Sunday, June 19, 2011

Being Present

So today was Father's Day. Our minister mentioned this point today, but it was on my mind first thing this morning. Why is it that on Mother's Day, the sermons are always about how wonderful mothers are, but when Father's Day rolls around, all of us fathers are a bunch of schmucks who can't get their act together? It is a wonder that fathers do not get a complex, even the best ones. I think a lot about my role as a father to three little girls. There is always something to worry about--money, school transitions, family interactions, etc. One thing I hope my children never have to worry about is my presence in their lives.

I have come to realize over the course of the last several years that a father's presence in his children's lives is a key part of their formation as adults. How they view themselves and how they experience and demonstrate love in the future has a whole lot to do with how they were loved and engaged by their fathers. Maybe I have come to this realization because there was a time when I was more concerned about "providing for them" than engaging them. I have decided that, though providing for our children's needs is an essential part of being a father, it is not even close to the most important role. Since going into full-time church ministry I have never made as much money as I did when I was teaching full time and worked at a church part time. There are things I would like to have and things I would like to give them that I probably never will. I have to remind them over and over again that sometimes the joy of going some place is being together, not buying a memento. I am sure they just love that conversation.

I grew up in a close family, but I don't think I understood what close family ties meant until I got married. My parents-in-law were both products of large extended families. They all lived very close to each other and so it made it interesting to go and visit them because, no matter where we went in town, we would run into some relative. These folks liked to talk, especially my father-in-law. They would get together and tell the same stories over and over again. It was annoying really. The stories rarely varied, and I could not figure out what the significance of telling the same stories again and again had for them. As I look back, I understand that the stories were their family currency. They did not grow up with much money, but what they had were stories, shared experiences that were very meaningful. Honestly, I wish I could hear them tell them one more time.

A family can't have stories to remember if the members are not present. Today I took my children to the zoo and we watched a movie together. We make it a priority that no matter what, we will sit down and have dinner together every night. I have known too many men in full-time ministry who have allowed their church duties to supersede their relationship with their families. I am determined to keep my priorities where they should be. What really is more important than pouring your life into your child's?

My prayer for this Father's Day: "Lord, help me to be an engaged father who teaches by example and not by absenteeism. Help me be the kind of father who makes it easier, rather than harder, for my children to call you Father. Amen."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Drink Offerings

So, after the wonderfully crazy first five months of the year, I was looking forward to coasting along this summer a little bit. It is turning out to be a very productive season and, of course, that means I have more life events to over analyze. I am not an INFJ for nothing.

It has been nearly a week since I returned from our church youth choir's concert tour of Florida. We went to Melbourne, Miami, Key West, Naples, Sarasota, and Orlando. It kinda made me miss living in Florida, except the humidity which is definitely in full force there as well as here in dear ole southwest Georgia. I have to admit, I had the best time I have had in a long time. You forget when you get to a certain age how much fun, and how dramatic it is, to be a teenager. I had gotten to know some who are part of the choir because I would help out from time to time with sectional rehearsals and several of them were also in our church production of Joseph. But, you do not really get to know people until you spend 24/7 with them. I had the honor of taping doors at night and wishing all the rooms a night filled with pleasant dreams. I also got to go with them to several rescue missions, the Miami Rescue Mission being the most significant. Besides the serious work, we also had fun exploring Key West, touring the Everglades, shopping, and visiting Islands of Adventure in Orlando. I could probably blog for hours about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (I bought a wand and a chocolate frog), but that story will have to be told another time. The nutshell version is we had a great time and I learned a lot about some very multi-faceted young people and my life is better for getting to know them.

If you are in church ministry, you realize you are in the business of people. I know this well, but I admit, there are times when I just want to do what I want to do. But something I learned long ago is that it is not about me. Nothing I do is as significant as what the Holy Spirit has in mind. By subverting my ego, I am much better able to serve the people He has led me to serve. This does not mean I do not have an opinion or desires of my own. What it means is my desires and plans are not what is important. I don't have to do everything just because I think it needs to be done. This is something that has taken me a long time to learn. For instance, I do not remember a time when I was not teaching music and working in a church. But since I moved to Albany, I have not had a desire to teach part time at a community college like I did when I was in Panama City. I think I needed to teach while I was in Florida because I was holding on to that image I had of myself as a college professor. Like I said in my last post, I no longer wake up thinking of myself that way. I believe for the first time that I do not need anything else, besides what I am called to do here. True, I have taken on projects that are not completely directed toward my music ministry (a musical, a summer Bible study, my ordination coursework), but they all relate to the greater purpose of the church in which I work. I really don't need anything else.

Now what I have learned through this process of moving to southwest Georgia is the importance of completely engaging the people I am called to serve. A little over a year ago, someone told me they were afraid that wherever I would go, I would find a way to disconnect from people. It was meant to hurt me, and I understood that, but it still worked a number on me. Our Enemy has a way of bringing people into our lives to derail us by telling us things about ourselves that are only partly true. The truth is, I am an introvert and as an introvert, I tend to need more time away from people than other, more extroverted personality types need. I battled over what this person told me for six months. And one day, the Lord just took it away from me. It was like I woke up, realized it was a lie, and decided not to live in that self-pitying place anymore. I am grateful.

The plain truth of all of this soul searching? If we are not pouring our lives into others, we are wasting our time. I cannot be worried about acclaim or prestige. I do not need someone to recognize me at the grocery store or see me on television. But if I can help one young person figure out their path, if I can be encouraging to the members of my church staff, if I can share hope with the members of my music ministry, if I can engage the community in which I live with love--then I have accomplished all that is necessary to a successful ministry. I am reminded of what the Apostle Paul said to his disciple Timothy: "As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing."
(2 Timothy 4:5-8 ESV)

My prayer for today: "Lord, make me a drink offering that is poured out in your service and the service of others. Holy Spirit, strip away any false humility and bring every motivation into captivity to your will, that I would birth in others something of eternal value. Amen"

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

As we continue to learn the same lessons ...

Okay, so I had a rough transition to southwest Georgia. Although, I believed without doubt that we were supposed to be here and all that stuff we Christians tell ourselves to make difficult things okay, I was not okay. I had a fairly long grieving process for the life I left in Panama City. Last fall, everyone in my new church was very supportive, but I felt more and more isolated and left to my own devices. I would pray, and I swear, God would not answer. Stone. Brass sky. Something like that. Misty and I both were a little miserable. I turned to the one thing that is always comforting to me--food. I gained 23 pounds in about 4 months. It was fun. The holidays were awful. The choir threw a party after we had finished our Christmas musical presentation and I did not feel better. I can't say how awful I felt. This is the saddest, most pathetic, most self-loathing story ever told.

But something happened January 1, 2011. I don't know if it was God or me or both of us, but things began to change. Misty and I started going to a Sunday school class and that was good for both of us. I got into rehearsals for our church production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and that took up half my life for two months. The choir got gung ho about our Easter music and wanted to practice twice a week. And I had a big fundraising concert event 10 days after Easter called "Songs in the Key of Dance" to plan. I never had time to rest. And, besides all of this stuff that was going on, I decided to bring my treadmill back into the house. So I got in the habit of running a 5k six days a week and eating much less and being happy about it. And I read the Bible over and over again. Since I moved to Georgia, I read it through 4 full times. And, besides that, I had to transfer my ordination process to southwest Georgia as well. I've been busy.

It has been a very full year, one of the best and worst of my life. In a year like this, you would hope to learn something. So here is what I know now:

1. It is really hard to move to a small town where everyone is related to or has known everybody else in town since preschool. #Really hard.

2. For the first time since I went into full-time church ministry, I no longer wake up thinking I am just loaning myself out to a church before I decide to go back to the academic world. This is BIG. It means I no longer think of myself as a college professor. For the first time I think I need to be ordained because it is who I am.

3. Gaining the same weight you lost before is just hating yourself. The excuse not to exercise is always that we don't have enough time. But, I know this for sure, we have time to do everything we deem important. I am probably going to put this somewhere where I have to look at it everyday.

4. It is always better to stay busy than to let yourself have time to concentrate on what is not right in your life. So, in my summer off season, I am going on the youth choir tour to Key West, doing music for vacation Bible school, co-teaching an adult Bible study (Through the Bible in 90 Days) and taking a course in United Methodist history for my ordination.

So, if you have worried that I was not communicating with you. Cheer up. I wasn't communicating with anyone.

"But, thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (I Corinthians 15:57)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Too Big for My Britches

I used to be a blogger. But after the events that culminated in my leaving Florida to move to southwest Georgia almost a year ago, I decided to give it a rest. For those of you who have encouraged me to start writing again, I am still considering it. I think I am finding my voice again. Here is what I was thinking about not long after I moved to Georgia. Hopefully there will be more to come in the near future.

It has now been a few months since my last entry. I had planned to give a run down of the last few months of my life since making the decision to uproot my life in Florida and move to southwest Georgia. I have decided to leave those thoughts in the past for now. I have a really hard time moving on. I tend to let things simmer for much longer than necessary. I just don't snap out of it very quickly. I believe this is a weakness of my personality type. And, speaking of that, if I learned nothing else during my four years in Florida, I learned about personalities. This has become something of a fascination with me--attempting to understand personalities and why people do the things they do. I admit that one of the reasons I wanted to make a change was because I got tired of having to be the one who understands. Forgiveness is one thing. Being a doormat is quite another. In the end, I do believe God opened a door for me to step away from my former situation (which, for the most part was very positive) and into a new one that may just have been created for me especially.

But, to say it is the way I would have planned it, would not be true. I have talked about this over and over again, and you would think by now I would have gotten it, but God's plans are often not my plans. In fact, I have begun to believe God chooses paths for me just to reassure me of how bad my planning really is. This is especially frustrating for someone who likes to have everything mapped out months/years in advance. Why is it that I cannot do the things I really want to do? Because God has something better planned for me--something that I cannot imagine. I think about how the Apostle Paul had his life completely together and then he came to a fork in the road and was forced to make a change. How different was Paul's life from what he had planned? If someone had told me when I graduated from high school that I would be living in southwest Georgia in 20 years, I would have told them they were mad.

But here I sit in southwest Georgia, as assured as I ever have been in my life that I am where I should be. I had a parishioner ask me the other day if there were things I missed about living in Florida and I admit that there are some things I wish I had here, but those things are trivial in comparison to what I have been given by being obedient to God's call.

Last week we visited Plains, Georgia, the home of former President Jimmy Carter. Talk about a tiny little place--less than 700 residents in the entire town. We went to visit the historical site and watched a short movie about the president's life in which his wife, Rosalynn talked about their return to Plains after Jimmy's father died in the 1950s. She said she was not very happy to move back to Plains, that she liked her life, that she felt she had outgrown it. But she had gotten a little too big for her britches and she realized not long after moving back that she still had things to learn from her tiny hometown. Her statement resonated with me because I know I would not be here if God did not have something to teach me. And just when I think I have it together, God has a way of reminding me that He is the one putting things together.

"Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:12-14, ESV)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Make God Laugh . . . Tell Him Your Plans

About eight months ago a friend posted on his blog that he had not heard from several of his fellow bloggers in some time and wanted to reopen the conversation that we have via the internet. Since we live so far from each other, blogging had become one of our few stable means of communication. Blogging for me was cathartic and healing. I grappled with some trying issues and personal struggles and in laying down my thoughts in written form, I was able to return to them, allow them to simmer, and let them go.

But, about a year ago, I realized that the issues I was facing and the struggles which were weighing on me were too personal to share on this blog. What was meant to be a faceless working out of my inner turmoils, became a source of turmoil for me. The nutshell version is that even though professionally everything looked like things were wonderful, things were not wonderful in this little part of paradise. My music groups were doing very well. My classes were much better than they were last spring. I took 4 graduate courses toward my ordination. Everything looked good on paper. But I began to believe, whether it was true or not, that I could not comment on some of the crazy things that were going on around me. I admit, the older I get the less I like conflict and conflict and drama seemed to be all that I could find wherever I looked. At home, everything was fine, but even there I began to seclude myself in my own private shell. I knew what was happening to me, but I felt helpless to do anything about it. I knew it was bad when, over the Christmas holidays I read 15 books, including all the Harry Potter books.

I promised myself when we moved to Florida that I would never feel trapped again by my surroundings or my situation, but here I was again in the midst of something that I could not control. I really wanted to hide. And, the sad part is that few people recognized what was going on. Last September, my church began looking for a new recreation director/minister for our new building and I was put in charge of posting our open position on the national ministry websites. I admit that from time to time I would look at open positions, wondering what life might be like wherever, but it had been quite some time since I had done this. So, when I started posting our open position, I also started to look at what might suit me better. Purely hypothetically, I had no intention of sending out resumes or seriously looking for anything new. It was September for Pete's sake. The girls had just started school. I looked anyway.

I came across a posting for a church in Albany, Georgia. I had to Google map it to figure out where it was. I was not really impressed, but I felt this odd compulsion to find out more about it. I sent in an inquiry email with a few questions. They responded back in all the appropriate ways, so I sent in a resume. I did not even attach references to this resume because I was not interested. I just really wanted another church to be interested in me. I would feel better about myself and get on with my life here. Pathetic. Well, later that week I got a call from this church asking for my references. I was in a quandary. Do I send them my references when I know I cannot possibly make a change now? I decided I could not and I told them to take my name off the list of potential candidates. It was done and over and that was that. Or so I thought.

About two weeks passed and I was going on my merry way when I got an email from someone I did not know. He said he was the youth pastor at the church in Albany. Oddly enough, he was a former Pentecostal as well. He told me that he and his wife had moved to Albany from a larger city a couple of years earlier. They were not really interested in moving, but were compelled by friends to come for a visit. They loved it. But, they could not get away quickly either and the church was willing to wait for them nine months before they were all in residence in Albany. I was in a bit of shock. He said that if I really felt like the timing was off that was fine, but if I was at all interested, I should resubmit my name because the church was willing to wait for the right person whenever it was right for everyone. I resubmitted my name and sent in references.

I admit that even doing this, I did not think anything would come of it. I think I was in such a low state that I could not see past my own existence to fathom that God might have a hand in all this. The funny thing is that I was so casual about all of this that I never told Misty until I resubmitted my name as a candidate. Let's say, she did not think it was all that funny. We got to looking at the town and schools and she got a little worried. Her main question was "Why there?" We have talked often about the possibility of a change in the future, but we always talked about moving to a bigger city, rich in culture, etc. This was definitely not what we were looking for. I told her not to worry about it. I did not want to move there anyway. I just wanted some encouragement. So we left it at that and months passed.

In December, my liaison to the search committee told me the church wanted me to come for a visit in January. I did not respond. Things were crazy in December at the church and they only got crazier in the new year. I finally responded to his email and told him I would not be able to come for a visit until early February. Their committee was okay with this and they sent me a packet of stuff to prepare for my visit. Well, things got even crazier at the church and I really felt like I would not be able to make a visit to Albany, but I began to realize that I would not remain in my current position much longer. Something just had to give. So, I called my liaison and talked to him about some things that I needed to know about his church and decided to make the trip after all.

What is funny about this whole process is that even with all of these signs pointing toward this little city in southwest Georgia, I still was not ready to say this was it. I had an interview with another church via telephone the night before I drove to Albany. It was in a nice church not very far from my old home. It was a great interview. I liked them. They liked me. We were on the phone for almost two hours.

As I drove into Albany the next morning, I thought to myself . . . the other church is the one. I think this church deserves a good interview, but I am just going to be myself and maybe not all that nice. What have I got to lose? This is not going to be a good fit. Misty really did not care for the place and was pretty adamant that this was not it, so I was prepared with some very pointed questions.

Then I met the staff and the committee and I cannot tell you how much at home I felt. It was kind of awful and wonderful. Most of the people I met seemed like old friends. It was astonishing. I still asked the questions. But I felt like I got the answers I needed. When I called Misty that night to tell her, she seemed different. She was okay with what I was telling her. Within a few days of my visit, she told the girls we might be making a move. You about had to pick me up off the floor. Within two weeks we went back to Albany to show the girls the town and the church. We had a great time. All the girls liked it. Two weeks later they offered me a job.

I admit that over the course of the first two months of this year I spent more time in prayer and daily Bible reading than I had in some time. I read through the Bible in 65 days. I cried more than I have in years. It seemed that I was only at peace when I was praying or reading the Bible. My family was praying for this whole situation, for a resolution to my personal crisis. And I believe the resolution has presented itself. Whereas we have enjoyed our time in Panama City, we are looking forward to a new chapter that will begin in the next couple of months.

I read this article in GQ this past month in which an odd source encapsulated my feelings about this entire period of searching: "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans." I have long been a planner and I even now I still want to know everything ahead of time. I am having to remind myself that because God has been so faithful throughout this process, I have nothing to fear. But I do hope you will pray with us as we make this transition.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Breaking Radio Silence

It has been over a month since I last blogged. May 2009 is the first month in a couple of years which has gone without comment from me here. I have been in a weird mood for the last several months that has made me not want to give my opinions on anything of validity in written form.

After my trip to Texas, I have been in a funk that I have not been able to get myself out of very easily. I do not think anything in particular is wrong, nor do I think I am ready for a move. I just think I am beginning to notice things around me that bother me more than I have let on. Part of the problem is that not everything I do fills my life with meaning. For most people, this would be a shake the dust off, get back on the horse, get over it moment. For me, it is a crisis because I need everything in my life to be filled with significance. I cannot merely go through the motions of my life, I need for each event to be filled with layer upon layer of meaning.

Some of this soul searching, I am sure, has to do with the normal letdown after Easter. But some of it has to do with those things that I feel make me who I am. My semester at the community college was not good. I absolutely hated my class and I dropped more than half of my voice students for absenteeism. I am finding more and more that my classes are filled with people who have no clue. They do not read. They are not even particularly well-versed in pop culture. If it is not on a reality program, they probably do not know anything about it. I have complained about this seeming lack of knowledge skills in younger folks these days at length before, but, for the first time, I began to question my ability to communicate with young adults. I have always felt like my ability to deal with college-aged people was one of my greatest gifts. I have consistently been able to find ways to speak into the lives of people who were on the cusp of becoming. But this ability seemed to evade me this semester.

Even worse, I began to doubt my interest in music. Always having to explain why I like the kind of music I like, why I spent my life learning about it, and why I feel the compulsion to perform and teach was wearing me out. I had not felt like that since I was much younger and less assured of myself. I was beginning to think maybe I would do something else in the years to come. I was starting to look at my upcoming coursework for ordination as a means to another, nonmusical end. I have never ever seriously considered the possibility of doing something other than music. True, there was a time when I was so unhappy in my old life that I thought about becoming a postal worker. I like mail. I got over it.

But here I was, thinking it might be nice to do something else, all because I was not receiving some kind of elusive validation that I needed. This is not to say that I do not receive validation here, because that is essentially untrue. I get a lot of validation from my church members and the members of the music ministry. For instance, I had a member of my choir mention to me a few weeks ago that they worried about what would happen after I left the church. I chuckled and told her that she did not need to worry about that. But she continued, indicating that she worried about it quite a bit. She mentioned some differences between me and the former music director and then she was on to another topic of conversation. Funny thing, this was the second conversation in as many days that basically has the same content. "You are not going to be here forever. What will happen then?"

I guess I should take this as a compliment (and I did). I just did not realize that people were already placing bets as to when I might leave the beautiful emerald coast. Granted, I have never thought of this sojourn as a forever deal, but I never realized it was obvious to those around me. Maybe this is because I live in a pretty transient part of the world. Many military folks come into Panama City and leave within a couple of years for other assignments, so no one is here forever unless they are here to retire. Or maybe it is what it is and I'll leave it at that. I will worry about times and seasons another day.

In other news~School is out finally for all our little angels. Madeline finished her preschool class without burning down the building. She is a bit moody and her teachers reminded me of this often. They just don't understand. Elizabeth got through Kindergarten in one piece. She told us that she would likely never see her teacher again, but her teacher goes to church with us, so she may have been premature in telling us this. Emma took her first FCat exam and made a perfect score on the math portion. She did not get this ability from her dad. She did not, however, make a relief map of the Holy Land which was my favorite part of third grade. I will have to plan to make one with her this summer.

Next week I begin my first two classes toward ordination. I decided to try to transfer in some courses and Asbury is allowing me 18 hours of credit, 6 hours of which will go fully toward the requirements for ordination. By the end of the year, I should be half way finished with my required courses. I just have to decide how much further I want to go after I finish those 30 hours or so. I may even be provisionally ordained by this time next year. Let's hope.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Angels and Demons

I read an interesting essay in today's New York Times by Dennis Overbye regarding the relationship of science and religion. This topic is at the forefront of the movie and book Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. For much of my life I saw these two arenas as mutually exclusive or, more precisely, science was a means to bunk religion. I may no longer hold to this hypothesis, but I know many still battle with synthesizing faith and science.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the article:

"The church advertises strength through certitude, but starting from the same collection of fables, commandments and aphorisms — love thy neighbor; thou shalt not kill; blessed are the meek for they will inherit the Earth — the religions of the world have reached an alarmingly diverse set of conclusions about what behaviors, like gay marriage, are right and wrong."

"In science the ends are justified by the means — what questions we ask and how we ask them — and the meaning of the quest is derived not from answers but from the process by which they are found: curiosity, doubt, humility, tolerance."

I particularly liked this process of curiosity, doubt, humility and tolerance, and the idea that the process is just as substantial as the answer. If you would like to read the essay for yourself, a link is provided below.