Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ordination, Anti-Oppression Work, and Worship– What does it all mean?

While ordination in the Lutheran church looks a lot like the priesthood of the 16th century, pastors in this tradition are called to a particular role rather than to a state of holiness or vocation other than that of all people. There’s no blue gas that turns people into pastors, no ontological state-of-being change, no magic that turns a person into a pastor. Ordination in the Lutheran church involves discernment of a personal call to ministry, other groups of church members and seminary professors validating that call, a whole lot of education and experience, and having a congregation/ministry decide to call (hire) you to serve in the role of pastor with them.

Pastoral care and counseling, leading worship, preaching and teaching are the tasks of a pastor. Officially, I’ll get to preside over communion, preach God’s word, and baptize people into faith. Lutherans believe that sharing God’s love and mercy is the call of all who believe, only the tasks and the roles differ. The church and the world needs us all to share God’s love, to speak out against injustice and oppression, and to share mercy and forgiveness, moving into liberation for all.

I’m particularly aware of the privilege involved with reaching the point where ordination is possible. The reality is, most people in our world, whether called by God to public ministry or not, do not have access to graduate degrees, financial support to take “good experience” internships and jobs, or the healthcare that middle class family employment provides to stay healthy enough to get there. While I’ve worked hard toward ordination, I am humbled every day by the Welcome Ministry guests with whom I minister, who are far more effective than me at sharing God. I see their witness to the rest of our church communities, a challenge to the clericalism that has based the god of power in the clergy and disempowered the masses. Lutheran theology calls all of us to “the priesthood of all believers,” and Paul writes that “we are all one body in Jesus Christ,” but so often the structure and culture of our churches do not empower this radical ministry call of all who gather. Our jobs and tasks differ depending on our gifts and circumstances as to whether we’re called to be children in school, homeless recyclers, bishops, street preachers, doctors, parents, lovers, teachers, or even pastors (or all of these at different times in our lives). But in Lutheran theology, we are all called to bring love and reconciliation to the world, to share love with our neighbor, and to tell God’s good news of grace through faith.

Being a postmodern Lutheran with anti-oppression beliefs, I acknowledge that I and we have a long way to go and much to confess for the ways in which we have fallen short of being God’s body on earth. This is especially relevant within our Christian traditions which have a history of imperialism, racism and cultural appropriation, among many other forms of cultural oppression. I ask all of us to continue examining our histories and current practices, the ways in which we can tell our stories of privilege and oppression to and with each other, and ways to move toward greater liberation and equity.

I have been denied ordination and work in the church due to discrimination about being transgender, queer, and disabled. I’ve encountered bits and pieces of oppression in life that I can name as sexism, heterosexism, and ableism, but those stories have been the exceptions to a lifetime of lots of privilege. The combined effects of growing up in a white middle class nuclear family in the US meant that I had access to education, a home, love, and relatively respectful treatment and easy access to resources in most of the areas of my life.

I can tell stories about being denied participation in sixth grade gym class due to ableism, about being teased or about being asked to leave restrooms due to sexism and heterosexism, but really, these are the oppressions of someone who is used to having access to most every part of public life.

I’ve written some about my personal journey discovering power and privilege on the Welcome Ministry blog, but I’d like to say it here too. I urge you to consider continuing this dialogue, and welcome your thoughts.

So while I celebrate ordination, particularly through and to the faithfully vibrant communities of faith in First United, the Welcome Ministry, and Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, I also confess, and seek to challenge being part of a system of clerical ministry which currently denies:

-Regular ordination to people of diverse gender and sexual identities, based on oppressive and unrealistic sexual ethics set forth with the goal of oppressing gay and lesbian people who were called to ministry.

-The one-track classist, ableist, racist, and elitist system which over-privileges specific kinds of inaccessible education and experience as the main evidence of ministry capabilities.

-The history of the Christian church which has yet to apologize or seek to remedy the cultural and religious imperialism which exported a Christianity, wiped out cultures and populations, supported slavery, and contributes to worldwide oppression of millions of people today.

-Ableist (over-privileging of certain abilities, or disability discrimination) and sexist structural requirements and cultural norms which devalue the ministries of disabled pastors and limit women’s gifts in/from ordained ministry.

-The racism and ethnocentrism in the Lutheran church in all its forms.

-The silence of the church on issues of oppression and the silencing of pastors and congregations who seek the justice of the prophets.

As part of anti-oppression work, most of which I enter into as a privileged ally, it’s important to me entering into a more privileged power arrangement as a pastor to be clear both about the power that comes with the office as well as the ways in which it has been abused in our history, how I benefit from that, and what I intend to do to avoid abusing that power and to give it up when possible to empower others.

And this is where we move from what Lutheran’s traditionally call “the law,” or the brokenness of our world, to the Good News of the gospel. We have a God whose history and relationship has dealt with this very problem, a record of which exists for us in scripture. Shortly before the 2nd text, Paul writes that God valued the relationship with humans so much that our God gave up god-ness to dwell with us as a human, “Christ, though in the image of God, didn’t deem equality with God as something to be clung to—but instead became completely empty and took on the image of oppressed humankind…” (Phil. 26-7a). God, in Jesus, reconciled to us, empowering us with the ability to be in real risky relationship with others, defined throughout scripture as sharing in both the joys and burdens of our neighbors. The Holy Spirit, “Lady Wisdom” or Sophia in the original languages, blows like the wind, refreshing our faith and our relationship-building power. I don’t claim to know how this all works, but I know this: that in Jesus’s reconciling work, we are moved into a relationship with God that allows us to love, reconcile, and simply be. We Lutherans speak of being “saved by grace through faith” in Jesus Christ, meaning that it’s not the work we do or even the belief, but the relationship with a faithful God which brings us life and wholeness.

We don’t earn God’s grace through our working for justice, rather, it’s what happens when we allow God’s grace to move through us in true, radical reconciliation with our neighbors. We, together, form the body of Christ on earth.

Justice work flows from radical reconciliation with God, neighbor, and earth; the confessing of brokenness and experience of forgiveness. Yet, this call to justice is a human call, not Christian.

Let us experiment with experiencing God in the midst of our naming oppression like the prophets and the Holy Spirit, and rejoice in the reconciliation through Jesus. May you be empowered to share in relationship with God and your neighbor. -Jay

Please join us at Jay's ordination on December 6th. Learn more at:

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