A Sweet Tooth for Black Diamonds

Whistler - Black Tusk

I’ve never snowboarded, but I’ve skied most my entire life.


My first time, age 12, I fell off the T-bar half way up the track, which forced me to the backside of the mountain: a jagged edge of wild and dangerous steepness, thickly hummocked with moguls. The run was ranked, in the parlance of ski hills, black diamond. Experts only. Too stupid to walk to base, I hurled myself down that slope headlong, skis crisscrossing, poles windmilling. It was pure slapstick. It was a burlesque of pratfalls and face-plants.


I lived to tell the story, and ever after have had a sweet tooth for black diamonds.


But, as I said, I’ve never snowboarded. I watched, 25 or so years back, as the first few boarders appeared on ski hills, timid and klutzy. I watched as their numbers doubled, quadrupled, exploded, and their skill grew. Now half the mountain teems with them, swooping and soaring.


Though the sport bears a rough resemblance to skiing – both involve strapping your feet to a thin slippery blades, standing on some frozen wind-scoured pinnacle, and flinging yourself to the wind – I can tell it’s very different. Different muscles, different technique, different sense of balance. Different as riding a motorcycle is from driving a car. Different as rowing a boat is from paddling a kayak.


Different as pastoring is from professoring.


Which is my real point. I finished, in early December, my first semester of professoring (I made that word up) after 24 years of pastoring. Though the two vocations bear rough resemblance to each other – both involve strapping your heart to some burning concern, standing on some rickety lonely perch, and flinging yourself to the wind – I can tell you they’re very different. Different muscles, different technique, different sense of balance.


A 3-hour lecture, for instance, has little in common with a 35-minute sermon (other than, when you’re off your game, your listeners experience both as eternal drudgery and existential misery). The lecture is expansive, the sermon distilled. The lecture aims for breadth, the sermon conciseness. The lecture seeks to range over wide ground, the sermon to get to the point. In a lecture, you pace yourself. In a sermon, you uncork yourself.


But more than that, the rhythms of the two vocations are vastly different. In the pastorate, there is no natural beginning or end. Everything flows into everything else, world without end. There is a beauty to this: stay long enough, and the child you dedicate becomes the young woman whose marriage you perform who becomes the young mother whose child you dedicate, and so on. The academy, on the other hand, has a very precise timetable of beginnings and endings – classes start this date, run these weeks, end that day. You have an intense relationship with a small clutch of people for a short stretch of time. Then it’s done. You stop, breathe, re-gather, and start again.


It has been difficult to make the transition – it’s been embarrassing and frustrating at times to go from something I’d attained some mastery of to something I’m a rank and clumsy novice at.


But the challenge has also been invigorating. I loved my first term. I love this new sport. It’s snapped me out of a trance of repetition, pulled me out of a rut of complacency. It’s stirred in me fresh hunger to learn. It’s awakened instincts and muscles never used or long dormant.


It’s forced me to the backside of the mountain.


And there I’ve discovered, I still have a sweet tooth for black diamonds.



Apologies for my long silence.

It’s been a summer of upheaval and dislocation – none of it bad, all of it stressful. Since I last posted anything here, June 14, I have changed both location and vocation: from Duncan, British Columbia to Calgary, Alberta; from pastoral ministry to academic work. I traded the Pacific Ocean for the Rockies, the pulpit for the lectern.

I spent the summer in-between: not a pastor anymore, not a professor yet; not from Duncan for long, not in Calgary for a while.


Then last week we moved, and I started work. I write this the morning after my first class – a three-hour marathon that I have to repeat 14 more times. I drove home last night both exhausted and grateful. Three hours is a long time to try to hold anyone’s attention. The students were engaging, curious, insightful, and stayed admirably awake. But me? I was reeling.


I kept having to remind myself not to preach. Me instinct for that roots deep. I speak a text, and my mind crowds with illustration, application, exhortation – all my pastoral impulses run amok. This isn’t entirely a bad thing in a classroom – after all, students need to be doers of the word, just like the rest of us – but I could see the look of bewilderment on several faces. Should I be writing this down? Will this be on the final exam? Is this related to your last point?


It’s going to take me a while to get the rhythm for this. Right now, I’m in-between.


Around us, a household slowly emerges from a maze of boxes, thanks mostly to Cheryl’s tireless efforts. The space, inch by inch, gets colonized with our furniture, our pictures, our presence. (My office at work, on the other hand, looks like one of those rooms from a bombed out library in WWII. Alas, my efforts at conquering it are less heroic).


Part way through last night’s class, I asked each person to introduce themself, to tell where they were born, and to say what place they now called home. I was last to go.


“My name is Mark,” I said. “And I was born in Calgary.” Then I flinched answering the last question. “And what place do I call home?


I wanted to say Duncan.


With a shock of sadness, I knew it’s not so. Then with a shock of joy, I realized what is so: I’m already here. I’m no longer in-between.


I’m home.

Establish the Work of Our Hands



Several years ago, I wrote a book on rest (The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, Thomas Nelson, 2004). Part way through the writing, I realized there was a massive hole in my thinking: I had neglected to reflect on or write about work. So I went back and, near the book’s beginning, inserted a chapter on the meaning and value of work.

A theology of work is as needed as it is scarce. Few people I know – even pastors and missionaries – reflect theologically on their work. We seldom see how bricklaying or selling shoes or studying spreadsheets – or even preparing a sermon – is a form of worship. This is a sore loss, and contributes to high levels of burnout, mediocrity, driven-ness, insubordination, sloth, dissatisfaction, and endless dreaming about greener pastures.

God is a worker. Six days he sets aside for vigorous, ambitious, creative work – making and naming and running things. And when he created man and woman in his image, the key point of resemblance is that we are workers, too. We steward what God has made, join him in naming it, and receive his authority to rule over it. Our identity is deeply rooted in these vocational acts.

The fallout of sin complicates all this. Now, we earn our keep by the sweat of our brows. Now, the soil we work – or words we craft, or computers we tinker with, or machines we repair, or children we raise – are riddled with thorns. The work of our hands raises blisters. And give headaches and backaches, and puts dark circles under our eyes.

But the work itself matters. Moses, after a lengthy prayer (Psalm 90) that both extols the eternal nature of God and bemoans the temporal and afflicted nature of man, ends with a hope and a plea:

May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us;
    establish the work of our hands for us—
    yes, establish the work of our hands
(Psalm 90:17).

Moses is asking God to value, honor and further human work. He’s asking that what we do – tending, mending, naming, growing – would participate in God’s eternal purposes.

It’s a good prayer. And it’s the basis for a theology of work. I believe that having such a theology has several benefits:

  • It helps us connect our everyday, ordinary tasks with God’s eternal, heavenly purposes.
  • It helps us see our work in true perspective – to neither obsess over trivial matters nor miss what’s important.
  • It prevents us from making either an idol or an enemy of our work.
  • It helps us find balance in our work between fostering relationships and doing tasks.
  • It scales back the poor motives we sometimes bring to our work – greed, acquisitiveness, laziness, entitlement, jealousy, the lust for power or control, selfish ambition, etc.
  • It turns our work into a form of worship: it motivates us to do all for the glory of God.
  • It helps us see ourselves as stewards, not paupers or owners.
  • It keeps us dependent on God for fresh energy, insight, endurance, motivation, creativity.
  • It awakens and sustains thankfulness.
  • It deepens our trust in God during seasons of vocational transition.

Indeed, O Lord, establish the work of our hands.