Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Vocation: I am really awfully Right and Reverend

The "physician of souls" is concerned with "the diagnosis and cure of our habits, passions, lives, wills, and whatever else is within us, by banishing from our [body and soul] everything brutal and fierce, and introducing and establishing in their stead what is gentle and dear to God."
- Gregory Nazianzus, Second Oration, 2.16, 18.

I had a recent conversation with Josh about vocation and ordination, so I thought I'd share some of my musings. An excerpt:
Josh: I'm having some difficulty with the title "reverend"
Kyle: Why's that?
Josh: It just seems so...
Kyle: ... I think it suits me
Josh: ... pretentious
Kyle: Like I said
I believe that I have a vocation to the presbyterate. This is something I’ve discerned in and with my community, in the context of a shared life, over the course of several years. I should note that by “my community,” I don’t just mean the Vine and Branches, but also the people who have shared the “Jesus journey” with me over the course of my short life. I very strongly suspect that our Trinitarian god is forming me as a pastor and priest, and has gifted me with the requisite charisms: prophecy, teaching, and “shepherding.” I look after people, and I seek to shape the way my friends look after one another.

I’ve been reading what some of the ancients have to say about such a calling, and I’m batting around the metaphor of “physical therapist in the care of souls.” I might unpack it later, but right now I’m just kind of “tasting” the idea.

Now here’s where it gets really challenging. Let’s say that I do have an honest-to-goodness vocation to the presbyterate, the office of “elder” that’s described in the (English) New Testament. Out there in the world, lots of people who hire and fire people called pastors (despite the rebukes of 1 Clement!) have ideas in their head (shall we call them “job descriptions”?) that are less than spiritual, or biblical, or any good thing you might want them to be. Aspects of this job can include getting bigger temples built, mastering the art of the technologically slick liturgy, making sure everybody’s found “purpose,” and getting more and more strangers to attend to the worship of the community. Never mind the upward mobility inherent to the position for those pastors who are appropriately skilled at it!

This conception, which is at best a poor relation of the “shepherd of the flock of God,” certainly seems ubiquitous in American Christianity. But that doesn’t mean that it is. The pastors who are really religious CEOs or therapists are plentiful, and their sycophantic followers never in short supply. I do, however, have anecdotal evidence for Christian communities that are Christian communities, rather than modernist monstrosities, and for pastors who really are pastors. They make think I could be one. They make me think we really could do this Jesus thing together, and that it really could be redemptive. That this really is what the New Testament is getting at when it keeps accusing Jesus of saving the world.

I’ve faced two temptations regarding this promise.
  • The first has been considered fairly respectable. It would be to say, “All of these random Christians that I don’t even know (and too many that I do) say that being a pastor means xyz, and since I cannot be and do xyz, I am not fitted for nor called to the pastoral office, so I will flee to the academy (because I am called to be a theologian!) and try to live in the orbit of some group of Christians who “get it.” They are out there, after all.
  • The second is patently bizarre, and stems from my affinity for Anglicanism and also accounts for some of the occasional non-comprehension of my friends. I decide that in the midst of post-modern, (sub)urban North America, I can be the parish priest in some rural village, or the noble presbyter of a beleaguered Christian congregation in a city of the 3rd century Roman Empire. This isn’t as ridiculous as it may sound. Think about it: this eschatological community plucks people out of the superstition, materialism, and injustice of the society at large, and lives together as a sign of God’s peace and rule under the shadow of the cross. Schism is taken seriously, biblical and theological literacy are of unquestioned value, and dividing lines are clear. There are shades of their world in ours, and a number of similarities that I find frankly haunting.
These are unsatisfying alternatives:
  • The first option would be honorable, and fulfilling in its way. The problem is that I don’t see it as my call. In the midst of my community, in the life I live with Jesus, the call I sense seems to be different. My passion is rather to learn and teach together with the people of God, but to do this in the context of shaping our common life according to our ongoing discovery of the truth. Teaching at a college or university, or doing this as a layperson in a typical (?) congregation seems just a step removed from where I think I am being formed to stand. There’s something about effectual nature of teaching and guiding in an office that has authority to do those things. And no, I’m not afraid of that word. But still, being a teacher is not to have the cure of souls as such.
  • Second, I live here and now. The challenges are the same, and they are different. The identity of the Christian Church is the same (happily, such things are not decided democratically) and the challenges are very much the same, because – lets be honest – the dividing lines were not so crisp on the other side of the world seventeen hundred years ago, and the things I’d like to imagine were settled, really weren’t. I didn’t train as an historian for nothing.
So what am I going to do? I suppose the same thing that I do now. I’m going to try to be faithful. Maybe I am called to the “platonic form” of the Christian pastorate. And the religious CEO will never be a real pastor. And to be a religious therapist is to be just that. And just because millions of Christians on that silly continent think otherwise, doesn’t make anybody right.

Presbyters are presbyters in the Christian community. People aren’t meant to be priested for kicks, and then left to their own devices. Careerism is no better. Christians need to read theology. They need to know history. They perhaps even should read the Bible, provided that they’re careful with it. Any community to which I joined myself (especially in that capacity) would have to a pretty similar ethos about our life together as the Church. We used to have denominations to put hedges around folk so one could make some basic theological identifications before jumping in. We don’t have that anymore.

But do you know what? Any community that’s being formed together in the likeness of Christ as that sign and foretaste of the reign of God just might have some pretty healthy ideas and practices going on. So I’m going to keep on with the journey, and we’re all going to keep learning to talk about our vocations (“professionally religious” or otherwise) in the context of our reading of scripture, history, and our healthy, healing experiences of Christian community.

Speaking of Right and Reverend, check this out.


Anonymous said...

Christians need to read theology. They need to know history. They perhaps even should read the Bible, provided that they’re careful with it.

Well said, that, and Alan Creech's identifying those who espouse "Just Jesus and me" as heretics.

Christianity that engages the brain is a concept I really hope catches on in America, or at least in my region of it. I am no intellectual but I am a strong proponent for the discipline of study as a keystone for measurable growth for the Christian. A pendulum swing away from anti-intellectualism is needed and it needs to begin with leadership.

Could Jesus have opened up the Scriptures to the couple on the Emmaus road if they were ignorant? I suppose, but it would have been a much longer walk. It seems like a balance between study, walking with Christ in the experience of life and recognizing him in the breaking of the bread can be a decent foundation for discipleship - provided it is in the context of community as you describe it.

Kyle said...

Absolutely, Tom. It hit me like a truck a couple of years ago when a priest made the comment, "If you want to discover the disciples' theology and experience of Word and Sacrament, it's right here in Luke 24. He made himself known to them through the Scriptures and the breaking of bread."

And of course, they did this together: the primary way of being Christian.

Thanks for reading and contributing.