#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.

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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!

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Rhythms

Ever notice the rhythms of life and how seasons come and go at different paces?

The spring had been a whirlwind: busy at work, to be sure, but also two classes that were very demanding in terms of the time spent each week. Then there was an Emmaus weekend to team on, and the Virginia Conference‘s Licensing School to attend, all before we bid farewell to May.

June feels different already. My two summer classes don’t feel as oppressive in terms of their demands on my time; last week I could actually sit with Mary and watch episodes of Doctor Who for the first time since January. Yeah, literally that long since I had watched anything for funsies on TV. Sad, right?

In fact, one of the classes, Life of Prayer, is pretty intentionally forcing me to take life at a different pace. One of the books we’re reading. Mark Moore’s The Rhythm of Prayer, actively refuses to be read at one sitting. It’s designed to be a forty-day course in prayer, ushering us through liturgies that slow us, calm us, and allow us to be in connection with God in different ways. And my other class, Church History 1, is doing everything it can to make life simple. We already have the first test’s essay questions available to us, so we can begin taking notes that contribute towards those. Such a difference in tone from last term!

It’s rhythms like this that reassure me of God’s sovereignty. Sure, there are seasons where we’re running flat out and our friends and family are telling us they’re worried because we’re gaining weight or don’t seem able to relax. But then they’re followed by seasons of relative repose, where we can see our way to enjoy a Doctor Who marathon, or drinks out with friends, or even an early evening sitting on the deck listening to the neighborhood kids have a water balloon fight. In those moments God is reminding us, he’s the one in charge, and if we have faith in him to see us through the crazy days, there are quieter ones he will provide for us as well. Ours is a God who truly loves to love on us, if only we join him in the rhythms he has for us.

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!

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!

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.

Agonizing Decisions, Part I

Nobody ever promised life would be easy. We’ve had a heckuva decision to make recently. Sarah came to us with news that an 18-year-old male friend from another Virginia city (i.e., a significant distance off) was being evicted from his apartment within days and on the verge of becoming homeless. She asked, Could he come stay with us and start to make a new life here in Northern Virginia?

Oy.

Very long story short, this is someone whom she knows far better than we do: we had met him once, last summer, and I think I spent all of four hours with him that weekend. We spent about 40 minutes on the phone with the young man to hear him out directly about his present situation. 

On the one hand, he has no car and no license. He wants to work in an industry that isn’t local to our neighborhood, so he would need a way to get to work. He’s very desirous of working, but for various reasons (not important to get into here) hasn’t kept a job more than a few months. For various reasons he hasn’t been able to go to his parents for assistance. He seems like a decent person who’s struggling to get his life started. But I really don’t know him, and how do I bring someone into my home (in the presence of my wife and 18-year-old daughter) whom I don’t really know all that well?

On the other hand: Christ has no hands and feet but ours. What good does it do to talk about Christ’s love in action, if I can’t see it through?

“I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink.  I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’” Matthew 25:42-45

So what do we do? What is the proper Christian response to this?

We took counsel from many, many friends, and I cannot say any of them said, “Absolutely, you have to take him in.” Which is itself an interesting observation. I got a lot more responses along the lines of sharp, whistled intakes of breath, and caution to not do it. And to be sure, the last thing I would want is someone who takes up residence in my basement and then can never leave–not only for the impact on my family, but all the more, because it won’t have really solved the problem, only changed it and put it on my family’s back.

This becomes all the more a real question as I transition into the pastorate. I’m not aware that I’m under any obligation to take into the parsonage every homeless person who shows up at the door. But I am expected to help, and to help in ways that don’t create further harm to the person seeking help. Plus…it’s my daughter. And it’s a friend of hers.

I have agonized over this for weeks. An awful lot of my prayer life went into this topic for awhile.

So what should I have done? Let me know your thoughts…then next time I’ll share what we actually did.

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!”

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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.