Thursday, February 15, 2007

Why I’m not a pastor

Okay, so what’s with the website’s official Scripture, Jeremiah 20:9?

What can I say? Its just something that’s true for me. I guess you could say that ever since I was a kid I’ve felt God’s gravity.

For the longest time I struggled with whether or not He wanted me to become a pastor, but a funny thing happened to me on my way to the cemetery (oops, I mean seminary). Three things actually. Well yeah I have three beautiful daughters, but those aren’t the three things, well in a way I guess that they’re one of the things.

1 Corinthians 7:32-34 makes it clear that a daddy needs to put his energies into being a husband and a daddy. One friend I sought counsel from in my struggle advised me that God calls all men to be shepherds, it happens that my most important flock is my family. This was interesting coming from him because come to find out he not only dropped out of seminary, but he left the Lutheran church to become Greek Orthodox! Guess the Missouri Synod wasn’t conservative enough for him.

The other thing that happened to me was that I think I pulled something while I was wrestling with Him. (see if you know about the whole “Jacob wrestled with the Angel” thing you might have thought that was funny. Seriously.) Here’s how it went. I don’t know if it was a revelation or hallucination but I was home with Influenza and a raging fever when I felt like God told me “surrender.” Like most people who have experiences like that I probably misinterpreted it. I should have asked, “surrender what?” So I got a elementary level book on the Hebrew alphabet on line and passionately tired to become as pious as I could be in anticipation of the Call. Our congregation was in a financial mess and our pastor of 35 years was about to retire. A pastor of a neighboring church met with me and talked about a new alternative program for ordination of men busy with family and careers for small rural congregations. About the same time the publisher of our local newspaper, fighting a losing battle with cancer, confided in me that he’d like to sell the operation to me. I couldn’t believe that God was suddenly offering me two dreams on silver platters. My wife balked at the idea of buying the paper because of the overwhelming commitment it would mean, taking me from my family.

Well, as it happened, neither opportunity panned out. No one at my congregation was apt to support me as a viable candidate even for Lay Minister and the interim pastor was a complete drip. He put the brakes on the contemporary worship services that our Youth Group led and it was clear that he was uncomfortable with any lay participation in the leadership of the church. Yet I was inspired by the motion picture about Luther. I read his biography and was hungry to read his own writing- other than the Book of Concord or the Small Catechism. So I got my hands on an English translation of “The Babylonian captivity of the Church.” Not only did it reveal his scathing sarcasm and criticism of the religious and political leaders of his time, AND confirm my long held belief that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is one of the least Lutheran institutions anywhere, but above all it showed me that the great reformer himself, the right reverend-doctor, Professor Martin Luther had a radically different interpretation of ministry, priesthood, and the office of pastor than I did, or than the LCMS did for that matter. He didn’t consider it the ultimate prize in God’s treasure box. Luther saw it almost as a necessary evil, a vocation that is entirely equal to and not above any other. And he RAILED on how it had become a prestigious and hierarchical caste system during the renaissance. It seems like even post-reformation it can still be kind of an “old boy’s club” in a lot of denominations. Sometimes I wonder if the “office of public ministry” is as much a human contrivance as it is a Devine ordinance.

So we called a great new pastor, I filed my paperwork, but never took a single class. Meanwhile my publisher passed away after he and his wife sold the shop to a company that owns seven or eight other papers in Iowa and Nebraska. After getting a better feel for all of the personal politics and intrigue within a congregation during the call process and endless committee meetings I decided that a pastor is the last thing I wanted to be. Working at the newspaper the summer after the switch-over I observed a lot of hassles and struggles with the community, advertising clients, subscribers, printers, and employees. So much so that I recognized that I may not be suited for that part of the business and didn’t envy the new guy after all. I felt sad that neither dream materialized, but exasperated, I told God “I give up! I surrender! I don’t need to be a pastor after all.” I swear at that moment it felt like He wanted me to know, “well, duh, that’s what I said before.” Huh? Wait a minute, You mean, You didn’t want me to surrender my Jonah like running away from becoming a pastor? It was kind of like He was saying “Of course not, I just wanted you to surrender the whole issue to me, either way.” Well, duh. Isn’t that just the way He does things?

Finally a third thing happed. George W. Bush. Okay, that’s a bit much to say that I didn’t become a pastor because Bush became President. But what happened and continues to happen is that most of the Christian culture in America is deluded into thinking that neoconservative Republican politics is synonymous with God’s holy and righteous will. As much as Jesus’ love, forgiveness, and example have His hooks in me, so do progressive political ideals. As long as I can remember, I have seen through the façade of “law and order” of lying, cheating, power mongers like Nixon, Reagan, Bush 39 and Bush 41. Meanwhile I’ve admired and been humbled by the idealism, pragmatism, altruism and sacrifice of such thinkers and leaders as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin and Elenor Roosevelt, Henry Wallace, Adali Stevenson, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jimmy Carter- not to mention writers who stood up for the little guy like Mike Royko, Art Buchwald, and Molly Ivins, and cartoonists like Jules Fieffer and Gary Trudea.

Not only am I convinced that while these folks may not always have been right, they’re more right than anyone on the right-wing, especially caustic bullies like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Rielly. So, I am in a sticky place. My denomination is a mighty conservative one. But more than that, for the last decade or more, I have felt like I was unwelcomed in the body of Christ. As if Christians and American Evangelical Christian culture does not welcome people who are genuinely compassionate toward the poor, or concerned about organized labor, racial equality, or any social initiatives. It’s as if big business conspired with the tele-evangelists to use wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage to separate Christians from their good senses and from the rest of Jesus’ teachings and models for living. So, I felt more and more alienated from my Lord’s community and thereby also from Him. That kind of alienation can lead to resentment.

In college I drew a political cartoon for the student newspaper with a coat hanger in it. My point was that even Christians need to consider both sides of the abortion issue. It landed me in the President’s office. He didn’t reprimand me, he just wanted to clarify what my opinion was. Then he politely cautioned me that such opinions may not be in my best interest if I had any hope for a thriving career as a church professional.

When I was teaching History, Journalism and Art in a Lutheran High School, one of the Religion teachers taught more about abortion and the Pro-Life agenda then about the Gospel itself. I figured, “how can you call yourself pro-life and support the death penalty, unjust wars, economic policies that produce debilitating poverty, denial of medical research and violence against homosexuals? Etc. Etc.” Don’t get me wrong, I am not a proponent of abortion. Its shameful and tragic that so many people callously consider it just another form of contraception, but life doesn’t end at the birth canal. I am not “pro-choice” by any stretch of the imagination, but like so many moderate to conservative Democrats (“Blue Dogs”) like me, I’d rather see abortion “Safe, legal and RARE.”

I discovered that there are Christian progressives out there like author and sociologist Tony Campolo and Sojourners founder Jim Wallis. I read as much of them as I could. When students came to me feeling as frustrated or confused as I had, I directed them to the Bible and to the U.S. Constitution so that they could see for themselves what they said, rather than taking the word of some movement or interest group. I helped them focus on their personal relationship with God and their prayer lives, rather than on the opinions and pet peeves of the prevailing malcontents, legalists and moralists. One girl, a child hood victim of incest who had agonized in the anti-abortion obsessed teacher’s class later told me that she’s not sure she’d still be a Christian if it hadn’t been for my help. That disturbed and humbled me. It also emboldened me to believe that God had a niche for me and that He’s not necessarily always on the side of the winning team.

So it just may not be reasonable for me to ever become a pastor because Titus 3: 8-10 says that they should avoid controversy and factions. Needless to say, I’m not very good at that. When someone sends me an email forward that is obviously right-wing propaganda, I’m likely to hit “reply to all” and proceed to write a scathing response, admonishing the senders to check their facts and consider the damage they’re doing to truth and God’s Kingdom. Speaking truth can piss some people off sometimes. Mind you, I realize that Jesus wants me to have tact once in a while. That’s one reason I started this Blog, so I can offend in a broad, general, public way rather than a direct personal way. Hopefully it’s much less hurtful and with God’s help, more effective too. I may blunder and be too zealous sometimes, like the Disciple Peter who had the audacity to admonish Jesus and tell Him that He shouldn’t let Himself be captured and crucified, but if when I am a fool, I am Christ’s fool. And, by the way, I try hard to apologize, acknowledge error, and alter my positions when I’m shown to be wrong. I believe in that kind of transparency. It is not only what Christ would have me do, its sound journalistic practice and being a decent and humble human being.

The new publisher let me add a political cartoon to the humor and politics column that I already write for our weekly small town newspaper. This has rekindled the other fire in me that I had as long as I had the itch to become a pastor- that is the dream of being an editorial cartoonist or columnist. Maybe the tiny newspaper and a blog are as far as that dream will go. Maybe I’ll never be nationally syndicated, but it is still a hobby that is more than a hobby. These are the talents (and the drives) that God created in me. Its much of who and what I am. How could I deny that if I were expected to forsake them to become a pastor?

I think it was difficult to leave teaching in a Lutheran school where I was a full-time, professional commissioned minister of the Gospel. We mentored and discipled kids. We participated in or led prayer groups and Bible studies, and preached homilies in chapel. We were part of a team in mission with the rest of the faculty and staff. That may have been one reason why the pastor issue pressed itself so hard on my heart when we moved to Iowa. I believe that the separation of church and state in public schools is a legal, legitimate, and necessary thing. I still make myself available if kids chose to approach me about their faith or with their prayer needs. I have forged deep faith bonds with some students and a couple of colleagues.

It has been rewarding to be the volunteer Youth Leader at our church, but now the reality of 1 Corinthians 7:32-34 is setting in again. With dance classes, speech therapy, soccer practices, etc. etc. etc. having three kids and being a two-job household, it has become difficult to give being Youth Counselor the time and commitment that it needs. So, when this group of Seniors graduates, someone else will take over for me. So another venue for teaching and sharing God’s Word slips away. So I consolidated three blogs, one was focused just on prayer, one was for the youth group, and another chronicled the history of our congregation while I designed a book for its 125th anniversary- all three folded into THIS one, so that I have an outlet for writing and thinking about Jesus, prayer, the Bible, teen ministry issues, and faith in general.

And the “heartburn” remains. God put this tracking device in me so that I keep seeking Him and He put His Word in my heart and my head and I can’t escape Him. So here I am. I haven’t left my church. Many of my friends are now “former Lutherans.” And, thank God, they haven’t excommunicated me yet. As John F. Kennedy once said, "My church doesn't speak for me, and I don't speak for them." I stay because for all its faults and internal conflicts, I truly believe that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has some of the most beautiful theology and the purest, truest doctrine and balance of Law and Gospel. Yet, in some ways, like a pirate who’s lost his privateer’s license I am sort of a man without a country. When I was asking my Faculty Advisor in college about whether or not to become a pastor, get married, and just generally what God’s will for my life was, he told me that life is like a ship. I get to man the helm and steer with the rudder. God provides the wind and decides how much and from what direction, but I’m not going anywhere unless I weigh anchor and set sail.

Ahoy, Aloha, Me ka pule, and A hui hou,

God’s pirate, with a burning in my bones.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, I just came across your blog through and was surprised that I actually read this long post of someone I don't even know, but man, I like your writing style. Keep it up!

    Your most important ministry is to your family and it sounds like your heart is in the right place for them. Pastor or no pastor, you're still a minister.