Monday, November 28, 2011

The Broken Chain

When most people envision a career for themselves, I think that there's a certain idealism that is common among them. Most who embark into the world, degree fresh in hand, have an idea for how things will play out; how they'll work their way up the ladder, or create a life right out of the American Dream Storybook, or change some portion of the world for the better. These dreams and goals are good motivators; sparkling cinder blocks on which a foundation of the Perfect Life may be built, whatever that may look like.

Once most of us make it out into the Real World--which is really the same world, just with less safety nets--we quickly realize that this dream, if it truly is feasible, is going to be a lot harder to attain than we thought. Before Coffeewife and I were married, we talked about working ourselves through grad school at the same time while living on love and Ramen noodles, the two of us happy little hipsters in the big city, books strewn around our shoebox apartment, legs intertwined while both of us studied for final exams. Reality was very different: Coffeewife took one class at St. Louis University before we discovered that this sort of a life wasn't going to work. We had bills and rent and my tuition already to keep up with, and both of us being in school was not going to produce very much income. So she found a job as a server at Red Lobster and later a second job at a children's inpatient psychiatric facility, and we began to muddle our way through an existence far different than what we'd pictured.

Coffeewife ended up on the fast track to a management position at the restaurant, which certainly provided more income, but it still wasn't what she wanted to do with her life. Her time at the children's facility had triggered something in her, however, and once I landed at a church she started to make plans to take up her own studies yet again, first a nursing degree followed quickly by a Master's as a Nurse Practitioner, specializing in adolescent psychology. It's not the Ph.D she talked about in her original undergrad studies, but it's nevertheless in the field she's most passionate about. This is the sort of thing that happens when what we think will be slams up against what is: maybe we hit the mark we want, maybe we take a detour before arriving to a close enough alternative, or maybe we end up working 12-hour days serving seafood much longer than we'd like, still wondering how things can be different someday.

Seven years ago today, I stood up in front of my congregation to lead worship for the first time. I was filled with as much hope as any new seminary graduate, and even though I botched the announcements right out of the gate (I didn't realize the prelude came first), I knew it would just be a matter of settling in, learning the ropes, and continuing on beloved traditions while slowly tweaking and changing and modifying things to keep us all as faithful as we could be.

It didn't take long for what actually is to tell me otherwise. As it turned out, beloved programs and ministries that had been in place for decades were not doing so well. In my first couple years, we bade goodbye to our women's guild, our choir, and our quilting group. There has not been a whole lot to serve simply as replacements, and thus I've had to make it a major part of my ministry to dream of new possibilities for fellowship and music, not to mention mission and, much more recently, education.

I've mentioned before that Christian education is not my strong suit, and yet we currently find ourselves in great danger of many longstanding activities falling by the wayside in the near future--a future much nearer than I'd anticipated, in fact--unless something perhaps radically different begins to happen. This is now a familiar refrain for me: we've needed to apply "unless something radically different begins to happen" so often, a trend that will continue not just for as long as I am here, but probably everywhere I will serve in ministry. The days of beginning in a new call and walking into a bevy of inherited groups and programs that will mostly just need nurturing and maintenance while working on new initiatives are waning, if they've really existed at all for years. I doubt that the previous generation of pastors had to deal with it the way we have to, and yet here we are in a new cultural moment that is judging familiar models to be obsolete. It's certainly not what we who recently have entered ministry expected, nor was it something that was mentioned much during seminary, probably because not many people there could see it either.

This past weekend was the Game. As usual, I read up on things at MGoBlog beforehand anticipating an afternoon of long-awaited relief and redemption. I eventually combed back through the archives there to find a post that Brian wrote after the 2008 Game during which he imagines a pre-game speech by then-coach Rich Rodriguez:
Nothing you were told about this place has come true. You came here and found a different coaching staff and a different team. A plainly deficient team. No one recognizes you. You run out in the same uniforms but what you do is unrecognizable to these people. This… what we have here is broken. The things we do do not work. The culture we have is dysfunctional. This program is a heap of ash.

You did not sign up for this. And you have every power and inclination to leave. Some of you will. Fine. No one will blame you. It's cold and people scorn you and there are so many of them.

Some of you will stay. And you will go insane. You will work, and you will work, and we will build something here from nothing. Because, make no mistake, this is nothing. You will build something out of this. If you're a senior next year and you teach some freshman something, you will build something. If you're a freshman and you refuse to quit on your stupid decision, you will build something.

What you build will be yours. Few in the great history of his university have had that opportunity. Everything came based on what came before. They were part of a great chain, now broken.

Those of you who stay will forge a new one, starting today. When we are done we will fix the last link to the broken chain, and break the first link, and tell those who come after us to live up to it.
This first week of Advent is meant to be focused on hope, on the anticipation that something new and exciting and life-giving will overtake this present moment of uncertainty and anxiety. Hope is what carries us forward when we fully realize that whatever we thought life would be like isn't going to materialize. It sustains us when we're asked to build something from nothing rather than simply continuing on with whatever we thought we'd signed up for.

Some are very hopeful for the future of the church, others are quite fearful. Plenty of my freshly-minted colleagues have come in, taken a look around, and walked right back out. Those of us who stay, however we feel about what we've inherited, rely on hope in order to keep placing one foot in front of the other, seeking to help create a new chain that may not much resemble what came before, but hopefully will be faithful nonetheless.