Several years ago I spent a day at the mall with a friend who was teaching me how to select the best fitting clothes. It was a long and draining day of trying on dozens of jeans and t-shirts to see what sizes and styles worked on me. By the end, though, I felt renewed. I hadn’t been aware the difference the proper size could make in how I looked and felt.
These past weeks and even months I’ve found myself in another ill-fitting dilemma. This time with stories instead of clothes. Just as I used to hurriedly buy clothes so I could finish this chore I disliked greatly, I’ve attempted to inhabit several ill-fitting stories because work needs to get done: organizing property care projects at church; fundraising for ministry; and serving as my mom’s estate executor. So, I’m barreling my way through them not really thinking through the larger implications of the processes I’m using and my attitude.
Because these tasks are unfamiliar, it’s easy to pick an off-the-rack program and try to make it work. It’s been done and tested, right? Once I get through these tasks then I can get on with my real work. But slowly, those ill-fitting stories become the way I work and I lose my own style and the idealized ‘real work’ fades away. Sometimes the stories fit, but many times they just are not right and I’m left with a process that is too tight and doesn’t look like me at all.
Teachers, ministers, counselors, and writers are in the story business – helping others to understand the story of their lives as they find meaning behind the moment to moment details. As I’ve been thinking about my role in this work as a campus minister, I realize that I am tempted to tell others their story, or the one I think they should be following. I want to take the same jacket and put it on everyone, forgetting how uncomfortable that has been for me.
Recently I finished reading Eugene Peterson’s, Under the Unpredictable Plant that explores the vocation of pastor – not as the manager of an organization but as the pray-er and poet of the congregation. One who is interceding, resting on God for all work and the one who is in the midst of point out the poetry in the life of the church. Peterson sees Jesus’ gospel worked out in the lives of the people – not something that they need to have clamped down on them in the form of church programming or commanded disciplines, but something into which they can live and through which the Spirit is already working.
Thinking about the work of Christian ministry in this way, I realized that I can continue to struggle to fit into the clothes that others hand me or become frustrated with the inability of individuals to live in the story I designed for them. Or, I can stop. Take time to pray and enter God’s dwelling place to be changed. As Peterson reminds us, “Prayer rescues us from a preoccupation with ourselves and pulls us into adoration of and pilgrimage to God.” This is a first step of living a story that fits, to stop looking at myself and focus on God.
With this focus, it’s then possible to stop taking on responsibilities of living someone else’s narrative or trying to squeeze them into mine. I can see how God is working already, he is in these lives. As Peterson changed the focus of his ministry he describes how he “wanted to see the Jesus story in each person in my congregation with as much local detail and raw experience as James Joyce did with the Ulysses story in the person of Leopold Bloom and his Dublin friends and neighbors.” What would it look like to do this? To see the stories that truly fit each person.
Working in campus ministry, there is a truth that I do share the same jacket with everyone – God’s story, the Good News. However, this story is not one-size fits all in that everyone will look and act the same on the outside. Instead, its one size allows each person in their unique, God-created image, to live out this story. As Paul pleads for the Colossians to “. . . put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (3:10), we too are invited to put on this new self, our new clothes, our new stories. As Christ fits himself in our lives, the individual stories become more evident. Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses this beautifully in the familiar poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
It’s this new self that needs to be put on – a self dependent on Jesus Christ. Selves that, though grounded in the same story, reveal a myriad of images and fit well.
As I look again at the tasks before me, I’m seeking to find better ways to get them done. It’s not about trying to fit into a new program or another person’s expectations, but listening to and being part of the living story of Christ that is unfolding in my life and within the communities in which I am part. It may take time to try different ways of working out these responsibilities. But if my focus is on God, I believe I will find a better fit in the end. Who knows, maybe I’ll even find a spark of joy in the work I’ve been dreading.