An Unusual Encounter

The following fictive scenario is indebted to Tony Woodlief’s piece, “Election,” found in Image (Summer 2012, 74). It is also the result of the special kind of sleep deprivation that other first time parents know so well.

Last Friday afternoon, I was experimenting with Pandora stations under the pretext of working on my sermon. Suddenly, a church bell rang three times, which was very odd because the church I serve does not have a belfry. Then I heard a shuffling of footsteps down the hall, coming closer and closer.

A man strode purposely into my office. I noticed his funny looking black shoes, which had buckles across the top and looked positively ancient. He wore a three-quarter length cape around his skinny frame and had a long, long beard like ZZ Top. On top of his head perched a strange, three-cornered hat. I looked into his eyes, which smoldered with intelligence, and realized that he, too, was sizing up me.

“Yes sir, um, may I help you?” I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew this man from somewhere. Perhaps a presbytery meeting? Was he a guest lecturer at the seminary?

“Are you the minister of the Word at this church?” He spoke with a French accent, very unusual for the mountains of southwestern Virginia.

“Yes, I am Rev. Taylor-Troutman. Please call me Andrew.”

“My name is Jean Calvin. You can call me John.”

“Oh my God!” Calvin narrowed his eyes at me. “I mean, oh my goodness!”

“Perhaps you heard of me, no? I am a lawyer by training, and a theologian by practice. I’ve written many books. Have you heard of the most important one?”

“Of course I have heard of you!” I exclaimed, a little too eagerly. Quickly I swiveled around in my desk chair to the bookshelf behind me and, after a brief and frantic search, pulled down my two volumes of Institutes of the Christian Religion. When I placed the heavy books on my desk, a dust cloud powdered up from the covers, clearly visible through the sunlight streaming through my window. I smiled sheepishly. Calvin grimly tightened his lips.

“I am here because it has come to my attention that many unlettered men in your society do not notice how great a difference and unlikeness there is between ecclesiastical and civil power.”

I blinked at him uncomprehendingly. Calvin sighed.

“I believe your Thomas Jefferson spoke of the separation of church and state . . .”

“Ah yes, I’m with you now! It’s true; we just had a national election in which this issue was very important.” I nodded in what I hoped was a sagacious fashion and waved my hand to clear the dust from the air.

“Let us begin here,” Calvin clasped his hands behind his back and began rocking slightly back and forth, “Undoubtedly evinced from many clear proofs of scripture, the church does not have the right of the sword.”

“Huh?”

“I speak of the power to punish or compel, the authority to force, imprisonment, and the other punishments which the magistrate commonly inflicts.”

“Oh sure,” I added, “That power of the sword.” I think Calvin may have rolled his eyes.

“So then, the church does not assume what is proper to the magistrate. But shall the church stop there?”

I hoped that was a rhetorical question and remained silent. Calvin resumed his rocking back and forth.

“Suppose a man is drunk. In a well-ordered city, imprisonment will be the penalty. So will the laws, the magistrate, and outward justice be satisfied. Yet he may happen to show no sign of repentance, but, rather, murmur or grumble . . .”

“Complaining of a hangover,” I quipped. Calvin’s glare told me not to do that again.

“So the minister of the Word, in turn, ought to help the magistrate in order that not so many may sin. Their functions ought to be so joined that each serves to help, not hinder, the other. They must have a mutual obligation to bond for the glory of God.”

“Well, I think you have a good idea there, but as we say around here, ‘The devil is in the details.’”

“I do not see the profit of your expression,” he intoned, “Details, as with all of creation, are manifestly part of God’s sovereignty.”

“Ah, well, you see, some of our magistrates, called politicians, want to use their, um, power of the sword to bend the will of people towards the views of their church.”

“This cannot be. As Ambrose wrote, ‘A good emperor is within the church, not over the church.’”

“Does this Ambrose have a blog? I’m kidding, only joking with you . . .”

“The state of affairs in your country is no laughing matter! It behooves us to identify the abuse of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, in order that we may know what is to be abrogated and what of antiquity is to be restored.”

“Okay, okay; go on.”

“First, this is the aim of ecclesiastical jurisdiction: that offenses be resisted, and any scandal that has arisen be wiped out. In its use two things ought to be taken into account: that this spiritual power be completely separated from the right of the sword; secondly, that is be administered not by the decision of one man but by a lawful assembly. Both of these were observed when the church was purer, as in 1 Corinthians 5:4–5.”

“But John, other people would say that the church should direct the affairs of the state, and that it is the duty of ministers to point this out. Last Sunday, some preachers were telling their congregation to ‘Vote the Bible!’”

“I do not blame the individual faults of men, but the common crime of the whole order of priests, the veritable plague, since it is thought to be mutilated unless it be decked out with opulence and proud titles.”

“Whoa, say that again, in English, please.”

Calvin gazed at me in silent confusion, or judgment, or both. “I was speaking in English.”

“I mean, can you make yourself clearer?”

“Humility, Andrew, pure and simple. If we seek the authority of Christ in this matter, there is no doubt that he wished to bar the ministers of his Word from civil rule and earthly authority when he said, ‘The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them . . . but you do not do so,’ for the church does not have the power to coerce, and ought not to seek it.”

I tried in vain to think of something to say.

“Let the ministers of the Word in your country know my position on this issue.”

With that, John Calvin spun around, cape snapping in the air, shoes emitting an audible clap, clap as he made his way down the hall and out of the church.

 

Author’s note: All quotes from Calvin are taken directly from Institutes . . . except, of course, when they are not.

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Recorded Lightning

At the NEXT Regional gathering in Durham, I led a workshop about writing as a spiritual practice. I offer the following as a brief snapshot of the content I presented and what I learned from the participants. In addition, I wanted to refer our readers to the blog at The Presbyterian Leader, which is a truly wonderful resource with some outstanding voices from our denomination, many of which are connected with NEXT Church. So, here’s the link:

http://blog.thepresbyterianleader.com/2012/09/writing-as-lightning.html

Enjoy!

Andrew

What’s in your head?

Author’s note: In the effort to spark some conversations, the following is in response to a prompt, “So, you have attended a NEXT Church event! What did you learn in Dallas (or Indianapolis or Durham or another regional gathering) that has informed your thoughts about ministry today?” Since I raised this question, it is only fair if I answer first. If you would like to share, please send your post to taylortroutman@yahoo.com

A confession: Wayne Meisel is in my head.

This is not a bad thing, really, because I found him to be delightful and engaging in Dallas at the 2012 National Gathering. Yet he challenges me too. He is at once comforting and unsettling, simultaneously reassuring yet provocative. The reasons for such paradox are found in my own story.

You see, I was born in 1981, which many designate as the cut-off between the Generations X and Y. What an auspicious year to be born, particularly if you decide to make a career in the mainline church. I look young enough to be mistaken for a member of Generation Y and, admittedly, my Birkenstocks and shaggy beard are in some ways meant to evoke such a characterization. But I grew up in a denomination that was built to appeal to Generation X, a model that was itself a continuation of baby boomer preferences. As a result, I often find myself on the cusp, pulled between this and that. I want to work for change, but don’t really want to rock the boat; I appreciate the tradition, even as I feel the burden of keeping an institution alive.

So after I left Dallas, Wayne Meisel has taken up residence in my head, stubbornly refusing to allow me to brush these contradictions under the rug. During his presentation, Meisel challenged the “next church” to listen to the younger generation. Let them lead!

Sound great, huh?

As Meisel spoke, I remember looking around, noticing that my older colleagues were nodding appreciatively. Good for them, I thought, I hope they do empower people.

That’s about the time when I realized that I could not identify with either the older or the younger generation, neither the listeners nor the talkers! And so, I felt a burden of being stuck in between. I am aware that the following is somewhat of a caricature, but as an illustration, I am too inexperienced to pastor a tall steeple church yet too imbedded in this culture to start a hospitality house. What’s “next” is neither something for me to hand down nor to pick up, not about handing over the car keys or enrolling in driver’s ed or, for that matter, learning to skateboard in skinny jeans.

What, then, is my role? What about those of us who, in many ways, have been trained to replace the old guard, except now we are all aware that, unless things change, there is not going to be much left to replace?

Wayne Meisel, that voice in my head, pushes me to be a change agent as a facilitator. I think it is inevitable that institutional transformation is painful, but perhaps from my vantage point in between, I can provide a little space for transition.

After Dallas, I came back to my presbytery and got involved with the Committee on Preparation for Ministry. Yes, dear reader, I am aware that joining a committee is not exactly the most revolutionary act that comes to mind. I don’t need Wayne Meisel to tell me that. My wife, who is Generation Y, teases me plenty!

But, in this role, I can work directly with seminary students, support them, and provide connections. Most of all, I can learn from them, and then help interpret their passion for my senior colleagues. As a transition agent, I do not view my role as gatekeeper, but rather someone who issues an invitation. Here’s where we are and some idea of where we would like to be. How can you help us? What new direction would you take us? Finally, the crucial “next” step: How can we learn from each other?

I am in between the generations; my perspective is a paradox. Perhaps my goal, then, should be to raise questions, not necessarily to answer them. Maybe such work is even a calling. Thank you, Wayne Meisel.