Ministry is a wonderful vocation, a calling, a journey. It is also a job, and it has occupational hazards that are pretty well known. Stress and overeating, and caffeine addiction, perhaps. But there are some pretty obvious risks associated with being accessible to the public and trying to help those on the edge. We hear horror stories about it from time to time, but I know I at least try to brush those stories aside because I don’t want to dwell on them. We can, however, learn and prepare at least a little, and so shouldn’t totally ignore the risks.
I had my own fright this week, and some things went well, and others can go better next time.
A young man came into my office and asked to speak with me privately. He asked if he could close the door. This is not an unusual request, and the door between my office and the church office has a large window in it to provide both privacy in conversation and safety for everyone for just such occasions. He did begin sharing some pretty personal stuff, and it certainly was appropriate to close others out of that conversation.
It should be noted, however, that my 8 month old son, who was sitting in his high chair next to me as I fed him some lunch, began crying almost as soon as the young man came in. Kids are brilliant.
I assessed my visitor, as I do– consciously or subconsciously– for every person who comes into my office. Younger than me. My height, maybe. Heaver. Also a bit slower, which would be my advantage. Facial tick. Slightly slurred speech. No smell of alcohol. Brown, fast-moving eyes and minimal eye contact, making the pupils hard to estimate.
I assessed my environment, which is pretty unchanging, but set up to give me as much safety as the room affords. He was sitting in the chair across from me, between me and the primary exit (the door with a window). This is where all my guests sit, because I can see them coming, and they also need to feel safe and not cornered. Door to my right– my secondary exit– unlocked as it always is when I’m in my office, leading to a room filled with 50+ people eating a community meal. Between me and the door, Will was in his high chair, strapped in, and I was sitting behind my desk.
Our conversation focused on the young man’s life story and his needs, which I believe were totally legitimate, and some of which certainly came from some untreated medical concerns. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do to help him obtain funds for either shelter or medication that he needed; I could only offer him food and clothing and try to refer him to some other places.
And then the conversation changed. He mentioned that he had some trouble in the past with “sexual behaviors.” He followed that immediately with a couple of comments about my body.
Time to go.
I said I was sorry I couldn’t be of more help, and I wished him well, and it was time to be moving on.
He stood up, and looked out the window in the door toward the outer office. I saw what he saw register in his posture. He grew more confident. Cocky. No one was out there. We were alone.
And he knew it.
He came toward me around the desk, arms outstretched, still talking about my body. No time to unstrap the baby and run. I stood (I do have an inch or so on him), and stepped out from behind the desk toward him, placing myself between him and Will. As he moved in for an embrace of sorts, I caught his upper arms, holding him back a bit. He did get in a bit of a hug, and tried to lay his head on my chest. “Whoa,” I said, “That’s enough.” He tried to get closer and get his arms around me, but I pushed back, and broke him away. “Time to go. Don’t forget your backpack,” I said. He was still talking, apologizing and babbling, and I said again. “Good luck to you. Time to go.”
I closed the door again behind him, and locked it, and locked the other door and had myself a little freak out moment. Then I went out and called a retired clergyman in from the other room and had a freak out moment with him. And I was pretty much okay. I made some calls to alert other folks, and eventually, after consultation with my husband, filed an incident report with the police.
I am okay. Will and the church administrator and all the other people in the building are okay.
Here are the things I had working in my favor:
– a pre-planned and accessible secondary exit; I insist on keeping this open and accessible. I don’t know what I’d do in an office without a second egress. It’s not my fire escape; it’s my assault escape.
– an outer office that usually has someone in it, and a room full of people on the other side of the door, within shouting distance.
– An inch of height, and a lot of adrenaline, especially when standing in front of my baby.
– I’d thought about it.
– unbeknown to me, a canary, with a canny read of peoples’ vibes, even though he’s pre-lingual.
What I didn’t have:
– an alert strategy with the administrator in the outer office; we now have a plan in place whereby we will have phones on and at our elbows, set to text SOS at a moment’s notice. She will interrupt my meeting with a “pressing situation,” and I will do the same for her. We will not leave the offices, and certainly not without our phones.
– an alarm or panic button; the church is talking about this. Even something that makes a loud noise, whether or not it rings at the police station, would be enough to give someone like this pause.
– a taser, pepper spray, or other personal defense mechanism; I don’t think I want something like that at this time.
– testosterone; I don’t play the poor weak female card often, but I doubt this happens the same way if it’s a man in the pastor’s chair. Whether in this guy’s mind, or in the minds of our culture, the fact remains that my church is usually staffed exclusively by two young women. Strong, rugged, in your face Vermont women, but two women nonetheless. And a baby. There are those who would think of us as sitting ducks.
– a plan for what to do with Will– running away works well for me, but is impractical if I have to pause to unbuckle, disentangle, or otherwise gather my 8 month old.
We can never be prepared for all scenarios– someone armed and with murderous intent is pretty much unstoppable in any environment– but thinking out my defenses and my escape routes and the layout of the room gave me some confidence in this situation. A little brute strength didn’t hurt (thanks again, Will, for the regular bicep curls with a 20 lb weight). We want to believe the best about others, but need to be wise as serpents even if we are innocent as doves.
What precautions do you take in your workplace? What do you do to make it and/or your church a safe place for staff and visitors alike?
A colleague (thanks, Mark!) sent me a link today about some Catholic Sisters who give one another space to face illness and death with peace and dignity. Note especially this section:
Dr. McCann [who works closely with the sisters] said that the sisters’ religious faith insulated them from existential suffering — the “Why me?” refrain commonly heard among those without a belief in an afterlife. Absent that anxiety and fear, Dr. McCann said, there is less pain, less depression, and thus the sisters require only one-third the amount of narcotics he uses to manage end-of-life symptoms among hospitalized patients.
I don’t think this is because these sisters have squelched or denied their pain and fear and anger. Those who commit their lives to God in such a complete way have never struck me as trying to use religion as an escapist, Marxian opiate. Rather, these are individuals who have used their faith in God and their connection to each other to work through the pain and to emerge beyond it. Some of them may have skipped being angry at God, and some may have let loose in the anger I previously described, trusting God to hold them through it. But they have come to a place on the other side of that.
Let’s talk about grace in and beyond anger.
In accepting that we are angry at God (or hurt or scared or in pain and crying out at God about it), we experience one kind of grace, one blessing, and that is the one I am trying to share with families in those first intense moments of anger and pain. God loves us anyway. We are hurt beyond anything we can imagine, and we need a place to vent, and God can hold it, and that is amazing. Thank God.
More than that, God can hold the pain itself. Often when we undergo extreme pain and loss, we don’t want to burden anyone with the depth of the emotions we’re experiencing. Either we fear that a person won’t be able to relate (and no one has experienced that *exact* pain we’re facing), or that it will be too similar to a pain they have faced and we’ll be pouring salt on their woulds in discussing ours, or that the sheer intensity of our emotional reaction will be frightening and off-putting. Not everyone can absorb a flood of tears or withstand throat-searing yelling with grace. But God can. And God knows the worst pain imaginable– not just the pain of losing God’s own child, although for parents who have lost a child, that is immensely comforting to know– but if God truly is, as I believe, in and through all things, and if God truly loves, as I believe, each of us as beloved children, and if God truly lives, as I believe, in each of us, closer than we are to ourselves, then our pain is God’s pain, our loss is God’s loss, our emotion is God’s emotion, and so we have the one truest, strongest ‘person’ with whom we can share it. Thank God.
A second kind of grace comes in realizing our underlying assumption. If we are angry at God, then we must believe on some level that there is a God to be angry at. Not a distant, powerless God, either, since such a God won’t or can’t help us and so therefore has not abandoned us to our pain. No, somewhere in lamenting to God, we are also confessing that we believe. We are somehow admitting that we trust God to help us, which is why we feel betrayed in this moment. At the moment of greatest pain, this is not much consolation. Great; I believe in my God, but my God has forsaken me. That’s kind of where Jed Bartlet is in that West Wing scene. That’s kind of where the author of Psalm 22 is at the moment of writing it, and where in many ways the One who spoke Psalm 22 from his cross was at that moment. But in hindsight, in the breaths between the pain, there are these moments where it’s clear, sometimes for the first time, sometimes as a reminder or renewal, that in moments of distress, it’s God we seek and somehow, despite it all, it’s God in whom we trust. Thank God, again.
But, as Mark and I have been discussing, deep faith calls us to move beyond these moments, to come to experience and know God and our condition in new ways, to move beyond the understanding of God that would cause us to simply fling insults and trust God to hold pain, but allow us to be held by God in other ways. On the other side of anger– and there is an other side!– can we find a relationship with God that moves beyond good and evil, beyond pain and no-pain, beyond anger and forgiveness? Can we trust in a God who moves alongside us, but isn’t just someone to issue us passes on the suffering of life nor someone to hold our hand when suffering comes? Is there more that God can be, more that we can be?
These sisters have found some of this, in their commitment to God and to one another. They have found that in loving community there is a balm that is greater than any drug, and that there is a dignity in knowing and loving one another than can overcome the indignity of failing bodies and minds. They have found a peace that is beyond anger, beyond understanding, beyond what I can communicate in a blog post, that’s for sure.
But I’d like to seek it. And I’m pretty sure that church should be one of the communities that does seek it together, by holding one another with that level of commitment and love and together finding a God who is more than a feckless thug, who is more than the one who can bear our insults and hold our pain, who is more than the one we trust, but is also the Other and the wholly (Holy) other and the… something for which words fail me, so help me with your thoughts and maybe we can puzzle some of this out together.
After I’m sorry, those are the two most prevalent words I’ve heard the past few days. The number of women and their partners who have experienced miscarriage is staggering, although it shouldn’t be surprising from the statistics. An estimated one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage (although many are within the first month, so often the woman may not even know– or may not be able to verify even if she suspects– that she was pregnant). So if so many couples have experienced it, why don’t we talk about it? Why don’t we know what to say? What to feel? How to mourn?
I’m collecting thoughts on that (and a great many other things about what I’m experiencing).
1. Historically speaking, infertility and miscarriage carried a stigma for the woman particularly and for her husband potentially. Whether seen as a divine punishment or something weak in the person’s virility or a genetic aberration, it’s not cool to talk about that. How do I combat that? I talk about it. A lot. I wouldn’t hesitate if my friend died, so I don’t hesitate now. I hurt; listen, or get out of my space.
2. We don’t know when life begins, and so we don’t know what we’re grieving. Is it a person (yes!)? A baby (yes!)? A hope and a dream (yes and yes!)? A child, a legacy, a sibling, a promise, a little one. Doctors will use language like conceptus or tissue or only possibly fetus to describe, you know, what was lost, anything that doesn’t sound baby-ish. But that’s not what the expectant parents are experiencing. I wasn’t terribly attached to my tissue. My baby, on the other hand…
This brings me to an important tangent and lesson in what not to say. I don’t care what your thoughts are on when life begins for the purposes of debates on abortion. You’re not being judged on that right now. If you are speaking with a woman who has lost an unborn child, call it whatever she calls it. Baby. Child. Person. Sweetheart. Now is not the time to say “It wasn’t really a living person yet.” Maybe not to you, but frankly, you don’t matter here. “It didn’t feel any pain.” Great. Thanks. That bloody well makes one of us. Also, for the record, don’t say “you might be able to conceive another one right away.” While this is true and may be what some women need to hear, it should be offered in response to a question along those lines, not as an expression of condolence. When someone’s dog dies, we know enough not to say that they can get a new puppy right away, like that somehow replaces old Spot. Why would someone possibly think it would be comforting to say that about my kid?
3. It feels like an over-reaction. Because of some of the responses I just listed, I kind of feel like I might be over-reacting. Oh, it wasn’t a real baby. Or I didn’t know the gender yet, or the hair color yet, or we hadn’t picked a name or felt the baby kick, so we hadn’t really bonded. There aren’t polite words for this line of thinking, or for people whose insensitivity makes you feel this way. My advice to a sister going through this: if anyone suggests you are over-reacting or it wasn’t a real baby or that their pain was so much worse because they miscarried two months further along than you did, punch them in the nose. I normally (never) advocate violence, but this is an extreme case.
4. There’s no body. Except in cases where the fetus baby had to be removed medically or miscarriages in the later stages of pregnancy, most women miscarry stuff that mercifully is not recognizable or formed. Nothing to bury (which is a very different thing than nothing to grieve, as anyone whose loved one is missing and presumed dead or died in some sort of tragedy where the remains were not recovered can tell you). Nothing to kiss goodbye, for those who need that closure.
5. On a related note, there’s nothing missing that we can see. Again, late in pregnancy there would be a visible difference in the shape of the grieving mama’s body, but mine looks the same as it did before. Yes, I lost eight pounds overnight, and I can feel the difference quite keenly in fact, but there’s no empty chair, no person that was walking around here yesterday who suddenly isn’t, no pictures to remind me (except the ultrasound photo, which my husband took off the fridge), no physical representation of a person’s life. So you can forget. Kind of like we do when another person dies and we think later oh, Martha would love this; I can’t wait to tell her! and then the wave of grief hits us (different from shock, where we don’t really forget so much as need some time for our brains to actually catch up with what’s happened). Except you can do it a lot in this case, the day after it happens, even. Which then makes you feel really really bad. What kind of parent forgets that their child died? The kind who lost that child to miscarriage.
6. At the same time, pregnancy reorients your life in a way that nothing else really does. You put doctor’s visits, trimester milestones and due dates on your calendar. You change your wardrobe. You get in the habit of refusing alcohol and tuna fish and unpasteurized cheese and non-tylenol pain killers. You skip the grocery store aisle with the maxi pads (which all of a sudden, painfully, brutally, every freaking time you go to the bathroom, you need again). And so reminders are everywhere. And because you just forgot for a second that you can in fact take aspirin, when you remember it hurts like hell.
7. There are no memories. When we celebrate a person’s life at a memorial service, one of the best parts is telling stories. Happy stories, sad stories, funny stories, bittersweet stories. We celebrate the person’s humor or tenderness or brilliant smile. I don’t have any stories about my baby that I lost. So far, talking about the hopes and excitement we felt at the idea of that child hasn’t helped, although it might in the future. I’ll keep on that, mostly because I think I need to keep talking about it.
8. Without memories, stories, a physical representation, and so on, there’s very little community around this loss. Most grief, as my friend Amber pointed out, is communal. Others who knew the person can share their feelings too, and can even conceptualize the loss. With this loss, I understand and feel it the most, where even my spouse has a harder time really grabbing on to it. The circle widens through the immediate and extended family and friends network, but most folks outside our siblings and parents are sad for us, but don’t have grief of their own about this little one who wasn’t able to be in the world. That’s okay, but grief is so much easier a burden when it’s shared.
If you have other ideas about this, whether intellectual thoughts or from your own experience or that of someone close to you, please feel free to add them. Maybe we’ll even create a little resource of some kind that helps someone. Ideas, like grieving, are better and more helpful when shared.
[So this might be where I get feedback that I detach from my emotions or I live in my head, because I’m able to wax all intellectual here. Hey, it helps me, and it may one day help another woman, so that’s not a bad thing. I didn’t cry while I wrote this, which is a milestone, or a sign of detachment. I did, however, shake. Like, a lot. So maybe not so much with the detachment thing, see?]
I tried to go without commenting on this, but found that I couldn’t resist. And yes, that means I run the risk of doing the very thing I’m advising against.
Generally, I think it’s not a good idea for pastors to get involved in giving sexual advice, certainly not to large crowds at a time. I mean our intimate lives are, well, intimate, and maybe advice about sex is best saved for marriage counseling sessions. Call me a prude (but I bet my congregants are breathing sighs of relief right about now).
But Pastor Ed Young from the Fellowship Church feels otherwise. And I will grant that he deserves major, major credit for being frank and relevant about sex, which Christianity has a bit of a reputation for ignoring or worse. Pastor Young recently challenged his (married) congregants to strengthen their marriages and their overall quality of life by having sex for seven consecutive days. Now, let’s leave aside for the moment that at least half of my congregation are singles– he told his singles to ‘eat chocolate cake’– and the fact that he and his wife proudly testified to their near-success in this challenge (which, I mean, is not something I’d like to share from a pulpit) I see at least two issues here.
Seven consecutive days? That seems to place a focus rather more on quantity than quality, and I don’t think that is a positive step for a marriage. Can relationships benefit from increased physical intimacy? Sure. But not if it is a bit of an obligation. That strips the spontaneity and a fair amount of the romance and sexiness out of the moment.
I’m trying very hard to not make this a gender thing, but some people (some are men and some are women) measure their satisfaction in their marriage or relationship or intimate life by sexual markers (quantity and/or quality), while others do not. Put simply, you can have a whole lot of sex and not improve the quality of your relationship if either you or your partner doesn’t measure closeness and satisfaction that way. Would you not be better served by attuning to your partner’s needs and desires– physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, however– than assuming that just because the person speaking enjoys sex and finds that it strengthens his marriage, you should too?
But probably the kicker here is the source. Can you imagine how that gets played out in congregants’ homes?
“Honey, are you ready for a little ‘intimate time’?”
“Aw, not tonight; I’m frankly kind of bored of it since we’ve been at it the past five days.”
“But, baby, Pastor said we should.”
Going out on a limb, but I think any sexual proposition that contains the phrase ‘pastor said so’ is bound for failure.
You want my advice to couples?
For seven consecutive days, spend quality time with your significant other, doing something you or they enjoy (which may or may not be a physical something, and I’ll bet when the physical something does happen–and it will– the quality is improved for both partners). Watch a movie *while sitting together*, cook a delicious meal, play a card game, go dancing, take a walk holding hands, whatever. And the best part? Singles can spend quality time doing the things they enjoy, too. Paint, read, (ice) fish, treat yourself to dinner, spend time with a loved one, turn your music up loud and boogie till you drop. Point is, in this hectic, frenzied season, take time once a day for the next week to do the things you love by yourself or with the people you love. And hey, if sex is what you love, go for it. But if you and your partner enjoy a to-the-death match in Scrabble, that can in many ways be just as special if you’ve intentionally taken the time to put your own well-being and the well-being of your relationship first on your list.
I know, I sound a little… Clintonian here, but I have a question about the meaning of pastoral contact. You see, according to our guidelines for appointment, clergy covenant, and countless other documents,
After the change of appointment, the outgoing pastor will not have pastoral contact with any member of the congregation without the invitation of the current pastor.
So here’s my question, and it is in many ways tied to earlier discussions on both my blog and Jeremy’s (Hacking Christianity) about the role of ministry and the gospel in a digital medium: can interaction online constitute pastoral contact?
On the one hand, I want to say yes it can, because I think connections are made between people through emails, facebook updates, blogs and so on. Certainly people from my congregation have emailed me and shared prayer requests and celebrations and asked for feedback or prayer or support. That’s definitely pastoral contact, just as it is when we have the same conversation over the phone. Likewise, people who are not part of my congregation will reply to things I post and we’ll begin a conversation that is spiritual or pastoral, or, even more likely, a virtual friend will be going through a difficult time, and I will respond with notes of encouragement and prayer. I’ve even lifted virtual friends up in prayer from the pulpit. I’d call that pastoral contact in many ways.
On the other hand, I have this blog, you see. And I have a congregation who knows about it (although I’m still not sure that any of them read it, because none have responded). If I maintain my blog after my change in appointment, and my congregants from my previous church read it, engage in discussion on it, and listen to my sermon podcast, does that constitute pastoral contact?
I would argue that this blog is not reaching out to any one person, but is an exercise, largely, in shouting into the void, and if a former congregant happens to hear the echoes of what the former pastor shouts into the void, that’s not pastoral contact; that’s connectionalism. It is no different than a pastor whose services are broadcast on public access TV. Or is it?
This blog is also interactive in a way that the one-sided nature of TV or letters to the editor or books written by former pastors are not. What about a specific response in the comments? Are those really any different than emails? If, say, a member of St. Paul’s leaves a message that they are having a tough time in their life, should I refrain from responding? What would other readers think about the cold-hearted blogging pastor who answers every other comment but ignores the “dear pastor becca, my friend just died and i’m really mad at god right now; can you please pray for me?” Further, how am I even to know? What if JesusGurl23 is really a fifty year old woman from my former congregation, adopting an anonymous online handle? I’m not trying to give out ideas here, folks, but I have a personal blog and a personal handle, and without a picture or some identifying characteristics, how am I to know who is who? Could– and perhaps more importantly, should– the Conference hold me accountable for not interacting with former congregants online when I might not even be able to tell who they are?
In a world where distinctions between here and there, contact and distance are so easily blurred, how do we maintain faithfulness to the formation–and in this case the termination–of our covenant relationships? Is it enough for me to simply not seek out my soon-to-be former congregants, and trust that I am upholding my covenant?
As I predicted, my sweet old lady in the nursing home is still living, and more miserable than ever, although she’s wonderfully lucid and frank and quite funny (Well, I don’t care what the nurse’s name is, I’m just telling you he was good-looking. And he’s the one who did my bath today).
I went to visit her yesterday morning, fresh off my vacation. I found her alone and asleep (or nearly so) in her room, hooked to her oxygen and looking weaker than she did five days ago. I sat with her quietly, thinking and praying vaguely in my head, and then, because I thought it might be comforting to her, I started singing some hymns softly. She played the organ for a long time, both in church (not as the official organist, but as the substitute), and even after she came to the nursing home she played in the recreation room for the other residents until she became too ill to do so. So I thought hymns might make her happier than my talking at her, and might seep into her consciousness a bit better. So I sang. I got most of the way through Amazing Grace— there’s a verse in there I don’t know, “The Lord has promised good to me…” so I hummed a lot on that one, before my favorite, the following verse, which always reminds me of Harry Potter‘s Sirius:
And when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil a life of joy and peace.
I was into the Alleluias when the daughter found me. Caught in the act of visiting my congregant without even having to be asked. You score mega good-pastor points for that. Of course I was singing, which might not have been considered a blessing, depending on how good the daughter’s hearing is.
The daughter (who is even more insistent that her mom “hang on” until her 91st birthday two weeks from now, when the daughter can return [don’t say that, honey, you only make it harder for her to let go, and she so desperately wants to]) goes home today, so I don’t know if I’ll see her when I head down. I hope I can catch my congregant awake and alone so I can talk to her (not sing to her!) and let her tell me what her children don’t want to hear: how much she’s looking forward to being taken home, what she wants to tell her husband when she sees him, and how much she wants her pain to go away– all things she needs to say, tears she needs to shed, but which her children keep gently shushing.
First, I had a funeral this morning, under very difficult circumstances. As in the family was estranged from one another and rather than sharing bittersweet memories of the deceased took the opportunity to air some grievances that probably really needed to be aired. I hope I brought a little opportunity for healing to the situation, but boy was it awkward and painful, and more about God’s grace being able to intercede in broken family systems as people work through life transitions than about God’s grace bringing departed loved ones home.
Then I had two hours before Spanish class and no desire to drive in circles. Attired in my funeral suit, which either makes it very clear that I’m a pastor or makes one assume I’m auditioning for a role in The Matrix, I went to a Starbucks. As I’ve said earlier, I wear my clerical out and about because it is a form of evangelizing, but this time it actually did a little more than make people look at me funny.
I was sitting in a comfy chair by the fireplace when a middle-aged woman approached and asked if the seat next to me was taken. I told her she was free to sit down, noting at the same time that a. there were lots of empty seats around the cafe, and b. she was carrying a book on Centering Prayer. My acute pastoral skills tell me she’s recognized The Collar.
“I see you’re reading about centering prayer,” I say, turning my attention from my laptop to my companion. “You’ve picked a great chair.”
“Oh, yes, I didn’t want to interrupt you, but can I ask you a couple questions?”
And just like that, we’re off, and I’m describing my church and my denomination and she’s telling me that she’s a Catholic laywoman but feels called to ministry (boy is that familiar territory!), and we’re exchanging names and business cards and laughter. Look at that.
Off to the Community College, where the students who didn’t recognize my dorky tab collar can’t miss the power of the Funeral Suit, and ask me all kinds of questions (wait, you can have a kid? you can be married? is it fun? you had to go to *school* for that?).
So, today I utterly failed to complete any of the worship services for my annual conference and I didn’t come up with any ideas of something creative I could do for Pentecost (despite a Facebook chat with an old friend that covered salad, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Clue, children’s board books, and Greek frescoes, in no particular order). I did a pretty poor job at officiating at a funeral (or I did a good job but the situation was so difficult it was hard to see that), and I made no progress on a bulletin. But I was clearly where I needed to be. The rest, well that’s detail work.
Last week at church may have been one of my best services, but today was one of those days that reminds me why I’m a *pastor* and not just a preacher/worship leader.
It is Heritage Sunday, and my sermon (unrecorded) focused on “coming together”– our denomination coming together 40 years ago as the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Episcopal Church (both themselves results of previous mergers) merged into a new denomination, The United Methodist Church; our global church coming together as we do once every four years for General Conference (which I showed some of, streaming live from Texas as people were gathering for worship); our youth coming together with the youths from three other conferences, which are planning to merge, to lead the way in fellowship, worship and relationship building. I said that unity is not uniformity, and that the process of being one is courageous, counter-cultural, and miraculous. I spoke about some of the divisions in our church, particularly with respect to the denomination’s stance on homosexuality, and that our commitment to remaining one body in the face of those differences is staggering.
After church, I was approached by the two women from the family involved in last fall’s murder-suicide. They asked me if I was allowed to express personal beliefs in a sermon, or if I had to tread softly or walk a party line. I replied that I was allowed to say anything I wanted, short of outright telling people who to vote for (but I can tell them which issues I think should sway their votes), but that I remained a little more neutral because I wanted people to still be able to come to me in a moment of need and not feel that I’m unapproachable because I’ve been so disrespectful of their position. “That said, I hope I’m pretty clear about my support for homosexual people and their inclusion in the church.”
“Loud and clear,” my congregant said, “and that’s what I think too.”
We talked for a long time about the church’s position on human sexuality, and the harm that position does to people inside and outside the church. I told them about my dear friend Annie losing her preaching license, and it was a great conversation. The younger woman told me that she thought I’d get along really well with her son (who is my age, and who I’ve met, only once, under pretty sad circumstances). Then she said, “In fact, he asked me to tell you– I guess I just never got around to it. He was one of the pallbearers at… the funeral. He was so impressed by what you said, and he wanted me to pass that on to you, that even though he’s not a church person, he really respects you and was impressed by you.”
“In fact,” her mother in law chimed in, “I don’t know if we’ve ever properly said it, but, well, thank you. You gave so many people hope and comfort that day. It was a really tough job, and you did it so well. I can’t tell you what it meant to our family, and I’ve never really been feeling good enough about it to bring it up before, but thank you so much.”
Our conversation continued for a little while, and we even shared some laughs about the letters I received from the Jehovah’s Witness church in town following the press attention the funeral received and the quotes from my message, including that it was okay to be angry at God, who out of all of us, could take it. I said something along the lines of, “hey, it was what I believe and if it helped one person feel a little bit more at peace in a terrible moment, it was worth ten letters from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
“It did more than that, pastor. *You* did more than that.” And that folks, is why I do what I do. It’s that final line in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “What is Success?”: To know that one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.
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.