I am coming to realize the deep truth within the phrase “you can’t have it all.”
We moved across the country 10 months ago. I was one of five Army public affairs officers to be selected to attend a fully-funded graduate program at Georgetown University. The notice to move was short. But we had felt in our hearts that our time in Alaska was coming to a close since January of 2016. It was just a matter of when.
Ministry opportunities had dried up. Our friends either moved, or had moved on to new social groups that we did not fit into. Our pastor moved, and the church we had invested our hearts into deeply over five years left us behind in its quest to become a millennial-focused mega church.
It had been a tough year. Our family watched helplessly as my father faded away. He had a hard time accepting his mortality, and projected much of his anger, at the cancer that was slowly killing him, onto those of us who loved him the most. I had to walk that road with scant support from my church community. Every person I had counted a close friend in college still lived within an afternoon’s drive of where we buried dad. Not one of them showed up. It was impossible not to notice. I had been there for two of them at their fathers’ funerals.
A few months earlier, the recovery community I had flourished in waned. My sponsor went through his own struggles and became an unsafe person for me to trust. The people I sponsored lost interest in continuing their walks. I felt like an outsider among people I had deeply related with. This capped a decline that had begun months earlier as I had to lead another Army family through the fallout from a suicide attempt by one of my soldiers. My sponsor mocked the emotional stress I was under at the time.
Soon after, the leadership team around me crumbled due to issues within their personal lives. The workload grew heavier than I had imagined possible. I sought some sort of support at church. My pastors were busy elsewhere. Walking with me through hard patches was not the stuff that promotional Jesus-branding videos were made of.
Only one family from church stayed active in our lives. They became like family. Otherwise, the only concern, external to my angelic wife, came from an Army psychiatrist, who was kind enough to give me a secure place to clear my head every few weeks.
Eventually the time came to move. We got word in October that I had to be in Washington DC in less than three months. There was lingering pain and resentment, but there was also hope and excitement for a new season in a new place. That in itself was ironic. Lori and I left our last tour of duty in Maryland in 2010, vowing never to return. That’s another story entirely. Yet we knew that God would not line up a return to this state for us to endure the heartbreak we had endured during the last tour.
This tour has indeed been better than the last time we lived here. But I have found that the isolation we experienced over the last year in Alaska was not a unique phenomenon. We settled in the latest home and church nine months ago. It’s a picturesque farm community, well outside the bustle of Washington, D.C. We love the quiet and distance from big-city problems. We hate the isolation.
In nine months, I can count on one hand the number of people at the church we attend who know my first name. They don’t know my last. No one is interested in knowing us. We can’t get an invitation to someone’s home, nor get anyone interested in joining us for a dinner or game night. Our invitations have literally been turned down. I have started conversations with people of my age group, to have them literally turn their back on me when someone local walked into the conversation.
I only attend church now for the benefit of my kids. It offers me primarily a weekly reminder that I am not from here. At a recent special church event, I took reading material so I would have some way to pass the hours. I got through most of it. In an evening there, only my Sunday school teacher spoke to me. Many of the things we love about rural community come with a price. In our case, the price is exclusion from social community. We are the outsiders here.
I have a lot of theories on why this is. Of course, the easiest is to say that when one person encounters the same problem in more than one location, it’s probably that person’s fault. That’s an easy Dr. Phil answer. Another theory is that God wants me set apart for some yet-to-be realized purpose. I’m 300-pages into the biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The man spent the first half of his life suffering many things he did not deserve before he found his purpose and voice. The angry, lonely side of me chalks it up to a fakeness in the modern church. I blame my peer group for destroying the concept of faith community, to the benefit of adding political divisiveness within the body. That’s a topic for another essay entirely.
I know there must be others who feel the same way. Few voice it. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find much in the way of written material on the subject through basic online searches, with the exception of a few Christian sites that condescend to people with my perspective, rather than offer meaningful advice or support. Unfortunately, the role of Shepherd is being increasingly outsourced to hipster-Osteen-esque weekly encouragement talks. I can’t change that. But I can refuse to conform to it as the evolved gospel.
There is a lot that I do not know. But, there are many things of which I am certain.
First, I am loved by God. His church may be full of phonies. Yet He remains.
Second, I have it better than I deserve. I have an amazing, loving wife and four healthy, energetic kids who inspire me.
Third, I get to make living doing things that I enjoy.
There are millions around the world who would sell their souls to get what I have. In my case, I get to keep my soul, but must learn how to thrive without community.
I can’t have it all, but I have a lot.