The story begins with Khing. He is a woodcarver, a master really, so masterful that his work is deemed to be the result of magic. “What is your secret?” the Prince wonders. But Khing is emphatic, “I have no secret.” Khing is not a magician but a workman, and any good worker knows that the best things in life are crafted at the intersection of discipline and potential. This is true not only of artists but ministers, too.
Chuang Tzu’s story of the woodcarver is a favorite among my Courage & Renewal colleagues. At the first retreat I ever attended, we worked the story like a farmer works a field; weaving in and out of each row, holding its fruit in our hands, wondering how it would ripen in our hearts. To be honest, the intense time of reflection made my head hurt. (Even now, after two years spent preparing to be a Courage & Renewal facilitator, I still get “reflection fatigue.”) Introspection is the hard work of tilling the soul. Prayer is the irrigation. It is the only way we can hope to grow others.
Khing knows that to create – a work of art, a work of worship – begins by killing the pest of distraction. And so Khing “guards his spirit” from trifles not to the point: gain and success, praise and criticism, even food and bodily wants. (I cringe to think the only thing my church taught me to guard my spirit from was boys.) It’s not that such things are inherently bad but that they keep us from things that are better. Author Francis Chan reminds us, “Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” Distractions keep us from the work for which we were commissioned.
Last week, I co-facilitated a workshop for ministers, ordained and lay, on how to live with integrity and wholeness. For some, the reflective exercises were old hat. For others, they were long overdue. It’s no secret, but no less ironic, that those called to tend the life of the soul experience some of the most death-dealing conditions of any professionals. According to J.R. Briggs’s Fail:
- 80% of pastors (and 84% of their spouses) are discouraged in their role as pastors;
- 70% of pastors say they do not have a single close friend; and
- 70% of pastors say they have lower self-esteem than when they entered the ministry.
With cries that parts of the church are losing people, money, and influence, self-care can seem like a trifle ministers don’t have time for; there are program budgets, hospital visits, and sermon preparations that require near-constant attention. But by neglecting the care of our own souls, we sacrifice that which is worthy for that which is pressing. One can’t strike off the discipline of holy listening like an item on a to-do list. It is the hand that pens the list.
It’s no secret how Khing does the work for which he was commissioned. It takes discipline to focus with singularity on his purpose but so too must he learn to heed the potential gifts of the world around him. Will-power alone is not enough to get the job done. In his case, the idea to carve a bell stand only comes to fruition when he ventures into the forest and imagines its outline in a tree. “What happened?” Khing asks. “My own collected thought encountered the hidden potential in the wood; from this live encounter came the work…” Alone in the woods, free of his own distractions and other people’s expectations, he is able to evoke the gift of the “other” and co-create a vision more brilliant than the one with which he began.
Whether we are artists or ministers, we learn that the work before the work creates the conditions for growth. It’s true that introspection for the sake of itself is crazy-making, like tilling our soil with no intent to plant. But introspection for the sake of tending our calling and growing the gifts of others? From this live encounter comes our art.
This November 6-7, my colleague Nathan Kirkpatrick and I are leading a two-day, non-residential retreat in Chapel Hill called, Creating Live Encounters. (Registration is available here; don’t hesitate to apply for financial aid.) It’s open to clergy and people of faith who want to learn what it means to show up in our lives and work as ourselves – undistracted and undeterred - and how we can create space for those we serve to do likewise.