If you were to tell me when I was in college that I would someday be so interested in politics, I would not have believed you. Everything for me then was the Church, with a capital “C.” In fact my Writing Composition professor asked me if I could consider writing one of my expository papers on something other than ministry related issues. I replied to her, “would you have said that to Billy Graham when he was a student at Wheaton?” To which she replied, “you’re not Billy Graham.” My whole mind was consumed with the prospects of full time, professional ministry until around the age of 27 when I was finally on staff at a church and everything came crashing down.
To call it a season of disillusionment would be overly simplistic. I don’t want to assume that I fully understand what has happened in the last six years. I did not resign from that first ministry position because I had was convinced I was done with a kind of holy ambition to be a pastor. My Grammy told me that I had announced my desire to be a minister at the age of seven, and it is difficult, almost embarrassing to try to explain how this desire began. How can you describe a calling to someone who has not experienced it? In some ways it is the most private kind of knowing yet it is also an explicitly public kind of knowing as well. If I didn’t have people in my past and here in my present who encourage me to pursue ministry, I would not posses the nerve to continue down this path. I resigned from my first ministry position not because I had given up on my inner compass towards a life of giving. I resigned and went on to graduate studies because I’d had enough ministry experience to realize that I needed more preparation; I needed to grow up some more.
Part of the story is that I’d started having panic attacks while trying to hold down a part time position at the church and a part time position at a school teaching tenth grade World History. That year I recorded my first CD and was also leading a house church of young adults. The candle was burning on both ends; I didn’t have anything left to give in pursuit of my calling to be a giver.
After college I attempted a semester of seminary while participating in an internship. It was a hard year, so hard to transition from the security of a four year degree into the unknowing of what to do with that degree. I read a lot that year—not books for my theology classes. I was reading novels to escape the fear of the future. I’d read until four in the morning, sleep till 10:20AM or so and the book it to prep for my lunch shift at the Irish pub where I worked. That was the way that I read Brothers K the first time in something like three days. I woke one of these mornings feeling like I was drowning in my own self-consumption and somewhere I found the thought, “I want to be a giver…not a taker.” It was a curious thought at first, a bright, shiny thought that I didn’t feel capable of forming on my own. It was a prayer given to me that perhaps echoed back to my seven year old commitment to the work of a pastor. Or perhaps it wasn’t echoing back to my seven year old self, but rather to the ten year old, the thirteen, fourteen, eighteen, or the twenty-one versions of myself that had all sensed a bigger purpose.
How is it possible to talk about this “bigger purpose” without being presumptuous, without alienating yourself from others who don’t feel the same impulse? This is question that preoccupied me during most of my twenties. Why is being a pastor any more important than anything else?
Some of the most formative work I’ve done in my graduate work in on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of “religionless Christianity.” Bonhoeffer was a heady young man. He completed two doctoral dissertations and was hired on as a university lecturer in his middle twenties. He had a bright future ahead of him in academics. He could have easily stayed in the United States during the Nazi occupation. Many other German scholars did. But Bonhoeffer left Union Theological Seminary in New York and decided to participate in the underground resistance of Hitler’s abominable dictatorship. Dietrich’s conviction was that he could not suppose his faith, writings and teaching would mean anything to anyone if he stayed idly in America. Scholars have tried to piece together what he meant in his Letters and Papers from Prison when he talked about a “religionless Christiantiy.” “God allowed himself to be pushed out of the world on the cross,” he said. It was the end of religion in the sense that it is the end of the power of theocratic governance, in other words, the end of Christendom.
Stanely Hauerwas among others has charted this notion that we exist in a post-Christendom age. The church has no worldly powers. Ours is not an earthly kingdom. Ours is a God who allowed himself to be destroyed by earthly powers for the sake of an eternal authority.
Here on the eve of the most important election of my few 33 years as a US citizen, I’m thinking about my brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ who are having a difficult time coming to terms with the end of Christian power. I was raised primarily within an expression of Christianity that enjoyed the privilege of seeming power. The Moral Majority has been strong throughout most of my life. We have preached salivation of souls along with the Gospel of the Republican Party. Tomorrow Obama will be elected our next president and this will take a tremendous blow to our Christian sense of power. I’m sure the next few years will be a bumpy ride. Mercy for us all!
It is ironic that I find myself inspired by Bonhoeffer to come to terms with the secularization of our society, to see it for what it is, to therefore participate more deliberately in my civic duties all for the sake of hoping the church can then be released to fulfill her calling. Bonhoeffer experienced a much more severe disillusionment than I did. His frustration was with the German Lutheran Church because none of its church leaders stood up to Hitler and the Nazi’s. Bonhoeffer was forced to look the failures of Christians, their complicity. Instead of staying in the safe halls of academia, Dieterich Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and participated in a few failed assassination attempts on Hilter and then was found out, arrested and executed by hanging just three weeks before the liberation of Berlin in 1943.
Bonhoeffer’s world was not so much like our own covered in layer after layer of moral quandaries and complexities. How many of us would have made a decision to actively pursue the death of a dictator? The ethics are difficult. I am convinced the ethics of our present situation, the ethics of our vote tomorrow are just as confusing if not more so.
There are many many layers of questions to consider in our vote. Again, my concern is that Evangelicals are so consumed by their concerns about abortion that they remain blind to the rest of the injustices that the church in America should stand against.
Here is what I hope: that the church might accept its stance of powerlessness, that we could embrace it as even Jesus himself accepted a lowly position while on this earth. I hope that in this lowliness we then pursue the flourishing of the kingdom of God upon the earth. I hope that if we begin to act like loving servants to our neighbors we can begin to partner with them in fixing our economy, our schools, health care system and steer a path of peace throughout the world that advances diplomacy instead of militarism. This kind of a witness postures the church as servants rather than adversaries, shepherds rather than patriarchs, lovers instead of moral police.
“1You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. 2Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. 3So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment? 4Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?”