ever told me such a thing before, not in my religion classes, not in a job and never in my church. I felt myself blessed just to have been prayed for, and it could have stopped right there.
“You are meant to go to divinity school after all,” she said. “The one you deferred. You’re meant to go.”
“But I like working here,” I said. “If anything, I may get an MBA. Or maybe law school. I’ve been turned down for the ministry. I have no idea now what I would do with a divinity degree.”
“No,” Roxanne said firmly. “You’re meant to go to that school. We don’t know what will happen when you get there, but it came to us that when you get there, God will open the doors and the windows.”
“But my church told me not to go,” I said.
And Roxanne, who had never stepped away from the church of her childhood, said, “Maybe you’re in the wrong church.”
And in my heart, I said, “Ok, God. I’ll go,” because suddenly, God looked a like Roxanne.
So far, in my discernment process, I felt like ninety-nine people had told me no. And I had taken them at their word. I had told myself that the majority ruled. But apparently, I had been waiting all this time for just one person to tell me yes. That was all it took. And in that moment, I felt that finally someone had sought me out, and brought me back.
I had just enough time to enroll in divinity school. And true to Roxanne’s vision, I had no idea why I was there for the first year. I worshipped at smells and bells Episcopal churches that cared for the homeless with the same dignity with which they worshipped, and represented the best of the tradition of my upbringing, but it was a miserable time. I took the exams to apply for every kind of graduate school, from law to business, and considered on many occasions dropping out. I was ashamed to have been turned down for ministry by my church. I carried that fact with me like a secret, so that others would think of me as someone who had bigger and better plans to change the world.
But a year of wandering led me to the plain white walls of New England Congregationalism, and a church with large clear windows, where the concerns of the world were always visible from inside the church, and where the gospel light could always shine out on the struggles on the streets. And as Roxanne predicted, those windows opened to me, where others had been shut.
When I joined my first Congregational church, and the pastor told me early on that he thought I had the gifts for ministry, I had to tell him the truth. “I don’t want to be one of those people who gets bounced from one church that has standards, and then tries to get in to one that doesn’t.”
His ego was such that he did not take offense. Instead, he suggested gently. “Maybe you were in the wrong church.”
Looking back, there are no wrong churches. There is only one church. And sometimes one wing says no so that another may say yes.
My story of being told no by the church of my upbringing has gradually worked its way up out of my locked box of secrets. First it rose to the top of the box, something I would share with those who knew me best. I found I was able to share it more easily once I had been ordained, and later even more easily, once I had achieved something that looked like success in my calling. To be honest, I would offer it up knowing that it would get the response that my lingering insecurity craved. “How awful,” close friends would say, “But look at you now.” How I longed to hear someone affirm the call I still doubted.
Sometimes, if I really hit the jackpot, they would respond to my story by saying, “Well, those Episcopalians were wrong.” And that phrase hit the hole within me, brushed up against it, but never filled it up. Apparently, it would take ninety-nine yeses to counteract the one big no. I put the story back in its box. It wasn’t working for me.
It was actually ministering and living as a pastor over time that allowed this story to emerge from its secret box on its own terms. The realization came gradually, rained upon by the rhythms of preaching, and visiting and even performing the sacraments, as surely as my convoluted call has been rained upon by every church that every counted me by name.
And gradually I came to know this: the Episcopalians were not wrong. Their ordination process actually worked. I wasn’t called to ordination in that tradition and they saw it when I could not. I was immature. I do have issues with authority and obedience. I choke in hierarchies and I thrive in independence. I love to preach long sermons and I hate homilies. I would have made a lousy Episcopal priest. But I was richly blessed by the Episcopal Church.
When my mother died, the priest from her church asked me what I wanted to do in the funeral service, because now I had been in the ministry for a good while. When my answer popped out as “Nothing,” I realized that I trusted him. I trusted him as her pastor, and now in this sad moment, to be mine. I trusted that the things I had left behind, from the wordy prayer book, to the sacrament being served, were not things I would have chosen; but on this occasion, I did not need to be the chooser. The church had taught me that.
At the service, I could be embraced by a tradition that had embraced her. I could delight in watching her priest do exactly what he was meant to do, as I would later return to my community of faith, and do what I was meant to do.
There are no heroes and no villains in this story. Only sheep, some of them lost, some of them accounted for, all of them sought by the shepherd, who counts us all, and calls us by name.
Just a few months ago, the phone rang at my church and it was my wonderful old priest who had kept me engaged in the suburban church of my high school years. He had sat in my mother’s living room when my grandmother died. He had defended me as a Sunday school teacher when my nursery kids ran wild. He had taken our three person confirmation class on a beach trip where we thanked him by breaking a motel television. And later, he said the prayer at my ordination into another denomination.
He calls me periodically, to comment on something I have written, to check in on me, to see what I am up to. I count it as precious whenever he seeks me out. It is as if I am the one sheep he does not let get away.
There are no wrong churches.