Undoing the Chains: My Call to Ordination

Chi Rho, Grace Biggs - Copy

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke?” Isaiah 58:6

On a cold November morning in 2009, I awoke from a vivid dream that gave me chills and left me feeling strangely heavy and perplexed. In my dream, my husband Andrew and I were in the lobby of a church building downtown that I didn’t recognize. The architecture was modern yet soft with warm, light colors and many variations of tan. It was a Sunday morning and everyone was mingling before the service. While people were making small talk, I looked over toward the side of the lobby near the front door and saw a man in his late 20s or early 30s whose right arm was held up over his head, chained to the ceiling. I was shocked, dismayed. No one else seemed to notice him and he wasn’t doing anything to draw attention to himself. He just stood there, looking at me with grave, imploring eyes. He had dirty, unkempt hair and there was something ancient about him. I thought about asking some of the church leaders if I could unlock the chain, but I figured that it is easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, so I went over to the man, stood up on a counter beside him, and somehow cut the chain down. The man didn’t say much, he just stretched out his arm and nursed his wrist. Some other people in the lobby noticed what I had done, but they seemed largely indifferent. I remember feeling enormous compassion, sorrow, and disbelief. It seemed like he had been chained up there for months or years.

I lay in bed pondering the dream for some time and I’m still not sure if I fully understand the meaning of the dream. I can’t tell if I was the person whose hand was chained to the ceiling of the church or if I helped to free someone else from such bondage, but both then and now, it feels significant and symbolic and the man’s calm, gripping eyes haunt me to this day.

I was raised in the Churches of Christ and from early on in my life, church was where I learned to love God and my neighbor. It was where I saw people taking care of each other, where I found meaning and purpose and hope. But church was also where I saw and felt immense exclusion; where I heard that God’s love and the calling to ministry was only extended to certain kinds of people—“good” people, “straight” people, Christian people, male people.

As I grew older, some of the walls that had been constructed to keep certain people out, to keep God in, and to keep the boat from rocking, slowly began to crumble. The physical walls of the church building began to close in around me and I felt trapped. At the same time, I began to see and experience God more in the margins of society—the tent cities, jails, streets, and public squares—than I did within the actual walls of the church. Early in 2009, a few of us who were doing homeless outreach came together and formed Amos House Community, a church that has developed organically and is unconventional, un-propertied, unbound, physically homeless, experimental, and ecumenical. In these ways, it is like the Spirit of God. While I still enjoy being connected to and working with other churches, Amos House is my faith community.

at st. mary's For the first two years of its existence, Amos House was a loose-knit group of people who took Scriptures to the streets in events like Holy Week on the Streets, the City Wide Stations of the Cross, and Interdependence Day celebrations. While we’ve continued these traditions in different ways, Amos House has taken the form of a house church in the last couple of years where a small group of us meet weekly to pray, read and wrestle with Scripture, share communion and silence, and support one another. Over the years, this has become my spiritual community. Amos House creates the space where I can participate in the ancient liturgical rhythms that bring me life, the space where I am filled and nurtured, the space where I find rest, the space where I can bring my whole self—my doubts and convictions, my questions and hopes. It is the space where my chains have been taken down and I feel free. Amos House is also the space where I’ve been able to begin to heal from the deep wounds of exclusion and silencing I received from the institutional church and explore my calling and vocation.

Earlier this summer, I spent three and a half days in silence in the slow rolling hills of Kentucky at the Abbey of Gethsemani. While I was there, I read back through 11 years of my old journals that traced my understanding of my faith—a faith that started out as personal and later became both personal and social. They traced my journey through the world of literature and ideas, as well as my lived experiences with the poor. They traced my anxieties, exhaustion, and sorrows, but they also illuminated moments of peace and presence, of life and wholeness.

highlander 007As I looked back through my experiences in late high school and early college, I was saddened to see that the doors that might have been opened to me as a male in the Church of Christ were closed because of my gender. I read through journal entries about planning Sunday night church services that the youth group boys led for our church. Even though I helped orchestrate the services, I could not participate in leading them. I read through entries where I was in a time of vocational discernment and expressed my interest in theology and different forms of ministry. I couldn’t, however, figure out how to channel that interest. I wrote, “I’m just so lost as to what I would do for a job. I don’t think I want to teach, so what else is there?” It didn’t even dawn on me that I, a female, could consider entering into some type of ministry or a pastoral role, because females in the Church of Christ weren’t allowed to do that. “God doesn’t use women in that way,” I was told.

So I silenced the still, small voice—that spark—inside of me for over a decade. Even when I started Divinity School in 2010, I didn’t really believe that I, a female, could preach or enter into pastoral work. It was only through seeing the courageous and compelling lives and work of women like Dorothy Day, Jeannie Alexander, Emilie Townes, Barbara Brown Taylor, Becca Stevens, and others that something began to shift. I realized that the notion that only men can be ministers did not come from God, but from people and churches that, I believe, have failed to grasp that God can speak and work through women in the same way that God can speak and work through men. I realized that perhaps I, too, could rekindle the spark inside me and pursue some form of ministry. Gradually, that spark grew into a consuming fire that felt shut up in my bones. I was weary of holding it in, and indeed, could not (Jeremiah 20:9).

I’ve been discussing my call to ordained ministry with Amos House and my close friends and mentors for some time and I understand ordination as the process where a community recognizes and affirms the calling that one of their members has from God to a particular kind of public ministry. The calling ultimately comes from the Spirit of God, but the ordination is the act of a community to appoint and send out someone in their name to preach and embody the good news. I feel this call and have a deep desire to be to perform the sacraments—those rituals and acts through which we participate in the life of God—in the margins and to re-imagine what ritual and liturgy could look like in the undomesticated spaces of our society. I want to be able to do street chaplaincy to the fullest and preach, baptize, serve communion, and perform marriages and funerals when those things are called for.

The ministry that I feel called to doesn’t necessarily look like traditional or institutionalized forms of ministry. It is a ministry without walls, the kind of ministry that values a spiritual life of contemplation and prayer as much as it values an active live of struggling alongside those who struggle. It understands the kingdom of God, the beloved community, not merely as an otherworldly destination for our souls, but as a horizon—something that is always beyond us but also beneath our very feet. It has less to do with proselytizing and more to do with creatively embodying the good news of the gospel; less to do with lecturing and more to do with listening; less to do with having all the answers and more to do with asking better questions. It seeks to follow in the footsteps of a homeless Galilean who was crucified on a tree; to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8); and to “loose the chains of injustice” (Isaiah 58:6) It is the kind of work that Reverend James Lawson recently called “fiercely beautiful”—the work of turning the black and red ink of the Bible into living, breathing flesh.

I’m utterly grateful to be a part of a community that is affirming, creative, and life-giving. It is a community of boat-rockers, foot-washers, meal-preparers, plant-growers, community organizers, educators, and change-makers who care so much about the Bible that they are willing to wrestle with it and so much about the church that they are willing to re-imagine it. It is a community fiercely committed to living out their faith through the love of neighbors and enemies and the work of seeking justice. It is a community that has helped to undo the chains that were holding me captive to a life of guilt, unworthiness, mediocrity, and exclusion. It is a community that dares to ask why we would ever keep the flames in our bellies and bones that so desperately need to be unleashed on a lukewarm world. So thank you Lauren, Autumn, Brett, Grace, Dan, Levi, Aaron, Jeannie, Charlie, Ingrid, DJ, my loving husband Andrew, and all the others who participate in the life of our community. Thank you for helping me to believe that God can work through me as an ordained “minister.” Thank you for supporting me and holding me accountable. Thank you for loving and affirming me. Thank you from the deepest part of my being.

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