Pray and Work(out)

Some of the good men of Sandy Springs Fire Rescue

I’m addicted. To exercise. Honestly, if I haven’t hit the weights, people around me know it. The endorphins are my alcohol and deprivation is not pretty.

I’m also a priest, and if you haven’t noticed, we’re not always the specimens of health. I don’t mean to indict my colleagues, but look around at a clergy gathering and you know that gym and church memberships are not synonymous. All I can say is that for me, I’m learning that the more I focus on staying physically active, the more prayerful I tend to become. Physical fitness is a barometer of my spiritual fitness. You can bet if I’m not in the gym, I’m not on my knees.

I’m not sure it was exactly what Benedict had in mind with ora et labora, but the connection between the physical and spiritual has been clarified in my work as chaplain to our local fire department. I serve along with the men and women of Sandy Springs, Georgia, riding at least one afternoon per week with them as they respond to everything from drug overdoses to auto accidents to fires. They are our first responders, literally first on the scene for all of life. What they see each day is truly overwhelming once you experience it.

Among these men and women, I have found a true fidelity, a shared bond of acceptance and belonging forged by shared experience, and just, well, having one another’s back. If you’re going to walk into a burning building or onto a horrific scene, you do so with a deep and abiding trust of the person in front and behind you. You don’t take each step wondering if your brother will be there for you. You know he will. You know your sister will jump in and help at all costs. Duty and sacrifice walk around with you.

Back to my life as a priest. Years ago, a trusted mentor told me that a few years into my vocation I’d realize that no one would ask me how I was doing. No one would ask how my prayer life was going. No one would ask if the toll of seeing people die and suffer was starting to wear me down. I thought he was wrong. Sixteen years into priesthood, I can tell you this: he was right. Rare is the person who stops and asks a priest how he or she is spiritually, how life is going. Yeah, I am on the verge of whining, but honestly, I think this fact is just one among the menu of why so many priests are depressed, emotionally and physically exhausted, and not hitting the gym.

But as I’ve walked with the firefighters, I’ve discovered people who ask me those questions often — and they mean them. They’re not interested in my vocation as evidence of my faith or the establishment it represents. They’re just interested in me the person, because after all, that is who comes on the scene with them. The church building doesn’t. The committees don’t. Just me. The padre. The preacher. The friend. They want to know that the person is present first and foremost, because they trust that if I’m there, the priest will be, too. Not the other way around. Personhood first.

Somehow, in our training and sweating with all the gear, in our lifting weights, in our cooking and studying, and in their constant instruction in the art of tying knots (I have 8 of 16 down), we find authenticity. Are there still loads of issues and problems? You better believe it. Firehouses are microcosms of the world with all the issues and threats of any other place. They are far from perfect. But firehouses are also like monasteries, places of intentionality, focus, sacrifice, and discovery.

As the institutional church comes to grips with the shifting sands of its place in our world, I’m starting to believe that we need to return to the notion of church as house, a place we go to work at it, to practice being better first responders. We need to see ourselves as people given to one another to be there in times of trouble and to help push one another to train harder and expect more.

Said another way, we need to sweat a little more. We need to work.

Not long ago, I donned full gear with one of the guys and set out to climb stairs. After 30 stories, I was glad to be finished. Seventy pounds on your back makes climbing stairs quite a challenge. When we took that last step, I was ready to cast aside the weight of it all. My colleague looked at me, and with a focus I had rarely seen, simply said, “Stop. Leave it on. Stand here. Be uncomfortable. This might be training, but it’s real life and you might be called right back in there. Someone, including me, could need you. This is how we work.”

And in that moment, I prayed. Not with words. I just let it be. And at the same time, I worked. Hard. But most of all, I realized I needed him to help me be me. He needed me to help him be him.

Ora et labora. Prayer and work.

It’s time for the church house to don her full gear.

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