Two Questions From the Weekend, pt 1

I was in Boston for the weekend to lead a retreat with new friends at Highrock Covenant Church.  Our denomination’s department of Christian Formation has facilitators, me included, who are dispatched to facilitate these invitations to prayer when local churches request them.  I’ve done a half dozen of these retreats in the last years, and Saturday was my latest opportunity.

Friday evening I enjoyed a meal with Michelle Sanchez and Amy Bositis.  We talked about the usual things, our geographies, our stories, and how we came to the places we are.  We spoke of our families, ministries, and, of course, we eventually got to the matter of last minute details for Saturday’s retreat.

Somewhere in the midst of eating, Michelle said she had two favorite questions she wanted to raise.  Her first question is the one I want to write about today.  Her second question comes in the next post.  They are questions worth answering, considering, and answering again.  They are questions worth keeping.  The first one: why do you lead these retreats?

I heard the obvious in her question.  She was planning to introduce me in the morning to a group from her church, and she wanted what wasn’t in my brief bio.  But I also heard a more general, penetrating question: why do you do what you do?  Have you thought lately about that question?  Why do you do what you do?  Why do you spend the time you do where you are?

It would help to know that the particular retreat we participated in is an assortment of prayer practices paired with various passages from the Bible.  I answered Michelle’s question simply.  I told her that I get to do, in these retreats, two of the most essential pastoral acts, and since I’m a pastor, the retreats are perfect opportunities for me to do two things I love: I get to teach people other ways to pray, and I get to put people before the scriptures.

So I get in planes or in rental cars and arrive at new places, meet new people, and wade through awkward or familiar ways to pray.  There is silence and music.  There is usually chocolate, a lot of reading, and, this time, there was bell-ringing.  There was my getting lost because Boston’s streets are notorious for their signage.  Several participants told me, in other words, either you know your way or you don’t.  There were sweet sisters in religious life.  There was a visit to a friend’s new church.

But Michelle’s question sparked the weekend.  Before the questions and the answers and the warm greetings of members from her church.  Before the smiling and hand-shaking with nuns so warm it made me think of fresh bread and a crackling fire.  Before the Sunday night return flight and right prior to Sandy’s arrival.  Sitting at the table, with a tasty dish of pecan-crusted chicken, roasted sweet potatoes, and green beans, Michelle anchored me into my work.

She helped me remember why I did my work.  And I thought about how good that felt, because there are things about work that aren’t always good or enjoyable.  There are people I know who grieve their work, people I know who don’t have the work they want or any work at all.  There I was getting to enjoy the consideration, getting to look forward to tomorrow, getting to embody the connected pieces of my vocation.

And like the pecan chicken and the tomato basil soup before it, the day ahead would be splendid.  The weather would be glorious for it, even if mornings following would bring winds so strong they’d make children shudder.  Leaves would fall easily to the ground in many gardens.  Sun rays would stretch across our heads and around the chapel like our favorite music.  And I would enjoy every moment of it.

Vow of Ordination

This is a short address from the Covenant Book of Worship, where the president of our denomination addresses the ordinands during the (service of) ordination to word and sacrament, what I’ll be hearing and saying tonight:

Dear friends, in response to God’s call and after spiritual and educational preparation, you have come to be ordained to the office of word and sacrament.  Having confessed your faith and spoken your vows in matters of faith and holy intent, I now call upon you to make your solemn promise in the presence of God and in this company of witnesses.

Will you undertake to be a faithful pastor, caring for God’s people, nourishing them in the preaching and teaching of the word, administering the holy sacraments, bearing rule in the church, and serving with the love and authority of Christ in bringing redemption and reconciliation?

After we say, “I will with the help of God,” the president addresses both orders of ordination (word and service and word sacrament):

We praise God for your commitment to serve Christ and his Church in the orders of word, service, and sacrament.  Serve patiently, cheerfully, and with compassion, remembering that the work you are called to is God’s work and that it is done in God’s name to God’s glory.  Follow Christ, whose servant you are.  Remember you are marked as persons who proclaim Christ crucified and risen, and you must be prepared to be what you proclaim.  Serve Christ simply and willingly, and let your joy in Christ overcome all discouragement.  Have no fear; be humble, yet bold and full of hope.

Savoring A Feast

My wife and son are with me at a feast.  Where are taking a few days as a family to enjoy one another, to connect with other people we don’t really know, and to attend to God.

This is a first for us.  We’ve never been at this event or in this venue in Estes Park.  We were telling the Sung family on the way to lunch–when they asked why we chose to come to the Feast together–that we don’t get to do this together, ever.  I serve in one church.  My wife and son attend and serve at another.  Even though New Community Bronzeville was launched from Logan Square, the miles that separate us on Sundays, mean that I don’t regularly worship with or sing or greet with my wife or my son.  So we came to the Feast to do that.

The Feast is a series of days developed and set aside by the Evangelical Covenant Church in order for people and families to create space for God, for each other, and for play.  It leads to the denomination’s main governing time, our Annual Meeting.  The Annual Meeting is when and where the business of the Church is prayerfully heard and decided upon.  It is where the superintendents offer reports, where the staff communicate things done and undone, and where the delegates vote upon critical issues facing our Body.  It is also where our national Church commissions, licenses, and ordains clergy and missionaries for our vocations in ministry.  The Feast, done only every three years, anticipates that business, doing so by reminding those who participate that the central issues before us as a Church are our God and our God’s mission as accepted and responded to in community.

We’re in the middle of breathtaking scenes, surrounded by peaks and trees fashioned by the Creator.  And we’re surrounded by people who are eating like we are.  In the days before my own service of ordination (I’ve written several posts about the process), I get to sit and hear great speakers remind me to savor.

This morning Lauren Walter spoke about savoring.  Lauren told stories about loving salami and cheese sandwiches and remembering how she tried to sell water with her friend when she was a five-year old girl.  She showed us what it was to savor.  She talked about how when we remember what we love, we remember people and feelings and not schedules and projects.  She said that when we savor, we feast with God.  When we savor, when we enjoy the moment we’re in, we enjoy God in ways that we don’t get to when we pass the moment and go on to the next.

I’m off to do more savoring.  Sure, I’ll be running through details of next weekend, and I’ll be squeezing moments to prepare to preach in Bronzeville this week.  I might even try to get the raw podcasts from Logan Square since I missed Blake’s message today.  I’ve already begun jotting notes for my short message at Misuzu and Alvin’s wedding this Saturday.  I’m naturally inclined to think about what’s next, what’s ahead, even when that normal way of being is a problem.  There are things to do.  But savoring is the first one.  I’m being reminded of that, and I’m obeying the nudges inside those reminders.

Questions, Papers, Interviews, & An Upcoming Ordination

“You haven’t seen the last of us.”  Those were the words of a member of the small group of people who interviewed me during the first part of last Saturday’s ordination interview.  I wrote three posts about my process toward ordination in the Evangelical Covenant Church, which you can read here, here, and here.

Well, my final interviews were Saturday, which followed up from my earlier session at the Conference level in the fall.  Saturday I met with a group of four people for an hour.  They had seen my profile and all my applications.  They probably saw the summary of my progress in the denomination’s classes and read through the experiences I had listed from the last four years.  They pulled my paper up on their laptops and read through their highlighted questions. 

I was asked about my calling to ministry and about my theology of human sexuality.  They wanted me to talk about my understanding of congregational polity since I came from an African American church that was not of the same governing structure.  They asked about preaching, after having heard my sermon sample and read the evaluation from my church’s Leadership Team.  We talked about rest and what that looks like for me.  They complimented my paper, which made my day.

After that, I left, they discussed me, and called me back a half hour later into a room with four times as many people.  We all introduced ourselves and they asked me to answer one of the previous questions I had already answered so that part of the Board could hear me answer a question–the one about sexuality.  Then they asked about my recreational life.  I told them that my son was often entertaining, not always but often.  That was my best answer in the moment. 

They said that my interview and process were favorable, that they were recommending me for ordination.  They smiled and I did too.  It was our way of acknowledging that much work had been done.  I was nervous, though, because ordination really isn’t something to congratulate a person over as much as it’s a reason to pray for a person!  That’s probably why that group of pastors and leaders laid their hands on me and prayed.

Then I hopped onto the Blue line, went to my office, talked briefly with my pastor about random church things, and met with an engaged couple getting married this spring. 

Upon reflection, I think the words from that seasoned colleague stuck out the most.  You haven’t seen the last of us.  Looking at what ministry I’ve already done, and imagining what’s next, those are searching and encouraging words.  To me they mean that the ups and downs of pastoral leadership, the moments when words can’t be said or won’t be said, the frustrating times when you feel or are misunderstood–during those times–there is a community of people around you.  A group of coworkers in the larger Church that you can look around for and find.

A Part of Something

Yesterday I sat for my first interview for ordination in the Evangelical Covenant Church.  I’ve written a few posts about it.  One of the many things I’m thinking and appreciating about this process is the reminder that I am a servant in a local church that is a part of something larger, a Church that is inclusive of more than the local group of people I see, interact with, and serve. 

After being called into the room, I met four folks who had all my forms, papers, and applications.  Their faces were knowing and humble, and I could tell that they had been thoughtful and prayerful that morning.  I looked around the table at the face of a man I knew from several conversations, a man I’d met once when I led a retreat for his church earlier this year, a woman whose face was familiar but who I couldn’t recall meeting, and another man who I knew only by name and good reputation.

As the conversation came and went, we talked about my call, about my role and what I’m learning at New Community.  We discussed how I came to my church and where I’ve grown in my own view.  They mentioned the evaluation from my church and pointed out several pieces in my paper.  We talked about ways to serve and further get to know our denomination.  They reminded me that our work as ministers was both to our local churches and to the broader group within our denomination.

It was a kind reminder.  

One of my favorite authors is Gerald May.  I’m reading Will and Spirit.  Very slowly.  It will take me at least a year to process this book so if I mention in 2012 that I’m reading Will and Spirit, don’t be surprised!  Dr. May anchors the book in a distinction between willingness and willfulness.   

Willfulness is manipulative.  It is what we’re used to in culture, what pulls us away from being aware of who we are and what we’re addicted to.  Willfulness is setting ourselves a part of what we are naturally a part of.  It is the hard attempt to direct, control, and master existence.  Willfulness is the opposite of living by grace or living because you have been given something.

Willingness is on the other hand.  It is surrendering oneself to what is.  It is entering into, immersing one’s life into life, realizing “that one already is a part of some ultimate cosmic process.”  He says, willingness is the commitment to be in the process of life.  The commitment to be a part of something bigger that already is.

My interview was a recent reminder of some of this good stuff May is bringing up.  Any thoughts?