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Just Barely Hanging On

This past Sunday was one of the most difficult mornings in my nineteen years as a pastor. And yes, I realize how overly dramatic that sounds.

The day started off as every Sunday does, with my alarm going off at 7:20am, starting my weekly routine of preparing for our morning service: Brewing a cup of tea, taking a seat on the couch in our living room to read over my notes in real-time before the rest of the family is up and scurrying around the house, and finally, driving across town to the church to connect with people before the service begins. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary that morning—there was even the usual technical glitch when we were lining up our on-screen presentation—but as soon as the service started, I found myself unable to control my emotions.

(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)

If you don’t know anything about me beyond what you’ve read to this point, you’ll have to take my word when I tell you that this is beyond out of character for me. I don’t cry. I don’t say that as an expression of bravado, but to illustrate how confusing it was for me to be unable to keep the tears from flowing as Eric led our community in worship.

I could barely sing even one line of a song, and every time I looked at someone, the tears would flow faster. So I stopped singing, and I stopped looking. I didn’t want people to notice, especially since I wouldn’t have known what to tell them if they had asked me what was wrong.

We shared communion together, led by our Youth pastor. For me, this ceremony is one of the highlights of our church’s life together. As the stream of people file up to the front of our sanctuary, taking turns breaking off a piece of bread from the common loaf, I always try to make plenty of eye contact, giving the kids a little wink as they go by, praying for the people walking by my pew, whose stories I know only too well. The rhythm of sharing communion reminds me of who we are and what we’re really about when all the dust settles: We are a random group of people who have found a common hope in Jesus and are doing our best to muddle through the life we’ve been given—and just maybe, we might be able to do something more than muddle if we can lean on one another and on the Holy Spirit along the way.

But this week I couldn’t see any of that—I was just barely hanging on.

As soon as I stood up on the platform at the front of our sanctuary, encircled as I always am with beautiful stained-glass depictions of the life of Jesus, I was given whatever it was that I needed to force the words out of my mouth and into the air of that sacred space. The message was based on Acts 15, part of our series on Listening which I had planned on preaching several months before any of this current conversation was under way. This chapter of the New Testament tells the story of Paul and Barnabas’ journey to Jerusalem to have it out with the leaders of the church over some people who were confusing some recent converts in Antioch by pressuring them to obey Jewish law. In the end, it’s a story of people with very different understandings of what faithfulness looked like coming together and finally reaching a place where they could say, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us...”

Could that happen for us, too? Will we be able to sense God’s leading like that?

After the service, my wife and I had a brief conversation with a faithful, older couple in the church. They were aware of what’s going on and were letting us know that they were praying for us. Fortunately for Melissa and I, comments like this have been coming in regularly from those who are in the know. Melissa commented on how we are doing a good job maintaining boundaries and keeping balanced, and then, without having the capacity in the moment to discern whether what I was about to say was appropriate or not, I chimed in, “Actually, I am not balanced at all. I feel like I might fall over right here and now.”

The couple came on either side of me and pretended to hold my body upright, which relieved the tension. When Melissa and I got home, I told her about how I hadn’t been able to control my emotions the way I have always been so good at doing, and about how concerned I was that I would be a blubbering mess when I stood up to preach my sermon. She said something significant, as she often does in moments like those: That it was a good thing to speak from a place of brokenness—a reminder that I can’t do any of this without God’s help; a reminder, maybe, that I should stop trying to.

The truth is, I was already feeling burdened by the weight of responsibility, long before my emotions bubbled to the surface on Sunday morning. A couple of months ago, when the waters were only starting to stir, one of the questions that loomed largest for me was, How can I possibly be the one responsible for keeping this ship steady? I didn’t have a model to follow and I didn’t have a mentor by my side to show me how it’s done. But even if I did, every pastor and every church is unique, so I knew I would have to chart my own course. That’s why I reached out to Doug Kelly, the pastor from Seattle—I knew that if this is how I was feeling at this early stage of the game, there was no way I would still be standing after what we will walk through as a community in the weeks and months to come.

I think it’s important to say that it’s not like I’ve been pushing these thoughts and feelings out of the way and barreling onward. For example, on the weekend, I intentionally shut myself off from email—as I usually try to do on weekends—spending time watching my son’s middle school basketball tournament and taking care of things around the house like getting groceries and buying a new snow shovel when ours cracked. I’m pretty self-aware when it comes to recognizing how thin my margins are getting, and I knew I needed some time to disconnect. I even went into the past weekend with plans to finish reading a book on this topic of same-gender attraction and Christian faith, but decided against it in order to help clear my mind.

Part of my concern right now is that, despite my best efforts to rest and recharge over the weekend, I woke up Monday morning feeling as depleted as I did on Friday afternoon. That’s not a good sign for me and I’ve got to figure this out—and soon.

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