Could It Happen Again?

I had never heard of the term “epic fail” when I went through one in 1986.

At age 36, I was in my second year as pastor of a large Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA. I had joined the church’s staff as an associate pastor in 1982 and was 2called, by unanimous vote of the congregation, to succeed my popular predecessor, who had served in that role for nearly twenty years, when he moved on to a church in Pennsylvania in 1984. Two years into my term, things were not going well. I was exhausted—physically, emotionally, and spiritually—and discouraged. In early January, I resigned, fairly sure that I lacked the gifts necessary for effective pastoral ministry and maybe for vocational ministry of any sort. Continue reading

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A Desperate Plea And Bobby McGee

Have you ever been so discouraged about your circumstances that you went to bed thinking, “Maybe this will be the night when my sleep apnea kills me”? I was almost there last night. Disheartened when I went to sleep and disappointed when I awoke, or even that I awoke.

Don’t say it could never happen to you, that you could never become so despondent. I didn’t think it could happen to me either, but that was before I was fired from a job I loved because of the church I attended (or, more precisely, because of the church I didn’t attend). That was before I started my seventh decade of life already unemployed for two years, and now two more years have passed, and things have not really changed. That was before I spent two years and many thousands of dollars preparing for Holy Orders, only to conclude that there may very well be no place for me to serve in this new communion to which I have been drawn, to which I thought I had been led.

At 6:00 this morning, the last thing I wanted to do was Morning Prayers. Fortunately for me, the liturgical tradition (and this is one reason I love it so much) does not require a supplicant to achieve or exhibit any particular frame of mind or physical posture as a precondition for praying. So I fumbled around for my glasses, propped my not-yet-truly-awake body against a pile of pillows, and opened my Franciscan prayer book to the page appointed for this day, the Tuesday following the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. And this is the first thing I read.

Blessed are You, sovereign God of all. To You be praise and glory forever. In your tender compassion, the dawn from on high is breaking upon us to dispel the lingering shadows of night. As we look for Your coming among us this day, open our eyes to behold Your presence, and strengthen our hands to do Your will, that the world may rejoice and give You praise.

That prayer had the effect of a glass of cold water in the face. I read it… no, I fervently prayed it… three more times. And each time I sensed the presence of God more personally and more real.

Next I moved on to the psalm for the day, Psalm 123, and I read (and prayed) these words.

To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he has mercy upon us.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
    for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than enough
    of the scorn of those who are at ease,
    of the contempt of the proud.

That psalm was followed by this prayer.

Sovereign God, enthroned in the heavens, look upon us with Your eyes of mercy, as we look upon You with humility and love, and fill our souls with Your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

By this time, although no rules required it, I was on the floor with my face in the rug, fairly pleading with God. I prayed those words over and over. Fill my soul with Your peace. Look upon me with your eyes of mercy.

And then I closed the prayer book, veered away from the set prayer (although I had never prayed a more earnest prayer in my life), and began to improvise. No poetry. No flowery rhetoric. Just a simple prayer, but offered with an urgency akin to that of Peter when he found himself sinking in the waters of the Sea of Galilee: Lord, save me!

Lord, save me! I’m going under. I’m tired, I’m discouraged, and I’ve lost hope. Do something to let me know You are still there. Say something. Anything. Just please give me some sign that You have not abandoned me.

And He did. Perhaps the most immediate answer to any prayer I have ever prayed. He parted the clouds and loosed the bands that had fettered my spirit. My mind began to reel with possibilities where it had been stymied by the weight of my circumstances.

He reminded me that “all truth is God’s truth.” He assured me that He could use a wide variety of instruments to speak to me, in answer to my prayer, and He did. I’ll mention just two of them.

First, Wayne Dyer, known to PBS audiences as a dispenser of New Age wisdom who draws upon a syncretistic blend of resources as disparate as Taoism and the New Testament. Wayne Dyer would not normally be a source to whom I would turn to hear a word from God, but this morning God brought him to my mind. Or rather, He reminded me of something I had once heard Wayne Dyer say. And that was, “Don’t die with your music still in you.”

He made that comment, if I recall, just after he had summarized the story told by Leo Tolstoy in his classic tale, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Near the end of his life, on his death bed in fact, Tolstoy’s protagonist, almost blinded by pain, cries out, “What if my whole life has been wrong?” Wayne Dyer allowed as how, from the moment he read that story, he determined that his life would not be lived wrongly, that he would not die with his music still in him.

Think what you will of Wayne Dyer and his philosophy of life, but that concept is a genuine truth. Nobody, least of all a Christian, should live life in a way that we die with our “music” still in us. I needed to hear that this morning, and God brought it to my recollection in response to my earnest plea for some evidence of His presence with me.

Second, Kris Kristofferson. Specifically, his great song, “Me and Bobby McGee” in which the refrain begins with the line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” I heard God speaking to me in that line. He seemed to say, “You’ve got some music in you that you need to let out. You’ve got some truth in you which I’ve been teaching you over the past few years, and you need to share it. It probably won’t go down well with everybody who reads it or hears it, but what do you have to lose? You won’t be free until you share what I have given you to share.”

Or, to quote Wayne Dyer, “Don’t die with your music still in you.”

And so, through Wayne Dyer and Kris Kristofferson, I heard the voice of Jesus speaking to me today. In answer to my prayer. He touched me in my hour of need. And, if I am faithful, he may touch you through what I have to say, in this blog and through other channels, in the days ahead. Stay tuned.

Thank you, Lord, for answering my desperate prayer. Now, please help me to share, lovingly but boldly, the truth that You have implanted in me. Please don’t let me die with my music still in me. Amen.

The Liturgy Saved Me

Three years ago, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving 2008, while sitting at a corner table at Panera Bread in Dublin, OH, I wrote an essay, later posted as a note on my Facebook page, which I called “I Quit.”  I remember the date because I was on my way to the hospital to spend time with my wife who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer.  Actually, she was in the hospital because the chemotherapy she had been undergoing for three months had made her so sick, she needed more care and attention than I was able to provide for her at home.  It was also the day after OSU had beaten Michigan for the seventh time in eight years.

I wrote that essay, which I have long since removed from Facebook, to explain why I had given up on God and the church.  I’d like to be able to tell you that the essay was the product of an addled mind, discouraged by circumstances, exhausted from lack of sleep, at the absolute nadir of a period in my life from which I have since emerged. Well, some of that is true.  I was addled, discouraged, and exhausted. But I was not at the nadir of my despair.  And while I have emerged, at least to some degree, I had no idea, at that moment, how much lower I could, and would, go.

In the eighteen months prior to that November Sunday, my mother had died, our daughter had become a single mother, I was fired from a job I loved, and my wife was diagnosed with cancer.  I was just about to turn 60 and had recently received my first rejection of a job application to read:  “You were among many qualified applicants, but in the end we selected another candidate who, we believe, will suit our needs better.”  (Read “Sorry, you’re too old.  Of course, if we came right out and told you that, we’d be setting ourselves up for a lawsuit.”)

I still wince when I recall that day and the emotions which gave rise to that cry of desperation.  I actually feel faint and my legs start to tremble when I then reflect on how much deeper I would sink into the “slough of despond” before I would start to see the first faint glimmers of hope penetrating into my “dark night of the soul.”

At some point, early in 2009, God got through to me.  Some small kernel of truth, which had been all but buried during the darkest months of my depression, germinated and began to grow inside me. God reminded me of the words of C. S. Lewis to the effect that Jesus Christ was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord of Glory.  My heart was still hurting, but my mind was at work.  I could not deny the truth of Lewis’ assertion.  No lunatic nor liar could affect the world the way Jesus had.  That left only one option, and while my heart and emotions yearned for more, my brain and intellect grasped that straw of hope and held on for dear life.

My faith had been restored, but I doubt that I would ever have set foot in a church building again had it not been for one thing—the liturgy.  Months before, I had bought a copy of the Book of Common Prayer.  We had been attending an Episcopal church off and on, and I wanted to become familiar with the liturgy so that I wouldn’t feel so lost in the worship service.

I began to read the Prayer Book.  It was confusing, but I loved it anyway.  I read the prayers, the order of service for Eucharist, Baptism, Ordination.  I came to see that I didn’t need to feel anything emotionally in order to affirm the truth of what I was reading.  I just consented to the content intellectually.  And slowly, little by little, the truth I was acknowledging in my mind seeped down into my heart and, like Wesley, I was “strangely warmed.”  Further, what had become a reality for me in the privacy of my study became even more real when I could finally drag myself out of bed on Sunday and into a worship service at an Anglican church.  The light was beginning to dispel the darkness.  There is still a lot of darkness to dispel, since I had sunk to some pretty grim depths.  But this is my testimony today.  The liturgy saved me.  The liturgy saved me.