All posts by Ben Yosua-Davis

Reports from the Spiritual Frontier – Season Two Report

Twice a year, I try to check in with you all about how my podcast, “Reports from the Spiritual Frontier” is going.  (My last update is here.)  A lot has changed in my life since I last wrote to you all in June. I left two jobs due to my illness, my health finally turned a corner in November, I turned in my local pastor’s license in December, and I find myself in the exciting and painful process of re-evaluating my vocational future.

As I look back at the start of this podcast in 2016, I realize that this podcast began because my career-obsessed, “Must Make a Difference!” self was desperately reaching for something to anchor its ego to. That doesn’t mean that the podcast hasn’t born fruit, hasn’t brought me joy, and can’t be joyful and life-giving for me in the future, but it does mean that I have to discern carefully about whether this is something that I need to embrace or set down as I head into the next phase of my life.

In short, season three is make or break for this little podcasting project. I’ll be working harder than I ever have to make this podcast truly spectacular and get the word out. I’ll also be listening carefully for the voice of God – both in my own personal experience of producing and promoting this podcast, and in the response of my audience to see if my efforts are bearing fruit or not.

With all that in mind, here’s my response to those questions I began this project with.

1) Am I having fun?

The interview process – yes. My conversations with these practitioners and saints-in-the-making are  the most holy moments of my week. I feel that we are beginning to map the spiritual topography of the church that is yet-to-come and that is a beautiful privilege.

The promotion – nope, not at all. (Other than my truly excellent partnership with Path1 (who has re-upped for another year!).) My ego is far too attached to the numbers (more on those in a minute), to the guests, and to my attempts at forming community and partnerships.

I also had half a dozen guests say “Yes” to coming on the show, and then not show up, often at the last minute, which blew my posting schedule to hell three times this last year. I didn’t have that problem in season one, so this was a particularly unpleasant surprise.

2) Is it sustainable?

This is the key question. This is becoming more of a tight fit financially for me, especially as I left two jobs this last year due to my health. As I mentionedbefore, I love the conversations, but have had a really difficult time with promotion, which often feels like I’m just shouting cheerfully into a void.

3) Is it making a difference?

About those stats: after huge growth in the summer, my numbers dropped precipitously in the fall, down to about what they were at the beginning of the year. I don’t know why. It might be how my health impacted my posting schedule. It might be switching days. It might have been one partner no longer running me in their newsletter. It could be something else entirely-  my current podcast stats package is intentionally obtuse in , so I’m switching to a different host, so I can hopefully pinpoint better what’s working and what’s not. (Still, I had did have 2000 listens my first year, and 13000 my second, so I’m probably more worried about this than I should be. At worst, my audience tripled this year, so that’s not bad.)

I’ve had a difficult time engaging my audience, with a few notable exceptions. My requests for conversations, suggestions, and feedback have all gone entirely unheeded, (I even offered to send anyone who sent me a note a dozen home-baked cookies, to absolutely no avail.)

I’ll be watching this A LOT this next year – I don’t need this project to fuel my own ego anymore, I need to see that it’s making a tangible difference in the lives of my listeners.

4) Am I learning?

My proficiency conducting interviews and editing episodes is at an all-time high – I can now conduct a good interview in an hour and then edit/post/promote in two, while feeling good about what I’m doing. It took me FIFTEEN hours to post an interview at the beginning of season one, and eight hours to post a new interview at the beginning of season two, so this is meaningful progress.

 

A Church Is…

A church is a disciplined community following Jesus together.

How do you know whether you’re doing this or just playing a religious game?

By the measurable, tangible fruits of your community. (Fruit is *not* growing worship attendance or bigger budgets, btw, it’s this, and this, et al.)

And now, for a supremely important corollary:

If you read this statement, and you’re part of a poor, marginalized community, please start with the assumption that you’re already doing this.

If you read this statement, and you’re part of a powerful, privileged community (yes, all ye white middle class people, I’m looking at you), please start with the assumption that you’re already *not* doing this.

Hearing God is the Same As Making a Grocery List

“Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-worn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself.”

I’m currently reading “A Testament of Devotion” by Quaker writer Thomas Kelly and I’m struck by how the farther you progress in the spiritual life, the less mystical it becomes. The idea of God speaking to us only seems miraculous when you’re starting your spiritual journey, because as you deepen your spiritual life, the active experience of the indwelling as God becomes as prosaically concrete as any other daily activity. Hearing God’s voice becomes no more miraculous than making your grocery list.

The only reason why we think of hearing God’s voice as some sort of blazing, neon-sign-in-the-night miracle is because we have learned to live dis-integrated lives, secular and sacred, times of prayer and times of work, spiritual disciplines versus physical disciplines versus disciplines of self-care, and so on. As we grow, we learn that *all* of it is part of one glorious whole; all subsumed within the love of God.

(And like all worthwhile projects, re-integrating our lives takes lots of hard, disciplined work over decades before we start to see our interior lives begin to reorder.)

Vocational Changes

I turned in my local pastor license this week. For those of you who don’t know, this license was what allowed me to work as a pastor a United Methodist Church, perform the Sacraments, and otherwise keep the possibility of returning to the professional clergy open for the future. (I started pursuing this process when I was sixteen, so closing the door on this held pretty weighty symbolic significance.)

For those of you who are interested, here’s what I wrote my supervising committee when I turned in my license.

Dear Members of the Tri-State DCOM,

I’m writing to inform you that I will be turning in my local pastor’s license. While I have grown much from sixteen-plus years actively engaged in this process, it has become clear, after much prayer and discernment, that pastoral ministry no longer fits the shape of my spirit.

Part of this is due to my deep concerns about the way that we structure our lives together as United Methodists. I hold largely unresolvable concerns about the way we select denominational leaders and discern about our shared life together, the spiritually imperialistic ways we have taught our churches to focus primarily on institutional survival, and the way that our systems often make the people who are part of them far less kind, joyful, and generous than they might be otherwise. More personally, I also no longer believe in the authority of our denomination to ordain nor that professional pastoral ministry is a faithful way for most American churches to organize their lives together.

However, more importantly than this is the journey that God has taken me on since our church plant closed in Haverhill in 2014. I’ve come to realize that I am frequently the worst version of myself when I’m functioning in a pastoral role, that my personal over-identification with professional ministry has led to some of my worst decisions and deepest hard-heartedness, and that my ministry has often not born the fruits of the spirit within me that I would identify with true vocation.  In short, for me, stepping into my calling to follow Jesus also means stepping out of a calling to be a religious professional.

I write this letter in deep gratitude to all of you. I have been blessed with many mentors, faithful district superintendents, and compassionate DCOM’s throughout my journey. You all have given me the freedom to be able to work out God’s call in my life with greater joy and passion than I would have been able to otherwise. For me, that indeed has been a great gift.

Thank you all for your prayers and support. May God bless each of you in the season that is to come.

In Christ,

Ben Yosua-Davis

Fragment #15 – Goodbye Tom Brady

Nanowrimo is not happening for me this year, but I’m trying to write everyday in November. I’ll be posting fragments of what I write here daily, edited very lightly for clarity and grammar. Here’s post #15.

“It was more than a simple sum of the games.  Sunday afternoon was my truest Sabbath time. In the midst of a stressful, overloaded college experience, I got to come home, go to worship, and then laze on the couch for the rest of the day, eating ice cream (my family’s drug of choice), spending time with my family (and my future wife), while alternately napping and watching football until I went to bed.

While working in an inner-city neighborhood out of grad school, soul-to-soul with heartbreak every week, it was the one time during the week, I could sit, yell, cathart like hell, and simply be.  Football was my Sabbath in the truest sense…”

Fragment #14 – Life Is Meaningless, and that is Good News

Nanowrimo is not happening for me this year, but I’m trying to write everyday in November. I’ll be posting fragments of what I write here daily, edited very lightly for clarity and grammar. Here’s post #13.

If we have any sort of accepted societal doctrine, it’s contained in those pithy little affirmations: “Make something of yourself.” or “Make a difference in the world”, always combined with an awfully poisonous statement ,”You can do anything you try.” And so, bound by unlimited expectations and supposed unlimited possibilities, we are trapped in a place where the goal posts will forever be moved just out of reach,no matter how hard we try.

If we ever got to the place where all our efforts would be enough,where the ruthlessly optimistic gods of our culture would finally be satisfied with the sacrifice that we lay upon their altar, then we are also reminded that ,for most of us,our good intentions will be swallowed up in the greater systems of suffering and injustice, or in the senseless suffering of people whose lives we could never hope to change, or simply swallowed up in the eventual heat death of the universe.

In the end, none of it will ever really matter.  All the wisdom,life hacks, strategic planning,bold dreams,worthy aspirations, and daring disruptions,will prove no more enduring than a breath of fog on a fall morning. Or, as an ancient writer once put it, “Vanity of vanity! All is vanity!”

Fragment #13 – Sabbath

Nanowrimo is not happening for me this year, but I’m trying to write everyday in November. I’ll be posting fragments of what I write here daily, edited very lightly for clarity and grammar. Here’s post #13.

“I suck horribly at Sabbath, but not in the most technical sense. Monday has been my day-off, not my “kind of do some work in the morning and check my e-mail” type of day off, but a day of silence and rest, every since I was in college. I have dutifully taken vacations since I was in my early twenties, and strategically planned them so as to maximize my rest.

But the spirit of Sabbath – the sense that I have created, and now it’s okay to be done, left me many years ago. My work has framed my life. I try to put something productive into the world, I try to pursue career, I try to engage with my son; and then I try to rest, only enough so that I can be maximally efficient when I work again.”

Fragment #12 – Come, Follow Me

Nanowrimo is not happening for me this year, but I’m trying to write everyday in November. I’ll be posting fragments of what I write here daily, edited very lightly for clarity and grammar. Here’s post #12.

“And so, if you feel yourself stuck in a place that no longer fits the shape of your life, bound to your nets by expectation or obligation or sheer habit, Jesus says, “Come, follow me.”

If you are trapped by rhythms that you didn’t choose but now seem to be all that you can choose, Jesus says, “Come follow me.”

If you’re stuck in cycles of regret and anger that imprint themselves on the people around you , Jesus says, “Come follow me.”

If you don’t know your worth outside of your role, Jesus says “Come, follow me.”

If your icons have become your idols, Jesus says, “Come, follow me.”

If you’re trapped in a story that once was beautiful but now no longer fits the shape of your soul, Jesus says “Come, Follow me.” “

Fragment #11 – God is Subterranean

Nanowrimo is not happening for me this year, but I’m trying to write everyday in November. I’ll be posting fragments of what I write here daily, edited very lightly for clarity and grammar. Here’s post #10.

“Our most fundamental transformations happen at subterranean levels. Our conscious mind can drop down new ideas into the chasm to see what sticks (or what goes splat), we can discipline ourselves to make new paths in our souls, which is rather like tunneling through granite with a sharpened spoon, or occasionally, life’s explosive pyrotechnics will entirely blow out new fault lines that we can try to mine out or paper over; but in the end, our most gut reactions,the slow daily accretion of decisions all happen in those dark, cavernous spiritual spaces that we only occasion go spelunking within.

When we say “God, transform me!”, we normally think about all the bits we see in the light. Oftentimes, it is those most visible things that change first. However, the more deeply we open ourselves to the spirit of God, the harder it is for us to see God at work. This is exactly what the mystics talk about when they refer to the “dark night of the soul”, what John of the Cross calls Love working in us so deeply that we can no longer sense it.”

Fragment #10 – Call is Not Career

Nanowrimo is not happening for me this year, but I’m trying to write everyday in November. I’ll be posting fragments of what I write here daily, edited very lightly for clarity and grammar. Here’s post #10.
“Our culture equates call with career. We are valued for what we do; what we contribute, how much money we make, and that pushes its way into our churches as well, where phrases like “following the call” and “being a minister” are shorthand for really only one very specific career choice.
We forgot how easily our world constrains our spiritual imaginations. God calls us to faithfulness, and we hear education. God calls us to charity, and we hear program. God calls us to discipleship, and we hear career. And, while all those things can be true, they are not the fundamental reality that God wishes us to stake our lives on.”