My accomplishments this year towards ordination definitely compromised my humility at critical times. Like the warrior Naaman, I get to keep coming to God to wash away my pride.
But [Naaman’s] servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” ~ 2 Kings 5:13
This has been a year of many milestones in my life. Completing Clinical Pastoral Education, completing Hartford Seminary studies, presiding over a funeral for the first time, starting studies at Yale Divinity School, my first time leading a prayer at Marquand Chapel there – all these have been important moments along the road towards becoming an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, a calling that began over forty years ago. The roads towards that goal have been mostly quite humble: crowded and noisy Sunday school rooms, offering help and comfort to people in need, leading and starting Bible study groups, doing the grunt work to help make churches come alive. Yes, some sermons were flashy moments, but they come and go quickly.
Evaluating a setback
One milestone had eluded me this year: becoming a Certified Candidate in the United Methodist ordination process. I had come before my Connecticut District ordination committee about six months ago, and I did not receive a three-quarters vote of the committee to be certified. It was definitely a painful setback – and it left me with less than a year to reach this phase, otherwise I would be adding at least another year to the process. More importantly, though, it left me with some soul-searching and discernment work to do. What was the committee not seeing in me? What must I do to be a better candidate?
Many friends, mentors, and classmates helped me to look at myself throughout this process, and I spent a lot of time in prayer and reflection. What it came down to was this: I had become too proud of my progress, forgetting that it was God who was powering this miracle of faith that led me forward against all odds and all obstacles. There was no doubt that I was a faithful person, a person with compassion and many skills, and I was humble in many ways. But all of these achievements, and the enormous energy that it took to produce them, had left me spiritually weakened – and it showed in my prideful attitudes. Tired and stressed, I was justifying myself, rather than surrendering to God’s justification of us through faith.
Remembering Naaman by the Jordan
The day after the committee meeting, Meagan Downing, a very talented classmate of mine, delivered a very powerful sermon at Marquand Chapel. Her sermon reminded me of how important it is to allow God to lead us towards the transformation that we need when our weaknesses betray us. She focused on the Old Testament story of the prophet Elisha enabling the healing of the great Aramean general Naaman. Naaman could do a lot through his own power and skills, but he had a big problem – he had leprosy, a debilitating skin disease. Someone in the court of the king of Aram had heard of the Jewish prophet Elisha’s amazing healing powers, and so the king sent Naaman to visit him.
As Meagan described so well, this must have been a real blow to Naaman’s ego – not only did he have to use a foreign prophet for healing, but he had to go to him to get healed! There was footwork involved – healing wouldn’t come at his convenience. But God wasn’t done with Naaman’s pride-whittling just yet. When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s house in a flashy horse-drawn chariot, Elisha wouldn’t even meet with him. Instead, Elisha sent a messenger to Naaman to tell him that if he would wash his leprosy in the muddy waters of the Jordan Riven seven times, his leprosy would be healed. Naaman headed off in a rage, his pride flaring up.
Humility allows God to clean us and transform us
Fortunately, a servant of Naaman coaxed him into doing as Elisha had asked him: why not do this simple thing, the servant suggested, since Elijah could have asked him to do something far more difficult. Begrudgingly, Naaman did as Elisha had asked. He washed himself in the Jordan, the river that had provided so many miraculous gifts from God, the very river in which Jesus would offer himself to John to be baptised humbly many years later. So Naaman washed his hands again, and again…and, after the seventh time, his leprosy was gone, and his skin was restored beautifully. He was no longer so vulnerable because of his pride. His humility to follow the simple request of God’s servant restored him to wholeness, transforming Naaman from a bitter, prideful person into a grateful, humble person praising God.
And so it was with my ordination committee. When they had said that I had “lacked grace” six months ago at their meeting, it was their kind way of saying, “John, you need to wash in the Jordan a bit!” Like Naaman, I had a lot going for me, but no servant of God can survive the trials that the evils of the world can throw at us if we refuse to let go of our pride. God asks us to seek God’s grace with humility, again and again, not because God wants us to be weak, but because God wants us to be safe in the healing grace of God’s strength. Humility is, after all, being simply the child of God who God has made us to be. If we feel humiliated, we must first check our pride at the door, so that God can guide us to the healing that we need, and to the transformation that will amaze us.
Moving on to a broader race
I arrived at the committee meeting in a serene and grateful mood, powered by my own humble on-your-knees prayers, and the prayerful support and counseling of many people. I had re-written much of my paperwork for ordination to reflect the spiritual and emotional insights that I had gained through this process. I didn’t do a perfect job of answering the tough questions that the committee asked me, but, like Naaman, I kept on washing my heart and soul in God’s waters to move me forward from one moment to another. I repented for my foolishness at my earlier apparance before the committee – though it took me a bit to get around to it, I must admit. Humility is a work in progress for me, through God’s grace.
At the end of the meeting, I could see that most people had come to accept how passionately I wanted to serve God to bring healing and hope to the church and to the world. At least I hoped so. That evening, I got an email confirming that the committee had approved my Certified Candidate status. I was so grateful, and yet, at the same time, realizing that this was a milestone that opened up a much broader challenge – presenting myself to another committee a year from now for provisional ordainment, a committtee who will not know me very well at all, and who will question me even more. God, please keep me by the Jordan, I’ve got a lot of washing to do between now and then.