This is the first of this series of podcasts. Below is the written version, for those who prefer that medium.
Life is funny. While we tend to think of it in a linear sense (birth to death, for instance,) our paths rarely follow anything that even remotely looks like a straight line. Yet my experience tells me that all things work for the good. If something doesn’t make sense, I file it for future reference.
I have always had a thing for trees. As a 2-year old, my father would bundle me up and we’d go out into the Iowa winter to split wood. An old New Englander, he wouldn’t attempt to split the elm firewood unless it was below zero. I’d sit on a stump and watch him swing the heavy sledge (so heavy that I could only drag it). I’d listen to the ring of the steel on steel, the snap, pop, crack of the log as it yielded to his persuasion. Older, I’d climb anything. By the time I was 13, I’d turned climbing trees into a little business that eventually paid my way through college. I’ll be 59 in the fall, still climbing trees. There’s more to me than climbing trees. Left turn.
I love to write, too. I have a voice of my own, first developed with the encouragement of my junior high English teacher. Teachers over the years told me I should be a writer. I said “pffft. You can’t make a living doing that.” So I became a forester. My chosen variety of forester was logging: it’s where resource management meets the resource. You know all those fairytales about the poor woodcutter…there’s more than a grain of truth there. Logging is a hard way to make a living. So it’s a joke. “pffft. You can’t make a living doing that, either.” Maybe it should be chalked up to karma.
In an effort to improve the lot of loggers in Pennsylvania, I attempted to get a loggers association started. Pennsylvania is, after all, the number one state in the US for production of hardwood lumber. We are fragmented, independent and not generally well situated financially. On one hand, no wood reaches a sawmill or other processing plant without us. On the other, we are not typically empowered, much less willing to speak truth to power (“the Man.”) As part of this often maligned community, I have come to believe that there really aren’t any better people on the planet. They’re down to earth. They possess a wisdom intrinsic to the work they do. It’s dangerous but rewarding, a lifestyle more than a job. One of the other members of our fledgling group quoted Michel de Montagne:
I prefer the company of peasants. They have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.
That was almost 20 years ago. Connections and ministry are often latent: that is, their meaning and significance in our lives are not immediately apparent. Right turn.
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative program in Pennsylvania needed someone to develop, administer and teach classes. In 1998, I applied for the job. They asked me to work for them. I loved the work. I was making a difference. In many ways, I was the face of logger training in the state. I built relationships with many people across the forest products industry. In 2001, our program was awarded best in the country. It was the job I thought I would retire from. Spike the brakes. Hard left. Wrenching turn.
My boss said “I need you to change some things.” I told him to make up a list and I’d see what I could do. When the list was on my desk and I read it, I realized that what he was asking of me was to change my very being. I was to become more organized. More focused. I don’t remember what else. But as I sat with the list, it became clear to me that I couldn’t be what he wanted. I told him so. He asked me to resign. I think he was as surprised as I was. Call can be like that, you know. I had (apparently) done what I was supposed to. The security of a weekly paycheck and fringe benefits evaporated overnight. Poof.
I say call can be like that. Word spread that I was out “cutting” again. Work rained from heaven. And while I loved the work of logger training, I quickly realized how much I missed physical work. Getting fired was a corrective measure, a form of salvation. It was an important part of the picture which allows me to speak to the ills of society today. Through the centuries, many Quakers have spoken of enduring trials so that they could understand the condition of those they proposed to minister to. Pause.
As an unprogrammed Friend (Quaker), I realize that revelation often has its genesis in seemingly insignificant events, the way bubbles generate from a nucleation site in a glass of soda. That’s been true for my conception of ministry. At first, God was present in Meeting on Sunday, but that broadened and eventually included all of life. In the unprogrammed tradition we are all ministers, having abolished the laity. So there is no need for a pastor to stand in the front of the church and deliver a sermon. Left turn.
I was called to attend seminary and found a home at the Earlham School of Religion. I live at home in central Pennsylvania and take online classes in the spring and fall. I continue to climb trees and log, running my small business. Three times a year, I make the trek to Richmond IN, about 7 hours away. They call these on-site classes intensives because they teach a three-credit class in two weeks. The first one I took was a writing class which reignited my love of writing. At the end of the class, the prof asked if I intended to continue journaling. I responded that I wasn’t sure.
On my way home from that first intensive, I was driving on I-80. A road sign caught my eye. It said “Youngstown 10, New York City 405.” My mind, being rather like a pig with a bowling ball, began to play with the implications. I soon arrived at the obvious conclusion: according to the sign there is absolutely nothing between Youngstown and New York City. They’re wrong, I said. I happen to know better. There are people and places, characters and wisdom scattered throughout that entire distance. To think that anyone could consider Pennsylvania the eastern fly-over zone. Harrumph. That reflection was captured in the journal and the practice continues today. Next stop. No right on red.
By last fall, I had completed the prerequisites for Supervised Ministry. It’s a year-long class (2 semesters) where the student has the opportunity to practice the ministry for which they have received clearness. In my case, I started out thinking that my ministry would be in writing but because I am told that I’m a good extemporaneous speaker, the call enlarged to communication. I had no idea what such a project looked like. Stephanie Crumley-Effinger, the ESR professor in charge of supervised ministry told me not to worry about that, just fill out the application. The project will become apparent in due time. It has. Left again.
In January 2015, I took Christian Ethics as an intensive. You would be right if you asked what Christian ethics has to do with logging (aside from the ethical questions associated with logging itself). Well, among the readings was an essay by Ada María Isasi-Díaz, on Mujerista Theology. Her thesis was that the peasants have a wisdom related to the rhythms of their lives that those in the upper classes are ignorant of. Light bulb.
Connect the dots. Montagne. Youngstown to New York City. Peasant wisdom, in this case the wisdom of my friends in the logging community of Pennsylvania. A project was born.
A question, a loose end, remained: How does telling the stories of otherwise invisible people constitute ministry to them, to me, to my audience? The answer lies in my understanding of ministry, described above. Life lived properly is ministry. It is dedicated to restoring the wholeness of the world, of creation. In that way, the telling of the stories of the invisible and the listening by the unknowing help to restore wholeness. My role in the process is that of bridge, joining two sides who would otherwise not know each other.