On December 22, 1994, my new bride and I were enjoying our third day of wedded bliss at Myrtle Beach on our honeymoon when my pastor-parish relations chair called to inform me that a church member had died. The preceding months had allowed me the opportunity to minister to this gentleman during his terminal illness, and prepare our community of faith for his return to God. The parishioner was a rugged, simple child of God who came to know the saving grace of Jesus Christ near the end of his life. I had been blessed on many occasions to hear of his personal transformation from a life of alcoholism and crime to one “reconciled to the favour of God.” In the course of our visits, he told me of many family woes, although these stories seemed quite distant because I was only acquainted with one of the four children. On the 23rd, we returned prematurely from our trip in time for me to meet the family at our local funeral home. The stories of tensions and family strife the octogenarian shared with me during his lifetime were ever so present among his children in the funeral home parlor. In the course of a decade in the parish ministry I had witnessed great grief, outright hostility, and severe depression associated with the loss of loved ones, but I was unprepared for the debacle before me. In a dark room, I observed a family come to fisticuffs over burial arrangements and the only response I could render was as a referee. My self-confidence, my faith in the Triune God, and in the higher aspirations of humankind, as well as my pastoral gifts, came under increased scrutiny. My personal and spiritual illusion of possessing all the necessary gifts and graces for ministry had been disrupted. I realized there was much more for me to learn and discern. Gregory the Great appropriately decried the beguiling ease of ministerial labors in uncomplicated situations by using the analogy of a sailor guiding a ship:
…Even an unskillful person guided a ship along a straight course in a calm sea; but in one disturbed by the waves of tempest even the skilled sailor is confounded…
The funeral home fracas confirmed my nascent suspicions: ministry, properly conceived, was a lifelong process of growth toward what Wesley called “perfecting love.” God had blessed my labors, but I allowed this success to complicate my deeper spiritual and pastoral maturity.
In my previous appointment I inherited a parish in turmoil; under the guidance of the Holy Spirit we recovered, experienced substantial growth, and became a “church of excellence” for several years. My ministry was widely heralded, with even the local Baptist church giving me an award for improving the spiritual condition of the community. On an intellectual level, I had read and consumed most major theological writers with ease—Augustine, Clement, Teresa, Calvin, Wesley, and Barth were standard fare. My knowledge of Wesley and the Methodist tradition was appreciated by my colleagues in ministry. On an intellectual and personal plane I had demonstrated great promise and a modicum of ability, but the need to redirect myself even more completely on the path of “perfecting love,” or Christian perfection, continued—and continues to be the persistent challenge in my life and my devotion to God.
The movement towards the transcendent usually comes with numerous complications and my life exhibits no immunity from the normal temptations. My ministry in the Methodist communion evidences a continued journey of loving and following a Triune God. The practice of the Christian life and ministry as the normative “enforcement of Christianity” has allowed me to grow and experience my own limitations as a servant of the Church. The work of enforcement, the renewing and rearticulation of the faith in “spirit and truth,” has been a wellspring of comfort and support for my ministry. At the heart of my struggle against the twin distractions of doubt and pride have been the reclamation of the vital and living tradition of which I am part. The practice of ministry was for Wesley maintained by continuing to connect one’s faith and ministry with the Christian tradition that nurtured its existence.
On one hand this tradition reminds us of God’s love for His creation; Wesley argued the “Lord is loving unto every man, and that his mercy is over all his works.” The gifts of Divine love and mercy have allowed me to confront and accommodate to difficult situations that would have otherwise been impossible. On the other hand, my task is to continue to follow God and his body on earth, the Church, even when this love and mercy seem muted in some fashion. The regular, entrenched “classic” pattern of Christian ministry suggests resilience to the exigencies of modern life, while affirming our own limitations. The rigors of parish life confirmed my continued need to express the limits of my knowledge of the Divine, especially when I “know not how to reconcile this with the present dispensation of his providence”; the “realities” of everyday trials and tribulations.
My effort to understand God continues today as part of a persistent dialectical enterprise, grounded in my desire to participate in the ancient conversation between God and the people of God. It is faith seeking understanding. The overriding theme of my three decades of ministry has been the effort to tease out such an comprehension. At the center of this activity is faith, which continues to make the enterprise possible. The foundational element in my worldview is a transcendent God, the creator of heaven and earth. The pursuit of this appreciation must involve a comprehensive view of reality. It must concern itself with life before human existence, the interaction of the creations of God and ultimate heavenly union with God. It is the prospect of this perseverance over time that unites my labors with those who have gone before me. Amidst the impossibilities of my efforts and the incorrigibleness of some predicaments we encounter in our ministries and lives, God is at work in us and through us. God is allowing the impossible to become the possible. I have seen how the aftereffects of family’s funeral home fight—with the movement of the Holy Spirit—could turn into an opportunity for reconciliation and a return to God.
Now well into my third decade of ministry, I have also realized that God’s gift of persistence in the faith cannot be taken for granted or dismissed due to an over reliance on personal attributes. I have come to celebrate the great gift, Jesus Christ, the insight of salvation. Christ is the determinative norm for my life. My practice of ministry has confirmed the witness of Gregory of Nazianzen: “When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” Such a formulation makes God knowable in as complete a form as possible. The Trinitarian formula allows me to fully comprehend the presence of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as co-eternal and pre-existing as well as participating in creation. Our history is the history of the activity of the Trinity. Matthew 28:19 presents the most thoroughgoing depiction of the Trinity. The early church understood the Trinitarian “formula” to convey the completeness of God in the life of the Church and in history. The Trinity encompasses the narrative of salvation, allowing of the account our origin, redemption and culmination as the people of God. The movement can only fully be understood by this three-fold activity.
One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit functions as the Holy Trinity, but the name Trinity does not constitute a replacement for the naming of the elements. This is a technical term. Within the doctrine of the Trinity there exists a unity of the Godhead with three manifestations. Perichoresis, a mutual indwelling or mutual containing within the Trinity, exists and can be understood as communication within the Godhead. As the assembled body of Christ we must emulate this sharing. The foundation of Christian ministry, as well as the Christian life, is founded upon this premise.
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- Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley, Volume 1 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), p. 121. [Hereafter cited as Bicentennial Edition].
- Gregory the Great, “Book of Pastoral Rule,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd Series, Volume X (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), p.6
- Franz Hildebrant, Christianity According to the Wesleys (London: The Epworth Press, 1956), p. 27.
- Bicentennial Edition, Volume 2, p. 543.
- Bicentennial Edition, Volume 2, p.578.
- By classic I intend only to note the ancient traditon assumed by men and women “set apart” to provide provide Christian ministry on behalf of the Church, partaking in the tasks of affirming and explicating Word, sacrament and order.
- Bicentennial Edition, Volume 2, p.578.
- I believe in the need for stressing the role of the feminine within the Christian community of faith, while attempting to uphold the tradition of the Church. Human language obviously cannot adequately present the fullness of God, but all available methods should be employed to allow for as undiminished a view as possible. In terms of the systematic discussion of theology and sacramental participation, it appears to me that the traditional prescription of scripture, as depicted by St. Gregory and the early Church must be used.
- H. Wace and P. Schaff, Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume 8 (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, nd), p. 347.