By Father Casey

An interview with the Commission on Ministry is one of the most important steps in the discernment process toward being ordained. This is a group of clergy and lay people tasked with helping the bishop determine if a person really is called by God to be a deacon or priest. As you might imagine, for the person being interviewed, it is enormously stressful. You have to put into words to a room full of strangers what you believe the Spirit is calling you to be and do, and that can be quite challenging. Thankfully, most commission members are kind, and their questions are not like an interrogation, but rather a deep, probing conversation among friends. There can, however, still be some surprises.

My wife, Melody, went through the discernment process in the Diocese of Virginia during college, and she appeared before the COM during her senior year. She vaguely remembers the questions asked her that day (my interview is similarly a blur), but one question was so unexpected and unusual that she remembers it to this day: “How is being a Christian like being an American?”

I met her not long after that day (we entered seminary at the same time), and as we swapped “war stories” about our commission interviews, she told me about that question.  Twenty-one years later, it remains a strange and striking memory. She can’t recall everything she talked about in her answer, but she remembers trying to draw a distinction between the two identities. They are not the same thing – being Christian and being American – though a lot of our siblings and fellow citizens all-too-easily conflate the two.  This has led to all sorts of problems for our pluralistic society, such as when scriptures are aggressively displayed in civil spaces (schools, courts, state capitols), or when the beliefs of some Christians become codified into laws that diminish the rights of others.

But over the years, as Melody and I have talked over that question, we’ve come to recognize at least one connection. Both identities – Christian and American – are aspirational. Both are about who we are now, and also who we are still becoming. Consider our nation and its founding ideals of liberty and justice for all. What a remarkable set of principles upon which to build a country! Yet, nearly 250 years later, we are still figuring out how to enact them more perfectly. They are aspirations as much as current realities. To be an American, in other words, is about trying to become more fully the idea dreamed up by our founders.

So it is, too, with our Christian identity. To be a Christian is to claim Jesus as Lord, but it is also to spend our lives following his way, and that is aspirational. When we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we do not reach our destination or complete the work of becoming who we are intended to be. We are something wonderfully new, yes, but it is an identity we will spend the rest of our lives, here and in the hereafter, growing into. This is what Paul is describing in his letter to the Philippians:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (3:12-14).”

Being Christian, just like being American, is about being a work in progress. We are always stretching toward a future in which we will be more fully what we already are, when the values and virtues embedded in our souls – personally and societally – are finally fulfilled in us. We have not reached that destination yet, and so we continue to strain forward to what lies ahead, toward our noblest aspirations, toward the goal that has summoned us all along and continues to lead us onward toward our better selves.

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