Scripture: Ezekiel 36:25–27
Today and through the month of March, we are celebrating Baptist Women in Ministry’s Month of Advocacy, and our BWIM Month of Advocacy guest preacher is Chaplain Toni Page. The following sermon is by Chaplain Page.
A new heart I will give you, and a new Spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
I love that text. That text was one of several that I carried with me while I was waiting for my heart transplant. Because for me, Ezekiel held a promise that God was in favor of organ donation. I’ll tell you about that soon.
Today, I want to tell you how God helped me find my voice. Let me ask you a question: IF YOU KNEW that no matter what you did, how well you did it, or how badly you failed at it, whatever it is, God would always love you and keep you in eternal protection, what would or could you do? When you say “yes” to God, God is always faithful to lead you into places where you are challenged yet safe. God’s love and forgiveness are our safety net.
I am telling you this super basic understanding because much of my former church experience did not teach me that. It took many years to realize just how big and relentless God’s love is for me and all of us. When I finally realized God approves of me, as I am right now, I found the freedom to try things I would never have attempted. Now I’m not talking about sky diving, base jumping, racing, none of those high adrenaline activities. No, I am talking about moving into a ministry I was not qualified for but felt the drive and the need to do.
So how does Ezekiel fit into this? Stay with me; I’ll show you.
You might be surprised to learn that I have spent a substantial amount of time as a hospital patient. You see, I was born with a significant heart defect. We are blessed to have a daughter, as I was not supposed to have children due to the high risk to my heart. But I went into heart failure, and eventually, I had to have a heart transplant. It was the only way for me to survive to raise Rebecca. I endured a week of tests to establish my eligibility. Once I was listed for the surgery, I waited only 6 months for my new donated heart. I am grateful because the average wait time is 3 years. This heart is a great match, even after almost 25 years. Since then, I have had many medical tests, plenty of hospitalizations, several pacemaker placements, surgery to repair my tricuspid valve, hernia repair, gallbladder removal, and my recent oral and sinus surgery. That long and painful journey as a hospital patient changed me.
When you grow up not knowing if you have a future and suddenly discover that you do, you find that sense of calling. I had hope for a future. My experience of lying in a hospital bed with no control over my body or life showed me what it was like to interact with nurses, doctors, and medical specialists. I came from a strong background of faith. Yet I always wondered why God did not give me that new heart—without surgery? Why did I have to endure the surgery and take immune-suppressing medications for the rest of my life? Why was I born with a malformed heart anyway? I had medical questions and theological questions. My faith taught me about miracles. Why didn’t I get one? I had questions to ask God.
My journey, and my compassion for those who experience life-altering events, led me to a calling I never thought I would have. I reasoned that if I had those questions, for which there are no answers, wouldn’t other patients in hospitals also wrestle with those questions? Wouldn’t they be feeling lonely and frightened? Wouldn’t they find their faith challenged and perhaps need help finding answers and spiritual comfort? Struggling with life and death inherently raises spiritual questions. Who has been in the hospital and NOT asked, “Where is God in this? Where is God in my suffering? Is God there? Does God even care?’ After several years of recovery, I emerged with a strong desire to help patients in hospitals because I had been where they now are.
As a lifetime patient, I figured that I had plenty of experience being in a hospital bed. I knew the questions. I knew the struggles and fears and lack of control. I knew the predicaments. But I also knew from my experience that God WAS, indeed, there with me. I desired to visit hospital patients to offer them that same comfort and assurance that God was with them and they were not alone in their pain and suffering.
I looked into the possibility of visiting patients and discovered that a person off the street couldn’t just waltz into a hospital room and start talking to people. There are requirements for that. I had to find a way to earn the right to be there. So I decided to be a hospital chaplain.
Hospital chaplains are highly trained persons able to enter into a patient’s or family member’s spiritual needs and help them find their way through their situation within their religious framework. Chaplains do not preach, evangelize, proselytize, judge, or condemn. They represent God’s love to persons in very vulnerable situations. Chaplains must be trustworthy and reliable guides to needy people. They must be wise, spiritual, and respectful.
I come from a very conservative religious background. As Pastor Dezo said the other week, my churches were against more than they were for. So at first, I joined an evangelical chaplain program that was willing to give me the training. Because of my church background, learning to do the work of a chaplain was a significant challenge. Not only was it necessary to learn to talk to people who were outside my spiritual orientation, but I also had to learn to accept them where they were and not judge them. Frankly, I was more worried about saying the wrong things than worrying about the safety of my spiritual life. What I mean is that my church culture taught that our salvation was shaky. We could be easily led astray by anything that was not their definition of “Godly,” such as reading the Qu’ran or entering the world of non Christians or those living “alternative lifestyles.”
When we moved to Kansas City, my first encounter as I continued my training was with the head chaplain at a local hospital, who agreed to help me do my clinical work. As I was touring the hospital with him, I realized that he was gay. I was shocked. A gay Anglican priest? At first, this idea frightened me. It was entirely new. How could I relate to him when my faith background taught me to oppose him? Yet as I got to know him, I learned much from him, and he challenged my thinking in several areas. I came to appreciate him as a great friend.
To become a board-certified chaplain, one needs at least 1600 hours of accredited training, both group training and clinical hands-on. I finished my first 400 hours, but it was not accredited. Eventually, I broke with the evangelical chaplain program because I came to the place in my growth where I could not agree with their resistance to joining forces with non-Christians in a more prominent chaplain association. It was glaringly apparent that I needed to part ways with them. Plus, I wanted to seek board certification.
My heart of stone was beginning to soften. Beginning with our daughter, who came out to me as bisexual, I became acquainted with the LGBTQIA+ ideas and problems. When she came out to me, I had a split-second decision to make. Stick with my church teaching and risk losing my daughter or decide to love first. I am grateful to say I decided that love was more important than dogma—another crack in that stony heart.
I have been working for the past 8-plus years at a Jewish synagogue. Not a Messianic synagogue, a truly, fully kosher Conservative Jewish synagogue. By the way, did you know that Judaism today is not the Judaism we see in the Bible? No, really! Biblical Judaism died roughly 50 years after Jesus rose from the dead! When Rome destroyed the temple, the Judeans were scattered and could no longer practice their religion. It wasn’t until several hundred years later that Judaism became what it is today. That mini teaching, by the way, was free.
Back to my story. I was terrified of offending the members of this synagogue by saying something wrong. They were patient with me. I had an incredible opportunity to learn about another faith, which surprisingly didn’t hurt mine. Learning about other faiths and their practices has strengthened my faith! God set me there to show me that we are all humans with the same hopes, dreams, needs, and wants. I can’t believe, from the start, that I was scared to meet a Rabbi. Oy vey!
I mention this because Christians need to know that most of us have an incorrect view of Judaism and Jewish people. Also, one of the members, a Rabbi and Chaplain, told me about the chaplaincy training program at Research Medical Center.
David and I had explored a few ideas for my future but came up empty, I did not have 8 years and thousands of dollars for college, plus there would be math…
So we prayed and asked, “If not college, God, then what?” Rabbi Rudnick came into the office a few days later, and I told him what I was looking for. To make a long story not so long, God opened the door, and I became a chaplain intern at Research. God used a Jewish Rabbi to show me that door that led to my future ministry!
400 accredited hours later, I came to another crossroads. A board-certified chaplain must have a minimum of a Master of Divinity degree. I did not go to college. My most recent schooling had been high school many years ago. Again, God made a way where there seemed to be no way. My Chaplain trainer and mentor encouraged me to go to seminary and earn that degree. He believed in me when I did not. I was introduced to Central Seminary. They allowed me to skip the bachelor’s degree and go straight to classes. Essentially, I started learning chaplaincy through the back door by doing the schoolwork after I started chaplaincy.
Here’s where the stony heart met its match. I had already broken one of the tenets of my church dogma in accepting and loving the LGBTQIA+ community because why would our loving God NOT love all humans?? I was already troubled by the “rules” that women could not preach or had to have a male head over them. Feminism was knocking.
Seminary helped me learn to explore the Bible and see that there were different ways of interpreting it. I learned the history of the Church Universal and different theologies, and my professors encouraged me to ask questions. In my past, questions about doctrine were not encouraged. I had to accept what I was told, trusting my leaders and their interpretation of scripture. That worked for me for most of my Christian life. But I found that I needed more answers, and I needed a belief about God that fit and was true to what I was discovering in my life.
My seminary tenure began shortly before COVID and George Floyd’s murder. In my classes, I experienced the perspectives of my fellow students. I learned so much about the scourge of racism and even discovered latent racism in my Northern upbringing. I grew up in the Minneapolis area, and I finally understood the reason for those riots, the frustration, and the fear that many persons of color live with. Now I am making a broad statement that does not mean that every white person in the North feels this way; the North may have fought on the Union side of the Civil war, but we still do not generally see our Black citizens as equal. We still teach women to fear Black men. It’s not spoken, but it is an undercurrent in our culture. Revelation brings change. And this revelation changed me.
So here I am, a fourth-year seminary student. I am still learning my voice. This I know: I have a voice. I HAVE A VOICE AND PERMISSION TO USE IT!
It is a voice for justice, freedom, and love. Pastor Steve [at FBC KCMO] talked about our voices being blocked, and we cannot use our voices. Mine had been blocked by a lack of knowledge, understanding, and a gigantic lack of permission. As a woman, I was blocked.
As I said, I am still learning my voice. It’s a lifetime endeavor for everyone. Stepping into my pastoral authority is a challenge because I am still getting used to having God’s permission to speak, teach, speak up, get involved, and take a stand. And the freedom to speak is the most spiritually and emotionally liberating experience I could have asked for.
It says in Malachi 6:8 that God requires us to do justice and love mercy as a way of walking with God from a place of humility. Jesus modeled just that. This is why I am where God has placed me. This is the foundation of my voice. And you know what? It cannot be done with a heart of stone. And only God can change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. Pliable and willing to love and stand with those who are oppressed, poor, and without protection. This is what God meant for me when I found that text just over 25 years ago.
Yes, God encouraged me throughout my transplant. But God meant that the new heart within me could no longer be rigid. My new heart must be a heart of flesh to love, accept, and welcome all. My heart is ready to heed God’s voice to follow God’s leading, as found in scriptures such as Malachi and the acts of Jesus. Take care of those oppressed through racism, patriarchy, and discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community and immigrants. To work for the betterment of the poor, women, the hurting, the homeless, and the friendless. To care for this earth.
So I ask you today, what is your voice? What are you passionate about that stirs your soul into action? Does your belief system bring you life, or is it restricting you? Do you have questions?
Let me ask you again. IF YOU KNEW that no matter what you did, how well you did it, or how badly you failed at it, whatever it is, God would always love you and keep you in eternal protection, what would or could you do?
Chaplain Toni Page is a member of First Baptist Church in Kansas City, MO. She is a fourth-year MDiv student, expecting to graduate in May. She is also part of the first Peace and Justice Graduate Certificate cohort from Central Seminary. She served as an intern, is licensed to preach by First Baptist Church [KCMO], and is anticipating ordination this summer. Toni is trained as a hospital chaplain and looks forward to working toward becoming board certified in the future. She is married to David. They will be celebrating their 41st anniversary in May. They have one adult daughter and a 13-year-old cat who believes he should be eating whenever he is awake.
BWIM is an organization that celebrates, advocates for, and supports Baptist women in ministry. BWIM sponsors a month to highlight Baptist women in ministry. In the past, this month has been February, where we had first a Martha Sterns Marshall preacher, and then a BWIM preacher, when the name expanded to honor all women in ministry. Starting this year, BWIM has moved their month to March to correspond with women’s history month and not compete with Black history month in February. They have renamed the month Baptist Women in Ministry’s Month of Advocacy, asking churches to take part in not only inviting women to preach but also to advocate for women in ministry. BWIM has provided an array helpful resources and links on how to advocate for women in ministry.