Ambrogio da Bergognone, Ordination of St Augustine, c. 1510
I was ordained into the gospel ministry yesterday at First Baptist Church Decatur. My gratefulness to everyone who attended, who played instruments, who sang, who read poetry, who spoke, who prayed, who worked the board, who set up the reception, who baked, who ate cookies, who cleaned up, who formatted the program, who traveled across the street or across three states to be there, is unbounded. You are saints in the truest sense, each and every one.
This is a transcript of the testimony I gave.
It is an index of this church’s openness to new things that I am being ordained today, and ten thousand thanks must go to Julie and the council who saw fit to support me even though my vocation is not traditional. I do not have an official ministry job waiting. After today I will continue to teach at Agnes Scott and at local seminaries and to pursue my dream of being a writer and minister to a secular age. My council’s vote in favor of my ordination required them to trust and believe in that dream, which I myself have wished to abandon on several occasions.
I would also like to thank my dad for being the world’s greatest dad. It is his birthday today.
On Ash Wednesday 2006 at noon I was sitting in the back room of an office in a tiny rundown strip mall in Rome, Georgia. I was 37 years old and severely depressed. On this particular day my mood was even lower than usual. I thought I had plenty of reasons to feel bad, so I itemized them for Nick, my bear-sized, truck-driving therapist.
Nick is very direct, and for that reason is an excellent (and in my experience unusual) therapist. When I finished my litany of grievances he remained immovable in his seat. “Paul,” he said after a brief silence, “the hole is on your side of the fence.”
He was telling me the truth: my problems were mine, not my wife’s or my parents’ or my friends’ or my church’s.
The hole is on your side of the fence. I had heard words like this before and even believed them. But when Nick spoke I heard them as for the first time and a powerful internal event occurred. I found myself at the edge of a cliff looking down into myself, into a bottomless chasm of need and poverty I had never known existed. I knew my incompleteness for the first time. It was terrifying, but Nick was kind. “Call me anytime,” he said as I left.
Halfway to the college I pulled the old Honda over and cried for a long time.
That was in 2006. Over the following year my depression grew worse. A thorn called despair festered in my heart, and I tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to manage it. Even so I had something to look forward to: a sabbatical. I had recently been awarded tenure and I wanted to use my new security and freedom to transition from scientific research to writing. That, I believed, was the direction of my calling. I had always loved to write and was planning to use my sabbatical to work on a textbook on the history of astronomy. I had already started it. But when the time came I could not write it. My heart was not in it. Frustrated, I began writing whatever came to mind, mostly stories from my childhood. I burned out in April, no longer able to write anything at all. Here at last was the end of my rope, and I was still slipping.
This was happening during a terrible drought. Northwest Georgia had seen no rain in many weeks. One hot day in late April I drew the curtains and took a nap. It was one of those really good ones, about two hours long. I awoke refreshed and looked outside. And guess what? The sun was still out but the world was wet. It had rained — poured, I later learned — as I slept. And as I gazed in wonder at the slick road and dripping magnolias it occurred to me with considerable force that maybe God was trying to tell me something.
At the very center of myself I have always believed in God. I was raised not far from here in a loving church. When I was a boy God was revealed to me first through nature and later through people who loved me. I spoke and God listened; God spoke and I listened. It was pretty simple. Later, as high school senior, I was chosen to be the pastor on Youth Sunday. I was honored: somewhere, someone saw me as a spiritual leader.
But by then something had changed. I don’t remember what I said to the church that Sunday but it was not heartfelt. I wanted it to be but it was not. I know this because in high school I kept a journal for only about 5 weeks, and Youth Sunday fell during those five weeks. That night I wrote that I felt like a salesman who didn’t believe his pitch. I didn’t know what I was talking about, and I knew it.
I can say now what I could not say then: I was struck by the utter arbitrariness of Christianity. “God made us good but we screwed it up so God sent Jesus – who was really God – to die for our sins and if you don’t believe that then too bad for you”: how could this possibly be the way the world is organized? So in college I just let it go, and I called it doubt.
Which is what it was. Now in my experience doubt is a good thing if and only if it is accompanied by a true desire for understanding. This good doubt is the kind valued by scientists. It goes like this: ask a question; investigate it; draw conclusions, however tentative; repeat. In high school and college my doubt was mostly of this simple variety.
It was after returning to the faith as a young adult that my doubt began to take on less benign forms. I can think of three of these. First, I doubted because it was fashionable. Doubt, I saw, is what smart people do. So I doubted. Second, I doubted for my protection. It’s easier to doubt God’s love than to accept it. It costs less.
Third — and worst of all — I doubted because doing so gave me a socially acceptable way of holding onto my despair. This may sound strange to some of you, but it’s true: as terrible as my despair was, as much as that thorn ached, it was at least mine. It was familiar. I knew my way around it. It gave me an identity. When I was angry at the world I knew who I was. Without my anger and the despair it fueled, what would become of me? Or, in the words of poet Dick Lourie, “If we forgive our fathers, what is left?”
I spent decades lovingly cultivating my despair. This is an embarrassing but completely true fact.
Which brings me back April 2007 and that miraculous rain. Within a few days of waking to the freshly wet world, it occurred to me that it might be time to go to seminary. I had been feeling the tug for about ten years. It had returned to me at regular two-to-three year intervals. Each time it came back stronger, but each time I had been able to say, No, not yet; maybe it will come back.
Well, it came back and this time I was not able to say, Not yet. So in 2008 I went, open to what might come: chaplaincy, parish ministry, whatever. But nothing came. Doors closed in every direction, and when I graduated in 2011 I had no job prospects and a family — now complete with a third child — that needed my support. I watched as my seminary friends moved on to jobs or further education.
But one thing had come while I was in seminary, and it had come quietly: I had started writing again — this time about science and religion — and had seen some modest success in that area. People actually connected with what I had to say, and I realized for the first time the ministry potential of such work. So throughout 2011 I strung together what freelance jobs I could. I wrote quite a lot for one religion site in particular, and by late 2011 it seemed as if they would take me on as a staff writer. There was not much money involved, but the exposure would be incredible.
In early 2012 two things happened: the religion site opted for a new direction and cut me out of their lineup, and I got a job as an adjunct physics professor at Agnes Scott. So I started teaching (again) and stopped writing (again).
But I didn’t stop for long. Finally convinced by friends that my ministry was to be comprised of both teaching and writing, I began putting together a book proposal and returned to online work. And today, for the first time ever, through the help of several dear friends and a very particular set of personal circumstances, I have become willing for God to remove the thorn of despair that has so dominated my life.
This willingness has not come of virtue but of necessity. I am ignorant of many things but I do know this: if I do not turn my despair over to God, deliberately and consciously and continuously, it will in fact kill me. I have had no choice but to trust in divine love. And I am surprised to report that, ever since I have become willing to do this, I have felt, at certain moments, a return of something like the simple faith I knew as a child.
This ordination is an outward sign of that trust and that faith and of my great need for you, my friends, family, and community of faith, to support me. I do not know what will come of my ministry, but I don’t worry about that anymore. Instead, with God’s help and your help, I pursue it in small steps, deliberately and consciously and continuously, every day. And I can rest knowing that God will make it what it will be, if it will be anything at all.
So today I stand before you a new man, a beginner if there ever was one. And — I can’t believe I’m saying this — I am actually happy.
Thanks be to each of you, and thanks be to God.