Friday, December 10, 2010

Starting “The Freedom of a Christian”

In 2004, when we moved to Minnesota, I was convinced that I was coming to train to be a pastor. It is difficult to explain how convinced I was of this. Not only was I personally convinced, but I felt that God had specifically called me to this new vocation.

Now, over six years later, I don’t believe this anymore. I do not believe that I was called to pastor a church. This significant transition in my thought is a long story, and if you have an afternoon and like coffee I would be happy to recount it in great detail. Suffice it to say that there has been emotional pain and family turmoil around this shift in vocational direction. Ultimately, God is sovereign and he will do what he will do; we trust him. But the realization that we moved here for a dream that was ultimately not to be reality has been most difficult.

Out of this pain has slowly emerged the realization that God is much wiser than I am. However it was that I came to believe I was called to pastor, God has revealed that it was not the wisest course of action given my personality. I am moody and prone to extremes, as much of this blog will attest, which is a perfect example of God’s infinite wisdom. It is precisely these traits—moodiness and a penchant to go to extremes—that disincline me from pastoring a flock of imperfect people.

So, now what? Well, by God’s providence I am currently employed by Bethlehem College and Seminary as the Vice President of Administration. In this strange and unique position I can play to my strengths. It really is a tailor-made position for me. God is good indeed. But what about the Bible and my once strongly held opinion (whether a true and correct opinion remains to be seen) that once embarking on the trail into full-time ministry one should never leave it? I used to think less of people who went into a “normal” vocation after spending years training for ministerial work. The irony of God’s providence is that I am now in that precise position. I look upon those situations with significantly more patience and understanding. O what a hypocrite.

As usual, I turn to a book for answers to these questions. In this case, I am turning to Martin Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian. I have often heard this treatise quoted, usually something about the worthy role of changing diapers. My uninformed assumption was that this treatise by Luther was all about Christian vocation. Maybe it is, maybe not.

My experience in the pages penned by Luther so far is not one of vocation, but of justification. Because I am a bit brain-cell challenged, it takes me 20 minutes to get through each densely packed paragraph. The going is slow, to say the least, but having read the first three or four pages of Luther’s 30-page work, it seems he is spending all his time on the doctrine of justification.
“It is evident that no external thing has any influence in producing Christian righteousness or freedom, or in producing unrighteousness or servitude. A simple argument will furnish the proof of this statement. What can it profit the soul if the body is well, free, and active, and eats, drinks, and does as it pleases? For in these respects even the most godless slaves of vice may prosper. On the other hand, how will poor health or imprisonment or hunger or thirst or any other external misfortune harm the soul? Even the most godly men, and those who are free because of clear consciences, are afflicted with these things. None of these things touch either the freedom or the servitude of the soul. It does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests or dwells in sacred places or is occupied with sacred duties or prays, fasts, abstains from certain kinds of food, or does any work that can be done by the body and in the body. The righteousness and the freedom of the soul require something far different since the things which have been mentioned could be done by any wicked person. Such works produce nothing but hypocrites. On the other hand, it will not harm the soul if the body is clothed in secular dress, dwells in unconsecrated places, eats and drinks as others do, does not pray aloud, and neglects to do all the above-mentioned things which hypocrites can do.”
Luther’s argument is astonishing. Read the last italicized sentence again. How often do you cluck your tongue at other Christians for the way they dress or drink or eat or pray? Yet, Luther is arguing that these things have nothing to do with producing Christian righteousness or freedom, unrighteousness or servitude.

This may have a lot more to do with vocation than I thought. Stay tuned.

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