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May 2005

My Journey Out -- Sidebar: Ruminations on Ministry

I actually don't blog many of my thoughts on ministry. Tim does that a lot, but I generally don't. I'm not sure why I haven't; I just haven't.

Being a minister is such a strange thing. The only other real job I can compare it to was being an academic philosopher where my duties were studying, writing, and teaching. I loved that job and was pretty good at teaching intro level classes. I'm not a great researcher or philosohical writer. I'm not an original or creative philosophical thinker. I did my job, enjoyed it, but it was just that, a job. Life was other things.

But ministry is different. It flows from your religious faith, so it is an elemental part of who you are. It is a calling and not simply a profession. That means a couple of things. The compulsion and drive to do it is different. You are not merely fulfilling an interest or getting a paycheck. Also, if you are called for it, then you are granted some measure of spiritual gifts by the Holy Spirit to fulfill that task. That's what we understand theologically, but it is a scary concept to actually consider in practice. Yet I can also feel it at times, not all the time, but sometimes, when what you need to do in the moment just seems to flow without thinking or planning. Ministry is also different in that it calls for you to give some of yourself away in order to carry out the ministry. This can be dangerous, because you never know for certain how much of yourself to give away. Nor can all people be trusted to receive parts of yourself; you are opened up and can be damaged.

I have not yet developed the ability to easily defend against or bounce back from those moments when vulnerability is taken advantage of. My Dad was afraid this would be a problem for me, and he was right. It is one reason why I spent a decade planning to do something else. I had seen ministers beaten up and broken by the job. In my late teen years I finally really saw the workings of churches and was appalled. That played a big role in my deciding to do something else.

One time David B. and I were attacked for something where neither of us felt we had done anything wrong. We cared deeply for and respected the person we had upset. But as is often the case in church, someone else really made the issue of it. David and I disagreed about how to handle the situation, and part of that was because there are differences of role for pastor and associate pastor. He did the whole mea culpa thing. I was worried that he did this. I warned him that I was afraid he would reveal a weakness that would be exploited later. I never apologized to anyone, but instead went on about my work (though with far less joy and enthusiasm). A few months later I was invited for dinner in the home of the person who was originally offended, and the two of us worked together on projects in my remaining months in that position. David ended up having a difficult time there after that incident. He often was challenged again and again. I saw him sink into melancholy, and he lost the joy of his calling to that place.

I love spending time with my ministry colleagues from around the country. When ministers get together they let their hair down and have a good time. They open up to each other about their struggles and their joys. They help each other. Almost every good and great minister I know well is regularly on the verge of quitting. Many that I know keep their heads "close to the oven," to quote one of them. And these are people of every personality type and every sort of different style, theology, talent, etc. Plus I have plenty of friends who have thrown the towel in. Some of those have horrible stories of what they experienced at the hands of church people. Others just got burned out or gave up.

Not many ministers talk openly about these things outside of their small groups who get together for times of restoration. Blogging has probably made it more common to discuss it, especially with a blog like Gordon Atkinson's.

I think the Book of Jeremiah speaks to this. Jeremiah really didn't want to be a prophet. But the fire in his bones compelled him to. Often he was angry at God for his calling.

I've never had the intensity of emotion that Jeremiah reveals, but I understand what's going on there. I love what I do, much of the time. But sometimes it hurts. Everytime I come close to quitting something keeps me going. Sometimes it is because I discover a new joy or love for my work. But sometimes it is because I am compelled by the calling of the Holy Spirit.

Episode Three: The First Discussion

I haven't seen it the second time, so this isn't a review, but there is one issue I want to discuss.

In the prequels we learned that the Jedi have this philosophy that is close to Buddhism (one of Lucas' interests), particularly in the concept of detachment. They are not to be attached to things or people, particularly they are not supposed to love. This, of course, explains more fully part of Luke's conflict in Return of the Jedi, when his feelings could betray him or, ultimately, lead him down the Dark Side.

Revenge of the Sith raises some interesting questions. These early films are full of quite interesting and complex moral ambiguity (Episodes 4-6 were pretty black and white). In Attack of the Clones, it became clear that everyone was being manipulated by evil, even the well-intentioned folk who were trying to do good. At the start of Revenge, it is unclear that anyone really knows what is good/right anymore. Padme expresses concern that they are fighting on the wrong side. The Jedi, who were unable to sense the rise of the Dark Side to begin with, now seem unclear as to whether they are helping or hurting and their motives become muddied (it seems to me). In the midst of this Anakin is trapped in moral confusion. Clearly part of the confusion is the result of his love for Padme. He has not followed the Jedi code in remaining detached. But it is also not clear that Lucas is against this. I don't think Lucas casts the love relationship in a bad light.

Plus, we have seen Return of the Jedi, and we know something important. Anakin is ultimately saved because of his attachment to his son. Anakin does destroy the Sith, out of the connection to Luke that resurfaces at the fatal moment.

I think Lucas is engaging in criticism of the Jedi order. Their inability to understand how attachment might be a good thing that ought to be developed in certain ways leads to some of their moral ambiguity in Revenge of the Sith. In fact, only someone trained in detaching in order to fulfill duty could twist that to the point of slaughtering helpless children.

As a Christian, I look at this story as a salvation narrative played out over six films. This isn't Lucas' personal philosophy, but one way to read the story. Anakin descends into hell and is redeemed at the end, ultimately by his the power of love for another person. In the Christian philosophy, relationship, attachment, love, community, these are most important. So, my personal read is that the evil that befalls the Republic is partly the fault of the Jedi who are unable to understand the salvific nature of human relationships.

#9 -- My Journey Out: More Dark Days

I was able to find a respite here and there -- a trip to the beach, a retreat, the week in Birmingham, etc. It was in Birmingham that I read Moltmann's In the End, the Beginning -- The Life of Hope, which helped me survive the summer. And ministering to my youth always helps. By its very nature it draws you out of yourself and your own problems. That is part of the significant gift that the faith community gives its members.

But it was only with my vacation that I finally got the break I really needed. And the timing was perfect. The relationship had really been over for months, but there had been communication back and forth in what I was later to describe as a "four month break-up." Finally we were done communicating (and wouldn't again until this year when we were finally able to really talk through everything and come to the civil conclusion that I wrote about in #5.5). So, the trip to Chicago was an important get-away.

Not only was it time to relax and restore, I also spent a lot of time reflecting. I had just begun therapy a few weeks before and was already beginning the process of learning about myself and coming to terms with things as far back as grief over Dad's death. During the vacation I got to do lots of things I love -- camping out, frisbee golf, art museums, lounging around and reading all day, a farmer's market, the Lincoln Park Zoo, cooking and eating, spending time with the dear friends from Louisa Street days. I went to church with them. It is rare I get to sit in church and not lead. This was helpful, and gave me perspective on things. During the Christian education time, I attended a lecture on Kabbalah and learned important things about our experience of brokenness. If you try to "fix" it or get over it too quickly, then you miss out on a valuable human experience. The lecturer said that you should live into your brokenness, even live a more risky life that runs the risk of being broken more often because that is the true passion of living and what provides real opportunities for growth.

Then the next weekend I was in Austin for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which was great! In the few days since the vacation I was finally beginning to settle back into ministry. Maybe I would be able to keep doing it. Maybe I would be able to stay at Royal Lane. That Sunday in Austin I attended Highland Park Baptist Church. Two weeks in a row, I got to simply sit in worship; I could have received no greater gift. What I realized while sitting there at Highland Park was that I am a minister. I have felt called since the age of five. It is a more significant and elemental part of who I am than even my sexuality. No matter what, I will always be ministering. These are my gifts; this is my calling.

And so I jumped full steam into the fall. I love this part of the youth ministry year. It is the chance to begin again and refocus. Wednesday nights were going strong. Other aspects of the youth ministry were good. The Youth Council was providing amazing leadership. We were starting a mentoring program. The new seventh graders were being integrated well. The youth put together a wonderful fundraiser for hurricane relief. Also, we were working on new things in adult Sunday school and planning adult retreats for 2005. I was teaching an Adult Bible Study on Sunday nights on the Moltmann book I had read in the summer. The group of people in that study were a gift to each other. It was an amazing group and an amazing study. Everyone opened up and shared stories of great pain -- deaths of parents and spouses, religious persecution that led to fleeing the home country, a mother's suicide, divorces, and other crises and catastrophes. Powerful, powerful stuff. But the continuing testimony of everyone was HOPE! Things were looking up, and I had new energy, new drive, and was refocused.

Which is one reason the attack took me so completely off-guard and thoroughly devastated me. I couldn't imagine how anyone could attack me for the grief I feel over the death of my father. It cut to the bone. I have no deeper nor greater pain. The day after I realized how broad the attack had spread, I was in my therapist's office for an already scheduled appointment, and I simply cried the entire time. I felt betrayed. I even regretted ever having taken the job in Dallas; it hurt that much. Later that day I had lunch with Linda and cried all through the meal as I sought her always kind and wise help and advice. She hurried me on out of the restaurant, and we drove around town for almost three hours just talking. Always in the back of my mind was "If it is this bad when they don't know I'm gay, how bad will it be when they do know?"

I had no emotional energy left. I was completely drained. I was done.

Driving home to Oklahoma one weekend, I kept thinking about it. I had been praying for months, and still hadn't received any answer. Was this it? I didn't know. But I wasn't sure that I wanted to stay around to find out.

So I decided to quit.

Not many people knew this then or now. I didn't even talk with my colleagues about it. The original idea was to quit effective the end of the year. I didn't have anything to go to, nor did I care at that point. I just wanted out. My Dad had always said I shouldn't go into ministry because he had seen it break people; maybe he was right, I thought. I began to make a few plans with some of my Oklahoma friends. Fortunately, Greg talked me into waiting till June. That way I could save money and really formulate a plan. But, most importantly, I could figure out if this is really what I wanted to do and really what God was calling me to. This seemed like wise advice. So, I waited.

And things began to happen.

#8 -- My Journey Out: When Nothing Did

Yeah, then I reached those days when it seemed that absolutely nothing made any sense and the life I had spent all these years building was crumbling to pieces around me.

Mom's wedding weekend was difficult. I had just realized that my relationship was over the night before I came to Oklahoma City for the wedding. But I couldn't be sad at my mother's wedding; it would be misinterpreted. Those were an exhausting few days. I found time to cry by hanging out with friends or driving off by myself and sitting beside the lake. This needed to be Mom's and Revis' event, and I didn't want what was going on with me to get in the way of their joy.

In the early months, my joy had overflowed. Now, I tried as hard as I could to keep the pain from overflowing. My house was 2.2 miles from work. Sometimes it took all the energy I could muster during that drive to put on my ministerial role for work. I was so afraid that if people saw me sad or depressed, that they would wonder why, and I wasn't quite ready to tell them. The problem was that I kept bottling it in and then it would explode (see this post). One point in there Linda said to me, "You were smiling yesterday; it was good to see you smile. It had been a long time." That made me feel like I was failing because I was working so hard to put up the front.

I was in a lot of pain during camp and mission trip and all the big summer events. During the Garage Sale I could barely even be present. I kept finding reasons to go places and run errands or just kept leaving and going off on my own for a couple of hours.

On the darkest days I would get up from my desk, because I'd been crying, and would leave through my side door and drive home and spend the day lying in bed crying.

I was more and more exhausted by the effort to fake it when I was in public.

There were two days when I actually went to work intending to resign. I didn't see any other path ahead but that. Was there any future for me in my chosen career? I began to pray, "God, you'll have to create the path ahead, because I don't know what to do. Just give me the perception to see it when the time comes."

#7 -- My Journey Out: When Everything Made Sense

Everything in my life seemed to make sense in a way it hadn't ever before. That was my feeling that winter and spring. Not that I understood or knew how to express everything. I was still taking in the experiences and trying to figure them out. I look back now at what I wrote and said at the time (in this big binder in which I collected almost everything), and much of it was trying to figure out how to conceptualize and verbalize the experiences. How I said it then isn't how I would say it later. Yet, in some general way, it all made sense.

I was happy. Very happy. I even felt better at my job. From the first weekend I felt better at it. In fact, I think this was the period I was best at my job. I was more easy-going and relaxed with people. There was a joyful exuberance that permeated my everyday. And, that was when I conceived and began implementing the six-year plan for the youth ministry at Royal Lane.

During those months I spent a lot of time thinking over the past and realizing things I'd never quite realized before. Or understanding them in a new way. Plus I was having so much fun freeing a part of me that had been shackled for so long. Life was this big breath of fresh air. That's one reason I had so much actual fun telling people during that time. It was such a joy to be free.

The happiest moment occured one evening grilling burgers on his parents' front porch. He turned around with that grin he got when he was both relaxed and happy -- that look of contentment. He grabbed me to kiss me. I said, "But your neighbors are in their front yard." He said, "I don't care."


Here is a link to the web version of the article about me that appeared in the most recent Gayly Oklahoman. I had trouble getting the webpage to load properly, but that might just be Mom's computer.

Installation Service

Last night was my installation service, and it was beautiful. Being Pentecost, it was already a big day, and particularly fun to be wearing our bright red Pentecost vestments! Cookie Stokes and Lonnie Harris came from Royal Lane and Jan Tipton and David Austin from FBC Shawnee. There was a horde of staff and members from CoH-Dallas who drove up for the event. Jo Hudson and Mike Piazza conducted the installation with a moving ceremony and a powerful charge delivered by Michael to which I gave a response. In the actual ceremony of installation Jo spoke the following words first to the congregation and then to me. These were some of if not the most powerful words I've ever had spoken over me.

Since pastoral ministry cannot be done in isolation I offer today a charge to this congregation where Scott ministers as well as a charge to Scott.
Beloved, you have chosen a servant, let him serve. You have chosen a leader, let him lead you. You have chosen a disciple of Christ, help him to remain so. Allow him as your pastor to have new ideas and to try them in your midst. Do not be anxious to quench those ideas. Let the differences which arise be marked by understanding, respect, and with as much humor as possible. Let our diversity be a bridge to lead us to our common purpose.
Lend to Scott your encouragement. Don't assume that someone else has already said "thanks" or "well done." As he ministers, you should minister to him. Have confidence in him as one called by God and through your faith in him have confidence also in:
the teachers who have taught him, the great minds whose work he has read and studied, the family of God who has nurtured him thus far, And in God who has chosen him and is not finished with him yet.
The work is great, but our God is greater. With your love and God's power he cannot fail, and if he stumbles let us be the first to lift him up to try again.
To Scott on this special day I would offer this simple charge: Love the people you serve and the God who called you with every fiber of your being and you will find that you are loved in return more than you could ever have imagined.
Pour out your energy with great passion and you will soon discover the empowering Spirit of God present in your life. Do not be distracted by little things, for God has called you and empowers you to do great things. Do not neglect your own relationship with God for that is what will sustain you in the difficult and trying days that come to us all.
Finally, do not fail to make mistakes. If you do not make mistakes then your work is too restrained and it will never be greatly used by God. Dare to dream great dreams and to believe the unbelievable is possible with God. Ask forgiveness if you need to for mistakes you have made, but never need to apologize for failing to try.
Remember it is God who thought so highly of you as to trust you with this sacred ministry. Never allow anything to cause you to forget this moment when you were consecrated to be in one of the greatest works God is doing in our lifetime.
You are one of God's chosen servants and for you we give thanks.

Women in the Ancient World

I finished reading The Iliad today in the Robert Fitzgerald tranlsation. I particularly thought this passage near the end was revealing (and either funny or scary or both at the same time):

Akhilleus now at once put on display
before the troops a third array of prizes --
those for the grinding wrestling bout. The winner
was to acquire a fire-straddling tripod
valued at twelve oxen by the Akhaians.
As for the loser, in their midst Akhilleus
placed a woman versatile at crafts,
whose value was four oxen.

More Book Nerdiness

About a month ago Underling wrote about the five books he'd take with him to a desert island, if he could only take five books along. I meant to post about the same thing at that time, but didn't get around to it. So, I thought I'd take a stab at it. Giving Natalie my two cents worth made me think about it. So off the top of my head, here's what I can come up with.

1) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- my favourite novel. I'm sure I could read it many times over and not get bored.

2) White Noise by Don DeLillo -- My second favourite novel. I'm not sure how this would fare on the desert island, but it is worth a try.

3) Moby Dick by Herman Melville -- This is not one of my favourite pieces of fiction because it is SO dense in places. However, that is why I would take it along. A book this dense would occupy lots of time. I could really spend the time reading and thinking about the sections that I found boring before. Plus the language is so incredibly rich that just reading it outloud over and over would be entertaining.

4) Collected Works of William Shakespeare -- I've never read all of Shakespeare, but this would take lots of time and you could return to favourites again and again.

5) The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis -- I couldn't live without them.

Sorry no women made the list.

And if I could take one and only one book it would be The Last Battle. One and only one chapter out of all the chapters ever written in human history? "Further Up and Further In."