My Strange Vocation, Part 2
Months passed and I was offered a chance to work in the plateroom–the place where the negatives from the darkroom were burned onto metal plates for the pressmen. The pressmen would then wrap those metal plates around the cylinders of the presses, the ink would adhere to the images I had burned on, and the images would be printed onto the paper that ran in a complicated web throughout the chain of printing presses. It was an important job. I was the vital link between the darkroom and the pressroom, and I had daily opportunities to serve as a peacemaker between those two departments. The pressmen were always in a hurry for their plates, and the darkroom tried in vain to keep up with the demand. The pressmen were plain-talking hands-on types while the guys in the darkroom were much more intellectual. I was part of both worlds: my father was a pressman, and I had become an intellectual. I could see that I was well-suited for the job.
Nor did I stop learning just because I was in a blue-collar position. I continued to read widely and voraciously, as guided by the Spirit of God. I studied the scriptures and biblical commentaries, of course, but I also began a critical engagement with secular culture. I read (among other things) Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and some of Freud’s writings. I read histories of various professions and biographies of people in a number of fields. And I kept detailed notes of the things I was learning, both from my experience at the printing company and from my reading. I was sure that this was all leading up to something–that I was called to find points of contact with God in people’s daily lives within the larger secular culture.
Meanwhile, I traveled throughout the state of Michigan as a guest preacher, as well as speaking often at our denomination’s three congregations in Grand Rapids. I struggled to understand what I was to do about my religious affiliation. Anyone who has ever shepherded souls knows what I was going through. On the one hand, I wanted to tell my people that I no longer believed in our denomination’s defining narrative; on the other hand, I did not want to abandon the flock. So I confined my sermons to the things I did believe, and I skimmed over the things I didn’t. I was never satisfied with that, but I kept praying for clear direction. I felt a deep kinship with Nicodemus in those days. As I interpreted his story, he was like me: wanting to follow the Master openly, but not at the expense of the people who depended on him for spiritual guidance.
After I had been at the printing company a little more than a year, I met Nancy. I had joined a community concert band to help out a friend from college (he was the band director), and Nancy and I both played clarinet. After our first conversation, I knew she was someone I could talk to with complete honesty. It was clear that we liked each other a lot, and we didn’t have to mince words. Within a matter of weeks, we both knew it was love. But I had to know a couple of things: would she stand beside me in this strange vocation of mine? And on top of that, would she be willing to marry a Latter Day Saint minister who didn’t really believe in Latter Day Saintism?
The answer to both questions was Yes. And once I knew that she would share my struggles, that helped me make my decision. I now realized I was being deceptive. I was devoted to my people, but I wasn’t doing them any good by hiding my true convictions from them. It was time for me to stand up for what I really believed in.
So, just weeks after we were married, I left the church. Although Nancy and I had each other for support, those were bitter days for us. We received some hate mail, many phone calls, and lots of criticism. People predicted that I’d eventually see my error and come back. There were also some wonderful displays of compassion and understanding. But all of my family and most of my friends were members of the church, and it was like I was starting my life over. It was an extreme challenge for two newlyweds. I gained an even deeper respect for Nancy during those difficult months.
We visited many churches after that but finally ended up with the United Church of Christ. I was looking for a place where I could pursue my unusual vocation, a place where people didn’t claim that the answers were all in the scriptures. I loved the scriptures and believed that they pointed the questing soul to God, but I also believed that God was leading me in an unprecedented direction. Although no one in the United Church of Christ understood what I was trying to do, at least they did not quote chapter and verse and tell me to snap out of it. Many of my conservative Christian acquaintances did.
So now the real issue remained. I no longer had to worry about being affiliated with a church I didn’t believe in. But how was I to live out this strange calling that did not fit into any known job title? The associate pastor at my new church took me under his wing and believed I was called to the ministry. I agreed that I was called to ministry, but not to the ministry.
Not knowing what else to do, I kept working. . . and praying. . . and waiting for direction. . .