The Peace that Passeth My Understanding

By Rev. Tabitha Isner

As a person of faith, I’d like to believe that I am filled with the Holy Spirit. Not in a speaking-in-tongues way, but in the sense that God’s Spirit impacts all aspects of my life, that God is present in each of my moments, helping me to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. But to be honest with you, it just isn’t true. When I am caring for a distressed friend, it’s usually true.  When I’m mentoring my “little sis,” it’s mostly true. But for the largest chunk of my time–the time I spend at work – it’s just not true. I am NOT Spirit-filled. 

Sometimes I think the problem is my job, the environment in which I work. It’s a bureaucracy, filled with excessive paperwork and excessive meetings, and it requires excessive patience to wait for anything actually to get doneSo, day after day goes by, and I rarely feel a sense of accomplishment or appreciation.  But it’s not just me, and it’s not just my workplace. We’re all frustrated. Resentful. Impatient. Defensive.

At work, I am often NOT Spirit-filled. And yet, it’s not never. When it does happenwhen a spirit of grace and peace and gentleness fills my heart and mind, when I speak to my colleagues with patience and empathy as my sisters and brothers on this journey - I find myself completely caught off guard by my own actions and words. It’s not that they feel wrong or inappropriate. Quite the opposite. They feel wonderful.  Like a cool breeze sweeping unexpectedly through a stuffy room. They feel right and obvious. Like the muscle memory of climbing into bed in the dark. Of course I am filled with the Spirit! Of course I am responding to a stressful situation with grace and peace and gentleness! It’s the most natural thing in the world.

And I’m 100% baffled about how it happened. 

The thing is, I’ve been praying for peace. I’ve been praying that the Spirit might grant me the “peace that passeth understanding,” that standard Christian notion from Phillipians 4:7.  I imagine it as the Zen calmness of one who knows her place as God’s beloved child and therefore is unruffled by the stress of deadlines and unscathed by the rough edges of inconsiderate coworkers. It’s a good prayer, I think, the kind that, if granted, would bring me closer to God and also to my neighbors. I’ve been praying it for months now and simultaneously reading books and blogs about how to make it so. But to no avail. I still don’t get it. I haven’t found an effective trick for staying in that Spirit-place throughout the day or for ordering up an injection of Spirit when the need arises. 

Sure, I have those unexpected moments when it just happens, but I want more. I want to be the expert on the peace that passeth understanding. I want to be able to do it consistently, on command. I want to be a master of Spirit-channeling. I want to control it. The Spirit. The chaos-ordering, death-defying, church-birthing, millennia-crossing Spirit of God. If I’m being honest with you, I have to admit that I don’t want the peace that passeth my understanding. I want the peace which I completely understand, and can predict – but that others are impressed by, saying, “I just don’t understand how she does it!” And having put it that way, I have a sudden clarity that I’m not going to get it.

So back to the drawing board.  No, not the drawing board. The prayer mat. It’s time to give up my self-conception as the expert designer and instead assume the position of baffled gift-receiver. It’s time to pray this prayer again, this time asking for the ability to blindly accept the Spirit’s incomprehensible gift of peace; to lean in to the fact that I can’t control when the Spirit shows up in me, I can only welcome it when it arrives. It’s time to pray for the peace that passeth right over understanding and skips straight to my heart.  I pray it comes to you too.

Tabitha Isner is a government bureaucrat by day and a church consultant when she can talk someone into it.  She confesses to a long-standing habit of practicing theology, feminism, and statistical analyses.

That Ministry Thing

By Rev. Charlsi Lewis Lee

Today is kind of a special day to me.  It’s the anniversary of my ordination—it seems sort of like a lifetime ago and yet, it feels like yesterday.  I remember my friend and colleague who preached a tremendous sermon.  I remember my sister dancing as my mother sang.  I remember the church in central KY that nurtured and loved me through seminary and cared for me in the years to come as well.  They were patient enough to listen to my early sermons, engage me in theological reflection, and challenge my ecclesiological understandings.  They blessed me with their presence and loved me into a ministry that has had many faces and expressions but has always been grounded in faith and shared in love.  

The other day my daughter and I swung by her dad’s house so she could pick something up for her big weekend plans.  A neighbor waved at me and I got out of the car to say “hello.”  It had been a while since we had seen each other and we exchanged the normal pleasantries.  And then, she asked me the question:  “Are you still doing that ministry thing?”  Ugh… I shouldn’t be surprised by the question because I have been asked that many times in my life.  The father of one of my friends asked me right after I had my first child.  Someone else asked me after my divorce.  And then, yesterday… Ugh, again.

I know, I shouldn’t expect everyone to be so evolved, and yet I do.  So, for the record:  I am still doing that ministry thing.  It looks different now, but ministry has never been a fleeting notion or a phase through which I was passing.  It has been the thing I love to do since the day I first spoke to my father about it at 16 years old.  

I remember sitting at a restaurant with him in the midst of our Sunday routine.  First, we would go to worship where my mother was serving. Then, we would grab lunch as my father prepared for worship at the retirement community where he served.  On this day, Dad and I were eating alone.  My sister was off at college and Mom had a meeting.  

I said something like, “Dad, I was thinking about going into the ministry.”  

He said, “If you can do anything else, don’t go into the ministry.”  

He was right.  If I would have been happy, really happy in any field but ministry, then my years in seminary wouldn’t have been very fruitful.  Ministry is what I love to do and over the years I have witnessed and understood that ordained ministry has many expressions.  It has been my blessing to experience this ministry in so many ways.  

Ordained ministry is about serving the church in everything we do.  It is about accepting a vocation that calls us far beyond a paycheck or even our training.  It is about listening to God’s call over and over again and being ready to hear the voice of God even when we believe we know better.  

I am not serving a congregation right now at least not as a pastor.  I serve as an elder.  I worship with the congregation and I help to lead a children’s worship ministry.  I get to celebrate in the pew and sometimes in the pulpit.  I preach where and when I am asked.  I have celebrated life and God’s presence in ways over the last few years that have truly surprised me.

Shortly after my ordination, I couldn’t have known that I would spend 2 years watching the presence of God as revealed in children and young adults living with special needs.  But I am a better minister, preacher, friend, wife, parent and counselor because of the amazing love I witnessed and experienced working with this group of individuals.  I am changed forever because so many families shared their children with me.  

Shortly after my ordination, I couldn’t have known that I would drive 100 miles once a month to join in worship with the same congregation that had been served by my uncle.  But my experience of church and my love of community have been made richer and fuller by the witness of that small community.   I am blessed today because God called me to preach to that small gathering of believers.   

Shortly after my ordination, I couldn’t have known that I would be going to school and working as a substance abuse counselor.  Here I am, though, called to be a presence of healing and wholeness in a community broken by addiction.  I don’t preach.  I don’t teach bible verses.  I don’t sing hymns.  But I do sit with individuals, families, and groups who have known how addiction breaks spirits, ruins lives, and decimates relationships.  

I practice the presence of God every day at work.  I use the gifts I was given to share the love of God with the people who walk into the office.  So, yes, I am still doing that ministry thing.  I am still living into the vocation of ordained ministry.  I still hear God’s call and rejoice that so many people continue to nurture me in that calling.  

Church doesn’t look like it did when I was child, or a teen, or a young adult, or now as a mother of a teenager and two near teenagers.  Ordained ministry doesn’t look the same either.  But they are the same at the core because both the church and ordained ministry are about living the good news of a gracious and loving God.   

On this anniversary of ordination, I would like to say “thank you” to the people who have helped me hear God’s call most clearly—and yes, that includes the ones who have asked, “Are you still doing that ministry thing?”