Category Archives: Pastoring

Two roads diverged in a wood and yet I return home.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

~ from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

I seem to recall writing a paper on Robert Frost’s poem in university, in which I argued that there didn’t appear to be any difference in either road the narrator had to choose from.* I can’t remember the details, but my hunch, nearly twenty years on, was that I was pushing against the idea of this being a carpe deum (“seize the day”) poem. Carpe deum being the idea that you should live life to the full, taking adventurous chances, etc.

I’ve tended to push against this idea, which seems to me to be the brainchild of a specific kind of personality, rather than some kind of immutable universal truth. My adventurous friends would dispute this, but I have the personality of a hobbit. I’d rather be at home with my books and tea.**

In recent years I’ve also pushed against this in the context of Christian faith and discipleship. Our obedience and service to God and neighbour begins wherever we are in the hum-drum ordinary of the everyday, rather than on some wild adventure in a strange land among strange people doing what we tend to consider exciting (if not altogether extraordinary) things for God (though we may certainly be called to that). This is important, it seems to me, because for young people especially, the idea of ordinary, everyday faithfulness seems boring—surely faith calls us to more exciting things?

In recent years I’ve really begun to appreciate the fictional work of Wendell Berry. His overriding concern seems to be having a strong sense of place, of being loyal to and faithful in the place you are, of putting down deep roots. His fictional world is one built around a small town community and the farmers and families that surround it and their generations of life, death, simplicity, and faithfulness. I am very much drawn to this idea.

It occurred to me recently that there may be good reason for this: the first seven years of my life were the longest I have ever lived in one location (though I did spend twelve years in the same small town). I have moved many times in my life—not least during my university years, before and after the school year I would move in and back out of an apartment. And the pastoral vocation isn’t one where generally deep roots are planted. I’m well past the average duration for the kind of position I hold at my church and the odds are against me being here for a decade. Pastors in one location for more than twenty years is almost unheard of, and I have deep respect for the one I do know. So I have good reason to be drawn to permanence and connection (to family and friends). And these days, my wife and children are the most permanent thing I know, so being with them is growing ever more important.

And yet.

And yet I find that when I am walking in the woods I am drawn to explore every rabbit trail—where two roads diverge—I come across and I want to keep walking just to see what’s around the next bend. Explain that.

Maybe it’s because even though I am wandering and exploring I know I will soon return home.

_________________________________
*It was for a class on the early 20th century literary theory called “New Criticism,” which allowed me to write a paper without research, but musing on the text alone. I don’t know how legitimate that was, but it was fun.
**That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make the most of every day, but that the most of any given day is generally very ordinary.

Defragmenting mind, heart, and body

“How does an apple ripen? It sits in the sun.” ~ Thomas Merton

Today is the beginning of my first sabbatical—a three-week period for rest, recreation (play), and reorientation (study, prayer, silence). This sabbatical is a gift our church gives its pastors after every four years of ministry. It is a gift that will give back to the church, a gift with returns.

Another phrase sometimes used instead of “sabbatical” is “ministry renewal leave,” which is probably a more helpful term for people these days. An image that comes to mind is defragmenting the hard drive of a Windows PCs, which, back in the day at least, I would do from time to time to get my computer running more smoothly and faster. After a long period of use, system files get moved around—the system gets fragmented—because they’re shared with various bits of software, and so it takes more time for programs to gather their files and start up and they may run more slowly. Defragmenting is the process of putting the files back in the places they’re meant to be so that the system can operate at its best.

Similarly, after a period of years of ministry my mind, heart, and body gets fragmented as I leave pieces of all of them with people, situations, problems, ministry concerns, busyness, frustration, and so on. Some bits get lost altogether somewhere in the “system.” And I start to run more slowly, with less clarity, with less compassion and more grumpiness. A sabbatical is meant to defragment my life, to reset things, put my mind, heart, and body back together—or at the very least more together—so that I can operate at healthier levels.

That, at least, is the intention and the hope.

So I will spend a number of days resting and studying, and visiting with my mom and brother. And then I’ll spend five days at an Ignatian Retreat, being silent, praying, listening. Then the whole family will have a bit of vacation time. And I’ll have stints at home in between.

In some ways it sound idyllic, but things won’t go perfectly or as planned. I won’t accomplish all that I hope or expect to accomplish. I may get sick—that wouldn’t surprise me at all (in fact, I may feel it coming on right now). Five days of quiet retreat sounds fantastic—and I’m very much looking forward to it—but who knows what God might say to me when I actually take time to stop and listen? The mind can go to terrifying places. Perhaps more terrifying: what if I hear nothing?

Whatever happens, I hope this month to spend some time sitting with God and just being.

It’s time to sit in the sun for a while.

The Challenge of Preaching Jesus

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to guest speak at a local church. The pastor is a friend of mine and he asked me to fill in for him one Sunday while he was on holidays. His church is going through a series on the Sermon on the Mount and the passage assigned to me was the one about not taking oaths (Matthew 5:33-37). It was an interesting challenge to speak in a context where I had little to no connection. I was able to attend a service there at the end of my holidays and catch a bit of my friend’s approach to the Sermon on the Mount, and a couple of their young people attend our youth program, but otherwise I had little context for this community.

But the biggest challenge was the text itself. There is a long history of trying to explain away the Sermon on the Mount, finding ways around Jesus’ challenging commands to the point of some suggesting that the point of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount was for his followers to recognize how impossible the demands of Jesus’ teaching are so that they would fall back on his grace rather than their own effort. I’m okay with falling on God’s grace instead of my own effort, but I’m not convinced that that means I am just a passive agent with no responsibilities to act. Jesus, after all, calls us to obey his commands. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, he identifies his followers as the light of the world, whose good works the world needs to see, and he ends the Sermon with the parable of the wise and foolish builders, imploring his followers to do what he says.

But what does this mean, practically speaking? Even asking this questions feels a bit like trying to get around the commands, but it’s a relevant question given his command about not making oaths. One commentator says that Jesus is speaking specifically about a court of law: Christians should not “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” but just let their “yes be yes.” Jesus’ teaching is about nothing else, said this commentator. Other commentators suggested the much broader category of honesty and being people of our word.

With some hesitation, I went with the broader approach. But when it came to applying Jesus’ teaching, I experienced some serious inner turmoil. What could I honestly call us to? And what does “honestly” mean, when I wasn’t sure I completely grasped Jesus intended point? The general truth of being people of our word can be found in the text, but is that really what Jesus was intending? On the other hand, was I comfortable telling people not to take oaths in court, when in some sense that kind of nitpicking seems akin to the legalism Jesus challenged the Pharisees about?

Afterwards some people asked me about the implications for court, etc. I was honest and said I wasn’t sure, but that I wasn’t comfortable giving blanket statements about how to apply this teaching in every situation.

The week before I had preached at my own church and faced a different challenge: how to preach a truth scripture is pretty clear about that will challenge some of my church’s deeply-held values. It wasn’t an issue of sin, but about belief and values. Evangelicals hold family (that is, parents and children, and sometimes extended family) very dearly, only less important in life than God himself. But the New Testament fairly clearly envisions a new family created in and through Christ that demands a loyalty over and above the nuclear family, and marriage itself is not the bedrock of God’s kingdom.

How does one preach that reality in a way that can be heard and understood? It’s difficult. Both of these recent sermons were probably the most challenging I’ve prepared for and preached. I’m not sure how well I did (in terms of content).

All Shall be Well (Serendipiday)

Dixie and I have a long-running joke about what our epitaphs will say, based on our personalities and approach to life. Mine will say, “All in good time.” The punchline is that hers will say, “That was a bit excessive.” It’s hilarious. Or it would be if you knew us and I was telling you about it face-to-face.

Another option for my epitaph is “All shall be well.” I’ve never read anything by the fifteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich, except for this one line:

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

This line has had a profound effect on my faith. I deeply, passionately believe her words to be true. They are hope-filled words that I carry with me wherever I go. That’s why I think my epitaph could also say (and perhaps should say), “All shall be well.”

The last few days I’ve been at a retreat centre in Chicago, taking the last class in the ordination process for my denomination. Yesterday I told one of my class-mates about our epitaphs and about “All shall be well” and how profound those words have been for me. He laughed about the epitaphs and understood my deep appreciation for Julian’s words.

The class called “Vocational Excellence” and it works through some of the competencies and requirements of pastoral work, with a particular emphasis on self-care. They provide an optional session with a spiritual director. I’ve been hearing for years now from books, colleagues, and teachers that spiritual direction is an essential resource for pastoral ministry, but due to location and fear (of the unknown) I have not actually pursued finding a spiritual director. So I gladly took up the opportunity this weekend.

There were four options for spiritual directors and I didn’t know any of them. It was a bit of a crap-shoot and it made me slightly nervous because I have heard that a person won’t connect with every spiritual director. For some reason this session felt kind of like a one-shot deal, so the choice had to be right (if you know me at all, or if you’ve eaten at a restaurant with me, this will make a lot of sense). For reasons I won’t get into here—reasons I don’t fully understand, to be honest—I chose the only man on the list as my spiritual director.

My session of spiritual direction was first thing this morning. After a brief explanation of how this session would go, my director suggested a couple of questions I could use as a jumping-off point for our time together. One of them was “What’s your experience of God now?” and I went with that one. I talked in a meandering way about fatigue and stress and the relation between faith and doubt. We talked about that for a bit. I mentioned Frederick Buechner on faith and doubt and muddled my way through a pseudo-paraphrase of this Buechner gem:

I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be.  Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?  If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. (The Alphabet of Grace, p. 47)

My spiritual director said, “Funny you should mention Buechner. I have a quote of his in my pocket.” He had meant to use it earlier when they were introduced to the class, having anticipated the need to define spiritual direction.

We talked about doubt and how perhaps doubt is a positive thing in that it could signal spiritual growth, that it suggests that a person is actually listening, to God, to life; that it’s in certainty that a person no longer listens, no longer pays attention. Somehow this led us to the topic of coincidence: he suggested that coincidence may actually be God speaking to us, so apparent “coincidences” are moments when we should really pay attention. He didn’t use the word, but I think he was talking about something like serendipity. God-ordained serendipity. And it was already happening in this session.

This is what spiritual directors do: they listen. They listen and they help the directee see God at work in his or her life. So it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that my spiritual director could anticipate where I was heading.

I began talking about the sense I have had recently that what I need to do right now is slow down, breathe, and listen, but then I lost my train of thought. It had something to do with prayer, but I couldn’t remember what it was. So I sat silently, reflecting.

After a few moments, my spiritual director spoke up. He said that Mother Theresa was once asked about prayer.

“What is prayer?” she was asked.

“Listening to God,” she replied.

“What does he say?” she was asked.

She replied, “Nothing.”

This was exactly where I was going before I lost my train of thought. Prayer. Listening. I told him about how helpful it was to me when I read in one of Eugene Peterson’s books (or possibly several of them) that prayer is a two-way conversation. It’s not just me talking to God. It’s also me listening to God. I get that; it makes sense. But with that came this frustration: when I listen, I don’t hear God say anything. What am I supposed to hear? What does it mean that I don’t hear anything when I listen?

The point of what Mother Theresa said is that it’s okay that God says nothing when she listens. She is still listening. She is still praying. That’s the point: they are together, listening, and hearing. My spiritual director connected the dots a little more for me: it may be that God’s not audibly speaking to me, but God is nevertheless speaking to me. We talked briefly about the ways this is true.

The whole session was wonderful and deeply helpful and affirming to me. Silence on many different levels is okay. It’s not that I’m missing something. It’s about being together with God in the moment.

Slow down. Breathe. Listen.

We talked about what’s next. He said that while most people prefer to have in-person spiritual direction, he does sometimes do direction via Skype. I thanked him and told him that I plan to pursue spiritual direction, but that I’d prefer in-person direction. “I’ll do some searching in my area,” I said, “but if nothing works out I’ll get in touch with you.”

He gave me his business card just in case and I headed back to class, which had been in session during my time with the spiritual director. I sat down. I had met this spiritual director a few years earlier in a different context, but couldn’t remember his last name, so I scanned the information on his card.

I turned the business card over. On the back of the card were these printed words:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

The two worlds of the introverted pastor

I recently saw a meme about how tired we are of hearing about introverts. There’s been a lot of that going around lately, so I apologize for carrying on about it here. I do this not because it’s the thing to do, but because I’ve been reading and thinking about it lately. It has been a great exercise in understanding myself more and in identifying strengths and weaknesses.

One of my seminary professors once told our class that the majority of pastors are introverts. A useful, but shallow, definition of an introvert is someone who is energized by solitude (and its related activities) and whose strength is drained in crowds (and their related activities). Desiring solitude is not the same as shyness; an introvert is not necessarily shy, however. As I say, this is a very shallow definition of introversion and really doesn’t do justice to the nuances and spectrum of the trait. But it’ll do for now.

If my professor’s statistic is true, it’s an interesting one to consider. On the positive side, an introverted pastor is suited to the calling of preaching and teaching, which requires significant time studying in solitude. On the potentially negative side, an introverted pastor is nevertheless required to spend significant time with people. I say potentially, because to be an introvert is not to say that one doesn’t like people or spending time with them. Rather, it means that a good portion of the introverted pastor’s work is work that drains rather than energizes. I am not a pure introvert (I assume that few people, if any, are), so I find Sunday mornings, for example, both energizing and very draining.

But I’m thinking of this at the moment in terms of the introverted pastor (me) at home. At church and youth functions, I am relatively lively and energetic, making a point of interacting with people. At home, I tend to be quiet and solitary (as far as that’s possible with a wife and kids). That doesn’t mean I’m pretending at public functions, acting like something I’m really not. It just means that I’m drawing on a different part of who I am, or like a rechargeable battery, at public church functions I’m a battery plugged in and making the bunny walk and beat its drum, whereas at home I’m a battery plugged into the charger.

What I’ve wondered about it when the two worlds collide: when someone from the church or a one of my youth is over for non-“official” reasons. What does is it like for them to experience me recharging at home—not very talkative, reading, keeping to myself? Can those two “sides” of me coexist in their minds? Should I plug the battery back into the bunny when people come by? Sometimes I do, but not always.

It’s one reason I think understanding personality can be very important in communities like the church. We live in a world in which extroversion is generally assumed to be the ideal (see Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain). Misunderstandings can occur when we don’t understand how people are wired, or more specifically, how each person is wired in a unique way. Our expectations of others can easily be shaped by either the ideal or dominant personality within a community (and extroversion is by nature dominant).

Something I’ve been pondering.

The pastor-theologian

“When I was at seminary back in the early 1970s, my tutor told me firmly one day that I would have to choose between being an academic and being a pastor. I decided, sitting there in his office, that I was not going to make that choice… That has resulted in a lifetime of shifting from one foot to the other, as it were, in a world for which for whatever reason — and this is odd in the history of the church…theologians of the past have mostly been pastors — think of Augustine or Luther or whoever — they were pastors, they were preachers, they were teachers, they worked with people, they prayed with people, they didn’t sit in a study and do a cerebral thing away from that, and I fail to see why we should collude with this split world of post-Enlightenment ‘either the brain or the heart’…”

N.T. Wright, here.