Something got under my skin last week and came out as an angry, rangy rant at a Presbytery meeting last week. It bugged me for hours and days afterwards and I still can feel my blood pressure rise when my mind comes back to that bus stop and sits a while.
It was triggered by one of those maddening motions that come along every so often to our local Presbytery of 30 United churches around Lindsay. It came from the National Church courts seeking consensus about changes to the Bible – I mean - Manual of the United Church. The Manual must be adjusted every so often to fit with the new practices of the church. These motions were about Ministry. They were about which Lay Ministers (or Designated Lay Ministers as we are supposed to call them now) would be considered eligible for transfer between Presbyteries if they moved after retiring – just as Ordered, and Ordained Reverends, are.
As we got into the discussion about clarifying just what the motion meant and what were its ramifications, I was overcome by a Spirit that moved me to put my hand up and share my opinion…”I think this is bloody ridiculous!” I reported from my place in the pew. That felt good but now I had to explain myself. I stammered out some comments about how the distinction between Ordered and Lay Ministry was unhelpful. I pointed out that we have been paying lip service to a “Ministry of all People” for decades while keeping a hierarchy firmly in place. Standards set by a National Cookie-Cutter code of what makes someone a Minister, or a Designated Lay Minister, or just a regular pew-sitting “Minister” were confusing and frustrating to my understanding of how God calls people to meets the needs of the Church and World.
There was an awkward silence in the sanctuary as people shifted in their pews and wondered how the chair would handle this passionate and somewhat angry outburst. “Where did that come from?” I could hear their collective minds wondering. I’ve been asking myself the same question ever since…
Part of it could be the manner in which the subject was presented. A motion like this from the National Church is like when I say “Does anyone have any objection to these two people being married today?” It is a question – but you might as well try to stop a bus by jumping in front of it. (A moving bus isn’t a good image for such motions – more like one of those huge road-paving roller vehicles that flatten the new asphalt onto the surface of church/road.
Part of it could be my lack of patience at the time and energy it takes for the democratic process to work its way through such motions. We had just heard a shocking report from sisters who had visited the Congo. They experienced a people ravaged by war, rape, the criminal neglect of their government, and the apparent apathy of the world. Here we were splitting hairs about which ministers are which – when the world is on fire!
Part of it could be a sense that this felt like another example of our Mother Church being out of touch with what is needed in congregations – re-arranging deck chairs on the good ship Titanic.
And the big lump that’s still in my throat after all these explanations is my own story. As a child of the manse I’ve watched my father and mother and uncles and aunts give their blood, sweat, and tears to the care of this institution. I’ve resented it – jealous of this precious sibling I had to compete with. I’ve turned my back on it and walked away – only to discover Jesus and a call to serve. I could have served Jesus in a thousand different ways – but I’ve chosen to adopt this monstrously needy aging relative – the United Church - into my own home.
The Jesus I met out there beyond the reach of Church needs and deeds was a traveling evangelist with absolutely no Official Credentials except the clear ring of truth that people recognized in his words and actions.
“for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” Matthew 7:29
His authority came from the people and not from the any Standard Academic, Institutional Measure. I don’t say his authority came from God because a bell doesn’t ring true if there aren’t ears to hear it. The judgement belongs to the people.
The people, the people, the people. Where are the people who will run this big old church? Who wants to drive this paving machine? Who wants to go that slow and go to the cost of filling that tank with diesel?
The people, the people, the people are craving for leaders who will lead them into a way of life led by passion and imagination. The life Jesus offered led people into places of suffering and struggle – and they either ran towards it or away from it.
One of the places people run away from that life is into the safety of institutions. Institutions that reinforce their own culture and serve as a bulwark against the changes and shifts of time.
The people, the people, the people are sheep. Left to themselves, so the story goes, they’ll choose leaders who will pacify them and tell them what they want to hear and lead them into insular, pious, social clubs. It is our national heritage of training leaders in academic excellence that raises the sights of leaders to the hopes of social change. It is our National United Church identity instilled into our Nationally accredited schools that give people the analytical skills to lift local piety into a bigger, bolder vision of social justice and community.
And what about the way that God chooses leaders? People like me get called into a profession. But first I was called into a Vision of Life (the Kingdom of God). I walked into that Vision like the Land of Oz and have been immersed 24/7 ever since. Every choice I make and every breath I take is within that Vision. As I followed the Yellow Brick Road I made some choices about the work that I would do in this land.
Why do we insist that academic training is the ultimate standard of leadership in God’s Church? We seem to turn a deaf ear to Isaiah, Jesus and Paul on this subject.
Isaiah 29: 13
The wise ones who had it all figured out
will be exposed as fools.
The smart people who thought they knew everything
will turn out to know nothing.”
25Abruptly Jesus broke into prayer: “Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You’ve concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people. 26Yes, Father, that’s the way you like to work.”
Matthew 11: 25
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
1st Corinthians chpt 1: 26
I guess this is really why I get so upset when the Church starts talking about levels of Ministry. As long as we continue to lift up the wise, educated, and articulate as the heroes of our faith, God will continue to lose interest in our worship. As long as we remain blind to the power of the ministry of the ordinary and foolish and broken people among us, we will continue to miss what God is saying to us.
We want our congregations to be reborn and we want the professionals to do it. The more we squeeze the professionals for answers all we’re gonna get is more of the same – human sweat, blood, and tears. If we want miracles then we must offer pulpit and table to the voice of the least among us. God’s voice and power is there – always has been; always will be.
This weekend I travel to our annual Bay of Quinte Conference. Hundreds of clergy and lay people gather to worship and discuss and debate the details of Church busyness. On Sunday the Conference will ordain new professional heroes into Ordered Ministry. Just like at a wedding where you hear the words and remember the day your own vows were made, clergy will reflect on the day of their own ordination.
In 1990 I kneeled to receive the Spirit’s mantel of ministry as three men lay their hands on me. My uncle; the principal of Emmanuel College. My father; the pastor on congregations. And Ron Yetman; a street preacher, survivor of childhood poverty, sexual abuse, de-humanizing military service, alcoholism, psychiatric institutions, seven marriages, and seventy-seven churches. When I met him he was serving the Lord by choosing to live in the toughest Men’s Hostel in the city. Because of Ron, I had the courage to walk those final steps to receive my mission from the Wizard of Oz. Ron had pulled the curtain back to reveal the little man at the controls but he urged me to take the mission anyway and run with it.
Ron taught me more about faith than anyone I’ve ever met. I have no idea where he is today. Maybe that was Ron the other night at Presbytery under my skin.