Borrowing from Dickens, it was a wonderful time and a horrible time.
I had two adorable daughters, ages four and six. I had a church community that could not have been more supportive and encouraging. Close, nurturing friends. A lovely home. A new part-time job at Blake that accommodated the kids’ schedules and mine. I had passed my exams with flying colors.
It was January 25, 1982 — 29 years ago today — that I was ordained with other six people in my class as a deacon at St. Mark’s Cathedral. It was nearly twenty below zero that night but it seemed that everyone showed up anyway – even my parents and my favorite Sunday School teacher from St. James Lutheran – that really got to me.
And, just two weeks earlier, my husband had made his final decision: he did not want to be married to me any more and moved out of the house.
Just days ago, I had had my interview with the Standing Committee of the Diocese, seeking their final approval of my ordination. I had to tell them about the divorce. They said whoooaaaa… just a minute here. This would not be a good time to ordain you. You need time to think and process. Etc.
Using every skill I had developed as a debater (and also near tears), I told them that I should not be punished for my husband’s decision – and that’s what it would be – punishment – yes punishment! — not to be ordained with my class. Check my references, for heaven’s sake. Check my grades. Check my MMPI. Check whatever you need to check but you cannot do this to me.
I was sent out of the room while they conferred — forever.
They said okay.
January 25, 1982, ended up being “the best of times, the worst of times,” and ever since then, I’ve kept that date at a distance, acknowledging it, but not wanting to go too far into that memory for obvious reasons.
I was furious but also embarrassed. Embarrassed to be “dumped” (probably an over-simplification), embarrassed to be struggling, embarrassed to be “alone.” My family was probably never as horrified as I imagined, although I was a proper Norwegian girl and there had only been two divorces in my family that I knew of – EVER – and I should know since I compiled the family history. One was my cousin who was a lawyer and had gone to Harvard until he came to his senses and finished up at St. Olaf. The other was my great-grandmother (I’m not making this up –I have documentation) who “ran off” with a Holy Roller preacher in the early 1920’s, leaving her husband and ten-year-old son. She never came back.
Following my ordination, I took up residence as deacon at St. John the Baptist in Minneapolis, worked at Blake, and went on with my life. Now I see even more clearly the degree to which I was supported, held up, and strengthened. People from St. John’s came and changed my forty-seven storm windows (concealing their shock that I had put up curtain rods with masking tape instead of screws), fixed the fuse box, and helped me when my car didn’t work. They babysat. They listened for days. I found strength I didn’t know I had, even as the tears took a long time to stop. For it wasn’t just loss; it was a profound sense I had failed.
Benedictine Joan Chittiser: “The important things in life, one way or another, all leave us marked and scarred. We call it memory. We never stop remembering our triumphs. We never stop regretting our losses..…Hope emerges in response to each of Struggle’s deceptions that change is destructive, that we are alone, that God has deserted us, that we are unequal to the task, that we cannot go another step, that our scars have left us forever unfit. The spiritual task of life is to feed the hope that comes out of despair.”
Despair can indeed give way to hope; in fact, memory is often the basis for hope – God helped us once; God will do it again. The ancient rabbis said that memory and hope belong together.
Memory is a big part of our life as Christians that we need to honor it and take seriously. Our whole service of Holy Eucharist is based on the mysterious, life-giving strength rooted in intentional memory. Frederick Buechener cautions not to trivialize the power of memory: “When Jesus said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me,” he was not prescribing a periodic slug of nostalgia.”
Other things have clouded the memory of January 25. I was the baby of the class – in my early thirties – while everyone else was well past fifty. All other six people ordained that night have since died, the last one this past summer. This saddens me, but also reminds me how much we went through together, all the laughs we had, and how dear they were to me.
Memory is not only a source of pain and is definitely more than nostalgia. It is a record of God’s work in our own lives, and as such, cannot help but give us hope.
January 25, 1982, is now such a day for me.
See you in church.