Reflections on an Upcoming Ordination (Mine)

‘Have you checked your Kakao Talk?’ Daniel asked.

‘No, not yet. Why?’ I responded.

‘I just put a message there for you. You’ve been approved for ordination by the PCA[1]’.

I remember doing a jump for joy, but the full weight of what it signified to me didn’t hit until I was in chorale practice for Handel’s Messiah that afternoon.

I had trouble concentrating, as my mind kept wandering to what this meant to me.

A spiritual community within the Christian tradition has finally said to me, ‘We recognize your gifts for the role of pastoral leadership, and we’ll set you apart as a pastoral leader.’

When I first came to Asia in 1997, I thought this was a possibility that I had walked away from, and that I would probably never return to. Heck, I wasn’t even sure I’d ever return to involvement in a church. And for sure, if you had told me 2 years ago, ‘You’re going to be a co-pastor of a church and ordained before the end of 2015’, I would have laughed in your face, told you where to go, and how to get there!

What a difference 21 months can make! However, I have returned to it, but more importantly, I feel as if it – the church, a ‘spiritual/numinous quality’ to life, the call to serve – has returned to me.

Now, many of you who are religiously inclined might think, ‘Oh yes, just like Jonah running away from Nineveh! You can’t run away from the Lord! He’s gonna run after you, and he’s gonna find you and catch you!’ I wouldn’t say the experience of the prophet Jonah parallels my experience, exactly. I haven’t been thrown off any ships, although I’ve been dismissed from a couple of teaching jobs in my EFL/EAP teaching career (not always my fault). I haven’t had a real experience of isolation similar to being in the ‘belly of the fish’, although my 17 years away from the institutional church could be interpreted in that way.

With my more explicit embrace of the principles of progressive Christianity, I find the language of ‘God chasing us’ a bit difficult to embrace. I now understand that our purpose as people of faith is to find meaning in, or even add meaning to, events in a world which can seem capricious and arbitrary. Yet, the unexpected nature of the events over the last almost two years has taken me by surprise.

I didn’t ask to be bowled over by a Christmas Eve sermon.

I didn’t ask to be excited by watching lectures by Dale Martin, John Dominic Crossan, or Marcus Borg, or by re-discovering the work of Don Cupitt.

I didn’t ask to be put on a journey which would lead me to an ostensibly ‘gay’ church.

Yet, I knew that once I did get involved, I would have to deal with the question – Craig; do you want to take the journey to holy orders again?

I remember how arduous the journey was the first time around, and how it ended in rejection. That experience has led me to a deep-seated distrust of the institutional church. Within it, there are always those who are seeking little more than their own self-aggrandizement, ego padding, an assurance that they’re still ‘useful’ or ‘valuable’ in the eyes of the world. Sorry, but the struggle to know one is accepted is the struggle of every Christian – you don’t deserve a seminary degree, a secure career of thirty-plus years, or a salary and a pension plan, even if it is only poverty-level, for working that out!

That future for the ordained minister, though, is well on its way out. Many more people who are in ministry these days need to get some, most, or all of their salary from working in another job or profession. That’s my situation, too. I am a volunteer in a house church sized congregation, figuring out if there are any avenues to growth, or having a greater presence in our community, all while preaching and presiding at worship three Sundays a month, and trying to keep track of what’s happening in the community I serve, on a volunteer basis. Some would call me ‘bi-vocational’ – I consider that nonsense. Those of us who minister without pay are ‘worker-priests/pastors’ – don’t fancy our situations up with a word that masks our reality.

And I still get the question from some: do you feel different?

For the most part, no. I’m still the same person I was before – a teacher who works with adults, doing my best to do my job, and sometimes getting it right.

I still have a mind like a sieve, desperately trying to remember all the things I’m supposed to take with me when I head out the door each day!

I still curse like a trooper in moments of frustration. Note well, gentle reader – virtually all the clergy I know are potty-mouthed to some degree or other. The only difference is how willing they are to admit it!

I still like my tipple every once in a while, be it a new world Shiraz, European or craft beer, or Long Island Ice Tea (although I have a bottle of clamato mix in my fridge crying to be transformed into Bloody Caesars!).

I still experience the attacks of anxiety that are part of my life, and I still have to manage them the best way I know how. With the pressure to be ready for Sunday mornings, I now have another set of things to be anxious about. Some may view this admission as one of weakness, which may them to question whether I should be in ministry – for me, it’s just another one of those conditions which any of us may be afflicted with, and have to deal with.

I wouldn’t say I’ve changed – but like Paul Tillich’s description of the moment of grace[2], all has been transformed. My life’s meaning has been given new direction. To borrow another analogy from Peter Rollins[3], I haven’t been given a new thing, a new experience. I’ve found the grounding which helps me make sense of things, of experiences, of life-such-as-it-is.

In spite of the challenges I experience in this journey (and challenges, there are!), the chance to preach and to lead God’s people in worship, even in the services when I haven’t has as much preparation as I’d like, is important to me. Being a witness and a spiritual representative for a community of the marginalized in a culture which is still quite hostile toward them is a privilege and an important responsibility which I take very seriously. Meeting the wonderful people I’ve encountered in the last two years has been a blessing. Continuing the ministry education and preparation process with MCC[4] is an opportunity I relish. Exploring new possibilities for a community of faith is an adventure I like being on.

I am where I’m meant to be, in the place where I have been planted (for now), for in following this vocation in this place, I find my welfare.[5]

I wouldn’t change a thing about the path I’m on – not for anything in the world.

[1] The Progressive Christian Alliance.

[2] See Tillich, P (1948) ‘You Are Accepted’, in The Shaking of the Foundations (Charles Scribner’s Sons; reprint: Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, 2012), pp.153-163.

[3] See Rollins, P (2012) The Idolatry of God: Breaking our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction. New York: Howard Books.

[4] Metropolitan Community Churches.

[5] A little reference to the letter of Jeremiah to the exiles (Jeremiah 29).

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