Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Spirit Stopped

At Anna Russell Friedman’s ordination to the presbyterate today, the Old Testament reading was from the book of Numbers (11:16-17, 24-25 omitting the final clause). Usually at the ordination of a priest, I hear the reading from Isaiah—man of unclean lips, angel, live coal, tongs, sin blotted out, hem filling the temple, etc.. Today, though, the reading was from Numbers, and I loved hearing it. But I loved it even more when I noticed what the prayer book designates as the reading.

On page 528, it reads, “Old Testament: Isaiah 6:1-8 or Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25 (omitting the final clause).” Naturally, upon noticing that the final clause was to be omitted, I looked it up. Often, those half-verse omissions get left out because they are related to something else that is going on the background or add an unnecessary detail. This time, the final clause is dropped for reasons that become clear instantly: “And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.” The first ninety-five percent of these verses is perfect for an ordination—the Spirit that had dwelt in Moses was divvied up among the elders (“presbyters”), who shared in the Spirit’s gifts. That last five percent, however, blows a gaping hole in the spirit of an ordination service.

But they did not continue doing it. The elders exercised the Spirit-given gift of prophecy for a time—long enough to gain notice—but then they stopped. Did the Spirit dry up? Did the people get tired of hearing prophecy (see earlier post in this blog) and ask them to shut-up? Did they get tired of speaking in the Spirit and take a break from time to time? Once the prophecy ceased, did it ever start back up again? All of these questions, which race around in my mind thanks to this reading’s place in today’s ordination service, boil down to one query: “When the elders stopped prophesying, was it a good thing or a bad thing?”

As a priest, I’m biased, but I like to think of this as a good thing. Because of that, I’d like to see the whole bit included in an ordination service—“not continue doing it” and all. As priests, we aren’t supposed to go on prophesying all the time. We need a break, and everyone else needs one, too. And that’s not just for the gift of prophecy. Although the Spirit’s portion rests indelibly on those who are consecrated as elder, the outpouring of that Spirit and the gifts that come with it need not flow continually. I’m allowed to take a vacation. Anna Russell should be, too. More importantly than that, we all (priest and laity) need to remember that there are limits to what we can do and to what we can expect others to do.

Ordinations are a wonderful time to remember the vows one took when one became a priest. I take delight in watching a newly minted presbyter stand in front of her congregation and bless the people in God’s name. I love imagining what her ministry among the people of St. Paul’s, Carlowville, will be like. And, in the midst of all of that, I also enjoy thinking about the ministry I share with those in my congregation and the mission to which we have jointly pledged ourselves. Given the magnitude of that work, we need to pause every now and then to regain our perspective of the task ahead of us, which enables us to recommit ourselves to the work and begin it all over again.

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