A Deacon’s Education: Lessons on the universal call to Christian ministry
On Memorial Day weekend last year, 22 of us stood before our bishop and were ordained to the diaconate. We had spent four years—five if you include the year of discernment and application—preparing for this day. In that time we had studied Scripture, liturgy, moral theology and canon law. I would soon discover I still had a lot to learn.
Now, having completed my first year of ordained ministry, I can see that the most important things I have learned apply to all of us who struggle to be disciples of Jesus and sons and daughters of God. These lessons are less about fulfilling the duties of a deacon and more about simply being a Christian.
It Is Not About You
As my wife, Ann, and I went through the formation process for deacons, we shared our questions and doubts: “Is this the right thing for us? What if I get assigned to a pastor who does not really want a deacon? What if I am asked to take on something I cannot do—or have no interest in? We do not see enough of each other as it is. What if I...? What if we...?”
Finally, a priest whose wisdom and friendship I have cherished since my undergraduate days said to me: “Jay, if you’re doing this because you think you might be able to do some good, if you think you might be able use your gifts for the whole church, then do it. But if you’re doing it for yourself, for what you’ll get out of it, stop now. You will only be disappointed in the end. And, frankly, we don’t need another self-absorbed cleric in the church.”
I think this is the attitude we should all bring to the church: It is about us, not me. Jesus calls us to community, which requires humility, generosity and a spirit of gratitude. To possess the heart and mind of Jesus begins with embracing his model of service. In a very real sense we are all deacons, called to serve and love one another. That is Jesus’ vision of church: He calls us to ministry not in the sacrament of holy orders but in the sacrament of baptism.
If and when I get too taken with my ordained role in the church, it will help me to remember that the Greek word for deacon is also the word for waiter.
The Right Fit
At Mass and liturgical functions, I wear a big, monastic-style alb that was given to me at candidacy. The first time I wore it, I could barely move. I felt I was swimming in this sea of cloth. I still sometimes feel lost in it.
And that is a good thing, I have learned. I should disappear in it. Anyone who ministers in the church should “disappear” in his or her work. We take our cue from John the Baptist in the fourth Gospel: “Christ must increase, I must decrease...” (Jn 3:30).
When I celebrate a baptism or a wedding, it is God working in this moment, not me. God speaks when I preach faithfully; God is present when I lead a community in prayer. We ordained people might possess an authority or competence that comes from learning and experience, but the truth is that as a deacon I have no power. And neither does anyone else who is ordained. God has the power. I do not baptize; I pour the water and voice the prayers. God is acting in our words and gestures.
Every day in the parish I become more aware of the everyday “small-s” sacraments we all take part in. The grace of God is present in the generosity and kindness we offer, in the forgiveness we extend, in the justice we sacrifice for. Aprons, work gloves and sneakers can be the vesture of ministers; cooking pots, storybooks and rakes are all sacred vessels when they become instruments of the love of God in our midst. Such is the power of God who works in all our ministries. My big alb reminds me to make room for him.
God Belongs in the Kitchen
Many good and dedicated people, ordained and not, give a great deal of time to make a parish work. But sometimes when we are running off to church, we trip over God on the way out the door of our own homes.
We forget that God is present at our tables every night. God is present when we are reading to our children at bedtime or helping them with their homework. The spirit of God hovers over our teenager and us when we are having one of those “talks.” The love of God surrounds you and your spouse when you are together.
I am discovering more and more that people are looking for God in their lives where they are. We church folk often sound as if we want people to abandon their lives and embrace God’s grace in a different existence, in a safe bubble detached from the evil of the world. But, again, as John the Baptist proclaims: the Lamb of God walks among us. The challenge of all Christians is to reveal the love of God in the midst of our messy, clumsy, hectic lives. As St. Teresa of Avila counseled her sisters: “God walks among the pots and pans.”
That is certainly the challenge the millennial generation in the United States is posing to us. Every demographic and sociological profile of millennials—the 80 million strong born between 1980 and 2000—shows a generation that is pragmatic and realistic, neither dreamers nor romantics. Are they self-centered? Some. But what drives them? Purpose. They want their lives to mean something. They do not care about establishments and institutions; they are more interested in relationships. They are not impressed by power. They seek joy and authenticity.
We in church ministry should take note of what the Time magazine reporter Joel Stein told us in his cover story on millennials in May 20, 2013: “They’re not into going to church, even though they believe in God, because they don’t identify with big institutions; one-third of adults under 30, the highest percentage ever, are religiously unaffiliated. They want new experiences, which are more important to them then material goods.”
That is our present and future challenge: to make the church a place where they can do good and meaningful things, where they can love others, where they can experience God in relationship and community. I have come to understand that the most important thing pastors and ministers, teachers and parents can do is to reveal the love of God in the midst of the good we do and are: God in our families, God in our work, God in our school, God among our friends, God in our community. Even as I have taken on the role of an ordained minister in our church, I have learned to look beyond the church walls for the presence of God—in my life with Ann and my family, in my teaching, in my writing, in my parish.
As a student of mine said to me, “Show me where God is in my life. Help me see the possibilities for good and meaning in the real life I’m living.” And that is what makes every one of us disciples: being aware of God’s love in the ordinary messiness of our everyday lives. God is present not only on the parish table in bread and wine but at our own dinner tables, when we share simple meals with family and friends.
This is what I have learned over the past six years, studying and praying about the diaconate and making my way through my first year of ministry, with the help of a generous and patient pastor, parish staff and community. It has been a wonderful experience, but a profoundly humbling one, and I am grateful for that gift of humility.
So please continue to pray for the ordained in your parish and community: that we may always be good and selfless waiters, that we may not walk around or trip over God on our way and that we never, ever get too comfortable in our albs and stoles.