A Strange Grace
“The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you…by the grace of God.” — Walter Brueggemann (Quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor in Leaving Church which now sits among a handful of books that “changed me.”)
I remember the first inkling that I had of it. It was at Barton Bible Camp which was a hole-in-the-wall as far as summer camps goes but it was a great experience for me at the time. It was my Junior year and my second year to be named “Camper of the Week.” (I think it was my performance at the homemade slip-n-slide that cinched it for me.) I remember the setting…it was the next to last day at camp, we had just finished the campfire with all of the tears and re-commitments that went with it, and I was one of the last ones with a flashlight to head up the hill. It was then that I realized that I was surrounded by preachers! Two of my heroes at the time had hung back and waited to have a word with me. I thought surely I was in trouble…like maybe I raised my hands during a song or something! Roger, the one that wasn’t the preacher at my home congregation, put his arm around my shoulder…looked me in the eye and said, “I just want to make sure that you know something.” I’m thinking, “Please say something good like ‘Jesus loves you’ and let me go back to my cabin!” With a VERY serious look on his face he said, “If you don’t go into Youth Ministry, me and John here are going to hunt you down and break both of your legs.” And then he hugged me! It was sort of a holy-threat-joke-thing.
Whatever was lacking in delivery, the message was clear to me that God wanted me to do SOMETHING for Him. I spent the next year or three trying to figure out exactly what that SOMETHING was. It was the day before I married my wife that I finally decided to give up and go with the “suggestion” that they had given me — youth ministry. Although we had all of our plans worked out and knew exactly what we were going to be doing after the wedding, we pitched it all up in the air figuring that God was calling us to change courses. And we did it.
I spent the next two years training to become a youth minister. I use the word “training” loosely here. I don’t think that you can TRAIN a person to be a youth minister sitting in a desk learning Greek or listening to a professor that had a double major in Bible and Star Trek. I learned that the hard way when I actually started to get my feet wet with real-live teenagers! They were coming to me with questions that I didn’t even know existed and problems that would have made Dr. Phil blush. I knew right then that I needed more training so at least I could bluff my way through some answers. Surely a Masters Degree would make me an expert! After 60 hours and almost $60,000 I knew enough to know that I didn’t know anything anymore. But I had the training! I was prepared to fulfill my calling! Now I just needed to figure out what that was again!
That was eleven years ago. Since then I’ve been a Singles Minister, a Family Life Minister, an Unemployed Minister, a substitute French teacher, and a High-School Bible teacher. There have been times in the middle of all of it that I thought “Surely this is what God is calling me to!” Then something would happen (whether it was a death in the family or a glory-hungry senior minister back stabbing me) that would shake me to the core and make me question the whole thing.
I’m learning that “God’s calling” for me is not a calling to this place or that place; this job or that job; this title or that title. It’s a calling to become. (I would say emerge but that’s getting a little too trendy these days.) What I thought was supposed to be hasn’t been…and as Brueggemann says it is a grace to me that it hasn’t. Too many people get caught up in the trap of “This is the way to follow God.” You have to go to their church, be a part of their mission, vote the way that they vote, or believe the way that they believe in order to be close to God. I’m learning that the pathway is winding, bumpy, narrow in spots with some big drop offs, and flat in others with plenty of shoulder space. My new challenge is not to find my way to the right point, but to help others see that their journey is in the same direction as my own whether they believe it or not.
That’s not “I’m o.k.; you’re o.k.” It’s more of growing through the journey together. I’ve spent plenty of time broken down on the side of the road. I’ve even been accused of slipping into reverse a time or two and spinning my wheels!
Becoming is difficult! There’s no real way to measure it. It’s not like your two notches closer to arriving. Even when you arrive you’re not there yet. Growth is strange that way. I have friends right now that are kicking against the powers that are pushing them toward growth in a certain direction. What I want them to realize is that even in the kicking process you’re growing…becoming. I think we all get too focused on our own stories thinking that our pathway is the primary one (and sometimes the MOST difficult). We’ve got to notice when we bump up against one another that we’re supposed to be changing together.
My story has touched a lot of other stories. Some have been changed for good; others not so good. Whatever direction it took, we’re both different. We can’t be the same. That’s my new ministry — story changing. I’ll never work for another “church” but I think that this job description is flexible enough to fit me where ever I land. That’s God’s grace for me.
And Roger, if you’re reading this…please don’t hunt me down.