Until this year, I got to observe things from a safe distance. I read about the unemployment crisis and shook my head for those folks who still couldn’t find work. I ached when I watched one story after another on the nightly news about people losing their homes thanks to the foreclosure crisis. I was more than a little self-righteous about churches that have become financial black holes because they couldn’t change fast enough, or deal enough with the truth and reality of a changing world. And then one day, I was no longer an observer.
The regional ministry project that got launched 3 years ago kept me going through the past couple of years. There is a never-ending “to do” list at work that can absorb me as much as I let it and that list has been my refuge. A theologian once said that vocation is the place where your greatest joy meets the deepest needs of the world and I have been astoundingly lucky to get to know what that means. But a few weeks ago, the leadership of NRRM began to face into some wrenching realities that can be explained pretty simply: spending was outpacing revenue at an accelerating rate. There are steps we can and are taking to reverse that trend. Two member organizations have significant potential for allowing us to keep going. I just don’t know if there’s enough of all the things we need to turn things around.
Until the last couple of days, all of this put me in vocational hell. I wanted to spread blame for this sorry place we’ve landed in but there was nothing liberating in that exercise. I entertained the notion that it might hurt less to “pull the plug” on my part of the ministry. After all, it is different to say “I walked away from this” than acknowledge, if the day comes, that no matter how hard I tried, it wasn’t enough. After weeks of over-functioning, trying to spin more and more plates faster and faster, like that could solve much, I had to slow down, even when that meant that in this part of my life too, I had to host fear, loss and grief.
Turns out that I am not in vocational hell. I am simply being taught some more about what it means to be faithful to my vocation. While I was starting to thrash and flail around in fear and anger because the way forward seemed to elude me, God continued the slow, patient work of forging and shaping me for this new time.
A couple of days ago, I wrote about the bell meditation exercise I’ve been doing for a while. I was grateful for what it allowed me in the way of remembrance. It also became an opportunity to start learning a tiny (really tiny) bit about Zen, and especially the notion of the “eternal now” which is only possible to reach toward when over and over, you try not to think or think about not thinking. I needed to stop looking at NRRM against the horizon of all the fears, hopes and dreams I’ve harbored for it for so long. In a way that I am unable to explain, I have these micro-moments of openness as I listen to a single peal of a bell go forth from my iPhone. As fleeting as those moments are, they are helping me look at what I have in front of me with less fear, less hope that is actually more about my own projections of what things should look like. It’s not that I care less—if anything, I care more. But I understand my place differently today than I did even a few days ago; I am not nearly so important as I had presumed.
Earlier this week, I listened to another podcast with Krista Tippett. This time she was interviewing Xavier Le Pichon, a French geophysicist who was one of the earliest formulators of the theory of plate tectonics. Le Pichon is a devout Roman Catholic. The conversation between Tippett and Le Pichon ebbed and flowed around the notion of fragility. For Le Pichon, fragility is essential to the potential of the Earth, our “fragile island home” and it is a profoundly transforming gift to us as humans. In order to grow into our humanity (not a given, but only a possibility always laid before us as an invitation), we must be willing and able to organize ourselves around the very weakest, the most fragile and vulnerable in our midst. Tippet and Le Pichon discussed an archeological site in Iraq that gives evidence of a prehistoric community that built its life around a severely crippled member. I was in tears as I listened to that part of the interview, so aware that this was exactly what my family did for me, a child with such a serious physical disability.
Their conversation helped me reframe both the crisis we are facing in NRRM and what it invites me to consider, and maybe, become. There is a rather lovely combination of strength and fragility in our ministry. Some of the strongest, most capable members of our community are hard at work, examining every single possible way we can reduce our financial footprint. I’ve been hanging out a lot with these folks, endless meetings and tough, confrontational conversations that leave me worn out and, in some respects, empty. I can and will continue to be a part of that effort to turn the situation around.
But I see something else now too. I have let go of the misguided notion that I am in control of the outcome of this brave, foolish adventure in church building. Fragility is at the heart of who we are. One part of our community is an old and failing congregation. We are also a bunch of undocumented young people with very little education who are trying to raise their children in an extraordinarily hostile world. We are fragile and vulnerable and our country is not of much mind to organize itself around those who are most at risk. Part of my vocation is to recognize and remember that truth about us. I had lost sight of that as I tried to be a part of the solution to the challenges we face.
Earlier this week, while I was doing one more analysis, looking at one more way to cut and slice the financial information we are using to guide our decision-making for the future, I realized I could be a part of the solution in a different way. What NRRM pays me in salary can be used instead to close one of the gaps we’re struggling with, buying us a little more time to put some other solutions in place.
What started out to be a fairly reasonable response to a need turns out to be much more than that for me. Once the wheels had started turning, once I realized that I had received my last paycheck a week ago, I was absolutely overwhelmed by my visceral response to my new reality. Scared doesn’t begin to describe what I’ve been feeling. I thought I knew a whole lot about being vulnerable and exposed. I had no idea. I don’t know if this new fragility of mine will make me a better priest or person. I don’t harbor illusions about my own nobility and dedication. What I do know is that when I hang out with all those strong, capable people who are making decisions for the future of NRRM, I will not be “one of them” in the same way. And when I hear the stories of those who do not have a lot of “worldly goods” I will no longer be hearing them as a detached observer. I hope for the grace to become more human in my fragility. But I have to admit: just gauging from my initial response, that’s not guaranteed.