Sunday, April 30, 2006

Discernment in Disappointment

So, where have I been lately? Let's see:

  • incredibly busy (60-80 hour weeks) at work due to a special project — check;
  • working on a rather involved final paper for New Wine (I will post pieces of it later) — check;
  • Holy Week/Easter Week — check.
So, there seems to be quite adequate reasons for being a bit short of posts here, especially posts of a more personal nature. I simply have not had the time. But there is another reason:
  • needed some time to deal with disappointment from not being admitted to diaconate discernment program — yep, check.
In October, 2003, 30 of us in this deanery began the three year New Wine program -- the primary lay ministry training program in our diocese. (More on that program another day.) I was talked into it Saturday night at the 2003 LA Religious Education Congress, while waiting for dinner while shivering around the swimming pool at the Marriott. Not quite half of us are left now, and our last session is this Thursday. We have grown into a tight community, and are now considering what effect this time together will have on our life and ministry in the Church.

New Wine, in addition to being a general training program, is a prerequisite for entering the diaconate formation program here. I did not enter with that intention -- my concern was to fill in some holes and to become a better at detention ministry. In fact, I was fairly sure that I was not quite what the Church had in mind when the permanent diaconate was revived. But a year ago, several people started to bring up with me the idea of my entering into discernment for that role. This group included some people in New Wine, along with some involved in the diaconate program itself. To tell the truth, I found the idea attractive for a number of reasons, but held back on committing to this for one reason. At that point, I did not feel any specific call to diaconal ministry, as I understood it then, and I feared trying to get too far ahead of God on something like this. It would not be fun to try for the diaconate and be turned down, but it would be much worse to actually make it well into the program (or, God forbid, through ordination) when it was not what I needed to be doing. At the same time it became clear that if I did not clearly determine for myself whether I could be called to be a deacon, I would be haunted by the question for the rest of my life. When the application process opened (it only happens every 3-5 years here) I got the papers, handed my wife her set of forms and questions and started writing. Questionnaires, essays, letters of recommendation and FBI background checks later, we were asked to the diocesan offices for interviews.

I'm still not sure if we did well or badly -- as a friend, who also was interviewed, said, "I'm not used to trying to sell my spirituality." Well, my wife and I were not asked into the year of discernment before the formation process proper begins. You are not told why you were not asked in, although there were a variety of interesting factors this time -- a far larger group of applicants for a limited number of slots, and a larger than usual number of applicants from my town. But that may have had nothing to do with it either. You simply don't know, and strangely enough I think that may be a good idea, even though it is not comfortable at all. And it is important that you remember that you don't know, because the human mind abhors a vacuum. If we don't know a reason for something, our minds will manufacture one, often based on our fears. For example, sometimes we end up worrying the most when someone is not happy or angry, but withdrawn or detached. With the latter case, we don't know where we stand with this person, and we will try to figure it out, often getting it wrong. Sometimes you just don't know, and may never know on this side of the grave. I think you have to get to a particular point in your life, to have certain kind of experience, to be able to deal with that.

And of course, it hurts.

It has become a commonplace that one goes through a grieving process after something like this, including all the various stages. I cannot really say that — nothing nearly that clear is going on. The two things that I know for sure at this point are that I am called to ministry, and that this will continue to hurt from time to time over the next couple of years as my friends move through the process to ordination. To really explore whether you need to do something, you have to take it seriously, you have to contemplate what it would be like and evaluate that for yourself. In doing that you cannot help but build up some kind of expectation about the future. That is a risk, because God is not bound by your expectations. But it is a necessary risk, as I do not believe that we just wait passively for God to somehow insert instructions in our minds. We have to figure out things as well as we can, and our figuring will sometimes be imperfect because of our own separation from God, from sin itself. But we learn about this, and learn how and where to change by these experiences, and by trusting God through them. As Luke Timothy Johnson has said about discernment, you have to let God be God. That is sometimes a painful process. In this imperfect world, pain is something you have to get to know as a minister, both because those you work with are often in pain from various causes, and because you will be there yourself time and again. Want to live a pain free life, don't get started in Christian ministry.

For now, I am learning about my other options and opportunities, and getting on with what I know I should be doing. And I will be posting a bit more now.

Note: Spelling checkers are dangerous things. I was sure I had said "diaconate discernment process" instead of "discount discernment process". It even scans, but is a bit weird when you think of it.

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