The Whole Thing is Just Too Much

Heart and Wires

I remember, in college, reading a pastor who suggested an exercise. List everything we’d ever heard in a sermon and everything we’ve ever read in a Christian book or picked up from spiritual mentors and friends. Pile up everything we’d been told a good Christian would do better, every discipline we should take on, every sin we should confess, every motive we should question, every spiritual practice we should rework. Catalogue all the evils within us. Reassert all the doctrines we are to cling to with our very life. Line up all the “shoulds” and all the “ought-tos,” heap on top of this teetering mass every time we were told more steps to holiness or more methods to spiritual success, more reasons to feel guilty, more ways to please (or appease) God.

I had heard many, many sermons (thousands). I had read many, many books. My pile was massive, heavy. It was my rock of gibraltar. I was exhausted by the exercise. I was exhausted by my life.

Now, in my 40’s, I could add a second exercise. List every cause I’ve ever been told should be mine, every injustice I am personally to right, every issue I am to have a passionate word for (or against), every way I am to prove that I am thoughtful, intelligent, evolved. Mark every way I am to be certain not to provoke or offend (even though these ways, often, stand at odds), every social moment I am to make certain raises my ire (or does not raise my ire).  If I allow myself to continue this exercise, to follow this rushing tidal flow, I find that I am again exhausted by my life.

We have a penchant for laying burdens on one another (or maybe laying burdens on ourselves). We seem to miss that we are all to do what is given to us to do. We can not fix our own life, we can not fix the world. We do that one thing, maybe two things, that has been given to us as a unique responsibility, and then we live well. We seek to be faithful and true to what we see clearly, to what good light has made clear to us, and then we release the expectations and the demands. We love and trust that when we need that next bit of light, it will be ours.”You do not have to be good,” writes Mary Oliver,

You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…

No, we merely need to see the truth and fulness of our life, to see what beloved beauty and responsibility God has placed within us. And then we live, with boldness and delight. And we trust that God is doing the same with everyone else and then, somehow, when the Great Story finishes, love has won the day.

Bless Your Water

Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov
Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov

On the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th or January 19th, depending on the calendar used), the Orthodox perform an ancient rite with roots in Israel and the early church: the Great Blessing of the Water. In many parts of the Orthodox world, the blessing happens on a frozen lake, requiring saws to carve their way through thick ice. Commemorating Jesus’ baptism, stalwart souls sometimes plunge into the biting water (did I mention January?). The priest dips a cross three times, then sprinkles water in all four directions, as if to baptize the entire world. This water evokes primordial creation (“the Spirit of God moving over the face of the waters”) and the belief that in Jesus the world God once named good returns again to harmony with God. In God’s world, even the water is holy.

Each Sunday, Christians around the globe eat bread and drink wine, remembering Christ — and not Christ as ethereal deity but a God who got blisters and cried tears, a God who grew incensed at injustice and who cooked fish on the beach for his friends. A God who insisted on restoring humanity to our true humanity. And we raise the bread and the wine, these most ordinary elements, to God. We remember how God fills the entire world (every blade of wheat, every luscious grape, every finch and every rugged range) with grace.

Given all this, how is it possible that we have arrived at the place where many believe that love for God’s world sits at odds with Christian faith? Why do so many believe that the work of their hands and the longings of their heart share little import in the Kingdom of God? How did our humanness, the humanness so essential that Jesus would not abandon it, become only a liability rather than also a source of great promise?

However you bake your bread, however you bless the waters of your world, know you are doing holy work. Good God, we need you.

Vocation and Healing

My intent wasn't to save the world as much as to heal myself. Few doctors will admit this, certainly not young ones, but unsubconsciously, in entering the profession, we must believe that ministering to others will heal our woundedness. And it can. But it can also deepen the wound. {Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone}

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Yesterday, a friend asked why I became a pastor. My story's both as dull and as fascinating as every story you'd discover with such a question. My path (and my vocation) has all the holiness, but no more, as my friends who pound hammers, type code, or translate German. Tending to soil or tending to children is no different, other than minor particulars, from tending to souls or words. All of it will make you giddy. All of it will break your heart.

I took up the stole the same way I took up the pen and pretty much the same way (with a few more hairpin curves) I became a husband and then a father. I had a desire I couldn't shake accompanied by a fear I'd screw up and be a fool, two signals (especially when they arrive holding hands) that you're on to something important. I took the step in front of me, and I kept stepping. And here I am with a few scars, a few stories and much, much gratitude.

To me, the more interesting question is: why do I stay a pastor? There are plenty of reasons not to, none of which I'll bore you with here. However, this place, this community, this way I've found to tend to my little plot of earth, is where I've settled. Lest this somehow come across more noble than I intend (or more noble than the truth), let me clarify. I am not a pastor because of a mystical, irrevocable call or due to unrelenting faith. I do not pastor because I possess a driving vision for a new expression of the church of tomorrow. I do not pastor for the pay or the prestige, both of which are (how shall I put this?) … thin.

I am a pastor because this is what, for now, my heart has to give away. I am a pastor because I have found that somehow, as I labor for the mending of other broken and weary souls, I encounter my own mending, my own healing. My sermons do not provide my lectures for the congregation, but rather my questions searching for answers, my convictions born out of travail. I do not pray as one who, with iron-clenched certainty, stares down mysteries; I pray trembling. But I pray and I tremble with tenacious hope. 

Verghese tells us that to live such a way invites both healing and wounding. I believe this will be the experience of every true vocation, every place where, more than merely our skill or expertise, we choose to give away our life and to offer our work and ourselves as fellow humans doing the best we know to follow every scent of grace.