It becomes easy to create certain scenarios of what the perfect life for me will be. I am talking about the rest of my life, the new life. Like always, I am highly proficient at creating scenarios that can’t co-exist with each other. For example, if you are looking for true love and also looking for a lot of casual flings, you will be disappointed because you’ll inevitably end up in relationships that aren’t quite either one. If you are looking for work that allows you to command a comfortable salary, but also looking for rewarding work, but also looking for work that will bring you great recognition among large groups of people–you are probably pursuing ends that are at odds with each other.
I can, on some days, envision us happily settled in a college town some place–a town not too big or too small, not too conservative or too liberal, a town that has plenty of nice restaurants and parks and bookstores and maybe a museum or two. I start out as the associate pastor at the main reformationist church there, and eventually become the senior pastor. We have one more child, and then, over time we become integrated with the community, attending fundraisers, Scouting events, Little League games, etc. Our church quietly and happily abides. I write competent, uplifting sermons that aren’t too challenging, but aren’t too boring. For the most part, I pretend that there never really was eighteen years between my undergrad years and my seminary years, or that I am roughly fifteen years older than you would expect a man with kids my age to be.
There is also the scenario where we join an intentional community of some kind, and go on to live radically different lives. We embrace shared living, as much as we possibly can, and we spend our weekends helping others fix up their homes and clean up their neighborhoods. We do food and clothing drives all the time, and actively petition our nearby cities to change their complacent ways. I never do preach in a traditional church, but live a life sort of like Dorothy Day did.
Neither scenario is probably very realistic, as the world has changed a lot since Dorothy Day, and what people in poverty need today is in many ways different than what they needed during her time.
What’s more, I am not so sure that I am going to change so radically over the next four years as to be ready for the new monastic kind of experience. I am still kind of learning how to just be a decent human being among other human beings. The odds that I will be called to the perfect reformationist church in the perfect little college town are probably slim to none. I had better be ready to find myself living in some town that is a lot like Waco, and know that it is going to take an enormous effort on my part to reach out and be sociable when I hardly feel like it.
I would say that I have mostly abandoned the big city parish dream. I don’t think I could survive in NYC as a pastor there, or even Austin, for that matter. The stress of having to support a family and make sure my child is out of harm’s way seems like it would compete mightily with the stress of managing an urban parish.
That said, I still yearn for change. I want to be radically transformed, if only so that I might be a well-liked mediocre pastor at a mediocre church in a mediocre town. I want to be radically transformed so that I don’t feel the least bit of fear or reservation when it comes to throwing myself into a new crowd of people (or even walking outside my door where the potential to meet new people exists all of the time). I don’t necessarily need to be the rock star of the group, but I am utterly sick and tired of being the marginal one, the quiet one, the one whose name everyone forgets and who people instantly peg as being shy and fit for working down in the basement. You have no idea how much my heart has broken over the years where, time and again, I desperately wanted to be involved with those around me but was so socially inept that I inevitably shut down, meekly accepting the role of the introvert who doesn’t like noisy crowds of people.
I can’t reiterate enough how much I am begging God to transform me, to give me strength in areas I never thought I would have strength, and to illuminate me when I don’t have the foggiest notion what the proper response would be to a challenging social situation. I want God to give me a much deeper and broader perspective about what it means to be a Christian, and why I’ve accepted this path. I am tired of providing pat answers to questions about faith when I am still greatly uncertain of so many things.
Yet, every time I go through a period of intense doubt and darkness, my faith seems to be renewed again doublefold. If my faith isn’t renewed as such, at least my will to have twice as much faith is renewed. I can’t exactly describe what it is that compels me to have at least one part of my focus remain doggedly set and reset upon an aspect of reality that all who would be purely rational and scientific would dismiss as superstitious hogwash.
It seems intrinsically tied with my will to live and survive. If given to my own rational sort of thinking, I can’t put forth a good argument for me living. Even if I were to throw myself into making as much money as possible, I would still leave behind less for L than I would if I died while possessing a hefty life insurance premium. Aside from supporting my family and leaving something for my child, the evidence is abundant that I am at best a mediocre person who will never contribute anything of value to humanity.
All of this is to say that it is as irrational for me to desire to go on living as it is for me to keep this faith. But, I thrive on being irrational, zigging when others expected me to zag, and rebelling at the moment when you were expecting a crowd pleaser. I enjoyed rebelling my way away from Christianity into Eastern mysticism, and I found it even more profitable to rebel against all of the smug atheists around me who seemed to be everywhere I went during a certain time period of my life. The Christ I have encountered seems to be less of a hippy (sometimes he is not very mellow or laid-back at all), and more of a man who would thwart whatever expectations and labels we try to apply to Him. There isn’t a man, woman or child on this earth who hasn’t called themselves a Christian while being more inclined to perpetuate the status quo that gives them a cushy life instead of live a life modeled after Christ.
To me, all of our churches, including the very new, non-denominational ones, seem to inevitably trend toward exclusivity–membership clubs where some feel at home and some don’t, and feeling at home is more about looking and voting like other members rather than feeling at home because of how Christlike we all are. Even the so-called progressive and tolerant mainline denomination churches have become little clubs unto themselves, and are just as likely to turn their noses up, if not outright reject, someone who isn’t dressed quite like them or someone who loves Jesus but is voting for Donald Trump.
It’s not so much the churches or Church that really give you a sense of where the Kingdom might be in the world today, no matter how nice it feels to sing with a praise band or kneel in an old cathedral. Without the worshipping community, we would all be islands unto ourselves and much poorer for it–but, I think the moments where unadorned, egoless souls connect with brotherly love are the moments where we witness the Kingdom still alive and moving. The moments are to be found in almost any church and in many places where there isn’t anything around that looks or feels like church.
There are, of course, many Sundays that do go by where I experience none of the Kingdom. This was especially the case in the small town we just moved from, and God bless their hearts, the frozen chosen up there were very insistent upon only bothering to say hello and converse with you if you were someone they had known for many years. So many of those individuals would look right through us, or re-introduce themselves to us time and again. They seemed terrified at the prospect of having to admit that the Kingdom might include people they didn’t know, and with their policeman parked out front for every church event to prevent the scary transient people across the street from entering, they likely will have their minds blown when they get to heaven and learn that they have to share the place with people who don’t look like them at all.
One fellow at this church just couldn’t fathom why a church would allow an atheist to join. He seemed to have completely forgotten that Jesus wasn’t a staunch reformationist who required all who sat with him to be the same card-carrying members. For my money, I would rather have an atheist come to my church and witness first hand the Kingdom in action. (Perhaps that’s why this gentleman was appalled at the idea of an atheist sitting in the pew next to him–he knew deep down that the atheist would see nothing special at our church, no “Kingdom in action” as souls reached out to each other egoless, with brotherly love.)
I am not so sure I believe in salvation by way of altar calls, dunking, and other radical moments of transformation where a deeply depraved sinner suddenly becomes as white as snow and stays that way. I suppose it does happen occasionally, but from having witnessed firsthand my own glacial change of self, I don’t think it happens very often. I also don’t think that all of the Predestined are necessarily cradle Christians (be they Catholics, Protestants, or whatever) and all of those slated for perdition are hopelessly standing outside the doors of the church. Plenty of examples of pedophile priests and wildly hypocritical telEgelists have demonstrated that you can be pretty solid in the Church and still pretty evil.
I think being Predestined means (and this will likely change after three years of seminary) that you are ultimately going to find your way to Jesus in your own way, on your own time. A seeker who is just as restless with pat answers given by atheists as she is the ones given by Christians may show up at your church one day and want to know why YOU have the faith you do. If he is impertinent and rude, and just looking to stir the pot, then of course he will be a thorn in the sides of Sunday school goers, and then go away. If she is blessed enough to find a church where the members are at least sometimes expressing the Kingdom of Heaven in its true form, she might begin to no longer feel like such an outsider to the concept and process of faith, and be compelled to come and see what it’s about on many more occasions.
Churches might think they have expressions of the Kingdom of Heaven in spades when they are really no different than a boisterous glee club. Others might luck at you as if you have lost your mind if you ask their members how they are going about expressing the Kingdom of Heaven to each other. The naked, egoless expression of brotherly love isn’t something that comes naturally to most people, including me. Most Sundays, we are arriving at church to participate out of a sense of duty, or we are looking to consume a liturgical experience as if we were dining at a nice restaurant. The notion of participating so fully that you are truly in communion with other believers is easily lost in the face of a million other pressing concerns that have little or nothing to do with church.
We might even think to ourselves that we have already given heavily of ourselves to our children and other people we serve and take care of, and we don’t owe anyone at church on Sunday anything other than our worshipful presence. And of course, we shouldn’t ever for a minute think that expressing the Kingdom should only take place at church. However, if we are Christians who have chosen to set aside an hour or so each week to be especially in tune with God, wouldn’t it behoove us to occasionally consider if we are taking this time to do our best to perpetuate the Kingdom, to keep the flame lit, to pass along the fire to others who may be coming with unlit torches (and are uncertain if they even want this kind of fire)?