She made broken look beautiful and strong look invincible. She walked with the universe on her shoulders and made it look like a pair of wings.
This quote makes me remember Ethel, one of my most cherished friends. Ethel was my hero. She inspired me to dream and always held hope high so that I could see it. She walked beside me during difficult days and challenged me to stay the course. “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on,” she would often say. And when I would fall into the dust, despondent and exhausted, Ethel gave me wings.
Most people knew Ethel as someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother, because she always loved them more than she loved herself. She always used her energy to raise them up, to push them forward, to champion their hopes.
To me, Ethel was my dearest and most loyal friend, almost like a mother. I could not be despondent for very long around Ethel. She wouldn’t allow it. I could not be broken and stay that way. Ethel would gently pick up the pieces and help me find beauty in my brokenness.
Ethel was the matriarch of Providence Baptist Church of Little Rock, a new church start, and the first Baptist church in Arkansas to call a woman as pastor. I was that pastor. I moved into that ministry position after a grueling ordination process that lasted for almost a year and ended in my home church refusing to ordain a woman. Their refusal to work with me toward ordination was a devastating blow.
But Ethel was certain that ordination would come in time, at the right time. She quoted this verse from Habakkuk, one of her favorites, every time my resolve faltered and I was ready to give up.
For the vision is yet for the appointed time;
It hastens toward the goal and it will not fail.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
For it will certainly come, it will not delay.
– Habakkuk 2:3
Although Habakkuk was surely not writing about the denied ordination of a Baptist woman, his words rang true to Ethel and were encouraging to me. Together, Ethel and I “hastened toward the goal” that did not fail. We waited for it and it did come, seemingly out of nowhere.
On a Sunday evening, I received a phone call from the pastor of a church in El Paso Texas, who was the former Executive Secretary of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. After a brief getting-to-know-you conversation in which he told me that he had become acquainted with my ministry through a colleague who happened to be my hospital chaplaincy mentor, he stunned me with these words.
“Our church voted this morning to ordain you.”
“But you don’t even know me,” I said, shocked, taken aback and just a little confused.
Oh, but we know you very well. We have talked about you for weeks in our church. We know you are a chaplain. We know where you went to seminary. We know you can preach and even sing. We know you were a Southern Baptist Foreign missionary to Uganda. And if you were appointed a missionary by our Foreign Mission Board, you are qualified to be ordained so that you can continue your ministry.
I could barely respond. I knew only that I needed to think.
“Let me think about this for a few days and send you some information about me.”
And so I sent them a copy of my life story so they could be sure, even if I was not. Ethel said, “‘Though it tarries, wait for it; For it will certainly come, it will not delay.’ Now let’s pack up and go to El Paso.”
Thirteen friends, members of Providence, traveled to El Paso. My family drove 953.4 miles, and I was ordained in El Paso, Texas on April 29, 1992 by a church I did not know that became my community over a weekend.
Ethel left this world many years ago, much too soon. But she is still my hero and I miss her terribly. Does she watch over me? Is she, as some people like to think, an angel of God with a pair of wings? I’m not at all sure of that, but I know one thing. Every time things get hard, I hear her words, “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on.”
She gave me wings!