Some Personal Question

Not gonna put a long pre-amble on this, except to say that recent conversations have arisen, inviting me to think about a number of questions related to my vocation as an ordained minister and how/whether that intersects with who I am at heart, how I approach ministry, worship, preaching, teaching, etc.

First question: What’s your background that would help someone understand who you are as a pastor and a person?

I was born into a pain-filled family. My father, John, was one of two children born to Paul and Ethil Martin. Paul died before I was born, tragically, while he was out fishing with my dad, who had to row his dead body to shore. So I never met him. Because Ethil was very, very secretive, I know next to nothing about my grandfather, except what I gleaned from relatives on her side during the days surrounding Grandma’s funeral. All they could tell me was that he came down here (to Arkansas) with the idea to unionize some of the shops Grandma’s family owned, and they ran him out of town. This is how he and Grandma ended up in the Detroit area, where my dad grew up to become a cop (who unionized the police department he worked for) and married his first wife. They had two kids, a boy then a girl. Dad was an abusive husband to her and they got divorced.

My mom was born one of two children, but she was the only one to survive the birth process. She was surrounded by family, most of whom were really just the average amount of crazy. But her first husband was an alcoholic and a schizophrenic, a mama’s boy, probably a malignant narcissist. Together they had two daughters. My mom was 19 when she got married to Dick, but after 12 years, his diseases got the better of him and he died by suicide.

So mom, a widow with two kids, married dad, a divorced man with two kids, and they had me. When I was three, my dad died by suicide, as well. Our family of mom and Dick’s kids, plus me, plus a kind-of-adopted-but-not-official sister of my mom’s, moved in with my mom’s Mother, Fern, and Fern’s mother-in-law (she remarried after her first husband died, long before I was born) into a 900 square foot house abutting a field behind the local high school that my multitude of sisters attended.

When I was 5, the youngest of my mother’s first daughters died at age 17 under mysterious circumstances, which still are not officially understood to this day. The following year, Mom and I moved out into an apartment in the next town over, where we would stay for the rest of my childhood (even though we moved at least 7 times within that town before I left home at age 17). That same year, Grandma died from ovarian cancer.

For the next several years, my mom dated a number of really nice men, some of whom moved in with us, but didn’t stick around more than a year or two. My surviving sister from mom’s first marriage, who had been abusing substances from the time of her father’s death, moved in and out. I can’t help but think her addiction issues and the effects that had on all of us contributed to the short-term-ness of mom’s relationships.

When I turned 10, mom got remarried to a divorced man with a daughter, who stayed with her mom, and a son, who moved in with us because his mom didn’t know how to handle his behavior (although it’s difficult to understand from my perspective, but it was a good arrangement). A year later, my bio dad’s sister died by suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning, accidentally also killing my cousin who was just a month older than I was.

During this time, my sister was still moving in and out of our apartments, sometimes alone, sometimes with a boyfriend. She had one boyfriend who owned a hair styling business, and the two of them moved in together in a nearby town, but they broke up after a year or two, and he then died by suicide from hanging.

The point of all of this: I grew up in chaos, with lots of death close at hand, lots of drug use in my very near vicinity (my first exposure to marijuana that I was aware of was when I was about 4), and lots of shady characters, who to me were basically just family.

Those childhood experiences coupled with my introversion made me an observer, and largely what I observed was people seeking ways to hide from their pain and brokenness. My own tactic was to distance myself by observing it in others. It took years to figure that much out. But I also developed a real empathy for people in pain and grief, which is probably why Lutheranism and its emphasis on a theology of the cross appeals to me, why people tend to seek me out for non-judging and non-advice-giving listening, and this is why I was drawn to the pastorate.

That’s the basic answer to the first question.

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