This is the wrong day to feel this way.
It’s 9/11, and even without the memory of such a horrific strategy, Mother Nature is declaring war in a number of places. Hurricanes and earthquakes, nuclear threats and political lunacy. I almost feel bad to say that I feel the way I do. But I know this feeling and it’s worth exploring and explaining. It only comes around so often.
It’s the clearing.
* * *
The first day like this came in my mid-twenties, after a year-long fall to the lowest point of my life. I’d lost my job and my girlfriend. My car was repossessed and creditors called me incessantly. An infinite loop of poor choices, informed by my poor character and complete lack of integrity, had left me with nothing meaningful for which to live. It was the first and only time I’ve ever felt suicidal. I’d experienced my undoing and I knew it was totally and completely my fault.
For one full calendar year, I’d driven or flown to various ministry job leads all over the U.S. only to be told, “We’ve decided to go with someone else.” I heard that phrase nearly 40 times during those 12 months. After the final “no” came on the one-year anniversary of getting fired in the first place, I gave up all hope. I’d lost hope before, felt depressive before, been sad for days or even weeks on end, but I’d never once felt the complete absence of hope.
Into this vacuum stepped a close friend, about two weeks after it started. I’d gotten to the point where I wasn’t even getting out of bed most days, but Jay came one day and said, “Get up. You’re coming to church with me.” I knew he wasn’t leaving, so I did so, took a quick shower and went with him. I refused to sit with him and any churchy friends he had, so I remember rebelling by sitting in the back row (take that, God). My hope was to make an appearance to appease my friend and then go back home to do nothing.
Instead I found the first clearing of my life.
The sermon that day was all about me. It could have been for everyone else, but I knew that day was also all for me. I wept uncontrollably on one of those cushioned, stackable metal chairs that every church has ever purchased since 1987. I waited in the world’s longest line to meet the pastor for no reason at all. I just knew I had to say something. After a few minutes of conversation, he asked me to get coffee on Tuesday.
He offered me a clearing. My life was never the same after that meeting over coffee. Matt Conner
Two days later, I told him my entire story. He asked me to join his church staff then and there. It was the most irresponsible hiring in the history of employment decision. I had no resume. He had no official opening. No church or organization should ever hire someone that way. But in that moment, I’d been running for so long, deeper and deeper into the darkest forest I’d ever known. I had no way out.
He offered me a clearing. My life was never the same after that meeting over coffee.
* * *
A clearing or glade is a literal breath of fresh air.
Inside of a densely wooded area, a large tree might fall over due to a lightning strike or strong wind. The resulting damage will knock over other trees and forest growth to create a new opening. Within the resulting clearing, daylight breaks through and fresh air rushes in. Birds populate the trees near the newly opened space above. New flowers grow on the forest floor; old growth leans toward the light.
Smaller species of trees can grow in glades, diversifying the forest’s ecosystem since new growth is not overpowered and overshadowed by huskier, more dominant species. New flowers and trees mean new birds and animals and insects.
A clearing brings new life.
* * *
It’s been a heckuva year. It’s been a helluva last six months. The last three months? A nightmare.
A move back to the Midwest. A move back into ministry. A move away from friendships now former and a move toward new ones. All of these things can be good or bad, since moves themselves are neutral, but these changes have been hard for me personally. I loved Nashville. I loved writing full-time. Those around me seemed more excited about the possibilities ahead than I did.
Digging back into the church has proven tough on my end. It took me some time to adjust to the notion of being somewhere at a set time like the rest of the planet. Writing on your own schedule has a way of spoiling a person, I’ve learned. But the adjustments didn’t stop there. The expectations to say the right thing, to have something meaningful to say most hours of the day. The need to watch what you say, do or even post online (like this). Working for a church is just an odd vocation.
That last line is true of any church. Specifically, over the last few months, however, it’s become something more than odd. It’s become toxic. The deeper into this forest I’ve wandered, the more the branches became gnarled and twisted. Unhealthy leadership patterns rooted deep. Branches bent toward power and control. To be honest, I’ve wondered on several occasions whether I had the stamina to even walk this path any further.
Then recently came a break of sorts. Some people have left, including several leaders. Lots of people grieving. Lots of changes coming. The nightmare somehow becoming worse. Or that’s what I thought at least.
* * *
We had a staff meeting today. We prayed for each other, the church and our community. We discussed details from the previous days and shaped events for the weeks to come . We made lists, answered questions, divided responsibilities. We did what we do every week.
We also laughed. We laughed a lot. We shared the confusion and pain of the journey to this point and our joy and excitement of the road ahead. After months of heavy meetings and hearts, the room felt light. It hasn’t felt that way in a long time. Together, I believe we’ve stumbled on a way out of this chaos. I know what’s ahead. I’ve seen it before and the feeling is unforgettable.
We’ve needed this clearing.