Been putting in some serious late night hours the last week, and am finding myself this evening just staring at the screen. I think my brain is hitting the wall.
And maybe, it's not just my brain that's hitting the wall.
They say everyone has a "dark night of the dissertation", and I suppose that's tonight for me, but that's not the cause of my melancholy.
No, I don't think it is.
When I was a kid, the only place in the world I never had to worry whether or not I was "good enough" (besides at my grandparents with my great-grandfather, PoPo) was at church. I still remember the great people at Trinity UMC in Charleston, West Virginia and how they made you feel like a million bucks. Why, at the age of seven, I even set up a meeting with the pastor at the time and asked the church to sponsor a "junior midget" basketball team in the Charleston area church basketball league... and he agreed to do so. Can you name for me five other church in the world where a seven-year old would get taken that seriously? As my British readers would say, not bloody likely.
Well, when I decided to cross the threshold between the sanctuary and the church office, and do church for a living, fundamentally the reality of unconditional acceptance ended. Just a fact of life really.... everyone in the public eye has supporters and detractors. Nothing you can do about it except just do the best job you can, and keep pushing forward.
But there is discontinuity between the God I know exists who loves me no matter what, and God's people who's feelings are mixed, at best. Nobody can prepare you to live in that tension before you enter the ministry. You just learn to deal with it, one way or another. It's just that usually the one way or the other way are usually unhealthy and destructive. That's why so many of my comrades are out of the ministry within the first 10 years. They end up dealing with it by not having to deal with it any more. To be honest, as someone who kept an LSAT application bookmarked on his computer, the idea of bailing did occur once or twice, because the inability of separating rejection from congregants, fellow staff, or bureaucratic denominational leaders from being rejected by God was just getting hard to keep straight.
I was talking about this with my friend Pauly (who's getting pounded by members of his congregations for, well, caring about reaching people turned off by Christianity more than making all the people in his congregation feel fat and happy) and we both agreed that nothing, I mean nothing, you learn about in seminary prepares you for this job. They teach you a bunch of stuff about the Bible and theology that once you graduate you have to pretend you never learned. At Methesco the only Administration class was taught by a dude who used the whole semester to try and convince us to live as poor missionaries in urban and rural communities. And as far as worship, or preaching, or evangelism... well, just forget it. If you weren't using the lectionary and if you didn't believe that all church music should be derived from 17th or 18th Century Europe they looked at you cross eyed. I never had a class on leadership. I never had a class on fiscal management. Nobody ever sat me down and told me what a difference there was between moderns and post-moderns, and how the gap between the two would be the greatest challenge of my ministry.
No, you learn all that later, or end up selling life insurance.
You come out of seminary thinking that really all you have to do is love your people, and then you find out that, no, really, it's a lot more complicated than that. Sometimes you even need to love people hard to love, or love someone whose spouse has already decided you are the Anti-Christ, or love people in the pews waiting for you to make a mistake so they can stomp you into the ground.
It's a hard lesson, I've learned already... many times.
I remember, for example, years ago, after a youth band we had at Shawnee, The Funky Disciples, got done playing some song for the worship service, that a stately gentleman with white hair sought me out to give me a tongue lashing about how the kids looked, sounded, and to read me the riot act about how they had just played an O'Jays song (Love Train) in a house of God. Just one of the first of many lessons where you, as a pastor, learn that you are not allowed to physically or verbally (using derogatory language) respond, even in the event you are being treated rudely. That's when you wonder, "Lord, if you are love, why is there so much animosity among your people?", and you keep wondering it to varying degrees the rest of your career.
Well, as I look to return to Shawnee in a few months, as gracious as the church has been to us, I'm starting to get ancey and nervous, but strangely enough, my old friend "fear" hasn't perked up his head yet, which I find strange. For in 15 years of dealing with this discontinuity, fear, which I used as a motivator to avoid failure, became as much a part of my every day existence as breathing. I was afraid of what people were saying. Afraid that I will not be adequate. Afraid that we'll be moving again in 18-months, or out of work with three small mouths to feed. Fear of that angry letter or email or visitor, ready to let you know why you are the worst thing ever to hit Christianity. Fear covered me, like white on rice.
But, for some strange reason, I'm not afraid of what is coming. I couldn't figure out why, until I heard Richard Foster yesterday, and talked to Pauly tonight... and then it hit me.
I'm tired of being afraid. Making everyone happy has burned me out. I showed up at Asbury after years of trying to make everyone happy on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and I just simply don't want to back to feeling that way. Like me, don't like me, or whatever.... God didn't put me on this earth to run some spiritual dog and pony show.
I mean, I got into this gig, initially, because I thought the world was seriously messed up. Depressed millionaires. Children being neglected by parents on drugs. People in white and blue collars ripping people off just to get a little further ahead on the food chain. People dying by the thousands of dysentery... it made no sense to me.
And into my confusion, entered the one who said, "Blessed are you who are poor, in material things or spirit, because yours is the Kingdom of Heaven." That God would use those at the bottom.. those who felt the furthest away from feel like they meant anything to God at all, to save the world... something about that just seemed so crazy that it just might work. It's the only thing that's kept me going, all those people on the margins who I met being used by God to change the world. Celebrating and mourning, laughing and crying, agreeing and disagreeing, together out on the margins, being drawn into the mainstream of Kingdom work. God's people, strangely enough, even though sometimes they bite, are the means by which the Holy Spirit has given me the fuel to keep pressing on toward the prize, bookmarked LSAT application and all.
Thus, I'm trading in my fear for hope, anxiety for faith, and desire to keep everyone happy is being swapped for love. Because life is too short, I've got to answer to someone who I take a little more seriously than the lady who didn't like the fact I used the word "anal" in a sermon, and the way I was living wasn't abundant... it was budgeted with a small deficit.
Besides, people deserve better than a pastor who is largely afraid of what they might say or do. Much better. They deserve someone who can see the Kingdom of Heaven from where he or she is standing... a kingdom where the lame walk, the blind see, and there are no more motherless children. They deserve someone who realizes that their faith is bigger than how they feel about their pastor. Much bigger.
I've lived 15 years so I could learn what living is all about. Now, I intend to do so.