Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Particulars of Ministry

At the suggestion of Kyle Childress, pastor of Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacodoches, Texas, I've been reading Garret Keizer's book A Dresser of Sycamore Trees. It is a memoir of a lay Episcopal minister's journey with a small congregation in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. I'd really like some of my Vermont readers to tell me why the heck it took two years and a preacher from Texas to put me on to this book. I mean, come on people!

I'm enjoying the read. It is at times a little gushy and too liberal with words, but I am finding that Keizer's attention to the particulars of ministry is full of insight into the subtle and sometimes hidden forms grace takes in our lives. I suppose that pretty well somes up the art of the spiritual life - opening the eyes to see Christ in the most particular and inauspicious of encounters. Page one in Keizer's book says it all. He's talking about coming back from a visit with a parishioner's home. As he drives his mind floods with subtle images of the visit and suddenly becomes aware of how mercifully connected his life and the life of his parishioners are with all the rest of this God blessed world. In other words, he remembers:

The image of an old woman taking the wafer reverently in arthritic hands overwhelms me as I round a mountain and the full moon appears blessing the branches of a great dead elm. The ionosphere has come down in the night, like St. Peter's visionary sheetful of clean and unclean animals, and my car radio isa feast of stations . . . I give thanks for my family, my church, the Supremes. Next week, without fail, I will stop at the farm which it is too late to visit now, but passing by I pray for the family who live there. I pray for their cows and the land. And I tell myself by way of exultation what I now tell my reader by way of warning, it won't get much better than this.

It won't get much better because being alive to the subtle sacraments of life, those crevices through which heaven's light breaks in, is what life and ministry and Keizer's book are about. It doesn't get much better than that because that's pretty much the best life has to offer anyway.

I listened to Ken Burns give an address tonight and he pretty much said the same thing. He said the way he goes about history is to look for the universal through the insights of the particular. He even used religious imagery. "What is true below, is true above," he said. Then he quoted Blake who wrote of seeing "the world in a grain of sand." And, of course, Blake got that from a certain Jewish rabbi who talked of seeing the kingdom of God in a mustard seed.

Our world is addicted to dazzle. If it doesn't blow our socks off then it isn't worth it. If it doesn't blow our socks off then we'll never even notice it.

But the kingdom of God . . .the kingdom of God is among us. Hidden, like a treasure in the field. Hidden in the tiniest of particular acts, where God speaks in subtle whispers. Tiny whispers that only those with ears to hear can discern.

Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to try and write about a few of those tiny acts that I have been graced to be a part of. Pray for me, that like Keizer, I too will remember well.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Getting Gas

I haven't been a good blogger lately. I've been really distracted by a lot of stuff and, frankly, have been on E ever since I returned from the break.

When I was 21 my grandparents picked me up in Colorado, where I was spending the summer guiding backpacking trips, and we drove to see my uncle and aunt in Cody, Wyoming. My grandparents bickered almost the whole way there and all the way back and so most of the ride was sort of colored by their domestic complications.

But one other thing from the ride stands out also. My grandfather never let the fuel get lower than half a tank. "Remember this Ryon," he said, as if about to pass on some very important key to life, "you can go just as far on full tank of gas as you can on a half."

It was his dry, riddling cowboy way of saying, "Get gas while you still can."

I suppose that's the point of keeping Sabbath. Getting gas while we still can before we run so completely dry that we can't make it another mile.