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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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A Personal Note on Sexuality (only for the mature reader)

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Authorial Note/ Update: The following piece was recently published in the February 2015 Issue of the University of Toronto Independent newspaper, accessible here

            On Tuesday Sept. 17th, I can honestly say that I was given the chance to rediscover my heterosexuality in a more appropriate way. The following is drawn from my adventure to The Bongo Club in Edinburgh, which is so far the only place I could find that had any kind of a HipHop scene.  I’m not typically a ‘clubbing’ person, so this was somewhat of a new setting, but it actually helped a lot that I was alone. See, unlike the HipHop places in Toronto, the ratio of women to men at this place was 4:1. It is a little unbelievable because HipHop is such a male-dominated musical genre and culture, but here there was in the most unlikely of places, a bunch of beautiful women willing to dance to HipHop music with the few amount of men that there were. The women were confident, sexy without being gross, and (most importantly) not snobbish or afraid to dance in a close and adventurous manner (if you know what I mean).

            Why I say this was my ‘rediscovery’ of my heterosexuality was because for about a good part of a year, due to my mental episode, I was put on a medication called Sertaline, which for most men not only kills one’s sex drive but even one’s ability to ‘enjoy’  (not permanent sterility, thank God!). It was only during this summer now was that the effect had began wearing off, and its all coming back in its God-given vitality. So that night at the club, while I had not lost my virginity, as is most surely proper [intentionally mentioned to keep criticism at bay], it was the closest I have come to that (get the pun?).

      As one friend related it, after I shared my experience at this HipHop club and the women ratio, “Congratulations. Enjoy your stay in Heaven”, which brings us back to theology. After that wonderful experience, I had a very unique experience while praying. I didn’t know whether to thank God, the creator of our bodies and our sexuality, for that experience, OR whether to ask for forgiveness for indulging and fantasying about ‘the flesh’….You see the tension, no? On the one hand, in some evangelical contexts, Christians want to proclaim, due to criticism from secularism, that they are not ‘anti-sex’ but that God made sex to be enjoyed as in the Song of Songs….BUT on the other hand, he created it to be enjoyed in a certain context, and outside of that context its dirty and sinful.

            In addition to this, a text from the Book of Proverbs had appeared itself in full colours during a church service, in which was the following (Prov. 7:13-20, NET),

So she grabbed him and kissed him,
and with a bold expression she said to him,
“I have fresh meat at home;
today I have fulfilled my vows!
That is why I came out to meet you,
to look for you,and I found you!
I have spread my bed with elegant coverings,
with richly colored fabric from Egypt.
I have perfumed my bed
with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.
Come, let’s drink deeply of lovemaking until morning,
let’s delight ourselves with sexual intercourse.
For my husband is not at home;
he has gone on a journey of some distance.
He has taken a bag of money with him;
he will not return until the end of the month.”

            When I first heard that, my immediate mental reflex was, “Damn! That’s like every sex scene I’ve ever watched….oh my goodness, THAT’s my first response?” The justifications didn’t fall too far behind, e.g. “It was wrong because it was adultery, not because it was ‘naughty sex'” or “It was wrong because it wasn’t done out of love!” The text is clearly focused on the evil of adultery, but is not the secrecy and indulgence a big factor here as well? Speaking as non-academically as possible, I have to admit that I now struggle deeply with the aforementioned tension in Christian theology. It makes marriage seem just like a ticket that allows you to fulfill all the fantasies of sexual desire that you couldn’t before you got married (though you wanted too!). However, I’m really glad I waited a few more days before finishing this post, because what happened on another Tues. night gave me a wider perspective.

            The Bongo club was once again filled with a large percentage of women, but this time, something was different for me. What began to form during my mental process was to look at them as whole persons, not just whole bodies. Once this had occurred, it was no longer just “Hey! I’m a free young adult!” It was more, “What a shame…these men and women…why do we do this to ourselves”. Not in an arrogant manner but in a manner of…I get it. There are not too many men my age that can understand the social shame I face, being a 22-year old virgin. And not just a virgin, but a super-virgin, if that’s possible. I’ve never had a girlfriend, have barely had what you can call a ‘date’, have never kissed  a girl or been kissed, and needless to say that the only women that I’ve had sexual pleasure with were digital. The immense social pressure, biological pressure, and ‘religious’ pressure all reach here at a nexus, and weigh as  big as burden of anxiety from which I cannot be relieved so easily as you can imagine. Furthermore, my heart is very fragile and for some reason women just seem to think it is the most meaningless thing one can possibly break.

           I understand more than ever why our north-American culture is so sex obsessed, and it because for many of us, sexual relationships are to be viewed as the most intimate, and for those of us who feel very lonely and unjustly deprived in this area…is it any wonder why we might hire people to cuddle with us? I will go so far as to say that for some of us, the reason we might have turned to pornography was NOT

581ca25150e10a6ab35fb5448a664f28because we were lust crazed sex fiends…it was because we were lonely, and consensual physical intimacy was so far beyond our reach that even if the people we watched were digital, at least they in our minds were willingly to be with us in any close way. We didn’t turn to digital images for sexual pleasure because we got bore with real people, we turn to them precisely because our first choice of real people didn’t seem to want anything to do with us. “We know its not ideal”, we say to ourselves, “but what other choice did we have?”, so we can rationalize our bad habits. Furthermore, any moralizing from anyone usually comes from people that have had relationships or haven’t felt sexually ignored, and we want to scream at them “F*ck you! Don’t tell me how sinful I am!”, as a way to ignore getting rid of our bad habits.

         What exactly am I trying to get at? Well to be honest I don’t have any solid conclusions, only some hints at the truths I’m trying to get at and hopefully get others to understand: (1) Despite all appearances to the contrary, because of medication or whatever else, I’m not just a ‘brother’, ‘friend’, ‘preacher’, ‘sage’ or whatever titles people want to bestow upon me…I’m a sexual being, and this aspect of me causes me the most grief, (2) It shouldn’t have to cause me the most grief, I should be able to enjoy it, but it seems like even in our so-called culture of openness about sex or whatever, people are more closed off than ever from one another, (3) How I wish I could give you moral platitudes about waiting for marriage, or how I’m so glad to be so ‘pure’ for a man my age, but truth is, in this case, H.G. Wells was right…any moral indignation about things matters on my part would be “Jealously with a halo”. I’m so envious of all my Christian friends that can tell me how they repented of their past sexual sins and now they’re better off for it. I feel like elder brother in the Prodigal Son, “Oh they get to sin all they like, like how I desperately want to! and they get the inheritance!…no fair”.  (4) I bemoan how one of the only places I feel like I can talk about these matters openly and honestly is on my blog. Truth is, I carry so much guilt for always burdening my friends with my complaining about these matters. All the genius in the world won’t keep me warm at night. If I could take away my sexual urges right now, sadly, I would. Life would be easier. All the confidence and pride I have left is muster up so as to avoid self-loathing. I wonder in the back of my mind if I should have written this at all, and the only reason I have is because I have a relative certainty that I’m not the only one, and that even if you’re not in the same situation as I am, you can definitely sympathize/empathize with parts of it. The only comfort that I can offer and the only thing that consoles me is the simple fact that we can thank God we’re not just sexual beings, because if we were, life would be unbearable.

Secularism’s Sexual Repressions: brief notes

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            Christopher Hitchens, in his now probably most famous work, god is not great (Emblem: 2007), indicts religion with “four irreducible objections” of which include that religious faith “…is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression…” (pg.4). It can be questioned whether Hitchens meant “the” as opposed to “a” result and/or cause but be that as it may, being a young man in his twenties, I would like personally to set the record straight that secular values and society, particularly in the North American context of the sexual liberation movement, have been equally repressive as religion when it comes to matters of sex, though of course for very different reasons. “Is not the problem that there’s rampant sex all over the place? What can possibly be your case that secularism is also sexually repressive?” is the objection raised. Some brief points:

            1) The anxiety over performance, technique, and pleasure- Secularism by trading the purpose of sex from love and procreation to almost a recreational activity for pleasure has unwittingly created more anxiety and worry about sex than ever before. Men worrying about the size of their penis, women worrying about pubic hair, parents worrying about keeping the ‘spice’ in their marriage, partners worrying about orgasms and whether they can ‘satisfy’ their partner, the worry whether one can measure up to one’s partner’s past experiences with others, the worry about becoming a sex addict, the worry over not having enough sex–all of this because now with sex as a sport their is the competition as to who is the best player and what makes them so good.

            2) The fear of becoming infected, pregnant or a pervert- Rampant numbers of partners, creates rampant amount of STDs and types of infections that now one has to live in constant fear of before having sex, or finding out after sex, “Was I infected with a fatal disease?”. In our world, the encouragement now is to get tested at the doctor’s before having sex with your partner. Such fear is sadly quite justified, but when both partners were presumably virgins no one had to fear death from sex. In addition to this, because sex is not for procreation, procreation could often be ‘accidental’. Understand that I’m not presenting a Pro-Roman-Catholic-No-Contraception-Ever argument but what is suggested is that now secularism has made children often the unwanted result of an activity, an economic burden unanticipated, rather than a bundle of joy in many cases. Finally, there is the fear of becoming a pervert. How has secularism changed this? Well by proposing that sexual attraction is entirely biological in nature, or almost entirely biological in nature, this creates almost a determinism when it comes to sexuality, and thus a fear that it will become uncontrollable. We see this in the anxieties of some as to whether they are gay or not, even when they are not. We also see it in grave fears of other sexual perversions. But it is because sexual choice, attraction, mating or whatever are seen as biologically determined, they are also things that control us, rather than us them, creating more fear and anxiety.

          Esquire  3) Lastly the great denigration of women as sexual objects- While many religious communities can also be rightfully accused of centering all of a women’s worth on the status of their virginity, secularism also has in many cases reduced a women’s worth to her sexuality. Recently, the editor of Esquire magazine, Alex Bilmes, made the quite honest confess that,

“We produce a men’s magazine and it has a male gaze… This is the controversial bit that people don’t like but I always tell the truth about it – the women we feature in the magazine are ornamental, that is how we see them…I could lie and say we are interested in their brains as well but on the whole we’re not, they are there to be a beautiful object, they’re objectified.” (i)

What was so shocking about this statement was not so much its content, though that too of course, but rather that he actually said it. Its has arguably been known for decades that this has been the case but no one dared to voice it in such a stark and blatant manner. The objectification of women’s bodies in patriarchal societies has of course been a terrible phenomenon over the course of many centuries but the justification for it in North American society is totally secular- the female body has become a commode in the capitalist market, as well as a tool for advertising. The objectification of the women’s body is now not as a baby machine to continue the ancestral lineage (as in more religiously oriented societies) but as sex products.

            These have been just some brief notes in need of further development, such as a definition of secularism and religiosity for our purposes. But I hope I’ve at least shown that sexual repression is hardly the sin of any one group, but is a problem of humanity and that secular society in these three forms has perpetuated its own forms of sexual repression.

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(i) Waterlow, Lucy. “Women are ‘ornamental’ and should be viewed in same way as ‘cool cars’: Esquire editor sparks row as admits he is not interested in girls’ brains.” Mail Online, March 21, 2013. < http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2296968/Esquire-editor-Alex-Bilmes-sparks-sexism-row-admits-women-ornamental-viewed-way-cool-cars.html >

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