by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
I wasn’t expecting this tour while on sabbatical. I arrived Sunday evening in Pasadena for a Doctorate of Ministry audit course. I like to take weeklong intensive graduate courses in theology, ministry, leadership, spirituality – just about anything. It forces me to hear God differently, helps me get out of my own head. I think this is what conferences, workshops, and courses are supposed to do for us. I love to go to Pasadena, Fuller Theological Seminary, where I earned my Masters and studied to become an ordained minister. It was there I was called to start a church. It was at Fuller that the rest of my life was set, unbeknownst to me 27 years ago.
Like I said, I wasn’t expecting what happened to me. I checked in to the Fuller Guest Center and then jumped in the rental car and made a beeline to In-N-Out Burger. As I sat outside with my #1 Double Double, the sun was setting over the Pacific and the California sun was glowing through the palm trees, I thought, “Hey I gotta drive up to Midlothian Street and see where Laurie and I used to live. In 1990 we rented a two-room pool shack behind a mansion up the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. It is a very upper crust neighborhood.
As I drove up San Gabriel Avenue, which I had done hundreds of times back in the early 90s I was overwhelmed with a single feeling. It was the feeling of innocence. I was thirty years old. I quit my job in marketing, and became a student again. I am not a great student, so the whole grad school thing was very scary. But I felt called by God to full-time ministry. I was advised by my Overland Park pastor to go earn my Master of Divinity for in-depth Bible study, Hebrew, Greek, theology, history, and pastoral ministry. So I went to Fuller. At the time life was at its full potential. Everything was open to me. I wasn’t a pastor. No church. Let it be said, I was outright cocky. I thought I knew better than all those other church leaders. It showed too. In the middle of class the professor pointed to my friend John and I said, “…and especially you two young turks!”
But now, I don’t feel so “young turk.” Maybe your average church-goers don’t know it but ministry can suck the life out of pastors. I thought I’d get better and better at dealing with people, managing my anger, becoming more patient… and perhaps many pastors do get better at managing human nature. All the books I’ve read on ministry however say otherwise. Burnout happens with great predictability in ministry. That evening driving though my old neighborhood I could viscerally sense innocence. In that moment I could have “essenced” innocence, like some essential therapeutic oil. Man, the money I could make selling “essence of innocence” to pastors, doctors, nurses, EMTs, therapists, teachers – any professional Helpers.
I’ve never said it before, but over the years I have felt like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins at the end of the tale: Frodo saved the Shire, but not for him. Like fictional Frodo, I’ve been to hell and back… I know too much. I have seen too many crises, too much pain, heartbreak, and grief. I’ve seen joy and celebration and life defining moments in people’s lives, weddings, birthdays, births, baptisms, confessions, and funerals – yes, funerals, which are often times greater than all the other life moments. As Dostoevsky’s innocent Prince Mishkin phrased it, “Beauty will save the world” but beauty comes in all shades of joy and sadness like music, some of our most meaningful songs are melancholic ballads, like Don Mclean’s American Pie, or even Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt – or even Jesus’ very real nine inch nails. The cross of Jesus was the real tragic beauty that saved the world, Alleluia.
For a brief moment I returned to innocence. But I knew I could not hold on to innocence forever. Too much dwelling on the past is a dangerous pitfall. The desert fathers of the 4th century Egyptian Christian monastic spirituality warned against monks spending too much time with “memories.” From the Greek it’s called “logismoi,” the mind ruminating too long on the past, and becoming stuck in woulda, shoulda, coulda. All “shoulds” are the voice of someone else. “Wants” are our own voice of real desires. Less “shoulds” and more “wants.” I don’t want to get stuck longing for a past age of innocence. We’ve all seen a person or a family attempt to hang on to a deceased loved one too long. They get stuck.
Life brings unbidden scars. Our scars are how we define our life. Scars of cumulative. We gather them to together and they tell the tale of our lives. But we have to live in “the sacrament of the present moment” as Jean-Pierre de Caussade said. Every moment is gathered up to make a life. And if we are spiritually healthy enough we can make sense of it all. We are like Jacob’s young son Joseph, who told his brothers who didn’t like him and sold him into slavery as a boy, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…” (Genesis 50:20).
Still, I believe it is necessary to make a journey, return like a pilgrim into your own past, to attempt to make sense of it all. Locations really help. So, go visit your hometown, visit your grandparents gravestones, drive to your childhood home, look through a family photo album with your kids. Gather and release. Beauty will save the world. My life it beautiful. Your life is beautiful. All of it.