Words of support, love, solidarity and friendship were shared, as they had been many times over the past year even if I couldn't hear them. There came the observation that the spirit was noticeably freer, the countenance more joyful, the fog of the wilderness seeming to have cleared.
"I'm not sure when, how or what happened," I said.
He said, "Grace happened."
"Yeah, I guess so."
We all like those clear as a bell, definitive moments. They serve as markers...boundaries from what was to what is. They help us make sense of things. If we can say when something happened and know why, then we retain the perception of control. At certain times in life they are remarkably identifiable. And then there are others that you happen in to and realize sometime after having crossed into something new that you are no longer where you were. You don't know when, how or what happened, you just know that Dorothy's line from "The Wizard of Oz" applies to you: "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore." Control? What control?
Maybe that's how grace operates. Despite my preference that it be so clear as to be unmistakeable, it comes, filling in the trenches - the lines of demarkation I've drawn - overflowing their banks. Life exempts no one from what is hard...what is bad...what is crisis of spirit making. But what grace seems to do is make it so that once you come to yourself (which is itself a work of grace), that you had to endure the hard thing is not the first thought. Rather, we are reminded that despite what may have seemed to be, we were never alone. That we endured what was is the thing. And those "agents of grace" dispatched along the way stand watch and hang on to us whether we want them to or not and declare "the darkness is not going to get you...not on my watch."
I know this to be true - I bear witness.
My own sense of self and vocation has been mired in the mucky question, "Who am I?"
It hasn't been an existential exercise so much. It's more like "who will I be?"
Maybe it's my age (although I do think there's more to it than the easy "mid-life crisis" crap). As I've wandered, I've wondered about where I am, how I got here, is this what I thought I would be and does it square with what, at some point way back when, I imagined.
It's been at times a dark place. Really dark.
Do I believe what I proclaim?
Is this whole church thing a game?
Is there something else, something more I could be doing...was I always to be a local church pastor?
Let's tick these off one at the time, shall we?
Do I believe what I proclaim? At the risk of sounding an apostate, the most honest answer I can give is "sometimes." When the way gets dark, it's easy to wonder what is, what isn't so, and what it all means. But as I've been reminded by wiser counsel than I can ever give, the older I get the less and less I'm convinced that certain things have only one answer, and the more and more comfortable I am with saying "I don't know." There is something to a Rilke-esque living of the questions not as an intellectual exercise, but as a journey of the spirit, that has integrity. Cast against the presupposed certitude that someone in my position is to exude--I've become comfortable with defying that expectation placed on me (I'm comfortable about defying that expectation in more ways than one!). As I've often repeated but now know in a very intimate way, "the opposite of faith isn't doubt, it's certainty."
Is this whole church thing a game? As dreamed and imagined? No, it's not at all. As lived out systemically? Abso-freakin'-lutley! I've never known "church" apart from a mainline denomination. The one I've known is one now desperate to survive. We cast before us as cautionary that which was perceived to be so by Mr. Wesley even before he died..."not that we cease to exist, but rather than we become a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power." And then there's that line attributed to Augustine: "The Church is a whore, and she's my mother." I understand the truth in both statements. Having now been "in the system" as either candidate or ordained for 30 years, having been in the church from birth, and having never lived as anything other than being a part of a clergy family, the wonder-eyed days of being United Methodist for the sake of being United Methodist have long since passed. And yet, it is because of her than I claimed faith in Jesus and through her that I sought to give myself to the Church for service beyond self.
The Church decries its leadership deficit as causal to the situation it finds itself. And it's right, but only to a point. It is right that there's a deficit in leadership, if the leadership it seeks is systemic maintenance. And even then it's misplaced. It points to the void of leaders now and what we are to do about it. It's the issue de jour to train up leaders. The irony is not lost on me. The ones insisting that my generation and the ones younger than me are ill equipped to handle the ever so important matters of church are of the generation that helped us get in the ditch in the first place (oh yes I did!). My own conference won't appoint from our ranks those positions deemed "crucial" because we don't believe we have leadership within to guide them. I'm not clear I can communicate adequately through this medium how condescendingly offensive that is. Truth is, I don't desire any of those appointments, but I know there are within the family of my sisters and brothers of this conference extraordinarily talented people who will never be given a chance because our very own treat their very own with an attitude not unlike Nathanael's when asked to follow Jesus from Nazareth. "Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?" (Jn 1.46) Maybe somebody needs to speak up as Philip did: "come and see."
Whatever is or isn't true about a void of leaders to direct the systemic church, nothing compares to the lack of leaders imbued with sufficient holy boldness to announce the Realm of God coming into being that demands we do what is just, love what is kind, while walking humbly with God. To walk with God is to do justice and love kindness. Why? Because that's where you'll find the One to whom we claimed we've given our lives.
When Jesus commanded that we "follow him," it wasn't rhetorical.
We need a helluva lot more prophets, pastors and priests than we do managers and CEOs. Nothing will "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" more than proclaiming the radical character of Gospel. You want to make disciples? Preach that. You want to make church members? Preach the other.
Is there something else, something more I should be doing..was I always to be a local church pastor? When I was at Vandy, I was the envy of so many of my friends. They came to divinity school in search of a vocation. I walked in the door knowing mine. Declared at 17, certified at 18....it was the next step in the long journey. They were stunned that I served churches while going to school. They couldn't imagine it (by the way, none of them were United Methodists...they were Disciples of Christ, UCC, and Presbys). I told them then that I couldn't imagine doing this work for all of my life. It was an integral part to who I was and what I was to be, but it wasn't the only thing. And while that "what else?" was undefined then, it was as it is now, a very unsettling thing that still seeks an answer. In the last couple of years it has been screaming at me...causing me to panic. It has been the catalyst for much of my wanderings of late. Being "trapped in life" is not good thing. Despite what may seem to be so, it's an issue that lives independent of my pastoral context. It was starting to rise up in me even before I left midtown.
So what is it? Beyond my fantasies (you know, be a rock star), I've thought about writing and teaching. I don't live apart from music, so that's in there by necessity. Do I have to leave the local church to fulfill that? My wilderness journey has finally provided an answer to that question. I don't have to leave it, but I may. That sounds like splitting hairs, but let me tell you, it's a clarifying answer that I've wrestled angels through the night to gain. If it is possible to fulfill what I believe I'm made to be within the local church, then I embrace that opportunity. If not, then there must be other avenues for me to pursue. It's hard to articulate how big it is to just give myself permission to say that out loud.
In the meantime, I've found contentment in the instruction of Jesus to his disciples,"where ever you enter a house, stay there until you leave." (Mk. 6.10) For this season, I am where I am. I will serve as completely as my gifts allow. And when this season has reached its end, I will lean forward into what comes.
What I do leave behind me is the expectation for what I'm supposed to be in this Conference, what I'm supposed to do, and where I'm supposed to go. I embrace the opportunity to pursue downward mobility (with all due deference for Fr. Nouwen).
Another friend looked into my eyes a few days ago. Having not seen me since I was very much in the mess, she noted, "You're better."
"Is that a question or a statement?" I asked.
"A statement," she said.
"Yes, I am."
I don't know exactly what, how and when the emergence occurred. It's been over the Summer. Often, we think that whatever fix comes to our plight, it comes from outside of us to directly influence what's inside of us. But it doesn't work that way so much. We all may want a Damascus Road experience, but they don't come around everyday. For me, there is a direct correlation between where I am now and certain decisions made in the Summer.
- I've known the joy of reaching out and reconnecting with friends of long ago.
- I decided that I could no longer abide the impact my dark season was having on my health. The thought of it killing me was real. So, back on the wagon. Bring a little health to the body, and the spirit finally starts seeing the edge of the wilderness. It's amazing what walking at least 4/mi. a day can do for your outlook.
- Find a hobby and enjoy it. I have, and I can't talk about it. Yet.
- Pastor who seeks to listen, to comfort and to guide.
- Preacher called to proclaim gospel in places where it's easy and (gulp) where it's not.
- Teacher to open hearts and minds to something of the nature of God.
- Singer whose spirit goes to another place when I get to cut loose.
So after the mention of grace and my confirming words, "Yeah, I guess so," I said, "You know, this whole thing we've been doing this last year or so, your guidance and care have saved my life."
There was a nod of acknowledgment, and a smile as we stood up and took our places. The unmistakable sounds of Memphis reverberated throughout the sanctuary as John struck the strings and sang verse one. I took verse two:
"When my way grows drear, precious Lord, linger near,
when my life is almost gone,
hear my cry, hear my call,
hold my hand, lest I fall:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home."