Personal Questions, the 4th Part

Fourth question: What events led you into your call to ordained ministry? Follow-up: How has your ministry changed in intervening years? (See next post for the follow-up.)

This is a story I’ve told a million times, but it still makes me laugh, in a way. It’s the story that one of my friends heard and responded: “Dude. God got jokes.”

A bit of background: Before I entered first grade, I don’t recall ever having gone to church or having anything to do with religion. Yes, I was baptized on October 15, 1969 at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (I think in Lincoln Park, MI). I was an infant and have zero memory of it. But I know that, somewhere along the line, I had SOME kind of religious instruction, because when my Mom told me about my father’s death, apparently I said, “Did he die on a cross like Jesus?” Again, no memory of this. I do know that if one of my kids had responded that way, I would have freaked the fudge out. Anyway.

But, my mom didn’t want me going to public schools. That hadn’t turned out well for my sisters. Our town had a Catholic school in it, but it was royally expensive. However, if one happened to be a member of the church, St. Vincent DePaul and other benefactors could arrange for very generous tuition assistance. And so we became Catholic.

I guess I liked it. Going to church was usually better than sitting in class. It was at least a change of pace, if nothing else. Along the line, although we never learned anything about the liturgy of the Mass, I picked up on what came first, which part came next, when we kneel, when we stand, when we sit, yadda yadda. I liked hearing the priests sing (actually, they were chanting the liturgy). I especially liked it during Easter when the priest chanted the more elaborate version of the phrase, “Through Him, with Him, and in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor are yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.” And we all chanted back, “Aaaaaaaaa-meeeeeeeeeen.” It was awesome. This chant in particular is the one I used to sing to myself as a prayer when night terrors woke me up for years and years as a kid.

I liked the Eucharist. It was cool. I was fascinated by the ritual and the mystery. What the hell is the priest doing up there? What’s with those bells? All of that stuff was really fascinating, and so, a few times, I tried to play Mass with my friends. This was not a popular suggestion. So I shoved it down, but I remained fascinated by that part in particular.

Fast forward to Junior year of high school. We had a mixture of lay people and sisters who taught us. Our Comparative Religions teacher was Sr. Peggy, a nun involved in the Catholic Charismatic movement. One day, during the busyness of the change of classes, she pulled me out of the crowded and chaotic hallway to say, “Rob, I think you have the call.” “Huh?” “The call to the priesthood.” I don’t remember exactly what, if anything, I said. It was probably something like, “Homina homina homina.” I tried to blow it off, but her pronouncement shook me. And it stayed in the far back burners of my mind. Never the fore burners, though.

Fast forward to 2003. By this time, I had been away from institutional religion for 16 years. I wanted nothing to do with it. But my then-finacee and I had a wedding coming up in July. Mind you: I never had wanted to get married. Never wanted to own a house. Never really had any ambitions for a particular full-time job. I was content to float along and let fortune take me where it willed.

So, I refused to get married in a church. It was one of my two conditions for marriage: I get to wear a kilt; No church wedding. Christy said to me, “Well, can we at least get a minister of some kind to do the wedding for us? It’s important to my mom.” OK. So she called around through the phone book. Started with the letter A, she went looking for a minister-type person who was free on a Friday in July. No luck until she got to the B section, Bethel Lutheran Church in Noblesville.

Pastor Doug of Bethel had that day open. He was also willing to meet us in Forest Park (I think that was the name), where Christy and I had spent a big chunk of our first Summer in Indiana, riding bikes, playing tennis. Horribly. Just enjoying. Pastor Doug agreed to the date and the venue, but insisted on 3 pre-marital counseling sessions first. I wasn’t pleased, but I relented, secretly still thankful that Christy let me get away with the kilt thing.

First session was fine. Annoying, but fine. Second session was OK. I had warmed up to Pr. Doug a little. The third session was hard to schedule, but we finally got it nailed down to Wednesday, July 9, two days before the wedding itself. We were on our way out the door to that session with our raincoats on, since it had been raining non-stop for about two weeks. On the other end was our photographer. “Hey, guys. We can’t get into Forest Park. The road is flooded out.” Damn. Now what?

To my shock, Christy took it in stride. She said, “Let’s just go to this last session and we’ll figure it out.” Pr. Doug was dripping with grace. “Hold the wedding here,” he said. “Shit,” I thought. We asked about the reception. “Do that here, too,” Pr. Doug said. “Only thing is, we’re having a bratwurst festival that evening, so you’ll have to kind of make it quick.” We got on the phone like caffeine-crazed weasels, calling everyone who had RSVPed to let them know of the venue change.

Wedding day came and went without a hitch. It was fun and overwhelming, and all of the things a wedding day is supposed to be. The rain held off long enough for pictures and everything. It was great.

But Pr. Doug never charged us an honorarium. He never even charged us for using the church building, not even when we put a hitch in the bratwurst cook-off plans. Everybody had been so great and so GRACIOUS, that it blew me away.

Sitting back a few weeks later, I said to Christy, “We really ought to go make a donation to their church.” “Totally,” she said. Knowing they’d be open on a Sunday, we went. I didn’t get hit by lightning. The service didn’t suck. It actually felt a lot like “home,” just without the baggage.

Before long, I found myself wanting to go back there. For church! Between Pr. Doug and the people of Bethel Lutheran, I was astounded how generous and cool church people could actually be. What a mind-bending change from the church of my youth! So I kept going back, sometimes with Christy, but a lot of the time just on my own.

One day, Pr. Doug was doing a blessing for Shelly, the youth minister. She had just completed 2 years of Lay Ministry school, where she got to learn about Old and New Testament, Liturgy, Prayer, and all kinds of interesting things. I asked her – because I knew her a bit by now – if she thought I’d get anything out of it. “For sure. You should totally do it.” Pr. Doug paired me up with another interested parishioner, and then for the next two years, Kelli and I would drive on a Friday afternoon from Noblesville up to Appleton, WI, attend our lay ministry classes, crash in a lay person’s home, finish up classes and Lunch on Saturday morning, then drive back to Indy. Once a month. For two years. It was great.

While I was there, I learned about the study of Systematic Theology, and I came to really love the two professors who taught it. They came, as it turned out, from Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque. In those classes, I began discerning a call to ordained ministry, and by the time the two years were up, Christy and I decided we’d make the trek to Dubuque to attend seminary.

“God got jokes.”

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