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About Pastor Dan

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Below, you'll find the Statement on Ministry that I have to write every time I update my Pastoral Profile, say, when I'm getting ready to look for a new job. Helpful suggestions welcome. Feedback, anyone?


P.S.: Draw your own conclusions about what it means that I'm setting this out there now.

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus"
(Phil. 2:5)

The life of the mind has been quite important in my personal journey. I started out wanting to be a poet and a novelist, and after college became intent on earning a Ph.D. in cultural studies or theology. I've studied everything from Chinese to English literature to American history, ethics and the history of thought, without ever finding a single academic discipline that I could call home. My wife laughs at my ability to trace the intellectual roots of Christian fundamentalism to the reaction to 19th century post-Kantian thought--and still forget to bring home a gallon of milk. My professors tell me that there is no such thing as "too much education," but I have my doubts.

More accurately, I have learned two things from congregational ministry: first, that education is about more than achieving academic excellence. It's about growing and opening oneself to the transformative grace of God. This realization has made me less prone to wander, and has led me to focus on writing more as a form of spiritual discipline than academic achievement.

Second and perhaps more important, I've realized that teaching and learning happen in all kinds of places, not just behind classroom walls. For most people, learning about our faith comes through practice, not necessarily through instruction. Much to the chagrin of many pastors--including this one--Christian education takes place at least as much at potluck suppers and hymn sings as it does in the most well-crafted sermon.

So just because I've been blessed with academic talent doesn't necessarily mean that the academy is where I'm called to put those blessings to use, or that that talent isn't useful in the church. I teach in virtually every aspect of my ministry: in preaching, leading Bible study or confirmation class, in working with church leaders or the congregation as a whole as it works through the developmental tasks of the interim period, and in the writing I do in or outside the church. Less obviously, I teach as I provide pastoral care, lead worship, or even just as I talk to a parishioner or one of the church children. All Christians do this. Simply being who we are in the world shows something of the God we claim to know.

I learn as I teach as well, at least I do when I'm open to the teaching offered to me. I'll think I've got a scripture passage down cold, only to have a parishioner provide some insight I'd overlooked, or to ask a question I can't answer. I've learned about living and dying well from the people in my churches, about raising children, forgiveness, mercy and grace, how to make a darn good apple pie, faith in the teeth of setbacks, and through it all, the love of Jesus Christ as found in his body, the church.

I'm glad to have learned these things, particularly the last, because the life of the mind has been important to me in another way as well. Four years ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder II, a milder form of what used to be called "manic-depression." Looking back, I can see evidence that this illness first emerged in my teens, though it went undiagnosed until I was in my 30's.

Since then, my condition has been--and will continue to be--controlled with mood-stabilizing medications. Were it not for them I would suffer erratic mood swings: from depression to racing thoughts and spells of irritability and restlessness. As you might imagine, the disorder created some real difficulty in my life. It's tremendously difficult to get to know yourself when your interests, emotions, and sense of purpose and self-worth come and go like the breeze. But as I say, I'm doing better these days. I continue to learn about the disease and how to compensate for its affects.

It would be tidy to say that the symptoms eased once I found my faith, or that faith led me to understand a need for help. Nothing of the sort is true. My wife diagnosed me, and the medication my psychiatrist prescribed addressed the symptoms. That's not to say faith played no role: it provided me with stubborn hope and persistence until I could get to the point of diagnosis and treatment.

Faith now deepens my understanding of the ways in which God chooses weakness, not strength, as the means of grace. My brain doesn't always fire on all cylinders, and I thank God for that. It makes me who I am, and it keeps me in touch with the God who took "the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (Phil. 2:7). To put it another way, my best shot at having "the same mind that was in Christ Jesus" is to claim my own brokenness, and try to work humbly from my imperfections. It is for this reason that I can claim my bipolar disorder as a true grace.

For example, I have to admit my memory has more holes than Swiss cheese. It's not impaired per se; it's just that my brain doesn't always register the importance of remembering this thing or that, or make the necessary connections for what needs to happen with a particular piece of information. So I've learned to write down as much as I possibly can, particularly items on the "to-do" list. The lay leaders in my present congregation are good about making sure I've got everything written down before I leave a meeting. Because I've been up-front with them about my condition, we can find together ways to work around what would otherwise be real drawbacks to my ministry with them. Likewise, I am forever telling people in and out of the congregation that I know from experience that depression and other mental illnesses cannot be treated with prayer alone. See your doctor, I tell them, and take your medication. It doesn't mean you don't have faith: it just allows you to hear God more clearly. Grace comes in many forms, some of them the medications your doctor prescribes.

My weakness has even become something of a strength. By claiming my own brokenness, I've allowed myself to be more fully who I am, and my congregation has been freed to care for me, which brings out some of the mutuality of ministry. They talk more openly about their struggles, which makes the church more welcoming. We've already begun to attract people with mental illnesses in the four months since I told the congregation about my disorder. These new people feel accepted by the laypeople and understood by me. Overall, the discussion has served as a reminder that Christianity is not a religion for the perfect. It is a way of life for the broken, particularly for the broken who are willing to exercise compassion in aiding the other broken people of the world. Or as one wag put it: "the church is the Land of the Misfit Toys."

As these examples suggest, to have the same mind as Christ is not in the end to think like Christ or have the same brain that Christ had. It has as much to do with the heart as it is does the head. Paul explains this to the Philippians by quoting to them a section of an ancient hymn on Christ's nature:

[Christ], though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.

The humility and obedience spoken of here are not forms of self-abasement or death-seeking, but the pouring out of oneself for the sake of others. This is the pattern of all Christian ministry. We are called to give of ourselves freely and unstintingly as Christ gave of himself.

For me, that means, in part, to seek peace, justice and healing in the world. I've been involved in a number of causes over the years--I started out demonstrating in favor of a nuclear freeze with my parents in the early 1980s--but more recently, I've come to see that my particular gift in this area comes through my writing. I have a bimonthly column in the Lancaster Sunday News, in which I frequently advocate on such matters, and I keep up quite an online correspondence with other concerned folks.

My goal is to help people--Christian or otherwise--understand that reconciliation is the natural work of the church. We are called to participate in God's mending of the world's wounds, not to judge or seek shallow spiritual satisfaction. This calls us to difficult and often unsatisfying work: to stay connected--and in service--to the poor, the powerless, the suffering, our enemies. God has no hands but ours, as the saying goes.

I have participated in this same work within the world of the church by seeking the healing of broken systems in the interim work I've done. There are many churches divided by conflict, stifled by unproductive emotional processes and lack of communication, and occasionally just plain oppressed by damaged people. My gift is to help these churches sort through their difficulties; to keep what helps them to live faithfully, and to step around that which does not. That involves teaching them alternatives to the way Things Have Always Been, seeking to heal old wounds and lay to rest old conflicts, and sometimes holding them accountable when they can do better.

Of course, this works better some times than it does others. I have to remind myself that the calling is not to be on the right side of church conflicts, nor to "fix" anything. It is instead to serve the needs of the congregation, and stay faithful to the will of God. I constantly have to refer back to the humility of the Christ who poured himself out for us.

I also have to refer back to the resurrection, the context in which all Christian ministry takes place.

The resurrection is about more than life after death. It is a proclamation of hope for this life rooted in the transformative character of something that will come to completion only in the next. Christ changed everything by rising from the dead, but this change will not be complete until the last day. He has gone ahead of us to begin the process of redemption and fulfillment: to reclaim what was broken, to complete what was partial, to make whole that which was wounded. The hope of Christians is therefore an anticipation of receiving the resurrection as a grace-filled gift, and the affirmation of a calling to live as if we had already received that gift. We await the coming of Christ, and in the meantime, we participate in the work of transformation that prepares the world for Christ's return. We live into the resurrection as a form of active hope, and without that hope, we are truly to be pitied (I Cor. 15:19).

This ties together the pieces of my ministry. In the mutual practice of teaching and learning, I seek to move with the community into transformed hearts and minds. In the ministry and discipline of reconciliation, I ask that we participate in the healing of the world--and seek its transformation--so that the structure of our lives together can be freed to produce a world where God's reign of peace, justice and acceptance knows no bounds. And in looking to the resurrection, I do my best to center my work, and the work of the community, on following and worshipping the humble servant who is at work in us, embodied in love and mutuality, so that

at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.


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