The Offering: An Emergent Theology Tale
I have had more than my fair share of days when I have questioned my call to be a pastor. I read somewhere how a young man, who was thinking about becoming a pastor, asked his mentor---a pastor of many years---"When did you feel the call to go into ministry?" The older man didn't bat an eyelash and replied, "This morning."
I completely get that. There are days when I feel like I need to hear the call every five minutes just to assure me that I am doing what I am supposed to do with my life. Even when people tell me things that should reassure me, I struggle to believe that God would actually want to use someone like me for such an important task. I once heard that the great reformer, Martin Luther, used to feel as though the earth was going to open up and swallow him whole each time he rose to say the Mass. That comforts me a bit, really. If Martin Luther felt himself to be unworthy of his call, then at least I am in good company. Martin Luther also swore like a sailor and loved beer, which is also pretty comforting.
For the past few years I have felt a longing in me that has been difficult to define and impossible to quench. You see, God, in God's infinite wisdom and mercy, has seen fit for me to serve in the Presbyterian Church (USA)--a Christian denomination that has been (like most mainline Protestant denominations) in decline for decades. My more conservative colleagues from not-mainline denominations gleefully point this out at every available opportunity---God love 'em. Once I had a fellow pastor from a conservative, evangelical church inform me over lunch that in his opinion the real moment when the PC(USA) fell into ruin was when it began ordaining women. "That's where it all started," he told me in sage-like fashion. "And now look what's happening... you're ordaining them." I asked what he meant by "them" and he replied, "You know...homosexuals." He hissed the word "homosexuals" like a snake, like it hurt him to say it. I started to explain the intricacies of Presbyterian polity, and that we didn't in fact ordain lots of different people for lots of different reasons, but that didn't mean that they were evil, bad, horrible, hellbound sorts. The thought of explaining all of this, however, made me tired. Instead I decided to take the high road and asked him if he had any pictures of himself in his Klan robes and hood, and how many people came to his last cross burning. Lunch sort of went downhill after that.
I shouldn't let things like that bother me, but I realize that the reason it does is pretty simple: I worry that the critics of my [supposedly] dying, mainline denomination might be right. What if they were? Would it really change the way I feel about things? I have looked into the eyes of Legalism and Fundamentalism within the Christian community and know it to be something altogether apart from God. But here I am--a self-described emergent church leader---bursting with ideas and dreams of reforming and transforming the small corner of the Body of Christ to which I have been assigned to shepherd. Here I am in a mainline denomination, serving an historic, traditional church. It feels like I am the smallest, puniest most insignificant tugboat in the fleet trying to push the grandest and most gargantuan ocean liner away from the rocks.
I spent most of my day today in meetings talking about budgets, and extremely important things like who really should have a key to the closet in the church kitchen where the good silver is kept, and why it's important to have a church sign that matches the outside decor of the church building. Today I felt about as emergent, innovative and transformative as an old shoe. It's days like this that try my soul, and make me wonder if I am somehow being punished for all of the misdeeds of my youth...and there were many.
The thing is, I have had these other moments when I feel so called to be a pastor that it literally makes me ache. And even further, that God---for some reason unknown to me---seems to want me to take my place in the ocean among so many others who are paddling like mad, and trying desperately to turn this big ship we call the Church around.
George Herbert is this seventeenth-century poet that I admire a great deal. I have his picture on the wall of my office. It's more of an engraving, really---or rather, a picture of an engraving that I printed off of the Internet and then put in a gilded frame to make it look respectable. At any rate, a rendering of George Herbert sits on my wall. Once I attended a talk by Eugene Peterson, the man who created The Message--a translation of the Bible into everyday language--and about a million other books about faith and life. He said that one day he just starting replacing all of his diplomas, accolades and awards that were hanging on his office wall with pictures of people he admired and who had influenced him. He cited George Herbert as one of his heroes, along with a bunch of dead, German theologians that I was ashamed to say I had never heard of before. I went home and did the same thing. My wall contains C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, George Herbert, J.R.R. Tolkien, Eugene Peterson and Bono. The picture of Bono is a good one. He's got on shades and a cowboy hat. I got if off the Internet, too.
I'm sorry...this story really should have begun on the streets of San Diego, which is a pretty darn nice place for any story to begin considering the weather and all. Anyway, I found myself walking in downtown San Diego on a bright February afternoon in search of a bookstore. My mission was to buy a book of George Herbert's poems. You see, it was in San Diego that I heard Eugene Peterson's talk--the one where he mentioned his office and the picture of George Herbert that hung there. It had been the second time in a month that I had heard the name of George Herbert, and I decided that it was the type of sign that at the very least necessitated the purchase of a book of his poetry.
A few weeks earlier, I happened to be sitting at a worship service in St. Paul's Cathedral in London England. Yes, I realize that I just wrote that I "happened" to be in England. Well, I was. I was on "holiday," to coin an English colloquialism, with my wife. We were celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary. We were attending a Sunday night worship service on the Third Sunday of Epiphany at one of the most famous cathedrals in the world. I'm not bragging or trying to sound pretentious (well, maybe a little), but you have to admit that's pretty cool. But this is even better... We were there five years almost to the day when we first attended a worship service in that grand cathedral. And on that day, five years before, God had spoken to me in an audible voice and told me that I needed to become a pastor. I'd been fighting the the call, you see, and I guess that God decided enough was enough. The voice that God used that day was the voice of the Reverend Canon Patience Purchas, Associate Director of Ordinands, Diocese of St. Albans. I didn't know what it meant either. I found out her job title in plain English was more like, "The Pastor in Charge of Everyone in Southern England Who is Trying to Become a Pastor." Her sermon that evening was essentially about how to recognize God's will for you life. I don't remember much of it all, but I do remember that at one point she said something like, "I feel as though there is someone here, who is struggling with God's call to pursue a life in ministry."
Now, I've seen enough charlatan preachers in my church-going career to know that old trick. I've witnessed a number of these performers, who, at the critical moment in the sermon---usually around the time of the altar call---will stretch out their hand in dramatic fashion and say, "I sense that there's someone out there...someone out there who is far from God..." or something to that effect. There's nothing particularly spiritual about this 9 times out of 10. It's called playing the odss, and people do it all the time in casinos, riverboats and smoky rooms above meat markets.
But at that moment, in that place, I knew that it wasn't anything like that. God was working through this very proper Englishwoman in her rather stiff Anglican robes, who had no way of knowing that in that small crowd of visitors and downtown Londoners that there was indeed someone who was struggling with God's call in his life. I began to weep uncontrollably, overwhelmed with the knowledge that God had found me 6,000 miles from home, where I had run like Jonah from a destiny I was afraid to embrace. Six months later, my wife and I were driving a huge truck filled with our earthly belongings from Florida to Chicago. We'd sold our house, a car, my lawn mower and deep fryer---nearly everything that wouldn't fit in a downtown apartment, and headed for the midwest so I could attend seminary. That Third Sunday of Epiphany changed my life.
So there I sat, five years later in roughly the same spot where I had heard God speaking to me through the Rev. Canon Patience Purchas, and I was expecting more of the same. I know that lightning doesn't strike twice and all of that happy horse-poo, but there I was. I wanted to hear God's voice tell me what I was going to do next, what the next five years would bring. The truth was, I was kind of at a crossroads--at least in my own mind. I'd been feeling antsy, wondering when God might be ready to promote me to something bigger, better and hipper. I knew that I was ready to lead my own church, or to engage in a larger ministry than the one to which I had been called. I also knew that I wasn't getting any younger, and that time was soon going to be working against me. If I wanted to be bright, young reformer I only had a few more years to make that happen. In the business world there is a window for upward mobility and when you get to a certain age, the window becomes more and more narrow until it finally closes. I just knew that God had something in mind for me, because that's how it works, right? That's the kind of thing that happens to preachers and other people who go chasing after God-dreams---they hear voices, they get visions, they have epiphanies while sitting in the middle of a centuries-old cathedral with the smell of incense and candles in the air. And then success finds them. By success I mean that they are granted entry into the most hallowed halls of Christendom---halls that are reserved for people with big book deals, television shows, and really big churches. I knew this was coming because the story of my life that was being written needed something dramatic to put in the introduction.
Then I looked at my worship bulletin.
"Prominence & Obscurity: The Poetry of George Herbert," it read. I remembered reading Herbert in a Renaissance poetry class that I took in college. The only thing I could remember about him was that he'd written a poem about Easter that was in the shape of an angel. That was the extent of my Herbert knowledge. When I realized that the entire worship service was going to be one big Herbert love-fest, I was devastated. I had come to experience a life-changing worship service, and I was going to be treated instead to some sort of glorified poetry reading. Still, I was in St. Paul's--in London. I was resigned that although it was the Third Sunday of Epiphany, there would be no epiphany for me that day. I decided to be content with just being there.
At one point in the service, one of the liturgists read from Herbert's poem The Priesthood, which exemplifies in so many ways what Herbert was all about. He had tasted success and had tasted power and chose in the end to dedicate his life to serving God. I remember hearing these words being read:
Blest Order, which in power dost so excel/That with th' one hand thou liftest to the sky/And with the other throwest down to hell...I am both foul and brittle; much unfit/To deal in holy Writ...Wherefore I dare not, I, put forth my hand/To hold the Ark, although it seem to shake/Through th' old sins and new doctrines of our land/Only, since God doth often vessels make/Of lowly matter for high uses meet/I throw at his feet...
I realize to a lot of folks that last bit sounds pretty much like seventeenth-century poetry would sound: formal, stuffy, old... But to me, on that day as I sat there in that ageless place I felt like time had been stripped away and the words of Herbert found me sitting there and wrung out my heart. I thought of him, this poet, this would-be wealthy and powerful up-and-coming scholar and politician, who flung it all away to become the pastor of an obscure parish, and I was ashamed. As my wife and I walked out of the church that night and on to the busy London streets, it began to rain. I let it pelt me in the face. It felt like baptism. And the London rain soon mingled with the tears that began to fall because I am just like that--a big baby... at least when it comes to the important things in life. Nothing, in the end, is more important than doing what you are called by God to do.
I should return to the San Diego part of the story, which is where this all came together in a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook up way. I was attending the National Pastor's convention (where Eugene Peterson was one of the keynote speakers). I was probably one of twelve Presbyterians who attended out of probably a few thousand or so other pastors, most of whom were Southern Baptists or "non-denominational," which is the same thing as being a Southern Baptist---only more profitable and with a more casual dress code. I walked around the convention feeling more than a little out of place. Nearly all of the pastors I encountered were older, had higher hair and introduced themselves and their wives by saying, We pastor a church in [insert southern city here]." I have never really been fooled by that use of "we" to be perfectly honest. It's patronizing, especially coming from people who often do not believe that women have the gifts for ordained ministry. If my wife wanted to, she would make an awesome pastor, and we happen to belong to a denomination, which (despite the fact that it is "dying") would affirm that call. There are many things that don't feel very emergent about my denomination (remember the silver closet?), but the fact that we believe Scripture upholds the fact that God calls whom God calls is about the foremost "emergent" quality we Presbyterians (the USA kind) possess.
Anyway, I decided to take a break from the convention so that I could take the trolley into downtown San Diego. I figured that I would wander around the Gaslamp district for a bit and hopefully find a bookstore that would miraculously contain a book of George Herbert's poems. Besides, I just really wanted to get away from Christians for a while. I put on my Johnny Cash t-shirt, and put in all of my earrings (all three) because I feel safe enough to wear them when I am not anywhere near my own church. Figuring that I looked suitably un-pastor-like, I walked to the trolley stop and got on. After a brief interlude to eat at In-And-Out Burger---only the best burger place in the world--I boarded the Blue Line trolley into downtown San Diego.
I noticed that this guy got on at the same I did, and he was--shall we say--a little wobbly on his feet. He was barefooted, carrying his worldly belongings in a clear plastic trash bag and reeking of alcohol. I glanced at him when he wasn't looking and noticed that he was dirty and wearing a battered, filthy baseball cap that was slightly askew on his head. He had on a pair of reflective, wrap-around shades. When the train lurched forward he almost fell. I saw him take a look at the young man standing next to him--a guy who was well-dressed, well-groomed and looking like he was on his way to a job interview. They couldn't have been more un-alike. The dirty guy gave his neighbor the once-over.
"How's it going, man?" he asked him.
"Cool, man. How about you?"
"Just chillin' man, you know. Just chillin'," the dirty guy responded.
"Outstanding," his neighbor said. Then the dirty guy went to sit down. Every time he would do something differently he would announce his intentions. So when he went to sit down, he told everyone, "I'm going to sit down, okay?" then he did it.
I put on my own shades for no other reason than I wanted to watch him a bit longer, but didn't want to make eye contact. I had learned from my three years living in Chicago that if you made eye contact with every dirty, drunken fellow on the train, you would spend every ride listening to their tales of woe, and would most assuredly end up getting solicited for money. This wasn't always the case, but it was the case enough of the time for me to form a preconceived notion about making eye contact with dirty, drunken guys on the train. Still, I wanted to the see the complexities of the human drama unfold, so I put on my shades to stare.
The Guy, as I will call him henceforth, was trying to make conversation with everyone, who was seated next to him. "I'm trying to get downtown," he proclaimed. No one responded. "Man, I need to find a liquor store," he said. No one said anything, nor acted surprised, for that matter. All of a sudden he looked at me and got up from his seat. "I'm going over here," he told everyone.
I immediately looked away, out the window, at my seat, but to no avail. He sat down in front of me and looked right in my face.
"Hey man, give this ticket to someone who wants to take a round trip back. I don't need it." He stuck out his blackened hand and handed me a crumpled round-trip trolley ticket. "Find someone who needs it," he added. "I'm going to stand over here," he told me, and stood up by the door of the trolley and peered at the route map that was above it. I didn't know what to say.
"Cool, man. Thanks." I put the ticket into the book I'd been reading.
"Hey man," he said to me again. "Does this go downtown?"
"Yeah, it goes downtown, dude."
"Oh yeah? Well which stops are for downtown?"
I looked at the map above the door. For a moment I thought to say that I didn't live in San Diego and didn't know anything about which stops were which, but that would have been a lie. I had taken the same trolley two days before, and knew where it was going. Besides, over time I have skillfully used public transportation in lots of major cities: New York, London, Paris, Rome, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Miami... yeah, that's it. I figured that I could handle giving directions to a dirty, drunken, ex-hippie. On the map there was an area that was outlined in grey and labeled, "downtown loop" or something like that.
"Do you see that grey area?" I asked him.
"No," he said.
"Well, that's the downtown area. Pretty much every stop will put you downtown somewhere."
"Cool man," he said, after a long pause. We rode in silence for a bit. "Hey man, what do you play?" he asked me in a stage whisper.
"What instrument do you play, man?"
"I don't...play an instrument," I said with a nervous laugh.
"Dude, come on. I know you play an instrument. It's cool."
"No, I don't."
"What do you do then?" he asked.
"I'm a pastor," I told him. "Like a pastor of a church... you know?" I finished lamely.
"A pastor," I said in a kind of stage whisper of my own.
The Guy sat there for a moment staring at the floor. Then all of a sudden he brightened.
"I get it! You're going incognito. That's cool, man."
"I don't know what you are talking about but, but cool," I said at last.
The Guy grinned at me, and said, "I know that Bob's in town, man. Yeah, Bob's in town, man. House of Blues. You'll be kicking it with the band, right?"
"Yeah, right. I get you man. You're concealing."
Since I had no idea what he was talking about, and couldn't convince him that I wasn't a musician and did not know Bob, I figured he was making some sort of drug reference.
"No man, I'm not concealing," I said hoarsely.
"Do you play bass, man?"
"No, I don't have any idea what you are talking about."
The trolley came to a stop and he asked if it was a downtown stop. I told him that it was.
"Dude, I have to find a liquor store?" he said.
"Are you sure you want to do that?"
He stumbled to his feet and tried to go out the door before it closed, and didn't make it. The trolley door shut in his face. He cursed. I started to tell him that all he had to do was push the button by the door and it would open for him, but he sat down again.
"Guess I won't be getting off here," he muttered.
"Try the next one," I told him. Luckily for both of us, the "next one" came almost immediately. He rose unsteadily to his feet and headed for the door.
"Later man," he said to me. "I'll see you up on the stage." With that, he exited the trolley. I saw him immediately approach a black man with a shopping cart and begin asking directions. I gave a short laugh and looked around at the other passengers.
"I don't think the liquor store would be a good idea." I said. A few of them laughed. I noticed that they were all looking at me strangely. I began to wonder if maybe they actually believed the Guy, and thought I was the bassist in Bob's band, whoever Bob was. I got up and prepared to exit the trolley, feeling their eyes on me. When the trolley stopped and the doors opened, I bolted out of the car as quickly as I could.
The street where I exited happened to be the very same street where the House of Blues was located. I looked up at the marquee. "Bob Weir & Ratdog - Feb. 9" it read in big red letters. I looked around and saw that the entire street was flooded with disheveled, filthy young people. Most of them had dreadlocks. All of them were carrying backpacks or rucksacks of some kind. They were gathered in small groups around the House of Blues waiting to be let inside. It all came to me in a rush. Bob Weir had been in the Grateful Dead. "Bob Weir & Ratdog" was the band he had formed and was apparently touring with that month. Suddenly what the Guy had been saying to me made sense---sort of. These were modern day Deadheads--the people who used to follow the Grateful Dead around the country, attending all of their concerts and living in an endless haze of pot smoke and tie-dyed shirts.
I began to weave my way through the crowd of Deadheads that were waiting for the concert. More than a few of them had dogs that growled at me menacingly. The hippies themselves were not friendly. They stared at the rest of us as we passed through their gauntlet of body odor and pit bulls. I felt decidedly unauthentic as I went. Here I was, trying to be incognito, trying to be cool with my Johnny Cash t-shirt and my earrings. I had my iPod going by now and was listening to a "Gospel & Christian" playlist. The song that was playing was David Crowder's "Rescue is Coming." I turned it up so that I wouldn't have to hear if the Deadheads were saying things about me, indicting me, calling me out, commenting on my fashionably ripped jeans and my hip Pony walking shoes. I felt as though they knew that despite my efforts to conceal who I was....they could spot my phoniness, my denial. And if they couldn't then the pit bulls sure as hell could.
David Crowder sang in my ear There's nothing wrong with me/It's just that I believe/Things could get better/And there's nothing wrong with love/I think it's just enough to believe... I wondered if it was just enough to believe. I believed once that I was called. I believed that God had a task in mind---this semper reformanda kind of task. Semper Reformanda is that wondrous Reformation-era phrase that seems to be bandied about so much these days. Everyone seems to want the church to reform, but no one seems to understand how to do it, or where to even begin. As I walked the streets of San Diego feeling the accusing stares of the nuevo-Deadheads, I felt my shoulders slump and my heart grow weary. Who was I kidding? I didn't even feel like a pastor, much less some sort of church leader, much less a part of the emerging church conversation---even less like a reformer.
After wandering around in the Gaslamp District for a while, I finally found a Borders bookstore and went inside. Moments later I was standing in front of the Poetry section staring at a copy of "George Herbert: The Complete English Poems." It was the only Herbert book on the shelf. I opened it. There was a poem on the page called The Offering. The first two lines read, Come, bring thy gift. If blessings were as slow/As men's returns, what would become of fools? My eyes filled with tears. Come, bring thy gift.
At the cash register, the young woman who rang up my sale commented on my purchase.
"I can honestly say that I have never seen anyone buy a book of Herbert's poetry. Well done."
I smiled a small smile, and wished that I could convey to her the journey that I had undertaken
to stand before here with my money in one hand and Herbert in the other.
"What do you do?" she asked me. "Are you a student, or an English teacher?"
I took my receipt and paused a moment before starting for the door.
"No," I said. "I'm a pastor." I pushed the door open and stepped out into the street. The trolley
went by across the street, turned a corner and headed away. A young man wearing a tie-dye shirt
and dirty pants passed me on his way toward the House of Blues. I nodded at him and smiled.
He smiled back.