Suspenders

suspendersSometime in my early teen years, I just had to have a pair of rainbow colored suspenders. I begged my parents for this article of clothing until someone finally broke down and got them.

Did I need them because I didn’t like to wear belts? No. Did I need them to keep my pants up? Not really…I usually wore a belt anyway. Why did I need them, then?

Because Mork from Ork wore them.

For those who are not old enough to remember or for the select few who didn’t watch television in the late seventies, Mork and Mindy was a television show about an alien from the planet Ork who somehow ended up living in the suburbs of Denver. And unless Mork had on clothing from his native planet, he almost always wore rainbow colored suspenders. And just in case you haven’t figured it out yet, Mork was played by Robin Williams, an actor who recently lost a battle with depression and ended his life. (As a side note, I try to avoid using the word suicide. I don’t like it for many reasons but you can read more about that on my blog if you really want to do so.)

Robin Williams was one of my earliest role models and heroes. He made people laugh and I found that making people laugh was not only fun to do, it gave an otherwise short and awkward teenager a way to be noticed amongst his peers and even by some adults. For several years I had the very unrealistic dream of becoming a stand-up comic.

That dream led me to do both community and school theater. That dream gave me the drive to actually be employed professionally as an actor – ONCE. That dream of standing in front of people, telling stories and jokes and hearing them respond with laughter is one that kept me going through much of my high school years. Even after I retired the suspenders (but didn’t throw them away, mind you) and had quit idolizing Robin Williams for some other comic I can’t even remember now, I still held on to the dream of making a livelihood out of comedy.

But a lot of life happened between that early dream and where I am today. I consider myself fortunate, very fortunate indeed that at some point in time I realized that there was a different plan for my life. Although I cannot paint a picture of the long road I took to get there in this article, I can at least say with a great deal of certainty that I ended up where I was supposed to be headed all along – in pastoral ministry.

In some ways, I still get to live part of that early dream – I stand up in front up people on a regular basis and I get to tell stories. However, they often are not funny ones and even when they are funny I hope that they point to something else. I hope they point to the God who loves us all enough to send his Son to die for us.

I get a little sad each and every time I hear of someone losing a battle with depression that ends in death. As far as I am concerned, the disease rids people of their ability to make good and rational choices. Instead, they just want the hopelessness to end and can really only see one way out of that hopelessness – to be present with God.

We worship an incredible and awesome Savior. Jesus was, is and always will be part of the Trinity known as God. When Jesus walked among us, he was fully human and fully divine. His death would not have been a sacrifice on his part if he did not have the power to prevent it. Yet even with the power to prevent his own life from being taken, Jesus chose to give it up. Why? So that we could have life that is ever-lasting – both now and after our own deaths.

Sometimes, I am afraid, we concentrate so much on the gift of “life after death” that is a promise of the sacrifice of Jesus that we forget about ever-lasting life that is available to us now. Please don’t jump to conclusions here…I am not talking about people with mental illness forgetting that promise, I am talking about perfectly normal and mentally healthy people forgetting it.

That, to me, is why it is so tragic when someone loses their life to a battle with mental illness. There are so many of us around who have life to spare, who drink from wells that never run dry, who walk on paths made smooth by the grace of God, who have hope beyond measure that we should be able to at least talk about mental illness in such a way that it would offer life and hope to others around us.

I am not offering any grand solution here. Now am I asking you to find some way to be in ministry with those who are mentally ill.

I am asking that we all take a moment and thank God for the life and hope that we have because of Jesus. And maybe in that thankfulness, we will be just a bit more cognizant of those around us who are struggling and we can show them a new way to hope…a different way to be close to God. One sacrificed his own life so that we could all have life abundant! In being thankful, we are in the position to help those who can’t be thankful because of mental illness.

I can’t say that this will work every time, but I won’t stop hoping that it does.

Nanu…Nanu.

Confessions of a Clergy School Holdout

I sat in the back of the room, the wall directly behind me and the exit about three chairs away. Sure, I would have to shimmy past three other pastors sitting in the room if I decided on an early exit, but it was only three and I was almost certain we didn’t know one another.

The speaker’s name and topic are lost to me now. Perhaps it was because I didn’t attend the session with any hope of learning. Perhaps it was because the speaker was really boring. More than likely, though, it was because I did not believe I needed to be there at all. Continuing education offered by the annual conference? It had not been more than three years since I had completed three years of Residency and felt I had more than enough “Conference directed education” during that time. I figured the best CE events had to be “out there” somewhere, anywhere but in my own back yard.

I was a Clergy School Holdout.

In September 2012 I attended the West Virginia Annual Conference Clergy School as the incoming “Dean” of the school. How did that happen? I’m still not sure. I am humbled and honored to be serving in this capacity – much more humbled than honored, I would add. More than that, I was really turned around, so to speak, by attending the school in 2012 and experiencing just how wrong I was about our Clergy School.

I heard three very speakers approach the topic of “Healing” in very divergent ways. I felt myself arguing with some of what they had to say. I found myself nodding in agreement with other things. I found myself engaged with a topic I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about since, well, since days I was involved in the Lay Witness Weekend ministry.

More than that, I found myself sharing a space with some pretty incredible people. Colleagues that I had known for years and didn’t get to spend much time with were sitting with me in the sessions. During short breaks, we would catch up. (Admittedly, during boring times in the presentations, we would text!) When we took the longer breaks, I would talk with other colleagues and hear incredible, sometimes heart-breaking stories about ministry and families. Other times, my spirit would be lifted up as a colleague would share that they had been praying for me in my new ministry setting. One time, during a meal in the cafeteria, I witnessed a heated discussion between two people I thought never disagreed. I cannot stress the “heatedness” of their discussion. But then I watched in amazement as God’s Spirit poured out between them in the midst of their differences and they walked away laughing like two co-conspirators in a crime of grace.

During the long Wednesday afternoon “free time” I found myself sitting and sharing stories with a colleague. The minutes piled up and the time slipped away. At some point I remembered that I was angry with this person – but for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the exact reason why that was so.

I found myself carried away during worship. I found myself letting go of pre-conceived notions about what we could offer as Continuing Education in West Virginia. I found that I had attended a continuing education event hoping to learn something, anything about healing ministries in the local church and I was healed in the process.

I am no longer a Clergy School Holdout.

Yes, it is a continuing education event. Yes, it is a gathering of clergy – local pastors, elders and deacons – from across the WV Annual Conference. But it is so much more. It is an opportunity to allow the Spirit to revive something essential as I take a break from the sometimes heart-numbing tasks and art of being a clergyperson.

Of course, this year our Clergy School is about “Ministering Across Economic and Cultural Boundaries.” I couldn’t tell you what to exactly expect in what you will learn, hear and see. It will be different than last year and 2014 promises even more changes, I am sure. Yet in the heart of exploring where the Spirit of God might take us, I am encouraging myself to allow them to happen. (One promise I have made to myself and others though is that the Free Time period will NOT get used for anything else!!)

But I can tell you this – even if I were not somehow involved in the Clergy School, I would no longer holdout on attending. I would attend simply because by opening myself up to learning, I found God ready to give me so much more.

I am no longer a Clergy School Holdout…and I am glad.

You can register online until Thursday, September 13th AND as always, you can still register at the door. Visit http://www.wvumc.org/calendar/clergy-school to learn more and register.