Category Archives: Ministry

Is This What it is Like?

Journey Through Time Scenic Byway 30

By Timothy Bishop on Flickr (cc)

I spent about two and a half hours yesterday over a sausage and pepperoni pizza and a steaming cup of black coffee. I was with another pastor. I, just finishing my first year as a pastor and he, coming into his last year as a pastor. I was able to express some of my pains and some of my uncertainties to this wise and seasoned pastor, and to my surprise, this wise and seasoned pastor also expressed some of his own uncertainties as well.

When I was finishing seminary, I was daunted by the fact that following seminary, I was supposed to be able to pastor a church. When I arrived here to my first charge, I immediately became overwhelmed with the enormity of the task at hand. I felt grossly unprepared for what I was entering into, and the challenges that I have faced and continue to face confirm this. It has been my hope that after I would make a some mistakes and stumble around a bit, I would have the ministry thing down so that I could be effective for the future.

It has become increasing evident, however, that ministry is a journey and not a goal.

This is, of course, where I am supposed to reflect on why the journey is so wonderful, and greatly overshadows the destination. Too bad I’m not very good at doing what I’m supposed to do.

I don’t particularly like journeys, I like destinations. I don’t like taking road trips, I like being other places; I don’t like learning new things, I like knowing new things; I don’t like preparing for things, I like doing things. When I was a child, I remember going to the last couple of pages of the Bible because I wanted to know how it ended. When I was in school I was notorious for skipping several chapters in a book so that I could just get to the ending. When I interview with churches they are interested in how accomplished I am, how effective I am, in what I am able to do. Churches are not as interested in my journey of being a pastor, they are interested in what I can do as a pastor.

This is one of the visible disconnects between how things are, and how things ought to be. We ought to be valued because we are children of God, instead we are valued insofar as we can create something of value. We ought to be able to give focus to the journey, to the process of becoming and how God is shaping us, instead many of us (myself included) spend most of our time planning for our future several years down the road. I ought to be interested in development and the process, instead I simply want to do.

And then seasoned pastors say things to me that begin with, “I can’t give you an answer, but…” or “It is difficult…” or “I also struggle with…”

I pulled off a piece of sausage off of my pizza as I thought about all of what we were discussing. I became frustrated as I came to the realization of what my future would actually look like.

“Is this what ministry is all about?” I asked.

Things are never going to get better, I thought to myself, and I felt an immense weight on my spirit.

The two of us sat quiet for a few moments and I looked at the oils at the surface of my coffee. I took a drink and I realized that coffee is a bit bitter — and that slight bitterness is one of the things that I appreciate so much about it. I do not add sugar or cream to coffee, I prefer it unsweetened. Perhaps there is something to learn from this. Perhaps ministry will remain bitter, but perhaps in that bitterness, there is something which can be appreciated and life-giving.

…God First Loved Us

Baptismal Font

By brandsvig on Flickr

I had the privilege of administering my first baptism yesterday.  It was an infant who was recently born of one of the families in our congregation.

It was a wonderful celebration of the sacrament of baptism.  The liturgy is beautiful, the child was adorable and dressed in this lovely white dress.  She fussed a little bit but it was not like the weeping and gnashing of teeth that sometimes occurs.  As a fellow pastor friend of mine once told me, “If the baby doesn’t cry you’re not doing it right.”  Which refers, of course, to the fact that in baptism we symbolically die with Christ, and as such, there should be at least a little bit of fussing.

The moment was a wonderful celebration of God’s grace, and God’s love for us even when we cannot yet love.  There is a portion of the liturgy when the minister speaks directly to the person to be baptized immediately preceding the administration of baptism with the Trinitarian formula.  In the case of an infant, it reads like this:

[Name],
For you Jesus came into the world;
For you he died and for you he conquered death;
all this he did for you, little one,
though you know nothing of it as yet.
We love because God first loved us.

We love because God first loved us.  That is, of course, quote from 1 John 4:19.  This is also where the theology behind infant baptism all comes together.  I cannot find a better defense of infant baptism than this.  After these words were spoken, and I dipped my hand into the water, I felt as though we were all in the very presence of God.  I wish that we could have stayed in that holy moment forever.

However, that moment did not last.  Shortly after the service, the sinfulness that pollutes the world reared its ugly head.  Divisions, anger, self-centeredness and greed invaded the aftermath of this holy moment. It had been a very difficult couple days leading up to that day, and I felt as though I was delivered from the inferno to the very presence of God and then immediately dragged back to the inferno.  I quipped to my wife after we returned home that this experience is what Dante saw in his vision when writing the Inferno.

We love because God first loved us.

Perhaps, however, this was somehow a gift, it is an example of life in this world.  Our world is grossly imperfect, polluted by sin and evil.  Much of life is filled with trials and sufferings, but these are always punctuated by moments of heaven.

We baptize infants not because they are perfect, not because they are faithful Christians, not even because they are good.  We baptize infants because God first loved us, and therefore we are able to love God because God loves us first, and we are able to love others because God loves us first.

We love because God first loved us.

Perhaps it is fitting to experience both the heights of the experience of God’s grace and the depths of depravity.  This is, after all, what we experience in this life.  We have experiences when love is easy, when we feel loved.  We also have experiences in which love is difficult, and we have to love in spite of the fact that all we may receive is hate, anger, and bitterness.  We do not love because the other is nice, or because they are even deserving of our love.  We love because God loved us first — God loved us despite of our anger and bitterness and hate, and God requires that we treat others in the same way.

I wonder what that child thought of all that was going on.  I do know that she rubbed her forehead onto my shirt to dry it during the prayer after the baptism.  I’m sure she had no idea what was happening, and I am certain that she has no idea what the future holds for her.  I do know, however, that God’s grace is not ultimately dependent on what we can understand with our minds, but God’s grace is stronger than all of our weaknesses.  My ability to love people is often times weak, and I continue to hope and pray that God’s grace will not only transform the life of that child as she grows, but also transform my life as I am still in the process of becoming a Christian and learning how to truly love.

We love because God first loved us.

The Minister as Particular Theologian

I have not been very faithful the last couple of weeks in my writing.  The reason for that is largely because I have been immersed in writings by and about Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758).  Jonathan Edwards is most known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  This is, of course, in a way unfortunate, as the breadth of the Edwardsian corpus is much broader than this one sermon.

One of the aspects of his life that I am intrigued by is how he lived out his calling as a minister.   I, at times, wonder if this was simply contextually and temporally specific, or if there is something to ministry that we’ve lost.

It cannot be denied that the world of eighteenth century New England was very different from our contemporary contexts.  However, in many other ways, there were great similarities.  Edwards struggled with his congregation to overcome their spiritual apathy, he dealt with teenage pregnancies in his congregation, and people that little interest in helping those less fortunate. Regardless of whether it is the year 2012, the year 1712, or the year 12, human nature is relatively consistent.

As a parish minister, Jonathan Edwards not only composed a large body of sermons, but also letters and theological books and articles.  Edwards was a venerable theologian, and as a theologian he was also very clearly connected to the church.

One thing that I have consistently encountered during my formal education is a growing division between theory and practice.  Those who engage in “practice” argue that they don’t have to know theory because it is “empty head knowledge.” Furthermore, those who are engaged in theory sometimes lack any practical interest as they are interested in intramural academics. This all contributes to a strong distinction between theoreticians and practitioners.  Although in Christianity there is a rapidly growing distrust of knowledge and education, this phenomenon is not limited to the Church and occurs in many arenas.

I, of course, come at this discussion with a master’s degree from a theological seminary.  I also place a great deal of importance on highly educated clergy, and history has always placed an importance on educated clergy. This trend of lowly or uneducated clergy is of relatively late origin, and the anti-educational sentiment among some is recent as well.  Although I am not sure which is the proverbial chicken and which is the egg, I see this as connected to this trend of divorcing the role of pastor and the role of theologian.

I have heard it argued that theologians do theological work, and pastors take care of things “which really matter to people.”  This of course grieves me to my core.  I am a person who both cares deeply about the church and the people of God and also loves theological work and study.  I have always assumed that I would have to choose, either give up my passion for leading the church and teach in a seminary, or give up my interest in theological work and pastor a parish. I have at times felt as though my only choices where to ignore my heart or ignore my head.

This is what interests me about Jonathan Edwards because he was both a parish pastor who sought to make God real to his congregation week after week, as well as a theologian in his own right.  This inspired my journey on reflecting on the minister as a theologian.

To be sure, I do not have a doctoral degree, and I do not argue that my theological credentials are the same as a professor at a seminary.  However, I do see a minister as a theologian, albeït a theologian of a particular order.

In my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, we have four offices: Elder, Deacon, Minister of Word and Sacrament, and General Synod Professor of Theology.  The fourth office (General Synod Professor of Theology) are teachers and theologians of the whole church, they are general theologians.  However, Ministers of Word and Sacrament earn a master’s degree in divinity at a theological seminary and in the local church Ministers serve as “pastor and teacher” (as my denomination’s Book of Church Order defines the role of minister in a local church).  If Ministers as parish pastors see themselves solely as practitioners or as professionals that deal with practical and “down to earth” matters and not theological work, our churches then are devoid of theology and the manufactured gap between theologians and pastors, between theoreticians and practitioners widens.

A minister/pastor however, is not called to be a general theologian, a minister/pastor is called to be a particular theologian.  A pastor is called to be the theologian for a particular people in a particular place; to help the people entrusted to their care experience and make sense of God and their lives.  We are called to love God with our hearts and our minds, and part of the role of the pastor is not only to move someone’s heart but also to help them grow in understanding.  After all, theology, according to St. Anselm, is “faith seeking understanding,” so what better place for theology than in the local church?

As ministry has become a profession rather than a calling, and a job rather than an office, this idea of pastor as theologian no longer seems to make sense.  If pastors are professionals, then their highest responsibility is to run a church — administration, employee supervision, building and grounds superintendence.  This is why some argue that pastors should have education and background in business, because much of contemporary pastoral ministry has devolved into running a business.

However, this is a grossly (and sadly) deficient understanding of ministry.  A pastor is not called to run a church, they are called to help teach and lead the people of God, and a part of this is the ability to be a competent theologian.  I do this not for intellectual exercise, but to help my congregation seek an understanding for their faith, to help make sense of God and make sense of their lives, to understand where God is calling them, and what God desires.

Theologians in a seminary or university, while they may be brilliant theologians, are not able to help my congregation make sense of God and their experience simply due to the fact they do not live and dwell among the congregation.  They are general theologians, who teach the whole church and help to educate and form particular theologians who will live in and exist in a particular community, to understand a particular community, and to speak to the particular experience of a particular community.

As I continue to form my understanding of myself as a pastor and teacher, I have come to be convinced that theological study is a major part of my responsibilities. My study, however, is not solely for general interest or for my own edification, but it is so that I can better help my congregation as they learn to love God with heart and mind, and as they make sense of their existence, as they seek to understand and apply scripture to their everyday lives.  Seeing myself as a theologian allows me to ascend to the pulpit week in and week out and help my folks to understand and apply scripture, it helps my pastoral care as I minister to someone who is dying of cancer, it helps my exhortations as I seek to help people live into God’s desires.

Without adequate study and reflection, my sermons and teaching can become formulaic, simply regurgitating what I find in commentaries.  Without knowing the fundamentals of biblical Greek and Hebrew I am unable to understand the nuances of the original languages.  Without a theological lens or hermeneutic, I will tend to approach every piece of scripture as isolated and I will lack any coherent beliefs that hold consistent, and can be blown easily with any shift in the winds of change.  Without seeing myself as a theologian and scholar, my work to preach and teach the scriptures becomes trite and irresponsible.

My only hope is that we will be able to deepen our understanding of ministry and return to a focus on minister as pastor and teacher and not as the professional who runs the church.

How the Teacher Becomes the Student

The highest assembly of my denomination, the General Synod, meets annually in June. There are delegates which are elders and ministers, and there are corresponding delegates which can speak but not vote. Corresponding delegates are often people with particular expertise or particular experiences that make them valuable additions to General Synod and the denomination values their input. Among these corresponding delegates are those from the three colleges of the Reformed Church in America and from each of the regional synods.

These students are part of a program called “Call Waiting”. This is a program which guides them through the process of General Synod, but also guides them through an exploratory process of call — how and where they feel God calling them and leading them. It is a lofty goal to attain, but it is a process in which we seek to engage as deeply and authentically as possible. For the second year, I have had the privilege of leading the Call Waiting group.

I was recently asked what I enjoy about directing this program. My first response was that I appreciate General Synod and I enjoy helping others to appreciate it as well. While this is true, I do not think that this adequately describes why I truly enjoy directing this program. My true enjoyment comes from the other focus of the program: helping the participants to explore their call.

In order to do this, I choose various “calling” stories from scripture and invite them to reflect upon those stories, first bringing their life close to the story and eventually bring the story to their life. I never cease to be amazed at their insight, self-reflection, and grace. Many of these students have a faith which is very alive and which is very passionate. Some of these students were not raised in the faith but were gifted with faith later, others were born children of the covenant and have recently had the fire of faith rekindled within them, and still others of them have always felt near to the divine.

I am certainly not arrogant or self-centered enough to suppose that I help them to discover or understand their callings; rather, I try to create an environment where we invite God to do this for them. It is a privilege to be able to witness “light bulb moments,” when it is evident that something has “clicked” or that they experienced a revelation of some sort. It is also a great privilege to witness their struggling and wrestling, often things which are so personal and private.

I enjoy facilitating this program not only so that I can see the sparks of their faith, but because they also build up my faith.  At times my faith can be shopworn, and I find cynicism and lack of hope to be easy paths to go down.  However, when I work with these students, I find myself getting pulled back to a road of hope and I find my faith being restored.  It is by witnessing God working in these young people that I can sense God working in my own life as well.  It is seeing these young people who are so passionate about God, that I have a hope for not only our denomination, but also for the church in general.

I enjoy facilitating this program, not only because I have an opportunity to share my knowledge, my experience, and my passion, but I am also able to receive much more than I could ever offer.  I may offer these students some historical perspective, some basic operations of our church order and parliamentary procedure; however, these students, likely without realizing it, offer me hope and they do amazing things to restore and build up my faith.

That Which Gives Us Value

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From Jim VanMaastricht on Flickr

On Sunday mornings, I lead worship at my church.  I look out and look at my congregation.  Many of them are unemployed, some of them stay on the street, many of them struggle to make ends meet. Many in my congregation are visibly broken and noticeably hurting.  We collect an offering, because stewardship is important regardless of whether you are rich or you are poor.  Our offerings are never large, and they are never enough to cover the expenses of the church.  However, our offerings, even though they may be humble, are a honest and heartfelt offering to God in response to God’s goodness.

Many people may look at our church and see little value in it.  We are a small church, we are made up of simple people.  Those of us who are employed do not have particularly spectacular jobs.  We are not up on the latest fashion, and our building sometimes feels as though it’s held together with duct tape.  We have a relatively small number of people in worship on Sunday mornings, and we don’t offer a lot of other programs.  Many in my congregation are invisible people: no one wants to see them, no one cares to see them, no one wants to speak to them.

We like to jokingly talk about how we’re all kind of messed up, although that is quite true, the only difference between us and a church made of upper class folks is that our “messed up” nature is in the open.  Our congregation is made of up folks whom many people might look down their nose at, or will call a “social problem.”

It’s true, we are broken people, but I think that we’re honest about our brokenness.  We are imperfect people, but we don’t try to hide our imperfections (and often we cannot).  We are a people who are wholly dependent on the grace and provision of God, and we pray every day for our daily bread.

We are not a self-sustaining church, we don’t have many tangible resources to offer to other churches.  We are almost wholly reliant upon outside support by churches and individuals who think that what we do is important and that our ministry is valuable.  But what makes our ministry valuable?  What gives our ministry value?

Simply put, our church has value because those to whom and with whom we minister have value.  The folks in our neighborhood don’t have value because they have special skills that are particularly in demand, our folks don’t have value because they have resources which greatly benefit our church or the community, our folks don’t have value because they are especially theologically or biblically astute.  Our folks have value for one simple reason: they are made in the image of God.

When it comes down to it, though, isn’t that the only reason that any of us have value?  We have a relatively new cultural language when talking about the value of people.  We talk about “job creators” and why they are more important than others.  Sometimes people talk of a “productive class.”  We place a monetary value on people and regard them accordingly.  This narrative, however, is tragically false.  Any value that we have as people solely arises from the fact that we are made in the image of God, and we all equally share this value.

This is why our ministry has value: because we teach people that they have value.  One of my favorite things to do is to look someone in the eye and tell them, “You are made in the image of God.”  Not simply some abstract concept such as, “humankind is made in the image of God,” but a personal “you.”  I want people to know this and I want people to believe this. Everyone needs to have a sense of value and everyone needs to be able to have dignity.

Some people know this, but they don’t really believe it.  It is a difficult thing to believe.  It is difficult to believe that we have worth or value when no one seems to care much for you or about you.  When your landlord won’t fix anything in your flat, when you can’t get a call back after a job interview, when people are afraid to drive through your neighborhood, when people won’t shake your hand or sit next to you.

Sometimes this is difficult for me to remember as well.  Sometimes someone shows up at church in the same clothes they’ve been wearing for at least a week, sleeping under an overpass.  Sometimes they smell of alcohol.  Sometimes it is difficult to remember that these folks, too, are made in the image of God.  This understanding, this deep belief is crucial.  It is not simply a way to feel better about oneself, it truly forms the narrative in which you see yourself or others.

I always say that God meets us right where we are, but that God loves us too much to let us stay there.  Part of discipleship is to be transformed more and more into the image of Christ, it is to allow God to transform us into better people than we are.  This transformation is not so that we will have value, this transformation is because we already have value.  God doesn’t transform us in order to make it possible for God to love us, God transforms us because God loves us.

I love and care for my people not because they have great skills or can do great things.  I love and care for my folks because they have the highest value that one can claim, being made in the image of God.  None of us are valuable because of what we can do, or what we have.  We are valuable because we are children of God. This can be a difficult lesson, not only for others, but for ourselves as well. However, it is a lesson which we must continue to strive to learn, because it is only when we understand that our value or anyone’s value is in being children of God made in the image of God, that we will ever understand the value of ourselves or anyone else.

I almost gave up on someone, and I’m glad I didn’t

Under the bridge

From twbuckner on Flickr

Like many inner-city ministries, we often have people show up who are at various levels of intoxication.  We, as a rule, do not turn people away simply because they are drunk.  If people come to a worship service intoxicated, or show up to our Saturday morning breakfast program intoxicated, they are welcome to join us so long as they do not cause problems. We don’t encourage drinking, and we don’t encourage people to show up intoxicated.  However, it is difficult to minister to folks who are broken and hurting if you turn them away at the door.

I know a few people who have been alcoholics for most of their lives, and have been on the street for years.  One of these people is Steve (not his real name, of course).

Steve regularly comes to our Saturday morning program, and he often comes for worship on Sunday mornings.  Steve is involved with our church as well as a church a couple of blocks away.  Steve is one of those people that I assumed would live out the rest of his life on the street and in various degrees of intoxication.  I helped him get his photo ID after he was robbed, and I spend time and talk with him, minister to him, care for him and about him, but deep down, I have never really expected things to drastically change for him.

Today, however, I received a telephone call from the pastor at the other church with which he is involved (he brought me in because I am holding onto documentation for Steve that he needs). I was told that Steve had agreed to go into a Salvation Army treatment center for alcoholism.  This surprised me, particularly for someone who seemed so averse to treatment before.  I could almost hear the heavenly host singing about this news.

While this was wonderful news, it was also convicting news. I had all but given up hope that things would change for Steve.  In my mind, I sometimes gave up on trying to encourage Steve to change, and I kind of resigned myself to the fact that things will be what they are.  However, this was an important lesson for me on why we can never give up on people.  There is always more at work than we can see.

God never gave up on Steve.  We can’t give up on people, because God doesn’t give up on people.  Perhaps the most important thing that we can do is not to change people, but to commit to walking with people through their brokenness, always trusting that God is working in them even when we might not be able to readily see it.

The City and the Redemption of Creation

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

From AdamL212 on Flickr

I try not to talk or write about politics very often as a normal course of my ministry.  My congregation is composed of people of all political stripes, and I strongly believe that no one political ideology has a corner on the Gospel.  However, something has been disturbing me as of late about the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall campaigns. It appears that there is a new opposition in the race: the City of Milwaukee.  I have received mailings, at least twice a week, from the campaign of Governor Scott Walker.  I understand that politics is dirty business, and I understand that Mayor Tom Barrett (the mayor of Milwaukee) is the opposition candidate, and as such his record is up for criticism.  However, many of these mailings have criticized Barrett by criticizing Milwaukee.  Many of them have highlighted Milwaukee’s unemployment rate, Milwaukee’s school troubles, Milwaukee’s poverty rate.  In fact, in his primary victory speech, Walker said, “…we don’t want to be like Milwaukee, we want to be like Wisconsin…” (you can hear his speech here).  This anti-Milwaukee rhetoric is what bothers me most about the whole political climate in Wisconsin. Additionally, as an urban minister, this has served as a catalyst for my theological reflection on urban centers in general.

Right out of seminary, I was interested in urban ministry.  It was a pull that I cannot completely explain.  I grew up in a small town (no traffic lights, not even a blinking light), and a city was certainly not part of my upbringing.  It was a summer field practicum in an inner city ministry that I felt the internal urging to ministry in an urban setting.  I have found that among others, there is often a lot of fear about cities, particularly low income inner cities.  For some, it is the natural anxiety that accompanies the unknown; for others, they may have been taught that cities are dangerous places, bad places, even God-forsaken places.  I know the narratives that cities are riddled with crime, gangs, drugs, and debauchery of all sorts.

I am certainly not going to argue that cities are some kind of utopia, or a place where the Kingdom of God is more evident than in suburban or rural communities.  However, I grieve the fear and, at times, hostility to cities.  I do not feel called to urban ministry because cities are somehow more deserving or more important than other communities, but because I want to work against the history of churches moving out of urban communities into suburban communities which have tended (at least in the last fifty years) to be more homogenous and have a higher socio-economic level.

I believe that God is very present in cities, and that cities have played, and will continue to play, an important role in the church’s mission in the world.  Until recently cities have been the major centers for industry, business, living, and culture.  Every day as I walk the streets of Milwaukee, I see remnants of the thriving city that Milwaukee once was (and will hopefully become again).  Further, cities have been central to my denomination’s history.  It was in a city that our denomination was first established on this continent, and it is in cities that people continue to encounter Christ, and continue to be formed into disciples of Christ.  I think that there is something unique about a city and God’s work in cities.  In fact, in the vision of the redeemed and restored heaven and earth, we see the image of a city — the restoration of human relationships and the model of people living in harmony, peace, and wholeness together.

The cities that we know and experience are certainly no where near the ideal of people living together in peace and harmony, but this does not mean that they are completely lost.  Cities continue to hold great potential for the Gospel to be spread and for God’s redeeming work to be observed.  There is, to be sure, a great deal of suffering and brokenness in cities (as is the case everywhere), it just seems that in many ways, the brokenness of those in the inner-city is more visible.

This vivid description of a city, the ideal of what a city should be, in Revelation 21, tells us that God’s plan is not to abandon cities or to abolish cities, but God’s plan is to redeem cities.  I think this is something for us to learn from.  The church cannot abandon cities, the church cannot ignore cities, and the church cannot simply look the other way from cities and the challenges of cities.  As Christ’s body on earth, it is our job to follow God’s leading, and I think that, in part, God is calling us to work for the redemption of cities, to work for the restoration of cities, and to seek the peace and welfare of cities, because when our cities are thriving, we will thrive (Jeremiah 29:7).

Milwaukee is not the city of God, neither is any city here and now.  However, I still believe that in the new heaven and new earth, we will be living in a city, in the perfect city with perfect relationships.  Until that complete restoration happens, however, I will continue working in my neighborhood in my city, always looking toward the peace and harmony that we are created for.  If God’s work of redemption has already begun, then it stands to reason that we can see signs of it, even (or especially) in the midst of a big city.

Examining Students of Theology

Yesterday we had our Spring classis meeting (the classis is the regional assembly of ministers and elder delegates from churches [If you’re interested in the governance and structure of my denomination, there is information on its website), and at that meeting we have the opportunity to examine our enrolled students of theology.  These students are at various points in their Master of Divinity programs in seminary, but it is the responsibility of the classis to examine them to ensure that they meet the standards for ordination.  It is a process that every minister in the Reformed Church in America must go through, and in a lot of ways it is a rite of passage.

While I had my final classical exam in 2008, this is the first time that I have attended the examination of students as a minister and a member of classis.  This was also the first time in which I was able to participate in the examination as an examiner.  I was asked to examine the students in the field of Christian Education.  This experience allowed be to reflect more deeply on the process of classical examinations, particularly as I was not the one being examined.

There are some tendencies among ministers to put students to the screws just like we were when we were students.  Some ministers find enjoyment out of intimidating students, just as we were.  But there is a much deeper responsibility and privilege to classical examinations that makes it much more important than simply some kind of ecclesiastical hazing ritual.

Classical examinations are a time in which we are able to celebrate with the students what they have learned.  It is an exciting time which serves as the culmination of the year.  Because students are typically enrolled in the classis of their home church, it is a time for students to return home, to familiar faces, and to the people who first noticed and affirmed their call to ministry, to be able to celebrate with them their learning.  It is a time in which the classis can reaffirm their call to ministry, encourage them, and pray for them in a meaningful way.

It is also a heavy responsibility, because the classis is charged with ensuring that the students are not only learning, but that they are able to articulate it in an effective and orthodox manner.  Ministers are never imposed on the church from something outside the church, they are always grown from within the church, and the church serves as the final gatekeeper for ministers.  This experience also allows a time for the classis to determine if they have concerns about a student in any particular area(s), and to give them special guidance and assistance to help them in the area(s) where they have the most need.

The goal of classical examinations is not to keep people out, but rather, to ensure that our ministers are of a high quality.  My own view of classical examinations is that it should not be an unduly harsh experience or that we need to intimidate the students (in fact, these folks are quite literally a dying breed), but that we must take our responsibilities seriously.  We only have ourselves to blame for poor ministers, whether in knowledge, abilities, or personal piety.  As the church, we have the final say over who becomes a minister, and who does not.  We cannot take this heavy responsibility lightly.

It is important, therefore that we find a balance between being harsh and being lackadaisical.  We must take our responsibility seriously, but we must do it with good intentions, and a warm Christ-like heart.  We must ensure that our ministers are of a high caliber, but that we always encourage students in whom we have seen God’s call to ministry.  Although it can often be an anxiety-producing experience, classical examinations are a wonderful time, and an important task.  I am privileged to have been able to experience this again this year.

(On a side note, I am pleased that all of our students’ examinations were sustained, and they have all been extended a year-long license to preach.)

Our Greatest Need? Hope

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Photo by Pol Sifter on Flickr

Because of the nature of my ministry, and the fact that nearly all of our funding comes from outside sources, I find myself in contact with people from other churches in many different places and many different contexts.  There is a question that is asked by almost everyone is some variant of “what is the biggest need in your community?”  It is a great question, although it is a difficult one ton answer at times, because it is a complex question.

I used to answer with something like, “employment” or “accessibility to employment.”  While this is a great need, I do not think that it is actually the root of our challenges.  We do need jobs that people can be hired into off the street, and we need affordable reliable transit to get people there.  We also need adequate housing, and a deeper sense of community.  However, the greatest need that we have is something which is much more basic and central to humanity: Hope.

Hope is the basic need which helps us to continue on into the future.  It is the anticipation that things will be better, or at least the possibility that things can be better.  It is the expectation that there will be a tomorrow, and that tomorrow may very well be better than today.  It is the foundation of the human condition and it is the center of Christianity.

In my experience, many times folks look at those who are having children when they are young and unprepared, or look at people who sell drugs or other illegal goods, or look at people who abuse drugs or alcohol and assume that they have some sort of personal short-coming or deficiency, or blame their parents for not raising them properly.   This is, of course, a simplistic understanding that does not actually look at the issue at hand.  Hope, particularly lack of it, is the root of many of these challenges.

When we lack hope, we don’t know what the future holds, but it probably is not going to be any better than today, and in fact, it may be worse.  Sex makes us feel good, something which is rare and may not happen again.  We have opportunities to make a bunch of money pretty quickly, and we jump at the opportunity because that’s what I need right now.  We might sober up, but we’ll still be in the same crappy situation, just without our ability to escape.  Without hope, life does not have any purpose and does not have any future.  Without hope it is just me: fighting all alone.  Without hope, I have no reason to plan for the future, or work for anything better, because there is nothing better out there.

A lack of hope is something that even infects me.  I know that some of our people will spend the rest of their lives in cramped rooms in boarding houses without dressers, beds, couches or chairs, or curtains.  I know that others I know may likely never be able to secure gainful employment.  I know that our church will likely never become self-sustaining, and we will likely never transform our neighborhood into a place where people want to live and be.  The days in which I think like this are the most dangerous days for me, because as a pastor, I need to hold out hope, not just for me, but for those under my care.

The church, above all, needs to be an agent of hope for people who don’t have a lot of hope.  The Christian hope is not just that we look forward to a time in the new heaven and new earth when death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more (Revelation 21:4), but we also have hope that redemption and restoration are beginning now.  We have the hope that we can be changed, we have the hope that the world can be changed, we have hope that God has not abandoned the world, but that God is still very active in the world.  When we lack hope, we lose our ability to imagine a better future, and we lost our drive to work toward and to live into that better future.

Will things radically change in the future?  Probably not.  However, is it possible that things can change in the future?  Of course it is, this is the root of hope.  Hope can be difficult to hold on to when things rarely change for the better, but hope is indispensable.  Once we give up hope, we have given up on life.

The most important thing that our church can do is not to provide more clothing, or provide more food, the best thing that our church can do is to help provide people with hope.  Hope is in short supply in our neighborhood, and I pray every day that God will grant us a greater measure of hope so that we can truly live, which is more than simply existing.

Get up (or sit down) and eat!

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Photo by Hilbert 1958

As I am sure is the case with many clergy-type folks, Sunday mornings are incredibly draining for me.  When I deliver a sermon, I am not just giving a lecture, or a talk. I am pouring my whole being, my whole spirit, my whole emotional self, often times my whole being into the preaching moment.  A sermon is far more than an intellectual experience, it is an emotional experience.  There is a secret (that’s not so secret any longer), but every sermon that I preach is one that I need to preach to myself first and foremost.  Thus, each sermon has a lot of me invested and intertwined in it.

After church I spend time talking with folks, as we move downstairs.  Every Sunday our church has a meal after the service, due in large part to many caring churches that provide meals for our folks.  When all is said and done, my Sunday mornings are about five hours long, provided nothing goes longer than usual.  Of course, five hours is not that long, but for an extreme introvert like myself, it feels like an eternity.

I love people, I care about people, and I like spending time with people.  Although I like to think that perhaps I was called to be a hermit, that is simply not the case — I would not be able to survive.  What makes me an introvert, however, is that people drain me.  After a few hours of people-intensive time I find that I am exhausted — physically, emotionally, spiritually.  This is exacerbated on days when there is something else going on.  Some days the pressures of ministry weigh too heavily on me, other times I feel as though God is distant.

While everyone else is eating, I am usually around talking with folks, and helping with people who show up at the church and need something — often food or clothing.  I have a few parishioners who do something like this, but there is one in particular who always checks up on me,

“Did you eat?”  she says.
“Not yet, but I will.” I say.
“Okay, just make sure that you eat.” She then gives me a look to let me know that she’s serious.

Often times I don’t eat, and she’ll check up with me again.  Sometimes she even brings me a plate of food and tells me to sit and eat.

This interaction which happens regularly brings to mind the story of when Elijah is fleeing from Jezebel:

Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.  But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. (1 Kings 19:3-9, NRSV).

Now, there are many important differences.  First, I am not Elijah; secondly, I am not fleeing for my life; and thirdly, I am not going on a long journey on foot.  Some smaller differences are that Elijah sat down under a broom tree and fell asleep, whereas I am moving around here and there: talking with this person and that person, picking things up, and checking on things.

However, what is happening between the angel and Elijah and this parishioner and me is very similar.  My parishioner knows that I need to eat, that I need to take time from doing and I need to receive nourishment.  She knows that I need to take care of myself, and that ministry is a difficult calling.  She knows that I struggle sometimes, and I would guess that she knows that I cover up my struggles with busying myself.  She knows that I, too, need someone to care for me.

I find it interesting that the angel didn’t rebuke Elijah.  The angel didn’t tell him to “buck up”, nor did the angel tell him to “suck it up” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”  The angel simply said, “get up and eat” and brought him food.  It was with this angel that ministered to him that he was able to make it to Horeb, and that he was able to have that intimate experience with God that follows.

In the same way, this particular parishioner doesn’t do any of these things to me.  She simply asks if I’ve eaten, and she often brings me food.  I don’t know if she thinks of this passage, and I don’t know if she even realizes that she is ministering to me in her actions.  It is quite possible that she just wants to make sure that I eat, because she knows I’m hungry.  Regardless of whether she realizes what she’s doing or not, I am thankful to have someone to minister to me when I’m beneath a broom tree in the desert.