Monday, July 7, 2014

In the Words of Popeye: "I Yam What I Yam," or, Maybe That Was YHWH...

So I'm going to do something slightly odd here; I started writing this post and then changed my mind... but I want both beginnings. So I'm going to give you both and you decide which you want to read... you won't hurt my feelings, as long as you read at least one.

But before you begin, please be aware that this post, regardless or the beginning that you read, is another effort on my part to articulate what I mean when I say that "I am what I am."

Original Beginning
On Thursday, June 26, a good friend of mine, Vant Washington, was ordained to the diaconate. I've mentioned Vant on my blog before, in regard to his preaching. Along with him were a few other candidates who I have become acquainted with through various events that happen in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. All told, including my friend, there were 14 deacons ordained that evening, as well as two priests.

Vant is the one in the corner of the picture with black hair...
you can only see the top half of his head and he has his eyes closed...
a very flattering picture that I borrowed from Bp. Prior's blog

It was a wonderful celebration, my dry explanation notwithstanding. I heard afterwards that the 16 candidates who came into the worship space that evening had the entire range of emotions from holy-crap-this-is-happening-I'm-not-ready, to this-is-what-I've-been-working-toward, to the simple I'm-exhausted. What's more is that the entire place was packed. I know that in the picture I provided above, there is nobody who is not vested, but just imagine at least ten times the number of people in the picture; family, friends, faith community members, all gathered to support and lift up these individuals for ordained ministry. It was moving. And it was really hot with that many people stuffed into what seemed like a cavernous worship space.

Since this event happened on a Thursday, the following Sunday Vant was finally wearing a stole when he stood near the altar for our Eucharistic celebration. His journey toward ordained ministry has been exceedingly long and he, along with everyone at church were incredibly joyful that that chapter was done. There is plenty of celebration to be had when someone accomplishes something, like being ordained, but to leave it at an accomplishment trivializes the true meaning of the milestone. Now that my friend is ordained, I'm am incredibly excited to see what kind of work he will dig into! In that way, the ordination is a celebration and a kickoff, all rolled into one.

I'm excited for my friend. But in celebrating him, I start to think what kind of work I will be kicked off into when I reach the same point. Because, keep in mind, Vant has been ordained to the diaconate in the same way that I hope to be ordained in a couple of years, when I finish my own formation.

Because the thing about ordination is that it is not so much a sacrament by accretion (i.e. you have studied enough so now you are "leveling up," or something is being added to you when a bishop lays hands on you) but more the affirmation that God and the Church recognize your leadership and dedication to the work of God, and the conduit for the affirmation is when the bishop lays hands on your head. To phrase this in an Incarnational, theological way, it's that your spiritual condition matches up with your corporeal condition.

So what is my corporeal condition? What are the things that I have been thinking of after Vant's ordination? What are the things that I will be ordained for after I finish my formation?

Revised Beginning
I thought that I would be getting away from the lectionary readings this summer... I guess that it's a case of "the more things change, the more they stay the same," because regardless of my interest in writing on other topics this summer, I found (thanks to the Pulpit Fiction guys) that last week's readings have everything to do with my topic today.

What is my topic today, you ask? Well, it has to do with me thinking about being ordained and how every once in a while I take a look at myself and wonder how I could have ever been audacious enough to say that I wanted to sign up for this kind of thing. Which, of course, I need to connect with the lectionary readings, that give a description of how Jesus got fed up with people saying that he didn't live up to expectations... so here we go.

The Gospel reading for today is another example of Jesus getting frustrated with people who can't see what he came for. He mentioned his cousin John, who he says "came neither eating nor drinking," and the people rejected him because he was too out there; he was a little too extreme for the good sensibilities of people who went to go hear him and see what he was all about, so they were able to dismiss him by saying that he must have had a demon in him. But then Jesus references himself, pointing out that those same people have rejected him because they call him "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (both of which, in Matthew's gospel, are essentially the same thing). So, in short, you've got John who was rejected because he was a bit too far out for anyone to accept and you've got Jesus who was rejected because he was not nearly righteous enough. But neither man pretended to be anything other than what he was in his ministry.

I'm not going to be presumptuous enough to compare myself with Jesus Christ or John the Baptist, but I will ask myself to make the same observation that Jesus did.

Who am I? What is my ministry?

Point-ish of the post...

I'll try to start with the easier of the two: my ministry is awfully undefined right now. For those of you who don't stalk me both on my blog and on Facebook and Twitter, I have been discerning a call to be ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. Very recently, I met with a discernment board, who listened to me talk about myself for a few hours and they got to ask me questions about what I would do, if I were ordained a deacon. I told them about the things that I am currently involved in (which you can still find record of here on my blog) but I told them that I can't see any of these ministries lasting more than a couple more years. Which is tricky, since ordination is for life and I can't really stop and be like "well, I finished all the things I was doing when you ordained me, I guess I'm done now." No. If I'm to be ordained, that means that I've got a lifetime ahead of me; of listening to the still, small voice and carrying out what it asks me to do. That's the best way for me to say about my ministry.

As far as "who am I?" That's a little trickier. For the record, I really want to sing out that I'm Jean Valjean, but this would probably be a bad time for that...

Taking a good, hard look at myself and asking myself who I am, knowing full well that this is asked in the context being ordained to the clergy, makes me feel uneasy. Like I said, I feel like I'm being too audacious, asking this question, because I immediately start comparing what I find in myself with my ideal concept of the clergy.

I've already came out and admitted that I am an Advocate... I know that that is fairly well accepted, even encouraged for the clergy in the Episcopal Church. But knowing that a deacon's ministry is particularly intended to be a bridge between the Church and the world, I have a lot of uneasiness when I think about what the repercussions of that admission will be for my presence and my job in the non-churchy world.

In looking at myself, I realize that I should come out and admit that I am poor. This is a more recent realization, having only read this article a couple weeks ago and realizing that any household that wants to be considered "middle class" needs to make at least $50,000 a year or better. My wife and I do not come close to that. And I know that we are situationally poor, not generationally, so we have a hope of one day having a mortgage and not handing off our debt to our children. But this admission makes me uneasy because Episcopalians have been stereotyped as a wealthy group of Christians and there is plenty of truth to that (sorry to whomever would disagree with me, but I'm calling it like I see it). If I am to be ordained, I think my ordination would be signaling a shift in the Episcopal identity. My ordination would be changing things from "Our church stands in solidarity with the poor," to having voices that simultaneously say "Our church is financially sound," as well as "Our church is poor." And both of those voices would be true.

I am also very young, when all Christian clergy are considered. If you doubt this, just do a Google search for "average age of clergy in Christian denominations." What you'll see is that average age of the clergy has been going up in the past 15 or 20 years and "young" is considered to be 35 years old, anyway. I, being 25 now, am fairly young by those standards. But the Episcopal Cafe reports that in the Episcopal Church, the average age of someone at ordination is 44 and the average age of active clergy is 54. I'm doing my part to pull that one down. But that also means that when you hear people complaining "Our church is getting too old," I'm introducing the voice that says "Our church is very young and we have to figure out what we're doing."

I should try to find a way to conclude this post before I lose my entire readership (if I haven't already).

So what?

My friend Aaron has described how true diaconal leadership must be young, poor and marginalized. It has taken me a long time to understand what that means and how I fit into it. I am young. I am poor. And although I may be able to hide in plain sight with the majority, I would rather stand with the marginalized than the people doing the marginalizing.

I think that theses are uncomfortable admissions for people who are comfortable with the way that institutional religion works.

I think that ordination is a funny thing that starts with a concept of behavior, and then takes people, marks them and then holds them up and says "See? Here is somebody who is living out this concept." So when that concept is a deacon, whose ministry is focused "particularly on the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely," it is particularly heavy when you ordain someone who is, in themselves some of those things.

I think that I am a harbinger of change, even though I don't entirely understand how that change will work and I know full well that I am not the one in charge of the change. And I also know that the change that I affect will not be the end all, be all. Things will change again, most likely in my lifetime.

But what I take comfort in is that for all the misgivings that I have for what I'm doing, and for all the ways that avaricious people latch on and make my misgivings worse, apparently I'm in good company. Both Jesus and John knew who they were, they did not apologize for it, and they accepted that they were not popular for either of those things. So I guess that I'm in good company.