As I have noted in this blog many times, God and I entered into a pact around forty years ago. He called me into vocational ministry. I responded to that call. He promised to open doors of opportunity for me and to care for all my legitimate needs. In return, He asked me to devote all my energy and use all my gifts in the service of the Kingdom of God. I have tried to be faithful to my side of the pact. He has always been faithful to His, even if on occasion (like now) it hasn’t been immediately clear how He was bringing it to pass. He always has, eventually.
God made my side of the bargain easier by limiting the gifts and the skill set He gave me. I haven’t had to struggle with the temptation to forsake my calling in order to be a professional athlete or a business entrepreneur or a rocket scientist. I’ve never had to resist the allure of the Broadway theater or the silver screen or the concert stage. I simply don’t have either the gifts or the desire to pursue those vocations. I am, however, a pretty good teacher.
For most of my life, I have had ample opportunity to exercise my gifts as a teacher—either in pastoral ministry or in the classroom or as an itinerant speaker/lecturer, traveling across the country and across the church to serve as a preacher in Bible conferences, a teacher in local Bible institutes, and a presenter for workshops and seminars. My schedule was as full of meetings of this type as I wanted it to be until a few years ago when I fell into heresy.
Heresy is not a pretty word. In fact, it’s not even a word with which most people are familiar these days. It was used more frequently in an earlier era when more attention was paid to doctrinal precision and religious orthodoxy within the Christian community. In those days, heresy was the word used to denote deviation from accepted doctrine or a rejection of orthodoxy. A practitioner of heresy was called a heretic.
Throughout the history of the Christian church, the term heresy has been applied to a wide variety of perceived heterodoxy. Its broadest usage has related to variation within or denial of the classic and creedal assertions related to the character and attributes of Jesus Christ. Denial of the classic Christian belief that Jesus was God in human flesh has always constituted heresy. Generally, a rejection of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ and the suggestion that there are other ways to God apart from belief in Jesus as Savior and Lord have fallen into that category as well.
In some quarters of the church, where speaking in tongues is not practiced, those who advocate that the gift of tongues should be normative for the life of the church are viewed as heretics. Likewise, Christians who believe in evolution may be guilty of heresy in the eyes of Christians who don’t.
My descent into heresy was particularly egregious. I remain orthodox in my commitment to the Nicene Creed and its clear pronouncements of the deity of Jesus and His role as the Savior of mankind. Where I went off the rails was in suggesting that the church would be well-served if we actually recited the words of the Creed as part of regular public worship.
Add to that my inexplicable and inexcusable insistence on the celebration of Communion as the high point of every worship service, and the relegation of preaching to a less significant place in the service, and you can begin to see how the downward spiral accelerated.
I suppose it was inevitable, given what I have just admitted, that it was only a matter of time until I began publicly to refer to the four weeks before Christmas as Advent, the forty days before Easter as Lent, and the seventh Sunday after Easter as Trinity Sunday. Looking back on it now, I can only lift my hands in amazement and cry out, “What was I thinking?”
Yes, dear friends. As unthinkable as it must seem to many of you, I became totally and inextricably caught up in… liturgy. I fought it for years, but its hold on me was too great. I tried to hide my involvement in it for as long as I could, but I knew that was a futile exercise when, one Monday morning, a colleague pulled me aside and surreptitiously whispered in my ear, “I know where you went to church yesterday.”
I tried to quit, but I couldn’t. I found that, if I didn’t, on a weekly basis, eat a wafer and sip some wine that had been consecrated as the body and blood of Christ, I suffered something akin to withdrawal. Sometimes at night, I would be startled awake by the image of a priest uttering the phrase, “The Lord be with you.” More than once I found myself uncontrollably responding, “And also with you.” One particular night, I remember it well, I slumped back against my pillow and heard myself saying, “That’s it. I’m liturgical. The best thing to do is just admit it and take the consequences.”
From that moment it was only a short time until I had to make a clean breast of my obsession. I was warned that, if I couldn’t control my attraction to the liturgical tradition, I might lose my job. I was told that, if I couldn’t curb this consuming desire to kneel when I pray and make the sign of the cross, I would lose my credibility among those who had once engaged me for preaching and teaching missions. “Don’t you care that you are making yourself unemployable?” they asked, plaintively.
And they were right. I did lose my job. Invitations to preach in Bible conferences and to teach in local Bible institutes dried up. My phone stopped ringing, and my email inbox gathered dust.
I cried out to God, “Why is this happening? I’m still an orthodox, evangelical Christian. I’m still committed to the Anabaptist distinctives of radical discipleship and biblical nonresistance. I still believe in the importance of spiritual formation and the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.”
“That may be true,” I seemed to hear God say in reply. “But can you really expect people to invite you to preach to them or to teach their young people if you are constantly using words like ‘eucharist’ and ‘absolution,’ and if you call your pastor “Father” and your bishop “Your Grace”?
And so, I have had to learn to live with the ignominy that has accompanied my public confession of a compulsion to liturgy. It is the cross I must bear, and as an unrepentant Anabaptist, I know a little about cross-bearing discipleship.
Pray for me. I’m trying to find my way within the community of other liturgy addicts, but it’s not easy. Every Sunday I feel the eyes of the congregation on me, as the people think, “Does he really mean it when he prays the Lord’s Prayer, or is he just saying the words?”
It’s getting easier, though. Little by little, I am finding individuals and groups who are at least willing to hear me out. More and more people are listening to my story with interest, and some are even telling me that their experience is similar to mine. And so, maybe I will eventually feel at home in this new communion where so many are heretics just like me.