I was asked in the field licensing program to write a brief paper about early influences that have impacted my ministry today. My blog for the next two weeks will be reflections and insights from that paper. I hope this offers you a little glimpse into my history and heart and brings you a sense of hope that every experience you have is valuable to the person you are inevitably becoming. Enjoy.
As I take the time to reflect upon the impactful relationships, circumstances and experiences that have helped form the spiritual path I now walk, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. The lyrics running through my mind are “I am so blessed, I am so blessed, I am so grateful…” I am thankful for 53 years of blessed opportunities that prepared me for ministry and afforded me a foundational structure for my current belief system. Not all of these opportunities “made the cut” in the final showing of my spiritual practice, but each one was a formative and guiding factor, for which I am thankful.
Growing up in a country town in rural California, our family’s main theme centered on the importance of hard work. Living on the family farm, I was meshed in a culture that put a great deal of value in “sweat equity.” Backed by a strong heritage of morality and integrity, I was taught that whatever task was before me, give it my best; give it my all. The value of physical labor, a trustworthy handshake, and the feeling of a job well done were the most important components of our family practice. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it my family’s religion, but I believe it instilled in me a deep appreciation for character and accomplishment that has become an essential part of my spiritual practice today. I believe these qualities make for good ministers, and I hope to bring them to the ministries I serve. My grandmother instructed loudly, “Any job worth doing is worth doing right!” In her honor I have brought my all to the daunting and rewarding task of creating spiritual community. Mediocrity is not something that I easily accept, and I believe my quest for excellence has been a huge part of my success as a leader.
Obviously, the danger here is that attitudes like this, out of balance, can lead to burnout, resentment, and failure. Although intended for positive outcomes, they easily become the very blocks that inhibit success. “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.” Thank God for experiences that showed me there is a spiritual way to avoid potential pitfalls.
This brings me to reflections of early church experiences. The Burdicks were less religionists and more spiritual “hobbyists.” As loyalists to the family traditions we attended the local United Methodist Church. It was a sweet and welcoming environment that was more sincere than profound. That is not to say that it had no value to me then and now; certainly it did and does. Here, through the kindness of Mrs. Trimble, my Sunday school teacher, I learned the value of gentility, compassion, generosity, and forgiveness. Under her tutelage, a host of Old Testament characters came to life for me. Armed with stories both entertaining and scary, I became familiar with leaders who failed, screwed up, and got back up again. They didn’t do the job right the first time! They weren’t perfect! They made mistakes. Aha! Perhaps doing something wrong can be used as the method of getting to the right! Perhaps mistakes are a method of learning that is not to be chastised but embraced.
Mrs. Trimble brought a compassionate view of these less-than-Divine men who achieved something good. It was in her consciousness, brought to the Sunday school table through story, but more importantly demonstrated through her actions, that the idea of Christ was introduced to me. Mrs. Trimble lived, taught, and led from her heart. This was a different culture than I had experienced before, and one that that gave me my first taste of compassion for self. Embracing my humanness and cutting myself slack gave me a glimpse of my value beyond hard work and perfection. I believe, without this introduction, I would have burned out long ago on the ministerial path. Jesus in this environment, was still the great unattainable reality that neither Mrs. Trimble nor I could achieve, but it gave me something to which I could aspire: human and spiritual equanimity found through the partnership between physical and non-physical energies. Unfortunately, my father did not see the value of such esoteric ideas and eventually pulled us out of the church to teach us bible stories at home. This lasted all of one lesson on Palm Sunday.
Sitting down to read from God-knows-what biblical translation, my brother read the opening line, “Jesus rode into town on his ass.” Needless to say, this was not the most conducive environment for a pair of middle-school boys to learn in. The lessons abruptly stopped but the laughter continues. Thus ends my family’s walk with God. Most of them became atheists and agnostics, but I never forgot the Christ spirit Mrs. Trimble planted in my heart.
Fast forward…I met Jesus again in high school. This Jesus was through the lens of passionate, eager, and devout “soul-saving” friends. They viewed me as lost and made it their mission to convert me. They were very good at their job. Before long I was swept up in the fervor of the idea that I was broken and Jesus was my way back to wholeness. I wasn’t sure what I was being saved from, but I soon found myself eagerly walking forward at a Billy Graham crusade. “I surrender all, I surrender all. All to thee my blessed Savior, I surrender all!” In the company of friends and a very fine preacher I discovered a passion for spiritual matters that equaled my grandparent’s passion for hard work. In an environment as kind as Mrs. Trimble’s classroom, but as diligent and dedicated as the orchards of home, a true spiritual journey had begun. Jesus came alive within me with a fire and relevance that I had yet to experience.
In that moment, I knew I was going to be a minister. I knew that I had ability to create community, change lives, and forever unite purpose in the quest for wholeness. Although a part of me still questioned the idea of humanity’s brokenness, I saw that people could find hope, joy, and spiritual awakening through the hard and passionate work of sharing experiences, words, and insights.
Initially my dream of making people’s lives better resembled the ministry of George Beverly Shea more than Billy Graham’s. Ministry for me was first realized through the power of music and not the spoken word. The piano and not the pulpit is where my greatest skills were found. My paternal grandmother, who introduced me to the piano at age eleven, moved a little higher up on my gratitude list.
Remarkably, and almost by accident, I found myself back at the little Methodist church. This time I was not in Sunday school, but found myself sitting at the piano bench. The realization that I was now in a position to change people’s lives, just like Mrs. Trimble who now beamed at me from the choir loft, was exciting and humbling. Through the avenue of music, people wept tears of release, celebrated new insights, and worshiped a relationship with beauty, power and grace. True to my family motto I worked diligently at the task before me and gave everything I had to the endeavor.
Suddenly, there was a reason to practice my scales. I no longer cursed them, but befriended them as the means of delighting congregant’s hearts. The scales weren’t any more exciting, but the product was. “To God be the glory…” The music I shared came from a different place as it transcended notes and was raised to the level of spiritual calling. The piano became my altar and the music became my sermon. What an opportunity and responsibility. Eventually I found the courage to use my voice as well as the piano. I discovered that through lyrics, those of the sacred hymns as well as the ones that I began to create, that people were moved. I had something to say and I had found my voice. The ministry of music remains foundational to everything I do today. Even though the form of my ministry has shifted, music will always be a tool that I use and cherish.