Thirteen posts and eleven weeks ago, Dan and I stepped off the Whidbey-SeaTac shuttle into the parking lot of a 7–11 in Oak Harbor, Washington. Travel-worn and longing for our bed, we weren’t sure what would propel us through the evening, much less the whole summer.
How could we invest ourselves sincerely in loving a new congregation when we’d leave so soon? And if we did so whole-heartedly, how could we bear to leave? Would ten weeks provide enough space to clear up my vocational confusion? We had thrown ourselves into this internship and didn’t even know if people were nice on Whidbey Island.
That final worry was cleared up quickly: there are good people everywhere, and Whidbey is no exception. Which made it easier for us to love the congregation, though not easier to leave.
And Jon, before he took a call in Holland, set before us such a simple, clear vision for ministry that we were freed to love the people of First Reformed Church unreservedly. He might have said it differently, but essentially, faithful pastoral work can be distilled to loving God and loving the people. Trygve says something similar, something like “love the Word, love your people, love your place.”
The problem for me has been this: I’ve thought I needed to spell out a complex, unique vocational identity that somehow captured all of my gifts, my inclinations, and my ways of seeing the world, and incorporated them into a broader understanding of pastoral ministry informed by Scripture and tradition. A tall order, if you ask me.
I needed to pare down my understanding of my vocation. So although Jon and I tailored my internship to me—crafting a narrative shape for the liturgy, writing for Perspectives, and keeping this blog—he also told each of the interns that our primary responsibility, even above preaching for Dan, was to get to know and come to love the people of FRC. He also insisted that we practice a spiritual discipline. Love God, love the people.
This ordering of responsibilities released us from the captivity of appearing busily diligent. In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson observes that “busy” pastors (whether in fact or in talk) are actually either vain or lazy. When Jon made spending time with the congregation our principal work, he freed us from the vanity of being seen (by whom? the receptionist?) hard at work in the office each day. Instead, we joined families for dinner, couples for crabbing, young mothers for strawberry-picking. No one but the people themselves saw us. We weren’t actively writing sermons or choosing Scripture or hymns. We seemed anything but busy as we lingered around dinner tables, took long lunches at the park, came into work late after morning coffee in people’s homes.
And these things became the things that mattered. It helped to ground our other work. Because what is a sermon delivered to an unknown people? What is a prayer offered on behalf of people without names or lives? How can you serve a church that you don’t care for because you haven’t taken the time to?
Understanding the importance of loving the people simplified everything for me. No longer did I have to accurately discern and identify and articulate. No longer was I burdened by the cumbersome language of calling. I simply enjoyed what I was doing. I loved the people and I was free to love them.
A few years ago, my friend Josh introduced me to the phrase age quod agis, which translates to something like “do what you are doing.” This summer, we did what we were doing. We loved that church, with her hard-working, beautiful, frustrating, surprising, big-hearted people. We loved, and we didn’t agonize over how busy we appeared. We loved, and we didn’t worry whether we could describe that love in unique vocational terms. We loved, and that became our vocation.