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.

Introvert

I realized that I wanted to do something that involved people, and, because I was ‘spiritual’ and ‘curious’ I decided that the church was full of people and that I should get involved

I have a confession to make. I don’t trust people. I don’t know that I ever really trusted anyone. Before the last few months, I’m not even sure I knew what trust was.

I’ve spent most of my adult life (and even most of my adolescent and early adult years) mingling with people. I have always enjoyed people and getting to know them. They fascinate me, provide me with friendship, companionship, and fun. Groups of people are fun to be with, especially when they are doing things that I really enjoy doing. As a small child, I can remember organizing football games in the front yard of our house, each game further destroying the green grass that my father had worked so hard to cultivate. I was ecstatic when I could gather a crowd and orchestrate us ‘accomplishing’ something together. This translated into my adult life. I realized that I wanted to do something that involved people, and, because I was ‘spiritual’ and ‘curious’ I decided that the church was full of people and that I should get involved there. I could ‘help’ people, do God’s work, and orchestrate groups of people that would fulfill a mission. I started where most green pastors right out of bible college start. In Youth Ministry.

It was the summer of 2009 when I decided that our youth ministry needed to grow. I was going to single handedly arm this group with the ‘weapons’ and ‘tools’ to simply go out and ‘win people to Jesus.’ I thought about this activity as one might think about winning a basketball game or overtaking the enemy in a war. It worked. We gathered teenager after teenager and our little group grew. It grew a little at first, and then, to my dismay, we outgrew the room we were in. In those moments, my pride and ego was so far through the roof that every decision that I made was about growth. It was about my own self worth, my own worth to the church, and about making some name for myself. No one told me at that point that Youth Pastors have a hard time making a name for themselves. I did it all under the guise of spirituality and evangelism. Not all of it was ‘fake’ however. I truly did believe that what I was organizing impacted families and teenagers. I believed that I would somehow create a new way to do youth ministry and that all would be solved in the suburbs of Wichita, KS. To this day, I have great relationships with the kids and families that were a part of those early youth ministry days. The best thing that has happened is that those students became adults, and figured out faith for themselves. There was a ‘crisis of faith moment’ that some of them describe and they found God (or didn’t depending on the student). I’m sure some of them look back and see youth group as a great time to get together, hear some funny stories, open the bible, eat and play games. But as I look back on those times, I don’t know that I was focused on truly helping as much as I was focused on orchestrating some sort of action that the group could take. In the end, I could somehow tell myself that I deserved the destructive pattern of selfishness that I would participate in.

While I was doing youth ministry, I somehow got connected with a publishing agency in Kansas City who were writing a curriculum that would go out to Youth Pastors far and wide. And I was invited to do some writing and then some speaking and filming. This was probably at the height of my ‘youth ministry arrogance.’ I remember getting done with the video shoot, the writing, and the publishing part of the curriculum and thinking to myself that I had arrived as a youth pastor and that I would be doing this for the rest of my life. So, I did what any normal 20 something idiot youth pastor does. I started writing a book. I thought, “I know so much and have so much to offer the youth ministry world. I have the right philosophy, theology, education, and experience. And now, others will be able to somehow learn from me.” I got about 4 chapters into the book and was stopped in my tracks. I encountered significant pain, probably the most pain in ministry up to that point that I had absorbed, and it cut my ‘brilliant’ book writing short. Why was I even doing what I did, as a vocation? Did it even matter?

It was one of the most discouraging events that has happened in my life. I won’t go into detail, here in the blog, but have written extensively about the situation in the book I am currently working through (By the way, any brilliance in the book that I am writing has NOTHING to do with me, and everything to do with the pain that my own poor selfishly immorale choices caused). It rocked me. For months, I didn’t move forward. I went through the motions. I collected a church paycheck. I wasn’t sure how I could do youth ministry, if this is how things ended when I invested my life into someone. And it was through that experience that I recognized my inclination to introversion, and then, isolation.

People far smarter than me have done extensive writing about the introvert phenomena. They have determined that it is not that introverts ‘hate everyone’ or ‘cannot be around people.’ It’s simply that introverts become drained when with people for periods of time and are re energized when alone. The opposite is true of extroverts. For those of you who are either (which is all of us, exactly), you know exactly what I am describing to be true. I had not really focused on refueling up to the point of my major disappointment. I took a trip to counseling and the gentlemen that I met with told me that I should probably take some time to really focus on me. I had no idea what that even meant. He told me that I needed a hobby. What? What was a hobby? Work was a hobby. Family was a hobby. I had no hobby. So, I delved into my introversion, and instead of simply refueling by myself for periods of time, I began the destructive pattern of isolation. I didn’t let people in, didn’t invite people to be a part of my life, and rarely offered much of any substance when discussing life on life’s terms with folks from church. I have recently learned that the behavioral mechanism that I was exhibiting is actually a protective vice that people who have been wounded at war often exhibit physically. If someone has their leg mangled in a battle, they will favor that leg and protect it, even when simply playing with their kids at home. Emotionally, I protected my heart, my mind, my behavior, and my patterns. I attempted to be perfect for people, and not give too much that they would know about me, or find out that I wasn’t a perfect pastor.

Isolation is a terrible place. The depths of being alone only grow and become far worse than the day before, and before long, isolation takes over the heart. Introverted and isolated, I began to ‘self care’ which was actually selfish obsession. I wanted me to be happy and that is what mattered. The destructive pattern of Isolation overtook me, and I forgot to dream. I forgot how. I forgot about the future, and even the present and instead, lived solely in the past, in the mistakes I had made, but more importantly all that I had accomplished. It was my way of somehow ‘deserving’ something.

I’m still an introvert today. I’ll never stop being an introvert. But I’ve learned, in a severe and profound way, that I need to let folks in on the emotion I feel. I need to speak out when someone is doing something that bothers me, and I need to be honest and forthright with every answer I give. There is no plan to go back to isolation. There is no plan to return to the hell that is despair and loneliness. Sure, I have lonely moments, as anyone does. But the overwhelming nature of isolation will not, should not, overtake me again. I will share what is happening in my head and heart, with others that I am learning to trust, maybe for the first time ever.

Do the “Next Right Thing.”

I am a failed pastor. I had a moral failure. To most of you, that is shocking, and yet, to most of you there is always a part of you that knew that I was a failure. And I am owning up to it, finding myself again, and am working through the wreckage that this moral failure caused. I walked in, for the very first time, on February 18th, Alcoholics Anonymous (maybe I’m not so anonymous?) and sat down, unsure exactly of what the format would be or how I would introduce myself when the ‘famous in movies’ introductions were made.

I walked into the room, unsure, unsteady, unstable. I need help and this is a last ditch effort.

There were clearly two leaders seated in the front of the room. One of them rang a bell and started the meeting with a moment of silence for the still struggling alcoholic. Then the serenity prayer was prayed. The liturgy of an AA meeting had begun. For the next several months, I would grow to enjoy this cantor of reading that was predictable, reminding, and unsettling, all at the same time. At the end of the reading of the 12 steps and a reminder that we cannot and will not recover, if God doesn’t help us, one of the leaders asked if there was anyone at the meeting for the very first time with 24 hours of sobriety. I raised my hand tentatively, knowing that this would be the very first time, in any group that I would share with others the depth that I had fallen. The leaders asked for my name. I answered with a shaky and unsteady voice…

“I’m Chris….” My voice trailed off…”And I’m an alcoholic.” There, I said it. Out loud, for all to hear. The leader invited me up to the front of the room, and I received my 24 hour ‘desire’ chip and the meeting continued. The group clapped for me as I sat down. For the next several months, these words would be a staple in my language. My identity began to change and morph into something that was clearer than anything I could have ever imagined. My life was changing before my very eyes, because of this simple phrase uttered in a roomful of strangers.

Anywhere that I have ever been, I have been a stranger. Sure, I knew people’s name, occupation, family members, and even sometimes remembered a little bit about what they had told me the week before. But to say that we were anything but acquainted strangers would be disingenuous . I knew that very few, if any people, really knew me, and I was sure, if they did get to know me, they would not like me. I didn’t like me, so why would others. If I remained perfect for others, at least on the outside, then maybe I could navigate my way through the rushing current of that which is pastoring people. If I could be strong for others, maybe I could teach myself how to do the same. If I could counsel others with ‘wisdom’ surely that was found deeply embedded in me that I could tap in for ‘me’ at some point? I was a stranger to others. They were strangers to me. But even darker, deeper, and by far more scary than any of that was that I was a stranger to me. I didn’t know me. I didn’t know who I was. Who I wanted to be when I grew up, where I wanted to live, how I wanted to live. This led me to continue to just do the next thing that was available in front of me. And as a young man in their early 20’s who is ambitious, I felt as though the world were mine for the taking. There were more than enough hours in the day to do the work of two people, there were more people around me who needed ‘me’ to save them, and there were always ways to impress those that called me their employee. I just had to make sure that I navigated with great precision, because to be found out as a fraud would mean that it would go away. All of it. My wife, my kids, my job, my house, my friends, my car, my everything would go away. I had to make sure that I didn’t fail, that I was perfect for others, and then, at some point to deal with the pain that all of that mask caused me on the inside.

How many days have I gone jetskiing in a row? How many days have I tried to kill that pheasant? How much or how little have I eaten? When is the next euphoric high going to be with the next event or promotion, the next big achievement? I know that I lost count of these things at times. I know that I felt guilty at certain points for the time and energy wasted…But, I always…I always needed more. Always more of whatever it was that made things ‘feel’ better at the time. I needed approval for those things, so even the things that I did in excess were things that were celebrated as ‘family’ things or ‘personal care’ things. I even tricked myself and others into believing that somehow I ‘deserved’ what I was indulging in.

Alcohol. It was the one thing that I could not have. It was one thing that I never really liked or indulged too much in. I mean, I drank a bit in college, but I think most of my friends did as well, and they didn’t end up a drunk. When I first drank, I experienced a different sensation and much quicker than anything that I had tried before. Jet skiing, hunting, relationships. All of these paled in comparison to the depth that alcohol would relieve my inside pain. And I began my affair with the drug. Cunning, baffling, and powerful, it overtook me. I began to day dream about next time I would binge instead of dreaming about the future that I was to live. I began to ponder whether I was an alcoholic. And kept drinking. It drowned pain, caused me to feel like myself, and allowed me to develop an identity that I thought was, at the very least, somewhat developed within me instead of others telling me how and who to be.

And it got me. There is a lot to my story, which is why I am writing away on a book, and there is a lot to the story of God. But I don’t walk away from this particular experience with any sense of pride or arrogance. If I could have experienced what I am experiencing these days, before I ever picked up a bottle of whiskey, I would take whatever that potion would be. But there is no potion. I’m still a failed pastor. But that’s not my complete identity. My identity is in Christ. He is also cunning, baffling, and powerful, but those were just words that I used in idealogy to wow people with what I knew about God. Now I know them to be true. I identify, truly identify, with those that recognize their humanity deeply. I identify with those that have addictions to all sorts of things. I identify with brokenness, loss, pain, and guilt. I identify as an alcoholic, failed pastor. But aren’t we all, at some level, failed humans? Most of the writing I have ever done has ended or concluded with ‘an answer’ to the problem that was posed. The reality is that I don’t know the answers anymore. I only know that I have to take things one day at a time. I have to find solace in the fact that I don’t want to and cannot control the next person, place, or thing that I will encounter. And one day at a time, I’ll make it.

I heard a deep, non theologically ‘accurate’ discussion of sorts in a meeting recently. We were discussing the will of God. There are several atheists present in groups that I attend and I have learned so much from them. It’s generally not that they are so much atheists as they are brilliant. You see, most of the atheists I know are very articulate.

One of them, in this discussion said, “If there is a will of God, I contend that it would simply be to ‘do the next right thing.’”

And with that, I think I’ll pass to one of you. And I’ll take another 24. Because that is the “next right thing.”