Category Archives: Ministry

The tension of the green season

Sunday begins the long season after Pentecost with the green liturgical color. As a young child, I remember that we called it “the growing season.” Which fits both with the color and with the orientation.

We call this season “ordinary time,” that is, there is nothing special. No Christmas, no Easter, no Pentecost. No special days whatsoever to provide a change in movement. It is a long season that plods along as it passes. It reminds me of the monotony that often accompanies life.

The beginning of the “growing season” also coincides with the General Synod, the annual meeting of the broadest assembly in my communion, the Reformed Church in America. I have the privilege of attending each year to shepherd a group of young people through what is happening at the synod and how it may impact their own sense of call. This also affords me a somewhat unique perspective as I have been able to be in attendance at every synod for the past five years.

Each year, I can feel my anxiety rise. Each year, I think, this will be the year that everything falls apart. And each year the deliberations are intense and filled with passion. Each year I am happy about some things and less than happy about others. But each year we leave as the same communion as we entered.

***

My greatest strength, as I see it, is my deep passion. However, this is also my greatest weakness. I have never been afraid to be outspoken on a variety of topics. While I strive to avoid insult and divisiveness, my convictions come through. While I strive to have reasoned and balanced positions and arguments, at times my enhanced anxieties try to take the driver’s seat.

The season of General Synod is always a difficult one. It is filled with joy and sadness, with worry and confidence, with hope and despair. It is a season where I try to tame the passions so as not to get carried off in fear and forget the greater scheme of things. It is a season where I try to take a long view, a view consistent with the greater kingdom/queendom of God.

It is important for me to remember that I serve a sovereign God who cannot be thwarted by anything that I, or the General Synod, can do. It is important for me to remember that just because something doesn’t work out the way that I would prefer it to, doesn’t mean that God did not direct the proceedings.

In short, it is a growing season for me.

These are lessons that are central to my formation as a follower of Christ, and as someone who is called to reflect the image of God.

The General Synod meets beginning on June 9. Please pray for us that we can wrestle and struggle together, trusting one another and trusting God. Please pray for us that we can listen for and pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit. And please pray for me, that I might be able to grow in my capacity to display grace and love.

“… if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God” it will come to completion.

Thanks be to God.

 

The Siren Song of Success

We are driven by success. We dream of it, we strive for it, we sacrifice our families and our friends and our lives on the altar of success. This is no less the case in the church. We strive to be successful clergy. But what is success? If we are successful our churches will grow larger with more and more people. If we are successful, we will be highlighted as a model for other churches. If we are successful we will present at conferences and write books and perhaps have a blog which goes viral.

But success is a siren song.

An industry has been built around success and our thirst for it. Books are written, conferences are held, speakers are hired. Their ultimate goal is to show us that we are unsuccessful and offer success as something attainable.

“If it’s living it’s growing!” I heard a speaker exclaim to a room full of ministers and elders. The speaker was, of course, speaking of numerical growth. The implication is that big churches are alive and small churches are dead.

Our drive for success is only one side of the coin, the other is discontentment. Discontentment with the ordinary, discontentment with being one among many, discontentment with being a face in the crowd.

But scripture never gives us success as a value or a goal.

“‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,'” Jesus says, “‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3)

Not only the poor in spirit, but those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

To be sure, this is not a collection of successful people.

Blessed are the unsuccessful. 

The siren song of success is loud and nearly irresistible to those who come near it.  But when we find ourselves overcome by the song, we are unlikely to be able to see what is around us. In our pursuit of success, we see everything else as unsuccessful. The church doesn’t continually gain members, therefore it is unsuccessful. The preacher may not have the charisma to gain a following, therefore they are unsuccessful.

In my corner of the Bible Belt, our response to the last throes of the death of Christendom has been this cult of success. When our churches began declining in membership we turned toward church growth to find our salvation, and we labelled big churches and pastors of big churches successful, and all others unsuccessful.

***

I know well the siren song of success. I have fallen prey to its melody, and I try to resist. I try to resist not because success is bad, but because success is not the point. When we are overwhelmed by the siren song, we forget about the ordinary people in ordinary communities who are following Jesus in their ordinary ways. In our drive for success we have professional musicians, but have left out those who are growing in their abilities. In our drive for success we have made our worship services well scripted productions, and have left a majority of the congregation feeling inadequate to participate in leadership. In our drive for success we hold up big churches as faithful, and dismiss small churches as unfaithful. In our drive for success we have forgotten that our calling is not to be successful, or radical or extraordinary, but to be gloriously ordinary in our faith and life. Doing our ordinary things in ordinary ways.

***

To be sure Jesus wasn’t a success. Of course, he had a following, but when the going got tough, everyone disappeared, and even Peter couldn’t bring himself to admit to knowing him. He was eventually executed, which is certainly not a mark for success. But what we have seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is that what we understand to be success really isn’t. The last will be first, and the first last (Mt 20:16) and all that.

We love terms like “radical” and “extraordinary” and “success” but the truth is, Jesus came into the world in an ordinary fashion to live with ordinary people to show them that ordinary is not bad, in fact, perhaps ordinary life, ordinary faith, ordinary communities are the very seeds of redemption.

 

Gazing out the window

Girl Looking Out the Window

By Jeannie (madlyinlovewithlife) on Flickr

I have this thing…I need my desk, or wherever I work, to be near a window out of which I can easily see.

As I work (read, study, write), I spend a good deal of time gazing out the window.

Right now I am looking out of our front window, and there is nothing particularly beautiful about it, it simply faces the street. I see houses, a tree on which I am daily watching and waiting for buds, the street with cars, and people walking. Nothing particularly special, but it is life.

I have previously felt somewhat ashamed of this, that I spend a good deal of time gazing out the window. I look lazy, distracted. At times I feel lazy. People are not supposed to look out the window and be idle. After all, the way to work is to cram everyone into a sea of cubicles where the light of day can never touch. The best way to work is to block out the outside world and focus on one thing and one thing only: the task at hand.

So I do what I am supposed to do. I go to my office at church and sit at my desk. Because of the way the room is set up, including the fixed furniture, I cannot see out a window. In fact, the windows are colored translucent panes, so one cannot see through the glass anyway. And I work — or try to work. I am there to take phone calls if they come, I am there in case someone needs to see me. I return emails. I try to read. I try to write. I try to help open the biblical texts for my people in ways that speak to their lives in a meaningful way.

But it is those days when I write at home, or even write at my favorite coffee shop — and have access to a window out of which to see — that I am actually able to get words committed to paper, or more accurately, pixels turning from white to black in the form of letters, much more easily. Words flow better. My efficiency increases. Blocks that are otherwise there are gone. It is something about being able to stare out a window that makes me work better.

So I sit here and gaze out the window, and Jesus’ words come to mind, “Consider the lilies ..” (Lk 12:27), “Look at the birds of the air…” (Mt 6:26).

Jesus could have said, “take, for instance, the lilies.” Or, he could have said, “One example, is lilies.” But Jesus said consider. While translation is interpretation, but the original Greek word does carry connotations of contemplation, of looking reflectively upon, of thinking carefully about. Jesus doesn’t simply give an illustration, Jesus tells us to consider, to think on, to contemplate — to gaze.

***

Although this conflicts, somewhat, with the work ethic of my small-town Midwestern upbringing, I think that there is something holy and something beneficial to a degree of idleness. Of slowing down, of noticing, of gazing out the window, and of considering.

There is something about seeing the world which enables me to work, even if it is just window-gazing. Perhaps it is something that is better embraced than shied away from. Perhaps it is something which is better acknowledged than be embarrassed about. If Jesus can help his disciples learn something by telling them to contemplate on the lilies, perhaps I can learn something by looking at the world on the other side of the pane.

So, if you see me someday, and I’m looking out a window at a pub, coffee shop, or my flat, I’m not daydreaming, I’m not lazy, I’m just working — which often begins with a healthy dose of window gazing.

The Saturday Demon

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

It’s simple really. All I have to do is put one word in front of another, types of words ordered in a particular way. As I often do when I am having difficulty writing, I begin gazing around my bookshelf and my eyes stop at Stephen Dobyns’s book, Best Words, Best Order. That’s it, I think, all I have to do is find the best words and put them in the best order.

I have the opportunity to tell the story of grace and redemption every single week. I cannot think of a greater privilege than this.

But today it does not feel like a privilege. The best words cannot be found and the best order cannot be mapped.

It is the Saturday Demon.

The Saturday Demon comes around on Saturday when I am trying to put the finishing touches on my sermon for Sunday. I have spent all week studying, reading, praying, researching, translating, and beginning to write, but Saturday is my finishing day.

“It doesn’t really matter” the demon whispers in my ear. “None of it really matters.”

For me, the real danger that the Saturday Demon poses is not that it creates doubt, it is that it highlight and fortifies the doubts which are already so present.

“You’re a fraud,” it tells me. “You lie to people and give them false hope.”

The Saturday Demon knows exactly how to attack. I begin to wonder if this is worth it. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, perhaps I am doing this all for nothing, perhaps none of this is real.

Confession time: I am a pastor, and I have great doubt.

***

I’m a doubting Thomas, as some might call me, although I loathe this term. Why does Thomas get such a bad rap? Peter denied that he knew anything about Jesus of Nazareth not once, not twice, but three times. Do we remember Peter only as a denier?  Do we call someone a “I Don’t Know Him Peter”? No.

But Thomas’s reputation is forever stained as being a doubter, and doubting is seen as something terrible. Doubt is the antithesis of faith, we tell our young people, doubting is weakness. Doubting is sin, we say, God wants us to have confidence.

***

The more I try to ignore the Saturday Demon, the louder is speaks. Rather than trying to ignore it, I decide to listen to it for a moment. Hear it out. After all, Jesus didn’t just try to ignore the devil when he was being tempted in the desert, he carried on a conversation.

“Just stop,” it tells me, “none of this matters anyway, you’re just wasting your time.”

“Are you finished?” I ask the Saturday Demon. “I’m going to get back to work now,” and I continue pounding away on the keyboard trying to find the best words and trying to find the best order. The Saturday Demon continues to assault me, but it is important that I do not give in to its attack, I cannot become defeated, and the best way to do this is to keep working, even when these doubts erupt on schedule like Old Faithful. After all, I have people who depend on me.

I’m a pastor. I’m a doubter. Maybe this is why God has called me to this kind of ministry at this point in my life, so that even when I have great doubts, I still have to show up, stand in front of the congregation, and tell them the good news of the story of grace and redemption. It is through telling of the same story over and over again that I can, in some way, continue to believe even with my doubts.

Perhaps the reason that we will always link doubt and Thomas together, perhaps the reason that we remember Thomas for nothing other than his doubts is that we see ourselves in Thomas. In seeing in this mirror, we can see in ourselves what we so greatly despise, and we attempt to ensure that we keep him and his doubts at arm’s length.

This disapproving way that we speak of doubt is incredibly unfortunate. Truly, if doubt has no place in the church, it is no wonder why so many young people leave the church. If doubt has no place in the journey of faith, it is no wonder why there are an increasing number of “nones” when asked about religion.

Perhaps it is not the absence of doubt which is to be prized, but the ability to have faith and doubt at the same time, and live with the tension.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Today is January 1st, New Year’s Day. The first day of 2013.

My travels for the holidays are over, and I have been able to settle back into my home and to some sense of normalcy (if such a thing can exist for pastors).

Although the end-of-year retrospectives are typically over, I am doing so as I stand between what has been and what will be.

This past year, 2012, has been a year of transitions and experiences.

First and foremost, it was during 2012 that I began this blog. A few posts are earlier, as I have had a couple of blog incarnations before this, none of which were brought to fruition for a number of reasons. While I am still working on finding my routine on this, my public writing space, this has been a year of disciplined writing, and a place to share some of my world with you, with the hopes that you can relate to this in one way or another. I am grateful for this space, and I am grateful for each of you, my readers, who share this experience with me. After all, you are the reason that I continue coming back here week after week to reflect on my view of the world we share.

This past year was also one in which I was able to celebrate anniversaries. I celebrated the one year anniversary of ordained ministry. I have been able to share with you joys and struggles, the good and the not-so-good, the moments in which God is clearly evident and the moments in which God seems to be absent. I have sought to honestly, openly, and graciously reflect on the beauty and the underside of ministry in an inner-city context.

So here we together stand at the cusp of the year 2013. A new year with new possibilities. A new year can be an exciting time, looking forward with anticipation to what may come. It also can be a time of great anxiety as is common for facing the unknown.

I am not sure what 2013 will hold, but one thing I know: God will walk with us, and lead us, through whatever we may face this coming year. This, while not erasing anxieties, allows them to be manageable and allows me to look toward this year with hope.

Thank you for sharing last year with me, and I hope that you will continue to stick with me this coming year, dear reader, as I am looking forward to sharing it with you.

Being faithful with my little

I often find myself frustrated. I have been given very little.  I have very little in terms of number of people in my congregation, very little in terms of my facilities, exceptionally little in terms of financial resources, and little in terms of other resources in my congregation and community.

I don’t want to have little, I want to have much. I want to have a resourceful congregation. I want to have a big and beautiful building that will make people want to stop in if nothing other than to see the facility. I want to have a church which has a large endowment so that I can have some sort of stability and that we can follow God’s leading without having to worry about from where the money for the electric bill will come. I want to have a community in which people want to live, and where people have jobs and some sort of stability.

I often find myself dissatisfied and think about moving on to somewhere else. This is one of the problems with our governance. I am not placed, I interview and accept a call, if offered. As such, it feels much like looking for secular employment. I decide where I want to apply to. I interview, if they like me, they will extend a call which I can decide whether or not to accept.  While these procedures do have to pass through the regional assemblies, in practice, the bulk of the processes reflect secular employment. I have no term of service, I was not obviously placed here by the church.

Because of this, I feel like I can sometimes just leave and go to greener pastures.  To those type of churches in which I always imagined I would pastor. However, this is not just dependent on me. I have to believe that God placed me where I am for a reason. I am a servant of the sanctuary, after all.

“‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much'” (Luke 16:10, NRSV).

This is a sobering verse.

A judgement, almost.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little…”

Perhaps it is not a mistake that I am here. Perhaps my desires have run rampant. Perhaps my desires for more, my desires for much are too much too soon. Perhaps I am not fit, at least right now, for much.

I find myself sometimes jealous of others who have much. This makes me want to search the parish openings, freshen up my profile, and try to move somewhere else with much.

Perhaps, however, I am not in the wrong place. Perhaps I am in precisely the right place. Perhaps what is wrong is my pining for more. Perhaps I desire more than I ought to. Perhaps I have little because that is all I can have now. Perhaps God is actually smarter than I, and knows that I am not yet ready for much. Perhaps I am being taught how to be faithful with little.

Please, O God, help me to be faithful with my very little, and banish my desire for much.

When the loss feels more significant than the gain

it's lonely at the top

By Benefit of Hindsight on Flickr

“I can’t do this anymore,” I told my beloved.
“Can’t do what anymore?” she said.
“I can’t do any of this — alone — anymore,” I replied.

* * *

The preaching moment is a fantastic example of the consequences of pastoral ministry. During the preaching moment, regardless of whether the sermon is delivered from the pulpit or standing on the floor in the midst of a seated congregation, the clergyperson stands alone. The congregation is seated, typically silent, listening to the clergyperson expounding on sacred scripture.  The moment of focus is almost completely on the person preaching.

For those who appreciate the spotlight, the lure of preaching, and consequently ministry, is strong. The authority given to members of the clergy, the authority with which the preacher speaks, and the authority on which the message rests is unique amongst public speaking moments.

The lure of attention, the lure of the ability to speak in an authoritative manner, the lure of being the focus is great — often inescapable.  This is the temptation that some of us face, to leap headfirst into pastoral ministry because of the idea that we have about it.  Like many other professions, the reality is much different than the ideal.

* * *

When one stands alone apart from the congregation, one is truly alone, much like in the service for Ordination of a Minister of Word and Sacrament

In the preaching moment, the clergyperson is not actually apart from the body of Christ, but holds a particular role within the body of Christ. Although theologically, the pastor is not at the top, functionally, this often happens this way, and as the idiom goes, “it’s lonely at the top.”

I lost the ability to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the body of Christ, I lost the ability to be ministered to each week, I lost the privilege of being able to fully enter into the worship experience each week, I lost the ability to hold up and be held up by the body of Christ, as I now have to be very selective of those to whom I go for care and support.

* * *

Ministry is a privilege, but it is a privilege that comes with great loss, and many times that loss feels much greater than that which is gained.  Perhaps this is a hidden grace, to learn to cope with loss and still to learn to see God.

Reflections on One Year of Ordained Ministry

One year ago today I stood in front of the president of the classis, the regional assembly in my denomination.  Behind me sat the members of the classis, and behind them sat family and friends who had come to share this special day.

Of particular significance was the part of the service which is traditionally called “The Interrogation”, although that term is rarely used any longer. It is a time in which the power differential is very visible.  The presiding officer stands behind a lectern on the chancel, and I stood on the floor looking upward.  When I was examined by the classis, I stood with others.  When I made my declaration as a licensed candidate (the intermediate stage between “candidate” and “minister”) I stood with others.  This particular day, however, I stood alone.

There was no one around to answer for me, I could not hide behind anyone.  Even more significant, was that there was no one to lean on, either.

Do you confess together with us and the church throughout the ages your faith in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

This was the moment to which I had felt called, for which I prepared.  This was the culmination of three academic degrees, three years of ecclesiastical examinations following the academic ones, and two years of interviewing with churches.  It was an exciting moment, but also a sobering moment, as I felt a weight on my shoulders that slowly increased with each additional question.

Do you believe in your heart that you are called by Christ’s church, and therefore by God, to this ministry of Word and sacrament?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

Much like my wedding, it was a moment that would set a particular course for my life, and there was no turning back after this. While I do not come from a tradition where ordination is understood to ontologically change someone, we ordain people for life, because in the declaration for Ministers, following the ordination, the newly ordained minister says, “I pledge my life to preach and teach the good news of salvation in Christ…” Although I remain the same person after the ordination, my place in life and in the church is radically altered.

Do you believe the books of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and the perfect doctrine of salvation, rejecting all contrary beliefs?
Yes, truly, with all my heart.

For the previous several years I had been learning, exploring, dialoguing, engaging.  That day, however, was different.  I had no opportunity to defer, to qualify, to write an essay. I did not have the opportunity to confer with colleagues or do further reading or research. It was a scary moment to make a declarative statement, particularly for someone who prefers to consider, think, read, write, and confer.

Will you proclaim the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; upholding the witness of Holy Scripture against all schisms and heresies?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

I immensely miss the academic environment. I miss the community of scholarship, I miss the intellectual growth that happens, I miss the regular evaluation, and I miss the ability to explore. Parish ministry exists in a different world. It is a world in which one statement, thought to be interesting, may be kept and used as a weapon at a later time. It is a place where a person has only one chance to say the right thing. It is a world in which rejections continue to happen, with the absence of comments or suggestions on how to improve or even explanations. What is more, parish ministry is a world in which I cannot barricade myself in a library for days on end.

Will you be diligent in your study of Holy Scriptures and in your use of the means of grace?  Will you pray for God’s people and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

Ministry is a fish-bowl. Not only am I expected to be the perfect pastor, being everything to everyone, I am also expected to keep my entire life in order and maintain healthy self-care practices to provide an example for the faithful. It is an impossible task, one that seems like it will never be accomplished. The days are often when all I want to do is to go where nobody knows my name. The opportunity simply to exist, to be seen with fresh and eyes that do not know any better who I am or what I do.

Will you accept the church’s order and governance, submitting to ecclesiastical discipline should you become delinquent in either life or doctrine?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

Will you be loyal to the witness and work of the Reformed Church in America, using all your abilities to further its Christian mission here and throughout the world?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

The answer to the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism reads, “…I am not my own…”  While this refers to the wonderful comfort of the sovereignty and providence of God, it also became apparent that in every way I am not my own.  I belong to God, but I also belong to the church. I want to belong to myself, to be in charge of my own destiny. However, I largely offered that belonging, that control, to the church when I made these promises.  While there may be something comforting about feeling in control, there is something humbling about belonging, almost completely, to God and to God’s agents on earth.

Will you strive to fulfill faithfully, diligently, and cheerfully, all the duties of a minister of Christ: to preach the Word of God in sincerity, to administer the sacraments in purity, to maintain proper discipline in the household of God, and to shepherd the flock faithfully?
I will, and I ask God to help me.

It was at this final question of the Interrogation, that I felt the immense isolation of standing alone on the floor before the President of the Classis, as I realized that no one could answer for me. I stood alone.

However, this sense of alone-ness was alleviated when the actual ordination occured and all ministers and elders of the classis are invited to participate in the laying on of hands.  In ministry, although we must at times stand alone, we are never alone.  I do not know if this was the design of the rite, to help the candidate feel utterly alone and burdened, and then to welcome them into community.  If it was not in the design, it is a very salient side-effect.

* * *

As I reflect on my ordination one year later, I have the opportunity to examine my promises and my ability to keep them. Have I been able to keep them?  Some better than others, but I strive for all of them.  It occurs to me that the response, “I will, and I ask God to help me” is not a one time promise, but something for which we must continually strive.

One thing that I do know for sure, however, is this: Over the past year, I have learned just how difficult and how weighty those promises actually are.

I still feel that immense weight upon my shoulders, and perhaps, in a way, it is a good thing. It is because I feel this weight that I realize that I continue to take this all seriously.  It is also because of this weight that I can seek God’s help (as well as the help of others) to alleviate some of it, knowing that I do not have to carry it all alone.

When it All Comes Together

Half-way through my sermon, I saw about one third of the congregation sleeping, another third appeared to be present in body only (somewhere else in mind), and the final third appeared to be engaged.

After the service, I was told that the bathroom was out of toilet paper. It was full before the service.  This, of course, means that someone stole our toilet paper, again.  We go through quite a bit of toilet paper and most of it gets stolen.  Financially it adds up, but the larger concern is the principle behind it, that people steal from their church, particularly when we try to give it to people when they ask.

All of this after I spoke about not stealing.

* * *

I don’t need continual ego-stroking, but I do like to know that my work and my efforts make an impact. So many times it does not appear that my work makes the slightest of difference and I’m stuck wondering why I even try.

As we were all leaving, one of the children of our congregation, a seven year-old girl, came up to me.

“Pastor, I made this for you.”

It was a picture and it had some writing on it. I held it in my hands and began to decipher the seven year-old handwriting.

She said to me, “It says ‘We love God, and God loves us.'”

I looked over at her and she smiled. I smiled back, and she gave me a hug.

She gets it, I thought, she gets it in her own seven year-old way.  This is the essence of what I speak of every week.  “We love God, and God loves us.”

I won’t ever know the full impact that our church has on people.  So I keep working, keep telling people about God’s love and grace and I will keep looking at that picture, “We love God, and God loves us.

Sometimes grace comes from the least expected places.

Marginalia of a Past Life

Formerly, I had a habit of making notes in the books that I was reading. This was a way for me to reflect on what I had read and would allow me the opportunity, in a way, to engage in a conversation with the author. It was also a time at which I was young and arrogant enough to believe that I had something to say which was valuable enough to place next to the words of the author.

It is a practice which I abandoned when I came to a realization of my own mortality.

I noticed that my marginalia tracked my intellectual development, and I realized that one day I was going to die. My library would be split up and it would go to a variety of places, hopefully to someone who could use my books. I imagined that, in the course of reading one of my books, someone would come across a rather dull margin note, wonder who would write something so uninspired, turn to the front endpaper and see my name. Thus would be my legacy. So, I stopped making margin notes.

A couple of years ago, I even went through what I refer to as “the great purge,” when I went through many of my books and erased any margin notes that existed (as I only write in pencil). Some books, however, survived the great purge, some by oversight, others because I ran out of time. I was flipping through one of these books recently, and I came across a margin note that was, in its entirety, intact.

It was in Richard Lischer’s book Open Secrets. I read this book while in seminary at a time when I was quite confident I was never going to serve a local church. At the end of the book, the author left his church after nearly three years, this was my note (complete with all of the poor sentence structure):

Sometimes the most affirmation and gratitude comes at the end of a stay. God doesn’t always make everything pleasant, but God does work [in it]. We don’t always see the effects right away — but we have to trust that God works through us to change the lives of people. Even when we don’t see it at the time.

It was quite strange to read these words, written in my hand a few years ago, although the impact of the time has been great. I was a different person then. It was more than just a voice from the past, it was a voice from a past life.

I could almost picture myself, sitting in Holland, Michigan at my favorite coffee shop grasping a bright yellow mug which contrasted well with the black of the coffee that it contained. I typically looked out the window to a white church over a century old and built in gorgeous Greek revival architectural style. Wondering what my life would look like in a few short years, I wrote this note in a moment of seeming clarity and inspiration, hoping to hold onto this insight for the future.

I began to wonder what my past self would think of my present self. What would my hopeful past self think of my despairing present self? What would my faith-filled and idealist past self think of the cold-calculating rationality of my present self? What would the tender-heartedness of my past self think of the cynicism of my present self?

I wonder if my past self would be disappointed in the person that I am now, in the fact that although I am an urban pastor, I spend more time doing budgetary calculations and financial projections than I do telling people about Jesus, in the fact that I traded in my radical hope in the providence of God for planning the future solely based upon what I can see and “realistically expect,” or the fact that I have transformed from believing that communities could be transformed into this-worldly places of hope and peace to simply resigning to the idea that things which are will likely be until the parousia.

I wonder what happened to the “me” who could see through struggles to see that God was at work, who could see through difficult situations and see that God is in the process of transforming, who could see suffering and understand that it was just a trip through the wilderness, and that the wilderness does not last forever. I feel as though I do not even know that individual that wrote those words in the margin of that book.

Perhaps I can learn something from the margin-notes of a past life, perhaps I can reclaim that past self who felt so strongly called to ministry, who wept when he would reflect on the church as the body of Christ. Perhaps I can find something of that past self that could see the spark of God within each person and tempered the doctrine of total depravity with the fact that the Holy Spirit is continually sanctifying us. Perhaps I can reclaim something of that past self that wanted nothing more than to serve the church even though he didn’t know where exactly that would take him.

Perhaps this was a gift, that a few books unintentionally survived the great purge. Perhaps my present self can learn something from my past self and shed this jaded cynicism and return to a faithful hope than in God anything and everything is possible, and that God is always forming and transforming things for the better.