Written by Gradye Parsons
Each month the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Moderator or Vice Moderator of the 220th General Assembly write a column of general interest for the church-at-large.
I will observe the 33rd anniversary of my ordination this summer. It seems a long time ago when I answered ordination questions for the first time.
I have had different calls to ministry over the years, with different questions to answer at each installation. Those questions have never lost their significance. The “do you” and “will you” still evoke a commitment to a life rich with meaning.
The ordination questions begin where it all begins – with the affirmation that Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord of all, and a belief in the triune nature of God. This is core. To own up that I cannot save myself or be Lord of the world is to be free at last from the tyranny of sin and selfishness.
When I affirm belief in the Trinity, I am taking my place in the ancient conversation in the church and in the Trinity itself as the communal nature of God. Saying “I do” is to accept a gift that was bought with life and death. Saying “I do” is to begin the grand adventure of loving God and letting God lead me wherever the church calls.
The second question is about Scripture. I grew up in a time when we read the Revised Standard Version and quoted the King James Version. Both of my parents taught Sunday school. My father had Bible commentaries with the scariest pictures possible of Old Testament stories.
The gift I received in the Presbyterian church was to read the Scriptures with my whole heart and mind. I have had many arguments with the Bible. But I will admit that it always wins. It wins when, in the middle of reading it, I find that it instead is reading me. Whether I am attempting to bring comfort or seeking it myself, whether I am confronting injustice in others or myself, and whether I am casting about for splinters while missing my own log jam, this holy, unique witness changes me.
The third question makes the claim on my understanding of the faith through the lens of the Reformed tradition. This I gladly do. From the Nicene Creed to A Brief Statement of Faith, the church has sought to put on paper what it confesses. The task of writing it down has made the church look at its world, its understanding of theology, and Scripture. This should be the formula for every sermon a minister preaches. In the life of those I love and in my own life, I have come to cherish the answer to the first Heidelberg Catechism question: “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ….”
The fourth question summarizes the first three. The final five are contained for me in the charge given to me thirty-three years ago. In that charge, I was admonished to live out three roles as a Presbyterian minister – preacher, pastor, and presbyter.
To be a good presbyter is to be willing to participate in a conversation that opens myself and others to different insights and collective wisdom. Conversations that bring us all to our knees before the Lord and ask the Holy Spirit to provide a direction.
These conversations happen because of relationships that are shaped and formed by the covenantal life of ruling and teaching elders. A common and equalizing life that is foundational to how I understand our polity. Being a good presbyter is to live beyond myself in community. Yes, it has its chores and bores. But it is what creates bonds of genuine affection and mutual respect.
Answering those ordination questions was making a commitment to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has shaped my life and given it meaning.
This denomination took me in from my Methodist roots and nurtured me in the theology of Calvin. This church drew me into a wider world of service to others, seen and unseen. It was this church that held me when my heart was broken and my horizons looked dim. It was this church with all of its flaws that loved me with all of mine.
Today, as I travel across the PC(USA), I find a great variety of congregations with a common Reformed ethos that is centered on the proclamation of the Word, education, and service. To see how congregations are rising to the challenges of doing ministry in the 21st century gives me great hope.
It is in this church that I made my vows. I would gladly do again – with an even louder “I do” and “I will.”
And with God’s help.