Thursday, August 27, 2009

Further Reflections on Being a Craftsman

I am considering submitting this piece to a few online sites or even publications for pastors ... and, before I do, I would greatly appreciate any feedback, criticism or other thoughts.


In the course of the last month, two rhythms have been dominating my life. First of all, I have been searching out, studying the Scriptures and communicating the Christian hope - primarily by studying the letters of Paul. And, secondly, I have been putting my body and hands to work to remodel the bathroom of the old farm house. These two labors do appear at first as separate, unconnected efforts: one is - we assume - of the mind and reserved for the pastor's office or library while the other is - we believe - reserved for the hands and for the noisy domains of the shop.

But, while doing the first work of study, I came across the following statement about Paul:

"We begin to realize that, far from being at the periphery of his life, tent-making was actually central to it. More than any of us has supposed, Paul was Paul the tentmaker. His trade occupied much of his time - from the years of his apprenticeship through the years of his life as a missionary for Christ, from before daylight through most of the day. Consequently, his trade in large measure determined his daily experiences and his social status. His life was very much that of the workshop, of artisan-friends like Aquila, Barnabas, and perhaps Jason; of leather, knives, and awls; of wearying toil; of being bent over a workbench like a slave and of working side by side with slaves; of thereby being perceived by others and by himself as slavish and humiliated; of suffering the artisan's lack of status and so being reviled and abused." - Hock, Social Context, pg. 67 as quoted in Ben Witherington III's Conflict & Community in Corinth.

In other words, for Paul there was no separation between who he was as a man of letters and who he was as a craftsman, as a day laborer. In fact, as the quote above suggests, Paul the tentmaker apparently helped keep Paul the apostle grounded.

Honest work of the hands can keep the head sharp and bent low: This is one of the gifts I am receiving right now, and it is part of my maturation both as a pastor and as a person. I am beginning to discover that the strain and sweat I put into properly laying a floor helps form how I approach teaching the faith - which is its own type of building process. And - similarly - I am beginning to discover that the concentration and effort demanded from my body for physical labor should be mirrored in how I approach writing a sermon or building up a community of elders.

But, again, this is more than just a cross-pollinating of hands, heart and head. It is a humbling of the heart that keeps me grateful for ministry and mindful of the gift I have been given to pastor and minister.

Still, I speak of this gift fully realizing how easy it can be to neglect it as gift, and I say it realizing that ministry has often been a flight from humility - both for myself and many pastors.

To be a pastor for several decades - centuries even - has been considered a true white-collar job. In fact, before the starchy brightness of doctors' smocks, the clergy collar was about as high as one could get in society. Sadly, over time, the pastoral office has become associated with high degrees and big offices rather than tradesmen' quarters and tools.

But, the simple reality is that ministry is not better than other forms of labor. It is not a white-collar job, set above and apart from blue-collar work. For ministry in its truest sense is the work of service, and as such, there is no better training ground than a service-sector job. In fact, some of my best training for ministry has come not from seminary, but from being a server at a restaurant and now as a (rather poor) home repair man. And in my current call, some of my best teachers and instructors in the art of ministry are the men and women who daily practice their trade and skill in humility and service to others - including the man who works ten hour days providing tree service, the teacher who works hours after school to help create a better environment for her students, and the shift foreman who daily maintains and protects both his workers and his plant. It is these persons who faithfully show forth what it can look like to be a servant and steward.

Now there is another point to be made here as well. Not only was Paul's humility maintained through his trade, Paul's tent-making also aided him by keeping him in community. This is a significant statement, one that cannot be ignored by modern ministers.

Being connected (that is being dependent upon and contributing to) to the community one serves is critical to a successful ministry. But, for many ministers, this connection is hard to maintain for reasons larger than any one minister.

There is no doubt that the pastoral profession has been more and more pushed to the fringes of American culture so that the pastoral office that was once one of the key voices in the community has become easily ignored or disregarded. And while this displacement may open new paths for our prophetic voice, the simple reality is that being ignored and dismissed leaves a lot of pastors feeling insignificant.

It is worth noting that there has been a fundamental shift in being respected in a community to being a respected voice within the church. Pastors and preachers are now known largely for what they are doing with their churches, not within their communities. But what this points to - again - is the disconnect between ministry and community. And this is precisely where Paul's life and model might be helpful for us in ministry.

When Paul came to a community, he came not just as a distributor of the gospel. He came as a tentmaker, someone who had an actual skill that would allow him to set up shop in a community and contribute to its needs. More than that, as a tentmaker, Paul was able to place himself in the very crossroads of a city's culture, which provided him incredible opportunities to befriend people and to see and hear what was really going on in a community.

No, of course, many ministers will feel untrained or uncomfortable moving into a community and offering a labor or skill for profit, but the point here is not to make carpenters of pastors. Looking at my home repair jobs disqualifies that argument rather quickly. The point is to make sure that ministers see their work as work that is done in service to others and in community.

And, in that sense, the true predecessor in pastoral ministry - of course - is not Paul, but Paul's own Lord and Teacher, Jesus Christ, the same carpenter's son from Nazareth. For in Jesus we see the One who was willing to always be a servant to others for the welfare of the community.


Wedding up in Michigan

Here are a few pictures from that wedding I referred to up in Michigan. The wedding itself took place just north of Traverse City near Elk Rapids. There was a harbor with a small outcropping. The service was on a small strip of grass on that outcropping.

Meanwhile, the two families had rented houses on a nearby lake, which afforded me the opportunity to get behind a boat for the first time in seven years ... thus, putting me in "loathed" status with Anna ... (a) for skiing and (b) for leaving her two small children in the wake of my absence.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Where have we been in August? Why the long absence? Simply: we have been remodeling the only bathroom in the farmhouse, and by "we," I mean Grandpa Joe, Uncle Drew, Bob the Builder, myself, Anna, and Grandma Lis.

Ever since we moved in, we knew the bathroom was going to need to be replaced one day ... but the longer we were in the home, the more we knew the job needed to happen sooner than later. The plastic tiles on the floor were beginning to peel away from the floor revealing rotten wood and other un-pleasantries. Plus, we had done a quick fix on the original bathroom, putting up water-proof siding above blue tile ... then we tried to spraypaint the tile ... then, well, we knew we were beyond mere cosmetics.

So, about three weeks ago, the day after I returned from a wedding up in Michigan for two church families, we got into the bathroom and started demo work - taking the room down to the studs and tearing up about three layers of flooring that had been laid down through the years (when I was tearing up the final layer of wood-flooring I came across a newspaper from the late 1800's). Eventually, all that remained where four or five cross beams and a lot of space to fall into the basement.

I learned several things through this process: about subflooring, about denshield, about how absolutely nothing in an old home is to code and how nothing lines up as it should ... and eventually I learned how to cut, lay and grout a tile floor, which Drew pretty much did (you rock, Drew!). Meanwhile, Builder Bob and Grandpa Job did the majority of the plumbing. Thankfully, once the floor was completely removed, they had a tabula rosa to reroute all the pluming.

Then, late last week, Grandpa Joe put up the majority of the drywall, and I began to mud as I could. We also took a night to put in the new sink, the toilet, a vanity mirror, a lightbar and some additional storage for linens and things. While not completely finished, the job took just about two weeks ... and ...

Last night, we were able to give the kids their first bath in the new bathtub - making the whole process all the more worth it.