On Forty-One

It would be difficult to describe my 41st year of life. As my 40th birthday approached last year I knew that forty provided a new beginning. Not just because it was another decade but because I felt this move inside of me, this angst, a difficult to explain shifting happening deep within my soul. Sabbath, do not be anxious about anything, children getting older, my beard graying, a post-Maria Puerto Rico, a culture around me that seemed to be turning against people like me, and the continued struggles in United Methodism and in the local churches of this great tradition where some of the words, phrases, and happenings that kept me alert to the stirrings going on within me.

Looking back I recognize aspects of this angst emerging some years before. We rooted in Shreveport and lived life to the fullest, I kept on asking about my vocation, wondering if pastoral life was the life I wanted to live, and then I began to wonder about my role(s) in the larger Methodist world. National, Jurisdictional, and Annual Conference responsibilities began to lose their luster and I began to shed many of those leadership “opportunities.” There was a period that I felt that I was failing at everything, that joy was not to be recovered. In the midst of it I kept at it, rolling out of bed in the morning and finding ways to connect with people who were not connected to the life of the church, I kept asking them questions and learning more, meanwhile time kept on ticking and I kept wondering if what I was doing with my life was making a difference.

As the 40th celebration took shape and I found myself surrounded by family, friends, good cigars and amazing bottles of good rum (my favorite liquor) I recognized how blessed I was, how loved I was, and how lucky I was to be living life. It was then that I made a decision to resign from pastoral life. With a congregation in decline and a deepening feeling of lostness and joylessness, with a growing number of physical ailments and unanswered questions, I was convinced that it was time to find another vocation.

My 41st year of life born in the midst of what we could call an early mid-life crisis.

Like most personal crises this one began and was rooted deep inside of me. At the time I had a long list of blame to go around—as my wise mentor and friend Dr. Don Saliers taught me a long time ago “human beings are amazing at self-deception.” As the date on my resignation letter got close and I had to make a decision to mail it or not I had some decisions to make. Some were practical ones—how will I make a living? Will we be able to afford our 100 yr old dream home? Maybe we can sell a car or maybe both?— Other questions were more philosophical: Do I still believe in God? The church? The United Methodist Church? The “system?” And the classic, who am I if I am not a pastor?

I had asked these questions many times before but now they came with both urgency and a strength that I did not expect. It was a Fall and early Winter filled with much uneasiness and uncertainty. The letter was never mailed . . .

Though I was failing at many things I was being kept captive by a fear of failure. The demons of many years trying to prove something, to make sure that the universe would know that I was not a mistake, that I could amount to something, that I did work hard, and that I was successful kept sucking me into a vortex of lostness, anxiety, and fear that is hard to describe. I could hear the voices screaming in my head that all that I was experiencing proved to the universe that this accidentally conceived boy, who struggled learning English, and who still hears invitations to “go back where I came from,” was truly not meant to be.

And yes . . . I have spent many years in therapy and spiritual direction working through these things and will continue to, healing comes from our continued willingness to struggle and face our lives as they are and from being community with folks who love you into new life.

As the spring approach it became clear that change was coming. A conversation about a change in appointment forced me to ask some questions: Am I still called to be a pastor? Do I have the gifts to continue in this vocation? Where do my gifts intersect with the needs in the world? How have I been uniquely made to lead in this time?

It also forced me to dig deep into what it meant to begin again, to move my family far away from deep relationships that gave them much life, and the knowledge that by my vocational choice I was wounding my children in the way that I swore I would never do, in the ways that I had been with all my moves as a child and teenager.

Let me say something about this issue because I think it is important:

Yes, children are resilient, and my children have a double portion of it. I am amazed at how they have responded over the years at the many moves and changes. Yes, they will in the end be o.k. But being ok is not the same as being whole. In other words, we know (and I know from experience) that there is trauma experienced with moving a lot. Some of us survive it, but no without scarring and I can tell you that I am a functioning human being because I had loving parents who loved me through the many changes and because of my therapists and spiritual directors over the years who helped me find healing from the anxiety brought about by more moves than I care to remember.

I also know that Methodist pastor’s kids are not the only ones who move a lot but we cannot compare our moves with the moves that other’s do nor can we deny that children that move often—no matter what their parents vocation—have unique issues to deal with in their emotional life. So in our efforts to make parents and those children feel better (and maybe to shield ourselves from our own complicity) let us be careful that we are not invalidating their painful and heart-braking experiences of leaving friends, family, homes, communities, support systems, and people they love.

It would do our system good to provide more support to our families beyond a transition seminar. Support that goes beyond the dynamics of entering a new system and instead focuses on providing safe places for pastors, their families, and congregations to talk about, settle from, and move forward after a move. I have some things in mind but I’ll leave that for another post.

Just in case some might wonder: No system is perfect and I am the child of a pastor who served in a tradition that had a call system (where the pastor applied for the position and the congregation voted in order to decide who to hire) and I can tell you that I rather an appointive system than a called system (more about this in another post). I believe that since I have been in an appointive system for over 14 years and I am serving my 5th appointment I feel like I can reflect some on what it means to move, to live into our vows to “go where sent,” and to reflect to our overseers practices that are healthier than others at least to me and my family.

Now back to it!

Here is the thing: leaving, moving, and beginning in this season of my life, in the life of culture, and in the life of the Church has been interesting, challenging, and exciting. I am frustrated with the ways that the good news of Jesus is getting co-opted, with our continued insistence on using the good news of Jesus as a way to keep other humans out, and with our unwillingness to recognize that there are a variety of ways that we live into the way of Jesus, that none of us have a monopoly on that way, and that God is larger than our finite minds, hearts, and understandings of the Bible—and can I say that none of us should limit God’s revelation to the Bible? That maybe in doing so we are creating an idol? That there is a reason why over and over again the text of scripture becomes so by the power of the gathered community over time, in the Old Testament over thousands of years, and in the New Testament over hundreds of years. That I believe the Spirit is still speaking, prodding, creating, and doing new things all around us and still calling us to the One whose image we have been stamped with?

If you disagree that is fine, you are loved just like I am, but I am beyond arguing about all of this, beyond trying to be the orthodoxy police, and beyond trying to convince. I believe that the partisan categories of liberal and conservative are adding to the animosity among believers and do not help express our way of thinking about God. All I feel called to do is to love God, self, and neighbor, especially those that I disagree with or who have a different experience of the divine life, and continue to lean on God as I seek to be more like Jesus.

A few intentions that I am bringing to my 42nd year of life:

I feel called to be a healer, border-presence, story-teller, and priest.
I feel called to be a writer, frustrated poet, and story-hearer.
I feel called to be a justice-seeker, good news sharer, and prophet.
I feel called to sabbath-living, to space-making, and to holy balance.
I feel called to mystery, awe, and the transcendent.
I feel called to full-humanity, community, and unconditional love.
I feel called to forgiveness, reconciliation, and a cycle of restoration.
I feel called to contemplation, action, and the divine in ALL things.
I feel called to humility, questions, and continued exploration of ALL things.

So here we go 42 . . . Looking forward to lessons ahead, to encounters with the holy, and to the muse in all things.

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