The following excerpt by Jonathan Williams appears in the book, "10 Count: True Stories of Defeat and Triumph Among Today's Christian Leaders. Find out more here.
I was 12 years old when I saw New York Islander defenseman, Jeff Norton absolutely pummel an opposing player on the Philadelphia Flyers. The fans at the Nassau Coliseum went crazy. This is what watching a hockey game was all about. There was shouting, jumping, plenty of cursing, and a few fans banging on the plexiglass that separated the stands from the hockey players on the ice. I stood up and shouted too, exerting some of that 12 year old pubescent angst deep within my body. I looked over and watched my dad, a hockey fan, content in his seat, legs crossed, politely clapping for all that was witnessed. I stared at my dad and then at the other men in the coliseum. My dad wasn’t jumping out of his seat, cursing or punching the plexiglass. Was it because he was a pastor? Was it because he was different?
It was a fleeting moment.
I didn’t think about that game again until 22 years later. I thought about that game again on the day that my father told me that he was living a lie. My father flew to New York. We sat in my living room. What was it my father would tell me? He was leaving ministry? He and my mother were divorcing? Did he cheat on his taxes? Was he gay? It was there in my living room that my father told me that he was transgendered. Cheating on taxes would have been so much better.
My father explained that he always felt as though he should be female. My father explained that over the next few months there would be many changes that would allow him to live life as a woman. She would begin dressing differently. There were hormones and surgeries. My dad explained that there would be many changes that would allow her to live life as she had always hoped.
I thought about my father, legs crossed, clapping politely, so different. I thought about my father who took me to games. I thought about my dad and the many moments we talked man to man while hiking in the Rocky Mountains. I thought about the thousands of times I called my dad to ask advice or to talk about the Mets. My dad was my friend, my mentor, my hero. My dad was no longer my dad. It felt like the relationship I had with my father was a lie.
I was devastated.
I had just started a church.
We were three months into the life or our church and my dad flew to New York to tell me about her transition. How would I function? Did I need to quit? I couldn’t tell anyone at church. My father wasn’t “out” yet and the information was sensitive. I couldn’t tell my staff or any of my supporting churches. I lied to everyone and said that I was okay. “My challenges were nothing out of the ordinary.” This was a battle I fought on my own. It was a battle I was losing. I found it hard to get out of bed. I started drinking too much. I was depressed and angry. I had little energy for interactions and conversations. On Sunday mornings I’d be crying in the green room wondering how I was going to give a message of hope to my fledgling church community. I had no hope myself. I didn’t believe in God.
One day a staff member said, “Jonathan, where are you? Are you even here? Are you with us?” I was laying on a couch in the office regretting the fact that my dad’s legs crossed at a hockey game didn’t clue me in sooner. “If I had known then I wouldn’t be going through this pain now. I’d be able to focus on our church, growth, and the love of Christ with no limitations. I’d have engaged with my staff in positive ways. I wouldn’t have had emotional breakdowns when there was a missed email or a volunteer who failed to show up on time.
I fought my way through the good meetings too. There was the meeting where our staff celebrated the fact that we raised and gave away over $100,000 to local organizations. It was hollow. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be in that meeting. I didn’t want to celebrate.
I met with the new attenders and new leaders. I led a small group. I stopped crying in the green room just long enough to preach a decent sermon each Sunday. I approved budgets that set our church up for success. I got to hear stories about people who never thought they would encounter Jesus again until they found our church. I heard other stories about how the Gospel finally made sense to someone who always considered themselves an atheist. I celebrated each of these stories with hollow eyes and a hollow heart. I wondered if I would encounter Jesus again. As far as I was concerned Jesus was dead.
I would go home and tell my wife that life was unfair. It made no sense. I was scarred, battered, bruised, and I wasn’t the person to lead this church. The pain was too great. I physically and emotionally had nothing left to give and my friend, my mentor, my hero couldn’t help me. She was going through her own transition.
And then, in the darkest night of my mourning I learned about the Hebrew word, Tov.
In fact, when we read the creation narrative in Genesis, each time that God says, “It’s good” it’s translated from the Hebrew word, “tov.”
The word, “tov” doesn’t mean the same thing as the english word, “good.” It doesn’t carry the same implications of mood or morality. Instead, “tov” literally means, “for its intended purpose.”
When God says that creation is good, God is saying that it’s created for its intended purpose. That means that “good” doesn’t always mean life will be okay. In fact, when God says that something is tov, there is usually light, growth, and birth followed by darkness, pain, and death. Tov means that the fullness of life often comes with pain. It means that we won’t always have the answers we want. It means that our shouts of, “Why God?” will feel like they’re falling upon deaf ears. But it’s “Good,” which means that creation will work according to its intended purpose. Sometimes that purpose means that there is devastating pain. But “tov” also means that pain will turn from darkness to light and from death to resurrection.
And if that’s the case then it was okay for me to be vulnerable. It was okay to be sad. It was okay to mourn my father. I was free to be angry. I was allowed to cry in the green room. I could tell my staff. I could let them comfort me. I didn’t have to be a perfect leader. I realized that the pain I was feeling over my dad’s transition was, “tov.” It was for its intended purpose. My pain was good. It was righteous. It was bringing about resurrection.
It was time to tell our church.
During the season of Lent that I talked through the pain of my father’s transition. I talked about the fact that it’s good, it’s tov, to be sad, angry, devastated, hollow. It’s for its intended purpose.
And what was that purpose?
I hope I'm a better pastor with a unique wisdom. I find I’m more gracious to the pain of others. I am able to live deep within the mystery of Christ rather than trying to give all of the answers. I’ve met amazing people who call my church their home. I feel our church has a call to love each and every human being who doesn't live in the boundaries and binaries.
There are stories that our community was afraid to share before but see that there is beauty in them now. I get the privilege of hearing “I was afraid to share my pain and doubt but I see that there is a God at work in it.”
Our church has become a place where vulnerability matters. We share in one another’s burdens. We’re willing to listen to one another’s stories and show one another grace. We are a church that is willing to ask the hard questions, be angry, live in the pain, and fully know that it is good, tov, for its intended purpose. There is growth, love, and grace to come.
I love my dad dearly. She’s an incredible woman and an incredible friend. She’s allowed me to experience my grief and pain. She’s been gracious with my misplaced anger. I affirm my father and am thankful for the newfound peace that she has found.
I still wish that my dad crossing his legs and clapping politely during a hockey fight would have clued me in sooner. I wouldn’t wish that devastation on anyone in their first year of church planting. I still have that scar. that scar runs deep and continues to heal. I still have that pain. I’m not sure that it will ever go away. I’m not sure it has to go away.
My pain is good. My father’s transition is good. The vulnerability of our ministry is good. The uncertainty, anger, sadness, hope, and joy are all good.
They’re tov. They’re for their intended purpose.