A reflection on Sacredspace.ie recently reminded me that God is present in all that I do, in the people I meet, and in the midst of each situation I’m in. Over the past several weeks, this has been particularly driven home for me.
Our family received the gift of God’s ongoing love during an extended hospitalization – though at the other end of the age spectrum from what fellow Living God’s Mission blogger Fletcher Lowe described several weeks ago. Serious pregnancy complications resulted in our daughter-in-law’s month-long hospitalization. In the midst of a record-breaking snowstorm and freeze, our granddaughter, Sienna, made her appearance – nine weeks early!
Parenting a newborn isn’t easy, and parenting a preemie calls for the support of community, not the least of which are the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) healthcare providers. I marveled at their love and commitment as they braved severe weather conditions to care for Sienna and the other preemies. I also marvel at their choice of vocation to tenderly care for these tiny, delicate infants with equally tiny PICC lines, feeding tubes, and blood pressure cuffs. The devotion of Sienna’s nurses has transformed her room into a physically and spiritually nurturing sacred space. And several have shared that they pray for their little charges, as well as how their faith shapes their vocation, in other words, their baptismal ministry.
Strengthened by prayer in the midst of so many joys and fears, hopes and tears, we watch our son and daughter-in-law being transformed by God’s love and grace into loving parents. And they bear witness to Christ’s love in all that they do and say. Sienna and her parents are part of yet another family – the NICU family – and when she eventually graduates from the NICU, she and her parents will not only continue to have the support of those who’ve journeyed with them, but they will also support other preemie families – and share how Jesus was present in all that they experienced as they walked through this storm of uncertainty and danger to mother and daughter.
The late bishop of the Diocese of Northern Michigan, Tom Ray, rejoiced with many others when Holy Baptism was restored to its rightful liturgical centrality in the current Book of Common Prayer. It was no longer to be a private “after hours” event on Sunday (and often a social occasion too), but rather the very sacramental heartbeat of what it means for a person to be “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP, p. 308), and to live in Christian community.
But for Bishop Ray and many others this centrality was only the beginning. The solemnity of Baptism has also to be entered into if the lives and ministries of the baptized are to be fully realized and manifest. Since most baptisms at the main service on Sundays are usually of infants or young children, it is understandable that the tone will be one of delight, joy, pride, even cuteness. That’s fine. But what about baptismal solemnity? How is that woven into the celebration and awareness of what is unfolding not only for the child but for the rest of us as well? In short, how do we understand and realize that being baptized is very serious, solemn business?
Perhaps the words and wisdom of others can provide us with what is the tone and substance of this solemnity. Here’s a sampling:
“Our life is not our own property but a possession of God. And it is this divine ownership that makes life a sacred thing.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
“I saw that God is everything that is good and energizing. God is our clothing that wraps, clasps, and encloses us so as to never leave us.” – Julian of Norwich
“The trouble with some of us is that we have been inoculated with small doses of Christianity which keep us from catching the real thing.” – Leslie Dixon Weatherhead
“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course, it is the cross.” – Flannery O’Connor
“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” – Jean Vanier
“To say that God is love is now too soft a phrase because of the sentimentality that has gathered around the word in the usage of the West, which enables many modern Christians to overlook the fact that the essence of the Kingdom of God according to Jesus is righteousness.” – Harry F. Ward
“I cannot help it. When I see injustice, I cannot keep quiet. … The most awful thing that they can do is to kill me, and death is not the worst thing that could happen to a Christian.” – Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu
Ministry in daily life, baptismal living and dying, is both joyful yet solemn, the vocation that comes when we are “marked as Christ’s own forever.”
I am blessed to be treated by a primary physician who is not only a gifted and talented doctor, but a dedicated Christian. Recently when I had some minor surgery, he said that the surgeon was also a man of faith and most probably would be praying before my and his other patients’ operations. I felt that I was in good Godly hands!
In the hospital unit where I was treated, both before and after surgery, I found the nurses and those who worked with them dedicated to what they were doing. That experience reminded me of a passage from the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus (38: 1 ff) at a time when the medical profession was in its infancy:
Honor physicians for their services, for the Lord created them;
for their gift of healing comes from the Most High…
And he gave skill to human beings that he might be glorified in his marvelous works.
By them the physician heals and takes away pain; God’s works will never be finished; and from him health spreads over all the earth…. Then give the physician his place, for the Lord created him; do not let him leave you, for you need him. There may come a time when recovery lies in the hands of physicians, for they too pray to the Lord that he grant them success in diagnosis and in healing, for the sake of preserving life.
Aware or not, those in the medical profession do bring God’s gifts of healing and provide a ministry to those of us who benefit from it. Thanks be to God!
Most of us think of “a calling” as something for church people who are bound for ordination. Those of us just trying to make our way in the world are more likely focusing on making a living and insurance coverage and work-life balance. “Calling” is not a concern for us, is it?
….This verse says quite plainly: “Live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” The context makes it abundantly clear that this exhortation was not only for pastors, missionaries, and other special workers. It was for all of those who would read or hear the letter we call Ephesians. It was written for ordinary Christian folk, people who, according to the Apostle Paul, had received a calling. (Ephesians 4:1 isn’t the only verse in the Bible that makes it clear all of God’s people are called. For a discussion of other verses that make this point, see this article on the De Pree Center blog “Do I Have a Calling? Or Is This Just for Special People?”)
Talking about that same Ephesians passage, which goes on to compare the Christian community to the human body, Frederick Buechner wrote in Wishful Thinking:
God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body any more so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do. He was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was some place where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe-not-all-that-innocent bystander and got him to go and be Christ in that place himself for lack of anybody better.
“Anybody he could find who looked as if he might just possibly do….” “…some not-all-that-innocent bystander….” That sounds like it might be me! What a thought, that God might tap me on the shoulder and get me “to go and be Christ in that place …for lack of anybody better.”
Calling – what some call “vocation” – is not restricted to church leaders. As Elizabeth Newman wrote for Baylor University’s Center for Christian Ethics, “Our vocation is a gift, not something we decide after assessing our skills and talents. To discover our vocation, then, we must learn to receive the abundant life God desires to give us.” And Howard E. Butt, Jr, founder of The High Calling, urges all Christians, no matter where they choose to devote their productive energy, to be “builders, following Jesus the builder – building our capacities and building other people up, building relationships and organizations, a company, a service, a breakthrough – building our ministry in daily life.”
David Brooks is one of my favorite writers and commentators. His twice-weekly op-ed articles in the New York Times are a must read for me. He isn’t just an opinion columnist or political observer. In my judgment he’s a serious moral philosopher for our age. I recommend reading his 2015 book, “The Road to Character.” In it he probes for moral depth by blending psychology, politics, spirituality, and humility in the pursuit of a virtuous life with authentic character.
In a 2016 Times column titled “Why America’s Leaders Fail” Brooks got to the heart of the matter when he wrote:
“Over the past few decades, thousands of good people have gone into public service, but they have found themselves enmeshed in a system that drains them of their sense of vocation.
“Let’s start with a refresher on the difference between a vocation and a career. A career is something you choose; a vocation is something you are called to.
“A person choosing a career asks, How can I get the best job or win the most elections? A person summoned by a vocation asks, How can my existing abilities be put in service of the greatest common good?
“A career is a job you do as long as the benefits outweigh the costs; a vocation involves falling in love with something, having a conviction about it and making it a part of your personal identity.
“A vocation involves promises to some ideal, it reveals itself in a sense of enjoyment as you undertake its tasks and it can’t be easily quit when setbacks and humiliations occur. As others have noted, it involves a double negative — you can’t not do this thing. … People with a vocation mind-set have their eyes fixed on the long game. They are willing to throw themselves toward their goals imaginatively, boldly, and remorselessly.”
For the Christian, baptism is a vocation and not a career; a call to serve, not an optional opportunity. It is indeed a part of our personal identity. It’s serious, solemn and yet joyful business. Isn’t that what we mean when after a person is baptized we pray, “Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works”? (Book of Common Prayer, p. 308)
I believe so. Baptism is living and doing God’s mission. It’s a vocation. It’s a holy endeavor we cannot not do.
“To Know Christ and to Make Christ Known” is the mission statement of the church I attend. As I’ve been thinking about Living God’s Mission, especially in the context of Demi Prentiss and Fletcher Lowe’s book Radical Sending, I’ve been pondering this mission statement. What does it mean to “know Christ”? How do we come to know Christ? And how do we make Christ known – especially today in a nation that’s increasingly secularized or where we are surrounded by many good people who are “spiritual, but not religious”?
One of the ways I’ve come to know Christ is to watch people whose lives reveal Christ to others. I attended a Celebration of Life for one such person recently.
I knew Darlene only within the context of our church. She had touched me with her warm hospitality on my first visit at a time when our family was grieving and seeking a community that would simply hold us and help facilitate our healing. Certainly, Darlene was making Christ known to me by her welcome that day!
As friends and family members remembered Darlene at her funeral service, over and over they shared the different ways that she had shown how much she loved and cared for them. As wife, mother, grandmother, sister, friend and neighbor, Darlene’s vocation was caring for and loving others as she offered comfort, an extra plate for her sons’ friends at the dinner table, a kind word to the neighborhood kids, or the many sweaters and scarves she knitted as gifts.
Darlene’s faith in Christ was a quiet faith. Sunday worship and church community nurtured that faith and sustained her in her vocation of living Christ’s love in her care for others. And her actions are a reminder that anything we do in our daily lives can be transformed into vocation – making Christ known – when they are centered on Christ.
Discerning how God is calling us to life appears to be a life-long process. Sometimes I’d like to think it’s a “one-and-done” task, to be envisioned as a young adult and then worked at for a life-time. I’m learning that God is much more implacable. Br. Geoffrey Tristram, in a sermon on the website of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, offers a story about how our loving and relentless God persists in calling us to new life:
There is a story I like about the Russian rabbi Zusia.
One day some students were talking with him and the first said, “Rabbi Zusia, I am afraid that when I appear before the Holy One he will ask me, ’Why did you not have the faith of Abraham?’ A second student said, ‘I am afraid that when I am before the Holy One he will ask me, ‘Why did you not have the patience of Job?’ Then a third student said, ‘Rabbi, I am afraid that when I stand before the Holy One he will ask me, ‘Why did you not have the courage of Moses?’
Then they all asked Rabbi Zusia, ‘Rabbi, when you appear before the Holy One which question do you most fear?’ Rabbi Zusia answered, ‘When I appear before the Holy One, I’m afraid he’ll ask me, ‘Zusia, why were you not Zusia?’”
So what is your vocation? Who are you at the deepest level? When Jesus looks at you and loves you, who does he see? What is it which truly makes you come alive? Have you discovered it yet? Is God inviting you to take a risk and to go deeper?
Again and again, I’m called to remember the saying, “God isn’t finished with me yet.” Day after day, God reminds us of our baptismal mission, and that we are “marked as Christ’s own forever.” Each day as we wash our faces and remember our baptisms, God renews the challenge for us to be ourselves — to risk being the person that God dreams of us being.
Recently I was in a meeting where a young man was sharing his Christian journey. He outlined his childhood closely connected to a Church community, then college where he felt called to the “ministry,” which he pursued through graduate school in music, became a Minister of Music, moved on to Seminary to further pursue that call to “the ministry,” had a not-too-challenging time as an assistant minister before finding his ministry fit as a chaplain in a home for disabled adults.
The more I heard his story, the more I felt uncomfortable with the way he was using the word “ministry.” It was as if the only real ministry was within the church community.
I had a similar conversation at a dinner party a week ago when I was introduced to another guest: “She is a Presbyterian minister,” my friend said. I looked back at him and said, “Well you, too, are a Presbyterian minister – it’s just that she has been ordained, but we are all ministers by virtue of our Baptism.” They both looked as if I was speaking a foreign language.
Part of the current missional revolution is challenging the Church to reclaim the sense of ministry, of calling, of vocation for all the Baptized, not just those who are ordained. As Byron Rushing, the vice chair of The Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies remarked, reflecting on his calling in the Massachusetts Legislature, “Jesus is in the Legislature where I am called to serve. If he were not there, I should not be there either.”
Each of us is empowered by our baptism for ministry in our daily lives of home, work, and community. We need to claim that calling – and not let the ordained alone “own it.”
I walked into the gym the other day and struck up a conversation with a friend I hadn’t chatted with in quite a while. Eventually, our conversation led to her work as a labor and delivery nurse and her consideration of retirement. She shared with me that, as much as she loves nursing, after 40 years the physical demands of the profession are telling her it’s time to slow down.
My friend’s voice revealed how conflicted she was about this major transition in her life. Nursing was what God put her on earth to do, she told me. Even as a small child she and her family recognized her vocation because of the care she showed toward others.
She went on to describe nursing as her spiritual calling. She expressed it as life-giving – not only because of the new lives she helps moms deliver, but because of the people she comes in contact with, from colleagues to patients and their families. The relationships she forges with others, even for a short time in the hospital, are life-giving and life-changing.
“Ah,” I responded, “you’re living out your baptism. Nursing is your baptismal ministry.” No further explanation was needed. Instead, she told me about helping a woman in labor who spoke no English. With the aid of an interpreter, she communicated maintaining eye contact with the woman throughout the conversation – thus respecting her dignity. She then posed a last question through the interpreter: Do you have any questions for me? To which the woman responded, again through the interpreter, “I just wanted to tell you that I see God’s love in your eyes.”
My friend found the common language of God’s love to communicate with her patient. Sharing Christ’s love with another in need, even if only through her eyes, is one of the many ways she lives into her baptism through her spiritual calling as a labor and delivery nurse.
Have you had an experience in your daily life – at work, in the community, in the local supermarket – where your actions were shaped by your belief in a loving God and a commitment to your baptismal promises? How might another person’s life have been touched by that experience? How was your life changed?
Part 1 of this blog appeared in late March. It maintained that the Book of Common Prayer establishes and asserts that there are four orders of ministry in The Episcopal Church, not just three, all sacramentally grounded in Baptism: lay persons. bishops, priests, and deacons. The sequence is essential in understanding the equality of all ministers and ministry in the Church. Ministry is the holy enterprise of baptized equals who understand that all life is ministry. Being a lay person is being a front line minister Sunday through Saturday, 24/7, 12/365.
The traditional ordained ministries — bishops, priests, and deacons — have, however, through history been regarded as the real ministers of the Gospel and Church. They got locked into that perception and role when the Church for centuries was what historians have called Christendom, an official sanctifier of empire and culture, of state and dominion, an arbiter and player in the halls of power and politics. To some extent it still is, or at least tries to be, even though the Christendom era and aura have waned significantly. The Church is now faced with the task of once again coming to grips with what it means to be baptized, “to be sealed by the Holy Spirit … and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
The Protestant Reformation introduced some key understandings of what the ministries of the baptized ought to be about even though it still clung to Christendom underpinnings. For example, it was Martin Luther who posited the broad ministerial scope of “the priesthood of all believers.” And John Calvin maintained that there is only one ordained ministry, the presbyter, and he (no women back then) was only one voice with lay elders in the governance of the Church. Still, it would be awhile before governance of the Church would not just be something akin to running the institution, as if that constituted ministry; but would begin to understand that real ministry in and for the world that God loves is inaugurated and imparted in Baptism, and is lived and exercised daily from dawn to dusk for a lifetime. All life is ministry and it is a serious vocation.
Let it be argued that the Episcopal/Anglican ordained ministries — bishops, priests, deacons — are still authentic in understanding the Church’s ministry. Yet they originate in Baptism and inform the baptized of how their ministries are apostolic, priestly, and diaconal without having to wear a bishop’s mitre, or a priest’s stole, or bear a deacon’s serving towel. Throughout any given day they manifest all three. Sadly the Church has rarely told them that, much less thanked them. Making these connections will be the subject of my next posting. Stay tuned.