By the Rev. Michelle Bullock
1 Timothy 4:11-16
January 14, 2019
A spiritual director once told me, “I’m convinced that children are born looking in the face of God, but they are taught to look away. Then, when we grow up, we spend the rest of our adulthood trying to find God’s face again.” This is why I love working with children. And in many ways, finding my vocation has been a story of turning back to God’s face. Along my way, lots of people and a few little holy moment--my own epiphanies-- have pointed me towards where I believe God has always called me.
When I was 6 years old, I remember standing in the kitchen with my dad. I said, “Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be a preacher.” My dad very gently told me, no, you can’t be a preacher. The Bible says you can’t be a preacher because you are a girl.
I heard my father and I didn’t question him or our beliefs. I thought, well, my Dad said this is true, so it must be so. I believed this for the next 20 years.
When I was 8 or 9, I remember standing in my grandma’s living room and realizing that whatever in the world I was going to do, it was going to involve being a voice and an advocate for kids. My childhood was hard. I hated being a kid. My parents went through a nasty divorce that involved constant court battles, police interference, and my brother and me being stuck in the middle of a nasty war of words and that was sometimes physical. I remember thinking no one really heard me and spoke up for me. I vowed I’d never do this to kids when I grew up.
So, when I went to college, I majored in Elementary Education because I very much believe that the strongest advocates for children are teachers. For a little while, teaching fulfilled me.
The third moment was sitting in a fast food restaurant with my boyfriend Jonathan (now husband). I’d just come home from teaching in China for two years. When I moved home, nothing really fit anymore. I wasn’t happy teaching anymore. I still loved God, but was happy with my church. My family didn’t understand who I was becoming. I was miserable and looking for more, but was unsure what that “more” was. I felt like I’d completely lost my way.
Jonathan had come to a similar crossroads with church a few years earlier, having had a pretty similar upbringing. So, as I sat there wondering what I was doing with my life. He asked, why don’t you go to seminary? Duke has a great program.
“But I’m a woman. I can’t do that.” Jonathan explained to me that in fact, women could go to Duke and a lot of other fantastic seminaries. I was blown away. This is not what I was taught. In that moment, it was like someone took a hammer to the world as I knew it and cracked it wide open.
So, I applied to Duke, got in (which shocked me), enrolled, swore to my husband that I would still cheer for the Tar Heels (a promise I’ve kept- go Heels!), and started class with the biggest case of imposter syndrome you’ve ever seen. At Duke, I learned about beauty, pain, love, joy and suffering in the church and in the world. I began to understand God in ways that blew my mind and brought me great joy. I made lifelong friends. I found heroes in faith. And I learned that my gender in no way set limits on my vocation.
While I was at Duke, I fell in love with the Episcopal Church. Before I graduated, I was married, confirmed and had a job working with youth and children in an Episcopal church and doing part time chaplaincy at a women’s college. I became a mother. I thought I’d made it. I thought, this is it. This is where I’m called. This is all I’ve ever wanted.
And then, the restlessness returned.
The fourth epiphany isn’t a moment, so much as a series of people God put on my path to show me the way when I couldn’t see it well for myself.
In the Scripture we read today, we hear Paul tell Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” Paul had left Timothy in charge of a group of believers, but they apparently didn’t take him very seriously because of his age. Paul reminds Timothy of exactly who he was, where he had been placed, and what gifts God had given him for the good of those he had been entrusted to care for. Paul tells him not to give up, but instead to buckle down and live a life that was to be respected.
I’m telling you, my life has been full of these people. As a child and teenager, I remember being nurtured by my grandparents, some stubborn little old women who refused to sit down and be quiet, and leaders in the church who were the Paul to my Timothy. They told me God’s spirit was with me and that God was calling me to something. They listened and they guided me.
When I was working as an unordained person in the Episcopal Church and the feeling of being trapped in a box returned, so many people stepped in and asked me to consider ordination, or sometimes, very clearly told me they saw this calling on my life. My husband patiently pointed me in this direction every day. And, interestingly, almost every female priest I’ve ever worked with has pointed me here as well. I just felt so ill equipped. I think I still felt like a little girl, and not at all like the equipped woman I was.
Frederick Buechner says, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC, 118-119). Slowly, I started to see that I hungered to teach, to preach, to baptize, to offer the bread and wine of communion, to be with people in the most sacred moments of joy and new life or love and in their most sacred moments of loss and pain. I didn’t need to be perfect to do it. I only needed God and prayers. The priesthood? This. Yes, this is where I am called. The little 6-year-old in the kitchen knew it. 25 years later, thanks be to God, I finally remembered that moment in the kitchen and recognized it as the moment I first heard my calling.
Along the way, there have been some moments when I just didn’t think I could keep going. The Episcopal Church, for all its progress and beauty, has ugly, unkind moments that arise in many people’s ordination process. At times, I thought about walking away from it all. My priest kept me going. Fellow chaplains kept me going. My colleagues kept me going. My children kept me going. To each of these people who offered me direction the way and said, “you are called to this, keep walking.” I am so grateful.
So what can I offer for you to take away?
1. Friends, to take a step towards that thing God has called you towards. Don’t let someone tell you cannot because you are young, or a girl, or LGBT, or because you aren’t white, or because you don’t fit into some other box people have made for you. God breaks chains and sets people free. God does not make boxes.
2. Don’t be afraid to pivot. I pivoted a few times.
3. The path won’t always be easy, but that doesn’t mean you should stop. Finding your vocation doesn’t mean you don’t sometimes have to crawl through cracked windows and scrape your knees a little bit to keep going. I’ve met heartache on this journey. I have days that are really frustrating. But when I step back and look at the whole picture, I’m so overjoyed with my vocation.
4. Find your cheerleaders, your mentors, your prophets, or whatever it is you might call them. They are in your midst. I see some of mine in this place today. They will show you the way. Listen to them.
5. And remember, Frederick Buechner says, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Buechner). My friends, listen to the world’s hunger, and ask yourself what gives you life, breath and joy. Where they meet? That is your thing. Follow that path.
Let us take a moment to reflect on what we’ve just heard.