Dan, brave man, accompanied the high school youth group out to Newark, New Jersey, this week for a service-learning trip. Which means I’ve had the house to myself, something that hasn’t been true for more than a night or two since we got married. It took me a few days (and a night, when I locked up tight and shut the door to the basement, just in case), but I’ve gotten used to it.
Finding a routine of pleasant silence and solitude doesn’t come naturally to me. When Dan’s around, we fill the space with conversation, friends, music, NPR, books on tape (we’re just hours away from the end of Harry Potter!). We’re not loud people, but the house generally hums with human sounds.
I’m also a person who finds it difficult not to do anything. I have a very hard time sitting with a cup of tea and losing myself in daydreams. But I’ve tried to find a more sane pace this week, a pace that includes a sound dimension—although I’ve kept myself busy and seen plenty of people, these days have felt more serene, muted.
With the CSA season underway, we are, as my friend Christina once said to me, awash with vegetables. Mostly greens right now, but we can hardly keep up! (And it’s still spring! Imagine July and August!)
Our CSA has also begun to sell loaves from a local bread maker, so I bought a small, still-warm loaf on Tuesday when I went to pick up our share. Between the bread, the greens, and a dozen beautiful brown eggs, I’ve been content to eat simple, Tamar Adler-inspired meals for both lunch and dinner. Twice a day, cooked greens and a poached egg over toast. Or no egg and a mound of parmesan instead.
I am in heaven.
I sit at the table, munching on my lunch, with a book propped open and a vase of garden flowers hovering just within my vision. When I saw the peonies at the market, the petals still hugged into each other, two delicate ivory ornaments atop their stems. Overnight, they took on a sultry languor, falling immodestly open. Now they make me think of Mary Oliver’s poem, with the roses who say,
“As long as we are able to
be extravagant we will be
hugely and damply
extravagant. Then we will drop
foil by foil to the ground. This
is our unalterable task, and we do it
These peonies are nothing if not huge and damp and extravagant.
By the time Dan gets back, they’ll probably be slouching toward the compost. But he’ll be home, and there will be more peonies, and strawberries, and the ox-eye sunflower will explode yellow, and the greens will keep coming and coming. I’ll introduce him to my lunchtime ritual, and we’ll eat and read and be so happy.
Oh, and last night I played the piano while the last vestiges of dusk rippled like water on the page. Heaven, indeed.
inspired, yet again, by Tamar Adler
greens from one bulb of kohlrabi
1 clove of garlic
dash of vinegar
one piece of delicious bread
salt and pepper
De-rib, rinse, spin, and chop the kohlrabi leaves into roughly bite-sized pieces. Put a dollop of coconut oil in a pan over medium heat. When it has melted, add the kohlrabi leaves. As they begin to wilt, mince the garlic and toss it in. If the leaves start to look crunchy, add a slosh of water to help them steam and soften.
Meanwhile, fill a good-sized pot with water and bring nearly to a simmer. Add about a teaspoon of vinegar. Keep the heat on low and crack in an egg, gently so it doesn’t splash and make the white go crazy. Let it simmer for a minute or two, keeping an eye on the white. When it has gone from translucent to opaque, use a slotted spoon to lift it out of the water. Push it softly with your finger. If the yolk is the consistency you like (I want that golden liquid!), let the water drain off. If not, set the egg back in the water for another minute.
Toast a piece of bread and drizzle olive oil over it. When the greens are done, pile them on top. Then set the egg on that, break the yolk, and salt and pepper it to taste.
Enjoy alone with a clever lit-mystery novel.
Three days after we celebrated our second anniversary, this blog is celebrating its first.
Attagirl, blog! You made it!
Birthdays always deserve festivities, so to celebrate, here’s a crisp and some trivia. (Trivia first.)
Total number of posts, including today’s?
don’t be cute.
Number of countries from which this blog has been viewed?
St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Or Macedonia. (No offense.)
Most delightful blog I’ve discovered since starting this one?
Far and away, Remedial Eating.
Most disappointed people who end up at this blog?
Ones searching for official information on crab pots.
Second best search terms that have gotten someone to this blog?
“chocolate prune cake causes gas?”
All-time best search terms that have gotten someone to this blog?
“what is the analogy between christians like lumpy peanut butter and christians like smooth peanut butter”
The recipe originally called for only 4 cups of rhubarb, but that seemed awfully skimpy to me. I upped it to 8, but you could do 12 and it wouldn’t be too much. The rhubarb-ginger combination was inspired by this recipe on Food52. If you’re not a ginger fan, you can leave it out of both the fruit and the streusel and still have a great crisp.
8 cups diced rhubarb (2 lbs / 950g)
juice of half a lemon (about 1 Tbsp.)
2 Tbsp. water
zest of half a lemon
grated ginger from a 1/2 inch piece
1 cup sugar
3 Tbsp. whole wheat flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
zest of half a lemon
grated ginger from 1/2 inch piece
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1 cup rolled oats
Preheat oven to 375°. With the inside of the butter wrapper, grease a 9×13 pan.
In a medium bowl, rub the the zest of half a lemon and the grated ginger against the brown sugar, to make a kind of lemon-ginger-infused sugar. Add the 1 1/2 cups flour and the oats. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly, a step I like to do with my fingers. Smash that butter! Stick the streusel into the freezer while you fix the rhubarb.
In a large bowl, rub the rest of the lemon zest and the ginger against the sugar. Then mix in the rhubarb, lemon juice, and water. Finally, stir in the 3 Tbsp. flour until the rhubarb is evenly coated.
Spread rhubarb mixture into pan. Top with the streusel. Bake for 40-50 minutes, until the top is beginning to brown in spots.
Serve warm with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, heavy cream, mascarpone, or some other creamy extravagance to complement the fruit.
Also perfect for breakfast, according to my fruit-desserts-for-breakfast rule.
What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?
For four months when I was twenty, I lived in a cabin in a tiny town up the mountain from Ashland, Oregon. Once a sawmill, the place had been converted into cabins and a library and a classroom that housed sixteen of us, all college students away from our home universities for the semester. We had no internet or telephone except for two dial-up computers and two landlines in a shed across the road. Instead, we hiked the mountain and plunked rocks into the pond and read on the front porch or tucked near the woodstove inside. Hollyhocks and ajuga grew around the porch, and we managed to sprout a flaxseed merely by failing to remove the towel from under the dish drainer for weeks on end. It was in that woodsmoke-fragrant cabin, with no microwave or dishwasher, that I met a beet.
Lots of people have bad beet memories: canned and soggy from their childhood. I had never had a beet, so I was indifferent.
My roommate was cooking in the kitchen, singing something jazzy in her soft, mousy voice and then suddenly, she yelped with glee. I hopped up from the chair in the front room and came into the kitchen to investigate. “Grace, look at this beet! Isn’t it beautiful?” She had just sliced through its crimson root. A deep pink juice covered the cutting board and her fingertips. I couldn’t believe such flamboyant color came from something as ugly and unassuming as a beet.
I don’t remember how she cooked it, but I do remember thinking the color alone was delicious, made mysterious because it had been kept in the secret heart of a beet.
I’ve made beets dozens of times since then, each time mostly for the surprising pleasure of slicing through the beet, watching its pink stain spread and dye everything it touches. I love that beets will be flushed red whether we cut into them or not, that they are content to keep their color hidden and equally happy to offer it for us to behold.
Beets remind me that this world is a great big gift.
When I think about evil for too long, I sometimes forget this. In a paper I wrote earlier this semester, I explained sin this way: “Sin is death. It is the opposite of life. Sin is not-flourishing, not-growing, not-thriving. Sin means that the world is on a trajectory toward decay, toward undoing, toward withering, toward erosion and disintegration and extinction.”
I meant that. In many ways, it’s true. The fruit on my counter will rot if I don’t eat it up. Wind and rain chip away at buildings and cliff faces alike. We barely make it to twenty before we notice that our backs and knees ache, that our metabolism takes its own sweet time, that our skin doesn’t hold its shape.
But last week, in the garden at dusk, I rescinded those sentences in my paper. A wall of cloud had piled up west of the house, making the air in the street dark, except that the very same cloudwall acted as a ceiling for the setting sun, which glinted off in great orange shouts. In the garden, the herbs were coming alive—sage, thyme, oregano, chives, rosemary, lovage. I didn’t plant a single one; they were all the work of a friend who lived in this house before us. Sure, I cut them back last fall, trying to keep the sage from getting too leggy and the oregano from overtaking everything. But they would’ve come back anyway, if a little less kempt.
Headed on a trajectory toward decay? Hardly! These plants are stunningly resilient. The rosemary, which dried up into a prickled comb over the winter and looked absolutely unsalvageable, has sprouted fragrant green needles. Out back, the old pea seeds I thought I’d give a chance are several inches tall and grasping for the first rung of twine on the trellis. Even the hydrangea—the hydrangea, which I bought on a whim after a particularly trying late-night trip to the grocery store, planted outside weeks before the last frost, and then dug up and brought back inside after its blossoms collapsed and its leaves froze hard—has a few glossy leaf-curls swelling from its stem.
A spring-young garden perfectly embodies what it is I love in Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson. I read the work of these writers because they get something that a lot of us don’t, including myself. Each of them sees the world for what it is: a gift from its Creator. And they love that world so deeply that it makes their hearts ache. Mary Oliver puts it this way in her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:
…To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
If you think the world is your own creation, that the peas and rosemary are the work of your hands, then it’s idolatry. If you think the world is a given, that we can expect it to perform according to our demands of productivity, then that’s another kind of sin. The world is a given, but not in the sense that it can be taken for granted. It’s a given because it has been given to us to love and to cherish, to serve and to tend.
I want to remember this. May my first impulse always be gratitude.
Annie Dillard ends Pilgrim at Tinker Creek with a meditation on this gratitude. She writes, “I think that the dying pray at the last not ‘please,’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocks. Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest.”
Gratitude for the world involves awareness of our mortality and of the fleetingness of creation. But it doesn’t end there. Gratitude moves into marvelous abundance and creative activity and love and care.
Every morning, I step through the door and onto the damp soil and brush my hand over the bristles of thyme and pluck off a sprig of lemon balm and hold it to my nose and inhale its warm perfume and say, “Thank you, thank you.”
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King and Creator of the universe.
It’s both appropriate and our joy to give thanks to you.
You set the galaxies spinning and the stars sparkling.
You nourished the land so that it would bring forth life:
the first gold-green buds of spring,
the crocuses, daffodils, magnolia trees, grape hyacinth, forsythia, and tulips.
You have given us life and being and preserve us by your providence.
Thank you for that, too.
As if your creative extravagance were not enough,
you have also given us Jesus Christ,
the one through whom all things were created.
In him, you are reconciling all things to yourself.
In him, creation can quit its groaning and know redemption.
In him, we know redemption.
By the mysterious power of your Spirit,
you bind us to Christ,
who abides in us and in whom we abide.
By the power of the Spirit,
our little frantic lives are caught up into the divine life,
are given meaning and purpose,
are restored to union with their creator.
For all these things, Lord, we give you thanks.
Blessed are you.
In the world of food writing, M. F. K. Fisher is a goddess. She wrote in the early part of the twentieth century, and published the delightfully-titled How to Cook a Wolf during WWII, when shortages and rationing required creativity in the kitchen. I had heard her praised all over food blogs and in cookbooks. So when I stumbled upon a collection of her work in the most wonderful used bookstore I’ve ever found—William James Bookseller in Port Townsend, Washington—I bought it without a second thought.
And I was disappointed. The writing was delectable, and I could taste the food, but something about it made me uneasy. She was a foodie before foodie was a word, and it shows. There’s no hiding her elitism. If she invited me to a party, I’d probably love the meal but feel uncomfortable and unwanted. I’m not the sort of dinner guest she’d like. In one of her essays, she determines that the perfect number of dinner guests is five (plus yourself) and that you should choose the carefully. You wouldn’t want a bore at your table.
Well, no, I suppose not, but I also think there’s something to the injunction to love your neighbor, even if he’s dull.
I say all this because Tamar Adler, another writer whose name keeps popping up, has been hailed as the new M. F. K. Fisher. I was curious about her—she worked at Chez Panisse, the original farm-to-table restaurant, and she wrote another delightfully-titled book, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. But I was nervous. I didn’t want to feel alienated by her writing the way I did with Fisher. (Also, if any readers here like Fisher, I’d love to know! Maybe she and I can yet be reconciled.)
So I put An Everlasting Meal on my Amazon wish list but ignored it, along with the other books I’ve added and forgotten. It wasn’t until my birthday in March that I went to Barnes and Noble for the afternoon (like mother, like daughter!) and picked up the book in my hands and began reading that I knew I had found a companion. Tamar Adler writes like a dream.
As a cook, she’s wise and reasonable. Things like: “Our culture frowns on cooking in water. A pot and water are both simple and homely. It is hard to improve on the technology of the pot, or of the boil, leaving nothing for the cookware industry to sell.” Or: “Little flourishes, like parsley, make food seem cared for.”
Her directions are more like life directions that cooking directions. For instance, she suggests that we have an unnecessary compulsion to cook our vegetables immediately before eating them. Instead, she recommends roasting pan after pan of vegetables at the beginning of the week, capitalizing on the hot oven by roasting garlic and toasting nuts, too, and then eating the vegetables throughout the week. Then, when you get a hankering for something, you can assemble it right then instead of waiting for the vegetables to cook. It takes the pressure off mealtimes and makes better use of energy.
She doesn’t always bother with formal recipes; she often simply describes what she’s doing in the kitchen: wash greens, boil water, poach an egg, top everything with grated parmesan.
She takes the simplest ingredients—usually some combination of olive oil, crusty bread, an egg, and maybe a roasted vegetable—and turns them into a something heavenly, something that, as I’m reading in bed, makes me want to sprint to the kitchen, poach that egg, break it over toast, and eat right then.
Until yesterday, I’d never poached an egg. Since then, I’ve poached five: one in water, four in a tomato stew called shakshouka. Again, no real recipe here, so I cheated a little bit and found this one online just so I could get the proportions correct. I started the onions and peppers going in the oil and then realized I didn’t have bread, so I left the stove on low and power-walked down to Crust 54, where I bought two parbaked baguettes, and marched home, loaves tucked beneath my arm. The house smelled delicious when I got back. I recommend forgetting the bread so you too can walk in, overwhelmed by the scent of frying onions and peppers.
Also, I should mention that Dan rated this meal highly. For about two years now, we’ve been rating our meals out of 10, so that our cookbooks are filled not with the rather unhelpful “Good!” but with actual comments and a grade. (Do we sound like lifelong students or what?) This one got 8.5 out of 10! That’s a happy sign.
big gulp olive oil
2 red peppers
4 cloves garlic
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
4-6 eggs, depending on how many you’re feeding
Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Chop the onion and the peppers into long pieces, mince the garlic, and sauté all three in the olive oil until they start to brown and become soft. Turn down the heat to low, add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt, and let the whole thing simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, dash down to the bakery and back.
When the sauce has reduced a little, make enough indentations for your eggs and crack them in, one at a time, but fairly quickly so the first doesn’t set before the last one. Simmer until the whites are just set and the yolks are still wobbly. This shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes. If it does, cover the pan and check on them frequently. There’s a small window between undercooked and overcooked, so remove them from the heat once they’re done, and don’t leave the lid on after they’ve finished cooking, either.
Serve with good bread, a generous drizzle of olive oil, and a peppery salad.
Serves 2 to 4.
Right now, evening light is sweeping across our living room wall. It’s thin sunlight, but it has the gold undertones of warmer weather, of smoky grills at dusk, of hot mornings at the farmers’ market. This light is all anticipation of summer.
The sun is so low that the swath of light stretches long across the wall. It’s catching on the lacy purple buds of the flower I bought this afternoon and spraying its shadow dramatically above the piano. I bought the flower on impulse to cheer me, to preserve the happiness that burst over me when I walked into the flower shop to buy a few fronds of greenery for chapel tomorrow.
The band of light is narrowing and fading. I try to stop it by taking pictures of it. My family bought me a new lens for my birthday, but it only arrived last week, and since then I’ve been taking photos like mad. Its large aperture has been a gift in our dark apartment. When I wake up and go downstairs and sit while the sun rises, I photograph everything in sight, trying to remember these mornings, the texture of this room, the landscape of this semester.
The little wooden travelers who hold up our books are on film. The reflection of the piano in my sister’s painting, too. The cool blue dawn coming in through the corner window. The milk glass dishes with rainbow rocks from some beach I can’t remember now.
I photograph for the same reason I write: to make sense of things, to remember where I’ve been, to create something artful out of what otherwise feels like chaos. I like to keep track of things. I have files stuffed with letters I got in middle school, organized by sender. I mark the front of all my books with the date I finished reading them so that when I return to them, I have some context for the marginalia throughout. My hard drive is full of spreadsheets and class notes and numbered drafts of poems.
I need to know that all my memories are kept somewhere.
This blog has been one way of doing that keeping. Eleven months’ worth of thoughts and images are pinned like butterflies, organized and ready to be revisited. I can trace periods of deep contentment and spells of sadness. I see images like these and am transported to Whidbey, or read this again and compare it to last week’s miracle.
My thinking is hardly linear—whose is? Thank you, Walt Whitman, for allowing me the space to be haphazard and inconsistent:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I appreciate the freedom, but I can’t stand the disorganization of largeness, inconsistency, multitudes. So it helps to put pins down somewhere. A poem here. A photograph there. Later I can look back and make meaning out of it.
The more pins I put down, the more things stay with me. It’s a funny thing: I set something on paper because I know I can’t keep it in my head, but as soon as I write it, I remember it. The act of writing preserves it.
I don’t think I’ll make a good pastor unless I write. So much of the work of the pastor is to help people see the meaning in their lives. I have a hard time seeing God at work except in retrospect, when I go back to my butterfly board and notice patterns and see things that I thought were coincidental at best and nothing at worst but now obviously hold the shape of something purposeful.
And that’s one of the things that the record of this year has shown me: I will write. It’s not a question for me anymore of whether or not my vocation includes writing. Even the how is becoming clearer. I’ve found rewarding avenues for writing; I’ve heard of cool writing workshops for students whose first language isn’t English; my sister and I compiled a book of her paintings and my poems. It feels more natural and more necessary.
The sunlight gone now, and the living room is a peaceful grey. I haven’t bothered to turn on the lamps. The dark is quiet, except for the refrigerator and the furnace. I think I’ll go to bed.
God of wind and fire, water and light,
you are a covenant God.
We bless you for the sunlight that broke through the rain
and cast a rainbow in the sky, a sign of your promise.
We bless you for the clear night when Abraham
stared into the heavens and counted the pinpricks of light,
for the smoking fire pot and flaming torch
that passed between the animal halves and sealed the covenant.
We bless you for Christ, the only light shining in the darkness of Good Friday,
and for the gale-force grace that ripped the temple curtain in two,
making a new covenant possible.
We praise you for the wind that blew through the Red Sea
and carved a channel for the Israelites to pass through.
We praise you for the break in the clouds
and the breeze that brought the dove at the moment
that Jesus himself rose dripping wet from the River Jordan.
We praise you for the dew that settled on the ground on Holy Saturday,
for the air that carried the fragrant spices of Jesus’ burial cloths,
for the bright fingers of dawn creeping over the eastern horizon on Easter Sunday.
We praise you for the rush of wind that swept the flames
onto the heads of everyone gathered at Pentecost,
for the Holy Spirit whose very breath makes us a people,
who unites us to the death and resurrection of Jesus himself.
Send that same Spirit upon us now,
light a fire in our communal heart,
mark us with the burning iron of your love and grace,
and let us blaze the more brightly as this flame is added to the communion of saints.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
If you know me, you’ll know this is nothing new: I always get panicky as a major life change, impossible to see from where I now stand, draws nearer. In high school, it was college. In college, it was seminary. Now, it’s the pastoral life. Lately I’ve been feeling something akin to cold feet. That’s the best way I can describe it. With graduation visible on the horizon and a real occupation just beyond that, I’ve suddenly begun to wonder if I’m going into the right line of work, if somewhere along the line I missed the exit ramp for the perfect career for me and have gone a hundred miles in the wrong direction, if I’ve yet figured out where my deep gladness meets the world’s deep need or whatever that quote is from Buechner.
When things get like this, I return to my tried and true solution: talk it out.
So I went to my pastor, friend, and spiritual director, and she listened while I talked, and then I thought while she asked questions. And this is what we uncovered.
A whole constellation of values and worries and considerations have come together to make me wonder about my call.
For one, I’m in a leadership class that has exposed me to all of the facets of leading for which I feel totally unprepared. I might be good at conducting a worship service, but a budget meeting? And I can probably lead a congregation through the emotional turmoil of divorces or deaths, but what about a capital campaign? Rather than feeling more equipped, I’ve felt acutely aware of how many tools I still lack.
Another factor at play is the simple fact that I cannot picture our future congregation—or our future more generally, for that matter. This is one of the limits of being human. Apart from God himself, no one knows what lies ahead. It’s one of those facts of life that’s self evident, and yet we bump uncomfortably up against it every time we cross a threshold like this. It’s not hard to not know the future when it will probably look like the present. But to look into next year and see an impenetrable haze?
I also have a strong aversion toward the idea of leaving a congregation within a few years of arriving there. This aversion has grown out of a combination of things. Because of a sense of pride, I don’t want to be numbered among those who leave the ministry within five years. I want to think that I’ve been better prepared, that I have more resources and don’t have to flee at the first sign of conflict. More nobly, though, writers like Eugene Peterson and Wendell Berry have convinced me to live in a way that mimics the monastic vow of stability. I believe in remaining with a congregation, in being committed to place and a people. In a world where people jump at the possibility of a promotion and readily move their families from one coast to the other in pursuit of financial security, Christians ought to demonstrate a different way of life, one motivated not by finances but by relationships, one that sticks it out and learns to forgive rather than merely tolerating someone while secretly counting down the days until the next move.
We lingered for a while on this last reason. I confessed that I’m simply tired of impermanence. I’d like to be in a place where it feels worthwhile to paint and hang pictures, where I can enjoy the bounty of a garden for more than a season or two. With no plans to leave a place, I’ll be able to settle into friendships.
I mentioned my big-garden, sunny-window, chicken-keeping dream, and then it came to us. That dream is just that: a dream. It’s a fantasy. It’s my Tarshish. It’s the place I want to go to escape my vocation.
And maybe, at the same time, it’s an indication of a deeper longing, a longing for heaven. The idea that God’s people are pilgrims, exiles, aliens in a strange land is as old as sin. I’m not the first person to long for a home that I’ll never reach this side of heaven, and I’m not the last. This is the burden of the Christian life. Even if I surround myself with all the trappings of a beautiful, joyful, satisfying life, I’ll never feel fulfilled, because this is not my home. I could remain in a congregation for the rest of my life and still feel homesick.
It’s not that I’ve missed the exit ramp for the vocation most suited for me. It’s that on this earth there’s no such thing. Rather than fantasizing about some perfect future house, I should take the ache as a reminder that my home is with God. Rather than despairing that I will be on the move forever, I should take comfort in the hope that a home awaits. And I’m banking on the promise that it’s got a gorgeous garden and an ancient tree.
A few weeks ago, I confessed that I’m paralyzed by the multitude of models for pastoral leadership. Narrowing the field helps; instead of considering every possible kind of leadership, I’m able to identify simply what delights me. (That approach, however, often ends with an image of me tending a sunny garden, reading a novel and letting my mind walk the contours of its land, or perfecting the art of the sestina. In other words, it’s more about my ideal Sabbath than pastoral ministry.)
Another way to come at this question (a way that has the potential to take me to a different place than back to my garden) is to ask which pastors have influenced me and which of their qualities I most admire. So here are a few:
The summer before second grade, my family moved to Portage, Michigan, where we attended a little Baptist church half a mile down the road. I was mesmerized by the pastor. He had a big, boisterous family, which held a kind of magic for me. (I have one sister and even on my family’s rowdiest days, we’re pretty reserved.) A few months into our time there, I wrote him a note telling him that I loved how visibly he praised the Lord. He wrote back immediately, detailing the ages and personalities of all of his kids. With two daughters and five sons, he and his wife had a pretty open-door sensibility about their house. We were always welcome and always regarded as part of the family, even if that meant their deliberate encroachment on our gentle, sisterly ways. Beyond his hospitality, our pastor cared about the vigor of his congregation’s faith. Under his leadership, my parents developed an appreciation for Calvinism that they passed along to me. Young as I was, I absorbed a conception of pastoral leadership that loves its congregation through hospitality, theological teaching, and an obvious love for the Lord.
After an eight-year interlude in Illinois, I found myself back in Michigan for college. About the time that I declared an English major, I met the campus pastor. We hit it off immediately. He loved words; I loved words. He hailed from the Pacific Northwest; I was headed there for an off-campus semester. He had a poet’s soul. He led his congregation—the entire student body and some of the staff and faculty—by helping us imagine an embodied faith that carries us into, as he called it, the wide open country of salvation. Whenever he spoke those words, I felt my lungs expand with broad, clear air. He also frequently returned to the image of a tree, extending his arms to the sides like the growing limbs of a sturdy tree, giving us a picture of a Psalm 1, of Christians who are planted by streams of water. For him, the streams of water were Scripture and the liturgy. Each week, demonstrating his commitment to the Word, he spoke from memory the Scripture passage out of which his sermon arose. And each year, he introduced a new piece of the liturgy to our Sunday evening worship and thus provided for us a framework of confession and assurance, of communion with Christ and with each other, for us to lean into when our own spiritual resources were sapped. Outside of the chapel, he nurtured the faith of his congregation by dreaming big dreams for the college, strategizing how to move the campus toward a more robust Christianity, and cultivating students who would be able to lead the church toward vitality and union with Christ. From him, I learned that loving your congregation means being devoted to the Word of God, attending to imaginative language, envisioning a future toward which you aim, and investing in your people to help them get there.
In my final year of college, I joined a local church with two pastors: one male and one female. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to the regular leadership of a woman. She embodied for me the ability to be her hilarious, spunky, God-imaging self while also inhabiting the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament. With no more attention drawn to herself than that called by the blue bangles hanging from her ears one week, she greeted us with the blessing of God, guided us into sometimes painful confession, pronounced God’s pardon upon us, and captured in her prayers the wild longings and nameless gratitudes of our hearts. During the children’s sermon, she attended to each child with love, often by posing a question to the group, hearing out and engaging every response—whether precociously insightful or distractedly off-beat—and making sure the congregation could overhear it all. Out of the sanctuary, she revealed more of herself, which, I discovered, could be both sassy and wise. I found her to be an excellent spiritual director, for much the same reason that she led the children’s sermon so well: she honored us by listening us and calling out the places where she saw the stirring of the Spirit. Rather than giving advice, she asked questions and prodded for deeper understanding. She could recognize the hand of God with the ease of someone well acquainted with the ways of God. In her, I observed a pastor who loved her congregation by helping them notice and voice the sin, wisdom, and desire of their Spirit-filled souls.
There. Three pastors whose philosophy of leadership I’d be more than pleased to adopt.
I hope they know who they are.
There are failures in life, and there are failures.
I consider a minor failure the time I planned a campus-wide film showing that eight people came to, including the other planner, the professor we had invited to reflect on the film afterward, three of his students, the video technician, and me. Our third planner had some other commitment that night and couldn’t make it. To make things worse, a deep gouge cut from the center of the disc to the edge, interrupting the film at regular and frequent intervals with minute-long silences, sputtering, and abrupt scene changes. Later, when people asked me how the showing went, I tried to change the subject. It pained me to recall the way I sat there in the dark, feeling the rising anxiety in the room each time the disc caught, sensing the disapproval of the people who were there and were almost certainly judging me for being so ill-prepared and unprofessional. Despite our lack of publicity (and there you have the major problem), I was sure that the rest of the college was looking through the windows and mocking the pathetic turnout.
But I’ve gotten over my embarrassment and realize it’s hardly worth losing sleep about. Life will present itself with plenty of opportunities to fail, and I’ll probably take it up on more than one of those. Sometimes dinner will burn and set off the smoke alarms just as the guests arrive. Other times it will be tremendous, horrendous failures, the sort of relational failures that hurt like the dickens. If I’m to endure those, I need to learn to keep my wits.
Failure has been on my mind because its opposite, success, has too. By success, I mean something like everything running smoothly and everyone getting along perfectly harmoniously. Extrapolated, it looks like shalom and the kingdom of God.
My foolproof method for success comprises nothing more nor less than clear communication. I am convinced that everything—really, everything—can be fixed by speaking honestly and thoroughly. Resentment festering between you and a friend? Just talk about it! Things going awry at work? Talk it out with your boss! Film fail to get publicized? At least clear the air with the other planners!
My belief is not unfounded. Nine times out of ten, the central conflict in a movie arises from poor communication. (And it irks me to no end: Just talk to each other! I hiss at the screen.) Generally, the conflict is solved once the characters have a heart to heart and quit assuming they know what the other is thinking. Likewise, the majority of books on marriage stress the importance of patient communication to strengthen the relationship between husband and wife. I’ve seen simple conversation work wonders in my own marriage, in familial conflict and friendships, in minor misunderstandings with fellow church members. In other words, there are worse things I could believe.
Yet, in the past year, I’ve seen the limits of communicating. Twice, talking actually aggravated the conflict. Privately, I swear that the solution will be more talking. I just need to talk with that person! One more conversation and we’ll have it figured out! But these relationships are not improving. We’ve pressed our confusion and bitterness and hurt just below the surface, but they’re there all right.
It has become clear that talking will not solve everything for me. Communicating is not leading to success. Heck, it’s barely fending off failure. Suddenly, I have to reassess my whole M.O. As I do, it occurs to me that maybe I’ve unwittingly substituted communication for Christ’s salvific work. Who needs Jesus Christ when you’ve got clear conversation? Precise, self-aware discourse resolves nearly everything, or so I’ve thought. I’ve believed that, given enough time and honesty, I could get to the heart of every conflict and overcome it by removing all misunderstandings and patching everything up with good old-fashioned forgiveness.
In my words-fix-everything world, there’s no real sin. There are only misunderstandings, poor self-knowledge, and undeveloped ability to articulate one’s own feelings and motives. Clearly, this is problematic. Sin is real and we are utterly powerless to overcome it, no matter how exact our words and how long our conversations. Neither pure intentions nor a sincere desire for reconciliation make a difference. In the world of sin, communication just doesn’t cut it. Sin will have its way, turning all of our efforts to solve relational conflict into failure.
This, I think, is an important thing for a would-be pastor to remember. While continuing to affirm the usefulness of straightforward conversation, I have to relinquish my belief that reconciliation is within my power. In all of these instances, I have to hand over the success of the relationship to the only one who can do and has done anything about it. In Christ by the power of the Spirit, I have the potential not to fail. But getting there takes confessing that I will fail and then shutting up. Talking, as I’ve learned, can make things worse.
adapted from Super Natural Cooking
If talking doesn’t work, maybe muffins will solve it? Sometimes, they help. With these, though, it was the thought that counted. They’re not awful if you like the taste of damp banana. I post them as another example of a failure.
2 cups spelt flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups walnuts
2 Tbsp. coffee beans, finely ground
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup plain yogurt
3 large bananas, mashed
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line 18 muffin cups with paper liners (or do it in two batches).
Spread walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and put in the oven while it preheats. Stir every 5 minutes for about 10 or 15 minutes. When they’ve begun to brown, remove them from the oven, let cool, and chop coarsely.
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, salt, half the walnuts, and the coffee grounds.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter until fluffy. Beat in the sugar and then one egg at a time. Mix in the vanilla, yogurt, and mashed bananas. Add the dry ingredients and stir until just combined so you don’t end up with tough muffins.
Distribute the batter evenly among the muffin cups, topping with the remaining walnuts. Bake about 25 minutes, until the nuts are toasty and the tops golden. Remove the muffins from the tin and cool on a wire rack. Forgive each other and find a different muffin recipe. (These ones will do quite nicely.)