After returning from my sabbatical in Estonia in the summer of 2015, where I wrote most of the book found on this blog, I spent several months unemployed. I cast my net as wide as an aging parent who needs me within driving distance would allow. The only assumption I had was that I likely would have to leave Waco to find a job. The market here isn’t too great for a single guy in his early 40’s with an M.Div., who isn’t fond of sanding the rough edges off the stories he tells. Luckily, however, in December of that year I was hired by the Texas Hunger Initiative at Baylor to help expand access to child nutrition programs in the Heart of Texas region.
It was a steep learning curve. Both the non-profit and child nutrition worlds speak a language I had never been exposed to. I had to figure out what “buckets” and “lanes” and “bandwidth” referred to, as well as a handful of acronyms and Excel shortcuts. I felt stupid most of the time. I ran into Jeff, a friend from UBC, on campus on my way to a meeting and he joked, “Have they figured it out yet?” He said that every time he begins a new job he always wonders how long it will be before those around him figure out that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’m not sure my coworkers have figured it out about me just yet, but I’m sure they will eventually.
Also in late 2015 I joined a new church, Lake Shore Baptist. There was a lot of speculation among my friends as to where I would end up worshipping when I returned from sabbatical. I didn’t even know, though I assumed it would be among Waco’s three or four moderate-to-progressive Baptist congregations. I was actually looking forward to an extended period of “church shopping,” something I was averse to for most of my life. And I did “shop” a little, but only for a few weeks. I even skipped church on a couple of Sundays, an experience I needed to have for the first time in my life.
But something felt right about being at Lake Shore. I had numerous acquaintances at the church, nurtured primarily during my nine years working at Barnes and Noble, and a seminary classmate of mine had just been named their new pastor. Theologically and politically progressive, the church had occupied a place for decades that I had only recently moved toward, spurred along by the candidacy of Donald Trump and the eventual embrace of him by the Evangelical Right. So I “walked the aisle” and joined the church, something I hadn’t done in over 16 years. I began attending a Sunday School class for “Young Adults,” which at Lake Shore consisted of a range of ages from seminary students to, well, me. Most surprising to me, I agreed to co-lead a youth small group on Wednesday nights, discussing difficult issues about faith and God.
In our first meeting together, several minutes into the conversation, the most animated, engaged student in the group announced to me what the other kids already knew. “Oh, you probably should know this about me, I’m actually an atheist.” I was taken aback in the moment, though not at her comment. What was truly intriguing was how little her announcement seemed to phase the other teenagers in the room. It was as if she had just shared that green was her favorite color. “Ok,” their indifference suggested, “can we stop wasting time with these trivialities and move forward with the conversation?” So I moved on.
A few months ago we baptized that youth upon her decision to embrace the mystery of God revealed in the person of Jesus. This is what Lake Shore does, they make room for both doubt and belief, nurturing those who are moving in and out of both.
In may of 2016 I wrote a blog describing my evolving belief that all people, including LGBTQ lives, are welcomed an affirmed into the body of Christ. I suppose this was inevitable, since the company you keep is as much an indicator of the beliefs you hold as any learned dogma passed down through the generations. In the spring Lake Shore began a series of “compassionate conversations” about the “issue,” and at the end of the year voted, essentially, to become an open and affirming church. Sadly, I lost at least one friend because of this, and probably the respect of several more.
Also in the spring, it was announced that THI would have a restructuring of our financial stream, which I have learned is the acceptable non-profit speak for “losing funding,” and that several positions were in jeopardy, with personnel decisions being made in the summer. Because I had been through a similar situation the year before, and had experience surviving unemployment, the news didn’t come with as much anxiety for me as it did for others. I assumed this would mean the further acceleration of what I was feeling at the end of 2015: That my time in Waco was coming to a close.
So I began to think about the future, exploring options. At about the same time I decided to post this book in blog form rather than through traditional publishing channels. It was a cathartic process, reading through and editing the stories I had written the previous year. It was also, for the most part, well received by the people I care about the most. This limited audience was confirmation of what some in the publishing industry told me, that memoirs of this type are typically only read by people who know the author. By the end, I was ok with this. The experience was healing for me, and I felt that by the last post I was finally able to place a period at the end of a long, life-filled sentence. Things that bothered me about the past no longer bothered me, because it was out there. People I had cared about before, I was able to care about more. I had lived a chapter of my life, and I wrote it down and shared it. It’s something everyone should do at least once.
In the middle of posting chapters of the book on the blog, I was standing in line at a Wednesday night dinner at Lake Shore when a little old lady in front of me turned around and said, “I saw some stuff you have written. I’m enjoying reading it, but I guess we’d better watch our p’s and q’s around you, huh?” I pulled a pen out of my pocket and pretended to write down on my hand and asked, “What is your name again?” We had a good hearty laugh at that, but as I reflected on the moment I realized the complicated nature of telling stories, that there is an assumption of privacy most of us carry into our relationships with people. I understood in that moment why some people were anxious when I announced at the end of my time at UBC that I may write a book about my time there. I don’t regret telling my story, but I resolved in the future to do so with more fear and trembling.
Before finding out the fate of my job, I started looking around for hospital chaplaincy residencies to apply for. It’s something I have been nudged toward by friends for years, and I’ve flirted with it periodically. It was nearing the end of the selection process for most programs, meaning there were few slots available. I talked with people in Little Rock, Pensacola and Tyler, being invited to an interview at the latter two. I assumed, presumptuously, that I was a shoe in for the Tyler job, as they had contacted me after a slot had opened up, having had my application from the year before. Despite giving what I thought was a good interview, it wasn’t to be. Thankfully, I was told a few days before that my position with THI was being retained. I cancelled the Pensacola interview and during the weekend before July 4th decided, once again, to put all my chips into Waco.
Immediately upon deciding to stay I realized something. For 16 years my entire identity in Waco was associated with UBC. Even after getting hired at Baylor, I felt I was on my way out of town, and Lake Shore was my off-ramp, helping me to slow down, gather my bearings, and figure out what was next. But as I went through the red light and eased back into the Waco on-ramp, I started to ponder what the next chapter of life in this city looked like without me being at UBC, and I couldn’t picture it. Every vision I had of living in this town included the congregation I had spent so much time in. So went on a journey, discerning whether or not returning to 17th and Dutton was feasible.
I did what I always do when a big decision is before me. I thought about it. Then I prayed and consulted the experts of my life, then thought about it some more, then over-thought about it. I asked some people there what they thought, and I received not just permission, but enthusiasm. And it just made sense.
I gave it a test run on October 30th, the 11 year anniversary of Kyle’s death. I received warm greetings, but laid pretty low. I sat with my friends Britt and Holly, who acted as my security blanket. It felt right, so on the first Sunday of Advent, 2016, I walked through the doors to begin what I assume will be Chapter 2.
I get there late and sit in the back, and leave as soon as the final benediction is said. I talk to a few people here and there, and look forward to slowly becoming part of the community again, but for now, I am content. UBC has always been a good place to hide. I used to lament this fact, but now I embrace it as something I need. I decided that if this is going to work, I will need to follow Jesus’ commands in Matthew 6 to consider the birds of the air, who don’t reap or store their treasures in barns, but are still taken care of, and the flowers of the field, who are clothed without regard to their lack of spinning and laboring. My lose translation of this mindset is “The Spiritual Discipline of Not Giving a Shit.” Over the course my life in church, it has proven to be the most difficult spiritual discipline of them all, but so far I am off to a pretty good start.