(Welcome to Pastoral Ministry Tuesday. On Tuesdays I try to post a glimpse behind the curtain, a look at what life in pastoral ministry is like for some of us and for me in particular. Pastors aren’t a monolithic group and some of us are having very different experiences than others – which is why this is a pastor’s story and not THE pastor’s story.)
This is one of the most challenging seasons in which I have pastored.
I have been through church splits and been called a heretic. I’ve had groups of people leave church and never talk to me about why or what. People have left when I didn’t speak up against the actions and speech of President Trump and I’ve had people leave because I spoke up against the actions and speech of President Trump. I’ve pastored when everyone had revival fever and chased an experience of God to the exclusion of truth and ethics and I’ve pastored when it seemed like all anyone wanted was to chase down the false teachers and burn them at the stake.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more weary than right now.
And it’s not the learning curve and the new skills I’ve had to pick up, the adjustments I’ve had to make or the hours working from home that blur all my lines and make most days seem like 12 hour (or more) days. Truthfully, it has been a challenge I have enjoyed.
My weariness in this pastoral life is coming from the daily experience of followers of Jesus saying hateful and hurtful things to and about each other and to and about people they don’t know but who share a different view of life from their own. I am weary because it feels like the message I have given my life to and the kingdom from which that message comes gets very little consideration from significant portions of those who, like me, say they follow Jesus. My weariness comes from discovering that saying that black lives matter is a controversial statement. It comes from finding out that saying black lives matter around my white friends or my white facebook friends, will get challenged.
Last night, during a time of silent prayer, I felt the Spirit of God speak to me. Some of the heaviness I feel right now is coming from an internal belief I’ll live my 70 years (or whatever I’m given) and the impact of my life will be like the rain that falls on the windshield of my car during a North Carolina downburst. Loud, frustrating, inconvenient but ultimately over quickly and wiped away without getting through.
And then I had to finish the prayer time.
I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want to be anyone’s expert. I don’t want to be guru or a “go to.” I’m not looking for followers or fans. But at my core, as a pastor, is a desire that what I’m doing here matters. That my life has been a light for someone. That my life has been salt to season or preserve life for someone. And right now, I think I’m personalizing things that are happening around me but I’m not sure how to stop doing that because it all feels very personal.
I’ve been reflecting on some of the stories of Jesus. Like the story he told about the good shepherd who left the 99 to find the one. Demonstrating a different way of doing math than the culture I am a part of seems to. A willingness to value the one in danger at the risk of looking like he values them more than those safe in numbers. Or the story Jesus tells about the two sons, both who run away from home – one physically, the other in his heart. One returns and the father celebrates but the other resents that the party wasn’t ever thrown for him. Jesus told so many stories that make God’s love and attention look like something other than fair.
I’ve been reflecting on the painful experiences of my friends, people of color, who have experienced racism, profiling and discrimination and then the commentary of both black and white people, many of whom claim to follow Jesus who deny the experiences my friends have had are having, who deny those things even exist, who say those things are a thing of the past. And they deny my experience as a white person in the South who has seen with his own eyes my friends being treated differently, have seen black people being followed in retail stores simply because they were shopping while being black. I’ve watched countless hours of video of the experiences of people of color being stopped by police for being black and fitting a “description.” And while I feel it is a privilege to have these stories shared with me and to be trusted by my friends to hear their stories of pain, I am weighed down – NOT by their sacred stories but by other pastors and followers of Jesus who insist it never happens any more. Or who suggest the “Christian response” is to pray it away.
Or if people just do as they are told there won’t be a problem.
As a pastor, there is often a gap between the things you believe and live for and the particularity of the people among whom you shepherd. And you can’t spend all your time and conversations with people trying to get them beyond some of the immature places they’ve camped on their way to becoming more and more like Jesus. You have to pastor for the long haul, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. But where is the line and how do we walk it when the sheep are biting and devouring the sheep? Honestly, it becomes clearer and clearer why we have black churches and we have white churches.
No one has to empathize or care or think about what they say or surrender their political affiliation in order to be a brother or sister to those who are hurt and dying. But it doesn’t look like the kingdom.
Put all this into the context of a pandemic and life in a State in which the numbers of infected and hospitalized has continued to go up and people continue to die at an alarming rate. And find, even here, political persuasion is the dominant filter for how we respond to this information. Some churches are already meeting together and have resisted all along the authority of anyone telling them not to meet for health and safety. And then there are others who resist meeting in person yet because the numbers keep going up and they don’t want to put people at risk. They want to protect our most vulnerable.
They want to protect the most vulnerable.
What if we all just decided that the best way forward was to protect the most vulnerable among us all the time? What if that was the filter through which we viewed people and processed our decisions?
This is my story. I am privileged and life is easy.
And my heart is breaking every day.