Ballad of a Dead Man

Doctoral Committee. Post Oral Defense, outside McAfee School of Theology

“Why are you here?” she asked me, as we sat in a doctoral seminar, Summer 2016.

Why am I here?

That is what she asked me. Right there in front of God and everyone. And what was I to say? I was not entirely sure why I was there either. Of course, there is an entire backstory of why I was there, but she wasn’t interested in why I was there, meaning how I got there, she was interested in why I was even in the room.

Clearly, of everyone present, I had the least reason to be there, in that room, for this degree. I was basically from Nazareth. Angry as it made me, she wasn’t wrong.

For a moment then, and several times after through the years, I have wondered why I had begun a program pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree.

Her question was a literal one, and to my ears an existential one, even as I hated that she had asked it. At first, my anger was directed at her and her audacity. At second, however, the question has rung in the chambers of my mind over these last 6 years.

Why, why, why am I here? What am I doing?

Reflexively I often responded to this question as one influenced by John Wesley might: y’all can have your ministry positions but the world is my parish.

There is still a great measure of truth in that sentiment.

To be sure, I have not traveled the traditional pastoral or academic route, though that is not due to lack of effort.

I have the credentials and experience of one that has worked in the church for 20 years (because I have) but I have never been on a church payroll. When I entered the Doctor of Ministry program January 2016, I was an associate pastor on a staff, but I was not paid; I was bi-vocational and perfectly happy with that. From 2007-2015 my academic record of conferences, papers, publishing, and writing, wasn’t too shabby either, but I had not taught at the collegiate level since my MDiv days. My academic publishing had seemed to be in vain.

At every turn, save a wonderful associate role at Cleveland First Church of the Nazarene, and some way cool academic projects in journals, my efforts at full time ministry, in either the church or academia, hit walls from 2003 to 2015.

 There have been seasons when I just knew now was the time, yet it was not the time. I have mourned the loss of being a pastor and I have mourned the loss of being a professor.

But don’t feel sorry for me. I’m good now. This is just part of my story.

Though my vocation has not taken on the caricature of a typical pastor in Christendom, and I am making money differently than I thought I would 20 years ago, I can say confidently that I have been faithful to walk through every door that has presented itself to me. A few doors I have even tried to knock down, unsuccessfully.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned in 2 decades of listening to the voice of God is that God goes before us and makes our paths straight. Demanding to be where we think we ought to be (see Jonah for example) has quite a poor track record for those called into ministry. It is best to wait.

We do not like to wait, but it is often best to wait and see.

“Why are you here?” she asked me.

I began to pursue my doctoral degree in ministry because an invitation was extended to me by a representative of the program. A door was opened. I wasn’t even in the same neighborhood of this threshold, let alone thinking about a doctoral degree in ministry. I have got to be the least relevant pastor  on the planet. Yet, here is the door, being cracked, maybe opening for me.

This door was opened after several doors had been shut quite forcefully in my face. I listened to the invitation, and I walked through the door. I did not know what this degree would do for me, but I knew instantly that being here was the right place.

Sometimes life is about sensing the right space, even if utility seems banal.

Of course, I had some ideas of how I could use this degree, but nothing concrete. I suppose I am fine with not knowing the ending, or the reason, for what I do vocationally. At this point, that’s par for the course. I feel like Abraham, only I’ve not yet stopped traveling.

Everything was going well, and I was excited about my studies after year one. Then, an abrupt life altering event happened: my dad died.

He passed away on Feb. 27, 2017. He was 65, not ill, not anything. But now dead. Suddenly.

I saw his death face when he was carried out on a stretcher.

We never spoke after 5:30pm, Feb. 27.

The world completely stopped. I was in the middle of preparing for my second seminar that summer, but after that day I couldn’t prepare for anything. I could barely move, let alone write about theology or care about the church’s mission.

I couldn’t read, couldn’t pray. Nothing mattered. I lost 20 lbs the year he died.

To make matters worse, his job became mine, overnight. We worked together. He was administration, planning, and finance. I was operations, people, and tech. We grew our business together. We did not have a plan of secession in place. His job fell to me, literally, and I had no choice.

We buried him. He was dead. But his death had a life of its own.

I spoke at his funeral, as unbelievable as that was and is. I said, “his death will change the course of the history of our family,” and it did. The world changed. As I said that, I knew work was about to suck me in hardcore. And it did. I also knew this doctorate would become increasingly insignificant. And it did.

Then, the following Monday, I literally sat in his chair and became him. I didn’t get to bury my dad on a hill and then go to my home 2 states over. I buried him up the road and then had to swivel in his chair.

There is a darkness that is so dark it becomes you. I had work to do, and that didn’t include any doctoral work. I took an incomplete on the seminar for the summer, but somehow wrote the papers I needed and turned them in by December 2017 and passed the seminar prep.

In 2018 I did zero doctoral work. His death stole 2 years of doctoral work from me. But that is death. It steals. It paralyzes. It took me nearly 2 years before I could begin to read or write anything in the face of the sudden loss of my father. Winter never ended.

In 2019, I took up the mantle of doctoral work again and completed a seminar in spirituality. This was 28-29 months since his passing. I had gotten a handle on work, finally. My wife and I were confirmed in Episcopal Church that spring, transitioning out of the Nazarene Church, and my entire family was baptized on Refreshment Sunday in Lent 2019.

It seemed as if new creation was taking hold in my business and my family life. I was beginning to allow my life, and my vocation, to once again dovetail. My father’s death was becoming a doorway.

The summer seminar was a great time of personal growth and learning. In the fall I began to get involved as an acolyte at St. Lukes and learn the liturgical movements of worship order. I was beginning to breathe again.

Then, the Pandemic hit in March of 2020 and the mantle that had fallen upon my shoulders when my dad left his mortal coil strapped me to my business in ways I could not imagine.

In the early stages of the pandemic, business was slow. It was this way for everyone until States opened back up. During this slower springtime, I was completing my final doctoral seminar. Thankfully, I was able to dedicate the time and energy to this seminar. As soon as it ended, however, I was needed more physically in my business than ever before. The daily grind was never ending. As covid tore across the business landscape it was all hands-on-deck, including mine.

2020 was a business blur. I finished the seminar but got little else done, which is a problem when the goal of a doctoral program is to produce a thesis. Coming into 2021, I had 2 chapters completed, so I was short 3 chapters and that included the heavy lifting of theory and research yet to be done.

Unfortunately, 2021 didn’t start any better, and I wish I could report that work has been a bed of roses. It has not. If you have come into my place of business any this year, chances are you have seen me there.

These are, of course, first world problems. This is not a complaint. Just a description of fact. The additional fact is that 2021 did not want me to finish this degree but 2021 was the year in which it had to be done.

To make matters worse, I knew why I had to work in my business. I had no idea why I needed to finish this degree. To say I was angry at potentially not finishing, angry at being stuck having to carry so much weight of the company, angry that my dad died and hoisted this upon me, would be to speak the truth.

My father had been gone 4 years in February 2021. I was fine. I had dealt with it as best I could, but death still lingered in the background. The constant submission to the demands of the company were a stark reminder that death not only stole him but might also steal this door, sinking its grip deeper, and leaving scars that might not heal so well.

Regret is a special hell I did not want to visit, but I was staring at the abyss unsure I could win the game of chicken.

Why are you here?” she asked.

I am here because of a crisis.

Several months ago, I had a crisis moment over this degree. In that moment, my motivations becoming pure and my resolve strong, I decided this degree was going to happen and it was going to happen well. I developed a steely resolve and knew that not even the devil himself could stop me from doing what needed to be done.

It was going to happen, no matter the physical cost. I am taking this hill.

I was not sure where I found that deep sense of determination. I knew I wasn’t a quitter. I had determined to finish for finishing sake and to honor the investment my advisor had made in my life. There is nothing good that comes from quitting, except that your future self knows you quit.

This doctorate was unfinished business and largely so because of the loss I had experienced nearly 5 years ago.

The crucible was 40 days in the wilderness. No food. No water. Just me and Satan. Man shall not live by bread alone.

Last week, December 2, I was on my way to McAfee to defend my thesis.

I had done it. It was complete and it was good. It was the manifestation of intense blood, sweat, tears, and loss of sleep. It was the product of being faithful even when being faithful meant every ounce of energy I could muster. Being faithful can be exhausting but there is something special on the other side of that exhaustion.

There are mountains of joy and mountains of pain. We must climb both.

As I was driving to Atlanta, the ride was emotional. I had not anticipated that when I left at 6:30am. I hadn’t even considered it as a possibility when planning my week, but it hit me for most of the ride.

Where was this emotion coming from? What was wrong with me? Is there crying in theology?

I began to think about it. Process it. Try to find the origins of these emotions.

Then, it hit me: I was no longer angry. I didn’t feel any anger within me. I only felt relief and joy, happiness and excitement, thankfulness and solidarity.

Unfortunately, all the stress and pressure that I have carried these last 5 years have often left me feeling angry and depressed. I have hidden it well (maybe). I’m good at functioning, but I have not always been the nicest to my family or those close to me. Anger is the evil twin of grief, and it sticks around for a while. It’s an easy emotion to harness for survival when one is dealing with multiple forms of loss: both my dad and potentially my vocation…this threshold.

When my dad died, he left unfinished business. Of his work-related business, I finished it. I had somehow managed to not die after he did, navigate the darkness, have some strong business years, and build a good team. I had literally written myself through his grief (see past posts from 2017-2018 if interested), giving voice to whatever the hell grief does to us. I’ve never experienced anything like it for as long as it resided in my bones.

I thought I had dealt with death. But I was wrong. There was one more thing that death was trying to steal: this doctorate and the life on the other side of it.

I had let the weight of the world and my responsibilities in the wake of my dad’s death wrest me from this important work. I was on the precipice of letting life, and by consequence death, win. It almost won. The referee was at the count of 9.

But that day, Dec. 2, it was done.

Death didn’t steal my life. It didn’t steal my business. It didn’t steal my family with stress. It didn’t steal my friends. It didn’t steal my gifts though it pushed them underground for over two years. And now, it didn’t steal this door and the life that is on the other side of it.

Death no longer had a final word on my life.

I had finished. There was now nothing left undone from the time of my dad’s passing.

I don’t know why or how it happened on the ride to Atlanta last week, but I can tell you on that ride, in the car alone, God released me from death. For a moment I know what Jesus felt on resurrection morning, only his cave was not on wheels.

I had wept when I finished writing the last sentence of my thesis. I had wept when sending messages to my advisor as I completed chapters. I thought I was getting there…and I was, death was losing its grip through these steps, but this day, on that ride, I was released from the last grasp death had on me from my father’s grave.

I was a dead man walking; now, I am a guest at the Wedding of Cana drinking the good wine.

I have scars from death, but like Jacob, I have wrestled with gods and won.

As the day unfolded at McAfee, the oral defense complete, lunch eaten and celebrations had, hugs and congratulations exchanged, I walked off campus. So much good these 4 hours at Mercer. So. Much. Good.

I am thankful.

As I and my advisor walked out of the school of theology to finish what had been a day of victory, and turned left down the long, wide sidewalk, that leads from the school of theology to the parking lot, I noticed that the trunk of my car was popped open.  Like two colleagues traveling the road of Emmaus together, we were sharing stories when I was interrupted by my open trunk.

When I left home that morning, I had not realized I had brought a shovel with the last mound of earth dug from my father’s grave.

There was only one thing left to do.

I bent over, gripped the shovel tightly, and delicately balanced the dirt and the spade in my hands. I walked over to my father’s grave and spread the last mound of earth atop his tomb. The shovel began to lighten as the dirt fell to the earth. I leaned it against his headstone and felt it being released from each finger.

It was over.

Death where is your sting?

I was resurrected. And let me tell you, it feels good to be alive. I know this may seem hyperbolic, and perhaps hard to understand, but December 2, 2021, is resurrection day for me.

I was faithful. God was faithful. Those who loved me most were beside me being faithful. And death was defeated because of it.

“Why are you here?” she asked, looking at me quizzically.

I am here to bury my father. And now, I am here to live.

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