The first blog post of the new year, and of the new decade, comes from NazTooer Ryan Kuehl. Ryan is the pastor of Calvary Church of the Nazarene, in Crestwood, IL. He’ll tell you more about himself below. Happy New Year!
Just a quick bio: I am currently the bi-vocational pastor of a small church in the south suburbs of Chicago. During the week I am an adult special needs instructor/teacher for a nearby school called Elim Christian Services. Henri Nouwen is by far my favorite author because his work was often informed by the special needs communities he was immersed in. My love of cats means that St. Gertrude is my favorite saint. I have two of them, Dixie and Daisy. Gardening helps me maintain a level of peace and sanity so enduring winters in Illinois can be a challenge. I grow food so that I can give it away. Basketball may wear out my two surgically repaired knees but it brings me joy to be around early 20 something young men and showing off what skills I do have left. My loving wife Lori puts up with me in all of my oddities. She is a crocheter of all things yarn. She also helps act as a filter so that I don’t say inappropriate stuff from the pulpit since I did not come with a factory installed filter. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. I was invited into NazToo years ago by my dear friend Scott Christensen who has for years been instrumental in helping me think in ways very much out of the box in comparison to my first 20 years on this spinning globe. Very blessed by him and others in this lifelong venture!
Twenty years ago, I was an introverted college student preparing for ministry who was terrified at the prospect of having to preach messages to people 20, 30, 40, and 50 years older than myself. The internal thought at that time was basically, “What in the world do I have to say to these people that they haven’t already heard numerous times from other people who can say it much better?” Feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt have long been companions along the path of life but I have managed over the years to find ways to tell those voices to shut up long enough for me to write. When last month’s post came out by Thomas Jay Oord and I knew I was on the schedule for January I had to chuckle and those internal voice companions chuckled with me. The immediate thought was much the same as 20 years ago: What do I have to offer up to this group that they couldn’t get from virtually anyone else who could say it much better? Fortunately, today I woke up at 3am and those companions weren’t awake yet and so my mind was busy and productive enough to get me out of bed to get this started. So here we go.
Just the other day I had my 2-year pastoral review and one of the comments by a board member was that they were impressed by my fluidity when it came to relating to people of all ages and a variety of backgrounds. It was probably one of the greatest compliments anyone could ever give me because finding ways to relate to people is so important to me and it has been for a long time. Mostly because I routinely feel like I don’t belong and don’t fit in and so I know how much that feeling sucks when people can’t relate to you. And so I find myself working as hard as I can to find a way to relate to the people I meet in the hopes that somehow someway they know they are beloved and belong.
When I was in the 7th grade a good friend of mine committed suicide and the few days that followed were some of the most alone days I’ve ever had in my life. The deep sense that nobody knew how I was feeling was supported by the fact that literally everyone was asking, “How are you doing?”. Being in the midst of trying to process such a tragic situation meant that I didn’t have the words to even attempt to tell them. “How are you doing?” wasn’t a question that brought me comfort. While the people asking me that question genuinely intended to communicate to me that they cared and that I could come to them to share, it only made me feel more alone in my grief that I could not put into words.
My friend was buried on a Friday morning and it just so happened to be a Good Friday. In the midst of everything in my world being flipped upside down, the fact that it was Easter week was not something that remotely entered into my thought processes until Friday afternoon when I was alone in my room with those thoughts and feelings I could not articulate for those people unable to relate to me in my sadness. When it did dawn on me that it was Good Friday my internal thought was, “This is the worst day of my life. What possibly could be ‘good’ about this day?” In that moment the prevailing sense of aloneness that had been looming for days was immediately gone. The realization/revelation in that instant that I was not alone in my grief was the gift of a God who knew full well how suffering felt. A God who knew how loss felt. A God who knew how death felt. A God who knew how I felt even though I hadn’t been able to articulate it in human words. I wept in that moment not because the grief was lifted but because there was relief in the midst of it. Knowing that you are known by the God of the universe is a priceless treasure in a world where it is all too easy to be unknown by others.
One of the lifelong struggles that I deal with has been the deep desire to be known by others and conflicting desire for privacy. On the one hand I imagine that it would be absolutely freeing to be fully known by another person or group of persons, but on the other hand the fear of rejection has always been strong enough to make me either proceed slowly with caution or hide my story altogether. For years I chose the latter.
Not long after I graduated from Olivet in 2001 with the goal of entering into full time ministry my life quickly veered off track. Welcome to the real world of life and consequences! I found myself in a relationship I had no reason to be in and a few months later had the sense enough to get out of it, but that wasn’t the end of the situation. When I got the news a couple months later that a baby was on the way, ministry was a dead deal. The only pastors I had ever known up to that point had pristine life stories. I had never known a pastor with a baby mama story so I thought that was it for me and the call I felt I had on my life. For months after getting the news I was once again back to being scared and very very alone. I didn’t even tell my parents until just a couple weeks before my daughter’s arrival. Later on, when I started dating Lori, who is now my wife of 15 years, I had to do the task of sharing my story with her and then with her family. And then that was it. I didn’t want anyone else to know my story. I would go to Sunday School and church and I would feel alone because I was surrounded by people who didn’t know me or what I was going through and who never asked the kind of questions that indicated they wanted to know me in any real and substantive way.
And that’s how it went for the good part of 7 years. Alone and unknown by most of the people in my life. And then I get a call from some guy I had only met once before because our wives wanted to have dinner together. He was calling because he was wanting to start a small group where people actually lived life together in more meaningful ways then he had experienced in regular church gatherings. As he described the small group he was wanting to be apart of, it was simultaneously the thing I most wanted and the thing I most feared. I told him I would talk with my wife and we would let him know later. The question I asked my wife was, “Are we ready to really do this?” We did end up being apart of that group and the rest of that story was transformational. The bar was set high from the onset in regard to being real and genuine and transparent. It was reassuring to hear other people willing to share their stories which helped me in sharing mine. It was an absolute honor and sacred privilege to be allowed entry into the inner rooms of people’s lives in a way I had never experienced before.
It is only because of that small group experience and the small group experiences later on when I helped start and lead small groups at my church that I was later on able to endure the district licensing process in the Church of the Nazarene. Having to go through the kinds of questioning that the licensing process entails is still intimidating but I’ve been able to practice transparency while sitting on couches in living rooms with people who consistently displayed the grace of Christ. Over the past 2 and a half years I have also been surprised time and again with a tiny and fairly conservative leaning congregation that called me to be their pastor. Still working on the transparency thing there for sure. My hope is that my willingness to be vulnerable and accessible would be contagious. There are always limits to being transparent but most people can be more transparent then they already are. I still regularly hear people say, “You’re not like any pastor we’ve had before.” I think that’s a good thing so I’m going to keep doing that.
All of that leads me to why I very much appreciate what happens here in this #aINT group. While I do really wish that it were possible to interact with the members of this group in a different context that involved coffee and a couch, I am happy that there is still a level of true openness and transparency that is non-existent in more churchy contexts. I am always very excited when there is the opportunity to meet a fellow NazToo member in the real world so that I can put a human voice to the typed words. I wish that it were possible to get to know each and every one of y’all and hopefully this helps some of you get to know me just a little bit better. I’m just your ordinary run of the mill gardening cat daddy pastor with a baby mama story who is known at the recreation center as Scoop. Because every pastor needs a baller name.
Peace and Blessings!