I remember the first time I admitted out loud that I felt like I was supposed to be a pastor. I was in the passenger seat of a teal, Eddie Bauer Edition, 1996 Ford Explorer my dad leased after his Honda Accord rolled out of his driveway and hit the neighbors’ house.
A Dramatic Rendering:
(Scene opens on an aerial shot through a more than generous sunroof (an extra expense in the lease agreement) of a father and son engaged in stilted early morning conversation. Stephen W. Smith’s “Go West Young Man” plays softly in the background through after market Kenwood speakers.)
Eric: “Dad, I think I want to be a pastor.”
Dad: “Really, I thought you wanted to be a lawyer. Pastors don’t make a lot of money.”
Eric: “Yeah, I don’t know why, just a feeling.”
Dad: “You should probably talk to someone about that.”
Eric + Dad: “Overwhelming Silence”
Most pastors have what we in “the industry” refer to as “an inherent need to self-destructively please people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Sorry, that should have read: “call story,” which is Evangelical for: “the mystical encounter providing divine credentialing to someone’s decision to become a pastor”. I was 11 at the time of my pastoral epiphany, and was currently being shuttled (against my will) to a small Baptist church my dad began attending with my (then) stepmom in order to return to “his roots”. It was the kind of place where I knew no one, everyone wore a beige suit, and the sermons were really long.
If they’d had a website, this kind of raving testimonial would be featured prominently on the homepage right under the “online giving” tab.
One thing this regrettable 90s haircut parading as a brick-and-mortar manifestation of the historic Christian community stretching across millennia had going for them was a YOUTH HOUSE. Which, to be clear was a former parsonage whose wood-paneled interior received a heavy coat of garish paint colors at the hands of adolescents as a way of providing us teens navigating the complexities of human existence a place to “be ourselves and make as many messes as we want!” (For clarity’s sake: “be ourselves and make as many messes as we want!” is always interpreted as coming twice-weekly for talks on abstinence soundtracked by radio stations taking on-air prayer requests on the half-hour.)
This YOUTH HOUSE, according to the decision makers of the church, reflected a financial and geographic commitment to both the current YOUTH PROGRAM, as well as something they kept referring to as THE FUTURE OF THE CHURCH. Over time (both in this church and the MANY other ones in which I’ve spent time both voluntarily and otherwise), I (and people sharing my demographic and generational DNA) have been repeatedly referred to as THE FUTURE OF THE CHURCH.
I don’t mean this narcissistically or with mega-phone-voiced-grandiosity (I write things for free on the Internet), but out ofa growing-more-shrill-by-the-minute-concern that I will never actually stop being THE FUTURE OF THE CHURCH. Or, more directly, that I (or people generally in proximity to me) will never become THE PRESENT OF THE CHURCH or even, historically, what people felt totally cool just calling “THE CHURCH”.
A Dramatic Rendering:
I recently attended a large denominational gathering of moderate-to-progressive Baptists (in business causal) taking place in what can only be referred to as the world’s largest mall food court decorative fountain pretending to be a hotel in downtown Atlanta. This kind of thing usually isn’t my scene, as I am a perennially terrible networker, do not own a “summer-weight” sport-coat, and have a penchant for occupational self immolation viz-a-viz writing alienating things on the Internet about the failures of institutional Christianity to stop accidentally putting aluminum foil in the microwave of everyone’s soul: see here, here, here, and here.
However, I was there, and while enjoying a plate of what amounted to mostly just french green beans (the green bean of choice for hotel ballrooms trying too hard) and SMASHED! potatoes, I became uncomfortably aware of my probably terminal status as a member of GOD’S FUTURE CHURCH for at least 3 reasons:
1.) I am not currently, nor have I ever been, the progeny of a seminary professor or senior pastor in the Baptist world in which I am sporadically employed.
2.) Please see previous note about lack of networking skills and “summer-weight” sport-coat.
3.) I am a part of a larger institutional network that featured a breakout session (in 2017) about how to “connect with young adults” by first lamenting their messiness and need to “feel like they have ownership,” and concluded with an encouragement to members of GOD’S PRESENT CHURCH to “give them something to do, like directing traffic in the parking lot before worship.”
And, once again at the behest of beige-suited and grey faced adults, I found myself in another YOUTH HOUSE of their making.
These kinds of experiences, inevitably, leave even me, a well-educated Caucasian male, questioning my own “call story,” and what the next right thing is in the face of both burning and burned-out bushes I believed at some point requested my presence in Egypt straightaway. For others, be they women, minorities of any sort, young people, or those with the unwelcome ability to hold in tension diverse opinions on things none of us know for sure, the CHURCH OF THE FUTURE seems less and less like a hopeful comment on their coming role in God’s family and more like a passive aggressive reminder of their current lack of one.
In the past, how I would resolve this already-not yet tension inherent in a life spent believing myself to be someone with something to say but maybe no one to say it to (or, more acutely, no one willing to listen to me say it) would be to burn “it” down. “It” of course being anything within arm’s length at the moment: from “my emotional stability,” “401k,” family,” to “the church where I’m currently employed,” and even “the Church universal”.
Recently, a wise friend reminded me that sometimes it just takes a while for us to become okay with the ways in which our “calling” (however you interpret that) ultimately unleashes both frustration and freedom into the world around us. Spending time bemoaning others (be they institutions, individuals, or income brackets) for not affirming the call that threatens them, for not respecting the call that questions them, and for not supporting the call that challenges them, is ultimately a wasted life.
Waiting for the CHURCH OF THE PRESENT to finally “call” both me and you is our mistake, because (to be fair) God already did the calling several years earlier.
Perhaps my own lack of fit involves a divine call to something other than providing hospice care for the final days of people who mostly believe the answers to the questions I (and those like me) have about the limping, partisan, anxious, and much-hotter-than-it-should-be-world they’ve left us, is to condescendingly allow me the privilege of directing the flow of ever-dwindling numbers of Buicks into the church parking lot.
For the record, THE CHURCH OF THE PAST, THE CHURCH OF THE PRESENT, and THE CHURCH OF THE FUTURE are always and already and not yet simply THE CHURCH. We are, historically speaking, a group of people continually missing the point as to what life in the way of Jesus is to be like, we are on a journey of both constantly losing our way and being found again and again and again. You haven’t made it yet, and neither have I, which is why (for better or worse) we need more from one another than quiet toleration or outright rejection.
Where I and (even if you don’t get paid to pray) you lose the plot on our own stories and the unfolding story God has been telling through the lives of questionable people throughout the centuries, is when we confuse the welcome or rejection of people “in power” for the voice of the divine. According to the Scriptures, God’s voice comes time and again from slaves, and bushes on the edge of nowhere, and woolly prophets hiding from the authorities in caves and hillsides. God’s voice is very often poor, and ignored, and abandoned, and marginalized, and when it reaches a fever pitch, nailed to tree by a world superpower occupying the Middle East.
This also means that if you have been or are still awaiting recognition from GOD’S PRESENT CHURCH because of far more integral components of your selfhood than a penchant for whiny white dude self-destruction (and it is here that all the women, people of color, and people of difference in the crowd make their presence audibly known!), you are in excellent company.
At the end of the day, I've found calling has almost nothing do with who hears you, and everything to do with who you hear whispering to you to keep going, even when it gets too dark to make out the way ahead. Calling isn't about all the things you're willing to go through until you're finally rewarded with an audience, or a job, or a favorable review, or a direction, or a salary. Calling is what you feel like you have to keep giving to the world even if the world keeps putting you and the thing you love to death again and again and again.
Christianity's power and influence isn't in the winning, it's in the losing, in the failing, in the dying.
Perhaps our great struggles as members of both GOD’S PRESENT CHURCH and GOD’S FUTURE CHURCH (were it ever to materialize, Maranatha) is that we inherently believe the voice of God can only materialize weekly on the lips of an “acceptable white dude” (or any hegemony of your choosing) in a summer weight sport coat, or a robe, or a collar, or ripped jeans that he paid extra for. Either way, I’m reminded of the words of Jesus in moments like these, where, during his triumphant entry into Jerusalem days before his execution, he met the complaints from the religious elite about the blasphemous praise his disciples were heaping upon him with a subtle reminder of their (and our) place in God’s universe:
If [the disciples] keep quiet, the stones will cry out.
In the original Greek, I’ve found “stones” is best translated: “women, the poor, slaves, refugees, Gentiles, minorities, and in a pinch: even lonely 11 year olds in leased Ford Explorers”.
Once again, and this time with feeling: Maranatha.
photo credit: Flickr