As hard as it may be for anyone who knows me to believe, somehow, when I was in my high school production of The Music Man, director Clarence “Bud” Bergman didn’t see me as the smooth-talking romantic lead Harold Hill, but cast me instead as the loudmouthed, awkward anvil salesman Charlie Cowell. I was the villain – or at least as much of a villain as there is in The Music Man. My character knew the truth about Harold Hill and was determined to tell it. My memorable line was “He’s a fake and he doesn’t know the territory.”
I have reflected often since on how ironic it is that I went into a profession where every time I’ve climbed into a pulpit my secret fear is that a loudmouthed, awkward anvil salesman would throw open the rear doors of the church and point an accusing finger at me and announce, “He’s a fake and he doesn’t know the territory.”
A few days ago, Theresa Latini made the point in this space that insecurity and anxiety abound in seminaries. As I read her words, my first thought was “who says it ends in seminary?” I’m of the opinion that anxiety only increases once one leaves the halls of a seminary and ventures into full-time ministry. Am I the only minister fearfully aware of the presumption of ordination? Am I the only minister afraid of being found out? Am I the only minister who has secret thoughts that begin with the sentence fragment: “If people only knew . . .”?
I know I’m not the only one. I have been spending my Lenten Thursday afternoons with a class at the Calvin Academy of Lifelong Learning studying a few memoirs together. Recently we looked at Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Leaving Church. It is the sort of book insecure and anxious ministers should read, as well as anxious and insecure parishioners. BBT masterfully lifts the veil on her own experience of struggling under the weight of her ordination. “If being ordained meant being set apart . . . then I didn’t want to be ordained anymore. I wanted to be human . . . I wanted to confess being as lost and found as anyone else . . .”
My wife, my daughter and I sat over a meal last night talking about how attracted we are to ministers and other leaders who are authentic – and that the mark of authenticity is a willingness to be honest about their humanity. I long for preachers who are willing to follow Barbara Brown Taylor’s lead and tell the truth. As Paul reminds us, we don’t preach ourselves but the outrageous message of Christ crucified. I find great freedom in that. The downward descent of crucifixion has space in it for ministers to break free from the victorious Christian script and find their true voice and tell the truth about life. The truth about my life is that sometimes it’s all I can do to keep my head above water. The truth about me is that I am a fake who doesn’t know the territory. The truth about The 12 is every one of us wonders if we write as well as the others, if we are as smart as the others, and if we choose topics as meaningful and relevant as the others. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we all are insecure and anxious. If you can’t admit that, please reset your clock and go back to Ash Wednesday and start Lent over. The 40 days of Lent are a sort of tithe of the year set aside for us to quit striving and simply embrace the broken nature of our humanity.
Theresa closed her post last week beautifully, and I’m going to reprint her words again because her conclusion says all I want to say about this topic: So I pray that Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit will put-to-death our religious expectations and the rigid limitations that we place on ourselves and one another. And that he will raise us up to a whole different kind of discipleship, one that takes us right into the grit and grime of human existence, right into the aching of our hearts–that well of life from which faith, hope, and love spring when we are encountered by and grounded in the living God.