How I Got Here

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My sermons this past week were very church specific, things aimed at the two churches I served as we went through our annual meeting with the District Superintendent of the Methodist Churches in Vermont.

So instead of a sermon this week, I am going to share a bit of how I got here.

No two pastors come to the ministry along the same path, and I came to it late, at sixty. But looking back, it’s like I was being prepared most of my life. My path went through Methodist Churches, Baptist Churches, a Presbyterian church, a non-denominational seminary (it leaned Baptist, I think) and a time of incredible brokenness.

I was raised in the Methodist Church. My parents were members of two different Methodist Churches when I was growing up. I am told my dad was Sunday School Superintendent at the first, though I have no remembrance of him being involved in either church very much. My mom, however, was always involved. She served on committees, let choirs (including the youth choir, which I sang in.). I wasn’t that active in church while I was in college (like so many), but as soon as I got out of school, I reconnected.

I never felt particularly good as a person. I never felt going to church made me any better than anyone else (I still don’t.). I did feel I needed it to keep myself connected spiritually. I did feel that as flawed as it was, it was still the best way to learn and teach others about God. And (and this is so important), I felt it was a place I was offered grace, not judgment, for my flaws.

Grace, that undeserved kindness and forgiveness and gift of God’s love. I know a lot of people, and I mean a LOT of people experience church primarily as a place where they are judged and punished for being flawed. I learned something different, that God does the judging. Our job is to love.

That sense of grace is something I looked for when I left home and moved to Roanoke, Virginia. There I found a Baptist church with that same sense of grace, and later, when I moved 35 miles away and began to have kids, I found a second Baptist church with that same ministry of grace. While I was in Roanoke,I was asked to teach. I was utterly unprepared. But I took it on and discovered that I was a pretty good teacher. As time passed, I felt a need to know more about God. I felt, more and more that the canned Sunday School lessons I got as a teacher were then and were aimed at a kind of canned Christianity. There has to be, I was sure, more. So I went to seminary and earned a D. Div. (Doctorate of Divinity.).

I had no desire to become a minister. I just had a need to know more, to understand more. It took me five years, while I juggled job and family and church life. Sometimes I have a serious “what in the hell was I thinking?” moment when I look back. No, I had no desire to be a pastor. I never felt good enough. I didn’t think I had the patience. I was sure I didn’t have the patience. I never felt holy enough. (I still don’t.). I didn’t feel compassionate enough. I just wanted to understand grace, and the holy spirit better. It was for me, a way to build my own relationship with God. No more than that.

I was active in my churches, though. I taught Sunday School. I sang in the choir. I served on committees. I became deacon and deacon chair at both churches. At one, I served as head of a pastor search committee. Through the 20-30 years I was involved, though, I continued with that sense that I needed church, that I wasn’t special for being there, that Grace was what I needed because, well…. I am pretty flawed.

I found out how flawed when I found myself divorced. I didn’t see it coming. I probably should have. I came out of the divorce more broken than I like to admit.

I don’t know if everyone who goes through divorce feels this way, but for me, even though I knew rationally that a divorce is caused by two people’s behaviors, I took all the flaws, all the mistakes, all the blame on myself. It wasn’t the truth, but my emotions and my spirit didn’t survive the self loathing very well. I fell into a terrible depression. I castigated myself daily. I ripped myself to shreds. I felt so badly that I forgot grace. I forgot what grace really is.

Churches, as a whole, don’t know what do to with and about divorced people. They don’t know how to help them, or how to make them feel part of church family again, or help them rediscover grace. And my church, even though my pastor was kind and gentle and gracious personally, didn’t either. People in the church, used to you the couple, don’t know what do to with you the individual. I was blessed though. Whether or not people were judging me, they treated me with love and gentleness and kindness as I cried and struggled my way back to a semblance of myself.

And I stopped doing things in the church. I felt even more unworthy. Even though I was urged to keep my positions, even my leadership positions, by people who knew the whole story, I just could not. People should not have someone so broken as their leader, I felt. I had a lot to learn.

I moved to Vermont about seven and a half years ago. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was still pretty broken. I went to church, but I did very little. I needed to heal. I went. I worshiped. I prayed a lot. I read a lot. Did I mention I needed to heal?

And heal I did. Vermont has been good for me that way. I finally got to the place where I could reclaim grace. Where I could claim the forgiveness that is part and parcel of the Christian faith.

Actually, that forgiveness was there all the time. That’s how God works. But it took me time to learn how to forgive myself. And once I did, I began to want to give back. I had been going to two churches while in Vermont. One, an independent Baptist church that I really liked, could not use me – theological differences abounded. So I asked the pastor at the other one, Rupert United Methodist (the church I serve now) if there was something I could do. She suggested I teach and so I did. For about a year.

Rupert was a tiny church. It still is. On an average Sunday there would be 8-10 people there, half of them in the choir. I found it worshipful, beautiful, and the people were lovely and some of the most accepting souls I have known. But financially, I learned, they were in a bad way.

They had been sharing a half time pastor for about a decade. And for years, the cost of supporting that half time pastor had been moving them more and more into debt. They did not have any endowments or big time savings or givers, and month after month, year after year their got deeper in debt. By the time I was settling in finally, things came to a head. They thought they were going to have to close the doors.

The District Superintendent came down. They looked at options. They finally decided to let go of the half time pastor they could not afford, and use supply pastors, usually retired pastors, to come in week to week to preach, while they took over the other duties of the church. Because they knew of my education, they asked if I would fill in when no one else was available. I agreed. A few months later, after I had preached a couple of times, they came back to me and asked if I would preach every Sunday, and they would get someone to fill in when I was away.

Again I agreed. I am better off when I have a responsibility to teach or do something like preach, because it makes me do what I should do anyway, keep my head in the scriptures, keep learning and keep growing. I don’t do as well when I don’t have a responsibility to others. I hate to admit it, but it is true. So preaching each week would be a good thing. It would force me to do the things that I should be doing anyway.

Here’s what I learned: When you are in the pulpit every week, people come to think you really ARE the pastor. And they come to you for other things: Funerals. Advice. Spiritual Counselor. It doesn’t matter that you are just a guy hired to preach for 20 minutes a week. You are there. They see you that way. And in the case of Rupert, they kept urging me to actually become a pastor.

I really fought the idea. The same stuff rattled in my head. I wasn’t good or holy enough. I wasn’t patient enough. I have a memory like a sieve when it comes to bible verses. (OK, I have a memory like a sieve in most things.). But as a church, there were things I could not do that I felt are important if we were to be a viable church – like baptisms and weddings and blessing communion. Oh how I wrestled with this! How I prayed and how I fought it.

Look out when you pray. God has a way of answering them. And the thing that kept coming to me is that I had likely been running from it most of my life. That perfection is not what God wants, but willingness to serve. That he can use the flawed because it doesn’t depend on me, it depends on him.

But I am pretty hard headed. I still fought it. Then one day I remembered something. While I had done a lot of committees and other things in the church before my life came apart, I had actually helped more people get through this after I had been broken. that in my journey back to a good spiritual place, more people had come to me as a broken person than ever came to me when I looked more together. That my brokenness had made me more approachable, had given me an authenticity that perhaps I did not have before. It had allowed whatever God-in-me (the Holy Spirit) was in me shine through those cracks of my brokeness in a way my more together self never did.

Talk about humbling. I said yes.

I had to go back to school to become “Methodized” (my word for it.). There were some roadblocks (that’s another story) but a year into it, I became what Methodists call a “Licensed Local Pastor.”. Not quite, in their lexicon, ordained to do what I do everywhere, but licensed to a single church (and eventually to a second one.) to serve.

I am still paid as a supply pastor at both churches, a small amount each week that I preach. Technically that is what I am and no more, but a few funerals, baptisms and a slew of hospital visits and counseling later, it’s at least a pretty busy part time job. And it’s been way, way harder and more time consuming than I ever imagined. Seriously, rational people don’t do this.

But… In it I have relearned Grace. All the way to my heart. I have come again to understand that we don’t have to be perfect to be loved. And that people don’t need to perfect for us to love them. There’s room in life and room in faith for huge differences, if we love first. And when love is hard, we have God to help us do it anyway, or forgive us when we fail and start over to try again. I’ve experienced that grace first hand, again and again, and this gives me a chance to say “Thank you God.” and give it back.

I am still hugely imperfect. I make mistakes. I blow the mission. Some days I feel holy. Other days I don’t. I preach mostly to myself, because I struggle with things.

But I am blessed. I have a beautiful, loving congregation to serve. They get grace. They show it to each other and to strangers. I love it when visitors tell me how loved they felt (and they tell me often) when they visit They welcome a lot of people other churches would not. Because I have responsibilities to them, I am in scripture more than I would be if I were not. I am challenged to improve in a way I would not. I don’t do this just for myself, but trust me, I get far more from the deal than they do. I have been privileged to be let into people’s lives as I try to serve them. Yeah, there are a lot more rewards than money in this.

And here’s the thing, and I am sorry you had to plow through the rest of this to get to it, but here’s the thing: I had to be broken to get here. I don’t think God wanted me broken. But it happened and I don’t think I had been humbled enough to come to the place of compassion and grace I needed to do this.

That is something  God does again and again, take the broken and works through them. That’s what grace does. That’s what he does. The fact that my spirit was broken, that I made mistakes and owned them, that I hurt and failed and lost a job and lost a marriage and found myself beginning again from scratch made me more compassionate, made me more aware of what brokenness feels like, made me more willing to abandon my path and let God lead. It made me more approachable. More authentic. More, oh yes, much much more… his.

God has a history of using the broken. Moses was a murderer. David was an adulterer. The bible is full of cowards, hotheads, doubters and people who just didn’t “get it”. And God found a way to use them all, once they allowed it to happen. He still does.

And that’s how I got here. Where I go from here, I have no idea. God will figure it out. That’s what he does.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

Lost and Found

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Bear with me, new readers. I am figuring this out. Over the next few weeks, I will try putting my sermons up in different ways to see what makes most sense and to see what is better for those of you who wander in here.

Today, I am doing the sermon as text. I will do others as audio and then as video. I can do any of them, but alas, being bi-vocational (meaning I have a regular job like everyone else that pays the bills), I don’t have time to do all three.

This is not the same sermon I preached Sunday. One of the things I learned this week as I began doing this is that things I do as I speak, don’t work as well when you write them down. That doesn’t make it better or worse. Just different.

Sigh.

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Our Focal Scripture: Luke 15:1-10

15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.

15:2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

15:3 So he told them this parable:

15:4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?

15:5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.

15:6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’

15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

15:8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?

15:9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’

15:10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

I have been thinking this week about Being Lost

Our scripture today talks about the lost. In the scripture, there are the sinners that Christ is having dinner with. There are the single lamb that was lost and then found. There was the coin. And there were the Pharisees, who in their own way, were lost.

I could have done the regular sermon on this page of scripture, about how much God rejoices at any sinner returning to the fold. It’s true. It’s safe. And we need to be reminded of it from time to time because life and our natures tend to forget.

But mostly, when I look at scripture, I look at it differently. I look at it not in terms of what can other people learnt what can I learn? And so I began to look at these verses in terms of what do I need to learn about being lost? What if  we are the lost sheep or the lost coin or the sinner (one who has fallen short) that Jesus is talking about?

What’s the lesson for Me?

Through the week I have thought about the times in life I have been lost.  I can remember being hopelessly lost in Wales once, and wandering around the city of Cardiff  trying to find my way out of the city and to the far side of the country, wandering through mountains and mountains of slate and sheep. We got there, but not without help.

And I can remember a time when at age 38, when I had just started a new company, and had a new house and a new baby. So much seemed to be going right. I felt like I was in the prime of life. And then, while away at a convention in Las Vegas, I contracted a form of viral pneumonia that left me incredibly week. 10 days in Desert Springs Hospital, and six months of recovery. I felt I would never get my strength back, never get to a place where I could work effectively, again. I was lost.

Looking back, I can see that I was lost for a long time after my divorce. 25 years as a husband and a day to day dad, and suddenly all that was gone. I had real trouble finding my way again, figuring out who and what I was and where I fit. That process began after the separation, but took years. Part of that figuring out for me was where I fit in a church world that for the most part, looks askance at divorced folks like me. I became part of a Baptist Church that I loved, where the people were warm, but I did not fit there theologically, and so I could go, but never teach or lead or be a part of the things I knew how to do. It took a long time to move past that lostness before I found Rupert United Methodist, and began teaching and became a part of their church family.  There was years of that lostness, of spiritual wandering trying to find my way.

There were other places in my life that I felt loss. We all do. Deaths. Losses. Relationships. Health issues. All of us come to a place now and again where we feel overwhelmed. Where we feel somewhere, we’ve gone off track. Where we feel…. Lost.

Don’t get separated

To prepare for this sermon, I looked at my own experiences, and looked through the bible, trying to understand what all these lost experiences, in my life and in these scriptures, might have in common.

The first thing that jumped out at me was that we get tend to get lost most easily when we separate from our flock.

Seems obvious for sheep, I know. But it’s less obvious to the rest of us. We were made for relationship. From the very beginning we’re told that Man (people) were not meant to be alone. People support us. People tend to notice when we are going off track and will help us stay on a better path.  It is why we are given people in our lives, whether it’s family or churches or other positive, supportive, spiritual groups.

When I got lost in Wales. I was in a place that used Welsh more than English, and a lot of the signs made no sense to me. I needed help. When I was lost after my viral pneumonia, I was far from friends, or family or anyone I knew. Even when I got home, I was for a time separated from the people who had helped me and guided me. I was for a time, disconnected, and that isolation left me lost longer than I wanted to be.

And after my divorce? Well, I had gotten to a bad place even before the divorce. I now know how much depression contributed to that bad place. I know the other influences that hurt me and contributed to my own lostness. One of the biggest ones is that I had let myself become isolated from the very people that I needed most. It was not until I began to reconnect with God and my dearest friends, that I began to find my way out.

Just like the lamb in the parable.

Stay close to your tribe, to your people, to God. They may drive you crazy sometimes and being human, they will do stupid stuff (because we all do), but they are better at keeps from being lost than we are ourselves.

Sometimes we need help getting unlost

Yeah, this one we have trouble with sometimes. Men don’t ask for directions. We’re Americans, land of the myth of self-made success. I live in Vermont, which takes individualism to an extreme. It’s part of the culture.

When we are lost, we are bombarded by media that tells us that we shouldn’t be. There is a shame in not having it together, a shame at being lost. Even the church, which should be the best at welcoming the lost, sometimes puts off the very lost souls we are supposed to love.

But, by definition, we are lost. Whatever the situation – work, health, relationships, faith, all of the above, when we are lost, we don’t know the way. We can wander on our own. We can stumble through and hope we get our bearings.

Or we can just get help. As Christians, we have the bible, but for some, it’s a big confusing, contraction of a book. So often we still need a guide. Even if we avoid it.

In the scripture, the lamb needed the shepherd. The coin needed the woman to go through the house with her brooms till she found it. And at times, we need others to help us get unlost too.

I am so grateful for those who helped me get unlost. They include pastors, laypeople, a couple of wonderful therapists, and one or two dear, dear friends.  Without them, I assure you, I would still be one very, very lost man.

Sometimes we can get unlost on our own, but sometimes we can’t. Or even if we can, it is a much longer, trial and error journey, and at times we end up even more lost.

Look around you if you are lost or overwhelmed. Who might be a good guide out? Go on and talk to them.

It sometimes takes time to get Unlost

I don’t know about you, but these days when I travel, at the first hint of feeling lost, I pull out my cell phone, pull up Google Maps and get directions. I want to get unlost and I want to get unlost now.

In life, we may want the same thing, but that’s often not how it works out.

First of all, sometimes we won’t admit we are lost. We think we are fine. Or we know we are not and something keeps us from admitting it.

Or maybe we don’t even recognize it.  Want to know how many times I’ve passed my exit on the interstate and didn’t even know it until I hit the next city? Don’t ask. It’s embarrassing.

In the scriptures, the people listening knew it took time. A lamb that got lost could be anywhere among the nooks and crannies of the hills about the town. It would take a time to find it, and a time to bring it home.

Ever lose your keys, and the hour it took to find them? Finding a coin would have been the same way for the woman in the parable and the listeners would have understood.

It is no different for us. If we are lost, it will take time to get back. Have patience with yourself, and with others finding their way back. It’s often hard.

God does not want us lost.

That is not his plan for us. He wants us in a good, safe, place in our lives. He wants us to know him and know his love. He wants us to be able to draw on that love and his power and his comfort and his peace so we can have those things in our own lives.

That’s why he gives us the bible. That’s why he gave us his son. That’s why he provides good and Godly people in our lives, to help keep us on a good path, and to help us find our way again when we get lost.

Because we all do sometimes. By mistake or rebellion or distraction or simply meandering away or because of events that knock us down. We all get lost. The good news is that as often as we might be lost, the path back is always available to us. He gives us far more opportunities to come home than we probably deserve.

That’s grace.

One last thing.

God rejoices when we are found. When we become unlost. When we rejoin the flock. When we feel loved and safe again. When we have turned away from whatever led us to be lost in the first place.

That’s right. He rejoices. That rejoicing of God and Angels thing? It’s not just for someone else. We’re not so perfect that we don’t ever get lost. We do. And when we make our way back, when we reach back out to God and his people, when we find ourselves once again unlost, filling ourselves again and living in his love, God rejoices.

As any father would.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

An introduction.

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Hi. My name is Tom Atkins. I am the pastor of two tiny Methodist Churches in Vermont.  Both of them together are probably way, way smaller than your church, but they are the gathering of the faithful , wounded and searching. Friendly loving places, both of them, full of real people with real struggles and real love.  I never intended to be a pastor, and managed to escape God’s call until I was 59.  But here I am, a newbie pastor in the middle of nowhere, Vermont (which I love, love, love), a bi-vocational pastor.

I never intended to be a pastor, and managed to escape God’s call until I was 59.  But here I am, a newbie pastor in the middle of nowhere, Vermont (which I love, love, love), a bi-vocational pastor who makes his living in the so called “real” world, and tries to minister to the people in my little community.

These are my musings. At times there may be sermons. At times there may be snippits or things to think about. At times, there may be rants.  They are not (let me repeat that for the hard of hearing, NOT) the stance of my individual churches, or of the Methodist faith. Good or bad, they are my thoughts alone, prone to (I will admit it) all the flaws you can find.

I am starting this because a lot of people kept telling me I should. I have actually resisted it for a long time, because in today’s world, people of faith are often under attack, and often as much from our own as from non-believers.  I just didn’t want to deal with the hate. I still don’t.

But there are people who have visited my churches that said they wanted to hear or read sermons. There are others who seem to feel that I have good things to say, or at least to think about. So I am jumping in.

As this blog grows, you’ll learn more about me, and maybe, just maybe, something that will help you on your own spiritual journey.  That’s my hope anyway.

Thanks for stopping in.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom