Encountering fierce Love, taking the risk to lead

by Samantha Lioi, Whitehall
samanthalioi@gmail.com Samantha Lioi

Call is a slippery word in divine-human relations, and there are always at least two in this tango: God can be slippery as we look and listen and follow, and people are pretty slippery when called by God. It happened with all the greats. “But…I am only a boy,” says Jeremiah. Peter falls at Jesus’ knees in the boat crying, “Go away from me, Lord!” Even after much reassurance, Moses says, “Lord, please send someone else.” I get it. To be called is to be responsible. Seriously, visibly responsible. In the good company of prophets and apostles, when I look at my ability to live with integrity, I don’t know if I want all that responsibility.

It’s interesting to me that the biblical folk who come to mind first—and those whose call stories I’ve mentioned so far—are men. They are men whose stories are comforting and familiar as they resonate with my own experience. Maybe I should pay more attention to the women God called. At the garden tomb, Mary Magdalene doesn’t say, “Jesus, I don’t think I can…I’m still processing that thing with the seven demons.” There’s no hedging. In love and joy she runs from the empty tomb and comes shouting to Peter and John: “I have seen the Lord!”

I grew up thinking people who had women as pastors couldn’t be taking the Bible seriously. I was 20 years old and a sophomore in a biblical interpretation class at Houghton College when I was required to think about both sides of this. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I learned that scholars with a bias against women in church leadership consistently defended the translation of Junia (a woman’s name) as Junias (a man’s name) in Paul’s list of greetings in Romans 16, because he calls her an apostle. In this context of honesty about the stickiness and complexity of biblical interpretation, I began to welcome the idea that I, or any woman, could be a pastor. Not that I wanted to be. I felt a general call to ministry throughout college and in the years that followed. But a pastor? Me? No—not interested (read this as I was scared to death). Six years after that class, and after much prayer and conversation with mentors and our small campus-based Mennonite fellowship, I began seminary. I enrolled as an M.Div. student so that, I told myself, I would have the authority to preach—but still without any intention of pursuing pastoral ministry. I loved theology and I wanted to study the Bible in more depth. People I trusted had been telling me to go. It felt like the unavoidable next thing, plunked down in the middle of my path.

A key to my ongoing conversion to the Gospel has been receiving and trusting the powerful, unending flow of God’s love. This deepened during my time in Elkhart and Goshen as a student at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. My new friends and professors showed me grace as I had not known it before. They modeled and encouraged me to accept the underlying good God has woven into the universe, the undergirding Love that will not let us go. I have encountered a fierce Love indeed, and One who can be trusted. It is only in that love that I take the risk of leading others in walking the way of Jesus. And, I practice not taking myself too seriously as I live with the delight and the struggle of feeling things deeply, finding myself frequently moving through deep springing joy and grieving compassion and doubt. Like many of us, I face the temptation to despair, the temptation to do nothing, the temptation to be defeated by the impossibility of complete integrity. So I am as messed up as everyone else—thanks be to God for the freedom to minister in my weakness, and not from pretended worthiness!

Like every other disciple of Christ, I’m called to maturity. Like everyone else, I’m called to die. No wonder I resist the gift and weight of leadership! Yet, at the center of our faith is a poor man from an ethnic minority whom we say is God with skin on. Holiness inseparable from ordinary human living. Flesh and muscle and bone. Bread and wine. A seed that falls into the earth and dies, and is drawn up by water and sun through the soil, and bears much fruit. A long, slow view of pain and hope and saving. And in God’s maddening slowness there is expansive room for healing. There is so much space to become the people we are.

Amazingly, knowing Christ’s church as well as I do, I love it enough to stay. And amazingly, it seems the church is saying the Spirit is empowering me to keep practicing this pastor-prophet-poet-preacher-pray-er thing: in listening, speaking, tugging, laughing, living beside. Resisting God and saying yes, and learning to trust like the Magdalene when I don’t know what that yes will mean. In all of it, called by inescapable Love.