New Year, New Me
New Year, New Me
We are approaching the time of year when we acknowledge the completion of another Earth circuit around the Sun (Terra around Sol). Once again, we can thank the Romans for this arbitrary date. But things must begin at some point, and why not January 1. Janus, the Roman God, beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings are usually acknowledged at the same sake of the month. However, it may have belonged to Juno, wife of Jupiter (Hera to Zeus in Greek mythology).
We are encouraged (coerced?) to reflect on the past year and begin afresh with new and healthier habits during this time. Of course, we can do these things at any point in the year. We can even do them several times during the year, even daily. A practice of stopping to examine and review one's life and choices. The idea of de-cluttering one's personal life as much as cleaning out one's home. It is time to think about what we are doing and bring us the results that we want. Intent and motivation are essential, but at the end of the day, the outcome is the goal of anything we do and any decision we make.
I have written earlier about some rather dramatic (in my opinion) changes that have occurred in my life. Things that changed my mind changed the kinds of outcomes and results that I wanted to happen. I base many of my decisions (and those of others) on achieving the desired results. Most actions come out of a sense of doing what is necessary, right, or expected. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. I am a firm believer in the law of unintended consequences. Things that happen as a result of choices seem to be opposed to what was supposed to happen. Looking back, it may even seem that the original intention was wrong or bad. But ultimately, regardless of the outcome, one's present reality is based on those consequences intended or not.
I am the child of my parents—two strong personalities. From my father, I have strong emotions and deep sentimental feelings. My mother has given me unwavering determination and perseverance. These characteristics, coupled with my extroverted personality, passionately drive me to achieve the things I want. It also means that frequently, I am unwilling to re-evaluate my goals even when they do not bring the results that I want. Not that anyone would call me stubborn and hard-headed. Just get out of my way and let me bang my head against the wall. One of my professors in seminary told me that I was the kind of person who, after they walk into a room, immediately find the wall and begin to push against it. I have NO idea what he meant, lol.
My sense of wanting to create a safe space of love and safety for myself meant that I often did things not to make myself happy but to find acceptance and affirmation. Of course, what this did is to create a self-imposed prison. My journey into ordained ministry was directly connected to this need in myself and to try to make it for others. This"call" to share the love of God that I had experienced personally with others. A noble and righteous cause, if I say so myself.
But Western Christianity isn't based on sharing God's love. Well, it's supposed to be, but we start not at a sense of acceptance and love but with separation and brokenness. My professional pastoral ministry experience wasn't about helping people understand their significance in the universe based on a loving relationship God revealed in the person of Jesus. It was more about making sure that the money kept coming in, to increasing attendance and membership so that more money would go in. To keep the congregation happy, and if not satisfied, at least comfortable, so that the money would keep coming in. (My Grammarly note is going to tell me that the last few sentences are monotonous and redundant. But I don't care.) Your gifts and graces, while acknowledged, weren't pertinent to one's appointment. There was a caste (class) system, appointing those among the privileged class to churches with which they were sure to be successful. The institutional church rarely deals with Congregational dysfunction and clergy malfeasance, except if there was a public or legal issue raised that would affect the congregation's ability to keep the money coming. Most clergy people were simply commodities to be used to fill in slots. A clergy person's desires, vision, personal and family needs were considered superfluous.
So, getting back to my point, I have always wanted to base any ministry on the Johannine teaching about love. God's love of the world, God's love for humanity revealed in Jesus, and humanity's love for God revealed in love of one another. My sense of spirituality shaped by my lifelong membership in the Methodist/United Methodist church set the tone of a Wesleyan sensibility of a grace-centered theology. From the hymns of Charles Wesley and the pragmatic and practical disciplines and focus of John Wesley, my understanding of who God was and how God worked has always been consistent. My elective New Testament classes in seminary connect to this Johannine/Wesleyan grace-centered transformative love lived out in real ways.
After I left the professional ministry, I wandered spiritually and returned to the very UM congregation that sent me to seminary. From there, I was able to find my spirituality in the sense that I knew what I believed and began to allow the Spirit to work in my life again. The problem with that is when you give the Spirit (or Universe) permission to work in your life, and changes begin to happen. Those unintended consequences pop up and move to the focus and direction of your life. As painful as that part of my life was, I don't believe that I would be at the same place now if I hadn't left the professional ministry. It just takes a while to gain perspective on one's journey. It is impossible to know where other choices in life would have taken you. Make the best of whatever and wherever you are now, and move forward from there.
I have been thinking about the shifts in perspectives in my life, especially in the last year. Not by coincidence, many events, people, and opportunities have arisen that have led to many changes. In March, I passed the Praxis test for my math teaching certificate in Tennessee. I successfully passed my Praxis test for teaching math in Tennessee. I became part of a group called Gay Men Thriving run by two life coaches and met many men across the country and even the world. The first event lessened the stress in my personal life, and the second kept this extrovert from going crazy in isolation. These two events also inspired me to do some shadow work on my own and take care of my emotional and mental health. Then in July, two other significant events occurred almost simultaneously. I applied, interviewed, and was hired for a new teaching position in a school only three miles from where I live. I also saw a program offered at the Pacific School of Religion at Berkeley, California. I read the notification that popped up on my Facebook feed; their Certificate in Sexuality and Religion seemed to be the kind of program I wanted to find. First, it got me back in school. Secondly, it seemed to fit the parameters that I wanted to move into advocacy, inclusion, and justice issues for the LGBTQIA+ (Queer—Alphabet Mafia, take your choice) community.
I started both in August. Not having to get up at 4:30 a.m. and drive in Nashville traffic before and back again in the afternoon was a wonderful thing. When I left Murfreesboro in 1984, there was relatively little to no traffic, and I could make the drive in 20-30 minutes. This drive time is not possible anymore. The program at PSR opened a whole new vista of theological education for me. I know it has been thirty years since I attended seminary at Candler, but even so, quite a dramatic shift in world view. Not only that, I met a cohort of students with whom I immediately resonated. Every class, every reading, every conversation opened me up and transformed not only my thinking but expanded my spirituality. I was able to recognize how destructive and harmful the institutional church had been in my life. Just as one does when one confronts the abuse in a dysfunctional family, so the scales fell from my eyes about the church that I thought I loved. I realized that I had comingled my emotions for my grandmother
and her church.
This understanding was very freeing for me. That combined with the awakening understanding that my spiritual experience in the institutional church was not due to my profession, but because I could be myself fully. Whenever I preached, prayed, or celebrated the sacraments, I never had to put on the straight cis-gendered male face required by the United Methodist Book of Discipline. I could open myself up to the Spirit, let the energy flow into me, and share it with those around me. In doing so, that same energy reflected back from those same people and enhanced my own spiritual experience and connection. At the time, I never thought about that, but what understanding that did was to awaken me because I could have that same experience and connection without being a professional clergy person. Liberation happened to me again. All this emotional freedom was like kerosene on a fire.
I don't even know if I could have imagined where I would be at this point on December 31, 2019. Indeed, these things were desires but not something that I really thought could happen. They did. At this point, my entire focus and intention focus on new goals and dreams. I am intentionally journaling my gratitude, affirmations, and even visualization for the future regularly. This practice reminds me of what is essential in my present life and focuses on that as I work on making changes and attracting the things that I want for myself. I feel that those working things will continue to guide my path in the future.
In the third chapter of John's Gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to ask questions. Nicodemus is a member of the Sanhedrin and a respected religious figure in Jerusalem at that time. He comes to seek answers about finding this new way of thinking about God and spirituality. Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus' authority because of the miracles performed. Jesus responds by saying that no one can see God's presence in the world/universe unless they are "born anew." Of course, then there is the whole dialogue about how an adult reenters their mother's womb. This question is missing the entire point type of question. Jesus explains that this rebirth is not physical but spiritual. That God continues the work of transformation, and while one cannot put one's hands on it, the evidence of the Spirit work is like the effect of wind on the environment.
I don't think that Nicodemus' lack of understanding was about not understanding the words because Jesus confronts him about being theologically trained and still not understanding what the Scriptures were trying to teach. Then we get into the whole famous passage of the in-breaking of God's love for the entire world through the incarnation of God's presence experienced in the person of Jesus. The purpose of this is to reinforce the truth that God's presence is bringing truth and life to all of creation. Judgment comes not from God or God's presence in the person, but from the lack of understanding and resistance to the truth of God's message, now being proclaimed by Jesus.
This resistance leads to actions that cause people to destroy life around them and separate themselves from God's creation and life, including other people. This isolation of Spirit and body will eventually lead not only to physical death but to spiritual death. The good news is, much like the wizard Miracle Max says in The Princess Bride, "he is mostly dead, if he were all dead there's only one thing you can do...go through his pockets and look for loose change." This spiritual state is more like being in a coma than in a grave because if there is life, there is hope.
As I have entered the Elder stage of life, I have resonated with the senior adults in the Bible and Literature; Moses at Sinai, Rip Van Winkle returning home after 20 years, and Nicodemus. Even at this stage of life, I have found myself asking the same remedial questions of the universe despite having a theological background. The answer came not in words or signs but a profound sense of renewal and rebirth. I am not who I was before. Thirty years ago, I thought, and the Florida Annual Conference affirmed I was prepared and qualified for professional pastoral ministry. Life and the universe have taught me that the technical training was necessary, but there is more to spirituality than a seminary degree and a piece of paper saying you are an Elder. If anything, I am now only genuinely becoming aware of what I need to understand and embrace to witness what this manifestation of love revealed in Jesus.
Now, I am learning anew and continually transforming as I strive to become self-aware and enlightened. Like at the end of John's Gospel tells Peter, in old age, younger people will lead you. I intend to continually be moving forward and becoming more completely the person I am here on Earth. New year, new me is a cliché, and yet it is my experience at this junction of my life. I might not move as quickly, but I am determined and committed to this task of letting everyone know that they are created with value and worth and deserve happiness and love, and no one has the right to tell anyone otherwise.