Sunday, September 4, 2011

PILGRIMAGE....november 13, 2005(edited September 4, 2009)

At my age such an essay  on my pilgrimage could  easily turn into a book. I will write this with the attitude that I can respond to the reader’s questions  and thus fill in the blanks of what I will try to limit to key turning points in my path. There are so many situations and encounters that if any of them  had been different or omitted could have totally changed the present  results of my path. So I see my and other pilgrimages as very fragile and in retrospect as seeming  like a very specific story line that is so different from  what the pilgrim is envisioning  during the time of journey. My over all feeling is that I went from a very stable and little conflicted spiritual life through a period of extreme change and ‘wandering in the wilderness’ to arrive at another stable and reasonably cohesive spiritual perspective and experience. This causes me to value the whole journey and to see that most every disappointment and the times  where  important things and goals are  withheld  turn out to be necessary parts to the journey as a whole.

John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, 1678
The first 36 years of my life were experienced as spiritually calm and settled with little conscious disturbance either within or without. I was raised in a strong but not at all harsh church environment in North Alabama.  The non-instrumental Church of Christ  was my heritage and from  which everything else has developed. This was the faith of both of my parents. By the time their seventh son and no daughters came along they were mellowed and confident parents. Their steady and affectionate  relationship gave me a very secure feeling about life with many pleasant memories.  I adored all of my older brothers and experienced them nearly as father figures. They were all very good to me.  Of the seven I am the only one that ever left our denomination. I never consciously considered becoming a minister which  we nearly always referred to as the  preacher. I knew our church(we denied that it was a denomination but viewed it as  The Church) was the center of my life and had no doubt that it  always would be.  Year in and out we all were in church Sunday AM, PM and Wednesday PM. Nothing interfered with that. I really do not recall particularly liking or highly valuing our preachers.  There  was no such thing as ordination. That was for the more worldly denominational folks. There were many church tensions and one huge split that was traumatic to three of my brothers’ families,  for their wives’ families were on the other side of the ‘issue’ than my more ’liberal’ family.  All official business  meetings of our church were for men only.  The teachings of the church resulted in the very conscious and stated belief that only members of our church, ones appropriately immersed for the ‘right’ reasons and who then worshiped ‘according to the pattern’ of the New Testament church were saved and headed to heaven when they died. I seemed to accept this without too much disturbance growing up, into college and marriage and having three children. My new  family was holding to these same values right up until my 36 th year.

My ‘call’ to preach which I referred to simply as a decision to ‘prepare to preach’ along with preparing to be a school teacher came out of the blue when I was in my first quarter of dental school in Memphis and just recently married to Beverly who is from Illinois. To this day I do not know my motives. I’m afraid they may have been fear based or from a need to follow after what seemed to be secure. Of the seven brothers I was the only one to enter full time  ministry   which we would all have to view as the highest calling possible. But that decision  was a huge change and resulted in my attending a full year of Bible college and then taking a position as part time preacher at a small active church in Meredoaia, IL. This along with  Beverly and I being school teachers in the community. I’m convinced that there was much more going on at an unconscious level in that irrational and poorly motivated ‘call’ to the ministry.  But I was sincere and conscientious in my efforts to be a preacher in my native church. I served this church for eight years, leaving for one year to obtain an MS in science at Arizona State. I nearly accepted  an offer to preach for a large church in Tempe, Az but we decided to return to Meredosia.  My wife was always very supportive to me in all this but did not enjoy the role of preacher’s wife. I think she had a sense that the spiritual environment and exclusiveness of our churches  was not healthy. Had she been as gung-ho as I was I no doubt would have taken the common path of  attempting to move to larger and richer churches of which there were many, especially in the South. I could have been swept up in the pride of that kind of success.  In 1974 I took a teaching  job at a boys’ college prep school in Nashville. I also ministered to a rural Church of Christ just down the road from a country home we built. Two years later I became excited about evangelism efforts happening throughout the Church of Christ. I accepted an invitation to preach full time in Springfield, IL at the Clear Lake Church of Christ, a church of 125 members.  This was a rather inner city group with a large bus program that put me in the closest  contact I had ever had with African American children.  It was an exciting environment and my preaching became the true center of my life.  Before Clear Lake my sermons tended to be second hand from outline books and from respected Church of Christ preachers. At Clear Lake as a full time minister I began to prepare more deeply, reading  many commentaries. I became very acquainted with most of the books and themes of the Bible. But still I was  interpreting the Bible literally and not giving up the premises of my exclusive beliefs.  But as I moved into the 3rd year I was beginning to be uncomfortable. I was finding that my teachings on such things as divorce and remarriage and the ‘one true church’  seemed to be in conflict  with the growing image I had of a Jesus who accepted people where they were and who stressed loving others more than any thing resembling the importance of church organization or doctrine.   I began  wondering about the truthfulness of Christians of  my group being the only ones who had fully found God.

With discomfort I entered into a unit of CPE(clinical pastoral education) at St. John’s Hospital. An ordained Baptist pastor whom my wife and I  had gone to for some anxiety problems was the director and invited me to sign up. This was to be life changing. I knew going in at a  conscious level  I was going to be having intimate conversations with people of a broad range of Christian belief. One of my first confessions in that group was that I was carrying ‘ feelings of being both superior and inferior’ to others at the same time. This was my first awareness of a serious dichotomy in my belief system. This group was extremely affirming but also challenging to me that first year of CPE.  I began to read more comprehensively.  I realized before that unit  was over that my church was a piece of a much larger church and world.  I was able to know that these other people were just as much if not more saved and spiritually developed than I. It was very liberating and exciting.  I recall telling my adviser at a party, “I want you to know if I wanted to drink that glass of wine I could now.” I sent a letter to my brothers telling them of my desire to pursue seminary training in pastoral counseling and that,” I felt like as ship that had had the barnacles cleaned off the bottom and was ready to sail.”  How little I knew what that trip was going to involve.  They  were not over joyed at my family announcement. I began to be ashamed of much of what my church taught and believed but I was greatly confident in the people of my own congregation. I began to find ways to express my broadened faith and found many  people to be receptive. I was sharing my growth with others. I felt more like I was on the right track than I had ever been in my life. A book that profoundly affected me was called A Theology Of Church Leadership  and  was used in numerous seminaries as a text.  It appealed to my Bible based need  and it lead me beyond the written word to a genuine belief in the living Spirit of Christ who was active in and  among the people.  I felt  I had at last actually found a theology.  The theme of that excellent book was “Jesus is the head of the Church” and it developed a model of ministry that emphasized that ministry comes from God in the form of the gifts God gives to his people... that the ministries in a church should be those that are brought there by the people themselves not assigned by the good ideas of church officers.  I was off and running with this.  Doing things to help people identify their own interests and gifts...helping  groups of like minded people to get together to define new ministries. Many new deacons were named and they were literally writing up their own job descriptions and asking the church to support their efforts. It was an amazing thing to behold. I knew finally what I was suppose to be doing as a church leader and was helping some  others see the same vision. For the first time in my life I felt I was in touch with the living spirit of God.  Simultaneous with this I was in bimonthly individual and group  supervision  for my growing counseling ministry. In my second unit of CPE in 1983 my clinical was my pastoral counseling practice.  I was becoming more aware that the real place of the Spirit of God was in the lives of human beings. I was amazed at the courage and the goodness that are part of the lives of people as they honestly struggle to resolve the troubling issues of life. I was often moved to tears and still am to see the wonder of the unfolding image of God in the lives of my fellows.

It nearly still seems to me that this development should have been able to grow into a healthy caring church but it was not to be. I had been very involved with the male eldership. I had involved them in all that I was doing. They of course were glad to see the life coming to their church but they became fearful and could not make the transition that this new life should be viewed as coming from God and was to be nurtured not controlled by church leaders.  People in the Church of Christ are very very reluctant to take issue with the elders. Elders carry more power than the influence of a minister in most cases. I found myself in a power struggle but had a deep belief that my vision would win out and that new leadership would come forth to support a ministry based church model. But in anxiety, the elders asked for my immediate resignation.  The church has no organization beyond the local church so there is no outside help to ask to  help find resolution.  I had no desire to bring a split nor interest in starting a new church which is the usual pattern in the denomination.   My ministry dream had come to an end.  I and my  family were devastated and there was great sadness throughout the  church. I continued to have  occasional contact with some of these good folks and was occasionally called to help with a funeral or wedding. I tried to accommodate.  I will always be grateful to the church in which I was born and lived for the first forty years of my life.  But to experience the  sadness of what often happens in churches is a very hard truth to face and even harder to keep believing that it can ever really be different. I have not found that kind of excitement in church since then. As much as I think my experience and hope were real and spiritual I think there was also a significant amount of  ego centeredness going on with me there.  My personal identity was too much as 'the preacher.' I lived week to week to fill out that identity. This was not healthy nor psychologically  mature. I was experiencing an extreme and frighteningly rapid spurt of personal growth. A person should learn to not identify too fully with their role even, or perhaps especially, when that role is that of pastor. By God’s grace I was relieved of that identity.  I will never again think of myself as minister  first and the person Jim Hibbett second.  I know this was very unfair to my family and I have expressed that to them and of course they have forgiven me but to say that much damage was not done is to be dishonest.  I did not ever intend to be in formal ministry again.

About this time I came across, without anyone recommending it, the writings of C. G. Jung. His writings are very difficult reading but the thread of meaning I was able to grasp was later to become extremely important to me and to my spiritual survival.

A year before my ministry ended I attended an AAPC annual meeting in Nashville, which ironically is an  unofficial headquarters of the Church of Christ.  I was lamenting the lack of professional training I had for my age. I met a counseling professor from Chicago Theological Seminary , Dr. Robert Moore. He encouraged me to talk to CTS. I eventually sent in an application not seeing any possibility that I could ever go to such a liberal seminary. My church leaders would be appalled at the idea. A few months later I no longer had those church leaders or a church.  With nothing else to do I  entered classes   Mon- Wed on a full scholarship leading to MDiv and DMin degrees with a  focus on pastoral counseling- my dream education.   I was also granted a text book stipend.  I could not believe that this had been dropped in my lap.  The atmosphere of the seminary was like heaven to me. I totally enjoyed the sharing and caring and study and questioning. I was getting a genuine theological education.  I was able to learn more about the writings of Jung.  Dr.  Moore was a Jungian trained therapist and I had several discussions with him about the spiritual significance of Jung’s work. I was especially endeared to the first year seminary students. I was one of the oldest there and had an exciting story to share with these new friends. I knew from the start that I would have to have additional income to stay in the program. I interviewed with several churches but nothing developed.  I had to leave to find work to support my family.  Those six weeks at CTS were of immeasurable value to me. I found that the thoughts and interests I had were not uncommon. I found that my views of ministry and of God  were not strange. I came to realize that I had broken out into some new path and that as scary as it was it had all the marks of a real spiritual journey. I carried sadness and disappointment but I was also full of very genuine hope that I was somehow in God’s hands.

African Version Pilgrim's Progress, 1902
A student at CTS told me of an insurance company where several people he knew had made 40k their first year. I called them. I explained my financial need and was advised to call the Houston office as they had a strong program and I could work through the winter months. I called and was hired by phone. My mother in law had been close friends with a  family who had moved to Houston from our church several weeks earlier. She suggested we call them to see if I could stay with them temporarily.  He had been one of our deacons and his wife was very involved with women's ministry.  I called and he graciously said I was welcome to stay with them as I began this new job. I drove to Houston in my relatively new Mazda  pickup truck in mid October of 1984. From the first week of this work I made more than enough to send home for my family’s needs. I was selling life insurance to Union members and I was at the top of the sales force nearly every week.  And I am no natural sales person at all .  There was no doubt in my mind that God was providing this. I was working hard and long hours but that is all I had to do. I came home for Christmas encouraged that I was successfully supporting my family and wondering if we might all should move to Houston and this be my new career. It  was extremely helpful that I was being able to stay in a family home.

But when I returned  to Houston after Christmas I felt it was time to  move into my own apartment.  I was then truly alone more than at anytime in my life. For about six weeks I continued to do well in my sales job but gradually I began to lose my sense of interest. I began to wonder if all this was a mistake. Over a period of another six weeks for the first time in my life I was having signs of some serious depression .  I began to want to do more reading than working. I felt some deep need to turn toward an inner search of my life and to find something there that I wondered if had remained unconscious.  But without giving my all to my job there simply was not sufficient income for me to devote to the inner life.  So I began to suffer the results of inadequate financial resources and also disturbingly   I was not being able for the first time in my life to adequately support my family.  I tried to give positive reports back home but it became obvious to my wife and then  my bothers that I was in some kind of emotional stress and trouble. I knew that also but could not find the motivation or inner permission to leave and return home. I just kept repeating the same kind of days of not  working, of trying to ‘get at’ the internal questions and belief  this was necessary for my spiritual and physical survival. My brothers began to graciously help with my family's financial needs.

In mid May of 1985, four of my brothers came to Houston unannounced  and insisted that I return with them to Alabama. After some struggle I finally consented. I am so grateful for their intervention on my behalf.   During that summer I worked manual labor at my brother’s small factory cutting aluminum tubing and assembling basketball carts sold to schools and in continuous phone contact with my family.  I would have been put on potent medications were it not for  my brothers granting my   request to see a Jungian therapist.   I was able to meet and  work with a Jungian therapist twice a week in Birmingham, a three hours drive each way, throughout that summer.  I was now getting to do the inner work with myself that I had started doing in Houston. In Jung I found a thread of hope that indicated that extreme changes in life and world view, especially in midlife,  could bring all the symptoms of very serious mental illness but such can be the symptoms of what he described as ‘creative illness’. This kept me hopeful that no matter how serious my state of emotion and mind that if I could just hold on and live it out  the result would be good.  My goal for months which turned into years was to keep doing what I could each day with my highly charged  emotional  life and to keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.  I recognized later that many of the skills and compassion I had learned in my counseling practice were to be the tools for my own self treatment and survival.  I cannot over state the importance that the writings of Carl Jung had on my healing process. I still have the well worn books that I purchased in used Houston bookstores. I felt  he may be off track on numerous things but at heart his writings pointed to the deep and timeless  truths that may  help explain some deeper meanings of  my inner changes and even of  the Christian faith. His work helped me to apply the teaching and Spirit of Christ to my own life in my times of greatest need.

I was called by the superintendent of Riverton, IL schools in August of 1985 and offered a job teaching junior high math and science. I had done some sub work for him many years earlier and I think he had heard that I may be looking  for work. I in no way felt capable of doing such a job. I was still having very difficult symptoms including ‘visions’ type experiences. This kind of material requires much energy to sort through and integrate.  It required most of my energy to deal with these ‘revelation’ kinds of happenings. But I took the job and managed to teach the full nine months.  I began every day seeing  no  way that I could make it through that day. It always seemed like a miracle when I would finish a day. I would go home and collapse and begin to prepare  to be able to start again the next day. I do not think that anyone even guessed that I was in such a struggling  state of mind.  I had developed a strong capacity to not reveal the inner pain and anxiety.  The following year I taught high school chemistry still very much being in the survival mode. Ever so slowly the tensions I was living with slowly subsided. I continued doing therapy work  with the same pastor who had been the director of my two CPE units several years earlier. I took another sales job in 1988 and managed also to return to school to finish an MA in counseling I had been  working on in the early eighties.  I finished that degree in December of 1989 and took a job at Kemmerrer  Village for children in Assumption, IL. There I was invited to supply one Sunday at St. Paul United Church of Christ  in Ohlman and became th part time licensed  pastor there and the Rosamond Presbyterian Church for twenty years.  During those  years I  also worked in private agencies as a family therapist under the title of Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and member of the National Board of Certified Counselors.  I taught science and math  in a program for ‘freshmen at high risk’ at Springfield High from 1999- 2003. I left that job following a failed inner ear surgery which left me with no functional  hearing in my left ear.  My wife and I agreed mutually to a divorce 10  years ago. We remained  best of friends with ongoing communication both  realizing  that we have experienced an amazing piece of life together. She came through  all this a very much stronger and confident human being. She is a person of whom I am most proud and for whom I am most thankful. Sadly, long before her family was ready, Beverly died of breast cancer in January of 2009. A greatest joy of her life was getting to know her granddaughter who was nearly three  years old when Beverly died. Her family misses her still more than we could ever express.

I have come in these years  to be very appreciative of the United Church of Christ and consider it truly my church.  The ‘Christian Church’ part of the UCC is a part of the same ‘Stone-Campbell’ religious movement that my ‘Church of Christ’ developed from.   I have been especially   pleased with the ‘God is still speaking’ identify campaign and what I consider the courageous and just resolution on ‘equality of marriage’ pronouncement by the national UCC five years ago. I was able to express in essays four major issues I had changed my  spiritual views on in the Springfield Journal Register newspaper: 1.The importance of Biological Evolution, 2. A Woman's Right To Choose,3.  Post-Modern Interpretation of the Bible and  4.The legal Right of Gay/Lesbian Persons to be Married

PS I am astonished that I wrote this paper and failed to mention maybe the most significant external event shaping my psychological and spiritual development. My mother died suddenly of a heart attack three days before I turned ten. This seemed to be the end of the world to me but I never discussed this issue or owned  that heartbreak until I entered my first unit of CPE. Before all this other happened  I saw this as the most debilitating thing in my life, a sadness and a loss that I could never rise above.  I experience it that way no longer and haven’t for many years.  She gave me an amazingly strong sense of peace and security that I have reclaimed somewhere along the line.  Like everything else I would not now change a thing in my story. If I did I would not be me and myself  is the most significant thing that God has entrusted to my continuous care.

PS-2.  A very important part of my spiritual life is to honor  dreams. I began that practice in my first unit of CPE. Many dreams that I recorded in that period in retrospect were very clear indicators of the changes that lay ahead.  The Jungian view of dreams to which I subscribe is that they compensate  one’s conscious attitude. They seek to bring balance . But they have to be received and honored to accomplish this work. I would as soon not have access to a Bible as to not have access to dreams.  Of many things in the Bible, one that is taken with the least seriousness, even among Bible literalists, is the image of the human dream being an avenue through which the voice of God comes. The most common attitude toward a dream received is, “It is only a dream”.  That is truly a shame.

Jim Hibbett 

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