One More Step

This past Thursday night I took another step along the road towards the pastorate. One of the requirements in the United Methodist Church is for the local church, at its annual business meeting, to certify a candidate for ordination that it wishes to sponsor. This week, I had the rare privilege of being in that situation.

The District Superintendent, Jeff, was there for the annual charge conference, which is what it’s called, and he ran the meeting, including the time to ratify me. When that came, he explained the uniqueness of this proceeding, before supervising a written ballot vote whether to put me forward. I am humbled and honored to have had the support of all 44 church members present and voting that night. (Yes, apparently, Mary voted for me too.)

When the vote was announced, Jeff called me forward and everyone had a chance to lay hands on me and he led a blessing. I was touched, and moved, by the love and support of the congregation, and the unanimous vote really affirmed for me how much people are behind me, and apparently how much of a “duh!” this is to everyone.

There’s a few steps more to go before certification this winter. I have to complete my mentoring cycle, which will take me to January I expect; I have to review the results of my psychological testing, which will probably be next month sometime. And I have some essays to write about fundamental theological questions. But I’m thinking I will have achieved certified status by spring.

Then what?

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This. I Wanna Do THIS.

I’ve started readings for one of my fall classes, CD 501 Vocation of Ministry–which looks like it will be a chance for us to push into what being in full-time ministry will be all about. (“You sure you wanna do this?”) One of the books is Stephen Seamands’ Ministry in the Image of God, and I just have to quote from his Chapter 4, on “Glad Surrender.” In it, Seamands himself quotes from Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places. Check this out.

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In the story, Much-Afraid is puzzled when she learns that she is ascending to the High Places not to remain there forever but so she can descend back into the Valley of Humiliation from which she has fled. At the beginning of her journey with the Shepherd, as they cross a swift stream running through the valley, he bids her listen to the words being sung by the rushing water: “Come, oh come! Let us away–Lower, lower, every day…From the heights we leap and flow, To the valleys sown below, Sweetest urge and sweetest will, To go lower, lower still.”

The water sings joyfully as it hurries down to the lowest place, yet the Shepherd is calling Much-Afraid to ascend to the High Places. It seems contradictory, so Much-Afraid asks what it means. “The High Places,” the Shepherd explains, “are the starting places for the journey down to the lowest place in the world. When you have hinds’ feet and can go ‘leaping on the mountains and skipping on the hills,’ you will be able, as I am, to run down from the heights in gladdest self-giving and then go up to the mountains again […] for it is only on the High Places of Love that anyone can receive the power to pour themselves in an utter abandonment of self-giving.” At this point in the journey, however, Much-Afraid is perplexed by the Shepherd’s answer.

Later, though, when they arrive at the borderland of the High Places, she begins to understand. Standing before the towering cliffs still to be scaled, the Shepherd has Much-Afraid look up at the mighty waterfall flowing down from the High Places. When she does, she is awed by the tremendous height of the rocky lip over which the water cascades down and the deafening noise as it crashes down onto the rocks at the foot of the fall. Never has she seen anything so majestic or terrifyingly lovely. Once again, as in the valley, she hears the waters singing, “From the heights we leap and go, To the valleys down below, Always answering to the call, To the lowest place of all.”

To Much-Afraid the fall of the mighty waters is both beautiful and terrible. She can hardly bear to watch the water cast itself down from the heights above only to be shattered on the rocks beneath. Sensing her apprehension, the Shepherd urges her to look more closely. “Let your eye follow just one part of the water from the moment when it leaps over the edge until it reaches the bottom.”

As she does, she gasps in wonder. Once over the edge, the waters were like winged things, alive with joy, so utterly abandoned to the ecstasy of giving themselves that she could have almost supposed that she was looking at a host of angels floating down on rainbow wings, singing with rapture as they went. To the water this was the loveliest, most glorious movement in the world. And its joy didn’t end when it broke upon the rocks below. In fact, the lower the water went, the lighter and more exuberant it became. A rushing torrent, it swirled triumphantly around the rocks and then flowed downward, lower and lower, around and over every obstacle in its way.

As the Shepherd explains, “At first sight the leap does look terrible […] but as you can see, the water itself finds no terror in it, no moment of hesitation or shrinking, only joy unspeakable and full of glory, because it is the movement natural to it. Self-giving is its life. It has only one desire, to go down and down and give itself with no reserve or holding back of any kind. You can see that as it obeys that glorious urge the obstacles which look so terrifying are perfectly harmless, and indeed only add to the joy and glory of the movement.”

Soon Much-Afraid discovers firsthand what this means. After she ascends to the High Places and is given a new name (Grace and Glory), compassion for those in the Valley of Humiliation wells up within her. They are so fearful and bound; she longs to tell them how the Bridegroom-King can free them as he freed her.

As she rises to go down into the Valley, she sees the great waterfall and hears the song again, “From the heights we leap and flow, To the valleys down below, Sweetest urge and sweetest will, To go lower, lower still.” Now she fully understands. She has been brought by the King to the High Places so that she too can pour herself out in joyful abandonment. The thought of being made one with the great fall of many waters filled her heart with ecstasy and with a rapturous joy beyond power to express. She, too, at last was to go down with them, pouring herself forth in love’s abandonment of self-giving. “He brought me to the heights just for this,” she whispered to herself, and then looked at him and nodded.

What Much-Afraid once considered terrible, love’s abandonment in self-giving, has become to her altogether lovely, a fountain of unspeakable joy. What she has shrunk away from for fear of losing herself, she now gladly embraces as the grand purpose of her existence.

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This is at least the third time I’ve read this, and it’s moved me deeply each time I do. In fact, this passage was part of one of the more powerful experiences of God that I’ve had in the past year. I read this for the first time over lunch in my office at work, tears streaming down my face. I felt two things at the same time. I felt the desire to join the water “to go lower, lower still.” And I felt more affirmed in my path than in practically anything else this year: that yes, this is what I am calling you to do; that it will be all right even though it might look scary sometimes; that this is “the grand purpose of [my] existence.”

I can’t say I’m ready to do this, and at the same time, I don’t think anyone ever can. But the rivulets are forming up. They are flowing into trickles, then into tiny streams, then on into a great river that rushes to the edge and off, abandoning all it knows for the ecstasy of the flight, and the privilege of going lower, lower still. Come along for the ride.

David’s First Accident

We interrupt this journey to ordination for a word from Real Life.

After two-plus years of really safe driving, including thousands of miles all alone in West Virginia last summer, David had his first accident last week.

The bottom line: He’s fine. The other guy (in the huge delivery truck) was absolutely fine. But as you can see, the nearly 12-year-old minivan has had better days.

He was turning right, out of a parking lot, and the left lane was blocked by a truck or something, so he couldn’t see. So he nosed out a little to see if it was clear, and wham, the truck tore the front bumper off before he could get to the brake.

It’s funny, we had just had the van in for its 165,000 mile service, and Chrissy told us the front end suspension was shot…the tires were beginning to go bad because of it…and (gulp) it’d be at least $3200 to redo the suspension. This is on a van that’s maybe worth $2000 at trade-in, if all the stars and planets aligned and the estimator was drunk that day. We were in the midst of discussing what to do about it, because we’d really like to get another year or two out of it for David, when oops. That decision kinda got made for us now. We’re in the process of donating the van, because it’s just not worth it to fix up or to do anything else with it. But it did point up some lessons.

One, David was really calm and handled himself very well. The truck driver didn’t want to exchange insurance information with David and called the police, who came and took everyone’s information; David didn’t get a ticket, but the officer did comment on how calmly he was handling everything. So I’m proud of him for dealing with the ugliness of the whole incident without losing it.

Two, it really did remind us that our treasure isn’t in our cars or in our stuff. I reminded David of what I had told him years ago when he first started driving: accidents where metal gets bent but nobody gets hurt are lessons. Learn them the first time and you’ll be fine. And I think he’ll approach every blind corner a whole lot more carefully now, for the rest of his life, and he’ll be telling his kids about this when he’s teaching them to drive someday.

Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. (Matthew 6:20-22)

He’s back at college now (stories about that another time), and car-less for the time being. Fortunately his roommate has a car; fortunately or unfortunately, that car’s a standard, and David has yet to learn on a stick. (Maybe Nathan will take him for a lesson.) But life does go on, even without the bumper attached.

Another Master’s?!?

So the path towards ordination has begun. And with it, the need for a second Master’s degree, the Master of Divinity (M.Div).

In the spring I was accepted at Asbury Theological Seminary, in Wilmore, Kentucky. No, it does not mean we’re moving to Lexington. One of the reasons I chose Asbury is because of its robust online program, which will allow me a lot of flexibility. Unfortunately, the Virginia Annual Conference has some rules that are more restrictive than other conferences: I can earn only a third of my credits from classes that are purely online. Fortunately, Asbury has ways to deal with that too: they have classes known as “intensives,” in which the student does all the reading ahead of time, then comes on campus for one solid week, Monday through Friday, 8 to 5 each day, for all the lectures and classwork and projects and etc., and then the class is over. There are also “hybrid” classes, which are a blend of online work with two to three days of on-campus lecture work. Fortunately, Virginia considers both of those models to count as “on-campus” learning–so for the cost of two to three weeks of vacation a year, I can still make it work.

I did my first intensive, MS 501 Missional Formation: The Church in a Global Era, in late June. We were, literally, the only class on campus that week, so I had the chance to walk around and explore. To call Wilmore a one-stoplight town is to disrespect the second one, but you get the idea of how small a town it is. However, I felt completely at home. The class was fairly small, only about a dozen of us, and initially I felt a little intimidated: there are Real Live Pastors taking the class, ones who are already in service! But I quickly learned I fit right in, and enjoyed getting to know all the other students.

There was even a special chapel service they put on for us Wednesday at noon. One of our classmates sang, and the sermon was on Genesis 12:3–the second or third time I’d heard that message (“…be a blessing to all the nations…”) lately. The closing song even featured the line, “He is calling you,” repeatedly. OK, yes, I get it. I’m supposed to be here.

My other class this term (TH 501 Basic Christian Doctrine) is an online one, and it’ll wrap up next Thursday (when the final paper is due). Then I have a couple of weeks off until the next term starts up, with OT 520 Intro to Old Testament, and CD 501 Vocation of Ministry–itself another opportunity to be attentive to my call, as I go through mentoring back in Virginia. They’re both hybrids, so I’ll be on campus the last week in October. With more students around this time!

It’s a long journey: 27 classes, 91 credits, and will take about six years at my current pace (two in the summer, two in the fall, one in the spring). And I’m sure there will be struggles. But it’s off to a pretty decent start.

I got an A in MS 501…

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Here I Am, Lord. Send Me.

Here I am, Lord / Is it I, Lord? / I have heard you calling in the night / I will go, Lord / Where you lead me / I will hold your people in my heart.

Starting almost a year ago, I’ve been on a path of discernment. I’ve been trying to figure out what God is calling me to in the next chapter of my life, with an eye towards whether I am being called into a path towards ordination in the United Methodist Church. In this blog I’ve talked about discernment, about finding the breadcrumbs here and there and everywhere along the trail, about the times the Holy Spirit pokes me to get my attention, or gives me experiences of affirmation, and even the first steps along the path towards ordination.

This past weekend I took another. Publicly, I have declared myself to be a candidate for ordination as an Elder in the UMC.

If after about 15 months of signals I’m still feeling led in this direction, I think it’s time to make a decision and say, Yep, that’s probably right. In fact, I’ve spent prayer time over the past couple of months reflecting on all the green lights I’ve been seeing, and asking Jesus instead for disconfirming evidence: if this isn’t right, show me now! (And then crickets chirped, and tumbleweeds drifted through…nothing happened.)

In the spring, I was accepted into Asbury Theological Seminary–another piece of doors being opened for me, in fact. Asbury requires four reference letters; one of my four letter-writers told me he was slammed at work and couldn’t get to it for a couple of weeks. But then days later, I got the email saying I had been accepted. I assumed he had found the time and sent it in–but no, come to find out, he hadn’t…Asbury accepted me with only three letters, and apparently, a big enough nudge from the Spirit. I am humbled by that.

My brother Glenn had sage advice, as always: “Go take a class. You’ll know soon enough if you’re supposed to be doing this.” In May I started my first two seminary classes, one online, and one “intensive” in-person class that met at the end of June. I met some wonderful people and had a great experience, including more affirmation…I texted Glenn, “I hate it when you’re right.”

In early July I attended a discernment weekend sponsored by the Virginia Conference. At one point in the weekend we reflected on Matthew 4. We did a lectio divina exercise, in which we read the scripture several times, pausing to listen for what word or phrase God draws to us, or what else we hear. On reading the story of Jesus calling his disciples to go and become fishers of men, what I heard was, “Let’s go fishing.”

On Saturday, I transmitted my Statement of Call to our congregation’s Staff-Parish Relations Committee, which is the first time all this has been public within the church. On Sunday, as the 11am service was wrapping up, Pastor Don called me up front and announced that I had put my name forward…so yeah, it’s a thing now.

I’ve begun to be more public in telling people about this, and almost unanimously, the reaction has been some form of, “Yeah? That doesn’t surprise me. What took you so long?” Why am I always the last to figure things out??

To be perfectly honest I’m a little…nervous? Scared? Intimidated by the prospect of all that’s ahead of me? And I was certainly a little bit of that standing with Don Sunday morning. Oddly enough, the people called “Methodists” have a very methodical process that this will entail. This is a long road ahead: on my current pace, it’ll be about six years to get my M.Div. But I’m also taking steps to make myself available if called sooner: I’ve completed my first interview with the local Alexandria District Committee on Ministry, and they passed me on to the next stage, mentoring with another pastor. In seeking our church’s SPRC recommendation, I put myself in a position to be approved at the charge conference next month, and in line to become a certified candidate this winter…and eligible for assignment as a part-time student pastor thereafter. Yes, while working full-time. Yes, while taking five graduate courses a year.

Pray for me. But all the more, pray for Mary: she’s entering into this wonderfully supportively, but also (like me) with very, very little idea of what we’re getting into. This really is a step in faith for us both. 

For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good, and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.  (Jeremiah 29:11)

 

David’s Field School

A moment of parental bragging, if you please.

This month our son David has been just northwest of Madrid, doing one of his two field schools for his archaeology program. They’re working on the site of a cantina that was used in the Spanish Civil War, and finding apparently lots of material. As is typical for College Boy, when he’s busy and having fun we don’t hear from him, and that’s been the case much of this month. I’m sure he’ll have stories on his return.

He did send along this video, though: about a week into his program, it was featured on Spanish national network news one night. Click on the link to find the package, and at the 0:32 mark, and again at 1:15, the guy in the white PBR T-shirt digging in the dirt is my son.

So very proud of him for making this step towards what he’s said he wants to do since third grade!

Why Does Everything Have To Be So Hard?

Why does everything have to be so hard?

We’ve just been up to Vermont for a long weekend of helping mom with settling the estate, doing landscaping, and tending to the to-do lists that keep growing. And while it’s a joy to be able to help, each achievement breeds another two to-dos. We spoke with the new financial planner, yes, but that means having to decide on a new annuity. We moved all the piles of sand from around the property, but that meant we didn’t get to clean out the garage very much. And so on.

Please don’t misunderstand. We wouldn’t have traded the weekend for anything (well, except for seeing dad again, but…), and we really did enjoy seeing everyone. It’s just that there’s always Something Else. We go to file the probate paperwork, only to discover there’s another form with another signature that we have to hunt up… Mary really wishes she could just be up there all the time, there’s that much to do.

I read a devotional recently that got me to thinking about why everything has to be so hard. Doesn’t becoming a Christian mean life gets easier? No, actually, it doesn’t. Salvation makes things better eventually, but the One who died a horrible death on a cross would be the first to say, “I never promised it would be easier.”

And that leads me to wonder: what if all our struggles to find ease and comfort, what if all our efforts to just be free of all our burdens, means we miss out on a bigger point?

What if our problems aren’t meant to drive us to solutions, but rather, into the presence of and a deeper relationship with God?

What if our problems aren’t a source of pain and frustration, but a source of even greater faith?

It’s easy, and wrong, to say that “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.” It’s wrong because it misses the point: the point of life isn’t to be free of annoyances and frustrations and pain and to-do lists, but instead, to come to know God as provider, as deliverer, as healer…to learn to trust that truth even when we hurt, or it’s not going the way we want it to be.

The whole of the Christian journey is one of abandoning our selves, and with it our own problems and worries, and learning to pursue God in our difficulties, to find He is our relief.

That’s not to diminish the importance of the to-dos. It doesn’t downplay the pain or the frustration. But it does invite us to reframe them, not as something I can achieve, but something with God in which I seek to understand, What is your lesson for me in this, Lord?

This week it’s the estate to-dos. Next week it’s the next year’s budget at work. The week after that, the kids’ school plans for the year. Then after that…?

When will we learn, He is all we actually need?