For as much as I love writing, you might think I’d be doing more of it while in seminary. I have plenty of moments of losing myself in thought, to be sure. But, somehow there’s always something of a logjam between me and the writing. I don’t mean papers or assignments – I mean this blog, where I theoretically work out *stuff*. Ah well. It does more good to just be thankful for a moment that drives me back here. And, I just had a couple thoughts…..
Right now I’m reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a book about writing. It’s one of the books on our reading list for Telling the Story, which I think is a sort of first preaching class at Luther Seminary. Of course, I wish we had the syllabus or some other kind of course information, but I guess the reading list is better than nothing. At least you get the joy of opening a big box from Amazon, with all these books inside, and you wonder which ones will ultimately get to sit on your shelf and mock you for never opening them. But, I must confess I love books, and can’t protest much.
And if you’ve never read Anne Lamott, you are missing out. For the love of God, check her out.
One story she mentions, is when her then 3-year-old Sam tries to unlock their front door with some plastic toy keys. And it’s a hilarous story she shares in the context of talking about her writing classes. She has many students who want to be published far more than wanting to write. And I think there’s a universal truth in that, when we future-trip on the eventual glory of something while glossing over the long, winding road before us.
Fantasy keys won’t get you in. Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy, a hologram – it’s the eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar.
I confess that I stuggle with this thinking in my candidacy. I used to think that it was about getting accepted, getting a degree, and that these things grant you some kind of magical authority. Surely they’ll listen, because I’ve got the certification. And I don’t know – maybe that works for some personality types. The Missouri Synod seems to work that way, at any rate. And seminary itself doesn’t just dispel it – with all the classes and grades and systems that you slog through.
What I have discovered is that for the times I’ve preached so far (and I’m grateful for my pastor’s support in that), or taught Sunday school, I so often come away with a nagging uncertainty. Did they like it? Did they learn anything? Was I any good? Point being, that I’m realizing that even if I were finally ordained and called, those questions will not go away. No amount of schooling or titles or any other fantasy keys will ever fix any of that. And I suspect that if I were to just keep my head down and keep on plugging in this same way, I’d be tormented by the same questions 30 years from now. Heck, it’s too easy to find a multitude of pastors kept awake at night by these very fears. Ask around and find out for yourself. And if you want to apply the lens of law and gospel, it can be said that I’m crucified by my determination to “get better” at preaching and teaching by getting my MDiv. Besides, we’ve all heard pastors with high titles who leave us snoozing in the pews. I’m not being hyperbolic here – it’s actually happened to me!
Anyway, I think the long and winding road before us all, candidacy or no candidacy, is the lifetime of reflection beckoning us to engage it. And I think it’s faith that drives me to this conviction. Consider any skeptic who criticizes Christianity just based on our scriptures contradicting themselves, or condoning violence, or not giving any real answers to the question of evil. Consider the endless arguments between evangelicals seeking to win with a trump card of scripture, And these are all smart people who wouldn’t have any ammunition if the scriptures didn’t harbor some degree of ambiguity. So no wonder that I fail to find easy answers in scripture, let alone answers that confirm what I want to believe. Faith convinces me that even idle reflection on scripture is not a waste of time – that in the end, it all means something.
And I find that my reflection deeply impacts what I say to other people. When they ask questions, or drop some bomb in conversation that begs a response, my response is borne out of the time I have spent in reflection on what I have heard, seen, and read. And maybe because of my faith, I have this nagging sense that because I am embarked on this long, winding road of reflection, it actually brings on these conversations. I’m convinced that I don’t seek them out – they come to me out of nowhere, or even when I least expect. You might say that if I go looking for them, they don’t happen. But when I am honestly, authentically reflective, they happen.
Reflection can be scary. It’s an opening of yourself to the unknown, to the almost guaranteed letdown of your deepest convictions and desires being dismantled piece by piece, slowly and painfully. It hurts. As nails pierced Christ’s hands and feet to reveal his vulnerability and mortality, we come face to face with the ghosts of our past that we have worked so hard to cover over with duct tape and bailing wire. Lord have mercy. As the cross was raised and planted in the ground, our faith in the goodness of people is stripped away with every rejection or disrespect we’ve experienced, every violent crime we read about in the paper. Christ have mercy. As Christ breathed his last and died, we face the fact that we will die and did it ever make a difference that we even existed. Lord have mercy. For every time you’ve heard someone tell you that you need to take up your cross, the truth is, you already have.
That’s the heavy road of reflection, and not at all what I initially intended to write. But as I found myself writing it, I also found myself coming face to face with the demons I mentioned, along with the bonus prize of my baggage of having felt like the outsider in the church. I can’t be the only one who’s ever felt painful judgement by some Christians, whether for being gay, or for not evangelizing (i.e. converting others) enough, or not doing whatever it is that they’re convinced all Christians have to do. And I’m sad to say, those people aren’t going anywhere, and you and I are not the only ones in their target sights. By the way, how do they know they’ve done enough of any of it, or done it rightly? Just saying….
But through reflection, I have discovered life-changing realizations. I think of Deuteronomy 31, where the Lord acknowledges to Moses that he knows the Israelites will forsake him, break his covenant, and prostitute themselves to foreign gods, and that his anger will be kindled, he will forsake them, and they will become easy prey. Yet, the whole of the Hebrew scriptures reveal an ongoing commitment to Israel despite their transgressions. Just as God knows the Israelites will break covenant, God remains committed to them. Like the Israelites, God already knows how I will forsake him, but yet will remain committed to me. This isn’t said lightly – I certainly don’t want to forsake God, yet the reality is that I will. Reflection enables me to hold all of these conflicting messages together. I am convicted for future sin. God is faithful. I will suffer. I will be cared for. Above all, God will remain my God. And yet remain the most difficult messages – God will forsake the Israelites and they will become easy prey. In reflection I do not have to shy away from those complications that threaten what I most want to believe about God. The things I don’t want to hear today, I will be able to hear one day, and through it all, it will be borne as it will be borne. But more importantly, for today, I don’t know what I will come to know, and it’s perfectly o.k. to say that you don’t know, or don’t like it.
That’s the thing with reflection – it’s an honest admission that sometimes we just don’t know, that we can be wrong, and yet that our faith is big enough to sustain and envelop all of it. And that’s why we don’t evangelize with proof-texts. A couple Korean missionaries came to my door recently, wanting to know if I had sin in my heart. We went round and round, but they were just obsessed with a particular verse about Christ coming to remit sins (and I can’t even remember which verse!). They had an analogy about how taking cough syrup to make a cough go away doesn’t cure the illness. I was a little stymied at the time, but ultimately they weren’t getting the point that even when you know what a cold is, you’re probably going to catch one again. They had all the information, but it never occured to them to share with me what Christ has done for them. Has Christ even done anything for them? And heck, you guys, haven’t you figured out that I’m actually already on your team? Sheesh….
But even with all the reflection in the world, I would never have been able to counter them “rightly” at the time. Because that’s also the thing with reflection – it won’t help you win arguments. Definitely not when someone doesn’t want to hear. But when you reflect, and you discover what this all really means to you and for you, and you find yourself in conversation with someone, good news – you’ll be surprised when you discover that you have something to say. And furthermore, what happens when you win today’s argument and tomorrow realize you were wrong? Speaking for myself, I’ll stick with the ongoing conversation, so that those unexpected reversals don’t get forgotten or swept under the rug.
So that’s yet one last thing I want to say about reflection – through it, I discovered that evangelism isn’t scary, and it’s not a bad word. Isn’t that the most ironic and unexpected thing of all, coming from another chief of sinners? Because I have discovered that I have something I *want* to say. I don’t have to manufacture anything just because someone expects me to go out and convert people to Christ (is that like switching to decaf?). And both you and I understand that this entire article is merely what I want to say, what I feel moved to say, not what I’m trying to convince you to believe. Because wouldn’t you rather discover something constructive and liberating for yourself, than have to tear apart the faulty line someone’s trying to sell to you, when they don’t know how to take “no” for an answer?