She Was Called

About Christine Lee, with Grace Wong:

Well, God had other plans. The next Sunday after that conversation, I was sitting in church during the Eucharist. In the Episcopal Church, everyone goes forward to receive communion. The priest gives you a wafer and then everyone drinks from, or dips the wafer in, a common cup. As I sat there watching the line of people go forward, there was a man who looked like a finance type holding his hands out to receive the wafer. Behind him was a homeless person, and behind him, a student from Columbia. It struck me: Where else could I see people from every walk of life coming around the table, acknowledging their need for Christ together? What is more powerful than the cross of Christ to destroy these dividing walls of hostility in our society? It was such a beautiful visual picture of the kingdom of God that I began to weep. It was like scales were falling off my eyes. Every Sunday after that night, I could not hold back my tears during the Eucharist. Something was shifting inside me. I began to feel like I wanted to be part of a community like this, a visible expression of God’s invisible kingdom.

At All Angels’, we say that our worship around the Eucharist table continues downstairs around the dinner table. The dinner was referred to as “the community meal” and was intended for everyone, but at that time, most of the attendees were homeless. Everyone else would typically head out for dinner, not wanting to take food that could go toward someone else in need.This one night, I decided that I would go to the meal. I thought that I would be doing a good deed, by sitting down next to the guests, showing them love and care. I sat down next to one of the men who was at a table by himself. As I tried to engage him in conversation, he made it quite clear that he had zero interest in talking to me. He didn’t try to be polite about it and simply chose to ignore me completely. Not exactly the reception that I’d been expecting. My newfound excitement about this community was slightly dampened.

A few weeks later, I decided to give it another go at the meal. This time, I decided, I would not come as an angel of mercy helping all these poor people. It was dinnertime, I was hungry just like everyone else, and I would just eat with no expectations of what my interactions with people would be like. I sat down next to a man named Roger who was friendly and hilarious. Soon the entire table was engaged in the conversation, laughing, joking, and swapping stories. And for the first time, I felt a sense of connection.

As I became more involved at All Angels’ and was considering my next steps after InterVarsity, Milind, our rector, the Episcopal equivalent of a senior pastor, began to bug me about ordination. I could not think of anything I’d want less than to become a priest. I had difficulty enough with the idea of being a “pastor”! “Priest” felt like something else entirely. Despite my reservations, I wanted to be open to God. Milind was very persistent and after a while, I decided I should at least consider it. In the Episcopal Church, we have what is called a discernment process. It entails meeting with a committee of parishioners for a period of time to talk, question, pray, and help discern the call to ordination. At the end of the process, they make the decision whether or not to recommend you to the bishop.

There was one issue that kept surfacing in my meetings with the committee: my image of what a pastor or priest is. I’m not only a pastor’s kid. I’m a famous pastor’s kid. My dad is very well-known in the Korean Christian community. If your parents are Korean and Christian, it’s highly likely they will recognize his name. The churches he led had thousands of members; his ministry has a global reach; he’s written books, newspaper articles, and Bible commentaries; he’s started seminaries and lay institutes; he’s led thousands of people to Christ at his evangelistic meetings and trained generations of pastors and missionaries. He even has his own TV show. He’s the kind of charismatic and visionary leader people love to follow. My dad was my image of what a pastor is like. And in the midst of discerning this call to ordained ministry, there was only one thing I knew for sure. I wasn’t him. While I felt called to some kind of ministry, I could not even imagine following in his footsteps as a pastor.

I remember one night when my committee members were asking me about my struggle with feeling inadequate, like I wasn’t cut out to be a pastor, and connecting it to my dad being the primary model of a pastor for me. One member, Bob Carle, said something that struck me. He said, “Christine, being a pastor isn’t primarily about being this charismatic, visionary leader. It’s about leading people into an encounter with God, creating the space and conditions for spiritual formation to happen. The way you do it will of course be different than the way your father does it, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less transformative.” For the first time, I began to be open to the possibility that maybe God could use me as a pastor, but I still wasn’t sure….

And so, on September 29, 2012, I knelt before the bishop in the Cathedral and became the first Korean American woman ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. Sometimes, I still ask that question, “How on earth did I get here?” The obvious answer is God, of course. He’s the One who brought me here. But when I think about how He did so, I see the faces of all the people who have been with me on this path — my parents, Jimmy, the homeless men and women who welcomed me to All Angels’, dear old Simmons, Milind and his persistence, my discernment committee, those wonderful and crazy activist priests, and even those old white men in pointy hats. And there have been countless others along the way. They have truly been the body of Christ, and without them, I would not have been able to hear God calling to me. For that, I am eternally grateful. INH

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.