Ordination Anniversary, 2019

This year’s ordination anniversary, which I can’t fail to remember because it always falls on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, finds me in a brief interlude between calls. My last Sunday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois was September 15 and my first day in the office at Christ Lutheran Church in Dallas, Texas will not be until September 27. In a more technical sense I’m not between calls until tomorrow, with this week being counted as a week of accrued vacation for the purposes of our benefits administrator. And in yet another sense I’m in a period of overlap, with a few loose ends here to sew up, weeks after I started working with the new church in Dallas.

Partly this is a matter of exercising certain executive functions that you feel (and are) responsible for outside the boundaries of standard work hours. And partly it’s a matter of tending relationships, both the ones that you are concluding (or at least transforming) and those that are just beginning. You don’t want to let people down, despite the firm and certain knowledge that you are doing it all the time. I won’t get a paycheck from the new church until some time in October but I’ve had anxiety about tardy replies to email since August.

But it’s important to know that the anxiety, or the eagerness if you prefer, goes both ways. I see from the emails that they’ve had work parties to spruce up the church ahead of my arrival and are collecting items to help us stock our pantry. And my departure here occasioned an avalanche of cards and calls and well-wishes that overwhelmed me with their depth and intensity.

It’s not good to seek this from people when you do what I do. In fact it’s quite dangerous. I’m not a messy cleric who loves drama, but I’ve had enough conflict to know that I shouldn’t and don’t do this out of desire for anyone’s approval or fear of their disapproval. And yet, from the same conflicts, I’ve learned that being calm, charitable, and differentiated in the midst of conflict can lead to much stronger relationships on the other side. This is a wonderful thing to experience.

So for the first time I’m leaving a community where I wasn’t a student or a short-timer, with all the deeply-hedged affection and appreciation those situations can create. I knew consciously, and often said, that I love these people, and I knew they loved me, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that we did not enter our relationship as pastor and people to have this experience of mutual affection. But I didn’t know what that really meant until we were saying goodbye.

In this period of overlap, I’ve been looking ahead with excitement at all the cool things we’re going to do at the new church, while looking back with some disappointment at all the cool things I didn’t get done, or that I did but didn’t have the outcomes I’d hoped for. I suppose that’s a sign that I haven’t gotten to a place of complete professional ascesis, or kerygmatic single-mindedness. But the ambitions not fulfilled or accomplishments not completed didn’t, in the very end, matter. What mattered was the presence together around Word and Sacrament, Sunday after Sunday. We grow accustomed to each other in a peculiar way, beyond excellence or inadequacy or anything else. God brought us together in the exemplary and characteristic way God acts in the world–through the ministry of the Church–and that forges a unique bond. Rupturing it, and forming it anew with new people, is a much weightier task than I’d been able to imagine when the bishop laid his hands on me and I knew only the pure and shiny farewells of the perennial student.

Over the years I’ve veered back and forth between more “functional” and “ontological” conceptions of ordination. There is something pure and right in the former conception–that the Holy Ministry is a role and an office primarily, that is operative when we act in fulfillment of its duties. But it’s not enough. And moreover I’ve found that I gravitate toward it these days less out of conviction than out of exhaustion or resentment at the all-encompassing, unperfectable nature of the work. “I’m off the clock,” I wearily told a garrulous jerk I recently met who took our ten seconds of acquaintance to tell me I needed a shave and a haircut. A more appropriate and charitable response would have been to tell him to piss off.

The truth of the matter, as I’ve learned and experienced it anyway, is that this ministry is both functional and ontological. Orders are an indelible mark stamped on our whole lives, that one yet must grow into and exercise faithfully for it to appear to anyone, even ourselves. A priest without people to serve is something of an embarrassment and a tragedy; but the service and the people confirm the mark that has already been laid on us. If I want to insist that I do not serve in the person of Christ, and represent Christ to his people and the world, that insistence has much more to do with my own fears and inadequacies than with the humility and limitations appropriate to the role. I love it so much, like a scar or a wayward child. It’s a part of me that I can’t control.

I looked back today on the ordination anniversary post I wrote two years ago. I would say it all again. I’ve expanded my advice to seminarians and the newly ordained: pray every day, take care of your primary relationships, don’t worry about failing, and beyond that, get a handle on your demons right now, and stay in touch with the things you love outside of your work.

Speaking of which, Kid 4 has been pestering me and acting out as I write this. Whatever other insights I have on the topic must await another moment. That’s always how it goes. Please pray for me, and for everyone who has helped me to do this work.

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