Disillusioned Joker

“All right kids, it’s break time.” These were some of my favorite words in outpatient treatment. It meant that we would keep discussing life, on life’s terms.

I met her near the end of February. I had cold called from the hospital down to a place in Wichita that was connected with the hospital system, loosely, and that promised to help people deal with their addictions and vices. It seemed to be a place of hope and came highly touted by the psychiatrists that I was working with at the psych ward. I called using the monitored phone, asked if they take my specific insurance, and then made an appointment to meet with the intake counselor within the week. The woman on the other end of the line made it very clear that if I didn’t show up, I would not have another chance to book an appointment, for intake. The week before this meeting with the counselor was difficult. There was much change and a lot of heartache. I walked in on a Friday morning to the waiting room several minutes before my scheduled time and sat down in a seat after checking in. I filled out the necessary paperwork that they had handed me with the usual questions such as “within the last week, how is your mental health?” and “on a scale from 1 to 10, how well have you slept?” During this season, I had a hard time ‘passing’ these tests.

I knew that I was a mess, but as I sat in that seat, waiting for the intake person to come holler my name, I became resolute to the fact that I would most definitely get into some treatment, get some help, and find reprieve from my own demons.  I needed to do this for me, for my own sanity, for my own wellbeing, for my own life to be ‘normalized’ (whatever that means). A shorter woman with dyed red hair came to the top of the stairs and hollered out my name, and then told me we were headed down the stairs. I followed her through what seemed like a maze to a dimly lit room, that was her office. She had me sit in a seat next to her desk and she let me know that everything that she asked was to be put into my ‘intake assessment’ and that it would be used for insurance purposes as well as to determine a good treatment plan. She asked me a question, and I began to tell a long story of how I arrived at the spot that I was in. This little short lady, fire hair, and all interrupted me, and curtly said, “I have to get through all of the questions on this list, and I only have one hour to do it, so, keep things shorter and we can get through this.” I kept things as short as I possibly could, and tried to tell all of what was happening and had happened in my short time before. At one point, she looked at me, knowingly, and said, “Really? That’s the whole story?” And I knew that she was aware that I wasn’t telling her all that had happened. So I kept on going. And spilled my guts. At the end of our time, she declared that I was definitely a candidate for intensive outpatient treatment and that I could come back the next week. Whatever day I showed up, would be my first day, and from there it was an 9-12 week process. I left that day, and found hope in the fact that I was actively pursuing health in a tangible way. I wasn’t checking off the boxes for anyone else, I wasn’t having to fulfill an obligation, and I wasn’t trying to manipulate a system. I was self caring, and self working on something that I had to figure out, for me.

The next week was the first week of treatment. I jumped into the middle of a class, and tried to hold on for dear life, as I learned the ropes of the outpatient therapy. I began to get the rhythm of the class in week 2 and by week 3 was really enjoying my time. The instructor was raw, blunt, honest, and pushed each of her clients. She was aware of everyone’s story and very aware of what the room ‘felt’ like. I found out later that most of what she did in class was observe people’s response to her and to others. She was always finding ways to get under my skin, say things that would make me think, or make me smile, at the right times. In case you didn’t know, I can become a ‘class clown’ when put into a highly stressful situation. It’s my way of alleviating tension, awkwardness, and difficult circumstances. I found myself saying really funny things, or I thought that they were, early on in those classes. People seemed to enjoy it, and I felt like I was contributing, at least on a comedic relief level. Then one day, the instructor pulled out an article for us to read together. The article was about personalities and addiction. As we read through the article, one of the headings was the ‘joker.’ The paragraph that came after the heading was stunning to me. It described me in detail when circumstances became contentious. But it didn’t just describe my outward behavior, it described the things that I felt deeply in these moments. Shame, guilt, pain, and anger were behind the mask of the joker. Figuring out how to make others laugh would be the way that the joker would run from conflict, and if forced, the joker would simply vacate premises to avoid confrontation at the highest level. This was me to a ‘t’ and I found some solace in the fact that it described the common background that jokers had as it related to life experiences. I have always been fascinated with personality discernment, and even have done several different personality profile consultations with different teams, etc. This particular write up, with it’s particular nature, was rather in my face, using common language to describe the depths of my own heart and soul. It felt as if I was being read, from the page in front of me.

As the instructor finished the reading, I looked up and immediately blurted that I was a ‘joker.’ There was probably nothing further from the truth in that moment. I had not been truthful with my family, I had not been truthful with myself, and I found myself in a place that the only means of current escape was comedy. The instructor looked back at me with direct confrontation in her eyes and she said, “What are the strengths about the joker?” I had not heard the strengths, I was too busy focused on all of the areas of my weakness and failure. I had totally missed that section as she was reading. I looked back down at my paper and read through the ‘strengths’ bullet point list. There was much to absorb. The strengths that were there had and were present in my life. Hard working, caring and compassionate, able to work with others, finding and helping others that need it, and always willing to lend a hand, when necessary. This was definitely me. For years, I had been helping others as a Pastor, as an employee, and as a friend. I desperately wanted to help people succeed, to help organizations succeed, to help my friends succeed. The write up pointed out that when the joker experiences a lack of success, they become disillusioned with life and the issue at hand. I had. Years before this, I struggled with significant disillusionment with the local church. We were working so hard to lead a group of people toward something that seemed so tangible, and yet, there was very little followership. It felt as though we were grinding forward, only to see people sit in the peanut gallery to watch the show. I remember telling my then supervisor, that at some point, if this was going to be how ministry was, I would probably take my pink slip and ‘get out.’ Little did I know the future. Really does anyone know their future?

Disillusionment with a job, family, life, or relationship leads people down strange paths. As I became more and more blinded by what I was seeing in the churches that I was serving at, I became more and more self focused. It was ironic because I was always asking people to think outside of themselves, for those that didn’t yet know Jesus, and yet I was becoming more and more focused on self preservation and protection. For sure I wasn’t going to let people into my world of dark clouds. I needed to lead, be faithful to the message that I was carrying, and be bold like any ‘preacher’ is supposed to be. But you can only do that for so long before it wears a person out. And it wore me out. I had seen things in the local church that were painful, mind boggling, and scary. I had seen the backside of what it means to lead in the church and it wasn’t a pretty backside. I had seen what church politics, broken relationships, and mission driven prodding was doing to me and others and I hated it. There were times where I desperately searched for a job online that I could apply for that would ‘get me out.’ I never found it, or it never found me. My resume certainly doesn’t scream business. It screams church and clergy.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved each and every church that I served. I love the church as detailed other places. I told people as we hired them at churches that if they could find any other place to work other than working for a church they should do that. It was always tongue in cheek and it was always in my joking, comedic tone, but I began to believe that and still do today. Church work isn’t for wimps and I respect the hell out of the men and women that toil day in and day out for the sake of their faith and the cause of their savior and take a paycheck for it. It’s so much easier to ‘toil’ when you are simply attending. It is so much easier to be removed from the muck and the mire of knowledge when you simply show up and drop your kids off, attend church, and then leave. It’s so much easier to simply pray every night, and then go to sleep rather than stay up all night wondering if there is going to be another dollar in the offering plate to be able to pay bills, or wondering whether your job is secure because the church is taking a dive in attendance, or wondering if you are really doing what “God” called you to do. For the last couple of weeks of my life, I have simply prayed, thanked God for the things I am grateful for, kissed my wife on the forehead, and fallen into the deep sleep that I have lacked for years. Maybe it’s my body making up for the lost time, or maybe it’s just what is normal, for people that don’t have to deal with church demons. Disillusionment almost got me. It almost killed me. I almost killed me. I chose to live in the disillusionment far too long. And I chose to stay and battle when the fight became impossible. And, I chose my response to that fight, which was damaging at times, and caused a lot of heartache that has yet to be addressed.

As my instructor pulled me out of my own thoughts, I knew that she had asked me a question. But I had no idea what the question was. So, trying to provide comic relief, I simply said, “Yes.” She looked at me with a smile cracking through and said, “you don’t even know what the ….I’m asking do you?” I told her I didn’t and she smiled. In that moment, I knew that I was in the right spot. I was allowed, and expected to process through some of these experiences. I was allowed and expected to come to some sort of conclusion. I was allowed and expected to dive into the material in front of me. Not to accomplish it, but to absorb it, grapple with it, find life again, and fight the temptation of disillusionment. It wasn’t five steps to being a better leader/pastor or the five temptations of those in charge, but it was life training. It was skills training, and it was raw.

The instructor has been an incredible influence on my life. For a lot of reasons. She has overcome her own addiction to substances and has been sober for many years. But that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t struggle. And it certainly doesn’t mean that she keeps quiet about the ‘crap on the plate.’ Instead, she is honest with people about where she is from day to day, from week to week, and knows the right people to tell, when she is really struggling. She has overcome so much in her life, overcome some of her own tendencies that cause pain, and has leaned into her strengths to be the best mom, grandma, and instructor that she can be. She’s the only instructor that I have ever had, in this area of study, but I believe she may be one of the best.

Intensive outpatient treatment has since ended and I received a certificate. But the certificate is fairly meaningless without the experiences, the conversations, the learning and growing that was done, the memories that were jogged, the laughter that was had, and the break times where the class would just get to ‘be’ together. Many of the folks that started treatment with me, sadly, didn’t end treatment with me. But then there was a new group, and I saw an instructor full of grace, hope, and forcefulness deal with each and every one of the clients that walked through her door. I also experienced and heard about what it meant to simply leave the work at work, a concept I knew nothing about.

My instructor cared deeply for her clients. But each and every night, she had to say to herself, “I don’t make their choices for them. They do.” And when someone messed up, she moved on from it. She hated that they didn’t succeed, but also knew that trying to hold on to the pain and the anger that came out of the situation wasn’t worth the heartache and bitterness that could develop.

She would often tell a story of the first person that relapsed and died in her program during Intensive Outpatient Treatment. My instructor would tell her co-worker, “If this is what it is like in this job, I don’t think I can make it.” But my instructor did. She did it with self care, self esteem, and by working with the strengths that she had. When I grow up, maybe I will have some of these same traits.

-Joker

Calling. The Great Mystery.

God has not given up on his church. But sometimes, he has to tear the temple down, only to rebuild it in his timing, and for his glory.

Wasting away for a year and a half, and maybe longer, and finding myself wasted (literally, emotionally, physically, mentally) at the end of it all was one of the hardest moments in my life. I had given it my all, I had lost it all, and for what? So that the organization of the church might succeed moving forward in it’s quest to have more people in the seats? Make more kingdom impact? Have a bigger budget? No. I did it because I believed that I was called. I had an experience years ago at a church camp that will always have wonderful memories for me where I was walking on a gravel road early one hot summer morning. I was doing my morning devotions as any good Christian camp counselor would when I looked up at the sunrise and distinctly (it was distinct then, it feels so distant now) heard deeply in my soul that God would use me to help the church. He didn’t say that I was to be a ‘professional pastor’ or that I would lead in big churches across the United States or that many people would come to faith because of me or the church I was in. He told me to serve the church. I remember questioning this experience for many weeks, maybe even months. I had never had any spiritual encounter like it before or since this day. I was reeling from trying to make sense of what it even meant. With this encounter in mind, I made a choice to major in something at college that would direct the course of my life, so far, and take me down paths I never intended to go down.

Calling is an interesting idea when it comes to spirituality. In Christian and non-Christian circles alike, we equate calling to something that we understand about ourselves to be true. Some people have the calling of being a missionary (whether for Christianity or against) while others have the call to help people by being a doctor, a construction worker, or a fire fighter. My call was not so specific. God wanted me to ‘serve the church.’ And so I did what any 18 year old would do at the time, I began my crusade to change the church. In college, I had everything figured out. If the church would just understand and implement the idea of honesty, authenticity, and then gracious care of those that were honest and authentic, I naively believed that it would change the entire course of the church in America. I had grown up watching church dysfunction, and somehow, I was going to save that dysfunction from happening to others in the future. I dove in headlong and took every opportunity to be bold about my opinions and my hypothesis. I made claims that the church would only be the church when we were willing to confront one another, approach sin, be gracious, and move forward. I chastised churches for simply doing a Sunday morning gathering and all the ‘programs.’ If only churches would just choose a simple path to programming, they might find themselves in a much better place, a growing place. Maybe then churches would grow with people that had come to Christ for the very first time. Maybe then churches would have the momentum and influence in this world to be able to actually make a difference in their communities. Maybe then, the church would no longer be considered a slow dying organization in the United States and instead we would see the likes of ‘google success’ or ‘apple success.’ We needed simple programming and better systems, within the context of relationships. I really did know it all.

And then one day I lost my understanding and knowledge. We had planted several churches at the church that I was serving at and I was pushing for more to be planted. One of my dear friends, a church planter that was part of our network, was slated to meet with me for breakfast. I went through my morning ritual and met him to eat bagels, drink coffee, and talk life. Over this meal, he let me know that he thought it would be best to close the church that he had founded and was leading. Clearly, the church that he planted was one of the more successful church plants that I had been a part of. It was growing, there seemed to be people coming to faith, and those that were a part of the core team still seemed fairly excited about what was happening. But as this church planter looked at the financial reality, he understood that the church was on a very quick and very painful trajectory toward failure. They didn’t have enough money, enough people, enough time to really make it happen. In my own selfish like way, I tried to save the church. I campaigned for fundraising money. I tried to help the church down a different path and plan. I schemed and came up with ways that it could succeed moving forward. And then, one day, it closed. There was no more organization that I had ‘prayed for’, that I had ‘invested in’, that I had ‘promoted.’ It was just gone. The people were gone, the location was gone, my friend was gone. And all that was left was a distant memory of having great hope that this church, yes, maybe this church would ‘get it right’ and be the gamechanger for other churches in America. How wrong was I?

As one of my former supervisors once pointed out, I was ‘dead wrong.’ To have hope and to have excitement about something that would have the global effect that I was hoping for was not helpful and created more turmoil within a system that is built on slow change and anti-adaptation (at least the churches that I knew and were a part of). It was wrong. I could only change what was in front of me, and that was something that I didn’t spend a lot of time on. After this experience with the church plant, my drive to plant churches and see a ‘new wineskin’ (pardon the reference to alcohol, but the bible does say something about it…) churches birthed that would radically shift the global environment, that drive ended. I knew that planting churches would never cease to exist because church folks that are American are also franchise wired. We want to take what works and ‘capitalize’ on the market that exists. I had become a mere franchise builder, taking what was already and shifting it just ever so slightly to look, feel, sound, just a little bit better, a little bit cooler. But at the heard of the matter, God wasn’t speaking. He wasn’t meeting with me on any gravel road and giving me direction of how I needed to serve the church. I think of Abraham when he took matters into his own hands in Genesis 12 and 13, and resonate. We needed to change the church, the organization, and actually produce what I believed God wanted us to produce. I retired from planting of churches and having that be my outlet for ‘serving the local church.’

As I ponder these days of my life, where church planting consumed my every waking moment and activity, I know just a few things to be true. I know that God did call me to serve His church. I am currently serving the church by staying away from it (at least from the inner workings of it) and focusing on being healthy. I cannot and will not offer anything to anyone, if I am not healthy. I also know that, maybe for the first time every in my life, being a pastor isn’t synonymous with serving the church. It is anti biblical in fact, to say that it is. Paul points out that there were ‘some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be shepherds and teachers and some to be evangelists.’ They were made that way, not knighted into some conditioned occupation. Those ‘pastors’ in the early church worked hard, alongside each of the members of the church, to maintain their life, for the sake of the one that they served. Some sacrificed everything, but you know what they didn’t do? They didn’t try to ‘change’ the nature of the church. They just were. They found solace in the fact that they were growing slowly in some cases and some cases literally dying off. It’s why Paul writes ‘I give everything up for the sake of Christ.’ A dear friend of mine, who desired reform in the local church for years, probably even before I went on the crusade, told me once that the only way that things will change is if God chooses to work in the same powerful mantra that he employed at the beginning, the genesis of the early church. Only then will things be different in the United States, he would tell me. I tend to agree. There is not one person that can change a church, an organization, or correct a misguided ship. But there is a God who can, and, as they say, may you find him now.

I know that churches do amazing things. You may be sitting here thinking that I hate the church or that the church is something that I am criticizing. The opposite may be true. To criticize the church would be to be a complete and utter hypocrite, of which I have been for many years. I called the church to certain action, and privately and inside, didn’t engage the practices that I believed that the church, my employer should engage. I love God and am falling more in love with him daily.  I loved (and to some degree, still do) God’s church. I love people that were part of the churches I had the opportunity to work for. The disappointment in God that I have experienced because of ‘calling’ is something I am still grappling with and processing. I may continue to do so, until I meet my maker, post this human life. I don’t have all the answers anymore. I know less now in this subject than I have ever known before. And certainly a collective group of people that are thinking about these issues daily together can navigate reform further than even I can in my head.

I’m reminded again of what one of my atheist friends posed as an answer to the question, “What is the will of God?” He said to the group sitting in front of him, “I believe that if God’s will was a reality, it would simply be to ‘do the next right thing.’” And I still think he’s right. I also believe can and will save, redeem, restore, remake, and renew his church in his timing and in his way. Before Jesus died, he said, “I will destroy the temple in three days and then rebuild it.” It would be foolish for me or others to say the same thing about his ‘temple’ today. I personally lack the power, the authority, and the influence to do what only Jesus can do. And that is probably for the best.