Tomorrow is my birthday, and like the past two birthdays in a row, I will be spending it in a decidedly un-birthday fashion. Instead of coming home and having a party or lounging and having people lavish me with gifts, or peeling me grapes, or whatever, I will be going to my first meeting with my discernment committee in the continuing long, strange, trip that I've been on with God.
Discernment and Deserts
My spouse and I were talking today about what I may or may not encounter when I talk to this group of mostly totally unknown people. I'm as foreign to them as they are to me. We're supposed to talk about Christian ministry, and what I, and they, understand that to be. I was describing the different types of Christian ministers (laity and ordained) as being a little like boxers and their coaches. The laity are the ones sent out into the ring to do battle with the world all week. The bell rings, and they go to their corner (the church building) where the coach (the priest) gives them water and towels them off and talks strategy for dealing with the next round, and then they are sent back out into the ring again. She kept staring at me.
"And how are you going to do ministry?" she asked. Now I was staring at her. "You haven't told me how you're going to do your ministry. I hear that question and I think in terms of whether you see yourself in a parish, or are you some kind of itinerant priest, or campus ministry, or prison chaplain."
"I don't know," I said, a bit exasperated. "I don't know where I'm going to be. I don't think it will be in a parish, but where it will be, I don't know."
As irritated as I was that she couldn't understand my metaphor, I also was very grateful for the challenge. I may not know the people on this committee, but I have experienced people in the church and I am pretty sure I will have some people there who don't like metaphor and don't like boxing (I don't really care for it much either, but it's a great metaphor!) and just want me to get to the point. So, her challenge was a valid one. And I will have an 80-minute drive from Thomasville to Albany tomorrow to contemplate how I'd answer these questions in a more concrete way.
There just seems to be a perfect timing on all of this. It's the First Sunday in Lent, which this year is also my birthday, and the very sweet day of Valentine's. The Gospel lesson assigned for this Sunday is the events, as told by Luke, of what happens to Jesus upon his immersion in the waters of baptism. The story is that the Heaven's opened and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove with a voice saying, "This is my Son with whom I am well pleased." But before Jesus can embark on his ultimate mission which will lead to the cross on Good Friday, he must be refined and tested and faced with the very things that threaten all those whom he is attempting to reach with the saving grace of God. And so, after his baptism, he is driven out into the desert where he will contend with the temptations that the world has to offer: immediate gratification, possessions and power, and recklessness. Satan, who in the Jewish tradition is like a prosecutor, attempts to attract Jesus by laying out all that the world could offer to him if he'd use his God-given power working in him to a self-serving ministry. "Make that rock into a loaf of bread" "How 'bout all these nations and kingdoms you could possess and rule?" "Go ahead and throw yourself from a tall height. You won't die." In Luke's telling of the story, Jesus withstands all this with seeming ease and self-confidence, and we in the Episcopal Church are reminded every week that Jesus was like us in every way, "but without sin." I believe that to be true. And I also want to believe that Jesus faced these temptations and withstood them, but did so not so easily. I want to believe that Jesus saw what this prosecutor was attempting to do; lay a snare to grab him at the ankle with an "A-ha! Gotcha!" I want to believe that Jesus, who is without sin, nonetheless could see and feel and understand the great temptations that we, who are so often sorely hindered by our sins, face as a regular challenge. Who doesn't want instant gratification, right? If we weren't susceptible to that, then there would be no need for Powerball! When I consider Jesus in this scene out in the desert, I picture him somewhat bedraggled and tired and thirsty and hungry. He is physically feeling the weakness of his human body. What better time for Satan to show up and offer him lots of bright, shiny objects, right? And what an opportune time for God to be the alchemist who uses these temptations as an opportunity to refine his Son to resist what we find so irresistable.
Discernment for the priesthood, or at least mine up to this point, has felt like many trips out into the desert. It is a time to test and probe and see what is happening with me and God and a call on my life. I have attempted to avoid going forward with pursuing a call to become a priest. This wasn't something that I've "always wanted to do"; on the contrary, I left the church in 1991 and stayed away until late 2007, and didn't have particularly warm and fuzzy feelings toward clergy people during those years that I was in exile. I found most Episcopal priests to be awkward and incapable of being with people in their places of hurt and woundedness. I wanted no part of any of that. And then my father died, and God fired up a jukebox in my head of Episcopal hymns, and the rest--as they say--is history. The more I got involved, and the more I believed in the power of Christ working with me and in me, and through me, the more I was hearing from other people: "Are you a priest?" "Are you going to become a priest?" "VTS or Sewanee?" I am someone people continuously are coming to for counsel and support. And even those conversations are beginning to end with, "I think you'd be a great priest." The time for running away has stopped.
Pray for me as you might pray for all the people who, like Jesus in the desert, are discerning and listening for God to guide them at this time when the temptations of the world are set in contrast to the call on their lives. Pray for us to listen. Pray for us to speak our truth. Pray that we may be one in the same way Jesus and God are one.