I spent one semester of my seminary education at a school in England. In addition to adjusting to the cultural differences there, I also had to think about how to explain my program of study to people who were most familiar with the Church of England structure. To them, a seminary education means studying to be a priest, not a phrase I use often. Not to mention the fact that I truly felt uncomfortable at that time when someone asked me what kind of work I planned to do.
It is not that I did not want to be a pastor or harbor hope in my heart that it would work out, but more I dreaded the look of shock on people’s faces and then the inevitable flood that comes after such an admission. By freely confessing to my profession, I have opened floodgates to hear about dislike of church structure, confusion about church history, questions about religious practices and, most frightful of all, desire to question someone about God. The potential for this deluge made me keep my finger in the dike by not mentioning my program of study or my sense of call to ministry.
Then one day, I was walking back from the grocery store and I saw her. On the raised edge of the sidewalk, away from the street, sat an elderly woman, a woman I later figured out was in her early 80s. She was sitting with her bags of groceries around her feet and she was breathing heavily. I looked at my own two grocery bags and then at her four. I thought about how I was planning to get back to my apartment before a campus event that night. Then I stopped and asked if she was all right.
I ended up offering to carry her groceries for her after she caught her breath. We walked up the sidewalk together, past my school, past the roundabout, through a park. I finally asked where she lived and then she named a town three miles from where we were. Not only had I committed to carrying her groceries home, we stopped every 300 yards or so for her to catch her breath, so this was going to be a long, long three miles.
So I settled in for the walk and we talked as we slowly moved. She told me about her job as a secretary during the Second World War and about her children. She discussed her life in the Cambridge area and why she still liked to walk into town for her groceries. As fascinating as her tales were, when she stopped speaking, her short-term memory would let her down and she would look at me and ask why I was in England. In terms of experiences I never thought I would have, explaining that I was studying to be a priest- over and over- to an eighty-years-plus English woman while I carried her groceries three miles, a trip that took two hours.
Eventually I learned that as a young girl, this woman had been a Methodist and considered becoming a minister, but they did not yet ordain women. Each time she asked what I was doing and I re-explained myself, I would learn something new about her and hear a new hope about the church’s preparedness for women ministers. When I left her, with her groceries, she said to me, “In the war, we knew what we hoped for, but didn’t know if it would happen. So we would say to one another, ‘Steady on.’”
When I think about Peter’s denial, I think of how easy it would have been to tell her anything else other than the truth. She would not have remembered and I would not have had to explain something new each time. Yet the experience taught me something about the carrying of the hopes and dreams of others. Through this woman’s life story and questions, I learned the truth that our lives are not only our own, but are touched and shaped by those around us, some of whom we do not know.
When we deny the gifts God has given us, when we walk by the man lying by the side of the road, when we promise to do whatever “the next time”, we find ourselves standing beside Peter- listening to the cock crow. Because we do not earn the gift of salvation, God’s grace grants us the opportunity and the freedom to be our best selves. We glimpse the fulfillment of that when we share the gifts and talents we have. When we are honest about our blessedness, seeing how much we have been given, we step out of the shadow of denial and into the warmth of known communion with God.
Not denying Christ is not just about being able to say what your vocation is or being a Samaritan in an obvious way. We are called into faithful relationships with our families, our church, our community and all of God’s creation. Daily opportunities present themselves to look into the eyes of the Lord by meeting some need you see. We all hope to do the right thing at the right time and yet we will all fall short of. But in that moment, our Savior looks at us as he did at Peter, and tells us, “I forgive you. I love you. Steady on.”