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 marketing my eBook “Lady Father – It Was a Huge Leap of Faith” and have been for years. And I will will always be doing this but I should get better at it over time.
“Lady Father” 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. It is now “God knows where.” I have checked out all the old “floppies” I have and somehow all that work has disappeared.
After ranting and raving for a little bit about the monumental waste of time. I had worked long and hard and then I lost it. I looked everywhere for that floppy disk but it was gone. Disappeared. Now I have misplaced things in the past but this was different. I searched and searched and then finally came to this conclusion. It wasn’t time yet. Several years later, I decided to start over and I had written about 10 pages when it hit me. I had filled hat floppy disk with anger and disappointment as I was still dealing with it all. By the time I started over, I had worked through all that, forgiven it all and was moving on. Plus, there was still more of the journey to come that I knew I shouldn’t leave out of it. It’s sort of Paul Harvey’s “rest of the story” if you will.
So I am convinced that God just threw that floppy disk in some holy trash receptacle! It is plain to me, now that it is finished, that “Lady Father” is what it should be. It is an honest account of my journey, told with a gentleness that can only come after forgiveness. As I continued writing, I found it flowed much more smoothly, as I learned so much about myself and how my journey affected my life. I found that I was so much more comfortable writing about the uncomfortable things. Plus I had such fun writing about all the good things. So I’m sure that the book that came out of all that is what God intended it to be. .
I think it all came about because of three God-inspired events:
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. 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. I wanted them to watch out for the pitfalls I had not seen looming ahead of me. I suppose I was looking to garner some sympathy for all the pain and grief I had endured.
My motive now is rooted in my new-found, transfigured faith. I believe that God did indeed call me to be a priest in his Church. I know that he used me to make a difference in the lives of many people. And I believe that God gave me talent, opportunity, and the means to use my experience. God wanted me to help other women who may be facing the same attitudes. He wanted me to help women who may not have a support system to turn to for encouragement and advice,. There are so many women who need 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. Or maybe you just want to be prepared for your journey through the ordination process. Whatever – just add a comment – or email me. Oh yeah, why don’t you slip over to Amazon or Barnes & NobleI or Smashwords. The book may be finished but God’s 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 marketing 2 books, trying to arrange my new apartment, and keeping up this blog – I’m out straight!” So, it means working so hard that your legs are out straight behind you. It could mean 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 Apple Care vadvised – 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. I use it 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.” Another of his favorites is “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). We have often thought of writing a book – only problem is we can’t remember them all until we get together. We have to 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. It can also mean “get in touch with reality” – as in “no way!” A close second is “get over yourself.” This 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. They have caught on to some of my crazy sayings now that they have reached the age of reason – well, almost. But, then there was 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. I even sang 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.
It was 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.” This is probably what you are all thinking when I, complain about being “out straight.” Or it could be 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 cares 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. Twenty-five 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. We were having an amazing February day in southeastern Virginia – 72 degrees and bright sunshine. We had the windows open 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 and my mother. One woman was there who was waiting to be ordained and the Bishop did ordain her about 3 months later. Several more who were waiting in the wings to be admitted to the process were also present. 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. Even some members of the parish who were very unhappy about my ordination were present. 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. They were both 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.” If we had, we would have been horrified.
So, when I made my big announcement, my Dad said, “OK,” but he looked a little puzzled. 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 she was horrified at the idea of traipsing off to God-knows-where for 3 years! After I explained it all, Dad said, “OK, how can we help?” 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). 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. It looked great but was nigh unto impossible to draw that thread through the material! She blistered the walls of their living room with “unholy words” every day for almost 6 months. But she was going to get that stole to look just right. And she did!
The day of my 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. Finally, it was all over and I was standing with the Bishop (whom she loved!) in the parish hall. I had my crisp new clergy collar around my neck and was greeting old friends and introducing the Bishop to everybody. At one point 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 finally got it!
The people in the parish who were horrified at what was going on in their church that day stayed away. I’m sure you figured that 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 receive communion from me as a lay person. 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. 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!
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. So,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. 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. 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. “It’s an emotional issue that I just haven’t resolved yet,” he admitted. And he also said that I was the first woman who had knocked on his door without trying to break it down. 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. I supported it and went to church every Sunday, gave a little money, and sang in the choir. And I came out a Deacon – a clergy person. There was 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. 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 so heavily 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. 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 had 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 there was my favorite Bishop grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat. At that moment, I knew that we both had became new creatures. What a blast!
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63 Years Later
That’s right! It’s been 73 years since I made my appearance on this planet! It seems that every day I see someone or read 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 all knew each other in the beginning.
Of course, Mary Ann Perkins lived across the street from us when we moved to our new home in 1957. She and Mother were best friends and Mary Ann was my second Mother. Some few years after that, we became charter members in the Battlefield Park Swim Club. 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. That was when 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. 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. I don’t have a clue how she fit into this group. They played bridge together once a month and most of them either swam or worked at the pool. 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. Sh was 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.” 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. This was a very nice restaurant that for some obscure reason was located in a tiny town. There was 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. All of them pranced in, got the biggest table in the middle of the room. Then they ordered a glass of wine, and proceeded to talk, laugh, and eat – in that order.
They finally drove away all the locals and watched the waitresses trying not to be too obvious about the fact that it was past closing time. (I know “waitress” is politically correct, but it was the 60’s!) They had learned to tip well on those nights out and so they were a welcome fixture. I don’t know if they ever figured out why they were missing so many sugar bowls 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 . It was 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. My father said they 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. He had us running for the car when he grabbed the sugar bowl while we were waiting for our “iced teas to go.” He 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. Mother told me they were glad they hadn’t told anybody what they were doing. She knew that Daddy and all the other men would have dragged them out of that restaurant if they had known what they were doing.
Now, every day I look at that picture, I can’t believe how many years ago the River Rats tore 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 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. The River Rats always had a little memorial ceremony every year before taking over The Surrey House for the evening. It was a special 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. Every day I get a real kick as I look at those crazy women! I think about how old Marie would be now – she was the oldest – and that Mother would be over 90 had she lived. Then I also think – gee, I’m older now than they were when that picture was taken –
I’m 73! Yikes!
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34 Years Later
It’s been 34 years (on January 25th) since the day I was ordained a priest. On February 23rd, I will celebrate the 35th 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 70!
Prior to this, the longest I ever did any one job was 7 years as an employee of the City of Petersburg VA.
It means that, when I add the 10 years I did active lay ministry in the church, 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. And I love touching people with love and compassion. I love being the vehicle through which faithful people are touched by God through the sacraments. And 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 34 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. I’m also sad to realize how much of my ministry was consumed by controversy, conflict, and upheaval. This is not to mention the many 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.
It’s true that I know 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. It was also 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. Naturally, 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.
One of my deepest regrets is 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. They had added 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 34 years of ministry, I feel proud.
It’s not the the kind of proud that goes before the proverbial fall. But it was the kind of proud that acknowledges that I did my best to serve God as I was called to do. I was proud that I was faithful to that call and to my priestly vows, and that I made a difference in the lives of many people. My preaching was good and I 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 35th 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. Women were not being ordained when she was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986. She has a story to tell that will speak to all women who are functioning in a traditionally male role. Her book is 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.
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