Cameron Semmens on gifts

This Sunday at Collins Street, we’re exploring the business of ethics at work. I’ve been thinking about how broad that term is – work – and how unique its challenges are to each of us. Still, from homemakers to teachers, stockbrokers to bricklayers, students to grandparents, the challenge of discerning God’s presence and call in our work is the same.

One of my favourite everyday poets, Cameron Semmens, provides this take on the gifts of the Spirit. I like it. It reminds me that no matter how ‘religious’ or otherwise our work seems, the calling and gifting of God is what we have in common.

The Gift of Everyday Spirituality

[Based on 1 Corinthians 12.1-11]

Our God is the giver of gifts
and all of God’s children are gifted:

to one is given the word of wisdom,
to another the word of knowledge,
to another the ability to give a word-for-word account
of what was said last Saturday;

to one is given faith,
to another faithful adherence to instruction manuals;

to one is given the gift of healing,
to another the gift of making a good chicken soup
for when I get the flu;

to one is given the ability to work miracles,
to another the ability to work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday;

to one is given the gift of prophesy,
to another the gift of profits;

to one is given the gift of discerning spirits,
to another the gift of selecting wines;

to one is given different kinds of tongues,
to another the interpretation of tongues,
to another the ability to curl their tongue,
and to yet another
the ability to stick their tongue out at meanies.

To one and all gifts are given:
to some, otherworldly gifts,
to others, more earthy gifts,
but each is sourced from the same Spirit
and each is sent for the service of all.

Cameron Semmens, Love is the New Black, Crooked NoseWisdom, 2010.

The farmer and the pastor

1484163717072I’ve just finished reading a collection of letters written to young farmers. Surprisingly, they are captivating, even to me. The contributors are mostly seasoned agriculturalists, though commonly they have other roles as well. Writing is one of them. Their shared concern is to encourage those who are new to the profession, calling them to a deeper and more considered commitment to their work.

Granted, it’s an odd book for the pastor of a city church to read. My daily work is about as far removed from the land as one could imagine. My interest in food, however, is strong. Connections of dependence upon those who work to provide food for my table and others are genuine and daily. I could claim other connections: my father was a farmer; I was born onto a dairy farm in the Gippsland; I own a small part in a some acres in central Victoria. But none of that makes me any more a farmer than I am an astronaut. The farm is not my world.

That said, I can see in the exhortations of these mentor-farmers applications to the work I do as a pastor. It makes me wonder if the distance between our worlds is really as wide as I imagine. Some of the observations that struck me are these:

The farmer is a professional

There’s an affirming spirit to these letters, a reminder from seasoned to budding farmers that their work is important, no matter how it is regarded, or disregarded, more broadly. The words “I am just a farmer” have no place here. “However calloused your hands,” Barbara Kingsolver writes, “however grimy the uniform, however your back may sometimes ache, you are a professional. Your vocation is creative, necessary, and intellectually demanding.”

As with many professions, only those who know farming from the inside can appreciate its demands. Amidst the complexities of environment, climate and the global market, successful farming today requires significant levels of competence, risk and skill. The encouragement is clear: take your work, your competence and your importance seriously, even if others don’t.

There is wisdom here for pastors too. While there is no place for an inflated sense of ourselves, we do need to take ourselves seriously as professionals. Though we may not often feel the esteem of the surrounding culture, we know well what our work demands and the potential contribution it makes. As with all professions, we submit to systems of accreditation, rites of ordination, the needs for academic qualifications and professional competencies earned through time. While these are not everything, they ain’t nothin’ either. Whatever assessment others make of us, our work is important. We do well to remember it.

To farm is a vocation

This second observation follows on from the first. At the same time, it provides a counter to it. Routinely these writers speak of farming as a spiritual calling. More than a profession, a skill-set or work to be done, farming is a vocation that says as much about identity as it does about the work itself. Farming is not only the work a farmer does; it is who the farmer is. It’s this that can hold a farmer to the land when nothing else can make sense of it.

This is a point the Franciscan farmer Gary Paul Nabhan makes well. “As best I can figure, becoming a farmer is not that much different from becoming a monk,” he writes, “because it is ultimately about adhering to a spiritual path. You have to have faith that it is your calling because undertaking it does not make much economic, social, or political sense at all. Very few of you will get rich, get famous and powerful, or get laid simply because you are a farmer.”

We pastors get this. Our work is more than the work we do. It flows from our identity as men and women of faith. Pastoral leadership is more than qualifications, degrees or contracts; it is who we are. So when our work doesn’t make sense, when it’s hard beyond anyone’s knowing, and when its rewards are slim, we keep showing up. To do otherwise would be to walk away from something deeply part of us.

To farm well is to work from your strengths

This third theme I noticed is one that took me by surprise. I have commonly assumed farming as a long line of responsibilities that simply have to be met. Surely from one dairy farm to the next, from one field of grain to another, the tasks are much the same. How little I know. It’s clear from these letters that farming takes a great deal of creativity and will look different from one context to the next and from one farmer to another. It’s here the uniqueness of the individual comes into play.

In an especially energetic letter, Joel Salatin presses young farmers, “What are you good at? What do you know? What do you enjoy?” he asks. “Where those three universes intersect is the sweet spot for your success. Many times, we fritter away most of our time struggling with things we don’t like or aren’t good at and fail to capitalize on areas of passion and proficiency. Life’s too short to be squandered that way.”

Clearly it’s a good point for farmers, and pastors too. Just as there is more than one way to farm a piece of land, so there are multiple ways to pastor a church. Thank God for that. We are not all cut from the same cloth or made for the same expressions of ministry. At our best, we do what we do as an expression of who we are, not who we would like to be or who others wish we were. How much energy I have squandered over the years trying desperately to compensate for my inadequacies, peddling ever faster in areas of ministry in which I’ll only ever be mediocre. My “passions and proficiencies” are the best of me. If I do not operate as much as possible out of these, I short change myself and the church.

Sustainable farming requires a sustainable farmer

Some of the most impassioned advice for young farmers relates to their sustainability. There is a consistent call to ‘balance’ in these letters, a balance of time and energy that enable the farmer to flourish over the long haul.

“Farming can be all-consuming,” writes Mary-Howell Martens, “especially at certain times of the year, and without a plan to protect an acceptable level of personal balance, you may find the farm takes all. Farming will invariably define your family, your self-esteem, your financial choices, your self-image, your priorities, and your time. It will profoundly shape how you interpret life and death, weather, money, time, food, community, exercise, and faith.”

It’s this all-consuming nature of farming, fed by a deep sense of vocation, that is the farmer’s greatest strength and potential downfall. Richard Wiswall underlines the danger: “When the financial numbers don’t line up, farmers … can be famously guilty of self-exploitation. Like many entrepreneurs, farmers believe in what they do so much that they will do what it takes to succeed: work longer and longer hours, sacrifice family and leisure time, balance the books at night so as not to waste precious daylight hours. Deep meaning derived from their work is one of the fuels that keep farmers going despite increasing hardships. But there is no limit to this.”

I can only imagine how this danger plays out for the farmer. I know first hand it’s impact in pastoral ministry. Our sense of vocation is both enabling and compelling. It’s the compelling part that can lead us into all kinds of dysfunction. The price paid by relentlessly driven pastors — not to mention their spouses, families and churches — is commonly too large a cost to bear.

Farming within communities

The final observation is the reminder to young farmers that they farm within communities … always. No successful farmer flys solo. Given the hours that farmers work, often alone and hidden from public view, it is easy to see farming as a work of solitude. According to these writers, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Farming is a work of connections and relationships. Farming is a community sustained through time, a relationship to land, place and story that only has meaning when those connections are named and nurtured. This is so at the most local level — in towns and communities where land, place and work are shared — as well as in a broader sense: the provider of food, the preparer of food and the consumer of food are all connected. It is as though the farmer has a place at my table every night.

The American conservationist of the early twentieth century Aldo Leopold once said that land is “not a commodity belonging to us” but “a community to which we belong.” There is profound truth in this for the farmer, and truth for the pastor as well. As the farmer does not own the land, so the pastor does not own the church and its mission. We belong to it, sustained by it as we work to strengthen it. The church is a reality so much larger than we are, and in the context of a world held in God’s sustaining hands. We play just a small part in a much grander work.

Here’s the book

Martha Hodgkins, ed. Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2017.

And a great related video too

Connecting Sunday to Monday

There’s an old saying about pastors: ‘Invisible six days a week and incomprehensible the seventh.’ While I don’t care much for the incomprehensible bit, a degree of invisibility is part of our lot. To many people in our congregations, and even more outside of them, the work of the pastor is a mystery. I’m often asked what I do with myself once Sunday is over. There’s no hidden critique in the question, but genuine curiosity. To the majority, our daily working life is hidden from view.

Before we bemoan just how ‘misunderstood’ we are, it’s good to put the boot on the other foot. The fact is, pastors are as prone to weekday ignorance as anyone else. We see and relate to the majority of people in our congregations on a Sunday. Perhaps we see the committed ones at other times, but mostly related to their roles and responsibilities in the church. Certainly I know that Rick is a teacher, that Judy works in insurance, that Sacha volunteers at the local homework club, but outside of that my experience of their day-to-day work is limited. What specific responsibilities do they have? What daily challenges do they face? What relationships are most demanding of them? In the typical Sunday gathering, the weekday work of the people is as invisible as that of the pastor.

I am often challenged by this, and encouraged to think creatively about how pastors can help to make visible what is largely invisible. How can we nurture the connections between worship on a Sunday and what the people are engaged with on Monday? How can we be more sensitive to the challenges of the workplaces and neighbourhoods our congregations inhabit? For me the challenge is two-fold. It’s both pastoral and liturgical.


To care pastorally is to care for the whole person. By necessity the felt need for pastoral care kicks in when there’s a crisis, usually of a personal nature – someone is sick, struggling in a relationship, or wrestling with an experience of loss or doubt. Ministry like this is vital to what we do. But there’s also a place for genuine expressions of pastoral interest in the more routine stuff of life.

One of the most effective means of expressing this interest is by taking our care out of our own offices and into theirs. Some of the most significant pastoral conversations I have ever had have been in the spaces people inhabit during the week. Sometimes that has been in their workplaces, or in a café close by. I have sat with teachers in their classrooms at the end of a teaching day. I have been walked around someone’s office space and introduced to colleagues. I have toured a building site and walked through a market garden. While pastoral interactions like these are not always possible, finding ways to show genuine interest in who people are and what they do away from the worship service is well worth our time and creativity.


Pastors spend a great deal of time preparing services of worship. It’s for that visible part of our job. We know instinctively that our sermons, liturgy and prayers provide an essential framework for the congregation’s response to God and we long that through these services our communities experience grace, transcendence and challenge in equal measure.

With this in mind, there is a legitimate need for the Sunday experience to be different — a context in which we lift our eyes beyond the chaos of the world and are reminded of God. For this reason the language of faith is often distinctive, shifting from the immediate to the eternal. That said, it would be a tragedy if our pursuit of the ‘beyond’ rendered the here-and-now irrelevant to faith, for it’s in the immediate that we most need a sense of the eternal.

The purpose of good liturgy is to bring the beyond and the here-and-now together into a deeper relationship. We do this with preaching that approaches the text of scripture and the routine challenges of life with equal rigour. We do it with confession that is rooted in the real struggles of the everyday. We do it with rituals, songs, stories and prayers that embrace the stuff of daily life as holy.

Not long ago I sat with a member of my congregation who is unemployed and looking for work. He spoke honestly of the exhausting and humbling business of applications, interviews and knock-backs. In the midst of our conversation, he reached down into his bag and pulled out a printed copy of his CV. ‘I don’t need you to find me a job,’ he said as he handed it to me, ‘but I need you to know who I am.’ It’s a longing for all of us. We want to be known, not just as people of faith but as flesh-and-blood people seeking to live out that faith in our everyday lives.

Vocational eggs

I like to think of fatherly wisdom as a gift, though my delivery clearly needs work. In a recent conversation with my daughter, I passed on the much-used but pithy nugget: ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket!’ Her look was withering: ‘Eggs?’ Ok, so further explanation was necessary (and equally unsuccessful), but I still hold to the truth of it.

I’ve been reflecting lately, inspired by the biography of a notable pastor, on just how important this principle of ‘basket diversity’ is in my own life. If the ‘eggs’ are my vocation–my sense of self and calling–then where I put those eggs is critical to a thriving and sustainable way of life.

There was a time when I thought of vocation in a very limited what-I-do-for-a-living sort of way. For me that was found in my work as a pastor. The trouble with putting all of my vocational eggs in that basket is that my entire sense of self rode the roller coaster of a fickle and fragile business. When ministry went well, I soared. When it faltered and failed, I was in tatters.

The truth is, vocation is so much more than our work. It has to do with being made ‘in the image of God’. It’s about identity not activity, who we are not what we do. This much broader sense of vocation finds expression in every aspect of our lives: in our work, our homes and neighbourhoods, our relationships, our interests, our rest and recreation, our spending, our learning and so on. The vocational baskets are multiple.

So, what difference does this make for me?

Apart from family, there are three dominant activities that take most of my time: I pastor, I cook and I write. While each include elements of necessity, I’ve not been strong-armed into any of them. Each is a choice. Each one is vocational, an expression of who I am as one made in God’s image. These are not just three things that I do, they are each who I am. I don’t do ministry. I am a pastor. The ministry I offer is an overflow of my identity. I don’t write simply as a marginal activity. I am a writer. It’s how I think and feel. And I do not cook purely by necessity or for distraction. I am a cook. In cooking I am me.

Each of these three vocational baskets has its rewards, and each, in its own way, is transformational. The rewards of pastoral ministry are the most intangible; its transformations difficult to trace. I can come home from a day at work unable to identify a single achievement. More often I’m aware of regressions, failures and stubborn lines that will not budge, even in the longer term. If the daily trajectory of pastoral success has ever been mapped, I missed the memo. Don’t get me wrong: the transformations of ministry are real, but so very slow and, in my experience, often known only in retrospect. It’s a messy and chaotic business and dependent upon so many factors I cannot control. Pastoring is all about people. Enough said.

Writing is a different matter. It, too, is slow and its impact difficult to judge. But it’s contained in a way that ministry is not, and the outcomes are tangible no matter how long in gestation. Even more, the task of writing is mine. It’s me and the screen. It’s the very personal task of finding and manipulating words in a way that is congruent with what I feel and know. If I fail, I fail; If I succeed, I succeed, no one else. And all being well, from time to time I can hold in my hand a product, an object of writing the signals completion. That said, writing is an isolating business. It lets you get away with a degree of solitude and independence that pastoral ministry will never allow.

And then there is cooking. Like pastoring and writing for me, cooking is vocational. As a daily activity, it is both rewarding and transforming, but in a much more sensual and immediate way. Its purpose is crystal clear, and once complete the product is eaten and the activity done. Until tomorrow. Success and failure are so easy to judge, and the tasks simple. Cooking has a way of pulling me into the here and now with irresistible force. And its rewards for me and those I cook for need no explanation or justification. Even more, cooking gets me out of my head and into my body in ways pastoring and writing can never do.

8OA1000AThere are other baskets in my life too, but the point is made. There is more than one and each is a valid means of vocational expression. My baskets are mine. Yours will be different. But hear this: when it comes to the eggs of your vocation, know that you are a person made beautifully and uniquely in God’s image. There is so much more to you and your calling than what you get paid to achieve.

So whatever you do, don’t go putting all those eggs in one basket!

Scaling email mountain

I’ve just returned from a week’s leave.  I took a friend’s good advice and didn’t touch my email while I was gone. Not once.  Not even a peek.  The trouble is, as I settle back in this morning the in-box overflows.  As I watch the counter tally up the grand total for the week, I slump into my seat. It’s all I can do to pull myself up and order another coffee.

Amidst the offers to improve my sex life (very disconcerting!), there’s the usual long list of requests, notices, forwards, demands and reminders—most flagged urgent. Then there are the agendas for meetings and their endless attachments, and links to professional associations and journals begging to be read. It feels like a forbidding mountain to scale before I can do anything else.

I remember when I first encountered email, it was captivating and wonderful. I was living overseas at the time and contact with home had never been easier. Today it feels like a bind. As I stare at the in-tray I feel more imprisoned than liberated. Then again, given the choice to do without I’d probably say no. In a startlingly short period it’s become as necessary as the telephone. I like it. I loathe it. I need it.

Granted, I’m not a technophile. But I’ve never been more conscious of technology’s impact upon my daily life than I am today. Call me a slow learner. Perhaps it’s the now eternal presence of my smart phone. Or the 24-hour wireless internet connection at home. I’ve never been so ‘in touch’ or accessible.

In an idiosyncratic but fascinating book The Tyranny of the Moment, Danish Anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen explores the impact of information technology on our lives. He’s no Luddite, but he does call us to think more about the consequences of our dependence and make more proactive choices about the place of these technologies in our daily routines.

Here’s a few of the impacts that Eriksen identifies:

It fills the gaps: every moment is saturated and the empty spaces vanish. We talk on the phone as we walk down the street, text friends and contacts while commuting on the tram, surf the internet or review work documents while sitting in a café.  As every spare moment is filled, creativity and imagination struggle for breath.

It pickles us in information: we’ve never been more information-rich. We no longer have to go looking for it; it comes to us. We are bombarded relentlessly with ‘bits’ of information, each one unrelated to the next.  We are progressively pickled in it. Protecting yourself from the 99 per cent of info you’ll never need is the daily challenge, as is discerning what’s really important.

It creates a new form of poverty: while we may be information-rich, we face new forms of scarcity. Elements of life most threatened include: •slow time 
•belonging and stable identities 
•coherence and understanding
 •cumulative, linear, organic growth
 •real flesh-and-blood experiences.

It nurtures an addiction to speed: where the acceleration of daily life is omnipresent, slowness becomes an intolerable inconvenience.  And it touches everything.  The addictive force of speed can deprive us of the gift of slowness, a gift we lose to our peril.

Eriksen’s concludes his book with a list of recommendations. Here are some of them:

1. What can be done quickly, should be done quickly.
2. Dawdling is a virtue and should be honoured in its rightful place.
3. Slowness needs protection. If unprotected, it will be consumed by the relentless force of speed.
4. Delays can be embraced as blessings in disguise.
5. The logic of the wood cabin (places that value slow time) deserves to be globalised.
6. Be aware: all decisions exclude as much as they include.
7. Most things one will never need to know about. So relax!

More on work … and keyholes

Following on from yesterday’s post on the book Dirt Cheap, a very different but related book is the anonymously authored Hotel Babylon. It’s a first-hand and unashamedly voyeuristic account of a 24-hour period in one of London’s finest five-star hotels. The story is told by an employee working a double shift on the reception desk, and was subsequently made into a tacky BBC series by the same name.

If nothing else, the book is an entertaining read, though when I read it a few years back I wanted to hide the cover from view. Honestly, it feels like you’re on your knees peering through a keyhole!  At a deeper level, it’s a good reminder of the large number of very poorly paid workers who hover in the background of the hospitality industry, especially those establishments with a high-gloss veneer of sophistication. These minimum-wage workers are rarely seen: the ones who clean rooms, do laundry, scrub toilets and bathrooms, many of them who toil away in the dark of night in basements and storage rooms while guests sleep unaware.

At one point, the author sits in the staff cafeteria amongst a group of ‘chambermaids’, or room cleaners, during a lunch break:

‘These women all work hard and, for some reason, they seem to take pride in what they are doing. Why they would take pride in putting a chocolate on someone’s pillow or placing a facecloth at the correct forty-five-degree angle from the basin, is anyone’s guess. But apparently they do. I take a bite of my bread, and thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to deal with skid-marked sheets for a living. At least, I have the possibility of moving on and up in my job … But these women sitting opposite me can’t even dream … they are destined to clean up after other people forever. Chambermaids don’t get promoted; they just get fired … Chambermaids start cleaning up toothpaste, and they end cleaning up toothpaste.’

Accounts like this are challenging for me. As a teacher in tertiary institutions, I have spent so much of my life surrounded by people preparing for and expecting fulfilling and stimulating careers. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that my office rubbish bin sits magically empty each Wednesday morning, the carpet vacuumed, and the toilets cleaned. I often wonder what all the talk of vocation and meaning that pervades ‘faith and work’ literature has to say to people for whom work is simply a necessity—the day-to-day drudgery to make ends meet.

Dirt cheap: work and faith

I am a great believer in bringing the worlds of work and spirituality together—enabling people to make clearer connections between their religious faith and their daily life in the workplace. Inspired by the thought of people like Gordon Preece and Robert Banks, I’ve been talking and writing about this for a long time.

No doubt, the bridging of these two ‘spheres’ is overdue but often a hard sell. The task has found new steam in recent years. An inspiring number of resources have surfaced exploring the theology of work and the practice of faith through work. Less inspiring is that the majority of this material is focussed on the work of a minority of people. In short, it’s elitist.

Of course, this elitism is neither intentional nor sinister. The truth is, those who have the resources and inclination to address these issues do so as inhabitants of a particular world: the world of the tertiary educated, the professional or managerial classes. Any number of essays address the challenges in fields like law, business and finance, education and health care, just as there is an impressive range of resources geared toward marketplace leaders and the high fliers of the corporate world. But when it comes to the more mundane work of factory labourers, shop assistants, food service workers, cleaners and homemakers, there is comparative silence.

This silence is not confined to theology.  There is a broader cultural silence that surrounds it.  This is underlined by reading books like Elisabeth Wynhausen’s Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the Job Market. A journalist with The Australian, Wynhausen recounts a year working minimum wage jobs around Australia, from a waitress in an exclusive social club, a line-worker for a egg packing plant, a night cleaner in an office complex, a breakfast cook in an inner-city hotel, a cashier in a suburban discount store, to a kitchen hand in a retirement home.  It’s a great book and real insight into the world of work for so many Australians.  What strikes Wynhausen most forcefully is the basic indignities that many so-called ‘unskilled’ workers live with:

“I may have spent the best part of a year in and out of the low-wage workforce doing things I’d never done before, from cleaning hotel toilets to laundering loads of institutional washing, but I had failed to adapt to the real indignity, being treated as a person of no consequence. I kept waiting to be consulted, about my own schedule, at least. I couldn’t get it through my head that I was just another set of hands.”

Of course, personal fulfillment is not high on the list of expectations for low-wage workers like these. As Wynhausen writes:

“Bothered by the idea that no one in the factory ever went home with the feeling they had done a good day’s work, I had asked Sandra, a little twig of a woman in a big flannel shirt, if people took pride in what they did. Sandra looked at me as if I were cracked. ‘You just do it,’ she said. ‘Like a robot,’ said the woman next to her.”

There is no doubt the challenges of low-wage work deserve more serious attention in the writing of faith-and-work enthusiasts like me. Perhaps, too, we do well to listen more and speak less when it comes to understanding the realities of work for many Australians.

[Elisabeth Wynhausen, Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the Job Market, Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2005]

Cooking and calling

Commonly, the experience of ‘calling’ in the Christian faith is approached as a mysterious thing and highly prized; to have heard ‘the call’ is to have entered the ranks of the spiritual elite. Tragically, such a mystical approach leaves the majority of Christians in the stands; there they sit—excluded and disempowered—destined to be spectators while the divinely ‘chosen’ play centre field with God.

I often say that while it’s true the call of God is a mysterious thing, it is never exclusive. In fact, from a biblical perspective it’s one of the most inclusive and liberating gifts given to us—all of us. What’s more, the experience of calling is never uniform. It’s as diverse as those who hear it.

In the book Tough Cookies, Simon Wright tells the stories of four of Britain’s most talented chefs, their rise to prominence and their impact upon the culinary scene. I suppose it’s an odd place to go on the nature of call, but what strikes me is the strong sense of vocation each of these chefs have in what they do.  What’s even more telling is how each one come to that sense.  I reckon there’s some truth here for the church.

For the infamous Gordon Ramsey, it was not the love of food that took him into the kitchen. He stumbled into cooking when a career in professional football failed. But the longer he was there the more enraptured he became. Encountering first hand the genius of the renowned Marco Pierre White, Ramsey found his home: “When I walked into that kitchen, I thought ‘my God’ … this is me, I’ve found my base. I’ve found me. I wanted it!” It was a discovery that drove him from that point on, a passion slow to flower but once in bloom took over his life.

According to Wright, “The love of food wasn’t in Ramsey’s blood, it got in there like a virus born in the atmosphere of the places where he worked. Places where reverence and respect for the best things that grace our tables infected the very air that he breathed. It was a relationship that grew over time and it was a love that came in tandem with lust, a fierce desire to the meet the challenges thrown up by this extraordinarily demanding world, to stand up to each new trial, defy expectation and move on energized, to the next test.”

For Heston Blumenthal, there was nothing gradual about it. It was the Damascus road and burning bush rolled into one. When Blumenthal was just fifteen years old, he and his family visited a two-Michelin-star restaurant in France. The visit was accidental, but it turned out to be a defining moment for the teenager, a captivating epiphany that has stayed with him the rest of his life. From that point on, food became his passion. It was an obsession he fed, a love affair he nurtured with such focus and energy, a driving force that arose directly out of his personality yet baffled even those closest to him. 

Shaun Hill’s story could not be more different. Any sense of passion was exceedingly slow to ignite. Ambition was never a motivating factor. Hill simply did what was in front of him, and in the course of doing so a love for food was nurtured. Quoting Hill: “I don’t think there has ever been a long-term plan … The problem with thinking too far ahead is that it stops your concentration on what your doing. So how I work is I do it while I really enjoy it and when I stop enjoying it I decide it’s time to go. This very regularly seems like a dumb idea at the time. But in order to do anything well you have to be completely, maybe not obsessed, but committed, not looking to the next chance.” For Hill, awareness of his own sense of vocation has only come in retrospect. It’s as he looks back over his shoulder that he is able to see some sense of who he is and what he’s about. 

Finally, Marcus Wareing’s sense of vocation came primarily through hard slog, persistence and failure. And even more through significant relationships, firstly with his father and then with other notable chefs like Ramsey. According to Wright, “When you think about it, it’s a common enough tale. Seldom does anyone achieve much without finding a mentor for at least some of the way, someone to feed off, someone to believe in, someone to journey with. Very little comes from a vacuum.”

Wareing’s self confidence was always slight, but his belief in the wisdom and giftedness of others was unrelenting. He burrowed into these relationships, determined to learn everything he could, to feed of the passion and talent of others. And as he did his own giftedness in the kitchen blossomed: “When he was racked by doubt, questioning his own abilities, he still kept to the path, relentless … like a lonely long-distance runner pressing on through the pain, like a boxer on the ropes refusing to go down.”

What strikes me is that each story is so different, each personality unique. Yet each is gifted and has found a ‘home’ in the kitchen.

We Baptists hold tenaciously to the ‘priesthood of all believers’ … all believers. It behooves us to be sure that our language of ‘calling’ is one that both empowers and includes, one that celebrates difference, and one that invites every person of faith onto the field and into the game … or the kitchen!

[Simon Wright, Tough Cookies: Tales of Obsession, Toil and Tenacity from Britain’s Kitchen Heavyweights. London: Profile Books, 2005]

From the kitchen to the pulpit

Chefs are not always great writers. There are some wonderful exceptions, but most gifted chefs are doing what they do best without literary diversion. While recipe books abound, to have a chef write more explicitly of what draws him to his profession–and what keeps him there–is rare.

It is this that makes Daniel Boulud’s Letters to a Young Chef an interesting read. The esteemed Frenchman, based in Manhattan, draws together a summation of his culinary wisdom through a series of letters to an aspiring chef just beginning her career. Though the book is not particularly well written, Boulud manages to convey his passion for life in the kitchen. While he’s a man of sizeable ego—I expect this goes with his echelon of culinary success—what he provides is a most practical resource and a significant insight into the world of professional cooking.

Now I am sure this fact alone would put most of you to sleep. But stay with me!

What struck me as I read this book is just how applicable Boulud’s wisdom is beyond the kitchen. Today I am a minister in the church, and I reckon Boulud’s final letter entitled Ten Commandments of a Chef—a helpful summary of the entire  book—could well serve as a good recipe for effective ministry.

Here’s what he says:

1. KEEP YOUR KNIVES SHARP: As the basic tools of the kitchen, knives are respected and indispensable. What’s more, Boulud says, the daily ritual of sharpening is mandatory. The tools of pastoral ministry are many and the Bible is surely one of the most foundational. Though it’s a wieldy and sometimes perplexing read, I’ve learned to respect its unique authority and wisdom.  I’ve learned that the daily rituals involved in honing my skills as a listener, an exegete and an interpreter of this book are basic to effective and sustained ministry.

2. WORK WITH THE BEST PEOPLE: Boulud emphasizes the need for good mentors in the kitchen, a number of them, all with different strengths and in a range of disciplines. I’ve had such people in the kitchen and the church, those who have formed me both as chef and pastor. A career without mentors, Boulud says, is an impoverished and shallow one; so my ‘greatness’ in pastoral leadership will only bloom in the fertile soil of those who have gone before me.

3. KEEP YOUR STATION ORDERLY: Good organizational skills and thorough preparation early in the day, Boulud says, enable the chef to face the overwhelming intensity of demand with speed, efficiency and consistent excellence. What this means for pastoral leaders of various personality types is up for discussion, but there is truth to be had regardless. I reckon attention to detail is an underrated aspect of ministry.

4. PURCHASE WISELY: A good chef respects the culinary value of every single ingredient he works with. Nothing should be wasted, Boulud urges, nor taken for granted. What we can do with the purchasing metaphor I’m not sure, but respect for the rich diversity evident in the body of Christ is biblical advice. Boulud finds an irrepressible joy in appreciating the most mundane ingredient and discovering its unique potential.  That makes me smile when I think of the church as a richly diverse community of gifted individuals.

5. SEASON WITH PRECISION: Precise seasoning elevates the potential of every ingredient and every meal served. So, Boulud says, the most creative chef will be disciplined and focused when it comes to this art. It is an art, both in cooking and pastoral ministry. The end of a promising career in the kitchen is in sight when everything that goes out to the dining room begins to taste the same. So, too, in our preaching, our leadership and pastoral care.  Ouch!

6. MASTER THE HEAT: It’s such a fundamental element of good cooking. An intimate knowledge of heat and mastering its use is essential to an excellent result. Kitchens are hot places. A good chef can work in it and with it to greatest advantage. The old saying, ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’ has an unattractive side when applied to ministry: a macho spirituality that rings hollow. Yet is has a side of truth too. The heat comes in all sorts of ways. And sometimes our spiritual metal shows through when it’s at its peak.

7. LEARN THE WORLD OF FOOD: Immersion in the diverse world of food enriches the resources a good chef has to draw upon and will open the way for greatness. One of Boulud’s most insistent encouragements to the young chef is to experience a broad range of cuisines as early in her career as possible. Some of the most notable and innovative changes to impact the world of fine food have arisen out of a creative fusion between styles and traditions. I can only say that as a young pastor, I wish that I had been guided to know and appreciate the richness and diversity within the wider Church and to find ways to bring the tremendous resources of the faith to bear upon my own life and ministry within one particular tradition.

8. KNOW THE CLASSICS: According to Boulud, knowing the fundamentals of stocks, sauces and seasoning is a non-negotiable. Innovations in cookery always arise out of a respect for the traditions in which they bloom. There is no end to new innovations in church and ministry. The rate at which new books and resources are published is breath taking. Yet there is something about returning routinely to the classic resources of our faith, to good theology, to the stories of faith and spirituality that have formed our traditions and us. Innovation is wonderful, but it must never lose touch with its past or its reason for being.

9. ACCEPT CRITICISM: Learn to receive it graciously, use it wisely, and give it sensitively and constructively. So Boulud says from some painful years of experience. It will destroy you or make you, he says, and to simply ignore it is not only poor business, it is plain stupid pride. Well said, yet Boulud’s own testimony underlines just how hard it is to put into practice.

10. KEEP A JOURNAL: For Boulud, keeping an accurate and detailed journal has been an important resource in sustaining his professional life for the long haul. It’s not only a journal of recipes, ideas and suggestions. It’s a reflective practice that disciplines the writer to remember, to think and to envision. What wisdom there is here for those who are ‘called’ to remember, reflect and envision.

So there you have it–wisdom from stove to pulpit.  And all in ten easy steps! : )

A Monday Prayer

Monday again. Another weekend tucked away. Some family illness invaded the space; plans put aside, time rearranged.  Not the restful, restorative one we hoped for.  Still, Monday comes and the persistent rhythm continues.

Like everyone else, I feel torn sometimes, fragmented, pulled in different directions. Home and work feel like different, even competing worlds. I have to remind myself that work and home are not compartments in opposition, but streams running in the same direction; that weekend and weekday are not alternative universes but all part and parcel of a life lived well.

This prayer says something I often feel.

Pigeon holes, compartments, and other places

It’s so separated, Lord,
this life of work
and family
and you.

Just when I’m most involved at work
and solutions are coming
and deadlines are being met
and the race is being won,
it’s time to lay it down—
dismiss it
and go home.

But there another life waits.
It did not wait while I was gone
but expects my return.
A life with people, plans, needs,
personalities, schedules,
and a love affair to nurture.

Then it’s Sunday and I enter the third cell
to give you my worship,
to refresh my soul, to resurrect and to listen,
to deepen our involvement
you and me.

But then it’s Monday again,
And it’s like putting my hand
in a familiar glove;
to pick up work again
just where it was laid aside
by tense fingers
and anxious eyes
three days ago.

Help me to make just one compartment, Lord,
out of this trinity of transition:

Must one life be laid down in order for another to begin?

O Mystery which is Unity!
Help me, Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

Ken Thompson, Bless this Desk: Prayers 9 to 5, Abingdon, 1976, 11-12.