We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. (T. S. Eliot)
I have a friend who is a painter and I have told him more than once that on occasion I am jealous of his work. He and I both know I am not nearly patient enough to ever be a decent painter, so I'm not about to make a career change. But what I envy is that his work has a defined beginning, middle, and end. You walk up to a house where the paint is peeling and when you are done, it looks terrific. And by "being done" I mean a week or two or three later.
My work isn't like that at all. Some have compared pastoral ministry to "planting seeds" and that is a good, Biblical, metaphor. But even farmers have a beginning, middle and end to their work that basically extends from late spring to early fall. Sometime around Memorial Day you plant some seeds and by Thanksgiving you are eating pumpkin pie.
The gestation period in ministry is almost always much longer than that, which requires a level of patience that I do not naturally possess. But I am reaching an age where every now and again I get a glimpse that gives me joy, and courage, and hope for the journey.
Today was such a day. This afternoon I drove to New Britain, Connecticut where many important events in my life occurred. My work as Protestant Campus Minister began in the Fall 1989 - my first "real" full-time work following seminary. One year later, our first son, Graham, was born there. And three years after that, I was received into the Episcopal Church (from the United Methodist Church) at St. Mark's, New Britain and (re)-ordained a deacon at the cathedral in Hartford. At that point (in June 1993) I accepted a position to become Assistant Rector at a parish in Westport, CT. I have been back to New Britain only once or twice since then, and it's been at least a decade since I was last there.
So I spent four years doing ministry in higher education, work in which I found great joy and satisfaction, and then it was over. The students I met as freshmen graduated and within a few years every student I had known there had also graduated. I think at this point it is unlikely that there are even faculty members kicking around who would remember me and the work I did there.
The main reason that this ministry was such a joy for me was because of the amazing young people I got to know, including Char (Curtiss) Corbett. She was one of those kids you spot across campus with a mile-wide smile and a heart of gold. She got involved in campus ministry, particularly in the alternative spring break programs we ran in Appalacia and with the Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity. One day I was with Char and some other students, eating some pizza, and I asked her if she had ever considered ordination. She almost choked on her pizza! I told her I was serious. She said, no; she didn't see herself doing that. Today, roughly twenty years later, I sat in the congregation at South Church in New Britain at Char's ordination. It felt like being at a child's wedding and I think I wept more than I ever have at anyone's wedding, or funeral.
Now I need to be very clear here: while I was one tiny moment in Char's faith journey, it was very clear to me that this wasn't about me. I may have planted a seed but others have tended it, and helped weed, and prune, over many years since. She is both recognizable as that wide-eyed eighteen year old I once knew and quite different: very close to forty now, a wife and mother and now ordained pastor. While we have stayed in touch over the years, especially after she entered Andover Newton Theological School, I am aware that there have been many others who have had a far more significant influence on her than I ever did.
Still, when I left South Church, I drove past Central Connecticut State, the same road I took to work for four years. And I saw it with new eyes, eyes of wonder. I felt like at some level I was, quite literally, back at the beginning - back where my own ordained life began, as Char's now begins. And yet from this vantage point, having arrived where I started, I felt somehow able to see it for the first time. I could see my work there through a new set of lenses; knowing how the story has turned out (at least to this point) makes it clear why I did that work in the first place and why I hope it mattered.
And of course it matters still, not just at ordinations. Ministry, I think, is about moments in time when heaven and earth touch and that is not about us; but by God's grace we are there as witnesses at such "thin places." And every now and again we get a chance to circle back again, and celebrate God's grace and mercy and love.