I am a pastor of a small liberal arts college. I love this work. It is not just the creativity to see life through the eyes of the mystery of faith, or the risky task of crafting language to name the mystery of God; What I love most is that pastoring is a work that requires taking my place seriously.
I love being a pastor because in a world unsettled, God calls pastors to love a place. Thus the farmer has become for me a guiding image for pastoral labor. It is a fitting image for pastors because farmers possess the earthy wisdom that resists spiritualizing their vocation. Our work demands a combination of realism and hope, tradition and creativity: a life of prayer mixed with practical labor. The life of a pastor, like a farmer, does not flourish in abstractions because the work is concrete, tailored to a particular place, and not given to formulas that yield immediate results. The work is patient, hand to earth, season to season of dull chores of fixing and mending, shoveling and weeding, sowing and harvesting in rhythm to the earth. Both farmers and pastors are ruined when they sentimentalize their work because it is a work dedicated to growing something living – and nothing grows on a cloud. So with the image of a farmer as a guide, I submit to the place I like to call the soil of Hope.
My particular place to till is Hope College. The academy is not always an easy assignment for a pastor. It is difficult not just because I am dealing in mysteries far above my pay grade, or because I often get it wrong and have very smart people ready and willing to correct me, or because the culture of the academy can often view my calling with a raised eyebrow of suspicion. This may be overstated, but in the halls of higher education, at least in my experience, pastors are typically viewed somewhere between the extremes of lobotomized intellectuals or cult leaders trying to make students drink the kool-aid of creedal confessions. If you don’t believe me, the next time you are at an academic conference, tell an unsuspecting colleague, “I’m a pastor,” then register the response.
No, being a pastor at Hope–or anywhere for that matter–is difficult for the same reason: that a vocation of scholarship, art, marriage, or anything requiring faithfulness is difficult. Being a pastor is difficult because it is a work that requires fidelity. And fidelity requires promises to be made and vows to be taken.
This work I love as a pastor exists in the context of my vows: vows I have made to God, to the Church, to myself, and to the community of Hope College. In my wallet I carry a pocket-size version of the vows I made on the day of my ordination. I try and read these words aloud monthly because I need to remember what I promised. This habit is important for me because I believe it is in the context of keeping these vows where the possibility to experience a free and unspoiled hope exists. But this kind of freedom does not come easily.
There are a thousand voices whispering that true happiness is found in escape, detachment, absence of commitment, or undefined freedom. Paul Simon sings, “There are 50 ways to leave your lover.” There might just be 51 ways to leave one’s ministry, church, spouse, or one’s faith all together. But to do this would buy into, what I believe to be, a misunderstanding of freedom. Freedom from restraint, from relationship, or from commitment is a doctrine sowed so deep into the psyche of our cultural mind that it is unquestioned. The individual pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness must come first. This is the orthodoxy of American liberalism, which, consequently, cultivates the life of fragmentation, isolation, and loneliness in all different soils.
I understand that a theoretical individualism makes for cool Nike commercials, but sometimes, we have to team up, and make promises to each other. It might be counterintuitive, but to protect the individual from themselves, and to honor what most matters in life, vows have to be exchanged, promises need to be made, and demands have to be issued. It might be that the beauty we are searching for in our vocations does not come from escaping these vows, but by honoring them.
So whenever I am tempted to escape my place, or I begin to sense I am losing my vocational bearings, or feel the undertow to vocational adultery, I have needed to not only read the vows in my wallet, I have also needed a place that gives me a picture of what it looks like to keep them. I have needed a place to go, even if only in my imagination, to reorient me to what being a pastor looks like. I have needed a place that is a picture of fidelity.
Whidbey Island is moored on the currents of the Puget Sound in the rain-curtain of the Pacific Northwest. On a map, the Isle of Whidbey dominates the Sound for forty-five miles, north to south, like a long chipped platter on a table. The weather patterns here are variables of gray, changeable only in degree of precipitation, as the low-hanging clouds roll off the Pacific, sweeping downfalls of showers as they seek to gain elevation over coastal mountains. To live here is to become accustomed to rainfall tapping – pit-pit-pit – on your head, like restless fingers drumming on a knee.
Whidbey is the place of my childhood. Though it has been years since I lived on the island, it is still the place I think of as home. My family still resides there, in the house where I was raised. It sits on the brow of a hill overlooking a wide open field that slopes southward toward the shores of Crescent Harbor. If it is that rare day “when the mountains are out”– a local phrase for clear skies – you can stand on our front deck and see, as if stenciled into the sky, the serrated snow-scarved peaks of the Olympic Mountains. These soundless peaks rise above an old-growth rainforest that drops sheer to the Pacific, like green avalanches of water spilling over the rim of the continent. It is a vision of boundless green, then immediate blue. Growing up in the shadow of these mountains, there was always a tacit sense there was something larger and more formidable than oneself – something that we mortals trifle with at our own peril.
Today, whenever I go home to Whidbey Island, there is a place I go to see these mountains almost by instinct of necessity. I visit because this is a place that steadies my resolve to keep in good faith the vows I have made.
Ebey’s Landing is 554 acres of forest, wetlands, and prairie grassland that slopes gently southward toward open waters that, in bright light, can look like sapphires encased in glass. Ebey’s Landing can be reached from state Highway 20 by turning west on Main Street in Coupeville. This road turns into Engles Road as you head out of town. If you turn right on Hill Road then follow this road through trees and then down a hill, you will see a panoramic view of a long beachhead on Whidbey’s western shore. Here you can park in the lot at the bottom of the hill or along the flat road shoulder close by.
If you are fortunate enough to find yourself here, breathe deep and inhale the swell of emphatic salty freshness – a tang beyond mint or myrtle, more a sensation than anything the nose could find recipe of. If you are here, you are immediately dwarfed by Ebey’s rugged bluff that edges the shoreline like golden crust. This is where the Puget Sound begins to open to the larger Pacific, and where, on windy days, white caps flick among swells like snowy dolphins appearing and disappearing. Here at the edge of the Island, the waves bring a constant rumble and odd sizzle as the tide edge melts into the Puget Sound. To this day I know of no energy on the planet that approaches the power of crashing waves. Growing up, I always thought it was the silence between breakers where the universe did its thinking.
If you have gotten this far you now have your choice of hikes: you can either walk the rocky shore, hunting driftwood or agates, keeping rhythm to the metronome of crashing waves; or you can follow a three mile trial up Ebey’s bluff toward an old forest where the trees, sheared by the winds, spiral towards the heavens like medieval steeples. As you walk along the edge of this primordial forest, the air on the ground keeping strangely still, the coastal weather currents cross overhead without quite touching down. It is difficult to know what weather to expect, except that it will most likely be unruly. It is not uncommon to witness sea otters playing in kelp drifts that saddle the shore in a tangle of knots, a skim of the Pacific’s deep layers of life. If you come at twilight, you can look across Admiralty Inlet, to the lights of Port Townsend that spread out as white embers atop the burnt dark rim of coastline. If the mountains are out, you can see the Olympics standing proud and defiant like watchmen guarding over an ancestral kingdom.
Whenever I return to walk the beaches and trails of Ebey’s Landing, her smells and sights excite me as the openness of the Sound and formidable clarity of the clockless mountains take the husk off my soul. I respond as unthinking as a salmon that swims past a river mouth and tastes the waters of its birth. You could say that for me, Ebey’s Landing is a thin place – what the Celtics described as that rare location where the veil between divine and human is lifted, and where you can see sharp reflections of a divine imagination at play. This is my postcard from the holy – a place set apart – allowed all who visit to experience a land made whole. It is this wholeness I need to touch as a healing balm for a life that feels increasingly pulled into fragmentation.
More than once I have come here to contemplate the promises I have made in life. I do this because Ebey’s Landing is my picture of what it looks like to keep fidelity. Ebey’s existence suggests to me that if I am going to keep from the abuses of my vocation, then I am going to have to honor the vows I have made. Keeping vows, I have learned, is the secret to Ebey’s sustaining and healing powers.
A few years ago, I was walking along the well-trod trail up Ebey’s bluff when I stopped to read a historical marker. I must have passed this sign a hundred times before without so much as a wink; however, for some reason I stopped on this particular day and read it. What I read gave me insight to why this specific place has had such sustaining power for me and so many others, and has also given me encouragement to honor my vocational vows.
I learned from the historic marker that Ebey’s Landing was the first National Historic Reserve in America, established by an act of Congress in 1978. Years ago, a small band of islanders recognized that this place was special. They anticipated that this timeless ground, existing as a gift to all, would someday become the apple of someone’s private eye. They believed that for this place to remain a beauty undefiled – it would need the protection of a promise. Citizens got together, organized, and helped pass a federal law promising to keep Ebey’s Landing a place forever free from private development. The people teamed up and made a vow for fidelity to the land that no one will ever be allowed to tear out the old forest and replace it with commercial condominiums or tacky pink flamingos. It was a vow promised to me, and God willing, to my children, and theirs, that no one will be allowed to unsettle the sanctity of this place.
There was a quote on the marker by one of the spearheads of this legislative effort, Jimmie Jean Cook, that I took to heart:
“In this time of change and ever present pressure, there must be a place where weary people can once again respond to the magnificence of a simple land filled with memories.”
I think this is wisdom. Our life is full of sprawling distractions that can make us weary and despondent. When this happens it is tempting to want to flee or escape previous promises. It is to abandon our vows. So we need places to go where we can remember how things are supposed to be – or what it looks like to keep fidelity. We need thin places in our life, because they point to the possibility of a world that can intoxicate us with wonder.
I think the churches, and her pastors, are supposed to be this kind of place for weary people. I think the sanctuary is where pastors call others to respond to a divine Love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, that summons us to a life of wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God. Weary people need churches, and even colleges, with pastors who can protect the landscape of salvation from the pollution of self-interest. For the church to be this kind of place, it requires her pastors to practice vocational fidelity. If I am going to honor my vocation, take seriously my people, I need to resist the temptation to escape the demands of my place. So Ebey’s Landing is the place I go when I need a physical reminder that keeping my vows sows the possibility that future generations may explore the soil of hope, and respond to the magnificence of a simple faith filled with memories. This is the secret of Ebey’s Landing.
First published in the January 2009 issue of “Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought.”
Header image courtesy of Raquel Baranow: https://flic.kr/p/YmPZhC