Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Man in Black

When I first learned that both Deacons and Presbyters wear clerical uniforms in the course of executing their office, I knew right then that would never be me. That last thing I need is someone looking to me as a visible representation of anything organized about the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. My initial inquiry into the meaning of the uniform received a satisfactory response. The Deacon I asked first point to his black clothes, "I'm a sinner," then pointed to his collar, "but I am called to speak what is pure, true and right." An over-simplification? Possibly. But I found the explanation adequate at the time. Nevertheless, I remained equally committed not to ever be wearing such an indicting set of threads.

Let's be honest. The black suit would be more true than the white collar. On the one hand, my confession is to having been not much of a "spiritual man" in life. I've known many that more easily fit this picture. They seem to find time for daily devotions with great ease. Each word appears filtered through a pastoral care paradigm before being spoken. On the other hand, any particular sense of God's "presence" that I've lived with in life has mainly made me aware of my own depravity. Thus some may spy the clerical uniform and think they are sighting a "saint," when in reality it's more "sinner" that they see.

Nevertheless, to the degree that those who decide such things might find it acceptable to place in uniform such an example as me of simul iustus et peccator ("at the same time saint and sinner"), I will wear such clothes being faithful to that office. I'm used to uniforms. The Navy, the kung fu studio, the fire department all had uniforms, and corresponding ranks and symbolism that needed to be faithfully expressed in both sharp grooming and mindful living. This is different though, in that those uniforms did not carry that weight one representing The Church must bear. Hopefully all of this will remain fresh in the mind, and scare me often enough to be a faithful "man in black."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The "Call" to Ministry

Resting in its charger, the pager looks like a rather innocuous device that potentially might *squawk* after it's initially turned on. There it sits, in the corner of the bedroom, quietly taking up a little four by five inch space on the desk you try to keep un-cluttered. For the most part, it remains quiet, allowing a blissful REM cycle next to your spouse. The pager may have even remained dormant all day as it was worn on the belt, going about the necessary business. But then sometime around 3:17 a.m., the high-pitched tone emits from the little black speaker nestled in the charger. Several sharp *beeps* ensue, followed by the dispatchers voice calling:

"Attention Fate Fire... Attention Fate Fire, need you enroute to...."

Most often the dispatcher was a woman, so her voice became familiar. Still in a dream-like state, you raise your head off the pillow, jolted awake by the pager tone. Hopefully, you shake your head clear fast enough to hear the remainder of her directions. For the chaplain, it was never expected that I would get to the station as quickly as the firefighters, or even attend every call. But I did listen to each one to discern whether this call might be one in which a chaplain would be of some help. On many occasions, I went anyway, whether or not I would be useful for victim support or rehab, simply because my beloved firefighters were having to be out on a call at this hour anyway... and at the end of the day, I'm first and foremost here for them. Nevertheless, I listen to the dispatcher voice describe the nature of the call: "structure fire." That's all I need to hear.

I hear those words and all ambiguity is gone. Whatever thoughts I might have had about letting them get that "downed power-line" without me, or investigating a carbon dioxide detector going off without the encumbrance of an extra body around, fade into adrenaline filled clarity. Someone is possibly losing valuable heirlooms tonight, or business property they've invested their money, sweat and soul into. At best, some already damaged property will require a messy overhaul to ensure no rekindles threaten even more. At worst, a family is losing a home; to think nothing of the unthinkable, yet very real, potential that loss of life could enter our experience before the Sun rises. In addition, my role is not merely to be present for them that lose so much anyway, but also (arguably mainly for), those that will spend themselves to the last ounce of energy (and sometimes beyond) attempting to save life and property.

Even if the structure is an abandoned barn, with no discernible threat to nearby residents or business, my beloved firefighters will still be up combating the blaze, fighting valiantly to "slay the dragon" wherever he may choose to appear. It is at those times when I want to be with them, to assure them of God's presence, to offer them cold bottles of water in Jesus' name, roll hoses for them or help them get the air pack off for some rest. I want to be with them to persuade them, if by any means I can, that God accompanied them on the call, rode with them on the apparatus and is present with them on the fire-ground. Put simply, when the pager goes off, it's a "no-brainer." The call has been issued for ministry to ensue, and I'm going.

For this reason, I've never been comfortable with the way we commonly speak of a man "called to ministry." What does that mean? Does the "calling" reside upon him like some sort of incurable virus?

Doctor: "I have some heavy news."
Patient: "What is it?"
Doctor: "Your blood work came back positive for "calling:" the virus that causes ministry."

Many an immoral, greedy and heretical man has reaped untold harm upon people simply by constructing ministries out of thin air, seemingly "deserving" of such influence because of the "calling" that is upon him, as if a self-declared "minister" may, by the authority of his own internal promptings, get in on the lucrative religion market. Because I am neither morally superior, not greed-less, the only protection extant for people (from me) desiring to be ministered to is that "calling" that comes from a legitimate need for one authorized to meet it from within a structured team. I simply must, for conscience sake, have the comfort of knowing that if an ecclesiastical "pager" goes off, the one "calling" is authorized to "yank me out of bed and into action." Without that type of official seal, I'd be just another curious intruder, messing up the fire-ground order (I'm speaking of the church, of course) without proper authorization to be there.

In addition, the "call" of the pager creates the vital connection between "caller" and "responder." Without it, I'm just a wandering annoyance looking for a place to be relevant, but without any true resources or backing. I don't agree with the common rhetoric concerning the "call" to ministry. A man may say that he's "called," but then I want to ask, "by whom?" "By God!" he retorts in self-assured indignation. "So say you," I counter, "but if God's communication patterns remain consistent (letting the Prophets, Apostles and many witnesses in on his little 'secret' regarding Jesus Christ), then it seems like he would 'call' in some tangible manner detectable by the rest of us in the Faith also. Take an antacid pill, dude. That 'burning in your bosom' is going to hurt somebody."

As for me, if the "pager" goes off, either by means of a request to teach in church or at college, or even the prodding of authorities over me in the Church to prepare for new levels of usefulness in her operations, I can at least say that I'm responding to being summoned. But respond I will, because such is the instinct of one remaining available for timely service. Of course, all of this use of a pager as an analogy for "calling" is made relevant because the dispatch tone truly is the "call" to ministry for a fire chaplain. Of all the "calls" to ministry I could hear in my life, none could ever be so obvious, and inducing a frantic getting dressed and rushing out the door at 2:48 a.m., than that pager issued to me by the fire department. In such moments, all other thoughts of slumbering comforts, personal schedules or inconvenience are eclipsed by the singular mission of persuading (with my presence) my beloved firefighters that, during their exhausting labors to save life and property, God was with them on "the call."

Monday, May 16, 2011

Faith over Certainty

Hebrews 11:1 reads "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see." (NET). The verse is so often quoted that it can be among the most memorized in all of Christendom. The emphasis is often placed on being "sure" and "convinced," but not as much is said about "what we do not see." This is because so much is made of having "vision" in our culture, on "seeing" what's coming up ahead, detecting God's "plan" or discerning God's "will." The problem with that is that it seems to really marginalize the end of the verse: "what we do not see." If a thing cannot be seen, how then can one claim certainty about it? Oh sure, faith may be "convinced" of it, but it doesn't claim the same certainty as though it could SEE it.

In fact, if certainty is the standard, as though we could "see" these things, where is left room for faith? Certainty seems to have become so much of what we think is associated with "vision" that we even suggest that people just "have faith" in the same way. Therefore popular understandings of faith will tolerate no uncertainty. To entertain doubts about what is popularly believed is to "lose one's faith." In circles where faith is highly valued, the one with any doubts may find themselves in a silent minority. In essence, they must remain "in the closet," keeping their doubts to themselves. Otherwise, their faith will not be considered strong enough to receive that coveted of all titles within the fellowship: "edifying."

But over time, I've come to care less and less about whether I deserve the coveted "positive person" statue, and instead if I'm truly wrestling with matters of faith and doubt as I should. Oh this by no means excuses someone to suck the life out of the room when they enter. There's no reason to suddenly become a spiritual "Eeyore;" however, neither should one feel the need to artificially become the "Tigger" of the church either. Honesty with one's self is a vital component to honesty with one's God. Which leads me to my frequent maxim of faith:

Say what you know... not what you don't know.

The list of faith assertions I'm prepared to declare with great confidence has shrunk over time. I now assert fewer propositions, but assert them more strongly. By extension though, things that do not "make the cut," I've become more comfortable with saying, "I don't know... and neither do you." So many subjective assumptions become "received dogma" simply but the frequency of popular use. The everyday phrases thrown out regarding God's "will," God's "call" and God's "plan" all typically come from superstition more than Holy Scripture.

I'm prepared to assert a few things that I "know" (which are more likely than not found in the ancient Creeds), but I won't assert things that I don't "know."

---"You know this is God's will for you, don't you?".... No, I don't "know" that. I'm playing it by ear, hopefully with wisdom - which Scriptures say I should ask for.

---"You know that God has 'called' you to this, don't you?".... No, I don't "know" that. I'm remaining available to be used by the Church according to my skills, abilities and gifts that they perceive a need for.

---"You know that God has a 'plan' for your life, don't you?"....Perhaps, but since he has not revealed that "plan," it's fruitless to obsess over discovering it.

My doubts do not threaten my faith, they just corral it, clarify it, help me assert only reliable things. Please don't be upset if you hear me express doubts, even sharply in the face of adversity. I'm not punting faith, just trying to maintain a faith that won't look silly to me a few minutes later after I've regained the lucid ability to seriously think about what I just said. At those moments, I'd want to slap my forehead and think, "You dork. You don't know that at all. Why did you say it?" That's actually when a strong faith can emerge that, by it's nature, is really "faith;" not the grasping for certainty we often entertain that does not like that there are some things we "do not see."