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A Personal Note about my Spiritual and Personal Growth from my First Year of Ministry (Warning: LONG READ)

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      Since leaving Scotland after finishing my Masters of Theology, I had always wondered if I made the right vocational move, switching from the dead, sterile, impersonal, competitive, and isolating field of academia- which nevertheless I was relatively successful in- to the alive, potent, personal, cooperative, and immersive field of ministry- which by my own measures and seemingly the measures of others, I’m not the best suited. In academia, I knew what questions to ask, I knew how to research, compile, making a compelling argument, be direct, and frankly kick some serious behind of others who did not put as much work into their thought as I had mine. when-the-churchgreeters-memesfonjesus-try-being-normal-3859167.pngIn ministry, I have answers to questions no one is asking, am not even sure what are the things I should be looking at, learn how to ‘discern’ (whatever the heck that means), draw people into the ‘presence of God’ (again, whatever the heck that means), be an indirect and gentle guide, and frankly get my ass kicked over and over again by all the messages of what I’m doing wrong, what I don’t have, and what I need to work on to improve it- which for someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, is a personal nightmare and sometimes even a harmful situation. So, why the hell would I make this switch? At the end of the day, I know Jesus personally in my own life, and I struggled to figure out how to follow Jesus any further in academia when I saw him in the streets, in the hospitals, and in the pews. It is Jesus I’m compelled to follow and emulate, not the western stereotype of the white intellectual straight male whose logic and rationality are impervious to the harms of emotions and humanity.

      But I want to begin this piece about lessons I’ve learned during the course of this year of ministry, with a confession- I have grown up in Evangelical Protestant Churches all of my life, and I still feel like either they or I am missing something because I often feel estranged from this tradition that I was raised in, not only because of their politics but their entire approach to things of late. My estrangement became only all the more clear during this first year of ministry with an Evangelical organization- InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). While I intend to write some things about this estrangement soon, I wanted to highlight all the important places of growth because of the Evangelicalism of IVCF, not in spite of it- to make everyone aware that my estrangement is not a dismissal of its importance or goodness. The following are some brief antidotes and lessons I’ve learn about ministry during this year with IVCF:

“Purposeful Patience”

      At the beginning of our internship, the importance of waiting and patience was continually stressed, drawing upon Jesus’s instruction to the Apostles to “…not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised…” (Acts 1:4). Now, as someone who waited for two years to do ministry- I HATED this emphasis. I was way more with the angels who asked the disciples, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” (Acts 1:11)- exactly, why the hell were we standing around worshipping Jesus when their was work to do?! I hate apathy, waiting for no reason, and relaxation at the expense of purpose. Frankly, I still feel this way sometimes when I see the urgency of the moment when it comes to our political climate, but it was not the end of the internship when I heard two words that made all the difference- “Purposeful patience.” See, when I normally think of patience and waiting, I think of anticipation for something, and if the Kingdom of God is at hand, then why are we anticipating? Its here! But what I often fail to see is that patience and waiting can be done with the intention of preparation. I wanted to jump into this ministry so fast, without all the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ because I only saw the anticipation, not the preparation. It is also undeniably true that my second semester of ministry was WAY more fruitful than the first, because I knew what was happening and I was prepared by the waiting, in a way that I wasn’t with the first semester. If its a simple thesis it is: We can wait not only in anticipation of what is coming but with the purposeful intent of preparation for what is coming. It is this purposeful intent of preparation in waiting that prevents the waiting from becoming anxious or apathetic.

“Sit Down…Be Humble…”

      Before this internship, to put it lightly, I overestimated by ministry/emotional/people skills. I knew that ministry was not like academia, in that it was people work and not book work. I knew that my skills in research, administration, teaching etc…, which are also important in ministry, were far above my skills in counselling, facilitating, social dynamics and emotional intelligence. But until this internship I really did not know just how far above they were. Before this internship I sought a position at a church, being convinced that because I had done a lot of the hard academic stuff, any and all people skills I needed could be picked up through experience- not another degree (MDiv- cough, cough). God tremendously humbled me through my interactions with students and others by showing me I did not have the people skills needed for ministry- or at least not effective ministry. For instance, indirect leadership- not my preference but often needed. CB-01When it comes to leadership styles, lets make a comparison to dancing. Leadership to me is either the person that choreographs the entire room in a dance, or is the lead dance partner- very direct, very organized, lots of control, and can do a lot if the person is willing. But often what ministry requires is a more indirect style of leadership or a DJ of the dance party, someone who is willing to organize and play a set list, but does not immediately dictate how the crowd will dance, when the crowd will dance, and cannot not just jump in the middle of the dance floor and change things. The DJ sets the tone and wants certain things to happen but has released some control in order to allow the dance partners to have a portion of control themselves and thus create some really magical moments. Many other people skills such as inter-cultural codes, personality tests, mental health, reading emotional faces etc… were all things I came to learn about and be humbled by. If its a simple thesis it is: God can humble us either by jumping on the dance floor directly or us being open to his music, but either way, the humbling is to make us become better dancers. God’s humbling of me, while painful, was what would ultimately make me a better party thrower in ministry life, I can be choreographer when I need to be, but now I’m beginning to have the skills of a DJ too.

“God uses our EROS for other purposes”

      For most of my adult life the assumption that I held about the erotic element in life was that it was for one purpose- to find sexual partners. To be fair to myself, this is what churches and culture teach about this subject. Now, when I began this internship there was a clause about not being allowed to have a romantic relationship during the course of the internship- yes, you read that right, not just a romantic relationship with a student or co-worker which would make sense because of power-dynamics, but not at all. So many of my friends laughed about this because they’ve known about my struggles in this area, while others (I think reasonably too) thought that IVCF was being a bit controlling with their sexual hang-ups (more on that in a later piece). Nevertheless, I’m a good faithful person to a contract that I agreed to but I also know me- a romantic by nature.  I knew that I would be prone to seeking a romance, so I was on the look out.

Students- nothing- check.

Housemates- nothing- check.

Coworkers- nothing- check.

Church people- nothing- check.

As far as I could tell, I was safe! Boy, was I naive. I had intentionally this year made sure I would have one group of non-Christian friends, in this case I made friends with the Fightback Socialist Group at Concordia. I attended one of their events and at the end of the event a woman gets up and announces another event that sounded interesting. Now, I thought she was cute but I was assuming that at a Socialist meeting they would all be atheists, so I thought it unwise to pursue her. Anyways this woman, myself and another guy getting to talking and they ask me what I’m doing in Montreal, and I tell them about doing Christian ministry. Of course, the socialist guy is surprised that a devout Christian would be at their meeting, but then she’s says “I’m a Christian too.” Now, if you could imagine it for a second, my head shook in astonishment very Scooby-Doo like.giphy I found out that she had previous experience with IVCF, had a masters degree and worked at a museum. Holy crap! Cute, Intelligent, Christian, and even Socialist- I wasn’t sure another one of us even existed! We then did a couple of bar trips and casual dinners with good conversation but it didn’t end up becoming anything romantic (she was seeing someone, of course!). But I am still convinced that God wanted me to pursue her because even though I was hoping for a sexual relationship, God was using my erotic drive to draw me into a deeper understanding of what I am attracted to, and what demographic of people I have placed on my heart to minister to- Christians who are intelligent, politically active, leftist and no longer have a spiritual community. If its a simple thesis it is: Sometimes following our erotic desires can lead us into a closer communion with God and can be used for things other than what we expected.  

“God Gives Good Gifts to his Kids, even if we don’t know what they will be” 

      Of all my passions and talents the one I did not expect to be put to any use during this internship was rapping. Hip-Hop is one of those things that is so close and dear to my heart, but its not ever been something I’ve had as a front foot forward. Its a semi-private professional hobby, that always without fail takes people by surprise, especially when I tear it up! In addition to this, I did not expect that my old childhood love of trading card games would emerge either. Now, I knew this internship was gonna be a difficult time of learning, but it turned out to be a lot of fun as well especially in ways I did not expect! For instance I got to perform Ejection, which I have come to see as prophecy about white backlash with the Trump presidency at a worship night for Dawson, as well as two other performances in the first semester. The next semester was crazy too, I got to perform for Jack.org at Concordia’s student bar about mental health awareness, along with three other performances. Seven performances in 8 months is not a pace I am use to, but God rained it down on me for maybe no other purpose than he knew I would enjoy it. I was also introduced to the trading card game, Magic the Gathering, which is of the kind of entertainment that is hours of pointless fun that I use to judge my peers about before but which I am now subsumed in myself. I often speculated about what good things might come out of the internship but the little opportunities of fun joy in rapping and trading card games were not any that I anticipated. If its a simple thesis it is: God loves to give good gifts to his kids, even just when they’re for our pleasure and fun- God wants to see us play! 

“I’m so extroverted! No wonder I was depressed being single in isolation!”

      As much as I believe that God wanted to teach me a lot about himself, about others, and about ministry, I learned equally as much about myself along the way. Just before the internship I took the famous Myers-Briggs personality test and learned that I am apparently an ENTJ. For those of you not in-the-know, the first of the four letters mean stands for ‘E’xtroverted and when it first told me I was an extrovert I was very skeptical. I’m an only child, I’ve always had my own room, and living in a big city like Toronto you often feel isolated from all your closest friends. But what also had me convinced I was introvert was that I was shy and quite as child, and as I became an adolescent I found that I enjoyed reading and writing- two very solitary activities. I thought I was going to hate living in a crowded 6 person household, whom I knew were not going to live up to my standards of cleanliness. But, surprise I actually LOVED IT! All the joy in sharing a table around a meal, spending time in deep conversation, playing board games, praying for each other, laughing, and never feeling like you were alone even when you got space to yourself. The support network was immediate and constant, and it only invited more to join in. So good was this community for me, that I even ended up coming off my anti-depressant medication because I didn’t need it, I wasn’t walking around depressed. What this taught me about my desire for intimacy and a romantic relationship was invaluable. I learned that the loneliness I felt in Toronto fed deeply into my want for a romantic relationship, but when I was surrounded with a close-knit immediate community I may still have wanted a romantic relationship but it didn’t have the same force because I received intimacy and closeness in other ways. I didn’t feel like I needed a romantic relationship the way that I feel I ‘need’ it in Toronto. If its a simple thesis it is: The solution to the problem that “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18) does not need to be a sexual partner.

“Learn to live with your thorns, they don’t go away when serving Jesus”

      Now, an immediate preface, suffering is not good. Christianity often has a sadistic element present throughout its tradition and what I am going to say should never be construed as “All suffering is permanent and good and embrace it…blah, blah, blah.” But while suffering is never good, it can often be necessary and is not as easy to tackle as utopians and technocrats would like us to believe it is. During the course of my ministry this year because of a number of factors I had a relapse of my OCD, I thank God however that it was not accompanied by depression, that would have really taken me out of commission. Now, there is so much with regards to my OCD t that I have had the wisdom not to talk or write about and I do ask that you respect my privacy with regards to it. 92087ce9bff56566ae1d8850e7feccddHowever despite some of my wishes for privacy, I don’t try to pretend that its not a major part of my life, and for years now I thought it was all over with- until it reemerged. But in many ways, while it was not good for me to suffer this way, it may have been necessary if only for the things I have received from this recovery that I did not received during my previous experience over five years ago. Five years ago I never received therapy, the medications after a year seemed to do the trick, and I always had the sneaky suspicion that I would need proper therapy one day- I had just not anticipated it being when I was away doing ministry in Montreal! In addition to receiving the therapy that I needed and more awareness of how to deal with OCD aside from ‘take your pills’, I also received an assurance that wherever I was and however I was, God was going to rescue me because I still had a place in his Kingdom and ministry despite my state and capabilities. To have this kind of reassurance is immeasurable when suffering greatly. If its a simple thesis it is: Serving Jesus will still involve suffering, even undeserved suffering, but how one deals with one’s thorns is not simply trying to relieve the pain- though you should- but to have faith in your imminent rescue. 

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      Now, congratulations are in order if you made it this far! But I am so happy that you did, and I hope your own faith in the goodness of God is reaffirmed by my testimony during this year of ministry!

Blessings, and until next time,

Caleb David Upton

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Journey ‘Away From’ Scotland, ep. 8- The Epilogue: Toronto Return

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          At this moment, the lack of motivation, time, and general overall stability has kept me from writing on this blog, 2000 words a week, as per my original discipline, but I had to let life happen. Coming back to Toronto, the city I remembered as the winter tundra land I visited in December and had every desire to leave again, greeted me with much more warmth, both metaphorical and literal, this time around thankfully. For economic reasons I had to depart from Edinburgh, a city that had stolen my heart, and everyday I still miss it terribly- the history, the beauty, the friends I had made, student life in general, the pubs, the clean air, the confidence and stability, the joy of living independently, and (as a recall to my first post about my journey) the spirituality of learning how to live as a Christian disciple as best as I could conceive of it. Before I let you all know how I have adjusted and ‘settled’ (will I ever be again?) in Toronto, I would like to do something, at least in an informal manner, something I’ve wanted to do for awhile- list some practices and disciplines that I would ideally follow to become a better disciple of Jesus throughout life. My current reading, that of Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief (1896), has in part inspired this, for while I do not agree with Tolstoy in every respect concerning the Gospels and the Christian faith, I have appreciated very much his desire to distill Jesus’ teaching into very simple monastic-rules- orthopraxy is just as important as orthodoxy. Some of these I had begun to do in a very devoted manner back in Scotland, while others are yet to be realized, but its all what I have contemplated.

  • Give away all the change in my wallet to any homeless person I may see on the street- a spirit of radical generosity has to be cultivate before critical suspicion can have its way.
  • Have friends over for tea once a week- no need to spend money vainly to have friends, hospitality will always beat entertainment.
  • Write once a week, 2000 words- reflection is important for an active mind, as it allows one to build upon one’s experiences, and helps others to learn from them.
  • Schedule readings, both Bible and otherwise- often we find that we don’t think we have time to read, but once its scheduled it gives structure to instruction.
  • Begin prayers everyday as a review- when anxious, I find that looking outside of myself, both at external circumstances and other’s own situations that it helps to get out of the tyranny of emotional subjectivity that often drive us to fear, anxiety, and despair.
  • Have as few possessions as possible- the less you own, the less responsiblity you devote to those things, and the more you devote to wealth in heaven.
  • Abstain from the sports industrial complex- the amount of money and suffering caused by it, is absolutely obscene.
  • Abstain from debates over any textual medium such as computers or phone- text, depersonalizes a person’s thinking, allowing one to become more vicious in an argument and actually miss the point.
  • Devote one self unconditionally to a Church community, as if they were your own family- Let me just refer you to this last essay 🙂

These are just my causal ruminations of course, but it’s a start. Now onto TORONTO!

          One of my chief goals in having returned into Toronto was to get some sort of a job in order to pay off the immense amount of student debt I accumulated over the past year (though it was totally worth it!!!), and thankfully the Lord more then readily provided. Within a week and a half I landed two interviews, took the one job, and am awaiting a second interview for the second job later in October. The first job is as an overnight tasking position at the Indigo store at Bay and Bloor- looks like a lot of my earnings will go toward books!! hahaha, well hopefully I can have some self-control. It has been a bit of an adjustment to work 10pm-6am, but thankfully the Lord has kept my mind steady and awake to get the right sleep and to enjoy the work the best I can. The second job, I can’t talk much about but its for a pastoral position of sorts at a Church downtown. I have had meetings with them, and the much more formal interviews will be taking place in October. If you’ve kept up-to-date with me, you’ll know that this past year in Scotland has brought me great clarity as to how God wants me to invest my time and abilities. Trading the lectern for the pulpit, though someday day I may return to the lectern, I have decided to pursue the ministry, so needless to say I’m really hoping that this second job turns out well. I’ll most certainly Skype or meet-up with anyone who wants to know more about how I have decided to pursue the ministry but in the shortest terms possible: everything in my life has prepared me for it, everyone in my life saw it, and now I’ve just admitted the vocation with joy to myself!

          Returning to Toronto has also had the blessing of seeing many of my good friends again, including a man who is my very heart, Greg Matthews, who is getting married soon and I’m delighted to attend 😀 I was thankfully able to rally many of my friends to a pool hall to catch-up, and to all my friends in Scotland (and around the world now I guess haha)- I hope that one day I’ll be able to get you all in the same room!!! I would love to see Ryan chat up politics with Jared! I would love to see everyone enjoy Sida’s amazing cooking! I would love to see Tobi and Mo chat it up about Hip-Hop! And two of my spiritual mentors, Dave Smith and David Nixon chat about theology! One day friends, one day!! While I have missed many things about Scotland, like the food, the scenery, and the clear air (did I mention that Toronto recently has smelled like weed has been laced in the air almost anywhere you go?), I have missed serving and ministering at Carrubbers Christian Centre. I’ve learned more about what it must be like to be a pastor in a year there then many years in Toronto combined (no offence to my home church though!).

          Another thing I can give everyone a bitter-sweet update about: Hip-Hop. As some of you may know, while I’ve been doing my Master’s degree and all (no biggie, haha), I’ve also been at work writing, and assembling production from all the homies- like Rel McCoy, Fresh Kils, Royce Birth, and others- for my second album ‘Help My Discontent’, loosely based on my life interacting with the dilemma of gratefulness vs. discontent- well described, if I may say so, in this essay of mine! While I’m happy to say that I’ve written all of it (except for the features) and have it all put together- with even a first draft of recordings I did back in Scotland, thanks Tobi and Nick for coming with me and being an extra set of ears for that!- it most likely won’t be completed until sometime next year due to lack of funds that I can commit to it right now. I have an immense amount of debt and I need to take responsibility for it- I can’t commit any more money to HipHop right now, plus I’ve only just put out The Audacity of Dope last year!!! What you can anticipate however is that it will be as brilliant as the album cover prepared for me by my wonderfully talented friend Karima Dieleman!

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Anyways friend, I don’t have any epic conclusions, only my love to send. If you like to skype sometime, here’s my name: caleb.upton. – Please contact me! 🙂 I miss you all very much and I hope this post has been good to suffice as to how I’m doing back in Toronto

Peace and Love

Caleb

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