I have come to believe that I can’t speak with any kind of wisdom or authority about the lives of people I don’t know. On a very practical level, I likely have only anecdotal information by which to evaluate their faith and process. But more importantly, if that person isn’t part of my life or congregation, they’re probably not someone I have been given to as a leader or pastor. And there are enough of those folks (people to whom I actually belong) to keep me happily busy.
I’ve been a pastor of Shelter Covenant Church since helping to plant the church in 1998. Our community is a small-to-medium sized group and I generally have some knowledge of what is happening in the lives of those I get to pastor. I really like knowing my community this intimately because, as I’ve written elsewhere, I believe that discipleship begins with trusting God is already up to something in someone’s life.
What necessarily precedes my discipleship process then, is a more-than-cursory knowledge of someone’s life. I need to be close and listen carefully in order to faithfully “do my job” as a pastor. Only if I do the listening part do I get to help someone see and respond to what God is doing in and through them, rather than project my own hopes or agenda into their circumstance.
And when I have spoken to or about someone without having that proximity and without listening to know what God is likely up to, my words have generally been more revelatory of things inside me than they have been of Jesus.
I was taking my two-year-old son to BART. He completely freaks out about trains, including BART trains, which means it costs me about $3.50 to be a Hero of Fatherhood if I take the two-stop jaunt from North Concord to Walnut Creek. Jumping in the car, I asked “Are you ready buddy?” To which he responded “Daddy wallet?” He was used to me needing to to back inside and get my wallet because I often forget it. He was right to ask… I didn’t have it.
I banged the steering wheel with my right palm and said “Crap. I’ll be right back, pal.”
When I got back into the car, Asa greeted me with a hearty “Crap! Wallet!” and whacked his toy school bus against his thigh. When I caught his eye in the rearview mirror he was smiling and raising the bus over his head for another rendition. This time with more feeling:
I thought for a long minute about whether or not to directly deal with his use of the word but thought better of it. Besides the fact that “crap” is That wasn’t the issue. Foul language wasn’t the issue. The issue was that I’d forgotten something very basic about being Human, not to mention being a father…
I am always teaching
I am always training
I am always discipling
I am always infusing the world around me with myself and my way of living.
The decision before me is never whether or not to pass myself on in some way (even absence is a way of life that can be passed on) but whether or not I will intentionally do so.
(*BART image by Tim Preut, whose BART photo project can be found here)
My friends and I used to hike and run around Mt. Diablo with my High School History teacher, John Millar. He loved the mountain and knew it intricately; the seasons for certain flowers, insects or animals, the natural pattern of streams and creeks. He even knew where, should we venture off the marked trail, we could continue to make steady progress up the mountain. Hiking and jogging with him, we came to know the mountain as he knew it, which meant we came to know it by the names he used.
About eight hundred meters up the Mitchell Canyon was a small hill Millar had named after one of his other hiking and jogging mates. Just over a mile up that same canyon was another trail Millar would call “White’s Canyon.” Another mile past “White’s Canyon” we would normally stop to stretch at what he called “the ball-diamond.” Of course, none of these names appear on the maps issued by the State of California. These were Millar’s names. And by these names we came to know the mountain for ourselves.
The Mountain itself was, and always will be “Mt. Diablo”; it was too special a place for us to rename it wholesale. And, of course, the terrain itself never changed because of what we called it. But by renaming its landscape we came to know and love it as more intimately ours.
I chose (and still choose) to know the terrain of life as it is named by those who have lived it and loved it before me. “The official map,” as it were, can provide a way of initially seeing where I am but when it comes to something like the birth of a child, the death of a close friend, a first major vocational success or a cancer diagnosis, the official names and descriptions can fall dramatically short. It’s all well and good to know “this is the birth of your son,” but navigating the emotional and spiritual space of such a thing has always required a more personal and nuanced naming. More than that, the many times I’ve found myself “off trail” and in places that have no official names, I’ve benefited greatly from having the experiences of other off-trail hikers passed on to me.
Part of why I do what I do as an artist and teacher is to help re-draw maps whose names are either insufficient, worn out or missing altogether; the kind of thing John Millar and other wise men did for me.
I was jogging along 75th street in Prairie Village, KS (just outside of Kansas City) when a vehicle rolled up behind me and the driver honked. If you’re a jogger* you know that such a thing is at least bad etiquette… I thought I was about to be run over and die. I jumped 4-feet** in the air before looking behind me to see a young girl with her father in a minivan.
The pulled up next to me and the father leaned across the passenger seat asking…
“Do you know where Prairie Village is?”
“Actually” I replied “you are currently in Prairie Village.”
“Oh.. Ok. I guess I thought it’d be more.. I dunno… more houses. We’re looking for 4000 71st Street.”
I reached for my iPhone and punched in the address to Google Maps. As I leaned in to show him what The Google said about their next steps, his daughter produced her iPhone with Maps pulled up. She had the same image on her screen as I did.
“We keep going a few blocks and go right on Belinder, right?”
“Yeah,” I stammered, “that’s why my phone says as well.”
“Well, thanks for the help” her father said.. and they were off.
Often you get where you’re going and it doesn’t look the way you thought it would. So you need the confirmation of someone else in the same place that “this is it.”
Often you know what comes next but need the confirmation of a fellow traveller that what you are planning to do is what they would do given the same circumstances and information you have.
*one who jogs
**more like 7 inches or so.