I want to write something about this book, which was such a helpful companion during my retreat, -but looking through the 2 dozen plus pages in my journal, I'm not quite sure where to begin. It was the right book for me at this time, because it's 51 weeks now since I was ordained priest. A good time to take stock. I'm very aware that on Wednesday friends and colleagues will begin their ordination retreat, but for me this is not a time of new beginnings, but of coming to understand more clearly who I am in this place and this ministry. The passage of one year presents me with an immediate paradox. How can the time have gone so fast? The amazing gift of Holy Orders still hits me whenever I celebrate the Eucharist. Perhaps it won't ever lose its freshness,- that would be lovely!
On the other hand, priesthood, like motherhood, feels so much part of my being that it's hard to believe there was ever a time when I was anything else. Recently, though, I've been wondering and worrying about those elements of everyday parish ministry that seem to take most of the time and drain most of the resources...the frustrating meetings where little seems to be accomplished, the boundless enthusiasm that a flower festival produces in constrast to the polite and dutiful response to the prospect of a parish retreat....I've looked at the hundreds of happy, friendly people I meet outside the church each week, and wondered how to help them encounter the God who is so longing to be real to them. And I've worried that in some ways now is as good as it will get in ministry, since I have the world's most enabling and accomodating boss, who is very willing and ready to support me in any number of explorations of the hinterland beyond the churchyard railings, and relatively few "official" expectations that I must fulfill. Even so, I spend more time with the 99 than the 1 (as it were) and that doesn't feel healthy...If Jesus isn't shut up in the sheep fold, then what am I doing there??
So...lots to mull over, and Peterson was a real help.
Under the Unpredictable Plant describes itself as "an exploration in vocational holiness" in the light of the Jonah story. Gift number one arrived in the very first chapter, as Peterson pointed out with non-negotiable clarity that as a minister Jonah never gets it right.
Being habitually inclined to berate myself for this very thing, it was handy to be reminded that Jonah was ineffective both in disobedience (when he tried to flee to Tarshish) and obedience (consider his response when the Ninevites actually obey his call to repentence!) ...but God used him anyway. Peterson has lots to say about the mythic attractions of Tarshish, where dwells that ideal, glamorous congregation that includes all ages, colours and orientations, that responds instantly to every word preached, joins enthusiastically in daily prayer and works tirelessly to transform the local community into a sign of the Kingdom (combining soup kitchens and Palestrina Masses with no effort at all). That congregation is, of course, lead by a figure of towering holiness....SuperPriest in person....
Ermm...yes....well......We'll stop there!
but it is so horribly easy to be seduced by one's own good intentions, to begin to believe in one's own dreams. The cure for that, says Peterson, is to engage with the reality of parish life. Congregations of the dreary and the frustrating, the dreamers and the depressives, flying on eagle's wings or falling over their own feet, caring selflessly or locked in the prison of their own needs and inadequacies, are all the reality we are going to get. We belong there. They/we are Christ's body, as broken and damaged by sin and misery as he was as he hung on the cross. This is the context in which each one of us of works out our salvation.
So stick with it, he says...Don't dream of escape to Tarshish. Confront who you are amid all the disappointments and broken dreams of your neighbours in Christ. Accept that your motives in ministry will at best be questionable, will say more about your own needs and failures than about any particular gifts you can bring to the table. Realise (are you listening, Kathryn?) that where all is grace you are actually totally unnecessary,- and that doesn't matter either!
In ministry, God is allowing me a place where I can discover more fully what it means to be loved by him, and the opportunity to pass on that love.
That sounds pretty good to me.