I remember the occasion as if it were yesterday.
It was a few days after Christmas during my senior year of college. I was terrified, nervous, and I wondered what my friends and family would say when I shared the news. What would my basketball teammates say? Would my roommates treat me differently? And of course, what about my girlfriend? She certainly had no idea our relationship would take such a dramatic turn!
I could hide no longer. I had to be honest with who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. And so, after a great deal of delay and long nights of nervous planning, I finally decided to “come out” and share what I had been keeping secret for quite some time. Beginning with my girlfriend, then my parents, brother, sister, and eventually friends, roommates, and teammates, I shared the news: After a significant amount of prayer and discernment, I was no longer planning to attend law school following college graduation, but instead, I wanted to attend seminary in order to become an ordained Lutheran pastor.
"That is it! I am out! Enough of the hiding! Enough of the pretending!”
As to be expected, I received mixed reactions. While my parents were confused and a bit surprised (“Where did this all come from? Are you serious? Is this some sort of joke?”), they accepted the news with delight, and expressed joy that I was coming to grips with what I believed was best. My girlfriend (who is now my wife!) was supportive (we both thanked God that Lutheran clergy are allowed to marry!), as well as my brother, sister, and a great deal of closest friends. On the other hand, others were not quite sure what to think. My roommates wondered about future plans (Does this mean no more beer?), basketball teammates were a bit uneasy (What happens if we swear?), and even the campus priest (Who jokingly tried to convert me to Catholicism), and a few professors (“I feel like I need to give you a good grade in order to please the One upstairs!”) had reactions. While a number of people were surprised, those who were closest to me accepted the announcement with open arms. I continue to thank God for such encouragement.
What I remember about the final months of university was that nearly every conversation had something to do with the idea of future plans. And so, my announcement to attend seminary became public quite frequently, and the reactions to such news was diverse. While some would simply comment with the pleasant “that is nice”, stand uncomfortably for a moment, look around the room, and then head in a different direction, I was fascinated with how many people would open up with stories of their own faith and past experiences with organized religion. Over and over again, whether it was in the quiet of a library or loud chaos of dancing and music on a weekend, young women and men would explain their fascination with questions surrounding God, opinions about faith, and reasons for why they do not (or for the rare few, actually do) attend worship on Sunday mornings. It was during these times that I tried to listen as much as possible, for sooner or later the person would explain how long it had been since they had expressed themselves openly about such “religious” subjects (I would like to believe I am a good listener, but I suppose the “liquid confidence” which many used throughout college may have had something to do with it). Through it all, many interactions about faith and religion ended with mutual affirmation, a strong sense of respect, and a feeling that previously held assumptions were reconsidered or removed.
As I reflect upon my nine years of life since “coming out” about faith and a desire to serve in ordained ministry, I believe the greatest gift I have received is that I am continually surrounded with people who have little or no interest in organized religion. While I have served as an ordained pastor for over five years, most of my interactions include people who do not belong to congregations, and many whom I associate with would rather speak about sports, politics, or music than consider the nature of baptism or the Christian doctrine of justification. While these individuals “outside the Church” are in no way hostile to spirituality, their frustrations of Church life and Christians in general serves as a significant challenge to the ways in which I try to serve as a leader. Through it all, what I have learned through these individuals is to keep asking the “big questions” that I and others often fail to ask when only surrounded with “the choir” of like-minded believers. When in the midst of day to day ministry, we often forget to consider: What is “the point” of Church? What is the Bible about, and where did it come from? Why does the Church choose to get involved in some causes and not others? Why does the Church continue to send missionaries around the world when so much harm has been done as a result of these ventures in the past? And perhaps most of all, when Jesus was a man of love and sought justice and peace for the poor and marginalized, why is the Church often considered judgmental, closed-minded, and a sort of club that only welcomes those who look, speak, and act in a certain way?
I believe those who stand “outside” the daily ministry of the Christian Church are in many ways a blessing to the future of the Christian Church. While I will always appreciate important insights gathered from fellow Christian colleagues and Lutheran congregational members, over the past years I have also learned a great deal (perhaps even more) from those who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or “recovering Christians”. In addition, I thank God for the incredible genuine dialogues which have taken place with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Rastafarians, etc, for they allow me to reconsider previously held assumptions and acknowledge the massive differences between faith and knowledge. While I may not always agree with the views presented to me, I believe that God works wonders when people come together in a genuine manner in order to listen, learn, and consider ways in which people may acknowledge their numerous common connections and seek creative and bold ways to bring about mutual priorities such as peace, love, and global reconciliation. In the end, what is often realized through such interactions and relationship building is that God is much greater than any of the simple boxes of understanding we attempt to employ, and that God’s love is far more comprehensive than what we were previously lead to believe.
Thousands of years ago the first followers of Jesus were persecuted because of their beliefs. There are some who would argue that followers of Jesus now persecute others around the world because of their diverse understandings of God. It is because of these harsh and disappointing realities that many skilled and compassionate individuals are unwilling to associate themselves with faith-based organizations. I believe there are many who have a deep love for Jesus’ way of compassion and forgiveness, yet they are unclear about whether or not they wish to enter into the challenges of organized religion and complicated Church politics. I believe there are many who would greatly enjoy the amazing fellowship received when surrounded by those who are accepting and loving, but are unsure of whether or not the Church can truly serve as such a place. I have met numerous individuals who are more than willing to sacrifice and struggle against the oppressive powers of the world for the benefit of those on the receiving end of domination, yet they would rather find ways to pursue these opportunities in ways which avoid the structures and hierarchy of organized spirituality. These realities of our current day and age should force the Church to take a deeper look at itself, and remind the Church of its need to raise leaders who are willing to face these challenges, and consider reformed methods of being a faithful and fruitful presence in the world.
As I write this reflection there are a number of women and men around the world who continue to wrestle with massive questions surrounding spirituality, faith, and diverse concepts of God. I pray for these individuals, for in all reality I will always consider myself one of them. While I thank God each day for the opportunity to serve as a Lutheran pastor, and I continue to be amazed at the incredible experiences I have received through the global Church, I believe that faith in Jesus requires us to continue asking the “big questions” surrounding who God is, what God does, and how God is supposed to work through us in this ever-changing and incredibly complicated world. Along these lines, I suppose in some ways I will always be like the university senior with countless questions and confusions surrounding what one truly believes and how it should lead to attempts at faithful action in the world. While I realize some would rather have a pastor who declares total certainty on all things spiritual, I believe it is those who proclaim total and absolute knowledge of God that often create the most damage in our world, and I would rather experience a leader who is a member of the journey rather than someone who falsely claims to have experienced the destination. We are all “beggars looking for bread”, and in the process of “coming out” on a daily basis, embracing who God has created us to be, and considering each moment what it is that God is calling us to do. And so, I thank God for all the amazing women and men who have accompanied me on the journey of faith to this point in my life, I pray for all those who have asked that I humbly accompany them in their walk, and I pray for God to inspire women and men around the world to accompany all of us into the future.