Unemployment Lessons

I recently started a new job, working for an organization called Hope Collaborative. HC provides in-school mentoring for students in need of extra support; my role will be to help recruit, train, and encourage mentors as they come alongside students. I’ll also serve as a resource to schools as they seek to help at-risk students. I’m excited about the opportunity, and grateful to have it.

But getting to this point — well, it has been a unique season. It began last August when I walked away from a very good position at a very good church to step into the Great Unknown. At one of the job interviews I’ve had since last summer, one person in the room said, “Life involves risk. Tell about a time you took a risk.”

The first answer that came to mind, and the first one out of my mouth, was: “You mean, like quitting a job when you don’t have another one to step into?”

I’m not sure that was the answer he was looking for; I’m not sure it was the answer was looking for. But it was the answer I chose. To give. And to live. And perhaps for the first time in my nearly 5 decades of life, I think I’m beginning to understand what people mean when they describe a season of life by saying: I don’t want to go back and live it again, but I also don’t want to go back and be the person I was before all this happened.

That sentence has more meaning to me now, though I’m just beginning to really understand it. But as that understanding grows, here’s some of what I think I’ve learned during the 7 months of “I-have-no-idea-what’s-next….”

One: there’s a lot of hard work to be done in this world. Let me just be honest here: I was insulated from that. I haven’t had to do hard physical work since perhaps my college days, when I spent a summer working in a warehouse, and another as a carpet cleaner’s assistant with Stanley Steemer (and, yes, the broken Chinese figurines and the broken lamp were both my fault; it was a long summer).

Since last August, I have pulled carpet. I’ve cleaned out houses with decades of dirt, detritus, debris, and even doo-doo. I delivered packages during the holidays. And in all of that, I realized how much harder it is to do that work at 49, than it was at 19.

And while I was doing that work, I began to pay attention to how people paid attention to me. While I pulled their carpet and delivered their packages, I noticed that some folks were pleasant and kind. They said hi, and even offered me a Coke or a candy bar. Others were focused on their agenda, and they kept on moving. But there were also people who seemed to act as if I wasn’t there; almost as if they wanted to avoid me and the work I represented. They needed the service I offered, but it was almost as if they felt that if they just kept their head down, or turned away, the work would get done — and they wouldn’t have to be a part of it in any way.

Which leads to a helpful lesson for all of us: Notice people; the ones right in front of you. Get to know the person at your office who cleans your bathroom and empties your trash. Be kind and generous with your server. Think once, and then twice, before criticizing the $11/hour worker who cleans the floors or bags your groceries. Better yet, smile. Be kind.

Right after I wrote my first draft of these words, I stopped by the bathroom in the office where I work. There was a guy cleaning it. I thought: I just wrote about the importance of not overlooking people; maybe I ought to practice what I preach. So I got to talking, and learned his name is Eric. And he told me that he used to mentor in the very program where I am now working. Eric shared his story, and offered some helpful insight.

Turns out — the guy cleaning my restroom has a story to share. As does everyone you will encounter. How many will you take the time to get to know?

Which leads me to another lesson, one I desperately need to learn: Be present in the moment. One of the strange dichotomies of ministry was that I so often felt busy that I felt too busy to be with people if I hadn’t already planned to be with people. Chance encounters and crises were often seen as challenges to my schedule, instead of opportunities to be present with the people who had come my way. With a schedule that almost always felt full, a to-do list never ending, and an even longer list of people I needed to visit — I often let ministry become more about checking things off than checking out what God was up to.

Perhaps this is why my new role is the right job for me at the right time. I have the chance to encourage mentors and share opportunities — in a context that doesn’t feel like there’s always something else I should be doing. (It also helps that I am only scheduled to work a set number of hours; when the work day is over now, it’s really over. Ministry never felt that way.)

In a way, I feel like I’m detoxing from the constant sense of urgency to do the next thing. Instead, I’m just now beginning to learn to be in the moment; to truly be with the person/s I’m currently with; to receive the gift of now.

So, I’m learning to stop and talk to my neighbors when I take out my trash. I’m learning to shoot baskets with my son even when I’m tired. And perhaps in all of this I’m learning a lesson I should have learned a long time ago: ministry often happens when I stop worrying about doing ministry — and instead, just receive the moment, and the people, who are right in front of me.

 

Transitions

Last Thursday, my wife and I took our middle child two hours away … and left her there. It was the first time we had done something so drastic, but also so inevitable. For we took my daughter to college … and then came home without her.

Honestly, I was surprised at how well I handled it. I was pleased at how smoothly things went (well, except for the long line to drop off her stuff at the dorm). But even that was painless, with all the friendly faces that were there to help.

After everything was in the room (though hardly in its place), we dashed off for lunch before we said goodbye. Our farewell hugs were long and full of longing, but then it was time for her to go her way. And she did. And so did we.

As we headed home, I was glad that the day went so well. Not much stress, and not as much emotion as I expected. All in all, I’d give myself an “A-” for how I handled things.

But then we got home. And something about being home made it hit home. Being in the house with only 1/3 of my children proceeded to shatter the “I’m good” feeling I had felt all day. If the process of dropping-off was easier than I expected, the process of arriving-back was harder than I could have anticipated.

Emotions are a funny thing. They are a vital part of life, but they are so hard to predict. What seems simple sometimes hits hard. What seems signficant sometimes goes off without a hitch. But one thing is certain: when emotions do surface, they indicate not just the feeling of the moment; they also reflect something deeper down coming out.

I think about all of this not simply because of the transition my daughter faces as she begins college; I think about it myself as I transition from my current ministry. As I announced Sunday to the folks at Fern Creek Christian, I believe it is time for a change. For me. For the church. For what God wants to do through this congregation. And so, as of August 27, I will conclude my ministry at Fern Creek.

This church has been my family’s home for nearly 20 years. It’s been where I’ve pursued my career for 16 years, but now it’s time to start a new chapter. And I’m learning that saying goodbye is hard. But not always in the ways I expect.

I find that, just like taking my daughter to college, it’s not the obvious places where emotion reaches up and grabs me. It’s in a random thought, or a song that brings a thought to mind. It’s in a conversation with someone. It’s in the anticipation of what’s to come.

But even though emotions are challenging, and sometimes not welcome, they are necessary. For what I feel reveals something about what is going on inside of me. And what I feel tells me something about what matters. If I felt nothing, it might be a sign that I’m not fully measuring the weight of what I’m facing. Or that I’m simply leaving a job — as opposed to a calling. Instead, the feelings I face remind me that I love my church, and feel incredibly blessed to have done what I’ve done.

Let me put it this way: If leaving isn’t hard, then was I ever really, fully here

But I was. And I am a better man, and a better follower of Jesus, because of it. So, thank you, Fern Creek family, for 20 life-changing years. And even as we say ‘goodbye’, we can do so confident that God has more in store for us — in this age, and in the age to come.

The Luxury of Hurry

I occasionally use a prayer book to help guide my morning thoughts and prayers. This morning, I read these words: “To attend to each moment is to hear the faint melody of eternity.”

I then got ready for the day, headed out, and was on a road I usually don’t take in the morning. In fact, I almost didn’t take that way, and could have gone a couple of other ways to get to the same place. I quickly wished I had, for as soon as I pulled onto that road, a school bus stopped in front of me. And I could tell that this would be no quick bus stop. Not much was happening, and then the driver got out and began to lower a ramp. It slowly came down, even though there was no child in site. Soon, though, a mom brought out a little boy in his wheelchair.

I was focused on my plans, my schedule, my sense of hurry — and right in front of me was a guy who doesn’t have the luxury of hurry.

Later today, I was on my way to visit a friend in a retirement community. I turned into the entrance where he lives, and as I pulled through, several folks were coming out the front door. They were headed for an outing, and so, once again, I waited as people got on a bus right in front of me. And just like the little guy boarding the morning’s bus, these folks did not have the luxury of hurry, for they were older — and needed walkers, wheelchairs, and a helping hand to get where they were going.

And I noticed that one of the helpers was from our church; she was assisting her mom. She came over and we chatted through the car window. As we were talking, the bus captain came over and said, “Do you wanna go through? I’m getting ready to lower the lift.”

“No, go ahead,” I said. I’ve sat through one bus lift; why not another?

Why not another? Why not? Because I’m in a hurry.

But why? Why am I in a hurry? Because I’ve got stuff to do.

What kind of stuff? Church stuff. People stuff. I’m a minister. I’ve got places to go, people to see, important things to do. And so I rush from one place to another, from one thing to another, all in the name of, well … in the name of what?

Ministry? People? Well, what about the people right in front of me?

I don’t need a wheelchair to get around. I don’t have to lean on anyone’s arm. And so, I have the luxury of hurry. I rush around because I can. But in my rushing, is it possible that I’m missing the very reason I’m hurrying? Could it be that, in my rushing to do ministry, I actually miss ministry?

Could it be that I miss the eternity contained in the moment, in this moment, when I rush from one thing to another, not slowing down enough to notice the power of this present moment? When I hurry right past the people in front of me? Is it possible, that, because I have the luxury of hurry, I miss the grandeur of grace — the gift of God in the moment, and the person, right in front of me?