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In a yoga class several years ago I complained to the instructor that a pose hurt. I expected that my honesty would merit her permission to move into a less awkward position, but instead, she paused and simply asked, “Does it hurt, or is it uncomfortable?”
We both already knew the answer and I endured my discomfort several seconds more.
That refrain of “does it hurt or is it uncomfortable?” still echoes in my brain on this second day of 2022. I began 2021 hoping it would be a year that would require less of me than the year before, that we might return to some semblance of normality. But looking back — as an educator, parent, parishioner, family member, and friend of medical professionals — I’m well aware that 2021 was not an escape from the upheaval of 2020. In fact, its heavy expectations and the exhaustion of an ongoing pandemic may have made it even more challenging.
Still seeking the relief that my yoga instructor did not grant me, I’ve told several close friends, “Can we get a break now? I think we’ve stretched and grown enough for a while.” And yet, I can almost hear the Holy Spirit’s whisper, the prodding that our discomfort is not a reason to stand up, roll up the yoga mat, and walk away.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit sounds like Brené Brown in Dare to Lead who says, “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; it’s choosing what is right over what’s fun, fast, and easy; and it’s practicing your values; not just professing them.”
Consciously choosing courage over comfort is a fitting aspiration in these first days of January when clean calendars and shiny resolutions can give us the false illusion that self-fueled determination will now be easier to obtain. As we put away the Christmas decorations and throw away the stale baked goods to the soundtrack of weight loss commercials, I’m reminded to reject the myth that now that we’re in the New Year, I suddenly possess the power to clean up and manicure my own perfect path. Perhaps I’m better off to approach this new year, not with paralyzing pessimism or the wobbliness of willpower, but in a posture that anticipates the need to surrender to the discomfort — and adventure — of God’s plan.
This image of leaning into the discomfort and possibility of the spirit’s prodding brings me back to last summer when I had the privilege of interviewing a handful of female, Reformed clergy. Each conversation, each person’s story, was a living reminder of the ways the spirit’s calling requires growing and stretching for the sake and well being of God’s kingdom.
One of those conversations, Standing on their Shoulders: An interview with Marchiene Rienstra was published in the Reformed Journal last October, just before RCA General Synod. As we begin 2022, each Sunday blog for the month of January will highlight another woman who provides a model of what it looks like to step into the discomfort, hope, and wonder of God’s call. Today, we begin with the Rev. Dr. Mary Hulst.
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Twenty-five years ago last August, the Christian Reformed Church ordained its first woman, Ruth Hofman at First CRC in Toronto, Canada. One month later, Mary Hulst was ordained at Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr. Hulst, better known as Pastor Mary, has served as chaplain at Calvin University since 2009.
Pastor Mary’s story speaks to the importance of mentoring and encouraging young people — both because it’s part of her gift to college students today and because of the role mentors and encouragers played in her own journey.
Mary was in seventh grade when the seeds of ministry were planted by her pastor who invited her to read scripture, then later pulled her aside and told her she was going to be a minister someday, even though this was long before the CRC even ordained women as deacons and elders. A year later this pastor moved on to another church, but returned for a visit each summer, checking in on Mary and always asking, “Are you getting ready to go to seminary? Are you getting ready to do this?” This holy prodding led her to grapple with scripture and denominational beliefs in regard to the question of women in ministry while she was still in high school and to enter Calvin College with a pre-seminary focus and a growing understanding and certainty of her call to ministry.
Though her call was clear, Pastor Mary could be a poster child for courage over comfort, for feeling stretched to enter uncomfortable, and at times, unfriendly waters. In seminary, one of her classmates asked her why she didn’t want to “just be a preacher’s wife?” She countered by asking him if he had ever considered being “ just a preacher’s husband?”
Her male classmates were offered multiple opportunities for internships and other assignments, while she always got just one. During one such summer internship in Colorado Springs, she learned of some congregants who would call the church office on Friday to see if she was preaching on Sunday so they could make other plans. But, she also testifies of how each disparaging and discouraging remark she was handed — usually implying that her gender was in conflict with her calling — was dispelled within 24 hours by another of affirmation, each manifesting as the Holy Spirit’s gentle push to keep moving forward.
Even now as the anniversary of Mary’s ordination is celebrated, her impact in the community and college is heralded, and many women have joined her as leaders in the Christian Reformed Church, discomfort remains. As we casually chatted and sipped coffee, Mary acknowledged the reality that several churches within a ten-mile radius of where we sat would still not welcome her to preach.
And yet, when asked about a favorite part of her job, Pastor Mary speaks of her role shepherding college students with an unmistakable warmth and passion. Her story makes clear the importance and urgency of what we tell our young people, especially our young women, about their role, value, and spiritual gifts. In a shrinking denomination with a shrinking number of church-goers in the U.S and Canada, the question is not can women serve, but how are we empowering them to do so?
“The external call is as important as the internal call,” Pastor Mary said, referencing the importance of encouragement of others in her own journey and the ways in which she lives into this legacy as campus pastor. She takes seriously the task of deliberately stopping to look young people in the eyes and naming and celebrating their passion and potential: “We need to say aloud: you’ve got a gift; here’s what I see in you; here’s what God could do through you.”
Mary’s story is a reminder of not just the courage required when one is called, but the importance of being lifted up by a community attentive enough to give voice to that call and walk beside them through the call’s inevitable discomfort. It’s a reminder of the challenge to listen to the spirit’s prodding and to speak up, advocate, encourage, and come beside others when we see their potential and know that potential will require extra encouragement, support, and love as they are stretched and called into deep, uncomfortable, but holy places.