Tag Archives: Calling

The tension of the green season

Sunday begins the long season after Pentecost with the green liturgical color. As a young child, I remember that we called it “the growing season.” Which fits both with the color and with the orientation.

We call this season “ordinary time,” that is, there is nothing special. No Christmas, no Easter, no Pentecost. No special days whatsoever to provide a change in movement. It is a long season that plods along as it passes. It reminds me of the monotony that often accompanies life.

The beginning of the “growing season” also coincides with the General Synod, the annual meeting of the broadest assembly in my communion, the Reformed Church in America. I have the privilege of attending each year to shepherd a group of young people through what is happening at the synod and how it may impact their own sense of call. This also affords me a somewhat unique perspective as I have been able to be in attendance at every synod for the past five years.

Each year, I can feel my anxiety rise. Each year, I think, this will be the year that everything falls apart. And each year the deliberations are intense and filled with passion. Each year I am happy about some things and less than happy about others. But each year we leave as the same communion as we entered.

***

My greatest strength, as I see it, is my deep passion. However, this is also my greatest weakness. I have never been afraid to be outspoken on a variety of topics. While I strive to avoid insult and divisiveness, my convictions come through. While I strive to have reasoned and balanced positions and arguments, at times my enhanced anxieties try to take the driver’s seat.

The season of General Synod is always a difficult one. It is filled with joy and sadness, with worry and confidence, with hope and despair. It is a season where I try to tame the passions so as not to get carried off in fear and forget the greater scheme of things. It is a season where I try to take a long view, a view consistent with the greater kingdom/queendom of God.

It is important for me to remember that I serve a sovereign God who cannot be thwarted by anything that I, or the General Synod, can do. It is important for me to remember that just because something doesn’t work out the way that I would prefer it to, doesn’t mean that God did not direct the proceedings.

In short, it is a growing season for me.

These are lessons that are central to my formation as a follower of Christ, and as someone who is called to reflect the image of God.

The General Synod meets beginning on June 9. Please pray for us that we can wrestle and struggle together, trusting one another and trusting God. Please pray for us that we can listen for and pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit. And please pray for me, that I might be able to grow in my capacity to display grace and love.

“… if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God” it will come to completion.

Thanks be to God.

 

Wait…Where are we going?

Sermon originally delivered to the Calvary Reformed Church of New Berlin, Wisconsin. Text: Genesis 15:1-18.

It is one thing to hear about the promises of God, or to read about the promises of God. It is another thing altogether to really feel and understand the promises of God. Especially when you are in a difficult place. It can be hard to think that God has a purpose when it seems like you’re just moving this pile of bricks from here to there and back again, or when you are facing seemingly endless health problems, or when you feel trapped. It can be hard to believe that God has a purpose when you look around and see the sparse sanctuary. It can be hard to believe that God has a purpose when this world seems to only tear itself apart.

It is easy to read about the promises of God, it is easy to hear about the promises of God, but when things don’t seem to be working, when things don’t seem to be turning out, it can be really hard to truly believe the promises of God.

But surely this is just a problem for us? Right? Surely this didn’t happen with the great patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith? Right? Well, maybe not.

Abram — later to become Abraham — is the perfect example of faith, I would always think. You see, when God told him to get up and move out of his country, away from his home, and move to the other side of the world — at least what he would have understood to be the world. What did Abram do?  Genesis never reported him ever saying a word, just that he got up, packed up his tent, gathered his flock together, loaded his camels, and he and his wife Sarai headed off to a new land that they did not know, filled with people that they did not know, who spoke a language which he did not know. At the command of God, Abram just packed up and went. The perfect exemplar of faith.

Abram goes up and settles in what would be the Promised Land. There was a famine, though, and so he moved to Egypt, a major world power, where he would have access to food and resources. He did well there, although he had a little run-in with the Pharaoh — the ruler of Egypt — who sent him away. Abram went back to settle in Canaan, the land that God Promised to his descendants, while his nephew, Lot, settled elsewhere. God told him to get up again, and to walk the length and breadth of the land. So Abram got up, and he wandered all around, and finally made camp.

Up until this point, the relationship between God and Abram had been pretty straightforward. God speaks, Abram listens. God commands, Abram obeys. Abram, the perfect exemplar of faith. But we must keep reading, because the story of Abram doesn’t end there, and there is certainly more than what we have seen thus far. Abram, gets to a point where he says, “Wait…I don’t quite understand this.”

***

Twice in our passage today, we see Abram asking God some overdue questions. All this time, God has been telling Abram that he will be the father, the patriarch of a great nation. Abram, at this time, is very old, he is tired, and he knows that he likely doesn’t have a huge amount of time left. I can imagine Abram would begin to be concerned, after all, he didn’t have any children. So if he didn’t have any children, and he was going to the father of a great nation, it obviously couldn’t be his children, but it must be a servant in his house. I mean, it surely wouldn’t have added up to Abram.

“Uh…God?” Abram responded, “You keep telling me about all of these descendants that I’m going to have, but I don’t have any children…so how, exactly, is this going to work?” To answer, God points up to the sky and tells him, “Look up and count the stars. This is how many your descendants will be.”

And Abram believed. This is what is interesting, is that Abram believed. Abram “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

God then told Abram, “I am the God who brought you from your home, and gave you this land for your descendents.” God reminded Abram that he has followed God so much already, reminding Abram of what God has done, and what God has promised.

Now, we are told that Abram believed, but he is not yet done asking questions.

“But how do I know this?” Abram asked.

Suddenly this Abram that I had mentioned in the beginning of this message, this Abram who is the perfect example of faith because he never asked questions, this Abram is gone. We’re left with another Abram. We are left with an Abram that believes, but yet has questions. Abram doesn’t really do anything that exciting or earth shattering himself, Abram is just another guy who sometimes does great things, who other times makes great mistakes and has been given an inkling of faith, who has simply been shown the immense grace of God. Abram is replaced with, well, a human being who is not that different from you or I.

We are left with this Abram who wonders how all of this is going to be accomplished because things just aren’t making sense.

You see, Abram believes, but he also seems to be wondering, can I trust God? Can God really do this? Is God telling the truth?  Abram believes, but this doesn’t mean that all of his questions or uncertainties vanish. Abram has questions for God, and God gives him some answers, but not quite the answers, or in the form, that he was expecting.

Does this sound familiar? God says, “Go!” and we go. At some point, though, we begin to ask, “Wait…where are we going and how are we getting there?”

So Abram asked this question, and how does God respond?

God tells Abram to get a cow. Rather than telling Abram, God decides to show him something.

Now in the ancient world, a covenant — which is like a contract — was made in several different ways, one of them was to take an animal, cut it into pieces, and each of the parties would walk between the animal pieces. The unspoken message, then, is that if one of the parties breaks the covenant, they will end up like these animal pieces. Pretty gruesome, I know, but also very powerful. We’d probably take our commitments a little more seriously if we had to walk through animal pieces.

So Abram gets a cow, as well as several other livestock, and goes beyond what was told of him and he cuts them in two. Abram knows what’s going on here.

Abram them falls into a deep sleep and he has a vision and a torch and a smoldering pot pass through the animal pieces. It’s a common covenant ceremony, except Abram didn’t pass through the pieces, this covenant was one-sided, that is God promised these things to Abram, and God takes on the responsibility to fulfil them.

I think that this part of the story is quite telling. Abram, the person on whom God chooses to lay all of the promise for the world. The person that God chooses to carry on that promise. God chooses to put all of God’s chips into one person, and that person is Abram.  This person suddenly begins asking questions about what is going on. “How is this going to work?” Abram asks. “How do I know that you’re telling the truth?” Abram asks.

This isn’t surprising, after all, Abram is human, human like you and I.  This is not really that insightful at all. What is insightful about this is how God responds. God not only tolerates his questions, God is open to his questions, God responds to his questions, God seems to welcome his questions. God could have become frustrated with Abram, and decided to start over with someone else, someone who wouldn’t ask questions. But God doesn’t do this, not in the slightest.

***

And it is in this story that we are able to see the developing relationship between God and God’s people. God is not just a deity who commands, but does not otherwise involve Godself, no, God is deeply connected with God’s people, relationally so.

And while it would have been much easier for Abram if God would have just given him a vision that would clearly show how things would have played out, that’s not what happened. God gives him a little bit, and a little bit. Look at the stars, see me make a promise to you in a way that you understand. This does not take the place of faith, but it confirms faith.

As the writer of Hebrews tells us,

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:8-16, NRSV.)

So when the promises are hard to believe, when they seem distant and unfounded, when you look around and you don’t see a path forward, remember Abram. Remember his questions, his conversations, and remember our gracious God who welcomed his questions and interacted with him.

So take heart, brothers and sisters, for you are in good company. And keep watch for those glimpses of the promise. Perhaps they won’t be obvious as a smoking pot and a flaming torch passing through split animals, but God continues to give glimpses of God’s promises to be viewed and accepted in faith.

Take heart, brothers and sisters, and let us remember the story of Abram, and let us gaze upon the steadfast promises of the Divine in faith.

“Do you love me?” – Sunday’s Sermon

Christ’s Charge to St. Peter by Raphael

It has been quite an emotionally exhausting few days for the disciples. The entry into Jerusalem was followed by extraordinary events in the temple, a Passover meal unlike any other, an intense experience in the Garden of Gethsemane, and unexpected betrayal from one of their own, an armed arrest, a series of denials, a pro forma trial, a jeering mob, and a bloody execution. This is followed by an immense feeling of defeat and disappointment, and perhaps even some shame, in the wake of what happened. Only a few days later they find out that Jesus didn’t stay dead, that the tomb was empty — not only that, but the alive-again Jesus even showed up a couple of times.

There are only so many emotional ups and downs, only so much emotional turmoil, only so many waves of such strong emotions that a human can take. They were overwhelmed, and likely not even sure what to make of the last few days.

“Let’s go fishing!” one of them says.

This is the sensible thing, after all. This was their trade, their career, before Jesus uttered those magical words, “follow me.”

Back to something they know, a semblance of routine, of order, of their past life. It was a life, which although not necessarily perfect, was theirs, it was a life that they had lost when they started following Jesus and it probably seemed as if it would finally be theirs again.

So they go out fishing. They are fishing at night, which is not unheard of. Fishing at night can be very productive. It is quiet and still. Standing up in the boat, and very still, so not as to cause too much motion to scare the fish. There is a torch which offers them light. The night is ending, and the day is breaking, the sun rising just above the horizon.

There was a man standing on the shore, who we know is Jesus but they didn’t know this — at least not yet. And this man yells out, “You don’t have any fish, do you?” The disciples reply back, “No, we don’t.”  The man yells back, “Cast your net on the other side of the boat,” perhaps seeing a grouping of fish.

So they cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and they found fish, just as the man had said. In fact, a lot of fish. The fish filled the nets, completely, but the nets don’t break, and they haul all of it into the boat. The disciple whom Jesus loved, a peculiar title only found in the Gospel of John, squints into the horizon at the man. “It’s the Lord!” he shouts to them.

Peter, then, scrambles to compose himself, to ensure that he is properly dressed, and he dives in the water. The other disciples row the boat in along with all of those fish.

When they get there, they see that Jesus has already started a barbeque grill — charcoal, they didn’t have gas then — and the coals are already heated and there are a few fish and some bread already on the grill.

“Bring some of the fish you caught,” Jesus tells them. So Peter goes to the boat and drags in all of those fish, and they place a few of them on the grill.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus invites them. Jesus then hands out bread and fish.

Now, this was the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised.  Notice, that all of these appearances include physical activities. Touching, eating, drinking, making a barbeque grill, giving them advice on where to throw their net. This is so that we can know that Jesus was not just a vision or a ghost — after all, ghosts don’t eat, and visions don’t know where the fish are. So Jesus is in all of these very real and very physical situations to prove to the disciples that he is real, and they are recorded in these stories so that the readers will know this as well.

They are eating, and they were likely conversing as well, sharing stories, sharing good times, talking about what has happened, all that has gone on, all that they have been through. As Jesus sat with them in the circle, perhaps he notices something…he only sees ten people in the circle, and that Peter is missing.

Perhaps Peter sat outside of the circle, his back against a tree while the other disciples gathered.  Remember Peter denied Jesus, just as Jesus had told him he would. He said that he didn’t know Jesus, he promised that he didn’t know Jesus, he even swore an oath that he didn’t know Jesus.  All of which were lies, though, lies because he wanted to save his own skin. Perhaps Peter thought that lying would afford him a sense of security or stability that he wouldn’t have had he told the truth and told him that he was a student, and even a friend, of this Nazarene who had just been arrested.

Chances are he wasn’t readily accepted back into the circle. You know what I’m talking about, perhaps they included him, but didn’t really and fully include him. They let him hang out with them, but they would all exchange glances with one another — each one knowing what they were thinking — but leaving Peter out of the real loop.

So perhaps Peter was on the outside, physically and literally as well as metaphorically, with what happened clearly burned on his conscience. You don’t usually forget those things. He didn’t know how to move past it, he didn’t know how he could continue. I would imagine that he was conflicted — wanting nothing more than to see Jesus, but not really knowing how to do so — he probably had a lot of shame internalized — not just guilt, but shame.

Jesus goes up to him, and as he approaches, Peter looks away, not really being able to look him in the eye.

Jesus says to him, “Simon Peter, son of John” (so that there could be no confusion at all about who Jesus was talking to), “do you love me more than these?”

We don’t know what Jesus was referring to as “these”, but perhaps Jesus was waving his arm over their fishing equipment, over the nets, the boat, everything that Peter uses in his trade (Barclay). Perhaps Jesus is saying, do you love me more than your trade, more than your boat and your nets, more than your sense of stability and success, more than your ability to feel secure, more than your ability to live your own life and do your own thing, do you love me more than this?

Peter looks up, tentatively, and says, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus replies, “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus asks again, “Do you love me?”

Peter looks at him again, and says with even more passion, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus replies, “Tend my sheep.”

Jesus asks yet again, “Do you love me?”

Peter is hurt because Jesus asked him yet again if he loves him. Perhaps Jesus didn’t believe him, perhaps Jesus was still angry about the denials. Perhaps he will never be included again.

Peter says even more earnestly and with even more passion, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.”

Jesus replies, “Feed by sheep.”

Jesus then offers a familiar invitation, one that he heard a while ago, in what must have seemed to be a previous life, “follow me.”

I don’t know if Peter realized it or not, but something very important happened here. Perhaps you didn’t even notice it.

Just a few days before this, Peter was asked, a seemingly simple and innocent question, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” a woman asked.  Peter looked around, seeing that she was talking to him, and he shook his head, “no, I am not.”

Two more times he was asked if he was a follower of Jesus, and two more times he said, “no.” It wasn’t until afterward that he realized what just happened.  Just as Jesus said, just as Peter himself said would never happen.

So here in our story today, Peter was asked three questions, “do you love me” and this time Peter was able to answer them all “Yes, I do.”  Peter was asked, “Do you love me?” for each time that Peter said, “I don’t know him.”

This is what is so interesting about this story, and what is so important about how God operates.  This is how God interacts with us. Peter could have just said, “sorry” and Jesus could have just said, “Don’t worry about it, it’s nothing.”  But it was something, it was something to Peter, it was something that he couldn’t forget, it was something that he went over and over again in his mind.

Jesus, then, takes this horrible thing that he cannot get rid of, he takes this moment which is etched in his mind, and he turns it into something good. Jesus took denial and transformed it into a moment for a wonderful expression of love.

And then Jesus issues an invitation, an invitation that leads us all the way back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he first called the disciples with these same words, “follow me.”

Jesus takes his shame, takes his less than stellar actions, and transforms them into something new, something good, something life giving.

But it wasn’t only then that this happened, this also speaks to us now.  I think that we are invited to see ourselves in Peter. We are invited to see ourselves in Peter’s unsteady faith, we are invited to see ourselves in Peter’s denials, when we find that the easiest way is just to say, “I do not know him.”  But we are also invited to see ourselves in this moment of Peter’s reinstatement, when Jesus takes the thing that likely bothers Peter the most, turns it around into something good, and then does something which Peter may never have expected, he issued an invitation to follow, again. Jesus was welcoming him back into the fold. Reinstating him as a disciple.

Jesus does the same with us. We too have denied Jesus in words and actions, we have lived like we don’t know Jesus, like we don’t follow Jesus. Sometimes we recognize when we do this, many times we do not. At some point we will realize it, and we will be overcome with guilt and sometimes even shame. I hear it all the time. “I’ll come to church when I get my life together,” “I need to work through some things before I come to God,” “I’ve done some really bad things in my life,” people have told me. I think that all of us can relate to these things in our past that hang heavy over our heads.

But Jesus comes up, and doesn’t say, “don’t worry about it,” Jesus doesn’t just say, “It’s okay…” Jesus comes to us and says, “Do you love me more than all of this?”  “Do you love me?”  “Do you love me?”  And just when we think that Jesus may never forgive us, when we think that Jesus doesn’t believe us, when we think that we will never find redemption, Jesus offers us an invitation, perhaps one that we have heard before, perhaps not, and he says, “follow me.”

When the loss feels more significant than the gain

it's lonely at the top

By Benefit of Hindsight on Flickr

“I can’t do this anymore,” I told my beloved.
“Can’t do what anymore?” she said.
“I can’t do any of this — alone — anymore,” I replied.

* * *

The preaching moment is a fantastic example of the consequences of pastoral ministry. During the preaching moment, regardless of whether the sermon is delivered from the pulpit or standing on the floor in the midst of a seated congregation, the clergyperson stands alone. The congregation is seated, typically silent, listening to the clergyperson expounding on sacred scripture.  The moment of focus is almost completely on the person preaching.

For those who appreciate the spotlight, the lure of preaching, and consequently ministry, is strong. The authority given to members of the clergy, the authority with which the preacher speaks, and the authority on which the message rests is unique amongst public speaking moments.

The lure of attention, the lure of the ability to speak in an authoritative manner, the lure of being the focus is great — often inescapable.  This is the temptation that some of us face, to leap headfirst into pastoral ministry because of the idea that we have about it.  Like many other professions, the reality is much different than the ideal.

* * *

When one stands alone apart from the congregation, one is truly alone, much like in the service for Ordination of a Minister of Word and Sacrament

In the preaching moment, the clergyperson is not actually apart from the body of Christ, but holds a particular role within the body of Christ. Although theologically, the pastor is not at the top, functionally, this often happens this way, and as the idiom goes, “it’s lonely at the top.”

I lost the ability to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the body of Christ, I lost the ability to be ministered to each week, I lost the privilege of being able to fully enter into the worship experience each week, I lost the ability to hold up and be held up by the body of Christ, as I now have to be very selective of those to whom I go for care and support.

* * *

Ministry is a privilege, but it is a privilege that comes with great loss, and many times that loss feels much greater than that which is gained.  Perhaps this is a hidden grace, to learn to cope with loss and still to learn to see God.

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.

A Cross in my Hand

I have a cross which is designed to be held in one’s hand. It was given to me when I was installed as pastor and teacher at my church. It has rounded corners and it is smooth to the touch.  It is unfinished and it is designed to absorb the oils from hands over time.

The cross is a somewhat strange symbol to wear and to put on our walls and to hold in our hands, but it is a fitting symbol.

The cross is not a symbol of death, but it is a symbol of new life.  It is not a symbol of defeat, it is a symbol of victory. It is not a symbol which is exclusive to Christianity, but when viewed through a Christian lens, it becomes a wonderful symbol for the life of faith.

The cross is an object which helps me to reflect on the words of Jesus, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38, NRSV).

This is an interesting theme in Christianity: those things which often seem to be defeat, those things which often seem to be death, those things which often seem to be destruction are not ultimately what they seem — they lead to something much greater: life more abundant, victory more victorious, re-creation much more beautiful.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…” (Phil. 3:10, NRSV).

The cross is a symbol of our walk with Jesus and the road which is often laden with sufferings and trials.  I am learning that the point of the journey is not to avoid sufferings, but to learn to see God in the midst of them and to give thanks.

The cross is not simply a bridge to heaven, as some describe it.  It is an affirmation that we too must take on things which do not seem to be life-giving, we must take on suffering at times (not simply for the sake of suffering, but following God’s calling for us, even if it may lead to temporal suffering).  The cross is a symbol of the affirmation that “I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1).

It is a reminder that things are not always what they seem.  It is a symbol that life and liberation are what God desires for us and are what God will accomplish, but that sometimes they come through the guise of suffering.

It is a reminder to me that God has called me to be faithful — not happy.

It is a reminder to all of us that there is more at work than what we can see or understand, that God has desires which are slowly unfolding, and that we all play but a small role in this narrative.

I hold this cross in my hands, hoping for the glory of God to be revealed.  Hoping that God will bring peace. Hoping that God will bring resurrection and restoration to this lost and broken world, and my lost and broken life.

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.

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.)

Ministry is terrific…or is it terrible?

There is someone who would often ask me, “so how was work with God today?”  This was of course referring to the fact that I am a pastor and with the assumption that I get the ability to spend every day in some kind of special divine fellowship.  This is true insofar as we all, in some way, spend everyday in divine fellowship.  However, my experience being a pastor of a church, so far, is not a deeply spiritual experience which is always life giving. I find much of my time as a pastor to be an experience of suffering.

I often wonder if suffering is part of the calling to ministry, something that we did not often talk about in seminary.  I am often reminded of the biblical predecessors of ministers.  It is important for me to say at the outset, that I am not attempting to equate myself or other current pastors or ministers with any of these figures.  However, the following characters are the closest role to ministers.

Moses had a profound experience of pastoral burnout: Exodus 33:12-16.  In this passage, Moses had it with the Israelites and Moses tells God very clearly that if God doesn’t show up and take care of the people, that Moses and the Israelites are not going anywhere.  Moses told God that the Israelites were God’s people, and God better start acting like it.

Later, we can Elijah defeated and killed the false prophets of Baal and Jezebel sends a message to him that she is going to kill him.  Elijah becomes afraid and flees to the wilderness where he sits under a broom tree with the intent to die (1 Kings 19:1-10).  In fact, we can see that many of the biblical prophets were subjected to great suffering.  Ezekiel and Daniel were taken captive from the land that God had given them to a foreign land that worshiped foreign gods.  There was no other way to feel more distant from God than to be taken away from the promised land.

Jeremiah’s life was one long stream of horrible events.  Jeremiah obviously suffered.  If there is any doubt of this, chapter 20 puts this to rest.  Jeremiah uses very strong language in his lament:

“O Lord, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughing-stock all day long;
everyone mocks me” (v. 7, NRSV).

“Cursed be the day
on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man
who brought the news to my father, saying,
‘A child is born to you, a son’,
making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities
that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning
and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb for ever great.
Why did I come forth from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?” (vv. 14-18, NRSV)

Jeremiah spent much of his career proclaiming the destruction of Jerusalem, condemning them for their unfaithfulness.  Obviously, people did not like him for this, for who likes to hear doom, gloom, and destruction? He was mocked, ridiculed, abused, imprisoned, and left for dead, and he was subsequently rescued from death so that he could continue his career of delivering denunciations.

Even further, it is quite clear that going to Nineveh was the last thing that Jonah wanted to do, and the outcome of his time there was also not very pleasing to him.

I find it interesting that terrific and terrible, although used in very different ways and have very different connotations, actually mean close to the same thing, in fact, they are from the same root.  I realize that this is likely the result of a semantic shift, but I find it interesting that the meanings of these words, the way that they are popularly used, are often conflicting.  According to Merriam-Webster, Terrific can mean very bad, very good, or extraordinary.  Terrible can mean very bad, formidable, or great as in really big.

I think that ministry is a terrific, and terrible calling.  It is something that is extraordinary, it is something that can be good, but is can also seem to be very bad, additionally, it is also something very weighty.  At times, I wonder if I misinterpreted God’s call because I have so many challenges and sufferings, however, this need not be the case.  Many ministers that I know go through similar sufferings, many prophets and others in the Bible called to similar ministries were also people of suffering.  Perhaps suffering is not necessarily the symptom of disobeying God, but perhaps suffering can be also be a symptom of obeying God.

I think about the “dark night of the soul” that St. John of the Cross wrote about, and he wrote about it as a blinding light, which makes everything else look darker, and a person is, in a sense, blinded until the person can become accustomed to the brightness.  In the story of Paul’s conversion in the book of Acts, Paul (actually Saul at the time) witnessed the risen Jesus in a bright flashing light that temporary blinded him (9:3-9).

I find it interesting that amongst the prophets, almost no one responded to God’s call with excitement, and no one sought it out.  There is something terrible, and terrifying about God’s call.  A calling to ministry should be something that is acquiesced to, not sought after.  Often the only thing that keeps me going is that I feel like there is nothing else for me to do other than ministry.  People often ask me why I wanted to go into ministry.  This is, of course, the wrong question.  Rather than asking about my desire to be in ministry, the question should be why I felt as though I needed to go into ministry.  I never desired to go into ministry, I desired to be used by God however God would desire, and ministry is the way that I felt God leading me so that I could be used by God. There is life to be found in it, but it is not all, or even mostly life giving, and these are some of the sacrifices that we must give for the sake of the gospel.