Last Monday, I had lunch with a good friend. Our wide-ranging conversation included references to mutual acquaintances, most of whom neither of us had heard from in some time. When the name of Arthur Lough came up, however, I was quick to mention that I had just spent an hour or so with Arthur on the previous Saturday afternoon.
“And how is the old curmudgeon?” my friend asked. “Arthur and I are the same age,” I reminded him.
“Oh, I wasn’t referring to his age so much as his irascibility,” he replied, smiling. “Don’t you think that Arthur has gotten a bit, well, crusty in recent years?”
“I hadn’t really noticed,” I said. “But if he has, I think he might have good reason. Life hasn’t been easy for Arthur the past few years.”
“Life hasn’t been easy for any of us,” he shot back. “But Arthur seems to have the knack for making a bad situation worse. He has made some choices that alienated him from his peers and colleagues, so I’m certain he feels isolated and cut off from the circles he used to move in.
“Our circumstances always seem bleaker when we think we are going through them alone. And I do understand how that could make a guy like Arthur, moody by nature, come across as even more grumpy. I still think that some of his pain is self-inflicted. He didn’t have to make the choices he made. But he seems to be the type of person who isn’t afraid to make major changes in his life, even when the consequences are likely to be unpleasant.”
It’s true, I thought. As long as I had known Arthur Lough, and that is most of my life, I had never known him to take the easy way out of anything. Sometimes, in fact, it seemed that he intentionally looked for ways to complicate his situation and confound his friends and family.
Arthur and I went to high school together, although we were not close friends, and our families attended the same small Baptist church. Arthur was very smart, and everybody knew he planned to go to college after high school, then to medical school after that, so that he could realize his dream of becoming a doctor. That’s why it shocked us all when, on a hot Sunday night in August 1966, Arthur walked forward at the close of the service and announced that he believed God was calling him into the ministry.
He was a gifted public speaker, and his effectiveness as a preacher, even while he was still in high school, led everybody to conclude that his calling was genuine. We all assumed that his future as a fundamentalist preacher would be filled with opportunity and success.
That’s not the way it worked out, however. Right after Bible college, Arthur was called, at age 24, to become the pastor of a fundamentalist church in Ohio. Instead of capitalizing on his opportunity to grow that church, along with his reputation as a preacher, Arthur grew restive with the narrowness and legalism of the fundamentalist tradition in which he had grown up. After two difficult years, he left that church and went back to school, earning his undergraduate degree, in 1977, from a well-known and highly-regarded evangelical liberal arts college.
After graduation he served a small, rural congregation for a few years before heading off to graduate school to prepare for a career in academics. Along the way, he came under the influence of what some would call the “Christian left,” and the effect would prove long-lasting and far-reaching. His views on the Christian’s role in peacemaking and social justice would be permanently altered. That would lead him to an Anabaptist seminary and many years of ministry among Mennonites.
Eventually he would find liturgical worship so meaningful, and the liturgical tradition so compelling, that he would follow his convictions into Anglicanism when it became clear he could not find a way to introduce liturgy into the Anabaptist community within which he worked. He chose to identify formally with Anglicanism in the hope that his “radical discipleship” convictions, which he could never renounce, would be compatible with liturgical worship. That is pretty much where he is today, although he is not active in Anglican ministry.
I couldn’t shake off some of the things our mutual friend had said about Arthur during our Monday lunch, and so I called him on Wednesday to see if we could meet for a chat sometime soon. He suggested the following afternoon, and on Thursday we met over coffee—a decaf latte for me and a decaf Americano for him—at his favorite downtown coffee shop.
“So Arthur, tell me,” I said, after minimal small talk. Neither of us is keen on small talk. “Would you agree that you have made some decisions in your life that have led to, or required, significant change in the focus of your ministry?”
“Oh absolutely,” he answered.
“And have some of those changes been difficult?”
“Absolutely,” he said again. “All of them have been difficult. Difficult to go through as well as difficult to explain.”
“But would you say you are a person who is not afraid to make hard choices, even when you know they will lead to difficult changes?”
I thought Arthur might strangle on the coffee he had just swallowed. “What did you just ask me? Am I a person who is not afraid to make hard choices and major changes? Are you out of your mind?
“Of course I’m not a person who is not afraid of change! Wait, did I say that right? What I mean to say is that I’ve been scared spitless every time I’ve been faced with a decision that I knew would lead to a big change, like a change in employment or a change in denominational affiliation or something like that.
“You think it isn’t scary to consider that if I make this decision, if I follow my convictions and go down this road, I am very likely to lose my job, and my friends and family are going to think I’m either stubborn or misinformed or something worse? You think it isn’t scary to look back on a decision I made and realize that, as bad as the consequences were for me, they were even worse for my wife and family?
“But I came to the conclusion a long time ago that faithful discipleship will always involve an element of uncertainty and risk. In fact, if our decisions don’t involve risk, then where does faith come in? I guess I figure that, if the Holy Spirit leads you to conclude that a particular decision or a particular course of action is one you need to take in order to be faithful to your Lord and to your conscience, then you need to do it, and trust Him in the consequences.
“I didn’t set out to jump around among denominations like a cricket on a griddle. And however much it may look like that to other people, I know that I have not done that. I’m grateful that God has given me the opportunity to experience as much diversity as I have seen in my career. The way I look at it, I’ve just been tasting all the aspects of the Christian community that were once a part of the universal church before it started splitting and splintering and majoring on minors. I wish I could have had all these varied experiences under one denominational umbrella, but that wasn’t possible.”
I could tell that my questions had touched a nerve, and I didn’t want to risk “poking the bear” more than necessary. But I also knew that I wanted to hear more from Arthur about his pilgrimage, since it was in so many ways similar to my own. I was accustomed to explaining my own decisions. I seldom had opportunity to hear somebody else offer a rationale for why he chose to follow a path very much like the one I had walked.
As we prepared to say goodbye, I felt emboldened to make a suggestion. “Would you be willing to meet here every week or so to talk about some of these matters a bit more? To push out some of the implications of the choices we both have made for our lives and ministries?”
Arthur rubbed his chin and squinted as the rays of the setting sun caught him full in the face. I can’t be sure, but I think I saw his eyes twinkle as he pondered my question.
After a minute he asked, “Are you going to write about this in your blog?”
I told him that I was certain I would.
“Okay, then,” he said after thinking about it a few seconds more. “But only on one condition.”
“What is that?” I asked.
“Promise that you won’t call me a curmudgeon.”
“I promise,” I said, grinning broadly. “And Arthur? Next time, you buy the coffee.”
This time, he grinned.