Lifting their Hands – On not leaving pastoral ministry

Being a pastor sucks.  It is also wonderful in ways no other job is.  But there are days even years when the consolations of ministry are few and far between, and the critiques and mistakes form a flood that overwhelms the best of intentions.

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The Very Rev. Rebecca McClain asked me early on in mentoring me into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church what I thought it meant to be a priest.  My answer then is still one I am working out.  I said, “Being a priest means promising to be fully human, bearer of the  image of God and flesh and blood, broken and healed, in front of a group of people, no matter what.”  The vows of ordination are about the roles we play in the church.  But before all of the roles is this simple understanding that I hold about being a human being, a child of God in Christ, a Spirit-led person in front of a congregation.  To be honest about our humanity in its glories and failures sounds nice, but it is hard.  Rebecca and others have helped me to put flesh and blood to it, but it is often not supported and loved by the very people among whom we struggle to live it out.

To lead others toward their full humanity in God in Christ just makes it worse.  People don’t want to change, don’t want to take ownership of their life with God or others, much less practice self-sacrificial love.  People don’t want you to change them or their church, no matter what reasons you offer for doing so.  I know; I work in the church.

I was realizing all of this in the middle of seminary.  I was in my seventh year of ministry by then, having worked in churches and a diocese prior to seminary.  By the seventh year most people leave ministry, and I was ready to join them.  My life was ugly at the time, mostly due to my own shortcomings and sins, and plenty of both.  I was an exile from every community that I could turn to.  I was out of touch with my family, my home community, my various churches.

I was sitting in the dark.  I was actually sitting in the dark of a small chapel at a youth retreat preparing a Youth Encounter team that would be welcoming and leading other youth through a weekend experience of Christ a month leader.  I was a spiritual director for the youth and young adult commission of the diocese, and I was there at the request of the director,  whom we will call Julie.  But I was struggling with leaving ministry altogether.

I was sitting on the side with another spiritual director watching Julie lead the eucharist for the youth.  I don’t remember the sermon.  I was in the tunnel vision of struggle and doubt wondering why I would stay.  I was asking God, What is there in ministry that I would die for? What could I possibly do as a priest that would matter enough for me to give my life to it? Suffering and self-centeredness are natural allies.

As the service turned toward the eucharist, the most intimate and holy space for us as followers of Christ, Julie called two teens up to be the table.  One was this boy with significant developmental issues that made him socially awkward and sometimes very difficult, he was lovable and frustrating at the same time.  The youth had earlier in the day reached the point of excommunicating him and even cruelly pushing him away when one senior girl, a gorgeous popular teen, reached out to him and used her popularity to pull him back into the group and build him up.

Julie had these two come forward and be the table by holding the elements of communion, the bread and the wine.  And Julie, with her wild red hair and her effusive enthusiasm, began to pray the eucharistic prayer from the prayer book from memory.  I was engaged and leaned forward beginning to feel like here in this moment God was answering my questions.

When she reached the place in the prayer where the priest would normally take up the elements and elevate them, she instead bent down on her knees and lifted their hands.  In the moment when the profane becomes holy, she knelt and lifted their hands.

She lifted their hands!  They became more than sacred furniture.  She made them priests, the hands of Christ, bringing their full and broken humanity into the divine act of God in Christ.  It was holy.  It was priesthood.

Now I don’t know if one person there saw what I saw.  But I just began to sob there in the darkness.  I might have said, “Amen.”  But I know I said, “I will die for that.”

So I stayed, and I stay to lift up other people’s hands.  I am still pretty broken as a human being.  Mississippi pastors say we are all dirt and divinity.  I can’t say that I have Julie’s flair and instincts or Rebecca’s maturity, but I know why I am here, why I am still trying to do more than just preach and preside as a holy person doing holy things on holy furniture.

I am heir to that moment when Christ chose to call his disciples brothers and sisters, to take up the cross and set us free, to redeem human beings to be what God made us to be: a royal priesthood of sons and daughters, heirs, and stewards of the creation and each other.  I am heir to the God who comes and lifts us up, who loves us and commands us to love others, who kneels when we expect him to stand.

You are more than sacred furniture to God.  You are his daughter, his son, his beloved heir to the rule of love and grace.  Despite myself, I am still a pastor, and I will lift your hands until you hold them up yourself and make the world holy.

 

 

“The creation waits in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”  from Paul’s letter to the Romans

Freedom is not a Christian Virtue

My one concern here is for mature Christians, disciples of Jesus.  I have to state that up front because what I am about to say is open heresy in the other major ethos and theology of our day.

Freedom is not a Christian virtue.  It is not a virtue at all.  It is not something that you can earn, practice, or become.  Freedom is a gift.  We are given freedom by others and ultimately by God.  We have freedom as rational creative creatures, but it is immature to claim it for our selves.

When have you ever seen someone claim their freedom, insist on their freedom, and create a better relationship, a better family, a better community?  I have seen lots of people take responsibility for themselves, their children, their neighbors, their world and change lives for the better.  I have seen us plaster the language of freedom on thousands of selfish acts.

Freedom has become a virtue in our ethos today.  We want freedom, we celebrate freedom, we claim freedom, we defend our own freedom.  Freedom has become an end unto itself.  It has become a good.  All of this is weird and a little sick for followers of Jesus.

In America we celebrate the virtue of Larry Flynt publishing Hustler because he is practicing his freedom.  Because he is “owning his freedom,” we see that as a liberative story.  I am disturbed less by Mr. Flynt than by the narrative that celebrates freedom as an end unto itself.  He is virtuous because he set himself free from the constraints of society in publishing pornography.  We celebrate unquestioningly people breaking free from social, religious, moral restraints.  Then we grieve when we see the victims but cannot understand how that happened.

The western narrative in its American form is the lone male, usually white, usually fit, setting himself free from social constraint to face an uncertain but glorious future unconstrained by community, ethics, or values others than those he chooses.  We celebrate people acting free in their sexuality, of course, but also in many other ways.  This is incredibly adolescent.  It leads to death.  Next time you watch a movie, count the “collateral damage” wracked up in the pursuit of freedom.

I used to teach an eighth grade religion class, and I began by asking them what it meant to be an adult.  We often don’t aim our lives at anything because we never take the time to figure out what we are trying to become.  I wanted to build a picture of what a mature Christian looked like with them; so I would ask, How do we define adulthood in America today?  The answers always came down to what you could do once you become an “adult”: cigarettes, beer, pornography, and voting.  But what does adulthood really mean?

Adulthood is the voluntary taking of responsibility for yourself as a child of God, for your neighbor as a part of God’s family, for our communities of faith and geography, and for the world around us.  It means growing in your ability to love God, your neighbor, and your self.  I add care of creation from our original humanity.  It is not the choice or choices we can make that make us adults; it is what we choose to do.  It is choosing to live and love in particular ways that we should celebrate, claim, and defend.

In the process of choosing virtuous lives we give freedom to others to live, love, and pursue happiness.  But we cannot succeed to be a free people if our ideal is just claiming freedom for ourselves.  As a father, I choose to provide for my family, to be home with them when I can, and to live virtuously so that they don’t have to fear my behaviors or the repercussions of them.  They cannot have safety, security, and health without those choices.  If I live as lech my wife and children, my community, and the world will suffer in obvious and not so obvious ways for longer than just my life.   My good is in their good.  I practice virtues both at home and at work because I have made covenants to do so, and so that I can provide my family a secure home, provision for their needs, and care for their bodies, minds, and spirits.  I am free to do this because my father and mother did the same for me.  I am free to do otherwise I suppose, but not if I am to keep my integrity.

We now must face that freedom as a virtue is destroying other virtues in our lives.  In fact many of the traditional virtues are acts of  restraint in the face of freedom.  When we choose to follow Jesus we choose not to be free in all our choices.  It is ironic that this gives us true life and freedom.

The practices of our faith are intended to make us the kind of people who will choose to act in virtuous ways no matter what others do, no matter what our situation is, no matter what even our desires may be in this particular moment.  We are born and formed as a people of God, just as my children are my offspring by birth but formed as my children by living and loving and learning from me.*  They will choose to act as my children, or far more importantly as God’s children, in every decision of their lives.  Or not.

As we face headlines of renewed violence in our world, we have to stand at the edge of this new valley of the shadow of death and say, How do I follow Jesus here?  How do I live as a child of God here?  How do I see God’s rule of love and peace here?  This is the crux of discipleship.

On Sunday, Peter will try to pull Jesus back and say you can’t go there.  Jesus’ rebuke isn’t “I am free to do as I please.”  He doesn’t remind Peter of his freedom as God’s son or a son of humanity.  He rebukes him and tells him that his mind is in the wrong place.  He didn’t rise from prayer on the Mount of Olives and practice the virtue of walking away.  He took responsibility for us and all humanity in fulfilling the will of God knowing the cost of that decision.  In doing so he gave us freedom from sin.  What we do with that freedom matters for ourselves and our world.

Will we take responsibility, grow up, and care for our selves, our neighbors, our world?  Or will we just be free?

 

 

 

*I use “I” and “my” in relation to my family, but it is really “we” my wife and me.  Truth is she is far more virtuous and responsible than I am.