The last few months have been some of the most tumultuous in my life thus far. I have processed them but never really written much about what went on and how I dealt with it until now. But now, before my memories fade and the order of events is washed away, I want to preserve these things both for my own growth and hopefully for the help of others someday.
Toward the beginning of the summer, back in May, I had a pretty serious set of doubts about where I was headed in vocational ministry. Up to that point I was seriously considering being a pastor in the United Methodist Church, and had done a lot of praying, consideration, and plan making toward that end. I was attending a UMC church plant called Servant Church, which I had grow to love dearly. However, during that time I felt an undercurrent of unease about being in the Methodist system for clergy and about some aspects of Methodist/Arminian theology. I had left behind my bend toward Calvinism (or so I thought), but it’s doubts about the beliefs of Arminians lingered in my mind. These questions ranged from issues like “Should only clergy be allowed to bless the communion elements?” to more complex issues of “Should we baptize infants?” or “Should we ordain women as pastors?”. And while I understood the Methodist position and why the church believed what it did, I could never really accept those answers in a way that I was at peace with. The final breaking point for me trying to make being a UMC pastor was when trying to make a compromise on the issue of infant baptism (if you want to more about this, ask me sometime, but the minutiae are not important for this story). I realized, if I faced such an uphill battle on this, why bother with the more difficult or emotionally charged issues? So I ran back to the open, yet cold embrace of Calvinism. I say cold because it felt stable and reasonable to me, just not a very comforting theology to land on, and most of the experiences I’d had with Calvinism were rather exclusionary towards those with whom they disagree. I let my mentor for candidacy in the UMC know that I wouldn’t be continuing the process, and started pondering what expression this longing to be a Pastor would now take.
One facet of this new found embrace of Calvinism that I didn’t want to deal with right away was what impact it would have on my relationship with Servant Church. I loved the people in the community and continued to be present there until the end of May. However, this issue I was so content to let slide was thrown into my face one Sunday morning. I awoke and began to prepare to leave for Servant Church, but as I got closer to walking out the door, this deep, almost physical unease set in and began to intensify. I started asking the Lord, “What is this feeling about?”, and soon I felt that I really needed to take seriously the issue of what am I doing at a church whose theology I don’t agree with and find contrary to my reading of scripture. I tried to brush off the feeling and told God, “OK, I understand, we’ll deal with this as soon as I get home from Servant Church”, but as I started my drive toward the church, this unease intensified into a general panic, telling me to turn around toward Austin Stone. Soon enough, I turned the car around and as I drove toward Austin Stone, the feeling subsided.
As it happened, the sermon topic at Austin Stone that week was about church membership and what it meant to belong to a church. This topic encouraged the thoughts already spinning through my mind into overdrive. Suddenly, I felt that in order to follow my convictions, I was ready to throw the Servant Church community that had done nothing but love and support me, out the window. If you’ve known me long, you will come to find that I will take an idea out to its logical extreme and then run in the opposite direction when I find major issues with it, not because I’m indecisive, but because i want to always live in a way I find consistent with my beliefs. That May, after feeling disillusioned with candidacy in the UMC, I gave up on Servant Church, and would not return for two months. In the meantime, I returned to Austin Stone, where I didn’t have many strong relationships or community, but I consoled myself, saying to myself “At least they have a theology I can agree with”, which in hindsight, was a pretty cold way to go about living.
While I tried to figure out what it meant for me to run back to Calvinism, I had other pressing issues going on as well. The first of these was leading a Wesley Foundation mission trip to Lviv, Ukraine for two weeks (something you can read about in a number of my previous posts starting with this one). After returning from Ukraine, I had a few weeks to regroup and transition out of the college lifestyle I had enjoyed for the past five years (despite actually being in college for 3.5 of those years), get ready for a new 9-5 job adventure with Volusion, and process the major change in friend groups I was experiencing. I enjoyed those weeks, spending a good amount of time with my family and catching up with friends.
But then in the midst of these transitions, a tragedy hit me on an otherwise uneventful Tuesday. I was driving from work home for the evening when I got a call from a friend who was on the Ukraine trip team, asking me if I’d heard what had happened in Lviv. I said that I hadn’t and she preceded to tell me about a horrific construction accident where the ceiling had partially collapsed in the old student center in Lviv, where we had been working three weeks prior, however she did not know exactly who was killed or hurt. My initial reaction was disbelief, I had the feeling similar to that of jumping into an ice cold river, breathing sharply, all the while thoughts reeling in my mind while it rebooted into basic fight or flight mode. The call was dropped, so I called another person on the trip. I remember driving on Spicewood springs over MoPac, when she told me that two people had died, including my friend Illiya, who myself and the other guys in our group had stayed with in Lviv this summer. My sharp breathing was nothing compared to the panic that went through my heart at that moment. It’s a miracle that I made it through that drive to where I was headed. I called my mom and was coherent long enough to tell her that there was an accident in Lviv before I collapsed into uncontrollable tears & emotion. After I regained my composure or at least enough to not look like a train wreck outwardly, a memory flashed through my mind. I remember just a few weeks ago, sitting at Illiya’s kitchen table, after he had just finished his last exam to get his degree in Religious Studies, talking about what he would do with his life. The optimism and hope of that moment was suddenly eclipsed by the bitterness of this moment learning of his death. The next day, as many of us from the trip as could be there gathered to talk and pray for the two men who died in the accident, our friend Illiya and David, who was there on a short term mission trip from Sugar Land, near Houston, and for the Missionary Pastor, also named David, who was injured in the accident. David is recovering in the US and walking now, but initially he fractured his pelvis in multiple places, broke his arm and leg, and had nerve damage in his arms from the ceiling collapse. There wasn’t much to say that night, we already heard all the news there was to hear, so we mostly cried, shared stories, and prayed. We had no power in that moment, just hope that this wasn’t the end for Illiya, for David, for the ministry, and that one day God would set this right.
I told my training leader at work what had happened the following day, but otherwise kept the two worlds of work and my personal life very separate. Compartmentalization has been a very dear friend to me this summer. And when the worlds collide, I find myself quite ill at ease about it. Not exactly an unexpected result, but this summer I learned how much I rely on a strict separation of the spheres, because I like most people, value control of my circumstances which is illusory at best. A few weeks after the accident, a coworker asked me about it since he knew that I’d been in Ukraine and had heard from a friend of a friend about it. I admitted that I knew about it and that it was people I knew who’d died or were injured in the accident. He gave me his condolences and I walked back to my desk. I started to work again, but this neat separation between work and the rest of my life was shattered. It shouldn’t have bothered me like it did, but I found myself in a minor panic for the next half hour or so, till I got in touch with a close friend who reminded me that things would be OK.
Apart from the accident, the undercurrents of what church I would partner with began to come back up after the trip to Ukraine. For a few weeks after the trip, I had nothing to do with Servant Church and was resolved that a) I didn’t agree with them and b) therefore could not partner with them in worship or mission, since in the longer term they would not support me working with groups I desired to work with (like Acts 29, etc.). So I kept my distance, ignoring the polite calls of friends and leaders at Servant Church, firm in my resolve. I met with Eric, the pastor there, a few times but kept making clear to him that I did not want to be a part of their church, though I did appreciated his friendship and care toward me. I was prepared to cut ties with the church I had so carefully cultivated over the previous four months, until something happened which made me see the error of my ways and return. I’ll explain in more detail in Part 2 soon, but until then thanks for reading and following my story. I’d love to hear any feedback you have about all this, so please leave a comment below if you feel so inclined.