“It hasn’t always been easy. But I’m still here.” Some thoughts while observing an ordination anniversary.
As I observe the 15th anniversary of my ordination on December 20th, I am reminded of a little piece of wisdom about life and ministry I learned from Brother David Allen from the Society of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Back when I lived in Boston I would often take silent retreats at SSJE. The meals are all taken in silence except for one night a week when you can talk at dinnertime.
During one of those nights when I was on retreat, a youth group visited the monastery and the teenagers took the opportunity to ask the brothers questions about what it is like to be a monk. At my table, one of the teens asked Brother David how long he had been a monk. He told them that it had been several decades. They marveled at this and then asked him how he had done it all these years. He only explained, “It hasn’t always been easy. But I’m still here.”
“It hasn’t always been easy. But I’m still here.”
In these nine words, Brother David summarized a lifetime of vocation, prayer, and service to the church. In these nine words, he simply and poignantly captured the persistence that the ministry requires. In these nine words, he gave me a mantra that has sustained me through the most challenging times of my ministry.
It Hasn’t Always Been Easy
Ministry is many things. It is joyous, beautiful, and fulfilling. It is filled with unexpected and undeserved mercies and grace. But there is no doubt that ministry is hard. Simply hearing Brother David say it reassured me that I wasn’t the only one. It is hard, at times, for everybody.
I was warned of this in the sermon preached at my ordination by Tad Meyer, who invited us to see how my ministry was yoked with that of the disciple Peter, who experienced both deep brokenness as well as great belovedness. No advice on ministry has been so prescient or profound for me.
A parishioner once observed that the trick in ministry is to keep your heart open enough to be with people, to feel, to hope, to love, and make a connection, but not so much that it destroys or consumes you. I’m still open, though it has not come without cost. I don’t take it for granted. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’m still here.
The ministry will drive you to your knees, or, in my case, years ago, at the lowest point of my ministry, uncontrollable sobbing in the arms of my unsuspecting four-year-old daughter.
These are deep and dark shattering moments. They are hard, but, finally, they are of a moment and you find a way to breathe and put one foot in front of the other, and string one day of work together with another until the pieces of yourself slowly reconstitute themselves into someone stronger than you were before. My healing has always come in the doing of the ministry itself and staying connected to my sense of call. Yet this, for me, is strangely not the hardest part of ministry.
The hardest part has been seeing people I have come to know and love suffer and then to say goodbye. When I scroll back through my file of funeral sermons, I am reminded of all the good people I have had a chance to know, love, and journey with. I am grateful for them. I miss them. I carry them with me. And yet, even in this, there is grace. For, they are not ghosts who haunt me but a cloud of witnesses, my communion of saints, that encourage onward.
But I’m Still Here
Ministry is about showing up—showing up when things are hard, showing up when no one knows what to say or what to do. The harder the situation, the less that needs to be said—the more vital simple presence becomes. As Tad says, we are called to compassion—from the root meaning to “suffer with”—those in our care.
I realized the truth of this when I left my first church. As I was trying to sum up the relative success or failure of my pastorate, what I heard from my people day after day, week after week, were stories about things that seemed so small to me, things I had forgotten about, that had meant so much to them. They reframed how I think of ministry itself.
Ministry is showing up. Showing up for yourself. Showing up for others. Showing up for God. It is being engaged with the fullness of our humanity—our ideas, feelings, fears, hopes, anger, vulnerability, grief, pain, loss, joy, humor, and faith. It is a front-row seat to the potential and failings of our common humanity. And we are asked, we are called, to look at these things and name the ways that God is present and conspiring to bring life and redemption in our most difficult times. May we be as ready to name it for ourselves as we are for others.
15 Years and Counting
So, I’ve been showing up for fifteen years now, preaching, teaching, leading, loving, failing, succeeding, laughing, crying, and trying again. Every year of ministry is an accomplishment. Fifteen of them together is quite something. It is more years in ministry than some and far fewer than others, but they are my years and I cherish them all, even the hard ones.
I’ve tried to make the very most of the gifts that God has given me to the benefit of the congregations, Church, and communities I serve. I’ve tried to be generous with what I have, what I know, and what I do. And I have, in turn, been blessed by an incredible array of mentors, teachers, colleagues, and friends, who have invested so much in me. I feel so fortunate and grateful to have so many people in my life who are ready and willing to listen, to guide, to teach me the ways of this odd and wondrous calling.
It hasn’t always been easy. But thanks to God’s help, my family, and incredible friends, I’m still here.