Do we still feel called to this? – Pastor Thoughts

I have been thinking a lot about call lately. 

As in, you know, being “Called” to ministry. 

For most pastors, deacons and bishops, the sense of call to ministry isn’t a one-and-done kind of thing. It isn’t like turning on a light switch, but more a constant state of wrestling and wondering. Asking oneself “Am I still called to do this?” is always part of the gig. 

In recent years more than ever, I have watched clergy do a lot of wondering. From friends and colleagues, to clergy bloggers and writers… a lot of us are wondering if our sense of calling is sustainable through all the challenges facing the church. A lot of people are deciding it isn’t, and they are leaving ordained ministry for other work. 

Certainly, in the past number of years I have had my own moments of wondering how my calling to serve continues to fit in with where the church is at. 

That being said, I might be one of the worst examples of Pastors to talk to about wrestling with being called. I used to joke in seminary that I was born into the “Norwegian Lutheran Pastors Breeding Program.”

My grandfather was a pastor. So was his brother. And his brother-in-law. His closest friends were also pastors. Growing up, “church” was something that my immediate and extended family was always involved in. And wherever we traveled there were usually some church or pastor or church folks that we knew.  

For me, going to seminary and becoming a pastor was a possibility that was known from an early age. From when I played pastor dressup as a two -year-old, to career shadowing my pastor in grade 9,  to serving on council when I was 18, to working at camp throughout my university years, and to attending campus ministry, I always knew that being a pastor was an option and one that I wanted to pursue. 

But my story is uncommon. Lots of those called to ministry take very different routes. Some need the right encouragement at the right time, or need to get connected and involved in a church community at the right moment to be opened up to the idea of ordained ministry. Some go to seminary just to learn more and end up pursuing ordination. Some only experience that call later in life after establishing a first career or other vocation. 

This week, Jesus calls Peter and Andrew from their fishing boats, and they immediately drop their nets and follow. If only it were so simple. 

Though we tend to talk about calling as it relates to pastors, we are NOT the only ones called by God to serve. The call to follow, the call to minister is a calling given to all the baptized. We are ALL called to follow Jesus into the service of the Kingdom of God. We are ALL called to do our part in making sure the Gospel is preached to the world around us. 

In many ways it is this sense of call that I wrestle with the most. Are there enough of us who feel this baptismal call to be church together? Do churches today have enough motivation to pursue this ministry of the Kingdom of God?

“Being Church” is harder than it has been in a long time. For a while now, we have been finding ways to keep doing what we have been doing with fewer resources, smaller budgets and fewer people. But we are getting to the point where that is almost too exhausting to continue. The time has come for us now to be creative in finding new ways to organize ourselves. We need to be willing to change and adapt, to work with others around us in ways we didn’t have to consider before. The alternative is that keeping on as we are or trying to bring back what we used to be will overwhelm our diminishing resources. The models of church that we are used to – a church on every street corner doing all the same things that the church on the next street corner is doing – don’t serve us well anymore. 

Do we hear God’s call to adapt and change to the new thing? Or are we more committed to holding on to what we once had? The answers to these questions are complicated. 

What does it mean for us to be called these days? And what does “following” look like? I have been circling around these questions since I was two years old… and my sense of the answers are as unclear to me as ever.

And yet in the strangest way, I think I might be as intrigued and excited to explore their answers as I have ever been. In all my time wrestling with being called and what it means to be called, the potential of what the future could be is as great as ever. People and congregations are open to new things in ways that felt unimaginable just a few years ago. God is calling us and we are being invited to explore what that means for us and how we might follow, even as where we are going and how we will get there is still being revealed to us. 

The time it takes to figure church out – Pastor Thoughts

“Come and See”

This last week’s Gospel lesson from John contains this phrase. While maybe it doesn’t jump out a first, there are some preachers and scholars out there who say that John is the Gospel of “Come and See.”

Other scholars have described it as “Word and Sign.” 

Both are shorthand ways of saying that in John’s Gospel there is a repeating pattern of Jesus inviting people (the disciples, crowds, the religious authorities) to believe that he is the Messiah (Word) and when they hesitate, Jesus reveals who he is with a miracle or other divine act (Sign). 

This dynamic plays out most clearly in the story of Lazarus. Jesus comes late to heal Lazarus and so Lazarus’ sister Mary meets Jesus on the road. When she points out that Jesus could have done something to prevent Lazarus’ death, Jesus reminds her that HE is the resurrection and the life (Word). But then when they get to the tomb, Mary objects to the stone being rolled away because there will be a smell (hesitation). But Jesus commands it anyway, and out walks Lazarus (Sign). 

“Come and See” is the phrase that describes that invitation between the Word and the Sign, the invitation given just at the moment when we might be hesitating to believe that Jesus is who he says he is. 

This pattern that John lifts up is a way to make the Gospel all the more compelling. John recognizes that most of the people who come after him won’t be able to watch Jesus in action the way the disciples and crowds did. But if we can see ourselves in their hesitation then maybe we will see that the only necessary part is the Word. We will hear the Good News and come to faith. John basically says this at the end of his Gospel. 

While I think one of the challenges to faith in a world confident that science and technology will save us, is precisely the lack of “signs.” I also think that this dynamic of “Come and See” is a part of our lives and communities as Christians and as people of faith. 

It is just that the signs might not be what we expect. We are probably not going to head over to the local cemetery and see someone hop out of a casket.

But in our communities of faith we DO see people who are healed and brought to new life all the time. People who are dead in loneliness or isolation, people who are broken by fractured family relationships, people who have suffered illness and disease, who, by being a part of church communities, find hope and life and peace. 

We see people who hear the “Gospel Word” and are transformed into new creations. Who are so captured by the good news of Jesus’ love for them that it changes them to the core. 

In the past few months, I have been watching one such transformation in my own family. My son, who is 8, has been attending church almost weekly his whole life (pandemic lockdowns not withstanding). And of course he was a baby, a toddler, or little kid for a lot of that time. This past fall, he has begun telling me that he likes my sermons, not every week, but once in a while. I have asked him what he likes, and he has been able to tell me very accurately what my sermon for a particular Sunday was about. And over the Christmas season, I had the opportunity to sit with him in the pew for a few services. Together we found the hymns in hymnbooks and I taught him how to follow the verses of hymns. We followed the litany and psalm together, learning which lines were for us to say. We talked about the different parts of worship, as in when to stand (when we sing, pray and hear the Gospel) and when we sit (all other times). He often will sing liturgical songs at home (“This is feast!”) or repeat other liturgical responses at home. 

It only took him eight and a half years of attending church for it to take (especially since learning to read in the last two years). And, all of a sudden, worship and church and being together with all the people he knows at church (two churches!) have imparted to him that faith is important, that what God has to say to him and about his world and life is important, and that worshipping in community is important. 

“Come and See” is an invitation to witness how the Word of God is doing incredible things in our world and in our lives. Maybe as we start this New Year together, 2023 will be a year to “Come and See.’

The extravagance of a baptism – Pastor Thoughts

Baptisms are one of my favourite things to do as a pastor. I have been privileged to preside at many over the years.

For most families coming for baptism, I have made the point of meeting with the family ahead of time to talk about the meaning, reasons, symbols and images of the rite. Baptisms present shameless opportunities to invite myself into the home of all kinds of folks for an hour, often people who might only be connected to church through grandparents, and talk about Jesus, faith and what it means to be a Christian.

(As an aside, if anyone thinks that pastors have a magical power to convince people to come to church, we don’t. Of all these pre-baptismal meetings I have done, the families who were actively engaged before remained so. And the families who weren’t active or who were even unchurched, also remained so. But I have seen many church members invite family, friends and neighbours to church who then became active members themselves.)

Pre-baptismal meetings have been great conversations about faith, about how we see God active in our lives and how families hope to see God active in the lives of their children. We also unpack the subtle but rich symbols of baptism: Water, Word, Oil and Candle. (Ask about an adult study if you want to know more!)

Equally as exciting is the baptismal rite in worship itself. Baptisms, though seemingly brief, are packed with liturgical action. There is the litany of questions and promises, the “flood prayer” declaring God’s actions and promises made in water, the “washing” of the candidate, the laying on of hands, the anointing with oil and the candle lit from the light of the Paschal candle. That being said, the way that Lutherans tend to do baptism is often understated and to the point. We often get uncomfortable being too much on display and so we keep things somewhat restrained. 

There is one baptism, however, that I will never forget. For all the baptisms that I had seen growing up in my home congregation or the ones that I had assisted with on internship, it was a baptism that took place during my final year of seminary that sticks out in my mind the most. 

It was a baptism for the newborn child of a classmate and my best friend, presided over by our seminary liturgy professor in my final year. During one of our chapel services, we all gathered around the font. There, the deep and notoriously large bowl at the seminary was filled with water. 

As the parents answered the questions, our professor held the child who was wrapped up in a warm blanket. As she prayed the “flood prayers”, her hands played in the water, splashing to remind us that water moves and has life. She then took green boughs, dipped them in the water and sprinkled the entire congregation, reminding us we were also baptized children of God. 

Then the baby was unwrapped from the blanket, wearing nothing, and just like so many parents have done in kitchen sinks, our professor put the baby right into the water, sitting the child down as if she were having a bath. The baby was washed from head to toe in the warm water as the baptismal formula was proclaimed: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. 

Then back into the warm towel the baby went. Laying her hands on the baby’s head, the pastor prayed the prayer of confirmation. Then she took some sweet smelling baby oil and carefully anointed the baby on the head, behind the ears, the chest and back, on each arm and hand, leg and foot. Our professor carefully made the sign of the Cross first on the child’s head, then over the baby’s mouth, on the heart, and then on each hand and each foot, each and every part of the baby, marking the child as belonging to Christ.

Finally, the baby was dressed in a baptismal gown: The white robes of the great multitude that gathers before the throne of God in the book of Revelation, the symbol of the baptized who belong to the Body of Christ. Robes that we could all wear when we gather for worship, but that at least the pastors wears to remind us that we are baptized.

Some part of me felt as if I had finally seen a baptism for the first time. Not that our normally restrained versions weren’t baptisms, but that they often only hinted at rich images and symbols of the rite. 

There was something to the slow and careful ritual of preparing the whole body of the baby, of being unwrapped, fully washed, anointed (chrismated, as it is called in the Orthodox Church) with oil and dressed in the baptismal garment that made it clear that this little baby was now forever changed in the presence of the community. Something had happened to this baby – they now belonged to the church, to the Body of Christ in a way that they hadn’t before. It wasn’t that a box had been checked, or a certificate provided; it was that a journey and a transformation had taken place.

Of course all the ritual action doesn’t make the baptism more valid; all we need (as the small catechism reminds us) is Water and the Word. 

But I do know that we can forget just what has happened to us in Baptism, just how we have been changed and transformed. As we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism this Sunday, we will be reminded of what God is doing with us and with the water. And we are reminded that this action of God is life changing. 

Maybe some day we will build up to taking our time with liturgical action like my seminary professor did; but today we know that the work of God is the same in us, washing us from head to toe, anointing us fully and completely in Christ, naming and claiming each and every part of us for the sake of the Kingdom of God.