Monday, January 23, 2017

Remembering Promises

January 23rd is the anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry in the United Church of Christ. It's been 12 years now since I made promises to adhere to a certain standard of life, faith, and interaction with those inside and outside the walls of the church.

Every year on or around this date, I try to make it a point to listen to the audio recording of that service, my UCC Book of Worship on my lap, as I pay special attention to several things.

First, the promises themselves. They include things like upholding the faith and order of the UCC, speaking the truth in love while also maintaining the peace of the church, ministering faithfully and without bias to people of the Christian faith, other faiths, and no faith. They are powerful words that I review and renew as an annual Examen, asking forgiveness for when I have not upheld them the way that I should have, and making them anew for the year ahead.

I also listen to the sermon the pastor of my hometown church preached that day. His words about not treating such a milestone like receiving a crown still ring in my mind: "If this feels like you're a king at a coronation...get over it." The nature of ministry is service and humility rather than power and prestige. This, too, is something that I strive to remember, as I have taped in my office a note that says in big letters, "It's not about you." Indeed it isn't.

As special as that day was and as much as that moment continues on as a point of affirmation to which I can return again and again, I can also remember the little things that didn't go right or that I would have changed.

The altar candles weren't lit. I overlooked securing an acolyte for the afternoon.

Right before the moment when all other clergy observe the laying on of hands, there was a little exchange between myself and the Association representative where I didn't know where to kneel or which direction to face when doing it.

The opening hymn was "Come Christians Join to Sing," which I didn't know until years later is the same tune as "Carmen Ohio," the Ohio State alma mater. A lifelong Michigan fan should know better.

As much as I cringe at these memories that occurred during such an important occasion, I also find them a fitting metaphor for the true nature of pastoral ministry. Sure, the role is an important one and has great potential for awe and carries with it a sense of the sacred and sublime. But living one's calling in real time brings great potential for the accentuation of the imperfect, because the imperfect is all there really is to begin with.

I have 12 years' worth of stories of snap decisions I've had to make, apologies I've had to issue, metaphorical fires I've had to help extinguish, events, situations, and people I've been slow to address or have outright lost track of, good intentions that have blown up in my face, and new initiatives that have failed.

But in those 12 years there have also been blessings I've been a part of (usually by accident), all manner of life passages I've helped celebrate, new initiatives that have brought energy, growth, and joy, difficult decisions I've been invited into, and many a relationship that has stretched me and made me aware of how much I don't know but also how much God is a part of it all.

The list of things I've found myself doing as an ordained minister that I was never told about are numerous, and quite humbling. You're never really prepared to sit in an ER keeping vigil with a family as a loved one's earthly life ends. You don't necessarily picture yourself organizing groups to pack food boxes or refurbish a house or hear a person's story in inner Cleveland while she feeds you rice and beans. You can't anticipate driving someone to the impound to get their car back so they can make it to their job.

No, ordination is definitely not a coronation. It is the beginning of a long series of humbling, strange, glorious, frustrating, uplifting, heartbreaking, miraculous moments, and you never know which it will be on any given day.

You just show up. You show up, remember your promises, and pray that God does what God does through you.