I’ve never snowboarded, but I’ve skied most my entire life.
My first time, age 12, I fell off the T-bar half way up the track, which forced me to the backside of the mountain: a jagged edge of wild and dangerous steepness, thickly hummocked with moguls. The run was ranked, in the parlance of ski hills, black diamond. Experts only. Too stupid to walk to base, I hurled myself down that slope headlong, skis crisscrossing, poles windmilling. It was pure slapstick. It was a burlesque of pratfalls and face-plants.
I lived to tell the story, and ever after have had a sweet tooth for black diamonds.
But, as I said, I’ve never snowboarded. I watched, 25 or so years back, as the first few boarders appeared on ski hills, timid and klutzy. I watched as their numbers doubled, quadrupled, exploded, and their skill grew. Now half the mountain teems with them, swooping and soaring.
Though the sport bears a rough resemblance to skiing – both involve strapping your feet to a thin slippery blades, standing on some frozen wind-scoured pinnacle, and flinging yourself to the wind – I can tell it’s very different. Different muscles, different technique, different sense of balance. Different as riding a motorcycle is from driving a car. Different as rowing a boat is from paddling a kayak.
Different as pastoring is from professoring.
Which is my real point. I finished, in early December, my first semester of professoring (I made that word up) after 24 years of pastoring. Though the two vocations bear rough resemblance to each other – both involve strapping your heart to some burning concern, standing on some rickety lonely perch, and flinging yourself to the wind – I can tell you they’re very different. Different muscles, different technique, different sense of balance.
A 3-hour lecture, for instance, has little in common with a 35-minute sermon (other than, when you’re off your game, your listeners experience both as eternal drudgery and existential misery). The lecture is expansive, the sermon distilled. The lecture aims for breadth, the sermon conciseness. The lecture seeks to range over wide ground, the sermon to get to the point. In a lecture, you pace yourself. In a sermon, you uncork yourself.
But more than that, the rhythms of the two vocations are vastly different. In the pastorate, there is no natural beginning or end. Everything flows into everything else, world without end. There is a beauty to this: stay long enough, and the child you dedicate becomes the young woman whose marriage you perform who becomes the young mother whose child you dedicate, and so on. The academy, on the other hand, has a very precise timetable of beginnings and endings – classes start this date, run these weeks, end that day. You have an intense relationship with a small clutch of people for a short stretch of time. Then it’s done. You stop, breathe, re-gather, and start again.
It has been difficult to make the transition – it’s been embarrassing and frustrating at times to go from something I’d attained some mastery of to something I’m a rank and clumsy novice at.
But the challenge has also been invigorating. I loved my first term. I love this new sport. It’s snapped me out of a trance of repetition, pulled me out of a rut of complacency. It’s stirred in me fresh hunger to learn. It’s awakened instincts and muscles never used or long dormant.
It’s forced me to the backside of the mountain.
And there I’ve discovered, I still have a sweet tooth for black diamonds.
This Sunday is Father’s Day. Auspiciously, or ironically, it is also my last Sunday at the church I’ve pastored for 17 years, New life Church in Duncan, British Columbia.
17 years, 7.5 months, to be exact.
I run a gauntlet of emotions: sadness, thankfulness, anxiousness, fretfulness, anticipation, just to name the more obvious ones. All come wheeling toward me without warning. One minute I bask in peace, the next I churn with dread
It’s a weighty thing, to have given nearly two decades of my life to a work that, at 1 PM June 16, I must relinquish entirely. Though I’ve not once doubted the rightness of my decision to leave pastoral ministry in order to teach pastoral ministry, I’ve many times tasted the wild sorrow of that decision.
This Sunday, I deliver my last sermon at the church. I hope I have a calm heart and a clear mind to do it. I hope it’s a word in season, and a word that lingers. I hope it honors God.
I hope it blesses people.
But how do I sum up a ministry of 17 years? On what do note do I end it?
With a verse. An unlikely one. 1 Samuel 9:6:
But the servant replied, “Look, in this town there is a man of God; he is highly respected, and everything he says comes true. Let’s go there now. Perhaps he will tell us what way to take.”
The context: Saul (later to be king of Israel) and his servant are on an errand to find Saul’s father’s stray donkeys. They’re having no luck. It’s worse than a wild goose chase: it’s a stubborn donkey chase. Most of us can relate.
Saul’s freaking out, worried about his father being worried about him. Worrying about other people’s worry is worry squared. So the servant suggests they consult the Prophet-Judge, Samuel. Samuel’s reputation proceeds him. He is known for his godliness, his respectability, his truthfulness, his wisdom. Evidently, he’s also known for his humility and approachability: he’s someone who is not high and mighty that he minds dealing with commonplace practical matters – runaway barnyard animals, and the like. The man of God is no cave-dwelling mystic: he cares about ordinary people and their everyday problems.
With a little tweaking, this verse could serve as compelling vision statement for New Life:
The people of the Cowichan Valley say, “Look, in this town there is a church of God; it is highly respected, and everything they say is true. Let’s go there now. Perhaps they will tell us what way to take.”
In the years I’ve been at New Life, I have watched this church grow into exactly this reputation. I have watched the community turn increasingly to us, asking our help in practical matters, wanting us to speak a word of truth in love, seeking our counsel about what way to take.
With a church like that in town, there’s no telling how many stubborn donkeys will find their way home.
I’ve spent the last quarter century, minus a year, in a role that no one, least not I, ever would have predicted or chosen for me: the pastorate. Before Jesus accosted me at age 21, I never really knew such creatures existed, and to the extent I did they seemed odd to me, eccentric, fusty, otherworldly. After my conversion, pastors still struck me as a breed apart, though now I saw them as oracular, unerring, heavenly, but still odd. They were sages chastened with holiness, saints burdened with searing vision.
Then I became one. And I found out an awkward truth: most of us are chronically ordinary. Pastors are the lepers who find bread, and have just enough wit or altruism to announce it to the city (see 2 Kings 7:3-16). But otherwise, we battle all the same emotions and temptations everyone else does, but do it in a kind of glass house, which mostly makes it worse and sometimes makes it better. We struggle with anger, fear, loneliness, insecurity. We want to eat too much, sleep too late, be praised beyond what’s wise or warranted. Criticism stings us, and too much embitters us. We feel weak a lot, sometimes theologically sketchy, often spiritually shallow. We don’t pray enough, exercise enough, study enough. We long for God, but we also long for comfort, and salt, and a good night’s sleep, and find the two longings at odds, and often the latter one winning.
One thing’s helped (well, dozens of things have helped, but I’ll speak of one): pushing myself to engage further training. I found that if I wasn’t the champion of this, no one would be: not the elders, not the congregation, not the staff, not my friends. In the pastorate, no one but you worries about your ongoing education. I’m not saying no one notices it: many complain about your deficiencies and inefficiencies. They lament your poor sermons, weak administration, inept leadership, questionable doctrine. They wish you were smarter or faster or deeper. It’s just that no one will send you back to school as the remedy – and if they do, it’s probably a last ditch effort before they fire you.
But this is true of everyone: in most things, we’re the only ones who require excellence of ourselves. Everyone else tolerates our mediocrity, until they don’t. But by then it’s too late.
So I learned to send myself back to school. I learned to be my own Truancy Officer, to grab myself by the ear and march myself back to the classroom. Over the years, I’ve taken online courses and community-college courses; I’ve attended pastors’ conferences, worship seminars, preaching workshops. I’ve taken summer classes, covering everything from theology to philosophy to psychology to history to poetry to art to literature to leadership. The curriculum’s been eclectic; I’ve been omnivorous.
This morning, for instance, I was looking at Regent College’s Summer School for 2013. It’s got me drooling, and scheming how to fit at least one course in. What especially caught my eye is their list of Art & Faith courses – a course on J.R.R. Tolkien, one on the power of documentary film, another on Christian themes in Hollywood movies, and more. This is the sort of thing that, through the years, has stretched me, helped me stay fresh, and kept me just off-balance enough to make me moderately interesting. Check it out at www.regent-college.edu/summer.
Or I’d love to see you in class at my new digs at Ambrose College University this fall or winter.
Just decide to become your own Truancy Officer. No one else will do it for you.
I was rereading parts of Feodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground this past week. Dostoevsky – a 19th Century Russian writer – is among the pantheon of Great Authors whose works, though rooted deeply in time and place, transcend them. His massive sprawling novel The Brothers Karamazov stands as one of the uncontested masterpieces of world literature. It is in my top five favorite novels.
Notes from Underground is something else entirely. It’s the jumbled confession of a jaded twisted man, immersed in his own torment and misery. It amounts to one of the bleakest portraits ever rendered of man alone, man without friend, without God, without hope. “I am a sick man,” the confession begins. “I am a spiteful man.” Thus launches a misanthropic tirade of burning resentment, choking self-pity, and vicious self-loathing.
The book proved prophetic. Increasingly, the nameless anti-hero of the Notes resembles us, or we him: a people longing for the admiration of others without the burden of them, wanting applause without having to earn it, bearing grudges for the slightest slights. A people who throw off God, thinking it’s liberation, and who only end up impoverished and enslaved, captive to our own dark selves.
Dostoevsky was a Christ-follower – a troubled one, to be sure, but with a deep grasp of God’s extravagant grace. His later works – The Idiot, Crime & Punishment, The Brothers K – are breath-taking testaments to the transforming and liberating power of the Christ who meets even the least of us in the most unlikely places.
The relationship in The Brothers K between the simple saintly Alyosha and the brilliant embittered – and rabidly atheistic – Ivan is alone worth the price of that book and the effort of reading it. Ivan’s logic is hard to refute, but Alyosha’s life is hard to resist. We find the atheist semi convincing, but the saint entirely compelling. Alyosha’s soul draws us with its beauty. Ivan’s soul repels us with its ugliness.
It strikes me, leafing through the Notes, that Dostoevsky was sketching all this out, and with it issuing a warning: that among the many horrors of rejecting Christ, not least is a soul that grows ugly.
Thus I begin my confession: I am a forgiven man. I am a thankful man.
The fastest growing sport in Norway is wingsuit jumping. It’s the pastime of lunatics, or it’s what warrior-knights do in an age without dragons. It requires steel nerves, a cool-head, a touch of madness. You must be able to look fast-approaching catastrophe in the face, and whoop.
I go onto to describe the equipment: a kind of giant flying squirrel bodysuit that turns the jumper, splayed wide open, into a human kite, sans string. The sport, also called base jumping, has become a worldwide phenomenon.
I did it last weekend.
Not literally. I’m neither brave nor crazy enough for that. I did it figuratively, except with all the same sensations I imagine base-jumpers experience – utmost dread, giddy anticipation, sheer terror, pure exhilaration, an urgent visceral sense that if I live through this it will be one of the most daring things I’ve ever attempted, and if I don’t live I will at least die with a certain flair.
Last weekend I resigned.
I have been in pastoral ministry nearly 24 years, and in my current post over 17. I’ve loved every day of it, except the days I haven’t (usually Mondays, when I nurse a post-sermon hangover and writhe in existential angst about, well, everything). The role has shaped me beyond measure. Being a pastor has done more in me than I have ever done being a pastor. I entered the role soon after my 29th birthday. I will step out of the role just past my 53rd. Between those two milestones lies a universe. I am not the same man. And yet, I am more myself than ever. The pastorate has been trial by ordeal and foretaste of heaven, often on the same day. I have failed miserably and succeeded beyond my wildest hopes. I am loved, and I am despised. I have been a prophet, and a fool. I have poured myself out like a drink offering, and sometimes squandered myself like a cheap piñata. It has been awesome, and burdensome, glorious, and tedious, and altogether beautiful.
And last Sunday, I quit.
Well, not exactly. I announced to my congregation that I would be stepping down as their pastor on June 16. They were justly slightly more shocked than I was. I truly thought I’d be here until roll call.
I do have a landing spot (we’re back to the base jumping metaphor): Ambrose College in Calgary, Alberta – my birth town, now grown vast and rich, but no warmer come winter. I have been appointed Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Ambrose Seminary. I start August 1.
Maybe the letter I read my congregation last Sunday best explains all that. Please click this link to see that. Letter
I covet your prayers for me and my family, and also for New Life Church.
Pray we all land, if not softly, at least intact.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
The biggest threat to marriage is not same-sex legislation, or income-withering taxes, or the frenetic pace of life. It’s not the insidiousness of the internet. It’s not the secularity of the culture.
It’s us. It’s our flesh. It’s the idol of self. It’s the little god me. Each of us is the “I” of the storm.
All marriages fail, at root, because one spouse, or both, fails to die to self, daily. Such thinking is not in vogue. It is not promoted or celebrated – or even acknowledged, other than by ridicule – in a culture of narcissism. It sits at odds with the dominant values of our age. It whispers, almost inaudible, in the din of our times.
But dying to self is the deep wisdom, ancient and ever new. It is a rule of life basic to the flourishing and longevity of your marriage.
So get this straight: it’s not about you.
Believe that, live that, practice that, and almost everything will fall into place. Doubt that, defy that, ignore that, and prepare for a bleak marriage, if it survives at all.
The Bible is filled with holy paradox: the first shall be last, the last first. The least of these are the most honoured. The poor and the hungry and the persecuted of the earth are the most blessed, and the big winners in the end. And this: those who daily wake to a fresh dying are most fully alive. Those who choose the way of servanthood and sacrifice, who follow the example of Christ in the Spirit of Christ, are the ones who find deepest courage, taste greatest joy, walk in richest love.
And have the best marriages.
What can you do today to value your spouse above yourself? To put him or her before yourself? To look to their interests, not just your own? This is not an invitation to some false act of self-effacement. It’s not asking you for some gaudy noisy martyrdom. It’s about dying to whatever in you is just plain selfish and vain. And then choosing humility. And then finding simple tangible heartfelt ways to honour the other.
Don’t make today about yourself. Make it about your significant other. Devise ways to make their joy complete.
But don’t be surprised at how glad it makes you feel, too.