“Magical Power, Marvelous Action! Chopping Wood, Carrying Water…” thus reflected an early Zen master of China. The ancient wisdom found beauty and profound spirituality at being fully present in the daily grind. So when young men strived to reach the profound heights of the path (tao), the sages advised: “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water,” and importantly, “If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit; but whatever you do, don’t wobble.” I believe these sayings resonate with the wisdom proclaimed in the Word of God: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10). It’s about keeping calm and faithfully carrying on everyday actions at hand, especially when times call for discernment.
It’s easy to wobble in the path of ministry. There’s wood to chop and water to carry, but it’s not rare for ministers to get carried away by ‘leadership restlessness.’ We’ve seen and perhaps felt some of that while navigating through the pandemic. A lot of motions have been made and voices raised out of our own need for recognition and acknowledgment. But to what end are these strivings, I sometimes ask myself, if we wobble and can’t carry water without spilling. And this question has been increasingly a personal one as of late, especially after reading an article by Fr. Richard Rohr on ‘Justice of Harm and Justice of Healing.’ Has my pursuit of justice been indeed life-giving and healing? Could I confidently say that I’ve done no harm, that I’ve always spoken out of love, free from self-righteous indignation and complacency?
It’s not easy to fully immerse in a moment of stillness when the world is shaky and uncertain. I often find my own inner life shaking, even in the still of the night. Thomas Merton was right: “So when the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten; when the belt fits, the belly is forgotten; when the heart is right, ‘for’ and ‘against’ are forgotten.” At the end of the day, my inner wobbles boil down to another question: Has my heart found its rightful place?
Our heart’s rightful place is in Jesus. In him is the path of life in truth: compassion, rather than condemnation; freedom, rather than bondage; peace, rather than anxiety. The real cause of anxiety and inner wobbles is not external but internal – the heart that hasn’t found true satisfaction in Jesus. So at moments of life’s restlessness, a friend of mine reminds himself, “Be satisfied in Jesus!” With those words a pastor blessed my friend when he first decided to follow the call to ministry. And he has lived by that phrase ever since.
Recently one pastor I know got deeply hurt by some very unkind remarks coming from a church member. I told him, “Turn the experience to your benefit. We pastors have a general tendency to be people-pleasers. These criticisms, as unfair as they may be, will help you to break free from the need to please everyone.” People-pleasers often take other people’s happiness for their own happiness and become heartbroken when confronted with disapproval and disrespect. In a real-life ministry context, all sorts of misunderstandings and accusations fall on pastors. Many pastors often struggle alone, bruised and wounded at heart, many to the point of getting sick.
I myself have been a people-pleaser for a long time. But something changed in me after going through a very painful experience about 25 years ago. Hundreds of church members fiercely refused to receive me as their newly appointed pastor. It was an unbearable experience at that time, but the process of coping with it ironically gave me the freedom I had not tasted before. People can judge and deny me at will regardless of who I really am. This realization helped me break away from an anxious desire to please everyone.
May we not wobble but be still, and be fully present in the actions at hand to give life and share the love.