Lifting with our Legs

I spent a good portion of my Saturday splitting wood. My friend Tom let me use his beefy, old hydraulic splitter which is a good thing because I’m working with massive sections of trunk from this mammoth ash, and these pieces are big ol’ mothers. Of course, once they get to manageable size, the fun starts because there’s nothing like the thrill of splitting a log with one great swing of the axe. Seth and I decided to name our axe Big Bertha or maybe The Grim Reaper.

However, as I was rolling those gargantuan slices of trunk and heaving them onto the splitter, I remembered the advice from my high school football coach during weightlifting: “Lift with your legs, not your back.” It does make all the difference. Saturday, with my back, I was exerting all kinds of energy and making grotesque facial expressions and grunting noises but was about to snap something I’d rather not snap or blow something out I’d rather keep intact. When I used my legs, there was a sturdiness, an ease even – and also there was a better gauge of my limitations. It’s good to know when to push harder; it’s also good to know when to stop.

This all got me wondering how many things in my life, or in the world around me, I’m trying to lift with my back (my straining, my chaotic energy, my fear, my not-quite-righteous indignation) instead of my legs (my steadiness, my muck-along faith, my reliance on the grace, mercy and love that unnerves most every power or idealogy in this world). I’m not sure, but something tells me that in these days before us, we’re going to be tempted to lift with our back, but we’re really going to need to lift with our legs.

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.

Rejection

I have a little history with rejection. When we were dating (and during our engagement), Miska tossed me to the curb. Twice. Both times, I more than deserved it, but the pavement hurt nonetheless. Once I was in a conversation with a highly respected literary agent, beginning a conversation about the possibility of his firm representing me. He asked how many readers I had on my site. “Well, I’m working on it,” I answered, “but maybe a couple thousand when it’s going well.”

“A day?” he asked.

“Uh, no, per month.”

The phone went silent. “Well…” the agent began, slowly. “Let me put this in context. One of my authors sometimes hits 100,000 per day.” There were a few short pleasantries to follow, but the conversation was effectively finished.

I’ve had religious leaders tell me I was no longer part of the fold (fair enough), and I’ve had an employer tell me they were eager to get rid of me (that stung a little). As of last month, all three of my books are now out of print, and while perhaps this is not exactly rejection – it does mean that readers have chosen to leave my blood, sweat and tears on the shelf. Anyone who wants to be a writer must have at least a twinge of masochism. The rejection pile will be tall; and there are days when the stack (and the voices the stack represents) looms so large you can’t see past it. We all have our stories. We all have to contend with the voices.

Of course, not all rejection is final. Sometimes it eventually works out well (Miska and I are working on 17 years), but sometimes a ‘no’ is truly a ‘no’ (the agent is not on my speed dial). Not all rejection is final, but all rejection levels a blow.

But rejection offers us a gift as well. For some of us, the conflict redirects our passions, showing us where we need to go – only we needed the push to make it happen. The employer who couldn’t wait for me to hit the door oversaw a corporation masquerading as a Christian ministry. I should never have been there. If I had lingered for the next few years, I would have died the death of a thousand cuts.

For some of us, the blow will stiffen our spine, put a fire in the belly. With Miska, I needed to step into my life with courage, and Miska provided the wake-up call. With writing, while I wince at every ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ the process eventually leads me back to the desk, back to the words. I return with a deeper hunger, a deeper commitment to the work I must do.

This is not finally about only your work but your life, about receiving all that comes, sorting through it, learning at every turn, discarding the junk and tenaciously trusting the good. Allow these encounters to guide you, not bury you.

Maybe what I most want to say is this: rejection does not define you. Every ‘no’ grants the opportunity to peer deep, to ask again what it is you really want to give yourself to. And then, whatever the answer, get to it.

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}

winn_collier_writer_van_gogh_farmer_at_fireside

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.