My journey toward becoming a pastor has been long, filled with twists and turns, and accepted with a bit of reluctance. I began seminary at Memphis Theological Seminary in the fall of 2008. I had recently retired from the U.S. Army, was feeling a “calling” to ministry, and was gungo-ho ready to go for Jesus!!!
I grew up in a Pentecostal/Charismatic home. Our spirituality was firecracker hot, our politics were decidedly conservative (but not quite the same as that of the Tea Party), and our expectations were apocalyptic. The Dake’s Annotated Bible, Hal Lindsay’s “Late Great Planet Earth”, and the preaching of Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, James Robinson, and Kenneth Copeland were the symptoms of our “fire baptized” faith. The world was going to hell, we had the Holy Ghost, Jesus was coming soon, and we were gonna “keep on the firing line” until the rapture took place.
In the fall of 1988 I entered Lee University in Cleveland Tn. and finished four years later with a B.S. in Religion and Social Sciences.
After college I needed a job, I had a wife, I had a kid, and a B.S. in Religion wasn’t that marketable. I had to make a living. The Army provided me that chance and it gave me the opportunity to see the world, get more education, and it exposed me to a very different way of looking at the world. It was like information overload that lead to a spiritual crash. The Apocolyptic faith with which I grew up wasn’t quite playing out as I had been taught to believe that it would. The rapture didn’t happen in 1988, 1989, 2000, 2001, or yesterday. But in 2001 the world changed.
Maniacal and Apocolyptic religion unleashed the fury of hell on the United States. “Radical Islamists” attacked us on our territory. On 9/11 we experienced first hand the destructive power of religious belief gone mad and angry. In the aftermath there were almost 3,000 people dead.
Duty called. We had to “get em over there before they got us over here” (again). Of course this is a loose quote of President GWB, and it is not an attempt to bash him, heck I voted for him twice! But his words, although well intentioned, were symptomatic of our very simplistic mindsets that didn’t quite yet understand just how dangerous fundamentalist religion, politics baptized in religion, and Apocolypticism (is that a word?) were. It was dangerous because it drove “them” to attack “us” and it drove “us” to go and “put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way”, Toby Keith anyone?
Thousands of dead soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen from the Afghanistan and Iraq war, three trips to Iraq for me, and the realization that all of the apocalyptic expectations of my childhood religion had pretty much left me faithless. Like far too many soldiers, I had been divorced, my kids had a weekend dad, and the wars had really spread those weekends out.
Thankfully I met a United Methodist Chaplain in 2005 that helped me to begin to find my way “home” spiritually. He reached and to me and loved me during a very difficult time in my life and although Jesus wasn’t lost, I found him or perhaps he found me. Either way we bumped into each other and I began to follow him again. It was not easy at first. I expected him to meet my apocalyptical expectations. I expected him to tell me that I was right for hating those ***#@735 that attacked us on 9/11. I expected him to kinda confirm for me that everything that I had believed and been taught as a youngster was true. But I knew that that wasn’t the case and Jesus loved me enough to continue bringing special and gifted teachers, pastors, and friends into my life that wouldn’t allow me to “go back” to the nonsense with which I had grown up.
After I retired from the Army in 2007 (I was forced to retire after getting wounded in Iraq) I got involved in a United Methodist Church congregation, felt a renewed call to ministry, and applied to Memphis Theological Seminary.
Wow Memphis was certainly different from my Pentecostal/Charismatic church upbringing. Oh there were Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Methodists, Reformed, Catholics, and even a few Unitarians there. It is an Ecumenical Seminary. It’s ethos is “Piety, Justice, and Scholarship”. I learned a lot there. I made new friends. I saw the world in quite a different way. I even voted for Obama 2Xs. The centerpiece at MTS is Justice. Justice at MTS is the heartbeat of Christianity. But in truth the MTS version of Justice tends toward left wing politics and you probably wouldn’t find a lot of Southern Baptist students there. Yet it would be an oversimplification to say that everyone there is a liberal. The students range from left to right, both theologically as well as politically.
I tried really hard to move away from my conservative pre-MTS life and become a liberal. That didn’t quite take either. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t become a “born again believer” in Protestant liberalism any more than I could right wing Pentecostalism. What was I to do?
I graduated in December 2012 with the M.A. in religion. This degree isn’t sufficient for ordination and I knew that I had to continue on toward the M.Div. I continued my studies at United Theological Seminary in the spring of 2013 and I should finish there in 2014/15. I entered hoping that it would be a good “moderate Methodist” environment. I am not quite sure yet, I don’t quite have them figured out. But what I have figured out is this; there are no perfect seminaries, there are no perfect churches, there are no perfect people, I am not an ideologue, I am not a conservative, I am not a liberal, and I am not particularly interested in the “culture war”.
I was asked to take an appointment as a Licensed Local Pastor, commencing in June. I agreed, I accepted, I trust that this is God’s will. I met with the transition team several times. I met with the exiting pastor several times. I met some of the members. And I think that they are receiving my family and me pretty well.
Yet it is early isn’t it? I had that awkward moment when questioned, “brother Jason what do you think about homosexuals”? My skin crawled, my heart skipped a beat, I felt sick in my gut. My response, “I really don’t think about it a lot”.(and I said it because the person asking was of course asking not about people but about homosexual sex acts). But I also said, “I love gay people, straight people, married people, single people, rich people, poor people, white people, brown people, and black people. People are people and they need to experience the love of Jesus and the fellowship of the church”. I am not sure that the answer was sufficient, but it set the tone.
It kind of cleared the air a bit. I came in (hopefully to the relief of most), without a rainbow flag, and also without a five week series on why we need to return to “the way things used to be”. I want to live in the now. I want to serve God in the now. I want to love these church folks in the now. I have no interest in being a liberal activist, nor do I have any interest in returning society to a patriarchial and complimentarian society.
This path may be a disappointment to few, but it may provide a lot of hope for the many. My hope is that I become a good pastor, one that is liberal in my giving of love, conservative with my criticism, and moderate in my temperament. I want to aim “for the center”, go for the heart, focus on the “red letters”; in my own experience this is where I find Jesus, love, and hope..
Think about it…..