If You Can't Go Over It, then…

One of L’s favorite books, and if we’re being completely honest mine as well, is “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.” It’s a great adventure story that begs to be interacted with, the pitter-patter of hands on your legs for running, the squishy sounds for mud, you all have been there before, right? Well, the line that keeps popping into my head is the part that repeats: “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we gotta go through it.”

This past week, I a borrowed a car and drove out to the Oregon Coast where I rented a small cabin for three nights, lugged a “small” portion of my library behind me, and sat down to write for the next 3.5 days. I’ve been working on my final tutorial for my program at Fuller the last couple quarters and the paper was finally due. It was a big push to try and get the paper done in that amount of time, it had to be between 40-60 pages, but I had arrived with a few pages already written and a somewhat cohesive outline prepared (that I of course ended up not following exactly).

But that’s all the technical stuff. The reason I’m writing this is because of the spiritual stuff that was behind this adventure. Just before heading out there I had a visit to my spiritual director, who I’ve been seeing now for more than a year, and we got to talking about this upcoming writing project.

He asked me straight out, “how does your doctoral work inform your spirituality?”

“Um…well…it um…the question caught me by surprise.” I thought a little while about it and responded with a couple reasons how I see it having an impact in my life: “it informs the teaching aspects of my ministry, it creates a reason to have discipline in my life in a way I wouldn’t otherwise participate in, etc.”

But I don’t think these were great answers for Bill.

He probed deeper asking questions like: “what can your spiritual life learn from your doctoral work, or what does it say about your own spirituality? Are you open to God meeting you in that work or is it something that you simply are trying to “get over with?”

“If we can’t go over it…”

So I carried these queries with me to the beach last week, hoping maybe I’d have a better answer if Bill was ever to ask me these questions again. And to be sure, I wasn’t clear I would. Then I listened to a sermon (I did a lot of listening to podcasts when I wasn’t writing) that really changed me in a different way. In the sermon, the preacher suggested that we in the church often have an escapist mentality that says, “this is all bad, this is something I just have to put up with until I can escape to some better place.” Yep, that’s me. Okay, that’s not really my theology. I gave up on the pre-trib “rapture” a long time ago, but I still live that theology in all kinds of ways in my day-to-day life. I do it with my kids when they’re crying (how do I get them just to be quiet), I do this when I’m eating (I eat fast as though I’m in a hurry to get some place), I do this when I’m praying (there’s so much to be done) and I do this in my own ministry (you want me to do what?). Productivity and achievement, two buzzwords of the Interwebs, foster, at least within me, a “greener-pastures-elsewhere” escapist mentality. Always hoping that just over this hurrdle I will find the promise land.

I guess this is full-disclosure Tuesday.

Another, more relevant to this post, case in point: my writing project. It’s something I do in the wee hours of the morning before the family awakens so that it’s not something that infringes upon “real” life, and it’s something that by-in-large I have treated as an obstacle to overcome, something to be put up with, or to get over. I don’t let it intrude, because it’s something terrible just to be gotten over with. As you can see, this was all very challenging for me to take on last week. Here I am writing about a Quaker theology of mission. I’m reading some of the most brilliant spiritual literature ever written, and all I can think about is when do I get to hand this in? And last week revealed just how deep this escapism is really ingrained in me, how do I change my expectations and motivations? How do I think differently about all of this.

And so bit by bit, I tried to slow down and worked to be fully conscious and present to my writing. Stop multi-tasking, stop trying to rush, and just revel in the work itself. Be open to God’s voice, God’s presence, and God’s movements in this work, right here in front of you.

“We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it.”

The process is going through the work, and realizing that doing the work (and doing it well) is the work. This is my work. No one else is going to do it for me. And if this is my work, then I should expect that God is in it with me as well. This work is not something intangible out there waiting to happen, it is right here. This is it. If I don’t treat this as my work, what will it be? This became my prayer over the week.

And then I came to the worse part of it all (at least for me) and that is the editing part. I hate editing. I am terrible at editing myself and it seems that no matter how hard I try (and there have been times) I never can do it well. So editing, far more than writing, makes for a situation where I really try to just get it over with. I could tell this change in tasks, from writing to editing, was conjuring up something real inside me.

So I sat outside in the dark and listened to the ocean. I realized how little time I had allowed just to listen. I thought for a long time on Bill’s question: what can I learn about my spirituality in my attitude towards editing? I invited Christ in to that place to challenge and confront in me these places that need to be made whole.

And wow did that seemed to open up some seriously ugly things within me.

Thoughts started racing: I don’t like to edit because I don’t like to slow down and focus on the mistakes, I’d rather just move quickly ahead. I have a real aversion to pain. I avoid it at all cost. I also avoid things that are slow and tedious. I like shortcuts. I treat much of life like its an inner race and this just slows me down. It also reveals the lack of discipline that I have. I talk a lot about practice, but more because I want and need it and not because I actually do it. This is the direction that my thoughts went, revealing within me things I know about myself, but revealing them in a way that I felt I had some ways to actually work at changing them.

I sat down and began editing. And took it slow. And thought to myself, this is my work. This is why I am here. I am present to this process because it is what I have to and want to do. God is here in this process with me.

My night of listening by the ocean led me back to the challenge to take each person, each task, each moment as though that is the moment I am to be fully in, the person I am to be fully present too, and the task that is to be my work (reminds me of the short story by Tolstoy called Three Questions). These are not means to ends, but simply ends in themselves. This was and is hard work. I am telling all of you partially because I hope you find something in here for yourself, and partially because I know that I’ve already lasped in this three times since beginning this post. Last week was very difficult on a number of levels, but I came back feeling refreshed and feeling like I had some direction for my own spirituality thanks to the process of writing and editing.

“We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we’ve got to go through it.” Swishy, swashy, swishy, swashy…

One step at a time. This is the work to be done.

As an afterthought, I remembered this query from North Carolina Yearly Meeting (conservative) that seems appropriate for reflection on this topic:

To what extent is the performance of my worldly duties promoting or hindering my growth in grace and my service for God?

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

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