Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Robe

One of my less than honorable responses to my call to ministry was my obsession with my preacher swagger. I am not into whooping and flashy cars, but I am quite a clothes-horse. As I prepared for my initial sermon, what I would wear received more attention than what I would say. Every Sunday spent in the pulpit as a licentiate was a deliberate display of my eye for design. More than anything I studies more seasoned preachers to inform choices about my eventual clerical vestments and accessories.

Clerical vestments have their biblical origins with priestly attire. God provided very specific instructions in Levitical law for what the priests should wear down to their undergarments. In the same manner, I have both outer garments and intimate apparel that I consider divinely-inspired.

I planned to earn a PhD after receiving my M.Div. not primarily so I could think deeply and teach others, but so I could rock three chevrons on my sleeve legitimately. A vanity degree from a diploma mill would not do. It had to be a qualifying credential from a top-tier university.

Then God stopped me in my tracks and showed me the character of the preacher is far more important than the persona. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Who knows what I would have become had I succeeded in being approved for clerical status by the institutional church? That would have left me to my own devices for shaping my ministry according to the prevailing ethos. However, their cultural norms do not suit me. No denomination can function effectively without an unquestioning, complicit, and conforming clergy. That’s totally not me.

To their credit, neither denomination that rejected my candidacy for ordination denied my gifts or call. They just did not sanction them for their organization. Jesus said:
If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. (Matthew 10:13-15).
In other words, middle fingers to the sky! I thank God for confirmation that I don’t have to prove anything to anybody and the ability to make an ever so elegant departure.

Now I find myself seventeen years later not ordained (by men) and not likely ever to be. I’ve made peace with that. Would receiving approval from a group of mere mortals validate my call even more so? Do multiple rejections make me any less anointed? [F]or God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable (Romans 11:29). Who in the bible had to get a second opinion after being called directly by the Almighty? Soren Kierkegaard described ordination as an “ostensible token, though not an infallible one.”

But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being (Galatians 1:15-16).

James Baldwin said "I left the pulpit so I could preach The Gospel." The same holds true for the brand of ministry to which God has called me. I have always known this intellectually. But part of me still longs for a robe perfecting the balance between overly-done and understated so well that Coco Chanel would nod in approval from the heavens above.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Trick of the Devil

As much as I gripe about organized religion, there is something about it that compels me. There is a saying of dubious attribution that “The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” I know exactly how that feels.

I grew up with children whose mothers were card-carrying prostitutes. They brought their kids to school wearing micro mini-skirts, five-inch heels, flowing wigs, false eyelashes, and heavily-applied  makeup (I promise you there was a time when this look was not mainstream) and kept strange hours. They also packed lunches, wiped crust from eyes with their spittle, and meted discipline to their offspring just like any other parent. Nobody ever questioned their children’s adoration or devotion.

There is just something understood about the mother-child relationship. It is the most primal for humanity. Ask anyone who has lost their mother whether they were the same afterwards.  My mother lost hers at the age of 8 and with that, a love that is second to none.

The bible likens God’s chosen people to prostitutes quite frequently. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel warn Israel of the consequences of the nation’s spiritual wantonness in the Old Testament and refer to her the mother of idolatry. The Lord commanded the prophet Hosea to marry Gomer the harlot to illustrate how God will discipline and restore His people as a consequence of their propensity for turning away.

The Lord flat-out calls unfaithful churches such in Revelation by labeling them collectively as the Whore of Babylon. The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth” (Revelation 17:5).  She will be judged harsher than the world.

The church helped me give birth to my faith. Notice, I did not say it gave me faith. (C)ontinue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (Philippians 2:12b-13). It is not possible for an institution or individual to convey faith to a person.

It is common for people to quip to seminarians “don’t let them steal your Jesus!” As a matter of fact, it was a running joke at the school I attended that a particular room that was off-limits was where they stored students’ Jesuses.

Folks meant well, but it was another way of imploring ministers-in-training to keep the faith. Funny enough, no one ever said that in reference to the church. Those who are acquainted with my travails find my continued participation absurd. However, those who have relinquished their organizational membership, while yet maintaining faith, understand our dysfunctional family history.

Embracing the absurd is one of the most essential steps for developing faith. We worship a man who rose from the dead and lives in heaven. If that makes sense to you, I have bags of magic beans for sale.

Yes, the organized church has maligned, abused, marginalized, and disappointed me beyond measure. It is no accident that the Adversary chose it as the source of my angst. But still I love it. Stay away too long and I lose my bearings; stick around too long and I begin to lose my mind.

The church, with all of her waywardness, is my mother. She is prone to sell out the gospel for a song. However, she has given me something so fundamental to my being. Without her, I would not have developed a love for liturgical order, soul-stirring songs, scripture, and the people whose practice of faith helped shape my own.

I honor her for the divine work she has bred with the hope that she strives to become what God intended her to be.
That [Christ] might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:27).

However, that does not exempt her from being called out on occasion for what she is.