I’ve seen people clutch their Bibles, but worship their checkbooks, counting and covering zero after zero. Retirement plans speak louder than God most days, right?
I’ve seen people clutch their scriptures, but bow to their partisan tract, carefully edited Twitter feed, their internet-assembled philosophic convictions shared in group emails people try to opt out of but can’t because “that’s just Uncle Bob,” and sure he’s xenophobic and racist, but he’s “from a different time” as if the past is an excuse for a prejudiced present.
I’ve watched people go straight from closing their New Testaments to complaining at the diner because the waiter has too many piercings, or balking at the short-staffed reality while in their back pocket their MAGA hat pads the seat of their unvaccinated butt, confused why more people aren’t at brunch in a pandemic.
Everyone has a holy writing that they live out. Some are emblazoned on hats.
I’ve seen people pray the prayers of the church but hold Marx as their true Messiah.
I’ve seen people walk from the Mosque, but all the while they have been calculating how much they’ll pocket next year with that big tax break.
I’ve seen people humbly exit the temple and enter the sacred Holy of Holies: the Jaguar dealer, where they haggle on saving more on a sleek purchase than most cars cost outright.
They say they trust in God’s grace, but throw an extra twenty in “just in case” because checkbooks are more tangible than forgiveness.
Everyone has a Holy Book, Holy Writings, words they hold at the center of their life and being.
And it’s often not the one they claim they follow.
It’s an odd juxtaposition that happens when the secular and the sacred collide in these early Advent days. So many of us (at least, in America) are rushing to get that tree put up, the most ancient pre-Christian solstice symbol, and haul out the red and green decorations.
Meanwhile, the church is singing a bluer song and calling everything to hush for a bit, like you would when a baby is sleeping nearby.
Both responses to this time of year in this hemisphere is appropriate, of course. The ancient Celts would spend this time cozying up their indoor spaces, knowing they’ll be in the shadow of the fireplace for many hours in the coming months. They’d tie greenery to their door as an air freshener, and they’d make warm clothes, tell stories, and play indoor games. In this way, they’re not unlike all of us in our rush to decorate for the Christmas season.
But they’d do this other thing, too: they’d slow down. Their work would stop for a while, except for those necessary things needed to survive the winter. They’d rest longer, going to bed no long after night fell and waking late with the lazy solstice sun. They’d light candles in the morning and the evening, their new sun stolen from their fireplace outfitted with a huge log that, God willing, would last a good while.
They’d cozy and they’d slow.
The secular world is begging you to cozy at this moment. The sacred world is calling you to slow.
And, honestly, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “secular” or “sacred.” Holiness pulsates through everything if our heartbeat is in rhythm with the Divine. So perhaps it shouldn’t be so much the “secular is calling you to cozy,” and the “sacred is calling you to slow,” but rather that the tensions pulling and pushing us in this world are felt forcefully in this moment, which is not a surprise.
We’re in a moment of change, evidenced by those last leaves falling to the ground.
Here’s a deep truth that all of these pushes and pulls point to: life begins in the shadows.
I don’t use “darkness” on purpose, by the way. As prophet and poet Nayyirah Waheed wrote in her collection _Nejma_,
“there is dark and there is anti light these are not the same things”
Language has evolved to the point where we can be careful and choosy with our words (as imperfect as it might be).
Shadows, like that in the Valley of Death that the Psalmist sings of, is a more appropriate description, I think. We’re not talking about a color, we’re talking about an absence of illumination.
All life starts with an absence of illumination.
The Big Bang began with a deep vacuum bereft of light.
The womb which was our first home pulsated with life, but no light.
The seed trying to do what it is meant to do in this moment is buried under the weight of too much earth, and yet it lives.
Life begins in the shadows.
This is why the readings in the church here at the beginning of Advent aren’t of Mary or Joseph or a baby in a manger, but ones of foreboding and nighttime (Luke 21:25-36 kicks off this Advent cycle, and it’s a doozy!).
The church knows, as does the Earth, as has humanity from ancient days, that life begins in the shadows, so if we’re going to talk about redemption and salvation and resurrection and new life, we have to start here.
There is an 8th Century hymn that often kicks off Advent in many spaces, “Creator of the stars of night.” The Latin version of this text is most beautiful, “Conditor alme siderum…” the chorister sings in simple chant tone.
Sidus, where we get siderum can mean just “stars,” and certainly it does mean that. But in this usage it also means all the cosmic bodies: planets, meteors, stars, galaxies.
The church sings to the creator who filled up the vacuum of space and, like the Luke text, invites us to gaze up at the shadows of space in awe and wonder. In the night times of life we ponder such mysteries. Who hasn’t stayed awake in bed with their mind racing?
The shadows are meant for such pondering, for from such ponderings comes imagination and new life and all sorts of things never before seen, as frightening as those moments can be sometimes.
And, as it is, we’re again plunged into such a night time of life in this Advent season.
Change happens in the shadows. Newness starts in the shadows.
Life starts in the shadows.
So Advent must start in the shadows.
So, Beloved, cozy up and slow a bit. Ponder the mysteries with the ancients.
Today the church honors one of our moveable feast days, Christ the King Sunday, also known as Reign of Christ Sunday.
In 1922 the world was still reeling from World War I. Pope Pius XI, in his first official encyclical, said that while war hostilities had stopped, global tension was ever present. He decried the rise of nationalism across the globe.
Gonna say that louder for people in the back: the rise of nationalism across the world was seen as a real and present danger.
So Pope Pius XI, as a call for the church to take a stand against nationalism and extremism, instituted the last Sunday of the liturgical year to be a reminder for the world that our private ideologies and personal saviors will not, in the end, accomplish the peace necessary for humanity to thrive.
Only Divine peace can do that.
Now, I’m not a fan of this particular Sunday. To tag it on at the end of the liturgical year feels forced in many ways, and the readings are totally non-sequitur (though they fit with the theme of the day).
However, when seen through the lens of the original intent, especially in these days, it can be a corrective day for a humanity that is once again in the throes of nationalism, much of it housed in the pews of the church.
Nationalism is anti-Christ. There is no work around here; it just is. It puts hope in nativist ideology and not shared peacemaking.
Christ the King Sunday is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that there was a time when the church took on the rise of nationalism with a full throat.
“How many people should I be visiting a month?” I asked them.
They blinked at me, confused by the question.
“What I’m asking is, what will satisfy you? Is it ten people? Twenty?”
“Well,” she asked, “how many are on the shut-in list?”
“Currently thirty-two,” I said looking at the list. It was a little outdated, but fairly accurate. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is a shut-in and who just isn’t showing up at church anymore.
“Well, that sounds like you could do a visit or two a day and get done with the list each month,” they said.
“Sure,” I said. “It appears that way. But each visit is between two-three hours, with driving and sitting with them and all, which is basically one half of a work day. And not all of them can be scheduled each day, due to doctor’s schedules and all. Oh, and how late in the day should I visit people? Is 7:00pm too late? We usually eat dinner around then. Oh, and should I be doing visits on Saturdays and Sundays? ‘Cause I’d need to according to that schedule. And what about emergency visits to the hospital?”
They sat there, blinking.
“And when am I supposed to research and write a sermon? Or attend the meetings already on the calendar? Or plan for Sundays, holy days, or read and write like you want me to? And prep for Bible Study?”
It was an awkward meeting. They didn’t think I was visiting people enough.
The problem, though, is “enough” is not a number. There is never “enough.”
In fact, this–and so many other situations–are a “no win” situation for a pastor.
If they talk about politics too little or too much, it’s a problem.
If they put in too many Covid restrictions, or too few, it’s a problem.
If they’re too academic, or too colloquial, it’s a problem.
If they choose to show up at this committee meeting, or this club meeting, but choose not to do another one, it’s a no-win situation.
My solution to the above, by the way, was to miss most all of them except for once a year…”favorites” are a thing in the church, and once a pastor is viewed as having one, well, the fall-out is rough.
Pastors generally cannot win in any situation.
In the Book of Revelation there’s this church that the writer calls out, the church at Laodicea, because they are what he calls “neither hot nor cold.” The writer calls them out because they are essentially “fence-sitters,” as we might say.
I always felt bad for that church, because I imagine they had a pastor who was trying to walk the fine line expected by people who, by and large, want vastly different things out of her.
The well of need in a church is a vacuum. The well of expectation has no bottom.
Endless, Beloved. It is endless.
Many nights I went to sleep feeling like a failure because this or that need was reportedly unmet by this or that person. You might say my skin wasn’t thick enough. Maybe not. But it’s hard to do your work under a microscope that has no benchmarks for success.
I’m not sure any skin is thick enough to withstand that.
So many pastors are sacrificed on the altar of need, the altar of “not visiting enough,” the altar of “too political,” the altar of…well, think of the altar you’ve erected and imagine the sacrifice.
It’s a no-win situation.
So, Pastor, let’s do something different: don’t try to win.
It’s OK to not win.
Winning is a game that suckers play who’ve forgotten that their vows ask them not to give “illusory hope,” as ours do.
Illusory hope is that a pastor will fulfill your expectations.
What they will do, I think (and hope), is serve faithfully.
Social media has made this all the harder, of course. A “like,” an easy comment on Facebook or Instagram, a quick “check-in” for curiosity.
It’s easy. It happens.
But it’s largely not a good thing, especially at first.
But even years later, even today, I still see pastors, pastors I know, showing up to do weddings or funerals for people at parishes they used to serve.
And, yes, I get it: they think it’s harmless. “They don’t go there anymore,” they say. Or, “they haven’t been there since they were a teen,” they say.
But guess what, pastor: you’re largely doing that for your own ego and desire to be needed.
Because you know what? They’re absolutely less likely to show up at their former church now because you still continue, even years later, to hold that role for them.
And that’s honestly not helpful.
You know why we wear that robe, pastor? That white robe?
That white robe is the robe of a servant, yes. But even more so, it’s a robe that makes you interchangeable with any other pastor out there.
That’s what our theology says.
So, you saying “yes” to that destination wedding is just you disregarding that theological truth.
And you know what?!
Just because you say no to the invitation to do a wedding or a funeral doesn’t mean you didn’t mean anything to them. You did! Good on you! You did so much that they want you to be a part of it!
And you can be a part of it: sitting at table 9.
Or by doing a reading.
Or by sending a nice card and a gift with your regrets.
With one exception, for a childhood friend, I have said no to every wedding, funeral, and baptism I’ve been asked to do since leaving parishes. And I don’t say that as a badge of honor, but rather as a testament to me trying to walk that walk.
I care deeply about the people I used to serve.
So deeply that sometimes I wonder at night about their life and how they’re doing and hope they check in sometimes. And when they do, I always respond back in love and respect.
But I do so now from afar. With boundaries I try imperfectly, but really hard, to keep.
With deep love, deep reverence for who we used to be to one another, but with an even deeper understanding that for both of us to live our best lives into the future I must commend them to other people’s care, and they must honor that boundary.
Pastors who perform pastoral acts for others who used to be in their parish do so because they can’t say no to their own ego and need to be needed.
And sure, sometimes that pastor who left asks for permission from the pastor currently at the parish, but let me ask you this: what pastor is going to say no to that request? In such a moment of tenderness, probably with a family they haven’t had the chance to bond with, or who views them with suspicion, the power lies not with the pastor currently serving the parish, but with the former pastor who is called forth from the past like a reminder of other times.
That power dynamic sucks so much.
I would love to preside over the wedding of every youngster I served.
I would be honored to say parting words at every gravesite for those I tended to.
I’d love to baptize every newborn that comes along to families I married and nurtured.
Blow the trumpet in the holy city bless a holy fast! Get everyone together bless them all the elderly the young children even babies who still breastfeed! In the middle of their weddings get brides and grooms to stop everything. -Joel 2:15-16-
This reading will be read at most every Ash Wednesday service today, virtual or in-person…however we’re getting our ashes in this pandemic (which feels like a heap of ashes already).
The prophet Joel intends to call people back into right relationship with God. In order to do that people would sometimes be invited to fast. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism…fasting is pervasive in all the major religions. A bit of self-denial heightens our indulgences, right?
Sometimes people fast for poor reasons, though. I know of someone who does regular fasts because they are certain that they can “hear God more clearly” when they fast. I’m not sure that’s a good reason, honestly, because I’m not sure that’s how it all works. Certainly there is a need to get rid of distractions in order to discern the Divine in the world, but not eating that candy bar (or anything?!) for forty days seems like an ineffective way to do it.
God doesn’t need your sacrifice…at least, not that kind. If you eat too much candy, sure, fast from it. But if you think it’s getting you brownie points with the Holy Presence I think you’re kidding yourself.
Sometimes people take on fasts to just “do it,” like not eating meat on Friday or not eating meat at all for Lent. That’s fine, I think, if you consume too much meat (and most Americans do, honestly). But if you’re doing it just to see if you can…I’m not sure that’s a good fast, Beloved.
The prophet Joel blesses a fast in order to bring the people back into right relationship, otherwise known in the scriptures as “righteousness.” Fasts are not used to deny people good things as much as to help them see how their relationships with things (or people, or food, or, well, anything) is off kilter.
I’ll say that again for folks in the back.
Fasts are not about denial for denial’s sake. They are about taking a hard look at how your relationship with certain things is off kilter.
And, yes, in the process you’ll continually be invited to analyze how the relationship with the Divine is off kilter, too.
Now, if this hasn’t been your practice in recent years, no need to feel bad about it. There are all sorts of ways the messaging on Lent and fasts has gone awry…humans are wont to do that (hence why we have the season of Lent at all! We’re kinda messed up in all the right and wrong ways). And fasting is not the only thing to do in Lent. Many people choose to add a practice, work on habit change, or do some spring cleaning both physically and spiritually.
Those are all great.
But I’ve decided to fast. To look at some relationship stuff.
I’m going to embark on a Lenten journey of my own, with some updates/devotionals to add to the mix. Most fasts will begin on a Sunday and last the full week (there are 6 of them), and you’re welcome to join in. I’ll be writing and reflecting each week about the particular fast and what I’m learning, and I’ll be noting my thoughts, ponderings, and realizations.
All of these fasts are intended to help me better analyze my own relationship with each subject, and be honest about how they’re off kilter. I’m not righteous in these areas, Beloved. I know this. I want to dig deeply into that.
Week 1: Fast from delaying bedtime. This pandemic has been terrible on my sleep. Many of the folks I coach have noted that, too. I’m going to go to bed when I’m tired at night, or at least by 10pm.
Week 2: Fast from iPhone. I carry it around with me. I scan the apps. I respond to texts in two seconds. It’s out of control.
Week 3: Fast from Media. This will be a bit tricky, but I’m going to say media in general, not just “social media.” Too much binge TV at night. Too many apps open on my phone. Too much stopping in the middle of work or writing to scroll social sites. I’ll still post on a social site this week, mostly to keep the blog updated, but I’m going to “post and ghost.” No reading the comments…
Week 4: Fast from Buying. The pandemic has made Amazon a little too convenient. But not just Amazon, I’m constantly looking for excuses to go out and grab a coffee-to-go or skip making dinner and just ordering in. Not this week. That urge needs to me analyzed and, I hope, curbed a bit. I’ll allow for grocery buying (because I’m the cook, so I do that shopping), but other than that, no purchases (and no gift-cards, either! Loopholes are for suckers).
Week 5: Fast from Processed Foods It’s not that it’s just not good for me, it’s not good to me, either. I know it’s not. This week will be interesting because it means no processed anything, even that Friday beer, those corn chips I allow in a moment of salt-crave. Nope.
Week 6: Fast from Meat We don’t eat meat with every meal, but I think we eat it too much. On the far side of this fast I intend to make some rules around meat consumption. And, here’s the thing we forget: when you eat an animal, you also eat what they ate! It’s a double-whammy of mindless chomping there.
So, here are the fasts. And you’re welcome to join if you’d like. In fact, I would like that very much, especially if you take a bit of time to reflect on your off-kilter relationship with the topics and send them on to me, either as a comment on a post or in an email. I want to be in a more righteous relationship with these things.
But, maybe your relationship with these things isn’t off kilter at all. Maybe you’re working with other issues that need addressing. Alcohol? Snack foods? Lack of activity? Spiritual practices?
Whatever it is, take a fast. But don’t do it to solely to deny yourself that thing; absence does make the heart grow fonder and, do you really want to go back to the old you when this is all over? The you who had an off-kilter relationship with these things?
Do it to analyze your relationship with it all and, on the far side of the fast, sanctify some changes, Beloved.
After all, repentance, metanoia, means turning around. Changing.
If you think you need that, if something is off kilter, run (a) fast toward change. See if you don’t find a new you rising come April 3rd.
For the season of Advent (beginning in earnest quite soon!) I’ll be posting daily short devotions, just a few paragraphs, that will straddle the line between sacred and secular. My intention is to write some thoughtful pieces around the themes of time, waiting, anticipation, shadows, joy/sorrow, and yes, a/theism to make this Advent a ponderful one.
If you’re looking for something relentlessly cheery, it’s probably not the Advent devotional for you. But it will always be thoughtful and hopeful, that I promise you.
My desire is that these will be read by both the faithful and those who have who have left faith behind.
Along with my own thoughts, I’ll dot in some poetry suggestions, and most every day will have a song, secular or sacred, to add to your Advent playlist.
If you want them in your inbox, just click on the page to follow along and, boom, there they’ll be. And if you know someone who you think would enjoy this kind of work, feel free to pass along, post on social media, or print out and snail-mail a reflection to your Cousin Mel.
In this really tough year, as we enter into what I feel is a really sacred time of the calendar, whether you’re religious or not it is…it’s human to feel it in your bones, I wish you a blessed holy/holiday season.
It was an answer to the question, “When can I call you?”
It was the wrong answer.
The sentiment was true; I wanted to help them when they needed help. But I could not, would not, should not, be available “anytime.” Unfortunately I didn’t learn this soon enough in my time as a pastor, and it, over the years, took its toll.
There are certain things that I think every new pastor should know. Here I’ve highlighted five of them. There are probably 5,000, but here I’ve highlighted five to start the ball rolling.
Get a separate cell phone for work. The cell phone era has made the job of the pastor more difficult, I think.
I didn’t always think that. The ease of picking up the cell phone, storing numbers, even texting…it made it much easier to get in touch with one another at all hours of the day, no matter where you are.
Which is a problem.
Texts late at night that were unimportant. Calls on Saturday mornings for non-emergencies while you’re at the ball field with family, calls that would in past generations end up on a landline answering machine, but instead buzz in your pocket. Social media messaging that, in some minds, has replaced a phone call, but are easy to forget.
It’s too much.
Were I to do it over again, I would get a separate cell phone for work…and just leave it at home when I was supposed to be off.
If that is not possible, use the technology to your benefit. Silence non-family rings and texts on your days off. Ask work-related social media messages to be left as voicemails on the office line.
Make the lines distinct. Be accessible, but not always available.
Also, and this is important to know: you are not a therapist.
I’ve sometimes made myself too available for counseling over extended periods of time. In these cases I’ve almost always regretted it because those kinds of boundaries are hard to sever.
My limit became three. If, after three visits, the situation was not getting any better, I’d refer them on. Usually I’d refer after the first meeting, actually. People in need will always need you, and honestly, they’ll often need more of you than you can realistically spare.
Be good about your boundaries. I wasn’t always, and it takes its toll.
You do get time off, pastor. Take it.
Let people love you.
This can be a tough one for some pastors, but it’s important.
People want to give you gifts of love, and you should let them (provided they’re no political strings attached…cause that happens). But the generosity of your people should be celebrated, not stifled. There are limits, of course, but in general people want to show you their love and you should not only allow it, but welcome it.
Welcome it because it’s part of the bonding experience that needs to happen in this kind of a relationship.
I remember when, just hours after having our son and closing on a new house (it happened the same weekend…terrible timing), folks in the church offered to come and wipe out the cabinets of the new house that had sat dormant for a while.
I said no…it was OK. That was a mistake.
My wife, in her wisdom, overruled, and a cadre of folks came over to take care of us and it was an important piece of our shared journey together. It was important because they wanted to honor and celebrate with us, and I’m grateful for that.
Let your people love you.
Make friends outside the congregation.
I’m one of those pastors who encourages you not to have your friend needs met within the congregation. It creates a power dynamic that is just unsustainable in all but a few exceptional cases.
In those cases where I have made a friend in the congregation, I usually have, “the talk” with them that is not unlike a talk you might have with someone you want to date. It’s an important moment where you kind of redefine everything so there’s understanding. It’s not easy, and can be dangerous, even. If a pastor has a slip of the tongue in the wrong company it can not only jeopardize relationships, but might trespass on confidentiality.
This is why I think that, except for maybe one or two rare exceptions, pastors need to have their friends outside the congregation.
But here’s the thing: you have to make them.
Pastors are at the distinct disadvantage of having their work space, philanthropy space, and their “human-interactive” space all land in the same circle: the church. This means they have to be intentional about cultivating relationships in new circles, perhaps even very different circles altogether.
A running club. A local bottle shop. A sports league. Some of my colleagues have even become gamers, finding their community within the world of Dungeons & Dragons.
However you find it, make sure you find it. Loneliness in the parish, whether you have a family or are single, is a clergy killer. I know this too well.
You don’t have to be social media friends with your parishioners.
Gone are the days when most pastors had two social media profiles: professional and private. It was a lot of work and felt duplicitous. I got rid of my “professional” one with great joy.
However, I made the mistake of allowing every parishioner to be my social media friend.
Not every parishioner will get your sense of humor, Beloved. Trust me, I know.
Not every parishioner will appreciate your political opinions. Trust me, I know.
Not every parishioner will take your hobby as a “fun side project,” but will complain to others that you are “working on other jobs when you’re supposed to be their employee.” Oh yes. It happens. It happened. A few times.
Also, it should be noted that in this hyper-partisan climate, most pastors are generally more liberal than their congregations. It’s just true. And in a world where “live and let-live” is not really the way of things anymore, it might just be smart to not have the potential for an online argument.
Your internet activism may be threatening to some. Trust me, I know.
If your social media presence is meant to be “you,” and not “Pr. You,” then you are absolutely wise in not being every parishioner’s social media friend. Sometimes blocking people from seeing your feed is actually the most loving thing you can do for them and for yourself. For some you will always be your professional role and, like when the third-grade you saw your teacher at Target for the first time, will have trouble seeing you any other way.
Or, and perhaps this is even better, do what author and engineer Cal Newport does and stay off social media altogether. Author Ann Patchett has the same philosophy. It’s worth contemplating…I have thought about it.
Embrace both disappointment and overwhelming forgiveness.
I was disappointing as a pastor.
I’m not saying I was bad at it. I actually think I was pretty good in the parish.
But I was a disappointment in the role, sometimes.
And sometimes, honestly, the work was disappointing. I wanted to change lives, but sometimes it seemed I was expected not to change anything. I wanted to fight for justice, but sometimes it felt like I was usually just matching hymns and texts together and trying to find ways to say hard truths while offending the fewest number of people.
That can be disappointing. You adjust to it, because usually the disappointing parts are outweighed heavily by the beautiful moments.
But when you are personally the one doing the disappointing, well, that’s the worst feeling.
Sometimes it was because people wanted me to be something I couldn’t or wouldn’t be. Sometimes it was because I actually failed in the role, forgot promises, or made mistakes small and large.
It doesn’t really matter what the reason, a pastor has to quickly learn to embrace the fact that they will sometimes fail at the job, and that will feel devastating.
Likewise, sometimes you will succeed at the job, but it won’t be what others wanted or expected, and that, too, will feel devastating.
And sometimes your people will disappoint you, too. They’ll be more fearful of change than you want them to be. You’ll see sides of them that you’d rather not see. Petty sides. Racist sides. Sexist sides. It’s part of the work, Beloved.
And it can be disappointing.
Embrace it. Embrace the disappointment because if you don’t hug it close it will hurt anew every time.
Oh, it will still sting, but if you go in with managed expectations of both yourself and them, you’ll usually be delightfully surprised more than disappointed.
Because you’ll also find that sometimes you succeeded where you were sure you’d fail. And sometimes your people will absolutely knock you off your feet with their wisdom, their tolerance, their ability to change.
Surprises, both good and bad, abound in the parish. Embrace the disappointment and welcome the good surprise.
And here’s the thing: when you do, legitimately, fail at the work, I’ve found more often than not that the people will be more gracious than you ever expected…and it will be overwhelmingly beautiful.
Accept their forgiveness.
And then, try to dole it out on them, too, as the occasion arises.
Being a parish pastor was the most amazing and most taxing work I’ve ever done. But it’s also unlike any other job I’ve ever seen. It is a beautiful tightrope that requires more balance than I ever fully acquired…if it’s possible to walk at all.
Be mindful of your time.
Be mindful of your friendships.
Invest in your people, but also invest in your hobbies.
And know that you’ll suck at it some days, and they’ll forgive you. And they’ll suck sometimes, and you’ll forgive them.
“You don’t lead a church anymore, right?” Alistair asked from the backseat this morning. We were stopped at a stoplight, and like his little brain does, that question just came out of the blue.
“Right,” I said, staring ahead.
“But you’re still a pastor, right?”
His follow-up question was innocent. He was trying to figure it out. Honestly, in many ways, I’m still trying to figure it out.
“I am,” I said.
My exit from the formal pulpit was tough and not easy and complex. It was hard to explain except for, well, I knew in my gut it was the right thing for everyone involved…even if it didn’t always feel like the right thing, especially to those watching from afar.
Why would you do something so difficult if it wasn’t the right thing, Beloved?
But, and I was reflecting on this the other day because I was chatting with a colleague, there is still a sense of “failure” for pastors not in a formal pulpit. It might be particular to my age bracket, but it’s real enough. It’s real even when you continue to work in the non-profit sector. It’s real even when you continue to contribute to the formal life of the church. It’s real even when you do get occasion and invitation to preach and teach and do the things that marked your former formal vocation.
Failure. Shame. Even when it’s the right thing.
And I think that’s something no one ever tells you when you’re growing up: sometimes doing the right thing can feel like failure.
It takes courage. I know this. I lived it. But it often feels more like crap in the moment.
Part of it is attachment. In all my leave-taking from congregations there has been this immense attachment that we’ve had to one another. When you pour your life into something, and people put their trust in you, well, the bonds are not easily severed.
“You don’t really care about us,” came one email.
“I get that it’s good for you, but it’s bad for us,” came another.
When my father left one of his parishes, one parishioner who we deeply loved, who took care of us as kids, whose house we went to and whose pool we swam in, said over and over to him, “Damn you! Damn you!” on his last Sunday.
I remember looking at him in that moment, his head down, not sure what to say. It was grief speaking. All of the above is. Grief and anger and confusion.
Trust me: that’s felt on all sides of the equation.
There were other notes, too.
“You did so much,” and, “You meant so much.” Lots of those. It’s always a mixed bag, right? And they’re said with love. I want to say all comments, even the hard ones, are said with love.
Love shouldn’t hurt physically, but it can sometimes wield an emotional sword that shows no mercy, Beloved.
All leave-takings are confusing and complicated and you try to do them the best you can.
So much of the pastorate feels so overly intimate that it is absolutely impossible to shoulder sometimes. Not only can you not be what others need you to be or expect you to be, I’ve come to the conclusion that a pastor shouldn’t be those things…it’s not healthy in the long run.
Identities become confused. Roles become infused. In work with such a porous border, with such ill-defined relationships, it’s easy to confuse your identity with the work.
I know it is not failure at all. It’s discernment. Wisdom sometimes whispers something that’s difficult to follow but important to heed, and speaks it so softly that sometimes no one else except a few really hear it.
I’ve learned this. Intellectually I know this. And I think it’s true for all people, not just pastors.
But the heart still sags a bit when you recall that you couldn’t be what others wanted you to be.
And I don’t write any of this for any sort of pity. It’s just an honest reflection; that’s all. Christian Wiman writes that just as we are sometimes called to things, sometimes we are called from things.
I’ve come to believe this, intensely.
Today on my run I had all these things on my heart.
When I returned and was prepping for a meeting, I stumbled quickly upon this poem by Antonio Machado:
“Last night, as I was sleeping I dreamt–marvelous error!– that I had a beehive here inside my heart. And the golden bees were making white combs and sweet honey from my old failures.”
And I let out a deep, deep breath.
This pandemic has given ample time for self-reflection, for retracing the timeline of my life, especially as I near 40. And, as my Enneagram type is wont to do, I see more stumbles than successes. Perhaps that’s true for most of us.
But the hardest things, while they’ve felt like stumbles, like failures, I still hold on to the deep hope that they were hidden wisdom and that the bees in my heart are working furiously.
Making those perceived failures into a honey that will, eventually, be proven the right sweet ingredient to live into a life of purpose.
I hope that’s true in your life, too. I hope those bees are furiously making honey out of anything you perceive to be a failure and, in the end, you’ll realize how sweet it all was.
Mysticism put me in touch with God, that golden thread running roughshod through the energy of the cosmos.
Theology didn’t do that.
Theology isn’t the study of God, but rather the unveiling of gods.
And what are our gods? You know them. We bow to them daily.
A popular god is money. Mammon, if you want to use an older term. It invites you to cherish it, promising you fulfillment, but then continually moves the goalpost. This god is insatiable, delightful, and cruel.
Another popular god is conformity. Most churches are built around this god. Oh, sure, the cross may be front and center, but if you look past the cross to the people in the pew you’ll see their clean shoes and spotless teeth, a thin lacquer covering rotting insides intending to keep up with the Jones’s. You know quickly if you don’t fit in here because you’ll sit in the wrong pew, suggest the wrong hymn at the hymn-sing, clap to that one song, or bring your boyfriend to church and suffer the stares when he doesn’t fit in (and, now, neither do you).
Nationalism is a popular god. American-Christians (in that order) are found in every congregation. They complain when you don’t play a patriotic hymn on the Sunday closest to the 4th of July, or when you don’t adequately honor 9/11 somehow. They’re not interested in singing a song in Spanish, but will insist on having Veterans stand up on Veterans Day.
Community is a god. A benevolent god, usually, but a god nonetheless. Community is a god who takes care of the flock, but doesn’t really like any feathers to ruffle in the nest. Community will encourage people to bow, especially when they have a controversial idea. Community will send you a casserole if you’re sick, but sometimes will question in hushed voices what you did to deserve the illness. Community tries to love the followers, but often can’t meet all the needs, and so people will worship for a while, and then stop, if this is their god.
Right Answers is such a popular god that everyone has their own depiction of it! People usually worship this god in quiet, assuming that everyone else is worshiping this god, too. Until you show that your depiction isn’t the same as theirs, and then they take their god and leave. People who pride themsleves as “free thinkers” usually are strong adherents to this god, and you’ll know it because, well, they’ll tell you about it…
Some people think Science is a popular god, but Science is not a very good god because Science changes its mind as it gets more details. This frustrates humans, because they like their gods to be largely immutable (and also largely mute). When people say their god is Science, what they’re usually referring to is Right Answers (see above). Interestingly enough, people who trust Science usually don’t equate it as being a god at all because, well, as I said, science doesn’t really work like that.
The Bible is a very popular god, especially among Christians. But it is a god of mixed-messages, and so is not very reliable when it comes to rule-making and order. Plus, no one can really agree on what the Bible is or says, so really anyone who bows to this God bows to a tailored version of their own preferences, and that quickly becomes the god of Right Answers (see above).
I know we talk about God as a who, but really we need to talk honestly about gods with the word “what.”
Theology is not the study of God, but of gods, and how we worship them. Theology exposed me to what god, is.
And, oddly, those who trust their faith is the purest are usually the most pantheistic.
Feel free to add a god that you know…there are thousands.