#letsgo

This weekend was the 237th Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in Roanoke–and my first, ever–and the one at which I became, officially, the Rev. Eric Kleppinger.

20190621_204246

When I first began pondering this path, nearly two years ago, I had absolutely zero expectation that if I found myself here, it would be this quickly. I thought, maybe in another seven years when I reach retirement age…maybe. But I have been at times blown away by how robustly God is clearing a path for me to “go, therefore, and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19).

So how was Conference? Lots of words come to mind. Intense: at one point I was talking about an event that happened only the day before, but it felt like d-a-y-s ago. Affirming: it felt right to be in the clergy session, it felt right to wear the white namebadge of a clergy member, and I was reaffirmed by the presence and love of so many of my licensing-school friends.

Some vignettes:

  • Thursday night, the night before the licensing ceremony, I didn’t sleep well. Woke up about 2 in the morning and couldn’t fall asleep for a couple of hours. Kept having memories of various steps along this path brought to mind: Music Camp 1984, Lincolnia and the saints there who helped get me started, etc., etc. At one point I told Jesus, “I get it, you’re excited too. But c’mon, I need some sleep here!”
  • One of my L-school friends drove directly to the clergy session the first morning, at which we were being officially voted in as local licensed pastors. He arrived in a T-shirt and jeans, not realizing everyone else was a little more dressed up. I gave him my sport coat, and while the fit wasn’t perfect, he could at least go on stage more comfortably. Looked pretty decent, too!
  • The atmosphere among us about-to-be-licensed pastors in the tunnel under the coliseum awaiting the procession in: it felt like a high school graduation. We’re all excited, taking selfies and pictures, a knot of happy about-to-be-licensed pastors. All the other groups were politely and demurely lined up. I hope we never lose that spiritedness.
  • The old poli-sci major in me got to geek out a bit at all the parliamentary procedure in the discussion of motions and voting and etc. But not so much that I wanted to engage with it, let alone go back to that world.
  • I can’t emphasize enough how great it was to have been surrounded at Conference by Mary, David and Sarah, and by Don and Bonnie Jamison and Don Curry. Not only were the Jamisons able to give us tips on conference procedures and the best places to get lunch, but having them present made it special in another way. And for David and Sarah to make the trek down to stand with me…absolutely priceless. I can’t do this without all their support and love.

People kept asking me how it felt, and I have to confess, it didn’t feel overwhelming. Perhaps that’s what they were expecting? It felt momentous, it felt very real, it felt affirming–but in the end, the phrase that kept coming to mind was, #letsgo. Let’s get to it, let’s get going, let’s go and make those disciples.

After we stood on stage and Bishop Weaver blessed us, we headed off and were handed our licenses and credentials as we left the stage. It truly is official now! So #letsgo!

IMG_0256

Licensing School 2019

For the last nine days of May, I and 29 of my newest friends (30 if you count the baby, Shay, who was there with her mommy) were holed up at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach for the Virginia Annual Conference‘s 2019 Licensing School. This is the annual set of classes put on by the Conference for those of us who are about to become licensed as pastors for the first time. There were eight 12-hour days that spanned over the Memorial Day weekend–no time off for that, and we came to think that was just like the jobs we’ll be stepping into.

I had been forewarned that there was a high risk of developing lifelong friendships here, and I think that’s probably a fair danger: this was a great group of Christians looking towards their first opportunity to care for others as people sent in Jesus’ name. And so we spent a lot if time covering topics we will need to know: from the more abstract, like Wesleyan theology, to the more immediately practical, like how to do a baptism or Communion correctly, to the intensely practical, like how to keep the wedding planner from taking over your church.

In fact, one of the more intensely special moments for me was when I had a chance to practice a baptism on a doll baby. Of course, it wasn’t squirming like real life will hand me, but even so, when it came time to pronounce the blessing, I was moved. And even a little bit intimidated: you mean somehow *I* am going to get to do this? That can’t be right!

We had a similar experience when we completed our practice Communion with the Hawaiian roll and grape juice: we were told to take the leftovers outside and scatter them, just as if it were real…as if we had really done it! But of course, we had, and we will…which, again, felt a little moving and intimidating.

The final night’s worship, one of the course directors said that he had met us as friends, and now he sends us forth as colleagues. That meant a lot to me: the acceptance, the trust, and the welcoming are all a part of what this past year-and-change has demonstrated. This *is* real! And it’s about to get a whole lot more real as I step into this role at Sydenstricker in just a few weeks.

So, This is Now A Thing…

I really don’t understand how it can be the end of May already. Didn’t we just have our trip to England, wasn’t it just Valentine’s Day, I thought Lent began last Wednesday…?

And was it really February that I had my DCOM meeting and got approved to become a local licensed pastor?

But in this second half of the month, the pastor train is picking up speed. Last weekend was the announcement that I would be staying at Sydenstricker UMC as their new Associate Pastor; there were actual whoops and “yay!”s from the pews when it was said. Which made me feel welcomed and supported and blessed all at once. I’m fortunate to begin my pastoral career among such people, and indeed, among people that I know and where I can grow, make my mistakes, and help move things forward in a supportive environment.

And now I write from the campus of Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, where I and 28 others are spending nine days in Licensing School under the tutelage of leaders throughout Virginia, teaching us how to become productive, effective pastors. I’m among a group of folks who will be taking fresh the reins of two- and three-point charges in rural Virginia, mostly moving to new assignments; my friend John and I are in the minority for sure, where we are rising to be Associate Pastors at our home churches.

It’s a mix of practical advice that I’m trying to soak up, especially as they discuss smaller churches (as I will doubtless have myself someday). But it’s also vaguely intimidating still as well: I’ll be responsible for all this?? At times like this I’m grateful for the opportunity to have an in-place mentor who knows all this stuff, and worried for how well I will pick up on the subtleties and nuances of whatever charge I get next.

But in the end, as with this whole endeavor, it’s about faith. Faith that God has called me into this for a reason, that if I will only open myself to him, I can hear his voice and let him lead me into those changing scenes and different situations that I will face. So yeah, it looks like this is going to be A Thing now…let’s do this. Together, please.

E-189, Rescued From Ourselves

This past weekend I had the blessing to accompany the team and 19 new pilgrims to an amazing experience of God’s love in Emmaus weekend E-189. The theme for the weekend was Rescued From Ourselves, and in so many ways God helped us all achieve that goal. For instance, one brother confronted his decades-old baggage about abuse he suffered as a boy. It was a powerful and glorious experience and I was humbled to be a part of it.

On one level it was a little disappointing that only 19 (of the maximum 30) new pilgrims attended. But it started me thinking. These weekends aren’t for everybody, to be sure. I know people who aren’t ready: for whom this kind of overwhelming love wouldn’t be understood. It reminds me of the parable of the good soil:

A farmer went out to plant some seeds. As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! (Matthew 13:3-8)

We want to become good soil, which is ready to receive the seed and let it blossom. And so I think the challenge for us isn’t necessarily how many people we can get to the mountain, but whether we’re doing the necessary spadework to prepare them to receive the seed well: that it doesn’t get eaten or wilt or live among thorns. That would be my challenge to us ahead of next time: preparing the ground for 30–or even 19!–pilgrims who will be truly transformed.

Agonizing Decisions: Aftermath

I wanted to return to the story I had shared in two parts about Sarah’s friend who was on the verge of eviction from his apartment, and our wrestling with what to do. Our God is good, and always working, and even added to our Easter morning joy. I was in Easter services when my phone started buzzing with messages from him. He wrote:

“[…] In the midst of getting my phone fixed, finding a place to go, getting a job and all the other day to day things of life I just wasn’t able to find the words, heart or time to give you all the response you deserve. First I’d like to say, THANK YOU. Thank you so much for even considering things as seriously as you all did. I appreciate the efforts made and everything you all did to help me. Even though your answer was no, you all still made sure to give me other resources and information doing literally all you could do from your end and that means a lot because there’s very few people that have known me my whole life that will do the same. So, thank you.”

He went on to say that he’s found a place, sharing a room with a friend, and he’s found a job, working in a retail store, so he now has money coming in and is beginning to turn his life around.

God is at work in even the situations we think are hopeless. God is at work if we would just get out of his way and let him–if we would listen for where he is leading us. I am beyond grateful to hear Sarah’s friend is not on the streets, he’s safe, and he’s beginning to put things in order.  I give God all the credit for everything he’s done, and will do, to bring this young man through. And I have to give him the fist-bump for nudging him to reach out to us on Easter morning–the day love broke through ALL of the darkness and gave us the source of all our hope. Ours is an incredible God!

Palm Sunday: Triumph to Tragedy

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and I had the opportunity to bring the message at Sydenstricker UMC for a vacationing Pastor Don. Click here to hear the sermon, called “Triumph and Tragedy.” In it, I explore the shadows that fall over the joyous reception Jesus had that day at Jerusalem: the shadow caused by our own spiritual blindness, and the shadow of the Cross. Give a listen and let me know what you think!

logo_logo_v3

Agonizing Decisions, Part II

So what did we do about Sarah’s friend who was on the verge of eviction and possible homelessness, did we take him in or not?

The short answer is, no, we didn’t. My biggest concern was that I didn’t want to solve the problem right in front of him, only to create a larger problem next. We live in a part of northern Virginia that is very suburban, even rural to the southwest of us; a car is pretty essential to getting just about anywhere, and if he doesn’t have a license and a car, then it’s not possible to get to jobs. So yeah, we could give him a place to stay, but then he’d be essentially trapped in our basement, unable to get to jobs and save up and restart his life.

We communicated that to him and to Sarah. She took it hard; wouldn’t speak to us for a few days. We never heard back from him. I’ve asked Sarah if she’s heard, and all she knows is he’s alive, but he isn’t communicating much.

I feel terrible for him, but I also know we weren’t really a solution for him. But it made me wonder, as I head towards the pastorate: how many other lives like his will I come across? How can I help them, if I can’t even help this one?

Well, maybe we did. You see, one of the things he told us when we spoke was that he hadn’t looked into any programs in his city that could help him. So we reached out to friends and did some research, and so rather than just say No, we added a list of three programs that we found that could help him, and details on two upcoming job fairs in his area. We might not have given him a fish, but I hope we were able to teach him to fish, or at least how to find someone in his own area code who can help.

From everything I can gather, that was the right response. But I can’t say it was easy to do. Mary commented later that this is the one thing she worries most about in our next life: I’ll want to help absolutely everyone, and when I can’t, or when it goes badly, how I’ll internalise it. She may have a point. All I can do is to say I look forward to some of the training I’ll get, including a class on pastoral crisis interventions in seminary.

In the meantime, spare a prayer for a young man struggling to find his way. We’ll keep reaching out, trying to see how he’s doing. I truly pray there’s a good end to this chapter in his story.