One of Us

Peter Leithart, in the latest of a series of short blog reviews of Mark Greengrass’ book Christendom Destroyed quotes this of late medieval parish life:

Greengrass doesn’t think the priests were bad either. There were diocesan visitations, and the church “noted clerical absenteeism . . . and, where it was brought to their attention by locals, clerical incontinence and incompetence.” Besides, the people didn’t need or want a “zealous, chaste, over-educated” priest: “The priest’s role was more that of a notable, settling family quarrels, drafting wills and providing rural credit. Locals wanted someone who would understand them”

Someone who would understand them. While I received some confirmation recently that yes, I was tossed out of the ELCA because I have simply lived too sinful a life (which demonstrates, apparently, my immutable character — because redemption apparently isn’t possible and some people are, in fact, too sinful to proclaim the love and forgiveness of God), I still think some of my expulsion has to do with the fact that I am not someone most Lutherans “would understand” and in turn “would understand them.”

And this is fair. Because it’s true.

img43But it works the other way, too. The little mission church in Watseka, Illinois, that I occasionally preached, sang, and led worship at was founded and formed by a former gang leader and drug dealer who did serious prison time before meeting Jesus and discerning a call to ministry while in prison. He founded a congregation made up of recovering addicts, ne’er do wells, and other folks excluded and marginalized from the larger community. The Presbyterian Church in America had tried several times after their founder died in a freak auto accident to find a replacement pastor for the community, but discovered PCA interns simply couldn’t handle the ragged nature of the congregants.

I could. I’ve lived a life that allows me to see love and redemption in tremendous suffering, that can handle pointed questions and tough stories. Had I know things would have gone the way they have, I’d of asked Amazing Grace to be their pastor.


But the worldview of a church like the ELCA — well-adjusted, bourgeois “protestants” (this, unhappily, includes a lot of Catholics as well) — says that the lives of the marginal can be led and managed by those who aren’t marginal, who haven’t shared their lives or stories. Because such people are broken, dysfunctional, and cannot ever be different. Because those leaders — those helpers — are professionally educated in the ways and means of brokenness and disfunction. And that is enough.

Except it clearly isn’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with a pastor who clearly could not say anything meaningful to me because he (or she) has not lived the kind of life that could make sense of mine. Which made connecting, understanding, and empathy difficult. (Defaulting to professional education is a poor substitute for empathy.) Those pastors I have met who have been helpful have been those who have lived difficult or challenging lives, who have really suffered, or who had a broad and varied encounter and experience with the world.

What the modern, professionalized church is saying, to at least some portion of people, “you are not good enough to lead, and so you must always be led. By those who are better — more moral, more upright, more virtuous than you, whose educations, social status, and professionalism make it possible for them to want for you what you cannot want for yourselves. You can never give, you must always receive.”

I should hope it goes without saying this isn’t the gospel. It isn’t even close.

2 thoughts on “One of Us

  1. I “150” percent think a congregation or pastoring opportunity exists out there for you. That being said….

    People in bourgeois, comfortable lives do suffer. They may “manage” it differently, but its definitely here. The woman I babysit for had stage 3 cancer, and is a single mom with two kids (she also has a fantastic job, and loves order). My father is a respectable lawyer with a successful practice, and is also a former hippie from haute Ashbury who felt spiritually lost in his old life. My mother had an alcoholic abusive father. I have a friend who continues to struggle with addiction. Another friend whom I love dearly has a mom with brain cancer. I know people with sin and addiction and death in one of the wealthiest counties in the whole United States. Now some people don’t like to talk about those things, thats true. But it really is everywhere and I bet its surprising whose dealt with what. “God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.”- St. Augustine

  2. Re: “I should hope it goes without saying this isn’t the gospel. It isn’t even close.”

    It doesn’t go without saying. It needs people like you to say it over and over. Even some in the respectability clubs realize that, and are often as relieved as anyone when they find that the real gospel is there when they need it.

    P.S. Some health issues have diverted me from my usual terse and pointed commentary. Back on schedule soon, I hope.

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