You know you’re a real Internet Heretic Superstar when you get requests for interviews.
But I don’t think it counts when it comes from your former roommate (shades of Spaceballs: “I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate“).
This particular request came from Brian Kingbird, who I bunked with during my Freshman year at Appalachian State. Our conversation is part of Brian’s ordination process in the United Methodist Church. Send him your best thoughts, prayers, vibes, and/or small animal sacrifices (I’ll donate one of my cats if you don’t want to use your own).
As I was typing my answers, my only intent was to be honest. When I was done, my answers surprised me. This year, I’ve come to new levels of honesty with myself over just how far I’ve traveled from the theological territory where I started my journey. I remember shaking my head at people like me only ten years ago. Now, I’ve become “that guy”.
Anyway, here’s what I wrote:
How has your relationship with God developed over your lifetime?
Life with God, for me, has been a long and meandering process of evolution. I use the term evolution deliberately, despite the controversy surrounding its use in church. One of the core principles of evolution (in the biological sense) is the emergence of life from death. Organisms pass on their DNA to future generations and further the growth and development of species. In the spiritual sense, the concept of evolution bears striking resemblance to the way of the cross, as described by Jesus. Out of his death, new life was born. He taught his followers to follow him in this respect. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In another place he says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” New life is born out of death and it is as I follow the way of the cross that I discover an ongoing resurrection taking place within me. This continual path of death and resurrection has led me into, between, and through several different corners of the Christian world: from evangelicalism to the charismatic movement, the Episcopal priesthood, and most recently to congregational ministry in a Presbyterian church.
I also find that many of my own thoughts and opinions about theology, morality, and spirituality have undergone a similar process of evolution over time. There has been death and resurrection there as well. For example, I never could have imagined in high school or college that I would one day have a ministry as a chaplain to the gay and lesbian community. God has led me to become a spiritual companion to people who have been exiled from their churches of origin because of their sexual orientation. Being an advocate for their equal rights has become a major part of my work as a pastor. This particular aspect of my ministry has brought me into no small amount of conflict with many in the church who believe the Bible speaks clearly about homosexuality as sinful.
For me, my faith in Jesus, Christianity, and Bible has brought me to a place where grace trumps legalism and intelligent faith trumps blind faith. I am comfortable with ideas like same-sex marriage and the theory of evolution. I value the blessings of interfaith dialogue and fully expect to encounter many faithful non-Christians in the kingdom of heaven. Rather than a move away from Christian faith, these developments have arisen out of my ongoing attempt to take Jesus, Christianity, and the Bible seriously. I am continually and pleasantly surprised to find that Christianity still has much inspiration and guidance to offer me as I move into ideological territory that would have been unthinkable for me only a few years ago. I go forward into the future, trying to stay open-minded, and fully expecting to be surprised at what God has in store for me as my faith continues to evolve.
How does being Christian affect your daily life?
If I had a favorite Bible verse, it would be 1 John 4:16: “God is love and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” These words provide me with ample fuel for spiritual and ethical meditation. What it says to me is that God is not some distant and all-powerful authority figure who sits on some golden throne above the clouds in an alternate dimension. Instead, God is a mysterious and loving presence who can be experienced here, on this earth and in this life. If I want to serve God, I can only do so by loving my fellow human beings. Anywhere there is love, there is God, regardless of whether the name of God is verbally spoken or not. As Jesus told his followers in Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” I love the baptismal vows in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, where the new Christian pledges to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being”. At the end of every Sunday service, I charge my congregation with these words from the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship: “Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.” For me, this is what it means to be a Christian in my daily life.
How are you in (your) ministry in the world?
My “ministry in the world” is largely shaped by the principles outlined in the previous question. I find that working as a pastor is the easiest way for me to live out that universal Christian calling. Specifically, I am interested in ministries of social justice and mercy: alleviating the effects of poverty and eliminating the causes of poverty. I try to nurture relationships with those who exist outside the bounds of institutional religion. I have already mentioned my work with the gay and lesbian community. Another issue close to my heart is homelessness. I spent several years of my life during and after seminary working with people on the street who struggle with hunger, illness, and addiction. My first job was to be a faithful friend and my second job was to provide assistance where possible. Sometimes, this would lead to conversations about religion and spirituality. Sometimes, people would start coming to my church or seek a more active and conscious relationship with God. I was always open about my faith and inviting people into Christian community, but I am careful to never make conversion a prerequisite for relationship or assistance. My hope is that others will see Christ in me as I try to “seek and serve” Christ in them.
I am also passionate about the liturgical aspect of my ministry. The nurture of the church’s ministry through Word and Sacrament is, in my mind, what makes us uniquely Christian. I try to help people open the Bible for themselves and listen for inspiration and guidance from the Holy Spirit through its pages. I lead a weekly Bible study using the lectio divina method of simultaneous prayer and reading. I am also an advocate for more regular celebrations of the sacrament of the Eucharist (also known as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion) in our church. I believe that Christ is truly present in this mystery, feeding and empowering the people of God with his very self. As we come to recognize Christ’s presence in these physical elements, I believe we will be more able to recognize Christ’s presence in the rest of the world. The meaning of this sacrament is quite simple and can be taught in a single Sunday school lesson, but the regular and frequent experience of this sacrament opens us up to ever deepening levels of truth and spiritual reality. In essence, Communion is caught, not taught.
What (do you think) are the gifts of discipleship?
There are two ways I might answer that question. First, I could understand “the gifts of discipleship” to be gifts given by the Holy Spirit to empower us in our daily Christian living. On the other hand, I could see “the gifts of discipleship” as the blessings that arise from the process of being Christ’s disciple. For the sake of brevity, clarity, and simplicity, I will choose to take the second meaning as the one I will keep in mind as I answer the question. The primary blessing that I receive in my life as a disciple is a growing sense of connectedness. I love that the Latin word religion literally means “to re-connect”. Through Christ, I re-connect with God, myself, my neighbors, and creation. Paraphrasing the words of theologian Paul Tillich, sin is separation from these things (God/self/neighbor/creation). Through grace, I am reconnected with them. I honor God’s grace by passing it on in deeds of love and mercy. Grace becomes an experienced reality of connectedness and restored relationship.
What are the challenges (to your ministry), if any?
In a general sense, the biggest challenges to my ministry come from my own ego and selfish failings. The phone rings with one more person needing assistance or another annoying drunk person who wants to spend all day chatting. I get so busy with sermon writing and bulletin printing that I ignore my daughter’s pleas for attention. I exhaust myself at work to the point where I take no time to care for myself with proper food and rest.
On a more specific level, my most recent ministry challenges have to do with the specific issues that arise within congregational ministry. In the first two years after my ordination as an Episcopal priest, I worked as a chaplain. There was a constantly changing stream of people who came through my office seeking help. This is the first time that I’ve worked with a larger organization with long-term members. I am also more involved in practical administration and daily leadership. This requires that I develop a new set of skills and nurture deeper and more long-term relationships with the people under my care. It’s a new challenge for me, but a welcome one.