Life After Ministry

From fifth grade forward I was the most unmotivated boy you might have ever met. I rarely did homework, and I spent most of my time reading and/or in the fields walking around. Alternating between hiding within the covers of Lone Wolf books and trying to search out the ultimate truth in religious texts and courses by mail, I didn’t have any time or energy for the vanities of seeking wealth or fame. The book of Ecclesiastes resonated strongly with me.

In evangelical Christianity I discovered motivation. My purpose in life was to serve Christ, to be His instrument for work in this world. It worked. My last year and a half in High School I was on the honor roll, and caught up all my failed courses. I was going to be a minister.

This vision guided me through ups and downs at college and took me all the way to Brazil, but then it started to fall apart. My track record in Brazil was less than stellar, the words I was saying to people often seemed hollow and strained, and I didn’t baptize that many converts…certainly none that stayed in the Church of Christ fellowship.

Returning to the states I suffered terribly with a church in New Mexico, and then my father died. He never claimed any particular religious faith, and I hadn’t tried very hard to help him find one.

Faith shattered, I found myself in New Jersey trying to stay alive emotionally. That’s where I am still. And I’m trying to find out if there can be life for me after ministry.

“It is never too late to become what you might have been.”
– George Eliot

The New Testament portrays a rugged, rustic prophet by the name of John in the wilderness of Judea calling people to repentance. They called him “the Baptizer,” because as people repented of their sins he immersed them in water. Repentance is a complete about-face from a prior way of living, and a purposeful march in a different direction.

In a very real way, my departure from any intention of engaging in full-time ministry is an act of repentance. I have shut the door on what occupied my dreams for over a decade, the very thing that inspired me to leave the farm behind and actually start working for something tangible in my life, and now I am struggling to find the path to a better future for myself and my family.

I’m 30 years old, and have been setting my goals rather low because I assume my time on earth is very limited. My father only made it to 62 before being brought down by a heart attack, in the same way his father before him passed at age 69. There is also the issue of my children, who need to be provided for now and who require supportto achieve whatever dreams they will be having. My wife has her desire to obtain better training and employment too, so my thoughts about becoming a lawyer have so far been relegated to fantasy.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be like this. If I can become a lawyer, the potential income would be dramatically higher than what I have now. I would be in a better position to work for my wife and children’s futures, however long I have in this world.

So, in this process of repentance, I’m trying to realize the truth of the quote above by George Eliot. Maybe it isn’t too late to change course.

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

Just by chance I read an article on the Sojourners website about Rev. Wilkinson, the author of that shabbily constructed but wildly popular “The Prayer of Jabez.” This is apparently old news, but he went to Africa to save thousands of AIDS orphans, only to give up in disgust. I guess he found out that his pop theology doesn’t work so well in the Third World.

In fairness to the Reverend, he fell prey to a common malady that strikes affluent westerners who visit areas of crushing poverty around the world. He saw the desperate situation of millions, felt some sort of responsibility born from his relative material wealth, and undertook to do something about it. This doesn’t just impact only what we Americans consider the wealthy, even “average Joes” can feel the twinge of something approximating guilt, followed by the heady belief and vision of saving the world. Yes, it’s a messiah-complex.

The truth is more complicated. Jesus told us that we would always have the poor with us. I like to believe as much as anyone that an age is coming in which poverty will no longer exist, but I can’t believe that it will come about without divine intervention. Simple economics don’t permit it. Someone will always be at the bottom, and someone at the top. Communism and socialism are miserable failures and always will be, though the senseless and/or the corrupt will keep trying to make them work.

So, should we just ignore the plight of the miserable and afflicted? I suppose you can, if you wish. Or you can take two steps:

First, change yourself. “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”–Leo Tolstoy

Second, help those you can in the ways that seem most appropriate to you. I’ll admit that I’m not immune to the messiah-complex. Just a few short posts ago I wrote breathlessly about transforming Brazil. I even posted a picture of a little Brazilian niece and talked about how I felt compelled to act just by looking in her eyes. Now, my senses returning, I realize that if I want to do something because of what I believe I’ve seen in her eyes, then it is that little girl I should help. I can’t help all the children of the world, but I can take care of mine the best I’m able and then seek to lend support to my extended family.

Beyond Emerging

Disgusted as I am with Christendom, but still desiring to follow Jesus (Yeshua) the emerging movement seems attractive at times. The problem is that when I look closely at it, I just see more of the same old crap. Leaders popularizing new forms and lingo, selling books and giving lectures. Followers buying, reading and parroting back what they’ve heard. This all has to happen to some extent for a movement to be cohesive and take shape, but what really bothers me about the emerging movement is how it fails to go far enough. It just looks like warmed-over evangelical Christianity to me.

My only hope for the emerging movement is that it is still dynamic. If it is, I can find a home among its adherents and carve out a niche. Perhaps the problem is in the versions of emerging I’ve seen.

In the end, it’s just people anyway….

Pretense and Apperances

This world is dust and ashes. All that you know and love today, both people and things, will eventually be gone. You yourself are here but a time…this moment you live is the only one you have, and the moment will end with your death.

“Nations” are mere ways of categorizing large groups of individuals. “Government” is a group of individuals who are recognized by a larger group of people (though not all of them) as being able to use coercion to accomplish what they (the group of people that calls themselves “government”) want. Respect is given to the “institution” as though it were something greater than people gathered for some purpose.

Churches are groups of people…that is all they are. Banks are groups of people…that is all they are. A restaurant, supermarket or other business is not anything other than people gathered in designated buildings for pay or profit with a sign hanging outside. The fact that we give something a name does not make it more than what it is…except in our own imagination.

Our imagination is a product of the mind, the mind is the composite of instincts and experiences that reside in the brain. Our individual sense of identity is worked out within the structures and functions of that organ.

There is no mystery here. There is only pretense and appearances.

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity”
(Ecclesiastes 1:2 KJV).
Land of Enchantment

I was only in New Mexico for about a year an a half, and I’ve been away from there for over a year now, but I’m still having nightmares. I just had one last night.

In a small town in northwest New Mexico I served a small congregation as its minister. It had already been through a handful of ministers in a short period of time, and despite my best efforts and long hours of work, I was still called “lazy.” My supporters were few and noncommital, while my detractors and critics were vocal and tireless. One in particular couldn’t seem to do anything but find fault with every detail of who I was, and though he had crazy conspiracy theory ideas and numerous personal problems, he believed he had to “teach” me.

They hired me at age 28, and then complained I was too young. I did the lectionary readings for worship (they refused to stand for it or any other part of the service, but that’s another story), preached every sermon, taught every Sunday evening and Wednesday night Bible study, started and led the youth group, did home and prison Bible studies with prospective members and occasionally taught the adult Sunday school. I know there are things I’m leaving out, but it tires me to write about it.

I rarely saw my wife and children, and even when I was with them I was distracted about the church.

When my father died without warning, one of the elders called me that very evening and promised the church’s full financial support. I spent nearly $900 on plane fare for myself and car rental, but the church renegged on the “full support” before ever hearing the amount and merely took up a “love offering” totalling less than $300. When I attempted to object, one of the elders said, “Well, you did get your paycheck while you were gone.”

I may continue to be a minister in some way, but God help me…I won’t ever put myself at the mercy of a congregation again. After that brood of vipers, I’ve learned my lesson.

You Can Never Go Home Again

Growing up on a farm in northeast Missouri, I spent a lot of time in the fields and woods, especially in our north pasture. I’d go to walk, think, read or just cool my head. Those were times I valued and new would one day end. The evening before I moved to college I went out before twilight for one last walk. I said goodbye. The image of the shadowed evening fields, and the moon hanging low on the horizon, is etched in my memory.

Of course, I went back there many times afterwards. That wasn’t literally my last walk. In my heart, though, it was the last walk of my childhood. What I didn’t fully realize then were the adventures and heartaches I had before me, but somehow I sensed a shade of what was coming. And through all those rough and tumble events of the following decade, the sunlit fields and rustling woods were always near me.

The home I was raised in was a double wide trailer. The last time I stayed there was during the dark weeks of my father’s death in early January 2005. It turns out that will truly be the last time I slept in that house. Today it was hauled away to make room for a nicer, newer house for my mother.

I’m glad for her, that she’ll have a new house. She needs and deserves one. I regret, however, that my “adventures” have taken me away so far away from home that now I’ll never see it again. Perhaps I’ll walk in the woods and stroll through the north pasture, but at the end of the day I’ll never go home again.

The truth of what I’m writing here came to me over the course of years of reflection in those very fields and woods. I knew even then that this day would come, as surely as the day of my death and the end of all I know and love. It is not for deep lamentation…it’s just the way of things.