So, This is Now A Thing…

I really don’t understand how it can be the end of May already. Didn’t we just have our trip to England, wasn’t it just Valentine’s Day, I thought Lent began last Wednesday…?

And was it really February that I had my DCOM meeting and got approved to become a local licensed pastor?

But in this second half of the month, the pastor train is picking up speed. Last weekend was the announcement that I would be staying at Sydenstricker UMC as their new Associate Pastor; there were actual whoops and “yay!”s from the pews when it was said. Which made me feel welcomed and supported and blessed all at once. I’m fortunate to begin my pastoral career among such people, and indeed, among people that I know and where I can grow, make my mistakes, and help move things forward in a supportive environment.

And now I write from the campus of Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, where I and 28 others are spending nine days in Licensing School under the tutelage of leaders throughout Virginia, teaching us how to become productive, effective pastors. I’m among a group of folks who will be taking fresh the reins of two- and three-point charges in rural Virginia, mostly moving to new assignments; my friend John and I are in the minority for sure, where we are rising to be Associate Pastors at our home churches.

It’s a mix of practical advice that I’m trying to soak up, especially as they discuss smaller churches (as I will doubtless have myself someday). But it’s also vaguely intimidating still as well: I’ll be responsible for all this?? At times like this I’m grateful for the opportunity to have an in-place mentor who knows all this stuff, and worried for how well I will pick up on the subtleties and nuances of whatever charge I get next.

But in the end, as with this whole endeavor, it’s about faith. Faith that God has called me into this for a reason, that if I will only open myself to him, I can hear his voice and let him lead me into those changing scenes and different situations that I will face. So yeah, it looks like this is going to be A Thing now…let’s do this. Together, please.

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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.

Breadcrumbs, Part III

Much to his annoyance, a thought popped into his mind. It was very clear and very distinct, and he had now come to recognize these thoughts for what they were. His instinct was to resist them. (Douglas Adams)

Since September, I’ve been sharing some of the walk I’ve been on, trying to grow my discernment skills. I am in little doubt that I am being called into a deeper relationship with Christ; what I’m still struggling with is, what, exactly, is that supposed to look like? I’ve been doing a lot of reading and conversing on the topic, and here’s what I’ve come up with so far. In no particular order:

  • Absolutely, every one of us has a calling. We are all called to do some work to the glory of God. Some are called to be budget analysts, some are called to be nonprofit execs…and some are called into ordained ministry. None is “better” or “higher” than another. And they may not be permanent: it’s where God is calling us to be now. The key thing is to discern what it is, and then to respond.
  • Yes, we are all called to a deeper relationship with Christ. Some of the keys for whether a calling is to an ordained role, versus a more-committed lay member, are the extent to which people turn to you for spiritual guidance, or look to you to be a leader in spiritual matters.
  • It isn’t just about a given skill set. Sure, I can string words together and speak the English goodly. But as Paul wrote, “I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but [if I] didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1) Yes, I can ride a bike: it doesn’t mean I should become a pro cyclist and enter the Tour de France.
  • Sometimes what’s obscure to us is brilliantly, painfully obvious to others around us.
  • I still struggle with what Walter F. Kerr called “delusions of adequacy.” Or, as the inimitable Zaphod Beeblebrox put it, “Hey, I’m just this guy, y’know?” Why should it be that the God of all Creation would be asking me to do anything special?
  • Sometimes the answer is just as simple as, “when you can’t do anything else, preach.” In other words, when your thoughts are nothing but about bringing about the Kingdom…

A Path of Discernment

I’ve been sharing with you a little of my life and walk. I want to start a conversation that I think will run a lot longer, over the course of several weeks or months or who knows, even years, so up front I ask your forbearance, since I don’t know where this will go.

I have taught, and written, on the idea that into every life, God will issue a call. Through his grace, he will call each of us. All are given the most elementary call: come home, turn back to me, come back. And those who heed that call, find Jesus and find even more grace as they grow. Some of those, he will call into service–and I absolutely love the stories of people helping Texas recover from Hurricane Harvey. Some he will call into teaching, some he will call into counseling.

And some, yes, he will call into ordained ministry.

I find myself over the past weeks and months sensing a different kind of call for me: that Jesus has something else in mind than I’ve been doing for the past 25 years–heck, for the past nearly 50. But I am still very, very, very unsure as to what that new call is. I’ve talked a little with my wife, and she’s been gracious enough to say that if it’s a call into ministry, then she’s in, and I need to heed it. It’s very possible it’s a call to just “go deeper,” to turn more and more of myself and my world over to Christ, to become more like those giants in Christ that I see around me. And that would be fine. But I also cannot shake entirely the sense that it could be “the” call. My own pastor says he senses me being called into something, but he doesn’t know what it is.

I’m very uncomfortable not knowing. I’m the kind of guy who likes certainty, and so if there were a burning bush, I could handle that. Listening for the faint whispers…that’s hard, and I’m probably not very good at it. At least I fear I’m not.

With your indulgence, I will try periodically–maybe not every post–to explore where I am and what I am able to discern is happening. I have absolutely no idea where this will end up. But come along…this could be a fascinating ride.