This Thing Called Ministry 

This has been one of those weekends in which the vastness of ministry revealed itself in powerful ways. A bar mitzvah in the sanctuary; messages from people sliding over the edge or watching their friends get close; a request from a dear friend to officiate her wedding, after several disastrous relationships almost left her looking to give up; funeral plans of a mother burying a daughter; reading aloud in worship from a church history the names of those who served in World War I; talking with a youth who has clearly grown up too quickly, dislikes himself too deeply, but in whom I can sense great things; hearing from a congregant about family members who served in the Confederacy, for the Soviets, for the Nazis, and wondering if in our prayers we only think of those on the right side of history; the opportunist manipulation of a tragedy, causing pain to those who knew a 13 year old who thought her only way out was death; and other moments both transcendent and messy, the stuff of life itself. 

Ministry has hurt in the past week or so. I’m not looking to rehearse that or look back, but I do need to be honest about my feelings. I’ve had my sincerity questioned. Been told that repentance was performed only for myself, that I intellectually apologize but do not have emotional awareness of that which my sin wrought. Things said and insinuated that I cannot own. I cannot and will not defend. So ministry has been hard. 

But this weekend I’ve felt like I have been asked to bear witness. I sensed the presence of God through the wide variety of human experiences just within the small circle I call home. And people have reached out, placing their trust in me, and asked for advice. For prayers. For someone to see their pain. Someone to extend love. Someone to put down the phone and look them in the eyes and say, “I’m here. No rush.” 

In the end that’s what it all is about, this ministry stuff. All the education, the training, the praying. It is about being willing to enter into people’s lives as one with their best interests at heart. A willingness to be held accountable for mistakes and not seek praise for what is done right. It is trying to allow oneself to be a vehicle for God’s grace. A promise to always do the hard work of being honest. Present. And committed. 

Some things I get painfully wrong. But sometimes I get the opportunity to simply experience how wonderful life is, exquisite even in its agony.   

Consolidated Forgiveness

I have lots of student loan debt. I’m an Xer, so that is not a surprise. Our generation has the distinct honor of being the first to face total financial ruin because of how much it costs to go to school and gain certifications. Millennials seem to just assume that their lives will be defined by debt. It is a brave new world. 

Periodically, I get letters about consolidating loans or even applying for loan forgiveness. The language of this is striking. Consolidating our debts; seeking out ways of forgiveness. I don’t know if Great Lakes is in the business of sparking theological thought, but they did with me. 

I have decided to move to the Narrative Lectionary, and the summer begins with a six-week series on 2 Corinthians. For any Trump supporters who might read this, it’s pronounced second Corinthians. The opening chapter is about consolation.  Paul is dealing with a complicated relationship with the church in Corinth. The last time he was there, a member said something that really pissed him off. The congregation disciplined him, but when Paul canceled a trip to return it appears that all hell broke loose. Scholars have spent a long time trying to piece together the myriad letters (and allusion to letters) that are contained in 2 Corinthians, which is actually the fourth letter that Paul wrote to Corinth. He writes because of a previous letter. WHich was harsh. Very harsh. And people did not receive it well. I know how that goes.  To address it, Paul begins by essentially saying, I know that there are hurt feelings. And I know that I played a role in that. Paul offers words of consolation, not necessarily of apology.  He thanks God for God’s comfort. 

Consolation is different from forgiveness. Consolation is tending to a person’s emotions, trying to soothe and assure them that distress is temporary. No matter how devastating the blow, time will lessen the acuteness of pain. I hesitate to use a word such as recover, so perhaps adjust is better. Consolation is the promise that circumstances will once again change, and things will adjust. 

Forgiveness is investing oneself in the process of adjustment, either as the person who receives it or as the one who administers it. Forgiveness means taking responsibility for your actions, and owning your mistakes; forgiveness means working through your pain and recommitting to a relationship with a person who has hurt you. 

Sometimes we make the mistake of asking for forgiveness when we should be in the process of consoling. Sometimes the person seeking forgiveness needs consolation, too, even if the aggrieved are not ready to extend absolution.  Sometimes we can be so blinded by our own pain that we do not recognize the pain we are causing to others. Acknowledging that yours is not the only pain can go a long way in repairing relationships. 

Today, I set for myself a prayer project. I do these every now and again. I am praying on knowing how to separate who I am as a pastor and who I am as a follower of Jesus Christ. This may seem odd, but I am learning that it is vital if I am to be effective as a minister. To be fulfilled as a Christian. And as I was praying and reflecting, I realized that I need to be able to console even if I am not forgiven. Even if I have not forgiven. Consolation is essential to relationships and community. Consolation allows us to step outside of ourselves and even to gain perspective. God consoles us before God forgives us. Because the journey is the destination. . 

I think I sometimes seek consolidated forgiveness. I want to stack up all my sins and put them in a package, setting them before God–before others?–and say, “Here. Forgive this, please!”  Paul, in his letter, lets know that there needs to be some pain before forgiveness. God will console, and we should as well, but forgiveness without full investment in the process is not a forgiveness that will feel complete or livable. If we are too quick to forgive, or too quick to seek forgiveness, we might just be setting ourselves up for continued strife. Regardless, we should aim not to hurt people’s feelings purposefully, and remember that despite continued tensions, we still care for one another. We are still able to console.

Today, I am thankful for God’s consolation in the midst of being unforgiven. Unforgiving. Today I am thankful for the friends and colleagues who have reached out to console, to forgive, to express solidarity. I am thankful to the people who reached out to me for ministry help, still trusting me to be of service to them and providing the opportunity to offer consolation myself. Today I am thankful for a person who so powerfully empathized with me that she took on physical pain. 

All things in love, love in all things.    

Jesus Freak

I’d always thought of Jesus Freaks as fundamentalists. People who hand out tracts as tips (please, fellow Christians; that’s just tacky and insulting) or will start up conversations in the line at Subway with, “Have you heard the good news?”  (as happened to me just last week). Jesus Freaks cover their cars in stickers about abortion being murder and have tattoos about how homosexuality is a sin (oh, the delicious irony). That’s what I’d always thought. 

But since I returned home from Baltimore–with all its tenuating  circumstances and experiences–I have realized how deeply religious I have become. I still reject the idea that I must proselytize to others (at least with words), or that Jesus Christ is the only way to God or salvation. Most of my friends are not believers, and I love them. I don’t think they are deficient. I don’t think that their souls are damned. For some, that rules me out as a Christian. Meh. I have stopped caring what those of narrow minds believe. For evidence, check out my tattoos and dreadlocks. Aaron is gonna do Aaron. 

But if you really want to know me, you need to know that everything I do, think, and say is informed by my desire to follow Jesus Christ. I feel it like a burning in my stomach. I want community, works of justice, acts of love, and relationships that are committed to being nurtured, even in the most difficult of circumstances. These are not ideas that I alighted upon by myself. They stem from the gospel, and the gospel alone. I am not saying that one needs Jesus to arrive upon these commitments. Not at all. I am sure there are many people who could read everything in the list and respond, “Me, too.” What I am saying, though, is that I cannot arrive upon those ideas outside of Jesus. I mean, maybe I could grasp the concepts. But I only feel drawn–even compelled–to live them out because of my faith.

I feel that I’ve reached a new place in my Christian walk. I understand that the way I worship most significantly is through pastoring work, through visioning and executing plans to make life more loving, more sustainable, more equitable, more meaningful. I understand sin to be that which keeps us out of relationship, keeps us from being grounded in compassion and patience. And for me, following Jesus is the remedy to that sin. Grace is God putting us in situations in which we are able to reveal our true selves, beings created in the image of God. Theological praxis is prayer given flesh. Putting hands and feet and voices and minds and hearts and souls toward good. 

Holy shit, I’m a Jesus Freak.  

When Self Love is Radical

I’ve spent most of my life hating myself. Hating my body. Hating that my hair is curly instead of a cascading hairfall, a shimmering bluish-black silk like Antonio Banderas’ that glistens in the moonlight. My brain has a disease that impact my mind; only having been diagnosed with bipolar a little over a year ago, I’m still figuring out what I am like on meds. What is of the disorder? What is of me? From what source does this hatred spew? Is there a pill for that?

Only since I became serious about my relationship with Jesus Christ did I begin to understand that self-love is absolutely necessary. For me, I couldn’t begin in self love. I had to begin in a love of family–particularly my brother–and of friends–I am blessed to have at least 20 people I would consider dear, dear friends; only then could I discover how to love God. I love God because it is as natural as loving love. I love God without expecting anything. To be sure, I feel that much comes as a result of being in a relationship with God, but that’s not why I have love. It is almost a disinterested love, one that occurs like oxygen fills lungs or blood that flows through veins. 

Learning how to love my schizophrenic brother without needing anything in return taught me how to love God. Living into that love through the person of Christ Jesus has allowed me to understand that my own incarnation is a blessed, miraculous experience. Don’t get me wrong, I have bipolar disorder. I travel to lows that I would not wish on anyone, but even in the deepest darkness, the conviction that we are created in the image of God helps me to believe that my ugly brokenness, my damage that causes damage, my imperfect love that sometimes is not enough, that all of these are part of God. And I get to be me. Me. 

With this me, I clothe myself in Christ. I seek to be as God intends. A servant. A son. A husband. A friend. A sinner. A teacher. A pastor. A person of fear. A reader. A laugher. A musician. 

A disciple of Jesus. A lover of people. An admiter of faults.

So how am I getting to a place in which I can love myself? I’ve developed a code:  Be honest. Accept responsibility for your errors. Do not be afraid to speak because it is dangerous. Smile often. Forgive easily when you can; refuse to have your forgiveness taken for granted. Give compliments. Listen to people’s pain without making it about you. Offer kindness whenever possible, but do not shy away from the stern word. Eat pizza. Take naps. Sing without reservations. Where there is no music, make some. 

And above all else, love.

“Love what?” they will ask. 

To which you whisper, “Yes.”

When Pastor Sins

I came back from Baltimore filled with fire and Jesus. I felt close to God and was living into the prophetic nature of pastoring. After a couple great conversations with two people who are interested in looking at new ways of worship, I sat down and began writing a four page letter laying out a ministry plan. I made the horrible decision–whether conscious or otherwise–to take the approach of a Hebrew Bible prophet. The language was both sharp and blunt; the expression of ideas was not invitational, but rather was accusational; and while I had convinced myself that I was not threatening anyone, the missive was filled with veiled and not-so-veiled threats. In other words, it will serve as Exhibit A in my own personal trial before Pilate. 


Last night, I was rightly held accountable for what I had done. I imagine what I underwent was that which Frank Costanza imagined when he dreamed up the “Airing of Grievances” during Festivus. It was tough love in action, the gritty stuff that Jesus tells us we must engage in to exist inside of community. I listened. I managed not to be defensive, and I heard what needed to be said. I’ll admit. I cried in the meeting. I have cried since. I have deep, deep regret. I caused people I honestly care about pain. I violated their trust. I did that, despite my good intentions. 

I believe in owning sin. Forgiveness is empty if one does not examine the pain and angst one has caused in the lives of others. Forgiveness is only real when the person seeking it truly understands the error of his or her ways. I’m not interested in flogging myself or wallowing in self-pity. My ego got me into this mess. Well, my ego and fear. Fear of my financial situation. Fear about my health. Fear about my future. Fear about the future of the community.  Fear leads to pain and suffering. Yoda is right. Jesus, too. 

I am reflecting on my passion and how I direct and express it. I am thinking about what I can do to check myself, to slow down, to prevent getting into situations in which I might do something reckless. I am understanding that my intellect and passion are gifts, but also dangers. I sometimes don’t slow down and think about the present moment, as I am focused on a dream that takes place in the future. 

I have some ideas about what we can do as a congregation. But that is not up to me. It is up to the congregation, going at a pace that makes sense for them and achieves a community that they desire. I misunderstood the role I am to play at this time, in this place. I cannot try to lead from the front. I need to be walking with the congregation, making suggestions and listening to what they see and want. 

I’m always learning. About myself. About God. About this job. And I stumbled this week. I sinned. I feel very fortunate to be within a religious  system that teaches us about honest repentance and reconciliation. I submit myself to God’s grace and love. 

Pastors Gotta Pastor

This week in Baltimore has been transformational. We wrapped up the cohort intensive today after a week of vigorous study, prayer, fellowship, visioning, and work. I am sitting in the basement of dear friends’ home, and I realize that I am a very pivotal point in my life. And my career. 

I never liked it when people put pastors on a pedestal. I think it far too often leads to cults of personality, and authoritarian models that enable vast array of abuses, and far too often such churches are hosts to theologies that divide persons into us and them. I am not a saint. I have sin. I have brokenness. I have uncertainties. 

But my colleague Shannon and I were talking today and she asked, “I wonder if we’ve gone too far in the other direction, and people don’t seem to realize that our whole lives are wrapped up in this?” 

Here’s the deal. What we do is really different than just about any other job. We are required to be highly educated, like many professions. But our job requires that we nurture and develop our spiritual selves. We are to be in relationship with people at very difficult, painful times of their lives. That takes spiritual strength and control. Congregational care involves worship. We are responsible for crafting service each week, which requires training in prayer, scripture, liturgical music, history, rhetoric, and engages a host of other skills. We are to be leaders, but are subject to the rules and decisions of people who do not have our training. We need to pastor to people with a wide variety of personalities and needs, but to lead worship services that appeal to the masses. We need to be aware of financial strains, but never to allow money to impact the care we give others or receive for ourselves. And we need to care for the overall congregation and building, such that 50 years from now both will still exist. 

What we do is different. 

Every pastor I know believes. Deeply. And we may believe in different ways, but we have dedicated our lives to Jesus. And while I am not making this a spiritual competition, I will say that most people I know and pastor don’t understand what it is to be religious like I am religious. And that’s fine. I don’t think I am closer to God or somehow better than everyone else. But I will say that religion and faith are everything to me. So this job is not just a job. My way of worshiping, of following Jesus, of being a Christian, is to be a minister. My spiritual health depends on my being able to pastor and lead in the way that I feel God is calling me to lead. 

And sometimes I feel like people don’t understand this. I believe that congregations are important and should have a strong voice. That is why I am in the denominations I am in: because much power is vested in the people. When it comes to the running of the church, the spending of the money, and the management of the assets, that should be with the laity. I don’t know how much anyone gives to the church; I don’t even know who actually contributes or tithes. I shouldn’t. The pastoring I offer should never be tied to money.

But the ministry? That’s the pastor’s domain. That is what results from the training and the prayer and the deep dedication to a tradition. So I return home, on fire for Jesus and with a developing plan for the future growth and sustainability of this church. I am excited, but also tired. Tired of the resistance, tired of  the second guessing. Tired of not being spiritually sustained through ministry that is significant for me. 

I’m really looking forward to kissing my wife, though. So I’m gonna think about that and put a smile on my face. Happy weekend, y’all. 

Religious Roots

Today, the cohort considered Lewis Baldwin’s seminal work, There is a Balm in Gilead, the first of a two part series on Dr. King’s cultural roots and legacy. Our vigorous conversation gave way to a fascinating discussion on the role of religion and politics, led by Rev. Dr. Helen Holton, who will soon be stepping down after 21 years serving on the Baltimore City Council. Her doctoral dissertation concerns the intersection of faith and politics, particularly in the Black church. Surrounded by African American colleagues who minister in and around the Baltimore/D.C. area, I heard stories about the events leading up to, during, and after the Freddie Gray shooting. It was an incredibly powerful and palpable experience, knowing that we share a faith that calls us to act in the face of injustice, and to be in the presence of people who live it in very real ways, each and every day, was amazing.

After lunch–which was filled with talk about Montgomery, Selma, and the Confederate flag–we gathered around table once again to share aspects of our spiritual autobiographies. Any pastor reading this right now knows this is not an uncommon thing for clergy; in fact, but the time we are ordained, most of us have grown so tired of our own spiritual autobiographies that we hope to never read them again. This time around, though, I had made the conscious decision to not tell the typical story; when I wrote the paper, I skimmed over much of what one might expect me to talk about: Stephen’s suicide; my coming to faith; the divorce that pulled me away from my first pastor; my discovery of Cross Creek Community Church and the start of my discernment toward ministry. I skimmed over it in favor of another emphasis: my sense of being on fire for Jesus Christ.

So, if you know me you know that is a sentence I don’t write lightly. I generally shy away for people who say they are “on fire” for Jesus, because that usually means that they intend to burn someone. They use their words as flames of fury to scorch others in the name of God. For me, my love of Jesus means that I want to talk less and work more; I seek out relationships not so I can convert, but so that I can serve; and I see injustice as an affront to the inherent dignity of God’s children, and most often those people are the ones who are most ignored by popular religion.  I feel like I’m coming out as being in relationship with Jesus and we have gotten really serious. My whole world seems to be wrapped up in this thing called discipleship. And today, I was surrounded by people who get it. And not only do they get it, but they have organized their entire lives around being present for others. It is humbling and invigorating. 

I think about my village, about the opportunities I have to be of service. It feels exciting to know that a big plan–that I am not ready to reveal, as there are lots of moving pieces–could frame the next 3-5 years of my life and ministry. So while we talked about Dr. King’s religious and cultural roots in terms of influences, I realized today that my religious roots, as in the forces that ground me to time and place, are firmly planted in Yellow Springs. I’m loving my time here in Baltimore, but I know it will be good to get back home.