On Graduating

When this year began, I knew it was going to entail dying all the way. But I didn't know the experience of completing a death (to a season of life, to an emotional identity, to a vocational dream) would be leading to a graduation.

In a recent podcast interview, Rob Bell described his decision to leave the pastorate at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids this way: "If the sitcom is funny for 5 seasons, they make 7. Most people stay too long. And what should be a graduation becomes a divorce."

Already, I've seen the power in saying never, in completely closing the door to the possibility (and the identity) of what is commonly called church planting. That season, and that vocation, is over.  But even in the midst of saying "never" to being a church planter, I have tried to hold onto other things. To perspectives about myself, about my calling, about my place, about my family's future - even about God and church and theology and Scripture.

That's the nature of transition - it's more gradual than we'd like it to be, and our grip is usually loosened over time to the point of finally letting go. 

But another stage of this process was initiated when we found a more permanent place to live and moved for the second time in 6 months (with a new baby to boot). Geographically, we have been "city folk" for nearly a decade. Granted, the cities we've lived in and around have been smaller ones, but that's been our identity. The move to the Portland area in Maine didn't dislodge us completely. But this last move - a move to the wild Maine country - definitely did.

And in the best ways imaginable, really. There was an immediate and overwhelming sense of peace, of home, of belonging. And emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, I could feel the shift that was underway.

My grip was loosening.

The old season, the old dream, the old self was dying even more.

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Strangely, the best way I can describe this is by reflecting on Rob Bell's own story. When our church plant first ended, I watched a talk that Rob gave online and then read his "midlife" biography by Jim Wellman. I was blown away by his ability to joyously and peacefully embrace what was next in his life and just let go of his identity as a famous megachurch pastor. I could also see that his theology had changed, or at least expanded, and this seemed to liberate him in some way. He seemed happier than ever, renewed and on-mission.

He didn't stop living out his calling - he was still preaching essentially, and writing - but he did graduate.

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There's a growing conversation about church leaders who were once committed to the life of the local church, working full time or part time in ministry, who are now just done. These "Dones" are not like the casual, disaffected "Nones"  - no, they were once the church's lifeblood, the church's best hope for the future. They devoted their lives to ministry, at great cost, and came up empty. This conversation sometimes takes the shape of people who are "post-church" - ready to simply live life and find Christian community with everyday friends, doing mission with everyday neighbors.

The common thread is the idea of discarding the need for an institution or organization, with its professional clergy and superfluous programming.

I think Rob considers himself in this camp. And in addition to the aspect of finding Christian community in an everyday sense and being outside the church institution, he adds the experience of the Eucharist. In fact, in another interview, Rob holds up the Eucharist as the only hope for the future of the church (and, it seems, the post-church). It is that powerful, that unique, that unifying.

Despite being initially inspired by Rob's story, I still chafed with it over the last couple years, arguing against the "bad ecclesiology" of his new platform. Here he is, I thought, rising as an author, speaker, and entertainer, leaving the church of Jesus behind for greener pastures. And still, I don't want to hold Rob up as the archetype of the future here, because I don't see him that way and he probably wouldn't want to be held up that way.

But even as I chafed and argued, there was always a little voice in the back of my head saying something like, this is you.

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As a church-planting couple, my wife and I were betrayed by the people closest to us. It wasn't some garden-variety gossip either. It was top-shelf, job-ending, financially and emotionally devastating backstabbing. We got screwed. By the ones we loved and trusted the most.

How do you go back to "church" after that?

It was hard, but we did. Well, mostly I did, attending the United Methodist Church that our church plant had once gathered in during the afternoons. The pastoral staff there was so embracing, hiring me for digital content work and inviting me to serve in worship planning and preaching on some Sundays. The church community was equally embracing - and that amazed me, since I was so new to the whole New England Mainline Protestant thing and so...evangelical and charismatic...in my belief and style. Towards the end of our time in Vermont, we became members and I served on the Board of Trustees for a short time.

When it was time to leave for the Maine coast, there were ministry possibilities floating about in the atmosphere (whether real or perceived), and I was experiencing a sense of hope that had eluded me for a long time. I was also reconnecting with some of my core beliefs and convictions after a couple spiritually tough years, and that was good and healing. But it was also a little like trying to be who I'm supposed to be rather than who I really am...now. In recovering parts of myself that I'd lost, I also found myself trying to turn back the clock. And you can't turn back the clock, not without living in some serious denial. Know what I mean?

This second move to the wilds of Maine initiated another stage in the process. And as the year rounds the turn into the final quarter, my sense is that, new hope and core beliefs intact, it's finally time to graduate.

It's time to accept fully the experiences that have brought me to this point. It's time to shed fully the season, the identity, the dream that has more to do with who I am supposed to be than who I really am now. It's time to allow whatever additional elements of allegiance to an institution or organization or a form of religion to die, so that I will not stay too long, so that this will not need to become a messy(er) divorce.

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Historically, I have always been an apologizer. This was probably hardwired into me by my introverted nature or my emotionally abusive father or both, but I have always viewed my personality and gifts as somehow wrong or obtrusive or not enough and therefore in need of explanation, censoring, and mitigation. This has produced a kind of martyr mentality, a self-sabotage of sorts, always holding the door for others and feeling used (again and again) when they don't say thank you.

My underachieving knows no bounds.

Trust me, I still don't think I'm all that great. But I've (finally) come to the point of embracing that I am beloved by God - and uniquely created and called by God for a purpose. I've known this, theoretically, for a long time, but I haven't really believed it until recently. The internalized shame of the first half of my life has just begun to recede as I've come to understand my own ability to refuse it. Shame, in case you haven't heard, is not mandatory. No matter how many desire (in their own pathological inferiority) to heap it onto you, you can just say no to taking it into you. It's not easy, but it's true.

And yet, old habits die hard. Despite these new bedrock beliefs, I still have a tendency to fail, and to want failure. (Wow, that hurt to type.) These are the habits that, in approaching graduation, I am determined to demolish. A recent post by Ksenia Anske about writing set me on fire a few days ago:

If writing is what you want to do, as soon as you declare it to people, there will be always those who will try to stop you, dropping their own fears and unaccomplished dreams on you. KEEP THE GATES TO YOUR MIND CLOSED. Don't let those people in. Cut them out of your life. Whatever people tell you you ought to do, it's their view of your life. Well, they can go stuff their ideas up their asses. You'd be surprised how harmful words can be, how easily someone's harsh comment can dissuade you from writing and, on top of it, make you lose precious time. See the pattern here? Minutes. Once you glance at some message telling you that maybe you should drop this writing idea and go look for a job, you won't be able to get it out of your head.

So, again. Gates. Gates. GATES!!!...

The times of you making other people feel better are over. If you want to find the time to write, you'll have to banish all those little time suckers. Funny enough, once you start this process, people who genuinely love you will support you. It's good weeding, I tell you. True friends stay, the rest fall off. GOOD RIDDANCE.

This is all advice about writing, but for a lifelong martyr and self-sabotager like myself they are the words of liberation. The words of graduation.

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I am not, really, a Done. I'm not philosophically post-church either. I'm not even anti-institutional (though I hate institutionalism). 

And I'm definitely not Rob Bell, a Harper One published spiritual teacher making it in L.A., tandem surfing with Oprah on the weekends. (Admit it - that's an amazing image.)

But Rob's story is somehow my story too, more than I can even express, and more than I've wanted to admit - precisely because I can never do church or ministry the same way again. Neither can my wife. It's not just church planting - it's something bigger. I need to leave something behind - something I fundamentally believe might be passing away, anyway.

I have no capacity for evangelical church as usual anymore.

I've tried to make it work - I swear I've tried.

But I can't.

We can't.

My family and I are graduating, and think whatever you need to think about that, call it whatever you need to call it - it is time for us to move on. To continue expanding emotionally, theologically, spiritually in order to find more life, joy, and peace. In the poetic words of Brian Zahnd, a.k.a., The Blind Man at the Gate,

In our journey through the holy script we’ve not yet reached THE END Turn the page... We find comfort in that which is now too familiar But the thrill is gone and the story has stalled Turn the page To move on in the divine tome is not a betrayal Of that which we have come to know and love But to understand the story demands that we Turn the page

I'm turning the page. I'm embracing my belovedness, and my calling, without apology. I'm even embracing the church, but doing so in a way that cracks the closed circle wide open and enters the everydayness of life, keeping Eucharistic worship at the center and streamlining everything else.

In fact, I'm writing a book about those sorts of things right now. About what happens after the apocalypse - at a personal level, and at the level of  being a Christian in 21st century America. I'm ready, finally, to more fully embrace living as a post-apocalyptic believer and leader in what I believe is a new beginning for all of us.

(I'm also just ready to more fully embrace living.)

Strangely, here in the wilds of Maine, it's the New England Mainline Protestants who are embracing me again. Me, that charismatic evangelical who just can't go back. Me, the guy who's graduating to some new vocation and expression, somehow embraced by these traditional yet Spirited sects.

When I was a kid, there was a worship song that played on repeat in our house, laden with all kinds of old charismatic meaning. In my on-fire-yet-frozen-chosen, new charismatic perspective, it takes on a whole new tone:

I will never be The same again I can never return I've closed the door I will walk the path I'll run the race And I will never Be the same again.

Or, in the words of The Blind Man at the Gate:

There’s so much more Adventure yet to be discovered Mystery yet to be uncovered Passion yet to be recovered Turn the page We’ve not yet reached the good part The living happily ever after part The heaven come to earth part Turn the page It’s showing E on the fuel gauge It’s time to bust out of that cage Let a new scene take the stage Let a new hope come of age Stop being a willing hostage Get rid of your excess baggage Learn to speak a new language Find the secret passage Please hear this message Turn the page

Amen.