Not all that long ago, I was part of a community that loved to sing this song called “For My Ashes.” I loved this song, it was melodically beautiful, I loved to play it, and when this community of 80 people was belting it out, I nearly wanted to cry.
But here’s the thing…at that point in my life…I don’t think I bought a damn bit of it.
In the midst of struggling with unresolved grief, the angst of the identity change of college, and in the throws of an addiction, a God who could take the bleakest black and turn it into the vibrant colors of resurrection was simply something I could not accept.
So, I went to seminary.
Being in the ordination process in a traditional church has been a trip to say the least for me, and until lately it seemed to be a pointless endeavor of psycho-theological hoop jumping, with the same three basic questions always being asked of you:
What’s your calling from God, who are you to receive that call, and what do you have to offer to it?
And I have come to suspect that my struggle with it was because I didn’t buy it.
I mean, I did in my head on some level; I could give you a good distinction between law and gospel that sounds like it came straight out of CFW Walther’s mouth.
But, I had no faith in the words, or for that matter any of the promises. When it came to a deep and abiding love of God, the best I could come up with was a faint theological argument.
And how could I do anything else? I had experienced the agony of a mother with cancer for ten years, had lost both of my grandparents, and moved six states away from my family to go to school.
My heart was in a baker’s dozen places, scattered amongst many things. As my enneagram number, nine, likes to remind me, I was “everywhere and nowhere at once.”
The fact that I got as far as I did in the process with my remarkably good looks (!) and a good theological articulation of the Cross has come to scare the crap out of me.
Lately, I have seen a few people talk about their callings to pastoral ministry, and have heard things like “The love of God shown in community made me want to share that with others,” or, my personal favorite, “a burning desire to preach Law and Gospel” (which by the way, I wrote in my endorsement essay nearly two years ago).
The official position of the church goes something along the lines of, “I feel called to the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.” With the underlying Lutheran-y assumption being that you feel called to talk about God’s promises.
What I have wanted desperately for years now is to be able to say those words with conviction and authenticity, but I always found myself thinking, “Man, that must be nice to feel called with all those words and feelings and joyous words of heritage…”
And it got me thinking about the grace and healing that started nearly two years ago, and kicked in to gear last February. As I was recovering, and beginning to have some faith again in a higher power, when one of the parents of my high school students committed suicide, and I remember driving home from being in their kitchen all morning, in the midst of the ruins and ashes of their life that had been left behind, thinking to myself: “Is this all meaningless bullshit? Because if it’s not, God, then you and I are about to get into a full UFC cage fight.”
And I slammed my head against the steering wheel and screamed and yelled, screaming out of the depths of my anxiety, grief, and pain at God that has sat in the well of my soul twenty years.
I got home, and my partner in all things crazy, my wife, just sat, told me she loved me.
And a voice, from simultaneously deep within and far outside (that admittedly sounded a bit like Shawn from Psych), said: “Wait for it”
And waited I did. I finished up seminary, finished up my first job in the parish, and finished up a 90 page masters thesis, and found myself just a couple months later as a chaplain in an inner city hospital, caring for the family of a young man, just a few months younger than me, who had been (eventually) fatally shot a robbery.
I distinctly remember seeing his body in the ICU, during the process of his physical death, with blood on the floor and a nurse holding his intestines, and realizing this:
This is what empty, meaningless, black, chaotic evil looks like. This is what it looks like when all your foundations burn down and all that’s left is ashes.
Then, clear as a day, I could hear my friends, Rachel and Jenny, singing:
For my ashes You give me beauty
For my mourning You give me joy
For my tears, Lord, You give me kisses
Oh, yeah, that’s how good You are
After the man had died, I was outside the hospital, and I was talking with the brother, an African-American man who was both physically bigger and a few years older than me, who I had been near most of the day. His life had no doubt been scarred by the violence and evil that plagues our Midwestern city; but today, his life had been left in another kind of ruins and ashes.
He told me: “So this is it. Huh? I just don’t understand, but thank you. Thank you for being with us, and for talking to me, and being a blessing to us.”
And in my emptiness, bleakness, and tightrope recovery, I heard the vibrant notes of a new song, of the bright colors of resurrection, in my own life, in words that made sense to me:
“Eric, stand here in the ruins and the ashes that are all around you, and point. Point to Me, and the ungraspable song that is just yet out of sight. Just point.“
And that’s my call, like Jonah, that I have run, ignored, and tried to sabotage against: