As news has reached us concerning Ted Haggard, the highly public pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, who has [resigned/stepped down] over allegations that may prove to not be completely unfounded, I am reminded that this Sunday marks the beginning of my fifth month of stepping down (for completely different reasons). This Sunday is All Saints, a time when we remember those who have left us, and one of my favorite: the candles, the memories, the hearing the names read into the great cloud of witnesses, and the bell. I know I’ll experience none of that this Sunday, and part of me will long to be elsewhere.
Throughout these five months we have worshipped in many settings, at the church we were married in twenty years ago, at the church where I felt my call to ministry (11 years ago). We worshipped in one of the few United Methodist churches that survived Katrina with all its shiny new hymnals (the old were ruined in the flood). A charismatic church by the sea, another one that could be the Ghanaian twin of my the church I once pastored, another in a five hour worship service and finally an accidental church, now five years into the accident.
It was supposed to be a Chinese Church. In Ghana, the Chinese are a largely unreached people, ignored by the local culture, and ignored by the missionaries, and so a pastor from Singapore felt called to start a church to minister to them, but learned it would have to meet on Sunday afternoons, after the lunch rush, after the hungry Christians going out after had been fed. When the pastor went to rent a room to meet he learned that it could only be rented by the day and so there it sat all empty on Sunday mornings, waiting for Sunday afternoon. So a simple Sunday morning worship service was started. Lets see who shows up, and five years later, some 200 people show up each Sunday, by accident. This accident has started seven other local Ghanaian churches that all meet outside of Accra.
This week marks my fifth month from behind out from the altar, and to my surprise, it wasn’t that hard to escape. “Being ordained,” Barbara Brown Taylor was once told, “is not about serving God perfectly but about serving God visibly.” Her rector continued, it is about “allowing other people to learn whatever they can from watching you rise and fall.” He adds a final word of advice, “You probably won’t be much worse than other people, and certainly you won’t be any better, but you will have to let people look at you. You will have to let them see you as you are.”
I think that was the hardest thing for me to do, letting people see you as you are and the easiest thing to undo when I stepped away five months ago. I could be myself instead of the character the parish wanted me to be. I had heard people remark, “are you really a pastor?” or “you’re so unlike (or different than) any pastor I’ve seen” and I wasn’t sure what to do with things like that. I often felt like a imposter in fact my first email address was umpastor, for which the spell checker in Microsoft Word would suggest imposter. Was this a sign from God, I wondered, was I an imposter? Two years later I changed it to just pastor but those lingering feelings continued.
I thought that was a good thing, at the time —wondering if I was an imposter—It kept me honest, it kept me from becoming the title, Reverend, but it also kept me from leading with confidence, what if they learned my secret?
There is a West African Story I just read of the hunter and his antelope-wife that resonates along this same line. It seems that one morning the hunter was hiding near a watering hole in the grass, when a herd of antelope appeared. Before he could draw his bow and shoot, the herd began removing their antelope skins, changing into women and dressing in fine cloths. He watched as the antelope-now-women went off to market, laughing and singing songs.
When they were gone, the hunter took one of the skins and hid it in his hut. Evening came when the sun was setting and he hid in a tree and watched the antelope-women return from market to look for their skins. One couldn’t find where she has hung hers, the other antelope helped her search, but after a while, they gave up and left. She began to cry and he came down from the tree.
“Why are you crying, young woman,” the hunter asks. At first the antelope woman would not tell him.
“You can trust me to keep your secrets,” the hunter promises her. At last the antelope woman admitted that she had lost her skin which would have made her an antelope again.
“I now have no home and do not know what to do” she cried.
“You must marry me,” said the hunter and he told her about his family and that she would be welcome in his house. The hunter promises to keep her secret, and then admits that it was he who hid her skin. She still marries him and together they have three children and life a happy life until one day…
Now, the hunter’s first wife was always asking her husband “Where did your new wife come from?” She does not know the secret of the antelope-woman. Sometimes the hunter tells her she came from a village far away, other times she is the daughter of a great hunter, but this does not satisfy the first wife. One day she tricks the hunter with too much palm wine.
“Tell me where your new wife really comes from?” And because of the palm wine he tells her the secret of his antelope wife.
The next day, the first wife quarrels with the second, and she says: “Do not be so proud, you are only an antelope and your skin is hanging from the roof in our husband’s room.”
The antelope woman, learning that her secret has been discovered, goes to the hut of their husband, finds her old skin, softens it in a pot of warm water, and gently slides it over her body. She transforms back into an antelope and bounds away toward the hunter, who is now a farmer, working in the fields with their three children. She tells him farewell, and that he has been good to her. She strikes her tail against their three children and they are each transformed into handsome antelopes. Together they bound away unto the African savanna over the strains of the hunter-now-farmer crying “stay, stay…,” as they disappear into the savanna never to be seen again.
I think about this story and wonder why it is still told today, why it speaks to me now, could I be the antelope-wife, and the antelope-skin, my former life before seminary and being a pastor? Instead of putting on a robe, I took off a skin, and God took it and hid it until five months ago. I decide the hunter must be God, and the church, his first wife. I think about the years I spent in service to others, to the church (his first wife), and to God (the hunter) and those I left behind, especially staff. I wish I could have slapped my tail against them and transformed them into antelopes so they could bound away. I think about them because they followed me into this house of the first-wife, hoping I would stay, hoping I could protect them…
Of course I am not alone. About the same time I was softening my old antelope skin, Suzanne (my only wife) had a friend who was softening hers. She was a colleague of my wife, and when it became too much she put on her old antelope skin, sold their house, packed an enormous crate and the same week we left, bounded away to New Zealand with her husband and their two children; running away from a profession and institution she thought would feed and nurture her, and didn’t. I can relate. Why did we think the institutions we poured our hearts into could love us back? Why did we think that they could sustain and care for us?
On the Sunday my church moved into its first building, the Jack & Edna Riley Center, the Bishop came to consecrate it. During the presentations I said to Jack, the foundation pastor: “I have heard it said that an institution like the Church can never show its love for those who serve it. As much as we may love it, and give our best year’s to it, we must realize—and not expect—that it can love us back.” Now Jack had forgotten his hearing aids that morning, so he couldn’t hear a word I was saying, and everyone would soon forget it, “But Jack, I hope you will remember this day, because this institution loves you.” How naïve I was to have said that, having only been in out of my antelope skin for three years. It would be two more before I really learned what perhaps Jack already knew that day, that institutions can’t love you, only the people within them.
Yet now five months into this new life I have visited new watering holes and removed the antelope-skin of this new-old life. Inside I see I am still a pastor, inside our friend is still a professor, and so I wonder if the problem isn’t with the skins, just when we stay out them too long. The skins protect us, they keep us human. I think a significant, and perhaps unappreciated, part of the story comes when the hunter confesses to the antelope-woman that it was he who took her skin, and still she marries him. What is that about? Didn’t I go into this pastoring eyes wide open, knowing its dangers, the long work weeks, the over scheduling, how mean people could be? Yes, I went into the house of the first wife knowing the hunter had hidden my skin, but why did we keep it a secret from the first wife?
Because the warned us to. In seminary, they warned us soon-to-be-pastors not to get too close to the people of their parish (or they would learn your secrets). They tell us to sustain our faith outside the success or failure of a particular appointment or ministry setting (because it would change). They tell us not to let the church become our whole life, but they don’t tell us why, only experience can teach that.
“Ministry is allowing other people to learn whatever they can from watching you rise and fall,” the rector warned Barbara Brown Taylor before she suited up for ministry. “You will have to let people look at you. You will have to let them see you as you are.” In terms of the hunter and the secret of the antelope-skin, I think the disclosure we keep from the first wife and those who worship in her house was letting people see you as you are. It was too dangerous.
“Tell me where your new wife really comes from,” they ask and though we tell the story of our call to ministry, how we took off our antelope skins, they can’t believe the story behind it, that God would really call someone as common into ministry. They want more and when they learned how mystical my leadership style was, how it wasn’t that I heard from God, or made a well thought-out business decision as much as it was gravitating toward an answer or solution, they balked. The secret was out.
“Do not be so proud, you are only an antelope and your skin is hanging from the roof.” So I asked and received permission to put on that skin for a year and run away to Africa.
Reading about the sad circumstances surrounding Ted Haggard, I am reminded what Barbara Brown Taylor was warned: “Being ordained, is not about serving God perfectly but about serving God visibly.” Ted Haggard did that, why just last week I heard Ghanaian pastor tell a story about Haggard how he organized a prayer ministry to visit the location of murders in his city to pray over that spot of violence and the people it would touch. Over the years, this prayer group and many like it were credited with changing their city. Godspeed to all who seek to serve God not perfectly, but publicly.