“You meditatin’?” I looked up from the shimmering school of fish below to find the source of the interruption. Next to me I saw the straight figure of Leroy, leaning against a piling with the sun rising behind him. He had joined me silently while I sat at the end of the James Cistern dock; hanging my legs over deep water on the very last board and watching the school of tiny silver fish that had swarmed around the dock after my presence scared off the sea gulls. Leroy was a good guy. One of the best. Hard working. Kind to his niece Kourtney. Always ready with a big, bright grin and an encouraging word. He had been the first person to cut open a papaya for me, and teach me about coconuts and how to wield a machete. He was kind and gentle with the kids, except when he was throwing dodgeballs at them during wall-ball or correcting them when they misbehaved. One word from Leroy and a child would go running off after whoever they had wronged to beg for forgiveness.
“You meditatin’?” he repeated as I removed my ear buds. “Yup,” I answered, smiling. I found myself laughing internally that I had come all the way down to the end of the long James Cistern dock to be alone, only to find it was a crowded place to be at this time of day; what with the seagulls, the never ending school of minnows, the large jack fish, and the smaller pike fish. And, of course, Leroy.
“I’m just sitting here watching the big fish eat the little fish,” I joked to Leroy.
“That’s what happens all day long here,” he replied, “All. Day. Long. Big fish eating smaller fish.”
He was probably just talking about fish, but he said it with such profound weight – each word dropping like a bag of flour – that it struck a chord in me that summoned broader thoughts. It’s the way of the world, I suppose. Big fish eats small fish. Rich nation uses poor nation. Superstore bankrupts Mom & Pop Shop. Big church devours small church.
I had not realized I was a small fish when I started out in ministry. I’ve never been very good at accepting my limits. To me, fish were fish. Pastors were pastors. Churches were churches. People were people.
So, it was a bit of a wake up call when a pastor came up to me at a church meeting a few years ago and said, “Oh, you’re Hannah Bonner. I’m going to take over your church.” Simple as that. And I went from being a pastor who does pray, to being a pastor who is prey. He had a large church, they were looking to expand by putting other churches in the area out of business, or by subsuming them, and I was to be honored that I had been chosen for the latter category. Small churches, like small fish, were only good for eating. I disagreed.
What a confusing situation for an inexperienced pastor. I felt like high school Michael Jordan – recently cut from the varsity team – finding himself on the court with NBA Michael Jordan. I felt I needed to protect my flock, but I did not really know how. So I was strong, and stubborn and did my best to fight for my church to have the space to find out who they were and live into that calling. We had our ups and downs, but I had a blast with them and we moved forward in major ways. I survived. That strong little church survived. We all kept swimming.
I have survived a lot of situations. Mostly brought on by the fact that my package does not match the wrapping. When I was a child my mother warned me about that, but it took me years and years to understand. When she was a doctoral candidate at Bryn Mawr, she had warned me that being small and bubbly leads people to expect weak and bumbling. When they find instead someone who expects to be treated as an equal, it is as if they are stubbing their toe on a stone – the unexpectedness of it can be very painful both for them and for the little stone.
As a little stone, I have survived a lot. I can survive a lot. I have even been picked up by David a time or two. But I want to do more than survive. I want to do more than be that boxer in the ring proving how many hits I can take. I am not a little fish. I am not a little stone. I am a woman. I am a pastor. I am a leader. I am a servant.
So this boxer took herself out of the ring.
I recalled why I had come here to Eleuthera. After resigning from an untenable situation, I had decided to accept Abraham and Brenda’s generous invitation to spend some time here because I knew there was one thing I needed more than anything else. More than financial stability, health insurance, a home, or security – I needed God. Oh did I ever.
It should be a pretty big clue that if you have slipped into surviving ministry, if you are submitting to the pressures and giving up the things that Jesus would never give up – Sabbath, time apart with God, rest, food – then you have let someone beside God take the helm of your ship. If your ship is heading towards burn out, that is never a direction God would steer you in under any circumstance.
You don’t consciously hand over the reigns of your calling to your supervisor or your church or your denomination or your own expectations. It just happens, bit by bit, meeting by meeting, pressure by overwhelming pressure. And then you look around and you realize, how did we get here? Well, we got here by believing that we are the ones who make the impossible happen, rather than God.
This past week I read the letters of Mother Theresa and was amazed by how constantly and nonchalantly she talks about retreat. For she and her colleagues, it is a celebrated, anticipated and regular part of life. It is how she found her path. Yet, in the institutional waters I have swum in, it is often seen as a sign of weakness. Pastors brag about how they have not used any of their vacation time this year; Bishops and DS’s tell you how busy they are; and church bureaucrats share with you all the places they have been and the meetings they have attended for the glory of God. Leaders like Bishop Martin McLee – who does a great job of modeling Sabbath for young leaders by posting constantly about how relaxed he is while on vacation – are rare. It is as if our excessively militarized culture has distorted the spiritual merit of the word retreat so that it can only be seen through the lens of defeat; we fear it will mean running away from something and giving up, rather than running towards something and claiming life.
Everyone needs retreat. Both the big fish and the little fish. It is when we don’t get it that we start to eat one another.
I have chosen to retreat. With holy boldness. With a passion for life. With a conviction that my calling cannot be devoured, subsumed, stolen, defeated, or destroyed. With a determination that it cannot be bought because it is not for sale. With a peace that it will still be there when I return, because “there” is wherever God is. With joy that retreat does not mean I am lost, it means I am being found.
A calling moves and adapts like water; it hits a rock and it flows around it; it finds dry ground and it seeps into it; it finds no way to the sea, so it carves a canyon. We are not the ones to create or control our callings. We will not know what they are unless we are quiet enough to listen.
I say this not as an expert, but from a place of deep humility and regret.
Retreat is when the divine interrupts our schedule and our plans and our goals and reminds us of whose we are, of who we are, of who we want to be.
I am learning to be thankful for divine interruptions.
So as I looked up at Leroy standing above me on the dock, I had to smile. Leroy was my divine interruption. Reminding me that I was not alone. Reminding me that the world is full of wonderful people, and that many of them are my friends. Reminding me that big fish eat little fish all day long – but I’m no fish.
As Leroy headed back down the dock, I opened my bible. I was planning to read Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions… The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
I turned the page, and in the damp air, the pages stuck together, skipping me forward to Psalm 56, “This I know, that God is for me.” This. I. Know. That. God. Is. For. Me. Once again, each word falling with profound weight on my soul.
God likes to interrupt.