Monday, October 22, 2012

Ministry: Cultivate Imagination; Interpret Experience

I wrote the following during my days walking alongside the water at Birch Bay, on almost the northernmost edge of Washington State, last June.  After two weeks of preaching Job, with two to go, and a bedside vigil Tuesday and funeral Saturday, I'm off to the beach here on the North Coast of Ohio, to ponder it anew.

I think that those might be the tasks to which I am called: to cultivate imagination and to interpret experience.

I've been trying to distill the diffuse activities, plans, thoughts, and priorities of my daily life into a short phrase that might provide me with a sort of plumb line by which to gauge whether I am in alignment with who I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing.  Life as a pastor is, as I had suspected, much like life as a mother in the variety of its demands, which often materialize as if out of nowhere and on the turn of a dime.  (The analogy between pastoring and mothering occurred to me when I was deep in the discernment process with respect to seminary, and has caused me to wonder ever since exactly how it was that men managed to reserve ordained ministry to themselves for nearly twenty centuries.)

While we were on vacation a couple of weeks ago, I intently focused my thoughts away from the church and my role therein.  The consequence has been that the cauldron of  ideas bubbling away beneath the surface of my consciousness has now boiled over.  It's possible that trying to contain them will be as elusive a prospect as would be attempting to scoop up tangible bubbles which lie glistening on the ground after having overflowed their pot.

Four little stories to illustrate where I might be going with all this:

Some months ago, I sat talking with a lifelong and actively engaged church woman whose death appeared to be imminent.  She had insisted on pursuing further medical treatment, which even her doctors had suggested was futile at that point. (And, as my son says, when the doctors finally say so, then you know that you should have stopped six months ago.)  I suggested that perhaps God was inviting her into a new path on her journey.  "What are you talking about?" she asked.  I paused, confused.  Was it possible that our death-defying culture had so permeated her approach to her illness that she was incapable of envisioning a change in direction?  Of course it was.  And I was stymied as it dawned on me that I had, at most, a few days in which to help her gain a sense that God was at work in the heartbreaking and agonizing road she had begun to walk.

Last night, I spoke with a man who has invested several weeks in tests that may (or may not) reveal very bad news and will no doubt indicate a need for a prolonged course of treatment of some sort.  How well I remember the unsettled frustration of last fall, when the wait for results and the complications of decision-making were far worse than the concrete reality of diagnosis.  Recognizing that he has at least several more days of uncertainty ahead of him, I told him that the morning's reading had been Mark's narrative of Jesus stilling the storm.  I suggested that he is in a rocking boat in the midst of a veritable storm of unhappy symptoms and medical testing, and that perhaps he might pray to know the presence of Jesus in the boat with him, stilling that storm with the gift of peace.  "Thank you," he said,  And again, "Thank you."

I see, finally (because I am often extremely slow on the uptake), that I cannot merely ask the question, "Do you think . . .?" but that I need to offer the beginnings of an answer, in order to help someone see and understand his or her experience in the light of religious faith.

When I was seven years old, and my family was in the terrible car accident that took two lives, the adults responded by walking away from God, from church, from any conviction that there was anyone or anything at work beyond the obvious and horrific reality that confronted us.  I have often wondered, especially in the past few years, whether my outlook on life might be dramatically different from the one I possess if someone at that time had tried to articulate something, anything at all, about God's relational presence to us.  Even something sappy about angels in heaven.  What if someone had offered the slightest hint that our experience might be interpreted in light of something beyond the devastation that lay before us? 

Decades later, when I was making the Spiritual Exercises (yes, there they are again), someone finally did.  By that time, I had become a leader and teacher in the church myself, but it was not until that year of gentle prodding that I sensed my own spiritual imagination being cultivated, my own experience being opened to an interpretation in the light of Christian faith.  There wasn't much in the way of verbally articulated direction, which is no doubt why I hesitate to impose much on others, knowing that I learned from a master how to step out of the way and let God issue the invitations.  But there was a question here, a directional pointer there.  "Have you considered?"  Have you ever looked at it this way?"  "Maybe you should consider thinking about it that way."

But that degree of restraint often leaves people in the lurch.  And so I am trying to learn ~ how to teach and model and then invite them to mine their experiences and utilize their imaginative gifts to begin to see where God is at work.


  1. It is a bit of a spiritual art to offer some direction, as you reflect on so well here...I am one who has really need, desire, yearn for, and seek out people who can point me in directions of possibility. Not so much some who tells me what to do, but gently lays out for me my options. I suspect you will develop this gift within you and it will be so very helpful for those you journey with.

  2. Robin, it is certainly a gift to be able to gently lay out options for others and be the catalyst to help them to make their own choices. My feeling is that you and the Holy Spirit do this very well together. Thanks for this thought-provoking post for while I'm not in the ordained ministry, I am privileged to journey with people all the time and this is most helpful.

  3. This is a tender, insightful posting. And I love your son's medical insight - that made me laugh out loud!