Today, June 2nd, I celebrate being ordained as a Lutheran pastor for seventeen years. A lot has happened over the course of that time and I find myself reflecting on how I have changed and who I have become since then. It isn’t like that day of ordination made me a different person, but it did change my life in both big and small ways as it has deeply shaped my identity.
Little did I know how my heart would feel all these years later….
In the first few weeks after my ordination I was sitting in the office of my new congregation and a phone call came in as I was getting settled and unpacking books. After answering and trying out the recent addition to my name I said, “Hello, this is Pastor Emily”, and the person on the other end asked to speak to my pastoral colleague. I replied, “He is out of the office and has a meeting when he returns, but I can take a message for him. Is there anything I can help with?” I could hear the person breathe deep, let it out, and sadly say, “I am at the police station. Our seventeen year old daughter was found dead in a gravel pit this morning. This is her father and I am sitting here alone. I don’t know what to do.” My heart dropped to the floor and pounded away as my brain tried to catch up, searching everywhere for the right words to say. I couldn’t find anything profound other than, “I will be right there.” My colleague drove into the church parking lot at that moment and I immediately communicated we needed to go to the police station, together.
During my training at seminary I had lots of experience dealing with tragedy and death, both during my internship and while I did a rotation of hospital chaplaincy, but never thought I would encounter something like this right at the start of my pastoral ministry. That particular day, something happened between saying I was Pastor Emily and actually having to BE Pastor Emily. It was in the in-between that I recognized myself and something just felt right. It was as if all of the years of doubting my sense of call, along with the challenges and questions posed by “the greater church leadership” about my future ordination, suddenly came together to help me realize THIS is who I was called to be. During these intense moments between hanging up the phone and driving to the police station, I needed to let go of wondering if I was worthy, holy, or good enough to be a pastor. It was no longer about what I thought I should be, but how God would work through me. (Because of course, I am totally unworthy, unholy, and most definitely not good enough! God works through all of that, thank goodness.)
As we entered the police station, (which by the way was a place I hadn’t frequented much and also scared the sh** out of me) we met the sobbing father of this now dead young woman. We were invited to sit in these uncomfortable red, plastic chairs in an air-conditioned freezing cold room, sterile as could be, and I looked to my colleague and wondered what insightful, spiritual words he would share in this moment. I felt a great sense of relief that he would know just what to say in this circumstance. I was happy to take the back seat. To my surprise, the father turned to me and said, “You are a new pastor. Why? Why on earth would you choose a job like this? Why would you ever be a pastor when you have to be with people in times like this? This is awful.”
After I reflected for a few moments, I responded in a small weak voice. My words filled the air which was heavy with grief, “I don’t know. I guess I think it is a privilege to be here with you. God is not far away from us, but very near. These are holy moments and right now, I am grateful to be sitting next to you, as awful, hard, and difficult as it is. I’m so very, very sorry.” I heard myself say these things and sort of marveled that these words actually came out of my mouth. After all these years, I recognize what I said on that particular day is the primary reason I am a pastor.
I have learned that death often shows up at very unexpected moments. This experience was just the first of many in which I have sat with people in grief. Over the last seventeen years, I have seen things and been a part of situations most people would never want to wander into or experience. And yet, they have been deeply holy, sacred moments. They are moments when people are at their most vulnerable and often seek hope in their darkness. It is more about just be-ing with people and loving them right where they are, sitting, praying, listening, and breathing with them.
As a pastor, I feel I have had the privilege to be with people, in all sorts of life moments, both sad and joyous and during the in-between times as well. I have served three congregations between Minnesota and Washington State and they have each taught me about myself and ministered to me in more ways than I can comprehend or articulate. It has been messy at times, really, really messy and that is because people are human. As I have been in relationship with my congregants over the years, I have made many mistakes (and so have they), I have been forgiven (and so have they), I have cried (they all know I do this from the pulpit when I preach!), I have laughed (sometimes at people, seriously.), I have drunk many cups of coffee at many tables with many people, I have shared communion and held the hands of the sick and the dying and the grieving, I have purchased a meal for someone who sat on a corner of a highway and had nothing to eat, I have prayed for more people than I can count (fortunately God has that covered!), I have baptized babies and children and adults, I have married couples who have only stayed married for 24 hours, I have buried WW2 veterans and infants, I have listened and listened and listened to stories of everything you can possibly imagine and cannot possibly imagine, and most importantly, I have loved and been loved. (And YES, I know that was the world’s LONGEST run-on sentence with commas EVER. I had to write that for those of you who are grammar police.)
For the past three years, I have set aside my call as a pastor so our family could have the opportunity to live in Oslo, Norway, where my husband serves the American Lutheran Congregation. On most Sundays, I am just a pastor in the pew. When I served in the church every day, I was IN A CHURCH. Holy moments or milestones came to me because of where I was. It was easier to remember that God was in the midst of things, but now, I have to look a little bit harder, as I have returned to my undergraduate degree: teaching. I am a substitute teacher at an International Primary School, where I feel like I parachute into the classroom and teach everything under the sun at the drop of a hat. I have had to remember how to multiply and divide fractions, measure volume, and describe what a past participle is, amongst other things I haven’t thought of in years. Most of the time, I help my students to listen carefully and respectfully to each other, remembering we are all human beings who want to be loved and cared for. Being a pastor prepared me well for this experience, as every day shows and reminds me that the children I work with are like my own, hungry for love, affirmation, encouragement, and hope for the future. I never imagined I would love them so much.
When space allows me to share I am a priest/pastor/minister with this international community, many of who come from every corner of the world with every background possible, it is always in..ter…est…ing! Regardless of background and religion, people know I am a safe landing spot for them to share what is really going on in their lives. Therefore, with my pastor/teacher hat on, I listen, I watch, and I get glimpses of holiness out here in the world. When I leave to teach in the morning, I know this is the place where God has called me to serve for the time being. I am still a pastor sharing the Good News, called to love people right where they are at.
I am still Pastor Emily no matter where I am, because it is part of who I am. Every day provides us with the ups and downs and ins and outs of this thing called LIFE. I believe it is where God resides and always has. God is not far, but very, very near.
And right now, I am happy and filled with gratitude to be here in these holy moments of today.
On this anniversary day, I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has been a part of my journey through all of these years. I’d be less without you. Thanks especially to: St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church (Grand Rapids, MN), Silverdale Lutheran (Silverdale, Washington), United in Christ Lutheran Church (Eveleth-Gilbert, MN), my family, my Christian, my non-Christian, my other faith and/or atheist friends! I thank God for all of you because you have shaped me to be the pastor and person I am today.
“I thank my God every time I remember you.” –Philippians 1:3