Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Everyday I Write the Book

I'm coming up on my twentieth anniversary in ministry. I was ordained on January 1, 1997 (my birthday!). I guess I can't really count the year-ish we spent in Nashville, so next January, that will be around twenty years.

I never thought I'd do anything for that long.

In college I was convinced that in a couple of years I'd be touring the country in a van with three or four other guys playing songs that we'd write in hotel rooms and record in ramshackle studios. That was literally my dream, in that I sometimes actually had dreams to that effect while I slept. I was sure of it, as if I had been told that I'd be fated to this life, much like an Old Testament father names his son a word that seals his future.

Instead, I have been a paid, professional musician in a different way. And I only recently realized this. I suppose the appropriate way to look at twenty years in ministry is to look at it as twenty years of pastoral work. And that's true. That, of course, comes first. But I have also been paid to play music in that pastoral role for two decades. I really like that. I suppose, then, I did achieve my dream, and found another one in the process. This is typical of how God works, at least as much as I've understood such things.

Along the way, I've done all the other stuff of ministry: preached, counseled, taught, performed weddings and funerals, taught youth and children, etc. I've enjoyed most of it. I used to teach adults a lot, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was told early on in ministry by quite a few people that I should write a book. I am. Three, in fact. But I struggle with the tone of the book that will be about my experiences in ministry. And here's why.

My guess is, if they felt comfortable enough to be honest, that most pastors would tell you about the roller coaster ride that is ministry. And it is. I could just as easily write a book about all the kindness expressed to me and my family as I could the hurts and wounds. The surprise Christmas gifts and the surprise scathing and insulting Christmas card (yes, this happened to me). The wonderful relationships and the abrupt ends to some of those relationships. The wonderful comments about my family versus the harsh words that both my wife and son have had aimed at them. In my more negative moments, I suppose my flesh would love nothing more than to write a tell-all expose about all of the nonsense me and my friends in ministry have experienced. But, of course, that is only part of the story, and, much like most good writing, you have to tell it all. There is plenty of good, more than bad I would guess, by far. It's humbling to be told that people continually pray for your ministry, or be given a car out of the blue, or be told that you've made an impact in a student's life. Telling it all would mean taking an account of all of those wonderful, unexpected instances where God showed up through those around us. That alone would make a great read. But there's much more to the story.

I could write about my ignorance or impatience instead of the mistakes of others, feverishly scrawling all of those things I didn't know or thought I did but didn't. That would be fair and true. But most people don't really want to recount their failures and failings. Some of those are too embarrassing to conjure up for a chapter (or chapters) on what not to do. I hesitate to say I could write a book solely on that, but it would at least be booklet, if not a multi-volume tome. I'd like to think that the successes would take up more space, but I really don't care to find out.

My wife remarked the other day that our moves, our changes, have taken a toll on us, and I'd agree. If you have uprooted your family a time or two, you know this. Although we've always left churches by our own choice, it didn't always feel that way, and those separations and distant friendships sometimes make you yearn for when everything will be made right. I reminded her of something a pastor friend told me early on in ministry: don't get too close. When he said that, I scoffed in my youthful idealism. For a variety of reasons, I now understand the sentiment, even if at times I don't heed his advice. It makes me sad that anyone, no matter what role they play in church, would feel that they have to circle the wagons around themselves for protection against other believers. I'm not naive enough to think that this isn't necessary at times. But I'm idealistic enough to keep wishing it weren't so. When my wife and I have shared openly, without thought of any judgment, we've never regretted it, because it was true. I hope that's true for most pastors and most people in church in general, because we all have crud, right? And we don't just have crud that we talk about; we have crud that we'll never share. That's true for all of us, and it'd be good if we could all remember that. It'd be good for me to remember that more, for sure.

I do know that my book will talk about the unique nature of the vocation of ministry. I've gone back and forth on this over the years. I've heard pastors talk about how difficult the ministry life is, and sometimes I dismiss this summarily because I know we all have difficult situations in our work and home life. I won't say it's harder, because to do so would be to diminish the struggles all of us have. But I will reiterate that it is unique: unique because you live your life with the people you serve, and when you go home you still wear the hat of pastor. You certainly don't do that in retail, or most jobs that I can think of. Your bosses and those to whom you are accountable are also people you are called to build close relationships with, which means they get to see you at your best and your worst. This is daunting. The operative phrase now is "do life together". I know that at times the veil will fall and I won't be the best me and I can be (how's that for some 1980's self esteem phrasing!) and I know that this could hurt what I do. But I suppose, in our best moments, that's what grace is for. In those best moments, we'll give it until it hurts a little, or even a lot. And that's why it's tough. By letting people in (and by them letting you in), they are getting power (and so are you).

This is true of all relationships, of course, but I am especially mindful of it regarding pastoral work, because your close relationships, your community, and your source of income are all rolled into one. I suppose if I were to think about it, there might be other professions of which this is true. But right now, at this late hour, I can't think of one. When your vulnerability is somewhat tied to your livelihood, you feel that tension. If you cross an invisible line of expectation, you could damage relationships or possibly be fired. If you withhold too much, your ministry might not grow. And although I've had twenty years to grapple with this, there won't be much advice in my book on how to navigate this. It remains a challenge, I would guess, for most pastoral staff.

Being introverted, I prefer to write. That way, I say exactly what I want to say. I can refine it before it goes out into the world. I love that. I'd much rather text or e-mail than speak face to face, unless I'm having an in-depth conversation about apologetics or music. So the idea of compiling a book about the church I know, the good, bad, and the indifferent, is appealing. I can tell my story exactly how I want it to be told. But I don't want it to be filtered or laden with agenda. As I said before, in my more negative moments, I might want people to know about the scars. But the problem with that is it's a skewed account, and it's the kind of thing I would like to avoid at all costs. Because we're all David: murderers who are after God's own heart. Maybe not literal murderers, but you get the point. And that's the story that needs to be told, about me, about you, about everyone. You don't need redemption if there's nothing to redeem. And that's the story of the church, really: perpetual redemption, which means there's a whole lot of good coming out of a whole lot of bad. That's the book I'll write. In fact, it's the book I'm writing as we all are everyday. And it's the lesson I hope to continually learn.


Friday, February 03, 2017

It's Been a While (And Other Stuff)

It's been over two years since I've blogged. That's really odd, but I've been quite busy. Lately, I've actually had some time to think and felt like maybe it was time to jump start this thing again. The election and its aftermath have had some influence on that. I have a lot I'd like to write about that (because Facebook posts just don't cut). Maybe some day.

But today I'm thinking of childhood. I'm currently working on a collection of songs about where and how I grew up. I want to portray it all honestly without giving it all away. This project started a couple of years ago, and it began with an epiphany.

In the last decade, it seems to me anyway, there's been a lot more talk in schools about bullying. When I was in school, I remember very little "awareness" about it. If some kid bullied you, you'd either tell the teacher or take it. If you told the teacher, that'd probably be bad ("snitches get stitches" after all) and you'd probably get more of the same. If you took it, that meant that you'd probably get more of the same. Because of some of the problems my son has had in school (although it's been a lot better in the last couple of years), it made me start to think about my school days and the bullying I encountered.

It was weird because I'd never really thought about my school experience in those terms. After high school, I'd never had anyone try to do to me what kids in high school did. I'm a big guy, and although I love me some Jesus, I can be blunt and defensive when I feel a situation warrants. So I really have never had any problems during my adult life, and as time went on, I've become less and less passive (to a fault at times I'm sure) and simply forgot about the past. But a couple of years ago, all this stuff started to flood back, and I realized that my experience in school was not normal.

It was not normal to be called denigrating names day after day. It was not normal to be hit by any number of people at random times for no apparent reason. It was not normal to never be picked for anything, whether it was in a gym class or classroom setting. That was my school experience growing up, and it didn't fully end until I graduated. I was fat and poor and socially backward. This is not a great combination for social success.

As for school itself, I hated going. I loved sitting in a classroom and learning. I still do. But I absolutely loathed getting on the bus everyday knowing what awaited. I took every opportunity to miss school, and milked every sickness for all it was worth. I may have been the only kid who loved class but always missed the maximum number of days. In the last couple of years it got better. I got less awkward and made some friends. But that stuff sticks with you.

I wanted to share all this for a couple of reasons. The first is that it's just on my mind, since I'm kind of digging into that time period to pull out some ideas for lyrics. I can't say that it's really that painful because I've made whatever peace I needed to so that I could move on. I'm not the same timid kid, so I'm not perpetually bothered by any of it.

But the other reason is that I've seen the bullies come out of the woodwork in the last few months. There is some nasty speech and behavior going on, as you probably know. And whether or not we want to blame the election or politicians, the truth is that those individual people are responsible for their actions, no matter who is elected or what their ideology is. We seem to be quick to throw up epithets like "libtard" or "racist" or (and this has got to be the weirdest turn of a phrase ever), "snowflake". I mean, who would have called that as being an insult?

Anyway, we're not doing each other any favors. I could point fingers about this stuff. A part of me would like to. But it wouldn't accomplish anything and any discussion that came out of it would be charged with vitriol. We should be discussing this politics and debating the merits of policy, but no one should get to resort to bullying tactics to make their voice heard. I know that people will respond that this is the reality of the world, but that is no excuse since the reality of the world is whatever we make it. The world can be a hard place, but don't we have the strength to be better?

A seventeen year old kid killed himself this week. He'd been the subject of ongoing ridicule at both his workplace and school. Most likely, if I had my guess, he was a nice kid who was just different enough that everyone else, and he probably seemed weak. He was overweight and spoke with a speech impediment. His boss has been charged with involuntary manslaughter. I have no idea if that's the right thing to do or not. But I know that us humans love to pick at weakness, like we're chickens, mere animals who don't have the sense or will to stop.

The anonymity of the internet has obviously given us license to be more crass and outspoken. We all know this, but we're unwilling to stop it. Online behavior seems to have allowed us to be subhuman: people send death threats, call people names that they probably don't say in public (and most likely wouldn't say in front of their kids), and generally treat each other like garbage when they disagree. We have to escalate because clearly, if someone doesn't agree with us, they must not be as intelligent. I don't like to let arguments go, either, but I stop short of name calling. How does name calling prove me right? If an argument is solid, you don't need anything else, ideally.

So be nice, would ya? Seriously. Ratchet down whatever rhetoric you're engaging in that doesn't accomplish anything. If you can present your case cogently and calmly, you might actually win some folks over. Unless your goal is to just hate people who aren't like you. Now we would never do that, would we?