…Being a Pastor (or The Once and Future Flock)

Good Will Hunting–Simple Vs. Easy–“Who Am I?” In your best Zoolander voice–An Ancient Calling in the 2015 Professionalized and Institutionalized World

Mark 6: 34 And when he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

Sean: What do you really want to do?

Will: I want to be a shepherd.

Sean:  Really.

Will: I want to move up to Nashua, get a nice little spread, get a flock of sheep and tend to them.

Sean: Maybe you should go do that.

a scene from Good Will Hunting

The Wikipedia page on “belts” as in “a flexible band or strap…worn around the waist,” describes the accessory as almost entirely that…a nonessential piece of clothing that comes in and out of fashion at various times for various reasons.  It lists some specific belts that have specific purposes (for soldiers and policemen, for example), and it does say that a belt can “support the trousers,” but–again, according to Wikipedia–belts are primarily meant to be decorative.  But there was a Sunday morning when I was preparing to lead worship, and a parishioner came darting through the front door, pulled me aside so we were out of view, and whispered furiously, “You are a man of the cloth, so I am hoping you have a belt or a sash that you could loan me for the morning?”  His eyes were desperate, and I noticed he was holding numerous items in one hand–a notebook, pen, cell phone, wallet, keys–while tightly holding his pants up with the other. 

I had many questions…as one might in this situation…but none of those questions mattered as much as the look of embarrassment in his eyes.  I told him to wait there while I go to my office and see what I had available.  I do sometimes keep extra sets of clothes in my office–for quick changes between worship leading and youth group meetings–but even as I walked into the office I was fairly positive I did not own more than one belt.  And I was currently wearing it.  And for a split second I checked my Boundary Awareness Training–what are the rules about sharing clothes with your parishioners?  Would this establish some kind of precedent, will this man expect me to loan him clothes every week?  Should I be engaging in the larger conversation about the problematic realities of this guy’s life that lead to him showing up at church with pants that won’t stay up? Am I enabling this behavior?–and after that odd second of my life had passed, I removed the belt from my waistband…knowing that I was wearing it for entirely decorative purposes…and I walked out of my office and presented it to him, “You’re in luck. I had an extra.”

***

The first time I met the Love of My Life, she asked me, “What do you do?”

I replied, “Well, you know from our emails on the dating site…I’m a minister…”

“Yes,” she shot back, in a tone that I now know means Stop Playing Dumb, “but what does that mean?  What do you do?  I mean…you preach on Sunday mornings?”

“Sometimes.  Not every week.”

“Ok, but then what?  What do you do the rest of the week?  I mean…what do you do?” 

It was a perfectly good question…and it drove me into an existential crisis for about two years.  What do I do I’m a Beloved Child of God called to serve God’s Beloved in the world…but what does that look like?  What am I doing with my life?

I think one of the many reasons Good Will Hunting resonated with me the way it did when I saw it as a 15-year-old is because, like the main character, I was constantly told that I had gifts, abilities, I was special in some way…and I literally had no idea what I wanted to do with any of it.  I could think my way through the terrible, or at least undesirable, baggage that would accompany any job I was familiar with.  Something involving a cubicle and little human interaction?  Boring.  Something fun and adventurous, like being an actor or some kind of performer?  Sounds impossible…and nonprofitable.  Working for a nonprofit?  Maybe…but which one, and why, and what if I didn’t believe in it?  Teaching?  I think I hate school too much, doesn’t matter what side of the desk I’m on.  A lawyer, doctor, physicist?  Too much school required.  When Will Hunting’s therapist pushed him to say what he wants to do with his life. and he responded with, “I want to be a shepherd…get a flock and tend to them,” I could relate to the desire to just do something simple….a simple life with few complications…you’d never be rich but you’d never go hungry…you’d live off the land and work in nature…it sounded so good.  It’s only now as an adult that, when I watch that scene….I get that he’s kidding.

On paper, being a pastor is a simple gig…not easy…but simple Preach and teach the gospel; help people reflect on their lives; visit people when they are sick or otherwise in need; baptize, marry and bury; and, if there’s time, pick some kind of holy cause to fight for (civil rights, the environment, what have you).  Again, not easy…but simple Of course…this is a model for pastoral care that grew out of a privileged, middle-class, mid-20th Century world.  A world in which people only needed God—truly needed God—during the major turning points of their lives.  They had Institutions for the other stuff. 

Does this model still hold true in the 21st Century?  When young pastors show up on the job today…are they embarking on a simple—not easy, but simple—adventure that they follow until they save up enough for retirement, and then spend their remaining years with family, comfort, and travel, until God ultimately calls them home?

****

My first week on the job I received a call from an older parishioner, to come to her house for lunch.  Simple.  Simple AND easy.  We ate, we talked, we laughed….and at the end of the conversation she said, “I actually invited you here because I’m planning on ending my life and I was wondering if you could help me.”   

It’s not simple.  And the farther I go down this road, the more I realize that all the vast complexity of it is amounting to epic needs: our old people are feeling meaningless and without place; our young people are increasingly without hope and living in poverty; people of color are being killed by our own police with nigh impunity; and then the news out this week that, more than likely, glaciers will melt and sea levels will rise to the point of wiping out every coastline in the world…probably within my lifetime.  The universe is literally expanding at an accelerating rate, and we are on a small planet that revolves around a star as it sails increasingly farther away from every other created thing in space.  I’m told we should be investing a lot more in protecting ourselves from asteroids.  Which makes a good amount of sense.  

It used to be that pastors were called up, mainly, when their parishioners were in crisis.  That’s still true, but now…nearly every day is a crisis of one kind or another.  I don’t think I’m alone in feeling the need for God in my life–for ultimate meaning, for ultimate love and light, for guidance and comfort–not just a couple times throughout my life, but basically every day.

This would be the ultimate difference between pastoring 50 years ago and pastoring today.  As the Institutions that people relied on for so long fail them, and disappear, and give up…our call remains the same since the days of Jesus Christ himself.

To show compassion to those who have no shepherd, and stand in place of one…to the best of our ability…for as long as necessary.

There is no simple.  There is no safe.  There is, certainly, no easy There is no certainty.  There’s not even, really, a job description….save this:  Do what you can, when you can, using all you have available…lest you merely add to the world’s misery.  

A Pastor’s job in this time—amidst decaying systems, shrinking institutions, massive cultural shifts and a dying planet—becomes increasingly clear to me:  Use what you can to support the world….to repair the world, God willing, but otherwise support…be present, be responsive, always remembering that it is not humans who call you, but God who calls you to them.  We are God’s mouthpiece, articulating ancient wisdom for a 21st Century world.  We are God’s representatives on the earth, showing through our own lives who we understand God to be.  We are (yes, Jewel) God’s Hands, healing and holding and loving with all we are able.  We do not quit.  We do not walk away.  Sometimes God calls us to new locations and assigns new missions…but we remain steadfastly called to support a broken and needy world.  Not for our own sake, and not for a paycheck…but for the sake of others…ALL others

Sometimes I preach.  I spend a lot of time listening Sometimes I walk the streets handing out food to homeless people.  Sometimes I have meetings.  Sometimes I skip meetings.  Sometimes I talk to teenagers about their feelings.  Frequently–as in EVERY DAY–I read the Bible and do the work of differentiating my own whims and desires from my faith tradition that spans the entire globe and thousands (if not billions) of years.  One time I tried to convince an older woman that life was worth living, and, when I failed to convince her, I said goodbye and I sat with those she left behind…and we cried.  For weeks.  And another time I gave a man my belt so he could worship in peace.  

“What do I do, my Love?  I use everything at my disposal to tend to my flock—to offer Life, Love, and Light to all who are in need of them—until our true Shepherd comes to lead us all home.” 

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