The first day of the Texas Annual Conference is in the books. Great times connecting with friends. I anticipate more of that too. It always refreshes me to spend time with some of my good pastor friends. Also, always good to bump into friends from churches I’ve served or been a part of, etc. You never know who you’ll sit down next to at a gathering like this.
As for business, we approved persons for the ordained ministry today and will actually ordain them in worship tomorrow night. The controversial stuff (UMC constitutional amendments) are tomorrow afternoon, so there is something of a hum of anticipation in the air. Folks sense it, and are curious about how it will turn out.
Dinner tonight with friends who’ve been out of the country in missions during the past 3 months and their stories is a good reminder of the power of God to reach people. We believe in the truth of Christ, in the truth of the Scripture, but it seems like most of us in the West have trouble really getting the raw power of the Spirit and the Word. Not so in other cultures.
That sort of relates to some thoughts upon reading the prologue to Nouwen’s classic In the Name of Jesus today. In it, Nouwen shares background info on his trip to DC to present the lectures that would eventually become the content for this book. He had spent a career (and a successful one at that) in the highest halls of academia: Notre Dame, Yale, Harvard. Then he received a call to become a priest for mentally handicapped people and their assistants in the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto. Convicted by Jesus’ sending the disciples out in pairs for ministry and not alone, Nouwen determined to take someone from Daybreak with him on the trip to DC. Upon consultation with persons in the community, a man with special needs with whom Nouwen shared a friendship was asked and accepted. Even though Nouwen had taught this friend–Bill–about his new vocation to proclaim the gospel of Jesus since he’d been baptized, Nouwen reflects, “while I was still thinking about Bill’s trip with me primarily as something that would be nice for him, Bill was, from the beginning, convinced that he was going to help me. I later came to realize that he knew better than I.”
Nouwen returns to this storyline after sharing the content of his reflections on Christian leadership in the body of the book. I’ll save any thoughts on it for later too. But for now I’ll simply acknowledge how much I participate in the thinking and speaking that we’ve gotten into concerning calling persons to consider ordained ministry, and help people discern their place in ministry (whether “representative ministry”–ordained, or “general ministry”–laity). Because we are looking for excellent leadership, we frequently use language like “gifted,” “best and brightest”, etc. There is certainly a need to recover a persistent culture of calling for persons with exceptional giftedness in talents and skills and intellect. But if the biblical story is more about God than about us (and it is), then we must acknowledge God’s habit of picking unusual, unexpected persons for powerful ministry while the “best and brightest” and “gifted” are wrapped up in supporting the status quo.
We too quickly make proclamation of texts in which we find Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, John, etc. about them. Too often in our preaching, we preach the persons God calls and uses rather than preaching God himself. Yet Scripture itself is more consistent in witnessing to the power of God to save, to deliver, to heal, to conquer in spite of the person called or to work through them in spite of the past data of their lives that would certainly fail to recommend them for such a ministry as they have.
The point is that we try to control and predict while God is busy releasing and surprising. We struggle to hear, much less obey, the palpable power of the Holy Spirit.
Can we make it a point to include the “gifted” and “best and brightest” types in our calling people into ordained ministry without succumbing to human understandings of giftedness and without artificially stratifying “prospects” for ordained ministry into “best and brightest” and some who fall below that mark? Are we really open to the surprising power of God to use the “foolish” to shame the “wise”?