Friday, March 2, 2012

Towards a Better Self-Understanding

A long time has passed since I’ve written. Much has transpired—not in the surface, visible parts of my life but in the interior, secret places within. I have come through a great darkness…and I know that I’m not out of the valley yet. However, I have come close enough to the light now that I can write again. For that, I am so very thankful!

The journey back to the US has been a difficult one. Oh, yes, easy in some ways—what a joy to have our own home, how delightful during winter to have indoor heating and in the summer to have air conditioning. What a blessing to have work that provides all our needs and many of our wants (as long as we keep them in check!) How easy to live in a place where most people speak our native tongue, where folks tend to follow the ‘rules of the road,’ where things generally work as expected. In those things, yes, the move back to the US has been an easy thing, a joyful experience.

Yet, there is another side to the coin…. Coming to the US has brought me to question who I am. I’m sure the questioning began even before we moved to Venezuela in 2005. After all, there I was a UM minister serving a wonderful congregation in the mountains of North Georgia—what minister (in his right mind!) serving in such a setting would abandon parsonage, amazing people, the beautiful mountains, salary and all those things? Probably someone looking for something else, probably someone who was not sitting comfortably in the pastoral saddle. I mean, how many other pastors were looking to make such a change? Not many.

So, I donned the missionary cap and moved to Venezuela. There, we flourished in many ways. I was with people—I was making real, tangible differences in people’s lives. I was not pastoring…but I was teaching and encouraging and opening the Scriptures to people. Yet, it was also there that I ran up against the wall of human-ness as irreconcilable differences with a “fellow UM pastor” made life there unbearable. Time had come for a move, a change. As we think back on it all, we did pack up and leave too soon. We might should have moved to another part of the country…might should have stayed around to fight a bit more. But, life is too short to spend time spinning wheels trying to ge people who are set in their ways to try to see other ways of doing things. Some folks are just going to be short-sighted, ethno-centric, and focused on the mighty dollar…and there is not a whole lot we can do about that. So we left.

In Mexico, I continued with the missionary hat…yet modified! Now, I was a missionary teacher…and I took that even farther by securing gainful employment in a private university in addition to my servant teaching at the Methodist seminary. I was living with feet in two worlds—I was thinking that I was taking the first steps in moving from the “sacred” into the “secular,” or I was at least straddling the two worlds…and that gave me a deep satisfaction. In the mornings, I was tossing theological terms and ideas around with future pastors and church teachers; in the afternoon, I was equipping future school teachers—I was impacting the Church and the World. And I was still confused, but didn’t know it!

Then, we decided to leave Mexico. Our teenaged children were at educational cross-roads, faith funding from the US had continued to drop due to the world economic crisis…or to our inadequate communications, and the violence in our part of Mexico was reaching a crescendo. So, we sold our worldly possessions there, brought our professional relationships to a close…and stepped across the border into Texas where we sank our feet deep in the earth, buying home, enrolling our children in public school and where I took a completely “secular” job as a teacher in a public community college.

The last two months have been an amazingly difficult time as I have tried to make sense of who I am. Am I a minister, a pastor, a teacher? Well, according to my church conference I am still very much ordained, even if I am not pastoring a church. According to my W-2 form, I earned most of my income last year as a teacher of English at our community college here. Who am I? Who will I be? As you may imagine, these questions led me into a place of darkness as I contemplated the possible scenarios of the future, the implications of taking one of these mantles as my vocation.

Thanks to the great wisdom of those who have traveled this journey before me, I am coming to some clarity finally. First of all, I fell into that Western-mind-set trap that actually tries to divvy the world up into pieces, that strives to compartmentalize and categorize everything…beginning first by saying this is “sacred” and that is “secular.” That is a messed-up world view that almost left me completely messed-up! Where God is, God is—regardless of what label we slap on it. God is with me, in me…and I am in a classroom. Therefore, the halls of my school and the classroom I teach in is become sacred space.

Then, there were all the ego questions and the questions of acceptance—when will we ever escape them?!?! “What are people going to think if I stay in teaching and don’t go back to pastoring?” “What will people say if I ‘surrender’ my credentials and opt to be a wandering teacher in the world?” I’m really embarrassed that as a 46-year-old man I’m still allowing what others think guide my actions in this too-short life! And then I ask all the other ‘economic’ questions: Will I need to pastor someday to feed my family? What will happen to my pension in the UMC if I step out? Hmmm. Some pillar of faith I am, eh?

Finally, perhaps the deepest question, the one I finally got in touch with this week is this: What will this change of vocation do to my family who have so long found their identity in me—my children, the ‘missionary kids’ and ‘pastor’s kids; my wife, the minister’s wife? My beloved wife has even voiced her wish that I should pastor again; my daughter has said how she preferred when I was a pastor and when she was the pastor’s kid. Now, that is pressure! Yet, can I even allow my family to pressure me to follow a certain path if my heart is leaning another way? As much as my life is wrapped up in my wife’s, do I allow her to guide my steps…or do I defer to God for that “step-guiding” stuff??

The best thing that has happened to me in this journey of discovery has been the encounter with the here-and-now. “Here am I.” How powerful these words. “Here” as in this place and this time—this is where I am. I need not focus on the ‘there and then’ of the future because I cannot know or see the future before me. Instead, I live in the very present. And, today I am a teacher—a follower of Jesus, a lover of God (these things, I imagine, are unchanging)—in a public college helping men and women master the rudiments of writing and cracking their minds open to the importance of ‘critical thinking.’ Here I am. And who am I? I’m just Jon…and I really don’t need more than that right now. In the words of my Mom, “I’m here, I’m alive, I’m happy….”