As many of you know, or should know, one of my new loves and growing areas in life has been coaching baseball. If you were to run into me and strike up a conversation this summer somehow I would steer the conversation around to 7/8 baseball. It was so bad (read good) that even the missus was caught up in it, I sucked her right in, it was fantastic. The season went pretty well, we had a few hiccups but overall the boys played great. We finished the year 9-6, and won our first two playoff games. We were poised to win our third playoff game and enter into the coveted "double elimination round" when I received an email from a disappointed father on July 4th, his son, my star first baseman, broke his arm. I reshuffled the infield and moved the fourth outfielder as the "sixth" infielder only a few steps from the dirt in the grass. The defense worked but kids were out of position and were not ready for the change. I should have tried a few more boys out at different positions at practices but I wasn't thinking one of them would break an arm. Next year...
Contingency plans, exit strategies these are code terms in my profession for a healthy professional attitude. But what if you have thrown all your chips into one bag? What if you don't want to do anything other than what you are doing? What if you can't do anything else? What if your willing to practice your call without any regards if your call gets hit by a bus or breaks its arm?
Ten years ago this Saturday (July 14) I was ordained into the Christian ministry at The Lake Avenue Memorial Baptist Church in Rochester, NY. It was a glorious day. My father, mother, and sister made the journey north to lay their hands and bless this celebration as well as friends Rich (read the scripture), Chad (read from Thomas Merton) & Dan (read from Fosdick's autobiography). Jim Braker adapted a prayer from Walter Rauschebusch and prayed over me, I can still feel his hand pressed onto my forehead; Bob Newell gave me the sage advice during my charge to pick one area in the realm of social justice to focus on and make a difference; Peter Carman preached a helluva sermon, even though the words have left me now (I still have the text) I still feel them in my bones; Lori (and Senny) presented me with a beautiful red woven stole she made for the occasion; and Harry Williams held my feet to the fire when he read my ordination promises back to me, it was one thing to write them, another to agree to them!
There was more beauty to this day - Tom Rice and the women of Baptist Temple arranged a last minute reception (which was perfect) and Don Beech was a jewel of a man agreeing to play the piano. And of course the event would not have been complete without me making a naive mistake.
While in divinity school almost every Friday Rich & Renee and Lori and I went to McGregors Pub for dinner and beers and had the same waiter, Jim. So after the ordination service, it was a no brainer, we would go to McGregors. The party sat down, reminisced, moved around the room, laughed, back slapped, and had a good time. As the gathering wound down the first person to leave asked where they could put their part in to pay for the bill. Since this person was my guest I said dont worry it's on me. But I said it a little too loud, everyone took it to mean I was covering the bill...and I had no idea this is how everyone interpreted this moment. As folk were leaving Lori pulled me aside and asked if I knew what I had said. I didn't. It was too late by then. This poor Baptist preacher covered the bill with the funds folk had given him for his ordination, which meant I had to buy the cheapest robe Cokesbury had, but I didn't care. The road to ordination was difficult, the moment needed a feast, even if the feast consisted of roast beef sandwiches, buffalo wings, and Rolling Rock beer (before they were bought out and moved from Latrobe to NJ).
Now back to the post. In the ninth year of my life as an ordained American Baptist pastor my call broke its arm, got hit by a bus when I resigned from the church here in NOLA. The official line is the correct line, we were not a good fit for each other; in my mind it was better (and healthier) for me to resign sooner rather than later. But what then? I had no other call to go to? I had no prospects, no contingency plans, no exit strategy!
I didn't view it as a crisis, I was in disbelief, numb, and speechless (not a good thing for a preacher). I took some time off, from everything, found a therapist and went to work. In the meantime I tried my hand at odd jobs: as a landscaper, a substitute teacher, a substitute violin instructor, violin instructor assistant, I became a subpar house husband doing laundry, making lunches, cooking dinner, keeping the house clean, running errands, spending countless hours wandering the aisles of Whole Foods, price comparing groceries; I kept depression at bay with exercise, friends, a priceless peer group, and works of fiction. After a few months of this I began in earnest to look for a new call.
I began the process by putting everything on the table. And trust me I explored everything: going back to school for my PhD, teaching at a private school, college chaplaincy, working at a non-profit, starting a new church, a job in the student services at local universities, a waiter at Camellia Grill, an ecclesiastical busker (honestly). I applied for every job I saw in Christian Century, the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and divinity school bulletin boards. After one job turned me down, I applied again - what did I have to lose. But none of these jobs ever stirred my soul, they were jobs to pay the bills. Slowly and surely and clearly one thing began to emerge: I am an American Baptist pastor, nothing more, nothing less. It is all I can do, it is all I want to do, it is all I am called to do. I am a baptizer, a preacher, a presider of communion, a blesser, a prayer, a bedside friend, a teacher, a presider of weddings, a counselor, a dreamer, a hoper, a spiritual guide, a problem solver, a lover, a faith thickener, a pot stirrer, someone people share their deepest fears and joys with, someone people call when they are elated and down, someone people project all of their frustrations and hope onto, someone people cry and laugh with, someone who helps along the process of redemption. I love what I do.
And I cannot wait to arrive in Minneapolis and start again!
I felt this call when I was 16, I have no exit strategy; I don't want an exit strategy. With God as my helper I look forward to the next ten years.
Postscript: dear Judson Memorial Baptist Church community I cannot express my hope, dreams, desire, and joy within my bones as me and my family prepare to become a part of you. There is not a place for us other than Judson. Know for sure that we will bring each other joy, laughter, redemption, and good recipes. And know that we will drive each other crazy, will frustrate each other, will cause each other unintended pain and sorrow but with God as our helper I think we can help each other grow into the Beloved Community. I look forward to this next stage in our collective pilgrimage nearer to the heart of God.
This post is in honor of the memory of Daniel Champion and Bob Newell, you are always with me.