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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting on this, Jared. It's because of you that I learned about Dr. Siburt's declining health and the special day of prayer and fasting on February 3rd.

    Though you and I have travelled quite different roads in our spiritual journey since ACU, I'm struck by how similar our reminiscences of Dr. Siburt, his class, and the impact of his ministry are.

    He will leave behind a grand legacy of service and love.