Could It Happen Again?

I had never heard of the term “epic fail” when I went through one in 1986.

At age 36, I was in my second year as pastor of a large Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA. I had joined the church’s staff as an associate pastor in 1982 and was 2called, by unanimous vote of the congregation, to succeed my popular predecessor, who had served in that role for nearly twenty years, when he moved on to a church in Pennsylvania in 1984. Two years into my term, things were not going well. I was exhausted—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—and discouraged. In early January, I resigned, fairly sure that I lacked the gifts necessary for effective pastoral ministry and maybe for vocational ministry of any sort. Continue reading

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The Limits of Liturgy

Regular readers of this blog and people who know me personally are well aware of my strong affinity for liturgical worship. I love it so much that I have not been willing to compromise my relatively new-found convictions in this area, not even to save my job. That’s why I can’t wait to see what God might have in store for us through the “gatherings for worship in the liturgical tradition” which begin in Plain City, OH, on February 21. (Facebook users, click here for more information. Others can click on the “Gathering” button under the banner at the top of this page.) Continue reading

The Liturgy Saved Me

Six years ago, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving 2008, while sitting at a corner table at Panera Bread in Dublin, OH, I wrote an essay, later posted as a note on my Facebook page, which I called “I Quit.” I remember the date because I was on my way to the I Quit (1)hospital to spend time with my wife who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Actually, she was in the hospital because the chemotherapy she had been undergoing for three months had made her so sick, she needed more care and attention than I was able to provide for her at home. Continue reading

The Surprising Satisfaction Of The Sacraments

I served as a minister in the Free Church tradition for more than thirty-five years, first as a Baptist then as a non-denominational evangelical then as a Mennonite. For all of those years, I believed and taught that the benefit to be derived from baptism and communion (also called “the Lord’s supper,” but never “the Eucharist”) was in their value as powerful symbols of “spiritual” truths.

Baptism (1)Baptism symbolized a believer’s faith in Christ as Savior and Lord and the personal commitment to follow Him as a faithful and obedient disciple. Communion symbolized the sacrifice of Christ in His crucifixion—His broken body (the bread) and His shed blood (the wine, or more likely grape juice). Both these practices represented something else. They were beneficial to the degree that a Christian knew what they stood for. They mainly functioned as “object lessons,” pointing to a spiritual reality but without value in and of themselves.

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In Defense Of Lent

I grew up in a tradition which not only didn’t recognize Lent or Ash Wednesday as legitimate observances for Christians, it actually found them laughable. I remember how ash-wednesday-2we would snicker and make wise cracks about those few of our classmates who would leave school at noon on Ash Wednesday and return an hour or so later with some sort of black smudge on their foreheads. We didn’t understand it, and so we made fun of it.

I remember hearing a preacher tell the story of a Catholic priest who was accosted by a mugger as the priest was walking home after visiting a parishioner who was ill and confined to her home. He carried a box of chocolates which the parishioner had given him as a token of appreciation for his kindness.

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There Is Still No Plan B

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a blog post in which I affirmed my lifelong belief that God had called me to vocational Christian ministry and repeated my intention to fulfill that call for the remainder of my life. I called that post “There Is No Plan B.”

Yesterday I published a post in which I described my current circumstances in stark terms. I laid out both the scope of my current ministry as well as the financial realities which my wife and I are facing. A few of my readers wrote to assure me of their prayers and to offer other expressions of encouragement.

Early this morning, after a mostly sleepless night, I sensed God sayingStarry night that I should re-publish that post from last February as a way of declaring, once again, that I am in this for the duration. I have edited that post a bit, adding some elements toward the end that reflect the current situation more accurately, but it is essentially the same content that I originally wrote. I meant it then. I mean it now. There is still no Plan B.

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My Descent Into Heresy

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.