Joy for Time

Time is not the enemy.

As I settle into my fourth decade of life, I’ve more or less come to terms with the fact that time only moves one direction, and that this movement necessarily means loss. I will never get back the hair I’ve lost, the wonder of childhood, or my best time in a 5K.

Then again, I will also never get back the shames of adolescence, the agonizing search for an adult identity, or the misery of the 1990 Cardinals. I suppose it’s a fair trade.

I don’t always think that way, no matter how hard I try. Some losses are irrevocable and cannot be offset. And billion-dollar industries have sprouted up around our fear of further loss. One commercial break on my XM radio yesterday featured ads for a testosterone booster, an anti-aging cream, and a “can’t miss” investment in gold. We fear what time may steal from us, and we guard ourselves against it.

Blayne and I celebrated opening day with several other Wesley students. Today, at least, every team has hope.

Blayne and I celebrated opening day with several other Wesley students. Today, at least, every team has hope.

But it seems we rarely stop to think about what time gives us–opportunity, maturity, direction, awe. We cannot see the vista without scaling the mountain. We cannot get back to our warm bed without leaving the vista. Moving through time doesn’t allow us to keep much, but neither does it leave us empty.

For most teams, today is the opening day of the Major League baseball season. Whether teams are recovering from a lousy 2013 or, like my team, to build on a successful campaign, everybody gets to start the year fresh. And no matter how 2014 goes, we will all get to start new in late March 2015 also.

I think, in their hearts, most baseball fans are optimists. We keep cheering in the hopes that something good will happen, regardless of what horrors befell us the previous day. Time washes away our trophies and keeps us humble. Time washes away our sorrows and gives us hope.

So for today, anyway, I have a healthier perspective on time. It lets us start new. And God knows we need that.

Struggling Through–Alone and Otherwise

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It’s been a bad news kind of week for a lot of people I care about. I’ve listened to stories of depression, discouragement, family squabbles, marital woes, financial troubles, and addictions.

IMG_1539Of course, I have my own parenting/vocational/early mid-life awkwardness issues that, while perfectly normal, still require more energy than I would like. For now, my struggles aren’t quite so dramatic as many of my friends’ problems, but they are mine and so I feel them acutely.

As I’ve listened to the stories—both from my friends and from my internal dialogue—I’ve rediscovered something most of us know instinctually: as stress and disorder increase, so does our sense of isolation.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies brought this home to me over the weekend. The author, an oncologist, tells the story of his patient Carla, whose brave fight against cancer began with friends and family around her. As the treatment progressed, however, even her most loyal friend stopped accompanying her to her appointments. When Mukherjee asked why, Carla waved away the question. “We had a falling out. She needed to be needed, and I could no longer provide that.”

I think that most of those who suffer do so without such overt rejection. We have people who stand beside us, and we cling desperately to the narrative of their unwavering support. But somewhere, buried within us at varying depths, is a cruel feeling.

I am alone in this.

The preacher in me wants to immediately refute those feelings, to offer words of comfort that surely God is with us and nothing can separate us and so forth. And I still believe those words to be true, on some basic level.

But now that I am older and I hope wiser, I try to resist such glib assurances. We who are Christians strive to be like Jesus, after all. And in the end, Jesus suffered alone.

So where is the good news? I’m asking that a lot these days, mostly on behalf of people I care about very much. I’ve asked it on my own behalf in times past, and I know I will eventually do so again. Is there any solace to be had in the face of life’s struggles? If so, what is it?

I think our hope, at least in part, lies in realizing that suffering is an inescapable part of human experience. Everyone crawls through it, everyone feels alone. So did Jesus. In this strange way, I think the isolation itself is a comfort. It tells us we are in well-mapped territory. We may be feel alone in the moment, and in fact we may truly be alone. But we are on a road that leads to somewhere. Or, better said, to someone.

I cling to the belief that no suffering—not my friends’, not mine, not even suffering that leads to death—lasts forever. It ends in the compassionate, loving embrace of Jesus, who gathers us together and holds us and understands.

Puzzling Together

Two weeks ago, before the ice-pocalypse ground life at ASU to a 5-day halt, I used a puzzle to illustrate a point in a bible study. Almost as soon as we said the closing amen, one of our students was already reaching for the box.

“Let’s do the puzzle!” she cried, jumping up and down with excitement.

Even the cooks from Bible Soup took time to help us work on the puzzle project.

Even the cooks from Bible Soup took time to help us work on the puzzle project.

And so we got to work turning over pieces and separating out the borders. Half an hour later, we had the puzzle framed out and started looking for a way to tackle the interior.

That’s where progress stalled. As exciting as the venture was at the outset, we soon realized how daunting this puzzle—a 2000-piece mural of the Sistine Chapel—could be. This was not thirty-minute board game or a two-hour movie. This was a major creative undertaking that would take not hours, but days, even with many hands working.

If it were my puzzle in my house, I likely would have given up at that point. As a writer, I am used to tedious, solitary work. But as an extrovert, I can only handle so much. This mini masterpiece would have set me over the top.

Placed in a context among friends, however, the project remains enjoyable after two weeks of ice-induced non-progress. We’re hoping to have it finished before spring break.

The most interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that almost no one works on the puzzle alone. I find that surprising, given the number of introverts involved in our ministry. But even the most pensive and independent individuals at Wesley Foundation wait until a friend shows up to help them on the puzzle. They may not even talk as they work, but they almost always work together.

There are plenty of metaphors to be drawn from this story, but they all revolve around one common premise: complex tasks are best addressed together. Since the nature of the task means that no one has any particular advantage of skill or perspective, everyone’s eyes are important, everyone’s hands needed.

When it comes to Christian leadership, I think that’s more than a quaint parable for preachers to share. I think it’s a vital truth that we often miss, especially those of us charged with pastoral duties. When you are the one standing up to preach every week, leading most of the meetings, convening the vision councils, it’s easy to shut out voices that do not agree with your own. In fact, doing so is sometimes a necessary act for psychological survival.

In healthy Christian community, however, we who are leaders need to rediscover both the strength and humility, modeled by Jesus, that is required to work together effectively. He taught as one who had authority, but he lived as one who respected the choices, perspectives, and overall personhood of each one he met. I think of the sick man to whom Jesus asked, “Do you want to be healed?” It’s hard to imagine myself doing the same. I would want to fix the problem, and likely would act alone to do so. But Jesus asked permission, which at least implied a request for cooperation.

Working together means learning to both speak out and stay quiet. It means exercising authority, but more often exercising humility. It means putting the project ahead of our egos, and respecting what our co-workers have to offer.

Life is a tough enough puzzle as it is. We need each other to help make the pieces fit. And we Christian leaders need to learn to make space for all who want to play.

Wishing for Work

I like work.

I am almost certainly naïve, but I don’t think I’m alone in this. In fact, I think almost anyone who love his (or her) job and does it well likes to work.

I’ll go a step further. I like to watch other people work too—not in some sort of taunting, glad-that’s-not-me sense, but in a sense of admiration. It’s a fascinating thing to help my brother in his shop, given his ingenious (if sometimes unorthodox) solutions for how to get his tasks just perfect. I love watching Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha pitch. I love listening to Buster Olney talk about baseball. When someone cares about what they do, I almost can’t help but watch, regardless of what tax bracket they occupy.

Michael Wacha became a star last year in St. Louis, but I got to see him play in Memphis. Obvious how much he loves his work.

Michael Wacha became a star last year in St. Louis, but I got to see him play in Memphis. Obvious how much he loves his work.

Sadly, I don’t hear this same kind of joy in their work among clergy very often. In fact, several friends and colleagues posted an article on social media this week that names “clergyperson” as the fifth most stressful job in the country. I believe that’s probably true. But it leads me to other, more somber musings as well.

Before I go any further, let me say one thing clearly: I do not blame most of my colleagues for the stressfulness of our occupation. True, most of us could stand to take care of ourselves better both mentally and physically. Also true that, as a group, we have a psychological profile that lends itself to overwork and sensitivity to criticism.

But that does not mean pastors are entirely to blame for the high stress level of our profession, nor the relative lack of joy so many of us endure. Congregations must shoulder some of that load, as must the hierarchies and administrative structures that cast such a long shadow over my own denomination.

Still, any pastor worthy of the title will tell you that blame does no good whatsoever. The question is how to address the problem. And that proves a terribly difficult equation to solve.

In healthy situations, pastors should be able to talk to their congregations about their struggles with ministry, whether that’s due to overwork or conflict or just the simple burden of caring for hurting people. Then both parties can work together to find a better way to live together.

I suspect, however, that many of my colleagues don’t feel that freedom. They entered into ministry because they were captivated by the story of Jesus lived out among people. But the cares of this world—budgets, attendance figures, building management, minutia of daily life—keep them more than occupied with lesser things. They fear that letting those things slide will undermine their ability to lead, or somehow prove they are not good at their jobs, or worse, cause more conflict from demanding church members.

I’ve been in those shoes, and some days I still put them back on. So while I know that what pastors who feel trapped really need is the perspective and discipline to change what things we can control, I also know how incredibly difficult that can be. That’s why trustworthy and honest collegial relationships are so important.

Thankfully, however, today finds me in a different place. Arkansas State Univeristy has been closed all week due to icy conditions, and Wesley Foundation has also been closed. Today, I realize how ready I am to get back to work. There is much about campus ministry that I wish was different, but the time I get with students is not one of them. There are few greater thrills in my life than getting to guide, challenge, encourage, and otherwise disciple young adults on the college campus.

So for me, the snow days have served as a reminder of how painful it can be to be a pastor, but also how wonderful it can be to engage in meaningful work.

Here’s hoping the roads clear soon.

Footprint

Last night, winter left us what I expect will be its parting gift for the 2014 season. We don’t usually get much snow in my part of the world (a half inch is enough to close the schools), and so the winter weather is something of an adventure when it comes.

The real beauty often lies in the smaller view.

The real beauty often lies in the smaller view.

When it snows at my house, I try to be the first one outside. I want to be able to see the ice on the branches before the sun melts it away. I want to watch the birds and the animals taking in the strange sights. Most of all, I want to see the smooth layer of untouched snow before it gets chopped up by dogs and children and sled runs down our modest hill. I want to see the world as it has been made new.

The irony, of course, is that to see it new means to disturb its newness. I try to walk the perimeter of our land so that its interior will remain pristine, at least until I’m discovered by kids or animals. But my footsteps change the landscape and, when I look behind me, alter my view. I suppose that can’t be helped, but it still makes me a bit sad.

Footprints in the snow tell us something about the nature of our world. We pass through it and explore it and make our mark as best we can. But in time the snow will melt away and the mud and grass will erase all thought of where we had been. In fact, this usually happens in a matter of days, if not hours. It’s a sobering metaphor.

Still, the beauty of snow (at least in northeast Arkansas) lies in part in its transience. If it stayed around forever, we would not appreciate it. Its impending disappearance makes us pay attention all the more.

Here is where I was when I moved again.

Here is where I was when I moved again.

The same is true of footprints. They do not testify to accomplishment so much as to motion. They show that we moved through a particular place at a particular time and then kept going. As William Faulkner put it, “A monument only says, ‘At least I got this far,’ while a footprint says, ‘This is where I was when I moved again.'”

May the footprints you make today leave a beautiful impression.