Forty years ago, I started my theological education at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. The weekend before classes began, there was an orientation retreat for new students at Ocean Grove, New Jersey, a Victorian-style spa community dating back to at least the 1930s. I remember that I stayed at a beachfront, white clapboard gabled hotel. There were big palm potted trees throughout the hotel foyer. You could almost imagine Clark Gable or Carol Lombard stepping out from behind the palms.
On this particular night, I found myself in an orientation group with the other students. The group facilitator asked us what brought us to seminary. One student responded, "Well, I didn't get accepted to Harvard Medical School and so I decided to do this." Another person stated, "I didn't get accepted to Yale Law School so I came here."
When my turn came, I talked about feeling a call to ministry from my experience in high school church youth group, going to church summer camp, and being involved in social action ministries in 1960s Portland, Oregon. Needless to say, I didn't know what to make of the other students' comments. I felt scared, it was unnerving. I thought, "I am here on a full scholarship. I can't mess this up. Am I in the right place? Does God really want me here?" That night, I went for a long walk alone on the beach. As I walked along the New Jersey shore, I thought and prayed, "God, what is this going to be like? It's nothing like I thought it would be."
Suddenly, I felt a great calm and an internal voice said, "Don't worry, it's going to be all right. I remember walking back to the hotel thinking, "Well, this is going to be different and interesting, but that's ok; it's going to be all right."
Forty years later, I can say indeed it was more than all right. Indeed, it was outstanding; it was no less than a life-changing experience. That night on the Jersey shore, I did give my all to faith; that what I was going to be doing to prepare to minister to others would somehow work out for the good of all.
As Woody Allen observed in one of his movies referencing synagogue attendance, "I want to sit right up in front where all of the action is."
Forty years ago, when I started out in ministry, there was some sense of a kind of road map to follow. You were either Presbyterian (PCUSA), or United Church Of Christ, etc. You were going to seminary and when you graduated, you were going to get a call to a church and you were going to begin your great adventure of serving in the church.
For me and for others that I know, this was not the case. The call to a church was not immediate; in some cases it didn't happen at all. Instead, new directions and other turns of the road took place manifesting in further graduate study, changing focus for ministry and doing things that were totally unexpected.
In 1979, it was a revolutionary idea to reinvent yourself as an ordained minister. Now 40 years later, it is becoming more and more commonplace.
We now have an increasing population of people who are referred to as "nones," those who are choosing no religious affiliation and yet desire to cultivate some kind of meaning spiritual practice. Of course, these particular nones are not dressed in religious habits, neither are they flying around like Sally Field from the famous 1960s television show, The Flying Nun.
Now at Harvard and at other divinity schools and theological seminaries, humanists, atheists and other spiritual seekers are cultivating a language of moral discourse and training in congregational leadership.
Yes, like Dorothy says in The Wizard Of Oz: "Toto, I don't think we are in Kansas anymore."
Clearly, moving out in ministry in full faith, completely investing everything that you have is a scary terrifying thing to do. What if you don't make it? What if you don't succeed? What will be Plan B, Plan C, or even Plan D if Plan A does not work out?
Also, the composition of congregations is changing. You don't have 150 people attending in Sunday morning worship anymore; maybe you have 30 or less. Recently, I attended a Sunday service and there was 82 and I thought, "Gee, it's feeling like Soldier Field at a Chicago Bears game or maybe even a Grateful Dead concert." What with all of the pressures and the stresses of keeping a church going, it can become more profoundly complicated.
So, how can we give our all, give our very lives to faith?
This year and into the future, we will be seeing more refugees from Syria and other areas of the Middle East making their way to Europe and to the United States. Houston, Texas already has the largest concentration of refugees of any city in America. A good number of the initial 10,000 refugees expected to come to the United States will arrive in Houston.
What could churches do to help and support these people? Could churches consider adopting a refugee family and offer hope and new life from a previous existence of terror and trauma due to war?
May we be committed to extend ministry to one another and to our world with everything that we have, and with everything that we say and do; may it be so this day and forever more.