Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Who you gonna call?

I serve on the Committee on Ministry on behalf my local association in the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ. This committee's work and concern is that of authorized ministry (ordained, commissioned, licensed) within local churches. Some of our work includes giving support to pastors, receiving persons into a minimum 2-year discernment process toward authorized ministry, and holding clergy accountable for any misconduct.

Currently I am advising two persons toward ordination. During the discernment process, that is, perceiving the call of the Spirit, we talk a great deal about what kind of call toward ministry a person has received. Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr speaks of a four-fold understanding of call:

  1. The Christian call: This is a call to live a life of Christian faith and discipleship that matures over one's lifetime. It is the foundation of all attitude and behavior, no matter what one's given vocation or profession.
  2. The Secret call: This refers to the passion of the Spirit in the life of the individual when one considers specific Christian service, such as a missionary, a pastor, a chaplain, or a volunteer.
  3. The Providential call: This is the secret call lived out and affirmed by others in the form of one's gifts and suitability for ministry. One shows a willingness to make what changes are necessary to answer the call and align one's life toward this call.
  4. The Ecclesial call: This process involves the individual, God and the Church, as ministry is about the needs of the Church, not the needs of the individual person seeking to serve.

Often, the Christian call is confused with the secret call: one experiences a conversion from one sort of life to another, a falling-in-love with God and with community, and wishes to give one's life in service but that does not necessarily entail ordained ministry. In the discernment process it is important to explore one's call, for not all who wish to follow God are suited for pastoring a church.

The trouble is, over the years we've exalted the ordained ("Reverend", a Master's of Divinity degree) to the point that one's ego inevitably gets involved. Ordination becomes the goal rather than the means towards being a faithful servant of Christ. When I reflect on my own sense of call, I sometimes wonder if I, too, got the first two confused. One of the passages I chose for my ordination service ended with the verse "...what will they give in return for their life?" (Matt. 16: 26b) Becoming a pastor was my answer to that question.

I sometimes wonder if I really was meant for the church as a pastor, especially since I left full-time ministry ten years ago to stay home with my children. I never really had a chance to test myself. I'm not looking for reassurance; I'm seriously considering the path I have chosen. I once heard it said that sometimes one has to step off the path in order to find it. But every time I'm in the pulpit, preaching a message I am compelled to share, or singing for a congregation, or celebrating Communion, or offering comfort at a funeral, or praying with folks, I know I'm in the right place. It's all the other stuff that's expected that I am not qualified for nor am I interested in doing: fundraising, administrating a staff, being 'in charge' of everything. In our Congregational polity I thought we were all supposed to be in charge. But congregations still defer to the pastor in differing measures.

Elizabeth O'Connor wrote in her book Letters to Scattered Pilgrims that churches are to be seminaries to educate and prepare laypeople as ministers in the world, what the first letter of Peter calls "the priesthood of all believers" (1 Peter 2:9). Pastors are those who dedicate their lives toward that end; no better, no worse than any other human being, yet striving for excellence and beauty in their ministry. Yes, we should expect our leaders to be educated, trained, and faithful but the same standard needs to be used with all members of the Body in order to nurture that priesthood and call forth that costly, joyous discipleship.

I would be interested to hear from you, dear reader, about your passion deep within, how the Spirit is moving in your life, calling to you....what? How is your passion made manifest in your life?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Shaking of the Foundations*

Yeah, I haven't been around in a while. Some anonymous hack called me a 'slacker' in the comments section of my last blog entry. :-/ My vocation, even though I'm not currently working full-time, requires reading and reflection, the fruits of which do not coalesce on a whim. My full-time profession of mother and wife often does not allow me enough solitude for the former. If readers are expecting something worth reading, then you will have to wait patiently. An alum from seminary, who writes a blog entitled "blooming cactus" containing brilliant theological reflection on scripture readings for a given Sunday, has Crohn's disease and sometimes cannot keep up with his blog. I don't have his excuse, however I do this for my enjoyment and my own sense of purpose and meaning, so kindly bug off.

Lately I have been reading Diarmuid O'Murchu's Evolutionary Faith. Reading this book is a response to the musings and feelings I have been having a long time about just what it is I believe in. The Jesus I follow would be one to say that in order for God to be God, there must also be no God. What we need to know to live as human beings has to be observable in the world and cosmos around us and within every life-form: the Spirit incarnate in every fiber of being, continuously creating, the Ground of all Being. This may sound like pantheism but really it's not. It's panentheism: God is immanent in the universe and yet also transcendent.

This quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer haunts me:

Our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as those who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continuously. Before God and with God we live without God.

...God is weak and powerless in the world and that is
precisely the way, the only way in which is he is with us to help us.
(from Letters and Papers in Prison, p. 360)

These thoughts and feelings become particularly acute around Christmas. I tire of seeing and hearing the Christmas story as though it was written history. The movie The Nativity Story was much of the same thing, even creating a tableau of the shepherds, the light of the star, and the three Magi that would befit any suburban mantelpiece. Blech!

The power of the Christmas story is not in its literalism but in its metaphor and imagery, just like the rest of the Christian narrative. What has been missing from much of the popular discussion about this unique inbreaking of God is its place in the cosmic scheme reaching back billions of years that is not yet complete, that is still evolving.

In this age of violence we can no longer afford the luxury of being sectarian. There are worlds unknown whose inhabitants must also be asking the same questions of "Who am I?" and "What is my purpose?"; whose attempts at answering those questions must vary like the stars in the heavens.

It is time once again that our notions of who God is evolve and change.

"God is Spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth." John 4: 24

(*Blog title borrowed from Paul Tillich's book of the same.)