As much as many human groups prize conformity, we realize with only a tiny bit of reflection that the world would never have progressed to any great degree without misfits. Had every one remained a status quo type, nothing could have changed. Knowing that, however, typically doesn’t make a misfit popular or welcome. A spiritual community in which most everyone is a misfit might be an exception to that pattern. Regardless, let me be quick to point out that there is often a heavy price to pay for being a misfit in groups that fear nonconformity.
Jonathan Merritt is a young and very successful writer of books and blogs. His blog is called “On Faith and Culture,” and on 9/11 of this year he published a piece on a misfit pastor. Imagine how hard it would be to find one of those! Where in the world would you look?!?
If any of you thinks I’m an alien, you need to get acquainted with the Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber. She’s the author of a wildly popular book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. She founded a congregation in Denver, which was named House for All Sinners and Saints; it’s an Evangelical Lutheran church, and an increasing number of people out there are drawn to it. This is something for our Growth Committee to keep in mind!
The Reverend Bolz-Weber has tattoos all over and makes no effort to hide them. She cusses when she pleases even when her congregants are in earshot. In the blog post to which I have referred, Merritt shared an interview he did with this pretty amazing woman. One exchange went as follows.
Merritt: You’re something of a misfit pastor, and you seem to embrace this identity. In your book, you talk about your unusual call to ministry. Can you tell us about this?
Bolz-Weber: I left the fundamentalist Christianity of my youth when I was a teenager and spent a decade outside of the church quite literally hating Christianity. When I returned to it, I came back to a very particular tradition that had an articulation of the gospel and a liturgical tradition that put language to things I had already experienced to be true in my life. So, despite the fact that in some ways I’d rather be something besides a Christian, I cannot deny the experiences in my life of a surprising and unexpected and destabilizing God. To not confess that would be to deny what I’ve experienced in my life. So I have no other choice.
Pondering my sermon subject during the week, I found myself humming over and over again a song that was majorly popular when I was barely into my teens. It was a solo release by Cass Elliot who was part of the group Mamas and Papas; these were the words of the refrain:
You gotta make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song
Make your own kind of music
Even if nobody else sings along
Thoreau certainly made his own kind of music. He knew it. He thought about it and wrote about it. This snippet from Thoreau hung in poster form on the wall of one of my college professors:
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
There’s a spiritual short-short-short story by Shams-e Tabrizi. I have no idea who the narrator is supposed to be, but we get the point.
I have been a misfit since childhood. I knew that no one understood me, not even my father. He once said, “You are not a madman, fit to be put in a madhouse, nor are you monk to be put in a monastery. I just don’t know what you are!” I replied: “You know, father, I can tell you what it is like. Once a duck egg was put under a hen to be hatched. When the egg hatched, the duckling walked along with the mother hen until they came to a pond. The duckling took a nice dip in the water. But the hen stayed on the bank and clucked.” Now, my dear father, after having tried the sea I find it my home. If you choose to stay on the shore, is it my fault? I am not to be blamed.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus were misfits—though John was a PK (preacher’s kid) and more predictably became a misfit! John, Jesus’ second cousin, was a little older and had gotten into the ministry biz before Jesus realized his commitments would take him in the same direction. Initially, John was Jesus’ mentor, and Jesus springboards into ministerial service on John’s teachings and his example—though Jesus’ ministry would take him in a significantly different milieu.
Jesus still held onto his carpentry skills for money to live on, but John had rejected what he thought was corrupt society and had moved out into the wilderness to join a group of spiritual seekers who were convinced that they could never be the people God wanted them to be as long as they lived in the middle of societies bound by self-centered standards and not by God’s radical call to be light in the world’s darkness. Therefore, John joined an escapist—I think that’s a fair description—religio-political party within Judaism called the Essenes, and he lived with this community out in the wilderness depending on nature alone to provide for his needs. His monastic community’s shelter was carved out of a cave. His clothing was made from shorn camel’s hair, and his food, distinctive wilderness delicacies: sun-dried locusts and fresh-out-of-the-hive honey. There has been some disappointing research lately trying to prove that John didn’t eat insects—one of the reasons I’ve always thought John was so cool—but rather that the word often translated as “locusts” actually refers to carob-like plants. Oh well. Believe what you will, but John wasn’t going to be dependent on a city-based market to get access to what he needed to be nourished.
Jesus was a standout disciple in John’s band of followers, and the day came when John knew that Jesus had to leave the wilderness-nest and take up his own ministry that would reverse what John personally had done. John left big city pressures and corruption, as I’ve said; people who wanted to hear him preach had to go out into the wilderness to do so, and if they were sufficiently committed to John’s radical ethics as made known in his fiery sermons, they would be baptized right there in a part of the Jordan River that ran into the wilderness area near where John and his brother-Essenes lived.
The time came when Jesus needed an introduction, and the person who decided to introduce him was his rabbi, his mentor, his second-cousin, John the Baptizer. John preached to various collections of Jewish city folk who had come to hear him and, having been deeply convicted by the truth of what he said, more than a few renounced their attachment to Pharisaism and Sadducaism, for example. As a sign of their new turn in life, they chose to be baptized by John in the Jordan River and to give their lives to the model of spirituality that John’s sermons demanded.
His converts, we could call them, realized as they heard John preach that, indeed, religious rules would not make them or keep them rightly connected to God or to human beings. They had to admit in great discomfort that the ways they had seen themselves and portrayed themselves as superior to others, other Jews included, showed how small and small-minded they really were. In their baptismal moments they agreed to serve from that point forward all those they’d heretofore given their lives to treating with angry disgust because they believed themselves to be so much better than anyone who didn’t do religion the way they did.
These converts to John’s take on living in such a way as to honor God must eventually have said to their Baptizer, “We leave you now, Preacher, for we must get on with the business of serving, but we will always honor you and know it was you who saved us from being swallowed up by lifeless religious rules.” John said in response to their pledges of devotion to what he was about, “Hold on here, gents! I baptized you with water for repentance, but one who is more spiritually grounded and gifted than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”
John believed that Jesus “got it” even more profoundly than he did; thus, the real guy to go to henceforth was not John but John’s disciple, Jesus, who was so spiritually mature that John regarded himself unworthy, spiritually speaking, to be Jesus’ slave. It would have been a slave’s job to carry her or his master’s dirty, dusty shoes. Thus, because of a misfit, the adult Jesus—Rabbi Jesus, Minister Jesus, Misfit Jesus—was introduced to the world.
Are you, or should you be, a seeker? Many of us at Silverside Church consider ourselves seekers. “Seeker” isn’t a code word for anything; there’s nothing formal about it. The word “seeker” simply means that many of us refuse to believe that the end of all truth is anywhere in the past. Having agreed on that, we couldn’t agree on hardly any point of theology even if you tied us in chairs and made us watch endless broadcasts of televangelists until we agreed to subscribe to a creed. We’d be watching Franklin Graham until the cows came home.
Many of the folks in this same core group of misfits, frankly, don’t find theological reflection all that meaningful; nor do they believe that their spirituality must grow out of biblical teachings or theological formulations. There have been plenty of prospective members here through the years who are very unhappy with all the organized religion of which they have tasted but who are afraid to let go completely of the beliefs and behaviors they once thought made them right with God and, perhaps, “saved” them. Someone who keeps one foot in any established organized religion evidently believes that she or he will always have a safety net in case assurances of heaven are needed.
Silverside misfits are free-fallers. They have no theological or ecclesiastical safety nets. They have no need to conform to what other religious folk think of the pathway they have chosen to travel. Since I’m just an old-fashioned Bible preacher, I don’t know how I’ve survived here for 13-plus years! (ha! ha!)
Seriously though folks…
There’s are prices to pay for demanding spiritual fresh air. One of those prices is being a misfit and being willing to be regarded as a misfit by those who know you best. I won’t say it is impossible to make this happen, but pretending to be a conservative or a traditionalist while being in the closet as a progressive is infrequent. Some clergypersons do so to get a pay check. How suffocating that must be. I feel so bad for my clergy sisters and brothers who believe this is what they must do for survival. And who knew that Mother Teresa, at least early in her life before she became a gold mine because so many people admired her work, sincerely served the poor, but only went through the motions of being a faith-based nun—not that she could help it. I do not say that to be critical of her.
Some of you, I’m sure, have read excerpts from her diaries showing that from the time she began her work with the poor in 1946 through the moment she died in 1977 she felt absolutely no connection to God. Listen to her words penned in writhing:
I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.
If someone at Silverside felt that way, she or he would say so—not that Mother Teresa kept her doubts a complete secret. Her admirers and benefactors around the world didn’t know, but as Adam Lee points out, “The church assigned a long series of priests and bishops to act as her confessors, trying to help her recover her faith, but all of them ultimately met with failure.” How sad for her. How lonely.
Speaking of loneliness, misfits can easily find themselves without community, and few of us do well without community. At Silverside, we have tried to connect without other groups, but nothing been lasting for us in that regard for the last several years. I may have found us a solution though. There’s a group, and I don’t know how I missed knowing about them, called “The Wild Goose Chase.” They have an online presence, and they meet every summer down in Hot Springs, North Carolina, for their communal boost. This coming summer, the conclave will be held June 26-29, and I’m thinking I’ll be scheduling a week off then so that I can attend.
One of the participants describes the Wild Goose Festival as a progressive “Christian gathering centering on spirituality, justice, and art….The people the Wild Goose Festival attracts are from a very diverse range of spiritual heritages—many of us are recovering fundamentalists, along with a mix of mainliners, evangelicals, agnostics, neo-pagan-christians, `nones,’ spiritual-but-not-religious, confused, and everything in between.” Misfits who need misfits are the luckiest misfits in the world.
At this time of year, as we anticipate our rather non-traditional way of celebrating or commemorating the birth of Jesus from Nazareth, we should incorporate into our reflections the vital role of a serious misfit who got Jesus started in a ministry that would change the world—John the Baptist. John modeled for Jesus the life of a spiritual misfit.
If you know that you’re a misfit spiritually speaking and you can embrace it, giving up the need to conform to any religious group’s theological expectations of you, then you’re probably a seeker. Come on in! The water’s fine…and I don’t mean in the baptistry!