2012-10-06

Called

This post duplicates the second part of "Walls and Fridges."

"Do not enter the ministry if you can help it. Do it only if you have to."
- Standard advice to those considering professional ministry

In the late 1990s, I was in transition: no longer a philosophy prof, what was I? What was my place? I could be smart; I had no idea how to be wise. If you brought me your broken heart, I could give you advice, sprinkled with references to Aristotle or Wordsworth. What I couldn't do is stand with you, cupping my hands around yours – metaphorically or maybe even literally – holding with you the broken pieces.

I had sat on a wall of childhood grief, and in a place of inadequacy and shame, largely pushed from active memory – and I had but dim inklings of those walls we all sit on, alone waiting for comfort – or those high perches of fear from which our knowledge is insufficient to get us down. Something in me perceived that these mysterious “spiritual” things were, at last, my great need – that only down that path lay may own healing and any possibility for participating in the world's healing. I was called toward my gift: discourse and public speaking. I was called toward my need: to learn how to live in self-awareness and in contact with the holy.

The Midwest Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy told me to "get a spiritual practice." They first ascertained that I did not, in fact, have one. It was spring of 2001, and I had just completed my first year of seminary at United Theological Seminary in Minneapolis. I had driven over to Chicago, where I sat in a conference room in a hotel to be interviewed by this Midwest Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy, a subcommittee of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC). Passing muster with a regional subcommittee is a requirement for ministerial aspirants -- as would be, later, garnering the approval of the MFC itself. The path to professional ministry is gaily festooned with committees.

"Do you have a spiritual practice?" one of the members of this committee asked me.

Before starting seminary, I had spent two years as the congregational facilitator and preacher for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee. Before that, I'd served as a president of our Fellowship in Waco, Texas, as Vice President of our church in Charlottesville, Virginia and had worked as the church secretary for a year at our Nashville, Tennessee church. But did I have a spiritual practice?

I was a born-and-raised Unitarian Universalist. I had a Ph.D. I'd been a university professor of philosophy for four years. I could debate about metaphysics, metaethics, metatheology, poststructuralism, postindustrialism, and postmodernism. If it was meta-, or post-, I was there. But did I have a spiritual practice?

Well, no, I didn't really. Nothing I regularly did was centering or cleansing, or put me much in touch with myself, or interconnected me with all beings, or produced a luminous sense of joy and peace flowing throughout the world, or made me feel lighter as I went about subsequent tasks -- or even inclined me to smile more.

Thus spake the Midwest Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy unto me: “Get a spiritual practice.”

They didn’t say which one. They didn’t define “spiritual practice.” They just said, get one. And I am forever their debt for changing my life on that day. That was just the push it took for me to take up Buddhism and Zen.

The Midwest Regional Committee on Candidacy also told me to a take a whole year of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) instead of just the one 10-week unit normally required. CPE put me to work as a hospital chaplain. The broken bodies that fill a hospital often come with broken lives, broken spirits, broken hearts. Hour after hour, day after day, I sat with broken-ness, holding it, carrying other people's loads with them for just a few moments, gradually finding my own brokenness – which turned out to be also at the same time my wholeness. Like a golden luminescence inside an opaque vase – our brokenness, our cracks, are where the light shines out.

Since 2004, I have been ordained to a particular kind of professional ministry. There are times when it feels lonely, but this is not because I am unique (although, like all of us, I am), or among only a select few who minister. Indeed, I believe that all of us, or almost all, do, or have done, ministry.

Have you known that feeling? Stressed, deprived of sleep or some other human need, worn thin, to the point of transparency . . . and. And, and, and, at the very same time, filled with joy and gratitude and abundance. Have you known that feeling? Then you, too, have felt the light come through your cracks. Then you, too, have answered a call to ministry.

During World War II a young Canadian, age 22, captured by the Nazis in Denmark, charged with smuggling arms, wrote his final letter. On the evening before his execution he wrote to his mother:
"I know you are a courageous woman and you will bear this [news of my death] but, hear me, it is not enough to bear it. You must understand it. I am an insignificant thing, and my person will soon be forgotten, but the thought, the life, the inspiration that filled me will live on. You will meet them everywhere -- in the trees at springtime, in people who cross your path, in a loving little smile."
So I say to you, gentle reader, minister that you, too, are: each of us is an insignificant thing. The source of our call is the source of all grace -- the loveliness of the trees in springtime, of the song of the mockingbird, of the patter of rain. The yearning in you to serve, to minister, to be a part of a something larger than your ego’s needs and defenses: it is the very same as the yearning of the owl for a mouse, the yearning of the mouse for that nice bit of apple it smells, the yearning of the apple seed for a fertile patch in which to shoot down roots, the yearning of the earth to nourish life. Go forth, then, good minister, to realize yourself in service.

I sat on a wall. I sat on a refrigerator. I sat with hundreds of hospital patients. And I sit on a round cushion called a zafu. The patients and the zafu -- and in their way the wall and the fridge, too -- have taught me to hear life's love song. All of that sits with me every time I stand with, or for, or by, the people I serve.