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Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
– Maya Angelou
Hey you, out there in the cold
Getting lonely, getting old
Can you feel me?
– Pink Floyd
I gotta group. Everybody needs a group. Do you have a group?
As is our custom, my group spent a few days together around Memorial Day. It is a no BS, absolutely honest, tell-the-truth-even-though-you-don’t-look-good time. Always is.
My group is four guys. We all went through Western Theological Seminary together over 30 years ago. We all got married about the same time and are still married to the same women. It now looks likely, though none of us could have predicted it back then, that we will all make it to the finish line and retire as ministers.
Our group started in seminary. We spent Wednesday nights together, drinking the kind of beer you could buy in a 12-pack for $2.40, and eating chips with a digestively delightful dip made of green chilies and Velveeta.
We graduated, went our separate ways, but kept in touch. A few years ago the other three came back to WTS for a 25-year reunion lunch (although I spent the majority of my time in seminary with them, I didn’t graduate in the same year). They invited me to join them immediately after lunch. I went in with my usual lighthearted bonhomie, expecting some Velveeta dip and good times.
What I found were three guys in shock. The reunion lunch had been a traumatic experience. The reunion class was given a discussion starter: to talk about their highs and lows of ministry.
The first classmate to share told a harrowing tale of recently being forced out of his church. That opened the gates and many stories followed of heartache and heartbreak, burnout, abuse, mental and physical health issues, disappointment, suffering, and overwhelming feelings of vocational failure.
Someone asked, “If we’d known then what we know now, would we still have gone into ministry?” The question was met with a profound silence.
My three friends, who had pretty much had successful rides up until that point, didn’t know how to respond. Now they were processing their shock with me. They were supposed to go back to the seminary for another event, but I pleaded with them to stay and talk more. (In one of God’s great ironies, within a year I would be in charge of the reunions at the seminary. None since have been as dramatic.)
Our group was born (again) that day. The more we talked, the more we realized we needed each other. Good thing, too, because the following years have not been a cakewalk. We have walked and talked with each other through job loss, bitterness, illness, traumatic injury, temptation, changes in belief, and the deep polarization that surrounds us. There is disillusionment that the denominations we’ve invested in appear to be unraveling. We feel unsure what to say about that to the generations behind us. We are well-versed in the macro-movements taking place within the global church, but that doesn’t make living through those shifts in a local setting any easier. The only constant is change.
Since we all are about the same age, we’ve asked ourselves what it means to finish well and be generative in one’s final work years. We talk about how not to become clichés. We talk about the relative health of our prostates and retirement funds. We talk about our struggles to pray and how our sense of who God might be shifts with time. The one of us who was the most certain three decades ago is probably least certain today. We talk about the crap that has happened to various classmates. Those of us without grandkids try our best to listen to the baby worship of those who do. We’ve gathered in different parts of the country and so far avoided the temptation to bring back the Velveeta dip and Goebels (or was it Falstaff?). We’ve been to Broadway, to the Cubs, hiked in the Rockies, and stuck our toes in the Gulf of Mexico. We gather once a year for a few days, but there also is a running text conversation going on between us daily. There is wisdom in our group, but perhaps our greatest wisdom is this: we know we need each other.
We have all wrestled in a sense, like Jacob at the Jabbok, with God and the church and its various expressions. Like Jacob, we all have limped off into the dawn, broken and yet somehow blessed.
If we knew then what we know now, would we do it again? I think we would, but we wouldn’t do it alone. Life remains strange and difficult, but we have each other.
What about you?
With whom are you honest?
Everybody needs a group.
What would it take to get one?