Two weeks of discernment and introspection (presented here in stream-of-conscious-paragraphs)
Having had a (far too) brief Christmas break at home with my family, I drove with my mom to Gettysburg across Highway 30… which was filled with lovely scenery amidst CONSTANT warning signs and run-offs for semi-trucks whose brakes gave out on the 15 degree+ inclines. A somewhat harrowing introduction to the event itself, but it was good to spend additional quality time with my mother. Arriving at my hotel across the street from the Seminary, I found out that the central building of the hotel was General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters during the battle; the fighting did indeed take place around the Seminary (and in fact damaged some of the Seminary buildings of that time). To match the pace of the event, I will do away with any further introduction and speak to the grueling speed and nature of attending the Diaconal Ministry Formation Event (DMFE).
To give you some sense of what I mean by “grueling,” please consider the following abbreviated list of lectures and events we were required to attend:
-chapel twice daily
-a total of 9 spiritual practices lectures
-2 lectures per day on a WIDE variety of topics
-daily meetings of my small group (approx. half of the attendants in each group, to facilitate easier discussion)
-a day spent “In Context,” learning about diaconal ministry from practitioners of it
-And Many, Many More! Call Now To Place An Order!!
The pain of that schedule dulled slightly by having shared it and having survived it, I must admit I learned a great deal from the various experiences at the DMFE. The opening evening fell on the eve of Epiphany, and we heard a sermon preached by the President of LTSG, Michael Cooper-White. The Gospel reading came from Matthew 2, and in a rather clever way, we heard a sermon focused almost exclusively on the peculiar ending to that passage about the magi going to Herod, then to Jesus, and then (most importantly) “they left for their own country by a different road.” Gettysburg was a Civil War battlefield almost solely because of its central location to ten different crossroads; the homiletic implication that we as DMFE participants would experience a similar effect during the event was made clear to us. It would be disingenuous to say I didn’t find his oratory compelling and rather neat in its eloquence; that said, I must also speak to the fact that the most important meaning of his words only became clear to me as the week went on. I went into the event worried deeply about the possibility of the event shifting my discernment process away from “Continuing With The Plan,” which for years has seemed to point me towards a specific sort of clergy membership, within a specific timeframe, towards a specific set of career goals. What his sermon helped me realize, upon a good deal of introspection, is that “leaving by a different road” from the event is ACTUALLY a live option; I can leave my jaw-pain-from-stress behind and simply follow my own advice, to “play the cards as they’re dealt.” It is one thing to be in a process of discernment and actually discern; it is another to be in the process under the (rather unconscious) assumption that entering it necessitates a certain outcome. This was, and continues to be, a powerful sense of freedom for me, as I look into the weeks and months ahead and continue to try and discern my vocational calling.
To avoid dipping too deeply into the well of seriousness to water this post, I would also reference a handful of the extremely entertaining moments from the event. From a lecture where we were informed that “at its core, Lutheran theology informs us that the Cross of Jesus is like a benign One True Ring,” to a talk wherein we heard that “if you’re a pickpocket, the WHOLE world is a pocket. If you’re a Lutheran, the WHOLE world is a neighbor [who needs our help, and we theirs].” Indeed, we also learned that “we should be excited to consider the pathway to being a diaconal minister, due to the prestige that comes with joining the ‘Greco-Roman hybrid redundancy roster’ of the clergy, as “Diaconal Minister” is translated as “serving servant” or “ministering minister” but also that Lutheran theology is a peculiar institution that insists on being sound, and yet makes such an outrageous core claim about a God best hidden AND found on the awful cross that it cannot settle into any extreme, but instead reside in the tenuous middle ground. Quite a bit to learn about in a short time (it was actually a 3 credit hour course), but the event organizers were nice enough to give us binders with all the materials we would need for the event!
There was another sermon, later in the week, that performed one of those awfully interesting rhetorical moves that I thrive upon: taking a very close reading of the text and a knowledge of the context within the book of the Bible, and then making a profoundly important point based on an extremely simple reference. In this case, the text of John 1:29-42 is fascinating by itself to the careful reader, especially with its account of Jesus’ baptism (and the differences from the Synoptic accounts)… but the preacher then made the observation that Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of John are “what are you looking for,” spoken to those who had found him at his baptism. For full disclosure, I am *not* a person to smile and admit the ~flowery beauty~ of notions of searching and seeking… but in this case, the confluence of being exhausted by the event and having my discernment-sensors on high alert meant that the homily caught me a bit off-guard… what *AM* I looking for, indeed?
The people at the event, my fellow attendees and organizers and visiting lecturers, were all quite lovely. I knew a handful of them, as my fellows from the Washington DC Metro Synod of the ELCA, but the remainder were new faces for me. The majority of us stayed at the General Lee hotel across the street, and so from random roommate assignments to the communal meals and small group formation daily meetings, we all had plenty of time to really open up to one another and gain a certain sort of intimacy that mere academic coursework is too anemic to sustain; the event was profoundly a spiritual exercise and thus could be the foundation for a deeper sort of friendship. The grueling pace of lectures and discussions was offset in large part by the constantly rotating voices leading discussions – pastors, laity, professors and professionals, from all corners of the US came to speak about this peculiar issue of the diaconate.
Finally, I would speak to a sermon that referenced the content of Mark 2:1-12, the story of a paralytic lowered down into a house from the roof by his friends to receive healing by Jesus. The sermon again matched the tendency of the homilies of this event, to provide an extraordinarily clever and close reading of the text to elucidate a vital theme to the process of discerning one’s vocational calling, and at the same time presenting a profoundly Lutheran outlook on the faith and life. In this case, the preacher focused on the fact that as the text tells the story, the healing of the paralytic had nothing to do with the paralytic himself, nor his faith (or lack thereof). Instead, we heard, the text has Jesus pronouncing that the faith of the paralytic’s friends was apparently causal in the healing that took place, part and parcel of the lesson about the Son of Man as forgiver of sins. This is a fascinating implication, both about the inaccuracies of a more Baptist or non-denominational “I must secure my own salvation” neurotic outlook, but also about the primacy of forgiving sins and how the faith of a community can assist that process (the South African experience of the Truth and Reconciliation, a “miracle” as they say, comes to mind).
So, with all of the above in mind, what is one to make of all of this? The “one” who needs to do some “making” of the above could be you, but it is *certainly* me, and that is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Though I didn’t speak at length above in order to explain what a diaconal minister in the ELCA is (that took me two weeks to learn, and would be a lengthy explanation indeed), I would quickly point out two things heavy on my mind as I continue this discernment process in the post-DMFE life:
1) one of our lecturers was a professor of history, and she explained that in the medieval church, there was an understood set of meanings to each church office: the bishop stood in as God the Father for their flock; the presbyters (priests) stood in as the Apostles; and the deacon was to serve as the stand-in for Jesus. This is actually the discovery from the event that is pulling me most towards the completion of the candidacy process over time, the notion of being unfettered by politicking and the stuffiness of decorum and titles in my pursuit of doing actual good in the world and helping equip others to do so.
2) the ELCA has information about the diaconal minister community, and they specifically explain the importance of the ‘6 Marks of Diaconal Ministry‘ which was a focus of the DMFE. In many ways I find synergy between the dictates of these Marks and my own outlook and dispositions. The core problem, as this event helped focus for my mind, stems from an old set of battle scars when it comes to the issue of pledging allegiance to any group of any sort – I am deeply, *deeply* uncomfortable with the notion of binding myself to a group, not least of all for the visceral distaste I hold for being judged on the account of people associated with me. I am not sure what to make of this realization, either, but at the very least I find myself (very) slightly less worried, having recorded all of these thoughts here.
A smattering of photographs of all types of things from the two whirlwind weeks in the ‘Burg: