Sunday, June 20, 2004

Am I Still a Believer?

I had a conversation in the kitchen at work the other day with one of our customer service reps. He had seen my presentation about Eberron at Wizards' Game Day a couple weeks ago and complemented me on it, so we're suddenly closer to a first-name basis, I guess. He said he'd heard I was a minister, or used to be. "Yeah, I used to be. I fled." That's my standard answer—sort of funny, deflecting the seriousness of the question. Yeah, there's this huge whole part of my life, from the time I got religion in college through three years of seminary and three more years as an ordained minister, and then I fled. Some people find that fascinating: a former minister now working at Wizards of the Coast writing Dungeons & Dragons books. It's a weird juxtaposition, sort of a living oxymoron, like a guy with a Ph.D. driving a garbage truck or something. Sure, it's curious. But those are not people that I'm particularly interested in talking with about the reasons I left ministry and the path that brought me where I am. Let them enjoy the living oxymoron and move on.
But this guy in customer service was coming at it from a different angle. "Are you still a believer?" he asked. He is, too—not a former minister, but a believer, a Christian, and someone who might want to go to seminary someday. See, now that's a whole different line of questioning. Unfortunately, I answered that with the same kind of ha-ha reply, something like "Yeah, more or less." And when Rich Baker showed up in the kitchen I quickly took the opportunity to mention something I'd been wanting to talk to him about. Not so much because I didn't want to talk about my spiritual path with a fellow believer, but because I didn't want to do that in the kitchen at work.

But man, that's not an easy conversation to have. Am I a believer? Hell, I don't know. I believe a lot of things—some of them fairly orthodox by the standards of twenty centuries of Christian theology, some of them much less so. Some of them I have pretty strong opinions about, maybe even convictions. Others I think I still believe but I haven't really tested them in a while to see if they're still actual beliefs or just lingering ideas. 

Example: My wife asked me a couple of weeks ago what I believe church is. My answer was something like this: I used to believe that church is a group of people called to live in the world as a colony of Heaven, a group patterned after the way relationships should be in God's new creation. I used to believe that church is a place where we celebrate the sacrament of Communion in anticipation of the great feast to which God will call us someday, gathered around a common table at which all are welcome to celebrate the grace that brings us together. Do I still believe that's what church is? I don't know. 

Those are pretty beliefs. That's a very attractive idea about what church is. But there's a big part of me that shakes my head sadly at the beliefs of a very na├»ve 20-year-old preaching his first sermon in his college church, talking about what he hoped church could be and what he dreamed his time in ministry would be about. There's a part of me that sheds bitter tears over my own experiences, and those of my friends, about what church actually is. The woman in my smaller church in Ohio who scowled at me from her pew every Sunday morning, shook her head as I preached, just never liked me and was glad to see me go. The Board of Ordained Ministry that heard my ambivalence about my sense of call and denied my wife her elder's ordination at the point in her life when she was most certain of her own call. The congregations who have shunned people for personal or dogmatic reasons, the well-meaning believers who still try to bar people from the Communion table, either as guests or as hosts. 

I haven't yet figured out how to relate my pretty beliefs to my bitter experience. I guess I haven't really taken the time to try. 

It's true, I fled ministry. With people who are closer friends, I'm willing to delve into some of the reasons I fled. Pretty much my standard answer has become that I'm just too much of an introvert to have been a successful minister. That is true, but it is only part of the whole truth. I am very much an introvert, and that did interfere with my success as a minister, and that makes me angry. I am angry that most of the ministers I know, and whose churches I visit now in an ongoing search for a new community to call home, are not like me, or at least they do not seem to be. They are very outgoing, dynamic people, able to negotiate awkward social situations and hospitals and funeral homes with ease, full of certainty and security and platitudes I never could believe. They are not mystics and contemplatives, and they are not introverts. 

I feel as though the deck was stacked against me from the beginning, like my Myers-Briggs profile indicated right off the bat that I would not be a successful minister. More importantly, I guess, I feel as though my ideas of church were just completely unrealistic, an impossible dream setting me up for failure and disappointment. I wanted ministry to be about spiritual growth and contemplation, I wanted church to be about experiencing the Reign of God in joyful anticipation, "a foretaste of the feast to come." It wasn't, and I fled the reality of what it was (which, in addition to the bitter things I already mentioned, included a great number of people who truly loved me and were very sad to see me go). And having fled the ministry that was not what I dreamed it would be, it seems that I also fled the dream of spiritual growth and contemplation, abandoned the hope of experiencing God's Reign in foretaste, and have resigned myself to accompanying my wife and son on an apparently never-ending quest to find a church where we can belong, feel at home, settle in and grow. 

It has been eight years since I fled ministry and Ohio. I've lived in Madison, in Berkeley, and now around Seattle, and still have not found a church I'm happy in. I guess that I'm still looking for a church that is a colony of Heaven, a community gathered to celebrate the feast of anticipation. 

Am I still a believer? I guess the real answer to that question varies from day to day, in direct correlation with how much hope I still have of ever finding that church. As I think more deeply about it, however, I realize that I am still convinced I will find it someday. Perhaps not a community called to be a colony of Heaven, perhaps not a community gathered to celebrate the feast in anticipation, but the actual feast in the realized Reign of God. I guess I've never been exactly sure what form that feast will take or what the Kingdom of Heaven really is, but I know that the promise is at the heart of what I do believe, the invitation still tugs at my soul and draws me back toward the life of the spirit. 

One of the things that reassures me in more doubtful times that I actually am still a Christian is that I frequently listen to Christian music. (That is easily a topic for a whole other long post.) Anyway, a playlist that frequently gets played from my iPod is this one [link will open the iTunes music store]—all about that invitation, that promise, and the home that awaits us. In these songs, I feel that tug at my soul, I hear the promise that God will not always be a distant and alien Presence whose voice as often comes from the whirlwind as in sheer silence, but will someday be, as God sometimes is even now, as close as my heartbeat, right at hand to wipe the tears from my eyes. 

I guess I am still a believer, and I'm frankly a little startled to realize how much I do still cling to that promise in the depths of my heart. Yes. Yes, I am.

No comments: