September 21, 2020

Tuesday with Michael Spencer: No Regrets

not looking back. Photo by Nic Redhead at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Tuesday with Michael Spencer
No Regrets (from 2009, edited)

Young folks in ministry. Adults living in regret. This is for you….

There was a time, in the last decade, that I constantly and painfully struggled with regrets about various choices I’d made in my life.

I regretted not finishing doctoral studies. (I made it 37 hours in and never finished the paper.)

I regretted staying in youth ministry so long. (13 years full time, then back for 18 years where I am after 4 years as a pastor.)

I regretted staying in Kentucky. (I had opportunities to go to Oxford, Mississippi and to Texas, but followed my hillbilly instincts.)

I regretted that so many of my friends were pastors of First Baptist Churches and I never got close. (The cost of not getting that Dr. degree.)

I regretted a bunch of stuff I can’t talk about. (You don’t want to know.)

Sometimes, I’ve honestly regretted staying at one ministry in the mountains of Appalachia for most of two decades. There was a time I was constantly called to do speaking and seminars, but almost from the day I came here those opportunities stopped. Say what you want, when you’re in the mountains of southeast Kentucky, you’re off the radar. It can be very disorienting.

I’ve spent a lot of time — too much — regretting all kinds of aspects of life in ministry. You’d have to be there to understand that struggle, but it’s a hard calling and I’m not ashamed that it was hard for me.

I made a lot of mistakes as a husband and a dad. I’ve spent a lot of time regretting them. (In God’s grace, my marriage and kids are wonderful.)

Recently, I’ve regretted the time I spent as a Calvinist (still struggle with that) and even the entire fact that I wound up in full-time ministry at all. (It wasn’t my fault, but full-time public school teaching combined with ministry as I had opportunity was a better fit. But in the church where I grew up, the only thing they knew to tell us 16 year olds was “be preachers.”)

I regretted the lack of friendships we’ve found wherever we’ve been, seemingly no matter how hard we tried. (Still one of life’s big mysteries and a sad aspect of ministry.)

There have been a lot of regrets involving the church home we never quite found as a family. (Denise and my kids have all found churches. My home is with the homeless.)

I was a tortured soul for many of those years and those regrets poisoned my experience of the goodness of God. If I could have seen it at the time, I would have confessed that I’d made ministry my entire life and set expectations in ministry that would always leave me disappointed.

A good counselor could have shown me the footprints of all this regret, stalking me for many years. I brought childish, self-centered attitudes into adult life, ministry and marriage that constantly tried to prop up my own insecurities and deficiencies with various aspects of success in ministry. I tried to fill up empty places with “success” as a minister. That’s a real wall to hit, and I’ve hit it repeatedly.

Where am I now? I’m at a much different place. I would never claim that I’ve moved beyond the swamp of regret, but I’ve learned some things that are bearing much helpful fruit.

I have never found it satisfying to simply do the Calvinistic thing and talk about God ordaining everything. I need to understand how this has all worked and not worked for me. I can see clearer now, and what I see is that God is helping us to be persons, not success stories. His goal is that we be loved, not well liked — a la Willie Lohman — or well known.

A healthy Christian person must find a place where they can be themselves, and that place won’t be identical to our definition of “success.” Even if we succeed, the experiences that bring make us who we really are won’t be found in the spotlight of success. They will be found in God’s version of our wilderness.

That place may be a nursing home, or a tiny college, or a farm or a forgotten mission to the poor. It may be in another universe from the latest conference or well known ministry. It may have no potential for anything but small acts done with great love. If that is so, you should embrace it as your place. Yours, and a gift to you.

God has placed me in a life where the soil for growing a good and useful spirituality is plentiful. There is the rich soil of community and relationships, and there is the occasional fertilizer of human failures and disappointment. In this soil, I will grow. I will not be an object to be seen and heard. I will be a person, growing into a human image of the God we know in Jesus.

As an older man considering my place, I can see the value in my life of having predictability, schedule, structure and place. I can see why I need some of the simple things that guide and nurture my life that many “successful” pastors never find. These things can’t be found anywhere, but they can be found where I am.

There is a place and time to read the Psalms. There is a place and time to pray. There are people to love and to tell about Jesus. There is good work and comraderie, even if all is not perfect. There is labor and a mutual acceptance of pain. There is help, rejoicing and the grace of seeing the old and leading the young. There is family, time and room to breath. I know see these gifts in ways I did not before. I see them in such a way that many of my previous regrets are unappealing to me.

I do not understand why God has left me in youth and student work so long, but it’s apparent that my passion for and emphasis on Jesus and the Gospel isn’t found very many places in the evangelicalism my students know and experience. I am a communicator, and though I feel some weariness in my bones after preaching and teaching for hours, I am still certain this is why I am in this world and at this place: to communicate Jesus and his Gospel in a time of chaos and static.

It appears that this has been my assignment and the point has not been to have my name on a conference program, but to preach regularly to hundreds of students who don’t know Christ, and to do so in the mountains and to do so for years. My place isn’t telling someone how to do ministry, but to stand in front of kids and actually teach the scriptures. I still feel guilty that I am so old, but I know that I have gifts and opportunities that are rarely found together. So this is my place.

I don’t have to always be happy. I need the love of God not the happiness of men. I can grow to see the two coming together, but not if I dictate how they will both come to me. I have the privilege of embracing a calling and the road that is before me. I am not going to talk about the Kingdom or missional living. I am going to live in the Kingdom and practice missional living.

I can relax and accept that God has been at work in all of this for his glory and my usefulness and joy. I have no regrets unless I want to be God.

In the end, this out of the way corner of the world is the place where I want to be found. When God wants me to go elsewhere, I’ll gladly go, especially if it’s near a ballpark, but in the meantime I’m not ashamed or regretful of the path the loving hand of God has given to me.

I am wasting far less of my mind and heart on regret. I’m finding that the wisdom of the spiritual life is not found in evangelical success and notoriety, but in coming to know who I am in the place and calling God has for me. My influence will be no less and no greater, in God’s Kingdom, here in the mountains than it would be anyplace on earth. In the end, it’s my privilege to belong to Christ and to use my gifts as he gives opportunity.

Comments

  1. Christiane says

    “I regretted staying in Kentucky. (I had opportunities to go to Oxford, Mississippi and to Texas, but followed my hillbilly instincts.)”

    He could have gone to Oxford, England and found reception there; such was the quality, the breadth and the depth of his writing.

    What is that poem one knows so well:
    “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work
    and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.
    The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
    The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
    (Wendell Berry)

    Michael’s gift of being ‘real’ had its roots deep in the Kentucky hills; but there were times when his writing also became ethereal in its insightful wisdom, and the combination of all of those traits was startling, and so is the truth of his last paragraph:
    ” I’m finding that the wisdom of the spiritual life is not found in evangelical success and notoriety, but in coming to know who I am in the place and calling God has for me. My influence will be no less and no greater, in God’s Kingdom, here in the mountains than it would be anyplace on earth.”

    We are all the better for having been able to read Michael’s writings. He copied no one. He spoke his own truth. And we will not soon forget him.

  2. Christiane says

    shout out to Susan in Australia . . . missing your voice here and hope you are doing okay . . . sending hug

    • Susan Dumbrell says

      Love to you my dear.
      Crisp cold days and my bones object .
      Saw John for the first time in three months and not a flicker of recognition. And then he fell asleep. A friend suggested I sing to him but singing is banned due to the pandemic.
      I read this blog everyday but I need a dose of enthusiasm.
      I feel Robert and I make a good pair.
      However he has such a way of expressing his discomfort with life that I will let him do the talking for us both.
      Love you too Robert
      Susan

  3. “Regrets aren’t worth a bugger.” – Matt, to John Constantine, *Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits*

  4. Robert F says

    Regret is a ghost that haunts me every day, especially now when the fragility of my life and the life of my wife have been brought into bold relief by the possibility of contracting COVID-19. I regret never having been able to cashier my education into solid financial stability and retirement; if I had, my wife and I could just stay home now, instead of having very shortly to venture out into the world where our jobs are waiting for us to get back to them — we think! — and “normalcy”, and coronavirus could be anywhere. Yes, of course I tell myself that regret is useless, but rationality has no power to alter feelings in a situation as viscerally present as this one. I pray for courage, comfort, strength, etc., for my wife and myself, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference to my overpowering feelings of regret, and the way they weigh on me and my mind.

    • Susan Dumbrell says

      Hi Robert.
      I have been investigating my regrets with my psychologist.
      So, so difficult. The pit is bottomless.
      The winter cold does nothing for my frame of mind.
      Take care of yourself.
      Susan

      • Robert F says

        I’m not comfortable with telephone therapy conferences, because our neighbor in the apartment downstairs can hear every word we say on the phone, and the therapists around here are not having office visits because of COVID-19, not that I would be comfortable — because of COVID-19 — with office visits even if they were allowed. So I’m doing the best I can with that bottomless pit flying solo, though summer does nothing for my frame of mind.

      • Robert F says

        Take care, Susan. If our faith is the real deal, then the future is full of hope, even if we can’t feel it in the present.

  5. “I don’t have to always be happy.”

    What deep discernment! How much unhappiness is caused by the mistaken notion that one must always be happy.

  6. It may have no potential for anything but small acts done with great love.

    Not something you’ll find in most people’s 5- or 10-year “success” plans. Certainly not my own which may explain why that line hit me so hard.

  7. Don’t beat yourself up with regrets, but don’t beat yourself up for having them either.

  8. Burro (Mule) says

    About 12-15 years ago, on a board somewhat like this one, but with considerably more diversity, I posted a statement that I regret ever having posted. It took root in a couple of receptive nervous systems.

    I will not repost it here, not in this political climate, but echos of that statement has since been reverberating from some very sketchy precincts of the Internet; the -chans and -kuns and places where you are likely to encounter the ‘thought’ of Q-Anon and his ilk.

    I deeply regret that post.

    • Christiane says

      hello to BURRO,

      I also have regrets . . . I once called someone a witch and later felt bad about it as (although the term fit the presenting behaviors) the person in question has turned out to have profound emotional problems, so I was in the wrong to judge and to make that remark that got back to the person.

      I think we all have regrets, some more than others, and in my old age, comes a time for me to make peace with my own imperfections as I now bear the scars they have cost me. . . . . our journey in this world is very humbling, and if nothing more, our realization of our own foolish ways helps to bring us to that place where we need to be, before it’s too late.

      Can’t ‘go back’, can’t un-say mean things, can’t undo mistakes, no; but oh my goodness, is it possible to see the consequences of our actions in retrospect.