i'm sitting in a coffeehouse with a double Americano that will take me at least 2 hours to finish, listening to ambient music (from Brian Eno and others), staring out a window along a main street in a small town on a brilliantly bright, blustery, and almost cloudless winter day.
but for the first time in over 7 years, this somewhat typical scenario for my day off is not taking place in Missoula, MT, on Brooks Street at Caffe Dolce.
today, i'm in Mendocino, CA, on Lansing Street at Moody's Organic Coffee Bar.
and while the mountains and trees that back up to this little village look somewhat similar to those that surround the 'Zoo, there's one huge difference.
most of the western side of Missoula is the Bitterroot Mountains.
the entire western side of Mendocino is the Pacific Ocean.
the most spectacular, sensational, and sacred place on the planet (at least for me).
the unexpected and unwanted, frustrating and fascinating, excruciating and exhausting and exasperating, and evocative and enlightening and (unfortunately) essential journey of the past year has led me to a surprising new season of life...serving as a Transitional/Interim Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Ukiah, CA.
the person who explored seemingly every possible 'avenue' to live out his vocation outside of the institutional machinery of the movement that first called him (and support his family and enable them to continue to live in Missoula at the same time) has ended up basically back on the same 'street' where he has 'lived' for over 20 years.
new address...same 'home'.
one reality that has emerged out of this odyssey of months is that a calling in life involves two entities. and while i may have thought i was ready to move on and head in a new and different direction in my calling, the entity through which the call was first issued doesn't appear to be ready to let me go. it seems to have some unfinished business with me (and, i now realize, i with it).
and so, i take one faltering step of faith (or some approximation of it), trembling in my tentative trust, thankful for a chance to ensure some stability and security for my family whilst doing whatever it is that i'm gifted and graced to do on this earth.
and incredibly grateful that part of this semi-familiar step includes a new avenue to the ocean.
there's a loop off of PCH and Lansing Street called Heeser Street. it winds down through Mendocino Headlands Park, along a section of rocky cliffs on the coastline. every 1/8th of a mile or so, there's a little turnoff with 4 or 5 parking spots. i stop at the first turnoff, park my car, and head off on a small trail through a wooded tunnel into a grove of majestic trees and thick bushes which eventually open up onto an amazing bluff overlooking the Pacific.
i walk along the trail as it meanders along the north side of the bluff, peering down a 60-foot cliff at the surging surf below. as i travel further out, the bluff becomes narrower and narrower, until it reaches a tiny, arrowhead-shaped point no more than about 6 feet wide.
i notice a rock formation there, surrounded by some brambles and ice plant. as i step very cautiously closer to the edge, to my amazement, i see that the rocks there naturally form a kind of 'chair'.
i sit down...and seconds later, tears leap from my eyes and i begin sobbing uncontrollably. the emotion that erupts from within me in that moment is so powerful, i cannot do it full justice with mere words.
i am surrounded by the Pacific Ocean.
i am sitting on the edge of a cliff on a stone throne as if i have my own 'private audience' with the most spectacular, sensational and sacred space on the planet. and the Creator of it all.
the wind is whipping the waves into a turbulent frenzy, and my hooded sweatshirt is filling with enough air to propel me off the cliff and to soar out with wings like a Pelagic Cormorant gracing the skies above.
the waves are crashing into the rocks below, the salty spray surging up and over sections of the bluff, drenching my hoodie and glasses, stinging my eyes.
and the roar of the wind and waves drowns out the primal screams emanating from the depths of my being as a heart-ripping, holy howl, the torrents of my tears pouring down my cheeks and onto the hardened and hallowed earth, merging with the salt in the air and sea as an offering of oppression, an oblation of frustration, a lament of longing, a 'hey You!' for healing, a hymn for help, a hallelujah for hope, a plea for peace, an intercession for incarnation, a yelling for YHWH.
and with each howl of the hopes and fears of all my years, another stronger gust of Wind and crash of Waves echo back in reply, embracing me in the bracing cold, immersing me in the Water of Life, enfolding and empowering me in the Breath of Spirit.
i sit atop my 'Cliff of Insanity', searching and screaming for the return of my sanity, the restoration of my self.
and find that my Sanity, my true Self, has already found me.
many dear family members and friends (connected by Spirit or blood or both) have traveled this rocky road with me over these wild weeks of wandering and wondering. and upon hearing the news of my new call, i've received waves of well-wishes, choruses of congratulations, and avalanches of affirmation, for which i'm truly overwhelmed and appreciative.
but i sense the need to clarify a couple of things regarding this new season of life that don't quite fit the usual celebration of a new opportunity in life.
- some have said to me, 'aren't you EXCITED about everything coming back together in your life in a new way?'
i recognize and understand the spirit in which this has been said. people have longed to see a positive outcome from all that's happened, and waited to share in the joy of a new call for me.
but 'excited' is not really the best word to describe how this new season of life feels. because everything in my life has NOT 'come back together' by receiving this new call, literally and figuratively.
the community of faith in Ukiah has very graciously agreed to allow me to serve 3 weeks at a time there, followed by 5-6 days back home in Missoula with my family (returning to CA to be present for almost all Sundays). this is an INCREDIBLE gift to us, one that i do NOT take for granted. but it also means that i am away from home about 75% of the time, for the next 1-2 years.
thank God for modern technology that allows us to see each other most every day, and for a church that has opened up its 'manse' (church-owned house) for me to have a nice place to live in whilst in CA (significantly helping me to furnish it in the process). but the fact remains that i am now adjusting to living life mostly on my own, in a warm and welcoming community, and a charming residence built for a small family that has become a makeshift 'pseudo-bachelor pad'.
so, do i feel a great sense of RELIEF after months of uncertainty and stress? yes.
am i THANKFUL for this opportunity? absolutely, on several levels.
am i EXCITED? not quite.
am i HOPEFUL? yes.
- others have mentioned, 'isn't it so wonderful to see how 'God's will' has been revealed in your life, and how God has 'orchestrated' all of these things to happen to lead you to this new call?'
again, having lived and served in a context of faith for many years now, i 'get' the sentiment that undergirds a statement like this. and amidst endless days of confusion and cacophony, i have perceived and even experienced some moments of clarity and calm, definition and direction. in traveling a pathway i did not desire nor choose, on a journey where i have never felt more alone, i have nonetheless sensed a Presence sojourning along with me, a Love that will not let me go.
but do i believe that this One, who fashioned me out of mysterious matter and cosmic clay and breathed life and Light into my frail form, somehow 'made' all the inexplicable events i've endured this past year 'happen', experiences of walking through an emotional 'valley of the shadow of death' (at times a literal 'hell' on earth, which has rendered me a still mostly misunderstood member of the walking wounded), all so i could end up where i am today?
well...i'll respond to that question with another one, coming from a much more harrowing experience than any i have ever had to endure.
did God 'orchestrate' all of the things that happened in Newtown, CT last Friday so that 'God's will' could be revealed in our world?
as a person of faith (a faith in which doubt serves as a primary catalyst and partner), i have experienced and grown to affirm that the One known by many as Creator has created a creation that has the innate ability to continue creating on its own. life as we know it is not a fixed, stagnant, completed construct. it continues to change, morph, evolve and emerge, in space, over time.
in a simpler, more popular vernacular, 'life happens'.
there are blessings and burdens. storms and celebrations. rain falls on the just and the unjust. the sun shines on the saints of heaven and the scum of the earth. terrible and transcendent things transpire in all of creation, in all of our lives.
but do i believe that God is PRESENT in the midst of it all, cheering with all who cheer, dancing with all who dance, grieving with all who grieve, suffering with all who suffer, shedding tears of pain that water the hardened and hallowed earth like rain and sting like salty showers splashing up from ocean waves crashing upon the 'Cliffs of Insanity' in our world and our lives?
in the Name of the One who, in love, as Love, descends into the depths of our darkness and despair, and beyond valleys of shadows to experience death itself...
or as my 'literary patron saint' Frederick Buechner once wrote,
There is no event so commonplace (or horrific)
but that God is present within it, always hiddenly,
always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him,
but all the more fascinatingly because of that,
all the more compellingly and hauntingly.
the One who comforts and compels and calls us, the One who haunts and hallows and heals us, does not make horrendous things happen to us or through us. but that One is ever-present to us and with us and for us on our fascinating and foot-sore journeys, wherever we may wander...and wonder.
as i embark on this new season of life, wandering and wondering through uncharted territory in my vocation and my soul, i'm extremely grateful for all the fellow travelers who have not left me behind in the dust on the way to the mountain tops, but stayed with me through the longest troughs. i still have a LONG way to go. but as i continue to take one tentative step of doubting faith/faithful doubt at a time, i offer this song by Wilco as a plea for understanding, a prayer for patience.
'Please Be Patient With Me'
(music and lyrics by Jeff Tweedy)
I should warn you
When I'm not well
I can't tell
Oh, there's nothing I can do
to make this easier for you
You're gonna need to be patient with me
I'm this apple
This happening stone
When I'm alone
Oh, my blessings get so blurred
at the sound of your words
I'm gonna need you to be patient with me
How can I warn you
When my tongue turns to dust
like we've discussed
It doesn't mean that I don't care
It means I'm partially there
You're gonna need to be patient with me