CREATE US BY YOUR SPIRIT
Ordination Paper for the Northeast Association
of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ
August 13, 2015
The Rev. Martin J. Carney
Life is messy, chaotic, and unpredictably mysterious. Within this chaos, somehow, impossibly, we humans catch glimpses of the beauty of good emerging and love’s embrace unfolding. “God is love” expresses most clearly for me the relational mysteries of the Source of Life: “Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver” (from A New Zealand Prayer Book, 181). Or in my word play—Love~Love(r)~Be(Love)d—these images create beautiful narratives which resonate together to imagine the Community of Life which the historic Christian story has named in the poetry of “Trinity” and “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These historic narratives of human searching and witness to the mysteries of Love have emerged through ancient cultures of humanity. Most distinctively, my experience within the historic Protestant traditions of Christian faith has engaged me with the nomadic stories of the Hebrew/Jewish people’s quest to embody a covenant of faithful love, and with the writings witnessing to the mission of Love embodied in Jesus Christ among the first Christian communities in the Roman Empire. Calling this ongoing conversation, this witness to living Love, a “book” or the “Bible,” seems somewhat tame for the wild adventure we are being called to undergo.
That has been my experience in life and faith as I look back on my life’s journey. In my childhood I experienced both the messiness and the mystery of human love in my family of origin. It was there that I first experienced this love and began to wonder that God was somehow in the middle of all life’s beautiful disarray. In my adolescence, at my baptism—that experience of being a beloved child of God surrounded by a community of faith, hope, and love—I continued the adventure of faith in more intentional ways. In all the messiness of participating in church within my world of white, middle-class suburbia, my wondering at God deepened.
Early in my life of faith, I experienced the injustice of being excommunicated from the fundamentalist church of my childhood. My family and I had moved to a new city and had begun to participate in an American Baptist congregation. That fundamentalist church judged the ABC community to be outside their understanding of “church.” So they voted to expel me from their congregation. My first written sermon, I believe, was a letter I wrote to that congregation. In that letter I responded to that church’s condemning religion. I wrote to them with passion: “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them” (1 John 4.16 CEB). Through this witness to them, I responded to their “church court” which condemned and expelled me [as an adolescent!] because of my participation in a congregation within the American Baptist Churches. I expressed my distress and my hope for more life-giving actions from a community of faith, hope and love.
God is passionately in love with this cosmos, the stories tell us, and I experience in my own limited experience of life. Hovering within life’s chaotic messiness—its continual falling-apart, incompleteness, longing and hurtful injustices—something like a song of songs begins to create form and structure within this void. The love of God emerges in the midst of the hurts, distress, and destruction that so often freely flow with all else that is the mystery of life. Our human tendencies to self-destruct personally and socially are named “sin” and “evil” and “injustice” within our stories. Even within these failures and frailties, the God who is Love creates the promise of love within human culture and calls out for humanity to follow this emerging path of wisdom. This Lover inspires us humans to imagine and to embody the practices of life-giving love within the multiplicities of our human experiences and human cultures.
Throughout my own life journey, in my young adulthood and now middle adulthood, this mystery of Love has called me out, further along, “into a broad place” at the feast of life (Job 36.16). After my initial call into church leadership, I attended college and seminary to explore what that could mean for me. I have personally experienced this Love as a Source for my calling into leadership within the Church, and my participation within the world of art, and in the broadest sense, in the art of living. After ordination within the American Baptist Churches in 1989, I served two congregation in Ohio as a leader in youth and educational ministries. I expressed my experience of God’s extravagant grace through creatively engaging children, youth, and their families through a variety of experiences and events of formation into the practices of Christian faith. For the past fifteen years, I have served as pastor of a small ABC congregation in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. In this time of constant transition in culture, within the church and within church leadership, I continue to wonder at all the future impossibilities where the creative and free Spirit of Life is calling me personally, and calling the church collectively, to go.
For the time being, it seems to me that this uncertainty is at the center of my life and, in many ways, at the center of the life flowing from within the communities of faith, hope, and love. What I can say is that the God who is Love is perhaps leading me, perhaps us, to dare to live wholeheartedly and authentically from the strength of Love which emerges from the very depth, the wellspring of life. The Love(r) will lead us forward wherever it is we are called to go.
In a distinctive way, in this story of the God who is Love, in our Christian way of telling, we say that this Mystery entered into human experience. This wisdom emerged within the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Spirit called Jesus into a great mission of life and blessed Jesus at the initiation into this adventure: “You are my Beloved, my own. On you my favor rests” (Mark 1.11, The Inclusive Bible).
Jesus, the Beloved, embodied this blessing through a passionate life of opening health and wholeness to those suffering, of speaking truth in the face of injustice, of empowering the poor to eat and drink with abundant generosity, and of welcoming strangers and enemies with an extravagant grace. As Jesus created blessed relationships of love, a beloved community began to emerge through teaching and action. Such a community of peace-making and justice-creating became threatening to the distorting and destroying powers-that-be within the Roman Empire. In that time and place, the cross was the response of the dominating Empire to those who opposed its power.
Even in such a humiliating and unjust death, Jesus, the Beloved, embodied the blessed community of love, forgiveness, and grace. Rising in the strength of the God who is Love, the presence of Jesus, the Beloved, the Christ, emerges in communities of faith, hope, love. These communities themselves are called into being from within the chaos of human inhumanity. The barriers of fear and hatred are broken down through the practices of such beloved communities. This evolution of life happens as communities relate to others with a Spirited wisdom and an extravagant welcome in the ongoing flow of our human stories.
As I ponder serving within the United Church of Christ after twenty-seven years of ordained leadership within three congregations of the American Baptist Churches, I believe it is the Spirit of the Beloved who compels me in my desire to make this transition to serve more wholeheartedly within Christ’s mission of love in this world. There are many resonances between the UCC and the ABC. Both emerged from the free spirit of the European Protestant Reformation (in particular, both share strands of history from the Reformation in England). Both characterize themselves as being organized within a “free church” and “covenantal” polity of “associational congregationalism.” Though in my experience of their differences, the UCC tends to focus upon the covenants of “association” and the ABC on the freedom of the “congregational.”
With my years of experience in creative leadership, I believe that I am evolving as a leader and a follower of Jesus who is becoming more deeply open and alive in the ongoing wonder of life. In the extravagant ways of the God who is Love, and who is “still speaking,” I want to more authentically embody this Love, and this evolving into the Mystery, in my own frail way with communities of abundant grace within the chaos of our world. As an artist/leader who desires to empower others in their diverse callings, I see that this open and affirming Love is the all-embracing sacrament of life within all our life journeys. It is the Mystery calling within the multiplicities of life from birth to death and beyond death. I desire to lead a beloved community to “be love” within its life together and within its neighborhood in all the stories and practices which embody this Love.
In our Protestant communities, shared with the wider beloved communities of Christ, baptismal formation and the celebration of the Eucharistic feast are the practices which lead us to embody and energize this love most clearly. My prayerful desire is to relationally embody these practices so that the mystery—the mission—of Love may perhaps resonate among human communities within the diversity of our contemporary world:
Create us by your Spirit, give new life to the earth!
adapted from Psalm 104.