Lately I’ve been working on some introductory essays as part of my discernment for ordination. This one falls under the category of “Pilgrimage of Faith” or “Faith Journey” or whatever you want to call it.
I’ve covered a lot of ground in my faith journey.
The church in which I grew up was conservative. When I was about 8 or 9 my Sunday school class went outside for part of our lesson. The church owned a big field that was normally only used for things like softball leagues or fair weather Vacation Bible Schools. That day we needed a large enough space to stake out the dimensions of Noah’s ark. The reason we needed to do this was that Noah’s ark was real in the same way that the White House is real. It was an important thing to know.
Fast forward 15 or so years. I’m at Vanderbilt Divinity School and one of my jobs takes me out to The United Church of Cookeville about once a month to do pulpit supply. One of the congregants there is an old-timer. He was confirmed at Riverside Church in New York City back when Harry Emerson Fosdick was preaching. One Sunday we were having a conversation about scripture, historicity, and literalism. He tells me this story about his confirmation class with H.E. Fosdick way back when. Fosdick asks, “are there any questions? Any questions at all?” Some kid, thinking himself really clever and enlightened, raises his hand and says, “Tell me, was Jesus really born of a virgin?” Fosdick responds, “Of course not!”
At the height of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, Fosdick gave one of his most famous sermons. “Shall the Fundamentalists win?” he asked his congregation. Earlier in my life I would have responded, “yes!” Now, I consider myself part of a tradition that looks back to Fosdick as a spiritual forbearer.
I’ve covered a lot of ground in my faith journey, but, strangely enough, I never encountered what might be called a crisis of faith. It was not as if all of a sudden someone or something laid siege to my belief system, wreaking ideological confusion until all that remained was a smoldering pile of doubts. Christians know that our apostle Paul had a drastic, exciting conversion story, but for better or worse my own shifts in belief have been much more gradual. It seems to me that the important turning points we all include as part of our life story are often identified in retrospect. Memory, we know, is notoriously unreliable. Sometimes the way we tell the story of our lives has quite a bit to do with who we are at the moment. Our brains are shoddy historians but pretty good storytellers, which for my purposes here is just as well.
I like very much the story my Cookeville congregant told me about H.E. Fosdick. It’s a personal connection into a world I can otherwise only know through books. I like that William Sloane Coffin, Jr. was chaplain while my undergraduate advisor Royal Rhodes was a seminarian at Yale, because Coffin, who’s life and work continue to inspire me in very big ways, passed away before I was aware of his existence. Royal once traced back my academic lineage to H. Richard Niebuhr, another figure who I had previously only encountered in print. Whereas initially I read myself into my beliefs and tradition, I can now say that I’m beginning to grow roots through interpersonal connections and personal experience. I’ve covered a lot of ground in my faith journey, and the trip is just getting started.
In retrospect, I can recognize that I was never fully at home in Evangelicalism. I was never comfortable sharing the faith with others, which means that I wasn’t much of a believer. When you really believe in something, you’re supposed to be passionate about it. You want to share it with others and you don’t care if they reject what you’re saying or give you funny looks. The Evangelism part of Evangelicalism never came easily to me.
It wasn’t until the second semester of my Junior year in college that I experienced my first moment of Evangelical fervor. I was taking a class called “Meanings of Death” with my advisor. Predictably, the subject matter was mostly grim. But one day I left the class in high spirits. Towards the end of the discussion Royal handed out a sermon that William Sloane Coffin delivered a couple of weeks after his son Alex died in a car accident. I was hooked on Coffin’s sermonizing instantly. He took to task those ministers that “knew the Bible better than the human condition” while insisting that, while the Bible’s words of comfort to those who are mourning are true, “grief renders them unreal.” I was delighted to see the phrase “God Herself” mixed casually into a sermon. And most of all I love Coffin’s ease with words; his ability to quote Lord Byron or Emily Dickinson as readily as the Bible. I went home after class with my copy of that sermon in tow. I told my roommate Richard—who had little if any background or interest in Christian tradition—“you have to read this.” This was something I could fully endorse; something I felt everyone ought to be aware of even if it didn’t move them in the same way it moved me. I was an evangelist; a different sort than I had always imagined, but still an evangelist.
The summer following my Junior year I took to the books. My mentor Royal had given me an ambitious list of “must reads” in modern Christian theology, and I intended to read them all. Most days I couldn’t wait to get back home from my summer job. I would rush upstairs and hole myself up in my room to page through my books excitedly. I’d never been more curious or engaged as when I was reading Sallie McFague on Metaphor and Parables or H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture. All through the summer I was in contact with Royal, discussing the themes and issues that I’d later delve into with my Senior Thesis.
Around this time I had a strong sense that I wanted to attend Divinity School soon after my graduation. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do work in the Academy, non-profit world, or church ministry, but I knew that I wanted to learn more. It was right around Easter of my first year of Divinity School that I knew I wanted to pursue congregational ministry.
I had just given a sermon at the sunrise service hosted by the Episcopal Church that operates out of my alma mater’s chapel. The gist of the sermon was that the resurrected Jesus shouldn’t be thought of as a pristine, unruffled figure marching through lush meadows as birds provide musical accompaniment and fecund bunny rabbits clear his way. Death is part of the story too. Our grief and suffering and sorrow will always be real presences, but they are transformed as we become part of God’s new creation.
After the sermon a man named Robert approached me to thank me for the message. It was just what he needed to hear, he said. I hadn’t been thinking of Robert when I wrote the sermon, but I instantly knew what he meant.
My memory took me back to the previous winter. My friend Greg had invited me to attend a Northern Ohio Diocesan Convention of the Episcopal Church. Greg attends these things because he’s active in the church and hoping to become an Episcopal priest. I was interested because the Episcopal Church’s presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori—one of the figures I was writing about for my thesis—would be in attendance. Greg and I made the trip with a retired priest named Jerry and his partner Robert—both of whom were active in the church. Jerry was the first openly gay priest in Ohio. He had seen a lot of change over the course of his ministry and he kept pressing for more and greater inclusion. At this point Jerry was frail. He needed a wheelchair and assistance with most basic functions. But his ministry hadn’t stopped. He still pressed the church leadership for faster progress on full equality for GLBT persons. Jerry was a prophet.
Jerry died a few weeks after the Diocesan Convention. Robert, his widower, spent much of the next year in different stages of mourning. And by the time I gave my Easter sermon the following year he was ready for some closure, ready to let go of some things. After the sunrise service Greg and I walked over to the Parish house for brunch. Robert walks up to us we’re waiting outside. He’s holding three of Jerry’s clerical collars, all slightly dirtied from 30+ years of ministry. He hands one to Greg, another to me, and holds onto the third for himself. He gives both of us a hug and says, “I didn’t know what to do with these, but I wanted to say thank you.”
Jerry’s collar sits on top of my bookshelf. It rests on the William Sloane Coffin sermon Royal gave me, and I look at it everyday.