Diary of a Plain Pastor: Wonder

The shabbiest tuppeny doll will rejoice a baby’s heart for half the year, but your mature gentleman’ll go yawning his head off at a five-hundred franc gadget. And why? Because he has lost the soul of childhood. Well, God has entrusted the Church to keep that soul alive, to safeguard our candour and freshness … I’m not stopping you from calculating the process of the equinoxes or splitting the atom. But what would it profit you even to create life itself, when you have lost all sense of what life really is? Might as well blow your brains out among your test-tubes.                                      {Diary of a Country Priest}

There’s lots of talk in the church about getting the soul alive. I don’t hear as much talk about keeping the soul alive.

The old wizened priest, the one who’d live many years and served a simple parish and outlived most of his superiors as well as the various ecclesiastical fixations, had come to believe that the church was a caretaker, a guardian of the soul. There are lots of things the church does. There are many areas to which we speak. However, none of it takes precedent over the most basic function of assisting people in staying alive. Alive in God.

At the core, this means we do simple things. We remind people of who God is. We remind people of who they are. And then we teach people to keep their eyes open, watching for all the wonder God is crafting in us and around us.

Theological precision, astute and engaging preaching, missional initiatives, well-crafted liturgy – each of these, important as they are, must not be ends in themselves. They are the soil in which the soul grows. They are the fruit from a life lived awake in God’s garden.

Wonder is an important word here. I’d like to add it to our routine vocabulary. Perhaps as often as these questions: Is it correct? Is it effective? Is it scalable? We could ask Does it evoke wonder? Does it give me a greater sense of self and control or a greater sense of God? Does it move me to love?

When I ponder the many (and varied) expectations now prevalent for us pastors, the truth is that I don’t meet up well to many of them. Some of them I need to work on, and some of them I need to let go. But I think a prime calling for me is to help a person guard their soul, to ask them if they’re alive – and to encourage them to walk among the living.

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Doubt

Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives by it. That is why old-fashioned confessors are not far wrong in showing a certain amount of skepticism when dealing with ‘intellectual crises,’ doubtless far more rare than people imagine.

{Diary of a Country Priest}

Wrangling with doubt and questions comes easy for me, too easy perhaps. One of the chapters in my first book opened with this line: “A pastor really ought to believe in God. It works better that way.” (it’s still true, by the way.) And this was no quick two-week rabbit trail for me. My quandary with doubt popped up again in Holy Curiosity. Doubt has been a companion, weaving it’s way in and out of my story for the past 15 years or so. For some, faith comes easy. For others, faith comes through blood, sweat and fears.

Doubt’s a tricky thing, though. The old cliche says that faith’s a crutch; well, doubt’s a crutch too. When doubt keeps me honest, keeps me human, it can be a friend. But when doubt isolates me or encourages my cynical side, whenever doubt diminishes the life I could be busy living, doubt has become my enemy (or “my foe,” as six-year-old Seth called a kindergarten pal who grew mean on the playground).

I cling to doubt because it provides an allure of protection. Left free to roam and pillage, doubt runs right past being honest and on to constructing barricades. Nothing required of me. Nothing to disappoint me. No one to criticize me – because I’ve committed to nothing. We cannibalize ourselves, rushing to dismantle our beliefs before anybody else tries.

Doubt as one voice keeping us honest is a good thing. Doubt as the voice telling us who we are is a horrible thing. Believing in the gospel is a posture of faith. And being a pastor is a life of living toward – and inviting others toward – faith.

If my life is defined by doubt, then I’m not getting on with actually being who I am in this world. I’m not living toward anything. Rather than giving myself to my church and my family and my craft and my friends, I’m simply detracting, deconstructing. I’m withering away. That’s no way to live.

In the wise words of the Avett Brothers, “Decide what to be. And go be it.”

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Empty

‘Be at peace,’ I told her. And she had knelt to receive this peace. May she keep it for ever. It will be I that gave it to her. Oh, miracle – thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands!

{Diary of a Country Priest}

It’s a mantra to pastors, to anyone for that matter: you can’t give away what you haven’t received. I’ve repeated it. Mostly, I believe it. The truth in these words seems two-fold. First: don’t play games or pretend; smoke what your selling. Second: all we’ve received is grace and all we have to give is grace; don’t get too big for your britches.

But lo and behold, wouldn’t you know that even such good words with such sincere intentions find a way to wiggle back to a place of self-effort and self-importance, a place that forgets (yet again) all about grace and gift and the marvel of God making something of nothing. By God, I hope I can give more than I’ve possessed, more than I’ve taken in and truly received. I certainly hope God can love through me when I’m unlovely and enact mercy through me when I’m in such desperate need for mercy.

Lately, I’ve dropped more than a few balls. If I were a street juggler, there’d be nobody watching – and no coins in the jar. If it’s up to my sermons to save the world, the world’s headed for the fiery place. If it’s up to my powerful faith to create momentum within our church, well, we are in dire straits. Last night, Miska and I were talking about our early years in ministry. “You had quite an ego,” Miska said. She was right. But God was kind and indulgent – and God loved a few people even with my arrogance and faithlessness and erroneous ways. Contrary to Sunday School ditties, apparently God does use dirty pots. Are you familiar with any other kind?

These days, I find myself feeling more empty than full. Some days I don’t know what to pray for – or how to pray for – the people I love. In conversation, I often don’t know the words to share with a struggling soul. My sermons seem vanilla. My organizational skills are struggling to reach their normal level of mediocrity. Old nemesis (doubt, inner-disconnection, spiritual lethargy) have come knocking. All of this leaves me hollowed out.

If my job is to give what I possess, well – you see the trouble. But I believe that when we are empty, there is more space for God to fill, if we’ll be quiet enough to let God fill it. When we have little to say or give or perform, then God can speak and bless and act. And if the gospel means anything, it means this: we need God to speak and to bless and to act.

And from the beginning, God has always made something of nothing, a “sweet miracle of our empty hands” indeed.

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Dirty

The mistake she made wasn’t to fight dirt, sure enough, but to try and do away with it altogether. As if that were possible! A parish is bound to be dirty.                                                                                                                                     {Diary of a Country Priest}

If you were to take a quick tour of our home, you’d find an upstairs door with a hole, crushed by a seven-year-old known as “our little hurricane.” You’d discover swaths of blue (or is it green now?) goo permanently melded into our nine-year-old’s bomb shelter (aka “room”). You’d find sketches scribbled across their (previously white) ceilings, just above their loft beds. And their bathroom – please, for the love of all that is holy and true, do not go into their bathroom – brings their mother to tears.

But of course, each of these scuffs and smells marks the presence of a boy we love, a son that has come, in such inexplicable ways, to mark our own life, our own hopes. The one thing worse than having all this chaos would be not having this chaos.

Churches are too enamored with cleaning up the chaos. Pastors, myself included, are too bent on getting the family (and this is what a church is, of course – a family) polished and scrubbed clean. A parish is bound to be dirty, at least if it’s going to have any life happening within it. Living always kicks up the dust.

The work of the church — the life of the church, that’s better — is to be a place where all the things we hide, all the things that undo us, all the things that frighten us have space to come out into the open. The church is the community where people discover what it means to live well, to love well – to be loved well. But this takes time. Rarely does it happen with a 40 Days Toward Cleanliness campaign. If my pastoral aims point at getting our church to have the right image, then I’ve abandoned my call – and I guarantee I’ve also run roughshod over people in making it happen. I’ve missed their stories. I’ve manipulated friendship. I may have managed a crusade, but I haven’t been a pastor.

Shame gets results. Brute force gets results. So does a cattle-prod. But grace and prayers and true questions (ones that say I want to know you, not I want to work you) offer the possibility of more than a sparkling clean image. Grace transforms us; but it’s a messy thing getting there.

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Carried

You can’t go offering the truth to human beings as though it were a sort of insurance policy, or a dose of salts. It’s the Way and the Life. God’s truth is the Life. We only look as though we were bringing it to mankind; really it brings us, my lad.

{Diary of a Country Priest}

If I believe anything, it’s this: a pastor is not a huckster.

Hucksters harangue, they prod. They flash a grin and slap your back and tell a story or two to work their charm. But they don’t show a broken heart. They don’t sit with you in your questions, adding their questions to the mix. They don’t want any complications. They’ve got a product to unload, a point to make. They’re working the vision.

Somewhere along the way, Christianity became a brand. And we pastors became the chief peddlers. It’s a shame. Hucksterism may work to build a corporate identity, a crowd, some momentum. But it’s still a shame, a sham.

I don’t trust a pastor who’s selling something. I don’t trust a pastor who doesn’t know his own story and her own wounds. But show me a pastor who wrestles with the truth and who’s full aware that some answers are hard won, over a life of faith and sweat and laughter and tears – show me that pastor, and I’ll listen, I’ll follow. I long for a pastor who’s living the good life, honest and good.

My hope is that I might be the kind of pastor I’m looking for, the kind of pastor I’d trust. And as I see it, this begins with me owning the fact that my wisdom and leadership acumen is mildly helpful, at best. I don’t have any grace to hand out that hasn’t first been handed to me. I didn’t die on a cross or rise from the dead. I’ve got nothing to sell, nothing worth buying at least. My vocation has nothing to do with hawking Jesus-ware.

My work is to be brought along, to be carried by the Story. I’m to listen and then to retell the Story as best I know – and to never pretend that I’ve got the golden keys to either mercy or mystery. Whatever I know, whatever I’ve been given, it’s been done to me. Grace carries me here and there, and washes me up on the bank wherever, whenever, she has the urge.

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Blessing

‘You’re in trouble,’ he said. ‘You must bless me.’ And he took my hand and raised it quickly to his brow. Then he was gone. There was certainly a strong wind blowing, but for the first time I saw he hadn’t straightened his tall figure: he walked bowed.

{The Diary of a Country Priest}



Each Sunday, after our church has heard the Gospel and sung our hymns and conversed around a text, after we have passed the peace with kisses, handshakes and hugs, after we have confessed ours sins and received Jesus’ forgiveness, after we have gathered as hungry people around the Table, received our fill and then prayed our prayers of thanksgiving and intercession — after all these movements telling and enacting God’s story – we prepare to leave our space where we have been together. But we are not ready to leave just yet.

We wait for a blessing.

This has come to be one of the moments I most cherish as a pastor. In this holy space, I invite the people to cup their hands, in a Hebrew posture of receiving. Then, with all the authority I can muster, I speak a word of blessing over all who are gathered, our community of sinners and saints.

A blessing is a direct word. It is spoken to a person. I grab as many eyes as I can. A blessing, done right, will not allow the pastor to live in the abstract. I pray the blessing over a mom who hasn’t had a good night’s sleep for ages. I’m blessing the dad who’s getting the screws turned on him at work. I’m blessing the student who cuts herself. I’m blessing the guy who’s slept through our entire worship, the same way he’s sleeping through his life. I’m blessing the couple about to split up and the guy who thinks God’s a bunch of hooey.

But it’s not really my blessing. I am standing there, simply offering Gospel words. I’m reminding my people who they are and how loved they are – and I’m reminding them of their God and of the true story their God is writing for them. I’m blessing my people because I believe with all my heart that God loves them – and because I love them.

Some Sundays labor on, the sermon barely registering or my emotions flat. Some days have all the life of an old, whipped hound. I wish it weren’t so, but so be it. Still, I’ve been granted the sacred opportunity to bless. I raise my hands and raise my voice. People of God, I begin. And then I tell them who they are, and as I tell them, I tell myself. God knows I need a blessing.

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Bumbler

You’re too restless. Your’e like a hornet in a bottle. But I believe you have the spirit of prayer. 

{The Diary of a Country Priest}

I wish I had a nickel for every half-baked idea, every book I intended to write, every conversation I imagined having – but forgot. My wife Miska sniggers at my forgetfulness and my mispronounced (or made-up on the spot) words (friends have dubbed them winnisms). I’m too restless. I take a number of wrong turns. If I wore a clerical collar, most days it would boast a stain of coffee or smudge of salsa.

That hornet and I share a few things. We’re both bumblers.

Of course, I long to live attentive to God; and I could use a bit more order to create space for that to happen. However, I’m coming to see God among the imperfections, not against them. When you bumble, it’s a bit easier to shed pretense, to stop masquerading as God’s power-broker. I mean, who’s kidding who, right? And the words to the bumbler’s prayer come quick and easy: God, help me.

I’m learning that prayers are better prayed from weakness than from strength. Prayers when I’m lost. Prayers when I’m confused. Prayers when I’m despondent or blue. Prayer for a friend, a parishoner, a neighbor. Prayer for my sons I love and my wife I adore – I ache for the three of them, sometimes I fear for them – but what can I do, other than my bumbling best and ask for God’s mercy.

I once heard someone ask Frederick Buechner to describe his prayer life. His one-word answer: meager. Who am I to judge another man’s self-criticism? But — I’ve read too much of the man, heard the holy tremor in his words, seen glory and imagination dance on the pages. By my lights, every syllable is prayer-soaked.

Slowly, I’m coming to believe that every syllable of my life can be prayer-soaked. I can walk, wrong turns and all, in that “spirit of prayer.” Bumble prayerfully on.

The Diary of a Plain Pastor

And mind you many a fellow who waves his arms like a furniture-remover isn’t necessarily any more awakened than the rest. On the contrary. I simply mean to say that when the Lord has drawn from me some word for the good of souls, I know, because of the pain of it. {George Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest}

 

Sometimes my sermons are boring. I know, sometimes I bore myself. It’s actually worse for me. If you’re listening, you have the option of nodding off, and you can even appear especially spiritual if you arrange it to appear as though you are buried intently in your Bible. Standing at the lectern, however, it is immensely hard to snatch a snooze.

Thankfully, Christian preaching is not about capturing attention or giving the congregation a good whirl. Preaching takes shape in the very human act of a Christian community gathering together to speak, receive and obey God’s words. Seldom flashy. This should be no surprise. With my sons, I suspect it will be the mundane, forgotten rhythms far more than the few high-gravity encounters that will most profoundly shape their souls. Dinner conversations, popsicles on the front deck, afternoons mindlessly tossing the ball – it’s all about the rhythm, presence, living our story. The same for a church. We gather, we speak, we listen, we strike the rhythm again and again. We are present. We live the story.

Yet none of this suggests the Bible is dull or lackluster. The Good Book burns. The Word illumines. Preachers use to speak of a “fire in the bones.” I’ve felt that fire here and there. And the priest is right, there is a pain to it. There is a pain to knowing the stories of the friends who’ve gathered, the ones who can barely drag themselves, limp with tribulation or fatigue, to this sacred space. There is a pain to knowing that a few who are listening are giving God and hope one last shot, but just barely. There is a pain when you’ve seen a hint of something beautiful – but you know you have no words and that you can’t make anyone gaze along with you and that, even if you could make them, you wouldn’t because forced love strips all the love right from the thing.

The old priest speaks of God drawing the word from him, this word good for the soul. That seems about right. When one of these fire-in-the-bones moments happen, I confess it’s usually a surprise. Typically, it accompanies a solemn holiness or a rupture of laughter or, most often, tears – but it’s always as if something’s happening to me rather than me making something happen. It’s God prodding, God pushing into my own heart, finding my disappointment or joy or sorrow (for myself or others) and then bringing that hidden place into the open.

And it’s painful. It’s painful to be reminded of your own brokenness and to glimpse the brokenness of others more clearly. This isn’t a woe-is-me pain, for sure. This is the pain each of us knows when we’ve done a good work, and we cry and laugh at the beauty before us. The farmer viewing his crop at the cool of dusk. A mother watching her son walk the aisle. A painter laying down her brush and a poet speaking syllables into life. One of the strangest truths in God’s world is this uncanny coupling of pain and beauty.

But a good portion of my art happens in the parish. I’m a pastor, the plainest sort. And today I’m listening to the old priest and finding my own tale mingled with his.