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The table saw and I had a disagreement. I lost!

I was working on this great furniture project in my garage and was not being as careful as I should have been. I now have three healing fingers, but thanks be to God, I still have 10 fingers. As the ER doctor put it, “Your hand-modeling days are over.”

A friend remembered a Christian Century article written by Will Willimon titled “My Encounter with a Chainsaw: Accidental Lessons” (April 21, 2009), where Will described his injury, “My arm looked like a piece of flesh, badly butchered flank steak.” I hope to compare scars when Will is in town for our Preaching and Worship Conference on Oct. 5-6.

I, too, learned some lessons.

Tragedy can strike when we focus on the wrong thing. With a whirling 10-inch blade a few inches from my fingers, I was intently focused on a piece of wood. The next time I want to examine a piece of wood, I’ll cut off the saw and move to the workbench a few feet away. When I write it down, it sounds so clear: “10-inch blade whirling away, and I am looking at a piece of wood.”

In ministry it is hard to focus on the most important things because less important things are forced upon us. Often, churches give more attention to “Where should we relocate a Sunday school class?” than to “How can we grow our church?”

When we give too much attention to small things, we forget the really important ones, like a whirling saw blade.

The familiar is apt to bite us the hardest. We treat the familiar as benign. Ministers tend to stumble over the routine. We tend to see the extraordinary and unusual coming at a great distance; we prepare for it, weigh our possibilities and create a strategy. Yet often ministers will find themselves “in hot water” because they did not pay enough attention to the familiar: “Well, I am in the nursing home all the time. I meant to get by and see Miss Sallie but I just didn’t.” So Miss Sallie dies, and a nursing assistant tells a family member, “The pastor never visited her.” Then at the funeral, a guilt-ridden nephew, who never visited Miss Sallie, complains “the church let down Miss Sallie.”

The familiar can take a big bite.

Many of us were drawn to ministry partly because of the delightful variety to our work and service. Even so, there is a lot of routine in ministry: Sunday morning, Wednesday night, committee meetings, hospitals and nursing homes to visit, newsletters and so on. Embracing the routine part of ministry is well worth the trouble it keeps away.

Pain is serious and easily dominates life. It is hard to be thoughtful, kind or spiritual when waiting on time to take the next pain pill. Pain wrecks life. Physical pain demands attention. I can only imagine how difficult life is for those who live with chronic pain, or with emotional pain that dominates life. Serious pain puts all of life in perspective.

Faith is a source of comfort and assurance in the struggle of life. A lot of people experience hardship and tragedy and immediately ask, “Why did God allow this to happen?” By contrast, I found myself reflecting on my personal stupidity. To be sure, my particular accident included a fairly large portion of carelessness on my part, but even so, through it all I pictured God as a sympathetic observer anxious for a foolish little boy.

I suspect serious injury and pain draw out into the open our true theology. We “practice good theology” in worship, in daily devotionals, in observations in Bible study, in dialogue about theology in a classroom. Another kind of theology rises to the surface when one pulls off a bloody glove to see if the end of a finger is still there. The former we practice, the latter is at the core of our being. And it is the latter that either sustains us in the struggles of life or fails us.

Finally, we are all slow learners. One of my strongest feelings in this experience has been embarrassment. “I am smarter than this. I am experienced. I am capable.” Or so I thought.

With four academic and professional degrees to my credit, I love the story about the farming community where no one went past the eighth grade. Yet, one guy persisted for many years, high school, college and eventually earned a doctorate, which prompted a local farmer to say, “I believe he is the slowest learner we ever had in these parts.”

Ron Crawford is president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. This column first appeared on his blog.

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