When I first began to tell people that I had decided to answer the call to ministry and begin seminary, the most common question I got from friends was, “So, are you going to stop swearing?” I had no idea that I had been such a prolific curse artist and was kind of thrown off by this question. In the interest of full confession, I do indeed swear from time to time in a way that suggests I have a thesaurus dedicated to the use of colorful language. I also admit that I often, when asked about why I use colorful language, quote a line from the movie Inherit the Wind when I say that, “language is a poor enough form of communication, we need every damn word we have.” That being said, as I was asked about swearing, whether or not I would still drink wine, or if I was suddenly going to become “boring” as some suggested, I started to realize that this question had nothing to do with language, liquor, or boringness. People were ultimately asking me if I was going to change in to some person they would no longer know and could no longer relate to. In the frenzy of activity that surrounds the call to ministry, I had forgotten to take a moment to realize how much my journey would impact others and; as it turns out, how much I would change.
When people hear the words minister, pastor, preacher, reverend and other titles, an image comes to mind of some super hero of piety who is incapable to relating to them. I try to tell friends and family that this is about as far from the truth as it gets. God has a pretty solid record of calling screw ups to do very solemn things. I am no different. Clergy are not people who live in a state of perfection that separates them from the general population; in fact, clergy represent a collection of individuals called to serve God in the midst of their imperfection. One of the great pressures of becoming a religious leader is the new standard that we are suddenly held to. I can’t tell you how many times I have let a colorful word slip out or expressed a frustration only to be told by someone around me, “that isn’t very pastor-like.” Well, if you are looking for Saint Do No Wrong Ever While Glowing With Perfect Pastorliness, then you are looking at the wrong guy. I answered the call to ministry because the world is a difficult, broken, cynical, and hurting place and I know that because I am a difficult, sometimes broken, sometimes cynical, and sometimes hurting guy. I answered the call to ministry because I believe God’s love and the salvation and grace offered by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ are the answer to the problems of a broken world and to my own brokenness.
One of the struggles of my own journey, and I suspect of other ministers, is a sense of unworthiness. As a gay seminarian, this is a pronounced struggle. Being held to unrealistic standards only serves to further complicate our struggle for worthiness. The truth of our faith is that we are offered salvation and God’s loving grace without any demand for worthiness. Forgiveness is offered freely and we need it often; so, worthiness is not the determining factor, faith is. More than that, people in general often struggle for worthiness in a whirlwind of shame, guilt, and self-imposed standards of perfection. What God tells us, what the life and death of Jesus Christ tells us, is that we are indeed worthy for no other reason than the miracle of our creation and the power of our faith. Worthiness is the initial gift from God and shame, guilt, and perfection are the weapons of a weary world aimed at tearing down our connection to our God-given worthiness.
Because it has been asked, let me get back to swearing for a minute. Many years ago, I was listening to NPR and I heard an interview with a minister who was asked about swearing and specifically about taking the Lord’s name in vain. I don’t recall his exact words; but, the basic message he gave was about how we actually take the Lord’s name in vain aside from the idea of cursing. He said that we take the Lord’s name in vain every time we judge one another in His name and every time we become self-righteous enough to suggest that we speak for God directly while we condemn other people. I am not going to lie, I still swear; but, I pray every single day that I can be humble enough to understand that I am not called to judge others or to dictate who is and isn’t worthy. I pray for the wisdom to see beyond our simplified notions of what cursing is and I pray for the courage to call out the actions of those who seek to blaspheme by works of separation and condemnation. I ask God to make me a channel of peace even if I get a bit colorful about it.
The truth is that the call to ministry has changed me in ways that may make me less recognizable to my friends and family. I am not the same person I was before I said, “yes,” to God’s commission and I thank God for it every day. My life no longer has room for cynicism; well, mostly. Negativity is no longer something that I am willing to accept as normal. Hope is a real thing to me now. Peace is not just a nice thing to talk about; it is a central force in my everyday life. I have learned to value community, empathy, justice, and grace in ways that were not possible before this call and I become a little less afraid to proclaim these values each day. The world looks different and the problems of this world no longer seem quite as insurmountable as they did before. Faith has not led me to surrender my identity, my quirks, or even my occasional glass of wine; in fact, faith has led me to begin the work of fully embracing the fullness and the truth of who I am and why I am called to serve…wine, swear words, quirks and all…
God doesn’t want you to stop being who you are. He created you and he already knows when you mess up. God wants us to be fully ourselves within the framework of a faith that makes our decisions a little bit different and our outlook a little more intentional. Embracing hope and grace and love and peace make it difficult to tear each other down or to choose actions that destroy instead of the actions of unity. Faith makes it harder to judge and easier to love, harder to condemn and easier to reach out in peace. So, I have changed and I pray that you have too…
Peace be with you.