Earlier today I gathered with my diocesan clergy colleagues for the annual Renewal of Vows. Our bishop, The Rt. Rev. Carlye Hughes, preached to us in her quintessential loving and deeply pastoral way. She started out by talking about how much she loves being our bishop, how “delighted” she is to know all of us. She spoke encouraging, honest words, clearly reflecting her understanding of what it is like to be in parish ministry. Partway through the sermon she said something that caused me to gasp – audibly, perhaps. She said, “Our job is to put ourselves in the presence of God and then let God change us.” She went on to say that, in her experience, it is easier to “let God judge us,” but, nonetheless, that is not our job. We are to let God work on us, in us, and through us because we are created to be doing what we do, in this particular time.
I know she said a whole lot more than that, some of which I remember, though I’m sure she will forgive me for not retaining too much of what she said after the “put ourselves in the presence of God and then let God change us” part. When she spoke those words, which came after she first mentioned being created for ministry in this time, something in me shifted, something broke wide open. It felt in that moment as if she were speaking directly to me, speaking about experiences I have had over the past several years, some of which she knows nothing about.
The journey toward ordained ministry, even if it goes as smoothly as it can go, does not leave one unscathed. I’m not sure that is should. I believe there is something about how we experience God through the dark times, the challenging times, the times we’d rather not experience if we had our druthers, that changes us in ways that bring us closer to whom it is we are created to be.
Don’t get me wrong. I also believe that how we experience God through the mountaintop experiences, the exciting times, the uplifting times, changes us in ways that bring us closer to whom it is we are created to be. This is true, too, in the neutral times, the more mundane times, the times we probably won’t recall in months or years. All of it is essential because in all of it we are in the presence of the God who created us in the divine image for no other reason than love. God works on, in, and through us in all of it, whether we are aware or not. It’s just that sometimes it is easier to put ourselves -or maybe it’s that we don’t stop ourselves from wandering – into God’s presence during those times we are most aware of needing God’s help.
Parish ministry, even if it goes as smoothly as it can go, does not leave one unscathed. This, I think, may be hard for folks who have not experienced it to understand. How is it that a calling – doing the thing God wants or needs you to do in a particular time and place, with particular people – ever be scathing? The short answer is that being in relationship, even with people with whom you fall deeply in love, as I have with the people I’ve served, is hard. All of us are deeply human, even those of us in collars. And as humans we sometimes struggle to be our best selves with each other. It can be hard not to experience every shortcoming, every failure, every lost hope, as a personal failure. It can be hard not to move to that place of being in the presence of God for God’s judgment, rather than God’s life-giving love, when things don’t go as we or the congregation think they should.
My journey to ordained ministry included a number of challenges, some of which seemed at times to have little or nothing to do with me in particular. Some of the challenges felt and were deeply personal. The journey to where I am today in ordained ministry included calls to two beautiful, faith-filled congregations where I served for less time than I had planned, though, in retrospect, for just the right amount of time. I find myself now in a relatively new place, again a beautiful faith-filled congregation, and there is something about this call that seems different in ways that compel me to wonder, to unleash my curiosity in ways that feel new.
No doubt my awareness of what I have learned along the way from all of the people who have journeyed with me to this place and time has something to do with this new feeling of hopeful anticipation. And, since this morning, I am aware that some of this change is because one of the things I have learned along the way is to go more readily into the presence of God to be changed, trusting that God’s creation of me to be in this place at this particular time is a process of creation that is ongoing and sure.