There and Back Again: A Pastor's Tale, Part Seven
Some who have been reading this series of blog posts may not know the title is a literary reference. It is drawn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit, which offers “There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Tale” as an alternate title. The Hobbit tells the story of Bilbo Baggins’s unlikely adventure as he leaves his comfy home in the Shire, travels into wild lands and unknown dangers, and then returns again transformed by all that has happened in-between.
In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton, another British author of the same era, opens his book with a similar theme. Though not a fantasy, he nevertheless describes a fanciful situation in which an English yachtsman sets out from home on his own journey of discovery. However, through a miscalculation in his course, what he "discovers" is England itself—in the mistaken belief that it is a new island in the South Seas! Though such a man might appear to be a fool, Chesterton is not concerned with this impression. He states that any who think that a sense of folly "...was [the yachtsman's] sole or dominant emotion [has] not studied with sufficient delicacy the rich romantic nature of the hero of this tale." He continues:
"His mistake was really a most enviable mistake; and he knew it, if he was the man I take him for. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again? What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there? (With all apologies to my South African friends!) What could be more glorious than to brace one's self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really old South Wales?"
In context, Chesterton uses this amusing anecdote as a metaphor for his journey away from, then back to orthodox Christian faith. As it relates to my journey, it serves as a poignant, albeit imperfect, analogy for our journey over these last couple of years. It is imperfect insofar as it was not a miscalculation that led to us to move to New Zealand and then return to Kansas City. It is poignant inasmuch as it describes the scope of emotions—from the fascinating terrors to the humane security—we have felt as our family discovered a new island in the South Seas, and now, somehow, find ourselves preparing to land on our home shores almost two years later.
Here is how the final part of this tale unfolded...
As I described in the last post, by July 2010 we had been in New Zealand six months and were beginning to feel settled. That was good. Yet given our two-year contract, the question of what might happen next was never far away. Different people in New Zealand had expressed to me their hope that I might remain here. I was honored by that and was already considering this possibility. I knew I wanted to resume studies and the opportunity to do this in New Zealand was attractive for a couple of reasons. First, New Zealand follows the British approach to doctoral studies, namely an exclusive focus on research and writing under a supervisor. Second, I liked the opportunity of doing research in the context of a supportive academic community. In July, I began to have conversations with colleagues and administrators exploring different academic options should we decide to settle in New Zealand beyond the original two-year commitment. However, I knew if I were going to stay, there would need to be some changes in my role at Laidlaw, among other considerations.
I also mentioned in the last post that Laidlaw was in a season of transition when we arrived. In June 2010, Dr. Rod Thompson was appointed as the new national principal of the college. Rod was an internal appointment, having most recently served as Head of the School of Theology. During his transition, the School of Theology combined with the School of Mission and Ministry, where I work. It, too, was in transition as the previous head of school had resigned due to significant health issues. As the School of Theology, Mission, and Ministry began to coalesce, Laidlaw started the process of appointing a new head of school.
That September, several people approached me and asked whether I had considered applying for the position. Prior to those conversations it had not occurred to me to put myself forward. However, should I be appointed, this position would give me the opportunity to do a couple of things I knew I wanted to do: express more intentional leadership and pursue my studies in an academic setting. Having just begun to feel at home in New Zealand, this was an attractive option - especially when faced with the possibility of moving again in a mere 18 months. The decision to apply was not an easy one to make, though. One of the stipulations of the position was a five-year commitment to the college. That raised the stakes considerably, as our oldest child would likely return to the United States for university within a year or two. While prepared for him go away to college, we weren't positive that we were ready for 8000 miles of "away." It also meant that our youngest would essentially grow up in New Zealand and become fully Kiwi, if only culturally. Nothing wrong with that, mind you. But it was something, among numerous somethings, that we weighed as we contemplated our future.
Thus we struggled as a family to discern whether or not this was a good decision for us. We had only been in the country a little while and now we were quickly trying to determine whether this might be our home for the next five years. Ultimately we agreed that I would put myself forward as a candidate. This was not a decision to remain in New Zealand for five years, though. It was a decision to enter a process of discernment. The hiring process had several stages and we committed to taking the first step. As the process moved forward, I would take the next step only if every member of the family was on board and the college continued to be interested. This gave our family an amazing opportunity to talk and pray through every stage of the process. For a number of reasons, we had not been able to do this as thoroughly as we wanted to when we decided to move to New Zealand. This time around, we were committed to making a decision that honored each member of our family. Throughout the whole process, each person had the power to veto further movement forward.
I am not going to go into all of the details of the application and interview process. Suffice it to say that as I progressed through the different stages, our family navigated each with honesty and integrity. Though we were still not sure, it seemed like this might be what was next for us. During the last stages, though, it became clear for a host of different reasons that some crucial aspects of this job were not a good fit for me. I was alternately confused, disappointed, and relieved. I came home and shared this news with Mimi. Her reaction was very similar. The next morning we told the kids that I had withdrawn myself as a candidate. We reminded ourselves that I had entered the process, not to get a job, but to discern what might be next. As a result of this process, we could now cross something off the list. Though it seems small, being able to do this felt good—even though we seemed no closer to knowing where our future might be headed. And it was now November.
I went to work that day and when I arrived I had a few conversations with colleagues wondering where things stood. I communicated my decision to withdraw and some of the reasons for it. The further removed I got from the decision, the more peaceful and relieved I felt. Now it seemed that I needed to begin thinking serious about the next option for me. I imagined that it meant I would make the pursuit of a doctoral degree my priority, whether here in New Zealand or somewhere in the United States or Europe.
Then, later that afternoon, I received an email from Mike King, a very good friend and also an elder at Jacob's Well. He asked if I might have time to talk. I replied to him that I did and my phone rang five minutes later. I caught him up on what had been going on with our family and with the process I had been involved in at Laidlaw. Then he asked if he might catch me up on some things related to Jacob's Well. While this is not my story to tell, I will briefly summarize what Mike shared with me for the purpose of concluding this story.
Mike told me that the community had just come to the end of their process to hire a primary teaching pastor. However, it did not result in a decision to hire someone. Instead, the elders decided to pause and individually pursue additional possible candidates. The reason Mike called was to ask if I was open to talking about returning to Jacob's Well in a radically re-conceived role. You can probably imagine how surprised I was to be asked this question—especially so immediately after the events of the previous couple of days. What you might not imagine is how surprised I was at my answer. Had Mike asked me the same question, even a couple of days earlier, I would have said no—but not for any negative reason. I simply had no sense that this was my path. Now I found myself excited in a way that I didn't understand but wanted to explore. I asked him for the job description and when I had the chance to review it, I told him that I would be willing to talk about this possibility.
When I got home that night and shared the day's events with my family, it would be fair to say that everyone was shocked - and confused - and excited - though not necessarily in that order. Then we began the process of discernment all over again, each person asking questions and contributing their perspective. And as had been the case previously, each person had the freedom and power to veto further forward movement. Over the next two months, I had a series of conversations with Jacob's Well’s elders. Those conversations, and the ones we shared as a family around the dinner table, culminated with my acceptance of their offer to return to Jacob's Well as the primary teaching pastor in a role very different from the one I used to have. A radically re-conceived leadership structure and role will allow me to serve Jacob's Well in ways I am best suited to do while giving me the freedom to pursue my studies and engage larger issues related to leadership and the church.
Looking back, I am amazed—stunned, really—that events unfolded the way they did. It’s crazy. But I guess what is more amazing to me are the shifts in perspective that the church and I have experienced. Without these shifts, we could have never arrived at this outcome. To be able respond creatively to the challenges they have faced over the last couple of years, I know that Jacob’s Well has had to go through a significant shift in imagination and structures. Generally speaking, organizations confronted by change experience high levels of anxiety. In most cases, this leads to responses that are reactive and, unfortunately, destructive. The church’s commitment to be present and patient in the face of uncertainty is a testimony to their trust and dependence on God’s Spirit to faithfully guide them.
And what about the shift I’ve undergone? I am not sure I will ever fully understand it, but here is what I think might have happened. When we said farewell to family and friends and boarded the plane with a one-way ticket to New Zealand, we did not know if we would return. People who go on holiday, however long, do not weep when their plane leaves the ground. We left relinquishing any and all claims on security or control while anticipating what we hoped might become “the glorious brace of discovery,” as Chesterton puts it. At the time, I thought I had let go and done all the grieving that I needed to do, but I hadn’t. It wasn’t until I applied for the position at Laidlaw that I realized I was still holding on, looking back, living in my past. Pursuing this opportunity, with its five-year commitment, forced me to finally face and then let go of my former life. Only then could I open up to the possibility of a real life again, here and now. I think such openness—though it cost you everything, devastating you to your core—invites God to reach out to us from the future and pull us into the present, reborn from the death of our past.
But God doesn’t just wait for an invitation. God’s love is too restless and creative. I believe God actively instigates the processes that ultimately make such an invitation possible. We are deeply paradoxical creatures with complex and many-layered hearts. Sometimes we deceive ourselves and sometimes we are simply ignorant of the many currents that churn deep in our hearts. We rarely know what it is we truly want. But that may not always matter anyway. While my heart may be inscrutable to me, it is not to God. God searches and knows my heart. And I believe God knew there remained in me things that still needed to die if I was going to really live in the way I was created to live.
I wonder how often we miss out on the glorious experience of resurrection because we never let ourselves experience the devastating finality of death? We usually settle for a pale approximation of life, for mere survival, limping along in the hope that can make it just a little further. But sometimes we have to call a dead thing dead—and then throw the lifeless bones into the desolate valley and wait. “Can these dry bones yet live?” God asks the prophet Ezekiel. The answer is yes, but always—and only—on God’s terms. Death and resurrection is the pattern of life in God.
Isn't it tempting to wish for the humane security of returning home without having to truly experience the fascinating terrors of going abroad? Don’t we always desire the consolation of heaven without the terror of the grave? However tempting it may be, I have learned that unless a person casts off from their proverbial shore, giving up the hope of sure return, they will never learn the lessons such an experience has to teach, nor will they know and experience the joy of restoration that comes after full surrender.