Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Midwife to the Spirit

Theology of Ministry

(If you're already thinking, hey, this looks more like a seminary assignment than a blog, you're right. Read on at your own peril. But, if you make it to the end, I'd welcome your thoughts. And a shout-out to Molly who first shared the ministry image of midwifing the Spirit.)

Personal Mission Statement: To be a willing midwife to the Spirit in worship and in the world, making space for infinite possibilities of experience of God and grace.

In my ministry and my life, some of the most fulfilling and significant moments have come when I am able to help others realize their own worth and potential and experience a sense of wholeness and value as they are and as they will be.

At their best, worship and fellowship offer an invitation to that wholeness. My hope as a minister is to share that invitation to wholeness that I experience most often through the welcoming, nurturing and loving presence of the Spirit of God by journeying with others who seek that sense of wholeness.

My own theology strongly embraces pluralism and has since childhood, when my parents and the children’s education teachers at the Unitarian-Universalist Church we attended taught me that all life is of value and all humanity has worth. For me, pluralism is the world’s invitation to wholeness.

I am no longer a Unitarian-Universalist, but the foundational message of the worth of all people remains with me. As a United Methodist in seminary at Claremont School of Theology, I have learned how to theologically test my belief that all humanity, all creation, is connected and in meaningful relation together – and working together with an ongoing and infinite Spirit of Life that many call “God.” In seminary, I have learned to stretch my sense of pluralism to something called “radical inclusion,” and when I feel myself beginning to exclude someone or some faith, I try instead to see how to view them as part of a whole – an ever-changing and expanding whole, like the universe itself.

As a minister within a Christian denomination, my core commitment to pluralism brings both challenges and opportunities. Within the United Methodist Church, there are members and leaders who believe as I do that all people and all religions are of value, and there are also members and leaders who understand Christianity to be “the one true way.” My sense of “radical inclusion” would call me to minister to all of them while still professing my faith in the all-encompassing grace of God.

For me, that grace is best represented at the welcome table of communion. We celebrate communion weekly in the contemporary congregation I help serve. It is a joy each week to witness to the wonder of God, to the call to follow Jesus, to the assurance of the ever-present Spirit, and then to invite those in worship to the open table of communion. My favorite words in the liturgy of communion are the epiclesis, “Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here…,” and my favorite words in our invitation to the table are, “Our communion is an open communion. You don’t need to be a member of this church or any church…”

I take personal comfort in the concept of the Holy Spirit working through each of us, with us at baptism, with us at communion, with us at every moment in our days. For me, that Spirit unites humanity and celebrates our infinite diversities. And I rejoice that the invitation is open. While the United Methodist Church battles over many differences – from how to fund new-church starts and where to put them to whether all humanity is welcome to seek to answer a call to ministry within the denomination – I celebrate that each of our two sacraments are open.

Communion grounds my ministry and it grounds me in a faith that celebrates worthiness and wholeness through grace. And my response to that grace is to want to live in the church and the world in ways that invite others to that experience of value and worth.

The epiclesis continues by asking the Spirit to help us be the body of Christ in the world. For me, ministry that remains within the walls of the church is limited. When we come together in worship, we renew our spirits and feed our minds and souls and hearts. This is not simply as a refueling until the next worship experience but a renewal to live beyond the church in ways that celebrate the worth and value of others. I see this not just as a call for clergy but as a call for all.

My theology, then, drives my mission. I want to minister in such a way that people see and feel and experience their own value and worth and then are able to affirm the value and worth of others beyond the church.

Because pluralism is so central to my faith, I explored it in my culminating theological paper in my systematic theology class, and that offered an opportunity to delve much deeper into my own beliefs. I have embraced the concept that we each carry divinity within ourselves – that we see God in one another and throughout Creation. I believe that we are all in relation together and I see that relation as part of a creative spirit, a life force, an energy that is present for all to experience. In listening to others, I hear that some experience this energy as associated with God, directing, leading, guiding – and, for some, interceding. I hear, too, that some experience this energy as natural force, changing like the seasons, yet fixed in a continuing cycle of life like the seasons. That is why I embrace pluralism. Radical inclusion is not radical if anyone is left out.

My challenge in seminary has been to learn to express this theology in a way that I can be authentic and true to my beliefs in the practice of ministry. I have sometimes wondered if my beliefs set me outside of my faith tradition. And I am grateful for those doubts. They help me better understand how to define myself to myself, and that helps me be more authentic in ministry.

My doubts have enriched my faith journey and my faith practice. I think mainstream protestant churches would be more vibrant if we welcomed doubts and doubters. My experience has been that we do not make enough space for doubt and questioning and movement within faith. We sometimes express the faith journey as a one-way path that can be strayed from rather than a continuum or infinite circle on which we travel back and forth through a lifetime of seeking to understand.

The scriptures, then, that best inform my ministry are the how-to scriptures, the scriptures that offer instruction for that journey. From Hebrew scriptures, Micah 6:8, which addresses foundational requirements: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. From the Christian testament, Luke 10:27, which addresses a wholeness of love asking us to: Love God with all our being – heart, soul, mind, strength – and love our neighbors.

Infinite possibilities exist to fulfill each of these scriptures. In ministry, my hope is to follow the leadings of the Spirit of God so that I may help others open themselves to that same Spirit. And, open to the Spirit and assured of our wholeness through grace, we can live together in a way that celebrates the worth and value of all humanity in a world that is just and kind and humbly aware of the gift of life and love.

May it be so.


Orangeblossoms said...

This paper is so beautiful and full of hope for the future of the UMC-- I love the ideas and the language you've woven.

I love your vision.

Jeri said...

I share your love of the innumerable expressions of the divine. And am glad for all the life experience and faith traditions that led to your beliefs.

Marian said...

I am so impressed by you!