To be a Minister of Word and Sacrament means to pay attention, to be observant, to find the holy, not only in the night sky but also in the everyday.
Chasing the Wind
By Douglas Brouwer
I baptized my older daughter, Sarah, when she was three months old. She was not my first baptism, though she was among my first. I was new to the sacraments then. I had only been ordained for a couple of years and hadn’t taken the course at seminary on the big, dramatic gestures of worship, which is how the seminary thought of the sacraments (they were taught by a member of the speech department). When I graduated, I had no idea how to take a baby from a parent or how to apply the water or how to do much of anything that ordination allowed me to do.
Happily, though, I worked with an experienced senior pastor, Fred Anderson, who was more than willing to show me. At 6:30 on the Sunday morning before my first baptism, before the minister of music arrived to practice the organ, Fred and I went to the sanctuary with a large baby doll I had stolen from the church nursery, and I practiced holding the baby and administering the water and saying the words I had memorized. There’s a higher degree of difficulty involved in all of that than most people realize.
Fred’s approach to infant baptism was to take large fistfuls of water from the font and apply them to the baby’s head—one fistful each for the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Those babies were always in for a soaking. The baptismal liturgy says that in baptism we die to our old selves and rise to new life in Christ, and Fred intended to get those babies as close to a drowning as he could.
Sarah was dressed for her baptism in a long, white baptismal gown that had been in the family for years. A few of her cousins had been baptized while wearing the same gown, and a few more have worn it at their baptisms in the years since. I took Sarah from her mother’s arms, having had quite a bit of experience by this point, and then, standing close to the massive stone font, I looked into her eyes, just as I had moments after she was born. I confidently grabbed a fistful of water and applied it to her head, and I managed to say, “Sarah DeYoung Brouwer, I baptize you in the name of the Father. . . .” But that was as far as I got. Suddenly, in that moment, I realized where I was and what I was doing, and I was so overwhelmed by it all, the meaning of it, that I was unable to go on.
Fred could see that no more words were going to come out of my mouth, so without hesitation he took over. He grabbed two more fistfuls of water and finished the job: “. . . and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!” He soaked both of us. And that’s how Sarah was baptized, a tag-team effort, unusual in the annals of Protestant worship. She was a child of the covenant, sealed in the Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever. We sang a baptismal hymn that had been written for the occasion, and then it was over.
I don’t mind saying that those few minutes were among the high points of my ministry. I was aware in the moment that what had happened was holy, though at the time I would not have been able to say why. In Sarah’s baptism, though, I began to understand a bit more clearly what my ordination meant. Ordination, I realized, meant that I would get to spend time with the holy bits, that I would get to lead people to the point where they could experience the holy, if they wanted to. I would be allowed to dip my hand into the waters of baptism, to hold the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, to pronounce words of blessing on people entering the covenant of marriage, to say words of comfort and hope at times of death, and more. I began to see my ordination first as a great privilege and then, later, as a great responsibility. I realized that my life as a pastor would be filled with holy moments, not just with my family, but with many others, in a variety of settings.
Finding the holy in baptism isn’t all that hard, as it turns out. It’s one of those rites within worship where, if you’re the least bit open to the holy, you can usually see it or feel it. At other times, and in other places, finding the holy can be much more difficult. At meetings of the buildings and grounds committee, for example, with a group of guys (in my experience they were almost always men) doing nothing more than comparing estimates for roof repairs, God’s presence can be somewhat harder to see.
These were never my favorite meetings, and whenever possible I avoided them, but when I was there, I would find myself looking at those men and seeing in them faithful servants of God, doing God’s work. Repairing the roof might not seem like God’s work, but that’s just the point. For me in those moments, if not always for them, carefully examining those estimates, it was clearly God’s work. These men would bring all their skill and expertise to fixing a roof, but I could see that they were fixing the tabernacle of God, the place where so much that was holy in their lives occurred—the Christmas pageants of their children and grandchildren, the baptisms and funerals of people they loved, and sometimes weddings, too—perhaps even their own. I could sense all of this as they worked, and I frequently wondered how I could show them what they were doing, what was really going on. In those moments I remembered why I loved to be a pastor.
When I would go the hospital (for pastors “business travel” usually consists of driving to the hospital) and take the elevator to the fifth floor, and then walk down the hall looking for the room where a member of my congregation was lying in a hospital bed, I knew that I was not just anyone who happened to walk in off the street. In these visits I knew, as I did during baptisms and during meetings of the buildings and grounds committee, that I was a Minister of Word and Sacrament.
When the person in the hospital bed saw me and invited me in, she was seeing not just a tall man with a concerned smile. She was seeing her pastor, someone who could be counted on to know God and to be familiar (to some extent) with the ways of God. She was expecting that I would bring with me a worship bulletin from the previous Sunday’s service, but also a piece of what happened there, the holiness that her church family had seen and participated in. When I took her hand to pray at the end of the visit, there would be something in the touching of our hands that let her know that she was in the presence of God. I always knew that it was my work to do those things, to be that person, to be mindful of that presence. I never grew tired of visiting church members in the hospital.
My friend Tom Dozeman is an Old Testament scholar who once took up the challenge of the World Council of Churches (WCC). In 1982, in an important paper called “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” the WCC challenged churches to search out the biblical meaning of ordination, partly so that churches around the world would begin talking about it, and partly so that Christians would have a biblical and theological framework for thinking about it.
As an Old Testament scholar, Tom didn’t have to search much further than the few chapters in the book of Exodus where he had spent much of his career. His book, Holiness and Ministry: A Biblical Theology of Ordination, locates the biblical origins of ordination right at the beginning, in the wilderness of Sinai. Many Christians look to the New Testament for role models—to Peter and (more often) to Paul. But Tom argues that we should look much further back—to the first books of the Bible. As the people of Israel were wandering around the Sinai desert, they were doing important work. They were sorting out for themselves the ways in which they would live with and worship their God. They developed what we might call “holy habits.” Basically, they named the holy. They came to understand it, as much as holiness can be understood. They even developed the rituals and created the space and designed the furniture that would allow them to spend time with the holy.
Priests and Levites were the people allowed to touch the holy bits. They were the ones entrusted with the same duties and responsibilities that Ministers of Word and Sacrament are today. Our jobs find their origins in theirs. Priests and Levites were no better than the rest of the people, and they often proved that they weren’t, but their work, their calling, was devoted to God’s presence and God’s interactions with the people. Everyone participated, of course, but it was the priests and Levites who made sure things happened as they were supposed to, even though God occasionally reminded everyone, including priests and Levites, that no building, no piece of furniture, and no sacred ritual could contain the divine presence.
Once, as I was about to lead a family into the church sanctuary for a funeral, an usher who was holding the door for us whispered to me in a confidential tone, “I sure don’t envy you having to do this.”
It wasn’t the moment to have a conversation, and I knew he meant to express his concern for me, but what I would have said in that moment, and before all of the other funerals I have been asked to lead, is this: “I have never felt more like a pastor than right now. This is what I have been trained and equipped to do. It is a great privilege to be invited by a family into their grief, to hear their sobs, and to find the words to say that they are unable to speak. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but in this holy moment.”
I remember a brief funeral service for a newborn. It took place in a hospital room and was attended by the parents and a couple of nurses. I remember a service for a teenager who had died of an underlying heart condition while swimming in a lake at summer camp. I remember others, each one painful in its own way. These funerals were some of the most difficult experiences of my ministry, and yet—I also remember each one as a holy moment. They were holy in their intimacy, they were holy in their suffering, they were holy in the sense that there was nowhere else to turn but to something beyond ourselves. Death had brought us together, and it had stripped us of our pride and arrogance and false hope. Death, strangely enough, provided the setting in which we could see and know and experience the holy.
Twenty-six years after Sarah’s baptism, she was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and once again I had a part in the service—not to throw water around this time, but to participate in the laying on of hands and to preach the sermon.
In my sermon that afternoon I mentioned Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, and I told the story from the book about Taylor’s father teaching her to be observant of the world around her, what she learned to call the “practice of paying attention.” For Taylor paying attention had become in her life and in her ministry a spiritual practice, right up there with prayer and Bible reading. But in Taylor’s telling, the paying attention she has in mind is not straining; it is letting go. She would lie on the ground in the backyard, along with her father and younger sister, and while looking up into the night sky they would notice all sorts of things that you typically don’t see unless you’re paying attention: “All I remember is lying there beside [my father and sister] looking into a sky I had never really looked into before, or at least never for so long.”
In my ordination sermon I told Sarah what I have come to see as true—namely, that to be a Minister of Word and Sacrament means to pay attention, to be observant, to find the holy, not only in the night sky (as Taylor has), but also in the everyday, in the committee meetings, and in the routine of ministry. I acknowledged that this, of course, is the work of every person of faith, but the Minister of Word and Sacrament, the steward of the mysteries of God, has the privilege and responsibility of devoting lots of time to it. The church members we serve, I said, will expect that we’ll be able to do it, that in any old moment or setting, in a hospital room or next to the Sea of Galilee, we’ll be able to talk about the divine presence and help others to see it too.