Nevermind that I hate the word ‘biblical’ in all of its pretentious and coercive glory. I find that it usually has nothing to do with the Bible and a lot to do with arrogant jerks who don’t like to have their authority challenged.
You want to know what’s really unbiblical?
Bacon. And I’m not giving that up either.
Anyway, here’s a list of farcical reasons that appeared in Sojourner’s Magazine. One of my seminary profs had an almost identical list on his office door. The purpose of this joke is to show how absolutely ridiculous are the hermeneutical arguments of those who fight against women in ordained ministry.
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.
William Wilberforce had a problem. He was trying to figure out what to do with his life. Most youth and adults know what that’s like. However, what makes this case different is that Wilberforce was already a successful member of the British Parliament. In American terms, he would be called a Congressman. To be where he was (especially in 18th century England), one would assume that he had already climbed the ladder of success!
The thing that had Wilberforce all worked up about his future is that he had recently experienced a profound and life-altering spiritual awakening. His personal relationship with God had suddenly taken over his life to such a degree that Wilberforce was thinking of quitting politics for good and entering ordained ministry in the Anglican Church. He was at a loss over what to do.
While he was in this state of mind, Wilberforce was introduced to a group of Christian activists who were campaigning heavily for the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. The beginning of Wilberforce’s involvement with this group (later known as ‘the Clapham sect’) is depicted beautifully in the 2006 film Amazing Grace. Seated around his dining room table, they showed him examples of the irons used to restrain captured slaves during their journey across the Atlantic. Conditions were so brutal that no one was guaranteed to survive. They introduced him to Olaudah Equiano, a liberated slave who became an active abolitionist. Equiano showed him the scars on his body. While Wilberforce’s mouth was still hanging open in shock, Thomas Clarkson and Hannah More delivered what I believe to be the best line in the film:
Thomas Clarkson: Mr. Wilberforce, we understand you are having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist.
Hannah More: We humbly suggest that you can do both.
And I think they were right.
The members of this group understood one very important truth that most Christians tend to forget. It’s a truth that we celebrate every year on the feast of Pentecost. And here it is: The Holy Spirit ordains all people to preach good news to the world.
Not just some, but all. Have you ever noticed something strange about the early church in the book of Acts? Most other radical movements in history emerge with a chain of successors once the initial founder is out of the picture. There was even biblical precedent for this. After the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, people everywhere recognized his apprentice Elisha as his chosen successor. They said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”
But that didn’t happen in the early days of Christianity. Jesus Christ had no heir or replacement. The title ‘Messiah’ did not pass to a predetermined chosen one after his departure into heaven. Instead, the Holy Spirit, the very power and presence of God, came to dwell within the entire community of faith.
We read, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
This kind of thing was totally unprecedented, although the ancient prophets had prayed for something like it to happen. One time, when people complained to Moses about unauthorized prophets in the Israelite camp, Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Later on, God spoke through the prophet Joel saying, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
And that’s exactly what happened. The entire community of believers on Pentecost was filled with the Holy Spirit and each one started “speaking about God’s deeds of power” to people from “every nation under heaven”. There was no seminary course or board-approved examination. They simply opened their mouths and started to speak “as the Spirit gave them ability.”
There was no single successor to Jesus’ ministry. There was no special order of priests or prophets. The only qualification for speaking forth good news in the power of the Holy Spirit is that you had to believe. “Out of the believer’s heart,” Jesus said, the Holy Spirit would flow, like “rivers of living water”. He never said, “Out of the apostle’s heart” or “Out of the pastor’s heart”. No, Jesus said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
Anyone with an open heart and an open mind about Jesus is a vessel for the Holy Spirit. This is an important piece of good news for us to hear, on this day of all days. Later today, a new pastor will be ordained in this church. But, if we take the message of Pentecost seriously, then we must admit that there is a very real sense in which all of us are already ordained as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, each of us has a responsibility to answer God’s call on our lives and preach good news to the world around us as the Holy Spirit gives us ability and opportunity.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we all need to become experts at delivering sermons. That’s only one way to preach the good news. A single act of kindness can be a sermon unto itself. You can even preach by listening while people tell you about their problems. You might not have fancy theological answers to questions about Christianity, but the simple fact that you’re letting someone ask a tough question is sometimes enough to speak to that person’s heart.
William Wilberforce found his way to do the work of God and the work of politics at the same time. He devoted the rest of his life to fighting slavery. He sent petitions, lobbied Members of Parliament, spoke out in the House of Commons, and wrote legislation. Finally, in 1807, he succeeded in ending the British slave trade once and for all. He never became a member of the clergy, but this was his life’s work as an ordained minister of the good news.
In the same way, each one of you is an ordained minister of the good news. You will leave this church today and go back to your neighborhood, your family, your school, your shop, or your office. As you go, let this reality sink into your heart. Let this mentality take over your brain: You are a missionary. The place where you stand is your mission field. Be open to whatever ministry opportunities the Holy Spirit may bring into your life today. Be faithful in your calling as an ordained minister of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Easter began with an explosion of beautiful, spring weather in central New York. I can understand how someone might want to come back from the dead for this. Needless to say, these meteorological phenomena have me itching to spend more time with my friends on the street.
As always, our ministry at St. James Mission is bizarre enough to evade all attempts at codification and programming. The streets have become my school of the Spirit as I try to listen for what God is doing in the marginal spaces of our community.
As always, God is doing some strange and funny new things.
As I was going to bed on Palm Sunday, I had one of those moments where the Holy Spirit walks up and smacks you in the face with a sack full of reality. The gospel text from the Daily Lectionary was Luke 19:41-48. Jesus stood weeping over the city of Jerusalem, prophesying that they would be crushed by enemies “because [they] did not recognize the time of [their] visitation from God.”
Even though this sounds pretty harsh (and it is), it got me thinking about the “unrecognized” ways that God might be “visiting” me. I prayed that my eyes would be opened so that I might “recognize on this day the things that make for shalom“, as Jesus said.
Immediately, I thought of this one guy who has been annoying me for months. Somehow, he obtained my home phone number and would call several times a day to talk my ear off about nothing-in-particular for as long as I would let him. It had reached the point that I would groan anytime his number came up on Caller ID. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even pick up the phone. How hypocritical of me to prattle on like I do about solidarity with the poor and relational ministry while simultaneously refusing to engage with the one guy from the street who wants nothing more than to establish a relationship!
Even though this guy has no interest in coming to church (he says it cuts into his “prime beer-drinking time”), he goes out of his way to introduce me to his friends who could use a pastor. Even though he doesn’t like to talk about God or spirituality, he listens intently whenever his schizophrenic roommate corners me with this week’s pressing questions regarding theological minutiae. Even though he doesn’t approve of the fact that I hang around with “scumbags”, he took me to a crack house to meet his friend who needed help getting a cat neutered.
When his dog Teddy underwent a serious medical procedure last month, he asked me to lay hands on the dog and pray for healing.
I was invited to a barbeque at his house on Good Friday. I got to meet his neo-Nazi friend, who has swastika tattoos on his arms. We shared pictures of our kids, who are about the same age.
This guy is one of those relational magnets who turns his home into a house of hospitality for the very “scumbags” he claims to despise. He claims no interest in God, yet asks his friend the priest to stop by as much as I can during the week. When I do, he feeds me chicken wings and cheeseburgers.
It’s amazing just how much my perspective on this relationship has changed during Holy Week. The Holy Spirit has opened my eyes to see this same relationship in a new light. As I continue to build relationships on the street this year, I have a sense that this guy will be one of those nexus points where God chooses to gather people. It makes me think of Levi the tax collector. His house was full of friends when Jesus showed up to party. This guy’s house is the same.
Whenever I’m on the street now, I make sure to stop by his house. When the phone rings and I see that it’s his number, I’m glad to pick up. In fact, he just called as I was writing this post…
“Recognize on this day the things that make for shalom.”
One of the most impressive things about our society is the efficiency with which we armor ourselves from one another. Yesterday, I had a run-in with an SUV at an intersection in Utica. Thankfully, no one was injured. What’s even more remarkable is that when we got out to inspect our vehicles, neither of us could find any damage on our cars. On this occasion, efficient armor was most welcome.
Later in the day, I encountered another kind of armor for which I was not so glad. A disabled veteran informed me that his social security check had not arrived since December. His shoes had worn through so that his feet were getting soaked as he limped through the snow, but there was no money in his account for new shoes. After some bureaucratic wrestling, it was determined that the checks were being sent to his previous address. His previous caseworker had quit and paperwork had been lost in the shuffle. The error has been corrected, but he still won’t be able to get money for shoes until Tuesday. I hope the weather warms up this weekend.
Later still, an elderly woman showed me a letter she received from an insurance company. She was in the hospital last month and the company just now decided that her visit would not be covered. The letter was so full of jargon that neither of us could understand it. We had to call someone in North Carolina to serve as interpreter.
Our healthcare and social service systems seem to be designed to isolate the rest of humanity from the suffering of the weak. Whether the system is privatized or government-run, red tape will still protect the person holding the checkbook from the person who needs help. Their paper armor is thin but impenetrable.
I could pontificate about bureaucracy all day, but if I’m truly honest with myself, then I have to admit that I share the desire to run and hide from the suffering of others. I sat with someone today whose perspective on reality is all but lost in a fog of alcohol and insanity. I try to listen attentively, but it’s getting harder and harder to understand. The better part of me wants to believe that I can still be an effective pastor. The rest of me wants to dump him in rehab and come back when he’s sober.
Sometimes, I think it would be so much easier to recite a biblical passage and then be on my way. Who knows? I still might do it. There’s something to be said for the pastoral rites of the church, but they’re not meant to be used as cop-outs. What I want to resist in myself is the desire to put on my own paper armor: whether it’s a bureaucratic form, a liturgical service, or a biblical passage. I want to stay engaged with the real suffering of those who live in the darkest corners of this community.
What I need is for the love of the Suffering Servant, who “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases”, to flow through me in fresh ways. His love gave him the strength to stand in solidarity with outcasts, to touch lepers, and to do all that without hiding behind the paper armor of bureaucratic systems.