Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Advice From a Failure

(I was invited back to Birmingham to speak to  a small group of ministers who had faced difficult times in their vocational life.*  Some had been dismissed. Some had just thrown in the towel in despair. Some had a hard time in letting the past go. This is what I said when I met with a group of my fellow-minister-sufferers.)

What I want to do today is to take a couple pages out of the album of my own life—hoping in doing so—you, too will take out your own album and begin to look at where you are.

After a 13-year ministry in South Carolina—my kids were grown and gone. I was 51 years old. A little bored by my work. And this Church came along in Memphis and kept telling me how great I was and how they needed my gifts especially. Such a seduction is hard to turn down. They told me they were a moderate church in a most conservative town—and there stretched out before me a challenge. So I went.

Early on—I realized their good Committee did not realize they were not as far along as they thought. There was a tiny cadre of hard-nosed conservatives that were always there. I realized early on I had made a mistake and should not have been there. What do you do you do if you wake up the morning after your wedding and realize you have married the wrong person? It was scary. Well, I put things in high gear—I would work hard—harder than I have ever worked. I would make this place I did not particularly like work.  I would wow all those hard-nosed Christians.

After a year I called the Search committee together and opened up my heart. “This thing is just not working, folks. I have tried and tried—but it’s not working.” Oh, they reassured me I was doing a good job...they were a difficult group—and told me everything would work out. So—I went back to work. We tried everything. We had consultants to come in and help us. And it never came together. So two and a half years later I resigned on a cold Sunday morning in early December without a place to go. 55 years old and scared to death.

I learned some things out of the hardest time in my vocational life. Without my wife and kids and friends scattered everywhere I would not have made it. This is what I began to discover.

You have to look hard at what is going on inside of you. Three weeks before I moved to Memphis my Mother died—and she was a very bright star in my constellation. And I packed up and left friends and a church that I loved and loved me.

But a new place. A new challenge. You put things in high gear and move on. But I did not realize that I had pigeon-hold my grief. Mother. Friends. Church. I had moved to a place where they did not even know our kids names—how could they—they were grown and gone.

You have to deal with your griefs—or your griefs will deal with you. All that frenetic activity could not replace the holes in my heart. In fairness to that church—if I had been able to deal with the griefs I did not even know were there—I think the picture would have turned out differently. I think I could have stayed but I was carrying a whole lot in my heart and I did not like what I was doing.

In fairness to me—I do think some marriages just do not work. That church and its new Pastor were poles apart. They did not understand what I said...my frantic activity scared some of them to death...and I did not understand who they were and be patient with them. When just two or three pit bulls are biting—you don’t have the luxury of doing much but trying to get out of their way. So I left with  a heavy heart. 

photo by scootie
This is the second thing I learned. You have to forgive yourself. While I was there and when I moved to a new place about eight months later—I was hard on myself. Why didn’t I see that church as it was? Why didn’t I realize I was in the throes of my own personal grief? I have never failed in my whole ministry. Oh, we all have difficult times—but I am talking about just failing. And I beat myself up for not being able to pull it off. I was ashamed professionally. I was furious with myself for what I had done to my wife and me.

But somehow grace happened. A good wife. A fine counselor. Prayer. The love and support of kids and my friends. The open door of a new church. All these were ways that God got a foothold in my life.

And somehow I began to see that there is no such thing as perfection in our lives. There is only one Jesus. And I had to accept the fact I could not do everything. I had to come to terms with my own grief and understand my own heart. And slowly that self-hatred which I had really carried most of my life—began to fade.

We have to deal with ourselves. And what happened to me is that it saved me from self--righteousness. Like that Pharisee in the Temple—I could not thank God that I had never been through a patch of failure.

This realization has made me more human. Hopefully more humble.  I think I am not quite as hard on myself and those around me. I have joined the human family—warts and all. Theirs and mine. I have a strong sensitivity to the underdog.

Arthur Miller wrote a play, which I think, was really not about Maggie, the character as it was about tortured Marilyn Monroe he tried to be married to. And in that play he says: “There comes a time when we have to take ourselves in our own arms.” We have to forgive ourselves. 

 permission by iLoveKaylaMoore
The third thing I have learned is that I had to forgive them. Or God had to help me forgive them. Jesus prayed from the cross for his enemies: “Father forgive them.”  You have to understand some of these pit bulls. You have to come to terms with people far different than you. You have to realize that it wasn’t all their fault. I did some things that did not help.

And when I finally left there and moved to another place. Guess what? Some of those mean people moved with me. Why they were sitting out there every Sunday in my new place with scowls and slitted eyes. Not many—but they were there.
I had not forgiven those back there in Memphis...and I would have to learn to forgive other people along the way.

You see Jesus said if we don’t forgive them...God cannot forgive us. We just have to let them go. Jesus said shake the dust off your feet. He did not say smash them in the face. He just said move on. You have done all you can do. But don’t take them with you. We can’t do that.

permission by ashleigh3513
Let me tell you a story. I was leaving here on a plane for some place up north. And there was a black lady sitting next to me. And we started talking. She was going to give a speech in Charlotte. I asked her if she was a member of the 16th Street Church where the little girls were killed. I was about to speak there and wondered. After I asked that question she said, “I used to be a member there. Not anymore. My daughter was killed in that bombing. Her name was Carole—with an e.”

We struck up a friendship and I would call her and sometimes she would call me. When they caught one of the men who had bombed that church years before. She was asked to testify at the trial. They wheeled her in—she could barely walk then. But she said, “This would have been my daughter’s 30th birthday if it wasn’t for this man.” Spike Lee came to town and make a movie called, “Four Little Girls.” And the last part of that movie is this black woman, my friend. He asked her could she forgive those men for murdering her daughter. And she said, “I’ve let all that stuff go. You can’t keep all that poison in your system. It will destroy you. Life is too short—I have forgiven them.”
permission by jamaalbell1

We have to let it go...despite whatever they have done. Forgive us...forgive them.

 I have discovered another thing: Who we are is not defined by them. We cannot let others write our agenda. And we preachers do it all the time. Love me...love me...I will jump through your hoops. I will turn cartwheels. I will sit up and beg like a dog if you will love me and accept me.

Those people cannot define who you are. And we do it all the time. God called you. Why? If you are so pathetic that you must run around trying to please, please and get strokes. It’s like nymphomania you can't ever get enough. We’re looking for love in all the wrong places.

photo by thegorten
Once at the Y MCA...I was getting out of my car after a hard day at work to try to work out the kinks. And this black man came by. Oh, I wanted to avoid him. I was sure he wanted a hand out. And I had done that all day long. As he approached me I said, “I don’t have any money.” And he said: “Mister I don’t want any money I just want you to know that I’m not crazy.” And I said, “No, you’re not crazy but you are a child of God.” And he turned and walked away. And I heard him say over and over: “Child of God...Child of God...Child of God.” Nobody in a church or anywhere define us or pronounce us certifiable. We are children of God and we need to remember this every morning when we climb out of bed.

Hang on to those old words which have helped pilgrims through the years:

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; ad through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God...Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you...Do not fear, for I am with you...” (Is. 43. 1-3a, 4a, 5a)

photo by TraceTaylor

(If you would like to learn about the Ministering to Ministers Foundation which has helped hundreds of ministers is a time of vocational crisis, you might pull up their web page and learn more about this fine organization.)
--rogerlovette/ rogerlovette.blogspot.com

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful insights for those of us who've had a few bumpy roads--even if we aren't preachers. Keep it up.