On Excessive Enthusiasm
It’s almost the definition of a calling that there is a strong inner resistance to it. The resistance is not practical—how will I make money, can I live with the straitened circumstances, etc.—but existential: Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself while losing myself within it? Reluctant writers, reluctant ministers, reluctant teachers—these are the ones whose lives and works can be examples. Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm.
— Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light
Christian Wiman writes sentences that sound so good that you’re convinced that even if they’re not true, they probably should be. Like that last one: “Nothing kills credibility like excessive enthusiasm.” I laughed out loud the first time I read it. It brought to mind the many eager beaver pastor-preneurs I’ve encountered over the years, people who so obviously craved the stage and all that went with it, people so utterly convinced that they could save every lost soul by the sheer force of their own conviction (and often volume). Or the people who are just a bit too desperate to plaster themselves and their causes all over social media, as if almost to overwhelm people with the innumerable exciting things that they are presently catalyzing. I have rarely found such people credible. Who are you trying to convince or impress? I often mutter unholily under my breath. No, I have never much appreciated the fevered sales pitch, religious or otherwise.
I don’t know if Wiman is right in his claim that calling comes along with a strong inner resistance to it. It certainly resonates with my own story (I have rarely been accused of “excessive enthusiasm”), but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. It could just mean that birds of a feather flock together. It also jives with a few biblical figures—Moses, David, Jeremiah, Paul, and even Jesus could plausibly be construed as exhibiting a kind of reluctance in the face of what God had set before them. But of course, most of us can think of people who are both enthusiastic and credible—people whose lives and leadership are characterized by a settled, joyful confidence and conviction about what they are to be and do in the world. I admire these people. Truly. There is nothing inherently virtuous about reluctance.
For me, the interesting sentence in the quote above is this one:
Can I navigate this strong current, and can I remain myself while losing myself within it?”
Ah, yes. That’s the challenge.
I don’t speak for all pastors, I know, but on my more charitable days I assume that most of us embraced the call, however reluctantly, because we were hungry for God and for the things of God. This isn’t experienced in the same way by every person, of course, but most of us were, once upon a time, taken hold of by Christ and his way in the world, and felt compelled to respond to this, whether in writing or speaking or forming and serving communities of faith or whatever. But then, “the call” came to seem like something less than it once was. The existential longing that once drove us to Christ and his church gave way to budget meetings and “church revisioning” conferences and schedules and planning and administrative details that seem never to end and half-empty worship services and doom-and-gloom sociological prognostications about the future of the church. It can be very easy to lose yourself and what once animated you in the strong current of “business as usual.” Nothing so reliably kills existential urgency as “business as usual.”
Whether we are reluctant or excessively enthusiastic or somewhere in between, I suspect that we all have moments in our lives and callings where we need to be reminded of and reanimated by the urgency, mystery, and excitement of what once drove us. Perhaps it is a conversation or a crisis, an unbidden moment of clarity, an unmerited act of mercy. Perhaps it’s a flash of light along the road, a still small voice in moments when we were quiet enough to actually listen. Who knows, it may even be a budget meeting or a visioning process. The risen Christ has all kinds of creative ways to remind and reroute his wayward children.
Or maybe it’s a few sentences on a page that call you back to what was once true, what you feel ought always to be true. A few sentences that remind you that life is, truly, a beautiful, terrifying, holy mystery. Like these, for example, from Wiman:
And all for what? Those moments of mysterious intrusion, that feeling of collusion with eternity, of life and language riled into one wild charge.
Ah yes, the feeling of “collusion with eternity.” The “one wild charge” that once lit a fire in our souls. A feeling and a charge that could almost drive one to excessive levels of enthusiasm.