Who Am I?

Who Am I?

New Year’s Eve.  A day to contemplate the previous year and try to discern the path for the next.  For me, and a few others, I suppose, this day provides a moment for depressive introspection.

Oh, just me?  Cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool…

This really starts from a different question that invades my thoughts almost hourly: Am I enough?  I have immense gratitude for a few colleagues who have answered that for me resoundingly and loudly despite my inner being’s inability to hear it.

My car read me the first text below after I had just sent a friend “Thank you” for the unearned support and love she gave me.

Imagine the wall of emotions – while in a very emotionally raw state – when I heard the word “enough” instead of the “welcome” I anticipated.

Calling me Bobby Brown just made it clear she sent it from a place of authenticity.

Today Brian McLaren posted New Year’s Resolutions for Pastors and “Smoke What You’re Selling” really hit me.  I think, at some level deeper than just intellectual, I have started to believe I am enough.  I am starting to hear as I say it to the parishioners God sent me to serve.

Not perfectly – I will probably always struggle with feelings of vast inadequacy – but the message has started to go from my brain to my soul.

As I try to internalize it, another force starts working against me.  Thought leaders like John Pavlovitz instructing you to leave your church if your pastor does not speak out against (insert weekly atrocity)*, Will Willimon telling a room full of pastors to abandon pastoral care for prophetic preaching, mega-church pastors saying they understand the pains of small church ministry because they went down to 3,000 members instead of 10,000 while they say the pastors do not spend enough time crafting perfect sermons while sitting in their multi-staff ivory towers, William Barber demanding Christians actively protest and march against the atrocities of the world, and so many others who truly see evil in the world and want to actively change it while not leaving space for any path other than their own.

I have wrestled with this a lot this year, and I see the same evils in the world they do.  I have wrestled with how I walked along a path to overt white-supremacy and only found myself changing and healing when a couple of loving people showed me a different way – and how my path could not co-exist with my desire to care for and love all people.  I know this calling – the Rev. behind my name and pulpit I fill – require me to speak out against evil in the world and use a prophetic voice from time-to-time.

But I struggle to reconcile who I am when I see these demands by intelligent thought leaders – who I agree with largely in philosophy – conflict with the realities of my ministry.  I found myself needing to ask “Who am I?” to even begin the process of reconciling my call and the very vocal demands of thought leaders many of my colleagues blindly follow.

Who am I?

Quick cute break: Giselle is snoring – loudly – just a few feet from me.  Thought you could use a picture:

Aww!

This whole thought process started last night.  I watched the Season 13 finale of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and THIS SCENE HAPPENED and she says, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay…” and it just gut-punches you in the most beautiful way possible.  The whole scene comes from Mac’s season-long battle to figure out his identity and place in the world – and trying to express that identity to a father who refuses to understand. 

I sat there watching this beautiful scene, tears welling up in my eyes, and my mind just asked that question.  “Who am I?”  Now, my struggle for identity comes from a professional and spiritual place and not my sexuality – and I acknowledge my co-opting one thing for another – but in this time of identity politics, purity checks for advocates, allies, and politicians, and the constant demand for preachers to speak with a prophetic voice that mirrors the voice of popular thought leaders, I have wondered what the Hell my identity is.

I know this comes from feelings of isolation and abandonment, from not finding a community to join that wants the full version of me (I have so much thankfulness for a congregation that wants the full version of me to lead them, a thing I feared would not happen), and from not knowing which part of me I would need to change to find community.

When I get to this stage of thinking about my identity, all my wounds from bullying, isolation, and (insert deeper things I do not need to write about here) start bleeding all over the keyboard.  I look in the mirror and wonder to myself, “Who the Hell are you?  What about you is more than privileged milquetoast feeling sorry for himself?”  Especially when every theological and denominational battle becomes “Us vs Them” and I checked “Neither and Both,” I want to just start saying, “I have no identity and I want to find the community that requires no identity.”

But, in rare moments of self-loving clarity, an identity does appear in the mirror: pastor.

I look at myself and I have to say the things I do/have:

  • I am sensitive to the pains and struggles of others – and what words and actions do to others.
  • I desire to make the world better and do what I can from my position and calling to create feelings of justice in the hearts of the people I lead.
  • My heart and soul demand I care for the people whom I shepherd in their moments of deepest pain.
  • I preach – well – to a congregation that I know personally and have provided care for outside of the pulpit.

I am not a prophet – at least I do not think I am.  I have a prophetic voice that I use, I will speak justice to power, and I do address sin, but I cannot fulfill the role of prophet as thought leaders demand of all clergy.

I am not an ally.  I do not do enough.  I do what I can, but it falls short of what marginalized communities need to call someone a true ally.  I love, I teach, and I try to move my congregation in the right direction, but I do not do enough for someone else to call me an ally.

I am not a preacher.  I preach – again, fairly well – but I absolutely will let other tasks of pastoral care – and self-care – interfere with polishing and perfecting a sermon to speak the needed prophetic messages.

I am a pastor.  A lonely pastor, a pastor without consistent community, a pastor who does not make friends easily, a pastor regularly and constantly fails the purity checks – either of moral purity from the conservative side or justice purity from the liberal side – which makes him inadequate for almost every clergy group, a pastor who fails his congregation not infrequently, but a pastor who God ordained, a denomination ordained (after many years of hostile battle), and a church called to serve them.

I do not know how to reconcile this with the world and the church at large.  I do not know how to reconcile that with political trends in our broken, human expression of the Body of Christ.  I do not know how to make that identity work in community when my identity only opens doors of traditional community that wants nothing to do with me.

But today, I know this:

I am a pastor.  My pastoral identity demands I provide pastoral care.  Providing pastoral care for my entire congregation – not just those who agree with – require me to step lightly.  If I am enough, and God made me who I am intentionally, that must be enough.  Thought leaders will – and have – said it is not, but I am enough, so that must be enough.

My goal for 2020: internalize that and find a community who will accept me for that.

Peace,
– Robby

*I know I have linked and responded to this post before.  Still chaffs me a bit as I try to do what I can while still being a pastor to right-leaning congregation.

Sleep On It

Last night a young couple came and essentially tried to convince Nora she’s going to Hell.  I’m not going to name-and-shame what church they came from, but it was very close to home.  It made me furious that the version of the gospel that was being sold in my neighborhood, and because I was busy feeding the sheep I lead.

I am still furious, but I’ve decided to bite my tongue a bit on it, trying to figure out how best to respond.  I don’t know if a public response is best, or a conversation with their pastor asking why this is an acceptable mission practice, but what I’ve written is 95% of what I will say on the matter.

I am very happy I started writing my response last night and waited until today to post it.  It was poorly written, crafted out of anger and exhaustion, not helpful but rather condemning and accusatory.  My thoughts weren’t wrong – again, I’m still angry about it – but I couldn’t write it in a pastoral way.  As I sit in the office this afternoon, not able to focus on real work, I am having a hard time being pastoral again.

So instead of talking about that, I decided I was going to do something else: talk about how to be a mature adult.  Last night I was ready to send all sorts of e-mails and a “Letter to the Editor” and try to get a meeting with the other church in town and create a united front against the teachings of this church.  Today, my vision has cleared a little bit and I can see the folly of that.

Often times sleeping on it is the best option.  Responding out of blind anger would do two things: get my supporters in an unhealthy frenzy and break and line of communication or compromise between this church and my own.  That accomplishes nothing but making me feel good and righteous, which, in its own way, is what caused that brand of theology.

Feeling righteous feels really damn good.  Having people in a fury affirming your righteousness feels amazing.  Judging and condemning the other feels really good.  It all would have made me feel great.

And accomplishes nothing more than divide an already divided and spiritually struggling community further.

I wasn’t home last night because I was preparing for Bible study at the church.  We are studying 1st Timothy.  Last night was chapter 1, including a difficult conversation on verses 9-10.  This verse that includes a word whose translation we can’t guarantee and whose interpretation partially caused to the ELCA and the PC(USA) to both have a major splits and vocal proponents on each side of the debate risking their careers for what they believe God is directing them to do, including a professor I never got the chance to study under because firing him meant money was continuing to come in.

Last night I wanted to add my voice to the larger argument of scripture and sin in a way that furthered the frenzy and anger.  Today I want to share the message of the gospel that is love and salvation, not condemnation and growth based upon fear and guilt.  I want to provide community today, not provide a place to fulfill an obligation so someone can get into Heaven.

I slept on it, and now my anger has calmed so I can actually be light instead of darkness, as dim as my light is today.  I approached it with calm, understanding and love, and now I can respond with calm, understanding, and love.

I will close with this.  If anyone who is local to Cascade, Iowa reads this, know that the message in the church I am leading is not that message.  We believe that we are broken and need Christ, but we will not drag you in with the threat of Hell if you act differently than us or have sins that we don’t struggle with.  I am not ignorant of what has happened with this congregation, and I am not ignorant of why someone might not feel comfortable or welcome in the walls of that church – and that saddens me greatly – but the message from my pulpit is love, compassion, and hope, not judgement nor condemnation.  If you are seeking that, the doors are open to you (and everyone from every walk of life).

You are loved, and that is the message of the gospels.

And don’t respond to stuff out of anger.  It doesn’t help; it only feeds your ego and self-righteousness.

Peace,

– Robby