Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
by Mick Hirsch
Nobody knows what to do with Newton. You see, Isaac tested not only the laws of physics – he also tested how far Christian orthodoxy could bend until it simply breaks. Today, most people think of Newton as a brilliant physicist, the guy who came up with the Three Laws of Motion that we all had to learn at some point during our educational journeys. But, back in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, people didn’t know where to put him. If we’re honest, we all know how comforting it feels to label someone, to put them in a category, which we can either love, hate or discard as unimportant. This is what happened to Newton. The guy who discovered the Laws of Motion was put. And still today, among an itsy-bitsy group of historians and theologians who dabble in esoteric subjects, people are still arguing about where to put poor Isaac.
Let the name-calling begin: Newton’s a born-and-bred Anglican; no, he’s an antitrinitarian Arian heretic; impossible, he’s certainly somewhere between a Socinian and the Eastern Orthodox communion; seriously, let’s get real – he’s a deist; for God’s sake, it’s so obvious – he’s a latitudinarian-millinarian, duh!!! Oh, and we mustn’t forget… he’s one of the greatest physicists of all time.
We’re always looking for an easy way out, but if we think seriously about it, it’s really, really hard to put someone somewhere. Can you relate? Has it happened to you? It’s certainly happened to me, perhaps nowhere as intimately and personally challenging as the my own mercurial faith background. Like Isaac, I, too, have been called a lot of names and put in a lot of places.
Here’s the story: I was baptized Roman Catholic as an infant, just a year or two after my mom converted to Catholicism in order to marry my dad. But, by the time I was about two or three, my mom had had enough of Catholicism, and wanted to return to her Protestant roots. So, she took me to the “community church,” which happened to be American Baptist. Soon afterwards, my dad succumbed to some kind of Protestant temptation and followed along. It so happened, that by the time I entered junior high school, the Baptist youth group had diminished to a small handful of kids. So, the three of us abandoned ship and joined in with the Methodists. All fine and well, except for the fact that when my grandfather – my best friend – died during my sophomore year of high school, I was devastated. My “to be expected” teenage angst turned into a fierce atheism. With all apologies to any lawyers out there, it took working as a paralegal at a cutthroat Chicago law firm my year after college to reorient myself to a life of faith.
I felt something moving in my heart (John Wesley, referring to his own experience, said, “my heart was strangely warmed”). Coincidently, the only place I knew was the United Methodist Church (the one Wesley “founded”). So, I went there… and this time, I was pretty sure that my heart was strangely warmed. One Easter morning, I woke up and went to church. I knew all about Easter – the rabbit who lays chocolate covered eggs… cool. But, when the congregation belted out the hymn “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” well, I broke down in tears. It was an Isaiah 6:8 blast of what Methodists call “justifying grace” – the type of grace where God pardons and restores a person back to God. Before I could even think, there I was proclaiming, “Here I am. Send me!”
Bam! I entered Yale Divinity School on track to become ordained in the United Methodist Church (UMC). (By nature, I am curious – despite my affiliation with the UMC, I worked at a Congregational Church and completed my requisite internship at an Episcopal Church – once again, I was put… x 2.) Nevertheless, within the UMC, I felt on top of my game. I was young, clever, capable of entering the denomination from the inside, so that I could champion UMC-awesomeness, but also change some of the things with which I struggled about the Church.
Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself faced with a very difficult decision: either I take the vows to follow United Methodist doctrine, which would mean denying my LGBTQ friends the opportunity to profess their love for one another through marriage, as well as dissuading my LGBTQ friends from following their authentic call to ministry because they would be denied the same ordination I was about to receive. After many years of study, jumping through all the hoops, interviews, essays, paperwork, background checks, etc., etc. – I walked away. He who strived to be an insider now found himself an “outsider.”
But, that’s when I realized something monumental, something so very important, something incredibly powerful, life-giving, meaningful, purposeful… something real and inspired, all in one!
I was part of the laity.
Let’s go back to Newton. Our friend Isaac became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge in 1667 at the age of 24 – the same age I was when I entered Yale Divinity School. Isaac was on the ordination track in the Anglican Church. Like me, he, too, walked away. There were things with which he didn’t agree in the Church, and he felt it impossible to commit to things about which he felt strongly.
Even more importantly, despite the fact that others immediately tried to put him into certain categories – heretic, anti-this & anti-that, etc. – he didn’t stay put. Rather, he discovered the laws of MOTION!
Think back: do you remember Newton’s First Law of Motion? “Every object persists in its state of rest (i.e., inertia) or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.”
I’m going to make an assumption: like me, you learned this First Law of Motion as a phenomenon of the science of physics. Well, I’m going to suggest something else: Newton’s First Law of Motion is equally a phenomenon of APOSTOLIC MISSION!
Christians – the ordained, yes, but even more so the laity (they are few, while we are many!) – Christians are, by definition, MOVED! When we open our hearts to God, God responds with a blast of grace, and that blast is the “force impressed on [you and me]!!!” That blast is God’s call to us to abandon the comforts of inertia – the comforts of “here” – and instead, pack up our faith, our hope, and our love, and go “there” – wherever “there” may be. For, there is always a need “there.” There is always a place, a people, a neighbor, someone who needs us “there.”
God’s grace fosters, nurtures and empowers us, every single member of the body, which, for Isaac, is another way of saying, “God moves us!” And, for Jesus our Savior, is another way of saying, “go and make disciples of all nations…”
Mick Hirsch is the President & Executive Director of THRIVE Gulu, a non-governmental organization that delivers mental health and psycho-social support services to survivors of the genocide in Northern Uganda and South Sudanese refugees displaced to Uganda. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago, the Yale University Divinity School and the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma. He has no particular denominational affiliation apart from the fact that he loves Episcopal liturgy, Orthodox iconography, United Methodist hymnody and Unitarian Universalist social justice.