I feel lost right now.
There’s the not being able to find work. (I’ve tried. And I’ve given up.) That just makes me feel useless. And poor. That last bit isn’t a feeling, it’s just a reality. I don’t expect this to get any better any time soon. I’m 47, which means I’ve long since passed the point of being interesting and “having potential” someone might find worth cultivating. I ought to have something to show for myself at this point. And, professionally speaking, I don’t.
I’ve spent the last nine years at seminary, in a pastoral candidacy process, and failing miserably at it. (Though I did graduate from seminary with a master of divinity. Yay?) Which means there is a giant hole in my resume where something resembling work and experience ought to be. Which is one more reason no one is hiring me for anything, I suppose.
(Note: I don’t want advice or encouragement. If you aren’t prepared to either hire me for something, or pass my information along to someone who could — or might — then please, keep whatever you might want to tell me to yourself.)
All I have is this book, which people are buying — slowly — and apparently are talking about (if things friends tell me are to be believed). It’s all I’ve got. My whole future depends on this book, on what sort of ministry or career or whatever I can create from it. It’s a mixed bag. As far as resumes go, it does stand out. You don’t run into published authors every day, not even unemployed failures who’ve met Jesus.
On the other hand, the book was published six months ago, and so far, no one’s been banging down my door with offers. That may change come early July, when some significant publicity finally arrives. Maybe. We’ll see. I’ve learned not to hope.
We’re not sleeping in a tent in the corner of someone’s property, which is an option. Thanks to my oldest and dearest friend and his family, we have a place to sleep and food to eat. It’s not a home of our own (I’ve almost concluded I don’t get to have one of those anymore), but it’s not an abandoned building teeming with vermin.
So, we are blessed.
But I’m also lost in another very significant way.
I spent eight years being formed as a Lutheran pastor. I am Lutheran theologically to my core — grace, mercy, and forgiveness are how God meets us, how God has always met us, and how God will always meet us. But I’m not, and never have been, Lutheran culturally. When the ELCA tossed me from the candidacy process, they yanked out whatever prospects I had for employment. (And it was their right to do so — being an ordained pastor in the ELCA is not a right I or anyone else has.) And I really don’t feel like I belong in Lutheran churches anymore. I don’t feel welcome. It just doesn’t feel like home to me. It did for a time, but apparently, the feeling was never really reciprocated.
(Honestly, it’s also really hard for me not to think of ELCA Lutherans as anything other than just another bunch of hypocrites.)
Home. Yeah, that feeling. That desire. The quest for “home,” as Dr. Audrey West wrote in the foreword to my book. I thought I’d finally found home with the Lutherans. And I was wrong — terribly, terribly wrong — about that.
It may be I don’t get to have a home either. That’s a tough conclusion I’ve had to face of late as well.
Thanks to an encounter at a ministry for ex-offenders hosted by our Chicago home church, Bethel Evangelical in West Garfield Park, I have been spending some time in a kind-of netherworld formed in a place where non-denominational churches meet the Presbyterian Church in America meet the Evangelical Free Church in America. It’s a kind-of progressive, very grace-oriented place, and I loved the time I spent preaching and leading worship at Amazing Grace in Watseka, Illinois. Wonderful little church, that.
And I’m theologically very at home in this place, a place where words of unconditional love and acceptance are preached to ex-cons struggling to live on the straight and narrow, or to recovering addicts, or folks who’ve crawled through abuse to emerge bruised and broken. Because the Gospel is all they — okay, we — have. Whatever the world may say — and this includes the church at this point — God’s love is not a lie.
They are the words of eternal life.
But the miserable Lutherans also made me a liturgical Christian. Christians have this spectator problem — when Muslims pray, every Muslim prays, so there are no spectators; this is why Muslims do not have and do not need worship music, or worship art, or anything else like that — and liturgy goes some way to dealing with that spectator problem. Knowing you have to respond et cum spiritu tuo when the priest chants dominus vobiscum makes you something of a participant in worship. Besides, liturgy gives us a fighting chance to focus worship on God, on the redeeming gift of life in Jesus Christ, rather than the clever words of the preacher or the wonderful song about Jesus. So, I like liturgy. I really like liturgy.
And this place the non-denominationals have created isn’t terribly liturgical. Or, rather, it is, it just isn’t a liturgy connected to anything that has remotely emanated from the church catholic and apostolic. There’s music — lots of hand waving, Jesus loving, singing along music — some of which is good, but a lot of it isn’t. There are sermons, usually disconnected from anything resembling a lectionary or a church year. And, increasingly, there is communion. But it’s communion done awkwardly and, all too often, shabbily (crumbled matzoh in a basket? really?), without asking the folks who know what they’re doing — you know, the church catholic and apostolic — how this is actually done.
I wouldn’t mind a stint as a praise band leader, so long as there was a catholic church somewhere close where I could attend regular mass, but I’m guessing that’s a younger man’s game at this point. I am, as I said, a fairly elderly 47 — beyond hope for such things, I suspect.
But a lot of this non-denominational worship doesn’t do much for me. Part of this is just simply how bland and uninteresting I find most suburban, white, American Christianity. In fact, I’ve decided I probably am not going to worship with white people anymore unless they are ethnic and liturgical (Eastern Europeans, Greeks, and Arabs, mostly, though I will worship with Norwegians and Swedes et al if they really are serious about liturgy) or they are stark raving crazy (pentecostals and snake handlers).
So, I don’t know if there’s a future for me in this land I’ve just described. I admire the work they do, the faithfulness of their struggle to try and connect to a larger world, and make sense of things. To speak of God’s love and actually live that love out. But I don’t think I belong in this place either. Not unless some tiny group of worshipers huddled someone wants something more out in their encounter with God, and is willing to take a risk. I’m open, and I will consider any serious inquiry or offer. (Use the contact form. I get back quickly.)
Which leaves liturgical churches. Other Lutheran confessions are completely out of the question — the ELCA’s problem with me is cultural and pietistic, and that will only loom larger with the other churches of Lutherandom, which have long distinguished themselves from the <sarcasm>Sodom and Gomorrah that is the ELCA</sarcasm> by being more pious and more “Lutheran.”
Some years ago, when I was preparing to wander off to seminary, a couple of Orthodox readers of my Lew Rockwell columns wrote to say that when the ELCA had chewed me up and spit me out (this was in 2005! how could they have known?), Orthodoxy will be there to receive me. And don’t think I’m not tempted. I love the aesthetics and the rigor of orthodoxy. I love the liturgy in Arabic even more than I love it in Slavonic, and I would love to have a reason to speak and read and chant and sing in Arabic. Rod Dreher, bless his soul, has warned me off this, and to be honest, the pietistic cultural problems I found in Lutheranism are likely to be there as well. There’s also the reality that too many of these churches are merely a bourgeois ethnic community at prayer. I come from German Lutherans (you needed to meet my Great-Grandmother Schmidt), and I simply wasn’t Lutheran enough for the ELCA. There’s no way in hell I’ll ever even know how to start being Syrian or Lebanese enough for something like the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
I have come to appreciate Rome of late. There’s the liturgy — I love the Latin mass almost as much as I love the Liturgy of St. John Crysostom (for a time, I regularly attended Latin mass at The Institute of Christ the King on the south side of Chicago) — and it speaks to my soul. Even a shabbily done daily mass (and I’ve sat through my fair share of early morning daily masses in which it was clear the priest wasn’t really awake or desperately wanted to be somewhere else) does more for me than all the Jesus music I could wave my hands to. (And I write Jesus music…) Rome is a huge tent full of all kinds of people doing all kinds of things. If there’s an entity big enough to make some kind of sense of me, it is Rome.
However, I am too married to be a priest. (Though a reader has suggested I look into the Melkite Catholic church.) I’ve looked over the process for becoming a deacon, and honestly, it’s more church candidacy bullshit. The last thing I am going to do right now — or maybe ever — is subject myself to another long round of church people peering incompetently and incompletely into my soul, asking stupid questions, coming to all the wrong conclusions, and condemning me for simply having lived an interesting and unconventional life.
So I don’t know. I really haven’t the first idea what to do. All I know is Jesus has called me to follow, to proclaim God’s love and forgiveness. And I really, really, really wish he hadn’t.
Some years ago, while I was working in the JKM Library, I came across a tiny Orthodox magazine published out of Alaska, I think. (I don’t remember and cannot find it online.) One issue featured the story of an Indonesian Muslim who converted to Russian Orthodoxy and then started — all on his own — the Orthodox Church in Indonesia, eventually getting recognition and support from the wider orthodox world for his tiny and struggling — but very vibrant — little church.
Honestly, I think I’m going to have to find that kind of courage. And just start something. I already have nothing, so really, I have nothing to lose. I can’t get anymore lost than I already am, as I have no “home” to try and find my way back to.
There’s just forward. Whatever that means. Wherever it leads.