God’s Still Working On Me
Some years ago I learned a song that I’ve never been able to put out of my head. I only remember the first few lines but I found it on the internet, where you can find virtually anything! Here it is:
He’s still working on me to make me what I ought to be.
It took Him just a week to make the moon and stars,
The Sun and the Earth and Jupiter and Mars.
How loving and patient He must be, He’s still working on me.
There really ought to be a sign upon my heart,
Don’t judge me yet, there’s an unfinished part.
But I’ll be perfect just according to His plan
Fashioned by the Master’s loving hands.
In the mirror of His Word reflections that I see
Make me wonder why He never gave up on me.
He loves me as I am and helps me when I pray
Remember He’s the Potter, I’m the clay
The point of bringing up this song is twofold:
- I am a work in progress, always have been, and always will be
- I’m still working on my eBook “Lady Father: How I Overcame Outrageous Discrimination in the Church,” have been for years, but will not always be – in fact, I’m more than halfway finished so sign up to be on my Announcement List and I’ll let you know when it’s ready. (See below)
This eBook I’m writing has been rolling around in my head and my heart for about 5 years now – I even started on it during a 2-week Fellow-in-Residence stay in Sewanee. I wrote every day for 2 weeks and came home with a lot of my journey stored on a floppy disk, which is now “God knows where.” I have checked out all the old “floppies” I have and somehow all that work has disappeared.
My theory about that, which I figured out after ranting and raving for a little bit about the monumental waste of time it was to work that hard and then lose it, is simple: It wasn’t time yet. There was still more of the journey to come that shouldn’t be left out of it. It’s sort of Paul Harvey’s “rest of the story” if you will.
So much has happened within my life in the church since then that I am actually glad to have started again. It has flowed much more smoothly, I have learned so much more about myself and how my journey affected my life, and I am so much more comfortable writing about the uncomfortable things, that feels like the right time.
I think it’s because of three things:
- I have completed the active ministry part of my life as an ordained woman in the church so it feels like a natural place to stop and reflect.
- I have a new perspective on my experiences as I am now able to “look in on it” from the edge of it instead of in the middle of it. I’m not totally “outside of it” but I can see it all better than I ever been able to before.
- I have a new motive for writing this book than I did before; at that time, I wanted to expose it all – to warn other women to watch out for the pitfalls I had not seen looming ahead of me and, I suppose to garner some sympathy for all the pain and grief I had endured.
My motive now is rooted in my new-found, transfigured faith that God did indeed call me to be a priest in his Church, that he used me to make a difference in the lives of many people, and that I now have the God-given talent, the opportunity, and the means to use my experience to help other women who may be facing the same attitudes and who may not have a support system to turn to for encouragement, advice, and a safe place to ventilate, share, and reflect with someone who has “been there.”
Maybe you’ve been there – maybe you’re there now – maybe you can see it coming – maybe you just want to be prepared for your journey through the ordination process. Whatever – just add a comment – or email me. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to sign up for my Announcement List (see form below) so you’ll be among the first to get a copy of the eBook when it’s finished – or at least when it’s at the place where it makes sense to publish it. I know that it will never be finished because God is still working on me!
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I’m “Out Straight!”
I had never heard the phrase “out straight” until I moved to Hoosick Falls, NY and a woman I knew there said it all the time. If you don’t know what it means, let me give you an example: “I have a full-time job, I’m writing 2 ebooks, trying to get my new apartment arranged, and keeping up this blog – I’m out straight!” So, it means working so hard that your legs are out straight behind you or that your coattails are out straight in the wind or you are just lying out straight on the floor from the exertion of it all.
I am definitely “out straight!” By the way, the example is me and to add to it, my keyboard is sticking. I cleaned it out as I was advised – got out lots of dust, etc. and now it sticks worse than ever. What’s that about? That’s another of my favorite sayings – I use it whenever something happens that just doesn’t make sense or when someone does something that is beyond stupid – what’s that about?
You know, my Dad was the king of “sayings” and I think I’m well on the way to overtaking his position. He is famous in our family and all over the east coast for things like “You get used to hanging if you hang long enough” and “That doesn’t mean pea-turkey to me.” (Anybody know what a “pea-turkey” is?) My brother and I call them “Howardisms” (his name was Howard – duh) and have often thought of writing a book – only problem is we can’t remember them all until we get together and start shooting them off at each other – then they come so fast we can’t get them out, much less write them down. But I think I’m going to have a massive amount of my own sayings before I meet up with Dad again in the hereafter.
My all-time favorite is “get a grip.” It can mean, “get hold of yourself” – like stop whining/belly-aching – or “get in touch with reality” – as in “no way!” A close second is “get over yourself” which means basically, “don’t take yourself so seriously” or “whatever is bugging you, let go of it and get over it.”
My grandchildren think I’m a little strange although they have caught on to some of my crazy sayings now that they have reached the age of reason – well, almost. The first time I got in the car, turned on the ignition and turned around to say, “We’re off to see the wizard,” they looked at me as if they had found me behind a curtain pulling levers and shouting,”I am the great Oz!” That’s because they didn’t have a single clue what wizard I was referring to and when I said incredulously, “the Wizard of Oz, of course,” they really thought I had gone off the deep end with the flying monkeys.
I have since educated them about the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and have sung the song so they now totally get it when I jump in the car yelling, “We’re off to see the wizard!” Of course, neither of them has any idea what a pea-turkey is any more than I did at their age. I’m not sure I know any better now but from the way my Dad always used it, I presume it was something very small and insignificant – kind of like when you say something isn’t worth “one red cent” or “the paper it’s written on.” Like a pea-hen, a pea-turkey must be some small and relatively stupid bird that is only valuable once a year but you’d have to have a lot of them for a decent Thanksgiving dinner.
Another one of my favorites is the “pity pot” or “pity party” as “get off it,” which is probably what you are all thinking when I complain about being “out straight” or when I start moaning about it being colder than a “well-digger’s donkey” (well, I was told to keep my blog clean) up here in New York. I’m sure you’d all say something like “C’mon Susan – get off your pity pot – nobody gives pea-turkey about how cold it is in upstate New York this year – you’re not the only one who is out straight right now so get a grip because it’ll be all right – after all, you get used to hanging if you hang long enough. So, get over yourself!”
So, what do you think – “Susanisms?” “Get a grip Susan!”
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On February 23rd (yesterday), I celebrated another big anniversary – 25 years ago, I was ordained a Deacon in the Episcopal Church by a Bishop who was a leading opponent of women’s ordination. What a miracle! I’ve told you all about him – Bishop Charles Vaché, 7th Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia, who died on November 1st, 2009. It was not only an amazing February day in southeastern Virginia – 72 degrees, bright sunshine (we had the windows open in the church it was so hot in there, not only because of the temperature outside, but because it was PACKED! – it was a life-changing experience for a number of people.
Not in any order, these people were: Bishop Vaché, my mother, two other women in the Diocese who were awaiting the Bishop’s decision on their admission to the ordination process, some people in the parish who were very unhappy about my ordination, and – of course – me. Let’s start with my mother.
Mom was a cradle Episcopalian (like her mother and her siblings and me and my siblings – not my Dad – he was a Baptist who hated the Baptist church so he became an Episcopalian when he married my Mom), raised in the south (like all those other people above), and very conservative (again like all of the above). Until I announced that I was going to seminary, I don’t think she had ever entertained the idea of a woman being a priest – I know my Dad hadn’t. Of course, she would have never used that word – in the Virginia and North Carolina of the 1950’s, 60’s, & 70’s, we called them “Mr.” and they were “ministers,” not priests. None of us knew that there were Episcopalians who called ordained ministers by such a “Romish” word as “priest” and if we had, we would have been horrified.
So, when I made my big announcement, my Dad said, “OK,” and my Mom looked at me like I had 2 heads and asked, “How are you going to do that?” She couldn’t fathom the idea of me quitting my great job with the City of Petersburg (after all, I had a badge and a city car and everything) and traipsing off to God-knows-where for 3 years! After I explained it all, Dad said, “OK, how can we help?” and Mom said, “Well, we sure are proud of you.” I was blessed with the most wonderful parents in the world, wasn’t I?
I’m not sure that either of them really understood it all, but my mother slaved for months on a beautiful red stole for my ordination (red for Holy Spirit) and, as she tells it, she “nearly lost her religion making this thing for a minister!” It was a gorgeous material onto which she cross-stitched a silver descending dove with shimmery thread that looked great but was nigh unto impossible to draw through the material! She blistered the walls of their living room every day for almost 6 months trying to get that stole to look just right. And she did!
The day of the ordination, she was beaming!! You’d have thought I had been elected the first woman President of the United States – I don’t think she would have been any prouder. She cried, of course, and even my Dad teared up – although he’d never admit it – and when it was all over and I was standing with the Bishop (whom she loved!) in the parish hall with my crisp new clergy collar around my neck and greeting old friends and introducing the Bishop to all my family, I saw her over by the window watching. She had a look on her face that I had never seen before and I knew that she got it!
The people in the parish who were horrified at what was going on in their church that day stayed away, as I’m sure you figured out, but I have to say that they didn’t take too long to come around. There were two people, a man and a woman, who had refused to received communion from me as a lay person and they just couldn’t believe that our Rector had been so supportive of me before he left for Nags Head NC during my first year. I think they were glad he was gone because they were so angry at him. But by the time, my ordination took place, they had mellowed somewhat and when I went back to the church some months later as a visiting clergy, they showed up at my end of the communion rail like nothing had ever been wrong. Go God!
There was one woman waiting to be ordained (and she was about 3 months later) and several more waiting in the wings to be admitted to the process and they were so happy for me and I know when the Bishop laid his hands on my head, they could feel it as well. They walked around beaming the rest of the day too.
The Bishop was also changed that day. Although he had ordained a woman to the priesthood about a year before, I was the first woman he had allowed to go through our process and I know he felt very much like I was “his first.” Sounds like a date or something, which couldn’t have been further from reality, but there was a connection between us that is very hard to describe. He had told me when I started seminary that he had been through all the Biblical and theological arguments for and against women’s ordination and he was convinced that there was nothing in the Bible or in the history of the faith that prevented women from being ordained. That was a long process for him but in 1980, he was still caught in the emotional struggle between his head and his heart and his hands. He said that at that point he just couldn’t bring himself to lay his hands on a woman’s head and say the words of ordination. He freely admitted that it was an emotional issue that he just hadn’t resolved yet. He also said that I was the first woman who had knocked on his door without trying to break it down and that helped him come around. On February 23rd, 1985, it was resolved and he was free from the tug of war. Not only was he free, he won! Actually, I think God won because I’m convinced that God had been working on him for years and his efforts finally bore fruit.
Finally, I’m sure that I was the most blown-away person in the church that day. I went into the church a lay person who loved my church and supported it and went to church every Sunday, gave a little money, and sang in the choir – and I came out a Deacon – a clergyperson with a collar around my neck that screamed to the world, “be good – this woman is clergy!” I remember the moment it happened. It came shortly after my dear friend and most favorite professor Don Armentrout had finished his dynamite ordination sermon. The Bishop and I had been through the question and answer thing, we had all done the Litany for Ordinations, sung by the Rector of my parents’ parish, and I was kneeling (ouch!) on my bad knee in front of the Bishop (who was well over 6′ tall so my eyes were directly in front of the end of his stole) while he finished the first part of the ordination prayer. I remember I started to sway a little if I closed my eyes like you’re supposed to during prayer so I concentrated on the end of the Bishop’s stole which had alternating batches of silver and gold trim – I counted them and there were 18 – 9 gold and 9 silver!
Then he put his hands on my head and at that moment God touched me – I know that because I began to burn inside – like I was on fire. I felt like my face was flaming red and that there was a torch inside of me. After it was all done and we were passing the peace, I asked the priest who had done the prayers if my face was as red as it felt and he looked shocked and said, “No, you were cool as a cucumber.” NOT! Just goes to show you how God works sometimes. As the Bishop lifted his hands from my head after pronouncing that I was now a Deacon in God’s Church, I knew that my life would never be the same – I knew that I had been transformed into God’s newest servant and it was the happiest I had ever been in my life.
Twenty-five years – it hardly seems possible that it has been that long and then it seems like yesterday. I can close my eyes and picture the entire day with all the people I loved and still love all around me and my favorite Bishop grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat and I know that we both became new creatures on that day. What a blast!
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63 Years Later
That’s right! It’s been 63 years since I made my appearance on this planet! It seems that every day I see someone or read or remember something that reminds me that I’ve been here for more half a century and am working on 3/4. I have a picture in my bathroom of my mother and 5 of her friends. They called themselves “the River Rats” because every September they spent a week at a cottage on the James River near Surry, Virginia. They started way back when I was just a little kid and I’m not really sure how they knew each other in the beginning except that Mary Ann Perkins lived across the street from us when we moved to our new home in 1957. Some few years after that, we became charter members in the Battlefield Park Swim Club where my Mother, who was a lifeguard and a Water Safety Instructor, worked every summer from the day it opened. She and a woman named Wesy Chappell worked as lifeguards for the 1st 2 weeks of the season before school was out and the regular lifeguards came to work and for the last 2 weeks after they returned to classes. Louise Fuller worked the gate and I’ll always remember her fingernails! They were so long and perfectly formed and hard as the concrete around the pool. She would sit at the table at the gate and work on those nails for hours. They were bright red and exquisite and I was insanely jealous of her. My nails were and still are like my mother’s – thin and brittle and they still snap off into the quick if you look at them wrong. Mabbot Rideout was a friend of Mary Ann’s and there was one more – Marie Spatig – and I don’t have a clue how she fit into this group. They played bridge together once a month; most of them either swam or worked at the pool; and they decided one summer that they had pretty much had it with kids and husbands so when the pool closed for the summer, they took off for Surry and a friend’s cottage on the river for the day.
They left early in the morning and Mom dragged in about 9:00 that night, sunburned and bleary eyed, but beaming from ear to ear. They had thoroughly enjoyed the day and had made a solemn oath to do it again the next year. To make a long story short, they slowly increased their “get-away-from-the-men-and-kids” until by the time I was married, they were spending a whole week at the river. No men and no kids were allowed and they never talked about what they did except for one thing. One of their traditions while at the river was to get dressed to the nines one night and eat dinner at The Surrey House, a very nice restaurant that for some obscure reason was located in a tiny town with a crossroads, a gas station, a church, a hardware store, some houses and this very good restaurant. Every year they would dress the place up even more as they graced it with their presence. They pranced in, got the biggest table in the middle of the room, ordered a glass of wine, and proceeded to talk, laugh, and eat – in that order – until they had driven away all the locals and were watching the waitresses (well, that’s what they were in the 1960’s) trying not to be too obvious about the fact that it was past closing time. They learned to tip well on those nights out, which helped with the waitresses and soon they were a welcome fixture. I don’t know if they ever figured out why they were missing so many sugar bowls and napkin holders and cream pitchers during those years, but we all knew because each family had at least one souvenir – we had a sugar bowl – with the logo of The Surrey House on it – a black “surrey with the fringe on top” that was so distinctive we had to hide it when company came over. I’ll never forget the time we were taking my sister back to school at William and Mary – the route took us right through Surry and right past The Surrey House, which my father said served the most incredible iced tea in the state of Virginia. My brother was about 8 years old at the time – innocent as a lamb – and he had us running for the car when he grabbed the sugar bowl off the counter while we were waiting for our “iced teas to go” and yelled, “Look Mommy, they have a sugar bowl just like ours!”
Anyway, one year they decided to really go crazy and they all dressed up like “floozies” for their night on the town in Surry. They had on short dresses with wide stripes, long beads, lots of makeup, high heels, and crazy hair styles. I’m not sure what the style was they were aiming for but they got something between a flapper and a hippy. They caused quite a stir in Surry and Mother told me they were glad they hadn’t told anybody what they were doing because Daddy and all the other men swore they would have been there to drag them out of that restaurant if they had known what they were doing. Now, every day I look at that picture and I can’t believe how many years ago the River Rats were tearing up the banks of the James River in Southside Virginia. I look at them and can’t believe that half of them – Mother, Marie, and Louise are gone now. Louise, God bless her, has been “gone” for more than 40 years as she was struck by something they later thought was Alzheimer’s at 39 years old and spent more than 40 years in a nursing home. She never knew anyone again after the first few years and the River Rats always had a little memorial ceremony every year before taking over The Surrey House for the evening, an event which was dedicated to the memory of Louise “Hard-as-Nails” Fuller. Wesy and Mary Ann and Mabbot are still going strong – when I saw Wesy and Mary Ann at Mother’s funeral more than 3 years ago, they looked almost like they do in my picture. They were sad about Mother but knew she was better off after her long bout with Alzheimer’s. I was sad too and still am some days, but my huge picture on the bathroom wall cheers me up every day as I look at those crazy women and think about how old Marie would be now – she was the oldest – and that Mother would be over 90 had she lived. I also think – gee, I’m older now than they were when that picture was taken –
I’m 63! Yikes!
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24 Years Later
It’s been 24 years (on January 25th) since the day I was ordained a priest. On February 23rd, I will celebrate the 25th anniversary of my ordination as a Deacon in the Episcopal Church. This is totally amazing to me for several reasons:
- It means I’m old enough to have been doing the same thing for a quarter of a century!
- Since I didn’t get started until the age of 38, this means I’m over 60!
- Prior to this, the longest I ever did any one thing was 7 years as an employee of the City of Petersburg VA (but I still had 3 different positions), except for being a mother – 14 years.
- It means that, when I add the 10 years I did active lay ministry in the church before being ordained, I’ve been doing this for more than half my life!
So now I feel old! But I also feel a lot of other things. First, I am thankful. It has been a remarkable journey and I am grateful for the opportunity to serve my Lord as a priest. I love being a priest. I love touching people with love and compassion and I love being the vehicle through which faithful people are touched by God through the sacraments. I absolutely love being used by God! I once heard a testimony by a priest who was distressed because one of his most beloved parishioners was desperately ill. He shared his feelings with a missionary friend lamenting that he just didn’t know what to do. His friend looked at him in shock and said, “Well, you grab your Bible and you go over to that hospital and you pray for him to be healed.” The priest was even more dejected and he said, “I can’t heal him – I can’t heal anyone.” The missionary grabbed him by the hand, pulled him up from the chair and started for the door, chastising the priest, “Of course, you can’t heal him; only God can do that. You’re just the donkey he rides into the room on.” I’ve never forgotten that and I’m grateful that God has seen fit to ride into many a room on my back.
I also feel sad – sad that the past 24 years brought so much pain into my life, even while I was given so much joy. My sadness is not only for myself as I look back and realize how much of my ministry was consumed by controversy, conflict, and upheaval – not to mention confrontations which wasted so much of the time and energy of all concerned. My sadness is also for the churches which were robbed of so much by the pettiness and prejudice of a few people. I know that I was not blameless in some of the situations which arose in my parish experience; but I know in my heart that there were so many times when I was the brunt of collective and individual anger at the church aimed at me as a female daring to take the place of a man in the traditionally male priesthood. I feel some anger at the waste, although that has dissipated to just mostly sadness, and I feel regret at the times I misread, miscalculated, and misplayed the many hands I was dealt as a priest. I also feel regret that I was unable to break through the wall of discrimination and suspicion that surrounded most females in ordained ministry in the 80’s and 90’s and even into the 21st century.
I am still sad over what I have deemed to be my failure to bring in the masses to fill the churches I served. I had colleagues who enjoyed long and prosperous ministries – adding so many new members to whatever parish they served and I have to confess to being jealous of them and their success. The addition of new members in my parishes were always offset by the losses representing those who left because I was a woman. All that being said, as I ponder 24 years of ministry, I feel proud – not the kind of proud that goes before the proverbial fall, but the kind of proud that acknowledges that I did my best to serve God as I was called to do, that I was faithful to that call and to my priestly vows, and that I made a difference in the lives of many people. I preached well and treated people as I know Jesus would have treated them, even in the face of crass discrimination and even hatred. I took the high road even when it was not fun and got me in trouble but I always treated people with love and kindness, no matter how they treated me. So I feel what I would call pride in a job well done, tinged with sadness for a job which many times felt undone. I guess next year – my 25th anniversary – will bring another round of reflection and, hopefully, some celebration; for now, I am still happy to be God’s priest and grateful that God still uses me.
Susan Bowman, is an ordained Episcopal Priest, a Grandmother, and a Professional Writer. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986 and has a story to tell that will speak to all women who are functioning in a traditionally male role. She has written a book about her experiences of discrimination within the church’s ordination process and in the parishes she served. Register for her newsletter and important emails. Fill out the form below to enter contact information securely.