A few weeks ago, was the 29th anniversary of my ordination. Often, people are curious as to how I got to be a pastor. Frequently, I’ve said something like, “I’m still not completely certain I want to be a pastor!” That answer is both a bit true – I’m not always certain about by job, my call, as I don’t always feel like I fit the mold of a pastor – and can be a bit of a brush-off to saying too much more. The truth is, it’s a little complicated.
I grew up in a family where church and a life of faith was important. I grew up going to church and was blessed to have the opportunity to go to a pretty good church. The pastors were good, thoughtful chaps, good thinkers and not overly sentimental. The youth program was good, the choir was good, the organist was fantastic, my relatives went to church there, it was a good experience. My home church was a big-deal in the community and coming from there was a big-deal. A bunch of people came out of that church and became pastors. We heard about it a lot. But I never thought of going to seminary. I wanted to do something. I wanted to change things. I wanted to change the world. Looking back on it now, I find it interesting that I never imagined the church I grew up in as a place that changed anything.
I got a different view of church and the Christian life the summer of 1984. It was the summer before my senior year in college and I was spending the summer working at the FDIC in Washington, D.C. The FDIC had offered me a job when I graduated [I was going to be a bank liquidator] and I hoped that after a bit of graduate school I’d make the hop over to the Federal Reserve. A guy I worked for knew I read a bunch of philosophy and dropped this book on my desk. He said, “You ever read this? If you haven’t, you should. You’ll like it.” It was a copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship in 1937 in Germany. The Nazis were in power, the war hadn’t started yet but a lot of bad things had already started in Germany. Bonhoeffer wrote the book as a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, as a commentary about what a Christian life was supposed to be about and what that life entailed. This guy, Bonhoeffer, believed that Jesus meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount. He believed that the life of a Christian was to be modeled after the things Jesus said in this portion of St. Matthew’s Gospel. And he believed that this sort of life was risky and that it had the power to change the world. I had never read anything like this and I had never heard anything like this in a church [and remember, I had already spent 21 years in a church…].
My first semester of my senior year, I had signed up for a class – 20th Century Theology – outside of my major. I was sort of a pain in the butt in the class. I didn’t buy most of the assumptions of the rest of the class plus, I had read The Cost of Discipleship! I was a genius in the land of the lost! [you get the point…] We read this one book, A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez. The book, published in the early 70’s, is famously obtuse and poorly translated from Spanish. Gutierrez is a terrible economist and is way too optimistic about Marxism. But here was the thing I saw in that book – the lives of poor people mattered. And these lives mattered not just because they are human beings [which, should be enough] but they mattered because the lives of the poor mattered to Jesus. Somehow, there was a connection between this thing Gutierrez was saying and Bonhoeffer was saying and it changed everything I had ever thought about church.
I remember a lunch with the instructor of the course. He kept insisting [at least my 21-year-old self thought he was insisting] that what we thought in our heads and hearts was what was important. It was most important to believe [a head/heart thing] in Jesus. I kept arguing that that wasn’t enough. You had to love the things Jesus loved and live that way. That was the point of The Cost of Discipleship and A Theology of Liberation. If we actually lived that way, the church would actually change something. I remember this final comment, “Well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you become a pastor and then you’ll see.” And my response was, “I think I’ll do that!”
And here I am. I’m still not certain I made the right choice, but I’ve gotten more comfortable with the possibility that I’ll never be settled in that thought. But I do think I’ve had an opportunity to change a few things in the lives of some people for the better.
The general understanding of what it means to be a Christian is that a Christian is someone who believes in Jesus. Some people add the addition that we are to believe that he died for my sins. That’s all good and I know you really can’t question what someone says they believe. But over the years, at least over the last 34 years, I’ve come to see that for me I think there’s just a little bit more to it. I had to come to believe that Jesus really meant the things he said and that he did the things he did on purpose. It made all of the difference and it’s why, in my own way, I do the things I do. And I think that’s why I’m a pastor.