Saturday, December 27, 2008

Year Of The Great Porcelain Flushing Device

I figure it is incumbent upon even an erstwhile blogger such as myself to do at least one more post before this year vanishes. Of course, it is natural to look back at this year and do a few ruminations as to its place in one's overall life experience. For me, while this year has its ups, like growing in Christ, learning to trust God more, enjoying a wonderful family, and deepening friendships, it will be remembered by me primarily for its downs. Thus, the thought expressed in the title. I don't want to be totally negative by saying this was "The Year Of The Crapper," hence my attempt at a positive spin --- "The Year Of The Great Porcelain Flushing Device."
There are two primary steams that have merged to make a mighty flush this year.

The Economic Stream

In June, after having left a cushy job as pastor of a church due to a difference in principles, it finally became clear that God was not as concerned about maintaining my credit score as I was. Or maybe it is better to say that God had a much different agenda in mind than I had. Anyway, in June my wife and I missed our first mortgage payment ever. And that is when I learned that a certain large banking company operates its business using a second grade understanding of math.

We went through this bank's "counseling" service with the assurance that a catchup plan would be offered in order to help us get current again in our mortgage. After working on this for about a month, an official from the bank called to tell us that they had figured out the problem in our finances and they had a plan to fix it. The problem, they announced like a child who has discovered their thumb, is that "You don't have enough money to pay your mortgage." Wow! Was that ever a shocking surprise to my wife and me. And their solution was even more stunning in its insightfulness. "All you need to do is pay your past due amount and that will make you current in your mortgage." Again, to encounter such wisdom is wilting, like coming out of the dark into the bright sun.

Leaving my sarcasm to make a more salient point, I now know firsthand how mortgage companies can be so condescending and unhelpful when you are a customer in financial trouble. Part of the crisis is the inane behaviour of the banks themselves as they actually force people toward foreclosure. As Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke has pointed out, if banks would work with their troubled clients rather than simply pressuring them, the banks could recover many of their at-risk mortgages. When people are able to stay in their homes, the mortgages get paid. When they are forced out, everyone gets stuck with the bill.

On the miraculous side, just when we needed more income desperately (as my wife and I had only been able to find short, temporary jobs since our exiting Hus Church), God set in motion a series of extraordinary events which led to us having regular work at the local General Mills cereal factory. Although this was through a temporary job agency, the crew leader at General Mills appreciated our positive attitude and desire to do our work well. This gave us the first substantial income since leaving Hus Church, and was a bridge to the more stable income we have now with my wife and me working so-called "permanent" jobs. We are still struggling to just survive each month (which we will till either I find another ministry position and/or sell our house), but God has been so gracious in giving us at least a stabilized financial situation for the time being.

The Career Stream

I've never really viewed my calling to be a pastor as a career. If I did, I would have never taken the risks I have over the years, like leaving a church that was vital and growing (and wanted me to stay) to explore a call to intentional Christian community, or dragging my family to Croatia to strengthen existing ministries and develop new ones. My willingness to set aside what is prudent career-wise for what I believed God wanted me to do was the key factor in my taking the pastor position at Hus Presbyterian Church.

When I first arrived at Hus Church I found a formality-encrusted congregation with deep rifts of resentment toward one another due to past church crises. During my five plus years of faithful service there were many miraculous changes in its atmosphere and ministry. As I tried to emphasize and practice trust and openness, this congregation that was basically invisible in its own neighborhood became known throughout the Cedar Rapids area as an "old well with fresh new spring water flowing forth." The service became an uplifting experience where the presence of Christ was sensed and the Spirit of God moved in the hearts of many. Many longtime members encountered Christ as their Lord and Saviour for the first time in their lives, and despite some very critical opposition from some who wanted a church with no expectations and a Christ who made no claims, the church made incredible strides toward becoming a biblical, Spirit-led, Gospel-proclaiming, outreaching, missional church. God confirmed our direction by blessing this church with incredible miracles, such as healings, new believers, and a doubling of funding for ministry. However, in my fifth year I was brutally reminded that people who are intent on destruction are ever waiting, ever vigilant, for their opportunities. As it became clear that the detractors were being given influence, and that key leaders were now intent on retreating from the demands of being a missional ministry, I began the work of leaving this ministry and seeking a new one.

After a year and half of seeking a new ministry, it has become clear to me that my career (at least as much of a career as I ever had) is probably in the great bathroom flushing device. I can hardly count the times I've had pastor search committees tell me how much they are attracted to me, but they are reticent to present to their congregation someone who "didn't stick with" their previous ministry.  Plus, there has been an undercurrent that I'm becoming more aware of as time goes on, and that is the reluctance of search committees to consider someone of my "age." Apparently, only those who are younger than fifty are considered truly able to be good ministers. When "having to leave" a previous ministry and being over 50 years old are combined, it apparently adds up to "we are attracted to you BUT we really can't consider you." Never mind that I am better equipped now through years of training, experience, and spiritual growth than I ever was in my forties, never mind that I have children younger than most people in their thirties, and never mind that I have at least twenty prime ministry years ahead of me.

Yet, I have seen God's leading in this career wreck. Both my wife and I believe that one reason God sent us to Hus Presbyterian Church was for our own disciplining. (I'm talking about discipline in a positive sense of training, teaching, and perfecting.) Looking back, we now believe that instead of leaving our work in Croatia to come home for the medical needs of our middle son (who has cerebral palsy), we should have stayed and trusted God to provide. Instead of letting God receive the glory by guiding us to answers for our son's needs there, we took matters into our own hands and in effect said through our actions that "God isn't going to provide in this case, so it's up to us." This was after God had performed miracle after miracle in getting us to Croatia and then taking care of us in absolutely incredible ways. So after coming back to the United States, God sent us to a church with an eastern European heritage similar to Croatia. But in this case it was all the negative aspects of eastern European culture without any of the enjoyable positives. And it is not just coincidence that during my last six months at Hus Church I kept hearing several leaders say over and over that "We can't expect any more miracles here at Hus." Shocking words to hear expressed openly, but what my wife and I had in effect said with our actions 6 years earlier. While there are many other reasons with far greater positives for God sending me to Hus Church, disciplining my wife and I was certainly foremost among them.

Then there is the incredible blessing of our two youngest children, who we adopted during our time here in Cedar Rapids. This is definitely one of the "rewards" for our obedience in serving at Hus Church. My wife has always sought to help children, and foster care has been one of the ways for doing this. Our 5 year old son and our 3 year old daughter both came to us through this route, and they are definitely worth all that we have gone and are going through. Since both are African-American, we definitely get some strange looks at the grocery store, not to mention the scolding looks my wife used to get from some of the stodgy people at Hus Church. These two, along with our 10 year old middle son, keep my wife and I motivated to keep on keeping on. With three young children and two others in college, it is so important to stay positive and continue to look forward; seeking God's will and hoping for something better.

This brings me to the end of this blog and the end of the Year of the Great Porcelain Flushing Device. God be praised for this year, and God be praised this year is ending. Now after this cathartic exorcising of the downs of 2008, I am looking forward to new and better things in 2009. Hopefully, this year God will lead me to a new ministry that is exciting, promising, and joyful. For any and all who for whatever reason are still reading at this point, my prayer for you is that 2009 will be an up year for you as you seek to serve God with all your heart, mind, and soul.

In Christ's Peace,