LENT Bent and Crooked and Glorious

1 May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
May the name of the God of Jacob protect you!
2 May he send you help from the sanctuary
and give you support from Zion!
3 May he remember all your offerings
and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices!
Selah
4 May he grant you your heart’s desire
and fulfill all your plans!
5 May we shout for joy over your salvation,
and in the name of our God set up our banners!
May the Lord fulfill all your petitions
(Psalms 20:1-5 ESV)

What do you do when you know no one wants you? When you know no one loves you?

In my book, The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death (which you should all buy and read if you haven’t yet), I talked a little about what it felt like to be almost completely abandoned and unwanted in the world:

At seventeen, I had three great questions of the world. Would anyone ever want me? Would anyone ever love me? Would I belong anywhere? I had no idea what the answers to those questions would be. I had the vague hope, thanks to that voice I had heard in the fifth grade, that there was a “yes” out there. somewhere. But really, I had no idea where I was going. Or how to get there.

It would be fair to say that over 30 years later, I still feel some of this. I’ve been rejected — twice — for ordination by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which didn’t quite toss me out the door and then scream, “and stay out!”, but came pretty close. I’ve not managed to find work I can, in good conscience, do for any great length of time. (My sojourn in corporate America is teaching me things I’d rather not know.) The fact that I don’t seem fit for life in the modern world is only ameliorated by the fact that my marriage to Jennifer is as a solid a rock as I can ever stand on — we love each other without condition — and that there are churches out there, where I’ve preached and presided and simply been, that would call me if they could, if they had the money or if they were allowed to.

And there are these kids, these beautiful kids broken and wounded by violence and neglect and unlove. To hear their despair is to live mine again, but knowing now what I wish I could have known at 17 — there is love, and belonging, and purpose, and even meaning. Less than I wanted, but far more than I imagined.

It’s not much. I’m almost 50, and I’ve not really found a place of my own. The world only sort of works for me. But I have found some people. And they have found me. And we belong to each other.

So, is this what it means for the Lord to answer me in the day of trouble? To reach out from his resting place in his shattered and broken house and help me? Is the sacrifice that is my life — sometimes a simple offering and sometimes set alight on the altar — acceptable?

And my heart’s desire? And my plans? I wanted to be famous. To be well-off. I wanted people to listen to me, to regard me, to respect me, to appreciate me. I wanted to play songs for adoring crowds and speak words of wisdom to rapt audiences.

I have had a little of that.

But my heart’s desire is still … to be wanted, to be loved, to find a place of belonging. And I have. In Jennifer. In my kids. It is not what I wanted or imagined or hoped or prayed for. But there is adoration, regard, and rapt attention. There is love — more than I could ever imagine.

Prayers unspoken, yet answered. Desires and plans fulfilled. After a fashion. After a bent and crooked and glorious fashion.

So, I shall shout for joy that the Lord has been good. He has given me all I have asked for and more. That there is love without end in a world so good and skilled at being brutal and indifferent. I ask now for these things for those I care for, the young people who have come to me not knowing, as I didn’t know, what would come. Seeing in me something of hope, and love, and acceptance, yet still wondering if sorrow and suffering would be all there is. Fearing it would be. And wanting no more of it.

Odds & Ends

Blogging has been light of late. I apologize for that. I have been easily distracted for the last 10 days or so, and more engrossed in job hunting (pray for me!) and actually resting, thanks to our host in Maryland, who has been one of the kindest of the Good Samaritans we have met along this particular road to Jericho. We’ve been amazingly blessed.

First, a report on book sales. According to Wipf & Stock, my publisher, so far I’ve sold 200 copies of The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death. (According to Amazon’s Author Central website, I’ve moved 156 copies through them — usually one or two a week, sometimes more, and sometimes none, like last week.) This does not count copies given away. I’ve sold (or given away) roughly 100 copies, so we’re about in the 300 neighborhood. Not New York Times bestseller territory, but about average for a non-fiction book these days.

And we’ve just started… 🙂

I’m hoping some of the radio interviews I’m doing in advance of the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon help that. My publicist did yeoman work, but having finished his part of the deal, I blitzed a bunch of Christian radio stations and have booked a few interviews — WIHS in Middletown, Connecticut; Go Mix Radio, a network in eastern North Carolina;  Spirit FM, a Catholic network in Nebraska; Lift FM in New Jersey; and with Advantage Radio Ministries’ Second Chances show. There’s also a radio network in New Zealand which has contacted me, but so far we’ve not worked anything out.

And Chaplain Mike over at internetmonk.com has said he is interested in interviewing me in the run-up to 9/11.

So, good things are happening.

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Would you buy a used gospel from this man?

First, I’d really like to thank everyone who has read my book. And responded to me. I never imagined writing a book, but this book, it is for the wounded, the abandoned, the unloved, and the unwanted. Over the last few years, I’ve come to see that the purpose to human life — well, at least my life — is to witness to the love of God for the entire world ο κοσμος. And that there is no life so disordered, so chaotic, so lost, so misguided, that God cannot use it to witness to the incredible love that God showed for God’s people (and the world) in calling Abraham, forming Israel, redeeming them from slavery in Egypt, leading them through the wilderness, and delivering them from exile.

This is the love Christ showed for the world in calling disciples to follow, to feed sheep and tend lambs, in drawing the crowds to them, in teaching them, in healing them, in casting out their demons and feeding them. In living with us, suffering at our hands, and dying before our eyes, and rising on the third day.

My life bears witness to all this. I don’t know how well the book says any of this, but it is what I am called to do. And to be.

Along those lines, I keep looking for work. My hope had always been that someone would read the book and go, “he needs to be our pastor!” That hasn’t happened (at least not yet), and I don’t know if it will. My great concern about the book was that this was such a non-standard narrative, an odd story, one that didn’t easily fit into preconceived notions from either liberals or conservatives about what a good story of a redeemed sinner ought to look like, that no one would quite know how to market this book. I appreciate my publicist’s efforts, but I’m not sure he quite knew how to publicize my book. (I’ve only gotten the notice I have tying the book to the Christianity Today piece and the 9/11 anniversary.) I know my publisher believes they’ve done a good thing with this, but they also know this is a book that defies easy categories. A recent acquaintance has called it “literature” and has compared my narrative to Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. All of my Amazon reviewers have given it five stars.

Speaking Christianity Today, I did write a nice little piece for them, and it has gotten more than 1,000 shares on Facebook (!!!!), so I’m pleased with that. I’m not enamored of the title, but you don’t choose those. I didn’t even choose the title of my own book, but I like it, and it really works.

So, I pray for all of you who read this blog every night, and thank God for you. Please pray for me as well. I still don’t know what will become of me — I’m a bit like Nadia Boltz-Weber without the tattoos and the modicum of institutional support (or, to be blunt, the best-selling book and the worldwide acclaim); had the ELCA felt compelled to find her a call (as opposed to letting her start her own church), she likely would have fared no better than I did in their miserable candidacy process. I hope to find a small congregation out there willing to take a risk on a pastor who wants to preach and teach (and sing!) the gospel, care and tend for them in their joys and sorrows, and yet by simply breathing lives outside just every Christian comfort zone imaginable. I appreciate how difficult that is for a lot of Christians, especially in a time of deep, existential crisis for the American church, when safety, comfort, and ease are desperately sought but nowhere to be found. But it’s also difficult for me, not finding a place to fit, or a people to live out my call among. It may be how I have always lived, but it is no less difficult for me.

I suspect I will have to start my own worshiping community. (Waters of Babylon Missionary Lutheran Church, here we come!!) Which is okay, though it would also mean some kind of work elsewhere. I would rather be tied to a community of support and accountability, and to a bigger tradition than myself, but I think I scare too many church bureaucrats and unsettle too many sheep. And the sheep are what Jesus called us to serve and care for.

However, as a certain incarnate Lord and Savior once said:

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:16 ESV)

There are sheep without a shepherd, people out there, looking for me, waiting for me, hoping and praying for me. To be their pastor. The happy accident that will bring us together has not happened yet.

But my life has been full of happy accidents. Amazing, wonderful, life-giving, accidents. (I’m thinking of y’all, Jennifer, Michaela, and Molly!) I don’t see that changing. Ever.

What Success Looks Like

Some months ago, I was chatting with my daughter Michaela via FaceTime (she’s Slovak, lives in Slovakia, and attends university in the Czech Republic, where she’s studying Arabic and Islamic studies — this makes her “old man” very, very proud — and so all we have right now is Internet chatting; someday, I shall explain how she became my daughter, but it was an act of proclamation, the grace of God, and not biology) when she asks me, quite bluntly:

“What if your book fails? Because here in Slovakia, lots of people dream big, but it doesn’t work out. What’s your Plan B?”

Always practical, that one.

I hemmed and I hawed. Well, I said, success could look like many things: my book getting on Oprah’s book club, Hollywood wanting to make a movie (all possible; unlikely, but possible), and given the story I tell — American Muslim and one-time wanna be jihadi meets Jesus underneath the burning towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and goes to seminary to become a pastor — a silent thud in the American marketplace is unlikely. Possible, but unlikely.

So, I told her, I defined success very simply — one offer to be a pastor somewhere. I think that’s a potential outcome. I worry that with the things I reveal about myself, I will be completely unemployable (that too is a possibility in our society of no mistakes allowed), that no one anywhere will want me as their pastor. But I trust God, I told her.

And besides, I did up a nice Europass CV so she could give it to the language school where she teaches English. (A resume service recently rated my CV “poor,” giving it a 5 out of 10, because I only listed job duties, and failed to note how I “added value” to the companies I worked for. Really? That’s a thing now? Is it a sad admission to say I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I’d done that?) That’s my “Plan B,” I told her.

Honestly, though, I don’t even have a Plan A right now, much less a Plan B. Jennifer and I are winging it, making it up as we go along. We’ll see how that works out.

The truth is, however, I know exactly success looks like. It looks like this e-mail I got late Sunday, unsolicited, from Soren McMillan, who has apparently followed my writing career for at least 10 years (I have a follower?) and has just read my book. I’ve never met Soren, and am deeply touched by his response. I reprint this with his permission:

Charles, I wish I were in the position to invite you to my church, but I am “between churches”, looking for a new one.  I just want to say thank you for your book.  I read it over a couple of days, and now my parents are reading it as well.  I first encountered you years ago on the Lew Rockwell web site and appreciated your writing then.  Your book resonated with me as I am a seminary graduate who, in my view, has “lost my way” in many respects, wondering exactly I will do.  I am zealous of the Lord’s leading toward the next step.

From everything I read in your book, I believe that I would love to be a part of a church where you are a pastor.  I think one of the greatest virtues in a godly pastor is transparency, over against a pretense that always places a wedge between the shepherd and his sheep.  Thank you for your transparency.  I may end up buying several copies of your book for my friends – I think your message is that important.  I am far away in South Carolina, but would love one day to hear you preach in person, my friend.  God be with you as you seek his leading.

Regards,
Soren McMillan

This. More of this. This is success.

* * *

Soren, you will hear me preach. Jennifer and I are going to hit the road, likely soon, traveling from town to town, church to church, bookstore to bookstore, and I speak wherever I can and to whomever wants to hear.

And I hope we can even go as far as Slovakia…

Things I Learned Writing A Book — God Is Not Fair

An occasional series where I reflect on the things I learned from writing my memoir, The Love That Matters

The things we learn by doing. And can only learn by doing. If I had it to do all over — writing my first book — knowing what I know now, I’d finish the final draft, hand it over to my editor, and say, “let’s let it sit for three months so I can cogitate and contemplate for a while, and then I’ll go through it again.”

Because I learned a lot, about myself and my life, saw things I’d never seen before, writing this book. And since we didn’t do that — it felt like a rush, and then nothing for months while the finished book sat in Wipf & Stock’s editorial queue — I’m going to use my blog to contemplate some of what I learned here.

Audrey West really puts her finger on things when she describes my life as “a quest for ‘home,’ and experience of safety and rest.” I’d probably go a little farther and say my struggle was to find a place and people to belong to. But she nails it, solid. I’m glad she saw this. Because i’m not certain I could have. Not in so many words.

If there was a thing that simply did not work in my young life, it was belonging. It was fitting it. It was conforming. It was being accepted. It was finding a place among the people I was with in which I was valued, in which I contributed something useful, was wanted, was accepted on some level for who I am.

My mother told me a story a couple of years ago, and I struggled with including it in the book. Because I couldn’t testify to the truth of the story — it wasn’t something I witnessed — I decided not to.

I do remember some pressure my freshman year, it was fairly subdued, on the part of some folks at Upland High School, to have me play football. (In this, I have to thank Coach Beresford, who was really quite kind and supportive during the two years I had to take physical education, which I dreaded, and which he made whole lot easier.) I don’t remember much, and my answer was always no, sports simply did not interest me. (At SF State, when the athletic department took out an advert in the student paper looking for football players, I gave the matter some thought — at that point, it seemed like something worth trying at least once, at a place where winning couldn’t possibly matter.)

But my mother tells a different story. At parent meetings, they got a lot of pressure from other parents (and maybe from teachers?) that I should play.

“But he doesn’t want to,” was my mother’s answer.

“What does it matter what he wants? You should make him play,” was the response, according to my mother.

I believe her. In part, because I saw that happen to a couple of high school students at the church where I served my first internship. I wish my parents hadn’t shielded me from this, if for no other reason then I needed to know that they were actively taking my side on something.

But in part I experienced this part of “life together” in other ways.

Our children are strangers when they arrive in our midst. And our calling is to turn them into friends and loved ones. We form them, help them figure out who and what they are and how they belong. But in the process, their presence in our midst should change us as well. We should be formed by them at least as much as they form us. It is, or it should be, a real relationship, in which a functional human being is formed and fashioned and in that process, we continue to become more human ourselves.

ADDITION: We don’t do ourselves any favors when we treat people as mere means to an end. That the only value they may have, and their only use, is the one we ascribe to them. If we’re just giving them something, or worse, compelling them to do or be something against their will and without any sense of who they might be (or might be called to be), then we do nothing but cause trouble. Because some people need more work, and more help, than others do.

I feel like I’m not putting this well.

One of the things I came away with from growing up in Upland, California, is that there was nothing I brought to the community that the people around me valued. I did not find people willing to meet me in any meaningful way. Unwilling to be formed by my presence in their midst. How could I really meet them if they wouldn’t meet me? Whether I triggered something that simply brought the abusive out in them — Ms. Johnson, my fifth grade teacher, is the prime example of this, though there have been others — or they simply found me too puzzling or perplexing, and because of that they simply did not know what to do with me or what to make of me, it hardly matters. There was no reciprocal relationship here, no attempt to form me and no willingness to be formed by the encounter with me.

Upland was a very conservative Southern California suburb, and the community was deeply attached to social roles (to the extent they existed in an atomized bedroom community). And this appears to work, more or less, for lots and lots and lots of people. It didn’t work for me. The place had little imagination or patience to deal with those who needed a little — or a lot — more work to figure out who they were and how they belonged. You can’t hand me an identity, a place in the community, or a social role out of box that I would or could easily or willingly accept. This was something I needed to craft with my own bare hands, and I desperately needed the help of others, and there was likely no way this was going to be easy no matter where I was or who I was with.

It wasn’t easy at seminary. But I found people at LSTC willing to do the hard work of helping me become the person I was supposed to become, and in that process, they were changed by me.

One of the things I have learned is that I am a deeply relational person. As gruff and fiercely independent as I can be (and I am; my mother will attest to how difficult it was to raise me at times), I really truly do best when I am deeply embedded in a community of people where I am valued and I belong. I truly needed others to help me figure out who I was, and I was lost otherwise. “What will I be?” was never merely a question of best career choices for me. It was existential. It is existential. And I still struggle with it. I am called to preach and teach, and was formed in that calling by a church which decided in the end that I am unfit for that calling. At least in their midst.

That ought to hurt more than it does. But it doesn’t because of one of the other things I have come to accept: God is not fair. In fact, God is deeply unfair and unequal in the treatment and attention doled out. The fairness of God is a conceit of our democratic modernity, which tries to create a banal universalism and meaningless equality when, in fact, God shows love and attention and affection to some far more than others.

This is not a good thing, however. Because I understand completely St. Teresa of Avila when she said, “God, if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!”

Because this deeply unfair love of God is troublesome. Some people are marked, given wounds and burdens, are made strange and different in ways that strike us as deeply unjust. I ache to belong to people, to a community, in a way that I will likely never be able to belong. (In fact, the very belonging I seek is some unobtainable combination of Grampie and Grammie’s ranch and White Sands. I still ache for the Army!) Our modernity tells us this is a problem to be solved, with therapy and medication and modification and punishment. Because there is no unfairness, and no inequality, not in nature, not in the creation. There is no one that doesn’t fit, or can’t be made to. (God loves each and every one of us THIS MUCH! And no more!) Anything that appears to be bent or broken can simply be straightened or remade. There isn’t anything we can’t or shouldn’t try to fix. Or apply technology to.

But the wound is a witness. The ache is a witness. The longing is a witness. The seeming incompleteness is a witness. It says something to the world that the world needs to know. I’m not sure what that is, aside from the profound love of God for the world, and even that must simply be apprehended, and not reasoned. Perhaps it says something about the God in whose image we are made. God as God really is, and humanity as that very real image, rather than some idealized and perfect (and well-adjusted) mankind.

Maybe it’s a mirror to hold up to a world that prizes ordinariness and normality and conformity that God is present in the strange and the odd, in the misfit and the malcontent, and perhaps more powerfully there than in the order of the ordinary. It’s a testimony in face of the belief that all things should be the same, that all substances should be as they appear, all appearances should match every substance, that no, in fact, God does plant strange seeds in our midst to grow up crooked and curious. That some appearances belie the substance they cover. That taking the time to appreciate this has value.

Finally, I have learned that my life does not belong to me. (And if you’d told me that at 16, I’d of kicked and screamed and run away, because it meant my life belonged to you. I needed to fight for my life, and find value it it, in order to have something I could surrender utterly to the divine. Otherwise, you’d of been taking something from me that I wasn’t sure you valued — wasn’t sure entirely that I valued.) My life makes sense to me, but now, it makes sense in the surrender to that call. Not in trying to assert some idea of who or what I am. And that’s how I can live with being a witness to something greater than me. That I am complete, aches and wounds and all.

And I belong. Aches and wounds and all.

* * *

This was something of a ramble, and I’m not sure I say any of this well. *Sigh* I will have a whole lifetime to figure out how to do this.