Saturday, April 12, 2008

Taking the Long Road

Currently, I am doing something that many years ago I vowed to never do: work on a doctorate. I made this vow many, many years ago while slogging away as an undergraduate student at Miami University. Under the load of papers, reading, and exams, while I was toying with a three year stint in a law school, for the most part I really didn't want anything to do with graduate degrees. You have be really disciplined to be a good student, and for whatever reason I just never got that gene. I can be focused for periods of time, but not disciplined over the long haul. My mind wanders. I get tired. I get distracted. Heck, I have to surf the net for at least an hour before I can force myself to write one of these pre-sermon blogs.

But, as fate would have it, my parents chose to attend a church that's a part of a denomination which requires a masters degree for entry into the ranks of professional clergy. And then, in an attempt to get what had been for a good many years "my dream job", on what I believe was one of my former senior pastor's bad days, I ended up forced to apply for a fellowship that would pay the freight for a professional doctorate. Hence, it's the eve of another Sunday morning, and quite frankly I'm more concerned with the trip I'm about to make tomorrow night to do more research for my dissertation.

Yep... me, the guy who just wanted to preach and not do a lot of school, blowing off sermon preparation to work on a degree. Don't ask me to explain it. It's just how life works.

The thing that has made my three diplomas (high school, B.S. in Secondary Ed, Master of Divinity), and the fourth I strive to attain (Doctorate of Ministry) bearable have been the books, profs, and people I've met along the way who genuinely expanded my world.

There was Jon Carver, my high school AP American History teacher, who made his students read "The Age of Jackson" by Arthur Slesinger, and doled out essays and exams like it was going out of style. I loved that class so much I quit being in show choir because they had too many performances that conflicted with Mr. Carver's class. I'm 39 years old, and still have all my notes, exams, and essays from that class. It's just sick.

There were social science professors with names I can't remember any longer who opened up new worlds to me. I remember going from not knowing many names of sub-Saharan African countries to taking all three classes Dr. Logan taught on the subject. I remember volunteering to cut out articles on the automobile industry for Dr. Rubenstein and going out for a refreshing beverage to listen to another prof talk about the way the dismantling of the Inter-Urban Rail in Ohio changed the economic landscape for decades to come. I remember looking up reading lists BH Smith had prepared for past classes just to see if there were any additional books I could read to prepare for his class. I remember economics prof, Jerry Green, throwing down the challenge that no education major had ever finished or passed his class, and resolving to be the first (and I was!).

In seminary I remember driving through a horrible snow storm to be at Diane Lobody's "Early Church History" class. I remember killing myself reading virtually every classic commentary to squeak out a passing grade for Kempton Hewitt's class. I remember buying Ernst Treoltsch's "The Social Teaching of Christian Churches", and then reading them cover to cover, just because I really enjoyed Mike LaChat's ethics classes, and heard him talk enough about Treoltsch that I wanted to find out more about his work. I remember reading the entire reading list for Father Bauer's OT classes, even though we were only required to read three texts from the list.

And I remember my year at Asbury, working through the Beeson Pastor program's course work, to dedicating myself to reading - not skimming or glancing at, but reading - every last assigned text we had that year. I also too remember being rewarded for doing so on numerous occasions. Like slugging through Father Cantalamessa's works, and being so glad I'd done so when he came to speak on campus a couple of months later (the same with Richard Foster and Brian McLaren). I remember struggling every second trying to understand Leslie Newbigin's, "The Gospel In A Pluralistic Society" for 200 pages, and then whole new worlds opening up for me during the last 50 pages of the book.

Every moment of triumph, every new discovery, and every time my world got rocked it was a product of having done a lot of work. A lot of reading, listening, writing, note-taking, pondering, more reading, more listening, lots of grappling, and not a lot of sleep.

Even a class I didn't care for not one iota, my first year Latin class at Miami, where I had to struggle for hours on end to just barely get by helped me get a better handle on writing, speaking, storyline, plot, and literary construction. I still don't spel or understand grammar for beans, but I got a lot out of that year of Latin. At least now I know you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition, even if I'm still always doing that. (ha, ha)

All these good things came because I took the long, hard road. I didn't just punch the clock, put in my time, and move on to the next thing. I sought those who knew more than I, tackled whatever they assigned so that I'd have the language and knowledge to have a semi-serious conversation with them, and still did a whole lot more listening than talking to soak up every morsel of knowledge. It wasn't easy. Lord knows I would have rather been watching basketball than reading Newbigin or go uptown with "The Gang" than translate "The Odyssey", or sleep instead of staying up all night to write that paper on the "Age of Jackson". But not only did have I met a lot of great people and learned a lot of things that turned out to be useful or interesting to me, but in the process I learned a lot about myself.

No pain, no gain. Nothing good comes easy. Life is 1 percent inspiration, and 99% perspiration. All cliches I've found are true. You gotta take the long road if you really want to end up anywhere.

And nowhere have I found this to be more true than in my relationship with the Living God.

You don't really realize it but every day living in many, many ways dulls the senses. The basic routines that make up our daily life have a way of blinding us to any other reality other than our own.

It's like the first time I went to Haiti, fifteen or sixteen years ago. At the time, a young seminarian making a salary in the four figures, living and working here in Shawnee, I remember feeling at the time being financially poor. Broke. Without money. I think Joseph had made some crack about how the only older, beat-up car in our church parking lot was owned by the youth pastor, and being the youth pastor, kind of being stung by the words... that is until the moment I gave a couple of bucks to an old woman, a leg and arm withered by polio, and being told by the missionary that the reason the old woman bowed down to me was that I just gave her enough money to eat for a week.

In that moment, God slapped me upside the head. Reality wasn't what it seemed. I wasn't "poor". Not in a world where two-thirds of it's people live on hundreds of dollars a year.

But that's the mind game everyday living can play on you. Most of us in here think that the primary time we listen to God is in our normal routine. In the car or at work or as we're walking to meet a new client. But we have no idea how much God has to say, and almost as important, how much reflection we really need to be doing in order get a sense of how others, and the Lord, see us. I'm just afraid that in trying to constantly meet God on our own time, in the bits of time between that which has priority in our Palm Pilot, that really we're just walking zombies, numb to what the Holy Spirit might be trying do in our lives, families, relationships, and communities. And in the midst of that numbed state we might believe (erroneously) that God isn't doing or saying much. That's why the spiritual disciplines - prayer, silence/retreat, reflection, acts of self-denial, and acts of service - are so important. They force us to meet God on God's time, not our own. They force us to tune out the every day din, and give us the time to hear a new voice and new song.

That's why I think Jesus was trying to say in Luke 11:

"...keep on asking, and you will be given what you ask for. Keep on looking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And the door is opened to everyone who knocks."

In a world where we often confuse material things as being our ultimate reality, too often this scripture is used by people as a justification to keep dreaming and scheming to get the... I don't know, job? House? Salary? Car? Spouse?.... that they want. Their own will subjugates anything God might want as they ask, seek, and knock with their laundry list of stuff they want, basically turning God into a cosmic Santa Clause. No, instead I think to understand Jesus, we need to listen to his brother, James, who tells us that "anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God the reward is life and more life."

God giving us life and more life because we yearn for it. We live for it. We ask for it. We beg that it might be given. We humble ourselves, becoming the student, and allowing Christ to be the Master. Letting him call into question our value system, what we desire, and what drives us. This only happens when we meet God on God's terms.

So what's it mean to meet God on God's terms. Well, it means being inconvenienced. It means having to give up the normal routine. It means having to travel out of our way. It means giving up that which physically satisfies us, to create emptiness that can then be filled by something else.

It means dedicating ourselves to daily prayer, or to praying in new ways (or in some case, very old ways that our Christian ancestors practiced). St. Francis, for example, would sit not far from a tree, and just study it. In it's design and construction, he would then try to discern something new and wonderful about the Creating God. People mistakenly thought he was worshiping the tree. Rather, he was praising God for a mind that would dream up bark, roots, leaves, and branches.

It means dedicating ourselves to silence and/or retreat. In either case, sitting in total silence, calm and expectant before the Lord, or physically removing ourselves from our normal surroundings and stresses, we allow the noise to diminish so we can hear with new ears and see with new eyes. Like going from feeling poor, to feeling exceedingly blessed... and responsible for others, the moment I realized that two dollars fed her for a week. Whether its an Emmaus or some other spiritual retreat weekend, a mission trip, or alone in our chapel or in the woods for a half-hour or more every so often, we must physically remove ourselves from our turf, to God's, and give Him enough respect to create some space where he can begin to work on us.

If means reflection. I started blogging a few years ago because I'd always heard about journaling as a spiritual discipline, but had never taken the time to do it myself. Since then, I've made over 350 posts, many of which nobody but I will ever see, I can now go back and read regarding what I wanted (or didn't want), what I was upset or happy about, what my fears or stresses were, and what God was doing in the midst of everything. It's become for me a very, very powerful tool because it's forced me to assess what my values were in that moment. Were they pure, or was there some ulterior motive? It's forced to assess how I treated people, or how what was going on in my life colored what I heard, or felt, or thought, and compared it to the words of Paul who said that athlete run to win a prize that will fade away, but that those who love God run for an eternal prize." Reflection helps us figure out which prize we run after, and what God has to say to us in that process. Write, paint, sculpt, write a song... leave some sort of record of where you've been on your spiritual journey. You have no idea how much that might help you down the road.

It means acts of self-denial. I did my taxes today. Needless to say, I wasn't very happy when I was done. With four kids, a mortgage payment, bills, a van loan, and more "want" than ability to fulfill that "want", living primarily on one income is tough. I'd like to say that over time that tithing for me has gotten easier, but on days like today when checks get written and accounts get depleted, the temptation is always to cut the expense that has no temporal consequence. I mean, if you don't meet your pledge, we don't turn you into a collection agency (although maybe that's not a bad idea). But then I remember those ancient words from the Torah, "you must seek the Lord at the place he himself will choose from among all the tribes for his name to be honored. There.... you will bring your tithes to fulfill a vow." There's a reason Target is now running commercials stating that they give 5% of all their sales to local community groups. They want to prove they're as committed to your community as you are. They made a vow they didn't have to make, that's above and beyond what all the other box stores are willing to make. They want you to know they're serious. I want God and my church to know I'm serious. That what happens in this ministry and in the projects/agencies I support, matters enough to me that I will give of myself to the cause. Whether it's your cash, your time, maybe a time of fasting from something you think is essential... I have no idea what exactly, but in engaging in self-denial you create emptiness that can then be filled by something else.

It means acts of service. An empty life is one that simply becomes an end to itself. Let your life end in more place with more people, and the more fulfilling it will be.

With that, I leave you with the words of Robert Frost, and ask you to ponder, which path you are taking on spiritual walk.

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 10
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back. 15
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Beach Bum said...

Reflection of the soul...doesn't it sometimes seem like just when you think you've figured out life, then you meet someone new or something in your life changes and you are forced to reevaluate your values/beliefs. I'm not talking your basic core beliefs, but just the fringe, you know what I mean? It's all about perspective. I just want to thank you for continually challenging me as I go through my own personal spiritual journey. I can learn from your successes and even more from your mistakes. I appreciate your candid comments and thoughtfulness you put into your blogs. God bless!

Travis Miner said...

You will never know how much I needed to read this today. Thank you.

The Thief said...

Remember as well as you complain about having been "forced" to do the Beeson Fellowship that others of us wanted to do it more than anything and got shut out.

bryan said...

Tis true, sir. Tis true. I maybe the only person in the history of Beeson to show up on campus upset that I was there. My 11 compadres from 06-07 can tell you that for the first month in Wilmore I was very, very upset. However, remember that most people go to Beeson looking to make a change in their employment status.

In our class, for example, only two of the 12 of us went back to the church we had been serving. Nine of the other 10 went to new churches, and 4 of those ten jumped to new conferences. And one guy left local church ministry all together. This is true of about 99.9% of all Beesonites. They are looking for a major change.

In my case, my perception was that I was jumping through another hoop, as if getting a MDiv, ordination, and 15 years of a proven track record in ministry wasn't enough. At the time, that pissed me off, and I was wondering whether or not to just chuck it all, and go do something else.

I know now that I needed a year away to get some things straight in my mind. I had never been given the time to grieve the death of a former senior pastor, which I needed to do. I was still processing what it meant to have left Goshen after investing so much of my life there. I was afraid of the aftermath at Shawnee once Joseph actually left. I wondered how the staff would relate to me as their supervision pastor, as opposed to just being a mutual colleague. I had a lot of stuff going on inside of me that had to be dealt with before I could take another step forward. Fortunately, not only did God know this but I think Joseph, the DS, and some lay-leaders understood that also.

That's when I found out that Beeson wasn't just for go-getters looking to make a jump, but also for those of us needing a break. After a bizarre year on a conference staff in a conference that was imploding, five more years in a growing-but-deeply divided church that ended with the death of its pastoral leader, and another two years engaged in a perpetual job interview..... I needed time to do some processing.

And thank God I got that time.

All this to say that going to Beeson is a gift, but it's a different kind of gift for different people. Some go because they really want to, and others go cause at moment, they are at the end of their rope. I'd say there were three of us last year at the end of our rope, and praise God we were thrown a life-line. Not only our own lives, but I believe the kingdom is better for it.

You should also be aware that some of my classmates had applied to Beeson previously, only to be turned down. For some it took a couple of tries to get in. So be open to the possibility that Beeson didn't say "no", but instead, "not yet". It could still be in your future.