Lasts

Last week was, for me, a week of lasts.

Last goodbyes with several friends before we move.

Bikers from TdF 2014 pose outside of Des Arc UMC. After 200 miles on a bike together, you're more or less family.

Bikers from TdF 2014 pose outside of Des Arc UMC. After 200 miles on a bike together, you’re more or less family.

Last mission trip with my ASU students. Along with that, the last Tour de Faith bike ride I will take as A-State Wesley’s pastor.

Last time leading worship with this group of students.

You’d think I’d be used to this sort of thing by now. An inherent part of campus ministry is saying goodbye. You welcome students to campus, get to know them, invest in them, but know all the while that, if all goes according to plan, you will have to let them go in four or five years. When they leave, you cry in your office. It’s just part of the rhythms of the job.

On top of that, I am a United Methodist pastor, working in a system marked by frequent pastoral moves. I knew when I chose this profession that it would be difficult to set down roots, and that I would not always be in control of my own appointment.

But none of that has prepared me for this particular move. After seven years in Jonesboro—about double the average stay for a UM pastor, according to the latest Barna report I could find—I have come to love this place and these people. And falling in love makes you vulnerable to the pain of loss.

In my more skeptical moments, I wonder if it’s all worth it. I wonder if my denomination really wants us to learn to love our people, since love means attachments, and attachment makes us more difficult to move. I wonder if it would not be easier to treat ministry like it was any other job, to serve my people in a caring but aloof fashion. I wonder why I don’t become just another service provider, a religious cashier of sorts, someone paid to define and facilitate spiritual transactions.

But that’s the “lasts” talking. In my clearer moments, I know there’s a bigger reality.

When I search the bible for direction and comfort during this transition, I keep going back to the story of Joseph. He didn’t just lose a job. He was sold out by the people who should have cared about him most. I can only imagine the sense of loss and desperation and disorientation he must have felt on his way to Egypt and then again in prison.

Joseph had two choices: die bitter, or fine a way to live better. He chose the latter, and his people were saved because of it.

The stories of those of us moving this year—mine included—are not nearly so dramatic. But the premises hold true. We can focus on what we lose in the change and be bitter about it, which will destroy us and leave our new parishioners underserved.

Or we can embrace the pain of the “lasts” as a necessary part of moving forward in God’s grace. We can look ahead knowing that, for every loss in pastoral transition, there is a corresponding gain.

The lasts don’t last forever, and they carry with them the hint of a promise. Soon the lasts shall be firsts, in a new place and with new people. As much as I grieve what I am losing, I can’t wait to fall in love again.

 

Authority

Last week, the Arkansas courts struck down a law prohibiting gay marriage as unconstitutional, prompting the expected reactions from across the political spectrum. Several of those who weighed in on social media were United Methodist clergy.

A few days later, the pastors in my annual conference received a letter from our bishop reminding us that, regardless of personal feelings, United Methodist clergy are not permitted to officiate any form of union between same-sex couples. While he recognized that some of his pastors have strong feelings that the Disciplinary language is unjust, he insisted that our duty is to uphold the Discipline. Those who disagreed were invited to call him to converse.

Enough ink (and blood) has been spilled over issues of marriage and sexuality without me adding to the muddle. But I do think that the bishop’s letter brings up related issues of authority that have tentacles throughout our jumble of UM polity and practice.

The question to me is not whether the bishop was within his rights to order his clergy not to perform same-sex ceremonies. As the one charged with ordering the life of the annual conference, he clearly was. That other bishops have chosen a different course does not lessen this bishop’s authority to speak directly and firmly on matters of the Discipline.

But what right do rank and file clergy—particularly dissenting clergy—have in responding to the bishop’s directive? Should they accept the authority of the bishop as the UMC’s governing representative, make an appointment to see him, and issue a private plea for a change in policy? Should they wait on the next General Conference and try once again to change the language of the Discipline legislatively? Should they openly defy the bishop and perform same-sex unions anyway, as has happened elsewhere, and thus force the issue?

Even in a state as conservative as Arkansas, the answers are not evident. Radicalism necessarily breaks connection, but connection inherently serves the institutional majority. Legislation has proven near impossible to pass. Conversation and prayer are at the core of our self-understanding, but they are often tools of inaction.

Tension continues to mount. People are talking openly of schism. It’s an uncomfortable position to find ourselves in.

And it’s one from which authority, no matter how well-meaning, cannot save us.

In a culture with a democratic ideal, authority cannot merely be assumed. It must be granted by those being governed. If authority gets used for anything other than the highest good, it will be ineffectual.

The UMC lives in a strange, idealized version of Rousseau’s social contract. We are willing to give up some of our individual convictions for the greater good, whether that good is practical governance or theological vision.

Lately, however, the concern of our administrative leaders have been with the nature of their authority (as per the last General Conference proposals) and with the numerical growth of the denomination. While these may be important, they don’t address the things most of us are talking about—things like fiscal responsibility, mutual accountability, and arbitrary itinerancy.

And same-sex marriage.

Again, I don’t question any bishop’s authority to speak on the subject, nor any thoughtful person (lay or clergy)’s right to respond. What I am saying is that, in a time when our convenant is strained, our trust in authority is strained even further. That’s a recipe for trouble.

My prayer is that those who wish to challenge authority—myself among them—will be measured and kind. But also that those in offices of authority will learn to listen more closely and govern more evenly. Perhaps it is too late to achieve complete unity on any issue, but we might at least find cohesion, if we can learn to trust each other somehow.

Time to Ride!

Of all the things I will miss about being the Wesley Foundation director at A-State, helping plan and lead Tour de Faith may be at the top of the list. We are on a mission this week to learn to see our world at not only a different perspective, but also a different pace. The crazy thing is that the biking has as much to do with our spiritual formation as helping at an ESL class or working at a food pantry (two of our bigger “mission projects” for this trip).

A few of our TdF bikers made it to the Clinton Presidential Library. We have no idea what Dave and Josh are doing in this picture.

A few of our TdF bikers made it to the Clinton Presidential Library. We have no idea what Dave and Josh are doing in this picture.

It’s hard to explain TdF if you’ve never done something like it, but it’s a thing worth doing if you ever have the chance. We will be worn ragged by Thursday, empty in virtually every aspect of our being. But it will be worth it, and God will fill us anew, and we will leave TdF knowing that the line of impossible is further out than we thought.

We appreciate your prayers for our staff and students this week!

 

Looking Over Loss

When my wife and I decided in April to move to Dakota Wesleyan University, we were too numb to feel much beyond relief. After months of grief and uncertainty, it just felt good to know what was going to happen, to be able to exercise some sort of control over our situation—something sorely lacking among ARUMC campus ministers of late.

The last two weeks, however, remind me of waking up after getting my wisdom teeth removed. Once the anesthetic fog began to clear, I realized just how painful this whole endeavor was going to be.

I had prepared myself for the calls and e-mails from colleagues that I started receiving once the news hit the clergy gossip circles. I had even thought through the last few weeks of school and inevitable goodbyes with my students at Arkansas State. No surprise to anyone that I shed my share of tears, particularly at our last A-State worship service.

Denise's sunflowers are something we will miss from our current house, but also something we might take with us to the new one.

Denise’s sunflowers are something we will miss from our current house, but also something we might take with us to the new one.

But neither Denise nor I were quite ready for the emotions that came with putting our home on the market. The little white house has been our dream home, and the land and woods our boys’ playground. For five years, I’ve written in the same office—everything from book reviews to blog posts to a fairly credible novel. For five years, Denise and Jonathan have worried over the garden, and Zachary and I have played baseball in the field.

This house has not been the place we happened to live. It’s the place in which we’ve built our lives for half a decade. Goodbye is not coming easy. Goodbye never does.

To live is to lose. Sometimes that’s a controlled loss, as with our move. Sometimes it’s a gut-punch, like the death of a friend or, as is now the case with Central Arkansas, a brutal natural disaster. Regardless of how loss comes to us, however, it brings a terrifying reality: we cannot hold anything worth holding without knowing we could lose it.

Of course, that’s not the whole story.

Lately I’ve been reading Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness, a fascinating exploration of why we (humans, families, churches, etc) cannot see things that are right before our eyes. She notes that, “as the behavioral economists Kahneman and Tversky found, losses loom very much larger than corresponding gains.” (p. 25). We feel loss more acutely because it brings the absence of something known, something comfortable. It’s harder to take solace in a resultant gain, especially when it is not yet realized.

Heffernan’s point is not that we are powerless in the face of loss. Rather, she argues that when we understand what causes our blindness, we can address it. We can gain power over it. We can release what has been taken from us so that we can accept what is given.

To put it so simply does not imply that such perspective is easy. As excited as we are about the new chapter of our lives, we feel the coming loss of our friends, our jobs, and our home acutely.

But we are Easter people at heart, and we know this move is right. We will empty this house with tears, but also with prayers for whoever the next owners turn out to be.

And we will start over in a new world that’s not defined by loss, but by hope.