Reflections On The Eve Of Commencement

Tommy: “You know, a lot of people go to college for seven years.”

Richard: “I know. They’re called doctors.”

Tommy Boy

On May 21, 1997, I participated in the commencement ceremonies at Lander Valley High School, six days before my eighteenth birthday.  Tomorrow, I will be participating in the commencement ceremonies of Northwest Nazarene University’s College of Adult & Graduate Studies, 21 days before my 38th birthday.  Such moments make a person reflective.

It’s been quite the journey!  It has only taken me 20 years to complete my four-year degree.  J  Maybe I can complete my Master of Divinity, another four-year degree, in half that time.  In full disclosure, though, I haven’t quite completed my BA yet.  I have two classes that I will be taking in the fall to wrap things up.

It has been a LONG journey.  Immediately after completing high school, I began attending Central Wyoming College in Riverton, WY.  It was a very formative year.  I received more opportunities and grew as a musician more than I ever have before.  However, at the end of the year, it became clear to me that it was time to transition to something else.

I was quiet about such things at the time, but as a child, I knew that God was preparing me for and calling me to ministry.  As a teenager, I lost focus of my calling and considered other options.  Professional percussionist?  Sounds great to me!  Or maybe an attorney?  At CWC, my instructors encouraged me to consider Music Ed instead of just Music.  After all, everybody needs something to “fall back” to.  In my late teens, though, my calling was renewed, and I decided to move on.

I took the fall semester of 1998 off, and I began attending Northwest Nazarene College in January 1999.  Socially, these early months at NNC were pretty rough, though I tried to hide it.  I am an extreme introvert (30 points on the “I” side of the Introvert-Extrovert spectrum of Myers Briggs!), and transferring in midyear as a sophomore did not provide me with the regular social activities that new freshman usually receive.  Still, I pressed forward and began to figure out my new setting and make new friends.  My intent at the time was to complete degrees in both music and youth ministry.  As I had already completed a year as a Music major at CWC, though, it seemed to me to make the most sense to focus on Church Music first.

I continued at NNC, and then NNU (university status arrived in the fall of 1999) through June 2000.  Without going into details, I had a really dark emotional experience lasting several months in the fall of 1999.  As I emerged from the dark night of my soul, I began to focus on rebuilding a social life.  I developed closer relationships with my fellow Music majors (and others associated with the Music Department).  However, my studies took a significant hit.  Due to both the decline of my GPA and some financial aid paperwork that was never submitted (needing completed by someone other than me), leaving me with $3000 due directly to NNU (not counting my student loans), I determined during the Hallelujah Brass tour to Australia and Papua New Guinea that when I returned to the U.S., I would need to do something else for a while.

In July 2000, I moved to Denver and spent close to two years doing office work.  During this stage, I attended a non-denominational church with my sister and her family.  I connected with the youth pastor, who was two years older than me, and was given the opportunity to help with the youth ministry.  This was the most formative stage of my youth ministry preparation, and I learned a lot from him, the teens, and the other adult sponsors.

In June 2002, I moved to Casper, WY.  I was offered the opportunity to serve that church as their youth pastor.  This hands-on experience, now not as just a helper but as someone entrusted to lead the ministry, was yet another significant period of growth.  After a little over two years on staff with Casper First Church of the Nazarene, though, I needed to step away from “professional” ministry for a while.  I resigned in September 2004, though I remained very active in that church for the following five years that I continued to live in Casper.

Needing work, I began applying at all the office opportunities that I could find.  Nothing panned out, though.  As my severance neared depletion, I decided to go ahead and apply at both Pizza Hut and Dominos.  Pizza Hut called me back the next day (and Dominos the day after).  The idea of becoming a delivery driver was very humiliating for me at that stage of my life.  However, I did not see any other options.  And boy, was I wrong!  The five years I spent at Casper E. 2nd Street Pizza Hut were five of the best years of my life!

I loved working for Casper First Church.  However, once I began working at Pizza Hut, I came upon this realization: Working for a church, it becomes difficult to connect with people outside of the church.  And, in a moment of honesty that I suppose could get me in trouble, I kinda like non-churched people more than I like churched people.  Now, if you are one of my fellow churched people, don’t hear me wrong.  I love you and cherish who you are in my life.  However, when working a secular job with non-churched people, I discovered that there is a sort of honestly and openness that is often missing among people in churches.  People in churches seem to think that they need to present themselves in a certain way to other people, and even more so when those other people are pastors.  The honesty and openness that I experienced with my Pizza Hut coworkers was good for my soul.

In the fall of 2006, I decided that it was time to resume my formal ministerial preparation, so I began taking online classes from Nazarene Bible College.  In June 2008, I received my first District Minister’s License in the Church of the Nazarene.  In June 2009, I was invited to begin praying about moving to Victor, MT and joining the staff at the Bitterroot Valley Church of the Nazarene.  In mid-August, I made a visit to the Bitterroot, and shortly thereafter, I accepted the call to go there.  I began my assignment as youth/associate pastor in Victor in November 2009.  In addition to serving the Bitterroot Valley Church, it has been an honor directing the Rocky Mountain District teen camp, serving at the RMD NYI President, and being a part of the NW Field NYI Council.

Upon moving to Victor, it did not take me long to realize that I would not be able to continue the pace of my education that I had been maintaining.  Relocating 10 hours from where I had been living to an entirely new ministry setting with a bunch of people that I didn’t know did not afford me the time to both become connected in my new setting and complete my education.  Thus, I stepped away from NBC and only very slowly worked on my educational requirements for ordination.  However, in the fall of 2014, I was made aware of a great opportunity to complete my BA through NNU’s Christian Ministry Online program at a 35% discount.  So in January 2015, I once again resumed my formal education.  This is what I am now completing.

The journey has been difficult.  Even over these last two years of my 20-year journey, I have had both successes and failures.  There have been moments that I have been near despair, ready to quit it all again.  However, there have also been moments when professors have told me things like, “Your work is exquisite.”  These moments have helped encourage me to keep pushing forward.  With both the Lord’s guidance and a ton of grace from my professors, I have navigated these difficult circumstances and found my way through.

So, what is next?  Honestly, I do not know.  I absolutely love my church and the Bitterroot Valley.  I have absolutely no desire to leave.  If God lets me stay here the rest of my life, I would be content.  However, I should acknowledge that often at moments like these, God uses them as pivot points to lead to something new.  So . . . we’ll see.  I would like to continue my formal and complete an M.Div. (hopefully in only four years), but I need some space first.

In concluding, I want to acknowledge just a few of the many people who have helped me along.  I will undoubtedly forget to name many.  The reality is that each and every person I have ever connected with has had a profound influence on my life, so I will begin by offering a generalized, “Thank you” for each of you who has been a part of my life.  I love you all more than words can ever express.  You mean the world to me.

Of course, the most important acknowledgement is to the Triune Godhead.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are my all in all.  God created and sustains me.  Jesus took flesh upon Himself, provided the means of my reconciliation, went to the cross for my atonement, and was victorious over death, enabling me to live a new life.  As I look at Jesus, who is fully human and fully God, I see what God created me in God’s image to be like as well.  Likewise, I know that through Jesus, God fully experienced all the pains and sorrows of life that I experience, and more.  Through the Holy Spirit, God is making me new, drawing me into God’s new creation, and empowering me to be incarnational in the lost and broken world, extending to them the love, compassion, and reconciliation that Christ has extended to me.

I would not be who I am today without my family.  My grandparents, parents, sister, brothers, nieces and nephews all mean the world to me.  Thank you so much for who you are!  This is where I will mention my beloved canine companion, Natasha, as well.  I honestly do not know how I would maintain anything resembling sanity without the peace she brings to my life.  God truly created God’s creatures to live symbiotically together!  We humans need our animal companions.

From there, I must acknowledge my many friends from school growing up in Lander, from CWC and NNU, and those who I have met in other settings.  Adam, Tim, Kevin, Scott, Levi, Johnny, April, and so many more of you, thank you for being my friends over the years.  I owe a great deal of gratitude to John Bekken and Kelly Dehnert, two men that extended to me many opportunities to develop my musical knowledge and skills throughout high school and my first year of college.  Likewise, I must acknowledge Dr. Jim “Doc” Willis, who was the head of the Music Department at NNC/U when I attended on campus.  When I went through the darkest period of my life, Doc extended me opportunities that helped me to find a new focus.  And in connection with that, I should acknowledge my friends Jodi and John (and others), fellow NNU music majors, who helped me to recover from my darkness by extending to me their love and acceptance.

I no longer have any connection with them, by my coworkers at Merrill Lynch (my office job in Denver) meant the world to me.  Certainly, there were moments of frustration, but for the most part, I truly enjoyed going to work with those great people.  Also from the Denver stage of my life, I need to thank the youth pastor who mentored me, Shane Rayford, along with the senior pastor of that church at the time, Richard DuBose, the other adult sponsors, and the great teens I got to work with.  Our trip to California and back, along with other experiences I had as a part of Meadowbrook Church, will forever have fond places in my memory.

I do not know how I can begin to acknowledge all the dear people who were a part of my life in Casper.  Thank you so much, Tom and Cindy Lance, for extending me the opportunity to be a part of your church and family.  If you were one of my teens, whether when I was actually on staff or when I was a volunteer, thank you for letting me be a part of your life.  A special thank you goes to Joe Evans, who was both one of my students and one of my closest friends.  (And the other person who contributed to the recording of several songs I wrote something like 11 years ago.)  You were the one person with whom I shared most openly about another difficult period of my life.  Thank you for listening to me through all the tears!  And then there is my Pizza Hut family.  Thank you, Darrell Chambers and Barb Goff for extending me the opportunity to work with you.  Thank you, Kaci, Amanda, Tracie, Brad, Heather, James, and all the other wonderful people I worked with there.  You all mean more to me than I can ever say.  Beyond my “jobs”, I also want to extend a huge thanks to the many people I connected with through Casper College’s Baptist Collegiate Ministries.  Thank you, Josiah, Hilary, Steve, Nick, Rob, and many other people.  I may disagree with my Baptist friends on some theological matters, but I enjoyed our time together.

And that brings me to the Bitterroot.  Thank you, Pastor John, for inviting me to join your team!  Thank you, Jeremy, Angie, and all the Faust’s.  You moved too soon!  Your friendship means more to me . . . well, I suppose it’s getting old by now for me to say, but really, you mean more to me than I can ever say.  Sticking with the Capen clan, thank you Rob, Julie, and Krista for your support and always extending to me your wonderful hospitality.  Thank you, Allred’s, Weidkamp’s, O’Bannon’s, Widder’s, any anyone else whom I may have for gotten that has made me a part of their family at various times.  Another thank you to the Allred’s for joining me on many youth ministry adventures and loaning me your children for many movie adventures.  Thank you to all the other teens and parents who have been a part of my ministry in Victor.  And thank you to all the others who are a part of the BitNaz family: the Neville’s, the Lindsay’s, the House’s, the Herbert’s, the Gouin’s, and so many others.  It is a joy being a part of your church!

Thank you to my Church of the Nazarene family beyond the Bitterroot.  Thank you, Ken Osso, for being such a great friend and mentor!  Thank you, Mike Holien, Joe Arnold, Andy Maendl, and Loris & Denny Friesen, for your friendship and working alongside me in RMD NYI.  Thank you to all the many people who have participated in SuperCamp, REJOICE, Bible Quizzing, Nazarene Youth Conference, and other district youth events.  Thank you, Coach Bill Carr and Janet, for your leadership of our district and allowing me to be a part of it.  Thank you to all the members of the Ministerial Credentials Board for your support and encouragement.  Thank you to Rich Vasquez and the Northwest Field NYI team.  I love working with you all!  Thank you, Dr. Joe Gorman and everyone else who is a part of NNU’s School of Theology and Christian Ministries for your support, patience, encouragement, and all the grace you have extended me through my ups and downs.

I know that I’m missing people.  But again, if we have ever met, in whatever capacity, I extend my thanks to you.  I would not be who I am today without the role you played in my life.

Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

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