The Difference Between Priests and Prophets

Well, as I wait in the limbo that is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s first call process, I have been considering my situation.

I’ve have interviewed with three different congregations. One said “no” quite emphatically and quickly, for that I am thankful. I could have been pastor there, but honestly, the place was not my first choice and so I’m rather glad they said no.

I have interviewed at another church in a Chicago suburb, about four months ago, and they kept in touch with me and told me to hang on, they were having some difficulties with their process and then … nothing. I have contacted them, and they have not responded.

Nor has the Metro Chicago Synod responded to me for the last two weeks. It’s a little nerve wracking, and you’d think it wouldn’t be hard to send an e-mail with a “hold on” or “they made a decision” or something. I’m not asking for much.

Of course, throughout this process, I am also keenly aware — a previous candidacy committee refused to approve me, did so for reasons they mostly kept to themselves, but they did tell me they did not believe I was fit to be a pastor in the ELCA, and that given how badly our encounters went during the candidacy process, they had a hard time imagining how I’d deal with a church council. Which, to be honest, was a fair concern. At the time. It’s something they could have helped with, if they’d wanted to. But they didn’t.

I deal with this some in my upcoming book, which will be published by Wipf & Stock sometime in late spring, I think. My editor has my second draft, and among all the other things I am waiting for right now, I am waiting for his critique.

Bleh. I hate waiting.

At any rate, the process of dealing with first call stuff has gotten me to think a little bit about what people seek in a pastor and what God seeks in the people God calls.

Because they aren’t always the same thing.

Let me boil it down to a dualism — priests and prophets. The priest’s primary job is to represent God’s people before God. The prophet’s primary call is to represent God before God’s people.

And these are not the same tasks.

What do I mean by representing God’s people? Well, the job of the priest is is to present the people’s petitions before God, to speak their hopes and dreams and seek God’s favor on those hopes and dreams. Among settled people — and most human beings, wherever they are, are settled people, rooted to land and community and kin — those hopes and dreams are typically for ample rains (good fortune), a bountiful harvest (wealth), many children (again, a kind of wealth, but also to fill the world with kin), and victory against enemies (success in endeavors). The priest takes the concerns of the people, and offers them to God, as a sacrifice, in petitions. The priest mediates between the people and God on the people’s behalf. And all the priest does is focused on the people’s needs.

We are your people, O’ God, the priest says. Continue to bless us.

American Lutherans are a settled people. They look primarily to priestly figures to represent them before God.

But God calls prophets too. And prophets do something different — they represent God before God’s people. The words that prophets speak, the things prophets do, and the way prophets live, are all difficult for settled people, and sometimes jarring and even very offensive. But the whole point of the prophetic is to remind the settled people that God’s will for them is frequently much bigger, and sometimes entirely different, from what the people want — good fortune, wealth, lot of kin, success in life. The prophet speaks the word of God, the judgmental word and the comforting word, in times of failure, misfortune, defeat, death. The prophet tells us that strangers and enemies are beloved of God too. The prophet speaks a word of redemption, a reminder that the dead (to whom settled people are very attached) have no say, no vote, no voice.

The promise of God is for the living. For the future. For us, but also for people we will never know.

Prophets are unsettling because they are unsettled. They have been ripped from place, from kin, even from their past (because past, and place, and kin can get in the way), so they can more clearly see some of what God has promised.

God is blessing you, the prophet says. God is faithful. You just have to understand, it doesn’t look the way you think it should.

Two things come from this for me. First, I am much more prophetic than priestly. And I say that only because people keep telling me. And I suspect that will make finding a call, in a church where we like our priests and don’t really know what to do with prophets (we think simply saying “rich people suck” is prophetic, but it isn’t), difficult. I don’t like it, but I’m okay with it. It’s not like prophets in the Bible have stable careers, health insurance or pension plans. If this is who I am, then who am I to argue with God?

But there’s another point, one I suspect I will spend more time in the future contemplating.

The Bible is frequently called “counter-cultural,” but that term gets so misused that frankly, I do not like it. (Again, there are those who claim that saying “rich people suck” is counter-cultural, and it isn’t.) Rather, the Bible is prophetic. It is a prophetic witness to a settled people that what they want, that what they think God has promised them (God to Abraham — land, blessing, lots of children), isn’t going to work out in the way they think it should. There are a few priestly figures in scripture (Ezra comes to mind as the most prominent), but most of the serious characters in scripture are prophets.

Those prophets say absurd things. In the midst of the great siege, surrender. Go over to the enemy. You aren’t coming home any time soon. Loving God’s people is like loving a prostitute.

And they do strange things. They cure the enemy general of his leprosy, and do this without making any demands he stop the war or change sides. (And he doesn’t.) They marry prostitutes and give their children strange names. They bury their underwear, dig it up later, and wear it for all to see.

The Bible is a prophetic reminder to a settled people that God’s love is bigger than their hopes and dreams. It is a reminder to a settled people where oldest sons inherit and strong men protect that crafty, second-sons get the blessing and whiny nancy boys can end up saving the world. That the king can be a murderer, rapist, and indecisive boob and yet God still loves the stuffins out of him. And makes promises not just to us but to the entire world through that really awful king.

The Bible is a prophetic reminder to a settled people that the future does not necessarily depend on the past. That God’s promises are for the living, for the survivors, for the remnant. The future is God’s to make. And not ours.

The Bible is a prophetic reminder to a settled people who want freedom, power, and glory that our salvation, our redemption, and our liberation are the gifts of a God who surrendered to our violence, who gave in, who died ignominiously, on a cross, as a criminal and a traitor. And that those gifts don’t necessarily mean what we think they ought to mean. Or look the way we think they ought to.

Honestly, I do not know when — or even if — I will find a call in this church. I trust God, and while I’ve been at this more than some (and it’s hard not to be a little angry about that), I’ve been waiting a lot less than some others I know. I trust God. I do sometimes wonder if I’ve been led into the wilderness to die. But I trust God.

A Sweet Little Song to Contemplate John 3:16

At some point, I’m going to abolish my songblog — it never was able to accomplish what I wanted — and migrate all of that content over here. Or just republish a thing or two.

So, this is a song I wrote Saturday. It was also my children’s sermon for the second Sunday of Lent this year. I wrote songs as children’s sermons whenever I can. But they’re not always children’s song.

Anyway, I explained that while we often try to figure out what the Bible means, sometimes we should hear the words, and contemplate them. I’m not sure they got the meaning of contemplate or not, but I said a song where we repeat things — say them over and over — helps with that sometimes.

No, there weren’t two of me singing this morning.

Because It’s Not About God Anymore

Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative asks the following:

What is the point of going to seminary if you don’t believe in God? What is the point of having a seminary that trains clergy who don’t know if they believe in God, but do know that they believe in destroying the tradition?

Well, being a graduate of a mainline seminary — The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago — and a candidate for ministry in a liberal Christian confession — The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — I think I can answer this question.

The first has to do with doubt. Sometime in the mid-20th century, you could not be an intellectually serious theologian or cleric without doubting. You weren’t thoughtful if you didn’t doubt. This was true of Protestants as well as Catholics (the Orthodox never got with the program in this). Doubt was essential because certainty had given us Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Stalin and Hitler. Certainty had given us the H-Bomb and the willingness to use it (and the film Atomic Cafe has more than its fair share of clips of confident and certain clergymen encouraging the use of the H-Bomb to annihilate communism — and communists).

But part of this was also the limits of humanist theology that had so dominated Christian thinking since at least the 17th century. It was a theology that had embraced modernity on modernity’s terms, looking more to philosophers than to biblical story to answer broad questions about human nature, good, evil, salvation, and the whole point of human existence. Such theology had begun breaking down during the First World War, but it had no idea whatsoever how to answer the methodical and industrialized mass killing and destruction of the Second World War. Where was God in all this? It seemed that God had abandoned the world, that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were right about the silence and the abyss.

The God of the Liberal Christians, a God of comfort and order — and this included many confessions and denominations that call themselves socially and politically conservative — simply had nothing to say. Why believe in such a God? Doubt was a logical, natural, and even reasonable response.

(And yet such a God was still taught. The very God we doubt is the only God we know how to deal with…)

There’s a scene in the BBC comedy Rev. — I forget which episode — in which Nigel is going before the bishops board to seek approval for ordination. He’s told, by Rev. Smallbone I think, to doubt. “But not too much.” It goes badly, largely because the character of Nigel is incapable of really doubting anything. But the point is — a thoughtful cleric is also a cleric who doubts. At least a little.

Now, this isn’t anywhere near as true as it once was. However, we live in the long shadow of mid-20th century doubt. I’ve met few doubters myself, but I understand they are out there. But the presence of doubt was so central to the established churches of the mainline that its acceptance is part of the landscape now.

The second has to do with the professionalization of the clergy beginning in the late 19th century. Professionals are people who are have specialized education or training, apply some amount of scientific rigor to the work they do, and are somewhat (at least outwardly) emotionally detached from their work. Professionalism is the ethos by which mass industrialized civilization is administered. The clergy, in this arrangement, became responsible for managing the souls and morals of society, and were somewhere between social workers and teachers as members of a “helping profession.” The whole point of this management was to make society run better, more smoothly.

Well, this arrangement has broken down — who need clergy anymore to manage souls and morals? But we’re still expected to be members of the “helping professions,” only now we’re all somewhere between social workers and community organizers. And who needs God to organize people? Or to agitate for “social justice”?

At the root of this is the loss of the biblical story as our story, as the story of God’s called and redeemed people. The Bible usually gets lost in systematic theology, and that was as true of the Protestant systematizers in the 17th century as it was of the Aquinas and the Catholic systematizers of the 12th and 13th centuries. Faith gets reduced to a series of abstract propositions. But God is not an abstraction. Israel encountered a very real God, a God who yanked them out of Egypt in terror and mass death, a God who appeared in cloud and fire at Sinai, a God who redeemed God’s people time and again in the midst of their suffering. The disciples met a very real God, a God present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who called fishermen and tax collectors “follow me” and who knew, in that moment, God had reached into their lives and nothing about those lives would be the same again.

I am a biblical theologian. I have little use for systematic theology, for scholastic theology, for the edifice of natural law (I find most of it unbiblical anyway), for the impressive but incredibly lifeless cathedral that is the intellectual heritage of the church. It’s one thing for Christians to talk to each other in terms of philosophy — whether that philosophy is Aristotle or Immanuel Kant — but to think we have anything to say to the world that it doesn’t already know using that language is plain foolishness.

We’re wasting our time and our energy doing anything but telling the story of God’s love for God’s people Israel, especially as made known to us in the person — in the life, death and resurrection — of Jesus Christ.

We stopped telling that story, instead focusing on tiny bits to support that impressive but cathedral of “doctrine,” thinking that somehow right doctrine would save us. (Which is why we built that cathedral in the first place.) We only tell it anymore to either get rules or moral inspiration. (I’m always shocked at just how poorly many conservative Christians know the actual story.) But that story is no longer who we are. It no longer gives us meaning. Instead, our theologians resort to pointless abstraction and philosophizing, too many people wallow in sentimentality, and not enough people know, really know, Jesus rose from the dead. When I say we surrendered to modernity, we did — our story is now taken from the social sciences, from literature, from media, from the civic faith, from high-falutin’ ideas bounced around by philosophers. Everywhere but from the Bible, the only place where the story of God’s love for God’s people, for the redemption of Israel, for the coming into the world of Jesus of Nazareth to live, and die, and rise again among us, who calls us to follow can be found.

So why is it necessary for clergy to believe in God? It’s a nice fringe benefit, really, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Jesus stopped being important long, long ago.

The No, and the Yes, and the Wonderful-Terrible Love of God

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
                             — John Donne

* * *

Well. The time has come for me to tell the story, to describe what has happened this week. To try and explain where I am. To help my friends and colleagues and those who care about me make sense of things. To help me make sense of things.

For the last almost six years, I have been studying to be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I was called to this church after 15 years of being Muslim, after encountering God in the fear and terror of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and meeting the wonderful people of Peace Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Virginia, who helped me understand the God I met was the risen and crucified one, Jesus. The program is supposed to last only four years, but I am so very special that my time took six years.

But seminary study is not all there is. Each of the geographical entities of the ELCA has what are called candidacy committees, boards of pastors and lay people who evaluate potential future pastors. This candidacy process has three formal steps: entrance, endorsement (to go on internship), and approval (for ordination). As I said, I am special, and my process has been lengthy and difficult. I had to be endorsed twice (because my first internship failed).

For the last two months, I have been at the approval stage. The first time I met with my candidacy committee (which is in Washington DC, where my home church is), they postponed approving me because of what they claimed was contradicting information. They agreed to meet again to discuss me on February 7. Which was Tuesday. And they did.

They did not approve me. Their stated reason is that I do not possess the social skills necessary for effective pastoral ministry. I believe they are wrong, and that they do not know me well enough — they have never really made the effort — to make that judgment, but it is the final judgment of the committee. It will not change in the near future. If ever. For a time, a few hours Tuesday afternoon, I thought about writing an angry screed against the folks of the Metro Washington DC Synodical candidacy committee. But a screed is not in me. Not now. Perhaps not ever.

(UPDATE: I should note, I suppose, that my candidacy committee did not approve me despite an unconditional recommendation for approval from both the seminary and my second internship supervisor.)

Now, I need to tell you a story. The story of the story of my life. (That looks strange on the face of it. Just go with me.)

The story I had used to tell me who I was, what the world meant, to show me where I fit in the scheme of things, begins even before I have any conscious memories. My mother told once that when I was very, very young, I came to her and asked: “Why doesn’t my daddy love me?” That is where my story begins. It was added to some more by my father, who became incredibly physically violent when I was six and seven. (His violence would last on and off until I was 15.) It was added to when I was nine, when we arrived in Southern California and I began school at Citrus Elementary in Upland. Where the kids bullied me incessantly from the moment I arrived, belittling me, threatening me, tormenting me. The teachers were no help. It was as if the kids ran Citrus Elementary.

And then I entered the fifth grade. It was hell. Because the teacher joined in with the kids in belittling me, threatening me, bullying me. If you’ve not been told by a teacher, in front of God an everyone, that you are stupid, that she will fail you and make you repeat the fifth grade, you have no idea what it is to be reduced to utter and complete nothing.

Because of my father’s violence, which alternated with indifference, I was scared of boys. Terrified of them. So scared that I was actually unable to go into a restroom. So — and this is possibly the hardest and most embarrassing thing I’ve ever said publicly — I peed my pants a lot. It started, I think, when I was at La Mesa Elementary in Monterey (where my father was at his most violent), was lessened somewhat at R.O. Nelson Elementary in Newport News, Virginia (I actually had some very protective friends who, while they would talk about it and even laugh — I eventually deciphered their code — they never made fun of me for it). But like everything else in my life at the time, at Citrus it was out of control. It was just one more thing everyone could bully and make fun of me about. Which they did. And it did not help that the preferred way of dealing with the problem, on the part of teachers (and earlier, by my parents), was to try and humiliate me out of the habit.

I don’t remember many adults being terribly compassionate. Or willing to take much time to get to know me. In fact — and here’s a horrible story — the most positive adult attention I remember from that time was a creepy man who hung around the General Dynamics sports complex (where my dad played softball) and liked to pull up my shirt rub my stomach with his hands, telling me all the time how pretty I was. That’s all he did, and there but for the grace of God nothing worse ever happened to me. But it’s a horrible thing to consider — at 10, I was perfect pedophile bait.

I do not know if I can communicate the extent to which I felt alone and abandoned when I was 10 years old. I had one friend, Marck Weiss, who had it at least as bad as I did. I survived the fifth grade almost entirely because of Marck, and I cannot thank him enough for being human in the midst of inhumanity. But also I did so because one day I decided that if lonely, unhappy, and despair were all I were going to feel, then they wouldn’t hurt. Because they hurt, it meant there was something else to feel — something that was not hurt. I had no idea when that would be. But I would live to get there. I would wake up and live through the nightmare — and it was a nightmare — to get to whatever the absence of in my life then promised me would be in the future.

To survive, I looked inward. I developed my intellect, I read books, and my mother helped with all this (in part, I think, because I was her intellectual companion in my parent’s less-than-pleasant marriage). The world around me was either utterly indifferent to my existence or relentless cruel to me. It was not a place where I was cared for or about. The adults had all the power, could make their decisions, were never accountable, and I never mattered. I was at best a tolerated nuisance. I internalized this understanding of who I was. I was and am exceptionally bright — often times I was the smartest person in the room. That was almost never a good thing. (What I loved most about my two years at Georgetown is, for the first time in my life, I was not. You cannot know how wonderful that was if you’ve never had your intellect be just one more thing people hold against you and torment you about.)

Things would get better after fifth grade, especially when I arrived at Upland Junior High School. Most of my tormentors were not there (I do not know why), and tired of taking the abuse, I started fighting back. I got suspended for fighting a few times, but once I started fighting, I stopped peeing my pants almost immediately. High school was a little better — I was bullied some as a freshman, but mostly after that it was all about not being included. Not belonging.

Along the way, I found myself looking for surrogate daddies to fill that hole. William Turner, a shop teacher and the man who ran the Upland High School auditorium, first filled that role. I think he understood what I needed and he provided it. He taught me how to work, helped me develop a sense of personal honor. I first figured out I had this daddy hunger at San Francisco State, when I had to puzzle through why I wanted more than I was getting in a relationship with one of my journalism professors. After that, ever conscious of this, I always carefully watched and evaluated the emotional nature of my relationship with male supervisors. I couldn’t help wanting to bond, but I could watch it and keep tabs on it, so it didn’t go out of control.

And Jennifer taught me how to love. Hers was the first real nurturing, unconditional love I’ve ever gotten. I know about God’s love from her.

But mostly the story I have told about myself since is a sad and angry one. The world is an unsafe place for me. People are mean and cruel. If they aren’t now, they could be. People with power will never use it in my favor, and they will always use it against me. The great question of my life was: “Will anyone ever love and want me?”

So, I arrive at LSTC six years ago in this condition as an adult who’d had something of a career as a journalist. I wouldn’t call myself a roaring success, but I wasn’t a staggering failure either. For two years, I’d been at church where almost immediately, people came up to me and said: “You should be a pastor.” It was an overwhelming experience, living in a mental world of no one wanting me and finding myself in a world where it was beginning to seem like people most certainly did.

Because the amazing thing about Lutherans is that they actually do care about each other. To a certain extent, I think they take that for granted. Because of that, life in the seminary community here pushed all my buttons. My desire to be nurtured and cared for, especially my daddy hunger? David Miller, Kurt Hendel and even Pastor Craig Mueller set that off. (Mueller, strangely, reminds me of my mother.) After my first internship went kablooey, I found myself looking back and finding in Rosanne Swanson and Sister Barbara Sheehan mommy figures as well — something I did not know I was even looking for. The lost little boy that was me was wandering around, amazed and transfixed in this world of really compassionate and caring grown-ups, and asking: “Will you care for me? Will you protect me?”

My first internship was at a small church in Wisconsin. I picked the supervisor because 1) we seemed to gel theologically and 2) he was young (nine years younger than me) and so I wasn’t gonna have daddy issues with him. It was not a wise choice — he was not up to the task of supervising an intern and he certainly wasn’t up to the task of supervising me. Jennifer and I found a congregation that while not quite knowing what to do with me (because no one really does at first), they opened to us and cared for us. It was overwhelming because, for Jennifer and me, it was so unexpected. One woman in the congregation essentially inserted herself into our lives as a kind-of mom. I knew about my daddy hunger, but I had no idea that I was open to being mommed. It was too much. I hugged her. She did not want to be hugged. She never told me. No one ever told me. And that’s why my first internship ended. Almost three years ago.

The abrupt ending of my first internship, without any warning, was my worst adult nightmare. In that moment, I ceased being 41 years old and reverted to being 10. No one wanted us. The adults were all mean. Decisions were made capriciously. No one talked to me or even asked me what had gone on. It didn’t help we faced homelessness as a result because we had nowhere to go. Everything I ever feared about the world, had worked hard to make sure would never happen again, I was facing. Living in. Every button I had was pushed. It was horrific.

And I wanted to run. I tried. (I had tried to run away and never go back to school when I was 11, but I got caught.) I flung several dozen resumes in the general direction of Washington, D.C., and if someone had bit, I’d of gone. But in the back of my soul was the notion: “Charles, you would only be running from yourself. And you’ll be back here in a few years anyway, since this is what you are called to do. So stay. However hard it will be, stay.” So, I did. I did what was asked of me by the school and by my candidacy committee.

But mostly, I stayed. I faced the mean grown-ups and slowly, ever-so-slowly, told my story and they got to know me. And I got to know them. It took a lot of courage. On the other hand, waking up and going to Citrus Elementary School every day of the 5th grade took far more courage than that.

And so I began to truly comprehend what it meant to live in the midst of people who cared — who cared about me. People for whom I could care. People who actually seemed to mean it when they said they would take the time to get to know me. I will not say it was easy, as I was having to learn a whole bunch of things people normally learn in their teens and then not under harsh lighting and constant adjudication with the threat of final judgment. But I was learning, and I learn quick. The hunger to be cared for began to dissipate as I came to know that I was, in fact, cared for. The compassion and empathy I have always had — things not valued among the people I grew up with — were not just useful here, but important. Even essential. I was beginning to become the person God had made me to be. It was grueling. But it was also the most amazing and rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

So now we are here, and I stand amidst the wreckage of, well, something. In the midst of my candidacy committee’s no — a no I fully expected — something amazing happened. It’s why I hope you’ve read this far.

I was oddly at some kind of peace with their decision. Not because I thought it was right, but because I knew it was not the final answer. And not because I trust some kind of appeals process (there really isn’t one), but because I trust God. A day later, on Wednesday, I was talking with Jennifer, trying to explain to her why I was okay with what happened (because she wasn’t), when it finally came to me in words:

This experience is pushing none of my buttons. It isn’t even trying. I’m not sure it could if it wanted to.

Loneliness, abandonment, not being wanted, cruel uncaring grown-ups making horrible decisions about me, being treated as problem to be gotten rid of rather than a person — none of those things were going off inside. I mean none of them. There was almost no emotional resonance at all. I was feeling none of the things I had grown accustomed to or expecting to feel. This experience was residing someplace completely new. And as I pondered that reality, it really hit me:

My present and my future are no longer in thrall to my past. My past no longer determines the meaning of the now. It no longer has any say on what my future means. My past is no longer writing my story. It is no longer telling me what my life means.

I was free. I was free. In a way I had never understood freedom before. It was a strange, and overwhelming place to be. I spent much of Wednesday and Thursday being almost stupidly giddy because of this. If you found that odd when meeting me, now you know why. There was an intense half hour Wednesday afternoon when I just had to sit with the deep sense there was something inside of me, something that wasn’t me, handling my soul. Washing it, maybe. It was odd, overwhelming, overpowering.

I understood that I now lived in a world where people loved, cared for and wanted me. That great question was answered. With a “yes.”

And that would be enough if it weren’t for what followed. Because since Wednesday, I feel like I’m living in a field of charged particles that keep flowing through me. I have trouble sleeping, but not out of worry. I have been living in a kind-of high. Because there’s too much energy in me right now.

Here, I need to explain my difficult relationship with forgiveness. As an act of will, I have been unable to forgive. Emotionally, it was a matter of justice and fairness for me — if I forgave all those kids at Citrus Elementary School, the teachers, then what they did would stand. I held out for some kind of cosmic justice, some hope that if I just held onto it, it could be undone. Because it wasn’t right, what they did, and if I let go I’d have to admit on some level they’d won and I didn’t want that. I wanted to win, to have the final say. I want you to appreciate this reasoning. I don’t care whether it makes any sense to you. It made sense to me. It was why I had a hard time conceiving of forgiveness in a world where the wrong done to me was allowed to stand. Even if that wrong was done by people now ghosts in a place that has long ceased to exist.

Plus, I found I was unable to forgive myself for being the person the world would do to what it did.

So… Friday, I worked at the library in the early afternoon. It was snowing as I came out, and I went out into the courtyard and stood in the snow, arms open, face up to the sky, letting the snow and the wind pour over me, around me, into me. I started walking toward my apartment. And then it happened. It was a well, a flood, a shaking, and suddenly, I found the words of forgiveness in my heart, in my mind, on my lips. I said names, names I have carried with me for 34 years. I spoke them. I forgave them. I did it several times. Each name. I meant it.

And then I told each one of those people: “I am no longer carrying you with me. From now on, you walk. You are on your own.”

I now know what forgiveness is. To forgive someone is to take from them the power to write your story, to tell you what your life means. To be forgiven by God is to become part of the redeeming story of God and God’s people. To know that hope and life are bigger than fear and death. And to have that very real story become your own.

I am in a very strange and wonderful place right now. For the first time in my life, my story is my own. The past is a book that has been shut and put away. Nothing is reaching back to touch it, push it, make sense of the now in the then. I have something of a blank page to work on. But I also have no map. The scenery no longer makes sense. The terrain is strange. I do not know quite where I am. I have no idea where I am going. And none of this was gentle, which is why I have put the Donne poem in front of this essay. Friday afternoon left me exhausted, spent, like I had been ripped open from the inside.

What the committee decided was wrong. Worse, it was a mistake. But for the first time in my life, I find myself knowing that it was not the cosmic wrong, not the latest version of some primordial wrong that I have lived with for so long. I’m also willing to accept a somewhat disturbing possibility — that their decision was absolutely the right decision for absolutely the wrong reason. I would not have been battered by God these last three days had it not been for their “no.” In their “no,” I’ve gotten more “yes” from God then I possibly could have imagined. In fact, it can stop now. Because I need to recover some. For the last few days, I have not belonged entirely to me. And that, brothers and sisters, is deeply unsettling.

It’s hard for me to think right now about my call. I know I am called to preach and teach the gospel, and proclaim God’s presence and promise among God’s people in the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. I even suspect I am still called to this among Lutherans — people who cared for me and about me in a way no one has outside the Saudi student community at the Muslim Student Association masjid in Columbus, Ohio, did in the early 1990s. If I had to choose right now, I’d choose to be a mystic living in a cave, simply because that’s what I feel God’s been doing to me for the last few days. Or a crazy, itinerant holy man who prophesies and blesses. But I don’t get to choose. God does. And God has chosen for me to be in this strange, in-between place right now.

More than anything, I feel reborn. Like I have born from above. This wonderful-terrible love of God has worked its way in me, has had its way with me, has ravished me, has left me hurting and exhausted. (Let that be something of a warning to all you who yearn for such things but have not had them.) I am at the beginning of something. I do not know where I am going. It’s almost like I do not have a past anymore. (Or better, I now have a future than can tell me what the past means!) But I have a present, and a future, a new story written in and by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I have sisters and brothers in faith and call to help walk with me and help me discover what a life lived in faith and hope really looks like.

So, now that I’ve left my ghosts by the side of the road, walk with me. Let us walk, and write, and tell our stories, together.

All Things to All People

I preached this sermon at LSTC’s Augustana Chapel today (Thursday, February 9). This is a somewhat edited version (I’ve changed a few things and made a couple of small but fairly substantial additions) from a recorded transcript, mainly because I’ve taken to not writing my sermons. The sermon is based on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 —

16 For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. 18 What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

So why do we preach the gospel? Why do we do this? Why do we go to places like seminaries and spend four, or five, or six years studying to do this? I think we’d all answer because we’re called, and I know that means different things for each and every one of us. We talk about these calls, we sing about them in our hymns and our songs, and often times it is Jesus knocking so gently on our door, the “softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.” And maybe that’s your experience.

I can tell you, my call to this ministry is a little bit more like waking up one morning with a splitting headache, a really dry mouth, looking around and wondering: “Where am I? How did I get here? Why I am wearing this uniform? When did I get this tattoo?” Because the honest truth is a lot of the way God calls us is not terribly gentle. It’s not “softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.” Maybe Jesus is calling someone softly and tenderly, but that wasn’t Paul’s experience. Paul was on the road to Damascus when he was laid low and struck blind, and then delivered into the hands of the very people he was sent to kill. Into their mercy. And I fully suspect Ananias and his friends probably looked at this blind and helpless man and said: “If we kill him now, no one will know.”

And I know when we go to negotiate what it means to be a pastor in our parishes, we talk about salary packages and housing allowances. We think of pensions and health care. But what promises did Paul get? What did Jesus tell Ananias? That Paul would suffer much “in my name.” And Paul lost his head for the sake of the gospel.

All that aside, we preach, we do this as Paul said, as Martin Luther I’m certain believed and probably wrote somewhere, and many of those who came before us and will follow long after us, we do this because we have to. And woe to us if we do not. What choice to do we have? And that, brothers and sisters, is something of a really awful place to be. To know in your bones that this is what you are made to do, that this is what God intended you to be, has yanked you out and if necessary God has beaten you up and not just a little bit either. There’s a hymn that Pastor Albert Starr, Jr., has sung at Bethel: “Break me, mold me.” It’s not a gentle process sometimes. But we do this, we proclaim this word because woe to us if we don’t.

Because it’s who we are.

But that just makes us street preachers. That just makes us yahoos who stand on street corners, who go to college campuses, the kind of people I’ve seen who swing their Bibles around like sticks or clubs and usually focus on fornication and homosexuality. “Repent, or you are damned!”

There’s a little Missionary Baptist church that’s for sale on 43rd Street and Cottage Grove, we pass it just about every time we go to worship at Bethel on Sunday. And one morning, Bridget Illian, who was riding with us, said: “Well, if this doesn’t work out for you Charles, maybe you can buy that church. And make it Waters of Babylon Missionary Lutheran Church!” See, I’ve given this matter some thought. But the world is full of yahoos. You wander around the South Side of Chicago and it is full of tiny little churches lead by bishops and apostles, places with names like Acme Baptist Church and Rain or Shine Missionary Baptist Church. Who knows, maybe they aren’t all yahoos, and maybe people are hearing the word, but sometimes the world needs yahoos. People who will walk into the marketplace and proclaim to the Athenians that this unknown god that they honor is really the crucified and risen Lord of creation.

But there is an honest truth. God doesn’t just call us — or all of us, or most of us — to proclaim the word in the wilderness. God calls us to be part of community, to be in a community. God calls us to preach this gospel in the mess of humanity. And Paul understands what this means. I think we all understand what this means. This means doing the hard work of being in relationship with people. And Paul makes a rather ridiculous claim — I find it rather ridiculous — that he has become all things to all people.

He describes here that to the Jews he became a Jew, to the gentiles he became a gentile, to those under the law he became as one under the law, to the weak he became as one who is weak. This is all about being in relationship. And I find myself wondering: how far will he go with this? Among Christians who do missionary work with Muslims, this is actually an important discussion — what does it mean to preach the Gospel among Muslims? How far should Christians go in adopting Islamic culture when they preach the gospel to Muslims in places like Indonesia? How much like Muslims should they live so that the word of the Lord can be preached and lived in their midst? I don’t know, and there’s no good answer. Paul doesn’t say “to the pagans I will become a pagan.” He does say “to those not under the law, I become as one not under the law.”

But for Paul, this is self-giving love, a kind of self-surrender similar to what Jesus does time and again in his ministry, his life, in his acceptance of judgment and death. Paul is, I think, echoing that self-giving love, showing it to the communities he is in the midst of, the communities who have sought his care. “To Jews,” he says, “I will become as one of them, so they are not worrying about my strangeness, my non-Jewness” — not that Paul had a problem with that — “but they’re not worrying about this, they are hearing the word of the Lord.”

Self-giving love? How easy is that? How prestigious is that? “To the losers I will become a loser. To the failures I will become a failure. To outsiders I will become an outsider. To strangers I will become a stranger.” How prestigious is it to give up one’s-self like that? More important, and something I think a lot of us have experienced, what happens when the powerful or the many demand that you give? That you surrender? That you become a Jew in order to preach to the Jews. That’s a struggle I have. And I will always have that struggle. When someone demands I become something, it is hard for me to give up myself and become what they ask. And I think part of our ongoing struggle in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over sexuality is in part about this. Because who is willing to surrender their claims to the right understanding of scripture, to the right understanding what it means to be church, to the right preaching of the gospel. Who is going to say: “To the queers I will become queer”? Who is going to say: “to the straight I will become straight”? Who is going to say: “To the homophobes I will become a homophobe”?

This self-giving love is best when it’s mutual, but the fact that it is self-giving means we take risks that the people we are engaging will not respond with love. Because, sisters and brothers, this wonderful, terrible self-giving love is not about loved ones. Or friends. Or even strangers. It is about enemies.

And the unfortunate fact is that all too often, in the communities in which we live, in the churches in which we worship, it is the loudest voices, it is the most frightened ones, that make the most insistent demands. “You must become. You must surrender.” And they often times seem to win. And then it isn’t self-giving love anymore. It’s abuse. It’s oppression. It’s easier for the powerful to say to the powerless and marginalized “you must bend” than it is for the powerless to say to the powerful “you must too.” Because they don’t have to listen. When it’s demanded, it’s not self-giving love anymore. And it is an unfortunate reality of our human existence.

But it doesn’t end there brothers and sisters. It’s doesn’t end there because Paul surrenders anyway, and he doesn’t do it because it’s demanded of him or asked of him, but because Jesus did it. And he knows that in, with and through Jesus — the one who gave himself for all and for everything — he can. Paul can, in fact, become all things to all people. Because Christ loves, because he came and lived and surrendered and died and rose. Because Jesus did these things, we who are joined to Jesus in baptism and communion, we can do these things. We can, in fact, become all things to all people, not through our own power or means, but because of Christ. We can, in fact, become Jews to the Jews, gentiles to the gentiles, and all the categories Paul names, because Jesus has.

Because he surrendered, because he loves, we can. And we do. Every day. And not just here. But every place where people gather around the word. In Christ’s surrendering to death, to sin, to violence an oppression, he rises to show us they have no meaning. That many of the things we struggle with mean nothing. That hope and life in the resurrection of Christ win in the end. And not fear.

Intolerance and Egalitarianism: A Follow Up

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous asks me in regards to my post from earlier Friday, The Intolerance of Egalitarianism:

[I]s toleration really enough, especially in the body of Christ?

This is a good question. And one that needs some thought.
The emphatic, simple answer is: NO. Mere tolerance is not enough for the body of Christ. Acceptance isn’t even enough for the body of Christ. Inclusion is what the body of Christ is and does to those Jesus gathers to himself. I am included in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism in the way all of the baptized are included. I cannot be more emphatic about this.
But … There is a nuance to this emphatic.
Those who see themselves as called to be the body of Christ in the world — those called to be the church — must be careful about what exactly it is they are accepting and including into. It’s easy for people to come to believe that the cultural and social norms of their time, place and class are the norms of the Kingdom of God and of the Body of Christ. What are people expected to adhere to, to conform with, to be included in? What does it mean to be the body of Christ? Are the ideals and values and practices had in the community the values of the kingdom or merely the values of the community? And how do you tell?
But … There is nuance to this as well.
Because (as a Lutheran) I believe in an incarnational God, a God enfleshed in time and space. That means God is also present in community and custom too. And thus, in some ways, the values and customs of the sanctified community ARE the values of the kingdom. Because God is present in the physical articulation and assembly of God’s people. And, to an extent, God is present AS that very community.
But .. There is yet more nuance to this. 
Because the majority will, practice and custom of the community is not all there is to the articulation of God on earth. Or even on some cute little green acre of earth. (Or benighted, dusty acre of earth.) It’s demands are not God’s will for all people. Or even all people within its reach. The guest, the stranger — that person is also the presence of God on earth. That person is also God incarnate.

And so, both those welcoming and the one being welcomed must remember that they meet God in the other. Yes, among any group of people, there is a “This is how it is done here.” And it would behoove a wanderer or a guest to learn those things. (It would also be nice of those in the majority custom do this teaching with tolerance, patience and kindness, as opposed to cruelty and cluelessness.) Especially if the wanderer is settling down. But the settled community would also best remember that “This is how it is done here” has its real emphasis on the “here.” “This is how things are done here” is NOT the same as saying “this is how people do things.” And God help the community that mistakes the “This is how things are done here” with “This is how all well-adjusted people should or should want to do things.” THAT is the true intolerance of the liberal.

And the settled community should also remember that there are true and honest differences in individual human beings — and not merely abstract groups, because we are children of the Living God, and not merely the sum of which Venn diagrams we belong to — that, because those differences, even differences of “choice,” reflect the many ways in which God is present in the world and to the world, should at least be tolerated.

Because too often the demand for conformity (and the mistake that conformity within the community of the faithful is THE proper practice of the sanctified community) is an end in and of itself. And this gets me back to the original part of Millman’s claim, that the more egalitarian the community, the less defined and visible the hierarchy and thus the identifiable place within the community, the more the community needs and enforces conformity. And the less tolerant that community is of actual, individual human difference.

The Intolerance of Egalitarianism

Noah Millman, a blogger over at The American Conservative, made this brilliant observation the other day in response to Rod Dreher’s rediscovery of tolerance and acceptance in the small Louisiana town where he grew up and recently moved back to:

Not being a Southerner, I can’t comment on Rod Dreher’s post on freak-toleration from direct personal experience. But I suspect part of what he’s seeing is the difference between a hierarchical society and a conformist egalitarian one, the difference between hierarchical Louisiana and conformist Iowa being somewhat similar to the difference between hierarchical (and famously eccentric-tolerating) England and conformist Sweden. A hierarchical society depends for its stability not on the notion of everybody being the same but on the notion of everybody knowing his or her place. And you can make some kind of a place for just about everyone. The question then is whether people will tolerate being kept in their place by others when it starts to chafe. 

My own hometown, New York, follows neither of these models, but is dynamically heterogeneous. We pride ourselves on being “diverse” and “tolerant” but what that winds up meaning in practice is that the overall society is a negotiated coalition among smaller sub-cultures, each of which tends to figure a surprisingly high degree of internal conformity. When a group is struggling with other groups for a relative share of power, dissent is harder to tolerate. On the other hand, when no group actually dominates local society, disaffiliation – to join another group, or none – without physically leaving becomes a much more realistic option.

Millman puts his finger on something very, very important, something I noticed not long after I arrived at this midwestern Lutheran seminary. The American Midwest is very egalitarian. And very conformist. In fact, that intolerant conformism is because of its egalitarianism, and not in spite of it.

Some years ago, when I Jennifer and I were living and working in Logan, Utah (I was a reporter for the Herald Journal), I had a conversation with her (ELCA) pastor (I was not Christian at the time, and worshiped with the small group of Muslims at the Logan Islamic Center) about what it was like to live as a member of a tiny religious minority among the Mormons. The pastor did not like it. I asked him why? (What I really I wanted to ask was: Do they forbid our worship services and arrest us? Make us wear distinctive marks on our clothing? Force us to convert upon pain of death?) His response was interesting — they do not accept us as fellow Christians.

(Well, of course the Mormons don’t, I replied, since they have a very different understanding of what it means to be church then Lutherans do, and Lutherans are not part of that understanding of church.)

But I also contemplated his essential angst: They do not accept us. This, I think, is the core of liberal understanding of tolerance. Mere tolerance is not enough — acceptance is what is needed. (Another ELCA pastor in another circumstance used basically those words.) The pastor in Logan lived at the intersection of the Midwestern Lutheranism’s political and cultural piety (his background was Norwegian). It is not enough to merely tolerate people — they must be accepted as well. They must be equals in the community and in society.

I know, this sounds really good on the face of it. And in many ways, it is. But it is also has a long, dark, cold shadow. The main problem I have experienced with this notion of “tolerance as acceptance” is that it isn’t tolerance at all. It doesn’t tolerate real difference or non-comformity. It merely seeks the expansion of conformity. And it has been my experience that actually makes life harder for non-comformists. Not easier.

I see the ELCA’s struggle with homosexuality and in particular the ordination of clergy in open homosexual relationships. (Please note, I am generally supportive of what the ELCA is doing in this regard, since I believe it means we are open to God’s call.) Liberals call this diversity, and maybe it is, but what it really means is that grounds of acceptable conformity have been expanded. You can be gay, and married, and still conform to the expected social norms since gay and married has been added to social norms. For the liberal (in general), since no one should be discriminated against for things they cannot control — race, gender, and now sexual orientation — certain expressions of these things are now part of allowable conformity. (So long as they are phlegmatic and bourgeois.)

But in a conformist society like Millman’s Midwest, if we are all more or less the same, then we must all be more or less the same. Expanding the ground of allowable conformity actually makes things more difficult for non-conformists (of whatever kind, and this usually means people who are simply different) because in saying the society will now accept you for the things you cannot change, it will become less accepting of things you can (or should be able to) change: aesthetic choices, interests, outlook on life, so on. So, fail to conform to the expanded norm — a big deal in a society that is averse to obvious hierarchy (midwesterners are extremely uncomfortable with me when I use sir and ma’am) — is the fault of the one who fails to conform, and not of the society or community in which they find themselves.

Because this model of acceptance is not of individuals but of abstract groups of people into which individuals can be slotted. Midwesterners in general, and ELCA Lutherans in particular, love stereotyping. (“Tagging” as one pastor put it.) In fact, prior to being in this culture, I’d never been among people for whom stereotyping was such a virtue.

(I grew up in the 1970s — stereotyping people was wrong. THAT’S what lead to discrimination and racism.)

At this point, I have to admit that I am not so interested in acceptance. I like tolerance. Can we build a community here and generally be left alone, to do what we have been called to do? Or leave people alone who want to be left alone? That to me is the high water mark of life in society. I am not so interested in equality as I am in liberty (both individual and collective), and I am perfectly okay with significantly more inequality and social unfairness than a lot of people in the ELCA simply because I focus on how much freedom there is for those who choose or feel called to not conform. And building community among like-minded non-conformists. (Which, yes, is itself a type of conformity. But this is why I really like Millman’s city.)

My theological model for church is exile. I realize that is a difficult model for the ELCA to wrap it’s heart around because it is a confession of settled people who don’t see themselves as exiles and who don’t think exile is a desirable or normative human condition. Which is funny, given that once, so many of them packed up and migrated — Abraham-like — to a land far away.  Most human beings wish to belong to a community of other human beings. I know I do. And I also know that here I’ve found a community that actually seems to want me in its midst. (Which, to be fair, was also true of the Saudi Muslims in knew in Columbus, Ohio.) But I also know the brutal and fiery result of the community’s demand for conformity. No matter how egalitarian and accepting a community or society will be, someone will always find themselves on the wrong side of the demand to conform, who will be thrown underneath its wheels, who will always be wounded by it. Because it will be experienced as brutality. Or it will actually be brutal. (It was both for me.) I don’t necessarily want to be accepted, or rather, I do not want to be made to fit into some great broad category that has been predetermined as “acceptable.” I merely want the space to do what God has called me to do among the people God has called me.

Frankly, I want to be tolerated. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

The Only Promise Worth Having

I apologize for not updating the Cavanaugh book review. I got stuck this weekend in some personal doldrums and have not been able to sit down with chapters six and seven and work out a synopsis. And I didn’t update Stuff Found in Library Books on Monday either. Same reason. I promise I will get to that Thursday.

Frankly, this blog has been something of an intellectual distraction from some things I have been dealing with for the last two years. I would really like to talk about it all, but I do not feel that I can at this point — really, I just don’t feel safe enough to do that. It’s difficult and unpleasant and church related. It could more or less make the last six years of my life all for naught. I mean, not really — nothing’s ever wasted — but it also could simply make it all pointless. And that’s about as far as I’m willing to go with this.

So, this is a personal blog entry. And it’s peripherally related to the above.

There’s a homeless woman here in Hyde Park, I’ll call her Shawna. I’ve seen her around, and gotten to know her, off and on since Jennifer and I arrived six years ago. Helped her out with a dollar or two, bought some toiletries for her when she was living in a halfway house. Mostly, though, I took the time to listen to her. At first, she did what a lot of street hustlers always try to do — talk up that she was trying to get her life together. So that whatever I could give her would not be “wasted.” But after a few encounters, our conversations became a little more human. She stopped trying to pretend she was getting her life together, and instead started talking about her hopes that her life could be put back together. Again, mostly I listen. I think that’s the most important thing anyone can do for anyone. Especially someone lost on the street.

So, a couple of weeks ago, during our first big freeze, I ran across Shawna, trying to pilot her bicycle across an icy street.

“Good morning,” I tell her. In my cheerful way that must puzzle and frighten some.

“No, it isn’t,” she responds, and then she tells me all about the difficulties she is having trying to find a warm place to stay. A warm, safe place to stay.

“Do you know what that is like?” she asks me.

“Only kind of. Not like you, but kind of.” And I explain to her when Jennifer and I were homeless for a month in San Francisco many years ago. Because there were no jobs and we ran out of money and friends to help.

She nods and wonders if San Francisco really is a better place to be homeless — no winter and all that. I respond that I really don’t know.

And then she asks me: “Am I going to be okay?”

She starts to cry, and wonders what it was that she did that God should punish her the way God has. She relates some of the awful things in her past — and they are awful. Then she stops to breathe, and looks at me.

I take a deep breath. “You’re going to hate my answer. If by okay, you mean you’ll have a place to sleep and food to eat, I don’t know if you’re going to be okay. I can’t tell you that. I wish I could, but I can’t. But I can tell you this: you have not been abandoned by God, even though it feels like it. You are not alone. I know it feels like it. I know you feel like God has left you, forgotten you, but God hasn’t. God is with you. And that means no matter what, you are okay. I’m sorry, I can’t give you a better answer than that. It’s all I have. It’s all I know. It’s a terrible answer.”

“No, that’s a good answer,” she says. “Thank you for being honest. And you’re right, I know God is with me. It’s hard, but I know it. Every day I wake up, I know God is with me.”

She notes how icy the street is, and says to me she probably should walk her bike rather than ride it. And then she asks me: “Would you pray with me?”

So I take her hands, and we pray. I pray. She prays. On the sidewalk, in the cold, I call out to God, remembering God’s care for God’s people in the wilderness, remembering the times Jesus came among those who were sick and lame and cast out and his healing them and making them whole, and I demand — as Israel demanded — that God care for Shawna in the wilderness. As we prayed, our breath made little clouds that floated and evaporated in the air. She then asks me if I could help her out, and I give her what I have — $8.

And then Shawna looks at me. “You do know what it’s like.”

“Only kind of.” And I tell her a little bit about my current situation. How I’ve been studying to be a pastor, but have had some … difficulties. Many I caused for myself. It has not been the easiest journey, and some people on this journey have been unwilling to get to know me, to really meet me, to know who I am.

“There are a few people who think I shouldn’t be a pastor,” I tell her. “And right now, they count more than others. I don’t know what’s going to happen. All I know is I have to trust God. It’s all I have.”

“Well,” she said. “I know you should be a pastor. I just know it. Remember, God is with you too.”

She blessed me. I blessed her. And we went our separate ways.

It’s been strange, because at times when I have most needed some kind of reassurance that I am truly called to this, to be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Shawna pops into my life. And she always manages, in our encounters, in her circumstances, to remind me that I am indeed called. Because there are times, given what I dealing with, that I need that reminding. It’s hard to remember sometimes.

So, wherever you are Shawna, I hope that you have managed to stay warm. And safe. Because I look forward to meeting you again.

And I ever get ordained, I want you to be there.