Angel in a Gray Sweatsuit

February 1st, 2011
This article is featured in the Holy Conversation (Feb/Mar/Apr 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

June 2008

There is a woman in a gray sweatsuit screaming “At the Foot of the Cross” into a microphone she does not need. The pianist, whose hair resembles something from a Richard Marx video (like, say, Richard Marx), is passionately inserting oohs and ahhs at random points, seemingly unconcerned with where Sweatsuit Woman is in the song. The congregation is about forty strong, in a sanctuary that was built for three hundred, and their level of engagement with the service is on par with that of attendees at a lobotomy conference, even as our soloist closes her eyes and begins to add dramatic gestures to her performance.

These are my cherubim and seraphim, my smoke and fire, my burning bush. This is my call to ministry.

I’ve always thought it a bit unfair to have to pin down one moment as the moment. Preachers are the worst culprits of this sort of thing, telling their life stories in beautiful, easy-to-swallow vignettes that bear more resemblance to Days of Our Lives than the New Testament. And even now, as I sit in this church on the outskirts of Evansville, Ind., clutching my bulletin ever more tightly as the solo moves towards its dramatic, decibel-shattering close, I realize this is not going to be one of those 180-degree sorts of calls. I am, after all, already wearing a robe.

I am the preacher for the day, albeit the guest preacher. Technically, this church has no pastor, having run the poor chap out for trying to change everything around on his third Sunday in the pulpit (actually, he wasn’t “in the pulpit,” since he removed it before the service started).

As a college chaplain, I do a lot of these guest-preaching gigs during the summer. I spend nine months of the year explaining the Christian faith to 18-22 year olds who don’t believe anything, and three months with church people who don’t question anything. It’s enough to bring on low-grade schizophrenia.

You learn a lot as a guest in a congregation. You learn a lot as a guest in Christianity. Church people are like those frogs who will sit still as the water they’re in slowly heats up to boiling. Guests show up and want to know why we’re sitting in boiling water, and we don’t understand the question.

Even accounting for Sweatsuit Woman and Richard Marx, this service is not particularly unusual, so I’m not sure why it has such an effect on me. And since I am already technically an ordained pastor in The United Methodist Church, it seems a bit out of order to have a call to ministry this late in the game. How can you be called to do something you’re already doing?

I have been preaching for almost a decade now, but never in a church, or at least not my “own” church. It is a point of contention with my pastor friends. They say passive-aggressively helpful things like “When are you going to start doing ministry?” and then actually wait for me to answer.

When he was in the midst of a vocational crisis, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was told by his friend Peter Bohler to “preach faith until you have it.” It’s good advice, but the danger in doing so is that you start to confuse life and sermon. Lately I am starting to sound too much like a preacher. I catch myself living through my days looking for anecdotal kernels of folk wisdom that might effectively illustrate the Holy Trinity, or why bad things happen to good people.

I am rehashing an old sermon this morning, which always makes me think about how traveling evangelists have it made. They live on a Greatest Hits tour. No one has to hear that fourth song on the B-side of your second album that had no business ever being recorded. You don’t have to emotionally engage the congregation at all. You swoop in, speak your word, and then move on.

The sermon I’m repeating is one on Jacob, from the book of Genesis, where he wrestles with an angel and ends up with a broken hip and a new name. I am naturally drawn to these sorts of biblical narratives because they seem so distant from my own experience of God, but as I tell the story again that morning, I imagine the angel wearing a gray sweatsuit.

It is almost the awkwardness of this place that makes it so compelling to me. This is the church you get when you arrive too early for a party and the hostess hasn’t applied her makeup yet.

No one sits together, no one sings especially well, the coffee in the fellowship hall tastes like someone boiled a shoe in it—these are my people. Maybe I could have experienced a calling in one of the more polished churches in the area, but the more I think about it, the less likely it seems. Without meaning to, those services refine the human experience so much that there is no space left for humans. Sweatsuit Woman would be shuffled into a lesser role, one without amplification. In this church, you get the feeling that after only two lessons, little Bobby could be playing the offertory on his trombone.

The call I may or may not be receiving this morning is a call to leave my cushy, affirming, rarely-show-up-in-the-summer university job and take a church. A church that might turn out like this one, half empty, and seemingly pointless. A church that might run me out after I try to relocate the pulpit.

For the first time in my life, I feel drawn to something that doesn’t really align with any of my gifts. It is also worrisome that I can’t always tell when I am writing God back into my story. Am I just ready for a change? Is it something cosmic, like the hand of the Divine, or is it microscopic, some chemical in my brain that seeks my own welfare? Will I ever know?

I preach the sermon, and it is well received. At the door, where the preacher traditionally stands to shake hands and receive the saccharine reviews of the listeners, I make a point to genuinely thank Sweatsuit Woman for her contribution to the service, and it feels good to tell her I was honestly moved.


This essay is part of a four-part memoir. Continue reading, or start at the beginning.

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