So I started this ridiculous project last week. In doing so I made an oversight. You see, the theology of ministry paper was actually part 2 of our writing for my seminary course. Part 1 was outlining our spiritual journeys. I post this because section 2 of my theology of ministry paper references the spiritual journey paper. So… here is my spiritual journey through my eyes five or so years ago. Commentary to follow.
I feel it is necessary to begin my story before I was born. When my mother was seventeen she had an abortion. I was conceived, out of wedlock, in between her first and second marriage, her second marriage being to my stepfather. Many people, some that I dearly love, attempted to persuade my mother to abort me. She said that she believed God was giving her a second chance to not compound a mistake. She has told me that she believed God had a plan for me and she also believed that God gave her my name. Needless to say, I was born.
The first thing I ever wanted to be was a pastor. That desire was spurred on by a pastor at the Assemblies of God church that we attended when I was young. He seemed cool and he gave me candy. I also like the idea of getting up in front of people and being both smart and funny, which I thought he was. Over time the desire to be a pastor faded. For some reason, it began to seem impractical.
The first time I got involved in a ministry, I was in third grade. I worked with a group called Victorious Faith Evangelistic Outreach as a puppeteer. We went into inner city areas of Pittsburgh proclaiming the Gospel through the arts, mostly puppetry and music. I remember that the night before one of our shows there had been a gang shooting not far from where we were going to perform. Amazingly, what we did that day was bring much needed levity to a very tense area. I later started a puppet ministry at my church that basically involved our whole youth group (by this time I was attending a UMC congregation in the suburb where my family had moved to when I was nine. I was no longer attending church with my family. They went to a Pentecostal “prosperity gospel” church that even in middle school rang hollow). I did puppet ministry and was involved at the UMC congregation all the way through high school.
Towards the end of high school and the beginning of college I started to move away from my faith. I no longer could believe what was being taught in my parents’ church, namely a performance-based gospel where God would “bless” me if I did the right things, and I was experiencing a lot of what I considered to be failures in the ministry I was doing at the church I was attending. When I started college I began to think of myself as an atheist. I wasn’t very good at it. I still prayed all the time.
After my second year of college, my brother and sister-in-law invited me to come and work at the Pittsburgh Project for a summer. The Pittsburgh Project is an urban community-based ministry that runs a summer home repair ministry that serves low-income homeowners and does outreach activities for urban youth. It is also where my brother and sister-in-law met. I was looking for a summer job because my internship opportunities in my chosen field (film studies) were falling through. I went to the Project expecting just a summer job. I soon discovered it would be much more than that. After only a few days of being there and meeting the folks who had come to serve in the city, I became very aware of the fact that something significant was happening. Within the first week of being there I was sitting alone on the back steps of the Project building and asking God to give my life direction. That was a stupid prayer. God was more than happy to oblige.
It would almost be impossible for me to overstate the significance of The Pittsburgh Project to my life. Early in my time there I had shared my story with some folks. I focused a lot on the hatred I felt towards my biological father…
Flashback: I didn’t meet my biological father until I was fourteen. Before then, he had called me a couple of times, always promising that we would get together and that I would get to meet the other side of my family. He never followed through. I met him quite by accident. On Easter of 1994 he was at my parents’ church. My mom asked me if I wanted to meet him and, of course, I said yes. Basically all he said to me that day was “nice to meet you”. I pretty much from that point decided that I hated him.
… six years later I am sharing this with folks at the Project. While they understood my anger, they also challenged me to let go of the anger, saying that it might end up being a barrier that keeps me from loving others as Christ wanted me to love them. They were right. I decided that the root of my anger was in the fact that my father didn’t know me, so I wrote him a letter telling him everything I could think of to tell him about myself. I told him about my anger towards him, but I also told him that I forgave him. I held on to that letter until I knew that I could send it and not be hurt by a lack of response. So I wrote it in June and mailed it in October. I haven’t heard back from him. I know where he is. He serves a church in Pittsburgh. I make a conscious effort to forgive him on a regular basis. I honestly believe that the ability to forgive my father has allowed me both to love and to be loved, so it might also be of note that I, like my brother, met my wife at the Project.
The Pittsburgh Project is also where I first heard grace explained. Though it is a word we use a lot in church circles, I somehow went through most of life feeling like God’s love was something that I had to earn. It was at the Project where I heard that there was nothing I could do to make God love me more (or less). My ideas of ministry changed from being performance-based to being gratitude-based.
Racial reconciliation was a frequent topic of conversation at the Project. We read a great deal on the topic. Race issues have always been an important issue for me because I have lived most of my life in majority white situations. Questions of racial identity are a constant struggle for me. Racial reconciliation remains a passionate issue for me.
As I said earlier, there is much I could say in regards to the Pittsburgh Project, but I will add one more thing; it is the place where I began to feel a strong sense of call. Late in my first summer I was leading a small group of students. During one of the evenings I had shared my story about my father. In my group was a cute, small twelve year old girl, a very “perfect” looking child, seemingly happy-go-lucky. During the course of our week she told us all a story that, though we weren’t competing, put mine to shame. She had experienced various levels of abuse, neglect, and instability through her young life due to situations with her parents. Her story broke my heart to the point that I went alone into the Project’s club room and wept. It was in the midst of this that I heard/felt the voice of God say to me that the brokenness and healing I was experiencing that summer was something I could use to help God’s other heartbroken children. Within a year of that God asked me a very simple question: what was the first thing you ever wanted to do? (refer back to page 1, paragraph 2!) That was when I began to seriously consider coming to seminary. In the interest of full disclosure, I probably need to say one more important, Pittsburgh Project related thing: The executive director of the Project was mentored by Phil Butin. For better and worse, that relationship has had great significance for my ending up at SFTS and has also greatly affected my experience here.
I have had some pretty significant ups and downs at seminary. I’ve felt that much of what I knew with certainty before I began my M. Div studies has been challenged. Those challenges have been a growing edge for me. It has made me reevaluate those things that I truly hold to be true. I have struggled greatly with the idea of ordination since I have been here. Recent communication issues with my presbytery have exacerbated that particular struggle. I have questioned whether or not I should be ordained in a denomination that I have only loose connections with and is at times very uncomfortable for me. I have questioned whether or not my place is in a church at all and have considered devoting myself more to an academic sphere.
This summer I had an experience that made me decide to put further academic aspirations on the shelf. I served in an internship in Portland with a consortium of churches known as the Presbyterian Urban Network (PUN). I was working with seven small, urban, congregations that are struggling with aging populations in a city that is getting younger. The churches are dying while the city is thriving. During the internship I got to experience myself in the role of pastor and it felt really good! I got excited about ideas of helping to revitalize a congregation and connecting the church to the larger community. I was also greatly encouraged by opportunities I had to share my faith and build friendships with self-proclaimed atheists, several of whom eventually came to hear me preach. I discovered an identity as an evangelist. Because of my interest in and exposure to the “emerging church” movement, I also was encouraged that I was able to get pastors to think about ways that church can be done differently and be more relevant to the surrounding community.
I have no clever metaphor for my spiritual journey. All I can say is that I am a work in progress. My hope is that I am always a work in progress. I don’t know where I’m heading. My interests are varied. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has made a huge impact on my life, which is why I do not give up on the church, even though I often hate it. Whether or not I am ordained in the PC (USA) or not, I believe that God has a place for me in ministry. I believe that God wants me to continue sharing my story which ultimately will give me opportunity to share God’s story.
There is a lot I could add here. I said very little about my wife in the original reflection. That seems derelict. I credit/blame my wife for pushing me to the left on social issues. I have, in turn, pushed her to the left on theological issues. We’re a match made in whatever your construct of heaven might be. She has encouraged me and modeled grace for me in ways that no one ever has. She continually affirms my gifts and is a great partner for me. On the flip side of that, she is a caring and compassionate social worker and in some ways I feel she does far more significant ministry than I will ever do. What she brings home with her every night are stories that highlight for me the depths of human need. How she maintains her sanity in all of this is somewhat miraculous to me.
Of course fatherhood has been another significant landmark in my spiritual journey. It has been redemptive, in the truest sense of the word, to provide for my son the father that I was denied. While my wife has enhanced my ability to receive love, my son has taught me how to give it in ways in which I did not think myself capable. I’m sure our daughter will only add to that.
I did complete the PC(USA) ordination process and I stayed in the presbytery that is mentioned in the closing paragraphs. Sometimes you just have to finish things. I returned to work at the Pittsburgh Project after seminary in an expanded leadership role in the organization. I enjoyed supervising staff and mentoring college students. I enjoyed sharing the Word of God with an average of 300 students for nine weeks in the summer. I continue to love the organization for all that it has given me, but it was not what I was called to. I began serving a small congregation in Pittsburgh part time then took a full time pastoral position in Ohio.
Though I strongly feel called to pastoral ministry, it has sent me to some of the lowest lows I have experienced. Last year I lead the church I was serving through a six month discernment process. I will write more about that elsewhere, but it was hard and frustrating and in the end I learned a lot about myself and the nature of people who both need and fear change. It took a great deal out of me. While I am no longer in that particular congregation, I have been strongly affirmed in my call to the pastorate.
I didn’t write about this five years ago, but during my time in seminary one of my best friends came out to his family. His dad is a pretty conservative pastor and said some pretty hurtful things to him. Being at school at SFTS I was surrounded by many talented people who seemed to love a church that wanted nothing to do with them. I was moved by their devotion to God and the church. I heard the witness of Janie Spahr (google her if you need to) during a chapel service at the school and that evening I committed to being an ally to my LGBT sisters and brothers. On that night I was born again, again (again?) I still have much to learn, including much to learn about my own sexuality.
Lastly, I would add last year’s trip to Haiti as a significant milestone in my spiritual journey. I had never really been out of the country. I had never sen poverty on that level. But I had also never seen such force of will and desire to survive. I continue to process my time there, but I know that that was my first trip to Haiti and not my last.