Looking back now, after about 10 years of professional ministry, I have come to see my call confirmed. That’s not to say that I am perfect. I am more aware than most of my many shortcomings, and am rather intentional about trying to overcome my failings and play to my strengths. Having said that, I do not believe I would have as much joy in my life as I do if I were working in any other field. The job of the pastor is strange, difficult, complex. But it is also rewarding beyond words and money. I am grateful.
So, how did I come to this line of work? Here is what I wrote, officially, as I went through the ordination process:
One of my earliest experiences of God occurred in the United Methodist church in Texas where I was confirmed. My father, no doubt influenced by Southern Baptists, believed strongly that I should choose my faith for myself so he did not have me baptized as an infant. Thus, at the time of my confirmation, I was also going to be baptized. And if memory serves, I was the only one in the rather larger confirmation class who had not received the sacrament of baptism.
I remember the moment well. The church had around five or six clergy members on staff, and they all took part in the baptism. They were all white men, and they all wore black robes. Despite their general good humor, they were an intimidating group from my youthful perspective. The intimidation was enhanced when they all closed around me and everything went black. Their hands all covered me, some “magic” words were spoken, and water dripped down the side of my head. Somewhere in all of the activity, I heard my name spoken. It was an intense, strange, and somewhat spooky experience. But it left me with one clear impression: something powerful and important happened.
After that experience, I found God primarily in two places. The first was community. In the churches that I grew up in, God was present in the relationships that were formed, in the opportunities that the community of faith provided, and in the traditions of the church. In the community of the church I learned the power of the sacrament of Holy Communion. It was, and is, a mysterious experience, that cannot fully be reasoned. But in communion I sense the love and grace of God, as well as a connection to the church universal. In the community of the church, I also learned the power of scripture. Secondly, I found God in nature. The simplest mysteries of nature – a blooming flower or a gentle breeze - have always served to remind me of God’s presence. Recently, on a trip to Wyoming with my family, I witnessed a moose drinking from a stream. Moose are large, majestic creatures, despite their comic-book face. As I watched the moose drink water, occasionally gazing up at me, I saw God’s handiwork in this mighty living thing.
The Bible is full of diverse images of God. I strive to be open to the multiple expressions of God and to celebrate and appreciate a diverse array of images for the Divine. The primary characteristic of God that stands our for me from the Bible is God’s nebulous quality. God keeps shifting shape – from a burning bush (Exodus 3:2), to a stormy cloud (Exodus 24), to an eagle in the air (Deuteronomy 32:11), to a child in a manger (Luke 1:35). God is always surprising me, appearing in unexpected ways – the voice of a friend, a stranger on the street, children at play, or in a poem or song.
The theological sources I generally draw on emphasize that God is found in the narratives of my life. Just as Biblical stories reveal the nature of God to us, so the stories from our own experience illuminate the Divine. Theologically, then, I try to tell my story – the story of my experiences – and in them find the God of my creation. In terms of theological traditions, I am influenced by liberation theologies, which emphasize the experiences of the poor and the marginalized. But I am also informed by postmodern sensibilities, which question objectivity and emphasize context. Hence, my personal story serves as a primary influence in my theology.
Historical sources that are important to me include traditional United Methodist sources, such as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which I will discuss more below. In addition, I have been influenced by Wesley’s sermons. Two sermons have been particularly meaningful to my understanding of God. The first is “The Almost Christian.” This sermon affirms Wesley’s strong belief in faith as the only avenue to salvation. I share this conviction with Wesley, and I find his articulation of this idea in this sermon particularly effective. Secondly, “The Catholic Spirit” is a powerful sermon for me because in that sermon Wesley calls us to recognize our connection with others and challenges us to overcome our differences and divisions. I think this sermon is vitally important for us as we continue to struggle with our disagreements in the United Methodist Church.