When I was in seminary several years ago, I was offered the opportunity to serve as the pastor of a YOUTH camp in the mountains outside Casper, WY for an organization with whom I had worked over the previous few summers. For incredibly important spiritual reasons, I was pretty jacked about the gig (I mean it came with a meal per diem, and priority boarding, and sure Casper doesn’t have anything but a gas station Subway, but YES! I will take AN EXTRA SLICE OF COLBY JACK CAUSE I’M HERE ON THE LORD’S BUSINESS AND SHE’S BUYING). Business travel perks aside, this was the first time anyone would call me "pastor," and I had this feeling like this was what my life had been moving toward for the past 6 years or so. I’ve written before about this experience, so suffice it to say that free gas-station Subway was the high-water mark, and being verbally dis-embowled by a cabal of angrily goateed youth pastors two days into my week was the low-point of my entrée into paid-for pastoring.
7 years, 3 other pro-pastor gigs, a son, even more graduate school, a brief foray into the world of retail grocery, and an extended bout with creeping depression later, I think I'm finally beginning to realize the kind of effect these sorts of moments leave on our souls when they remain mostly unacknowledged psychic hop-ons.
Feeling the kinetic energy of unearthing and then releasing something into the world that is beautiful and unexpectedly true about who you are, why you are, and what you are, only to have it immediately sacrificed on the altar of some unspoken center of consciousness holding an institutional, family, religious, or occupational system together is a lot like being awake during surgery when the anesthesia wears off.
It hollows you out on a cellular level is what I’m saying.
Disappointingly, I’ve found this kind of pitchfork and torch reception isn’t just an occupational hazard for people who speak into microphones about God and things none of us know for sure as a way of paying their mortgages. It’s true for all of us who dared to take some part of our guts, story, soul, heart, whatever you want to call it, and with trembling hands laid it bare to someone or a group of someones who weren’t ready to receive it.
Like when you came out to your dad, and haven’t talked to him since.
Or you stood up to your shady boss, and now eat ramen and wear pajama pants past noon on the regular.
Or you stopped reading the Bible because of how it’s been read to you, and now feel kind of empty inside.
Or you spoke up at Thanksgiving, and it got so quiet you could hear the gelatinous can-shaped cranberry sauce swaying in the background.
Because they turned on you, and it felt like part of you died, but yet here you are still breathing, just not in the same way as before.
Over time these kinds of rejections teach us to constantly monitor our words, intuitions, and hearts. So that if and when we get too close to revealing parts of us that are still bruised and limping from the last time we released them out into the universe, we start to shudder like an-out-of-alignment-civic until we return to a more socially acceptable speed.
Personally speaking, when you live, and believe, and speak, and love with the parking break on things eventually start to smoke.
The kind of pastoring I grew up with (and was expected to faithfully embody in my inherited Baptist tradition) came with the subtle and sometimes not so subtle reminder that the rattling I feel in the bottom of my chest whenever I stuff and deny that which begins to bubble up from somewhere inchoate, somewhere once thought dead, somewhere divine (maybe) is completely normal, expected, right, and pastoral, even.
You shake silently at the news and brokenness and doubt so that others don't have to.
So a few years ago I quit working as a pastor out of the belief that some folks are “cut out for this kind of work,” and others of us, well, can no longer handle the existential friction and cognitive dissonance.
I went back to graduate school, got a job at a grocery store, and thought I was finally done getting paid to pray.
And then I met a woman at the end of a rather lengthy Sunday night shift, whose cart was filled with cranberry juice, which, I later discovered, takes the edge off of chemo. She had a trache wound, a scarf covering her head, and when I absent-mindedly asked her how “she was,” the following unfolded:
Her (not looking up): “Well, I’m dying from the cancer that already claimed my son.”
Me: “Oh, well, uhhh, this cranberry juice is also gluten free.”
Her (still not looking up): “It’s the only thing that settles my stomach after chemotherapy.”
Me (internally): “YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO SAY ‘I’M FINE’ EVEN IF YOU ARE DYING TO BE FAIR WE ALL ARE."
Me (externally): "Ma’am I’ll be right back.”
Me (returning with free flowers): “I know this doesn’t fix anything, but these are on the house.”
Her (looking up and noticing my name tag): “Eric, that was my son’s name.”
(Long tearful pause, with hugging and well-wishes while a growing crowd looks on, confused and impatient. The next customer, a millennial, immediately places a basket of 36 $1.00 beers on my register without looking up.)
Me: these any good?
Him: they’ll get you drunk.
(Scene closes with me crying all the way home.)
And then I had was invited to go to the US Conference on AIDS by a friend of mine who helps me believe that God is more than just a fancy explanation for something we were all just going to do anyway (like renovate our bathrooms and fear minorities). As we worked the booth for his non-profit, handing out swag and starting conversations on faith-based HIV initiatives with a population of mostly folks who aren’t allowed to come back to church because of who they love and how they look, I kept telling folks I was “a therapist” as to be “cool”.
You can imagine everyone's growing interest in immediately learning more about the booth across the presentation hall from us each time I introduced myself.
However, once I finally admitted that I was “a man o’ the cloth” the number of hugs, affirmations, and tearful prayers uttered over 6’ 3’’ drag queens (in DYNAMITE shoes) who hadn’t seen their parents or the inside of their home church since they were asked to leave in adolescence exponentially increased.
(Scene closes with me crying all the way home, after holding it together on the flight back from the conference.)
And then, after seeing client after client -as a totally normal 31 year old unpaid intern working in a college counseling office- who were almost entirely “formerly Christian,” I finally mustered the courage to utter:
Me: “Well, I don’t normally do this, but I’m actually an ordained Baptist minister.”
College Student: “no _________ (use your imagination). Can we talk about God in here?!?!”
(Scene closes with me crying all the way home.)
It’s funny to have the part of you left for dead, the one VERY religious people (you know, the ones with God's actual email address and not the one She uses for promotions) bound, gagged, and threw into a nearby river as a way of discerning whether or not you were a witch leading their impressionable YOUTHS to an eternity in the Earth’s molten core, somehow, years later, bob up and down unexpectedly on the surface of your soul again.
Albeit a bit confused and water-logged.
I suppose, rather unexpectedly, this is what being baptized is supposed to feel like. An experience where what you think you knew about yourself, about the world, about where you come from, about how these sorts of things should work, and about what holds all of us together is drowned (sometimes against your will) in the river outside town. No matter the circumstances or who did the plunging, what manages to float to the surface on the other side of whatever hell you went through in the process of becoming who you are is probably worth holding on to.
For me, it was being a pastor, albeit one that’s a bit confused, water-logged, and no longer interested in living, thinking, and believing with the governor on. I’ve got too much road ahead to only be allowed to go 30 on the freeway.
TO BE CLEAR: we’ve got too much road ahead for those of us talking bout God and things none of us know for sure into microphones, and AA meetings, and improv classes, and small groups, and the steps of city hall to only be allowed to go 30 on the freeway.
At this rate none of us are going to get there.
For you, if you ain’t the preachin’ type (although maybe you should start, it’s quite fun) it might simply mean finally coming to terms with who you are and what that person is here to do both in and for the world. Even if you’ve been drowned again and again and again, the thing about baptism is that it’s efficient. The pain and the rejection and the misunderstanding have a way of scraping enough of the bugs off the windshield to finally make out what path is ours to walk.
Sometimes, redemptively, that path has the people on it who hurt us and left us for dead, and sometimes it doesn’t, but either way our job is to keep going rather than slowing down or stopping on behalf of someone or some group of someones inability to join you.
Traditionally, baptism only works if we manage to find a few steady hands on the other side of the river who can pull us out of the water, otherwise we end up drowning.
May this be your hand, today.
May you take it, if you're ready.
And may you breathe deeply on the other side of whatever life and gift and love exist for you in a world lived at full speed.