The leaves are beginning to yellow and the morning air starting to cool, which means you still have years to go. You’re only a few weeks into your seminary experience and already- trust me, I know- you’re overwhelmed.
By feelings of inadequacy. Suspicions fed by the fact that all of your classmates appear to hail from either Texas or Wheaton (sometimes both, in succession) and, thus, were called by God to the ordained ministry when they were still carrying their Hardy Boys lunch boxes with them to the second grade.
And you- I won’t tell anyone- you’re still not sure if you’re called.
In fact, the word itself, ‘called,’ secretly embarrasses you, smacking as it does of certainty and solid conviction.
I won’t lie, Jason, and tell you you’re more than adequate for the ministry. You’re not, truth be told and the intervening years between you and me will only bear that out in sometimes painful ways. In the years to come that sense of inadequacy will revisit you every time you catch the congregation’s reflection in the rounded edge of the brass communion cup or whenever you realize how fleeting and short-lived are sermons. Ministry will strike you often as ill-fitting as your oatmeal colored robe which weekly will make you feel like an imposter, play-acting at someone with more faith and virtue than you.
The truth is, however, you’re more adequate for ministry than you are for Teach for America, law school, or working on a dude ranch out west- endeavors for which you’ll be submitting applications before your first semester of seminary comes to a close. No seriously you will, convinced as you are that ministry is a terrible mistake, either God’s or your’s.
I may not know you as well as I think I do (you’ll soon discover that’s painfully true of almost all clergy), but I do know you better than any other creature so I know you’re going to be less eager to hear this than I am to confess it: you’re not perfect. And here’s the deeper cut: you’re not nearly as smart as you think.
You’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them.
It’s the furthest thing from your radar now, given that in a few weeks you’ll be checking to see if your LSAT scores remain viable, but in a few months time the bishop, who will be up shit creek without any other options, will ask you to pastor a small but actual church.
Doubtless you’ve already heard the cliche about seminary, about how seminary doesn’t prepare you for ministry. It’s true in the spirit in which the critique is made. Seminary equips you to parse pistis Christou and to unpack bold-faced but dusty terms like perichoresis, yet seminary is surprisingly mum about the practical, nuts and bolts of herding a church and, more vexing, church people to the next step in their life.
Perhaps you can learn from and avoid the gaffes I’ve made.
For example, if kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insist on filling those ridiculous little communion cups themselves, then suggest they need to do so at the altar instead of far away in the sacristy. Their shakey hands carrying stacks of tiny cups from such a distance all but guarantees that some of the wine- I mean, grape juice- will spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the trays containing the cups.
When you preside at the table the next morning and solemnly attempt to lift the lid from the blood or our savior you will, for a chilling second or four, lift high both the cross-topped lid and 5 brass trays of thimble sized chalices until the collective weight of the messiah’s blood breaks the sugary seal, spilling red off-brand Welch’s all over the embroidered white altar cloth and making it appear as though you’d just repeated a once-for-all sacrifice and desanguinated Christ on that very table.
Speaking of the sacrament-
When you allow your congregation to don bathrobes and perform a Holy Thursday drama ‘for the community’ (i.e., their wives and grandchildren) against your instincts (it is a bad idea) then at the very least insure that the bread if not unleavened is not from the crunchy, dreadlocked, organic bakery adjacent to your church. For when Jesus, the soon-to-be-fatally-betrayed Passover, takes that bread and delivers his lines and breaks the bread, the somber mood of self-sacrifice easily will be ruined by the ping, ping, ping BB sound of 15 varieties of seeds, nuts and flax falling from the honey lacquered crust onto the silver tray.
You’re going to make mistakes.
When you get to be my age, Jason, you’ll realize that some of your missteps aren’t so much mistakes as things just look different with a longer view of them.
Give it a dozen years and you’ll see how an even bigger cliche than the one about seminary not preparing students for ministry is the cliched anti-institutionalism that determines so much of your cynical posture towards the big-C Church.
By the time you’re my age the curtain will have been pulled back and you’ll be forced to admit that the big-C Church is led by people no different than you and who may be even more well-meaning than you. Of course, don’t tell anyone I told you. The last thing the big-C Church needs is more accommodating company men who mistake the organization for the mission.
Even some of what seminary does teach you, it does so only partially.
Seminary will prepare you to offer words other than ‘it’s going to okay’ the first time you encounter a sobbing mother holding her third grade boy in his hospital bed as the reassuring beeps on his monitors grow ever longer.
Seminary will teach you even how to reflect on why ‘it’s going to be okay’ is a profoundly unChristian lie to tell, but seminary won’t prepare you for how overpowering will be the temptation to offer some such lie that will at least comfort you.
If even this warning isn’t enough to avoid the lie when the moment comes to you, then brace yourself for the slap that mother rightly will deliver across your scared, shit-eating grin. Really, maybe its best if you don’t avoid what I could not, such humbling I suspect is necessary if you’re to depend upon what you insist your parishioners give in their own lives: grace, a mercy and kindness that’s in no way deserved.
Don’t worry. Not all your gaffes will be so heavy.
For instance, when the psych test required by the ordination process raises a so-called ‘red flag’ by implying that you ‘may have difficulty working with women’ its probably best if you not reply to the ordination committee that you ‘get along great with chicks and can work fine with the dames so long as you don’t have to beat them off with a stick.’
And when you see the equal parts horror and disgust register across their collective gasp, don’t try to make it better by opining that ‘a self-serious lack of sense of humor could also be a red flag…’
I’m giving you pearls here, Jason.
And when you’re inspired to write a blog post one day (you’ll learn what a blog is) about the audacity of the doctrine of the incarnation entitled ‘Jesus Farts,’ don’t.
Even if the offense taken and the pious outrage feigned registers all the way up to the bishop and only goes to prove your point that docetism is a heresy alive and well in American Christendom, the juice is not worth the squeeze.
And when an exiting worshipper smiles and, for the first time in your ministry, tells you ‘Your sermon was great…you remind me of Joel Osteen…I just love him’ I’d suggest you just smile and thank her.
Just like Joel O would do.
As ridiculous as the comparison is (I hope), it won’t be the only time you’ll receive such feedback and, take it from me, most people don’t know how to react when you respond with ‘Joel Osteen is a crypto-pagan, heretical snake oil salesman only the worship of America could produce.’
Live and learn, Jason, but don’t kid yourself about the big mistakes.
They’re not seminary’s fault.
The truth is you’ll become a pastor not long after you became a Christian. You’ll still be working out your faith even as people look to you for answers and, more ridiculously, pay you to sound like you know what the hell you’re saying.
As a result, in the beginning at least, you’ll put on the role of pastor like an ill-fitting costume and play at someone you think you’re expected to be rather than be yourself.
You’ll search for a pulpit voice to go with that robe and underneath both you’ll stash away your authenticity. You’ll avoid expressing your actual thoughts and opinions. You’ll bite your tongue on the words, four lettered and all, that come quickest to you. You’ll hide the scars that could be lessons to teach others. Because, you’ll presume, that’s what pastors do.
Pastors put on Christ and, in putting him on, they cover up their true selves.
Only after you’ve spent enough time in one place, where of course the real you eventually will seep out, will you realize how people (even- especially- church people) seem to prefer the real you. Prefer pastors being real.
I’m not sure the world needs more pastors, no matter what the demographics say, but I am convinced the world does not need more inauthentic ones. I’ve learned that the hard way. Perhaps you won’t need to now.
Another result of your ordination following so soon after your confirmation is that it’s only after you’ve lived for a dozen years or so as a Christian that you’ll begin to have the appropriate patience for others who’ve done the same or longer. Only then will you cease being so judgmental and uncompromising about the faith (you are), for you will have learned that if Christianity could be lived in this world fully and without compromise or corner-cutting then we wouldn’t need Christ.
In that due time you’ll realize that when Christ commands you to love your enemies he’s not primarily speaking of those abstract enemies on the far side of the world whom you’ll only ever encounter on the pages of the Washington Post.
I think he’s meaning someone like the parishioner who will write complaints about you to the bishop and pass around petitions against for the bishop but who nevertheless will put one hand in the other and reach out to receive the host from your hand. The former form of enemy love requires only finger-wagging moralism and maybe a political ideology that’s already comfortable for you. The latter, to your chagrin, requires discipleship.
But in time you’ll discover a willingness to carry it because you’ll accept that, as Stanley Hauerwas says:
‘…the church is constituted by ordinary people. By ordinary I simply mean people who [attempt to] keep their promises. They are ordinary people keeping ordinary promises, and it is just such people who make the church the church.’
It wouldn’t be my plan for the salvation of the world, but it’s apparently God’s plan and it requires patience, on his end and ours.
Knowing you as well as I do, Jason, I’d say patience isn’t a bad catch all bit of advice for you as I have it on good authority (your future wife) that you can be a know-it-all jackass.
One of the effects of your smarty pants bearing, of believing you always have the right answer and thinking you know how best to express it, is that in the years to come you’ll be impatient with those unlike you. And in ministry you’ll often grouse about how so few church people can articulate what they believe about God and where God’s work (aka: the Holy Spirit) intersects with their own lives.
Let’s be honest, Jason, the last place you’d ever want to work is a church where people are aggressively articulate about their faith, where they hyperventilate ‘Fatherweejus’ prayers and volunteer how ‘the Lord laid it on my heart…’
And, regardless, eventually you’ll wonder if maybe all this time you’ve mistaken people’s reticence about their faith for a lack of thoughtfulness or conviction. Maybe the opposite is the case. Maybe all those people you judged to be inarticulate already knew something you will only learn once you learn you have cancer. Maybe, as Peter DeVries writes:
‘…only the superficial and the slipshod have ready answers’ when it comes to suffering and God and his evidently incomplete work in the world.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘WTF? Did he just drop the C-word on me and then move on, without comment, to a cryptic quote from an obscure book I’ve never read?!’
I did, sorry.
But you will. Read it. After you learn you have it.
You’ll read just about every cancer book you can find. You’ll pore over them like you’ve just made an unexpected career change from ministry to cancer because as soon as you hear you’re stage serious sick and just after your oncologist tells you for the first time ‘There’s no cure…the best we can hope for is a long remission’ it will seem as though you’ve been given a job you’re completely unqualified and unprepared to perform.
Actually, there’s no ‘as thoughs.’ That’s exactly how it feels.
I know. As Rob complains to his Mom in High Fidelity: ‘That’s some cold shit.’ Sorry to bear bad news to you, but I think it’s better if you hear it from me first than from the kindly, clumsy doctor who first broke the news to me in stuttering, half-step sentences that set off weeks of panic attacks in me.
And then try not to worry too much about it. You’ve got plenty of time before then. Besides the doctors all tell me there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent your particular brand of cancer; trust me, I must’ve asked them a hundred times by now. So don’t go raiding the vitamin aisle or eating organic.
It’s just one of those things. Explain it how you will: a defect ground down deep in the DNA, the will of God, bad luck or bad karma, shit happens. Either way, the game of life has dealt you a piss poor card, but yours can still be a winning hand.
When the sword does fall and the C-word jumbles all the puzzle pieces that comprise life as you will know it, you will meet that day with few meaningful regrets. If not now then later that will strike you as gravy.
More so than the stab of regret, what cancer will inject into your life is perspective, as fresh as it is swift.
The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, perhaps the ablest critic of Christianity, charged that we view God through the eyes of our tribe, our culture and tradition, and our personal wants and needs; so that, God becomes the personal projection of our id in the sky, believing what we believe, blessing those causes we support, cursing those we curse, abiding the contours of our independently achieved ideology.
Karl Barth, who by next semester will become one of your Mt Rushmore theologians, found Feuerbach’s critique sound. Sinful as we are, when Christians speak of God, Barth concurred, we’re most often speaking of ourselves in a loud voice.
Like Barth, Feuerbach’s criticism will strike you immediately as revealing more truth about Christianity than Christians would like to confess.
There is much self-love (to say nothing of self-justification) disguised beneath much of our love of God talk.
Feuerbach is right to charge that much of our theology is actually anthropology, and Barth is right to thunder that in remaking God according to our image we forsake the true God who loves in freedom, whose power is weakness, and who cannot be found but must find us.
They’re both right so far as it goes, yet lately I wonder if there’s weakness latent in both their indictments.
I wonder if a more positive construal of Feuerbach’s critique could be to say that our personal experience gives us a vantage onto God to which we wouldn’t be privy otherwise. A view that others from their perch maybe cannot see.
Rather than fashioning God in our image, I wonder if you could argue instead that each of us sees a piece of God from our patch of the world he’s created and from the front seat of the life he’s unfolding for us.
Cancer, in other words, gives me a perspective on my faith I didn’t have prior to it.
Rather than remaking God in my likeness (though I’m with Barth- I do that plenty), I think my experience these past 8 months, 7 nadirs and 40 odd days of chemo-poison allow me to see something of God I could not have seen before.
Something you cannot see yet, Jason.
Without intending it, in the years to come, you will shortchange the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, emphasizing in its place the prophetic, social justice work that landed Jesus there.
If you’re honest (you won’t be) your selective focus will owe in part to the fact that you don’t think the world or the Church needs another preacher preaching ad tedium on the blood of the cross, and, less defensible, your emphasis will owe to the most loathsome sort of tribalism. You won’t want to be counted among those kinds of preachers. Those kinds of Christians.
The be-all of discipleship isn’t inviting Christ in to your heart. Its end-all isn’t your personal salvation. The means to get there, discipleship or heaven, isn’t by contemplating the suffering of Christ…you will preach in some form nearly every Sunday.
Discipleship, you will press and not let up, is about doing the things that Jesus did in the way that Jesus did them: feeding the poor, clothing the naked, lifting up the lowly and forgiving the enemy, dispensing grace and speaking the truth to power and using words (only) when necessary.
Discipleship, you will preach and teach, requires rolled-up sleeves and dirty hands, for following Jesus is all about stooped-over foot washing. And you’ll emphasize this definition of discipleship not just in your preaching but in how you allot your time, how you design programs for the church and how you conceive of its mission.
Now that I feel a shell of myself, with thinned out blood and an off balance brain and verities I once took for granted gone, I can see how incomplete and partial has been my take on the faith.
In admitting I’ve shortchanged the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, I’m not suggesting that Christ’s cross is a symbol for the ineffable mystery of suffering. I don’t believe there’s anything inexplicable at all about the cross.
It is simple. He lived a fully human life, the life God desires of each of us, and we- the world, the Principalities and Powers, humanity, you and me- killed him for it. There’s no mystery there, or, at least, not the mystery we like to ponder before the cross while quieting exonerating ourselves from it.
Here’s what I mean when I say that I’ve shortchanged Christ’s suffering and here’s what I can see from the chemo chair:
How do the ill participate in the ministry of Christ?
Or the dying?
Because if we take seriously the fact that we’re baptized into Christ’s suffering and death- not just deputized to continue his earthly (healthy) ministry- then those 3 hours on the cross are every bit as integral to discipleship as the compassionate, prophetic ministry that landed him there.
Only now, with stage-serious cancer, do I recognize how for over a dozen years I’ve circumscribed discipleship in such a way that excludes people like the person I presently am.
When it comes to you, Jason, this question will hit with the equal and opposite force of that aforementioned mother’s slap:
How do the sick participate in Christ’s ministry?
Never say Jesus lacks a sense of humor- even if his followers frequently do- because I think the answer for how we think of discipleship lies in your least favorite chunk of scripture: 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”
In the years to come, you will spend considerable time attempting to dissuade brides and grooms from using this passage in their wedding ceremonies, especially the ‘love is patient…’ pericope which concludes it. You’ll point out how Paul’s not speaking to individuals in 1 Corinthinans and especially not to love stuck couples about to be married. Paul’s addressing the gathered community, the church, the Body of Christ.
When it comes headstrong brides and indifferent grooms, 9 times out of 10 your persuasive efforts will prove futile.
But as much time as you will expend steering people away from this passage, you will spend surprisingly little time reflecting on it, which I can now see is a shame. Because if each of us are parts of Christ’s Body only, individual, discrete parts- a hand here, an ear there, an eye- then it stands to reason that we’re called to, responsible for, just a part of Christ’s ministry, imitating that part of Jesus’ life our situation in life allows.
Let someone else speak Truth to Power.
Someone else can roll up their sleeves and clothe the naked.
I’ve freaking got cancer.
I don’t have the energy to feed the hungry.
And, frankly, I don’t have the peace of mind right now to be a peacemaker.
But if Paul’s right, then me facing my illness and suffering with my imperfect approximation of Jesus’ ‘Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit’ is every bit an authentic expression of discipleship as serving at a homeless shelter or extending grace to a prodigal.
Instead of saying we’re only responsible for a part of Christ’s ministry, perhaps its better to put it this way: God doesn’t need us to live Jesus’ life; Jesus already lived the life God gave him. We’re called to live this life, our particular life, the life God’s given us, as Jesus might live it if he were us.
The question is not: how can I be just like Jesus given the particularities and pressures of my life?
The question is: who would you be if Jesus were you, with all the particularities and pressures of your life?
Who would you be if your life (with cancer and fear, pain and panic attacks) was the life God gave Jesus to live?
In time, Jason, you’ll discover how that’s as relevant a question for pastors as it is for every one else.