Wholly Living the Half-and-Half Life of a Pastor

Let’s be honest, being a pastor is probably the most contradictory career there is.

We are to be set apart, yet we’re thrust right in the center of Church activity,

We are to be different (modeling holiness, I suppose), yet relatable,

We are to be a calming, peaceful presence, yet the energetic hub and genesis of great new ideas and activities,

We are to be humble, yet stand in front of everyone and be charismatic and engaging for an hour every week (By the way, a seminary friend of mine, Austin, wrote a fabulous blog on pastors’ words, and the part about sermons is hugely salient– and convicting),

We are to be Christlike, yet human, and

We are to be human, yet superhuman (able to be in multiple places at once, capable of delivering off-the-cuff brilliance in prayers and advice, wise beyond ours years, etc).

Sometimes the contradictions can feel endless.

This is the part where I get uncomfortably real. If you’d like, please enjoy this picture of a kitten and skip this section.

It’s been such a challenge for me to get used to life in the world. I mean life outside of school, where I spent nearly two decades, certainly all of my sentient life until July 2012. Answering emails, planning projects, coordinating calendars.

Life as a student was so blissfully uniform: begin semester, go to class, write papers, study, take exams, end semester.  Repeat until graduation. It was also blissfully stringless— I didn’t have any eyes on me once I got into college. I was my own woman, beholden to no one but the registrar, green-lighted to succeed or fail at my own risk.

Out here, there are strings attached everywhere. I’m having such trouble, my dear readers, remembering when to pluck all those strings, remembering to send my tin-can messages down them, and to whom, and how often. If I want to change the Scripture text the week before I preach, I have to contact the musicians, the lay reader, the bulletin guru, the worship planners… Nothing happens in a vacuum.  There are so many people working together in this world, and not for an individual grade, but for a communal purpose… a Kingdom-sized and -shaped purpose.

I very often feel that I am failing quite massively. I wake up in cold sweats and realize I’ve been crying in my sleep, so deep is my desire to do this job, this calling, this life justice. I feel half a person at almost all times: half a pastor when sitting in my office, wondering if what I’m planning on preaching is decent, and half a person when out having a beer with friends, wondering if this makes me a bad pastor on account of I’m not at home reading the Book of Common Prayer or something.

I have lived all my life feeling like a fairly whole person: A whole Christian (with slip-ups every now and then, but on the whole, whole), a whole student, a whole daughter, a whole girlfriend, a whole writer, a whole friend. Now, though, I am called to this contradictory life. This half-and-half life, where you’re supposed to be human and superhuman, quasi-divine and totally fallen, set apart and yet set right in the middle of everything… naked with all these eyes and ears on me and my stupid, childish words that, in my anxious mind, never get delivered right and never live up to what I had hoped to offer to God and God’s people.

I’m never sure that I’m doing what I’m “supposed to” be doing, that I’m saying what I’m “supposed to” be saying, that I’m going around town or enjoying time at home in the way that I’m “supposed to” be going around town or enjoying time at home.

Eugene Peterson says of the pastoral life,

Click to view on Amazon

Click to view on Amazon

“[G]iven the loss of cultural and ecclesiastical consensus on how to live this [pastors’] life, none of us is sure of what we are doing much of the time, only maybe.”*

He then goes on to quote Faulkner, who described writing a book this way:

“It’s like building a chicken coop in a high wind. You grab any board or shingle flying by or loose on the ground and nail it down fast.”*

I don’t know quite what I expected

969018_10100280923479358_1753846395_n

Such a little lady

when I got into this racket; when I said to God, “OKAY FINE,” in the same way I said, “OKAY FINE” to my pup Olive when she nosed her brown eyes into mine at the rescue. I never wanted a puppy- I wanted a grown-up dog with all the training done and no potty-training issues. I never wanted this growing process when coming into the ministry; I wanted to come in with wispy gray hair that holds a thousand pieces of wisdom, and a knowledge of just exactly what to do.

I guess I knew that my life would no longer be that of a layperson, that I would have some level of eyes-on-me and new responsibility, in the same way that I knew my shoes would no longer necessarily be safe from chewing with a puppy in the house.

I guess what I was unprepared for was the drama, tears, and growing pains that come with the training process.

Both my training the dog and God’s training me.

When I dreamed of pastoral life, I dreamed of being a vessel, of speaking God’s truth even when it was hard, of sitting with dying people and helping them army-crawl under that picket fence to Heaven.

I didn’t dream of myself getting so damn in the way. I didn’t dream of having such a strong reaction to what people think of me. I didn’t dream of my self in this thing very much at all; I think I dreamed simply of God: that God would provide… and God is providing, but, and here’s the really honest part, I’m struggling to trust it.

So deep is my desire to do this job, this calling, this life justice, that I’m losing sight of how to do being alive well. How to do personal faith, trust, and obedience well. How to do self-care well. How to do friendships and kindness toward self and hot-tea-evenings on the porch with the dog well.

So, What to Do?

One thing that Eugene Peterson speaks of very early on in his book The Pastor is developing a strong sacred imagination. It is this, he intimates, that will keep you alive, keep you grounded, as the high winds rage and you’re surrounded by flying chicken wire and nails and boards and all manner of such deadly building blocks.

I wrote in a recent post that Jesus is one big contradiction… human and Divine, ever young and ever thirty-three, ever being born and ever dying, Judge and Lover, distant and near, unseeable and so clearly seen in so many ways…

So I guess it makes sense that the pastor, called to be as Christ to her congregation, would also be a contradiction. That this life would be one of halves: A life of “take this cup from me” and “I will go.” A life of  the quiet “Yes, Lord,” and also the gregarious “Good morning, folks!” A life of the mind and a life in the spotlight. Things that don’t go together, things that cancel each other out. A sacred imagination that can hold together the things that appear to be polar opposites, the things that can feel like they’re falling apart.

 

A Tiny Epilogue

Olive graduated to the  Advanced level of obedience class last weekend. This weekend she takes her first test toward becoming a therapy dog. She is also steering clear of shoes after being chastised severely for ruining my favorite Tevas.

I have begun getting my heart straight by seeing someone at the Methodist Counseling Center… something I suggest you all do, whether you think you’re nuts or you’re in denial about it ;)

I am also interviewing spiritual directors, after years of being counseled to get one. Someone to hear these thoughts and say, “Maybe you should try…” Someone to hear these thoughts and say, “Let’s think about this Christologically.” Someone to hear these thoughts, pray with me, and help me to “Go in peace.”

*Quotes from Eugene Peterson’s introduction to The Pastor.

On Being Young in Ministry

I used to really like John Mayer– you know, back before he was mostly famous for being in a Taylor Swift song. Two of my favorite lines of his were these, from “Waiting on the World to Change”:

It’s hard to be persistent
When you’re standing at a distance.

I think those words are so true.It’s hard to be persistent when you’re running toward a target that is– or seems to be– miles and miles off.

I have a bunch of friends who have run their first marathons this month, and I can’t imagine what it must feel like right around mile 3, realizing you have 23 miles left to go. 23 miles and 385 yards, to be exact.

How can you keep up your strength in the face of such a length?

***

In my second semester of seminary, I began a long battle: A battle against exegesis. As a first-year seminary student taking the most basic of Bible classes, I had no ability, no confidence, and no right to make claims on the Biblical text. I was, in the John Mayer reference, standing at a distance from knowledge, respectability, even simple ability at all!

Coming from a history background in undergrad, I believed that the more you quoted and cited sources the more you were believed. You can’t just write or preach something, I thought, unless someone super smart and reputable has suggested it before you.

I thought that the job of the novice exegete was to scour commentaries, find an argument that she agreed with, and extrapolate upon that– uniqueness or ingenuity would not be tolerated.

My very long-suffering New Testament preceptor sat me down as kindly as he could and said, “I don’t want to hear what Barth thinks about this. I’ve read it, and I know you’ve read it. Now, informed by that, I want to hear what you think.

***

It took me months and months to even begin to grasp this concept… this marriage of the ones who are nearer to the finish line, nearer to full knowledge, nearer to holiness, with those like myself who are just getting started, who are teetering a few inches past the starting line and thinking the gulf is too wide for us to have anything of value to offer… certainly not anything that will make it 26 miles, certainly not anything that will be respected, certainly not anything worth bothering anyone else with.

I don’t grasp this, still. How do you reconcile the wisdom of age with the freshness of youth? How do you recognize the youthful in the aged and the wisdom in the youth?
In other words (for I think these are all one and the same question):
How is it that God is all at once infant and 33, ageless and enfleshed, wrinkled and gray-whiskered and baby soft?

***

181019_169000009916762_1342716474_nThis new worship service that my friends have started is a mix of all kinds of beautiful flesh– old and young. We derive our ideas from old books, mentoring pastors, suggestions by laypeople, and even (surprisingly, to my old, militantly-quoting self) our own imaginations.

We, the old and the young, the male and the female, the churched and the unchurched and the quasi-churched, read liturgy from old dead saints, we read liturgy from fresh, revitalizing communities like Iona, and we read liturgies that I wrote yesterday. We sing songs that were written in the 18th century and we sing songs by people who tweet. We do ancient rituals like foot-washing and candle-lighting, and we do modern rituals like instragramming and starting the evening with an improv comedy sketch or a YouTube video.

Graffiti stained glass made out of words describing our grief

We are old and we are young.

We are alive and we are dying.

We are honest and we are terrified.

We are many and we are one.

We are lost and we are loved.

We are naive and we are wise.

We are stupid and we are broken.

We are found and we are aimless.

We believe and we ask for help for our unbelief.

***

How can I speak or write intelligently about the Bible, knowing that I only ever skimmed Barth’s Romans? How can I claim pastoral authority, when I’m only 24? How can I claim anything at all, when I know, my beloved friends and readers, that I am a sinner, the worst of the worst, broken beyond repair, failing beyond failure, suffering under the Pontius Pilates and thorns in my sides and apples eaten that I create for myself?

I am not arrogant. I have not a single thing in my diseased heart to boast in except the little flecks and specks of the body and blood of Christ that huddle there.

I do not believe myself to be holy, or wise, or a good pastor, or even a good friend, most of the time. I do not believe myself to be anything but empty: emptied for the Gospel’s sake. Emptied for the Kingdom’s sake. And believe me, I kicked and screamed and fought that emptying the whole way; I’m still kicking and screaming despite my best efforts, just like I bet you are. We all are.

It’s hard to be persistent when you’re standing at a distance– standing on that starting line covered in the shackles of your own inadequacies.

…And yet in the emptiness that succeeds all your efforts, in the emptiness that comes in when everything you ever believed in about yourself disintegrates… that is where the Spirit has room for dancing.

***

So yes, I’m at a distance. Yes, I find it hard to be persistent. There are days when I’d rather go be a veterinarian and endure the easier burden of having my dog-whispering skills questioned rather than having my faith, my call, my love of the LORD questioned. (And unfortunately, inexplicably, it is usually I myself who am doing the questioning!)

The marathon is long and I’m right at the beginning. I have no authority, no confidence, and certainly no right to speak about God, or Scripture, or Truth, or wisdom. You have no reason to listen to me, and I have no right to open my mouth or even look you in the eye. I am learning, and I am listening– to both the people God has placed in my life and the groans of my own spirit.

And I believe with all my heart that God is speaking through me… that God is using an ass to speak just as it once happened a long time ago, and it has never struck me as more of a privilege to consider myself an empty, stupid ass.

Pray, Cry, or Drink: A Sermon-Preparation Post!

Dear readers,

I’m preaching this Sunday!!!!

If you recall, I once wrote a post entitled “The 12 Steps to Preaching a Sermon (A VERY Informative Guide).” Maybe you should read that post before you read this one, because this post will be something like a follow-up to, or an elaboration of, that one.
Maybe. I always write thesis statements and introductions before the actual paper/blog post so there’s really no telling if that’s going to be true or not. But if you go read that other post then my statistics go up because you’re clicking my links and viewing other pages, and then I’ll feel really good about myself. So, it’s your choice. Make my day, or be selfish.  (I really hope you all get it when I’m joking.  Love you….)

***

I solicited some advice from friends on how they prepare to preach in the day(s) and/or week(s) leading up to Sunday. Here are some of the answers I received:

“Pray. A lot.”
“Cry?”
“Go on a bender.  I’ll come over and help; I’ve got liquor.”

**Author’s note: The above were intentionally listed from best advice to worst.

I solicited advice from these same beautiful, hilarious, broken, Godly people on what to preach when you’re afraid of/distressed by/unsure about your Scripture.  Here are some of the answers, from the same respective people, and again listed from best to worst:

“Consult God, and then Barth.”
“Just go up there and preach universalism, who cares?”
“Just read Anne Lamott’s twitter feed from the pulpit. #that’llpreach”

***

As you can tell, all my non-preaching readers, preaching is hard. Writing a sermon is hard.

But it is also wonderful. You know all those things you think about saying to people– good things, smart things, funny things, helpful things, sweet things? Most people don’t ever in their lives get a public place to say them. The preacher gets that, most every week! The possibilities are endless; you can help people and bring joy to people and celebrate life and improve the world with your words.  That is the joy of preaching.

The terror of preaching is that your mind doesn’t only operate on the plane of good, smart, funny, helpful, and sweet things. You also think mean things, snarky things, ugly things, things that tear people down while masquerading as helpfulness.
One of my favorite lines on the new Taylor Swift album (stop judging me. That’s an ugly thought you’re having right now.) accuses an ex of being “so casually cruel in the name of being honest.”

***

Preachers have great power to be incredibly cruel under the guise of honesty and helpfulness.

So I get why my friends suggested I pray, cry, and drink copious amounts of, erm, unpastorly liquids.  But no matter what you do, Sunday will still come, and you will still have to open your mouth and give your people something.  It’s up to you to make sure that you’re not cruel, or dippy, or insincere, or flippant.  But the good news, I reckon, is that God can make living water flow even from a rock.  And can turn bitter water potable.

….Well. I guess this post is over on that note. Do I really have to go write my sermon now? #pastorproblems

EPILOGUE:

I’m going to take my first person’s advice: gonna go talk to Jesus and Barth, in that order.

A Confession and a Penitent Resolution Regarding Preaching the Epistles

I confessed to my supervisor today that I can’t stand preaching on the Epistles.  I’ve probably mentioned that here before, but it’s worth mentioning again because I hate it so much that it makes me feel bad.

Paul writing his epistles. Source: wikipedia

Paul Writing His Epistles. Source: wikipedia

My assigned texts for this Sunday includes Romans 12:1-2: “I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship………….”

…YAWN.

So much of the New Testament has been so over-quoted as to be hackneyed at this point. I wish that, for every time someone quoted John 3:16, 1 Cor 13, or Romans 8, there was a requirement that they also throw in a good one from the Old Testament.

“Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.” -Joshua 3.5
“The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” Exodus 14.14
“For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.” -Malachi 3.6

But I think the real thing that bothers me about the Epistles is the style in which they’re written.  It’s the same reason I never can get into Proverbs, or Leviticus.  It’s so didactic.  “Listen while I talk to you.” “Do this. Don’t do that.” It’s a lecture, instead of a Socratic-method seminar.  It’s a textbook instead of a novel.

***

Someone I confessed this to recently exclaimed sarcastically, “Ugh, you’re such a woman! You want poetry, don’t you?”

Yes, I do. Sorry about my vagina. (This same person also accused me of having a “vaginal theology.” My response: “I’m trying to be offended… but I’m sort of not.”)

***

Give me a Psalm, or a story.  Don’t command me to be transformed by the renewal of my mind, tell me a story about someone who did that and then let me imitate her.

The thing about poetry and storytelling is that it gives legs and feet to this amorphous blob of an abstract idea: Be transformed.
I could hear an hour-long speech on being transformed and leave going, “What’s for lunch?” But you put me in front of Les Miserables for two and half hours, and now I SEE transformation.
Jean Valjean is the ultimate example of someone being transformed.  Sinner to saint. Darkness to light.  Condemnation to salvation.  Hate to love.  Now I get it.  Now this idea has legs and feet and arms and hands and even a few snot bubbles and bad teeth but it’s beautiful because I can see it and touch it and sing the songs with Jean Valjean as he [SPOILER ALERT] commits his soul to God.

When I was in seminary, my preaching professor had us write a final paper on our theology of preaching. I had no idea what that meant, so I ended up writing a long metaphorical essay comparing preaching to poetry.

Preaching, like poetry, I said, is that place where you take truth and you weave it in with beauty and discomfort and mystery and misery. And the music of it is heard better than a lecture, digests easier than a textbook, and breaks down walls more effectively than a bulldozer.

Preaching, like poetry, is that medium wherein commands will not fly.  A poet who is so obvious as to write something like “The moral of the story is, don’t sell your soul to the machine” will never get published.  Way too obvious. Where’s the mystery, the beauty, the twists and turns and ups and downs?

Similarly, every pastor who has ever stood in a pulpit and given me an ultimatum has lost my trust.  You tell me “Don’t sin or you’re going to hell!” and I will probably walk out.  But you tell me a story of someone whose sins drove them into the bowels of hell– the streets of New York City, the bottom of a bottle, the suicide chatrooms online– and how God came through for them? That’s a commanding story.  That’s a story that will change my heart and transform my mind.

I think this is part of the meaning of the incarnation.  God could have handed down some more stone tablets.  Heck, God could have just wiped us out and started all over– clearly we weren’t listening.  But what God chose to do instead was to insert Jesus into human history, to make Him part of the story, to give Him a start, an end, with ups and downs and mystery and beauty and twists and turns.  The story of Jesus is a story indeed: Humble beginnings, persecution, prophetic voices, assassination plots, climactic murder, and triumphal resurrection.

God knew that a story would speak to us.  A story would give calloused hands and blistered feet and nail-impaled wrists and ankles to this vague idea that God loves us.

So, my fellow preachers, if you’re like me, when you encounter a text that is not enough story for you, put the hands and feet of Christ on it.  The story is there, bleeding… and shining with hope.

And if you’re not like me, and you encounter a text that is TOO MUCH story for you, see in the hungry Israelites, the murderous enemies, and the wayward disciples the hands and feet and face of Christ.  They’re there. Dig into the mystery, and the beauty will always find you.

Truth-Telling

There are some of you, dear readers, who have taken me aside privately and said, “Erin, your blog… it’s too much.”

“Too honest?” I ask.

“If you want to call it that,” replied one.

I wonder what it is about religious people that makes it hard for us to stomach one another’s truth. One another’s pain, grief, struggles.  I think it’s the fact that we’ve traded in righteousness for self-righteousness.

Myself, I can’t stand a memoir or a poem or an autobiography that skims over the Awful.  Not because I enjoy rubbernecking at a car crash (though we all do, don’t we?), but because it is okay to commune with the broken person.  The perfect person is out of my reach.  I have nothing to chat about with the perfect person.  I fear the perfect person.  But you give me an alcoholic, a former bulimic, a guy with a stutter, a mother with an anxiety disorder, and I’ll love them with my whole heart and read everything they ever write and probably ask them to preach at my funeral.

Perfect people are so boring and tedious as to be odious.

 

I had a boyfriend once with whom I went to an old used bookstore. Encountering the poetry section, I found an old book of Bukowski poems, plopped down on the floor, and read a few to him.  He was scandalized.  For those who don’t know, Bukowski regularly writes about alcoholism, sleeping around, and despair– and often uses pretty salty language.  Even with me censoring the roughest words, this fellow could not handle the fact that I loved this poet.  He encouraged (demanded?) me to not buy the book, and to read more lady-like poets like Dickinson.

 

It takes a little bit of the Awful, a little bit of honesty, to earn readers’ trust.  That’s part of why I don’t censor very much of what goes on this blog, and why, if I ever write my memoirs, they will include the stories of how I called the family of a sick baby by the wrong name and the times I decided to run away and start a new life as an office assistant because I didn’t feel like doing this ministry thing anymore.

But… it also takes a little bit of admitting the Awful, a little being-completely-honest, to earn your own trust.  I feel that a lot of people spend a lot of time convincing themselves that everything is fine– deep breaths, that wasn’t so bad, there are children starving in Africa, stop complaining.  It’s true that there are children starving in Africa, but one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read is that the starving children don’t negate your own Awful experiences.

You still hurt deeply.  You still feel great loneliness.  You still debate your call, the meaning of your existence, and your aptitude for human life.

The Church is supposed to be that place where all your Awfuls get plunked down at the altar rail for God and everyone to see.  And then they’re left there and you don’t have to carry them home with you, because everyone else takes a piece of them and shoulders the burden for you (instead of judging and throwing you out for being so scandalous and sinful).  The Church is supposed to be that place where you can quote Bukowski and Plath, because sometimes that’s your truth, and not be told, “Sweetie, don’t you think you should just stick to Mary Oliver?”  The Church is supposed to be that place where you can (even should, even must) confess all your sins.  And then be freed and forgiven– by God, by yourself, and by the congregation.

One of my favorite parts of our worship services at my church is the confession of faith, followed by these words: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Glory to God! Amen.”  But sometimes the printed words of confession that we read aloud together don’t seem like enough.  I want the space to lament.  I want the space to go into detail, with the hope that hearing my struggles will help others.

That’s what this blog is for me. And I pray that it’s that for you, as well.

 

So I’m keeping on the way I’ve been writing.  Thank you to those who have been encouraging. Thank you to those who have offered criticism.  It is important to keep the conversation going.  My answer to your being scandalized by my words is this:

Truth-telling is closer to godliness than perfection.  Therefore I will seek to be truthful rather than perfect.  Truth-telling is the medium of the Gospel.  Therefore I will seek to be truthful for the sake of the Kingdom.  Truth-telling is the way of trust.  Therefore I will seek to be truthful in order to earn both your and my trust.

______________________________________________________________________________________

If you’re interested, here’s one of Bukowski’s more tame, hopeful, and popular poems:

“another comeback” (source: Charles Bukowski, Come On In! New Poems, ed. John Martin (ecco: New York), 2006.)

climbing back up out of the ooze, out of

the thick black tar.

rising up again, a modern

Lazarus.

you’re amazed at your good

fortune.

somehow you’ve had more

than your share of second

chances.

hell, accept it.

what you have, you have.

you walk and look in the bathroom

mirror

at an idiot’s smile.

and you know your luck.

some go down and never climb back up.

something is being kind to you.

you turn from the mirror and walk into the

world.

you find a chair, sit down, light a cigar.

back from a thousand wars

you look out from an open door into the silent

night.

Sibelius plays on the radio.

nothing has been lost or destroyed.

you blow smoke into the night.

tug at your right

ear.

baby, right now, you’ve got it

all.