In high school, I had to do the dreaded senior project.
Shivers still run down my spine.
It meant that I had to follow someone in my community for 30 hours and write a paper on my experience. I could have followed a businessman or a banker or a doctor or a lawyer or even a horse trainer.
But I didn’t care about any of those careers. In fact, a career was far from my mind during the spring of 1998. All I wanted to do was play video games with my friends.
For the most part, my parents didn’t care what I picked, just that I picked something. So, one night, my Dad sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do. “I don’t know,” I replied. Then I took a shot in the dark, “Maybe I’ll follow our pastor around.”
That answer satisfied him, but I had the same discussion a few weeks later with both of my parents. “I just don’t know what I want to do,” I lamented. My Dad replied, “What about following our pastor around?”
That’s when all kinds of stuff hit the fan. My Mom looked directly at my Dad and said,
“YOU WILL NOT ENCOURAGE HIM TO GO INTO MINISTRY!”
(She did say it in all caps, btw.)
My Dad explained that I came up with the ide a few weeks earlier, which calmed her down a bit. I never asked her why she hated the idea. I suspect it was because she was very practical and ministry is a demanding job that is no longer held in high esteem. Nor does it pay much. And our church had just gone through a schism where the pastor was blamed for all the church’s problems. It was a textbook case of scapegoating and my Mom didn’t want me to go through that.
At the time, I really thought I would follow our pastor around because I couldn’t think of anything better to do. But maybe there was more to it than that. In part because of my Mom, I did go into ministry. (I tell that story here.)
My Mother died about two years later from cancer. That was the year 2000 – 16 year ago. But my Mom’s voice is still in my head. It routinely creeps into the back of my mind and says new things like, “YOU ARE NOT GOING INTO THE MINISTRY! THAT’S NOT PRACTICAL! BE A DOCTOR! OR A LAWYER! GO INTO BUSINESS. HELL, TRAIN HORSES! ANYTHING BUT MINISTRY!!!!”
Of course, it’s not just my mom’s voice. There are voices all around our culture that claim ministry is foolish. And there are times when I have serious doubts. Does God exist? Dose religion do more harm than good? What about all those contradictions in the Bible? Is spirituality just one big joke? Isn’t truth found in the hard sciences? Am I doing this because I couldn’t think of anything better to do when I was a high school senior? Maybe I should go train some horses …
Here’s the thing – you don’t have to be in ministry to have these kinds of voices in your head. We all have them. Where did they come from? There’s this idea that we humans are isolated, singular individuals. That we are “our own person” and shouldn’t be influenced by others.
But that’s false. We humans are mimetic creatures. That means that we are formed in community and by our social relationships. My friend Tom Truby puts it like this in a recent sermon, “We are a network of relationships; some past, some present, that live inside us, each with their own voice.”
Lent is a time when we follow Jesus into the spiritual wilderness of those voices. The story of Lent claims that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Interesting, the devil isn’t described as a physical entity. There is not description of the devil having red horns, a tail, and a pitch fork. The only description we have of the devil is that it has a voice.
Why did the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’s voice? Because in order to grow spiritually, we all need to come face to face with the negative voices in our heads.
Lent is often viewed a dreary time of penitence. It may be that, but I prefer to think of Lent as a spiritual journey into the wilderness. Lent is important because we would rather avoid that journey. We’d rather avoid dealing with the voices by burring them deep down or locking them up in our mental box.
But when we avoid those voices or try to lock them away, they only grow stronger. Jesus was led into the desert because he needed to learn how to manage the negative voices of doubt in his head.
We all have those voices. They were given to us by our family, friends, co-workers, and the larger culture. Sometimes those voices have our best interest in mind, but sometimes they don’t. And it’s usually the negative voices that I allow to play in my head over and over again.
After struggling with the voices in his head, Jesus was able to cast them out. That may work for you, but I’ve noticed that the more I become against the voices in my head, the more powerful they become. They just grow bigger.
I’ve learned a different way to manage them. For example, I’ve learned to make peace with my Mom’s voice. She wasn’t against me; rather, in her own way, she was looking out for me. Her voice had a positive intent. A life of ministry has serious challenges. You’re always on call, you work on Sundays and often Saturdays, and you are expected to be available at all hours of the day and night. That’s what my Mom was worried about. But those challenges have also given me some of the best experiences of my life.
So, instead of being against my Mother’s voice, I’ve learned to make peace with it by blessing her voice. I tell that voice that it belongs. The voices of doubt and certainty, love and hate, joy and despair, they all have a proper place. They all belong.
Let me suggest that during Lent you explore the voices in your head. Especially the negative voices. Go into that wilderness.* If you can cast out those voices, go for it. But if not, let me suggest an alternative. Ask yourself where they came from. Explore if the negative voices might actually have a positive intent, like my Mom’s voice does. (Here’s a hint – the voice almost always has a positive intent.)
When you go into the wilderness and come face to face with the voices instead of avoiding them, you might just discover that they become smaller and smaller.
*Of course, it might be even more helpful to do this with a pastor or therapist.