Sunday, August 12, 2018

Rostered and Called II

In my last blog post, I noted that I have now become a rostered ELCA minister of word and sacrament. As a part of that candidacy process, I had to write two essays, some of whose contents might be of interest to at least a few readers of this irregular blog. Earlier this month I shared the brief autobiographical section from the first essay that started the process. Here is the second part:  

(2) Journey of Discernment. In 1946 my grandfather moved from Portland, where for twenty years he had been the founding pastor of a Lutheran congregation, to Salem, where he became the first LCMS chaplain to the Oregon State Hospital, the state penitentiary, and a large Lutheran nursing home. He retired in 1970. When St. John congregation experienced a pastoral vacancy, as happened to be the case when I was born, he was called upon to serve as the interim pastor. On the day I was baptized he told the congregation, “This first grandson of mine is going to be a pastor someday.” Being only twenty days old, I had no say in the matter, at least not on that occasion. Still, when I was a little older and people would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” I would always respond, “I want to be a pastor, like my grandfather.” When I was in the second grade, my public elementary school teacher invited him to our classroom to talk about what he did as a hospital chaplain. I do not remember what he said that day, but I do remember that he made us laugh, that he spoke very kindly to all of us, and that my classmates treated me better afterwards. While he probably never read Meister Eckhardt, he nonetheless exemplified for me the wisdom of “being ready at all times for the gifts of God and always for new ones.” I was thus thankful for my grandfather and proud of him. That second-grade school visit fit with what I already knew from church and family gatherings: my grandfather was loved and respected.

            In my early years, he would sometimes take my brother and me with him when he did supply preaching on the Oregon coast or over at Bend (where my uncle had been pastor), or when he made a pastoral visit to Willamette Lutheran Home or to the Oregon State Hospital. The latter is where One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest was filmed and where the director of that hospital, Dr. Dean Brooks—who played himself in the film opposite Jack Nicolson’s “McMurphy”—frequently consulted with my grandfather and at his retirement spoke words of gratitude about him and his ministry. My brother and I also served as my grandfather’s acolytes at the retirement-home Good Friday service, an event we relished, mostly because we got out of public school for the day. Then and at other times he told me, “A good pastor loves the people, all the people, especially the ones nobody else loves.”
            In a very basic way, my calling to the pastoral ministry was not my choice; it was something thrust upon me by someone I greatly loved and admired. My grandfather’s piety and vocation rubbed off on me and I felt called to become like him. While at times that summons was a burden, especially when I thought about studying the sciences or when I envied my cousins who were on the way to successful careers as attorneys, mostly it was not. I do not recall ever thinking about pursuing another vocation, at least not for very long or to any significant depth.
            The only time of crisis in that regard came when my grandfather died of brain cancer in January 1980, midway through my senior year of high school. It was then, in the midst of my profound grief, that I questioned for a few months the road that had been set before me. Why had I always answered the question about my future the way that I did? Was it merely out of love for my grandfather and because of what I knew he had wanted me to become since the day he baptized me? Or was the Holy Spirit really calling me to serve as a minister of Christ? Over the course of that relatively short period of time, which lasted into my first year of college, I gained greater clarity in my responses to these perplexing vocational questions. That discernment process was helped forward through much prayer, mutual consolation within my family, and by serious conversation with my pastors and college professors. I also benefited from the encouragement and support I received from the members of St. John. Indeed, throughout my formal education, which included a year-long pastoral internship, people repeatedly voiced appreciation for the gifts God has given me, the external affirmation of which provided a much more solid grounding for my vocational goal than did my own internal feelings. For example, at my ordination, I felt more like Moses or Jeremiah (“Lord, don’t you want someone else?”) than Isaiah (“Here am I! Send me! Send me!”), figures who surfaced in the sermon that day, and was grateful later for the external words of encouragement. Through the years, the importance of that external assurance--including especially that ordination service itself--has only grown, especially when I was under fire for professing a theological point that rubbed a few “true believers” the wrong way or when I’ve been troubled by the awareness of my sins, failures, and shortcomings. Over the years I have learned the truth of Luther’s dictum, “Experience alone makes the theologian”—hence, the need to return daily to my baptism and to remember frequently the Scriptural words of promise that were spoken at my ordination, the gospel that was preached that day (by the same professor who had buoyed me along at seminary, Dean Hempelmann), the pastoral blessings that were spoken with the laying on of hands, and the congregation’s shout of “Yes!” (Remembering all this made my expulsion from the LCMS on 15 July ’15 all the more painful. I was grateful that my mom and the circuit counselor who had ordained me--Pr. Joel Nickel--were with me in Rome that night, in the Piazza della Rotonda, and that we could share a bottle of good Chianti together.)
            While my seminary education proved less enlightening than my college experience—primarily because the former dealt less effectively with the challenges of our modern and pluralistic world—I did go deep into the Christian tradition in those years. (The great strength of that seminary is its library.) It was then, too, that a few of my teachers began to suggest to me that my gifts might be better suited for an academic setting than a parish one. Early in my fourth year I thus applied to a number of divinity schools and universities. I ultimately went with the one that gave me the most financial assistance. (I would have gone to Cambridge University—I was accepted to Fitzwilliam College—but this was when Mrs. Thatcher was giving no funds to foreigners.)
            My years in Chicago only confirmed for me what my seminary professors had suggested: While I enjoyed throwing myself into parish ministry (e.g., teaching confirmation instruction to twenty-plus middle-schoolers every Monday evening, leading the young couples group [even though I was single!], preaching every other Sunday, leading a Bible class, visiting the sick and shut-ins, marrying, burying, preparing devotions for various parish meetings, etc.), I felt more at home in a Swift Hall seminar room. Even before arriving in Hyde Park, Martin Marty had become a role model for me, and so what a pleasure it was to sit in his classes and to discuss readings with him in his office. I wanted (and still desire!) to be like him. I am grateful for his mentoring and for the friendship we have shared over the past thirty years.
            I am likewise thankful for the gracious example, friendship, and support of four other theologians who were also sent into exile from the LCMS: the sainted Bob Bertram (whose library I inherited), Ed Schroeder, Dean Lueking, and Gary Simpson. They have taught me much about “grace under pressure.”
            The past twenty-five years of teaching, first at Concordia and now at Valpo, have affirmed the rightness of the path that Marty and others have encouraged me to follow. While I was sorely tempted to accept the repeated offer of becoming the called pastor of Immanuel, Michigan City, I think I am better suited for a teaching ministry at the undergraduate level, at least for the time being. Fully cognizant that the ambitious theologian can be a pestilence to the church, I only hope that in some small way I can contribute to the mission of the church in service to the world for which Christ gave his life.

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