Archives For Ordination

GC2016-logo-color-hi-resThe United Methodist Church’s global gathering began yesterday in Portland, Oregon. As it kicked off, over 100 United Methodist clergy symbolically came out of the closet in protest to the denomination’s current disciplinary language regarding homosexuality as ‘contrary to Christian teaching’

I sympathize and support Adam Hamilton’s proposal, which recommends the United Methodist Church create flexibility in its language for this issue to be worked out at the local level in congregations and conferences. One of the ways I think that local solution manifests itself is by pastors and and parishioners being open and honest in dialogue about how they view the subject. Too often its not just gay clergy in the closet, it’s straight clergy’s views.

To that end, I offer a perspective on how Christians can reflect on the inclusion of gay marriage and gay ministers into the Body. In seminary I was friends with several gay Christians who possessed obvious gifts and calling. I’ve seen one of the most gifted potential ministers leave the United Methodist ordination process before it left him, and I’ve known too many church members feel the need to hide their true selves or their children.

But the welcome I believe the Church should offer is more than just a trite appeals to ‘love’ and ‘inclusivity’ that too many progressives commit.

Christian thinkers have argued against the notion that the diversity of creatures and persons is the result of the Fall rather than of God’s creation of a multifarious world, Aquinas represents a prominent strand of Christian thought on this point: the earthly environment demands to be filled with an ordered variety of creatures, he said, so that God’s creation will not suffer the imperfection of showing gaps.

Creatures require the diversity that the Spirit rejoices to evoke. Multiplication is always in God’s hand, so that the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, the fruit of the virgin’s womb, the diversity of the natural world does not overturn nature but parallels, diversifies and celebrates it. The Spirit’s transformation of the elements of a sacrament is just a special case of the Spirit’s rule over all of God’s creation.

What kind of diversity or otherness does the Spirit evoke?

Does it evoke the diversity represented by homosexual persons?

Clearly, the majority opinion of the church has said no — that sort of diversity in creation is not the work of the Spirit.

But it is not at all clear that such a judgment is necessary.

Conservatives will suppose that by invoking the diversity of creation I am begging the question. And yet, if the earth is to bring forth not according to its kind (more dirt) but creatures different from dirt and from each other, and if bodily differences among creatures are intended to represent a plenum in which every niche is filled, then the burden of proof lies on the other side.

It needs to be shown that one of God’s existing entities somehow cannot do its part in communicating and representing God’s goodness and do so precisely in its finitude, by its limitations.

What are the limits on accepting diversity as capable of representing God’s goodness?

Conservatives and liberals would agree that a diversity evoked by the Holy Spirit must be a holy diversity, a diversity ordered to the good, one that brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, primarily faith, hope and charity.

Given that no human beings exhibit faith, hope and charity on their own, but only in community, it is hard to argue that gay and lesbian people ought to be left out of social arrangements, such as marriage, in which these virtues are trained.

In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, our human limitations are intended for our good. So too, then, the limitations ascribed to same-sex couples, or for that matter cross-sex couples: in Gregory’s words, their “very limitations are a form of training” toward communicating and representing the good.

The church needs both biological and adoptive parents, especially since baptism is a type of adoption. The trick is to turn these created limits toward the appreciation of the goods represented by others.

Our differences are meant to make us yearn for and love one another.

Perhaps the signal case of the blessing of diversity is God’s promise to Abraham that by him all the nations of the earth would become blessings to one another (Gen. 18:18). The promise to Abraham interprets “otherness” as primarily moral, in the sense that the other is the one that sanctifies — difference is intended for blessing.

Under conditions of sin, otherness can lead to curse rather than blessing, to hostility rather than hospitality. Certainly there has been enough cursing and hostility to go around in the sexuality debates. But as created, otherness is intended for blessing and hospitality.

To reflect trinitarian holiness, sanctification must involve community. It involves commitments to a community from which one can’t easily escape, whether monastic, nuptial or congregational.

Gay and lesbian people who commit themselves to a community — to a church, or to one another as partners — do so to seek greater goods, to embark upon a discipline, to donate themselves to a greater social meaning. Living out these commitments under conditions of sin, in a community from which one can’t easily escape — especially a community such as marriage, and monasticism — is not likely to be straightforwardly improving. The community from which one can’t easily escape is morally risky. It tends to expose the worst in people. The hope is that community exposes the worst in people in order that the worst can be healed.

For gay and lesbian people, the right sort of otherness is unlikely to be represented by someone of the opposite sex, because only someone of the apposite, not opposite, sex will get deep enough into the relationship to expose one’s vulnerabilities and inspire the trust that healing requires.

Conservatives wish to deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification.

But that is contradictory, because so far as I know no conservative has ever seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than cross-sex couples do. It is at least contradictory to attempt in the name of holiness to deprive people of the means of their own sanctification,

Conservatives often claim it’s dangerous to practice homosexuality, because it might be a sin. I want to propose that the danger runs both ways.

It is more than contradictory, it may even be resisting the Spirit, to attempt to deprive same-sex couples of the discipline of marriage and not to celebrate same-sex weddings.

I don’t mean this kind of rhetoric to insult others or forestall discussion. I just mean that the danger of refusing to celebrate love is real.

Letter to Seminary Me

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2015 — 4 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111111.jpgSeptember 10, 2015

Dear Jason,

The leaves are beginning to yellow and the morning air starting to cool, which means you still have years to go. You’re only a few weeks into your seminary experience and already- trust me, I know- you’re overwhelmed.

By feelings of inadequacy. Suspicions fed by the fact that all of your classmates appear to hail from either Texas or Wheaton (sometimes both, in succession) and, thus, were called by God to the ordained ministry when they were still carrying their Hardy Boys lunch boxes with them to the second grade.

And you- I won’t tell anyone- you’re still not sure if you’re called.

In fact, the word itself, ‘called,’ secretly embarrasses you, smacking as it does of certainty and solid conviction.

I won’t lie, Jason, and tell you you’re more than adequate for the ministry. You’re not, truth be told and the intervening years between you and me will only bear that out in sometimes painful ways. In the years to come that sense of inadequacy will revisit you every time you catch the congregation’s reflection in the rounded edge of the brass communion cup or whenever you realize how fleeting and short-lived are sermons. Ministry will strike you often as ill-fitting as your oatmeal colored robe which weekly will make you feel like an imposter, play-acting at someone with more faith and virtue than you.

The truth is, however, you’re more adequate for ministry than you are for Teach for America, law school, or working on a dude ranch out west- endeavors for which you’ll be submitting applications before your first semester of seminary comes to a close. No seriously you will, convinced as you are that ministry is a terrible mistake, either God’s or your’s.

I may not know you as well as I think I do (you’ll soon discover that’s painfully true of almost all clergy), but I do know you better than any other creature so I know you’re going to be less eager to hear this than I am to confess it: you’re not perfect. And here’s the deeper cut: you’re not nearly as smart as you think.

You’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them.

It’s the furthest thing from your radar now, given that in a few weeks you’ll be checking to see if your LSAT scores remain viable, but in a few months time the bishop, who will be up shit creek without any other options, will ask you to pastor a small but actual church.

Doubtless you’ve already heard the cliche about seminary, about how seminary doesn’t prepare you for ministry. It’s true in the spirit in which the critique is made. Seminary equips you to parse pistis Christou and to unpack bold-faced but dusty terms like perichoresis, yet seminary is surprisingly mum about the practical, nuts and bolts of herding a church and, more vexing, church people to the next step in their life.

Allow me.

Perhaps you can learn from and avoid the gaffes I’ve made. 

For example, if kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insist on filling those ridiculous little communion cups themselves, then suggest they need to do so at the altar instead of far away in the sacristy. Their shakey hands carrying stacks of tiny cups from such a distance all but guarantees that some of the wine- I mean, grape juice- will spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the trays containing the cups.

When you preside at the table the next morning and solemnly attempt to lift the lid from the blood or our savior you will, for a chilling second or four, lift high both the cross-topped lid and 5 brass trays of thimble sized chalices until the collective weight of the messiah’s blood breaks the sugary seal, spilling red off-brand Welch’s all over the embroidered white altar cloth and making it appear as though you’d just repeated a once-for-all sacrifice and desanguinated Christ on that very table.

Speaking of the sacrament-

When you allow your congregation to don bathrobes and perform a Holy Thursday drama ‘for the community’ (i.e., their wives and grandchildren) against your instincts (it is a bad idea) then at the very least insure that the bread if not unleavened is not from the crunchy, dreadlocked, organic bakery adjacent to your church. For when Jesus, the soon-to-be-fatally-betrayed Passover, takes that bread and delivers his lines and breaks the bread, the somber mood of self-sacrifice easily will be ruined by the ping, ping, ping BB sound of 15 varieties of seeds, nuts and flax falling from the honey lacquered crust onto the silver tray.

You’re going to make mistakes.

When you get to be my age, Jason, you’ll realize that some of your missteps aren’t so much mistakes as things just look different with a longer view of them.

Give it a dozen years and you’ll see how an even bigger cliche than the one about seminary not preparing students for ministry is the cliched anti-institutionalism that determines so much of your cynical posture towards the big-C Church.

By the time you’re my age the curtain will have been pulled back and you’ll be forced to admit that the big-C Church is led by people no different than you and who may be even more well-meaning than you. Of course, don’t tell anyone I told you. The last thing the big-C Church needs is more accommodating company men who mistake the organization for the mission.

Even some of what seminary does teach you, it does so only partially.

Seminary will prepare you to offer words other than ‘it’s going to okay’ the first time you encounter a sobbing mother holding her third grade boy in his hospital bed as the reassuring beeps on his monitors grow ever longer.

Seminary will teach you even how to reflect on why ‘it’s going to be okay’ is a profoundly unChristian lie to tell, but seminary won’t prepare you for how overpowering will be the temptation to offer some such lie that will at least comfort you.

If even this warning isn’t enough to avoid the lie when the moment comes to you, then brace yourself for the slap that mother rightly will deliver across your scared, shit-eating grin. Really, maybe its best if you don’t avoid what I could not, such humbling I suspect is necessary if you’re to depend upon what you insist your parishioners give in their own lives: grace, a mercy and kindness that’s in no way deserved.

Don’t worry. Not all your gaffes will be so heavy.

For instance, when the psych test required by the ordination process raises a so-called ‘red flag’ by implying that you ‘may have difficulty working with women’ its probably best if you not reply to the ordination committee that you ‘get along great with chicks and can work fine with the dames so long as you don’t have to beat them off with a stick.’ 

And when you see the equal parts horror and disgust register across their collective gasp, don’t try to make it better by opining that ‘a self-serious lack of sense of humor could also be a red flag…’

I’m giving you pearls here, Jason.

And when you’re inspired to write a blog post one day (you’ll learn what a blog is) about the audacity of the doctrine of the incarnation entitled ‘Jesus Farts,’ don’t.

Even if the offense taken and the pious outrage feigned registers all the way up to the bishop and only goes to prove your point that docetism is a heresy alive and well in American Christendom, the juice is not worth the squeeze.

And when an exiting worshipper smiles and, for the first time in your ministry, tells you ‘Your sermon was great…you remind me of Joel Osteen…I just love him’ I’d suggest you just smile and thank her.

Just like Joel O would do.

As ridiculous as the comparison is (I hope), it won’t be the only time you’ll receive such feedback and, take it from me, most people don’t know how to react when you respond with ‘Joel Osteen is a crypto-pagan, heretical snake oil salesman only the worship of America could produce.’ 

Live and learn, Jason, but don’t kid yourself about the big mistakes.

They’re not seminary’s fault.

The truth is you’ll become a pastor not long after you became a Christian. You’ll still be working out your faith even as people look to you for answers and, more ridiculously, pay you to sound like you know what the hell you’re saying.

As a result, in the beginning at least, you’ll put on the role of pastor like an ill-fitting costume and play at someone you think you’re expected to be rather than be yourself.

You’ll search for a pulpit voice to go with that robe and underneath both you’ll stash away your authenticity. You’ll avoid expressing your actual thoughts and opinions. You’ll bite your tongue on the words, four lettered and all, that come quickest to you. You’ll hide the scars that could be lessons to teach others. Because, you’ll presume, that’s what pastors do.

Pastors put on Christ and, in putting him on, they cover up their true selves.

Only after you’ve spent enough time in one place, where of course the real you eventually will seep out, will you realize how people (even- especially- church people) seem to prefer the real you. Prefer pastors being real.

I’m not sure the world needs more pastors, no matter what the demographics say, but I am convinced the world does not need more inauthentic ones. I’ve learned that the hard way. Perhaps you won’t need to now.

Another result of your ordination following so soon after your confirmation is that it’s only after you’ve lived for a dozen years or so as a Christian that you’ll begin to have the appropriate patience for others who’ve done the same or longer. Only then will you cease being so judgmental and uncompromising about the faith (you are), for you will have learned that if Christianity could be lived in this world fully and without compromise or corner-cutting then we wouldn’t need Christ.

In that due time you’ll realize that when Christ commands you to love your enemies he’s not primarily speaking of those abstract enemies on the far side of the world whom you’ll only ever encounter on the pages of the Washington Post.

I think he’s meaning someone like the parishioner who will write complaints about you to the bishop and pass around petitions against for the bishop but who nevertheless will put one hand in the other and reach out to receive the host from your hand. The former form of enemy love requires only finger-wagging moralism and maybe a political ideology that’s already comfortable for you. The latter, to your chagrin,  requires discipleship.

Cross-bearing.

But in time you’ll discover a willingness to carry it because you’ll accept that, as Stanley Hauerwas says:

‘…the church is constituted by ordinary people. By ordinary I simply mean people who [attempt to] keep their promises. They are ordinary people keeping ordinary promises, and it is just such people who make the church the church.’

It wouldn’t be my plan for the salvation of the world, but it’s apparently God’s plan and it requires patience, on his end and ours.

Knowing you as well as I do, Jason, I’d say patience isn’t a bad catch all bit of advice for you as I have it on good authority (your future wife) that you can be a know-it-all jackass.

One of the effects of your smarty pants bearing, of believing you always have the right answer and thinking you know how best to express it, is that in the years to come you’ll be impatient with those unlike you. And in ministry you’ll often grouse about how so few church people can articulate what they believe about God and where God’s work (aka: the Holy Spirit) intersects with their own lives.

Let’s be honest, Jason, the last place you’d ever want to work is a church where people are aggressively articulate about their faith, where they hyperventilate ‘Fatherweejus’ prayers and volunteer how ‘the Lord laid it on my heart…’

And, regardless, eventually you’ll wonder if maybe all this time you’ve mistaken people’s reticence about their faith for a lack of thoughtfulness or conviction. Maybe the opposite is the case. Maybe all those people you judged to be inarticulate already knew something you will only learn once you learn you have cancer. Maybe, as Peter DeVries writes:

‘…only the superficial and the slipshod have ready answers’ when it comes to suffering and God and his evidently incomplete work in the world.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘WTF? Did he just drop the C-word on me and then move on, without comment, to a cryptic quote from an obscure book I’ve never read?!’ 

I did, sorry.

But you will. Read it. After you learn you have it.

You’ll read just about every cancer book you can find. You’ll pore over them like you’ve just made an unexpected career change from ministry to cancer because as soon as you hear you’re stage serious sick and just after your oncologist tells you for the first time ‘There’s no cure…the best we can hope for is a long remission’ it will seem as though you’ve been given a job you’re completely unqualified and unprepared to perform.

Actually, there’s no ‘as thoughs.’ That’s exactly how it feels.

I know. As Rob complains to his Mom in High Fidelity: ‘That’s some cold shit.’ Sorry to bear bad news to you, but I think it’s better if you hear it from me first than from the kindly, clumsy doctor who first broke the news to me in stuttering, half-step sentences that set off weeks of panic attacks in me.

Breathe.

And then try not to worry too much about it. You’ve got plenty of time before then. Besides the doctors all tell me there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent your particular brand of cancer; trust me, I must’ve asked them a hundred times by now. So don’t go raiding the vitamin aisle or eating organic.

It’s just one of those things. Explain it how you will: a defect ground down deep in the DNA, the will of God, bad luck or bad karma, shit happens. Either way, the game of life has dealt you a piss poor card, but yours can still be a winning hand.

Silver lining-

When the sword does fall and the C-word jumbles all the puzzle pieces that comprise life as you will know it, you will meet that day with few meaningful regrets. If not now then later that will strike you as gravy.

More so than the stab of regret, what cancer will inject into your life is perspective, as fresh as it is swift.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, perhaps the ablest critic of Christianity, charged that we view God through the eyes of our tribe, our culture and tradition, and our personal wants and needs; so that, God becomes the personal projection of our id in the sky, believing what we believe, blessing those causes we support, cursing those we curse, abiding the contours of our independently achieved ideology.

Karl Barth, who by next semester will become one of your Mt Rushmore theologians, found Feuerbach’s critique sound. Sinful as we are, when Christians speak of God, Barth concurred, we’re most often speaking of ourselves in a loud voice.

Like Barth, Feuerbach’s criticism will strike you immediately as revealing more truth about Christianity than Christians would like to confess.

There is much self-love (to say nothing of self-justification) disguised beneath much of our love of God talk.

Feuerbach is right to charge that much of our theology is actually anthropology, and Barth is right to thunder that in remaking God according to our image we forsake the true God who loves in freedom, whose power is weakness, and who cannot be found but must find us.

They’re both right so far as it goes, yet lately I wonder if there’s weakness latent in both their indictments.

I wonder if a more positive construal of Feuerbach’s critique could be to say that our personal experience gives us a vantage onto God to which we wouldn’t be privy otherwise. A view that others from their perch maybe cannot see.

Rather than fashioning God in our image, I wonder if you could argue instead that each of us sees a piece of God from our patch of the world he’s created and from the front seat of the life he’s unfolding for us.

Cancer, in other words, gives me a perspective on my faith I didn’t have prior to it.

Rather than remaking God in my likeness (though I’m with Barth- I do that plenty), I think my experience these past 8 months, 7 nadirs and 40 odd days of chemo-poison allow me to see something of God I could not have seen before.

Something you cannot see yet, Jason.

Without intending it, in the years to come, you will shortchange the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, emphasizing in its place the prophetic, social justice work that landed Jesus there.

If you’re honest (you won’t be) your selective focus will owe in part to the fact that you don’t think the world or the Church needs another preacher preaching ad tedium on the blood of the cross, and, less defensible, your emphasis will owe to the most loathsome sort of tribalism. You won’t want to be counted among those kinds of preachers. Those kinds of Christians.

The be-all of discipleship isn’t inviting Christ in to your heart. Its end-all isn’t your personal salvation. The means to get there, discipleship or heaven, isn’t by contemplating the suffering of Christ…you will preach in some form nearly every Sunday.

Discipleship, you will press and not let up, is about doing the things that Jesus did in the way that Jesus did them: feeding the poor, clothing the naked, lifting up the lowly and forgiving the enemy, dispensing grace and speaking the truth to power and using words (only) when necessary.

Discipleship, you will preach and teach, requires rolled-up sleeves and dirty hands, for following Jesus is all about stooped-over foot washing. And you’ll emphasize this definition of discipleship not just in your preaching but in how you allot your time, how you design programs for the church and how you conceive of its mission.

Now that I feel a shell of myself, with thinned out blood and an off balance brain and verities I once took for granted gone, I can see how incomplete and partial has been my take on the faith.

In admitting I’ve shortchanged the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, I’m not suggesting that Christ’s cross is a symbol for the ineffable mystery of suffering. I don’t believe there’s anything inexplicable at all about the cross.

It is simple. He lived a fully human life, the life God desires of each of us, and we- the world, the Principalities and Powers, humanity, you and me- killed him for it. There’s no mystery there, or, at least, not the mystery we like to ponder before the cross while quieting exonerating ourselves from it.

Here’s what I mean when I say that I’ve shortchanged Christ’s suffering and here’s what I can see from the chemo chair:

How do the ill participate in the ministry of Christ?

Or the dying?

Because if we take seriously the fact that we’re baptized into Christ’s suffering and death- not just deputized to continue his earthly (healthy) ministry- then those 3 hours on the cross are every bit as integral to discipleship as the compassionate, prophetic ministry that landed him there.

Only now, with stage-serious cancer, do I recognize how for over a dozen years I’ve circumscribed discipleship in such a way that excludes people like the person I presently am.

When it comes to you, Jason, this question will hit with the equal and opposite force of that aforementioned mother’s slap:

How do the sick participate in Christ’s ministry?

Never say Jesus lacks a sense of humor- even if his followers frequently do- because I think the answer for how we think of discipleship lies in your least favorite chunk of scripture: 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”

In the years to come, you will spend considerable time attempting to dissuade brides and grooms from using this passage in their wedding ceremonies, especially the ‘love is patient…’ pericope which concludes it. You’ll point out how Paul’s not speaking to individuals in 1 Corinthinans and especially not to love stuck couples about to be married. Paul’s addressing the gathered community, the church, the Body of Christ.

When it comes headstrong brides and indifferent grooms, 9 times out of 10 your persuasive efforts will prove futile.

But as much time as you will expend steering people away from this passage, you will spend surprisingly little time reflecting on it, which I can now see is a shame. Because if each of us are parts of Christ’s Body only, individual, discrete parts- a hand here, an ear there, an eye- then it stands to reason that we’re called to, responsible for, just a part of Christ’s ministry, imitating that part of Jesus’ life our situation in life allows.

Let someone else speak Truth to Power.

Someone else can roll up their sleeves and clothe the naked.

I’ve freaking got cancer.

I don’t have the energy to feed the hungry.

And, frankly, I don’t have the peace of mind right now to be a peacemaker.

But if Paul’s right, then me facing my illness and suffering with my imperfect approximation of Jesus’ ‘Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit’ is every bit an authentic expression of discipleship as serving at a homeless shelter or extending grace to a prodigal.

Instead of saying we’re only responsible for a part of Christ’s ministry, perhaps its better to put it this way: God doesn’t need us to live Jesus’ life; Jesus already lived the life God gave him. We’re called to live this life, our particular life, the life God’s given us, as Jesus might live it if he were us.

The question is not: how can I be just like Jesus given the particularities and pressures of my life?

The question is: who would you be if Jesus were you, with all the particularities and pressures of your life?

Who would you be if your life (with cancer and fear, pain and panic attacks) was the life God gave Jesus to live?

In time, Jason, you’ll discover how that’s as relevant a question for pastors as it is for every one else.

Blessings,

Jason

2014-emailteaserIn 2014 average of 20K readers per month came from over 250 countries and, according to Google Analytics, these were the most viewed posts on the blog this year.

For the second year in a row, the year’s most popular post was not written by yours truly. Last year it was my wife’s post while this year the honor belongs to my friend, Teer Hardy. For the first time, a Barth-themed post made it into the Top 5 (#3) while my personally felt piece of the year comes in at #5.

1. Why I Left the Ordination Process

2. Is There an Unforgivable Sin? 

3. The Way Forward for the UMC: Stop Baptizing Homosexuals

4. Why Rapture-Believing Christians are Really Liberals

5. I Don’t Need to have Faith 

 

And, in case you missed them, these were the most played or downloaded sermons or podcasts of 2014. You can find them in iTunes here.

1. What Do Our Prayers Sound Like to God

2. Marriage: Someone Better

3. Jesus’ Enemy-Loving Offensive

4. The Sacrifice of War

5. Podcast with Thomas Lynch

One of the things Google Analytics can measure is the amount of time each reader spends on the post, and for most of you out there the data shows that you actually take the time to read all or most of what I’ve written and, for that, I’m truly grateful.

 

 

 

 

10152516_10203475660394402_4518280596461113629_nThis is from my friend Teer Hardy. You’d be a fool not to check out his blog here

May 6, 2014

To Whom it May Concern:

 

I am formally withdrawing from the ordination candidacy process of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Although I feel called to ordained ministry, at this point in my life I am unable to enter into an itinerant system.  My wife is a college professor and her work requires her to be in a specific geographical area.  In addition, with the addition of a child to our family and the desire to adopt a child, the reduction in salary would place additional financial hardships on my family.

 

I do not take my call to ministry lightly, nor was this decision made overnight.  This is something that I have been discerning over the past nine months, and I pray that God will honor this decision.

 

I want to thank the committee, district, and conference for the support given to me over the past three years.  I will continue my studies at Wesley Theological Seminary and eagerly await the next opportunity for ministry.

 

Peace and Blessings,

 

Teer Hardy

 

From high school through today I have felt a call to ministry.  Although I ignored the call for quite some time, it is a call that I take seriously.  When I finally acknowledged and responded to my calling I enrolled at Wesley Theological Seminary and eventually began working fulltime in a local church.  This all began three years ago as I sat at my pastor’s kitchen table and talked about callings and ministry over longneck PBR’s.

 

Three years ago I entered into the United Methodist ordination process and three months ago I withdrew myself from the process.   Three years ago I had ambitions to become an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, and while I still want to be ordained, it will not happen within the UMC.  I had serious questions about whether or not I wanted to jump on this crazy train after General Conference 2012, and those questions began to grow into larger more complex questions as I learned more about the Christian experience within my own denomination as well as learned what was outside the friendly confines of the UMC.  But I still continued onward, thinking that I could change the system from within and be the change I wanted to see in the world.

 

My time at seminary showed me that the system I was pledging being vetted to join was larger than any government bureaucracy I had experienced.   From a governing body that only meets every four years to an ordination process that would possibly have me ordained after the next presidential administration, I began to realize that this was a far cry from the ministry I wanted to be engaged in.  When I am meeting with someone over coffee or on a bike ride they don’t care that I have a piece of paper saying that I am certified by the UMC to be a pastor. When I am serving the poor in DC or leading a youth retreat they do not care that I took exactly 9 hours of UMC history, polity, and doctrine in seminary.  What they do care about is that I love them just and Christ loves me.  What they do care about is that I listen to them, and help them come to know the God who has loved me and continues to be a source of strength for me.  What the do care about is that I all of this authentically because I love them and not because it’s my “job”.

 

The letter above is what I sent to the local committee on ordination.  I am not happy with with what I sent them because it wasn’t the whole truth.  Yes, at this time my family is not in a position for me to take another pay cut while paying back loans for a Masters Degree required for ordination.  But even if that were not the case, I don’t think I would have continued with the process because of the fact that I had to write that letter.  At no point throughout this process did anyone take the time or give a damn about really wanting to know how I was equipped for ministry.  My appointed clergy mentor taught me that once you’re in the system you’re in, and the most important thing once you are in is to not be late for meetings.  WOW, I thought ministry was suppose to be sharing in the work of Christ, boy was I wrong!

 

Instead of wanting to talk about my concerns or connecting me with a clergy member who might have had the same concerns the response I received from the committee was a request for a letter.  A letter that “would go into my file”.  The letter that was requested of me is ultimately the reason I decided to leave the ordination process.

 

Ordination and our Christian vocation is not something that can be boiled down to a checklist, 4 hour psychological exam, or open-ended questions with only 1 acceptable response. Our Christian vocation is one that enables us to serve others in the name of Christ regardless of titles we give ourselves or the office in which we hold.  It took me 3 years to figure this out.

This is from Josh Luton of the Apprentice Institute. I encourage you to check out their work and subscribe to their blog, here.

Do. It.

image001

I walked in and the receptionist greeted me. I didn’t catch her name, one of many sisters who call the convent home.

After a brief wait, another nun came to get me. This spiritual director came highly recommended.

She walked me to the end of a very long hallway and invited me to a seat by the window. She even gave me the chair with a view of the pond and fountain. Generous of her, she is a nun after all.

“I’ll light a candle to remind us of the presence of the Spirit.” Great, I like candles.

Then she read a passage of Scripture. Truth be told, I don’t remember which passage.

My mind was racing. What would she ask? How would she relate? Could she solve my spiritual problem in one session?

After the reading and a brief prayer, she looked up and smiled, “So, tell me about yourself.”

Uh, ok, sure. Fit my whole life (more pressing, my call story) into a 45 minute session and then you tell me something about it?

She waited patiently as I gathered my thoughts.

I tried to give her the high points: background, college, married, divinity school, ordination track in the United Methodist Church, work for a spiritual formation institute.

And then we got into the question that had brought me here in the first place. When we prayed at the beginning she had asked for a word to pray for.

One word.

“Clarity” was the best I could come up with.

Clarity about my call. The ordination process has been anything but beautiful, sure there have been glimpses of beauty, but it’s been a slog for the most part.

After some recent developments, I’ve been wondering what this call on my life is all about.

Does it have to be lived out as an elder in the UMC? What about Christian unity and all that? Why not just become Catholic?

Those are the high points, I won’t bore you with the details.

As I laid out the situation and my desire for clarity to this sweet old sister, I was more than half-hoping she’d reply, “Come home, son, to the true church. Leave behind your failing Protestant trappings. All will be well.”

She didn’t. “How much time do you spend in silent/listening prayer?”

“Not much.”

And we sat in silence and she appeared to be listening intently. Not to me. I was scared speechless by the fact that I work in spiritual formation and I had just confessed to a nun that I didn’t spend much time in silent/listening prayer.

For those new to spiritual formation, a rough definition: the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of self and others (Not satisfied? Click through and explore).

Silence should be old hat. It’s a cornerstone discipline.

She asked me to describe God. I choked. I’m a “master of divinity” according to the diploma in my office, and I didn’t know what to tell her.

“Ok, describe your wife.”

“Vivacious, funny, loving, beautiful…” I rattled off in an instant.

More silence.

“I hear God saying ‘Listen to me, Josh.’ Your ministry is an overflow of your relationship. Your relationship with your wife overflows who you are and so will your relationship with God.”

“Just spend time in the presence of God, no agenda. Set a timer and just be.”

Shot to the gut.

And from a nun no less. She was extremely gentle in delivering words that were hard to hear.

The hardest part: I know her words are true.

I’ve got a little altar set up at home. There’s an icon of Christ the Pantocrator and a Bible and a little rug. It’s been set up for a few months and I haven’t been down there more than a handful of times.

Christ the Pantocrator

Don’t get me wrong, I get down with liturgical prayer (Book of Common Prayer, Common Prayer), but sitting in front of that altar and listening just seems like a waste of time.

 

So much so, that you know how many times I’d done it a week after she instructed me to practice silence,

Do you know how much effort it would take to do that one thing? Not much, just sit on my butt for 10 minutes or so. We Americans are pretty good at that, I should be a natural.

 

Why do I avoid it? I don’t know.

Maybe I’m scared God will speak a word that keeps me on this painful path of ordination. Maybe God will speak a word that spurs me to leave the only denomination I’ve ever known. Maybe I won’t hear anything.

Sometimes this whole Christianity thing can get too “do” oriented. Pastors, authors, bloggers, all encouraging you to do more. They’re often good things to do.

 

In the twitter/blog-o-sphere there’s a daily inundation of words. Words, words, everywhere. There’s so much crap out there, so much to take in. So much to be bombarded by.

 

Sometimes you just need silence.

 

In the words of famed Catholic priest and spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen:

 

“What needs to be guarded is the life of the Spirit within us. Especially we who want to witness to the presence of God’s Spirit in the world need to tend the fire within with utmost care. It is not so strange that many ministers have become burnt-out cases, people who say many words and share many experiences, but in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died and from whom not much more comes forth than their own boring, petty ideas and feelings. Sometimes it seems that our many words are more an expression of our doubt than our faith. It is as if we are not sure that God’s Spirit can touch the hearts of people: we have to help him out and, with many words, convince others of his power. But it is precisely this wordy unbelief that quenches the fire” (The Way of the Heart, 54).

Henri-JM-Nouwen

Another shot to the gut. The Catholics really have me on the ropes this month.

 

Joking aside, he’s right, too.

 

Even if you’re not a professional Christian, you may fall into the trap of speaking many words. To the burnout that comes when we talk about God, without spending time listening.

 

The problem? “Silence teaches us to speak” (56).

 

Don’t believe him? (I didn’t at first).

 

Think about a recent event in your life or the life of your community: a lost job, a dramatic life change, a death. How did you or people around you respond?

 

With quick and canned cliches? “You’ll find another job.” “Everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.” “The hurt will heal with time.”

 

Or with slower, measured responses. Maybe with no words at all, just presence?

 

Silence teaches us to speak because it allows us space to be comfortable with silence.

 

Silence helps us tend to the inner fire of the Spirit. My fire has been closer to almost burnt out coals, not even warm enough to toast a marshmallow.

 

Probably not worth speaking words out of. They wouldn’t be words that could warm your fire.

 

But silence also teaches us to speak because it trains us to listen. Regular silence opens our ears to the voice of God (these words are written more out of hope than recent experience).

 

Silence creates space. Space where I learn to strain to hear the prodding and calling of God. And when I open myself up intentionally, I’m more likely to hear that call, even in the bustle and noise of daily life.

 

I’ve voiced the complaint, “I never hear God speak.” When I think about it, how could I?

 

I pray every day, but those words (well-intentioned though they are) are all motivated by me. Even the people and situations I pray for are my desires. How transformative might it be to listen for a word from God, instead of just catapulting more words at God?

 

I took the plunge this morning. It was probably more motivated by the fact I had to confess in the first draft (written yesterday) that I hadn’t heeded the nun’s counsel.

 

I read a passage from the Gospel of Luke and set my timer for 10 minutes (big start, I know).

 

And then I spoke these words, “Here I am, Lord.” And I waited. And stared at the icon. And waited some more.

 

And you know what I heard? Nothing.

 

But it was only day one, and I’m hopeful for the rest of today. For the listening that may come from that time. For the days ahead.

 

I tended the fire, here’s hoping it erupts to a blaze.

 

How much time do you spend in silent/listening prayer? Could it transform your speaking? I’d especially love to hear from He Who Must Not Be Named. I’m sure the dark lord has some keen insights on silent prayer.

 

995687_4988940372277_749089862_nThis is from friend, former youth and now colleague, Taylor Mertins.

You should definitely check out his blog and subscribe to it here. He even gave me a shout-out in his most sermon, albeit anonymously 🙂

1. Every Church Is Different

I was blessed to grow up (theologically) under the tutelage of great mentors in Dennis Perry and the Tamed Cynic himself, Jason Micheli. Until I left for college I worshipped at Aldersgate UMC for the majority of my life and had very little experience outside of my home church. I learned very quickly throughout seminary, and particularly while serving at St. John’s, that all churches are different. What I preached at Aldersgate would never work at St. John’s and vice versa. Every church has its own context and collective narrative that must be learned before the rhythm of worship and preaching can begin to be fruitful for both the pastor and the congregation. It takes time, but it is time well spent to learn the story of the people.

2. Being New Can Go A Long Way

When I was commissioned last summer I became the youngest pastor in the Virginia Annual Conference and would become the youngest pastor to serve at St. John’s since 1955. The church had grown accustomed to their pastors retiring from this appointment and were excited to receive a new and fresh-from-seminary pastor. Being new has gone a long way. I have been given certain freedoms to explore different ways of worship, teaching, and discipleship purely because I am still new to this. The laity have been particularly forgiving of my preaching because, I hope, they recognize that I am continuing to learn our collective narrative every Sunday from the pulpit. The atmosphere in church has been exciting over the last year which has encouraged our members to invite others to worship, something that all churches need in order to share the Good News.

3. It Can Be Lonely

The Tamed Cynic himself has written before about the loneliness he experienced in his first church because there were very few people around his age. Lindsey, my wife, and I have had a difficult time in Staunton meet and making new friends outside of church. Part of this stems from the fact that there are simply not very many young people in Staunton. However it is challenging to make friends outside of the church when some people immediately put up a wall when they learn that I am a pastor. It is remarkably important to maintain friendships that began in, and before, seminary but it is challenging when the geographic divide makes it difficult to stay in touch. All pastors need community; their church and people outside of it.

4. Committee Meetings Are Hard

Seminary cannot prepare you for committee meetings. I was never asked to serve on a committee before I became a pastor so I had to quickly learn the functions of each and their patterns of serving the church without any prior experience. Though the Book of Discipline outlines the roles of the committees, every church lives out these responsibilities in different ways. There have been many nights where I come home thrilled about the direction of the church I serve, and other nights where I have felt defeated by what had taken place during a committee meeting. It is so important to remember that all of this, doing church and being the body of Christ for the world, it about God and not myself.

5. It’s Important To Be Involved In The Community

When I met with the SPRC for the first time I asked what they wanted most from their pastor. The collective response was that they wanted a pastor who would be known in the community. I made a concerted effort to make that come true during my first year. For example: I have been quick to introduce myself to people in town as the pastor of St. John’s, I joined the Stonewall Brigade Band (established in 1855!) and play drums with them every Monday night as we perform free concerts in Gypsy Hill Park, and I sent hand written letters to the immediate community surrounding the church introducing myself and asking if there was anything I could do for them. The church is not just the people who gather on Sunday mornings; we are intricately connected with the people in the community. It is therefore important to establish a presence within the community outside of the church.

6. My Vision Is Not The Same Thing As The Church’s Vision

I have come up with a lot of new ideas over the last year and a number of them have become very fruitful for our church. Recently however, I have begun to realize that my vision is not necessarily synonymous with the church’s vision. The people of St. John’s have been doing church a lot longer than I have; they have an established wisdom about what can and can’t work for our faith community. It has been good for me to lead with a passionate vision, but then at other times it has been even better for me to take a step back and let the lay leadership’s vision guide us.

7. Workaholism Is Just One Step Away

Every church has many needs from the pastor: visiting the shut-ins, preparing and leading worship on a weekly basis, ordering the church, etc. Though many might assume that being a pastor is a one-hour-a-week job, it is so much more than that. As someone who is regularly at the church facility there are a number of other jobs that I never imagined would be regular parts of my ministry. I have been a plumber, carpenter, Preschool teacher, preacher, mower, snow-shoveler, counselor, teacher, accountant, therapist, etc. For pastors there is a temptation to let the needs of the church dictate every aspect of your life. It is vitally important to maintain a regular sabbath and share the responsibilities of church with the body of Christ.

8. Less And Less People Know Their Bibles

I often take for granted how much scripture is known by the people of church. There are, of course, the prayer warriors and bible study leaders who know their bibles better than I do, but over the last year there have been a number of experiences that had demonstrated a staggering amount of biblical illiteracy. For example: One Sunday I casually mentioned Jacob wrestling with the angel on the banks of the Jabbok river with a bible study class when they all looked up at me and one of them said, “that’s definitely not in the bible.” Or after preaching about the last supper and then going through the entire communion liturgy a longtime church member said, “I never knew that what we do with communion comes from the Jesus’ last supper!” As the greater church looks to the future of the Christian faith we need to be particularly careful about how we return to a love of the bible and nurture scripturally shaped imaginations.

9. Reading Makes For Better Preaching

Soon after arriving in Staunton I had more free time on my hands than I had initially anticipated. I was able to make all my visits, have the sermon written by Wednesday and take care of my other responsibilities which freed me for having time to read from both the bible and theological works. By the time the fall rolled around I found myself incredibly busy and lost the time to read outside of what I needed on a weekly basis; my preaching suffered during this time. I relied too heavily on commentaries and personal anecdotes because my own faith walk was suffering under the weight of weekly ministry. Only when I had come to a realization of the way my work was affecting my faith was I able to re-focus and re-prioritize in such a way that I found time to feed my soul outside of my regular responsibilities. We become better writers and better preachers by actively reading and responding to God’s Word beyond the weekly sermon or lesson in our lives.

10. I Have The Best Job In The World

A professor of mine from seminary once said, “If you can do anything else outside of ministry then stop right now. Ministry can be one of the least rewarding vocations: spiritually, monetarily, and socially. But if you can’t do anything else, which is to say if you feel so called to ministry that you can’t do anything else, then it will be the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do.” For some this was a big wake up call and a few eventually dropped out of school, but for me it only refueled my fire. And he was right. Ministry is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend my time deep in God’s Word? What job would give me the ability to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or offering the gift of bread and wine to the weary travelers of faith? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s UMC and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

  • Rev. Taylor Mertins~I graduated from Duke Divinity School in the Spring of 2013 and recently celebrated my one year anniversary of serving as the pastor of St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA. Throughout my first year I experienced numerous mountaintop experiences as well as deep spiritual valleys. I baptized infants and adults into the body of Christ, I presided over the table and shared the bread and wine with the people of God, I brought couples into holy matrimony, and I gave witness to the life and death of faithful Christians. I have learned a lot and am continuing to grow. Below are 10 of the biggest lessons I learned from my first year in ministry. 

imagesIf you attend my church, read this blog or listen to my sermons then you know I tend to give Dennis Perry, my associate pastor and partner-in-crime, a lot of crap.

Good-natured, ribbing.

You know I tend to talk about how Dennis is old, forgetful, lazy, obvious, boring, tired, uninspired, old, predictable, vain, shallow, past his prime, full of himself, phones it in, takes credit for others’ work….just to name a few things.

As more than one parishioner has expressed with not a little exasperation, we have a ‘unique’ relationship.

He’s my Jerry Lewis to my Dean Martin.

My Kramer or Costanza to my Jerry.

Case in point:

Earlier this summer Dennis and I gave a presentation for a group of clergy at an annual conference. Because we were riffing off of one another’s comments, it was perfectly natural and predictable that I would start to yank Dennis’ chain in the course of our presentation.

He was the only one laughing.

Besides me.

It’s true that clergy in particular and Christians in general aren’t particularly strong in the  funny category, but the silence suggested something else too, I think: how unique our relationship actually is.

Behind the lack of self-seriousness is an actual friendship, a partnership that has no need for competition, oneupsmanship or self-aggrandizing- all of which, sadly,  are rare among clergy.

And it started a long time ago. Right around the time I was learning to drive, I was learning about Jesus.

From Dennis.

He’s not just my Kramer.

He’s my Yoda too.

And that’s not an age joke.

The thousands of books in my office began with one book (on Aquinas) Dennis handed to me as I left church one Sunday morning. I was just one out of 1,000 people he rubbed elbows with that morning but it was an important gesture.

The theological wrestling I’m wont to do on a daily basis began with just one question (Time vs Eternity) to which Dennis sketched an answer on a dry erase board- and suggested still another book, Screwtape– one confirmation class long ago.

The friendship and ministry we share today began back then with mentorship. Quick casual gestures of interest and encouragement.

It was he who boiled down the pained ‘How do you know if you’re called into ministry?’ agonizing to its essence: ‘It comes down to whether you can really see yourself doing anything else and being happy.’

Simple.

This nostalgia has been brought to you by the article I was forwarded from United Methodist Connections, “Why I’m Called to be a Mentor.”

The article, by Rev Melissa Pisco, a pastor in Florida, is the sort of unsurprising institutional promotion you’d expect from any organization, and it’s certainly the sort of bureaucratic PR you’d expect me to mock and satirize.

But I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

In the United Methodist system, ‘mentors’ are pastors you don’t know- and, chances are, will only get to know slightly better- assigned to tugboat ordinands through the hoops of the ordination process.

You’re not supposed to refer to them as hoops but that’s what they are.

Or, more accurately, that’s how they’re experienced.

As hoops.

Psychological tests, district committee interviews with open-ended questions, conference board interviews with open-ended questions (‘What can you tell me about the resurrection?’), essay questions, interviews about the essay answers.

It’s an anxiety-inducing process. It was for me and I got through without a hitch, and it was for my peers in the process too.

And that’s my point.

It doesn’t allow for the kinds authentic relationship-building that I think makes for fruitful mentorship.

Ordinands, who’ve already invested years and cringe-worthy amounts of debt, don’t feel permission to be themselves in front of ‘mentors’ who’ve been assigned to them by the people who soon will be examining their fitness for ministry.

It’s like asking a defendant to confess to the jury instead of his counsel.

I remember the first time I revealed a particular struggle I was having in my rookie ministry (the lack of anyone anywhere near my age within an hour’s drive).

The response I got from my mentor: ‘Well, I’d recommend you not share that with the board.’

Signal received.

I’m not trying beat up on Rev Melissa Pico or others who serve like her. And I understand that every process has to have…process.

But true mentorship doesn’t happen just because that’s the name you’ve affixed to an institutional process.

Actual, fruitful, vibrant mentorship is relational and while it’s not equal, it is safe; and therefore, much more likely to happen within the local congregation than inside a top-down prescribed process.

I had a handful of assigned ‘mentors’ as I wound my way to being a full-fledged minister and all of them were/are good guys and effective pastors.

But the mentoring that really made a difference in my life and for my call was the relationship I began with my local pastor and continue to this day, the kind that can’t be assigned but must instead evolve.

The same is true, I think- I pray- for the three friends in my own congregation for whom I’ve assumed the role Dennis played and plays to me.

 

1001446_4988885010893_488859186_nThis past weekend a friend became a colleague. I had the privilege to stand on stage with Taylor Mertins and lay hands on him as the bishop commissioned him as a provisional minister.

The event put me in a recollecting mood. I’ve changed in many ways since my commissioning and my theology has changed too. The answers I gave back when I was first examined for ordination aren’t necessarily the same answers I would give today.

     Taylor’s commissioning has prompted me to think through some of the ways my thinking has changed since I went through that same ritual. 995687_4988940372277_749089862_n

     Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper

In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Lauren Winner, a former Jew, distinguishes Judaism and Christianity by saying Judaism is a physical, material, embodied, communal religion whereas Christianity is preoccupied with individual belief, with spiritual dogma and theological doctrine.

Probably, when you hear Christianity defined that way, you’re tempted to agree. To the extent that’s true, however, it’s true because that’s what we’ve done with the faith Jesus gave us.

It’s not that that’s the faith as Jesus gave it to us.

     Perhaps nowhere is Winner’s distinction between Judaism and Christianity more starkly apparent than in the Jewish meal Jesus bequeathed to us.

     A meal which today, in almost all Christian congregations, bears zero resemblance to the one at which Jesus was host and presumably intended for us to mimic.

     Beginning in the Middle Ages, religious bureaucrats like me got a hold of this meal and, in my lofty estimation, messed it all up. They tried to turn over and open it up and explain how it works.

Trucking in Aristotelian philosophic concepts like ‘form’ and ‘substance’ that were foreign to the Hebrew world of scripture, theologians like Thomas Aquinas concocted pained explanations for how the bread and wine of the Eucharist can become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. Such a literal transformation- transubstantiation- of the elements was necessary within a Medieval theological system wherein human sin required the ongoing, repeated sacrifice of Christ in the Mass.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and Jean Calvin departed from the atonement theology that lay behind transubstantiation, stressing that Christ’s sacrifice upon the Cross was a once-for-all, perfect, unrepeatable sacrifice for sin which we access through and by faith.

While Luther left behind the Medieval understanding of the mass as sacrifice, he retained the scholastic inclination to explain how the bread and wine of the meal become the actual body and blood of Jesus.

Luther’s reforms were only crust deep, giving the Protestant tradition ‘consubstantiation’ instead of trans. Christ’s presence, as every Lutheran knows, is ‘in, with and under’ the elements of the Eucharist rather than the elements themselves changing.

Proceeding reformers like Zwingli went further in demystifying the Medieval notion of the sacrament, stressing that the meal is merely a memorial of Christ’s Last Supper- the de facto, implicit position of almost Protestant in America. Meanwhile, my own tradition’s founder, John Wesley, espoused the historic Anglican conviction that Christ is really present in the eucharistic gathering but how that’s so is a mystery.

While I was jumping through the hoops of the United Methodist ordination process, I was prepped to plot the bread and cup along the map of John Wesley’s theology of grace. As John Wesley said- I was expected to say- the Lord’s Supper is one of God’s ‘ordinary’ (meaning primary and scripturally obvious) means of grace. It’s by receiving the elements that we grow in holiness, that we’re sanctified and ultimately perfected in Christ-like love of God and neighbor.

That’s all well and good as a second order explication of the meal Jesus gave us. Jesus might even agree with it, but I wonder if Jesus, as a Jew, would even recognize such an explanation as referring to the Jewish meal he gave us.

     No matter how much they differ in theological approach and outcome, Aquinas et al all take as their starting point Jesus’ words ‘This is my body…this is my blood…’ and they all share the premise that Jesus’ words must either be literally true or spiritually true, that is, figurative.

But none of them take note that these words don’t originate with Jesus at all. None of them take note that Jesus wasn’t the only one who spoke those words that night he was betrayed.

In a sense.

None of the historic explanations (and very few of the understandings in the pew or among pastors) take note that Jesus’ words were part of the Passover script.

As the host of the Passover meal, Jesus was expected to speak of the body and the blood.

In the center of Jesus’ Passover table would have been the four ceremonial cups of wine, the brick-shaped concoction of fruits, nuts and vinegar (granola bars) representing the bricks the Hebrews made in Egypt, the bitter herbs (parsley and radishes) representing slavery in Egypt, the unleavened bread, representing their hasty departure, and the roasted lamb itself, whose blood sprinkled on the doorposts delivered the Hebrews from the angel of death.

Traditionally, the host blesses the first cup and all drink. Then come the bitter herbs, which are blessed and eaten. Then the bread, the granola and the lamb are brought in. The second cup is poured, and the story of the Israel’s exodus from Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea is told.

The second cup is drunk and the bread is broken.

The host blesses the bread mixed with herbs and fruit and eats it along with some of the lamb, saying, ‘This is the body of the Passover.’ And all feast. Then they drink the third up and say some psalms before drinking the fourth and last cup which symbolizes the coming Messiah.

At least, this is what is supposed to happen. But on Holy Thursday, the host is Jesus.

     After the second cup Jesus takes the bread, offers the thanksgiving, breaks it and distributes it. And instead of saying ‘This is the body of the Passover’ he says ‘This is my body broken for you.’

And then when the time comes to take the third cup Jesus says ‘This is my blood poured out for you.’

     Jesus takes the traditional Passover script and he changes it. He inserts himself into it. Jesus is saying: ‘I’m the Passover now.’

The more time I spend in ministry, the more I become convinced that Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley…they’re all examples of Lauren Winner’s demarcation: Judaism is a physical, material, embodied religion whereas Christianity is preoccupied with belief, with spiritual dogma and theological doctrine.

     What’s more I’ve become convinced that the distinction Winner hits upon is the result of the Church losing touch with its Jewish roots so early on its development. The nuanced, cerebral, non-Hebraic explanations for the eucharist put forth by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and even Wesley are but evidence that none of them had any Jewish friends.

     What’s worse, most Christians today persist in rationalizations of the eucharist as though none of us had any Jewish friends either.

As a result, the eucharist in many congregations is a either joyless, masochistic memorial of someone who died to God’s wrath over your sin, or it’s a private transaction of grace dispensed by a special caste of people who pray the magic words to effect an Aristotelian transformation.

But the meal Jesus gave us was Passover.

The words he spoke were the words of the Passover.

And if you know you’re Old Testament, then you know that the Passover wasn’t about sacrifice for sin. It was about deliverance from captivity. It was about appeasing God’s anger; it was about God hearing the cries of his people in bondage. It wasn’t a somber ritual of atonement; it was a joyous meal of rescue and redemption.

When Jesus casts himself in the middle of the Passover script, he declares:

‘I’m the one who sets you free from bondage and delivers you to a new place in life.’

     After a dozen years in ministry, I’m convinced that Christians need to rediscover that  Christianity, like Judaism, is a physical, material, embodied, communal religion.

     Hell, in a mainline culture in which very few Christians can even speak about Jesus to another human being, I think it would be a positive development just to have Christian parents celebrating the eucharist at dinner tables with their families, accompanied by an actual meal, teaching their children the redemptive story that makes this meal on this day different from all others.

     Just like Passover.

 

 

 

 

 

995687_4988940372277_749089862_nThis past weekend a former youth in my congregation who since has become a friend became a colleague. I had the privilege to stand on stage with Taylor Mertins and lay hands on him as the bishop commissioned him as a provisional minister.

The event put me in a recollecting mood as this month I’ve spent a dozen years as a pastor in 3 different congregations, 2 here in Virginia and 1 in New Jersey. I’ve changed in many ways during those years and my theology has changed too. The answers I gave back when I was first examined for ordination aren’t necessarily the same answers I would give today.

Taylor’s commissioning has prompted me to think through some of the ways my thinking has changed since I went through that same ritual.

First up, is my thinking around infant baptism, the 3rd rail of the United Methodist ordination process.

When I was working my way through the United Methodist ordination process, any suggestion that infant baptism was not the biblical norm as verboten as uttering Lord Voldemort’s name. The United Methodist powers-that-be needed to insure I could articulate a traditional theological explication of infant baptism; in truth, they needed to protect the Church from infiltration by too many crypto-baptists.

Now that I’m duly ordained, however, I can say what I couldn’t say during my provisional period: the New Testament and early Church literature offers us no definitive evidence that infant baptism was or wasn’t practiced by the first generations of Christians.

To this point, you could counter by citing what are known as the ‘oikos’ passages in the New Testament.

Oikos, in the Greek, means ‘household.’ In the book of Acts, especially, when the Spirit and ministry of the Church lead to another’s conversion, that individual’s conversion frequently occasioned the conversion and baptism of their entire household.

Obviously this presumes the initial convert was typically a head of household.

It also presumes those included under the rubric ‘household’ were very often servants and slaves who were baptized against their will- hardly an ideal ministry model for us today.

Here’s a quick rundown of the oikos passages in the New Testament:

The household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48; 11:13-18)

The household of Lydia (Acts 16:13-15)

The household of the Philippian jailor (Acts 16:30-34)

The household of Crispus (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:14)

The household of Stephanus (1 Cor. 1:16)

The household of Gaius (1 Cor. 1:14)

While it’s entirely possibly ‘household’ in these passages included infants and children, none of the available texts makes that explicit. It’s also true none of the texts eliminate that possibility.

What I dared not say when I was in the midst of the ordination process is that, fact is, for the first centuries of the Church the record is ambiguous.

     Any Church striving to be faithful to the first Church must necessarily struggle with the fact that adult baptism was the norm for the early Church.

While I was jumping through the commissioning and ordination hoops, I articulated the textbook- and expected- Wesleyan response on baptism.

Baptism, like the Eucharist, is, as Wesley described it, an ‘ordinary channel’ by which God gets to us. Baptism reminds us that salvation comes by God’s gracious initiative. Baptism is a means of what John Wesley called prevenient grace, God’s claim of us before we ever even desire God.

     Before someone outs me as a heretic to the bishop, it’s important that I’m clear:

     I don’t disagree with the traditional Wesleyan theology of infant baptism.

1001446_4988885010893_488859186_nRather after 12 years of congregational ministry in a culture that is rapidly becoming post-Christian, I’m increasingly aware that the Wesleyan emphasis on baptism as a means of prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace is a second order mode of reflection on the sacrament- a mode of reflection that was inherited from the Medieval Scholastics and was suitable to Wesley’s own day when the average citizen knew the particulars of the Christian story by virtue of being a participant in the wider culture.

     But 21st century America is not Wesley’s Enlightenment-era England and hasn’t been for longer than we’ve wanted to admit.

     Instead, after 12 years of serving in a local congregation, I’m increasingly aware that our culture is quickly resembling the context of the first century culture in which the faith began: a culture where Jesus-followers were a witnessing minority in the midst of rival religions and ideologies.

And after these dozen years as a minister, I wonder if it would be more helpful to recover an emphasis on baptism more nearly patterned after the early Church’s primary  baptismal message:

Christians are made not born.

To become a Christian you need to be initiated.

No one is born a Christian. Perhaps the starkest contrast between the Church and the Synagogue, save Jesus Christ himself, is the fact that the Church isn’t a community that grows biologically.

The Church only grows by witness and conversion. Presently, the mainline Protestants traditions in the West are all experiencing trying decline in numbers and vitality. In the United Methodist Church today, most congregations do not make a single new disciple in a year and are ‘dying’ churches by most objective metrics.

I can’t help but wonder if such decline is exacerbated by a singular emphasis on infant baptism that has left the Church no longer adept at what was once its primary mission: converting people into a new way of life of which baptism is the visible sign.

We can quibble about baptismal theology but it’s very clear that as the United Methodist Church leans into the future it’s going to have to relearn how to convert adults to the way of following Jesus Christ.

Typically in the ancient Church it took several years for a prospective Christian to be admitted into the Body. During those preparatory years, a period known as the catechumenate, the inquiring student participated only partially in the life of the community.

For example, it was commonplace for catechumens to be dismissed from worship (not unlike our children’s sermons) after the word was read and proclaimed and before the Eucharist was celebrated.

Catechumens would spend these liminal years receiving doctrinal instruction and ethical guidance, submitting to moral scrutiny, disciplining their will, amending past sins, changing their vocation if their work was contrary to the Kingdom and gradually growing accustomed to living the Christian life.

Baptism nearly always came on Easter Eve but not before spending the prior forty days of Lent learning the story of redemption: how once we were all prisoners and slaves in the household of Death, atrophying in ignorance of our true home; and how Christ had come to set the prisoners free, to rescue us from bondage, to make himself our Passover from Death to Life, to unwind the story of Sin and be the Second Adam to a New Creation.

This is the story rehearsed and ingrained in the weeks leading up to baptism because it was into this story that the initiate’s own life was merged when they at last sank down into the life-ending, life-giving waters of baptism.

Precisely because it was a submersion into the death of Jesus, baptism came on Easter Eve, during the midnight vigil, when the Church believes, having rescued souls from Hell, Jesus passes from Death to Life.

At a fixed point in the long, intricate worship service, after the arc of the scripture story had been proclaimed, the catechumens would depart the sanctuary for the baptistery, which usually housed a flowing stream. There, at the bishop’s direction, the initiate would face West, the direction of nightfall and so the direction of spiritual darkness. Facing West, the candidate would submit to an exorcism followed by a forceful renunciation of Sin and Evil; in fact, the initiate, in their renouncing, was instructed literally to ‘spit at’ the devil and the devil’s servants:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? 

I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? 

I renounce them.

     Having renounced the ways of the world, the candidate would turn East, the direction of the rising sun, and would confess faith in and allegiance to Christ.

     Given the early Church’s minority, persecuted status in the empire this act of renunciation and allegiance was hardly a sentimental or purely spiritual experience.

It was a very real transferral of obedience from one master to another and very real consequences were expected to result from it.

In darkness then and to a cacophony of prayers, chants and blessings, the candidate would descend into the water as naked as the day they were born. The bishop would then immerse the initiate three times, in the name of the Trinity.

Rising from the water, the new Christian would be anointed with the oil of chrismation, the seal of the Spirit, robed like a bride in a new garment of white and led back to the sanctuary where, for the first time, they could see the Eucharist celebrated and share in it.

Considering the dangers and risks involved in becoming a Christian in the early generations; considering the relationships that were likely severed; considering the obligations and sacrifices ahead; considering the strangers to whom one now belonged and the strange way of life to which allegiance had been pledged; nothing less than primal, base language would do to describe the initiating ritual: Death, Birth, Marriage.

After a dozen years pastoring in what is, with each new passing day, a new cultural situation, I wonder if it would be wise to recover the ancient Church’s primal, base, alternative-Kingdom language to speak about baptism.

I wonder if it would behoove us to recover their emphasis on baptism as transferral of citizenship and loyalty. I wonder if it would help us in pursuing our mission to reclaim their understanding that infant baptism is an acceptable subset of which adult baptism is the scriptural norm.

 

 

No to Women Bishops

Jason Micheli —  November 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

Maybe you already heard– The Church of England just voted by a hair NOT to allow women in the episcopacy. It’s funny to me that there’s still enough residual cultural Christianity left in the West for the media to continue reporting on the inner machinations of the Anglican Church. But that’s not the point I want to make.

Here’s my point. And it has nothing to do with how culturally antiquated, sexist, undemocratic etc this story makes the C of E appear.

It’s more like a quick nugget of theological observation:

I’ve long thought the best argument in favor of ordaining gay Christians to ministry is that the Church has already baptized them. Baptism, after all, is the beginning of Christian vocation. In a sense, we’re all ordained in our baptisms to some form of Christian service/witness in our lives.

Pastoral Ministry is but one form that baptismal vocation takes. If the Church isn’t ready to ordain gay Christians, then, it shouldn’t baptize them.

Shut the door where the theology starts, in other words. 

The same logic holds true when it comes to women serving as bishops- especially in the Anglican Church. The Church already has women ordained to ministry as priests. Having them serve as bishops is a matter of promotion not ordination. It’s functional not theological. If the Church isn’t ready to have them serve as bishops they shouldn’t have ordained to serve as priests. It’s sloppy thinking to such an extent that sexism is the only credible explanation.

Sadly, this is another knock on Archbishop Rowan Williams, one of my heroes. Another case of a good, brilliant leader proving unable to dent an ineffective bureaucracy.

Three things I hate about religious work:

1.) Joel Osteen

2.) Clergy Meetings

3.) Wedding Coordinators

Actually, there’s a whole lot I don’t like about weddings, such as, the entire wedding industry. Wedding coordinators (at other churches, not mine) are very often pushy, patronizing and think they’re managing a show of which I’m a prop. Wedding coordinators aren’t the worst part of weddings. They’re only frequently the last bitter pill I have to swallow in a whole string of annoyances and, thus, they’re the ones who unfairly suffer my ire.

I hate how, for so many couples, the minister is somewhere at the bottom of the priority list when making arrangements for the ceremony. I hate that most couples nail down the caterer, photographer, DJ, wedding party, stationary and honeymoon venue before ever calling to see if I’m even available, which betrays, for all our talk about the sanctity of marriage, how most weddings are not- in the felt experience of the couple- a religious worship service.

I hate how many couples- or their parents- want to limit the “religious stuff’ in the service as much as possible, and I hate their surprised irritation when I refuse.

I hate how many couples, church members or not, Christian or not, just assume that I will perform their wedding, and I hate their surprised outrage when I say no.

And, most of all, I hate that everyone wants to sit the pastor at the ‘grandma table’ for the reception.

I’ve done a lot of weddings, and I do a good job when I do agree to do one. But to this day, the best wedding I’ve been a part of has been my own. I think it’s because, due in equal parts to our sensibilities and to our lack of money, our wedding was simple, spare and small. None of those factors kept it from being elegant or beautiful.

Friday is Ali’s and my 11th Anniversary. Since we got married, I’ve seen weddings whose price tag comes in over my annual salary. Somewhere such a wedding, I think, goes from Cana-like joy to ugly (pagan?) decadence.

It’s only natural I suppose for the next generation of couples to push back against that trend, as the article in the NY Times this Sunday highlighted, but I wonder if Christians are morally obligated to do so: to opt out of the wedding industry because its completely incongruent with vows anchored in ‘forsaking all else…’

In fact, I’ve toyed seriously over the last year with surrendering my wedding credentials, which now reside with the Clerk of Court. Doing so would mean I’m no longer able to perform ‘legal’ weddings. In other words, couples would be married in the eyes of God just not the State. Couples would have to get a justice of the peace to do that for them.

While I realize it would be another hoop for couples to jump through but would it really be any more time than, say, taste-testing wedding cake? And anyone who did jump through the hoop would be that much more likely to treat their wedding not as a prom but as a covenant.

Here’s the article from the NY Times on the trend towards simpler, smaller weddings.

Three things I hate about religious work:

1.) Joel Osteen

2.) Clergy Meetings

3.) Wedding Coordinators

Actually, there’s a whole lot I don’t like about weddings, such as, the entire wedding industry. Wedding coordinators (at other churches, not mine) are very often pushy, patronizing and think they’re managing a show of which I’m a prop. Wedding coordinators aren’t the worst part of weddings. They’re only frequently the last bitter pill I have to swallow in a whole string of annoyances and, thus, they’re the ones who unfairly suffer my ire.

I hate how, for so many couples, the minister is somewhere at the bottom of the priority list when making arrangements for the ceremony. I hate that most couples nail down the caterer, photographer, DJ, wedding party, stationary and honeymoon venue before ever calling to see if I’m even available, which betrays, for all our talk about the sanctity of marriage, how most weddings are not- in the felt experience of the couple- a religious worship service.

I hate how many couples- or their parents- want to limit the “religious stuff’ in the service as much as possible, and I hate their surprised irritation when I refuse.

I hate how many couples, church members or not, Christian or not, just assume that I will perform their wedding, and I hate their surprised outrage when I say no.

And, most of all, I hate that everyone wants to sit the pastor at the ‘grandma table’ for the reception.

I’ve done a lot of weddings, and I do a good job when I do agree to do one. But to this day, the best wedding I’ve been a part of has been my own. I think it’s because, due in equal parts to our sensibilities and to our lack of money, our wedding was simple, spare and small. None of those factors kept it from being elegant or beautiful.

Friday is Ali’s and my 11th Anniversary. Since we got married, I’ve seen weddings whose price tag comes in over my annual salary. Somewhere such a wedding, I think, goes from Cana-like joy to ugly (pagan?) decadence.

It’s only natural I suppose for the next generation of couples to push back against that trend, as the article in the NY Times this Sunday highlighted, but I wonder if Christians are morally obligated to do so: to opt out of the wedding industry because its completely incongruent with vows anchored in ‘forsaking all else…’

In fact, I’ve toyed seriously over the last year with surrendering my wedding credentials, which now reside with the Clerk of Court. Doing so would mean I’m no longer able to perform ‘legal’ weddings. In other words, couples would be married in the eyes of God just not the State. Couples would have to get a justice of the peace to do that for them.

While I realize it would be another hoop for couples to jump through but would it really be any more time than, say, taste-testing wedding cake? And anyone who did jump through the hoop would be that much more likely to treat their wedding not as a prom but as a covenant.

Here’s the article from the NY Times on the trend towards simpler, smaller weddings.