I still don’t think I have the grand thesis for why I should be involved with endurance sports. I am also still not sure I know why I should be doing this work either. I have to believe that both are callings. And you don’t get to say no to a calling. You can try, but eventually you find yourself where you should be.
I hesitate to talk much about my vocation here, since this blog is primarily about my avocation. But as I’ve added an element to this blog with the advocacy of natural farming and food sources, it does seem to make sense to delve into the spiritual realm more often.
One of the reasons I am hesitant to talk about my job is that for most people, it’s a polarizing image. For those outside the faith community, or previously within it, the clerical collar can invoke images that don’t exactly inspire confidence. For some within the faith community, an overstatement of our importance is a different risk. I try to bridge those gaps. For both those who put pastors on pedestals, and those who would put them under foot, I try to be as real, flesh and blood human, to break whatever cartoon stereotypes they have.
The part of my job that affects me most personally is in dealing with death. The nature of mortality is at the heart of the human experience, the angst and anxiety of living. People look to me as an “expert” in the matter. I am experienced, but no expert. My own dread of death is strong, though I am a man of faith. Some find this troubling. This is because too many of my brethren offer a version of Christianity that is little more than a used car pitch, or platitudes proffered from a plastic-faced game show host. That has always driven me insane. On the other end of the spectrum is a cold, clinical, detachment that some find necessary to deal with the reality of death, pain and suffering.
We learned in seminary that you have to have a high tolerance for other people’s pain. I do not have that high tolerance. I am personally affected, every time. Henri Nouwen wrote a classic book The Wounded Healer. This is what we are called to be. By no means to I want to hold up the office of ministry as unique in this regard. Hospice nurses, social workers, critical care staff, all see human pain and suffering on a daily basis. Compared to them, I deal directly with loss on a part-time basis. Though, my contact continues for years as I tend to widows, orphans, and grieving friends.
The last few years, each death I deal with, I say the same thing. I don’t know how many more times I can do this. I’m only 41, I’ve only done this job for 15 years, but I wonder more and more how much I can take. I know how I have processed this pain of others in years past, and it was not healthy. I am still struggling with that, though I am well ahead of where I once was. Still, the depth of feeling each time I see a freshly grieving spouse, child, grandchild, sibling: it’s getting harder, not easier. A hospital chaplain remarked to me that you have to make visits in these cases short, or you get pulled into the intensity. I know that logically, I should heed that advice and not feel it as closely. But I am drawn to be there. When I’m thanked for being there as long as I am, I always have the same response “I don’t know where else I would be right now.” This is where I belong.
Why so gloomy? What about your faith? one might ask. Well of course, without it, I couldn’t do this at all. But in nearly every funeral I preach about Jesus wept. And I tried to sum up my position in a bumper sticker tonight. This is likely a ripoff of some theologian I cannot recall. It’s not exactly an original idea, but this is how I phrase it. Faith is not the difference between grief and joy, it is the difference between hope and despair. We people of faith do not welcome death as a suicide cult. Jesus’ call to life abundant is not just pie in the sky when we die in the sweet bye and bye. Death is still the enemy. We grieve, we mourn, we cry out. We do so in the context of faith, but we all cry.
So what does this have to do with the trifle that is endurance sports?
Each time I bury a person I have come to know and love, it gets harder, the way the 13th mile of a run is harder than the fifth. And I wonder if I will ever be able to do it again. It is painful. But like all pain, and grief, it changes. It dulls. It doesn’t disappear, but it becomes bearable. I wear scars.
If you’ve done any endurance event, you know where I’m going with this. After the first time at a major distance or challenge, you say “never again.” You limp, you may bleed, you collapse. You can’t believe you got through it, but also can’t imagine volunteering to do it again. Within time, however, you start to wonder when’s the next one.
I do not approach death and grief with the anticipation of “oh boy, when do I get to do it again?” But I am a realist. We all die. Grief and sadness will happen whether I choose to acknowledge them or not. So the question is not one of looking forward to signing up for pain eagerly. The question is one of being willing to be there once again, in service to others in pain and grief, sharing it in the name of Jesus. That’s what I do. And despite my own frailty, despite my misgivings about whether I have any business being there, despite my never feeling like I have the right words (as if there are there ever just the right words to be had): the Spirit uses me as a vessel for comfort and hope in a hard time. It’s truly amazing.
The truth is, it takes a lot out of me when it happens. I’m like Wolverine when the claws come out: “does that hurt?” Every time. To act as if it doesn’t would be to lie about my humanity, and to disrespect the gift that is this life on earth.
But I don’t limp forever. I recover enough. I am not always sure I am stronger for next time, but I know the next time will come. I train the muscles of faith by putting life into living while life is good, by loving those whom I have with me while we have time, by celebrating the gift of life and drawing the eyes of others to the wonder that is life. And then when life’s inevitable cycle comes round, I look it in the eye and deal with it.
A week ago I was still limping from a nearly 10hour endurance event. I wondered if I would ever run again. The next morning, a phone call made that whole “ordeal” so insignificant. Tonight, I am on the eve of a funeral of a dear soul who died very suddenly, whom I committed to God’s care moments before her final breath. I cried as I did that, and I wondered if I could ever do it again. I’m certainly not looking forward to it. And I hope there is some significant time before I can do it again.
But I know that when called to do so, I will be able to. The Spirit is building me into something I keep doubting I can be. And the irony is that the vulnerability I have seen as weakness, is precisely what I need to embrace to do this, and to do it well.
Ironpastor? Maybe. But flesh and blood always.