I tend to find the arbitrary, end of the year, top ten lists some what pointless. At the end of a decade its usually gets even worse and more melodramatic. I don’t really care what the top ten soft rock albums written by people from Minnesota are…….in any decade.
That being said, I do find some great value in self-reflection. I value this reflection not just for the sake of naval gazing but rather to understand how one’s life has unfolded and how you’ve become the person you currently are. One of the most interesting questions that I’ve come across (for the purposes of reflection) is, “what are the core stories that you tell?” This question was built on the premise that everyone tells about 8 stories about their life to explain who they are. These stories can change but they shape both someones personal image of themselves but also the public image that they project to others.
So, as I join the throngs of people making lists about the best or worst of the last ten years, here are my most important stories of the last 10 years. Maybe you’ve heard some of them. Also, these are in no particular order of importance.
1. Being an ex-football player. The emphasis here is on the ex. When I ended the last decade, I tended to think of myself as an athlete and, specifically, a football player. Within a year or two of playing at Bethel College, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t actually like being around most of the people who played football. They were good enough guys but I was just aware that my theological/social/political interests put me at odds with them and that I found much more affinity with (dare I say it) those dreaded hippies across the lunch room. As time has unfolded, I have found myself less and less interested in sports. When I attend games I do ultimately get into them and enjoy them. But I don’t go for the sport anymore, I go for the sake of the people who I meet there. This also has to do with getting pretty burnt out during my last 2 seasons of playing football at Bethel.
2. Katie’s Surgery, Part 1. Many of you know that my wife had major intestinal surgery about a year and a half into our marriage. While it was life changing for her, it was also life shaping for me. For the first time in my life I was completely helpless to fix what was wrong. I still struggle with that. The most profound thing that I came away with through this experience is a new understanding of resurrection. The main surgery was about the beginning of lent and by Easter morning that year, it felt like Katie was a whole new person. I don’t think either of us really knew how sick Katie was until she got better. The best way that I can describe that time is to say that even within a few days after the surgery, it felt like I got my wife back.
3. Working as a youth pastor at Buhler. From summer of 2003 until fall of 2007 I worked at Buhler Mennonite Church as the “Associate Pastor with Youth Emphasis”. I am eternally grateful to that community and the leadership there for helping me to develop my pastoral skills and identity. While this meant having certain successes, it also meant going through a lot of failure. I learned as many lessons from this church as I did in my whole time at seminary. Unfortunately, most of them I learned the hard way. I am also especially grateful for Bob Dalke, the lead pastor that I worked with. He found a way to point my new-college-graduate energy in the right direction and help pick up the pieces when it would fall apart. My time at Buhler also forced me to take the long view of history. I had a lot of frustrations in the first couple of years. It wasn’t until the end that I could see how the church cycled through different generations and how, sometimes, you simply have to spend some time waiting.
4. Katie’s Surgery – Part 2. Sometimes people ask me if I get too stressed out because of work. I compare everything else to this story. Katie had surgery on a Monday. I knew that I’d need a break from the hospital at some point so I scheduled a Jr. High fun night, just to take my mind off it on Wednesday. Unknown to me, one Jr. Higher pulled a knife on another Jr. Higher at some point in the night. I didn’t find out about it until the next day when I got a call on my phone from about 3 sets of furious parents. Things quickly escalated in tension to the point where there was even talk of getting an outside mediator to come in. In addition, the other pastors grandson was involved which meant that I was the only one who could handle the situation. Things got worse until Sunday when I ultimately felt like I had to go to church in case the world came off of it’s hinges. The one Sunday that I had absolutely no intention of being in church was the one Sunday that I had to go. That’s probably the closest I’ve been to quitting ministry.
5. Seminary – I have never truly considered myself an academic. On some level it seems a bit strange to now think of myself as actually having attained a Masters degree. Nevertheless, my Seminary training has been incredibly formative to me. I began at AMBS Great Plains Extension in 2004 while I was still working at Buhler. In 2007 I moved to the Elkhart campus to finish up my “on campus” portion of the program. Academically both experiences were very rigorous. Culturally they couldn’t have been more different, but I wouldn’t want to do without either of them. At Great Plains I was surrounded by students and faculty who were, in some way, actively working in the ministry field. The ability to bring in real world, real-time experiences into the classroom was something that gave life and energy. Being on campus, however, was an environment that created an educational stew that allowed for education, both inside and outside of the classroom.
6. September 11, 2001 and the switch to NPR. Just about everyone who was anywhere near adulthood on September 11, 2001 will include the attack on the World Trade Center in their list of formative stories. I include this for a slightly different reason. All throughout high school I woke up to the radio in the morning. Being a typically adolescent type of male, I usually listened to a morning show called Bob and Tom. On Sept 11, I woke up to them saying, “we’ll be right back with more on the explosions at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.” I got up and switched on the TV and watched like everyone else. As I tried to make sense of what was going on I changed my morning radio station from 96.3 KRZZ “Classic Rock” to 89.1 KMUW National Public Radio. I have never changed back. In fact, in the two years that I lived in Indiana, the only radio preset that I put into my car’s radio was the local NPR station. That switch has probably shaped my understanding of world events, politics, my connection to the world, and at times my faith more than anything else.
7. Still becoming a pastor. I have worked for 4 years as an associate pastor. I have now been a solo pastor for about 9 months. Do I see myself as a pastor? Sometimes. One of the things that I’ve come to understand is that there is a difference between the office of “pastor” in any given church and the person who actually fills that role. Some people have a pastoral identity, regardless of whether they are employed by a church or not. There are days when it feels like my personal identity is thoroughly pastoral. There are other days where I long to be that college student who doesn’t really care what other people think about him. I’m also not convinced that I’ll ever actually resolve this.
8. Becoming aware of contemplative spirituality. There are a couple of seminary classes that have been life shaping for me. One of them was early on during my time at AMBS Great Plains. I think it was a class on spiritual formation, but the part that was life changing was the introduction to spiritual disciplines and contemplative spirituality. Up until that point I functioned pretty analytically. My faith was very intellectual. Spirituality was, in my view at that point, either singing praise and worship style songs or speaking tongues and rolling on the floor. Neither of these held any validity for me at that point. More accurately, I was unable to get my head around the unknown, therefore I rejected it. Then I read a book by Tony Jones called “Soul Shaper”. It was a book geared at the youth ministry world, but a couple of things really connected with me. First, the spirituality that he was talking about was thousands of years old and didn’t look like anything that I had ever heard of. Second, it went through a variety of spiritual disciplines and explained their history and actually articulated what was supposed to be happening when you engaged in them. For me it bridged a gap between my intellectual nature and the great mystery of the divine. After this book and the class, I began to see value in things that I had never been able to before. Darkness and suffering took on drastically new meaning and value. Fasting and emptiness now held a profound experience whereas before I couldn’t get past being hungry.
So there are my eight stories. At least, those are the eight stories that I tell now. They’ll probably change.
What are your eight stories?