Monday, February 24, 2014

Power Made Perfect in Weakness: Hopes, Fears, and Picking Sides at LTSP

It was simple, really. Anyone else would have listened to the pastor's instructions, then quickly and calmly gone about it. For me, though, it was akin to a Herculean task. When I heard that I had to light 24 candles on a table in a particular order during the service that day, I immediately clenched up and could feel my palms starting to sweat. Why was it such a big deal? I'm a bit awkward, a little clumsy. Physical tasks that are done as second nature by most people are often difficult for me. My mind and body sometimes have a hard time syncing up with each other, especially when I'm feeling under pressure. 

What the church would have looked like had I been successful
Reminding myself that I could do it if I calmed down and took my time, I lit five of the candles in the right order. All right, I thought, this ain't so bad after all. I got to the sixth with some momentum-inspired confidence. It wouldn't light. The wick refused to cooperate with me, no matter what I did. When the first few minutes of unsuccessful attempts had passed, I started wondering if the candle was defective or if my pastor had decided to play a cruel joke on me. I remembered one birthday party when I was a kid when my parents topped my cake with those trick candles that are almost impossible to blow out. Maybe my pastor had found something similar, but with the opposite effect. 

But curiosity/suspicion of my pastor's professionalism soon turned to anxiety and embarrassment. Resigning myself to the fact that it would be better to skip this candle than to struggle with it until my pastor had to intervene, I went to the seventh...which wouldn't light. I became aware of a crescendo of murmurs of confusion and complaints from the packed sanctuary. Hundreds of people, many of whom I had never really talked to because I was new to the congregation. They wouldn't understand, they wouldn't forgive. I was ruining the whole service. I had to do something, and fast, before the whole church turned against me like a pitchfork-wielding mob. 

What the church ended up looking like
Right next to the candles was a recycling bin. Spying a piece of paper on the top of the bin, I grabbed it with the idea of lighting the piece of paper and using it as another way to light the wick of the seventh candle. My plan, as brilliant and considerate of fire safety as it was, didn't go so well. Instead of successfully lighting the candle, I ended up fumbling the flaming scrap of paper and dropping it back into the recycling bin, which by luck happened to be filled with various highly-flammable odds and ends. As a pillar of fire shot out of the bin and hundreds of shouts of alarm and anger echoed off the cathedral ceilings, I thought, Well, something like that was bound to happen eventually. As well as, Why on earth would someone leave a bin full of gasoline-drenched paper right next to so many candles?

Then I woke up. It took me about a second to realize that I wasn't in my own bed and to remember why. Looking through the window shades onto the campus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, it struck me how unusually realistic the dream had been. Most of my dreams have an element of fantasy or impossibility to them. (About once every two weeks since I was a teenager, for example, I have had a dream about zombies. Don't ask me why.) I suppose that having to light one of the many candles at the previous evening's service had made a strong impression on my brain. It was also rare for me to feel so anxious in a dream. Usually, they're much more positive or are similar to watching a movie on a screen.

I got up and grabbed some Wawa iced tea from the fridge of the guest apartment that had been allotted to me. In the middle of a delicious gulp, I made a decision:  I wasn't going to shrug this dream off as meaningless. For thousands of years and in many different cultures, dreams were believed to be of great importance. As necessary as it often was to interpret them (as in the story of Joseph or some Greek myths), they were nonetheless considered to be one of the most powerful and direct revelations from the god(s) that we humans could receive. They were like text messages straight from the deity to the human brain. Freud and others have dulled that concept quite a bit in our Western culture. I myself am hesitant to see every dream I have or every little thing that happens as a sign from God. 

But there comes a certain time when we can't help but think that He's trying to send a message, something that he wants us to see so badly that He knocks us on the head with it over and over again (and perhaps gets a little frustrated by our dullness and insensitivity). At that point, it would be foolish not to listen. At the worst, we might feel a little silly later on for sensing signs or patterns that weren't actually there. At the best, we can come in closer contact with God's will for our lives.  

I had been on the campus for less than a day. In those hours, though, I had seen and heard enough that I had an idea of what God's message to me might be. I had come to LTSP for the weekend expecting to see the campus and neighborhood, meet some of the faculty, staff, and students, and try my best to make a few good impressions. I hoped I could come to a decision about whether I should attend seminary, specifically LTSP. I think that God wanted all these things to happen, too. But He had more in mind. God didn't want me to just enjoy this weekend. He was calling me to go to war. 

He had already drawn the battle lines. On one side were my hopes, passions for the Lord and His Word, and intentions to discover whether a life in the Church could be a part of how God wants me to reflect His love out into the world. At my strongest, I'm convinced that I can meet any of the challenges that would face me as a pastor, with the help of God and the important people in my life. On the other side was an army of doubts, fears, and misgivings. At times, their cries of “You? In seminary? What's the point? You're not suited to do this!” make me want to run as quickly as I can in the other direction. Or, worse yet, to raise a white flag, to feel in my heart like I never stood a chance against them. To let myself be surrounded by them, to be stripped of my armor and sent into exile. To give up, and find something else to do and be. 

Maybe something that involved a bit less physical coordination, for example. I'm aware that a career in ministry is far from being an intensely-physical one. But my awkwardness and utter lack of handyman skills have occasionally entered my mind as something to take into account considering the diverse tasks that a pastor must perform. On the whole, however, it's not a major concern. Certainly nothing that I would expect such a vivid and negative dream to be centered around. Pouring out another cup of Wawa iced tea and sitting down, I began to think about what the dream could really be telling me. I believed that God wanted me to face my doubts that weekend, and that the dream I had woken up from and my folly with the candles was just a facade concealing a more serious issue, one that had much greater potential for keeping me from feeling confident in any future decision to enter seminary. An image immediately sprang up in my mind, and I knew what that issue was. 

The image was of a green slip of paper. The words of Claudio Carvalhaes, the pastor at the chapel service the night before, were still echoing in my brain when I finished writing on it. As was the case with much of the weekend, his sermon had touched me much more deeply than I thought it would. He had spoken passionately (to say the least) about how seminary changes everyone who goes through it, how our walk with God will always transform who we are in one way or another. "Go," he urged. "Go back home if you can. Forget about your weekend here. But if that's not possible, if you feel God pulling you here, pulling you to a life of serving others, then come and see." (My apologies to him for my poor paraphrasing of his wonderful sermon.) In that moment, I wanted to come to seminary so badly that it hurt. When we were instructed to write prayers on green slips of paper, my heart went to the one thing that was keeping me back from committing to the kind of life Claudio had described. I wrote, "Can I do this, Lord? Can I get past how I look or how I think I look? Allow me to see me as you see me, God.”  

I've struggled with self-image since high school, specifically with one part of my body:  my face. It's almost never crippling or debilitating. For a large majority of time, I go about life with a fair amount of confidence. It mostly manifests as nervousness around women that I'm attracted to, actually. But in the last few years, moments of self-consciousness have become increasingly frequent and have begun to seep into other areas of my life. It's gotten to the point where I sometimes am convinced that people are fighting the urge to be revolted when they see me, or even that my friends are continuing to talk to me in person only out of kindness or sympathy. No matter how many times close friends and family tell me that I'm not ugly, I have a hard time fully accepting it. I've begun to wonder if I could ever live the rest of my life as a pastor, to serve as a community leader, to be in front of potentially hundreds of people as a focus of attention for at least an hour or two every Sunday. On a more individual basis, I've feared that I would be unable to counsel others because of my appearance. Who would want to listen to what I had to say? Who would want me to be their pastor?

A big part of me knows how unfounded these concerns are. More than that, I'm aware of how destructive my negative body image can be if I give into it and allow it to affect my self-esteem and interpersonal relationships. Feeling self-conscious and worrying about what other people are thinking of me is no way to live, and it makes loving God and neighbor the best I can almost impossible. But another part of me, one deep down in the dark recesses of my heart, one more insistent to be heard than the other, reasserts its message that I shouldn't be in a career that is as thoroughly social as ministry, that I should do something behind the scenes instead, like be a telemarketer or accountant. I would be relatively safe there, that voice says, away from the risk of failure or embarrassment. Away from so many eyes.

For the last several months, these two voices have been in conflict with each other. The second voice could usually be held below the surface, but it would strike when I felt vulnerable or uncertain about what God wants for my future. Claudio's sermon helped me to realize that, in the words of JK Rowling, "neither can live while the other survives." I had to make a choice between putting the bulk of my insecurities to rest at last, or surrendering to them and always perceiving myself as a victim. God had already picked a side. Out of His love, He chose me. And now He wanted me to make the same choice, and to remain firmly in His camp until the war was over. 

That Saturday morning, I vowed to pay close attention to everything I saw, heard, and felt for the rest of my time at LTSP. In a weekend full of rewarding and challenging conversations and experiences, though, Sunday morning turned out to be the climax of my “Battle of Philadelphia.” The first skirmish of the day centered around the account of one of the current students, Jeremiah Smith, about his spiritual growth and call to ministry. As with Claudio's sermon, he employed a lot of humor at first. But soon, I found myself riveted to every word. When he said, “Don't let fear be a part of your decision to enter seminary,” it hit home with me so much that, against my better judgment, I felt almost like he was speaking directly to me. I realized that my hesitations to embark on a path toward ministry were based on fear. Fear of failure, fear of embarrassment and rejection. Fear that I couldn't possibly be understanding God's will for my life correctly. 

Previous to my weekend at LTSP, I had assumed that I was in a small minority for having doubts and fears about following a vocation in the Church. I thought that the decision would have been clear to most other people, that they were all natural-born leaders with few misgivings about what God wanted them to do. The more I heard and spoke with both current and prospective students, the more I realized how na├»ve my assumption had been. I discovered that I was far from alone in fighting against the voices telling me that I shouldn't and couldn't enter into ministry. And I drew great strength in that, not out of some sense of schadenfreude over the difficulties the other participants at the retreat had endured, but because I was able to see God transforming their doubts and hesitations into determination to do His will and to be in a closer relationship with Him. I began to hope that others could one day take strength in my own struggles. That, years down the road, my testimony could change a life even a tiny bit for the better, that it would help someone to know in their heart that they had the support, not only of God, but of so many people sharing in their attempt to discern God's will for their lives while feeling vastly unequipped to act according to it. 

As it turned out, I didn't have long to wait before I had the chance to put this into practice. At the end of the Sunday service with Professor Karyn Wiseman, she asked us all to turn to our neighbor and discuss some of the doubts we were feeling at that point. I turned to the prospective student next to me and proceeded to unload on him, in less than a minute, my self-image issues, fears, and hopes. His response humbled me to the core:  “Dan, every word you said just now I could apply to myself. My whole life, I've had a hard time with how I view myself and how others view me. You know, you've really made a strong impact on me. Not just in the last few minutes, but this whole weekend. I'm really looking forward to seeing you in the fall.” 

In just two days, I had impacted someone's life for the better, and him me. In that moment, all of the wonderful and intimate relationships I've formed since childhood flooded into my mind. As destructive as my negative self-image had seemed sometimes, it had never been strong enough to prevent me from making meaningful connections with the people in my life, showing them God's love, or taking comfort in each other and in the Lord during times of hardship. That, I realized, is a large part of what being a pastor (and a human) is about. God made us as social creatures. He wants us to love and to share our lives with each other. And in the process, He can transform something that appears to us as weakness into strength. 

This He does for His glory, as attested by Bible verses that Professor Wiseman had read toward the end of the Sunday morning service:  

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things―and the things that are not―to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinth. 1:26-29)

But, as the Apostle Paul himself knew, God does this also for our sake. Not just to comfort us in times of difficulty, but to allow us to know that struggles and hardships can be, mysteriously and paradoxically, an integral part of how we can work to bring about His will for the world. Paul's experience with a “thorn in his flesh”--probably a physical or mental ailment—is the clearest example of what I like to call “weakness theology.” 

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinth. 12: 8-10)

This strength is not derived from picking ourselves up by our bootstraps. It's God's power becoming our own; His strength being made perfect in weakness, not mine. Unlike mankind's, God's strength is one that I can depend on. Only God's strength could transform all of my doubts and insecurities into something constructive, into a determination to do His will and to share my experiences with others who have felt like they were held back by something they have deemed outside of their control. 

This transformation won't occur overnight. I'm sure that I will continue to struggle with my body image and confidence from time to time. To employ war imagery one last time, I like to think that I'm living between D-Day and V-Day. The war isn't over quite yet, but the victory is assured. All because God chose to be on my side and was committed to pushing me out of my position of neutrality during that weekend at LTSP, forcing me to align myself either with Him or with my fears. 

More important than the timing, however, were the people that God used to make the event so conducive to spiritual exploration and genuine fellowship. I'm incredibly thankful for every single person that was involved. My time there wasn't a visit to a campus. It wasn't an open house. It was a weekend that allowed me to repeat in my heart with conviction and hope (as we had sung countless times during services in the campus chapel), “Be not afraid, sing out for joy. Christ is risen, hallelujah!”

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