On ReCalling the Resurrection

Here is my call, or maybe better, my re-call, story. I originally gave this at a discernment retreat with the Diocese of Nebraska (a time for which I am forever thankful). This is in many ways my testimony, my Confessions in blog form. Next week will be something more theological or philosophical, but I'm away at Camp Allen for project Resource right now. I'll admit this is not what I envision the normal blog post will look like. But It's probably not terrible to put something more homiletical up from time to time.

At several points in my life I have tried to gain clarity about where God is leading me. In these times, waiting for something clarifying from God, infuriatingly, the most I ever get are the words "feed my sheep" running through my mind. Nothing every clearer, nothing ever more helpful.

These words themselves are the words of Jesus spoken to Simon Peter as he asks him three times "Simon, Son of John, do you love me more than these?," in the haunting seaside resurrection appearance at the end of the Gospel of John. 

What is so fascinating about John's telling of this story is where it falls in the narrative. In the other gospels, Jesus calls Peter, as well as the other first apostles while they are fishing. At his words, they put down their nets and follow him. 

But Peter's initial calling in John's telling makes no mention of fishing. Yet here this post-resurrection account begins with Peter inviting six other disciples to go fishing with him.

There seems to be much more to John's recounting of this event than simply undoing the threefold denial; certainly there is that too, but there was a real truth in Peter's denial; he really did not know Jesus until he knew him as the crucified and resurrected one. And so here John is not only having Jesus restore the relationship; 

No: in the threefold asking Jesus uses Peter's name, Simon, Son of John, the name he had before John tells us Jesus renamed him Cephas, Peter. It is only after this that Jesus says again to him: follow me. It's as though the resurrected Jesus is reforming Peter's very identity before he can re-call him. 

I give all this preparatory interpretation because I feel like my own call story follows a similar path. 

13 years ago, a junior in high school living in DeLand Florida, I had been consumed with a passion, an obsession since eight grade about becoming a professional trumpet player. But one night in October in 2004, in the middle of a marathon practice session, I received a sudden, utterly clear conscious impression that God wanted me to be an ordained minister. Like Peter in Matthew's gospel, leaving his nets by the seashore, I immediately put aside my plans to be a professional musician and set about preparing for ordained ministry. 

Now, my father was an ordained United Methodist Minister, my Grandfather was an ordained United Methodist Minister, I had only ever known the United Methodist Church, so I naturally assumed I was being called to ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. I mean for goodness sake, my middle name is Wesley.

But what was to me such a clear sense of call was met with substantial surprise, suspicion, and even hostility by many of the people closest to me.

My father and grandfather both worried that I didn't know what I was getting into.
This didn't bother too much. I had seen the messiness, the difficulty of ministry life and survived, so it didn't phase me.

But it was my mother who offered the most penetrating challenge, and the one I of course took the least seriously: But Chris, you feel like you're called to pastoral ministry, but you don't really seem to have any pastoral personality traits. 

Rather than take her seriously, I took a glib solace in the quip that "God doesn't call the equipped, he equips the called."

And soon the peace and certainty that accompanied my initial call gave way to restlessness and confusion. Really crippling doubts began to overwhelm me. Was I squandering my talents in something as menial and pedestrian as ordained ministry? Was there maybe something that could bring me more recognition? What if I was only going pursuing ordained ministry because it was the only life I knew? 

Yet, turning my consideration to other career paths, I could not find any of the passion that I had for ordained ministry, and only ever led me to an apathetic malaise. I was stuck on the horns of a dilemma between an anxiety producing passion and a confused apathy.

So I set about quelling my restless spirit, regaining the original peace and clarity of my call, through my own power. If I didn't have the gifts for pastoral ministry, I would lean into the gifts I had for academic work: Certainly I assumed, I was called to be professional theologian who happened to be ordained. But in seeking to establish myself in my intellectual strengths, I failed to orient my identity and therefore my call in a restored relationship with God brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I could only ever arrive at a God who was a cold, distant idea; a hypothesis that solved a problem and not a living and personal reality who desired a relationship with me. 

The great irony of all this was that most of my work at the time centered on the suffering God.
My restlessness quickly returned. Looking back, I realize that this feeling was brought on by the very idea of God that I had created, which served only to obscure any real vision I might have of God; even though Jesus was saying to me "Chris, do you love me," all I could really respond was "Is it not enough that I understand the right things? How can I love an idea? 

"I do not know this man."

Yet, in God's grace, Christ still responded "tend my lambs," as I was given enough strength and vision to limp along in the ordination process and make my way to Yale Divinity School.
Now I made my second attempt at quelling my restless spirit. I had made my way to Christ Episcopal Church, a nosebleed high Anglo Catholic parish in New Haven, and here I thought I found the answer.

I was restless because I was not following a call to ordained ministry in the correct tradition or manner of worship. But I soon realized that what I took as peace was just the kind of frozen bewilderment that Peter experienced at the Transfiguration. I again tried to root my identity and my call in an abstraction, in the idea of beauty rather than the beautiful one, in the in the gleaming white of Christ's garments rather than in the one who actually wore them. In my focus on chanting the creed better than everyone else, I drowned out Jesus again asking me, "But Chris, do you love me?" And in effect, these words that had the outward appearance of belief carried only the response "Is it not enough that I worship you in the utmost solemnity? 

"I do not know this man."

But Christ again responded: "Feed my sheep," and continued to sustain me in my pursuit of ordained ministry.
But was it ever a painful grace that allowed my anxiety and restlessness to be increased, because at this point the only other option would have been to give me over to being deadened to the promptings of the spirt. 

So I finished my first year of seminary even more unclear, more anxious, and more broken. But in this weakness, in this brokenness, in the failure to secure my identity and call through my own efforts and ideas, the Spirit found a way into my heart and began to give me a receptivity to a relationship with God through Christ. 

In particular, through my relationship with my then fiancĂ©e and now wife, Portia, who was training to be an episcopal priest. 

She's the reason I'm in South Dakota, by the way, that was the one marriage condition. 

I began to have my pride tempered while simultaneously realizing that love was not something earned, even if it was something that one worked at. Through our relationship, more than through any other, I believe that I truly began to understand how Christ could be preset in and through our relationships with other people, and I began to feel the glimmering of a real relationship with Christ, the incarnate God, not some abstraction of truth or beauty. 

Now I would have expected to have found my peace; I thought I was finally hearing Christ say "Chris, do you love me, and I was finally saying 'Lord you know that I do.'" 

But while I was beginning to see the outlines of what a real relationship with Christ would look like, he was still a figure on the beach, and a subtle insidious pride I didn't even know still kept me in the boat. It was as though I was in one act making both Peter's final, exacerbated acknowledgement of love and denial. 

But once more, Christ responded: "Feed my sheep," and I was given the grace to continue discerning my call. 

Only this time, it was though the prompting that I truly did need to leave the UMC and join the Episcopal Church. 

This was not liked my first year of seminary. I was two years into being a commissioned provisional elder, only one year from full ordination. I was under no illusions that I was joining a superior community of faith, only one that was the correct fit for who God was molding and forming me to be.
And because I realized so much of my identity was bound up with Methodism, I only could make this decision after tremendous mourning, after grief that I've only felt when I've ended long and cherished relationships.

I felt like I was divorcing my church. 

I can remember the day that this finally came to a head. I was at a clergy leadership conference, and I remember calling Portia, and, like Peter realizing he had denied Christ at the Cock crow, I wept bitterly. I wept because I knew I could no longer be a part of this Church. Not coincidentally, the conference was being held at the Church of the Resurrection. 

I later came to realize that I had been brought to the Episcopal Church not because of polity differences or because of issues of worship style, although those were real. Instead, the deep down reason was that I was never able to truly come to terms with my call to ordained ministry as long as I couldn't separate being a good Christian from ordination. And I was never going to make that separation in United Methodism, where I had only ever experienced the Christian life in close proximity to ordained ministry. 

So, it took me coming to the Episcopal Church, truly living into my call as a lay person, truly becoming rooted in my identity as a Baptized person that I came to understand that ordination is one among a myriad of other ways that God modulates a Christian's baptismal call to ministry. I had to learn that it is in accepting our call at Baptism not ordination that we share in a death like Christ's in order to hope to share in a resurrection like his as well. 

And so, now free to truly be a lay person, I could also truly hear and accept that the particular form of baptism ministry God was calling me to was to the priesthood. And now I can also understand why I continued to hear Christ's command to "feed my sheep." It was an indication that I had received a call into ministry 13 years earlier, but just like Peter, I had to have that call re-called on the other side of the resurrection, and this meant washing my call, like all other parts of me, in the waters of Baptism, so that it could be a part of an identity grafted into the image of the invisible God.