On Being Unconventional I

The word “unconventional” has crept up too often in the more recent conversations about me and my vocation discernment to be ignored any longer. It seems that to some, namely – and mainly (but not only) – the church and its representatives, being “unconventional” is pretty much incompatible with a life in the church. Let’s say it as clearly as it is. I have been told in much more flowery language (the kind of sentences you need to translate into the actual message). I don’t play by the rules enough, it seems. But I’d like to spend some time talking about this – both about  “unconventionality” in a life with God in general, and about my personal struggle to find a place in the church.

From a superficial perspective, it may be understandable that the churches generally don’t favour unconventionality – we all have made the experience, to whatever extent, that church too often comes with a “primary school faith” prerequisite – we have to behave according to set standards, and do as we are told or what we are asked to do (just a slight difference in communication – often the same effect). It’s easier to manage so many people this way. The church doesn’t do conflict very well. If you’ve ever been made to feel guilty for disagreeing in the church, if you’ve had the experience that what you wear is more essential than your prayer – that’s what I mean with “primary school faith”. Surface, conformity, avoidance of all kinds of edges. The thing is, conflict is necessary for depth in any kind of relationship.

And then, in the discernment for vocation, all of a sudden, it is fundamentally important to seek one’s own truth. Surprise! All of a sudden we’re in the deep end of personal truth that has nothing to do with what anyone else considers acceptable or convenient.

Since we’re 5 years old, we have been told stories about people who were called by God to a particular task, and who were gifted by God with exceptional courage and strength to follow through on this, against all the odds: everyone from Moses to Esther, Peter to Paul, all the Saints, Jesus himself… What would happen, I ask you, if we actually took their example seriously? How conventional exactly would we be? How well would we fit into a regular parish? How much support would we receive from our church leaders in taking such risks? (How well would we fit into our families? Same question.)

Just for a moment, imagine in the pew next to you the passion and enthusiasm, the uncompromising “yes” to God, of the likes of Mary, Peter, St Francis and St Clare – their risk-tried faith and the leaps of faith of all these other people who, for the sake of God, affronted every expectation society placed on them, left everything that was familiar and safe for something they didn’t understand and who thereby rebelled against their families and against the established religion – not for the sake of rebellion itself but for the sake of their calling.

And what about Jesus? How more blindingly clear can it get – he gave up everything that was not compatible with what he needed to do for God: family approval, work, the obligations that tradition, culture, society place on all of us, obedience to religious and political leaders, and in the end, his life. There is nothing conventional in the choices he made. And how easy could his life have been if he had conformed to what was expected of him? What would his sense of self have been if he had done that? Would he have known the fullness of his life?

How much of that kind of discipleship is left in the church? And how much of the church has settled for the “domesticated Jesus”?

The ‘cost of discipleship’ has very little to do with submitting to ‘religiously acceptable’ behaviour. It’s all about following God’s call into truth, often against resistance from those around us. Being called is rarely a comfortable experience.

The church likes things to be ordered. Sometimes, it becomes so neat and tidy and worried about any kind of mess that there is no space in the boxes for things they haven’t planned for.

We are asked to worship God “in the Spirit and in truth”. And if that’s what we are actually trying to do, can the church handle it?

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