I have a Stole hanging on the wall near my desk.
You know, one of those things that many ministers wear to show that they are, well, a minister? It’s bright, and I think beautiful – hand-woven with various Christian symbols on it: a stylized cross, fish, wheat, bread, some that I don’t quite understand. While I am not Christian (I’m Unitarian Universalist, of the non-Christian variety… more on that later, I’m sure), I love this Stole. It’s beautiful, colorful and bright, and one of the few things I’ve ever won, you see. My first year of Seminary (I am now completing my third, and final, year), there was a group of students who were fundraising for a mission trip to Guatemala. One of their fundraisers was to raffle off a Stole, and i bought a few tickets, and was surprised to find myself winning.
At that point I had plans of becoming a UU minister. I’d entered the program under the MA program, with no intentions of ministry, but I quickly found myself being drawn to the idea of professional ministry, of getting a Masters of Divinity and embarking on the challenging feat of becoming ordained (oh, the many books to read, papers to write, classes to take and hoops to jump through!). And so, as motivation, as a reminder of what I was doing this work for – to help me in those moments when I just wanted to chuck whatever book it was I was reading across the room – I hung the Stole near my desk, and there it has remained for the past three years.
But my plans have changed yet again (a somewhat longer story…) and I am not on the path for Ordained Ministry (that is, serving in the role of Minister (getting the Rev. before my name) as recognized by a religious body), at least, not at the moment. I am going to be earning the MA, and moving on to other academic programs (in history). But, I still keep that Stole hanging on my wall, and I still find myself looking to it when the reading (and writing) gets tough.
Well, I can’t be entirely sure, but I think some of it has to do with my understanding of the term “ministry”. To me, there are Ministers, who are trained and educated in responsible ministry (there are, of course, those who claim minister title without the proper training, or whose education is only partial, but that’s another matter). I see the friends and classmates of mine who are still on the path for professional, ordained, ministry, and I have moments of envy for the things that they are learning. I’ve learned some, of course, but since I stepped off of the “M.Div” train, it’s much less intense, and I am not as steeped in the experiential learning that they are receiving. I have spent time as a Youth Advisor, and as a Religious Educator, and sometimes I feel like I have enough of an education to see when people are just screwing things up, but not enough to claim authority to help them fix it… But that’s another matter as well.
So, Ministers have jumped through the hoops, done the spiritual exploring, the academic work, the work within their faith and denomination, put in the time, and earned their titles of Reverend. They are Ministers, and they go out to minister to the world through churches, missions, non-profits, chaplaincy and a number of other venues. But then there are others, and this is the group I see myself in now. We are ministering, without being Ministers. The work I do now, working with children from a variety of backgrounds, helping with their homework, patiently explaining to them what “derogatory” means, and trying to teach them that hitting is not an appropriate response to, well, just about anything… that is ministry. There may not be an overt spiritual/religious element to it – but the rules of my room are all about Respect (for yourself, for others, for the space) and, in my repeated conversations about just what it means to Respect (and explaining that no, it does not just mean to listen to me, though that is certainly a nice start), I feel like I am helping then in understanding a core value. And so I minister in my daily life, just in a different way than the Ministers might do.
But it isn’t in the chaos of my days with the kids that I am looking at the Stole. I am still in seminary, so more likely it’s as I’m at the point of wanting to strangle my thesis into shape (because, pacifism seems to not stretch to dealing with my written works). My thesis is a pretty straightforward history thesis. There’s this guy that few have heard of (Sebastian Castellio… don’t worry, you’ll hear more about him in other posts, I’m sure), who stood up in the mid 1500s for religious tolerance, at a time when it wasn’t the safest or most popular move to make. And I’m writing about him, his life, his arguments for tolerance, the influence he had on future generations, despite the more powerful individuals doing what they could to discredit his name (aligning him with the devil, and the like). I have this thing for underdogs…..
But as I am writing this, knowing that it is entirely possible that it will be read by my advisor and reader, and perhaps a friend or two and then live the rest of its life on a shelf, or in a box, I find myself thinking to my ministry. See, I know that ministry will forever be a part of my life (it always has been and I see no reason for that to suddenly change), and I am in a constant time of trying to understand just what it looks like. Will I do interfaith work? Will I work with youth? I know that I want to teach, to work with educating others, and that is the professional path I am embarking on, but I find myself drawn to the spiritual. I love to craft worship services, to sit down and really think about how I can make the time that one spends in worship to be really special, to mean something, to do something. I love to write (and deliver) sermons, sharing my thoughts and reflections in a way that hopefully makes someone think, or connect with something in a way they had not before. And in all my writing I find myself wanting to do this. And so I sit with Castellio, and his arguments, and his underdog life, and I want to do more with it. I want to take his words, take the experiences he had, the life he lived, and make it something that transcends the realm of “history thesis.” I want people (outside of specialized academic and religious circles) to know who he was, and to see the things that I see within his works. Getting this out of the academic world, helping people understand the richness I see within history – how our lives can be enriched if we would just, to use the cliché, just learn from the past!
And I think that is why I keep looking to the Stole – because while that particular dream, of “big M” Ministry, has shifted, there is still a clear thread of ministry within me. I know that the path to Ministry is complicated, and winding. We use the language of a “calling”, and struggle with what the “call” may be. And so while, for now, my “call” is not ordination, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that I still have a “call” to ministry… and I certainly still have a calling that is there to be followed and pursued. So even when I move, when I am no longer in Seminary, I plan to continue to keep the Stole on my wall, a clear reminder of the importance to pay attention to those callings, to take the risks that are inherent in them, to find my ministry in whatever I may be doing, and to be willing to go with the flow – to change and adapt as life shifts and changes.
It’s a convoluted symbol, to be sure. But, what isn’t? Do others have things like that? Relics of past parts of your life that hold some sort of meaning (deep or shallow, straightforward or convoluted) that you hang onto for some sort of reminder?