Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Fully Human

Michael Spencer (aka The Internet Monk) has been on sabbatical for a good chunk of the summer, and has recently begun writing about some of his experiences and realizations that have come out of his time away. He begins by sharing a conversation he recently had with a woman whose husband is beginning to wrestle with his identity after considering leaving the ministry:

I told her that I was on much the same road as her husband, and that I’d had
many of the same feelings of panic and confusion at the loss of familiar anchors
and markers. I wasn’t sure where it was all going to come out, as I was just
beginning to learn how to navigate without so many of the assumptions that had
guided me for 30+ years of ministry.

But I told her that I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t afraid to be myself anymore. I
wasn’t afraid of the consequences of following Jesus to the places of honesty
and vulnerability. I was no longer afraid of the religious systems and their
custodians that had alway promised to give me security and purpose if I would
just cooperate. I was no longer going to live my life as the guy who, because he
was a preacher, took everyone’s expectations as the script for my happiness.

I was no longer in doubt that my real self, my true self was the one place I
could be sure God would meet and love me.

Last week I wrote a post about a bonfire, and about a college kid who spent four years at Heidelberg trying to be the best theologian/pastor/Christian he could be...at least according to what he thought constituted faithfulness at that time. There is indeed something about a big life change (such as having a baby) that can cause you to look back and wonder, "Did I get that right? Did I experience all that life had to offer? Did I take advantage of opportunities the way I should have? What do I regret? What would I have done differently?"

As it turns out, a lot of my regrets from that period in my life have to do with what Spencer talks about above: yielding to religious custodians who promised security if I cooperated, and a sense of identity and purpose derived largely from my chosen discipline and career path.

I've also alluded in recent weeks to having this sense of identity crash down around me once I got to St. Louis. Yeah...my sense of identity as a pastor crumbled my first year of seminary, of all times and places. But it couldn't have been more perfect.

I won't drone on about a lot of the details. The condensed version is that I thought I knew a lot more than I did about theology, the Bible, the human predicament, whatever. After puttering around small towns my entire life, the more diverse and cynical culture of a large city threw me for a loop. People around me were able to integrate their entire life's experiences into their emerging identities as pastors more easily than I could. I simply came in with the idea that pastoral identity was the main thing, or the only thing, and thus I'd come up with a very compartmentalized view of the world up until that point.

When all this--my sense of identity drastically changing, my realization that I really didn't know much at all, my struggle to integrate my entire life more completely, this period of catching up with the things I'd missed or to which hadn't paid enough attention during the past four years--began swirling around me, you may be able to imagine how I took it.

I drank a lot. I ate a lot of fast food. I gained 35 pounds. I was perpetually grumpy and depressed.

I probably should have been talking to someone...a friend, a counselor, a spiritual director, anyone. Of course, becoming that vulnerable was another growing edge of mine at that time.
After all, I didn't even really tell my own story until my final year.

It was Clinical Pastoral Education that finally pulled it all together. I'd been slowly coming along, but this time really put this stuff front and center to be dealt with. That's when I first put the "pastoral identity" stuff into those particular words; when I first fully realized that that was a big part of the problem. I'd struggled so much my first two years to make up for what I thought I'd lost, trying to overcompensate in classwork and trying to "prove" my calling to professors, classmates, and even myself.

CPE helped me realize that I'd been going about it all wrong. God was showing me, as I imagine God had been trying to show me for the previous six years, that being a pastor isn't all there is; that being human comes first. Then, in relation to that, I can be a pastor, AND a husband, AND a friend, (AND now a father), and so on. I finally understood that life as it can be fully lived is more than any one piece of our identity.

It was that entire period in St. Louis that taught me what a holistic and holy approach to life looks like. Through all the growing pains, this truth was emerging for me. It is a truth out of which I have tried to live ever since.