Another day, another vocational crisis.
I am beginning to think that God grants me uneasiness as it pertains to the holiness of the priesthood to keep me on my toes and to keep me humble. Well played, God. Well played.
I have been waiting for Advent this year with great anticipation. I’m not sure why exactly. I feel that something is shifting. Perhaps by the time I am done writing this I will have a better sense of what exactly I am waiting for.
The crisis du jour started when I heard an oft quoted aphorism pertaining describing the call of deacons. Deacons, it is said, have one foot in the church and one foot in the world. I have heard this maxim many times before, but for some reason when I heard it most recently, it struck me. And it hurt. My internal response was “well then what the hell about me, a priest? Am I called to have both feet firmly planted in the church, the world around me be damned?”
I have always reacted against this aloof, otherworldly type of ministry – clergy holed up in their churches, subsumed in their own tiny agendas and visions, meanwhile the world around them is going to hell and they scarcely have anything constructive or substantive to say aside from offering vapid appeals to “love your neighbor.” When I was ready to leave Christianity altogether, I came across Black Liberation Theology as an undergrad and it saved my faith. To find a faith articulated the Gospel of Jesus Christ with such clarity and boldness and a faith that had something substantive to offer oppressed people aside from “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by” was life-changing. I could never be the kind of cleric who settled for easy answers and cheap theology. I committed myself in that moment to doing the hard work of faith, to do the heavy-lifting of theology to make this world a better place.
Seminary didn’t make it any better. It’s hard (though not impossible) to cut one’s theological teeth in the shadow of Atlanta University Center, surrounded by streets named “Student Movement Blvd.”, a stone’s throw away from Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and not commit oneself to a practicing a transformative and liberating theology. To be fair, some did and do come through all of that ancestral power and choose to eschew it for the easy trappings of weak, soundbite theology. But I ain’t one of them. I am committed to practicing a transformational spirituality that transforms the world.
Perhaps this is why I have been awaiting Advent with such fervor. I craved space and openness to rediscover a vocation that can so easily become watered-down and a voice that can so easily become muddled. When we encounter Second Temple Judaism in the Gospels, we encounter a faith system that, although it once challenged empires and brought kingdoms to their knees, had sold-out to the Romans and had nothing substantive to offer the people except for weak words and empty rituals.
In a collection of sermons entitled “Strength to Love,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King says this about our call as Christians:
One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gap between practice and profession. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves… How often are our lives characterized by high blood pressure of creeds and anemia of deeds. We talk eloquently about our commitment to the principles of Christianity, and yet our lives are saturated with the practices of paganism. We proclaim our devotion to democracy, but sadly practice the very opposite of the democratic creed. We talk passionately about peace and at the same time assiduously prepare for war. We make our fervent pleas for the high road of justice, and then we tread unflinchingly the low road of injustice. This strange dichotomy, this agonizing gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage. (From “Love in Action”)
I am not interested in socially-respectable, timid Christianity. I want bold faith. I am not interested in spirituality that excludes the horrific lived conditions of far too many. I am not interested in faith that talks about freedom from sin if it doesn’t also demand freedom from oppression. I do not want to hear about rituals that purport to feed mortals with the bread of angels if we are not only feeding humanity with actual bread (and the other necessary food groups), but also challenging systems that give some people food enough to throw away while so many starve. You can keep your articles and blog posts about “church growth” and drawing in “millennials” and SBNRs (the so-called “spiritual but not religious”) if you’re not interested in leveraging that collective power, giftedness, and grace to challenge and dismantle prevailing notions of prejudice and hate. I am uninterested in changing souls if I am not also changing the situations that will allow souls, and the bodies they accompany, to thrive. Jesus lambasts the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 for worrying about the wrong things. “You tithe mint, dill, and cumin,” he says, “and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” I’m not interested in hypocritical faith that is unbothered by the brokenness of our world. I want a real faith that is maladjusted to injustice, and pissed enough to do and say something about it.
A popular quote attributed German theologian Karl Barth suggests that Christian preachers are to preach “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” We ought not stand in such a position of power, influence, and authority and to speak timidly (if we speak at all) about police brutality disproportionately aimed at black and brown communities, rabid Islamaphobia cloaked as American patriotism, hyper-militarism, income inequality, sexism and other areas of brokenness in our world. We can offer more than our “thoughts and prayers” for those who are victims of gun-violence and terrorism. We must offer more than uninspiring entreaties to “love” – we must define what love does and does not look like. We can and must do more, or else the Gospel of Jesus Christ has lost its power and we are indeed hopeless.
So, it’s Advent and I’m waiting… again. Waiting for clarity and conviction to set the Church on fire and for apostolically-oriented Christians to “turn the world upside down” …Waiting for the Church to live and preach like we believe the Gospel is real and that Jesus still has power …Waiting for us to tear down these artificial and self-imposed barriers between the “Church” and the “World” so that those of us who see the border as permeable aren’t asked to choose a side …Waiting for us to stop being so damn afraid of everything and to start living like we believe Jesus actually got up from the grave after disproportionate, exploitative, imperial power tried its level best to take him out.
But while I wait, I must be found working like I believe the Kingdom is actually on the way. Because it is. Everyday I see evidence of God dwelling among us. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”