Believing and Living in Hope
I just resigned from ministry. For the second time.
Twenty-five years ago I entered the darkest season of my life to date. It was halfway through our second Living Waters program. Within a matter of a week my church-planting accountability partner decided he didn’t believe in God anymore, my Living Waters co-coordinator decided that a lesbian relationship (with a Living Waters participant) was her most compelling way out of pain, and I decided to break off an engagement with a woman I thought I had heard God say would be my wife.
At twenty-four I abruptly resigned from the ministry I had cofounded, refused to speak with my former fiancée and left the church before something worse befell me. It was a public embarrassment. For months I questioned everything I had spent the previous three years learning about the Lord and then dispensing to others. God forgives. God heals. God transforms. God does the impossible in the areas of our greatest shame. Or does He?
I agonized about whether I would ever be free from the unwanted and intrusive sexualization of friends, strangers and situations. Would I ever be able to enjoy connecting with other men without sliding into envy, judgment, dependency and self-loathing? Would I only be able to be a son or a buddy to a woman, always to flee in the face of her emotional needs and desire for intimacy? Was I destined to be alone and frustrated, and to have my love’s labors deemed meaningless?
I clung to an invisible Jesus as I suffered through solo “ministry times” on my bed, wrestling anxiety and choking back grief. I entered the “worse” zone in between “bad” and “better.” I did so without the benefit of a healing community.
I’ve been flashing back to this period in my life recently because the past seven months have trumped it on the pain scale. What I once experienced as a ten seems now to be a mere six or seven.
Last summer, on our way back from leaving our eldest son at college for the first time, we learned my mother was in the hospital. On the day the doctor told Mom she had inoperable stage-four pancreatic cancer, I spent ninety minutes on a cell-phone call trying to persuade a colleague that his attempts to use the Bible to bless monogamous same-sex partnerships, and to encourage other pastors to follow his lead, were fraught with internal contradictions and risks. Within four weeks, my mother succumbed. Two days after Mom’s funeral, a close friend preached that very message in my church. Soon thereafter I was told in a staff meeting if I couldn’t be happy with the new status quo, I should leave. (To be clear, I wasn’t being asked to stop doing Living Waters per se. The new normal was a both/and, nonposition position on homosexuality.)
I am leaving. Without a job. Without a next step. Without a denominational covering. After fifteen years of fruitful ministry to the sexually and relationally broken in a church I helped to found, I am at the end of the road, parting company from deeply loved colleagues and friends, “Swallowing the bitterness,” as I’ve heard it described.
I ruminated on my mother’s swift decline. It was too late for chemo. There was nothing to be done, the doctors said. The morphine comfort of hospice was the only humane option. Might this be true of the body of Christ, I wondered? Might our hour be past, our parts riddled with inoperable disease and at war with each other? The hardest part for me, a youngest child who loves to make everybody laugh and bring the family together, was the powerlessness. I couldn’t fix this one. All I could do was show up, listen, speak my piece, be kind to others, pray and grieve. (And eat!)
But this is an essay about hope.
“For I swear, dear brothers and sisters, that I face death daily. This is as certain as my pride in what Christ Jesus our Lord has done in you.” 1 Corinthians 15:31 NLT
That the pain in the middle of life feels more intense than my turbulent young adulthood is disorienting. Never mind what the desert fathers told us, I intended to avoid the crisis in the middle by doing my work early. It’s a distressing thought that I might be caught in the whirlpool of some repetition compulsion, replaying a lesson I failed to learn as a young man. Or perhaps more distressing is the hunch that God knows exactly what He’s doing with us, and nothing has come our way this season that He hasn’t authorized.
Strangely, I am not without hope, and why is that?
First off, all of the things I despaired of in my 20s have been soundly answered by the Lord. I am not alone. I became sexually sober, and what’s more, my squandered creativity rebounded in dozens of very satisfying theatrical and musical pursuits. My jilted one forgave me, and through a series of events—which stupefied her friends and continue to defy the experts—I won her back as my wife. The Lord filled our quiver with three boys who continue to delight us with their individuality, their ingenuity, their manly passion for the truth and its Author, and their hatred of bad ref-ing. They know bad calls when they see them.
Secondly, we have witnessed scores of men and women experience life transformation through prayerfully gathering around a couple of pieces of wood and some nails and talking about their lives. Our Living Waters programs and our leadership teams have been a laboratory for the miraculous: restored marriages, reconciled races, men addicted no more, truly liberated and fearless women, to name a few. We uphold, and are upheld by, a healing community that spans churches, denominations, states and nations.
That’s not nothing. It is no lie. This is not a sham.
The unsettling reality is that healing is never what we expect or imagine. When we enter a program like Living Waters, we have much remedial suffering to do. More than we can bear, it seems. We have little idea how deep a problem is, or even what to name it. No matter how grounded we are, we can’t help but believe that the point of this healing work is to get past the suffering and onto “the good stuff.” Most of us are pretty vague about what the good stuff might be, but we expect the usual: financial security, good health and an end to traumatic losses. (Dorothy and I are batting 0 for 3 by this standard.)
It’s as if we forget the story of those pieces of wood and some nails, and the fact that the first suffering is intended to train us for the greater. First we must suffer our own losses as Jesus did. And then, united with Christ, we willingly allow the suffering of others to penetrate us. To be a Christian in this world is to suffer. To refuse suffering, or to relegate it to a single season of life, is not to be paying attention.
If I’ve learned one thing in these twenty-five years of ministry, it is that getting relief from pain is an inadequate motivator for the discipleship process. A pursuit of that pain’s meaning, as Victor Frankl has written, will serve us better for the long haul. For if we run from pain, we run from ourselves. If we happen to be one of the lucky ones not in pain at the moment, there is plenty to go around. Therefore, to flee from pain is to turn your back on your fellow man, which is the very thing Jesus has commanded us not to do. We can no more avoid pain than we can avoid death. It awaits us all, and we can only prevail by passing through it.
“Where, O death, where is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:55
Hope remains. Hope is not a feeling. It is a trajectory. It is what lies ahead of us, that which we cannot see, for if we saw it, we would already have it. To quote my friend, Mario Bergner, “one only hopes for what one does not yet have.” (Oh, yeah, I knew that.)
When asked recently about how to be an artist of faith, I replied in a way that surprised everybody in the room, including me. “The secret is not to quit,” I said. Don’t quit believing. And don’t quit creating. For this is the secret of all faith.
Let me be clear. As of this writing, Dorothy and I have no idea what our vocational future holds. Our fiscal cliff is about three months out, and the Lord has not yet made a way.
This much we know: we are not quitting.
“And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb. Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises.” Romans 4:19-21 NLT