Last week in Los Angeles, I noticed some new billboards; they were advertising a new way to lose weight. Anyone willing to have a “lap band” surgically placed around part the stomach would immediately experience a decrease in appetite and would be able to lose all that excess weight. I am sure that this is a necessary procedure for some people, but this was not the purpose of the billboard. The billboard was telling all those who saw it that appearance was everything and if you were not “perfect” then you could be surgically altered.
Before I came to work for DOOR, I spent about a decade working as a youth pastor in places like Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Fresno, Calif., and Denver. For the most part, I enjoyed my job. The retreats, Bible studies, mission trips, late night discussions, graduations – and the list could go on – provided me with moments that to this day I still recall with fondness. There is something special about being present when a teen turns to the youth pastor to process a major life or faith decision.
During this decade, and, come to think of it, all of the years preceding my youth pastor decade, I spent a whole lot of time wishing I was someone else. That someone was always the person whom I perceived to be better that me.
As a teenager, I was envious of the guys who could play hockey better than me. As a young adult in seminary, I was completely intimidated by the seminarians who seem so much more spiritual than me. As a youth pastor, I was frustrated my inability to run the kind of youth program my colleagues in other churches seemed to be able to put together. They could lead worship better than me, they had an uncanny ability to say the right thing at the right time, their Sunday evening programs outclassed anything I could come up with, and they appeared to have a self-esteem that could get them through the toughest of times.
When I would go to gatherings of youth pastors, I always came away feeling smaller, weaker and frustrated. I remember praying to God, asking why I couldn’t have been more like the youth pastor down the street.
During this time in my life, envying other people’s gifts, skills and talents was what I did best.
During my transition from the suburbs to the city, I became increasingly aware of the need for authenticity. The young people in the neighborhoods in which DOOR served had experienced so many groups of people come to “serve” them that their ability to distinguish between the Christian poser and the real thing was startling. If I was going to be accepted and included in these neighborhoods, I had to be me. Making promises I couldn’t keep, acting like a know-it-all, and showing off got me nowhere. As I became comfortable with myself and acted on that, people began accepting me for who I was and the program I was leading.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t try to become better people. I have lost 40 pounds over the course of the past 12 months – this is a good thing. Study and reflection have improved my ministry skills. I was only able to accomplish this as I became OK with the person I was created to be.
After all, I can only be me, with my gifts and my shortcomings; my ideas, my attitudes and my programs; my experiences and my faith. Understanding and accepting who God created me to be means I can also be with others in honest, acceptable ways.