There is always the thought: when is something going to change.
I have been toiling the roads of theology, ministry and church for over 20 years: I have been through 5 church plants/church renewals, I have been a part of a pastoral staff at an all-white Lutheran church, endured a racist candidacy process with people whom claim to love the same God as me, I have sat in rooms with Bishops/prophets/apostles/elders, I have had conversations with some of the greatest theologians in the country, I have interviewed at more churches than I care to admit and applied to more than I remember, and I am entering my second semester of a PhD. in Theology and Ethics. And, I ask myself, what am I missing?
I am not sure but I keep plugging until something changes. I have been told that maybe that is God’s way of telling you that you should be doing something else. All these doors keep getting slammed in your face, when will you get the message that God does not want you in the church. God keeps closing the doors so that you will move on to something else. My reply, “Maybe you are right but I’m going to walk this out a little while longer.”
I felt like writing today because I needed to express where I am in my soul. This is where I am in my soul. It is that moment when you have made all the moves you can make, now you wait for God to make the next move. Having done all the stand…stand. (Ephesians 6:13)
The church and the academy are tricky places to understand even when they, supposedly, represent God.
My name is Walter Strawther and I am a married, 46-year-old, African American male. I am the father of two beautiful daughters. I was born and raised in the church. My daddy serves as a deacon at St. Peter’s Fire Baptized Holiness Church in Greenville, SC. We have always lived near the church and my daddy has been the deacon to open the church each Sunday. As a result, we were there each Sunday. The FBH denomination has been and still is one of the most conservative of the Christian denominations. We were once told not to wear any jewelry other than a watch and a wedding band. Women were not allowed to wear pants or serve in leadership positions, let alone pastor a church. Sundays were for resting and visiting after being in church for most of the day. I was taught that homosexuality is sin and that all who practice it are going to Hell. It is difficult to get away from your upbringing. It is difficult, even when you have evidence and experiences to the contrary, to incorporate a new way of thinking into your psyche. This is true of individuals and of organizations.
As I attended Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, I came into contact with people and teachings that challenged my upbringing and what I learned coming up in the FBH church. Some of the challenges to my upbringing were easier for me to accept than others. Homosexuality as a way of being instead of as a choice was and still is one of the most challenging concepts to my understanding of Christianity. I’ve experienced powerful preaching and exemplary examples of love expressed through people who are openly homosexual. These experiences challenge my notion of who God is and who God can use and I am reminded that I am not God. I am reminded that God is so distinctively other from me and any other human being that it is ridiculous to think that we can say definitely how God sees a group of people.
My views on homosexuality and the LGBTQIA community have changed over the last couple of years. Just as the FBH church eventually came around to ordaining women and relaxing some of the more restrictive rules based on a legalistic reading of scripture, I have come to understand that I am in no position to do anything other than what Jesus asked of Peter. Jesus restores Peter by asking him three times, “Do you love me?” When Peter responds in the affirmative, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus does not call us to place restrictions on each other. Jesus does not give any of us the power to determine who is in and who is out. Jesus does not command us to play gatekeeper by developing rules and regulations that we ourselves can’t even keep. Jesus simply asks each one of us, “Do you love me?” If we love Jesus, then our views on the other will change. If we love Jesus, then the death of any person will cause us to grieve. If we love Jesus, our hearts cease to be hearts of stone that accept this sort of violence against any group of people and will becomes hearts of flesh that seek to end suffering and pain in whatever form presented. If we love Jesus, we recognize that we too are sheep in need of feeding and as such we have no authority to label or condemn.
The church is going through an identity crisis. This is nothing new. Throughout the history of the church beginning with the New Testament church in Acts we see a constant struggle over what it means to be the church. This realization is a cause for celebration and a cause for sadness. We can celebrate because we know that the church has survived previous bouts with identity crisis. Indeed, it has often been the case that after a severe crisis the church has flourished and made the greatest impact on society only to sink back into a time of struggle. On the other hand, we are saddened to think that crisis seems to be the essential ingredient to get us to consider Jesus’ question of love. We are further saddened when brothers and sisters who claim Christ as their Lord and Savior deny the love of God to those suffering and being killed. The church is going through an identity crisis but the resolution of this crisis is found in returning to our love for Christ so that we might love each other.
I have asked myself what was the need to go to seminary. I am asked weekly by others should I go to seminary and my response is simply, “Get you a degree you can eat from.” Now I am not saying that folks should not go to seminary but make sure you understand what you are getting into. There must to be a clear understanding of calling and a love for theology that drives you to seminary. If you think that seminary will get you into the big church on the hill where you make $100,000 a year, it is highly unlikely –do not be fooled by the prosperity gospel’s “paraphernalia of destruction.”
If by chance you get to a church or organization that can pay you with that type of salary, you will have put your work in and set a pattern of success; a success that is often based around the fickle projection of church membership and book sells. Seminary has the uncanny ability to develop a humbleness leveraged by a call of God that is in constant “beast mode.”
Seminary is full of men and women that serve God through their time of study. It is a place where poverty is experienced in proxy –institutionalized debt as one my classmates called it- but masked with student loans and scholarships. Seminary flexes as a necessity but is frowned upon by many but unbeknownst to most congregations is the underpinning of the very faith they proclaim.
Only seminarians really understand the paradox of a theological degree –a degree that takes you to the edge of mental anguish in Hebrew to display the love of God through worship. It is G.K. Chesterton who says that a “paradox is truth standing on its head to attract attention” for seminarians we just preach, teach, and live the word of God for attention.