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.

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I’M PROUD OF MY DAUGHTER!

I’ve shared before how my daughter–my baby girl–has struggled with anxiety around school, to the point that she tried (and didn’t) finishing school a year early. This year, we had pulled her from the public school, to let her finish out the last few classes online; that wound up not working as well as we had hoped either.

But today, Sarah completed her journey, and has now earned her credential: she passed her last tests for her GED, two of which she passed with high enough scores that she could qualify for college credits at certain institutions. She will graduate on time, with the rest of her friends, and be able to start her next journeys.

I am SO proud of her. She has struggled these last four years, and there are plenty of times I am sure she felt she would never be done. And truth be told, I know there was a lot of frustration on our end as parents, trying to do everything we could for her because isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?  And then coming to the realization that all we can do is love her, and pray for her, and with God’s help she will find a way. We knew her path might look very different from other paths…and that’s super OK. And so she won’t go on to college right now, or be a part of the public school graduation ceremony. But you know what? She’s exactly who, and where, she is supposed to be. And I can’t say enough how much I love her and am proud of her for pushing through and making it to today.

Her graduation ceremony is June 1, with a gaggle of her friends who are homeschooled; it winds up being the same day as if she had stayed in public schools. Some family are coming to be a part of the day, and it will be so thrilling to see our last, our baby, be done with school finally and officially, and on to whatever path God has in store for her.

Love my Sarah!

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.

Somebody Fired The Starting Gun

So let me tell you a bit about the beginning of my week last week.

Sunday night: a close friend reached out to me about his relationship with one of his adult children. Things had been awkward lately, with unspoken feelings piling up and spilling into behaviors that finally came to a head, and text messages started flying. I spent time helping him craft messages that conveyed love in the midst of the hurt, and helping him think through how to approach the topic so his own feelings are heard, but which preserves the underlying relationship.

Monday: another brother in Christ shared that he has been “down the deep dark hole that leads to nowhere,” in a black depression lately, such that he hasn’t seen seen in years. A familiar tale of trying to keep all the plates spinning at work, at home, with family, with friends, with everybody, and not being able to do so. Marriage, kids, job…sometimes all the facets of our lives collide at once.

Tuesday: a family member has started on a new life opportunity that has her away from home for the first time in awhile, and her start of the program was marred by anxiety attacks. She was quite upset with herself, because if she can’t get them under control she can’t finish her program and take the next step she wants to take. And so the texts I received were panicked: “Help me!”

startinggun

By Wednesday, it felt like someone had blown the whistle to start the race of my pastoral time, and I was still back at the bench getting my laces tied. All of a sudden, out of the woodwork came these people I love experiencing their own crises. I know enough to know that my role is not to solve the problems: I know I can’t do that. Instead, my role is to walk alongside, to encourage, to pray for, to connect them with resources that are trained to do more than I can. And in each of the cases last week, that’s how I tried to act: the ministry of presence, of sharing genuine concern and love. And in each of the cases, I felt inadequate, unsure, a little floundering myself. I can only pray they received each some sort of peace, some sort of help, despite my inadequacies.

Nonetheless, this is the path I’m called to follow. This is the world I will inhabit: sudden panicked texts and painful situations needing help, and more. I know I don’t know enough yet about pastoral counseling, and for the missteps I know I’m going to make in my early pastoral career, right up front, let me beg forgiveness.

And at the same time, let me declare the love that’s out there and available. If, as one mentor put it, “as you go deeper into this, the world will respond to that call [that I’ve been given],” then I celebrate this as affirming what God is already at work and doing. And I know I can’t do this…but He can. So come, Holy Spirit. Fill me, use me, let your words and Christ’s love be what people hear and see, not my own shortcomings.

Let’s go.

Anxious: Guess We’re Doing This!

Ten days ago (yep, I’m still processing this somewhat), the District Committee on Ordained Ministry (DCOM) for the Alexandria District, Virginia Annual Conference, of the United Methodist Church, formally endorsed me as a Certified Candidate for Ordination, and moreover approved me for licensing as a Local Pastor as soon as July. Yep. This year.

I had about an hour-long interview with the ~dozen or so members of the DCOM, who asked lots of questions about my fitness to lead, my understanding of the sacraments, and so forth. (Although interestingly, never asked “Why do you want to become a pastor?”) They asked about my devotional life, my self-care habits, how I developed the sermon I posted to YouTube. They also asked what kind of appointment I’d be seeking, and I told them I’m still committed to the idea of finishing my Federal service in another ~5-plus years while attending seminary part-time, so a part-time posting nearby that allows me the chance to be mentored and get my feet wet, make some mistakes and have someone there to help me understand them–that would be perfect. Later that day I had an email from the DCOM chair that I had been approved.

Part of me wanted to laugh, part of me wanted to cry, part of me said “You fools! If only you knew how unready I am for this!” And so I think the right word is “anxious.” I’m anxious in the sense of, what have I gotten myself into? How can anyone possibly think I am able to do this? But also “anxious” in the sense of, let’s get to it! Let’s go, let’s get started, I’m anxious to begin!

I still have to go to licensing school, ten days in May, but for all intents and purposes, I will become the Rev. Eric Kleppinger as of annual conference in late June. And then…the adventure begins. Part-time pastoring, plus full-time employment, plus two seminary classes a term, plus family, plus life, the universe, and everything.

For I can do all things through the one who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)

Amen. And amen. Lord, you have called me to this. In you I find my strength to follow, and in you I will find my strength to do all you’ve called me to do. Let thy will be done. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. Because, I guess we’re doing this!

 

Advent: Anxiety?

So how has the Sabbath been going, has Advent remained somewhat peaceful?

Yes? And…no?

I’ve been blessed with a fairly stress-free December at work. And with one week to go in the current Continuing Resolution, it’s anyone’s guess whether the Department will be shut in a week (and me with it!), or…not. So there’s a little touch of anxiety there, but perhaps for a reason you might not expect.

You see, if we’re shut, I’m not terribly worried about surviving. Most likely I’ll be paid for the inconvenience in the end. And even if not, we can carry ourselves for a bit here. It’s not like we live paycheck to paycheck like we did when we were just starting out.

No, it’s more an anxiety over, What will I do with myself? My last paper is due Monday, so I won’t have classes hanging over me until February (which will be a wonderful and welcome break). And being bored is…well, it’s terrible for me. I might get some reading done. Maybe tidy the basement. And part of me wonders what’s going on at church that week that I could maybe help out with?

I just know that if I spin down from the pace of classes into a pace of watching whatever the heck I want on Netflix, it’ll be difficult to spin back up again. I need something to occupy me. At least for about ten days before Mary and I go on our vacation to the UK.

Again, I can feel the nudge. Yep, spin down. That’s exactly what I need you to learn how to do. Rest in Me. Then you can do anything.

A Week On Campus

Today wraps up my second-ever week on campus at Asbury Theological Seminary.  I had two classes this week, Vocation of Ministry and Intro to the Old Testament, splitting the week: Vocation Monday through Wednesday noon, and OT Wednesday afternoon through Friday.

These were two very different class experiences, akin to going from a warm bath into a raging Class V rapid.

Vocation of Ministry is all about helping us understand the concept of “call,” and how we may be called into God’s service. We spent a lot of time in small-group accountability groups, and so I had the chance to come to know Mark and Justin better than just online. Pastor Don would also love some of the takeaways from the class:

  • If you build a church, you might not make disciples, but if you make disciples, you’ll definitely build a church.
  • Don’t sweat your ministry. God has far more invested in it than you do.
  • Our job is climate control: creating a set of conditions in which God can do something.

I felt especially convicted in our discussion of Sabbath. I don’t rest. I just don’t, not in the way the Bible calls us to. I do need to be more intentional about that: carving out time to do nothing but to sit and be in Jesus’ presence.

Old Testament moves at a firecracker pace: pop pop pop pop. The class has been a ton of reading (about 648 pages last week to get ready for this week), and I took more notes in these 2½ days than I’ve done in a long, long time. College Boy would have loved the archaeological discussions about various sites (is Mt. Ebal Joshua’s altar, or an Iron Age I barbecue pit?). We also waded into more controversial lanes:

  • What if the Exodus event wasn’t all of Israel, but only the tribe of Levi? And the rest of the tribes never left Canaan?
  • What if “the law” in the Old Testament wasn’t prescriptive, but a set of statements that defined a general approach that the society was supposed to take?

Rolling around on the floor with those kinds of questions was fun; I only wish some of the quizzes in the class weren’t so much a Bible trivia gotcha.

* * *

I also drew reassurance once again at just being here. This does feel like a good place to be. I do feel comfortable here. I can see myself at this kind of work now. And hey, it’s a great place for a selfie with a life-sized John Wesley…