It’s a long story so here we go:
I’ve always hated the story of Jonah because I feel like Jonah was super spoiled. I wish God spoke as plainly to me as God spoke to Jonah, sure Jonah was given a super difficult/scary task of going to a foreign land that was hostile but if God is like whispering in your ear full on sentences I’m pretty sure God isn’t just going to abandon you. Jonah was like a regular old dude when God told him to go east, so Jonah went west. I never really related to the story because I like going new places and harassing kings on thrones, and I keep asking God to be more direct with me. When God told me to go forward on December 31st, 1995 at Calvary Chapel Pacific Coast I knew it and I did it. When I heard the call to ministry in the summer of 2006 at Youth For the Nations, I answered the call via the UMC. When the door opened to move to Chicago and serve with Urban Village Church I went. But in the spring of 2017, I made a decision to stay in Chicago, without listening to what God saying for a variety of reasons.
First, I love Chicago. Chicago is my favorite big city in the world. I love the El, getting to complain about how cold it is because it actually is cold, I love summer in the city, movies in the park, the cookouts you get invited to simply by walking past a family and smiling, I love the generosity of the people of Chicago, I love the creative energy, the proactive nature of citizens when it comes to political engagement, I love the MCA and the Art Institute, the museums that can be found everywhere, I love the FOOD (Jb Alberto’s is the best local pizza place, and Lou’s has the best deep dish, obviously Harold’s Chicken has the best chicken in the city). I visited Chicago for the first time in 2015 and said I would live there, and I moved there in 2016. I knew it was the right place at that time because it caused me to grow so much, I met so many incredible people and I got to serve the most incredible congregation.
I LOVE Urban Village Church (an LGBT affirming, anti-racist congregation. Four sites, one church) I loved getting to serve God’s children in this church. I enjoyed getting to see the look in people’s eyes when they really grasped it for the first time that they were loved by God. I loved getting to teach and preach and preside and simply be with some of the most amazing people. That isn’t to say I wasn’t challenged or that I didn’t have venting sessions, but my experience at UVC was a resounding affirmation of the call I first heard in 2006. So I transferred into the Northern Illinois Conference. I felt this is where I could grow and flourish as a pastor and a person.
Second, I was so hurt in Texas I didn’t want to come back. Don’t get me wrong I love Texas. Austin is my favorite large small town. It thinks it is a big city because it has skyscrapers and some Fortune 500 businesses in it, but it’s just a very large small town. It still enforces antiquated liquor laws, the “city” shuts down on Sunday because of Jesus, and everyone knows everyone (or pretends to). I can’t go to any HEB in city limits without seeing someone I know (HEB is the greatest grocery store chain in the known world. If you visit Texas you need to visit at least one HEB to truly grasp why people love living in Texas.) Texas is filled with some ummm…colorful characters, but if I was going to experience a tragedy this is the state I would want to be in. The people here love helping others; you can see strangers pulling over to help other strangers out with car trouble. People in Texas love to help others and they often do it without taking credit. Texas is so beautiful and filled with gorgeous natural wonders that demonstrate just how majestic God’s sense of creativity is from Barton Springs, to the Hill Country, to the wood of East Texas, to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, to the rivers and streams and lakes that can be found like every 10 miles. I’ve never seen sunsets more beautiful than the ones I’ve seen in Texas – the way the sky turns a shade of purplish red as the sun slowly sets bringing cool relief from the heat of a Texas summer, if you pull over and just look for a few minutes these sunsets can take your breath away. Also, the food: Tex-Mex is a gift from God that can’t be sufficiently replicated by non-Texas folks; no one fries food quite like a Texan; BBQ (the actual meat, Texas BBQ sauce is nasty – fight me); the state meal is chili (without beans) and cornbread which only makes sense to people who know how to make both the right way; after having eaten at Round Rock Doughnuts I felt personally attacked to see how Dunkin Doughnuts is so popular in Chicago (y’all pray for them).
But my feelings were so hurt by the people in the Rio Texas Annual Conference, I considered leaving the church not just the UMC. And while Northern Illinois didn’t roll out the red carpet for me, they certainly didn’t call me out of my name or spread lies about me in any ordination interviews I had with them so I wanted to stay where I wasn’t being demonized or lied about. I’m an enneagram four; we’re emotional folks and make important decisions with our emotions, which at times can be great and other times, can end poorly.
Third, I was afraid of coming back. As scared as Jonah was afraid of foreign enemies, there’s nothing worse than enemies who used to be friends. And if I’m being honest, I didn’t want to be another person who couldn’t make it in the big city.
I stayed in Chicago far longer than I should have. There were doors that kept closing in my face. I should have known that God was telling me to leave when Chipotle shut me down, or the 8 rejections from Starbucks, or the nonprofits that said I was all but hired but that kept me on hold until they hired someone else. My time in Chicago at UVC was so great I wanted to stay and recreate the magic somewhere else, but it wasn’t magic I was searching for but the feeling of walking in my calling. And now I can admit to myself that I wasn’t called to stay but to take what I’ve learned and bring it back to Texas.
I feel kinda beat up – God could have just sent me an email or had me swallowed by a big fish instead of by credit card debt – but alas She wanted me to do something much more difficult, be still and listen to Her rather than just my emotions. There is a lesson to be learned, there’s no shame in coming back home after going a yearlong adventure. I’m broke but not broken, I’m down but not defeated, I’m hurt but healing and I think I’m ready for what’s next. I’m not sure what “next’ looks like but I’m willing to go where God sends me, even if that place doesn’t have decent public transportation. I feel like Jonah, covered in slime and embarrassed, but I feel that the Spirit is still leading me to greener pastures and stiller waters than I imagined. I can’t see the end but I trust that God hasn’t abandoned me, I don’t know where to go from here but I know how to find out, by being a little slower to speak and more eager to listen.
I share all of this with y’all for three reasons: 1. I don’t want you to repeat my mistakes, 2. I want to keep y’all in the loop, 3. I believe that the best ministry is the kind of ministry that comes from a place of vulnerability and so I want to be just as loud about my mistakes and missteps as I am about my successes. Too often pastors present their best sides as their only sides creating unrealistic expectations for themselves and giving their congregations another standard that is unattainable. I’m a failure, but I’m still moving on to perfection by the grace of God, by admitting my failures I hope I give someone else reading this the ability to admit they’ve failed too. And maybe if enough of us admit that we don’t have all of our shit together, we’ll finally be able to love each other and ourselves in a way that is more reflective of the love demonstrated for us by Jesus Christ.
P.S. I still give the most fun tours of the Capitol of Texas (references available upon request)