Just a quick note from present-day, divinity school Thandiwe that this is what I consider to be my call story, the event and experience that pushed me into divinity school, from where I am now looking towards congregational ministry as a possible vocation, a likely one. Wonderful where the world leads us!
“Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.” –II Chronicles 7:15
My eyelids hang heavy as the car slows to a crawl, inching its way through the throngs of people, many wrapped in shawls to ward off the chill of the still-dark morning.
Stalls stacked high with gleaming stainless steel kitchenware, sparkling glass bangles and plastic earrings, piles of roasted nuts, dried dates and fried snacks line the road we traverse. Carnival-like excitement buzzes in the air. Thousands of people have come to Ponai for the annual harvest festival at the local church.
I am ushered into the parsonage and receive a warm cup of tea that tastes like sugar water. I await the Bishop of the local diocese of the Church of South India who has invited me to the 5:30am communion service over which he will preside. With only 4 hours of sleep, it is hard to stay awake.
When the Bishop arrives, he beckons me to follow him into the chapel. Moving in the wake of his white-robed figure, I gaze at the masses, a sea of people parting for our procession. Some people have just roused themselves from the ground where they slept, while others arrive eagerly on lorries, buses and bullock carts from their homes in the surrounding villages. The local church people have extended the chapel for this occasion by building awnings of woven palm branches, yet people still spill out on both sides of these awnings.
As a guest of the Bishop, I sit beside him on the raised dais, overlooking all. I feel relief to have a chair and once in it, I close my eyes and ask God to give me energy for the morning. My fatigue makes it difficult to reopen my eyes. The service begins – Bible readings, a message, prayers. There is a time to honor guests, and I receive a shawl as a symbol of hospitality. In gratitude, I stand and extend greetings from Global Ministries in the United States.
As the Bishop stands and speaks the words of sacrament over the wafers and grape juice, the familiarity of the ritual comforts me. Although the Tamil words are unfamiliar to my ears, their meaning rings out in my mind: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Pastors gather round and partake of the meal. I wait. After they finish, one of them motions to me, “Are you taking?” I nod and stand, my hands outstretched to receive the communion. “The body of Christ, broken for you.” The wafer melts on my tongue. “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” I lift the cup slightly above my face, pouring the juice into my mouth, drinking without touching the vessel to my lips, as is the custom when sharing drinking vessels here in India.
Sitting, I close my eyes and pray. I can feel strength filling my body, washing the fatigue from my weary limbs. When I open my eyes, the dais pulses with people who have come forward to partake in this ritual. A woman leans over my chair as those behind her surge forward. Apologetically, she meets my gaze. I smile. A young father brings his son to be blessed by the Bishop. Receiving the Bishop’s blessing, he turns the child to me. Without hesitating or thinking, I also extend a hand of blessing, a word of prayer. As I draw my hand back, a wave of questions washes over me. I am not ordained. What right do I have to bless someone? Is it appropriate for me to have done so? Who am I compared with the Bishop? What qualification do I have to follow him in blessing someone? Will he be offended by my action?
There is little time to consider these questions, for an older woman reaches out to me and places my hand upon her head. She, too, wants a prayer. Then another woman approaches me and another and another. People surround me, asking that I pray for them. Placing my bag on my chair, I rise. My mind clears as I place my hands on people – women, children and men. A very slender woman in a faded red saari and thinning hair tells me her name is Ashwini. I ask God to bless her, to ease the pain of her body and her heart and to fill her with the unconditional love expressed to us through Jesus’ life and death. Rajesh, one of the teachers at school, approaches me with his grandmother. I lay my hands upon her shoulder and ask God to be with her. A young woman with flashing black eyes tells me she is writing her standard 12 examinations. I ask God to guide her in her studies, to help her remember all that she has learned and to be tangibly present in her life.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. It is one of the pastors. Will I please come and join the Bishop who waits for me in a nearby house? I look at the people still surrounding me. I close my eyes and ask God to be with each and every one of them. Then I follow the pastor. We squeeze through the crowds to the room where the Bishop waits, eating idli and chutney for breakfast. I sit down beside him. As I eat my own idli and chutney, the pastor in charge of the Ponai church brings me a plaque with a stylised photo of the church, a white dove flying overhead. Below the image is a Bible verse written in Tamil, which I cannot understand.
Seeing me looking at the verse, the pastor explains, “It means: ‘ Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.'”
I study the image of the chapel with the dove flying overhead. I see Ashwini’s face, Rajesh’s grandmother, the young woman and many of the others to whom I extended my hand. Surely God has used me in this holy place. I think of the surge of energy I experienced as I partook in communion, and then even more when I touched the people with my hands, praying for them. Whatever channelling of God’s love I have done in this place, it has truly been enabled by the people themselves who approached me. I have been profoundly blessed by the faith, the trust and the love of the people gathered at Ponai Church this morning. The question of whether ministry is for me or not, whether I am being called to do this work, has long challenged me. Today, through the faith of God’s people gathered in this place, I feel my call confirmed. I came to India to volunteer in an orphanage, and this place and its people have opened my eyes and ears to God’s call in my life. God has heard my prayer, and the faith of the people here has opened my eyes and ears to God’s response.
God, you open your eyes and turn attentive ears to the prayers we lift to you, but often we forget that you are waiting and listening. It is we who drift away and do not take the time to talk with you. God, help us to know your presence and to share your love and your attentiveness with others. Even as you listen to our prayers, you respond to us. Give me open eyes and attentive ears to hear your response to my prayers. Amen