Years ago, I attended a conference of Christian Educators with the theme “Sankofa: Flying forward, looking back” and throughout the week we explored what it would look like to equip people in their faith to go into the future without losing sight of the past. The word Sankofa is from the Akan tribe in Ghana that names the truth: it is not taboo/shameful to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”
For the last almost two years, I’ve wrestled with what it meant that just shy of my 25th birthday, the church ordained me as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I took a vow, to
“be a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith, and caring for people…to try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ.”
Somewhere in those ellipses is a promise to be active in the governance and discipline of the church as well. I’ve lived into that part of my vows more faithfully than I would like or could have imagined then as a newly minted 24-year-old pastor.
This time has been a wilderness, censure as the church calls it, leading me in a path of accountability with the hope that I would be restored to the fullness of this office of “Minister.” Some of that time has been spent wondering as I wander, do I really want to do this? I’m not the same person I was the last time I said, “I do.”
Do I close the door and leave the whole thing behind?
In the desert, I met plenty of creatures. Dug up a post-mortem report on my marriage that ended, discovered for the first time who I really am as a mother, as a woman. I saw and befriended the deep shadows of myself, the monster I was so afraid of within. I set tables in the wild, learned to make do without the implements of the marriage, friendship, and family I envisioned would be supports here. There was an untaming that took place here. The breath and the power came back in my voice so that speaking up for myself became less hard, less frightening.
The most powerful stories we have of humankind traversing wilderness come from the first two books of the Bible. In the first, Hagar is Sarah’s maidservant, cast out into the wilderness with fledgling Ishmael, to live on her own as a single mother. She is the first person to name God: El Roi, the God who sees. God sees her plight and gives water from a rock to sustain her, and promises not only survival but to make a nation of her son.
The second occurs in Exodus when the people of Israel are freed from slavery to the Egyptians. Chock full of adventure, one of my favorite truths from their 40-year wandering to get to the land promised to them is when they begin to complain about the food: “At least we had cucumbers in Egypt!”(never mind that we were slaves) they complain after weeks on end of miraculous quail and manna supply.
I found myself saying things like,
“At least when I was married, I didn’t have to worry about…”
Never mind that it was a disempowering charade of covert passive-aggression masquerading as soul-mates. Sophia has been my guide, my companion along this wilderness way. Sophia is the personification of divine wisdom, teaching me to trust that small voice within, teaching me that truth is not to be shamed, that wisdom calls me to a path of righteousness and justice.
Wisdom led me back to that term I heard so long ago: Sankofa.
It is not shameful that you can’t let go of this calling that led you down paths of hurt and destruction, that pressured you so much you felt you had nowhere to turn except away from your own values.
What was at risk of being left behind if I shut the door on those promises I made in the church those years ago?
Committee meetings, budget reports, “church growth,” and other people’s expectations of what a minister should look like, say, and act like can definitely be left behind.
But what about those deep promises? What about that mystery that draws me in to drink deeply from the well of living water and Sophia’s wine?
Sitting at a Stop Sign Asking Which Way
I’ve been sitting with Christ and asking the questions of “If not ministry in the local church as I had been doing, what then, God?”
The sense of call has been real, but the specifics have not. Last month in a conversation with a friend about things coming up in therapy, the question was asked,
“Elaine, have you ever thought about becoming a therapist? You know so much about it, and it seems to be a clear passion of yours, especially having gone through this experience.”
It was like a starting gun had gone off in my discernment, and clarity emerged.
I started the research on what it would take, what kind of therapy licensure I wanted to pursue, if I could do it while working full-time, etc.
Very quickly and easily things came together and I find myself enrolled in this path towards licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist.
One of the biggest confirmations for me that this is “the next right thing” is that the question of “Do I want to keep my ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament?” had a clear “yes” with the dream of using that call to heal, to proclaim good news and liberation in the context of therapy and spiritual direction.
When I was a child, my mom kept a book for us kids to fill out every year of school to keep memories of who we were along the way. One of those items was “When I grow up I want to be____” and over the years, answers to this question would vary, but mine settled in on some circulation between “writer,” “psychologist” and “teacher.”
I used to think “Pastor” was all of those and thus the perfect career for me. Now at this stage, I see that as a piece of who I have been answering God’s call on my life, but there are other facets to explore now. Writing, therapy, teaching, coaching, mothering, pastoring — are all pieces of what it is for me to answer God’s question of
“Whom shall I send? Who will go for Us?”
And I said, “Here I am. Send me.”
I hate that the process of getting to this point involved a lot of mistakes, moral injury, and hurting people in the process. Faith has been a stubborn gift that has not allowed me to wallow in shame, but to see far, that even then, God was doing something towards healing me, healing my family, and healing the community and world. I can envision walking with people who have dealt with infidelity, betrayal, deceit, resentment…and compassionately accompanying them (as one who has been there!) towards forgiveness, wholeness, liberation, and resilience.
Flying forward and looking back seems like an impossibility. How can you keep your eyes ahead if the past is dragging you back to revisit it?
Integration is the How
Integrating who you have been, with who you imagine yourself to be, while stopping to be present with who you are now is how all these pieces come together.
I cannot change my past. I wouldn’t want to. A friend who has me to dinner sometimes ends all her table prayers with,
“May all the world's leaders walk paths of peace.”
Whether we find ourselves in the wilderness, or at a busy intersection with faith, life, work, kids, and current events, being integrated with who we have been, who we are now, and who God is calling us to be leads us on the path of peace.
It is not a taboo thing to fetch what is at risk of being left behind. Equally so, it is not a shameful thing to fly forward, to walk in the present path of peace, even if that is in this moment to wait for the Spirit to move.
Elaine Murray pastors, parents, prays and postulates about healing, faith, personal growth, and change. When not chasing children or walking her dog, she’s training to become a trauma therapist. You can find more at writingelaine.medium.com or get in touch @writingelaine on Instagram.
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