Sunday, October 02, 2016

This is My Story, This is My Song . . .

During times of transition, it is helpful to rehearse what we value and what we've learned along the way. This "rehearsing the story" is a biblical way of presenting ourselves before God and anchoring our hearts and minds in a broader Story that goes beyond our brief life on this planet.
As I started to write out my story, I was prayerfully aware of several things:
  1. We cannot bear the weight of our stories; there is too much glory, mystery and sorrow for any one person to bear on their own. This is one reason why community is so important. Only an interweb of supportive relationships centered around the presence and activity of God can support our stories.
  2. Only Jesus can ultimately bear our stories. Only his shoulders are broad enough to bear their weight. Only between the paws of Aslan is there enough space to hold every part of our stories.
  3. The process of picking and choosing what parts to tell, as well as assigning value and interpretive meaning to events, people and words are all tools in the storyteller craft. The process itself is revealing. I found myself more thankful and sorrowful through the telling.
Seeking to live a story worth telling,

I was raised in a small Oregon town (Forest Grove) to nominally church going parents. Though we semi-regularly attended the local United Church of Christ, I never heard the gospel -  it was usually just a mix of teaching on positive thinking. It wasn’t until I was in a very deep crisis in my late teens that I heard and responded to the gospel of Jesus.
My childhood had been fairly lonely and damaging, but I didn’t know it at the time; I just thought there was something very wrong with me! My Dad left us when I was 9 and refused to pay child support, so we were pretty poor and my Mom had to work several jobs. Consequently, she was rarely home. I was left to fend for myself in the house, often without much food, along with an older brother. Shame and self-hatred became early companions that nearly killed me. They were nurtured through constant issues with eating for comfort and weight issues from when I was very young. I gradually became convinced over many years that suicide was the best way out for me, the only way to escape emotional pain. Drugs, alcohol and dark, angry, metal music only made things worse. My emotional struggles made it difficult to find friends, which only reinforced by story of abandonment and shame. Most of my friends during high school were “party” friends who could help me numb the pain but offer little else.
After one of my drinking buddies committed suicide in 1989 (I was 19), I felt closer than ever to taking my own life. Thankfully, this is the time when Jesus invaded my story! At the time, the only real Christian I knew had been periodically teaching me to play drums. He never pushed Jesus on me, but was available one night to answer questions I had. On a July night in 1989 he asked me if I wanted to receive Jesus, and with a sliver of faith I said, “Why not? I’ve tried everything else.”
Jesus took that weak step and gave me new life! I felt something different inside almost immediately. I began attending my friend’s church (Foursquare denomination) and got involved in helping lead the youth group. I was baptized in water about a month later. Though I was never a reader, I found an insatiable thirst for the New Testament, and read it through several times in the next few months. That first year was a dream; Jesus felt so close and so good! I thought for sure my inner anguish was gone, taken care of, paid for. Little did I know that there was much in me that was still deeply broken and in need of healing.
To my dismay, I developed a degenerative disc disease in my back in the next year that forced me to quit my warehouse job and consider other options. With my love of Scripture and a growing sense of calling to leadership, I began to entertain the idea of Bible College. I attended LIFE Bible College in Burnaby, British Columbia from 1990-1994, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Theology (this school has since been renamed and moved - it is now Pacific Life Bible College in Surrey, BC).
During my time at LIFE, my struggles with depression, shame and self-hatred came roaring back and I experienced a great deal of disillusionment because of it. It became clear that I was still messed up inside even though Jesus was “Lord of my life.” To make matters worse, neither I nor the Christians around me had categories to help someone like me. Brokenness was not really in their vocabulary, except for addicts in 12-step groups. I was told to “just pray more” and “trust God,” which only provoked greater shame because I felt unable to.
Through a few compassionate professors during my time at Bible College, I developed a deep appreciation for Theology, Church History and Hermeneutics. The Reformed faith of a few of my professors was appealing because God’s Sovereignty seemed to give me breathing room for my troubled heart. Though I loved the hunger for God that ran through the Foursquare/Pentecostal faith, I was frequently troubled by the lack of empathy for people like me who struggled and who didn’t quite fit the “victorious” Christian model of living. I was also distressed with how much abusive manipulative tactics were used to get good Christian people to do things. Many pastors I knew led by manipulation in the name of Jesus, so I quickly became disillusioned with church. Things seemed to brighten as my graduation drew near and I began to think hopefully about my future with the person I had fallen in love with several years earlier.
I met my wife (Cheri) during this time at the church we attended together.  Cheri and I dated for several years and got married in 1994. Over the next 6 years we lived mostly in southern British Columbia, having one son (Samuel) in October of 1998.
During these years I had remained involved, off and on, with the Bible College in an adjunct teaching capacity. I greatly enjoyed research and teaching, and I began to sense a call to return to school to develop these gifts. I attended Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS) from 1999-2001, graduating with a Masters degree in Theological Studies. In my reading, writing and teaching I continued to develop a thirst to resolve an issue that seemed to come up repeatedly - how to wed the mind and heart in an integrated way, or how to unite a heart of devotion with an academic mind. With J.I. Packer’s guidance (Regent College), I wrote my Master’s thesis on Jonathan Edwards’ spirituality, thinking that in him I had found my solution to the tension.
As part of my duties in the Masters program, I served as a teaching assistant. This gave me a taste of teaching in a graduate level setting. I enjoyed this even more than the College level. I knew I would need a Ph.D. if I wanted to teach graduate level, so I began looking at Ph.D. programs. The church in the lower mainland BC (as I experienced it) was becoming more and more “liberal” and I found myself having to defend basic Bible teachings in the classroom and in small groups. I was tired of having to ‘defend the Bible,' so I was looking for a school that shared my values. I settled on Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY because of it’s conservative resurgence and it’s reasonable tuition. We moved to Louisville in June 2001. I began working on prerequisites for entering the Ph.D. program from 2001-2002 and was on the verge of applying to the program when “the floor” fell out from under me.
A dark night of the soul descended upon me in 2002-2003, though I had no idea what was going on at the time. Over a few months I lost most of my ability to study, read and write; my concentration was shot, and I felt weary, confused and distant from God. This made completing my classwork very difficult and the idea of beginning a Ph.D. program impossible. I had felt sure that God had called me to Louisville but began to doubt whether or not I had ever heard anything from God. I dropped out of school (what I thought was a temporary break) and found some desk work that I could do. My wife and I sought community where we could “be broken” in, and I turned to authors who seemed to have categories to help the suffering Christian: Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen, John Eldredge, Eugene Peterson and Larry Crabb. I could no longer read Scripture in traditional translations; it only seemed to reinforce the distance I felt between me and God. I turned to Peterson’s The Message for the next several years and it saved my faith! It provided language and symbolic space for my questions, anger and raging confusion.
As I just kept walking through each day trying to make sense of God and my story, I began to realize that the Lord was remaking me from the ground up. I began opening to new ideas and practices related to the Christian life. I learned about the true/false self from Thomas Merton and Judith Hougen; I learned and began practicing listening and inner healing prayer from Rusty Rustenbach, Sandra Wilson and Leanne Payne; I discovered my heart through John Eldredge; I found freedom to be broken in Henri Nouwen, David Benner, Brennan Manning and Larry Crabb. I learned how to do silence and solitude from Ruth Haley Barton’s writings and the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, KY.
Though I was also receiving regular counseling, I still had great difficulty relating to God and especially Jesus, and I could not make much sense of the gifts and calling that seemed irrevocable in my life.
We had two more children during these years - daughters Anna Beth (2002) and Elise (2004). Though I couldn’t make sense of my story, my family provided me loving space to just simply be. They also provided me the desperately needed relational connections that helped me survive the darkness. I couldn’t trust much in the world, but I could trust that at home there was a wife and children that loved me. At home I found solace, a place of love, acceptance and forgiveness in a world that didn’t make sense.
I found some outlet in leading small groups over the years and the occasional opportunity to preach; but I mostly found my sense of purpose in walking with people one on one. I developed a few close friendships, and a small handful of broken people (many who were either leaders or recovering leaders) sought me ought to help find some hope. My greatest joy became helping people consider new thoughts, ideas and images about God and his goodness and helping them work out the implications in their lives.
A turning point occurred in 2012-2013, revolving around how I related to and through my body. In July 2012 I had experienced another in a long line of food binges followed by shame. I was tired of it. My wife and I resolved that we had to try and change things up. We decided to begin by recording our eating without trying to change much, at least initially. We had tried multiple times to make radical changes, but always lacked the vision to sustain it.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that although I did have some healthy eating patterns, there were a few specific habits that were always overturning my efforts to lose weight. Several times a week I would typically deal with work/life stress by stopping by a convenience store on my way home from work and picking up a handful of candy bars. When we started recording our eating ( I tried cutting out these binges because i didn’t want to record them!
Though there were many hunger pains early on, I was surprised how easy it was for me to push through them and stay on track. This time felt different. As I found new ways of dealing with being hungry, I was still tempted frequently to turn to sweets when life felt sour. I was able to let these go for the most part, and when i did fail, I tried to re-interpret it along the lines of a long process of lifestyle change, saying to myself that this little incident didn’t need to ruin that. I was also learning daily times of silence and solitude and practicing God’s presence. The breakthrough seemed to come when i began to take God with me into these episodes of bingeing. I would try my best to talk with God about what I was doing, how I felt about it, how I wanted him to help me change. I knew he was there and that he loved me, right at the point of my shame, and this brought some deep healing to those places. As I practiced this, these temptations began to lose their power and frequency.
When i started, I needed to lose about 90 lbs to get my “ideal” weight. I was dropping weight pretty fast, averaging 3-4lbs a week. Within about 6-7 months I was approaching my goal weight. I had never experienced this kind of progress before; I felt “help” with and in me that felt different. Though I didn’t understand fully what was going on, I cooperated with it where I could and a vision began to form in which healthy eating not only made sense but was couched in goodness. It felt like a “reset” button had been pushed in my body.
Around the time of reaching my goal weight (February 2013) I saw someone post on Facebook that some Dallas Willard lectures were going to be streaming for free as they were delivered (Knowing Christ Conference). I thought I would listen to them as I worked, and though I missed a few of them was able to catch most of the messages.
I had read some Dallas Willard before, but never heard him lecture that I can recall. I was captivated! As he talked about life in the Kingdom of God I knew that I was hearing about what I was experiencing. Connections were aflame in my mind, and all the big words in my theology were finally finding cohesion - grace, gospel, discipleship, Kingdom, eternal life, etc. In my bodily experiences of weight loss, I was cooperating with God in ways I’d never known before, but my experience was as if I had backed into it without knowing it. I listened to those lectures 20-30 times each in the next several months, and I seemed to get something new each time. I had never “devoured” a teacher or teaching like this, but I felt “ripe” to hear it and jump into it.
That experience launched me into an exploratory adventure into the Kingdom of God that continues to this day. I have sought to apprentice myself to Jesus every day and learn how to live as he would, at his pace and in his spirit. I rarely seem to do it, though; it’s usually as an indirect result of something else going on, some crisis in my life or in the life of someone I love, that I step into this stream of eternal life. I want to grow in consistent vision and intention. I have committed myself for a long time to opening myself to God’s life in every way I can, whenever I can, trusting that Jesus will meet me and work in ways that I can’t. Everything seems to hinge on vision and intention; when these are in alignment, means becomes powerfully significant.
I still feel a great deal of emotional pain at times, and sometimes feel just as weak, powerless and despairing as I used to; but these are slowly decreasing in power and frequency as healing goodness permeates my soul day by day. I have been blogging for years about my journey, which has been therapeutic for me and for many other broken people. My heart breaks for hurting people who fall through the cracks in their experience of church and of Jesus! This desire to write was united with a leading by the Spirit to write something for the Journal for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, a journal I have been following and supporting since it’s inception. I am humbled and happy to say my article will appear in the Fall 2016 issue on Lament. It is an attempt to address a serious gap I see in the spiritual formation movement - a lack of awareness of weakness and psychological pathology as well as attention to inner healing as a consequence of Kingdom living. I have come to believe that spiritual disciplines are much more organic than we think, arising out of a soul’s particular need to engage with God in particular way in a particular time. Some people cannot do disciplines until they receive significant healing first; but most spiritual formation talk doesn’t address this (at least, in my limited experience of it).
The latest iteration of Kingdom work in my life has been to take the rubble of my calling, giftedness and desire and to rework it along with the entire category of “pastor.” I began imagining with Jesus what it would look like for a church to be the church - in the Kingdom, free of outcomes and making people do things. I also re-imagined the role of pastor in similar ways, and soon discovered that this is what I felt made for.
Since June 2015 I have been actively pursuing a pastoral vocation, with no “success” as of yet. Conversations with my mentor in Louisville (Rich Plass, co-author of Relational Soul from IVP) and many other leading circumstances led me to conclude that geography and place deeply mattered to me. I needed to be closer to mountains and to our families in the NW, so we chose to move to Spokane, WA in July 2016. I hope and pray a pastoral vocation will unfold in the Lord’s timing here. If not, I know my story will not be in vain. If I do not have the opportunity to be a Kingdom shepherd here and now in this life, I believe that nevertheless I am undergoing training for the next life, the real life, the life of reigning with Jesus in his way. With that as my vision, I am desiring and pursuing God and this calling, but am content if he decides that it’s best for me to remain doing desk work on this side of the veil.

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