I was both eager and a bit apprehensive as we sat in the home of Felipe Ortega in La Madera, New Mexico, and received instructions about the sweat lodge. I’m always up for new adventures and was especially interested in experiencing this traditional Native American ritual of purification and spirituality.
Eight of us participated in the sweat lodge as part of a program at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico called High Desert Spiritual Quest. Felipe is a well-known potter and healer in the Jicarilla Apache tradition. As he oriented us to the sweat lodge, Felipe said that there are four rounds, which honor the hac’tsim of the East, South, West, and North.
Before entering the sweat lodge, there is an eagle feather blessing. Every round begins with a song to that particular direction and a prayer by the water pourer, and each participant is expected to offer a prayer as well. The prayers and chants are meant to cleanse mind, body, and spirit.
The sweat lodge itself is a circular adobe structure with a very low ceiling, so one is barely able to sit erect, let alone stand. It is also completely dark. Felipe warned us that the heat would be extreme, and each round of the sweat lodge would get hotter. He said, “If you feel too hot, dizzy, or sick, it’s okay if you can’t make it through all 4 rounds of the sweat lodge, which may take up to 3 hours. If you need to leave, simply say, ‘The Spirit is leading me elsewhere,’ and the door will be opened for you.”
I found the sweat lodge to be oppressively hot. I also became claustrophobic and did not anticipate how smoky it would be. My eyes and lungs burned, but I was determined to make it through the first round. When the last prayer was finished, I declared, “The Spirit is leading me elsewhere,” and crawled out of the sweat lodge along with one other person. Several others followed in order to be hosed off with cold water before re-entering.
For the rest of the week our group good-naturedly used the phrase, “The Spirit is leading me elsewhere,” whenever we found ourselves resisting that which was new, challenging, or even distasteful. Of course, the truth of our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ is that when we place radical trust in God, the Spirit does lead us elsewhere. In fact, the Holy Spirit often directs us right back into the places we fear the most, are most uncomfortable with, or have no desire to engage.
Consider Peter, whose betrayal of Jesus after his arrest gnawed at his conscience, even after the risen Christ appeared to the disciples that first evening. Still burdened by guilt, Peter and several others went back to fishing but caught nothing (John 21). Just after daybreak Jesus stood on the beach and engaged them in conversation, “Cast your net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” When Peter realized that it was Jesus, he jumped into the sea to meet him, and they made breakfast along the shore with the fish they caught. After breakfast Jesus and Peter had a chat.
- “Simon Peter, so you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Feed my lambs.”
- “Simon, son of John, do you love me? “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Tend my sheep.”
- “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep.”
3 times Peter betrayed Jesus. 3 times Jesus offers grace and sets him free. But free for what? Jesus wasn’t done. “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go…. Follow me.” All of the early Christian writers agree that Peter was crucified for his faith. Origen, in particular, says that Peter felt unworthy to die in the same manner as Christ and insisted on being crucified with his head downward.
The Spirit was, indeed, leading Peter elsewhere. No more fishing for him, except for people. The journey on which Peter was about to embark would ultimately end in a cruel death. As the leader of the early church, however, Peter navigated through stormy waters of discord and guided the followers of Jesus to spread the good news to the far corners of the Roman Empire.
The Spirit still leads elsewhere today. In fact, at this time of year “The Spirit is leading me elsewhere” has great significance for both United Methodist clergy and lay persons. When either the anticipated or unexpected phone call comes from the district superintendent, clergy size up the appointment. If clergy are pleased with the church to which they are appointed, they’ll usually acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is leading them elsewhere. However, if the appointment does not honor their expectations for salary, status, or location, clergy may well ask the question, “Is the Holy Spirit leading me elsewhere, or is it just the Bishop and cabinet?”
It’s in our human nature for clergy to follow the way of the world rather than the Spirit. As our skills and effectiveness grow, we become confident that recognition and reward will follow, just like in other professions. We desire larger and more prestigious appointments. We yearn for more salary and recognition. We want to receive what we deserve.
For many years effective clergy could expect to climb the “ladder,” with each succeeding appointment bigger and better than the last. But the ladder has been sagging for the past few years and is now horizontal or even turning upside down.
Since the recession of 2008, more and more churches are unable to afford the compensation package for an elder or even support a full-time pastor. For the most part, salaries are not going up anymore. In addition, in many areas of the United States there are far fewer large churches today than 10 or even 5 years ago. “Going to a larger church” now means, more than ever, growing the church we’re in! The truth is that Spirit will lead us elsewhere, but it may very well not be where we want to go, even if we have a great track record.
The flip side of our current appointment reality is our reluctance to acknowledge that United Methodism has a “sent ministry,” not a “called” ministry. Just as Jesus chose and then sent the disciples out in ministry, so United Methodist clergy are sent out not for our own convenience or comfort but to accomplish the mission of the church. We promise to go where we are sent rather than where we think we are called. I’m under no illusion that the Cabinet always makes perfect appointments. But if a church is not the “size” we think we deserve, do we automatically discount the possibility that the Spirit is working?
The trade-off has always been that elders will always be guaranteed an appointment. Well, at least for right now. The report of the Commission for the Study of Ministry says that security of appointment “limits the ability of the church to respond to the primacy of missional needs.” A petition at General Conference would modify the appointment process by allowing for less than full-time appointments for elders and creating a transitional leave status for elders who do not receive an appointment. If this petition is passed, it will simply reinforce the fact clergy no longer have a ladder where each rung will go higher, higher. It will be a true test of our mettle and faith.
Ministry is ultimately not about our wants and desires. Nor is it about advancement or job security. Ministry is about bringing in God’s kingdom on this earth. It’s about feeding the sheep and growing the church wherever we are appointed. Ministry is about giving ourselves away by sharing grace, salvation, shalom, and social and personal holiness. It’s about practicing what we sing:
- “Trust and obey for there is no other way”
- “Where He leads me I will follow; I’ll go with Him all the way”
- “Take up Thy cross if thou wouldst my disciple be; … for only those who bear the cross may hope to wear the glorious crown”
- “Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted head; Made like him, like him we rise, Ours the cross, the grave, the skies”
The Spirit is constantly leading us elsewhere, whether we are clergy, laity, local churches, or a denomination. The Spirit leads us to fish on the other side. The Spirit leads us to change our mindset about what “success” means for a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Spirit leads us to creatively and expectantly go. The Spirit leads us to a radical trust in a God who lovingly shapes and molds our resistance into joyful obedience and sanctification.
When the Spirit leads us elsewhere, will we say, “The system failed me,” or will we joyfully affirm, “God has never failed me yet.” Will we bemoan our fate, or will we confess with confidence, “Lord, we are able; our spirits are Thine; remold them, make us, like thee, divine.” Will we fold up our tents and curse God, or will we pitch our tents wherever the Spirit leads and bear fruit for the kingdom of God? Will the charge to which we’re sent be an affront to our self-understanding, or will we see our appointment as a sacred charge to keep, knowing and believing that we are sent as a blessing to fulfill God’s purposes?
The Spirit is leading me elsewhere. Where is the Spirit leading you? Thanks be to God.