Human beings are amazingly fragile creatures.
We have soft underbellies, delicate psyches, and tender hearts that are so easily broken.
But human beings are also amazingly resilient creatures. We have backs that will bend to extreme angles long before they break, and we have the unsinkable ability to greet each day anew, despite the hours of darkness that came before.
Life will often toss us around like ragdolls, and sometimes we land in a heap and are unable to move, and other times we briskly, or gingerly, pick ourselves up and continue on our way.
We arrive on the doorsteps of our churches in both conditions.
Some of us come believing we are weak and vulnerable - and we need to be reminded that we are strong and valuable.
Some of us come believing that we are strong and valuable - and we need to be reminded that we are weak and vulnerable.
We’re all wounded and broken; and we all have the strength and the resiliency to heal.
A favorite cartoon of mine has a pastor standing in a pulpit with his congregation before him, and over their heads are thought balloons expressing what they’re expecting from his sermon, and from him as a pastor: “Feed Me!” “Encourage Me!” “Rebuke Me!” “Teach Me!” “Comfort Me!” “Humor Me!” “Counsel Me!” “Disciple Me!” “Visit Me!” “Love Me!”
No pastor can be all things to all people, at all times.
But I believe the good ones at least try; and are able to admit that they fall short most of the time.
The task – and it is a difficult one – is to strike a balance between being a pastor, a priest, and a prophet: a compassionate comforter, a sacred teacher, and a nudging instigator.
The pastor is the one we invite into our presence during life’s most intimate moments - when our children are born, when we celebrate new relationships and new commitments, and when we mourn the passing of our loved ones. The pastor is the one we lean on when our lives fall apart. The pastor comes when we call in the middle of the night, gives us a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, and ears to listen; and will sit with us for hours doing all of the above. In times of uncertainty, the pastor is there to offer us an encouraging word, a concerned check-in at coffee hour, a gentle touch on the arm and the comforting words, “I’m here for you,” when we seem distracted, apprehensive, or overwhelmed.
The pastor walks beside us in our joy, and in our pain.
The priest is the one we call upon when we live into our desire to embrace what is sacred. We come to church to learn about God and to be closer to God. The priest is theologian and teacher, celebrant and sacramental liaison. It is through worship that we come before God both on bended knee and with hands raised high. In the silence we seek sanctuary, and in making a joyful noise we lift up our voices in praise. In communion (gathering with others) and in Communion (the sharing of the body of Christ) we celebrate the beautiful reality that we are never truly alone in this world. Through the art of preaching, teaching, and story telling, the priest takes the word, and the Word, and brings God to life right in front of our eyes.
The priest walks in front of us, and leads the way.
The prophet is the one who comes to us when we get too comfortable in our own skin - when we sink into the pew cushion and kick back to hear a pleasantly worded sermon before heading out to resume our busy, tunnel-vision lives. The prophet often grates on us like nails on a blackboard, making us cringe or lash out because the noise is too unsettling to hear. The prophet pushes us to do more, to think more, to BE more than we believe we can, or want, to be. The prophet prompts us to discern who and what it is our “still-speaking” God is calling us to be. Sometimes we’re ready to listen and we champion the prophet for being “inspiring” and “visionary,” and sometimes we’re reluctant to listen and we challenge the prophet for being too “radical,” too “political,” or too out of touch with reality as we know it.
The prophet walks behind us, poking us in the back, and nudging us towards change.
I feel compelled to bring elements of all three of these callings to my ministry. I love to preach and teach the message of God’s unconditional and radically inclusive grace, mercy, and love. I love to pray and worship and celebrate the Word and sacrament in the loving embrace of community. I love to pastor and counsel and be the compassionate presence that so many of us need in the tender moments of our lives. I love to lift up the voices of the impoverished, the marginalized, and the oppressed, and to encourage all within earshot to roll up their sleeves and to go out and be God’s hands and feet in the world – because the church that Jesus calls us to create cannot, and should not, be contained within the walls that we’ve built to surround us.
As a pastor, as a person, I try my best to do all of this with a healthy dose of humility and humor.
We are human beings. We’re going to mess up a good percentage of the time.
We’re going to hurt each other without intending to. We’re going to step on each other’s toes and bump into each other while trying to do this dance that we call living in community.
And when things get difficult and challenging and frustrating, what God calls us to do is to keep dancing anyway - to keep coming back together and having those hard conversations: about our mission, our vision, and how we see ourselves as being “church” in this ever changing world. And yes, we also need to talk about strained budgets, cherished traditions and worship elements that can and cannot be changed, much needed building repairs, and all those other conflict-inducing issues that are a part of life in congregations with long histories, housed in aging buildings, with passionate people giving it life.
There’s an old rabbinical teaching that says as people of faith we should greet each day with two slips of paper in our pockets. In one pocket we should keep a note that reads:
“God created the world for me” - and in the other pocket we should keep a note that reads:
“I am but dust and ashes.”
As always, exceptionality and humility go hand in hand.
Working together as pastor and congregation we should strive to be exceptional – to answer God’s call to take a step beyond where we typically feel comfortable going; and we should do it knowing that we’re not always going to get there – because we’re human.
We’re vulnerable yet strong, fragile yet resilient.
And we are just as God created us to be.