17 December 2008

18 Years and Counting

So yesterday marked my eighteenth anniversary of being ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry. (I meant to post something about it yesterday, but got caught up doing several other things that kept me from the blog altogether.) This year, though, brought a most interesting way of observing said anniversary, namely, by *not* doing pastoral things as I was reflecting on my pastoral vocation. I guess a sabbatical leave will force one to do that.

While my usual December 16 anniversary routine was not there, the gravitas of the Office did not escape me. While I am able to take it easy this year (vs. busily - frantically? - preparing one last Advent midweek sermon and trying to look ahead to all of the Christ-Mass preparations), I still thank God for His most undeserved grace and mercy in placing me into His service in His Church, but most of all for redeeming me, the worst of sinners.

As part of my annual observance of being placed under orders ("ordained") to proclaim Christ and Him crucified and risen to save sinners, I like to look back on various quotes and explanations of who a pastor is and what he is supposed to do. So here are some of the words of wisdom that have guided me in the past and, I pray, will guide me in years to come.

As usual, Dr. Norman Nagel says it very well and quite succinctly: “Clergy are worth only what they have been put into the office for: not their own words, but Christ’s.” (“Externum Verbum: Testing Augustana 5 on the Doctrine of the Holy Ministry,” Lutheran Theological Journal, 30:101-110, Dec. 1996).

I also appreciate the way Martin Franzmann captures the purpose of the Office of the Holy Ministry in his hymn "Preach You the Word":
Preach you the Word and plant it home
To men who like or like it not,
The Word that shall endure and stand
When flow'rs and men shall be forgot.

We know how hard, O Lord, the task
Your servant bade us undertake:
To preach Your Word and never ask
What prideful profit it may make.

Preach you the Word and plant it home
And never faint; the Harvest Lord
Who gave the sower seed to sow
Will watch and tend His planted Word. (Lutheran Service Book, 586:1, 2, 6)
That last verse certainly takes on a new meaning when one is resting from pastoral duties, trusting that the Harvest Lord still takes care of His people in the congregation, right now quite apart from my all too feeble efforts.

And speaking of verses that take on something of a new perspective as one is on sabbatical leave, we pastors always need to stop and take a listen, even during such "busy times" as Advent and Christmas. After all, we have life only by the Word of God who came and took on our flesh to save us as well as our congregations. I pray that this prayer enfleshed in a hymn verse will also serve as the prayer of my many brothers in the Office:
Speak, O Lord, You servant listens,
Let Your Word to me come near;
Newborn life and spirit give me,
Let each promise still my fear.
Death's dread pow'r, its inward strife,
Wars against Your Word of life;
Fill me, Lord, with love's strong fervor
That I cling to You forever! (Lutheran Service Book, 589:1)
My favorite ordination anniversary quote, however, comes from Eugene Peterson as he expands on the meaning of the ordination vow by appealing to both Ezekiel (Scripture) and Odysseus (literature). Being "lashed to the mast" of our Lord's Gospel and Sacraments has often served as a sure anchor in the raging waters of various thoughts and emotions that well up within a pastor.
The definition that pastors start out with, given to us in our ordination, is that pastoral work is a ministry of word and sacrament.


But in the wreckage all words sound like “mere words.”


But in the wreckage what difference can a little water, a piece of bread, a sip of wine make?

Yet century after century Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, “We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit is among us and within us. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history but a participant in it. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage, is material that God is using to make a praising life. We believe all this, but we don’t see it. We see, like Ezekiel, dismembered skeletons whitened under a pitiless Babylonian sun. We see a lot of bones that once were laughing and dancing children, of adults who once made love and plans, of believers who once brought their doubts and sang their praises in church – and sinned. We don’t see the dancers or the lovers or the singers – at best we see only fleeting glimpses of them. What we see are bones. Dry bones. We see sin and judgment on the sin. That is what it looks like. It looked that way to Ezekiel; it looks that way to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think; and it looks that way to us.

“But we believe something else. We believe in the coming together of these bones into connected, sinewed, muscled human beings who speak and sing and laugh and work and believe and bless their God. We believe that it happened the way Ezekiel preached it and we believe that it still happens. We believe it happened in Israel and that it happens in the church. We believe that we are part of the happening as we sing our praises, listen believingly to God’s word, receive the new life of Christ in the sacraments. We believe that the most significant thing that happens or can happen is that we are no longer dismembered but are remembered into the resurrection body of Christ.

“We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves – our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of word and sacrament, in the middle of this world’s life. Minister with word and sacrament to us in all the different parts and stages of our lives – in our work and play, with our children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: word and sacrament.

“One more thing: we are going to ordain you to this ministry and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give it to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices. There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing – God, kingdom, gospel – we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.”

That, or something very much like that, is what I understand the church to say to the people whom it ordains to be its pastors (Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, pp. 22-25, italic original).

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