Like A Whore In Church: Advent Begins In The Dark

Devotional:

Isaiah 1.21-31

How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers!

Weekly Devotional Image

Many of you know that I am part of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast team. Every week we put out 2-3 episodes ranging from interviews with theologians, to unpacking stained glass language, to reflecting on all of the Lectionary texts for the following Sunday. The team is made up of 3 United Methodist Clergy and 2 lay people and we originally started the conversations to keep our theological juices flowing but it has grown far beyond what we could’ve ever imagined. For instance: this year we had our 300,000th download.

A few months ago we decided to produce a daily Advent devotional with contributions from some of our favorite guests, and from the team itself. I drew the unlucky straw of writing our second devotional, following the first by Bishop Will Willimon. If you would like to subscribe to the Advent devotional (receiving each one by email every day) or simply read them as they come out you can do so here: www.AdventBeginsInTheDark.com 

Below is my attempt at approaching the unenviable text from Isaiah 1.21-31…

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There’s a reason that we don’t read Isaiah 1.21-31 out loud at church.

When we think of Advent we conjure up in our minds the Chrismon trees and the lights surrounding the altar. We remember the purple and pink advents candles and the red plumage of the poinsettias. We consider the plight of Mary and Jospeh to the small town of bread knowing not at all what their future would hold.

We like our religious observances to be orderly and helpful and we don’t even mind a sermon that steps lightly on our toes because we know that everyone has room for improvement. But then when we hear these words from the 5th gospel, we experience some painful theological whiplash.

The faithful city has become a whore!

She was once full of justice but now she is full of murderers!

Who wants to hear about that kind of stuff in church?

In her book Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge writes, “For many years, I thought that, during Advent, one was supposed to pretend that Jesus hadn’t been born, so that we would be more excited when Christmas came. Needless to say, this stratagem didn’t work. For me, it was a revelation years later to learn that the last weeks of Pentecost and the first weeks of Advent look forward to the second coming of Christ… In Advent, we don’t pretend, as I once thought, that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in right now, facing and defining it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great hope and only joy is in Jesus’ final victorious coming.” (Advent: The Once & Future Coming Of Jesus Christ, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2018), 58.

It is far too easy, today, to take passages like this one from Isaiah and read it through a somewhat anti-semitic lens as if Jesus is the wrath of God being poured upon God’s people. Preachers will foolishly wax-lyrical about the idolatry of God’s people from the past all while giving God the glory for arriving as the baby in Bethlehem

But that kind of reading leaves us imagining that Advent is all about pretending that Jesus hasn’t been born, and it prevents us, to use Fleming’s words, from taking a good hard look at the darkness we are in right now.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are still the faithful city that has become a whore. The people we look to for guidance and leadership, in politics/business/churches, are rebels and companions of thieves. We worship them and ourselves thinking they/we can provide our salvation when we know how quick we all are to run after those things that cannot give us life. 

We are all coming of age in a world where it is far too easy and far too convenient to ignore the plight of the marginalized while strangely finding comfort in the words of a hymn like Away In A Manger. There was “no crib for a bed” because people like you and I are so consumed by our own needs and desires that the cause of other does not come before us!

But that’s not the kind of message we want to hear during the season of Advent. No, we want to hear about how Jesus’ birth will warm our hearts. We’d rather imagine the animals snuggled closely providing comfort for the King of kings and Lord of lords.

But what if we are the darkness that needs to be blotted out by Jesus’ light?

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have had a remarkable propensity to read themselves into a biblical story. When we hear about the two on the road to Emmaus we imagine ourselves as one of those two listening to, and breaking bread with, Jesus. When we hear about Prodigal Son we imagine God welcoming us back with open arms after going down the wrong path.

And yet when we read about God destroying the rebels and the sinners, we inexplicably reject the notion that we could be the rebels and sinners that need destroying!

What a time to be God’s church! Advent is the season we conjure up the darkness among us and in us and proclaim the bitter and strange truth: We cannot save ourselves.

No amount of Christmas lights, no number of presents under the tree, no perfectly arranged dinner table can rectify the wrongs we have perpetuated in this world. We have become whores to our own desires and dreams at the expense of the orphan, and the widow, and the sojourner, and the marginalized.

Just consider a headline from the newspaper this morning: “America’s ‘War on Terror’ has cost the US nearly $6 trillion and killed roughly half a million people with no end in sight.”

What would the rest of this strange and bewildering season look like if we insisted on facing and defining the darkness honestly rather than sugar-coating it with chocolate calendars? 

How might our steps toward Christmas change if we admitted the challenging truth of our own sinfulness before calling it out in someone else?

What habits and practices will we need to crucify before God’s church can experience a new resurrection?

Isaiah’s declaration about the inherent failures of the whoring city doesn’t preach easily. Few pastors are dumb enough, or brave enough, to proclaim these words from the pulpit. They run the risk of running off those who came with expectations of the warm manger scene rather than the destruction of all things.

But today, here in the midst of Advent, we are like oaks whose leaves wither, and we are like gardens without water. We might look around and see families with perfectly behaved children, or individuals who appear perfectly put together, but all of us are perpetuating a world in which our own righteousness has somehow become more important than God’s righteousness.

Advent, therefore, is the right time to look into the heart of our own darkness with the understanding that our greatest hope, and our only joy is in the once and future coming of Jesus Christ. 

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On How To Read Barth or: Why The Tamed Cynic Is Wrong

Back in February of 2013, Jason Micheli (The Tamed Cynic) proposed an invitation to read Karl Barth’s writings over the following two years. Throughout this time Jason periodically reflected on what he read for the whole world to read on his blog. I like Jason a lot. I’ve written about him here on the blog, I’ve used him as an example in a number of sermons and devotionals, and I genuinely believe he is one of the most faithful followers of Jesus I’ve ever known. Because I like Jason, and I grew up listening to his sermons, I like Karl Barth.

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Barth is most well known for his writings in the theologically shattering Epistle to the Romans and his dialectical approach in his Church Dogmatics. Reading his work over the last few years has profoundly shaped the way I understand what is means to be a Christian and how to read scripture.

When Jason invited me to start reading Barth from afar I was already familiar with The Epistle to the Romans, I had read sections from Church Dogmatics, and had read a number of his sermons from other compilations (Deliverance to the Captives and The Early Preaching of Karl Barth). Though relatively familiar with Barth’s style and larger project, I was excited to read Jason’s “Tips for Reading Karl Barth”:

  1. Barth is the opposite of the social media, fast food age. Read slow. Barth’s thought frequently unfolds in long clauses and sentences that double back almost like music. It’s better to focus on a page or a long paragraph and understand it than try to read everything I’ve scheduled in the given week.
  2. Barth uses the term “being” a lot. IT’s a freighted philosophical term that would be better translated for you as “character.”
  3. Whenever Barth speaks of the “Word of God” he’s usually referring to Jesus NOT scripture. This will be obvious in the next sections.
  4. The footnotes. Skip over them. You can read them if you want but don’t let them slow you down or intimidate you.

 

Jason’s “tips” are on point when the daunting task of reading Barth is open on the table. Barth’s Church Dogmatics is divided into fourteen volumes and takes up the entirety of one of my bookshelves. I fully agree with his first three “tips” but I respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree with the fourth: “The footnotes. Skip over them.”

If theology is like jazz, then Barth’s footnotes are his greatest improvisational work over the larger melody.

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Reading Barth is challenging and requires patience. There are times when you will come to the end of a long paragraph and have no recollection of what you just read. There are times that you are sure you know what he is driving at only to have him turn the whole topic upside down and address it from a different angle. But it is in his footnotes (or excurses) that he exegetes the biblical texts that brought him to the conclusions in the rest of the text. The excurses are where Barth does the true work of theology.

For example, in part III.1 The Doctrine of Creation, Barth makes the claim that “Creation is the external basis of the Covenant.” He breaks down arguments for the watchmaker analogy as if God created the Earth like a watch and is not sitting back and watching the hands go round and round and instead posits that God, as the divine creator, created freely in love and is forever bound with creation. This is all good and true, but it is the long excurses on Genesis 1 that the brilliance of Barth’s theology comes to light.

In it he goes through the scripture with a fine-toothed comb and provides reflections on each day of the creation story. He looks at the presence of light and darkness: “The best analogy to the relationship between light and darkness is that which exists between the elected and the rejected in the history of the Bible: between Jacob and Esau; between David and Saul; between Judas and the other apostles. But even this analogy is improper and defective. For even the rejected, even Satan and the demons, are the creation of God.”

He spends a great amount of space analyzing the power of created water and its relevance throughout the entirety of scripture: “The Old Testament ranks a sea voyage with desert-wandering, captivity and sickness as one of the forms of extreme human misery; of the misery from which it is the gracious and mighty will of God, which we cannot extol too highly, to redeem us. It is thus the more note-worthy that the most striking Messianic deeds of Jesus are His walking on the sea in royal freedom, and His commanding the waves and storm to be still by His Word.”

All of this and much more can only be found in the places that Jason suggested skipping over. The more I have read Barth, the more I am convinced that the most important parts to read are his footnotes where he dives deeply into the strange new world of the bible.

Therefore, over the next few weeks, I will be posting reflections on some of my favorite excurses from Church Dogmatics including Barth’s thoughts on Creation, the Tower of Babel, and the Doctrine of Election.

Jason’s proposal to read Barth was a great challenge, and I am grateful for his “tips”, but the ripe fruits of Barth’s work should not be skipped over.

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The Politics of Easter: A Reflection

Matthew 28.3-5

His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.”
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A few weeks ago I told the church I serve about my experience of voting during the Virginia Primary. When I arrived at my voting location I was disappointed with the limited number of participants. But by the time I left, the parking lot was starting to fill rapidly.

When I got into the building I went over to the table to receive my instructions and eventually got set up with a machine to cast my vote. While my wife finished registering and voting I stood off to the side.

I really try not to eavesdrop, but sometimes it feels impossible. When people walk into a building and starting shouting things, it’s hard not to notice.

The first man came in wearing bib overalls, dirt all over his boots, with his hair going every direction. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” The man stared blankly back and then declared, “Well, I ain’t no socialist so I’ll be voting Republican.

The second man came in wearing a perfectly pressed suit, with a tie clip, and an expensive looking watch on his wrist. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” Without taking time to think about his answer he said, “I can’t trust Hillary but I’m still voting Democrat.

The first woman came in wearing a completely coordinated outfit, her hair and makeup looked perfect, and her heels were so high they started giving me vertigo. When she arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” I don’t think the woman was really paying attention because she filled the next few minutes trying to convince the volunteer that our country is in a mess and the only good option we have left is the Christian Ted Cruz.

The next woman came in wearing a sweat suit, with spit-up on her shoulder, while making a comment about her baby waiting in the car. She was clearly in a rush so when the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting…” She interrupted and yelled, “Anyone but Trump!

It didn’t take long for me to notice that all of the people coming in to vote were doing so out of fear. None of them were particularly satisfied with any of the candidates, they represented different walks of life, and the one thing that united them was fear.

The two most well known stories of the New Testament bookend Jesus’ life. The two most well attended church services in the year similarly reflect these bookends: Christmas and Easter. As a pastor, I’ll be the first to admit that there are some of the hardest services to plan and preside over. And honestly, I feel guilty about how much they stress me out. They’re supposed to be the most joyful and incredible worship services in the year, and they leave me feeling anxious.

Part of the problem is the fact that a whole lot of people show up on Christmas and Easter who otherwise never attend church. That means that we’ve got one hour to show them how powerful regular worship can be in the hope of getting them to attend worship between the major holidays.

The other problem is the fact that most of the people who attend on Christmas and Easter already know the story. It has been told for two millennia and a 15-minute sermon from a pulpit is unlikely to shine a new light on either narrative.

But the biggest problem with Christmas and Easter is the fact that many of us read ourselves into the story as the wrong characters.

On Christmas Eve we hear about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and Joseph to share with them the Good News that they will be bring God in the flesh into the world. They, of course, are terrified by this news but the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” We like to stop the story there because it fits well with our sensibilities. We like to think about being afraid of starting something new and God showing up to reassure us.

But the story goes on to talk about Herod’s fear. Herod heard about a messiah possibly being born in Bethlehem. Out of fear that this child will one day usurp his power, he ordered all of the babies born in Bethlehem to be murdered. Obviously, this is not a popular topic for Christmas Eve. But it is important. It is important because most of us have never, nor will we ever be in a position like a Mary and Joseph. We have families and a government that support our way of life. We know we have people to count on, we know that there is money in our bank accounts. Many of us will never know the fear that Mary and Joseph experienced on that Christmas Eve.

But many of us can connect with Herod’s fear about people in a faraway place whose existence threaten our power and way of life. (Think Syrian Refugees or ISIS)

On Easter we hear about Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb expecting to find Jesus’ dead body, and instead they experience an earthquake and an angelic presence. The angel says to the women, “Do not be afraid.” But he scares the Roman guards nearly to the point of death. We like the story to focus on God’s power over death and Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. We like to hear about how Jesus’ victory over death opens up the gates of heaven for people like us.

But the story specifically sets up a distinction between the women at the tomb, and the guards at the tomb. And if we’re honest, most of us are like the guards in the story; we’re Caesar’s people. We might know about loss and suffering, we might’ve experienced the awful power of death in a loved one or friend, but we’ve never had to tread lightly for fear that our political system will murder us for speaking out, we’ve never known what it’s like to watch someone die on a cross and then be placed in a grave, we’ve never had to guard our political opinions because we live in the land of freedom.

But what we do know is that most of our lives are pretty good. Many of us have the right skin color, the right passport, the right education, the right sexual orientation, and the right amount of wealth to be rewarded in our society.

And Jesus, the guy Christians claim to worship on Christmas, Easter, and every Sunday in between, came to make the first last and the last first.

So maybe we should be afraid. We should be afraid because God raised his Son from the dead and calls us to sacrifice our own lives for people who betray us. Maybe we should be afraid because we’re told to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Maybe we should be afraid because Jesus tells us to love our enemies, whether they support Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.

When angels show up in scripture, but in particular at Christmas and Easter, they come to people who have every reason to be afraid and they bring words of comfort: Your Son will be God in the flesh; Jesus has been raised from the dead. God speaks to the outcasts, to the last, least, and lost and brings them Good News.

We, who have nothing to fear, we who are so comfortable and content in our lives… Maybe it’s time to recognize that following Jesus’ will disrupt the comfort and the contentment we feel. Maybe it’s time to start praying for and acting on behalf of people who are belittled and broken by our political system. Maybe it’s time for us to stop ignoring everyone with a different way of life, particularly if have a different skin color, a different passport, a different education, a different sexual orientation, or a different socio-economic status. Maybe it’s time to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and let it shake our lives.

 

 

(with thanks to Jason Micheli for inspiring parts of this reflection)

Devotional – Psalm 1.1

Devotional:

Psalm 1.1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers. 

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“Tell me something good.” This is one of my favorite ways to begin a conversation precisely because we tend to focus on the negative. As a pastor, it only takes a few minutes before people begin to open up about what is really going on in their lives and they share things that they have kept bottled up for a long time. As Christians, we are called to the ministry of presence with our fellow disciples to provide ears to hear. However, sometimes the negativity can be so overpowering that we neglect to focus on the good things in our lives.

I spent part of last week with other United Methodist pastors from the Virginia Conference. We met together in Blackstone, VA and shared reflections about our ministries and how we are continuing to respond to God’s call in our lives. For as much as people are ready to vent with their pastors about negativity, pastors are far worse when venting to other pastors. After spending so much time being present for others, we tend to neglect the importance of reflection and seeking out others to help us with our baggage. Within the first moments that we gathered together the conversation quickly turned to challenges and disappointments in the ministry.

When we broke away from our sessions to share meals together I tried to reorient the conversation toward the good, but my efforts were largely fruitless. It was as if we were trying to make the most out of our time together before heading back to our churches and we just kept dumping all of our worries and anxieties on one another. But then something amazing happened…

We were sitting in a circle when our leader told us to break off into small groups and share the names of people for whom we knew we had been fruitful. We were told to focus on the good and the positive as we shared our stories. Then when we regathered as a group we went around the circle praying for the names we had raised, gave thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and then we thanked God for putting us in their lives.

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Why is it so hard to focus on the good? Psalm 1 affirms that happiness can be found in  those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or follow the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers, but we forget how important it is to celebrate the goodness of God in our lives. Instead we listen to the wicked, follow the sinners, and scoff from our chairs. How much happier could we be if we followed the advice of Psalm 1.1?

This week, let us strive to focus on the good in our lives. Instead of dwelling in the negative, let us give thanks to God for the people we have shaped and the people who have shaped us.

On Regretting My Vote

Psalm 13.1-2

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 

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Annual Conference always elicits an assortment of emotions for me. At one moment I can feel renewed spiritually and theologically as I listen to some of the great preachers from our conference/denomination as they proclaim the Word of the Lord. At other moments I can feel socially fulfilled as I rekindle friendships with other clergy and laity from Virginia. And still at other times I can feel elated and jovial as I did recently when I witnessed our bishop dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy” after we voted to support “Imagine No Malaria.”

However, at other times I can feel deflated and frustrated with our church. Traditionally Annual Conference has been a time of Holy Conferencing when the leaders of the church gather together to have their faith reignited for the kingdom of God. In the beginning of our denomination’s history annual conferences were held to maintain the theological convictions of our connection as the circuit riders were spread other a vast geographical area. It also served to maintain the relationships with fellow disciples as well as a dynamic and life-giving relationship with God. As the decades passed, annual conferences began to focus more on the polity of our church while still providing avenues for spiritual growth. In our contemporary period annual conference is a time when we hear about the focus of the denomination, recommit ourselves to spiritual disciplines, and vote on resolutions that have been put forth for our consideration.

After spending Saturday afternoon deeply entrenched in the reports from various agencies within the church (Report from the Common Table, Report of the Site Selection Committee, etc.) it was time to begin our holy conferencing around the resolutions. We were running behind schedule, as is typical at Annual Conference, and only began speaking about the resolutions at 4:30 pm (thirty minutes before a recess for dinner until the Service for the Ordering of Ministry at 7:30 pm).

It has been no secret that Resolution 1 was one of the most anticipated conversations to take place this year (as was also made evident via the conference hashtag #vaumc14 where many people were anxiously awaiting the resolutions). Resolution 1 was as follows:

 

Resolution 1: “Change Book of Discipline Reference to Homosexuality”

Whereas, as stated in the opening sentence of ¶161F in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” Whereas we declare that the following statement found later in ¶161F in the Book of Discipline “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” is inconsistent with the first statement. Whereas medical science has established that homosexuality is a state of being and not a choice and therefore homosexuals are part of God’s creation. [See Amicus Brief filed by American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and other related organizations, Hollingsworth vs Perry.] Whereas Scripture is not referring to the loving, consensual, victimless relationships we speak of today. Whereas the words used by Paul as applied to homosexuality are the result of translations and interpretations, these passages are therefore open to alternative interpretations. Whereas Christian marriage is offered to sinners, even when the sin is extreme, but we do not offer it to homosexuals who are living out their lives in love as created by God. Whereas the General Conference has failed to explain why a loving, monogamous relationship is inconsistent with Christian teaching. Whereas the current policies, laws, doctrine and practices of the United Methodist church as documented in the Book of Discipline relating to homosexual relationships creates a double standard thereby promoting discrimination and creating the circumstances that lead to the very behaviors among homosexuals that are abhorred in the Bible, both of which are in direct conflict with Jesus’ teachings. [“Judge not lest you be judged” (Matthew 7:1); “Let the one without sin among you cast the first stone” (John 8:7); “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”(Matthew 22: 37-40); and many other references.] Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to expunge the sentence “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” and the attendant references to and penalties for homosexuality detailed in ¶¶341.6, 2702.1 and 304.4 from the Book of Discipline and all people be accepted into The United Methodist Church to truly embrace “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” as Christ would have us live.

 

When it came time to hear the resolution, a representative stood before the Annual Conference and explained their position in a way that accurately reflected the above written resolution. As is commonly practiced, the bishop then inquired if anyone would like to speak for or against the resolution. In response a leading elder from our conference offered a motion suspending conversation on Resolution 1 indefinitely so that we, as a conference, could gather in small groups over the next year to begin having conversations about how to move forward regarding this “issue.” Two people then spoke in favor of the motion, and two spoke against it.

When the bishop called for us to vote on suspending the conversation, I raised my hand.

As I sat there listening to the murmuring of the crowds while various lay leaders and clergy spoke into the microphones I was overwhelmed by the vitriolic responses from the people both for and against the resolution. It frightened me to see and hear Christian disciples speak so harshly against one another publicly and privately as we gathered to be the body of Christ for the world. When it came time to vote on whether to suspend the conversation or not, I believed that the right and true and faithful thing to do was vote to have the conversation stop. In so voting, I was implicitly hoping and praying that over the next year we, as a church, can faithfully respond to this resolution in such a way that it represents the will of God, not just to be decided by the people gathered at conference (who, in my opinion, disproportionately represent the church).

However, over the last two days I have begun to regret the vote I cast. While reading from the lectionary texts this morning I was struck by the first two verses of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” It seems to me that, as a church, we have been having a conversation about homosexuality for a very long time. People have raised their opinion for the continued language in our Book of Discipline, and others have spoken against it. Moreover, Annual Conference is supposed to be the time that we gather for holy conferencing to experience the will of God and attempt to make it incarnate in the way we live our lives. I have begun to regret my vote because I now believe that I participated in a continual and perpetual denial of the value of the LGBTQ community by putting the language of homosexuality from our Book of Discipline on the back-burner.

This week the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriages. While we methodists continue to ignore the need to address the growing concern of the LGBTQ community, debating whether or not we can officially (which is to say “by Discipline”) regard homosexuals as fully Christian or not, the Presbyterians have moved to grant homosexuals the theological and sanctifying grace we understand as marriage. We have continued to ignore the issue over and over again to the point that we are now more aligned with the Southern Baptists than we are with the Presbyterian and Episcopalian traditions from which we came (more on this at: http://tamedcynic.org/are-methodists-really-mainline-anymore/).

I regret my vote. I believe the time is now for the UMC to faithfully and finally address the language regarding homosexuality in our Book of Discipline. But, as a conference, we voted to push the decision back, yet again.

It is my prayer that the Holy Spirit abides in us over the coming year as we continue to have holy conferences. And it is my deepest and sincerest prayer that soon, we, along with the LGBTQ community, will no longer have to cry out like the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord?”

 

Ordination – A Reflection on Interviewing for the UMC

In the next few weeks, a number of United Methodist seminarians will sit before their respective Board of Ordained Ministry to determine whether or not they are prepared for, or effective in, ministry. The interviews can be a terrifying process; for years these students have studied diligently and now they are being asked to demonstrate their ability to articulate their theology. After going before the Virginia Conference’s Board last year, I have been asked by a number of friends/peers to reflect on the journey and offer advice. Below I have copied my response to one such friend. Though the the reflections are largely geared toward those interested in ministry, I believe they also function to help encourage theological reflection in all forms of Christian discipleship.

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1) Prepare yourself to be surprised. For as much as our fellow peers have gone through the ringer of these interviews, you can never prepare yourself for EVERY question. There will come a moment that you are asked to respond and you will be completely lost for a moment because you never though they would have asked that question. So, (heres the advice part) do NOT try to just memorize particular answers to particular questions. Most of these people have read through more papers than they can count and they’ve heard all the same answers over and over. Calm yourself and let your answers be more organic than regimented. Instead of answering everything in three points (or through every avenue of the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”) try instead to relate it to YOUR experience of God in the world. The committee will then know that you are answering from Truth rather than truth. Be God’s Yes and No to the world at the same time. (which is to say: be dialectical, without confusing the committee members)

 

2) Scripture scripture scripture. If there is any technique or trick to help with the interviews, its to read the bible before you go. It will rest in the fabric of your being as a well from which you can draw the living water of theological and liturgical reflection. When possible, use examples from scripture to answer any of the questions you are asked. Not only will it demonstrate your commitment to the Word, but it will also show how you have a scripturally shaped imagination. For example: you might not be familiar with terrible suffering in your own life, but the lives remembered from the biblical corpus certainly have and they can be your examples to answer the questions.

 

3) Be Methodist (but not too Methodist). Use Wesley’s life and teaching to inform your answers, but don’t isolate yourself to ONLY thinking in a Wesleyan way. We have all been trained by a wide variety of theologians, we’ve read from the greats in church history, and we’ve experienced churches beyond the UMC. Ecumenism is not just some idealistic practice, but should instead be one of the great aims of the church. Use sources outside of your church family to answer questions, yet make sure they match up with the Theological and Doctrinal Standards of our faith.

 

4) Baptism, Eucharist, Sacraments (Oh MY!) – Sacramental theology is at the heart of what it means to be Christian (particularly United Methodist). Though some sacramental functions have been downplayed in the contemporary church they were CENTRAL to Wesley’s approach. Also, sacraments are what separates the laity from the clergy; they are our responsibility to maintain and provide for the people.

 

5) Remember: you are intimidating. (I mean this as a compliment) Most of the people in your interviews (in fact, probably all of them) will be older than you, and have a lesser theological education. You will do well to remember this. As a young and confident person, you will be viewed with suspicion by some members of the committee (I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is). Show a command of the material, but don’t overdo it. One of the things I’ve heard from a lot of our peers in different conferences was that the committees were bothered with their lack of translation between seminary and the normalcy of church life. They want to hear what you have to say IN A WAY THAT THEY CAN UNDERSTAND. For example: for as much as I love Barth, be very careful with his language and conceptions of God. They will mean little to the members on the committees.

 

6) Pray. Seriously. Pray before you interview. Pray between each committee room. Remember why you’re doing this and for whom (The answer is God)

 

7) Materials can be important. Bring your papers with you, but don’t anchor yourself to them. You might be asked to clarify a specific response that you wrote. If this is the case, don’t worry about what you wrote, but carefully respond to their question in the moment. They want to give you as many chances as they can to clarify what you mean.

 

8) Take your time. Before jumping to answer their questions, make sure you know what they’re asking. If they’re unclear, ask them to rephrase. Better for you to get the question right before you give a wrong answer.

 

9) Be humble. I know you will have an answer to every question, but showing that you still have room for growth will go a long way in reaching the hearts of the committee members. I remember being asked about death and instead of just throwing out a response I said something to the effect of “You know, thats a really difficult question. Death is one of those many things that we do not have a black and white answer to, death is something caught up in the mystery of God. Its hard for me to respond to hypothetical responses regarding death, but I can tell you that scripture says…” Owning up to the fact that you don’t have all the answers reinforces the reasons that Jesus had to come in the first place. If we had it all figured out, we never would’ve needed God to come in flesh to die, and live, for us.

 

10) Be yourself. Be authentic to who you are. If you’re pushed out of your comfort zone by a question, make them know they have done so. If you feel like your integrity might be compromised by giving them the answer they want to hear, rather than the one you believe, I say be true to yourself more than them. (this is debatable regarding the question) However, in my experience, they would rather see YOU answer the question as YOU perceive and understand rather than handing them over the perfectly crafted three sentence response they have been hearing all day. Theology is alive. New ideas and concepts and faith-struggles occur everyday. If we only reuse the same theologies over and over than we will never grow as a church, and the kingdom of God will remain tacit, fruitless, and stale. The Church needs imagination now, perhaps more than ever before.

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