This is a first in a weekly series of articles exploring the call and ministry of Deacons in the Episcopal Church
I have been living with Jesus for a while now. My symptoms are an incredible, growing love for all people who have been pushed out into the margins; an overwhelming love for people on the borders of countries and communities; a love for people like myself who ARE the borders, between “normal” and “queer,” between acceptable and outcast; and a love of those who would reach out and touch the fabric of Jesus’ clothes, bold enough to seek healing even though they were thrown away by their families and communities. The effects of Jesus also include a strange compulsion to get to know the people I’m afraid of: the comfortable, the respectable, those invested in the status quo. I have tried staying in bed. I have tried staying long hours at work. I have tried shopping and I have tried special diets and I have tried various herbal and pharmaceutical treatments but Jesus just will not go away.
He has led me to a place I had absolutely no intention of ever setting foot in: the Episcopal Church. And he has led me right into the middle of this thing called “diakonia,” serving God in serving others. He has introduced me to the order of deacons, ordained to bring the church within the walls and the church outside of the walls together. He has compelled me to embark on a crazy journey toward ordination, toward embodying the kind of love and service he taught us.
I can’t say I’m universally pleased with this turn of events. Living with Jesus can be tough. I’m up at all hours. I’m constantly doing things that terrify me. But Jesus finds me at the crossroads between all the things that make me feel cut off from God and cut out of relationships. Jesus shows up where all of the violence I have experienced has damaged me and all the love I have experienced has held me. Jesus saves me from the certainty that all is lost and replaces it with the certainty that no one, none of us, is ever lost.
The first thing I was told to do when I expressed that I felt I might be called to be ordained a deacon was read the section in the Book of Common Prayer (the book that shapes our piety and practice) on ordination. Not just ordination of a deacon, but ordination of a deacon, a priest, and a bishop. The idea was that I would get a sense of the different ordained roles in the church and how I might fit into that. I think it was also meant to impress upon me the seriousness of what I was suggesting. When you read the ordination rites you can’t escape the fact that these are vows. This isn’t the signing of a contract, this is pledging a lifetime commitment. You also do get a clear picture of the orders: bishops coordinate the diocese and administer sacraments, priests shepherd the flock and administer the sacraments, deacons assist in the sacraments and connect the church with the world outside and serve “the least of these.”
In the consecration the Bishop says:
Make her/him/them, O Lord, modest and humble, strong and constant, to observe the discipline of Christ. Let her/his/their life and teaching so reflect your commandments, that through her many may come to know you and love you. As your Son came not to be served but to serve, may this deacon share in Christ’s service, and come to the unending glory of her who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever.
I knew when I first read the Ordination of a Deacon in the Book of Common Prayer that I felt called to be one. I felt like my name was written all over the pages. I also felt a growing sense of apprehension that Jesus was walking me into something much bigger and more difficult than I had been imagining. In the rite the ordinand is asked:
My sister/brother/sibling, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.
As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God’s Word and Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time. At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.
“My sister/brother/sibling, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a deacon?”
I hope to have the opportunity to answer “yes.” The deacons I have met along this journey have kept me inspired – with their ministries, their humor, and their love of Christ. They have a variety of approaches and perspectives. Their stories are divergent and singular. They are each unique and yet united in their call. I see deacons taking a critical role in widening the sphere of the church so that there is more and more room in it. I see deacons working toward a day when there is no “in” the church and “out” of the church, there’s just the all-powerful presence of God, everywhere. The buildings are beautiful, but church does not depend on the buildings. Our congregations are loving communities, but the Body of Christ extends far beyond them. Making church, to me, looks like working for justice and peace for all people. And that’s what deacons are here to facilitate, bringing all the baptized into the project. It is holy work, and it is work without which the church is not going to survive.
In a time when the church is keenly aware of the need to be relevant to the world today, the order of deacons is here to provide a model for how we might do that. Deacons are all over the Episcopal Church, proclaiming the Gospel, working with youth, building bicycles for folks that don’t have transportation, organizing food ministries and protests. Deacons are advocates, motivators, and innovators. They invite the homeless people on the corner inside. They preach truths that can be inconvenient. At every service, they send the people out into the world to serve the Lord.
There is no church separate from the world. There are no people who deserve membership and people who do not. Every church that dismisses the poor from the doorstep so they won’t disturb worship has entirely missed the point of Jesus’ message. And we need people to remind us of that. Church is beautiful. The stained glass paints the walls, the music floats, your friends are at the table with you at coffee hour. Who wouldn’t want to stay there? In some ways, I do too. But Jesus did not show up here on earth or in my life to make anyone comfortable.
Two books that give great context for conversations about deacons and the diaconate are “Unexpected Consequences: The Diaconate Renewed” by Suzanne Watson Epting and “Many Servants: an Introduction to Deacons.” by Ormonde Plater. The role of a deacon has two-thousand years of history, but in other ways it is changing and transforming today. Pretty much everyone in Western culture knows what a priest is, even if they have very little familiarity with Christianity. A lot of people don’t have a clue what a deacon is, even within the Episcopal Church. If you ask everyone in the pews on a Sunday what a deacon is, you’ll get a variety of different answers. Plenty of people are only familiar with “transitional” deacons, and think all deacons go on to become priests. The invisibility of deacons, and the confusion about what they do, limits the growth of the order, and the growth of the church which it is their task to widen.
I want more people to know about the transformative work of deacons. In this series of interviews I will share an exploration of the variety of ways the diaconate expresses itself in the Episcopal Church. I have had the privilege of interviewing deacons from around the country (and Cuba!) as well as our Presiding Bishop about their thoughts on the diaconate. What they told me has inspired me as I continue on my own journey, and I hope will inspire you on yours. Who knows, maybe the spirit is calling you as well!
Dani Gabriel is a poet, writer, and teacher. Dani is a Candidate for the Diaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of California, aspiring to ordination and service in the church and community. Dani is the current Poet Laureate of El Cerrito, CA. Learn more about their work at www.allthepossible.com.