Now, I mean something more by the word soul than what is ordinarily meant by folks inside and outside the Christian community. Most folks — Christians included — have an underdeveloped notion of soul. Owing to our species’ preoccupation with our post-mortem fate, many folks think of soul as that barely tangible but certainly spiritual something somewhere inside us that survives after death. That is to say, though they are not quite sure what a soul is, most people are quite sure their soul is eternally destined — either for heaven or for hell.
My use of the word is broader, taking in the whole of this life: emotions, embodiment, interpersonal relations, volition, and cognition. Think of the compliment, “That lady can sing. She’s got soul — real soul.” Or, recall how you felt when something true and beautiful engaged your whole person, reorienting your living from that point forward for the good. When this happens to folks, they can sometimes be heard to say, “I needed that. That was good for my soul.” In both examples, the word soul refers to something of profound, even eternal weight. Yet soul will not wait for eternity before it starts us living. Soul is about living, not dying.
The week of which I speak was packed with detailed agendas, face-to-face conversations with elders, and long committee meetings. By Wednesday night, I was weary. Thursday morning came too soon; I was not thrilled with a 6:30 a.m. Bible Study followed by another day doing church business inside a hot, stuffy office. And, on top of needing to complete all that had not been finished the previous day because of several unscheduled meetings, I had promised to climb rock Thursday with a half dozen or so youth.
I love climbing. I felt God’s special blessing when First Church of Durango, Colo., called me to serve as head of staff almost a year ago. “Wow,” I thought, “Eric Liddell, The Flying Scotsman, was blessed to run. I get to preach, teach, write — and climb. How could I not go to Durango?” So, when I say I was not looking forward to climbing rock, know I was in trouble. Something was deadly off. Something was out of kilter. The earth tilted; I lost my footing and slid away rapidly. Over coffee that Thursday morning I told the men with whom I meet that I had not wanted to get out of bed. I most certainly did not want to go climbing. I was exhausted. And, I was too far behind in tending the business of the church. A friend, Alex, said, “Go, it will be good for you to touch rock.”
Reluctantly, I went. Within an hour the earth righted. I recovered my bearings. Over on X-Rock, just behind the Colorado Department of Transportation north of Durango with Kara, Cameron, Kendall, Rydell, and Chris, I reclaimed my soul.
We are put here to live. Pastors too. However, while keeping the business of church business going, I had forgotten to live. I had lost soul, my soul. God sent five youths to rescue me. Tethered to one another, hanging from a thread, dangling over rock I remembered, we are meant to live! Moreover, I remembered that only our living well will be of any value in ministry. If we merely endure and are miserable, if our souls are angry and contentious and petty and absorbed with church business, it will not matter how much money we raise for the poor or how many meetings we hold to discuss becoming a friendly presence in the community or how many people attend our Sunday services. Belayed by a youth elder on a forty-foot rock face named “Elementary Wall,” I remembered this elementary truth: If we wither and weaken in doing church business it will be because we have long since exchanged “church as a community of people living before the face of God” for the upright and respectable notion of “church as an important social institution to be maintained.” The question is, can any of us afford to maintain church-as-institution and in the process lose our souls?
We are called to live and to live abundantly. Pastors too.Yet if in all of our meeting and planning and strategizing, if in all of this we forget to live happily before God, if we forget to live abundantly before the face of the Almighty, we will be lost. Only if we learn again to live — to feel rock and rope and flesh and sun — only if we tend our souls carefully, and fertilize them with beauty and laughter, and give them rest will they grow larger and larger. And only if our souls grow larger than the business of church will our ministry be one of hope, hope for others to find life in Jesus Christ. This is the hope we want our children to know. Hope is what these children gave me.
Just an ordinary week later, it happened again. This time I promised to float the Animas River, which cuts through downtown Durango, on tubes with our church youth. However, Thursday’s planned outing with Clay, Jordan, Lauren, Alexa, Cameron, and Kara was preceded by another hectic week of scheduled meetings and difficult conversations and agenda-laden discussions with adults. (Agendas, what is it about adults and agendas?) Again, by Thursday morning I was behind on my letters and prayers and studies and spiritual direction. I almost cancelled …
Yet my toes had barely touched the cold edge of the Animas up at the 32nd Street put-in, behind City-Market, when I knew deep inside my soul that I had once again been found. I was going to be OK. I was in a good place. Here with kids and tourists and bicyclists and artists and runners and walkers, floating in the sun, floating south beneath a high August sun shining down on Durango, floating the late summer’s thinning “River of Lost Souls,” and the clear water running over my body, over and through every pore and laughing … this living, laughing river, this floating … Coram Deo.
El Rio de las Animas Perdidas, tube floating this ancient river before the face of God, I recalled again: living well is well with my soul.
William L. Mangrum is head of staff, First Church, Durango, Colo.