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,