Inner Terrain of the Ordained Life – Ordination of Transitional Deacons

by | Nov 17, 2018

The word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Jeremiah 4:1

Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.
2 Corinthians 4:1

“I am among you as one who serves.”
Luke 22:27

Yesterday, as is our custom in the Diocese of Washington, I spent several hours with the four to be ordained and their spiritual mentor through the ordination process, the Rev. Robert Phillips. We met in our home, and after all of you had left, my husband said to me: “That has to be one of the best parts of your job.” And of course it is.

I hope you know what a privilege it is, not only for me, but for all of us to journey with you on the path of your discernment, education, and formation for ordained life. You are a blessing. Each one of you brings a particular richness of spiritual maturity and youthful exuberance, a joy for life and compassion born of the particular suffering that has marked you. As the wise Jewish doctor Rachel Naomi Remen reminds us all, “It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our experience of suffering that makes us able to heal. . . Expertise cures, but wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people. For the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise.” (Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom–Stories that Heal (Riverhead Books, 1996).)

You also bring to ordained life the experience of vocation in other realms, which gives you an appreciation for the breadth of call. You know that the experience, while distinct for those called to this peculiar path, is not unique. It was Walter Brueggemann who said that the great heresy of our time is the notion that’s possible, even desirable to live an uncalled life, with no other reference point than itself. (Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Voices in Exile (Fortress Press, 1996).) You know that for the empty lie that it is. You know both the gift and the cost of a called life, a summoned life, which is the God-given potential for every human being.

When call is denied or ignored, we are diminished, stunted in our humanity. In its societal, collective expressions, the uncalled life is a manifestation of evil, as people are consigned to live lives too small for them, as cogs in the machinery of consumption or war, or as those easily thrown away, trapped in prisons of poverty and injustice. In the realm of personal choice, the uncalled life is among the greatest of self-imposed human tragedies.

You have been called to this life, among the ordained in this particular institutional expression of Christianity. For this, the first of two ordinations on your path to priesthood, I’d like to speak to you about the inner terrain of this particular call. I don’t believe that anything I have learned is necessarily unique to this call, but that is for others, called to labor in other vineyards, to determine.

The first emotion to name is gratitude.

I asked each of the four yesterday to identify the moment when they were, at last, confident that this day would come, that they would, in fact, be ordained. As each spoke, the gratitude in the room was palpable. There’s almost always a companion response of disbelief, as it feels too good to be true. You are called to this, and it’s amazing because it’s not about how marvelous you are–although, as the poem I asked you to read yesterday boldly states, “you are more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach.” (“Santiago,” by David Whyte. Pilgrim @2012 Many Rivers Press) That’s true about you, but so is everything else–the whole catastrophe of your existence. All of it is swept up into this call. That’s the amazing part, and how could we not respond to God in gratitude?

Now I know that sometimes we clergy speak of our call as something we resisted for years, said no to for years, and then finally acquiesced to, sounding a bit as if we were doing God and the church a favor by saying yes. But I’ve never been persuaded by that narrative, and whenever I hear people talk that way in the early stages of the discernment process, I discourage them from going forward. Honestly, you need to want this life in order to thrive in it. In the years when I was newly ordained, serving full time in a parish and raising two young sons, I remember thinking “I would not wish my life on anyone else. But nor would I trade it for anyone else’s.” Even the hardest moments, there is gratitude for the call. And when we forget that, and catch ourselves whining about how hard the work is, it’s best to step back and ask what else is going on.

In my first year in seminary, we had a visiting Church History professor who stepped in for one of the VTS faculty on sabbatical. He said something that I’ve never forgotten–not about Church History, but the nature of this vocation: “If you find yourselves complaining about how hard this work is, especially during Holy Week, or at Christmas, or other intense seasons in the church’s life, perhaps this is not your call.” “Never complain to your people about how hard you work,” he said to us. Which doesn’t mean you can’t complain to anybody, mind you. We all need places to release tensions and to vent. But not to those whose work is actually much harder than ours and who give countless hours apart from what they do to earn their daily bread, sacrificially, in service to Christ through the church.

Gratitude for this call, then, gratitude for the experience of call, is fundamental. And, as I’ve indicated, it’s important because of how hard the work can be, and even how hard it can be to find a place of work that also sustains our daily living.

Thus another dimension of the inner dimension of this terrain is heartache.

This call will break your heart. There’s no avoiding it. First of all, count on making a lot of mistakes, some of them quite spectacular. You will break your own heart in the ways you fail. Moreover, the church is filled with human beings–imperfect, broken, sinful human beings, just like you. They, too, will break your heart. To complicate things further, no matter where your vocational path takes you, this is a challenging time to be a Christian leader, and the challenges in the Episcopal Church are real. It’s helpful to know in advance, I suppose, that your heart will be broken, but in my experience  advance knowledge doesn’t really buffer the impact when it happens. That’s one reason why we all need support systems. There is no shame in asking for help. Nor is a broken heart the end of the world–in fact, as I said earlier, you broken heart will help heal other broken hearts.

Yet another dimension of the inner terrain of this call is the need to cultivate resilience, and persistence, or what some in leadership circles are referring to nowadays as “grit.”  

At the heart of this call is leadership. We are called to lead a certain group of people, be it a congregation, a student body, a family within a congregation, a group of colleagues, or a diocese. We are called to lead others from where we are now, as a body, to where God is calling us, toward a preferred future or a necessary sacrifice. That process, by definition, invokes resistance. Resistance, let me hasten to say, is not all bad; nor is all change good. As a result, those of us called to lead have no choice but to live and move and have our being in what I heard one leader recently describe as “the messy middle,” that place where nothing is clear, where what you thought was a God-inspired idea goes nowhere, where those who called you to lead them are now resisting you with everything they’ve got, and it occurs to you that working as a barista in your neighborhood coffee shop seems like a more fruitful place for ministry than the church.  

The last dimension of the inner terrain of this call I’ll mention today is the capacity to dream.

This is the gift of hope, that often initially expresses itself in a vision for what the church could be, is called to be, and a deep desire in us to be there, in that hopeful place. I often tease clergy when they describe the church they would like to serve: you know, that healthy, multi-cultural congregation, with enough resources to afford a staff, ready to take risks, isn’t burdened by the weight and responsibilities of a building, and with lots of kids. I say, sure, we all want that church. Perhaps your call and mine is to bring hope and vision for that kind of church to the place where most of our churches are now and lead accordingly. 

For without such a dream, where would we be? God places God-sized dreams in the heart of leaders for a reason. They are to be cherished, cultivated, and worked toward, in full acceptance the journey toward their fulfillment is long, that we may not see the fruits of our labor in our lifetimes.

Those dreams also ask for our best efforts. Do not expect this work to be easy. But not only is it worth giving your life to a God-given dream, if you are, in fact, called to this vocation, as we believe that you are, you will find your greatest joy in its fulfillment, and even in failure. For as Marian Wright Edelman once said, “It’s better to fail in the work that matters than to succeed in mediocrity.” But when things get hard, promise me that you will ask for help. We aren’t meant to do this work alone.

In closing, I confess that I am not a bishop who can speak to you from personal experience of a balanced life. I have never known balance, as much as my heart craves it. I can speak to you of the joy, gratitude, heartbreak, necessary resilience, dreams of a called life. And of a relationship with Christ that is deeply personal, sustaining, and yes, as St. Paul tells us over and over again, the way of the cross.

Please take care of yourselves. You are among the generation of clergy coming into your own under the inspired leadership of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Take his teachings to heart. Live in your lives according to The Way of Love. Live into the  practices of a Jesus-focused life before you speak of them. But then live your call, and speak, teach, love, and lead.

Thank you for saying yes,