Over the past four years I have been in a period of discernment to discover if God has been calling me to ministry in the Lutheran Church. Nearing and passing 60 is a strange time to be considering such a career move, though I believe this is less about career than about discipleship. My faith has taught me much, but bearing particularly on this situation are two. There is something paradoxical about the nature of God and we should be properly cautious when considering God’s timing. Pick any parable to learn about paradox. And Sarah’s laughter at bearing a child as a senior citizen ought to teach us about timing. I may have more to share later concerning how I got to today. God and I have wrestled. I have managed the practical by doing the paperwork and the psychological profiles. I have tended to the spirit in meditation and prayer. The journey has led to moments of resonant affirmation juxtaposed with searing doubt. I have shed tears of quiet assent and later shouted boisterous denials.
In the ELCA there is an intense process for those who are considering a life in ministry. I can’t go to a web site and fill out a few forms and receive my certificate as an officially recognized minister. Well, I could. But the path prescribed by the ELCA appeals to me and not just because it is what I grew up with. I believe it has guided me to this point and that it is designed to winnow out the casual and hone the authentically called. I suppose there was that sense the process would winnow me out. God laughs.
The persistence of the Spirit compelled me onward. I was impelled by the desire to see this through and live with the answer. After submitting my candidacy essay I scheduled a meeting with the candidacy committee. That meeting occurred Thursday last and I was feeling confident that I would finally have some answers. I’m not afraid to say that I may have been slightly biased toward the negative, figuring that someone else could tell God no for me.
The meeting took place at the Northwest Washington Synod offices which is a lot less imposing and grand than it sounds. It shares space with St John’s Lutheran and is situated across the street from the zoo. The office does command a sweeping view of Ballard and Magnolia and a glimpse of the Sound with the Olympic Mountains on the horizon. But there is little to distinguish it from a one-man law firm. I suppose it is entirely Lutheran in character, spare and unostentatious. Stacks of Living Lutheran magazine lay on the table in the small reception area, not a Sports Illustrated or Time to be found, Susan, the receptionist/aide knew I was coming and offered me tea as I waited for the committee to call me into my own personal inquisition.
If anyone had passively-aggressively had set themselves up for a grand face plant it had been me. A cold had dogged me all week long and instead of taking time off from work to tend to the cold, I’d gone to work including right up until an hour before the meeting. I didn’t even review a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism just in case. I’m not saying I was deliberately sabotaging my own interview but I came darn close. In an hour or so this would be settled and I’d be back to my life.
The interview was conducted in a conference room, I was given the seat at the witness table and if you’ve seen a Congressional hearing on TV you get the general idea of the set up. A glass of hemlock sat at arms-reach only it turned out it was just water. A panel of clergy and lay-persons asked me gentle and genial questions on my faith journey and my sense of call. The questioners were both friendly but also dug into some of my answers with proper severity. Several offered the idea that I might seem a little wishy-washy and I was certain at that point that I was off the hook. Time to take my tea and retreat to the waiting room while the committee deliberated. I was home free. While I couldn’t hear actual words, I could hear voices going back and forth and even an occasional burst of laughter. Terrific I thought, at least I’d brought some humor to the proceedings. I’m certain that serious candidates provide less laughter and of course more serious deliberation. Still the longer they talked the more worried I became that God was going to get the showdown God had been after. A rejection ought to be a slam dunk. I wondered if I might need legal counsel after all. When a representative was sent to retrieve, me I had become less certain of my fate and when I sat down again, hemlock still untouched, I wondered if perhaps I’d laid too much down on the collective wisdom in that room. When I heard congratulations, it was not, because the next words were “you are free to go.” Hello God, we meet again.
Apparently wishy-washy translates as paradox and if there is anything we Lutherans do well it is paradox. Because as I sat there in stunned silence, feeling the paradox of this willingness to accept God’s call laid against my control minded dislike of the unknown, Pastor Paul Hoffman read these words from my Approval paragraph.
““The deeper I journey, the more paradox I see…” was a sentence Steve shared with us as he reflected on his own story, his faith, his present musings about rostered leadership. “Be confident that you can ask the questions, and be content that you may be given more questions…” This sounds to us like one who is ready to engage in theological education”
Turns out I had convicted myself. Shit just got real. This journey is far from over of course. But there are no more buffers and an easy way out based on the actions of someone other than myself. Jesus and I are face to face and I doubt He will be the first to blink. I suppose I come off as blithe about the process. I am not, but humor is often my way of coping. I say I was stunned, but not by the realization that my exit ticket had been rescinded. The committee had as gently as possible laid a yoke on my shoulders and I felt that weight as both heavy and light. Ah paradox.
There is still much road between here and possible ordination and beyond that to actual service. I will likely ease my way back into academia with a course at Seattle U. I have seminaries to research and options to consider. The very real challenges of doing this when most people are considering retirement are on my mind. But if I had doubts about the sense of call being real, a self-perpetuated delusion, that is no longer the case. Pastor Hoffman a longtime friend and mentor summed up what had just happened. “It’s up to you now Steve”
As I drove off after the meeting, in a weird mix of elation and trepidation the Spirt dropped this into my heart: Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62. Thanks be to God.