I am an ordained minister… sort of. By that I mean that I have a piece of paper that lets me legally officiate weddings and funerals, but I don’t consider it a valid ordination of any kind. There was no laying on of hands. There was no commissioning. There were no doctrinal standards or discernment process. At the time, it was necessary. It is also utterly meaningless.
There is another sense in which I am an ordained minister… one I continue to struggle with but cannot deny. I used to dismiss folks who would tell me they had been “ordained of God” to a certain ministry, and therefore did not need the endorsement of a church or denomination. I thought it was just an excuse to do their own thing and not have to submit to any kind of authority… then I had my own “ordination experience.”
I’ve been to enough Anglican ordination services to have memorized the structure of the liturgy. There is a liturgy of the word, in which the ordinand is commissioned to preach the Gospel and be faithful in ministry. In the course of this particular liturgy, the ordinand is given a copy of the Scriptures and hit over the head with it. They’re told “You are under the word, preach the word.” Then there is the laying on of hands, after which the newly ordained ministers assist in or celebrate the Eucharist themselves. This is the image of ordination that is ingrained in my mind and heart. More specifically, there is a photo from an ordination I did not actually attend tattooed on my mind’s eye. This was back when the Bishop would hit the candidate over the head with their personal copy of the Scriptures… and this poor man had a giant, floppy, green, NRSV Catholic Edition Bible. His head must have hurt for days. Oddly enough, I purchased that very same edition at some point. I ended up giving it to a guest at the mission who needed a large print Bible. When that guest got arrested/kicked out, I figured I never see it again… I swear to God this is relevant; just wait for it.
On the night of my “ordination experience” an elderly veteran of the Korean War came into the building absolutely hammered. Ordinarily we would let him eat, sober up a bit, and ask him to leave for the night. This particular man was very sick–we let him stay, and after he had eaten he came up to the dorm, showered, and was assigned a bed with the rest of the men.
It was a busy night, but during a break in the action I found a moment to run downstairs and get some coffee and a bottle of water for a volunteer. As I went to go into the kitchen, something on a bookshelf caught my eye… it was a big, floppy, green, NRSV Catholic Edition Bible… actually, upon closer examination, it was the one I had bought and given the guy who got kicked out! As I looked, it struck me that I had neglected to grab a Bible off my bookshelf before I left home. Without really thinking much of it, I tucked ol’ green under my arm, grabbed the coffee, and went upstairs. As I did, I absentmindedly noted a passing thought: “I ought to read John 11 tonight” (ordinarily one of the staff gives a short devotional consisting of a Scripture reading and a short prayer before we turn out the lights).
When it came time to do the devotional, I took my turn, and read from John 11. When I finished, I said, “this is God’s word, and we give him thanks for it” as was my custom, and with that, fully intended to close in prayer and hit the lights. Before I knew it, though, I found words flowing from my tongue. And for the next few minutes I spoke impassionedly about the God who is able to bring the dead to life. Finally, I pronounced a blessing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and turned out the light. I had just turned to leave when I heard voice calling to me, “Sir, Sir!” It was my Korean War vet in bed 46, sobbing. I went to him, and he looked me in the eye and said: “Will God ever forgive me?” For the next 30 minutes we wept together and prayed together. He told me about things he had done that haunt his memory, he told me about his wife, he told me about children lying dead on the ground… and then he asked me again: “Will God forgive me?” I told him: “He already has.”
As I stood to walk away, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a tangible sense of God’s presence. It was as if a voice spoke to me in the core of my being: “You will never take your own church. You will do this for the rest of your life.” In that moment I knew that I would spend the rest of my life on the margins of the church and on the margins of society, standing in solidarity with refugees, addicts, alcoholics, disabled veterans, and all those who have been cast aside, rejected or wounded by God’s people in the name of religion. I knew that I would never have a traditional ministry, and I also knew–in the same sense–that I was now a pastor, ordained of God to preach of resurrection and mercy in word and deed. I would spend my time under bridges and in homeless shelter, in bars and in prisons, in smoke shops and seedy concert venues, in hospitals and in political marches. I also knew that any church I planted or pastored would not meet in a church building or some trendy “third space.” It would be in someone’s home, and I would have a couch for a pulpit; a coffee table for an altar.
I had an ordination experience, but it was not a man or a church who ordained me. In a sense, I feel as if my ordination was more real than if it had been performed by a bishop or an ecclesiastical body. And perhaps it is fitting that a man called to minister on the margins of the church would think of ecclesiastical endorsement as an afterthought.
Nevertheless; it is important that I be able to baptize crack-addicted babies in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; to be able to celebrate the Eucharist in living rooms and public parks; to give last rites to a homeless man dying of cancer… something I would to God I could have done a few days ago. I want, no I need, to be able to administer the sacraments and have them be recognizable as “valid” by someone other than me. It is a frustrating practical necessity; it is also more than that: I feel in my bones that though I am now a pastor, ordained and commissioned by the hand of God, and though there is the undeniable sense that my ministry will ever be on the margins of the church, there is nevertheless a need for the laying of hands and prayer. There is nevertheless the feeling that until that happens, bread and wine on a coffee table remain bread and wine, and do not become the body and blood of Christ. Putting aside the “validity” of my ordination or administration of sacraments in the eyes of church and society for a moment; there is still a need in me to hear the people of God formally and audibly echo the word of God spoken to me in the depths of my soul. Whether that need is right or wrong, I do not know. Nevertheless, it is real, and it aches.
That said, I am exploring what it would like like to pursue ecclesiastical endorsement for my admittedly non-traditional ministry. Regrettably, the options are few, but they do exist. Prayers are coveted. Input is welcome. And until next time, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you always.