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.