Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fires, Valleys and Ministry

Well, I have survived my first year of working in ministry.  I wish I could tell you it was all hearts and rainbows, but no.  It has been tough.  Some of the challenges I expected, but there were others I did not expect.  And the toll the challenges have taken on my own spirituality have been greater than I was prepared to face.  But I got through it, and I learned a lot about myself, God and His infinite mercy.

Working in ministry is like fighting on the front lines.  People are not afraid to tell you exactly what they think- whether that be about the Catholic Church in general, or your own style of teaching, prayer or presentation.  People are not afraid to tell you how you should be spending your time or what you should be doing to nourish your own relationship with God.  It is like I have a bull’s-eye for all comments, criticisms, and suggestions on my forehead.  And although I welcome such interaction, it can be exhausting to say the least.  I miss that I can no longer just blend in the background.  Nope, I always have to be on the front line with a smile on my face.  Although I expected the front line was hard, I didn’t expect the toll it would take on me.  Had I not been surrounded by people who could help me filter out the good from the bad, who could help me figure out the useful criticism from the not so useful, I fear I would not have made it this far. 

Being on the front line has ushered me into a whole new level of humility.  You see, I am a performer.  I am a trained classical musician.  As a musician, I live in a world where I perform and then people tell me how great it is and then my teachers would tell me what I could do better.  I carried these expectations into my career as a Band Director where the world was very similar.  And, when I started in youth ministry, which is a lot like teaching, I subconsciously carried these expectations into the world of ministry.  These expectations do not work in this world.  Ministry is not about the instant gratification the stage naturally gives.  It’s more like gardening.  Instead of performing on a stage, I am the instrument by which the Holy Spirit plants seeds, waters the seeds, fertilizes the seeds, and makes sure they get enough sun.  And unlike the stage, I do not have complete control over the garden.  I don’t know what happens to the seeds from week to week.  I only know what I do with them on Wednesday night and I rarely see the seeds grow and bear fruit.  Both the losses of control and instant gratification made me very uneasy and I had a hard time figuring out why I was struggling.  But then one day I realized the true issue.  When I am on the stage, it is all about me.  When I am in the garden, it isn’t about me at all- it’s about Christ and the seeds. I didn’t realize how much self-worth I had wrapped up in the stage, how much of my identity was defined by the stage.  My brain knew that it wasn’t about me, but my ego didn’t come to realize it until much later in the game.  In order to stay on the front lines, I had to let go of who I thought I was and face who I really am.  And that was quite humbling.  In fact, it still is.

I often think that my relationship with God is like a moth to a flame.  He is a roaring bonfire and I am the tiniest insect drawn to the beautiful light from the depths of the dark forest.  For reasons I can’t explain, I am drawn to God and mesmerized by His presence.  Like many people, my relationship with God is marked by mountain tops and valleys.  On the mountain tops, I don’t care if the fire burns me.  I am happy to lose myself in the fire.  I am happy to let the fire consume me.  But in the valley, I am suddenly aware of the fire’s heat, and I feel like I just need to take a step back and gaze from a distance.  Even though I get cold and long to be close to the fire, I can’t go there.  The fire is too much for me to bear.  The dark forest is quite inviting.

In this humbling first year of ministry, I have spent a lot of time in the valley.  So much so, that I fear I will never find the mountains.  And the guilt I have in the valley is great.  In my humiliating moments, I should be running to God and seeking his comfort.  I should be practicing what I preach.  Instead, I have withdrawn and hidden myself.  I am ashamed of who I really am now that the stage is gone and I wonder if I am worthy enough or even qualified to be a gardener.  But here in the valley, God has shown me his infinite mercy.  Even though I do not desire the fire as I feel I should, he has shown me that the garden is exactly where he wants me to be.

This Sunday in Mass, after my usual litany of apologies for not being near the fire, I saw Jesus standing next to me in the valley.  With his arm around me, we gazed at the fire in the distance.  In all of his radiance, he looked down at my face, smiled and said, “It is normal for you to fear the fire will burn you.  But, you don’t need to fear it.  I have covered you with the living water.  I have made it so that you can be in the fire and experience its splendor.  You are covered with my blood.”  Although I haven’t made it all the way back up to the fire on the mountain, I no longer feel so alone.  The forest isn’t quite so inviting and the journey up the mountain isn’t quite so daunting.  But most of all, the fear of the fire is being replaced with desire as it pulls me into its glorious splendor all over again.  

Lessons from Ga-Ga

At this year’s middle school PHAT camp (meeting People, Hanging out, Adoring God, and Touring the metroplex), we built the most awesome thing ever: a ga-ga pit.  Ga-ga is a game played in an octagon shaped enclosure with a 3 foot wall.  This project was exciting because I was in on it from the beginning.  I saw the kids fall in love with the game on a retreat.  I saw the idea to build a pit at the church born in the imagination of a fellow youth minister.  I witnessed all the planning of the pit construction- from the miraculous donations of materials right down to the angel who showed up at the 11th hour with the expertise needed to actually build the structure.  I watched the youth dig out grass, haul wood, and hammer nails in 100+ degree weather.  Finally, at the end of the week, the pit was built and the game was on.  How could I not get in on the fun?

I jumped over the wall.  Immediately, I felt a twinge of a familiar pain in my lower back- my back hasn’t been quite right since the birth of my youngest.  Naturally, I ignored it.  I wanted to play.  The pain was just a twinge and I can certainly get over it.  So, I played.  In order to play, one must spend the majority of the game in a crouched over position protecting one’s feet and shins while in constant motion- probably a chiropractor’s worst nightmare.  It was fun although I was easy prey.  The kids relished getting the adults out quickly and, in my case, somewhat easily.  Anyhow, I played a few rounds.  When I stood up and straightened out my back after the final round, I realized how dumb I had been.  I was in serious pain.  I spent the next two days on the sofa or in a hot bath- two days to come to terms with the fact I am no longer a spring chicken.

This summer, I turn 35.  I can’t claim to be in my early thirties and that makes my twenties seem like ages ago.  In addition to my back issues, my eyes seem to be losing their youth (It’s either that or my arms are getting shorter).  And, after trying different kinds of make-up with no success, I am now seriously shopping for that magic cream to erase the lines around my eyes.  But the real stinger was when I realized the high school youth that out-played me at ga-ga were born the year I graduated from high school.  Yes, I am O.L.D.

My two boys are 7 years apart.  I had my oldest when I was 22 and my youngest when I was 29.  As a 22 year old mom, I was certain I was the youngest parent ever.  I felt as if I had no clue what I was doing.  The mommy wars scared me half to death and in an effort to over-accommodate, my poor son was sheltered from everything from T. V. to candy.  When I had my youngest, I was a 29 year-old seasoned parent and educator.  So, my youngest has gotten to play in the dirt, taste everything from chocolate to dog food and been educated thoroughly in the ways of Spongebob and his square pants.  So, I guess age has loosened me up a little but I’m not sure it has made me any wiser or better at parenting.

When I was younger, I thought that when I reached this point in my life, I will have had a few things figured out.  But the truth is, I don’t.  I know that my experiences have brought me maturity, but I still don’t know if what I’m doing with my children is the “right” thing.  Will my older son be wiser or make better decisions because I made so many of his decisions when he was younger?  Will my younger son be more of a risk taker or have more confidence because I let him explore things more independently?  I don’t know, only time will tell. 

In the meantime, I should probably stay out of the ga-ga pit.  A visit to the eye doctor would be wise.  And hopefully, I’ll find that eye cream soon. But, most importantly, I’ll keep hitting my knees and loving these two boys with all my heart.  That is the best thing this not-so-wise-35-year-old Mommy can do- love them and lead them to the source of love itself.