This past year has been one of great hopes and crushing disappointments, of fun and frustration, of learning more about the inner workings of my soul than most would ever want to know, and being humbled. We believers often used the word humbled, as a code word to express deep appreciation, using it when we feel that perhaps we don’t deserve the praise, or honors that are being bestowed; but it hasn’t been that kind of year.
“To become humble,” I have heard said, “is not to think less of oneself, but to think less about oneself.” It wasn’t that kind of year, either. So how to process the learning to think less of oneself without sounding all winey, when it really felt like a year of just getting used to my new station in life.
This fall Suzanne and I lead small group at Church through ALPHA. The ALPHA Course is 10 week class designed for skeptics of the faith, but our group was mostly long-term believers from the Church. The lecture I remember most was the topic How does God guide us? We listened to a wonderful lecture by Nicky Gumble and then broke off for small group discussion. Somehow my group gravitates toward the question “What if all of life is journey?” I’ve wondering since, what are the implications of such a thought; how could that change the way I approach life? What if there was no destination, no purpose, no point to life other than its journey? That God gave to us this life as a gift to use here and now, complete with a set of guidelines to make the journey the whole point.
The thought is not new, nor new to me. There is evidence that Ancient Israel, before their Babylonian exile held to this concept of the journey, with little thought to the afterlife, or as Simcha Paull Raphael writes in Jewish Views of the Afterlife, a “postmortem judgment associated with Sheol,” or a “philosophy of an individual soul”. But 70 years of exile in a land where such beliefs were held to brought about an early shift in Jewish theology, at least according to Simcha Paull Raphael. But what if the Israelites had it right? That the point of life is the journey, that we are to make the most of life before the frost comes.
Part of that journey was remembered during the first of the Christmas Eve services at Wellspring. It was that feeling of sacredness. I was serving the people communion, something that much of the time isn’t in the repertoire of that church’s pastoral responsibilities. When I talk to retired pastors, Communion is that thing they talk about missing the most. So here I was on my last day, tearing off a large chunk of bread and placing in the hand of a child too young to understand its meaning.
“This means Jesus loves you very much and wants you never to forget that.” It was a first and last for me there, watching the wide eyed the child take the host, nodding his head, or hearing her say yes and I remembered how that once familiar feeling of sacredness warmed my soul. It has been too long. Is this what it feels like for retired pastors?
How, Not What
I wonder if Barbara Brown Taylor misses it. Author of Leaving Church, and more recently An Altar in the World, she left parish ministry in 1998, a year before I started, and eight years before I knew she had left it (she was still publishing her books as if she was still serving). The week before Christmas I was reading about her call, how she had been pleading with God, asking
“What is it you want me to do?”
When her heart was finally ready to listen, God spoke,
“Anything that pleases you,” God said. “Anything that pleases you, and belong to me.”
“at one level, that answer was no help at all, the ball was back in my court…whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did, but how I did it that mattered. God had an overall purpose, but was not going to supply the particulars for me. If I wanted a life of meaning, then I was going to have to apply the purpose for myself.”
This understanding of Call, was a revelation to me, it is not so much what I do, but how I do it that matters to God. God wants me to emphasize the how, over the what. Its not that the what does not matter, it does, in fact it informs the how, but the what you do never takes on primary importance over the how you do it.
Its like the what is the melody, and the how are the words. It is the words that give meaning to the melody.
It’s the how we live our lives that give meaning to what we do while living them.
The what is the wrapping paper, and the how is the gift inside it, and longer after the wrapping paper ends up in the fireplace, it is the gift we will remember.
Cognitively, I really connect with this understanding of Call, but experientially, my mileage has differed, mostly from being a weed. My father says “A weed is just a good plant in the wrong place.” In other words, it is lost, or misplaced and I think that ties in well with what Ms. Taylor wrote about consenting to be lost (previous blog post), “since you have no other choice.”
No matter how hard that weed tries, how God honoring that weed is, how well that weed functions, at that end of the day, it is still a weed…a good plant in the wrong place. It is not a reflection on the garden, or on the weed itself, both are good and at the same time, ill-suited toward each other. I hope this is the lesson (or humbling) I was to learn this past year; it is not a class I want to retake.
I came to Wellspring thinking I could fit in anywhere, do anything and that as long as I belonged to God, all would be well with my soul. It didn’t matter what I did, just how I did it; it wasn’t the melody that mattered, just the words.
I was appointed to do music, something I loved, but had walked away from as a main source of income 25 years earlier. “When the music you love to play becomes the music you have to play to pay the rent,” Ms. Taylor writes, “your heart can suffer from alienation of affection.” I imagine when she wrote those words, music was for her a metaphor but for me there was nothing metaphoric about it. She adds “people know when their gifts are being wasted, and this knowledge can eat away at the soul like a cancer.” It wasn’t the gift of music wasted, it was not having a place to use all I had learned, over a lifetime of experience. It happens to musicians, they get put in a box, like that is all they are or can do. Cancer, is an apt metaphor, errors or genetic mutations duplicating or spread throughout the body disrupting its more healthy parts, in other words leading to a “alienation of affection.”
I think that is what weeds do, and why we hate them so. They spread.
Well the long wait is over, the Wellspring journey has ended, and now we wait for another year and another journey to begin at St. Phillips United Methodist. The excitement between these journeys has been Christmas, and soon a family ski vacation. The journey continues.