Note: Posts have been coming a bit slowly lately because I’m hard at work on a book(!), so while I’ll continue updating here, it’ll only be once per month so I can devote any other writing time for that larger project. Thanks for reading!
Going to church has been kinda weird of late. Not because I’ve stopped believing, though the language and form of that belief has certainly shifted radically over the years. Nor is it because I’m angry with “the Church” (I mean, any more than usual), or with my community in particular—Trinity Episcopal is doing their work for the Life of the world about as well as any congregation I’ve known. And it’s not because I work multiple Sundays a month.
It’s probably because I’ve flunked out of ministry for good.
. . . and I’m sort of okay with that.
After losing my second campus ministry in 2016, then failing to capture a job as a youth minister locally, then being told by a diocesan discernment committee that they failed to “discern any movement of the Holy Spirit” in my life and therefore not being recommended for the priesthood, it pretty much became apparent I needed to reevaluate this apparent “call” I’d always felt.
I was initially told the committee’s decision could be appealed and at first, I tacitly assumed this would be my course. “They got me all wrong,” I thought. And people I trust agreed. I just needed to go back, be “more authentic,” and they would see it was a misunderstanding.
But as I steeped in the uncertainty late last summer, deciding whether or not to pursue what had been a dream and assumed vocation since my earliest memories, I began to listen to the voice barely audible through consciousness’ static: you’ve got it all wrong. With every passing Sunday as I sat in the pews watching the clergy celebrate the service, the conviction grew that no, this was not what I wanted to do. I briefly considered a worship ministry position in a progressive church, but knew within 30 seconds of the first song that that season was over.
At long last–clarity! Though not what I should do, but what I shouldn’t. A resounding, unmistakable not this.
I thought through the things fueling the “call” all these years: a desire to work with individuals, to hear their stories and make connections to the larger Christ Story as I understood it. A love of communicating and creating aesthetically appealing corporate experiences—first as a musician and service planner, later as a preacher and sacramental guide. And finally (if I’m honest), to get paid to learn and share that knowledge, investing myself all day, every day in that Story through research, conversation, and prayer.
Sort of sounds like a pastor’s job, doesn’t it? So why was every door slamming in my face? And why had the desire slipped out the window? Ten years earlier I would’ve assumed it was some sort of Divine test–God questioning my commitment to the call. Just keep pushing. Don’t be the 90% of pastors who flake out. And my depressive nature, tired of feeling like a failure, was just dampening the desire. Buck up, tighten your belt, and do whatever’s necessary to get back in the game. Play the politics and you’ll make friends of skeptics. Network and kiss whomever’s ass will get you back to work.
A few weeks back I had participated once again in my friends’ podcast, the Inglorious Pasterds, in which we discussed what we’d do given the chance to “reset the Church.” I was brought in to be the “liturgical Christian,” the one who still (semi-)faithfully attended a regular Sunday gathering and felt a deep need to be connected to the sacraments.
While not everyone needs to be part of a religious community or participate in the sacraments, I contended, it was something I did because I needed it. I needed the Eucharist to remind my forgetful heart of the Christ mystery, of the fact that Divinity is always-already incarnated in all things.
But as I stepped away from the microphone, I wondered just how true that was.
Do I actually go to church because if not, I’d forget to see the Christ in my family and friends, or in my co-workers and acquaintances, or the ragged homeless and hopeless refugee? I don’t think so. To be fair, I’ve never missed enough Sundays to know for sure, but my own practices of silence and reflection, reading and writing, and the fact that biblical vocabulary pervades my thought at all levels is likely proof that I’ll not easily forget the faith of my youth.
So why do I keep going? What do I do with the uncomfortability? And what does it all mean for the future—for my faith and vocation?
I obviously don’t have the answer, but as I reflected on this week’s liturgy–centered on Jesus’ baptism,1–I was reminded of a sermon I gave near the end of my last ministry called “The Water is for You.”
I first discussed the Eastern Church’s view of the sacrament—how the second century catechumens prepared for their baptisms with study and fasting for this cosmic switching of allegiances, an act they viewed as holding “irrevocable finality”.2 How on Easter eve they spit in the face of all dark powers, then descended naked into the water to arise at the dawn of a new day and a new life, receiving a white robe.
I spoke of my own inner-conflict: how my “progressive” side simply wanted to move on, to highlight bigger and more important things (Heb 6:1-3) and yet I felt the weight of this massively important moment in the life of the Church—how this practice is rooted deeply in its Jewish roots, in Jesus’ own story, in nearly all conversion accounts in the New Testament, and in the Church’s continued practice.
Then, we looked at one of my favorite stories: Naaman (II Kg 5): of his function as a high-ranking adversary to Israel, of his leprosy, and of the Hebrew slave girl who somehow had the compassion to tell him of the miraculous powers of Elisha the Prophet. We spoke of how we think, like Naaman, that God should save us through elaborate processes (like liturgical rituals?) and yet how simple our acceptance of Divine love can actually can be. How a simple assent to the work of God already present in our lives—the Christ mystery always-already at work—can make a radical change; can make us as new and fresh as Naaman’s skin after his “baptism.”
But we also looked at the way in which we must all grow into our journey toward Divine union. How Naaman quickly realized that he would be asked to act in ways that went against the God who saved him, then his surprise that the prophet of God wasn’t actually all that concerned. How the freedom of knowing the Force that created and sustains all things is fundamentally for you can allay the shame and guilt of our slow progress toward perfection. How this freedom to fail doesn’t give us a license to break shalom, but does understand that life is messy and full of contradictions.
Finally, I asked about the burdens of Israel’s soil that Naaman wished to take home with him, how it represented an ancient understanding of divinity—particular gods resided wherever their land was—and how he was sort of hacking the system by bringing Yahweh’s land with him in order to have Elisha’s God’s with him in a foreign land.
But this of course raises the question: who, exactly, was the transplanted earth for?
Was it for Yahweh, who couldn’t be present with Naaman if not for the diplomatic immunity provided by the soil?
Or was it for Naaman who, without the physical reminder of his experience, might lapse back into old habits of power and thanklesslness?
Who was it for?
Who, I wondered during Sunday’s baptismal liturgy, was the water for?
Was it for God, who without the regular reminders of our sacraments, might forget the promises of new life and allow our tickets for eternal cash and prizes to lapse?
Or was the water for us—for me—because without it, I would forget what the Story to which I’d pledged myself with “irrevocable finality”, and what it said about me and all things?
All of which raises another question:
What if you’re pretty sure you won’t forget anymore?
Is it hubris to believe I can keep the practice of the presence of God alive with or without communal gathering, or is it the natural way of things? Is church supposed to be something we need forever, or should pastors hope to work themselves out of a job? Is it so far-fetched to hope that before he died, Naaman finally knew that the God of that land was present in all lands? That he opened his pots of earth and scattered their contents to the winds like the ashes of a loved one whose time in this story is done.
What happens when your life’s calling seems to have lost its necessity? What happens when all you really want is for people to stop going to church and start . . . you know . . . living?
And who would ever pay you to do that?
No seriously, do you know anyone?
1. The Feast of the Baptism of Christ is the celebrated on the first Sunday following Epiphany.↩