Tuesday, January 31, 2012

For Dr. Siburt

Today, as I was finishing up some things at the office before going home, I came across the news that a former professor of mine from Abilene Christian University is nearing the end of his life. Charles Siburt serves as Associate Dean for Ministry Programs and Services at the Graduate School of Theology at ACU. He's been battling cancer and now his family reports that his battle is reaching its conclusion.

I took his Introduction to Christian Ministry class in the fall of 2006, during my final year at ACU. I had moved into the Episcopal Church, was searching for an Episcopal seminary where I could do my Anglican Studies year, and was deep in the discernment process for the priesthood.

It was a time of real turmoil for me in many ways. The task of moving into another denomination is always difficult—being in seminary makes the difficulty particularly acute. Though Dr. Siburt was always supportive of my sense of calling, the same could not be said for all of my professors.

This Intro to Ministry class is, I think, a bit legendary. Dr. Siburt has worked with congregations throughout the Churches of Christ and has seen his fair share of struggle and conflict. The class is intended to be a guide for healthy and successful ministry and it was full of important truths and thought-provoking stories. My own highlighted notes include important words of wisdom to a young person training for ministry. Two particular points stand out to me on the first page of notes:
  • "The first few years in ministry are often lethal, deadly. You've learned some stuff and its all true. However, you don't know what you've got until you've put it into practice with a community."
  • "You will live and die on the sword of unspoken expectations. Survival depends on figuring out what the unspoken thing they really want is."
To be honest, though, my notes from his class are rather sparse. Other than the handful of words of wisdom and a tremendously thick binder of articles and resources he gave us, the rest of the class exists in my memory and in my soul. The heart of the class was the stories he told of his experience working with congregations around the country, helping them and their clergy reach places of greater health and more faithful ministry.

For my final paper for the class, I had to write a paper about "My Dream for Ministry." After I read about Dr. Siburt's return to Abilene and that he was beginning his final journey home, I opened up my notes from the class and came across it. I hadn't looked at it in quite a while, years probably.

I read through it, surprisingly enjoying the memories of that rather tumultuous fall. It felt strange, now on the other side. When I wrote the paper, I had only been in the Episcopal Church a couple of years. I reflected in the paper on how the discernment process might wind-up with a response that I was not called to the priesthood. In the paper I talked about how I would be OK with that because I trusted my community to help me hear the Spirit.

And now here I am. A priest in the church.

Tonight, about five and a half years later, I'm struck by how much of that paper still resonates with me. In particular, the section on "my ideal role" is fascinating. It describes, almost perfectly, my current position at St. John's. And all the hopes for that position... they are all still deep within my heart as I think of my current cure here in Grand Haven.

I want to work in a community where I can settle down with a wife and spend the vast majority of my life working alongside a community. I want to be visit them in the hospital, bringing them holy unction and Eucharist. I want to bless their marriages and weep with them if their marriages fall apart. I want to baptize their children and stand alongside of them when they bury their loved ones. I want to live the Christian life with a parish, finding ways to encourage them to see their own lives as the fourth order of ministry in the church. As our catechism says,
Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?
A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons.

Q. What is the ministry of the laity?
A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.
I want to urge the community on to consciousness of the social realities of our community and the world. I want to learn along with them how to reflect theologically upon our life. I want to find my voice with them to speak against the injustices of society. Even more than that, I want to find ways, along with the community, to concretely work to change those injustices, recognizing the dignity of every person created in the image of God.
In a time in my seminary career where some professors were becoming increasingly difficult to work with, unhappy with my decision to leave the Churches of Christ, Dr. Siburt let me write honestly about where I was and where I dreamed of being some-day. He encouraged me, having no difficulty seeing that Christian ministry is Christian ministry, regardless of the tradition. In his classes I as given a language and vision of healthy ministry, one that enabled me to talk with clarity about my call whether I was sitting in front of the diocesan Commission on Ministry or whether I was explaining it to a confused relative.

And through it all, Dr. Siburt never stopped smiling, never stopped loving me, never stopped encouraging me to step forward into the ministry God was calling me, to love the people of God with whom I'm called to live, to listen for the dancing voice of the Spirit always calling us forward.

Over these next few days or weeks, as he spends his final time with his family, I'm going to be praying for him. But a significant portion of the content of those prayers will be gratitude—gratitude for all the gifts his wisdom gave me and countless other ministers across the Christian Church.
Almighty God, look on this your servant, lying in great weakness, and comfort him with the promise of life everlasting, given in the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

God the Father,
Have mercy on your servant.
God the Son,
Have mercy on your servant.
God the Holy Spirit,
Have mercy on your servant.
Holy Trinity, one God,
Have mercy on your servant.

From all evil, from all sin, from all tribulation,
Good Lord, deliver him.
By your holy Incarnation, by your Cross and Passion, by your precious Death and Burial,
Good Lord, deliver him.
By your glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the Coming of the Holy Spirit,
Good Lord, deliver him.

We sinners beseech you to hear us, Lord Christ: That it may please you to deliver the soul of your servant from the power of evil, and from eternal death,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please you mercifully to pardon all his sins,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please you to grant him a place of refreshment and everlasting blessedness,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please you to give him joy and gladness in your kingdom, with your saints in light,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.

Jesus, Lamb of God:
Have mercy on him.
Jesus, bearer of our sins:
Have mercy on him.
Jesus, redeemer of the world:
Give him your peace.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Let us pray.
Deliver your servant, Charles, O Sovereign Lord Christ, from all evil, and set him free from every bond; that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations; where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Christ will open the kingdom of heaven to all who believe in his Name, saying, Come, O blessed of my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you. Into paradise may the angels lead you. At your coming may the martyrs receive you, and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.

Friday, January 20, 2012

From Out of Idleness

To insure the greatest efficiency if the dart
the harpooners of this world
must start to their feet from out of idleness,
and not from out of toil.
~Herman Melville
This quote from Melville is found on the first pages of Eugene Peterson's new book, The Pastor: A Memoir. It was given to me as a gift this past Christmas, a gift I was excited to receive. Ever since I began studying religion in college, ever since I began the intentional preparation for parish ministry, I've found clergy memoirs to be some of the most important reading I can do. They nourish my spirit and challenge my assumptions over and over again, enabling me to glimpse—just for a moment—what a life of ministry looks like from the other end.

Peterson's memoir is, as I expected, powerful and moving. It pushes me to reconsider my own perspectives and assumptions regarding priestly ministry. I'm reading it from Colorado, during a family vacation here. I think that is perhaps why that quote at the very beginning, that quote about idleness, has stood out to me so much. Though cross-country skiing, hiking, snow-shoeing, and all other outdoors activities are not idleness, strictly defined, this time is still an idleness of sorts.

I mean, heck, I have time to read a book.

The timing of this vacation was not ideal in terms of parochial life. Our Annual Parish Meeting is this coming Sunday, the day after I get back in town. I worked hard in the week before I left to be prepared, to write reports and ensure everything was lined up for a smooth parish meeting. But it's been hard this past week, as I've sought rest, relaxation, and re-creation with my family to remain in a place of idleness. The draw of work is always in the back of my mind. Though I turned on my e-mail vacation auto-responder, I've still been keeping my eye on e-mails as they come in. I've even, dare I confess, responded to a few.

It's hard to find a place of idleness.

One might think, given a cursory reading of Benedict's rule, that idleness is a bad thing. Indeed, chapter 48 of the Rule begins, "Idleness is the enemy of the soul." The chapter goes on to describe a schedule of daily manual labor that is an essential part of the Benedictine life. But it says more than that. In the midst of this section on work, Benedict says, "After the sixth hour, having left the table, let them rest on their beds in perfect silence; or if anyone may perhaps want to read, let her read to herself in such a way as not to disturb anyone else."

The "sixth hour" or "sext" is the office said at noon. It is often followed or preceded by lunch. To wit, in this section, Benedict instructs that after lunch the monks are to take a nap.

Or if they don't want a nap, then to go ahead and read, just don't bother those who are taking a nap.

There is a type of idleness that is indeed an enemy to the soul, this is idleness that is often called "sloth." One of the seven deadly sins, sloth is dangerous to the soul because it creates acedia, or a lack of care for the world. Sloth is a lazy inactivity that both stems from not caring and that creates a level of detachment from the world around us.

But I don't think that this slothful idleness is what Melville was writing about. I don't think this slothful idleness is what Peterson was thinking of when he chose to place Melville's quote at the beginning of his book. I think the idleness of Melville and Peterson is the one Benedict places, ironically enough, smack dab in the middle of a section about work.

Because idleness is essential to faithful work.

Originally, when I was getting ready to take this vacation, I was thinking I wouldn't want to do this again. I was thinking I wouldn't again want to go on vacation and then arrive back in town the day before a significant moment in the life of the church. But I wonder if there might be wisdom in this. I wonder if, perhaps, there might be wisdom in starting to my feet this Sunday not out of work, but out of idleness.

It certainly makes me grateful to work in a diocese where our bishop insists upon a weekly time of idleness. In diocesan language, the priest is expected to maintain "a 48 hour period each week devoted solely to personal and family use." It's hard to do and like vacation I don't always do it perfectly.

But I'm getting better.

I'm getting better at holding on to times of idleness. I'm getting better at laying down my harpoon and resting against the side of the boat. I'm getting better at turning on some of my favorite music as I work through e-mails in the afternoon (probably the strangest spiritual discipline I've ever had suggested me by a spiritual director). It's not the afternoon nap of the monastery, but it is forcing my mind to take a step back, to relax...

And I find that the work that proceeds from idleness is less flurry of activity and more careful and intentional... less batting at the air and more a careful harpoon thrown at the anxiety which infects our world.

This Sunday is a big day in the life of our parish, any Annual Meeting in any parish is a significant moment. So I'm getting ready for it, my feet propped up in front of me, a fire in the fireplace, my wife leaning on the couch next to me slowly slipping into a nap, and the snow lazily falling down around us. This is a preparation for work that can only be accomplished through a sort of holy idleness.

And I think it's a small part of my very salvation.