Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ministry: The Unexpected (Part III)

Fragmentation or wholeness?  That night be an appropriate title for this final post in this little series.  The dichotomy has enveloped me since I began signing my name to documents in the Presbyterian inquirer, candidate, and call processes: the long and winding road we travel toward ordained ministry.

At the outset, I was an active leader in my local Presbyterian congregation, I was a teacher in an Orthodox Jewish school, and I was studying humanities and in spiritual direction in a Jesuit university.  From an outsider's point of view, my life might have looked somewhat disjointed, but to me it felt like a seamless whole in which many shapes and colors of fabric were melded together.

It was during my first year of seminary that I began to sense pieces breaking off into jagged and confusing parts.  In the first weeks, I encountered a stream of exuberant young people eager to proclaim God's clear activity in their lives: scholarships, jobs, housing, all aspects of life had fallen into place for them, enabling them to conclude that God had clearly called them into ministry.  It was some time before I began to find the rest of the crowd who had acquired third mortgages instead of scholarships, abandoned well-paying and secure jobs, lived or commuted far from family, and had added seminary tuition and expenses to those for college student children.  The group who had sensed God's invitation in a context of confusion rather than clarity.  I felt isolated in a very Protestant environment; I had to alter my personal meal preferences and show up for lunch so that I could engage with other people. But by the end of that first year, a new whole was assembling itself: friends, coursework I loved, a neighborhood in which I enjoyed long walks, a leadership position in a student organization, and grand plans for the fall.

With my son's death, fragmentation with a capital F became the headline for  of my life.  Every day a struggle, literally, for survival.  Papers and exams written in a fog of grief.  Class discussions engaged and promptly forgotten.  Names, words, places, ideas, lost in a formless void.  As the final two years of seminary passed in a haze, I gradually developed the capacity to look and speak and behave in public in a manner that in no way reflected my interior landscape. I must have succeeded; I went to our graduation because one of the young women assured me that it would be "fun."  Without my Josh, it was a nightmare, but no one beyond my family and best friends knew anything about that.

In retrospect, it's a blessing, although it was a frustrating and disappointing one, that a failed exegesis exam (Elijah bringing the widow's son back to life?  Seriously?  "No way could you have passed that," said one of my professors, kindly, when the results came in) and the capriciousness vagaries of the Presbyterian call process would mean that nearly a year and one-half would pass before I was called to a church and ordained. It was an active year from a ministry standpoint, but there was plenty of space and time for the inner integration of heart and mind that were taking place ever so slowly.

And now?  There is a lot of new fragmentation in my life that, curiously, seems to serve as the foundation for a surprising sort of wholeness.  I serve a small, rural church far from my home ~ an hour and one-half, to be exact ~ which in practical terms means I make long drives several times a week and spend a few evenings in the manse next-door to the church itself.  I sometimes feel as if I live two completely different lives:  one in a fast-paced, diverse, somewhat intense city, and the other in a slow-moving community of like-minded people who prefer open fields to streetlights.   The transitions are occasionally a bit bumpy, but yet: I have ample time for prayer, for daydreaming, for planning, for silence.  The ministry I do here seems to be much appreciated.  Just when I think I have accomplished yet another feat  that no one wants or likes, a voice (a literal voice of a real person) will say, "That was beautiful."

I thought I would be working on social justice issues.  I thought I would be designing elaborate educational programs. I thought I would live close to my congregation, and be a daily participant in the events of their lives.  I thought . . .   Well, I don't really remember all that I thought. 

Last evening as I headed out of town to a nursing facility to visit some folks whom I've come to know a bit through their extended health problems, I waved to a small group of kids who had spent the afternoon at our weekly after-school program.  And here's what I think now: if I stay here another eight years, I will get to see all those fourth grade boys through middle school and high school, I'll get to help them with the challenges of adolescence, and I'll get to send them off to college.

If my life has persuaded me of anything at all, it would be: Don't make plans, and don't let your dreams harden into expectations.  So, I don't.  But it would be kind of wonderful, wouldn't it, to pastor a community for a decade, to participate in the growth of its young people to adulthood and to accompany its elders through their final earthly transitions?  To complete a few circles of wholeness?


  1. My husband and older daughter both say that their commutes from the suburbs to downtown Houston offer them time and space in which to make the transition from work to their family lives that living in town would not. Looks like you are finding some circles of wholeness in that transition as well.

    God has a way of taking us outside our oomfort zones, don't you think? I expected to follow my passion for leading adults to bible study but instead find myself leading a task force on denominational issues (Really, Lord? Really???) , while you find yourself immersed in a very pastoral ministry instead of working for social justice issues and leading educational programs. We are seeing through the glass, darkly!

    1. QG, I suppose that the more we abandon ourselves to God, the more likely we are to end up on unexpected terrain.

    2. Robin, that's a profound insight.

  2. Robin, I relate very well with your statement "...don't let your dreams harden into expectations". I expected to be a pastor's wife for the rest of my life but life happens differently from our own expectations; never would I have thought that I would be divorced and spending my retirement on my own and living my faith as a Catholic convert. God uses our brokenness to minister to others and to surprise us with joy in circumstances very different from what we could ever imagine.

  3. I thought I'd be at my first congregation for ten years, I was there almost 8. I thought I'd be at my second church until I retired, I was there 18 months. I hope to be at my current church until I retire - but, as you say, anything could happen. 'tis a lovely thought, though....

  4. As I read this series, I could hear your voice as we sat that evening at the Jesuit Center