Thursday, February 16, 2012

Guest commentary: Stand back, God is free

Among the privileges of my work is sitting on the Committee on Diaconate in the Diocese of Virginia. I've been with this wonderful group of people, lay and ordained, for a couple of years now as we discern with individuals whether they are called to be vocational deacons.

Although deacons have been a vital part of many parts of the church for decades, this order of ministry is relatively new in the Diocese of Virginia. Bishop Shannon Johnston ordained only the second class of permanent deacons last Saturday. Our committee worked with each of these three candidates for several years as they moved to that moment of ordination.

Deacons are called to be servant ministers and to be icons of servant ministry for the whole church. They are to bring the church into the world, and the world back into the church.

Our committee met Wednesday in Richmond to continueironing out the details of diaconal discernment and formation in the Diocese of Virginia. And so it happens that Barbara Crafton sent this last night from her archives, a perfect reminder of how imperfect our work of discernment is:
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By Barbara Crafton

I spend lots of time with people who are hoping to be ordained in the future -- seminarians, new clergy, people who hope to become first one and then the other of these. So I think often about what it means to be called -- not just to ordained ministry, but to any life's work.

Stand Back. God is Free. - February 2003

"He that is not against us is for us." This is what Jesus said to his disciples when a couple of them came running to tell-tale on somebody outside their circle who was performing healings. Same thing Moses had said to a couple of his folks centuries before, when they came running to tell on Eldad and Medad for prophesying, when they hadn't specifically been chosen to do so. Sometimes people we didn't authorize to exercise a gift of the Spirit do it anyway. This can happen, because the Spirit doesn't belong to us.

We keep forgetting this.

In the Church, we regularly seek to discern spiritual gifts. We have ornate processes for doing so, some of them involving phalanxes of psychologists and rank on earnest rank of interviewers, all bent on trying to figure out if God has called one among us and, if so, to what work. None of can really know what God is doing, though, so we must satisfy ourselves with the discovery of talents and predilections that seem suited to the performance of whatever calling we're hoping to discern, coupled with adequate mental health to enter into the often-thankless work of ministry. We make our call. Usually we are right, I think, but sometimes we're wrong. Still, we make our call, and hope for the best. We never really know.

History reveals it, though. A call of the Spirit lives, even in difficult circumstances. It may not always triumph -- we are not in heaven yet -- but it always remains. One at war with the Spirit withers and dies. Put a person in the wrong calling and you're doing him a terrible disservice. Refuse a right one and you miss the chance to share in the mighty works of God, but you won't wreck it. The Spirit is stronger than we are. It'll get through somehow.

What our inability either to predict or contain the work of the Spirit, our failure ever to be exactly sure of our discernment, gives us is something we need: an ongoing sense of the freedom of God. God is free. We draw lines in the sand and God hops nimbly across them. We set up systems and sometimes God just does something else. With God, Mary of Nazareth so astutely observes, nothing will be impossible. And she should know.

All this is not to say that we should aspire to anarchy. That the best rules for us are always no rules at all. We do the best we can to regulate our lives -- we must. But we should never be surprised when our careful arrangements turn out not to be the last word. We don't really have the last word.

Copyright © 2001-2012 Barbara Crafton - all rights reserved

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