Every so often, people wonder (sometimes aloud, and sometimes even to my face) about the necessity of all those years of schooling. Did I really need to study philosophy and religion for four years in undergraduate and three years in graduate school, or was that a waste? they ask. Doesn’t God just speak to the faithful and tell them what to do? Isn’t ministry mostly about ‘pastoral moments’ of being with people one on one and you don’t need any deep theological thoughts to do that?
In a word, no.
This past week has affirmed two things for me. The first, and this is a wonderful surprise and a long time coming, is that I am good at being a pastor. Not good at some aspects of it like preaching or crafting worship or focusing on mission. I’m the whole package.
The second is even more refreshing to know: every single moment I spent reflecting theologically was a moment well spent. I am glad for every test, every paper, every stupid theological reflection on some random aspect of my week that I was forced to do for seven years. Because sometimes you need it. Every so often, you walk into a situation where you have this one chance, maybe ever, to not [really mess] up. You are asked a question, a tough question, and you have to provide an answer. A shallow platitude won’t do. The answer you think the person wants to hear won’t cut it. In that moment, when you are asked, “Is my grandson in heaven?” or “Can God forgive murder?” or “Why the hell do we pray, then?” you have that one moment to give an answer that you believe and that you stand by and live by, that you can support with sound thinking and decent theology and biblical examples and life experiences. You better believe that you can’t pick that up at two weeks of local pastor’s licensing school.
But fortunately, I had more than two weeks’ training. I had seven years of theological schooling, and when a twenty-two year old girl looked me in the face and asked me if her brother was in heaven with Jesus, even though he was a murderer, I told her yes. With conviction and with the assurance that I was as right as anyone could be about such things. I said yes because I believe that strongly in God’s grace, and I believe that love and grace are more important than retributive notions of justice. And I walked her through it: do you still love your brother? (yes) do you forgive him? (yes) do you know that he is a good person and that the horrible thing that he did wasn’t who he really is? (yes) do you think God is more loving than you are? More forgiving? Do you think God knows your brother even better than you do? Is he okay, then, she asked. I told her that I didn’t know what heaven really was, if it was a place or a state of being, but I believe that it is without sickness or pain or anger. Do you agree? (yes) And when you take away your brother’s illness, when you take away his pain and anger, what are you left with? That’s right, the wonderful, loving man you know him to be, and that’s who he is now. But can God really forgive murder, she asked. Knowing she knew her bible inside and out, I said, “you already know the answer to that question.” I do? she asked. “Sure. What did Jesus say as he was dying, as he was being murdered?” And she got it. She held on to it like a lifeline, in fact.
The question about prayer is harder, and one that I freely admit I don’t know the answer to. I don’t think that we pray to try to get God to do something that God hitherto has been unable or unwilling to do. I think we pray to get ourselves closer to the heart of God, and in so doing to either come to a place where we are the answer to the prayer that we seek, or we are strong enough to bear the outcome of whatever crisis we were trying to avert. I don’t think that we can pray, for example, for God to create world peace, because it’s not like God’s just sitting around waiting for us to pray enough and then ‘he’ will swoop down and fix everything. We can’t pray for peace because we are the ones who stand in the way of it and we are the only ones through whom it can come. Instead, we’re really praying for the courage to be peacemakers, and the strength to deal with the absence of peace, in our selves and in our world. That said, there are instances of people who were prayed for being healed of a particular disease, or in my own (very recent) experience, people who know that they are being prayed for feeling buoyed and strengthened by the support and love of others– a truly sacred feeling.
A third thing that was affirmed for me this week is that I am a die-hard process theologian. When I left seminary, I was a budding process theologian, but the practice of ministry has solidified my stance. [for the non-seminarians: very briefly and poorly stated, process theology suggests that creation is not the completed work of an all-powerful god, but an ongoing process of creating, participated in by both divine and human forces. the upshot is that we co-create the world with the divine, who is not so powerful as to have made a flawless world, or to have the power to intercede and avert tragedies.] Plainly put, I can’t buy any argument by which god is all powerful but for some noble reason self-limits or defends free will and chooses not to act in the face of disaster. When it comes to things like mass genocide or murder suicide or pandemic illnesses, screw self limitation and free will. Any god who had the power to stop the holocaust and for whatever reason didn’t is a monster; I can’t worship that god. The only thing that makes sense is that the divine lacks the power to intercede and struggles along with us in the midst of tragedy and disaster. That god is all-loving, and that’s far more important than the notion that god is all-powerful.
A fourth thing that was affirmed for me is that my congregation loves me. This afternoon, I came home to find a tray of homemade baked ziti and a loaf of italian bread on my doorstep. My chair of staff-parish committee thought I looked tired yesterday, so he cooked dinner for my family. And left it on my porch.