Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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Returning to the Basics

The constant danger for those of us who enter the ranks of the ordained is that we take on a role, a professional religious role that gradually obliterates the life of the soul.

Sixty miles or so from where I live there is a mountain popular among rock climbers––Stalamus Chief. It presents itself as a vertical slab of smooth granite, 2,000 feet high. On summer days rock climbers are spread out in varying levels of ascent up and down its face. Occasional climbers spend the night in hammocks (they call it bivouacking), hanging like cocoons attached to barn siding. It always strikes me as a might dangerous way to have fun.

I am fascinated by the sight and when in the vicinity, pull off the road and watch for a while with my binoculars. It is not the action that holds my attention, for there is certainly not much in the way of action up there. The climbers move slowly, cautiously, every move tested, calculated. There is no spontaneity in this sport, no thrills. Except perhaps the ultimate thrill of not falling––not dying. Maybe what grips my attention is death, the risk of death––life dangling by a thread.

Still, dangerous as it is I know that it is not as dangerous as it looks. Looking from the valley floor with my naked eye, the climbers appear to be improbably exempt from gravity, but with my binoculars I can see that each climber is equipped with ropes and carabiners and pitons (or chocks, wedges, and camming devices). The pitons, sturdy pegs constructed from a light metal, are basic, I have two sons who are rock climbers and have listened to them plan their ascents. They spend as much or more time planning their climbs as in the actual climbing. They meticulously plot their route and then, as they climb, put in what they call ‘protection’––pitons hammered into small crevices in the rock face, with attached ropes that will arrest a quick descent to death. Rock climbers who fail to put in protection have short climbing careers.

Recently, while watching several of these climbers, it occurred to me that my ordination vows had functioned for the past 40 years as pitons, pegs driven firmly into the vertical rock face (stretching between heaven and earth) on which Christian ministry is played out.

Vows are pegs, protection against moods and weather, miscalculation and fatigue, vision and call, risk and inspiration are what we are most aware of and what others see when we submit to ordination whether as elder or deacon or minister of Word and Sacrament, but if there is no ‘protection’ the chances of survival are slim. And so we all take vows, nine of them. The sixth is: Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?

It seems odd to include a question like this in ordination vows. This is a question to ask someone entering the Christian life. This is a beginning question, a vow that gets us started on the right foot. But here it is as number six in sequence of the first eight ordination questions. The group has already been covered pretty thoroughly, making sure that the ordinand is a confessing Christian (number 1), submissive to the authority of Scripture (2), agreeable to the Reformed confessions (3), knowledge-able concerning the office to which he/she is being ordained (4), willing to be a member of a community of peers (5). Three more vows will follow this sixth, making it clear that the ordinand knows that people are to be served as well as Jesus (7), and that this is not ordination to a place of privilege but one of diligent service requiring a lifetime of energy and resolve (8).

Embedded in the eight-vow sequence is this sixth, which doesn’t seem to quite fit the context of ordination. Isn’t the ordination ground amply covered in the first five and the last two? Isn’t a basic Christian commitment assumed? Isn’t this redundant?

Yes, But. Yes, it’s there already. But, long experience in this business makes us alert to detecting loopholes. The loophole in this case has to do with becoming so diligent in entering the ordained life of working for Jesus that it crowds out the personal life of living for Jesus. The operative phrase in the sixth vow is “in your own life.”

The constant danger for those of us who enter the ranks of the ordained is that we take on a role, a professional religious role that gradually obliterates the life of the soul.

The sixth vow specifies three areas: 1. following the Lord Jesus Christ; 2. loving neighbors; 3. working for the reconciliation of the world. This sixth ordination vow, it seems, has nothing to do with ordination as such; it is a vow to diligently guard and nurture our basic commitment as a Christian. Many a Christian has lost his or her soul in the act of being ordained. This vow returns us to the basic vocation of being a Christian, a mere Christian.

For in ordination we do not graduate into an advanced level of religion that sets us apart from or above our earlier status as Christian.

But it is not easy to maintain that awareness. Karl Barth was eloquent in his insistence that we are always and ever beginners in this Christian life no matter how well we preach, are knowledgeable in theology, competent in polity, and diligent in carrying out the duties assigned to us. We never graduate from “Christian” and go on to advanced work in “ministry.” Neither Christian living nor Christian ministry can ever “be anything but the work of beginners … What Christians do becomes a self-contradiction when it takes the form of a trained and mastered routine, or a learned and practiced art. They may and can be masters and even virtuosos in many things, but never in what makes them Christians, God’s children” (Barth, The Christian Life, 79).

The sixth vow lays down protection against taking on the role of expert, and then taking over the work of lead- ership from the Christ in whose name we are ordained.

Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ?

Ordination puts us in a place of leadership. As we become good at leadership, we become used to people following us. They look to us for direction, expect initiative from us, and not infrequently turn over responsibility for their lives to us, expecting us to take up the slack that results from their indolence and passivity. Leaders usually work harder than followers. Leaders characteristically accept more responsibility than followers. Sometimes the followers admire us, other times they criticize us, but in either case we are made aware that we are being treated as a class apart; we are leaders.

Jesus’ words “Except you become as little children …” do not lose pertinence in the act of ordination. But the act of ordination does make it easy to use them primarily on behalf of other people. Being childlike is a wonderful quality in a follower; it makes it much easier to be a leader when we are followed trustfully and unquestioningly. But a few years of being in charge of God’s children makes it astonishingly difficult to be one ourselves––a child. Humility recedes as leadership advances.

It is a subtle thing and usually takes years to accomplish, but without “protection” the role of leader almost inevitably replaces the role of follower. Instead of continuing as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ we become bosses on behalf of the Lord Jesus Christ. Sometime we are very good bosses, looking out for the welfare of our employees, other times barely disguised pious bullies.

Will you in your own life love your neighbor?

It is a strange thing: the first casualty on the field of ordained leadership is usually the neighbor. The men and women with whom we live and work become objectified; instead of being primarily persons whom we love, whether through natural affection (spouse, children, friends) or by Christ’s command (love your neighbor as yourself) they gradually become functionalized. Under the pressure of “working for Jesus” or “carrying out the church’s mission” these former neighbors get treated in functional terms: they become viewed as “resources” or as “deadweight,” as “assets or as “liabilities,” as “point man or woman” or as “dysfunctional.” Love, the commanded relation, gives way to considerations of efficiency and is interpreted by the abstractions of plans and programs, goals and visions, evangelism statistics and mission strategies. After all, we are ordained to something beyond and more intense than simply “Christian”––we have work to do. These people with whom we find ourselves placed in a responsible position of leadership need to be put to kingdom work, or at least church work. Loving neighbors recedes to the background as we go about making recruits, lining up allies, arguing the opposition into compliance, motivating the lethargic, and signing up participants to insure the success of a project or program.

Martin Buber, in one of the most important books of the century for people like us, I and Thou, showed how easy and common it is to treat people as It instead of Thou. He also showed how awful it is, turning what God created as a human community of men and women whose glory it is to love one another into a depersonalized wasteland of important roles and efficient functions. Buber also conceded that we cannot continuously maintain the open intimacy of “I/Thou” in our relationship––it would be totally exhausting; we need to be able to escape from time to time into the less-demanding region of role and function to carry out some of our basic routines. But the moment that region becomes our permanent residence and the neighbor becomes an object, an It to be used, no matter how righteous and glorious our use, sacrilege has been committed.

The sixth vow establishes protection against letting ordination develop into a subtle depersonalizing (and damning) into functions and projects of the very people Christ commanded us to love.

Will you in your own life work for the reconciliation of the world?

The phrase from John, “For God so loved the world…,” sets the context for the work in which we take up particular responsibilities when we are ordained. It is a staggeringly large, encompassing context: world.  “World,” in this phrase, means the whole thing–– continents and oceans, city tenements and country barnyards, souls and societies, babies in the womb and men and women vigorously pursuing every imaginable venue for making money, helping the needy, grasping for power, exploiting the weak, discovering truth, growing food, making art, singing and playing.  “World” is teeming with good and evil. It is this world for which Christ died, into which we are sent to baptize and make disciples and be “ministers of reconciliation.”

But how does it happen then that ordination so often has the effect of pulling us out of this immense world and putting us to work in a religious institution that carries on its business pretty much on its own terms and with its own agenda?  From within the ordaining institution it is easy to look out on the world that God loves and redesignate it as enemy, as competitor, as distraction. We who are ordained are then put to work on committees and projects that leave us with neither time nor energy for the world and diminishing interest in it.  Ecclesiastical affairs require armies of ordained men and women to keep the wheels turning and it isn’t long before ordination, instead of putting us on the front lines of reconciling love for the world has conscripted us into jobs, and agendas that effectively remove us from the very world whose plight is the reason for our ordination in the first place. It’s the devil’s own work to get us so busy in attacking or avoiding or competing with the world that we no longer are available for the critical and key work of reconciliation, the work of Christ to which we have been ordained.

That doesn’t mean that our ordained life needs to be conspicuously on display in the world, holding press conferences and marching with protestors. Much, maybe most, of the work of reconciliation takes place in ways and places that the world itself never notices: in solitary prayer, in quiet study, in energy-renewing retreats, in vision-clarifying committees. Still, at some level everything we do and say, think and pray requires a believing and obedient relation with God’s love for the world, with Christ’s reconciling work in the world.  When our work as deacons, elders, and ministers blunts our awareness of the world, distracts us from the world, puts us into competition with the world, or is simply an avoidance of the world, our ordination is falsified.

In loving and grateful memory of the life and witness of Eugene H. Peterson, an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and one of the most loving, honest, courageous, and thoughtful churchmen of his generation, who died on Oct. 22, 2018, we reprint this essay that appeared in reForm, vol. I/1, Fall 1998, 33–37, with permission.


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