The Holy and the Strange and the Disgraced

In contemplating holiness and vocation, Andrew Haines over at Ethika Politika says something very, very interesting:

Holiness as I understand it doesn’t fit well within the cut and dried “discernment process” that’s nevertheless required in some way to know our particular vocation. The holiest men at seminaries, for example, are often the weird ones—surely not without their own “formation issues.” I expect this is true for any religious house. And my friends who are the holiest priests, as far as I can tell, are those who deal steadily with the strain of discipleship—of intense learning and friendship with Christ—by constantly remaking and reforming themselves from the inside out. The Church tells us far more about the art of holiness than it does about the science of discernment, yet “process” is still what fascinates us most.

Contrary to our first experiences, Christian vocation is only partly about “process.” And it is not about finding and abiding by “lines” but rather coming to see beyond them.

And he considers how the church views vocation:

It’s good to recall that everything we receive, including our vocation, we receive only in the way we can receive it. God gives immeasurably, but we receive only what we can hold. So any vocation is always bigger and deeper than the best we can ever do to hear, accept, or live it. The result is that we struggle to recognize the Lord even as we are fully immersed in his life.

This doesn’t mean the lines we’re given by the Church aren’t important—lines for living faithfully a particular state in life or a holy life in general. It does mean, however, that they’re given to us not because they’re good in themselves, but because they’re necessary. God calls us beyond our understanding of vocation without calling us to disgrace it. And real honor lies in confessing that no understanding is really ours.

I don’t know if I am a disgraced seminarian. I know I’m weird (my own daughter says so!), and I suspect the intensity of my relationship with God (read my book!!!) has made the kind of disciple regularly formed and reformed “from the inside out.”

I do know I was too much for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA has put pastoral ministry — the ministry of word and sacrament — into a box, one too small for how God actually calls people. But, as Haines notes, I think that’s just how the ELCA has learned to receive and hold that calling. It’s not wrong, and it’s also not the only vision for preaching and teaching and proclaiming God’s love that there is. But it is the ELCA’s vision.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year — because it’s been a year — thinking about the ELCA’s decision to deny me, for a second and final time, approval for ordination. It is, I think, the right decision. Now, if the reason was that I was too much of a sinner when I was 18 and 19, that I conspired with an Army psychiatrist to get discharged from the Army, and that all of this (and what happened on my first internship) makes me too much of a liability, then the ELCA and its leaders need to consider what they actually preach and actually believe. Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins? Do you actually believe in redemption? Do you actually believe that Jesus Christ changes lives?

Because I was never made to pay for any of these things until I told them to the church.

But I also need to be fair. If the issue was “you are just too strange and we don’t know what to do with you,” then while that might be tragic, it’s probably correct. In deciding this, the ELCA probably saved both me and some hapless bishop’s assistant a great deal of heartache. Over the years I was in seminary, I discovered that American Lutherans need to know their pastors are one of them, that they live and understand their lives. I am too much of a stranger, I think, my life too odd and indecipherable, to people who live on farms, in small towns, and in suburbs, to ever fit well. And I suspect I would have constantly been in trouble for failing to see cultural cues, or live up to expectations no one could (or would) articulate because they couldn’t know they had them or just assumed — as so many do — “that’s just how people are supposed to live.”

My very strangeness could have been seen as a gift — what ministry does Charles enable us to do that we could not do before, or do better with him? — but I cannot really fault them for failing to see that. The people who handle candidacy and oversee ministry already have a lot to do without oddballs and misfits cluttering up their church. In many ways, American Lutherans inhabit a very small world, and I think I’m just too big for that world. This is not a harsh judgment — that small world is kind, generous, and beautiful, and it is a place where the young are nurtured, people are valued, and the old are cared for. I sometimes wish I could be a part of it.

But I am not. And I cannot. I live in a different world, a wide and spacious world of vagrants and wanderers and failures and cheerful ne’er-do-wells. You get here by failing to fit, or by being neglected or unwanted or outright expelled from the other one.

I do not know if the ELCA will ever be able to see beyond the lines it has drawn for itself around the vocation of pastoral ministry. In times and places, with people who are seen as less unsettling than I am, I suspect they do. I think the Metro Chicago Synod had a wider vision for ministry than Metro Washington D.C., but that may not be saying much. I’m not asking, nor do I expect, to ever be part of their “process” ever again, and I don’t expect to ever be ordained by the ELCA. But I do know my calling and vocation now, and I owe that to my time at seminary among the Lutherans. I have no institution to make following my calling easy. But then, my life has rarely been easy. Blessed in more ways than I can count. But rarely ever easy.

However, here’s what’s funny: even if I start my own worshiping community, it will effectively be an ELCA church. Because they are the people who formed me.

11 thoughts on “The Holy and the Strange and the Disgraced

  1. I was wondering if you ever considered the Greek Melkite Catholic Church. I have been very impressed with your writings here and in our book. I am a Latin-rite Catholic. I thought after reading your site and book that my church (in the larger sense) would benefit from having you in it. Given your background, you might fit in well with the Melkites.

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    1. Something to consider. Thank you, Charles. I will give that some thought and explore it a bit.

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      1. I second Mr. Kramer. I am/was actually an Arabic linguist trained at DLI. I’m getting out of the Navy before long (with an honorable discharge, but I REALLY understand people who have difficulties in the military, to say the least.) I’m Latin Catholic, but I’ve attended a Melkite church for the past 3 or so years and my heart really lives with the Melkites. The Melkites have PLENTY of experience being thrown under the bus by the powers of the world and their enemies, visible and invisible.
        I read your book, by the way, and was actually going to email you, but never got around to it.

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  2. There are some really odd people in farms, small towns and suburbs. Come to think of it, some really odd churches, too. Whenever 2 or 3 odd ones are gathered in his name, there – oddly – will he be also.

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    1. Absolutely. But those who run hierarchies don’t want or like odd. They need their organization to be legible, and the people within it to be largely interchangeable. It makes the system easier to administer. Every system of management will eventually come to exist largely or solely for the ease and comfort of the managers.

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  3. If Nadia Bolz Weber can find a home, you can too. The Christian life needs people who are committed to Jesus, or it really is just a club for the pious.

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    1. Pastor Nadia had some protections and advantages that I did not have. She married well and bishop willing to support her. It was still an uphill struggle for her, however. But yes, I agree, I think I can find a home too. Or rather, it will find me. 🙂

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  4. CHF: “Absolutely. But those who run hierarchies don’t want or like odd.”

    And the odd don’t want or like hierarchies. That’s why my great-grandfather became an anti-denominationalist in the later 1800s. I have a tract he wrote back then called “The True Church”, and it is a blistering attack on clericalism of any kind. He even rejected water baptism (like the old Quakers). I have come to agree, at least for now. I just can’t separate even the least degree of sacramentalism from a two-tier system in which there are the priests (the only ones who are truly religious) and the laity (who are saved by the priests, if at all). If there is no such system, who avows that a baptism or communion is valid, that such a thing has really taken place? There are no apostles today – those who have a commission directly from Jesus. As I read the text, the “great commission” applied only to them. After that it’s just disciples (and the odd prophet here and there) sharing the spirit with other disciples and potential disciples. All equal, all on the same level. No one has the right or authority to dunk or sprinkle another sinner. No one has the right to bless bread or wine, or even to ask that it be blest on anyone else’s behalf (though there could be a single spokesman – but better we ask in unison for our daily bread if doing so with others). The true communion of saints is the homely and venerable informal church potluck dinner. Y’all come!

    Again, the “words of institution” seem like no such thing to me. “Do this [you apostles here assembled with me] in remembrance of me [i.e. do this symbolic physical act now while I am briefly still with you in body, so that you will remember that you knew me in the flesh and that it was I in the flesh who died for you. As I tell you now clearly, once I am risen and ascended, the Spirit will come to you, and I will empower and minister to you and all the disciples for all time through him].

    Now I would say the Catholic position is consistent. I just don’t agree with it. But if we are to have sacraments, then there must be a valid line of apostolic succession and a priesthood, or at least a hierarchy of bishops – lords and princes of the church. Otherwise it makes no sense at all. If the last supper is to be perpetually recapitulated, then the doctrine of transubstantiation is the only possible justification – the doctrine that Christ is once again with us in the flesh. Whenever and wherever the priests tell us he is.

    Between the Pope and his flock on the one hand, and the Radical Protestants who live and commune solely through the Holy Spirit on the other, I see no solid ground. Some have called me crazy (and not just as regards religion), but there I stand.

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    1. “After that it’s just disciples (and the odd prophet here and there) sharing the spirit with other disciples and potential disciples. All equal, all on the same level. No one has the right or authority to dunk or sprinkle another sinner. No one has the right to bless bread or wine, or even to ask that it be blest on anyone else’s behalf…”

      Or…perhaps all have the right. The baptist positions on “soul competency” and “the priesthood of all believers” could be taken in this direction. One need not overthrow sacramentalism on the basis of clericalism alone. In fact, that would be the weakest reason to do so.

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