One dear friend wrote these words, “You clearly, more than anyone I know, understand popular culture as a vehicle for spiritual truth and understanding, and I know that your instinct for making God relevant will continue to bless many lives throughout your ministry.” When I re-read those words this week, I felt all the emotion within me well up behind my eyes. It is an incredible gift to have another person recognize our deepest passions, and name where they meet the world’s needs – what Buechner, of course, calls ‘vocation.’
My friend and colleague offered the “Charge to the Candidate” on the afternoon of my ordination. His words are one of the moments from that day that are etched, razor-sharp in my memory. He named the beauty of a calling to ministry – the ways that we are privileged to walk alongside people, to help others see the world, themselves, their faith in new ways. He affirmed, as well, my desire to engage culture, and discover what it means to be made in the image of God, through scripture, art, music, film. He also reminded me, and others gathered that day, the loneliness of our vocation – the loneliness of worry, of disappointment, and of feeling isolated in such an “odd and wondrous calling.” But what has seared into my brain is the sequence of verbs he offered as challenge. He affirmed: “What got you to this place are the same things that will take you to the ends of the earth proclaiming the love of God.” The same could be said for any of us – who God created us to be, does not change – it is through who we are, and who we are becoming, that God works; it is in who we already are that we find our calling. He challenged me to continue to do these things: Cook. Read. Listen. Laugh. Speak. Run.
How incredibly powerful to re-discover these words and feel called all over again, and to remember how deeply known I am. The same words of calling I heard two years ago I continue to need to hear, to remember that who I am is a beloved child of God, and I am first, and only, called to be God’s child.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of calling, specifically into the office of ordained ministry. I shirk off any understanding of ordination that requires me to be different from, or better than other people. I most certainly know that I am not. And yet, we do recognize ministers as set apart in some way. There’s something tenuous in calling ordinary, broken people “Reverend.”
Barbara Brown Taylor (of course) brings into focus this troubling distinction. She outlines a difference between our ‘vocation’ and our ‘office’: “Our offices are the ‘texts’ of our lives, to use a dramatic term, but the ‘subtext’ is the common vocation to which we are all called at baptism. Whatever our individual offices in the world, our mutual vocation is to serve God through them. … My office, then, is the church. That is where I do what I do, and what I do makes me different from those among whom I serve. But my vocation is to be God’s person in the world, and that makes me the same as those among whom I serve.” As she writes, all of us, in baptism, are ordained to ministry. Which is what many Protestant churches say – all are ministers of the church of Jesus Christ. Why, then, ministry? Why ordain? She writes this: “The ordained consent to be visible in a way that the baptized do not. They agree to let people look at them as they struggle with their own baptismal vows: to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to resist evil, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace among all people.”*
And yet, still. Why ordination? In many ways I echoed Taylor in what I wrote to my ordination committee in my statement. I wasn’t seeking ordination because I had been already called to a specific church or position. Rather, it felt like a kairos thing – at that time in my life, at that place, among those people. This is what I wrote:
This particular moment in my life is marked by great transition, perhaps even greater than I am able to admit. My days of being defined as a student are quickly coming to a close. These past months I have been in the process of discerning the ‘next steps,’ and it is the first time that I’m not looking at further degree requirements. I am seeking ordination, and I believe ordination is an important step, because it symbolizes the blessing of a church community for continued ministry of the church through the gifts of individuals. I do not believe that ordination is about me, or any given individual. It is a moment when a church community calls out persons, responding to God’s call to develop particular gifts for ministry, yes; more importantly it signifies the call of God to continue the work of the church. Ordination is a promise that the work of God through both individuals and churches will continue to operate towards hope and new life.
More and more I feel called to speak on behalf of the church. I see ordination, in concert with my formal theological education, as a choice to take on the mantle of the church and to accept the great honor and responsibility to speak for the church in and to the world—to be a voice of hope and courage in a world that so desperately needs and wants the church to work for justice, peace, and reconciliation.
And I still believe that. I believe that my calling – whether I remain in the church office, or find my way to another ‘office’, as BBT would say, is to speak on behalf of the church and the world, and continually find ways to make both relevant. In essence, to blur the lines between sacred and secular so much that the line ceases to exist.
In the words of Linford Detweiler (Over the Rhine): We’re all broken, and it’s all sacred.
Meredith Holladay is associate pastor at First Baptist Church, Lawrence, Kansas. Meredith blogs at Windows Down.
*Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, 30-31.