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An excerpt from Rev. Victor Aloyo Jr.’s Discerning Your Vocation

Ministry is the active response to God’s call. Christian ministry is more than simply doing good. Rather, it is something that Christ does in and through us and that we do in and through Christ. We act not on our own, but on the authority of God who calls us. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last…” (John 15:16)

The word “ministry” comes from the same root as the word “minus,” which means “less.” Jesus asked, “For who is greater: the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27) All Christians are called to minister both to one another and to those around them by participating in God’s work in the world. Ministry occurs in innumerable forms, some of which require ordination. Genuine ministry involves both giving and receiving; reciprocity is essential. Ministry “to” is patronizing, for it fails to acknowledge our own need, nor does it recognize the mutual nurturing experienced when we are brought to Christ through the people we serve.

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, which means “to call.” “Vocation” can be understood in different ways. For instance, it can signify the work you do from a strong, inner conviction over a long period of time. A Christian vocation is a response to God’s call, acting out your conviction. Webster defines it thus:

A call, summons, or impulsion to perform a certain function or enter a certain career, especially a religious one…

Biblical figures receive their summonses in a variety of ways, depending on their unique personalities and contexts: some through dreams and visions, some by contact with significant people, some through tumultuous inner experiences. Some are receptive to the summons, and others very resistant. To understand the flavor of the differences among them, read the commissioning of Moses (Exodus 3:1–4:17), of Gideon (Judges 6:11–24), of Samuel (I Samuel 3:1–21), of Deborah (Judges 4:4–10), and of Ruth (Ruth 1:16–18). All of them and many more became convinced that speaking and living God’s Word was the most important journey they could take, though some doubted their ability.

God gave me the privilege of being the pastor of a multilingual, multicultural congregation in the East Brooklyn area of New York City for ten years. There I witnessed a variety of challenges in parish ministry, and was embraced by marvelous relationships. I believe that God still calls people to particular functions for particular moments in history. For all the joys and inspirations of a full-time, professional ministry, there are also plenty of headaches and setbacks. Professional ministers and church workers, however, serve in some of the most dynamic, world-changing, and globally minded settings found anywhere in the world. Can you picture yourself teaching in Zimbabwe? Visiting the elderly in Cleveland? Interviewing bishops in Europe for a church newspaper? Cultivating “shalom zones” in a riot-torn area of Los Angeles or Chicago? Bringing laughter to children in an Alabama orphanage in their very first vacation church school?

As you reflect on the abilities and interests that God has given you and wrestle with issues of the day, and as you consider vocational opportunities, realize that your years at seminary are an opportunity for you to test your call. Testing a call means reviewing your life as a whole before God. Ask yourself questions like, Where have I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What are my strengths and weaknesses? How do my relationships with other people, at work and at home, reveal my personality and character? Toward what destination is my life headed at the moment? How can my gifts and my limitations be best used in the service of Christ and humanity?

After serving ten years in a parish setting, I can tell you that not all these questions are easy to answer. For we are on a great adventure, a journey of exploration. As a former student here at Princeton, and as an alumnus, I can say that seminary is not a place with many definitive answers to specific or even universal questions, and that it is not possible to prepare people to face every situation in life and ministry. This view of seminary is flawed in both its anthropology and its theology. To view humanity as static and civilization as unchanging is unrealistic; we can only expect to be prepared for all situations if things never change and if tomorrow is predictably like yesterday. This flawed anthropology says that we are not influenced by the world around us in new ways every day and that there is nothing new under the sun. It is also flawed theologically; it forgets the lesson that God alone is omniscient.

Theological education is part of the journey. The metaphor of a journey is a beloved one in the Judeo-Christian heritage because it is so representative of the truth about our lives and our relationship with God. To be alive is to be always changing, developing, and growing; to be spiritually alive is to be continually deepening one’s relationship with the Transcendent and with God’s good creation, and at the same time to be shaped by these relationships. Princeton provides an opportunity for serious theological reflection, corporate worship, spiritual reflection, community-building, and partnership development, in order to facilitate the journey.

I urge you to understand yourself as being on a journey with God in which you will discover who you are and where God is leading you. Know that with God’s help you will gain clarity about the nature of the ministry to which you are being called, whether ordained or lay. Allow yourself to lean on God and your community and receive from both the encouragement and insight that you will need to make decisions about your life.

Grace (and garlic bread) at Philadelphia’s Oxford Circle

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Melissa Florer-Bixler

Just before the service I open the bag of bread, and the smell of garlic overpowers me. "Uh-oh," I think. I've accidently bought garlic bread for today's Communion celebration.

Fortunately, Oxford Circle Mennonite is a church that can take garlic bread in stride. Fifteen years ago Oxford Circle was a primarily white, middle class Catholic neighborhood in NE Philadelphia. The community experienced radical change as the previous generation was replaced with Latino and African-American families moving from low-resourced areas to their first owned homes.

Because of this change, Oxford Circle Mennonite congregants display a variety of socio-economic, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Our first-Sunday-of-the-month anniversary celebrations are always a microcosm of this diversity. An interracial couple announces their second anniversary while a couple from an ethnic Mennonite background announces their fortieth year of marriage. Four of the churches many children excitedly shout their birthdays: Four! Seven! Twelve! Two! The man beside them quietly shares that this is his sixteenth month of sobriety.

It's beautiful and it's also hard. This diversity means we balance the worship desires of young evangelicals who love praise music with the congregants who grew up singing four-part harmony. We negotiate the pastoral reverence of the Black Church and the Anabaptist commitment to the priesthood of all believers. We work hard to retain the distinctives of our Anabaptist heritage while meeting the challenges of incarnational ministry.

At Oxford Circle, I'm often reminded of the church Luke writes about in the book of Acts. These early Christians also worked through the difficulties of ethnicity and religious tradition, sometimes painfully, sometimes having to give up their own cherished ideas about God and faith. There are no easy answers.

Breaking Bread Image

So, really, garlic bread for Communion is a little thing in light of the ways this church has grown, changed, and been challenged and transformed by the God who promised that in Jesus Christ all our differences would be overarched. This Sunday we enact this unity as the church gathers in a circle around the sanctuary and I lead us in Eucharist. "What do you bring to Christ's table?" I ask. The congregation responds, "We bring bread, made by many people's work, from an unjust world where some have plenty and most go hungry." I break the bread and it passes around the circle. The old serve the young, the young serve their parents, doctors serve day laborers and alcoholics serve police officers. Men and women who a generation ago could not swim in the same public pool offer each other an edible expression of our new reality as one in Christ.

Right now the garlic doesn't smell that bad. In fact, it smells a lot like grace: grace for a careless bread-choosing pastoral intern, grace for the ways we have historically looked for easy ways out of being the body of Christ, and grace for the ways we fail as we travel on this new way.

As we close our Communion service I say the prayer on all our hearts: "Hospitable God, who opens the food through bread and wine, may we see the place set for us so that, in turn, we may welcome others to your table. Amen."

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