Friday, February 29, 2008

The Beauty and Hope of the Holiness Message

As people are seated in Hughes Auditorium on the campus of Asbury College, their attention is directed immediately to the words above the organ, “Holiness unto the Lord.” This statement is rooted in Asbury’s Wesleyan Holiness tradition. While the meaning of “Holiness unto the Lord” is not immediately clear without a greater context in which to understand it, these words point to a beautiful possibility and hope in the present life. As such, let us take a moment to explore the reality to which it points.

To begin, we recognize the deepest longing of the human heart is to be fully God’s. Within each of us is the desire to love God without reservation, to live in faithful obedience to Him, and to give ourselves selflessly in love and service to other people, just as Christ did. This is the human yearning for holiness.

Every Christian knows this longing. It wells up inside of us at different times and in various ways. It comes to us in quiet moments of personal devotion or public worship when our souls experience God’s holy presence. It arises in moments of frustration when our best intentions to follow Christ falter and we fail God once again. It comes to us in moments of weariness from the unresolved conflict between our sinful impulses and the desire to follow God’s will. And it arises in moments when we serve others, but recognize our service is motivated by selfish ambitions. Time and again, as we go through life, our heart’s cry for holiness comes to the fore.

This longing should not come as any shock to us. In explaining the two greatest commandments and the summation of Old Testament law, Jesus taught that we are created by God to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Holiness is “nothing more and nothing less” than the fulfillment of Jesus’ teaching here. We are made to give ourselves to God and other people in love. Because we are made in the image and likeness of God, even though marred by sin, we are capable by God’s grace of reflecting divine love and walking in the righteousness of love. This longing is the way we are “wired” as human beings.

However, we recognize immediately the disparity between our internal motivations, outward actions and the holiest desires of our heart. While we may see love as our life’s purpose, we also know the apparent impossibility of fully walking in that love. Because of human sinfulness, the natural bent or proclivity of our heart is to love ourselves more than God and neighbor. While we may have a desire to love and serve God, our desire to please ourselves is stronger. As such, holy love does not come easily to us, but with great struggle. We naturally balk at the righteous requirements of love. Even when we want to serve God and to give ourselves selflessly to others, when “the rubber hits the road,” we falter all too often.

As Christians, therefore, we find ourselves in a frustrating predicament. One part of us longs to give ourselves completely to God and others in love, while another part, propelled by the natural inclination of our heart, seeks our own selfish ends. As such, we find that we do not have the internal power and resources to truly follow Christ. No amount of human will power can bring about the love for which we are made. We may desire to truly be a Christian, but not have the power to live the life to which we are called. We may desire to follow Christ in love, but not have the wherewithal to do so.

At this point a question must be asked. Is there something God can do in our present lives to liberate the holiest longings of our heart? Is there grace available through the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that can heal the distorted conditions of our lives?

Even if we don’t believe holy love is possible in our present lives, we must admit the idea is attractive. The prospect of a life defined by self-giving love of God and neighbor, which is the essence of holiness, is deeply beautiful. This is even more true for those who are confronted continually with their own depth of sin and grow exhausted with the ongoing internal war between “flesh” and “Spirit,” for those who yearn to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, yet lack the inner resources to be so, and for those who long for the full manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. To resolve the conflict of a divided life seems admittedly like a glorious dream and a stunning answer to our heart’s prayer.

However, what if the holiest longings of our heart can be realized in our present life? What if God makes possible the exchange of our “bent toward sinning” with a propensity to love God and neighbor, empowering us to walk in the righteousness of love? Wouldn’t we want to take advantage of it? The good news of Jesus Christ is God can set us free to love. This declaration and confession is not a source of pride, but a humble witness to the power of God “to save to the uttermost,” and an exhortation to struggling Christians to believe God to bring about the deepest longing of the human heart. This has been and continues to be the reading and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures down through the centuries of the Church.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Role of the Church in the Call to Ministry


“Have you ever considered that God might be calling you into ministry?”

The question stopped me in my tracks. Until that moment in life, I had never thought of the possibility. I was a youth who had recently given my life to Jesus Christ and earnestly desired to serve Him, but figured I would be working for God as a lawyer, engineer, or teacher, options school and family had presented me.

One morning after Sunday school, a devout older woman in my home church challenged me with another possibility – ordained ministry. When she asked me the question, something deep inside me resonated with the suggestion. I knew immediately that God was calling me into “the” ministry, a call that would be confirmed later through education, the United Methodist ordination process, and pastoral experience.

However, I wonder what might have happened to my life if she had never asked that question, if the possibility of ordained ministry had not been presented to me through the local church. Surely God would have used more direct measures to awaken me to the call upon my life? Or would I have remained in ignorance, with my life headed in a different direction?

To begin to answer these questions, we must explore the call to ordained ministry in greater detail. In general, we recognize God calls people into ministry. How God specifically does this is where differences in understanding arise. While there have been numerous ways in which God calls people, two have been primary.

One Model of the Call to Ministry – A Direct Call by God

The first perspective or model focuses on God directly intervening in a person’s life to issue the call to ministry, with no other individual or group of people acting as a mediator for God. For instance, in the Old Testament when God wanted someone to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, He called Moses through the burning bush on Mt. Sinai. During a bleak period in the time of the judges, when apostasy reigned among the Levitical priests, God came and spoke directly to young Samuel, calling him to be a prophetic voice to the nation. In the New Testament, Jesus personally called each of the apostles to preach the Gospel and gave them authority to lead the fledgling church. When God wanted to bring an end to Saul’s persecution of the Church and call him into apostolic ministry, Jesus confronted him on the Damascus road and spoke to him openly.

Each of these examples represents the classical model of how a person is directly called by God into ministry. God speaks openly to the person and leaves the individual certain of the divine will for their lives. There is no third party involved or a representative who issues the call on God’s behalf, thereby removing any possibility of mistaking God’s call with the wishes of other human beings, or for that matter, the personal desires of the one called.

Whether we realize it or not, we often gravitate to this model, making it the dominant lens through which we view the call to ministry. Unfortunately, as a result, we assume too quickly that God doesn’t need any help in communicating His call and we leave solely to God the task of identifying and calling out potential candidates for ordained ministry. Likewise, we often think that if God doesn’t come and speak directly to us like He did to Moses in the burning bush, then we don’t have to worry about or consider the call to ministry.

A Second Model of the Call to Ministry – A Call by God through the Church

While recognizing the preceding model as a legitimate Christian understanding of the call to ministry, it is not the only way God works. And, while it is favored and elevated in our contemporary circles, perhaps, God doesn’t use it as much as we think. This brings us to the other model.

A second perspective on the call to ordained ministry sees God using a person or a group of people as mediators of the call. Primarily, this occurs in and through a believing community or a representative of the community. For instance, in the Old Testament when God wanted to appoint David as successor to King Saul, the prophet Samuel went and examined all the sons of Jesse before recognizing David as the Lord’s anointed. In the New Testament when deacons were needed to aide in the ministry of food distribution, the church recognized people in their midst who were “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” and commissioned them for service. In a prayer meeting in Antioch, the Holy Spirit led the church to set apart Barnabas and Paul for missionary service and sent them into the world after praying for them.

In each example we see God calling people into ministry through the leadership, wisdom and discernment of another person or group. God is involved in the process, just not as directly as the first model. God uses human beings as a means or channel of His call to ministry. In comparison to the first model, this is often not as glamorous or certain for the people communicating the call or for the individual being challenged with the call. Still, this is another valid way God works to bring people into ordained ministry.

While clergy throughout church history have testified to a direct call of God on their lives, many more have given testimony to God working through the church to issue their call to ministry. Their voices fill the pages of Christianity and represent some of its most distinguished figures, including the greatest Western theologian of the patristic period, Augustine, who was “drafted” into the priesthood by the church at Hippo, and the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, who made the decision to enter ordained ministry through the suggestion and counsel of his parents.

The Possibility of Missing the Call to Ministry

At this time, let us return to our initial question. Is it possible for a person, who has a call to ordained ministry, to never hear God’s call? That depends on the way God chooses to work. If God calls a person directly, then the call can’t be missed. However, if God uses the church or a representative of the church as a mediator of the call, as He often does, then a person is dependent on the church to carry out her responsibility. Without the church issuing the call, people remain in ignorance. While our natural inclination might lead us to believe that in these circumstances God automatically moves to the more direct approach, there are good reasons to be cautious of such optimism.

Why? Because God works principally in the world through certain means or channels. The chief of which is the church. Just as people are unable to hear and respond to the call of Holy Spirit to become followers of Christ unless the Gospel is shared with them, so an individual can’t hear and respond to the call to ordained ministry unless the church or a representative of the church communicates that call and helps the person explore its possibility for their lives. Without the church working in this manner, the ordinary means or channel through which God calls people into ministry are denied. As a result, if the church fails in her work of mediation, some people will be shut out from their call to ministry.

What the Church Can Do to Facilitate the Call to Ministry

What then can the church do to be responsible in her mediatory work and facilitate the call to ministry?

Beyond the obvious necessity of teaching about the call to ministry and offering opportunities to respond to a call in the normal venues of congregational life, pastors and laity need, first of all, to be observant. In a spirit of prayer, asking the Spirit to raise up ministers from their midst, as the local church works and worships, people need to be aware of what is happening and “keep their eyes out” for individuals who appear to have gifts and graces for ordained ministry.

Second, the local church must identify people who display these qualities. They may be elementary school children, youth, people established in careers, or even retired. As these people are identified pastors and laity must pray for the Spirit to begin to speak to these people’s hearts about the call to ministry.

Third, at some point, a pastor or layperson must speak to these people directly about the call to ministry. This conversation may begin with a simple acknowledgement of a person’s love of God and gifts in ministry, as well as an exhortation to seek the Lord’s direction in life. However, at some point, if evidence of a call continues to exist, then the person needs to be challenged more explicitly by asking the person to consider that God may be calling the individual into ordained ministry and to seek the Lord to confirm this call.

Fourth, pastors and laity need to be available to help in the discerning process through prayer and conversation. Sometimes people know immediately that they are called, while others take time to come to this discovery. Questions often arise and the church needs to be there to counsel.

Finally, the local church must be committed to supporting their members who have answered the call to ordained ministry. They will need spiritual, mental, emotional, and financial support as they begin to take steps into ordained ministry, as they move into the future God is creating for them.