My congregation has been privileged this year to receive the gifts of an intern pastor. It has been a wonderful experience and surely one we hope to repeat again and again. It was as I was reflecting on how this has been so far that I was asked about my own experience as an intern many years ago. In my tradition then (and often still now, although students are given other options) to study on site at the seminary for two years, to complete a twelve month pastoral internship, and then to return to seminary for the fourth year. The question posed to me this week was this: “Did you even want to go back for that fourth year? Weren’t you ready to get out there and get to work?”
My response was without hesitation: “No. Absolutely not.”
It is not that my internship was not positive, although it had been a lonely year in some ways. But this was so. I found people at the seminary who ‘got me’ in ways I had never been ‘gotten’ before. I had found a community of peers with whom I shared more in common than I ever would before and, it turns out — at least so far — I likely ever would again. It was a time and place when a lot of pieces came together. It was, for me, the sort of high mountain which Peter and James and John climbed with Jesus so long ago.
It turns out I was not entirely wrong in my eagerness to return to that place for another year. There were gifts on that mountain which I truly would never experience in the same way again. Gifts of understanding and community and wonder.
And yet, it is not as though I have not had those experiences countless times in the last almost thirty years since I left that particular mountaintop behind. I was reminded of this in a particular way in these last several days.
For you see, I have been privileged to accompany our Bishop on a kind of listening tour through the Synod this week. At each stop, rostered leaders (in our tradition: pastors, associates in minister, diaconal ministers, and deacons) have been gathered into small groups and posed a number of questions. The first question was this:
“What has been a high point for you in parish ministry?”
Each was given a pile of post it notes and sent to work. Some offered but a handful and some offered a dozen but each and every person around those tables could name times of pure joy in their experiences in congregations. They spoke of baptisms and confirmations and one on one conversations with precious people. They told stories of times of walking with dear ones and their loved ones in their dying days and they painted pictures of seasons when they witnessed death and resurrection in their congregations and communities in powerful ways. One told of her joy at watching children dancing in the aisles to a liturgy known by heart and others spoke of their congregation’s growth in extending what would have once been considered radical welcome to others. On and on and on the stories have been offered and with each telling one could witness the imaginations and memories of others at their tables being stirred with gratitude and hope.
Ministry can be hard. And yes, we have certainly heard that truth in these last days as well. The world is a challenging place and we often do not know how God’s people are called to live within it or how we are called to lead people in these changing times. And too, too often we find ourselves without cherished companions who can help us remember what perhaps we knew so well on that mountaintop along with Peter and James and John. And Moses and Elijah. And Jesus. Always Jesus.
Ministry can be hard. And yet, through it all sometimes in profoundly unexpected times, we are pulled up out of the difficulty and find ourselves right back up on the mountaintop where again we are privileged to see Jesus transfigured before us, “shining like the sun itself.” And we remember why we are here and why we do what we do. And somehow with that to carry us, we are able to join Jesus in going back down the mountain and joining God’s beloved people in times and places where they also find themselves yearning for the kind of understanding and hope which too often we only receive when we have been on the mountaintop.
My prayer for each and all of you is that you might have receive enough of those sorts of gifts that we receive on the mountaintop that you might be sustained in those hard slogging, lonely, confusing days which come to all who seek to follow Jesus off the mountain. May you be cloaked in the wonder of those moments for all that you say and all that you do and all that you are called to be…
- When and where have you found yourself on the mountaintop? When have you seen Jesus “shining like the sun” and all the pieces have come together for you? If you had been gathered at a table with me this week, what story would you have shared?
- How have such experiences sustained you in your journey of faith? For yourself? As you are called to lead and/or be a witness to others?