I have known most of my life that I am a writer.
I began writing poems and music as early as my late elementary school years, and I even tried keeping a journal when I was a senior in high school. I remember the last high school term paper I ever wrote was the only term paper I did like I was instructed – making note card quotes from my sources and then writing the paper from the research. After I was done I felt like I really had written something. My first college years (an Associate of Arts from a community college, and a semester at a college for teachers) found me spending lots of time writing poems and songs and taking pictures – many times when I should have been in class.
In my first real job, phoning Christian radio stations and plugging songs of the artists on the Heartwarming, Impact and Greentree labels, I was asked to write an introduction for a music book. I was finally published!
In the 1980’s I wrote a monthly column for Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine: Radio Rap.
I have been asked for permission to have something I have written published in three different books by three different authors, and I have found an Op Ed piece I wrote in the Nashville Tennesseean newspaper in 2006 republished far and wide (most of the time without permission – you can find it posted somewhere on this blog).
Across the years I have used any excuse I could find – writing letters to the editor, to my family, to girlfriends (when I wasn’t married of course), to friends; writing songs, writing poems…
In the autumn of 1996 my mom, dad, brother and I made a trip to Germany to tour the Martin Luther sites (it was the 450th anniversary of his death – “Luther Jahr”). Making a connection with my ancestry there and being immersed in the history of my faith seemed to flip a switch of some sort that got me thinking, after 15 years in insurance sales and management, that there just might be something else I should be doing vocationally.
In March 1997 I participated in a vocational discernment retreat at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary – Career Crossroads. I wrote a poem there in a guided free write session that changed the way I saw the world – and the way I saw myself in it. Two months later I attended my denomination’s regional gathering representing my local congregation and heard a message from a sermon preached to the whole assembly that sounded a whole lot like I had been sent to hear it and the preacher had written it specifically for me. In fact, I wondered who in the world might have gone to such trouble to get a message across to me that I “needed to get out of my comfortable surroundings and do something bold for God?” Did we really have to get 600 people from Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia together in an Atlanta hotel ballroom for three days and buy coffee and spend money on sound systems and decorations and have an already busy Assistant to the Bishop take even more time to write a whole sermon so I could hear one line of it? Really? Why didn’t you just call me on my fancy new bag phone?
I began a six year process to work myself out of a job in the insurance business. But I began an even longer process of bringing my wife and family along to a point where I could begin what is known as the “candidacy process” to be ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Leann had no idea when she met me, when we courted, nor in the first 13 years of our marriage that her husband wanted to be a Lutheran pastor. But neither did he….sort of.
While I had understood powerful “call” experiences to have happened to me at the age of about 7, 11, and 20, it was the last one that put who God probably intended me to be on the back burner. The girl to whom I was engaged at the time, and less than a year later would marry, talked me out of considering going into the ministry when I came home from a church service I had attended with a friend and reported: “I think God is calling me into the ministry.” It wasn’t like there was a bolt of lightening, or a loud booming voice, or a soft voice whispering in my ear – and there certainly weren’t 600 people gathered from four states present. It was simply my sense, after participating in a very normal worship service, that “this was where I wanted to be….I wanted to be involved in peoples’ lives in this place, when they were dealing with these things – these faith issues.
So when I found myself in my fiance’s presence shortly after that experience, and told her what I was feeling, she let me know forthrightly that I would not be happy if I did that, I would be poor, it wouldn’t be a very good life. I hope to goodness I did something more than “shrug” but as I think back on it, that is about what I remember doing. When my first wife and I divorced after three years of marriage, I considered myself “used goods” or “damaged merchandise.” I couldn’t imagine the church would call a divorced man to be a pastor (and actually some of the wouldn’t have then, and some still wouldn’t today).
“Back burner” probably isn’t an accurate description. If something is on the back burner one knows it is there. It can be seen or smelled or heard. My call was actually relegated to the attic of my mind under layers of dust and on the bottom of a pile of memories and keepsakes. I had even forgotten that I ever had it. Thanks be to God it would not forget me.
Leann’s resistance to my mid-life call/crisis was valid and practical. The path to ordination for a traditional Lutheran pastor was to move to seminary for two years of academic work, move somewhere else for a year for internship and practical experience, and then move back to the seminary for a year to fix all the little and large issues that were discovered on the internship. That wasn’t the end of the moving. Next, one entered the call process and so the last move would be to one’s first call congregation (for three years or so if the first call experience was good for the new pastor and the congregation).
While Leann and I struggled with whether this could all happen or not, a life-long friend, Robert Benson, counseled me to go back to school and finish my Bachelor degree so that if I ever got the opportunity to go for my Master of Divinity I would not have to wait to finish my undergraduate work. And so I did. I enrolled as a non-traditional (also spelled o-l-d f-a-r-t) at Belmont University. I was amazed that all the hours I had accrued at the community college, as well as one and one half semesters of trying to finish my Bachelor degree the first time, transferred and counted for something (even a one hour credit for “Aviation Ground School”). But still I had to take some general education courses like “Biology 101” and history, and some language; I didn’t have to take any math (thank God!). The tuition for each class was about $1,000. I would have paid $3,000 not to have to take Biology 101, but as it turned out even that class was beneficial and almost as spiritual an experience as my class that really was called “Every Day Spirituality.”
The real treat and surprise and “a-ha” moments for me were experienced in my writing classes: “Telling Stories, Experiencing Life;” “Poetry,” and the very last class I took, “Faith and Doubt in Literature.” In the first I experienced, in the telling of some parts of my own story, that silence at the end when one senses “something special just happened in this group in the hearing of my words.” In the second it was the instructor’s written evaluation of one of my poems, encouraging me to continue writing: “Read, read, read….write, write, write!” and the final stamp of affirmation came upon submitting my final paper for “Faith and Doubt” and having the instructor invite me to enter it in the end-of-the-year literature and language writing awards, for which I won “Belmont University Literature and Language Outstanding Writing Award!”
I really was on a writing high and a writing roll, and had I been independently wealthy – to afford to quit work and write – or just disciplined enough to buckle down and write, I might have finished a book (or several) by now. Instead, I dabbled in it, continued writing free-write pages and a journal, hoping some day to write something for real.
Some time along this journey, after graduating from Belmont with my Bachelor of Science, I was mowing grass and in the rhythm of back and forth pacing one does behind a push mower, I started writing (in my head) a letter to my dad’s father, Johnny, who had died before I was born, so he was the grandfather that I never knew. I was telling him what a great person my dad was and what a wonderful family he had nurtured. I was telling Johnny this because my dad had polio when he was 7 years old, so in his day he would have been known as a “crippled” boy. I wished Johnny could have witnessed the mark his son had left on the world. In that thinking, about my dad being a “special needs” child in his day, and that my own son, Matt, with his Down syndrome, was a special needs child, I realized that even though I had never met my grandfather, I might actually know him even better than some of his own family because of our shared experience. It was there that the seeds for my first book were sewn.
In spring of 2003 I actually went on sabbatical from my insurance job – knowing I would never go back – and I used as a reason that I was writing a book. And I really was. But I really was just looking for a way to get out of the insurance business mostly and I worked on the book from time to time, but I also worked on my sailing pretty thoroughly that year. When the year was up I was compelled to apply for a position on the staff of my home congregation as Director of Christian Education and Family Life. And that is what I did until January of 2011, when I was ordained as a Lutheran pastor, and installed as full-time pastor of Faith Lutheran church in Lebanon, TN.
Now there is a whole lot of story in the seven years between the bookends offered above between 2003 and 2011. But there are really only two occurrences that will allow me to conclude this blog entry that I need to share at this time.
In September of 2006 my dear mother, who clips any newspaper article that has even the slightest possibility of interest on the part of one of her four children, gave me an article out of The Nashville Tennesseean about the declining birth rates in children with Down syndrome, the condition of my son, Matt. The conclusion was that since the advent of prenatal testing less Downs (and other birth defected children) were being born because parents were choosing to terminate those pregnancies.
Knowing how challenging raising a special needs child can be – particularly when their issues are more severe than my own child’s – I understand why parents are afraid to wade into that deep pool. But I felt strongly compelled to write a letter to the editor to just share how our life had been with our own special needs child. After submitting the letter via email I received a reply from the editor that they wanted to run my piece as an Op Ed if I would give them permission. So the next week I had my essay and an author-looking photograph run in the Sunday paper.
I never imagined the response I would get. There were multiple letters to the editor published in the paper of how my article moved people. There were about 50 emails sent directly to me – some asking when I might write a book! People obviously passed it on to friends and neighbors because I received at least a half dozen requests from out-of-state organizations that dealt with disability to reprint.
Leann suggested: “You should write the book.”
I agreed. But I was about to start candidacy and seminary, and I would have long reading lists and many papers. That was not an excuse. It really happened that way. I know that people like Tony Morrison wrote her beautiful Beloved at the kitchen table after putting her children to bed or before waking them up – IE she gave up sleep and other parts of her life to just get it done. That was not going to happen for me.
I had already decided after being approved for Ordination, that if I was called to a part time call I would commit at least one full day a week to finishing the book. I received a full time call.
For the past 18 months I have been thinking about how could I ever get to finishing my book? This past July I went to Knoxville, Tennessee and participated in a week long mission work week: WOW Urban Ministries. During the week I wrote a reflection on one of my experiences there and shared it with a few folk (and even included it in a sermon). I showed Leann when it went up on the Synod website (denominational regional website). She read it and then just looked at me and said: “So when are you going to answer the call that you really have?”
I just grinned because I knew that she was right. I am confident and have been affirmed in my call to ministry. But as I have written elsewhere, I am a writer, regardless of anything else that I do vocationally. “Yep, I guess I better stop running shouldn’t I?”
So all this is to say that when it comes right down to it, really, I write for my sweet, kindhearted, gorgeous, loving bride – the one who knows me second only to the One who formed my inward parts and knit me together in my mother’s womb, from whose presence I cannot flee. She believes in me. And that makes all the difference.
My writing will have to be worked in among what is already a busy life of a parish pastor. But I figured I have written the equivalent of about 1500 word essays every week for the past year and one half. Surely I can work a few more words each week into my writing life. That is my quest.