This week’s scripture from Philippians (2:1-13) speaks of God’s power at work through our humility. I have chosen, therefore, to reflect on God’s healing and guidance during a time of failure. Many of you know I used to be pastor in Cambridge. You probably don’t know that, after 14 years, I was asked to leave. People’s needs unmet at a critical moment, programs I had not given enough support, but above all – the church needed a more charismatic pastor, a powerful preacher. This raised immense questions. Was I unsuited for pastoral ministry – a role to which I had felt strongly called? Plus I had brought many new young members and programming into a dying church. Yet, it was these very people saying it’s time to go.
At my farewell party, one supportive parishioner made a comment I will never forget: “David, the only way God could get you to leave here is to kick you out. But God has something else for you and you need to find out what it is.” To begin that daunting task, Barbara and I moved to become part of Church of the Savior in Washington, known for strong commitment to inward and outward journeys and a welcoming place for former pastors struggling to be ordinary people. As I prayed during silent retreats and worshiped with caring, spiritually attuned people, I became aware of a basic deficiency in my life. I had very few friends. In all my relationships I was the professional – pastor, trainer of field education supervisors, head of the minister’s association, chair of a commission of peace education for the city. Now, all those important roles were gone. So, who was I? – a much more fundamental issue than “should I be a pastor.” What was driving me to succeed, to always be the leader, to be “the best,” rather than just “me?”
I wrestled before God through journaling – writing questions, listening for a still small voice. My challenge was not connecting with God, but to see myself – as a fallible, yet redeemable, child of God, another follower of “The way.” I continued to explore the vocation question, but to let go of control I cast my net wide to see what door God opened. I applied for pastorates, jobs in peacework, and Ph.D study. But this discernment process didn’t work. I was offered my top choice in each category. After struggling in prayer as best I knew, sharing my quandary with Barbara, a spiritual director and others, I chose the job in peacework. One month later, funding for the position disappeared and the job never began. I had already turned down a call to pastor a church and Barbara didn’t want to move to Edinburgh, Scotland where I could begin a Ph.D. I wasn’t sure that was God’s calling either, so proposed asking for delayed admission, then seeing where we both sensed God’s guidance. The end of the next year, all the directionals we could see pointed to Edinburgh. I had no idea where the journey would lead, but felt a passion to answer a burning question: Could there be a different way to seek justice and peace than through opposition and confrontation? I would explore this through a program of study combining conflict resolution and spirituality.
I went with high hopes of a new start. But halfway through my 5 years, it didn’t feel like the right fit. Too many details required in Ph.D. research, the loneliness of studying something no one else was doing, and most disturbing – watching those old behavior patterns return in even more unruly fashion. It was a rough ride, “working out my salvation with fear and trembling.” By the time I started my new career, I had spent 6 years journeying through a wilderness, finally arriving at a new “promised life and calling.” The same old me was and is still there. Yet God had somehow opened a course for my life that I could never have predicted or foreseen. God had kicked me out, not only of a pastorate, but out of my comfort zone and beyond. God knew it was the only way I could begin to follow a call for a wounded healer to go places that seemed destined to fail. Yet I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of seeing the power of God touch traumatized hearts, transform hopeless peoples, and occasionally end strife and rebuild communities around the world. Thanks be to God who, despite our weaknesses, still offers us the chance to be co-creators of God’s good purposes.