Preparing for Priesthood by Failing My Ordination Exams
There are a number of good ways to study and interpret scripture, but one of the ones I enjoy the most is to take details within a particular passage that jump out at me and ask what they mean in my own life.
The people who wrote the books of the Bible were trying to communicate the events of stories, but part of what makes these writings Holy Scripture is the fact that they are layered with meaning.
Each time we come back to them we find a new echo, a new resonance in our own lives. This is why the Bible is our heartbeat as the people of God.
Our lesson from Acts today is rich with sentences and phrases we can mine for meaning in our own lives.
The basic story is about Philip the Evangelist and the Ethiopian Eunuch.
This Philip is not the Philip of the Twelve Apostles. Rather, this Philip was a member of the early church who was chosen as a leader to help administer and organize the church so the apostles could go and pray rather than sort out disputes about food and money.
At some point Philip becomes known as a talented evangelist, and begins to go on conversion missions under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
He finds a eunuch traveling from Jerusalem back to the court of the Ethiopian queen, where he is a high official. This eunuch is reading the text of Isaiah in his chariot.
Philip interprets Isaiah to him in the context of telling the story of Jesus, and the Ethiopian man is so moved that they stop and baptize him on the spot.
Philip is taken away by the Holy Spirit to evangelize elsewhere, and the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing. Excellent story, the end.
But like I said, it’s worth slowing down and taking a look at the details of the story. I find some of my most fruitful prayer and insight about my life come from this type of Bible study.
I’m fascinated right from the beginning of this passage. “An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.”
This is a wilderness road.
What does it mean to be called by an angel of the Lord to go to a wilderness road?
When has that happened before in your life?
These types of things can be true in so many different ways.
I think of how I was called to serve these parishes, so far from the place where I went to seminary or where I grew up.
And I think of the wilderness within me.
I think of the unexplored and desert places in my heart that might be important for new ministry.
Philip is sent by the angel to a wilderness road not knowing what he will find there, but trusting that it is important.
How can we answer that call ourselves, today, both individually and as a church?
“Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?””
The Spirit has such an odd turn of phrase—go over to this chariot and join it.
What does that mean?
A chariot is a vehicle of the rich and powerful.
Whoever is controlling it is someone far above Philip’s social class.
But his way of “joining” the chariot is to assume that the rider needs instruction in what he’s reading.
That’s pretty cheeky. Pretty bold.
What are the chariots in my life that need “joining”?
Who is someone in my life who appears strong and powerful on the outside, but might need someone to ask how they’re really doing?
And perhaps I’m the one who needs to be asked if I understand what I’m reading.
Every day I see people both in my job and just throughout my day, at the grocery store, at the gas station, at the church.
Do I understand what I’m reading?
Am I really seeing the people in my life or just letting my eyes pass over them and taking them at face value?
How often is their pain or their beauty calling out to me to be answered with a kind or encouraging word and I’m oblivious?
Do you see how many questions we can open up within ourselves just by slowing down and paying attention to the details of the scripture we’re reading?
But there’s one question our story asks directly that I want to focus on the most because I think it’s worth asking again and again. “As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?””
What is to prevent us from being baptized?
I don’t mean literally, most of us have already been through the sacrament of baptism.
What is to prevent us from embarking on new ministry, new challenges, new opportunities the Spirit is opening up for us?
There was a particular moment in my life that stands out for me when I really thought I was about to be prevented from being baptized, so to speak.
It was my last semester of seminary.
The ordination process is nothing if not thorough in the Episcopal Church. By the time I hit January of my senior year in seminary I had been working toward the goal of ordination for six years, and for a twenty-five year-old that’s a significant portion of your life.
I had doggedly and carefully dotted every i and crossed every t of the long and detailed ordination process, jumped through every hoop the Commission on Ministry in the Diocese of West Missouri could think up.
I’d answered the questions about my life, my faith, faced down the many suggestions that I go out and live life for awhile, get some real life experience before I tried to be a priest.
I thought things were going great.
Then came the GOEs.
Everyone who becomes a priest in the Episcopal Church has to take the General Ordination Exams. They cover scripture, church history, pastoral care, theology, ethics, Bible, everything you would expect a seminarian to have mastered.
You work toward them throughout seminary, and the heavy preparation begins in October of your senior year to take the exams in early January.
I felt good about the exams.
I’d done good prep work.
I was never the top of the heap at Yale by any means, but I held my own, and by my third year I felt comfortable and competent.
I thought I was ready to go.
Then I went home to my parents’ house for Christmas break and got some really bad news in my personal life.
I thought I was fine, shake it off and go back and take the exams.
I still thought I was fine all the way through taking the exams, that I could separate my intellect from my raging emotions.
But something went drastically wrong.
We got the results back in March and I only passed two of the seven sections.
I failed the rest of it across the board.
It was awful.
I was not someone who just failed exams, and worse, now my ordination was in jeopardy.
I definitely failed the big stuff, too, like theology and both Old and New Testament.
And the Commission on Ministry, who thought I was too big for my britches already for having insisted on going to Yale, wanted to know exactly why they should ordain someone who couldn’t pass the GOEs.
In the end I was too proud to admit that my ability to take the exam might have been compromised by being in crisis in my personal life, and I got by on my good grades throughout three years at seminary and my bishop who had faith in me.
But when I read the question in Acts today, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” I instantly went back to that cold and sick feeling that everything I had been working for for years was going down the drain before my eyes, and my dream of being a priest was never going to happen.
But I think that question is actually relevant to me in a different way in that situation.
What kind of person would I be if I had aced those exams?
What kind of priest would I be?
Perhaps what was preventing me from being baptized into ordained ministry was my faith in my own strength, my own mind, my own achievements.
Perhaps my vanity and pride were preventing me from being baptized, and failing those exams was the best thing that could have happened to me.
It certainly cut me off at the knees when it came to thinking that I was well-prepared to be a priest, full of knowledge ready to dispense to the waiting people.
I had to enter ordination feeling frail and frightened and humbled, praying to God to work through me because I had quite abruptly discovered that I was not the big-shot I thought I was.
Whether it’s the sin of believing we’re so powerful that ministry is easy, or the sin of believing we’re not strong enough to be in ministry, there are many, many things in our own minds and hearts that can prevent us from being baptized into new work in the Spirit.
That’s why it’s so worthwhile to take the wilderness road, both through scripture and in our lives, to find out what new water of baptism is waiting for us just ahead.
You’ve found out the awful truth about me now, a year and a half after you took me on and I rather hope it’s too late to go back on the deal.
I failed the exams that were supposed to be the judge of my worthiness to be a priest.
That’s why I have to rely on the Spirit every day to help me pass the test of ordination.
It seems to be working out okay so far, and when it doesn’t, well, that’s why you good people are ministers in this church too.
We’ll pick up the pieces for each other when one of us gets a little lost on the wilderness road from time to time.
And then, like the two in our story today, we’ll go on our way rejoicing.
If you liked, please share!