A Mustache for a Methodist

I guess you could say, I’m just a typical Methodist kid at heart. ~ Hugh Hefner

An atheist is a man who watches a Notre Dame – Southern Methodist University game and doesn’t care who wins. ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

God grant that I may never live to be useless! ~ John Wesley

I suppose it was 2008 when I found myself being reintroduced to a 17-year-old I thought I’d finished off many, many years earlier. In the process of that introduction and the subsequent multiple reunions over a period of months brought about by a rather insistent (annoying?) therapist, I found myself being reconciled with that poor, beat-up kid. As it turns out, he’d traveled along on my rocky path through it all and, I realize now, helped keep me alive long enough to remember — and acknowledge — he had actually existed.

What, you’re likely asking yourself, does this have to do with mustaches and Methodists? Excellent question. Allow me to elaborate — eventually.

During the fall of 2008, I was working on reestablishing contact with the aforementioned 17-year-old after the realization I could never really be okay until we made peace. That December, a dear friend suggested that I read Wm. Paul Young’s book The Shack. I agreed because I respect this friend but still had serious doubts about a fiction that had Christian leanings. If you’ve visited this blog before, you’re probably aware that the church and I had parted ways, well, while I still remembered that 17-year-old clearly. Still, at this point in my life, the book pried something open again — wanted or not.

There I was — sitting with a young, admittedly angry guy who remembered an even younger boy who remembered a call. I wasn’t at all certain I wanted to be reminded of that call. Years of alcohol had done little to cover it over, however. Rather, it had only helped anger and disappointment grow. Sadly, as so often happens, the anger and disappointment was turned inward. I am particularly efficient at inflicting emotional pain on myself. I’m still so good at it that I often have no idea I’m doing it. Let’s just say I’m back working on that now.

So it was that I showed up at Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco in February 2009. I didn’t mean to show up, it just sort of happened. And I stuck around (one of my favorite new beginnings stories here: Women in Ministry). Seems the people there saw someone in me I didn’t think actually existed. I was intrigued, though, and decided I must be a better actor than I’d thought. Still, I kinda liked the person others saw. I’m almost convinced at this point that he does exist.

Mustache, Ben? Oh, yes. So a couple of months ago I decided I’d regrow my mustache. Up until the fall of 2008, I’d sported a mustache for most of the previous twenty-five or so years. I arrived on the doorstep of Lake Shore clean shaven — due to meetings with that 17-year-old and the younger boy and wondering what they might have looked like. You know how hard it is to see an 8-year-old looking back at you when you’re a 56-year-old man with a mustache staring in a mirror? The mustache had to go.

A necessary move to the Dallas area a few years ago required a move in churches, also. For over three years, I made that new home Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas. Last year, though, I found myself looking for a new church home closer to where I live in Richardson. You see, having returned to church back in 2009, I’ve found not having a church home is no longer an option for me.

Enter Arapaho United Methodist Church, Richardson, Texas.

Wait, I hear you saying — Methodist? Weren’t we talking about Baptists? Well, yes, we were and how good of you to be paying attention. I was doing what any red-blooded American would do these days — I used Google to search for churches in my area. What I saw on the website for Arapaho UMC intrigued me. Hey, when you’ve been gone from church for forty years, you tend to find yourself a little more open to locating the right place regardless what is says on the sign outside. It’s what I found on the inside that invited me to stay. It was about finding the right fit.

Mustache, Ben? Oh, did I get sidetracked again? Yes, I imagine so. This entire conversation began because it occurred to me that the Baptists in my post-40-year trek had never seen me with a mustache. I like to think about stuff that occurs to me, you see. It also occurred to me that I’ve very much reconciled with that 17-year-old and that he and I sort of prefer me with a mustache.

On February 15, 2015 I became Arapaho UMC’s newest member — complete with mustache. I told some of the people at Arapaho I’d taken so long to join because I hate to rush into things and, besides, some of them looked a little shady to me. Thankfully, they already know me well enough after eleven months to laugh along with me.

Mustaches and Methodists. Does one actually have anything to do with the other except that they both start with an M? I believe they do. It has a lot to do with giving myself permission to find exactly the place that feels right to me. That has a lot to do with God’s grace, I believe. I’ve met some wonderful people in the past few years and I will be eternally grateful to them for helping me see in myself again a kid who heard a call many years ago and for helping me gradually believe he still exists and is here to remind me of that call.

John Wesley (a Methodist without a mustache) said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Yeah, that’s it. That was the call. That is the call.

Mustache or not, Methodist or not, I invite you to pick up Wesley’s call to do all the good you can as long as you ever can.

Divinity School?

God did not direct His call to Isaiah – Isaiah overheard God saying, “. . . who will go for Us?” The call of God is not just for a select few but for everyone. Whether I hear God’s call or not depends on the condition of my ears, and exactly what I hear depends upon my spiritual attitude.
– Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for his Highest

I think the term “divinity school” may be a little misleading to some people. Contrary to what you may think, it really isn’t a place where you go to learn to be divine. For instance, I’m pretty sure Bette Midler did not go to divinity school in order to become The Divine Miss M back in the seventies. I can also tell you with a high degree of certainty that Divine, star of such movies as Pink Flamingos, Lust In the Dust and Hairspray, never set a high-heeled foot on the campus of a divinity school. And while it may appear that some high-profile divinity school alum see themselves as divine, I’m still going to have to place a high degree of certainty they didn’t learn that in school, but, rather, came to that conclusion on their own.

Okay, so much for what a divinity school is not. I just wanted us all to be clear about our topic. Some of you may think I’m a little flip about a lot of subjects – and you would probably be correct. There are two things I believe are important in this life – not to take ourselves too seriously and making sure we take ourselves seriously enough. I’ve been guilty of the opposite of these things many times over the years. Perhaps because of a wounded soul, I developed an extreme sense of self-righteousness. It mattered very little what I myself did, it was what you did wrong that occupied a great deal of my time and energy. For the second half, I tried desperately not to take myself too seriously, at least on the surface, because there were too many bad things going on in my head just below the surface. I didn’t want to take a good look at who I thought I was.

A friend mentioned to me a couple of years ago that she had gotten her “em div” from Truett. Have any idea how difficult it is to look up something when you’re not very sure what they said and, therefore, have to idea how to begin to spell it? Perhaps it had something to do with the New Math? Why, yes, I could have simply asked but then it would look like I didn’t know what she was talking about. Men are taught only about two things in this society. One of them is that you don’t ask for help – apparently it makes you look weak and stupid. You’re just supposed to know stuff. I already knew I was weak. I certainly didn’t want to look stupid in addition.

But I’m a persistent fellow and I finally figured it out — all by myself. M.Div – Master of Divinity. Oh, and I looked up Truett since I also had no idea what that was, either. George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Mystery solved — and I didn’t even have to ask a question. My manhood was intact!

There was a time, long, long ago, when I expected that I would probably become a minister or a missionary. Wait, let me clarify. That would be a Baptist missionary or a Baptist minister. I wasn’t exactly certain what that would involve, but it was a career path that seemed open to me at the time. Actually, by the time I was thinking along those lines, my life was already crumbling at the edges. I knew that to be true, but was actively developing my ability to compartmentalize my life. Since I was able, at times, to wall off bad things going on in my life, being a minister still seemed to be a viable option. It was with a great deal of disappointment and, consequently, anger that I let go of that idea by age seventeen. Over the intervening years, it seemed to me that a lot of Baptists had become a bit rancid – preaching an agenda of hate, thinly disguised as love. Perhaps, though, that’s a story for another time.

But the idea has persisted for all these years. For most of those years, that was a matter of great annoyance to me. But, I have an eight-year-old living inside me who, it turns out, is my moral compass. Admittedly, I held some powerful magnets close to the dial of that compass for many years in an attempt to throw it off course, but it stayed true anyway. That kid knew who he was and still does, even when I’d all but forgotten. He’s the one part of me who refused to give up. He’s the one part of me who valued me. The other parts were trying to kill him — were trying to kill me. I have some very disagreeable parts.

Even so, it came as a surprise to me to realize the thought of a ministry was still with me. I mean, how much was I really supposed to deal with here? I’d already stumbled back to church, gradually decided to try out their Wednesday night suppers (I might actually meet people there), finally decided I could at least try on a Sunday School class for size, and actually joined a church. That’s a lot to soak up over a matter of months after so many years away and my nervous system was already close to its breaking point. But, if I thought all that had been pretty frightening, it was nothing when compared to the thought that a call I’d heard so many years before had followed me through a lot of awful places and still survived unscathed.

When I finally got up the courage to ask what she thought of some old dude considering a run at divinity school, my pastor said, “I think that would be a FABULOUS idea. And Brite is just right there in Fort Worth.” Gee, I think she may have been more excited that I was. You know what? That may have been all I needed. The odds of my making it to divinity school are pretty slim. The fact that someone I respect highly not only thinks the idea is a good one but that I could actually do it is more than I could have imagined. It allows me to believe that there’s still a ministry out there for me even if it ends up looking a little different than I originally envisioned it. Actually, it probably looks a lot different than what I originally envisioned. But, then, my life today also looks a lot different from what I had imagined. We do with what we’ve got.

Of course, any divinity school worth its salt would probably want to know why they should let me in since I don’t have a college degree. You know, institutions can just be so picky sometimes. Still, they may have a point. After all, a Master’s generally assumes a Bachelor’s degree.

The list of reasons why I didn’t go to college is long and, frankly, the sound of violins playing in the background as I told the story would get very annoying. Suffice it to say that by seventeen, I knew it was going to do me no good to attempt college. It’s not that I’m not bright enough – I’m told I am. There was a part of me that knew to the core my life was crumbling fast and picking up speed. You don’t plan for college when you don’t expect to live past eighteen. Even after making it past eighteen, I knew I’d never have made it to the end. Perhaps someday, I told myself, knowing full well that was not going to happen. Fatalism, as it turns out, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I even remember the exact moment I realized that call was still with me. Not the date, mind you, but the moment. We were singing a hymn called, “Here I Am, Lord.” You can probably tell from the title this hymn was going to be a slippery-slope for me. The song was composed in 1981, which means I’d never heard it before. After all, I’d walked away from church approximately twelve years before Dan Schutte wrote the hymn. Even so, my little mind was racing as we started the first verse.

I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard My people cry.
All who dwell in dark and sin,
My hand will save.

I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear My light to them?
Whom shall I send? 1

Well, even I could see I was in real trouble by this point. “Whom shall I send?” Surely, the answer must be “someone – anyone – else.” With fear and trembling, we got to the refrain and the words, “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?” And I realized at that moment that, as Oswald Chambers put it, I had overheard God fifty years earlier asking just that question: “Whom shall I send?” And my question back had been, “Is it I, Lord?” And then my reply, “It is I, Lord.”

Now, before you run out and start a “Let’s Send That Boy to Divinity School” fund, allow me to mention that I’ve come to realize we all have a calling – with or without divinity school. For some, that calling is as simple as “love thy neighbor.” In every instance, I believe, the call is to be the best person you can be – every day. Obviously, we all fail at that task on a regular, well, daily basis. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t try. Fail again? Try again. After all, the redemption is in the trying, not necessarily in the accomplishing.

So, divinity school seems like a long shot. That’s okay. Instead, I began to read – voraciously. The few brain cells I have left like to soak up all sorts of ideas. C.S. Lewis said, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” I’d have to add that an old-ish man can’t be too careful of his reading, either. What I proudly thought of as my open, progressive, welcoming mind had actually become my closed, backward, unwelcoming mind. Don’t agree with me? Step away if you know what’s good for you. In the end, that’s a very lonely place to live.

One of the things I’m trying to do these days is keep my options open. I have no idea where all this will lead me. But I’ve learned that the way I did things for a very long time lead very quickly to nowhere — then kept me there. Still, there’s a difference between being blindly lead and having faith that a path will appear when you are ready to see it.

The Serenity Prayer says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

It’s that last part that seems so difficult for most of us. When I allow myself to get very quiet, I already know what I truly cannot change. I also know some of the things I can change. Mostly, I’ve ignored the wisdom to know the difference and plowed ahead, instead, with Plans For the World as Ben Sees It. That created a tremendous amount of static in my life, effectively drowning out the call that’s followed me all my life. The shortcut I took ended up taking me far off the path, lost in a place where I couldn’t see the forest for the trees – in a place where I couldn’t see me for all the other “me’s” I’d thrown in my way.

Today, I welcome others to follow along with me as I travel on a new path, staying open to discovering what it is I need to find. Today, I ask for the wisdom not to know all the answers, but to be allowed to stay open to discovering, instead, the questions. Today, I’m trying to ask what, for me, is once again a familiar question.

Is it I, Lord?

And you. Is it, perhaps, also you?

1 Here I Am, Lord, © 1981, 1983, 1989 Daniel L. Schutte and NALR.