The Need to Answer
Someone asked me recently when I became a minister. Ordinarily, I
would have simply said, “Oh, about thirty-five years ago, I
guess. I was ordained about thirty-five years ago.” But, this
time, my mind chose to make a big deal out of the question, complicate
it, mess with it, analyze and philosophize with it. In short, make a
sermon out of it.
When did I become a minister? I don’t think that it was, after
all, when I was ordained. I don’t think Jeff Jones is becoming a
minister today. In the free church, congregations do ordain their
ministers; but they don’t create them, mystically, magically.
There is no moment here in which an ordinary person becomes
extraordinary. One becomes a minister when she, or he, becomes aware
of what the summons and mission of ministry is — and accepts it. The
identity of ministry is a “becoming.” It doesn’t happen
all at once.
Becoming a minister is rather like Theodore Parker’s thoughts
about a marriage: It needs a long summer to ripen in, and then a long
winter to mellow and season it. One becomes a minister a little at a
time; in phases, perhaps, and sometimes barely-noticed
transformations. With maturity and experience, and disappointment and
disillusionment, and joy and enlightenment, comes the transformation
Being a minister is not at all what it was for me thirty-five years
ago — or ten years ago. And I can only wonder what being a minister
will be for me a few years from now. One understanding of ministry
that has continued throughout my own several ministerial incarnations
is that ministry is an art. The ideal minister, I think, is an artist
with a flair for politics. Wouldn’t it be nice if a politician was
a minister with a flair for art.
Anyway, given my underlying assumption that ministry is an art, I was
intrigued to discover recently some thoughts of America’s poet
Laureate, Robert Pinsky. Pinsky says that the artist has “…a
need to answer, a promise to respond. “The promise,” he
says, “may be a contradiction, it may be unwanted. It may go
unheeded… but it is owed…”
And the sense that this need to answer, to respond, is owed, says
Pinsky, “…is a basic requirement for the poet’s good
feeling about the art. “This need to answer, as firm as a
borrowed object or a cash debt, is the ground where the centaur
“The need to answer, a promise to respond…” This, surely,
is the ground of ministry. “Whom shall I send, and who will go
for us?” And the prophet Isaiah answered, “Here am I. Send
Whatever else it is or becomes, ministry is a need to answer. Answer
what? Answer the cry at the edge of the void. Answer the ache of the
human heart. Answer the call of the wandering spirit. Answer the
plea of the oppressed. Answer fear. Answer Despair.
There is a need to answer — not a solution, most likely, sometimes
not even solace, but a need to answer. A promise to respond. And the
response, Pinsky says, may be a contradiction — not at all what is
expected. It may be unwanted. (Having the ring of truth about it.) An
affliction upon the comfortable. And it certainly may be unheeded —
that “nice sermon,” that “good advice,” that call
for repentance. Who asked you?
Good question. We’re not always sure where the question comes
from. But we know we are called to respond. It is a need and a
promise. It is, Pinsky says, owed — a sense of owing a response which
is as firm as cash debt or a borrowed object. This sense that a
response is owed, says Pinsky, “…is a basic requirement for the
poet’s good feeling about the art.”
There is that point, then, when one becomes a minister, when one knows
one is required to respond — to life in all its lights and shadows,
cries, whispers, deceits and trespasses– when one knows one is
required to answer and feels good about it.
Oh, not “Yippee!” or “whoopee!” or “hot
damn!” feeling good but recognizing the goodness of the
requirement, the rightness of it, the intention of it, that it is as
it should be. That, I suppose, is what it means to be
“called.” It is to be sent upon an impossible mission for
which one is hopelessly inadequate — and feeling good about it. It is
when one senses that a response is owed, inadequate though our
response must always be, that one becomes a minister. In this light,
Jeff may have walked in as a minister — having known the need to
answer long before this day. Or he may walk out, after all the
dressing up, the words, the blessings and the singing, and still be
waiting for the need to be upon him.
What then is this Ordination? I think of it as the consecration of
intention. The blessing of the community on one who has promised to
answer or who has come willing to be sent when the need is bestowed.
The Ordination does not create a minister, as the wedding does not
create a marriage.
The creation of ministry is, as Theodore Parker suggested in relation
to marriage, a continuing intention, growing, ripening, mellowing.
We gather to bless and to honor and uphold the intention.
We gather to celebrate that spirit that does not leave the human cry
unanswered but sends us women and men who bear, or who stand ready to
bear, the burden and the joy of the need to answer.
We gather to celebrate the response to ministry of Jeff Jones, who
hears the call and answers “Hear am I. Send me.”