(From November 10-18, 2014, I attended a PCUSA Board of Pensions CREDO Conference. This blog is about that event. MM)
I packed my suitcase for the CREDO Conference and wanted to believe my friends who are CREDO grads who said things like You’re going to love this, and Trust the process. At my home airport, I was relieved that my checked bag weighed less than fifty pounds. It was stuffed with eight t-shirts, one for each day, two pairs of identical jeans, short pants, and sundry necessities. Just because, I packed two sweaters, a toboggan hat with ear flaps, and an eight-foot-long scarf that my wife crocheted for me in a rain forest in Indonesia before we were engaged. Itchy and hot, that striped scarf always reminds me of her. I was sure I wouldn’t need the warm clothes. I was heading for San Antonio, after all. I’ve been in Texas when it was so hot you could grill brisket on a sidewalk in the shade.
Along with my thick November issue of Poets & Writers, I had packed Sherman Alexie’s even thicker short story collection Blasphemy, which I’ve loved chipping away at for two years. I’ve hauled it around with me to the last four church conferences I’ve attended. Everywhere I go I take my Birkenstocks, tooth brush, and, for this trip, I snitched my wife’s toothpaste: a family sized tube of Colgate that would last at least sixty days. My carryon looped heavily over my shoulder contained my laptop, neatly arranged pens, cords, and business cards, a hardbound journal with acid free, lineless paper, my check book, three unopened Christian Century magazines from the fall, and a thin copy of Maslow’s Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. A peak experience, religious or otherwise, would be welcomed, but was the farthest thing from my mind. There was little chance I’d love this conference, but I had committed to trust the process mainly because once I had signed up I simply had no choice. Surrender—if not its lesser cousin, resignation—is a spiritual discipline. Like with the TSA, you let them pat you down and rifle through your belongings, then eventually they let you go.
The term CREDO means “I believe.” The Presbyterian Church Board of Pensions co-opted that word as a name for conferences they conduct for ministers charged to their care. Since they manage medical and pension benefits, they want their ministers to be healthy. Slick brochures report that they care about us and that we are valued members of the Presbyterian family. Certainly this is true. It is also true they are especially eager to keep down our medical expenses. They don’t want to foot the bill for strokes and other maladies that could be prevented by sunscreen and exercise. At CREDO, I figured they’d put us ministers through our paces; in pre-conference materials we had been primed to explore not only physical aspects of health, but also its fiscal, spiritual, and vocational dimensions. I suspected that they would do this by way of expert seminars and pep talks about living well, eating fresh vegetables, and, essentially, filing fewer claims.
The friendly people at the Board want me to live well and cost them less money. I appreciate their proactive stance. All ministers and their dues-paying churches foot the bill for the wheezing clerics forced onto disability rolls because they soothed their career-long anxiety with decades’ worth of fudge squares and barbeque pork rinds. I guessed that the Board believes CREDO conferences may convert us from caffeine and pastry hounds to aficionados of filtered water and tofu. I did not share faith in such sterling outcomes, but I had steeled myself to play along. Experts, I’m sure, would talk to us about budgets, life-work balance, and antioxidants. We had been promised healthy meals, a few hours per day for walking though the hot, south Texas desert, and, for an extra fee, a massage. For our part, we filled out myriad forms about our health, did online surveys galore, compiled family financial records to the penny, and wrote essays about core values. Our retreat was designed to give us time to rest; after plowing through a whole notebook of inventories, we’d need it.
All of this is to say that I carried more baggage than what fit into my luggage. My shoulders ached already.
As I slogged between terminals at the Atlanta airport, I was not ungrateful for the Board, just wary. Life takes enough out of you without volunteering to come to a CREDO conference. I expected to be challenged with a long list of oughts and to have fingers shaken at me for not having engaged in vigorous exercise since the 1980s. Something I did not expect was so suddenly to miss my family, but by the time the ticket agent invited us to line up like cattle at the stockyard, I did. I would miss a band booster parent meeting, family dinners, and two Monday night footballs with shouts and popcorn, some walks with my wife, and college application conversations with my high school senior. Eight days without my wife, kids, and routine would be tough. Standing by myself in the airport, I even missed my job.
Parents with small children had already been offered seats on our booked flight, as had persons needing assistance, and first class customers—whom they don’t call first class anymore. I collected my bag and coat and the plastic bottle of Dr. Pepper I had acquired at the kiosk where a lonely, tired looking woman took my five dollar bill. I herded through tight squeezes shoulder to shoulder with fellow passengers, down the ramp at gate 2B, and into my small aisle seat. As the plane wobbled and slammed rapidly down the runway, I uttered the Jesus prayer before we climbed aloft into a blue sky and streaked two hours west. At San Antonio, I met other CREDO victims huddled at baggage claim. Ninety minutes on a shuttle bus wound us northwest through the towns of Comfort, Kerrville, and Ingram; we survived several up-and-down queasy turns and crossings of the crooked Guadalupe River, and slowed at a small place on the map called Hunt. The iron gate spanning the driveway into MoRanch looked a little like it could be in the opening scene of a haunted mansion movie. You could see for miles and miles. The hilly landscape matched my interior landscape: it was harsh, sun drenched and barren, strewn with rocks and small trees twisted by constant wind, and ancient looking. It was beautiful.
the first morning getting up early was no problem, but getting to breakfast on time was a stretch because in my rush, and without my glasses in the shower, I washed my hair with hand lotion. To make up time, I slipped on sandals over my psychedelic banker socks. But it was surprisingly cold. The bright sun outside my window and the warm smiles of my fellow conferees inside the dining hall betrayed the fact that temperatures had dropped thirty degrees since our arrival the day before. Despite the sun and blue sky, temps were not expected to rise. A polar vortex had descended upon South Texas and clouds were predicted by afternoon, forcing down the temps even lower. Many of us were underdressed for the cold, but we laughed about it and hopped around in our get-to-know-you routines trying to warm up. It was good to be with people in the same boat, but what boat we were in was not clear.
It got colder. By nightfall, the wind cut us in two. But we put on more layers of clothes, which warmed our bodies. And by the evening of day two, my comrades seemed to be warming to our CREDO process. I wasn’t a believer, but I was no longer a bystander.
The hearty breakfasts each day were the perfect beginnings to long but full days. Worship punctuated each day, usually with morning prayer services that were bright despite clouds and cold. Fifty of us sitting shoulder to shoulder felt so good. Somebody referred to us, just in passing, as a congregation. On Sundays at my church I stand alone to preach and I sit facing the congregation on a pew made for two. At CREDO I sat with people, and I sat close, embedded in their midst; it was a simple thing but I was so grateful that I could sit with a people, a congregation that sang and prayed and responded to the liturgy with strong voices. I could feel their sound vibrate in my body. Our leaders stood alone when it came their time to lead and to preach, but I always stood with my peers, together, and I sat with them, close to them, and I began to pray not only with them but for them. Service after service—morning prayer, evening prayer, communion service, renewal of baptism vows, wholeness service, service in the style of Taize, midday prayers—these ministers from all over the country became my peeps. I began listening for their harmonies. Some guys could sing bass with a bottom as deep as a canyon; some women rose like summer wind to the high notes; some among us—well, some couldn’t sing and they sounded injured—but it all sounded good and full and holy to me.
Our leaders, thank goodness, were not the experts I thought they might be. They offered no formulaic answers, no God’s Plan Revealed In Ten Simple Steps. Sherpa-like, they artfully invited us into conversations about the profound and mundane, about resilience, diet and portions, boundaries and margins, work and meaning, social support, and realistic optimism. They admitted that everybody’s life sometimes gets messy, that life is messy and life is loud, and that one has to listen very carefully, faithfully, and earnestly to perceive God’s voice. They shared their stories, revealed their imperfections, admited the wrong moves they made, the missteps and mistranslations. Ours is a faith, they said, that involves no small element of wandering and wrong turns. One leader said, “Listen, I’ve been in the wilderness for so long I could be a tour guide.” Others described how their perfect plans were perfectly wrong. But God has a way of turning us around, plucking us out of the ditches, leading us forward, and up, and on. Nothing, lately, had inspired hope like hearing these stories did. It was such tremendous comfort to be reminded of this truth. It took a while for my cynicism to melt into an amen, and longer, still, for a muffled alleluia to slip out, but those affirmations eventually came, flowing as the modest Guadalupe flowed outside our windows, not in showy torrents, but with purpose, nevertheless. Much was disguised beneath that glassy surface shining with power and cold.
Our leaders weren’t experts at all. And if we let them—this pair of more or less ordinary ministers and financial advisors, a doctor and counselor and corporate coach and administrator—if we allowed it, they would become our pastors for the week. It had been a long, long time since I had had one of those who cared for me.
Besides giving us plenty of food for thought, we were fed well by the cooks and staff at MoRanch. Veggies were fresh. Meals were varied. A homemade chili pepper salsa transformed ordinary chips into a taste experience that is illegal in New Jersey. We staggered from provocative keynotes and gathered around snack tables in the lobby for Mexican spiced coffee, raspberries, and cheese or chocolate or nuts. This gift of food drew us together in something akin to sacrament or slow dance. Hospitality can do that, and often does, and did every day at MoRanch.
One cold afternoon during break, I approached a member of the faculty sitting alone. I had been making occasional cracks during his plenary that got the group to laughing once or twice. I sat down next to him and asked how he was doing. “Fine, fine,” he said amiably. He was such a nice guy, and even appeared to be wise. Not unkindly, he asked, “Besides all the bullshit, how are you?”
Now, that was funny.
But it made me think. How was I? Who was I? Who was I, really, below the veneer, the platitude, the jokes? As a kid, I was too shy to be the class clown, but as an adult I learned to use humor to draw people near or to keep people safely at arm’s length, a ploy used in part to survive, and in part to suggest joy in the midst of handwringing. Cutting up and my theology of play are messily related. It’s complicated. At the seminary, my more gifted friends had already discovered ways to wear their ministries. I struggled to see my place and to step into it. Well into my second call and with Sondra Underwood’s help, something clicked: I stumbled onto Paul’s quip about being a fool for Christ. What a relief that was. Finally, something I could do, and do well.
I was a fool for Christ, a sometimes jester in the king’s court. But I also carried sadness and self-doubt, and small Kilamanjaros of worry, some heartache and a few pounds of dust where brains used to be. Was I able enough, good enough, worthy enough? Who was I now, deep down, at fifty-years-old? Was it possible that I live in such a way as to make God’s heart sing?
These were the sorts of questions our faculty were getting at. This was the shore towards which they were inviting us to pull. Who were we, and who were we becoming? “If you want to build a ship,” wrote Antoine de Saint Exupéry, “don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” I remember a time when I longed for that ocean, and if I could get back to that shore again where my pulse once raced, maybe I could see more clearly and answer most truthfully questions of identity. These meetings, the plenaries, the one-on-ones and small groups, the hikes and worship and late night conversations—were leading us to a place where we might discern how the Spirit might now be moving in our lives. As we approached that shore, we were encouraged to write down what we thought we saw.
Besides feeling that something akin to barnacles had been scrapped off my once-smooth skin, I didn’t see anything that I had not seen before. Though I felt renewed, I had no major revelations. But I saw places that needed attention. The paperwork we filled out had a way of putting things harshly in black and white. Some of what I saw I didn’t want to see. I spent some time filling out a lengthy inventory about relational, spiritual, physical, and emotional health. I added up my score, which corresponded to coordinates on a graph. Perfect health resulted in coordinates that charted a circle. My relational and spiritual circles were nearly perfectly round. These “wheels” would roll. My emotional health—which charted “stress” and “hostility”—indicated I should work to make my circle rounder. Yeah, I wanted to say, what do they know? My physical health was a hopelessly flat tire. I pondered this report for the better part of two days, and one day, while grazing at the snack table, I decided that I should attempt some actual exercise. If our body is a temple, mine was taking the shape of a Pillsbury Buddha. Because the only pieces of equipment I enjoy in the gym are the television sets, I sensed that the local tennis center was in my future. I wrote that down in ink.
My financial discoveries did not surprise me, exactly, either. I was reminded that we have enough in our emergency fund so long as we have only small—I mean to say, miniscule—and rare emergencies. I also was reminded both in compiling my preconference forms and in my one-on-one meeting with faculty that I will have enough in my retirement funds and pension if I retire at 67 or 70. My death benefits, not incidentally, are pretty good, too. But what about life until then?
That was the point. Planning appropriately for the future—fiscally and otherwise—was part of CREDO’s goal; but what about living abundantly in the present moment? Our faculty wanted us to ponder this, and seriously. I think this gave us all pause. I, certainly, spent a lot of time at that place, on pause, just sitting with what we all had been exploring. Each day clouds hung lower and colder over that horizon of unyielding, inhospitable land. On each morning there was frost, and on Sunday night the mist turned to needles of ice.
But this rugged place captured my attention. One of the locals said she loved this hill country, especially the land between MoRanch and Kerrville. She called this the prettiest part of Texas. “You’ve come at a good time,” she said. “This is the best time of the year. All the trees are painting pictures. And the sky . . . there are just no words.”
On the last two days, the sun came out again. And she was right. That big sky made everything seem possible.
Wariness was not a bad way to go into a week like this. It steeled me for a tough row, and it was a tough week, but not in the ways I imagined. I thought I might be bored out of my skull and confounded by irrelevant inventories and faddish programs. I expected to feel pricked and prodded. Though the week required stamina, I wasn’t bored for a moment. Time was full, but not wasted. I felt tended. On the day before our departure I put finishing touches on my modest CREDO plan. It wasn’t groundbreaking but centering for the moment and possibly useful for the second half of my ministry. Because shift happens, I planned to become a more willing student of change. A modest objective would be attending a transition in ministry conference that I had heard about. You can drown in the waters of change, or you can learn to surf. Further, I’d work harder and smarter trying to treasure the moment, both in my family and work life; I had, over the last year, become too frazzled to be fully present to either.
In a rare moment of good WiFi, I emailed an early draft of my plan to my wife. She wasn’t surprised by my efforts. “You’ve been talking about this stuff for months,” she wrote in an email that I got the next day. Huh? I thought. It took a whole week of sifting and prayer in the Texas hill country to capture on a piece of paper what she already knew.
At least now I’m in on the plan.
We gathered for one final worship service before we loaded onto the charter bus that would take us to the airport. Guide our feet was our prayer. Be Thou Our Vision was our song. My mind wandered during the sermon. I caught words like wander, trust, and surrender. Our worship leader sent us out with this familiar benediction--Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Those words soaked in like salve, but the words forever and ever glowed red-hot. I felt like one small link in a fragile chain of hands that stretched a long, long way. When we passed the peace, I held hands with Christopher from North Carolina and Dwight for Ohio who held hands with people who were holding hands with Bathsheba and Augustine who held hands with the likes of my grandkids’ kids and with the woman who discovers the cure for cancer. In this final service of worship the handclasps and hugs felt warmer than usual. This was nostalgia and goodbye and love at work. We were shadowing on earth what the saints do more authentically in heaven. I could feel the power in our touch—though our grip would fail over time and not only our intentions would turn to dust. The peace of Christ be with you, we said, and with you, and you, and you. We had every reason to be glad. God won’t let us go. God’s grip won’t fail. This clumsy dance would go on.
With the words forever and ever resonating in my head,I walked with the others through sunlight across campus to our rooms to retrieve our suitcases. The bus was waiting. The air was crisp and cold. It felt good to walk. The rhythm of worship still quickened my pulse. I wondered what had been happening at my church without me. I looked forward to seeing my family. I played through logistics of travel. I tweaked my CREDO plan. This amalgam of place, community, time of life, and time away brought into a clearer focus the God who had the most ambitious plan of all: to deliver, redeem, and make all things new. My puny plans, I knew, would bloom only to the degree to which I embraced God’s bigger ones—an endeavor worthy of giving my heart.
Guide my feet, I prayed again as I kicked a pebble up the sidewalk. Guide my feet, I hummed. Hold my hand.
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...