Giving Up on the “Church”

I meant to do more blogging this week — especially on the lectionary, and a piece I’ve had rumbling through my mind about mid-century liberalism — but never quite got around to it. And then Rod Dreher asked me to read his upcoming book, How Dante Can Save Your Life. So I’ve been a little engaged this week.

Part of this comes, actually, in response to reading Dreher’s book. (And in response to a letter I received from a longtime seminary friend and fellow pastor.)

I’ve been I’m limbo for the last few years, doing a lot of waiting. In fact, Michaela told me recently — and rather pointedly (I’m not sure she entirely approves) — “Ever since I met you, you have always been waiting.” And yes, I have. At first, it was waiting for… well, God knows what. I had been denied approval for ordained ministry by the ELCA’s Metro DC Synod, with no hope there would be a second chance at anything. After some work on my part, persistent and patient work, and some serious agitating on my behalf by some reasonably well-connected folks, I got a second chance, as was approved.

That was taken away last year, after I gave the Metro Chicago bishop a list of things in my book that might prove troublesome to an overly pious (or — cough, cough — typical) church call committee. That’s all in my book.

Since then, I’ve been waiting for, well, what, exactly?

As I told Michaela, while the waiting itself hasn’t changed, what I’ve been waiting for has. First, I was waiting for only vague hope. Then, for approval to ordained ministry by the ELCA. Then, for a call to a congregation. And then, when the book offer was made, that process to work itself out. And now, the book is out. I’m still waiting, for the book to take hold, for someone, somewhere, to notice it (I mean, aside from Rod Dreher), and for that book to take me somewhere.

So, it’s waiting. But it isn’t waiting for the same thing.

In that vein, I’d like to ask anyone reading this to pray — for my publicist, that the nibbles of interest he’s getting turn into something tangible. (I sense he’s having a difficult time soliciting interest in my book.) That editors and book reviewers out there find my book and write about it. That my book finds its way into the hands of readers who will be moved. That I might find some success from it. I won’t lie, I’ve been out of work for more than a year, cannot pay my bills, and am tired of living in a permanent waiting room. So, pray for that as well.

Mostly, pray for those who need to know there is hope — the lost, the lonely, the unloved and the unwanted. I wrote the book for them.

But the one thing I will no longer wait upon is the church. Kurt Hendel, who has played perhaps the second-greatest human role in my redemption (he really was my father confessor) and my formation as a pastor (next to Jennifer), keeps holding out hope that there will be room in the ELCA for me at some point. I bless him in that, and maybe he is correct (I admire his faith), but I don’t see it as possible. I gave up on the ELCA long ago. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.

I am in an odd place. I believe I am called to pastor, to lead worship, to proclaim grace in word and at the table, and to do so in something resembling an orthodox and catholic confession. So, I’m stuck. Because the ELCA will not have me. And I’m not sure any other confessional group will have me either. So, I have been waiting for God to lead me somewhere. Because I don’t trust my own desires or choices in this, and some of the alternatives I have looked at are simply too “alternative” — and too unorthodox and uncatholic.

I have decided to accept my exile. I am done with the church. I will not look for church work. I will go back to what I can do, which is journalism. I have a sense that I need to find myself someplace, get stuck somewhere (as the orphans told Puss-in-Boots in the first episode of the cartoon series), and make that home. Let that become home.

But I’m not done with Jesus. I’m not done with proclaiming. Assuming the book can take off (even a little), it will still be the start of a ministry. If nothing else, I will start small, with a house church, doing something simple, worshiping and proclaiming and praising God with a handful, with two or three if that’s all there is. Perhaps this is the future for the “dones,” those fed up with church, who have fallen out of love with the institution that claims to serve Jesus. I don’t know.

Which means I’m not really any place different than I was in 2012, when I graduated from seminary with a Masters of Divinity but no prospects for ministry. Well, not true. I have a book, a true and stunning witness to the grace of God. And who knows what that will bring.

So prayers, as I dig into the website and I try to get resumes and clips out there to whoever might be interested. Pray for editors as they review my material. Pray that someone takes a chance on me, the chance Dreher and my editor at Wipf and Stock Charlie Collier took.

But there’s one more thing I need to say.

My very good friend, Dr. Sean Foley, reminded me how long it took his first book on Saudi Arabia to take hold, to generate interest and create a reputation. Months. Many, many months. My book has only been out for six weeks, and sales have been small but steady. This book is my future, but as Sean also told me: “You are writing for people you have never met.”

And that includes the future.

My last semester at LSTC, I had a stunning dream. (Well, I had a couple, but I’ll tell the one about waking up as a retired Navy chief petty officer in Saigon in 1964 later.) It was 300 or 400 years from now, and I was a kind of ghost, standing in the midst of a gleaming, new Christian seminary somewhere in India. It turns out, somehow, my Bible songs — the words and the melodies — had been preserved, found by a graduate student some decades before, were translated into the local language, and they formed the core of this church’s hymnal. And my songs had made their way across what is now the third world, to churches from Malaysia to South America.

I’m not saying this is a prophetic dream, that this will happen. But I take it as a truthful and honest reminder from God — I may never see the real fruit of my work. That like Abraham, who was made promises he would never live to see, I would have to trust that my work — my music, my books — will live long past me, and may do their greatest work long after I am dust.

That is no help right now. I still need work. I have impatient creditors who are beginning to believe I’m lying when I tell them I cannot pay my bills. And I am tired of waiting. But it is a way forward. I am no longer waiting for something that may never come. I am in control of what I do. And what I wait for.

One thought on “Giving Up on the “Church”

  1. I know about the waiting, too. God called me unmistakeably in 1972 to be a Pastor, but I was not able to start Seminary until 1994. And then it took until 2000 before I could graduate, because of all the hoops the church had me jump through. And then I had to do an internship, then barely passed my Oral Examination, and then had to wait for a call, which finally came in 2003. That lasted 4 years of stressful conflict. Then I was doing ministry in another conflict situation, part-time, and mostly unofficially, for another 5 years, until the dying church couldn’t pay me any longer. I just couldn’t take any more conflict, so I retired. Yes, I’m Done with Church. But I do have a house church which is reaching people who would feel out of place in a traditional church. The church of the twenty-first century will look much different from the church of the twentieth, I think. All we can do is serve however we can, and trust God with the bills. Your book will be a blessing to many, and you are right – we will never know how our lives will bless others in the future. I cling to the thought that once we are in heaven, it will all become clear.

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