Today, with great joy, I had the privilege of announcing the call of a new rector for the church community that I so dearly love. This is the happy news I have holding in my heart, and it has been nothing short of miraculous to be a part of this process coming together. The synchronicity and life events, non-coincidental timing and nudging of the spirit to action, friends who are friends of friends coming full circle back into our lives, serendipitous real estate and employment opportunities…there have been moments where Divine Presence has been felt as if a mighty wind and not a still, small voice. I am grateful beyond words, and my spirit and faith have been richly blessed.
There was another small point of light today, though, in the midst of all of the vibrant enthusiasm. In front of my whole congregation, I prayed.
It’s not that I have any particular issue with prayer. Praying is a regular part of my daily, contemplative practice, and I read prayers and quote blessings all the time when I write or when I am in small gatherings of people that I know well. I can happily read and recite prayers in liturgy, and I love the language of beautifully written blessings and quiet vespers to bring my busy days to stillness. Out loud, spontaneous prayer has been another thing entirely. Over the past few months, I have been praying more freely, perhaps at an occasional food pantry opening, or to close a vestry meeting. I never expected to hear myself offering up leading our congregation in prayer for our new rector, her current, congregation, and our whole parish. But, I did. And as I stood this morning in the sacred space of a hand-in-hand “shape” of all present in our congregation and began to pray, something happened.
I was calm, and my words poured from my heart and spirit into the immensity of divine presence.
I recalled, at that moment, the very last time that I had prayed out loud in a large group, openly, with such a quiet confidence of spirit. I was eighteen, a first semester sophomore. It was my Christian Ethics course at Houghton, and we began every class with a prayer. The college was very traditional, and my teacher was a legendary instructor there who was anything but progressive. I had built a carefully constructed, ethical argument in my final paper for the term in support of inclusive language. This was a “Father-God” kind of place, and my feminist leanings and progressive, inclusive theology were getting me into a lot of hot water. I sat toward the back of the lecture hall, seeing a stack of papers ready to be returned. He held one up and pointed in my direction, “The Ethics of Inclusive Language in Contemporary Christianity” he said, reading my paper and motioning me to come to the lectern to pick it up. “Why don’t you stay in the front of the room and open our class in prayer while you are here.”
And so, I did.
It was the last prayer I ever publicly prayed for many years. I prayed from my heart and soul that day, too, with deep conviction and authentic language. The words that I prayed flowed naturally from my spirit. After my “Amen” the room was silent, and no one was making eye contact with me. I took my seat. I put my paper in my bag, assuming it was going to make me cry to see whatever grade had been assigned. I would deal with that later. The class resumed, I took notes, and afterwards I went to mandatory chapel where the male speaker proclaimed a message where women should be “seen and not heard” in the church. I stood up, and walked out with one final declaration: this woman had seen and heard enough. The last straws were about to break in this third and final attempt I was making to reconcile my faith with the organizational church that surrounded me. That was the day I walked away.
The irony is, my grade on that paper was an A. My professor stated he disagreed theologically and personally with every point I made, but that my logic was clear which, ultimately, was what he was grading. It was the most begrudged A he ever gave, I think. My logic was all that remained by the time that chapter of my journey came to a close. My spirit was so wounded after so many years of rejection. What guided me through the next decades of my life was the safe space of reason. Spirituality and intuitive wisdom were my companions only in my own solitude, in the hushed quiet of prayers where only the Holy Spirit could hear me and the truth of my heart could be fully known. Never, ever, again in public.
I have written a bit about this most recent chapter of my journey, about crossing the threshold of forgiveness into grace. What I have come to realize is that grace has always been present, even when I felt overwhelmed by failed institutions and judgmental individuals and organizations. God is larger, God is persistent, God is present. And so, when time and study and words of comfort from diverse and multifaceted expressions of faith filled my soul, God was there. When an inclusive welcome was offered to me before I was fully ready to receive it: God was there. When I prayed silently at a quiet Compline and placed my questions on the alter of uncertainty before Divine Presence, God was there. And as I was confirmed by choice, and learned to unfold into grace and say a divine yes to leading and serving in my community of faith, God was there. And God was there today, is with me now and enfolds us still with the intimacy and immensity of Divine Presence.
Today, I was able to step into that presence again with grace, humility, and wonder. It was a seemingly simple offering, rich in complexity only in the shadows of my own experiences. All of that melted, as it does, in the light of Divine Presence. The fervent prayers of the hearts and souls of those joined hand in hand remained, and blessed us all.
And in it, the small point of light of prayer shone brightly.