The Making of a Pastor (A Love Letter to our church, Bloom, on the anniversary of four years in Denver)

Dear Bloom – 

Four years ago this weekend our family rolled into Denver in a U-Haul, excited and scared witless about the prospect of joining you in the very unlikely journey that God had you on.  I was 28 when we moved here.  I am 32 now.  And though only a handful of years have elapsed, that weekend seems like forever ago.  So much has happened.  So much change.  So much growth.

This past weekend, I had the good privilege of heading back to the church in Tulsa that we came from (Sanctuary) to see the people we left behind.  Graciously, they let me me preach.  Before I began, I thanked them for the years they gave me, and I reminded them of something I said to them right before we left in 2009.  I had been journaling that summer about our time in Tulsa, reflecting on what had happened and how God had formed us, and I remember writing these words in my journal:

When I moved here, I had the idea that it was good pastors that made good churches.  After three years with these people, I now see that it is at least as true (if not more true) that good churches make good pastors.”

I shared those words with the congregation that was gathered there in 2009, and again last weekend.  They formed me in ways they will never know.

And so have you, Bloom.  I had so many ideas of what it meant to be a church when we moved here.  And then we started doing life with you people… you let us into your story, let us peer into your lives to begin to understand what God was up to with you, how you understood the world, and what you sensed Him moving you towards.  We’ve worshiped together, prayed together, cried together, rejoiced together… we’ve grieved the loss of life together, stood dumbfounded in the middle of seeming God-forsakenness together, celebrated new life together, made grandiose plans together, seen those plans fail together, and continued to walk forward together.

I count it among the highest joys of my life that you let me do what I get to do for you.  I think that I have the most wonderful “job” (if it can be so called) on the planet.  I get to live close to God, spend my time reflecting on the deep realities of life and love and God and what it means to be human, and then it get to, week after week, invite you into that life… the Life that is truly life.  When your life is falling apart, I have the privilege of standing with you and discerning together where God is and how He’s moving IN the falling apart to birth new life into the world… and in so doing, my faith and hope and love are built, and I find myself rooting deeper into the Story, orienting my life more and more profoundly in What IS rather than what is NOT.

I love you for that.

And I love for what you’ve meant to my journey.  I love this calling, love being what I get to be… but it’s not easy.  It’s never been, at any time, in any generation.  That’s why being part of a good church, having your pastoral vocation fleshed out amidst GOOD people is so crucial – because darkness would like nothing more than to see pastors with genuine callings exit the church when the weight of criticism and negativity gets to be too much.  One pastor called it “death by a thousand papercuts”–the ceaseless nagging, criticism and whatnot that robs the ministry of joy.  Thousands of pastors across the country are leaving the ministry because the sheep bite–and bite HARD–sometimes.  And there’s a point at which it becomes… just… too… much… 

I love you, Bloom, for you have never been that for me.  You’ve loved me and my family (I can’t tell you how much I love you for that), been a friend and encouragement to me at least as often as I’ve been one to you, prayed for me, sent me little notes and messages telling me how much this or that sermon or this or that thing I said meant to you… and I’m telling you… every one of those put energy in my soul like you can’t ever possibly know.  You have no idea how much each one of those has meant to me.  In fact, when you’ve sent me emails doing so, you’ve probably gotten email responses from me where I said things like “Your words fill my soul in ways you can’t imagine.

I’ve never – never – said that disingenuously.  Every word of your encouragement fell like rain on my weary heart.  I can’t thank you enough for that.

And I need to thank you also for this–you’ve opened my eyes to the dignity of my work, indeed, the dignity of ALL work done well, in degrees that I’m not sure I could have attained in another community.  For you are, at your core, a community of artists.  I never would have considered myself an artist before I came here, and, truth be told, I had an idea that artists were these really strange, uber-feely types who couldn’t really be counted upon for much but probably served some totally incomprehensible function in our society (you know, since God made them and everything).

And then I got to know you.  I got to see how when you put brush to canvas, you do it out the very depths of who you are.  Most of you are not “professional” artists in the sense that you get a steady paycheck from what you do, which means that you do your art IN ADDITION TO working sometimes 40+ hours a week.  And still, you are not daunted.  You don’t do it for money.  You do it for love.  You do it because you have something to SAY that you feel NEEDS BEING SAID… you do it because life and love and laughter and beauty are literally BURSTING from within you, BURNING like fire in your bones, and you just HAVE to let it out.  So you put brush to canvas, lyrics to song, wood and metal together to say it… to say what you see… the saying and the seeing… oh how they dance together.  And you feel that when you’re doing it, seeing and saying, you’re entering into something unimaginably, inexpressively sacred.

It took me awhile, and then I started to see it.  I started to see how you artists truly embody the best of the human spirit, and how, in a measure, we are ALL artists – each of us equipped by grace to “see” what is good and true and beautiful and then given yet another measure of grace to order reality towards the vision of what we see.  I started to see that like you, I WAS AN ARTIST… given a vision of what human life could be like under the gracious reign of God in Christ, and given gifts to help nurture and order human life towards its true telos, its end, goal, and consummation in God.

And whether or not I ever got recognized or paid very well for what I did (oh my goodness… what I crime it would be to measure my value by something so base and foolish like “recognition” – you taught me that), what I did mattered and had dignity because I did it from my soul and with all my intelligence and care and character, and I did it with honesty and not for personal gain and because sometimes you just have to SAY what you SEE, and if no one’s listening, it doesn’t matter because it’s not the point… for the saying is the thing.  You work from your faith, and you trust that God is the one who justifies us by faith.  Only you artists could have helped me see that as clearly as I see it now.  

You gave me that, Bloom, among many other things.  And I love for it.

When we moved here, we said “30 years.”  It was and is our desire to live out the meat of our lives with excellent people.  The “long haul.”  That will always be our desire.  And of course no one knows the future… so we have no way of knowing or guaranteeing that what we desire will come to pass.

But if it does, and if these first four years are any indication of what could be…

Then that will have been a life beautiful and unlike anything I would have dreamed of.

We LOVE you, Bloom.  Thanks for letting us in on your little secret.

Grace and peace and love be with you always.


Into open spaces… and then?

An image:

You’re running a race, the road clearly marked out.  There are thousands of other runners, and on each side of the road are grandstands full of people, cheering, shouting, jeering.  Your pulse quickens as the adrenaline courses through your veins.  On your right and left, you dart past and around fellow runners, hitting your stride, feeling good, managing your energies well.  You might not be the fastest runner, but you’re doing well, all things considered.

You round the final bend for the home stretch of the race.  This particular race culminates in a stadium.  Every expectation of yours is that you’ll head into the stadium, triumphantly crossing the finish line.  So you drop it in gear, running faster and harder.  Eyes ahead, focused, you push through the pain just to make it to the end.  Lungs burning, rubber legged, you run.

And then a horrible thing happens.  At exactly the moment when you thought you were going to cross the finish line, it all disappears.  The fellow runners, the stadium full of people, the finish line.  All gone in an instant.  And to make it worse, the road doesn’t stop.  Instead, it veers off into a dozen different directions, and there’s no sign telling you which way to go.  You stand there for a minute, sweating profusely, baffled, in a space that’s so wide open it scares the living daylights out of you.  No one told you it was like this.  You obviously would have ran differently.  What now?

I’ve been sharing this image with friends (and anyone who will listen) as a way of explaining exactly how I feel and where I am right now, at this moment.  I turned 32 this year.  Not old, and not exactly young either.  And I find myself in a place I never expected to be – short of breath, unsure of what’s next.

I’ve lived the “first third” of my life with a really profound sense of clarity.  A love for the church and a deep sense of call when I was a youth.  College, followed by the decision to attend seminary.  And seminary – my goodness, what heady times those were.  The exposure to ancient texts and historical theology and good, critical thinking about church and culture and what should be done about it all… I left seminary armed with what I thought were a lifetime’s worth of crystal clear ideas on how to make a difference.

And “making a difference”… that’s what it was all about.  My 20’s were a crusade.  Me and my friends… we were going to change everything.  And at the very least, we were going to be part of helping everything to change.  And so, with missionary zeal, I put into motion my best thoughts, best ideas, best concepts… and did it with the best of my energy.  I was certain I was moving inexorably towards some glorious consummation… a vindication of all the great ideas.

And then it happened.  The ideas proved moderately successful, even if they were incomplete.  And some things changed.  Not everything.  Not even most things.  But some things.  And some people cared about it.  The stadium, the finish line, the runners, the clear-cut goals… it all evaporated.

This year has been SUCH a weird year for me.  Lots of ups and downs, some neat moments of growth and breakthrough, but mostly lots of stripping and pruning… and questions… oh, the questions…

…and I think now I get what’s going on.  I’m realizing now that the story is a lot longer than I ever imagined.  And not just longer, but infinitely more complex.  The dogmatic certitude of my 20’s has been pulverized, hammered away by raw experience.  There are no silver bullets anymore, and my grandiose meta-synopses of “What’s going on with the church in North America” have been weighed in the scales and found wanting.  Yes – they’ve worked.  To a degree.  But there’s more going on than I can see, and it’s more multifarious than I ever imagined.  “What is twisted can’t be straightened; what is lacking can’t be counted” (Eccl 1).  Yes.  Yes.

What then?  That’s the question I find myself asking right now.  “What then?”  What happens when the dogmatic certitude evaporates, when the crusade vanishes, when you find yourself standing in an unbelievably open space, quietly and without fanfare?  What then?

Maybe this is just part of entering into the “second third” part of life – your 30’s and 40’s.  The missionary zeal doesn’t go away per se, but it gives way to deeper and longer reflection on where best to place your energies.  And in your humility (a hard-fought humility that comes only through experience) you begin to pronounce less, and listen and pray more.

Perhaps.  But perhaps, I’m thinking these days, perhaps it’s a gift to be embraced exactly for what it is.  The church is thriving, my family is healthy and growing, and I’m in possession of my “self” – my loves, talents, abilities, etc – in a way I’ve not been before.  Perhaps life is not best lived in the metaphors of races, competitions, and crusades… but in planting, waiting, growing, rooting.  

Perhaps the open space is detox for souls sickened with the poison draught of achievement.

If so, I’ll take it.