Tag Archives: Minister of Word and Sacrament

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.

 

Hurry as an Enemy of Faith

I’m back!  It has been a busy week, pastorally speaking.  We had a sudden death in our congregation and the pastoral tasks that go along with something of the like are great. My days (and nights) have been so consumed with work that I have not been able to even think about my blog which has been sitting sadly idle.  I, however, am back to regular life, and I am back to writing.  I try not to make too many extended absences, but alas, pastoral life is often unpredictable.

This past week, despite my resolution to slow down this Advent, was not able to slow down. I was logging thirteen to sixteen hour days, my mind was always consumed with the details of the memorial services, details of the upcoming and regular worship service, details with some of the Christmas activities at church. How was I going to get everything done? How was I going to get both sermons done? How were we going to have enough space to hold all of the activities we need to do?  On top of this, we are having guests visit the church, who grew up in the Presbyterian church to which our building formerly belonged, and I don’t want them to think bad things about me, or us, because our building is cluttered and with so much deferred maintenance.

Not only were my early mornings and late nights consumed with these concerns, so were my dreams.

I nearly forgot that it was Advent, I nearly forgot about Advent as a season of preparation, and as a season of repentance, a season of hope and expectation. I nearly forgot to stop and listen to God.

I am eager to blame everything that is going on, I am eager to blame all of the things that I have to do for this. I am eager to point to the fact that I have so much to do, and this is the reason why my own experience and my own formation as a disciple of Christ had been pushed to the back burner.

The culprit, however, was not necessarily busy-ness, but rather hurry.

Hurry is an interesting concept Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, defines “hurry” in many ways, among them: “to carry or cause to go with haste” and “to perform with undue haste.”  Noticeably absent is the mention of outside forces, that the problem of hurry is outside of us.

Hurry is a state of being, it is an outlook, often times, it is an orientation to life.

Hurry is the insidious enemy of delighting in God. I think of Mary and Martha — Martha so busy and frustrated at Mary for not helping, and Mary who simply sat at the feet of Jesus — and it was Martha who was admonished! (Luke 10:38-42). I think of John the Baptizer, an individual who must have seemed crazy at the time (and if we saw him today, we would be certain he had a psychiatric disorder), who preached in the wilderness to prepare the way for Jesus (Luke 3:1-18; Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8).  When asked for particular ways to repent, John told them that if someone had two coats, to give one to someone who did not have one, if someone had food, to share with someone who did not.

It takes an unhurried worldview to listen to God, to travel out into the wilderness to listen to what may seem like rantings of the insane, to share with those who lack because it takes time to notice them.

How many times have I passed someone on the street, sometimes even without noticing, because I was hurried? I dare not even guess a number.

Keri Wyatt Kent uses the image of a jar of river water, all shaken up, to speak about a hurried life. River water contains all sorts of sediment, particles, minerals, and murky, when it settles, the water is able to become clear (Deeply Loved, ch. 25). The problem with Martha is not that she was busy, it was that she was living in a state of hurry, so much so that she was unable to experience and enjoy the gift that she had with Jesus in her home.

Last week, I was busy, that is to be sure. however, the bigger problem is that I was hurried, and this hurry is something we must always work against, because hurry pulls us away from God, away from the experience of God, and distracts us from the fullness of what we are called to: love for God and love and care for others

This Advent, I will begin to remove hurry from my life, even when I am busy, and I invite you to do the same.

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This post is in the Deeply Loved Advent Blog Hop Series hosted by Angie Mabry-Nauta

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Being faithful with my little

I often find myself frustrated. I have been given very little.  I have very little in terms of number of people in my congregation, very little in terms of my facilities, exceptionally little in terms of financial resources, and little in terms of other resources in my congregation and community.

I don’t want to have little, I want to have much. I want to have a resourceful congregation. I want to have a big and beautiful building that will make people want to stop in if nothing other than to see the facility. I want to have a church which has a large endowment so that I can have some sort of stability and that we can follow God’s leading without having to worry about from where the money for the electric bill will come. I want to have a community in which people want to live, and where people have jobs and some sort of stability.

I often find myself dissatisfied and think about moving on to somewhere else. This is one of the problems with our governance. I am not placed, I interview and accept a call, if offered. As such, it feels much like looking for secular employment. I decide where I want to apply to. I interview, if they like me, they will extend a call which I can decide whether or not to accept.  While these procedures do have to pass through the regional assemblies, in practice, the bulk of the processes reflect secular employment. I have no term of service, I was not obviously placed here by the church.

Because of this, I feel like I can sometimes just leave and go to greener pastures.  To those type of churches in which I always imagined I would pastor. However, this is not just dependent on me. I have to believe that God placed me where I am for a reason. I am a servant of the sanctuary, after all.

“‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much'” (Luke 16:10, NRSV).

This is a sobering verse.

A judgement, almost.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little…”

Perhaps it is not a mistake that I am here. Perhaps my desires have run rampant. Perhaps my desires for more, my desires for much are too much too soon. Perhaps I am not fit, at least right now, for much.

I find myself sometimes jealous of others who have much. This makes me want to search the parish openings, freshen up my profile, and try to move somewhere else with much.

Perhaps, however, I am not in the wrong place. Perhaps I am in precisely the right place. Perhaps what is wrong is my pining for more. Perhaps I desire more than I ought to. Perhaps I have little because that is all I can have now. Perhaps God is actually smarter than I, and knows that I am not yet ready for much. Perhaps I am being taught how to be faithful with little.

Please, O God, help me to be faithful with my very little, and banish my desire for much.

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.

Reflections on One Year of Ordained Ministry

One year ago today I stood in front of the president of the classis, the regional assembly in my denomination.  Behind me sat the members of the classis, and behind them sat family and friends who had come to share this special day.

Of particular significance was the part of the service which is traditionally called “The Interrogation”, although that term is rarely used any longer. It is a time in which the power differential is very visible.  The presiding officer stands behind a lectern on the chancel, and I stood on the floor looking upward.  When I was examined by the classis, I stood with others.  When I made my declaration as a licensed candidate (the intermediate stage between “candidate” and “minister”) I stood with others.  This particular day, however, I stood alone.

There was no one around to answer for me, I could not hide behind anyone.  Even more significant, was that there was no one to lean on, either.

Do you confess together with us and the church throughout the ages your faith in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

This was the moment to which I had felt called, for which I prepared.  This was the culmination of three academic degrees, three years of ecclesiastical examinations following the academic ones, and two years of interviewing with churches.  It was an exciting moment, but also a sobering moment, as I felt a weight on my shoulders that slowly increased with each additional question.

Do you believe in your heart that you are called by Christ’s church, and therefore by God, to this ministry of Word and sacrament?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

Much like my wedding, it was a moment that would set a particular course for my life, and there was no turning back after this. While I do not come from a tradition where ordination is understood to ontologically change someone, we ordain people for life, because in the declaration for Ministers, following the ordination, the newly ordained minister says, “I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ…” Although I remain the same person after the ordination, my place in life and in the church is radically altered.

Do you believe the books of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and the perfect doctrine of salvation, rejecting all contrary beliefs?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

For the previous several years I had been learning, exploring, dialoguing, engaging.  That day, however, was different.  I had no opportunity to defer, to qualify, to write an essay. I did not have the opportunity to confer with colleagues or do further reading or research. It was a scary moment to make a declarative statement, particularly for someone who prefers to consider, think, read, write, and confer.

Will you proclaim the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; upholding the witness of Holy Scripture against all schisms and heresies?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

I immensely miss the academic environment. I miss the community of scholarship, I miss the intellectual growth that happens, I miss the regular evaluation, and I miss the ability to explore. Parish ministry exists in a different world. It is a world in which one statement, thought to be interesting, may be kept and used as a weapon at a later time. It is a place where a person has only one chance to say the right thing. It is a world in which rejections continue to happen, with the absence of comments or suggestions on how to improve or even explanations. What is more, parish ministry is a world in which I cannot barricade myself in a library for days on end.

Will you be diligent in your study of Holy Scriptures and in your use of the means of grace?  Will you pray for God’s people and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

Ministry is a fish-bowl. Not only am I expected to be the perfect pastor, being everything to everyone, I am also expected to keep my entire life in order and maintain healthy self-care practices to provide an example for the faithful. It is an impossible task, one that seems like it will never be accomplished. The days are often when all I want to do is to go where nobody knows my name. The opportunity simply to exist, to be seen with fresh and eyes that do not know any better who I am or what I do.

Will you accept the church’s order and governance, submitting to ecclesiastical discipline should you become delinquent in either life or doctrine?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

Will you be loyal to the witness and work of the Reformed Church in America, using all your abilities to further its Christian mission here and throughout the world?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

The answer to the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism reads, “…I am not my own…”  While this refers to the wonderful comfort of the sovereignty and providence of God, it also became apparent that in every way I am not my own.  I belong to God, but I also belong to the church. I want to belong to myself, to be in charge of my own destiny. However, I largely offered that belonging, that control, to the church when I made these promises.  While there may be something comforting about feeling in control, there is something humbling about belonging, almost completely, to God and to God’s agents on earth.

Will you strive to fulfill faithfully, diligently, and cheerfully, all the duties of a minister of Christ: to preach the Word of God in sincerity, to administer the sacraments in purity, to maintain proper discipline in the household of God, and to shepherd the flock faithfully?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

It was at this final question of the Interrogation, that I felt the immense isolation of standing alone on the floor before the President of the Classis, as I realized that no one could answer for me. I stood alone.

However, this sense of alone-ness was alleviated when the actual ordination occured and all ministers and elders of the classis are invited to participate in the laying on of hands.  In ministry, although we must at times stand alone, we are never alone.  I do not know if this was the design of the rite, to help the candidate feel utterly alone and burdened, and then to welcome them into community.  If it was not in the design, it is a very salient side-effect.

* * *

As I reflect on my ordination one year later, I have the opportunity to examine my promises and my ability to keep them. Have I been able to keep them?  Some better than others, but I strive for all of them.  It occurs to me that the response, “I will, and I ask God to help me” is not a one time promise, but something for which we must continually strive.

One thing that I do know for sure, however, is this: Over the past year, I have learned just how difficult and how weighty those promises actually are.

I still feel that immense weight upon my shoulders, and perhaps, in a way, it is a good thing. It is because I feel this weight that I realize that I continue to take this all seriously.  It is also because of this weight that I can seek God’s help (as well as the help of others) to alleviate some of it, knowing that I do not have to carry it all alone.

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.

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.

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.)

Water From the Rock

It is a privilege to preach every Sunday.  It is an opportunity that not everyone has.  My community has entrusted me to faithfully exegete and interpret the sacred scriptures.  It is truly a humbling privilege and responsibility, and it certainly is not one that I take lightly.  However, after preaching almost every week for the past seven months, I find that my spring is not gushing forth like it did six months ago. To be sure I am at the beginning of my ministry, so I am certainly not coming to the end of my time (at least I hope not).  Nonetheless, I feel like I am pounding my staff against a rock hoping that, as with Moses, water will flow forth.

Preaching is a task which requires much withdrawal from one’s well.  Sermon preparation and writing is a form of writing that takes much of oneself, far more than the academic writing which I am accustomed to.  Sermons not only have to be composed excellently, they not only have to hold together, a sermon must not only speak to one’s mind, but also one’s heart.

I’ve been struggling the last few weeks to continue bringing rivers of living water to nourish my congregation.  A few months ago, my well was a spring which was bursting through the ground, and it did not take much effort to retrieve water.  Now, I have installed a pump, and each pump of the handle seems to take up less and less water.  A well which ran deep now seems to be a shallow stagnant pond.

There are dry seasons, and there are rainy seasons.  During rainy seasons we collect enough water to fill our cisterns so that we can be sustained during the dry seasons.  I am not sure when this dry season will end, but I deeply hope that the rainy season comes soon.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), my calling does not depend on my feelings on any particular day. It is my job to continue offering my congregation living water.  That is my responsibility which has been given to me.  So until a rainstorm comes, I will continue dashing my staff against the rocks to squeeze out every bit of moisture that I can, and pray that my well will be filled soon.

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.