Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ten Years of a Calling

(On May 1, 2004, I drove off across the state of Kansas to compete in the state high school speech championships and then drove back that evening to attend my senior prom.  Upon returning home from prom late that night, I had scarcely slept for more than a couple of hours when my family got the 3 am telephone call that no family wants to get.  What followed was the most spiritually trying day of my life.  It was also when I finally stopped running and accepted the possibility that I might in fact be called to ordained Christian ministry.  What follows is an excerpt from my journaling in 2009 about that weekend, modified to reflect and include what I have presently come to realize about my first-ever God experience.

In memory of Eric Vargas, friend and playground basketball rival.  I haven't forgotten you.  -E.A.)

I have never really considered myself a "born again" Christian--I was raised and baptized in the faith, and that faith is a pilgrimage, a journey that I am always walking at varying speeds. But on this weekend, my faith didn't just walk--it sprinted.

It was my final youth-led worship at church before I would leave for Lewis & Clark College in the fall. I was preaching alongside another member of our youth group. At this point, I'll let what I wrote ten years ago take over. This is an excerpt of what I wrote about that day:

Left prom early since I had to preach the next day. Sunday: Woke up at 4:30 in the morning to the phone ringing. Was the father of one of my friends, Eric Vargas (his dad and my parents go back many years...why Eric and I have the same first name is simply coincidence). Anyways, Eric and some of his friends were out late and they got in a massive car wreck. One of them walked away relatively unscathed. Two others were paralyzed below the waist.

Eric was killed almost instantly.

I still had to preach at church, which I tried to do to the best of my abilities under the circumstances. I know Eric wouldn't have wanted me to step down from preaching, even though given what had happened, I know everyone would've understood if I had. But my sermon was about keeping faith even throughout the most difficult of trials...something I've always struggled with. At the very least, I feel like I owed it to Eric to deliver that message to as many people as I could.

I genuinely cannot remember much about those two worship services that morning. I remember small, almost thrown-off things. I remember the story I used to introduce my sermon, about a little boy named Reese who I worked with as a camp counselor in 2002 who died in a swimming accident while traveling with his adopted family. I remember that I quoted Emerson in my sermon. I remember my fellow preacher that day, Kelly, coming up to me in between the worship services to give me a hug.

But I also remember at the start of my second sermon, for the later worship service, that my lapel mic wasn't working properly--or working at all. At this point, I was still running on fumes energy-wise, and my psyche was utterly shot. And I wasn't believing the words I was preaching--I was at a loss as to why an amazing God lets tragedies occur. So, my voice was already ringing hollow to me on several levels. I looked across the sanctuary as I was preaching to see a couple of folks checking the sound equipment and then looking back at me and shaking their heads--the mic, for whatever reason, just wasn't going to work this time.

And this is the last thing I remember about that sermon--I looked up, and I saw the sunlight streaming in from the skylights of the sanctuary. And whether it was because I needed something--anything--to cling to and the sunlight just offered itself up at the right moment, or because I needed to know that there was something waiting for me outside the walls of the church and the bounds of my sermon, I was, at least for a moment, not only put at ease, but revitalized.  The sunlight hit my body, my temperature erupted, and my voice returned.  And I was able once more to continue preaching God's word.

Over time, this episode has reminded me more and more of the Pentecost story as conveyed by Luke in Acts 2--in which the sunlight, like the fire of the Holy Spirit, descended, and though each disciple spoke in their own native tongue, everyone understood each other.  I have no idea what I spoke.  But it felt understood.

I have two distinct memories of conversations with father figures in my life in the immediate aftermath of that weekend.  One conversation was with Eric's father, on the eve of my high school graduation, telling me that I needed to graduate and keep going in life because his Eric never would.  Ever since then, I understood the reality that I am not--or have ever been--living solely for myself.

The other conversation was with my own father.  Now, at this point in time, I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life.  He sat me down and told me that having seen my faith and how I talked about God and how much I loved the church, that I needed to at least consider a religious career, otherwise something had gone horribly awry.

And so my God experience was interpreted and affirmed as a calling.  I went off to college, declared a religious studies major almost immediately, and haven't looked back since.  I wanted to go into ministry so badly that I forgot how to want many other things.

I am a different person now in a lot of ways than who I was then. I think that is to be expected of almost anyone, especially in people as young as me. But who I was in high school was someone so filled with so much bitterness and anger over religion--my religion in particular. I spent so much of my time and energy being angry...I despised the homophobia, prejudices, and hurtfulness that I saw from people I knew at school (in truth, a lot of it was probably immaturity, but it was painful to experience nonetheless), but I also despised myself because I did not know how speak like them on behalf of what my faith told me to be true. I refused to bear witness to the revelation of an affirming God.

I thought it was not my place.

I thought it never would be my place.

Until then.

I have to think that it was me directly experiencing the presence of God Almighty.  And it started a process that continued as I moved to Portland, and from Portland to Berkeley, and now from Berkeley back to the Pacific Northwest in Longview. My pent-up bitterness over a religion I loved was like a poison--it had to be extracted slowly and delicately, which I think Portland helped accomplish (and it is partly why I love that city as much as I do). But on that weekend ten years ago, God came down to sustain me. In doing so, God taught me how to live by means far healthier than bitterness and anger.

And that made me into the pastor I am today.  Forged in the crucible of death and loss, that calling catalyzed me into someone who I now love much more than who I was at pretty much any point during my teenage and younger adult years.

For that, God has my devotion.  God will always have my devotion.

And so I live for God.  As the Jesuits say, ad maiorem dei gloriam.  Always for the greater glory of God.

Yours in Christ,

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