in road construction
I can see
the metaphor of church
from my place
in the line
I can see
the green light
God just ahead,
just ahead, but
I am completely stymied
by the flaggers and
stalls and thwarters—
I do not know
whether to rejoice
in the repair,
rebuild & reconstruction,
or should I scream
in sheer frustration
at my paralysis,
at my paralysis,
to the light of God.
Photo: Road Work Ahead by Wayan Vota 2009 flickr CC BY NC SA 2.0
I read a post on a clergy website today that I could myself have written just a few years ago. The post was a plea for wisdom—and there are some wise and wonderful people on that site—from those with more experience on the job. The plea was for balance, how to find it!? How to balance the pastorate, the family, seminary, that sermon on Sunday…
Pastors work hard. This job is a vocation—a calling—not a paycheck. We do it because God has called us in, through, and by the people we serve, in visions, by inspiration, by scripture, by practice. This is a job that calls out every branch, root, and shoot of our being. It is not easy.
I am sure that is why some of the earliest religious people were hermits!
The question she posed is sadly unanswerable. How do you serve the pastorate, the people, the baptizand, the dying, the grieving, the betrothed, the confirmands, the Eucharist, your kids, your spouse, your church family, your not-yet church family, your never-thank you church family, and your own spiritual and biological needs? Frankly, you can’t.
It’s like the world expects you to be a nerdy-yet-pastoral Martha Stewart in a black shirt and collar. You sure look efficient and ecclesiastical, but the Stewart-Media-Mogul superpower stuff is not where your own power is coming from. It cost you real energy to iron that shirt. No one was there to press it for you because you are a servant of God in a smallish community. Forget an actual assistant (who wouldn’t iron in any case) you are still working on getting a reliable powerpoint person for Sunday mornings.
As I reflected on the post this morning—and my own struggles with those very same issues—I reflected on the story of the Good Samaritan. I like to keep the first reading of any biblical story as true as possible to its original meaning and social context. But having done that, I like to be open also to the ways biblical stories break free of their origins to provide meaning and metaphor in some new way.
For me the story of the Good Samaritan turned a new way today, a new facet opened up. I thought about the naked wounded stranger in the story, lying there, desperate or dead. A remember Jesus’s admonition regarding the priest in the story who had walked by the stranger without looking, without helping, without a second glance.
In the story I can imagine it, a hurried priest sensing the nearness of yet one more broken person tugging at his sleeve. I feel the adrenalin and the cortisole spike, the quick breath and rabid heartbeat as the priest is beset with a sudden panic, a sudden self-preservation, and sudden desire to flee. I see him hike up his robes to facilitate speed. I see him hurrying on by, his head deliberately turned down or aside in fear; he has nothing left to give but the hard-hearted boundary of his refusal to see. It is validating evidence, at the least, of the reality of the sheer desperate condition of the man he leaves behind.
Years ago I would have joined my voice to Jesus’s with a rousing ‘Yeah!’ ‘Amen, brother!’ ‘Preach!’ when hearing that story. Can you imagine that faithless beetle-priest, scurrying by when a naked stranger, beaten and bruised, lay in need in the street.
Today I might lift a small and plaintive whine. “But, Jesus, have you seen her/his schedule? Have you any idea how tabbed out this month’s Google Calendar is? He/her did three funerals this week, on top of everything else!”
As a cleric—as a person—I see many of naked strangers, and I leave a lot of things undone. I cannot stop for everyone. I cannot give to every cause. I cannot fix the brokennesses of a single day let alone a month. I am guilty even when wearing priestly garb of hiking up my robe and scurrying away. I cannot be the help or the catharsis that many people need.
I am trying to make friends with this, but I am not glad to be too-often the example of the “bad” insider while the “good” outsider—with nothing better to do than troll around scamming people of their pots and pans, mind you!—gets all the credit for helping out.
Being a pastor means that even if I work 24 hour days without sleeping that strangers will be left naked and the laundry won’t get done. It means I will scramble at the last minute before the funeral because I forgot I hadn’t ironed that shirt yet. It means in a busy week I get to choose between offering a canned or lackluster sermon or staying up and compromising my sleep.
Being a pastor means I have to learn to let things go undone.
Yes, the goal is to empower and train the congregation, to lift up their gifts and capabilities. But in a congregation where skills must be grown, or there is simply not people with the skills needed, that means you are working around your limitations trying to resource your needs as best you can. And that takes work.
But I am praying and I am listening and I am learning.
I am learning to let things go undone.
This really isn’t a choice. I need to do this not simply for ‘balance’ but to maintain real and meaningful reserves, as well. A religious leader reacts to the schedule-god, the tick-tock fix-it god, the panic-god that you forgot, again, that thing you were supposed to do! A Spiritual leader responds to Christ. A Spiritual leader prioritizes tasks gently and recognizes in the undone gaps opportunities for the Spirit to work in ways that won’t be all about you and what you can or can’t do.
A Spiritual leader awaits the outcome surprise and accepts limitations and mystery. A ‘Good Samaritan,’ who knew! I mean, how cool is that? Awaiting God’s surprises means a Spiritual leader can walk by the naked stranger without shame, without having to scuttle away like a bug, because they have faith that God is there and working to make things right—even if you can’t imagine it right now. A Spiritual leader recognizes that they are not the only game in town and are not the only one in and through whom God works. In God’s world there is no insider tyranny because the outsiders get some glory, too.
In God’s world a Spiritual leader focuses on what God is making possible, not on what they think ‘must be done.’ Must anything be done? (What makes you so sure you know?)
But, perhaps most hopeful of all, a Spiritual leader know the value of ‘chillax.’ They hold the power of the Spirit at their center, and do not heap glory on themselves and their own powers. They seek to have enough in reserve—yes, reserve!—that they needn’t pass by at all, but can stop and be a responsive person of faith in that moment of great need. This is the kind of leader I try hard and one day hope to be.
I believe we have to find a way through the mess to try to be leaders of faith even amidst the great sea of all that is undone. If God isn’t rushing in to fill every pothole, then maybe we are not called to do that, either. We need to model faithful Spiritual leadership so that failure to jump to the expectations of others is not recognized as failure at all. We have deified self and created god-the-clock, and in so doing we are driven by the demon chronos. But God is so much, much bigger than that.
So chillax with me.
(And yes. It’s really hard to do. And I am still working on it.)
My frustration with the image of the sprout as the visual exemplar of the new church is the implication that growth results from agonists or prodigals in isolation, that a single lonely seed is called to be the savior of its kind—or all will perish utterly. Of the millions of sprouts that push up from underground, all in this image are suddenly set apart and lonely. Yet they are the lucky ones whose growth attracts our admiration and our longing. In their ‘genius’ set-apartness, they quickly succumb to the gaze and demands of enlightenment salvation, and meet their glory in the championed “I” as in “SELF.” Such is the rise and fall of the cult of celebrity church.
But, as Rev. L. Carl Martin so perfectly and accidentally said, we need a ‘Teutonic Shift.’ The remedy is demotion for the “i” and for relationship to challenge the deification of “self.” No single seed grows alone. There must always be a neuro, eco, bio, divination system. In short, if WE are going to live and reach for a vital growing church, let us not mistake the forest for a tree.
We are digital
neo-nomads in a mobile world,
tribal contacts. I,
I am networked in.
My home village
swirls inside the netherspace.
It is cosmologic, a miracle.
I exist in the distance,
my arms outstretched,
—can you feel my fingertips,
do you read
my interconnectivity. My cellphone,
it stays within my reach, and yet,
I am out of touch.