Delivered on the occasion of the Holy Eucharist for the Episcopal Church Women meeting at St. Augustine’s, 9 September 2016. Remembering Constance & Her Companions.
This morning I want to share a witness of God’s gracious provision during a dying season in my own life.
Constance and her companions, the Martyrs of Memphis, were called to real bodily sacrifice out of love. This is one of the ways that God calls us; God also calls us to dying to ourselves, as our Gospel passage from last Sunday outlined, and dying to our own conceptions and assumptions and identities about ourselves, as I preached on a few weeks ago.
While I was working at the Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina, I entered a period of depression. It’s hard to see clearly in the midst of grief, and I had trouble trusting the call I’d once felt so clearly to ordained ministry. My real despair came because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life, but the weight that this ministry put on me was too much — my body couldn’t sleep, my heart couldn’t spare compassion, my mind couldn’t focus, my spirit couldn’t muster any hope. In the midst of this struggle, my grandfather fell sick, and within a few months it was clear that he was in his final decline.
I spent most of February that year flying back and forth to Minnesota, spending time with and ministering to him and the rest of my family there. Near the end of the month, I spent a long weekend there, we moved him to in-patient Hospice on Friday, and before my plane took off on Monday afternoon, I’d given him last rites and he’d breathed his last.
More than any other experience in my ministry, this holy month confirmed my call as a pastor and priest. This didn’t lift the depression or lessen the physical toll, but it restored a measure of hope.
Later that year, I would quit my job at the Cathedral and follow God’s call to do lay-ministry work at a PCUSA church plant in Columbia. This step made no sense to my resume, or to many bystanders — indeed, to the Cathedral congregation, I know it felt very much like a betrayal. It was a move that was painful and nonsensical and required my giving up notions of what a good, obedient priest did, and what a successful young woman looked like, and what it meant to be a faithful Christian.
At my grandfather’s funeral, this same Gospel passage was used. I was honored to give his eulogy; as I prepared it on the plane ride to Minnesota one Sunday night, I reflected upon his witness and was struck by his life-long practice of glorifying God through simply doing the right thing in difficult situations, and how he has passed that strength of character on to his children, and I hope, to his grandchildren.
May that be our prayer, too, not to avoid adversity and pain, not to shirk suffering, but that all suffering would be oriented toward and redeemed by God as a refining fire in our lives, to bring each of us to greater love of God and a more humble and close walk with Him.
In the name of the Father, and of Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
image via Mary Constance/Flickr