How parish ministers are not like plants

I’m on the road for our faith quite a bit, and I say yes to home hospitality any time I can.  It’s a pretty safe bet, when your shared business is the church, and while it’s often interesting  . . .  and occasionally interesting, what happens most often is that we make a quick heart connection.

They share a bit of their lives, their hopes, their family pride and their existential struggle, over coffee and whatever is for breakfast.  And then, somehow, we keep in touch.  These people have come to visit me, I’ve made return visits back to them, and I got to serve, years later, as a seminary reference for one who finally decided to follow her call.

And occasionally, these people share more with me than breakfast, as happened once this past year.

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They are gardeners, this couple.  I had arrived in near darkness, after a late dinner the evening before, and they wanted to make sure I saw the backyard.  Time was short, we all knew, but I agreed, stepping with my host through the sliding door . . .  into a world of roses.  There were so many, and in their full glory, and in the background, the sound of water—a fountain he had engineered to run the entire length of the yard.  I wandered, smelled, smiled.  And then he said, “This isn’t what I wanted to show you.”  The property continued as we walked, rambling across the valley floor, past a woodshop and then into a long and carefully laid out vegetable garden, planter box after planter box of strawberries and squash, cucumbers and climbing beans.

I grew up with two sets of gardening grandparents.  I know both how to snap a pea, and how to appreciate the miracle of it.  A well-loved garden brings me back to those days, and to them, and I stood, smiling, as my host pressed peas into my hand.  He walked a bit farther, and then turned back to me, swept his hand across the landscape and back toward the house, and asked, “What do you see?”  I considered that question, answerable in so many ways, and finally turned in silence back to him, awaiting the answer.  “That,” he said, pointing toward his home, “is just a house.

But this [sweeping his hand across the land]—this is home.”

I nodded, considering.

“I went to war, and came back, and had to decide what I would be.  I didn’t have roots; I had to make them.  We made them here.  We put down roots, and we made this our home.”

Then he reached down to one of the spiny, spindly green plants in the box near his feet.  “These.  These are weeds, they’ll grow anywhere.  They’re prehistoric, older than anything out here.  And they put down a taproot so fast and so deep that you can’t get rid of them.  You can pull them off easily at the top, but they’ll grow back.  They know how to root.”

He handed me the spiky plant, and turned again to look at me.

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“Find a place to root.  Make a home.  Do it by finding some land and getting to know it.  Doesn’t matter where.  Choose.”

He gestured to the plant in my hand, then.  “You don’t have to take that with you.  But think about it.”

And then we walked back to the house, me wiping surprised tears from my cheeks as I went.

Think about it.

And I did.  I thought, first, about what on earth in our short conversations had led us to this moment.  Had I signaled with my words?  With something deep in my being?  Was this just a moment of synergy or even mere happenstance, something another visitor would have dismissed as an odd spell of passion from an 80 year old farmer, but which for me, echoed clear to the bone?

I let go of those questions as we eventually do all unknowable things, but I have held on to the exhortation that inspired them.  “Find a place to root.  Make a home.”

And here’s a hard thing: I do not know if that instruction is compatible with parish ministry.

How do you find a place to root when you serve at the will of a people?  How do you make a home in a place where you are other, and every house and rock and history belongs to someone else?

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How do you find a place to attach and deepen, when you must always be willing to act in negation of any meaningful sense of home–must be ready to cut ties, leave, and not return?

Is it that I’m missing the key to understanding how this works?

Or is it that I have apprehended correctly that “home” of the land and place-rooted sort is not on offer in this life?  That this man was talking to people after his own heart, and that ministers, mostly, are of a different genus, that of third-culture people of every stripe, kin to all who belong simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, those air plants who root in shared legacy and exist in the eternal now?

I have thought about this as a colleague and friend confessed her decade of heartache and loneliness, how she has become bereft of ever finding a partner while serving in a small town.

I have thought about this as another colleague, approaching retirement, grew teary as he recounted the journey across settlements, across communities, and the legacy it has left in his own life that nowhere is home and no one is waiting for his return.

I have thought about it as my husband and I have wondered whether and where to find a home where we are, something with land, a neighborhood, a possibility of greater rootedness for children who are not made of air.

What that man did or did not know was that I have been thinking of it always.

This is the cost we do not speak of, the calculation none of us quite knows how to make.

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And in the meantime, newer ministers choose not to consider the parish, some not because they are not called to church, but because they are not called to leave.

In the meantime, seasoned colleagues address their peers to share the story of their ministry, their odyssey (that title itself ironic, as one friend recently pointed out, given that the Odyssey itself is basically a long tale of trying and failing to be home) . . .  and then leave storied careers to spend a fifth season unsure of where they belong.

Is there a home, upon this earth, for those of us who serve the spirit? 

Is there a place, in our movement, for this conversation?

As climate and communities and churches continue to change, what will a place-based ministry look like?

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