A Share of Peace: Luke 10:5-6 by Nikki Finkelstein-Blair

Proper 9, Sunday, July 3, 2016

2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Whatever house you enter, first say “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. (Luke 10:5-6)

We talk about peace in many different ways.

The pageant contestant’s wish for “World peace” has become a running gag. We have “peacemakers” and “peacekeepers” (and even “peacekeeping troops”!). If you have to learn to accept a difficult situation, you “make your peace with it.” If you just want to be left alone, you’re looking for a little “peace and quiet.” If you keep your mouth shut when you really want to spout off, you’re “holding your peace.” If you were paying attention in the 1990s you probably saw the bumper sticker declaring “No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace.” (One of my favorite travel mugs had a spin: “No Coffee, No Peace…”)

Jesus sent out seventy of his followers, as recorded in Luke chapter ten, to be laborers for the harvest, gathering people into the Kingdom. He gave detailed instructions about the attitude they should have when they entered into each new town, and when they received hospitality in each house. They went empty-handed. Where they were welcomed, they stayed and gratefully received whatever was provided. They healed the sick, and proclaimed the nearness of God’s Kingdom–as near as a cool hand on a feverish forehead.

Where they were not welcomed, they brushed the dust off their feet. The Kingdom was near, they still proclaimed; but you didn’t recognize it, so we won’t even take the dirt from this place on our way.

But first—before eating and drinking, before comfort and healing, even before proclamation and judgment, Jesus told them to say, “Peace.”

The disciples came carrying peace, bringing it with them though they’d left everything else behind. For the followers of Jesus it was more than the typical greeting, more than a passing “Shalom,” more than any popular idiom or bumper-sticker (or coffee-mug) saying. They weren’t just saying peace, and they weren’t making it or keeping it or holding it or seeking it; they were stretching out their hands-full of it. It was a gift, an offering. It was to be shared.

And, Jesus said, if anyone—without evaluation, without judgment, without requiring orthodoxy exams or checking references—but if anyone shares in your peace, peace will make a home with them.

So offer it up; peace isn’t a personal treasure to be hoarded, or guarded, or “kept.” It’s a story to be told, it’s life together, gathering at the table and caring for needs. It’s the Kingdom, so near you can taste it, touch it. Share it, and it abides.

Peace is the first word, not a prize to be won or a paradise to be earned. Peace is the present, not a far-off promise.

Jesus gave his disciples a reality-check, too: some people, inexplicably, will refuse peace. If they will not share, Jesus said, your peace will return to you. They may not have it, but you still will. You will keep your peace, even when your gift is rejected. You will make peace with their decision, and shake off the lingering dust. You will still know peace, bundling it back into your travel bag until you reach the next gate, the next door. Not everyone will receive peace, and not every place will live with peace; but everywhere you go, take it. To everyone you meet, offer it. Because where it is shared, the Kingdom comes.

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is an ordained Baptist minister, at-home mom, and military spouse living in South Carolina. She blogs at One Faithful Step.


THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE: Shauw Chin Capps

Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister. Today we introduce Shauw Chin Capps.

Shauw Chin, tell us about your faith journey and your current ministry.

My faith journey began when I was a young child growing up in Jakarta, Indonesia. I remembered being chauffeured around in my family’s Mercedes Benz and looking out from the passenger seat window, wondering why there were beggars on the street and families living in makeshift houses. At a young age, God was present to open my eyes and heart to the injustices of the world. I spent most of my growing up years in Singapore and I was introduced to the Christian faith when my oldest sister came back from college in America. She wanted to find a local church to attend, and I attended a Baptist church with her and found community in the youth group. I started reading the Bible before I was a Christian. The first book I read was the Gospel of John. I was completely drawn to this man named Jesus, who always sided with the poor and with those society considered to be outcasts. I really liked him and wanted to follow him! At the age of sixteen, I made a public profession of faith and was baptized. That was the most important decision I made in my life as my faith became the foundation on which the rest of my life story is built on.

What are some of the challenges you have had along the way?
I grew up in a very traditional wealthy Chinese family. My parents had a very difficult time accepting my decision to be a follower of Christ. It’s hard for us living in this culture to understand, but Christianity is often perceived by other cultures to be a religion that belonged to the while people. So my parents felt that my decision was a betrayal of my roots. I was baptized without them knowing because I did not want to hurt them. I had to learn how to navigate between two cultures and to be sensitive to my parents’ culture and perspective. I also had to navigate my decision to marry cross culturally and to make things worse, I married a missionary kid who is white. I often say that my husband Paul had three strikes against him – he is white, he is a missionary kid, and he is poor! It was challenging to help my parents understand and accept our decision. However, we learned to be patient, to love them, show respect and most of all, to lean on the power of prayer. My parents have come a long way. They love Paul very much and love their granddaughters even more. I have learned that God is love and that love conquers a multitude of differences. I am a graduate of the Carver School of Social Work. I attended Carver at a very tenuous time when the threat of closing the school was imminent. Those were challenging years as I had to focus on learning and discovering my call during a very chaotic time in Baptist life.

What brings you greatest joy in the work that you are doing?
My greatest joy in the work I do as the executive director of a non-profit Children’s Advocacy and Rape Crisis Center, where I have the privilege of seeing victims become survivors. It is a true honor to walk alongside these remarkable women, children, and men who have to overcome tremendous trauma so that the abuse they experienced do not define them for the rest of their lives. That takes a lot of courage and a lot of hard work and I admire that greatly! It is also a joy to be able to give voice to those who have no voice. I love to advocate for policies and laws that can pave the way for a more just and merciful world. To sum it up, the greatest joy in the work I do is to be able to do what God requires of us in Micah 6:8.

Who has been most influential in your faith and ministry journey?
When I became a Christian at age sixteen, a Baptist missionary family took on the holy task of discipling me. Janice Capps, who later became my mother-in-law, is one of the most influential person in my faith journey. I would not be where I am today in my faith journey without her guidance and modeling for me what it means to be a follower of Christ. If it were not for Diana Garland, I would not have made it through seminary. She was the rock and the constant during those tumultuous time at Carver. She was my mentor and kept me grounded and going. She pushed me and challenged me to be the best social worker possible. The lessons I have learned from Diana are the core values I bring with me to work every day. Annette Briggs was my campus Baptist minister and currently a pastor. She married us. She was influential in solidifying my passion and call to serve the least of these. I am eternally grateful for these incredible and godly women who taught me that there are no limits to what God can do when God calls us.

On Sundays We Go to Church by Sarah Greenfield

During my adult life, much of my family has been scattered around the world. While the distance is difficult, it makes reunions so sweet. One such reunion took place recently as my husband and I jetted off to sunny San Diego, the site of this summer’s family pilgrimage and home of my father. Upon arrival, I was greeted by many faces whom I dearly love, but one face in particular warmed my heart.

My almost four-year-old niece has lived out of the country for most of her life. I have only seen her a few times, but she is quite familiar with “Auntie Sarah” as she has received my love in the form of care packages over the past three years. Her smile and high-pitched squeal of excitement to finally be united once again made me feel like the happiest person in San Diego. (That’s saying a lot because San Diego makes people really happy).

Over the course of our visit, we talked about many things. I learned about her hopes, passions, and fears as I saw her eager anticipation mastering the skill of swimming, watched her eyes light up at the sight or sound of any emergency vehicle, and wiped her tears when she discovered the absence of a seat belt on the big bus at the zoo. Really, what were those bus engineers thinking? In between these magical moments, we witnessed her random declarations. She is aware of the importance of her words as the entire family turns their attention to her, pinches her cheeks, and stretches the corners of their mouths as far as they will go because no one elicits a bigger smile.

On day one of our trip, with all the energy she could muster, she proclaimed, “On Sundays we go to church!” I laughed and affirmed her declaration. Jealous of those who were able to attend my father’s church with her the previous Sunday, I imagined what an impact church must have made on her as she was still talking about it two days later. A police motorcycle drove by and our attention was quickly shifted until a few days later when once again she exclaimed, “On Sundays we go to church!” Here we were, four days removed, and she was still excited about next Sunday’s church excursion. Obviously such love for church warmed this pastor auntie’s heart, but it also elicited an unexpected emotion–jealousy.

I was jealous of her uninhibited love and desire for church. Before you look into ways to get me fired, hear me when I say I love church. I deeply love church. Church, however, for ministers often gives rise to anxiety and stress. In that moment, I allowed myself to participate in the excitement this little girl has for Sundays. Late Saturday night, as we made our journey home, I reminded myself of that voice proudly professing, “On Sundays we go to church!” I thought about what the next day held and came up with a million reasons to be excited. Communal gathering, worship, and transformation was going to take place in that church building the following morning. Why didn’t I always partake in this Saturday night reflection?

As ministers, let us not forget to celebrate Sunday. It is easy for us to become discouraged and distracted by the stress Sunday brings. We, at times, must step back and consider what this church business is all about and the activity of our churches in this world. I hope for you today that you might gain the perspective of a care free almost four-year-old. May we proudly proclaim today, tomorrow, and every day, “On Sundays we go to church!”

Sarah Greenfield is pastor for university students, First Baptist Church, Abilene, Texas.

The Comfort of Memory: Psalm 77:11-12 by Nikki Finkelstein-Blair

Proper 8, June 26

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
Gal. 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds.
(Psalm 77:11-12)

I was scrapbooking before scrapbooking was… well… Scrapbooking, with a capital S. Before it was a whole section in the craft store, before it was a familiar sitcom joke, and long before it turned digital with the advent of photobooks and Instagram. “Back in the day,” I decorated my pages with flowers fussy-cut from sheets of fancy (to me) stationery, and I used a glue stick to adhere paper doilies behind my photos. My mother before me saved yellowing photos in sticky photo albums; my grandmother before her had books full of small-format black and whites. I wanted something more. I didn’t just want to store photos; I wanted a place to tell stories, and I wanted a way to create art. And mostly I wanted to know that someday I’d look back at those pages and have an experience that would recapture the five senses and the deep feelings of my memories.

It’s possible I was overthinking things.

Since I shopped for my first scrapbook supplies 20 years ago, a few months after my wedding, my scrap habits have changed, and slowed, and sometimes stalled completely. But my urge to tell our stories persists. I still want to save the photos of my kids’ school musicals. I want to remember our family vacations. And I want to honor the milestones we mark, and the places and people we love.

In 20 years of fancy paper and double-sided tape and photography tutorials I’ve learned a thing or two. Thing One: fancy paper and double-sided tape and perfectly composed pics are a luxury, not a necessity, of memory-keeping. And Thing Two: those kept memories aren’t landmarks for me to cling to, but a winding trail of God’s faithfulness, giving context to my mistakes, comforting my losses, and leading me forward.

The Psalmist preserves the memories of God’s mighty deeds, God’s wonders, God’s footsteps in the waters, God’s shepherding–and all without a single snapshot or die-cut! Remembrance answers the cry of the heart. “My soul refuses to be comforted,” the Psalmist insists… then starts turning the pages of God’s fulfilled promises.

Summons up the senses, and sinks into the sounds of thunder, the pounding waves of the Creator’s hand.

Flips through the family tree of descendants, looks for the signs of heredity through the generations of redemption.

Traces God’s footsteps, even where they cannot be clearly seen. Follows the winding trail that still–still–stretches forward.

And finds comfort there.
 

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is an ordained Baptist minister, at-home mom, and military spouse living in South Carolina. She blogs at One Faithful Step.


THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE: Katie Choy-Wong

Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister, and today we introduce you to Katie Choy-Wong.

Katie, tell us about your ministry journey.
Prior to seminary, I was the food director of the Northern California Ecumenical Council and directed food programs for low-income and homeless. I also have served as the Asian ministries director of the Board of National Ministries (now known as the American Baptist Home Mission Societies of the American Baptist Churches-USA); area minister for American Baptist Churches of the West (now known as Growing Healthy Churches); and admissions director and adjunct instructor for the American Baptist Seminary of the West. I currently am the senior pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship (an American Baptist church) in Castro Valley, California.

Tell us about your church and the ministries and mission with which your congregation is involved.
Our church is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2016. It is a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural with over eleven ethnicities represented by its members. We are also diverse in educational and income levels. We have members with with M.A. and M.Div. degrees, and members who did not graduate high school. We have lawyers, pharmacists, and engineers, and we have members recovering from drug addiction and homelessness. From the beginning, our church has been committed to community ministries, serving lunches and helping in homeless shelters in two locations. Today we work with three non-profit organizations, ministering to people in need. We are also committed to missions outside our communities, by sending mission teams every other year. We have served with the Hopi people in Arizona, helped with the seminary and mission work in Mexicali, worked in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., served with Ingrid Roldan Roman in Panama and Costa Rica. This year members will be going to New Orleans with ABHMS to continue the work of rebuilding and assisting those affected by Katrina.

Closer to home, we have an outreach and ministry program to the Nepalese Refugees in the Oakland area as well as to the homeless and addicted population in the Bay Area.

Being in close proximity to the seminary, we have trained many seminarians over the years, and a number of them have remained as members of our church. We have twelve active members who are ordained or seminary trained.

What challenges have you encountered along the way in ministry?
As a woman in ministry, my career path has been opposite of many of my colleagues. My initial call was to the local church. Unfortunately, there were few opportunities to serve as a pastor when I graduated from seminary. So, I actually started full-time ministry on the national staff of the ABC-USA in Valley Forge. Then I went on to regional staff, and later joined the seminary staff. Finally, after twenty-five years, I was called to pastor! God has a sense of humor.

Many of the obstacles I have encountered were from the local churches and pastors. I could not preach in some of the churches. When I visited the churches, I was not recognized as an ordained minister. In one church they described me as a “Bible woman.” It took years of relationship building and trust until finally I could preach in all the churches and be recognized as an ordained minister.

Other issues for me as a woman and Chinese-American is dealing with the fact that I constantly encounter “being invisible.” In other words, I am often the only woman in a group of men. When I suggest something, my words are either ignored or passed over, and then when a male colleague suggests the same thing that I did, his words are complimented or heeded! As a Chinese American, we are not “there.” We are never considered in any discussion of race, racism, or prejudice, especially in certain pockets in this country. It is always a black and white issue, or now a black, white, hispanic or latino issue. When this oversight is pointed out, I have found our denomination is uncomfortable in talking about it.

Once, the denomination produced a film produced that dealt with racial issues, but not one Asian American or Native American was interviewed or even mentioned in twenty minutes of film. I was on a panel to respond to the film, and I raised this exclusion as a question. After the session was over, the producer of the film admitted that he knew nothing about Asian Americans, and he wasn’t aware that Asians also had to deal with racism and prejudice. But there was no commitment to change the film or to deal with it at all. I was never asked back to do anything with this part of our denomination.

Lots of challenges!

What advice would you give to a teenage girl who is discerning a call to ministry?
Be certain God is calling because without this commitment to the call, you will get discouraged and give up. But be patient, if God calls you, know that in your heart, stick with it, never give up. God will find a way to have your call fulfilled.

Every ministry I have done gave me valuable resources, connections, networks, and insights for the next ministry. Even though I took a circular route to my true calling (pastoring a church), I gained so much and loved ministering in those areas, and all those experiences I now can give my congregation. I see God’s plan for my life as it unfolded, and I would not trade all the ministries I have done for anything.

Women, Let’s Be Kind to Ourselves by Aurelia Pratt

After I gave birth, I felt grief for the experience I hoped to have but didn’t. I struggled, feeling as though my fears of inadequacy were affirmed by my inability to have a vaginal birth. Every time I thought about it, I felt a deep sense of failure hit me like a punch in the gut. I still find myself going over the whole experience again and again, wondering if there was something I could or should have done differently. I recall the pushing and how with each passing hour the midwife looked up at me with increasing concern, shaking her head to signal that the baby wasn’t any closer. I sobbed the whole way to the C-section room, exhausted from a full labor; exhausted from defeat. And even though I have a beautiful, healthy, and happy baby girl, even though I know I should be grateful, and I am, every time I think of the day I gave birth, the tears come back again. That lingering sense of failure still gnaws at me.

Yet, somewhere down deep, the part of me that loves myself knows that this is not the well I am meant to draw from, this well of guilt, shame, and fear. I would never even think these things about the many strong women I know that have had C-sections, so why do I believe them about myself?

I hear mothers talk a lot about “mom-guilt,” and in only five months of parenting, I’ve learned just how real it is. After all, from the moment my daughter was born, I’ve known it. Not only that, but it takes serious effort to push it away and give myself grace daily. In fact, perhaps this “mom-guilt” should just be called “woman-guilt” because it’s not all that different in the other aspects of our lives, is it? We are kind to other women; we show grace to our sisters. We encourage our girlfriends; we empower our colleagues. And we mean every word. So why can we not treat ourselves with the same regard?

The story is similar within our ministerial contexts. Too often, we call ourselves unworthy. Too often, we call ourselves imposters. We struggle with feelings of incompetence and inadequacy. Our spirits make suggestions in near-whispers, too timid to embrace our true voices. We apologetically live out our callings even as we sincerely tell our sisters to be bold. Why can’t we choose confidence for ourselves?

Women, this is not the well we are meant to draw from, this well of guilt, shame, and fear. But there is a presence deep within us–call it Christ, call it Spirit, call it God-in-us. This is the presence that drew us to ministry in the first place. This is the presence that compels us to speak words of truth to our fellow sisters in ministry. And this is the presence that will empower us to live from a place of love and to believe good things about ourselves, if we will let it.

The Golden Rule is something we were all taught at a young age. We all know it as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Sometimes, I think it would be more helpful for women if we were to flip it around and instead say, “Do unto yourself as you would do to others.” Because we desperately need to learn to be nicer to ourselves. To see what others see. To see what God sees.

Is being kind to ourselves a life lesson? Will it take an entire lifetime to learn to give ourselves more grace? For the sake of our daughters, I hope not.

Aurelia Davila Pratt is a new mom and the pastor of spiritual formation at Peace of Christ Church in Round Rock, Texas. 

Questions, and an Answer: Psalm 42, 43 by Nikki Finkelstein-Blair

Proper 7, June 19

1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7) 8-15a
Psalm 42, 43
Gal. 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
(Psalm 42:5, Psalm 42:11, Psalm 43:5)

The Psalms can be uplifting, comforting, inspiring. Sometimes the Psalms are simply reassuring, just when we need it most. The Psalms teach us that we are not the only people who have struggled with the questions of faith: Why did this happen? Where was God? How could God allow that? Or:

When shall I come and behold the face of God? (Psalm 42:2)
“Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:3)
Why are you cast down, O my soul?
and
Why are you disquieted within me? (Psalm 42:5, 42:11, and 43:5)
Why have you forgotten about me? (Psalm 42:9)
Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me? (Psalm 42:9, Psalm 43:2)
Why have you cast me off? (Psalm 43:2)

Can we live without the answers? Can we allow ourselves to be reassured by the questions alone?

We have all heard the so-called answers that well-meaning Christian friends and families and pastors sometimes give, and the truth is, those anwers don’t make us feel any better. If anything, they make us feel worse because we “should” feel better! They usually include some version of “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Maybe we’ve even tried to offer those answers ourselves, when we’ve been at a loss for words, when our friends and families and parishioners have come to us with tears in their eyes and “Why?” on their lips.

When we want most to offer reassurance, the silence at the end of a question mark doesn’t feel like peace. It feels like “Why have you forgotten about me?” and “Where is your God?” It is almost unbearable to stand in silence with “Where are you, God?” and “Why did this happen?”

But the Psalmist leaves questions hanging, unanswered, even asking them over and over again in these chapters. These Psalms are punctuated, literally and literarily, by questions. And God never comes back with, “I know you can handle this!” or “If you had more faith you wouldn’t need to ask!” God never even says, “Because…”

There are no good–and certainly no feel-good–answers to “When?” and “Where?” and “Why?” But there is a response that we can give in a life full of questions. It is an offering we can lift up–just as we are invited to respond every time we receive the gift of the Word.

It is an answer, a response, an offering: it is hope. As often as the questions are asked, the Psalmist offers it up over and over again:

“Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

Hope stands with us in the tear-full silences behind our hardest questions. Hope doesn’t brush off our “Why?” and it doesn’t try to step in for the absent “Because…” Hope simply lets us begin to glimpse light through our tears, so we can make our way–however slowly–toward joy. Hope draws us forward by inches, by heartbeats, toward the streams that quench our thirst and restore our energy. Hope recalls the songs we once sang, and hope readies the instruments for us until we are ready to play them again.

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is an ordained Baptist minister, at-home mom, and military spouse living in South Carolina. She blogs at One Faithful Step.


THIS IS WHAT A MINISTER LOOKS LIKE: Diana White

Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister, and today we are pleased to introduce Diana White.

Diana, tell us about your ministry journey.
I felt an undeniable calling to “The Ministry” when I was in the sixth grade, while attending an International Missions Commissioning Service of yes, you guessed it. . .the Southern Baptist Convention! It’s humorous to me retrospectively that an organization that now limits the roles of women was the denomination sponsoring the event where I felt called by God. I am not sure that I was paying attention to any speaker that night, but I am sure that I was listening to the Holy Spirit. I pushed down any feelings of calling for many years after being bullied by a girl at my church who called my response to that service “so weird.”

Years later, as a senior in high school, I was asked to accompany my youth minister, Mary Jo Gessner, as she led a retreat for another congregation. Mary Jo spent a lot of time telling me that she saw a calling on my life. She told me all about a place called seminary and how to get there. I remember her specifically suggesting history as being a good major for college in preparation for seminary. I still pushed back against this calling, unable to see myself in the role of any kind of minister.

I chose to major in interior design in college, because my dad told me to just choose something. My mom told me to reconsider college because she thought I was destined to become a hair stylist. (My destiny as a hair stylist came to fruition as I cut hair on the “black market” in college to make a little cash to pay bills. I am now also the stylist every morning for my two daughters. My eldest is a very demanding client). During my early years in college, I rarely thought about my calling until I served on the Passport Camp staff, first as a videographer and then as a Bible study/mission project leader. I had attended Passport for many summers as a teenager and could always envision myself on their staff. The two summers I served were helpful in discerning my call. My second summer the Passport theme was “Wake Up!” The emphasis was on listening to God’s call on our lives. The camp was designed to awaken calls in teens, but each day I heard it as a personal calling. I continued to struggle to see how I would transition from my undergrad major in interior design to a much different academic path in theology school, but a fellow Passport staff member told me that seminaries looked for students with diverse academic backgrounds, even interior design majors.

When I was back on campus at Samford University, my Bible study leaders, April Robinson and Brian Pitts, encouraged me in my call. They each helped introduce me to the “right people” and to the “right schools” (I had no clue otherwise. I didn’t even know that there were “different kinds of Baptists”). I had a few conversations and encounters that happened “at the right place at the right time” that helped me gain scholarship interviews. My journey to McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta was one that seemed destined.

I began seminary in the fall of 2005. I was too scared to take on any education debt, so I searched for a ministerial position to help me pay for housing and food (and yes, to also gain experience). During my first semester at McAfee, I served as the interim youth minister for Vineville Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. That was a grueling nine months of commuting from Atlanta to Macon, while also constantly studying and writing papers. I also began dating my now husband. My youth group at Vineville was diverse with students from various socio-economic backgrounds. Some had very sad home lives. My time in Macon was an eye-opening experience. I also had a very sweet relationship with a woman named Ms. Chris who gave me a room to stay in whenever I needed it. She was my Macon grandma. I couldn’t have made it without her hospitality.

The summer after my first year of seminary I cut back my commute from ninety minutes to a mere one hour when I began working two days a week at First Baptist Church of Griffin, Georgia as the middle school minister. I was fortunate to be mentored in youth ministry by the senior high minister, Hambric Brooks. My Griffin church was much larger than any church I had ever attended. Like the youth group I served in Macon, the youth group in Griffin was diverse and included kids from very different backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives on life. It was good to spend two years growing in relationship with those kids.

In May, 2008, I graduated from seminary, got married, went on my honeymoon, and began my first full-time ministry position–all within ten days. I served for seven-and-a half years as the minister of youth at First Baptist Church, Madison, Alabama. I began that position shortly after the Madison church had been through a painful split and about 250 people left over the issues surrounding the ordination of a woman on staff. My time there was challenging, fulfilling, frustrating, wonderful, and exhausting, and I gained confidence in my calling to pastor.

I am now the pastor of Covenant Community Church in Elba, Alabama. Covenant is a twelve-year-old non-denominational congregation located in a small town to the west of Enterprise. Elba is a short drive from the beach! Our church members are from many different denominations and philosophies on life. We choose to celebrate the sacraments and celebrations of the denominations represented in our church. For example, we celebrate “believer’s baptism” as well as “infant baptism.” It is wonderful to serve in a place that is not only welcoming to me but to all people.

What challenges have you encountered along the way?
I have encountered many challenges in my thirteen years in ministry. I have been bullied by an interim minister while I was pregnant. I have been on a church staff when another pastor was “let go.” I have been the subject of rumors and the scapegoat of angry parents. I have shed many tears over things that were out of my control. Thirteen years of challenges really does thicken your skin, but that thick skin sure helps me sleep deeply at night!

Nothing has been as challenging as navigating the waters of ministry here in Elba. My husband and I moved to Elba just after the Christmas Day Flood of 2015 cleared from Hwy. 87. We knew going in that Elba was a flood-prone town. We never knew that my first days as pastor would be spent setting up shop and giving my first sermon and working on disaster relief response efforts and visiting some church members in their destroyed homes filled with sand and ruined belongings.

Yet the real tragedy hadn’t even happened yet. The flood was nothing in comparison to the events of New Year’s Day 2016, just a couple of days after arriving. On that day, I received a frantic call that one of our youngest members was coding in the hospital. I didn’t even yet know where the hospital was, but on the way there, I received a call that a beloved member, Brooke, age thirteen, had died suddenly from complications with a heart defect. That night I helped take her mother home from the hospital. I had no good words. I was only a hand to hold and a presence. Being a new presence in a small, close-knit town is difficult during tragedy. I had not yet learned the names of people or streets, much less built trust. But there I was among receding flood waters and people with eyes flooded with tears. I knew my first year in the pastorate would be full of challenges, I just didn’t know the challenges would happen immediately.

What resources have been helpful to you in your recent transition to Elba and to pastoring?
During my call process, I read as many articles about Elba as I could get my hands on. I read the census data and city demographics. I studied school system websites and area Facebook pages. There was plenty of information available about the floods of 1990 and 1998. There were even articles written about the anomaly of a church like Covenant existing in lower Alabama.

I always get my best information from people! The Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship staff, Terri Byrd and Lucas Dorion, had preached many times at Covenant. In fact, Lucas was the interim pastor for much of their in-between time. I already knew both Terri and Lucas so I trusted them to answer any questions I had. I also knew a few people that either had grown up in Elba, lived nearby, or still “have people” in Elba. Each connection helped me gain clarity and perspective as I prepared for my first visit with Covenant.

Nothing prepared me, or could prepare me, for the culture shock of moving to a small town in the true South. I am amazed each day with the amount of knowledge that people here know about each other, about each others’ families, about “who lives/has lived” where, and about who is kin to whom. I even have people ask me questions when they see my car at my house at times that they deem unusual. We recently bought a house, and I didn’t even had to tell anyone. They already know! The small town culture is also a lot like traveling to countries where everything, including start times, is flexible. I asked, when visiting to preach for the first time, “What time do ya’ll start?” The serious and accurate reply was, “When the bulletins get here.” I then asked about what time Wednesday night fellowship supper ends and Bible study begins. The answer was, “When we are done eating, but don’t start so late or go so long that you’d cause ensemble rehearsal to begin late. We don’t want to get home too late.” I decided six o’clock is our start time, at least officially anyhow.

Molly Phinney Baskette, in Real Good Church, writes about how to be a welcoming church, how to be a Rev. Mama, and how to keep office hours in a local coffee shop. I know lots of ministers who like to write and study in coffee shops. Well, I actually have my office located in the coffee shop/restaurant that Covenant Community Church owns and operates. Our church exists as “Just Folk Coffeehouse” in downtown during the week. I’ve had to adjust to working in a coffee shop (not to be confused with working as a barista in a coffee shop). It is difficult to keep on task, meet deadlines, and balance all ministry needs of a solo pastor when you are constantly surrounded by people, especially if you are an extrovert. I love it most days, but without disciplining myself to sometimes close my door and put on my headphones, I would get absolutely nothing done, especially on bridge club days.

What is the best ministry advice you have received?
My last pastor and boss, Bert Breland, was a great friend and mentor. I was very open with him about looking outside of youth ministry and even outside the Baptist denomination. He encouraged me to be brave enough to take a small church where I would have to “do it all.” I often thought I would gradually work my way up to the pastorate from youth ministry, but Bert encouraged me to just jump right into the pastorate. He said, “there is no better way to learn to preach than to preach” and “no better way to learn to do than to do.” It is simple advice, really, but it was very meaningful throughout my discernment process. Bert also often reminded me that, as a pastor, you cannot choose the people in your church to love. A pastor is the pastor for all of the people, from the nicest person to the most evil schemer.

When God Calls a Woman by Starlette McNeill

I was called to preach the gospel at the age of seventeen. My first pastor was a woman, Lizzie Williams, so I didn’t know that my call to be a woman pastor would be a problem until someone told me that it was. And even then, I continued on in the direction of my convictions— because it was their problem, not mine.

Poet Langston Hughes writes in a poem titled “Mother to Son,”

“Well, son, I tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor

Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.”

Likewise, woman to woman, life for female preachers ain’t been no elevator ride. There have been poor lighting, missing steps, and sometimes, toys in the way. We have needed a few repairs and replacements, but all the time, we are walking. Not knowing when or if we will arrive, we faithfully put one foot in front of the other. With or without a pedometer, we stepped out in faith again and again, convicted by our calling and certain that every step counts. I assure you that those steps count, and I will circulate a sign-up sheet for additional feet at our next meeting.

So, why go at all? Because when God calls a woman, God doesn’t stutter. God does not stammer. The words are not spit out, blurted out, offered in distress, or spoken as a last ditch effort. “Who else can I send? Oh, yes. I guess you can go?”

No. When God calls a woman, it is not a social experiment or a test for the church. It is miraculous.

Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, when God calls a woman, she often asks, “How can this be? How can this be since I am not a man? How can this be since I don’t know any female ministry leaders, ministers, or pastors? When I’ve never heard a woman preach? How can this be since I was taught that God doesn’t share the message with women?”

I suppose that I have continued in ministry because I have not questioned my calling. Now this is not to say that I have not questioned the people and places that I have been called to or that my calling has not been questioned or challenged by others. My call did not stop with the well-meaning deacon who suggested that I teach Sunday School instead of preaching.

But his questions and other questions that followed never really mattered, because when I accepted the call to preach and later to pastor, I didn’t stutter. There was no hesitation, no second-guessing. In fact, I have always felt wholly trapped, pinned down by the finger of God. My life has been every line of Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven.”

While I had had career choices that would take me away from ministry, I have carefully considered them, but those possibilities simply do not compare with the opportunity to share in the mystery of Scripture, the sacred space of a sanctuary, and the fellowship of suffering. I know of no greater calling in life, no deeper meaning, no better invitation than the call to serve God. So, when God calls you, woman, say, “Yes,” put your shoes on and start walking.

Starlette McNeill is associate pastor at Villlage Baptist Church, Bowie, Maryland.

Repairing the World: Psalm 5:1-8 by Nikki Finkelstein-Blair

Proper 6, June 12

1 Kings 21:1-10 (11-14) 15-21a
Psalm 5:1-8
Gal. 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.
(Psalm 5:8)

A couple of months ago, we took our two boys to their first minor league hockey game. My husband and I used to love going to games when we were in college, but it was a different experience to try to explain to a seven-year-old and an eleven-year-old why fighting is allowed (and why the crowd cheers for it!). We were thankful that our kids were too young to understand the creative gestures that the penalty-boxed players were making toward the other team!

But what caught my attention at that South Carolina Stingrays game was one single sign, tucked nonchalantly among the billboards advertising local legal firms and doctor-in-a-box clinics. It said, in simple lettering on a plain white background: “TIKKUN OLAM,” and in smaller print underneath: “Repairing the World.” As we watched that game, every time a player threw down his gloves, every time a stick slammed into someone’s knees, my eyes went back to that quiet proclamation.

When the first goal was scored, the entire crowd spontaneously threw packages of underwear and socks onto the ice, and the game stopped while the players used their sticks to gather up the donations. It was “Undie Sunday,” when the team collects new undies and socks for kids in need. Later, between periods of the game, local nurses came out to receive hundreds of boxes of Band-Aids, given by the team’s fight-loving fans, to help supply the nearby children’s hospital.

I was familiar with the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam, but when we got home that day I immediately got online to try to understand what “repairing the world” had to do with a hockey team in Charleston, South Carolina. Turns out the team’s owner is a Jewish businesswoman who takes seriously the call to do good work–God’s work–in this difficult world, helping to repair the world’s brokenness using whatever resources she has. And her resources are not just a bank account and a good head for investments. One of her resources is a hockey team!

Surrounded by the world’s brokenness, the Psalmist prayed–and we pray: “Hear us, O Lord! Hear our cry, we plead to you! We know you hate wickedness; you won’t live with evil. You knock down the boastful, destroy the liars, hate the bloodthirsty.”

Surrounded by the world’s brokenness, the Psalmist prayed–and we pray: “You love us enough to welcome us to your house. We honor you! Make a path through the boastful, the liars, the bloodthirsty, and lead us on it. Because our enemies will always be with us; because we face them every day we walk in this world; because sometimes we become our own enemies–show us how to live in your righteousness.”

We pray: “Not in spite of these enemies, but because of them–because the world is torn, because we ourselves are torn–lead us to be repairers, with whatever resources we have. When the gloves come off, when sticks fly, when we witness obscenities, when blood spills–lead us quietly, ever-presently, in Tikkun Olam.”

Nikki Finkelstein-Blair is an ordained Baptist minister, at-home mom, and military spouse living in South Carolina. She blogs at One Faithful Step.