I was recently asked to write about my spirituality and how that relates to my vocation as a minister–a rather intimidating task, given the often bloated, ephemeral language that is used to describe what it means to be spiritual. For me, explaining anything like that starts in the material world and originates in the act of storytelling. Here’s what I have to say:
I’ve long been fan of American poet Wendell Berry. One of his best known poems, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” ends powerfully with a simple, but emphatic call to the reader: Practice Resurrection.
As I read Berry, the crux of Christian spirituality and ministry is to truly embody the hope of the resurrection—that violence and death are not the final word, that there is always more life, even after the darkest of human experience—through healing, creating, and justice-making. This is at the heart of faith for me—as people who claim to be the broken yet resurrected body of Christ—using our gifts, talents, and resources to work for wholeness. What we do in community, what we do for justice, and what we do in partnership with the most vulnerable is as much a spiritual practice as walking a labyrinth or engaging in lectio divina.
Ministry has allowed me the privilege of living into this task of embodiment. I feel most alive, most useful, and most inspired when I am working, organizing, teaching, or speaking out for justice and reconciliation. I have witnessed the ways that churches commit to justice-seeking and service, and in turn, experience resurrection–new life in a place where death and destruction seemed to have the final word. But I’ve also found that advocacy and service can lose their spiritual significance and become just another set of tasks. Because of this, I try to “practice resurrection’ in my daily life, both within the ministry role and beyond it.
My wife and I recently adopted a couple of rescue dogs, Jack and Sophie. One of my favorite things to do with them is to take them on daily walks to our neighborhood park, and when I’m not practicing new instructions with them, I’m soaking in our neighborhood. We live in an older suburb of Kansas City and much of the core population in our neighborhood is changing; folks are retiring and moving into assisted care facilities, younger families are moving in. We hear languages other than English. The faces are not all Anglo. It’s a microcosm of the rest of the state and the rest of the country.
Over the last several months, I’ve noticed a change at one of the houses I’ve passed by for years. A brick ranch style house with American and Marine Corps flags. On nice days, an old man once sat in the driveway in a folding chair and waved. On the nicest days, his wife joined him. Over the last few months, however, things have changed. Even during a recent warm spell, he wasn’t there. Over the last few months, new, different cars were parked out front. Sometimes people wearing scrubs (home health workers? hospice nurses?) quickly make their way from the cars to the front door. Last weekend, there were 6 cars packing the usually empty driveway, and since then, a hand written “No Visitors” sign has appeared—a sign I recognize not only from ministry, but from my mother’s journey through hospice care.
Since I began noticing those changes, my dog walking has become something different— time for silent prayer, for the occasional “Kyrie Elaison” spoken aloud as I passed the house. I began seeing my neighborhood differently. The young couple who moved in recently, the walkers in the park who pet Sophie and hug Jack, the always on-the-move family of four whose dog drives mine crazy. As I pass, I pray for them all. I hope to make my silent prayer as much of a caring reflex as the wave I give if a neighbor is out in his or her yard.
To my mind, to practice resurrection is to live at the intersection of justice work and prayerful care, looking for the newness of life when everything seems to have died. It means being open to the new, even when that is just taking up something as ancient as prayer, even when it means just seeing your old neighborhood through a new set of eyes.