The Space Between Part 2: Ex Nihilo

It’s been a heavy season for me.
Both in the figurative and literal sense — as I’ve gained a few pounds. Somewhere along the way, I’ve become a stress eater…

There were moments in the past months where I’d be just minding my own business — walking around with my family; feeding ducks communion bread with my son (I know ducks shouldn’t eat bread but it’s consecrated bread and if they die, they’ll go straight to heaven. Isn’t how that works?) when just this tsunami of panic and anxiety would just hit me.
The only thing I could do was physically react. I couldn’t put into words what I felt in that moment — just maybe a weird noise and some flailing of arms. Which made me relate to my son a bit more when he flaps his arm and makes weird noises. Like, I felt emotions coursing through my body that I didn’t know how to explain or compute or understand that the only natural response was something like “blarghgosehgh” with flailing arms.

But the end of the space between is here and I am stepping into the light.
I wrote in a previous post that one simply does not come out the same from entering the wilderness and that rings very true for me.

I walked into the wilderness — the space between — as a United Methodist and I walk out of that space as an Episcopalian.

Be prepared for a long post. You’ve been warned. The part above is the TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) because what follows is like a 2k plus amount of words. (And, I put the tl;dr in the beginning instead of the end. You’re welcome.)

It wasn’t an easy decision. There was definitely a grieving period. Grief is a function of love. We grieve because we loved. And I love the United Methodist Church. I grew up in the Methodist Church. I’m the son of a Methodist pastor. My father in-law is a retired Methodist pastor.
The Methodist church ordained me. I’ve only known the Methodist church. It was home.
And leaving it was… more difficult than I’ve ever imagined. But also, something I never imagined.
Yet here we are.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what led to this place.
I was confronted with the question: what happens when what I believe is best for my family goes against the itinerant system?

There are many things that the Cabinet could hold against me and deservedly so because this was my doing and the sum of my decision. I’m not just saying that — I sincerely mean that. I do believe that the Cabinet worked hard at trying to find a church for me that was a good fit for me; a place where both church and pastor can grow and thrive. But there were complications that involved Nathanael that made things… complicated.
What I do hope that everyone will know is that I went with what I felt was the best for my family and not my career as a professional Christian.

There were moments of self loathing because I felt I lacked faith. I mean, wherever we go, God will provide, right? Just trust and go.
But. I. Just. Couldn’t.
At first, I really thought it was a lack of trust and fear.
Now, maybe it was something more — maybe it was God having a different route for me. (Or maybe this is something I’m telling myself to help me feel better about the past season).

About a 1-1.5 years ago, I found myself in a weird place.
I didn’t know if parish ministry was something I wanted to do.

I had no idea what I wanted — I was all over the place. My DS asked me where do I see myself in 5 years and I honestly had no idea.

Maybe it was burnout. Maybe it was indecisiveness. I don’t know. But I think instead of fighting, I somewhat gave up. There are a few regrets I have in this season and that’s one of them. I should’ve kept fighting. Perhaps, I became confused on what to fight for…

If I could go back with what I know now, I’d tell myself — don’t start with a problem. When you start with a problem, you normally will continue with the problem and end up creating bigger problems. You can’t start with the problem (paraphrasing Richard Rohr).
But that angst and restlessness started the chain of events that led us to today.

When I was fully into the space between (reflections on my previous post), something snapped into clarity. I do want to be in parish ministry. I guess it takes almost losing something to realize how much you really want it.
I’m called into parish ministry. I (re)heard it. I (re)felt it. It was (re)affirmed and (re)confirmed. And now I knew how to move forward.

I thought for a moment that — since we may have to move— perhaps the best thing was to explore an option in the west coast where SpEd services were far more readily available than Texas.

But every door I knocked on wasn’t opening.
Honestly, I really really envisioned myself sitting in some coffee shop in Seattle prepping for the upcoming Sunday’s sermon. That’s what I wanted. That’s what I prayed for. That’s what I hoped for. And that vision felt so close to becoming reality that I could feel the lack of sunshine hitting my skin and making me paler. I could envision making trips with Nate to the Pike Place Market, grumbling about parking, and watching him flap his arms as the fish were tossed around. I could picture trying to convince Rahel how great the lack of sun was and how taking vitamin D supplements were going to be good for us.
That’s what I wanted. Just seemed like our timing was off. Maybe if I had reached out a few months earlier, we’d be en route to the North West. Maybe.
Yet, in the back of my mind, I kept asking — God, if I was going to Seattle, what was the point of Texas? Was it to only serve as a pit stop? Just seems like a huge detour. Like, did I uproot my family from California only to uproot them (again) three years later? If Seattle was always the destination, why such a roundabout route? But then again, the Israelites spent 40 years in the Desert when:

The gentle no’s I kept receiving were soul killers.
I was running out of options and I was running out of time. I really dreaded trying to find work outside of a church. I didn’t know what skills I could offer the non-parish ministry world. Not much use for a storyteller that works once a week in the “real” world.

I met a friend for coffee to hang out and catch up.
I had met him about 2 years ago through a mutual friend. He was from San Diego, moved his family to DC, then moved to Houston.
Similar cities we lived in: SoCal, DC, Houston…
I just wanted to hang out and see what he was up to instead of simply stalking him on Instagram.
He presented a crazy idea that I couldn’t ignore yet couldn’t fully get behind. There was a lot of church work that we had to do — so I had to put his idea on the back burner.

Yet, in the sleepless nights, that thought would dance its way back into the forefront.
The more I thought about it, the more my heart stirred. The more my heart stirred, the more excited I got about it. But I just didn’t know if this was really for me. So much uncertainty. So much change. I kept coming up with excuse after excuse. But the seed that was planted began to take root in my soul.

My wife was supportive. She has always been supportive.
The last puzzle of the piece I needed was to get my parents behind it. When I first brought it up to them a while back, they were hesitant and wanted me to exhaust all United Methodist options.
When I approached them once more — maybe I was more intent and serious about it this time; maybe they recognized I was gonna go through with this regardless; maybe they simply wanted me to have a job — they were behind the idea. I had my wife’s support. I had the rest of my family’s support. That’s all I needed to move forward.

So we did and now I’ll have the opportunity to plant a church with the Episcopal Diocese of Texas (EDOT)
Which is crazy. It feels — different saying it and typing it. But its my new reality and I’m excited and nervous about the uncharted path ahead.

With the EDOT, I have a few opportunities that I did not previously have.
The first is — it keeps us in Houston. When I realized that the West Coast might not be an option, the next best thing I could do for my son was to provide stability of school system, teachers, and family. My entire family relocated to Houston. Having him near my parents and my brother and his wife — that’s just as important to me.
The second is — I don’t have to worry about an asterisk when I say everyone is welcome.
I can genuinely say, “you are welcomed here” and mean every ounce, every letter, every syllable, every spirit of every word of it. You. Are. Welcomed. Here.
No “you’re welcomed here but our church disciplines states that you are incompatible with scriptural teachings.”
No “you’re welcome here but if you want to get married here or if you want me to marry you or if you want to pursue ministry — I’m sorry. But other than that you’re welcomed here. Especially your tithes.”
Now I have been generously given an opportunity to start a community that embodies the sentiment “y’all means all.”

I’ve always had an idea of a community that I could never put into words until I read words written by the beloved Rachel Held Evans:

That’s the type of community I want to be part of.
5 years from now, I want to see how we provide such a space for the people in Houston.
I want to work on creating a community that is bold, authentic, and inclusive.
I remember wanting to be part of a large church; a mega church — the whole American concept of bigger is better was something I desired.

Not anymore. I just want to provide a space where God is the center of all that we do and all that we are and where people are gathered at God’s table not because they are rich or worthy or good but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.

My excitement for this opportunity is matched by my nerves and anxiety about this opportunity. I’m excited, but I’m also scared as hell. These types of communities — in my limited knowledge — seem to find a better foothold in urban settings. I’ll be doing this in more of a suburban setting… and y’all, something weird often happens to the Gospel in suburban areas. We tend to desire bigger fences than longer tables…

But I’m ready as I’ll ever be (which is not really ready at all).

In the past months, I didn’t want to write. All I could think about was the situation I found myself in. I didn’t want to update my blog with a bunch of laments and whatever I was processing at that time. Basically, it would’ve been a lot of whining and complaining. Y’all didn’t need to read any of that.
I did try to work really hard at keeping up my goal of writing 1000 words a day. Some days, 1000 words came easy. Most days, it was difficult.

But there was a theme that emerged in my daily writing exercise: ex nihilo.
I felt like I need to “commemorate” my time in the space between to remind myself how to avoid such pitfalls that led me to this space — and I’ve seriously been thinking about getting a tattoo that says ex nihilo which means Out of nothing. It’s a Latin phrase that is used to talk about creation — that God created the world out of nothing.

I was desperately hoping that God will create something out of the nothing I felt and experienced. That God will make something beautiful out of the dust; out of the nothingness.

But it also serves as a reminder to continue to strive to be nothing.
This season exposed how my ego and my sense of entitlement warps my reality.
We often get into trouble when we make ourselves more than we really are.
We forget that from ashes we came and to ashes we shall return.
But it’s in this nothingness that we are in position to receive everything from God. In the words of Rohr, I must be “nothing” in order to be open to all of reality and new reality.
If I keep my hands and heart full of the things I want and desire — I have no space for what God desires for me.
I have to embrace the art of letting go — particularly of my ego and my desires.

It is in emptiness we are the most useful for God.
It is in the emptiness that God creates and moves and builds.

This is a God who creates, who restores, who redeems, who resurrects, who brings forth a universe out of nothing.
And in my state of wandering through what often felt like waves of void, God brought forth this opportunity.

I’m deeply grateful that EDOT would take such a risk on me. I’m scared, nervous yet excited and hopeful for the future that is ahead of me. There’s a lot of exploring to do up ahead in my journey.
I’m also deeply grateful for the UMC who’ve nurtured me into who I am today; who have been my faith home; who have led me to meet some incredible and faithful people. And I’ll always be Wesleyan as long as I’m Korean. You can never change that nor take that out of me.
I regret the extra amount of work I caused the Cabinet and my hesitance and reluctance during this season— I’m sorry for not being able to faithfully live out my vows of itinerancy. I still wrestle with the no’s that marked this season of my life. Yet, I also know what I can’t continue to dwell on the past. There’s an exciting future ahead of me.

Thank you to all of those who prayed for us; supported us; reached out to us, and beyond — Friends and colleagues from Houston, Dallas, SoCal, Seattle, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia — I never felt alone in this season because of y’all. You have often reminded me of God’s presence all around me. It forced me to shift my focus away from the abyss and focus on the blessings in my life, urging me to be grateful first and foremost.
And of course, to my wife who kept me grounded when I needed (and also when I didn’t want to be…)

So, in the modified words of Paul, I give thanks for the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me.

July 1, 2019 is the shape of a new thing to come.

Here. We. Go!

(PS. Please forgive me for all the grammatical errors. Hopefully y’all know what I meant).

9 thoughts on “The Space Between Part 2: Ex Nihilo

  1. Episcopalian…hmmm I’m going to have to look that up. After 2 years of struggles, Park Bom released 2 songs this year which symbolized her break up with YG Entertainment. “Spring” and “4:44”. I feel like your journeys have been somewhat similar. Besides that you both are Koreans and have long legs. You two also mean a lot to many, many people. Thank you and God bless your journey.
    Your brother in Christ,
    Dennis

  2. Dear Joe, you are an incredibly deep thinker and a gifted preacher, blessed by God’s Grace. You must continue your ministry in a place where you can practice your faith to the fullest of your ability. You need the freedom to feel free to express your love for your parishioners with complete peace of mind. I can only imagine how difficult this decision has been but God is clearly leading you where you need to be. You will be a huge blessing to your new congregants and I will pray for an easy transition for you. May God continue to bless you and your family…always. Love, Maria

  3. Seattle’s loss but Houston’s gain. Congratulations on this huge step. You are right where you need to be my dear friend. You are right where you are needed. Love to you, Rahel, and my favorite boy ❤️

  4. Praying for you as this new chapter with so many changes takes you through the winding road of life. 🙏🏼 Greatest blessing is your family is supportive and close by 🙏🏼 You are never alone when you walk a path with God. UMC will hopefully rethink their position or may face an even further decline in attendance! Our local Temecula church is struggling with recent decisions. I don’t see enough youth to grow the church or even make it sustainable.
    Never stop your writing. Express yourself and provoke deeper thinking from all who follow your blog. Hugs to your family. Your new path is lined with supportive friends & family with God leading the way 🙏🏼❤️

  5. Well done you! The world is indeed a magical place. Great things are ahead – I am very excited for all of you.
    Hugs all around ❤️

  6. All The Aquilar family can say is…WE LOVE YOU AND YOUR FAMILY!! I don’t feel bad about being selfish and praying that you don’t leave us. You are such a blessing to us all. Please let us know where our new church home will be.

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