“A student in care of an Association is a member of the United Church of Christ who has been called by God and who, under the care of the member’s Association, is preparing for the ordained Christian ministry. “
– The United Church of Christ Manual on Ministry (Section 2, p. 1)
Right. Well, I suppose we had to get the generic boiler-plate stuff in here at the beginning. “Called by God…” I guess I just feel like meditating on this for a bit, because I don’t know of anything like what’s described in all of the generic definitions of the need to enter ministry. It’s always tempting to excuse myself by using scriptural literalism as the divining tool. Moses got a burning bush. The Apostles got Christ, the Resurrection, and, of course, their own tongues of flame to encourage them. For every other person since (as near as I can tell) we’ve had this remaining image of vocation. We’re all happy and post-renaissance now, so we use that word to describe our job (happily assuming that we all get to do what we’re “supposed to do” in life.) It used to be that only folks in ministry received a calling.
Some people (good-natured-ly enough) have thought to ask me if I actually heard a voice before I decided to pursue this path. To which I can only say:
Not so much. Now, I have no idea how it’s been throughout the centuries, but from my limited polling on the question, 0% of ordained clergy that I know report hearing a literally understood “voice” before they enter service. This, I feel secure in saying, is a GOOD THING(TM).
Nonetheless, sometimes I really could use a serious talking-to. Part of this process that is so painful to me is that despite my intense desire to pursue this, I don’t feel any “holier” than I did last year. Sometimes, I feel worse. I feel even more confused by a God who seems to want to put me in place to enter the ministry while still having failed to fundamentally change my spirit and my mind from someone who experiences bouts of paralyzing uncertainty, fear, guilt, and shame, to someone that leverages those traits in others into love. I feel inadequate to the task – some sort of pretender. I feel like I’ve been taking a course on algebra, and now, arriving for the final exam, find that I’m expected to be conversant in late medieval poetry.
Here’s what I CAN say: My experience as a person haunted by all of the personal demons listed above breaks my heart with compassion for all of the others in such similar condition, and even more for the people victimized by the by-products of those demons. I’m so aware of my own healing wounds, with all their itching, scarring, binding together, that I quite simply sense a personal inertia to help others reach towards that healing for themselves. (Physics metaphors are big where I come from.) The sensation is somewhere in inertia though, the tug at your physical core when you turn a corner, go over a hill, stop suddenly in your car.
I DON’T have a blind certainty that I can help all those that ask me. I’m no “Solo Christo” guy. I think that there are many powerful trends in our modern world that hope to reach out and heal some of the emotional damage that we all do to each other. I know what works for me, and I’m committed to sharing that with anyone who will listen. I’m far from perfect, so I’m no example to be held up. Also, there’s a dangerous under-current under my previous paragraph: Will I NEED to help other people in order to feel good, successful in my mission, blessed? If so, I suspect I won’t last long.
Henri Nouwen talks a lot about all of these sorts of things in his book, The Wounded Healer, which, go figure, I just read on Wednesday. One of the most intriguing things I got out of it was this notion of personal loneliness. Nouwen essentially posits that there is a core of loneliness that is part of our humanity, no matter how many people we surround ourselves with, no matter how much we love our families or our spouses. One of its real dangers is the false belief that anyone or anything can be the cure or filling up of that loneliness. (Interesting and timely for the guy who’s getting married.) In fact, Nouwen suggests that ministers need to cultivate and leave that loneliness aching at our cores, so that it might help us to reach out even more in compassion to all those around us who ache just the same, but who might not yet know that there is good news. There is someone who doesn’t come to fill that emptiness, but who can enter it, know our growling fear, doubt, and dark loneliness, and quite possibly even talk to it. Suddenly we’re all hearing voices.