My Church, My Religion

I did some of my best ministry in this church, but it was never really mine.

"Journalism is my church, reporting is my religion." --Jose Antonio Vargas on the Slate Magazine podcast The Gist, Tuesday, February 24, 2015.

"The Lord works in mischievous ways, his blunders to perform." --William Power, Professor of Biblical Literature, Perkins School of Theology, c. 1986.

Some people seem to know who they're meant to be from birth. Some have to wait until high school or college for the spirit to move them in the right direction, to hear the call of their true vocation, but once they've got it, they're happy to spend the rest of their working lives answering that call.

And then there are those of us for whom the whole vocation thing is a ridiculous 5000 piece puzzle that takes us most of our lives to put together.

In case you haven't figured it out over the last 300+ blog posts, I'm in the last category.

In high school, I felt pulled in multiple directions: writing, teaching, science, music, public policy. In college I tried to forcibly narrow it down, settling on music education even though I wasn't yet sure it was right for me. For four years I took the classes, did the practicums, student taught, wrote research papers on music history and literature and developmental psychology, and on finishing, went directly to graduate school, knowing I wasn't really ready for the field--or even sure it was the right field for me. At the same time, I dove as deeply into political science as I could without declaring a minor in it (music ed was like a double major in music and education, with no room in my crowded schedule for an actual minor field of study), wrote for the campus newspaper, and was an enthusiastic leader in the Model United Nations. Still, I told myself I was dedicated to music education, and once I had my masters degree, I came back to Oregon eager to lead my first band.

I lasted ten weeks.

That's a bit of an exaggeration, as after losing that first job I was an almost full-time music sub in the Salem-Keizer School District for the remainder of the year. But the truth is that my career died with that dismissal, and I began groping around for another profession, settling far too quickly for ministry as my rebound vocation.

Counting seminary, that second career lasted fifteen years, finally spitting me out after two failed marriages. I was never really happy in ministry, though there were churches (especially the one pictured above, in Cheadle, Cheshire, UK) where I know I did good work. The thing of it is, though, that it was always work. It was never my religion.

It took me another fifteen years to hear the words that made sense of that mess, and of the hard struggle I've had returning to my first vocation. It was almost three years after leaving ministry before I resumed first substitute teaching, then full-time music teaching. Finding and keeping a music job is far more difficult in this century than it was in the last, as music is often the first program cut when a school district trims its budget. Finding a situation that worked for me was also challenging: I left one school I loved because the 60-mile commute for a 0.8 position didn't make sense, but the much closer full-time job I found only lasted two years before it was eliminated due to the financial crisis. Four years later, I finally was teaching elementary music full-time again, but in a much poorer district with inadequate facilities. It's been especially challenging working with children of poverty in a school that can't provide me with a full classroom of my own, and will likely have me teaching in the gym again next year.

And yet, I wouldn't give this job up for anything.

This afternoon, I came home from an exhausting day to take an afternoon run in the brisk early spring weather. All around me, trees were in bloom, and the chill in the air was not enough to make me question my choice of shorts and a t-shirt, but still enough to exhilarate me for the full 67 minutes I was out. As I ran, I listened to podcasts, as I usually do during a run. Toward the end of the run, I heard journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, interviewed by Mike Pesca on The Gist, say the words quoted above: "Journalism is my church, reporting is my religion." I know the topic of the interview was the tricky question of what to call undocumented immigrants, but I can't remember what that had to do with the quote. I just know that for me, it was a thunderbolt, clearing the air of all the philosophical, theological, and vocational wandering I've been doing as long as I can remember.

It's become clear to me over the nearly two years I've been writing this blog that, for all I owe to it, Methodism was never my church, at least not in the sense of granting me an identity. Of course, when you think about the life of John Wesley, founder of the movement, you realize he was, himself, a lifelong vocational pilgrim, never content in the depth of his own discipleship, always questioning whether he was living his faith adequately. Seminary did teach me to ask the right questions of myself, but then I subjected my parishes to more than a decade of that questioning from the pulpit. Add to that the sense I have that modern Methodism is an amorphous bickering fog of a religion, as incapable of taking a true stand as our new Republican Congress will be of passing any meaningful legislation.

What, then, is my church, if not the denomination that formed me in my childhood, youth, and younger adulthood? I've got a couple of answers to that question--and again, these have emerged through the writing I've been doing in this space.

First and most obvious, my church is the outdoors, and my religion is pushing my body to perform in the outdoors. It's no accident the Vargas quote hit me while I was running. Two days ago, it was a bicycle ride that caused me to find the secret sauce for the lessons I'm teaching at school this week. Moving my body through the outdoors amps up my creativity like nothing else can.

I have another church, though, and it's been mine for far longer than the outdoors, longer, even, than Methodism has been in my life. There are photographs of me in this church when I was barely able to sit myself up. Vargas was, after all, talking about vocation. Many--even most, one hopes--who serve as pastors are called to ministry, and their religion is their vocation. They happily work 60 and more hours a week for wages more appropriate to factory workers than professionals with graduate degrees, live in cheaply furnished shabby homes, move their children from school to school, pour their hearts and souls into building up churches only to be rejected by their parishioners, and yet keep working well past the standard retirement age, some of them taking on new, even lower-paying, pulpits as retirees. This is not their work; it is their religion.

And as I said, it was never much more than work for me.

Teaching, on the other hand, has become my true religion.

In the church of music, there are those who practice their religion by performing. I am a performer, but only part of the time. My true religion is teaching music. Where my brothers and sisters in ministry may pray without ceasing, blessings always on their lips, I am constantly planning lessons, then refining them until, the tenth or eleventh time I teach them, I have perfected them. Part of this is my Orff training, which views every lesson as a performance, filled with passion, creativity, and improvisation; but another part, the much bigger part, is the way in which, when I teach, I find myself in flow, utterly present in the moment, nothing existing for me but my students and the lesson I am teaching them, all other thoughts and concerns falling away. Two and a half hours pass each morning, five classes back to back, and when the last set of students leave my room, I am stunned that it is over.

Being in the moment like this is a goal many religionists seek all their lives. It is the highest form of meditation. To be in that moment for an extended period is a gift I never experienced as a pastor, nor as a Methodist. I had to come back to music education to find it, and now that I have, I can see myself continuing to teach long past the standard retirement age.

This is something I don't see in my colleagues who teach a grade level or a high school subject. Many of them are counting the years to the earliest retirement they can afford. Perhaps it's coming back to teaching later in life that makes me grieve the probable shortness of my career--teaching just 25 years, well short of most early retirements, will take me until 2030 when I will be 69--but, considering the joy I see in my fellow Orff teachers of every age group, the youth they exude well into middle age, I think it's more than we have found our church and our religion, and in them we have discovered a joy that transcends age and work.

With that insight, I must conclude this post. It's a school night, and I've got church in the morning.


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