On Keeping Vocational Fidelity: The Secret of Ebey’s Landing

I believe place matters. No one lives in
a vacuum, disembodied, or isolated
from ecologic necessity. Existence
requires location. Life has geography.
Our contexts of land and culture matter
for shaping who we are and who we
might become. A place gathers our moments,
collects our stories, even as it
stores these memories in fragrances
of the seasons. In our places we worship,
go to school, work, sing, fight and
forgive, fall down and get up, live and
die.

Despite what the deed from the
county clerk says, or how much one
pays in property taxes, I think it is impossible
to own land. The best we do,
if we are honest, is pay rent. Whidbey Island Trees We hold
land in trust, and this only for a short
season. It’s like a deal you can make
with the universe: I’ll give up trying to
own what is beautiful, so that what is
beautiful can own me. And if we are
fortunate, I do believe, the land can
own us. And if owned, you are owned
forever, even when you leave it. I was
lucky enough to be owned by such a
place.

Whidbey Island is moored on the
currents of the Puget Sound in the
rain-curtain of the Pacific Northwest.
On the map, Whidbey dominates the
Sound for forty-five miles, north to
south, like a long chipped platter on
a table. The weather patterns here
are variables of gray, changeable only
in degree of precipitation, as the low-hanging-clouds roll off the Pacific.
To grow up here is to become accustomed
to rain fall stuttering on your
head–pit-pit-pit–like restless fingers
drumming on a knee.

If it is that rare day “when the
mountains are out”–the phrase locals
use for clear skies–you can stand on
the front deck of the house I grew up
in and face southeast, you can make
out, as if stenciled into the sky, the outline of Mt. Rainer, the dominant
peak of the low-country, accompanied
by her entourage of Cascade cousins.
If you turn your chin west, you see in
the clean blue distance, the serrated
snow-scarved peaks of the Olympic
Mountains. Growing up in the shadow
of these towering mountains, there
was always a tacit sense that there was
something larger, and more formidable,
than oneself–something that we mortals
would trifle with at our own peril.

I moved away from the Island, as
most locals do, in 1992. I went away
to college and have not returned to the
Island, other than to visit family on
holidays. This dislocation is still a palpable
pain. I can feel the loss of the Island
like a dull ache. To this day, when
I close my eyes, and click my heels, and
wish for home, it is to this place I want
to go.

II

Now I am pastor of a small liberal
arts college. I love this work. It is not
just the creativity to see life through
the eyes of faith, or the risky task of
crafting language to name the mystery
of God; what I love most, is that pastoring
is a work that requires taking my
place seriously. In a world unsettled,
God calls pastors to love a place.

My first pastoral call, to the Iowa
prairies, gave me the image of the farmer
as a guiding metaphor for pastoral
labor. Farmers possess the earthy
wisdom that resists romanticizing
or spiritualizing their vocation. Too
many pastors have been ruined by
sentimentalizing ministry. The uncelebrated
sacrifices, disappointments,
patience, and quotidian work
that is real ministry often shatters
the illusion that pastoral ministry is
to be a life full of mountain top experiences. The work of a pastor
demands a combination of realism and
hope, tradition and creativity, a life
of prayer mixed with practical labor.
Like the farmer, the pastor lives a life
of long hours. The good ones are always
working, but, if you watch, are
rarely in a hurry. Like farming, pastoring does not flourish in
abstractions. The work is concrete, tailored
to a particular place, and not given to
formulas that yield immediate results.
The vocation of both farmer and pastor is a call to grow living things. Both
understand, however, it is not in their
power to make anything grow; growth
happens in the silent rhythms between
light and darkness, soil and rain. The
best both can do is pay attention, and
help create the right conditions for life
to occur. So with the image of a farmer
as a guide, I submit myself to the
place I like to call the soil of Hope.

My particular place to till is Hope
College. The academy is
not always an easy place
to pastor. That is not just
because I am dealing in
mysteries far above my
pay-grade. And it is not
simply because all too
often I get it wrong and
I have very smart people ready and
willing to correct me. My daily job
is viewed with critical suspicion in
the culture, especially in the academy.
Now, there are good reasons for
this suspicion. Pastors can too glibly
talk about complexities we don’t understand with a kind of puffed up
authority or naivety. This may be overstated, but in halls of higher
education pastors are often viewed as cult
leaders trying to make students drink
the Kool-Aid of creedal concessions.
Pastors are perceived as trying to
spread the disease of irrational and
pietistic prejudices. I understand
this academic anxiety, though, personally, there are some days when I
find the suspicion hurtful. So often,
pastors don’t get, or value, what the
life of the mind and honest scholarship
demand. Yet, this is precisely what the
soil of Hope is set apart to grow.

Being a pastor at Hope, or any where
for that matter, is tough. It is work that
requires fidelity. And fidelity requires
promises be made and vows be t a ken.

In my wallet I carry a pocket-size
version of the vows I made on the day
of my ordination. I try to read them
a loud to myself at least monthly. I
do this because I need to remember
what I promised. I believe it is in
keeping these vows that t e possibility to experience a free and unspoiled
hope exists. But there is nothing easy
about finding this freedom. Failure is
everywhere. Affairs of holy affection
abound. This is why having a vision of
the pastoral vocation that is committed
to place is, for me, critical.

There must be a thousand voices
whispering that true happiness is
found in escape, detachment, absence
of commitment and undefined freedom.
 
Theoretical individualism makes for cool
Nike commercials, but sometimes we
have to team up and make promises.
 

Paul Simon sings, “there are fifty ways
to leave your lover.” There might just
be 51 ways to leave one’s ministry, or
church, or one’s faith all together. Freedom
from restraint, from relationship
or from commitment is a doctrine sewn
so deep into the psyche of our cultural
mind, it is unquestioned orthodoxy.
But it brings with it a har vest of fragmentation,
isolation, and loneliness.

I understand that theoretical individualism
makes for cool Nike commercials, but sometimes, we have to team
up and make promises. It might be
counter intuitive, but to honor what
most matters, I believe that “vows
have to be exchanged, promises have
to be made, and demands have to be
issued.” It might be that the beauty
we are searching for in our restless
lives does not come from escaping our
vows, but by honoring t hem.

My w ill-power is a sputtery engine. It is difficult to stay faithful to
my deepest commitments alone. This
is why I need to do my work in the context
of a particular people. It is also
why I have needed to go to a place that
reminds me of who I am and who I want
to be. I need a land that can remind me
of a fidelity well lived, that can offer me
the potential beauty that comes from
keeping a promise. This place serves
as a kind of physical antidote to the
romantic temptation of spiritual and
vocational escapism. I have needed a
place to visit often, that shows me what
being a good pastor might look like.

III

Whenever I go home to Whidbey Island,
there is a place I feel an urgency
to visit, almost by instinct of necessity.
It is a land that reminds me there still
exists a grace that can transcend all
the ugliness and meanness life can
offer. This is a place that steadies my
resolve to keep in good faith the vows
I have made.

Ebey’s Landing is 554 acres of
forest, wetlands, and prairie grassland that slopes gently southward
toward open water. Whidbey Shore You get there from
State Highway 20, turning west on
Main Street in Coupeville. The road
will take you through the prairie until it leads you to a panoramic view of
a long beach head on Whidbey’s western shore. Once on the beach, you
are immediately dwarfed by a high
rugged bluff that edges the shoreline
like a golden crust. This is where the
Sound begins to open to the larger Pacific.
Here at the edge of the island,
the waves bring a constant rumble and
an odd sizzle as the tide melts into the
Puget Sound. Hanging in the air is a
swell of emphatic salty freshness–a
tang beyond mint or myrtle–more sensation
for the nose than any recipe
could concoct.

If you are fortunate enough to find
yourself here, you have your choice of
hikes. You can either walk the rocky
shore, hunting driftwood or agates,
keeping rhythm to the metronome of
crashing waves; or you can follow a
quarter mile trial, up Ebey’s bluff, towards
an old forest where the trees,
sheered by the winds, spiral towards the
heavens like medieval steeples.
Walking the edge of this primordial forest,
the air on the ground keeps strangely
still, as the coastal weather currents
cross overhead without quite touching down. The weather is hard to predict,
except that it w ill most likely be
unruly. It is not uncommon to witness
sea otters playing n the kelp
drifts. If the mountains are out, you
can see the Olympics, standing proud
and defiant, like watchman guarding
over an ancestral kingdom. If you
come at twilight, you can look across
Admiralty Inlet , to the lights of Port
Townsend spread out as white embers
atop he dark rim of coastline.

For me, Ebey’s Landing is a thin
place
–what the Celts described as a
place where the veil between the divine
and human is lifted and we see more
sharply the reflections of a divine
imagination at play.
 
I need a land that can remind me of a
fidelity well lived, that can offer me the
potential beauty that comes from keeping
a promise. I have needed a place to visit
often, that shows me what being a good
pastor might look like.
 

This is my postcard
from the holy–a land set apart.
More than once I have come here to contemplate
my life, mourn a loss, pray, or
simply feel the pulse of original intention.
Whenever I return
to walk her shores, the
smells of the Sound excite
me, the formidable
clarity of the clockless
mountains takes the
husk off my soul, and I
respond as unthinking
as a salmon that swims
up a river mouth to taste
the waters of its birth.

A few years ago, I
was walking along the
well-trod path that takes you up the
bluff, when I stopped to read a historical marker. I must have passed
this sign a hundred times in my life,
without once taking notice. However,
I stopped this day and read it. What
I read shed light on why this specific
place has had such sustaining power
for me and for so many others. I
learned that Ebey’s Landing was
the first National Historic Reserve
in America, established by an act of
Congress in 1978. A small band of
islanders recognized that this place
was special. These citizens helped pass a federal law promising to keep
Ebey’s Landing a reserve forever free
from private development. They anticipated that for Ebey’s Landing to
remain a beauty undefiled, it would
need protection; it would require making a vow. This was a vow promised
to me, and God willing, to my children.
A promise that no matter what,
no special interest or private individual
could unsettle the sanctity of t his
land.

I took to heart a quote on the
marker from Jimmie Jean Cook, one
of those who spearheaded the effort
to protect Ebey’s Landing.

In this time of change and ever
present pressure there must
be a place where weary people
can once again respond to the
magnificence of a simple land
filled with memories.

I think this is wisdom. Our life is full
of sprawling distractions that make
us weary and despondent. It is tempting then to want to flee, to escape the
vows that bind us. So we need places
where we can remember how things
are supposed to be, what it looks like
to keep fidelity.

I want to hope that the church
and its pastors can be this kind of
place. Weary people need churches,
even colleges do, with pastors who
can protect the landscape of salvation from the pollution of self-interest.
For the church to be this kind
of place requires pastors to practice
vocational fidelity. If I am going to
honor my vocation and take seriously
my people, I need to resist the temptation to escape the demands of my
place. Ebey’s Landing is the place I
go when I need a physical reminder
that keeping my vows sows the possibility that future generations may
explore the soil of hope, and respond
to the magnificence of a simple faith,
filled with memories. This is the secret
of Ebey’s Landing.

Trygve Johnson is the dean
of the chapel at Hope College,
Holland, Michigan.