It’s been a little shy of a year that we’ve been in Houston now, and a little shy of a year into this mysterious vocation of “pastor.” While I have worked in a pastoral capacity for some time now, this is my full first-time gig, where I am fully and 100% engaged in it, and not working on a Masters on the side, or planting a church, or mobilizing students into the mission field; no – this is the first time that I have been 100% fully devoted to a single congregation – and it has been a very deep experience for me.
Eugene Peterson says something in “Under the Unpredictable Plant” (one of my top 10 fav books) that spoke deeply to me during my years in seminary – I guess you could say something *clicked* when I read it:
I never had a pastor whom I respected. It is a marvel to me as I look back over those years how little difference that made to my feelings about God. The pastors, in one sense, were conspicuous – they took up a large amount of space on the Sunday stage – but their effect on me was marginal. They never managed to interfere with the faith itself, my sense of God and salvation. They were important in a kind of external way but never penetrated my psyche. What they did was ensure that I would never for a moment think of becoming a pastor… If my earlier pastors had been cheap parodies of sideshow barkers, these later ones were dull parodies of corporation executives. They had been institutionalized into blandness, turned into religious businessmen who worked hard for the company. Their enthusiasm in running an efficient religious store did not excite my admiration…
Eventually I arrived on a seminary faculty in New York City, teaching English Bible and the Biblical Languages. I was now married, with a child on the way. My salary was proving insufficient for expansion into the family way… I went looking for a part-time job. The only one offered to me was that of pastor. I took it reluctantly, conscious of something vocationally dishonest in doing so, for I was not a pastor and never intended to become one. I entered the ranks of the mercenaries…
After a few weeks it slowly dawned on me that this pastor with whom I was working was unlike any pastor I had known before. In retrospect it seems hard to countenance, but here I was twenty-seven years old and for the first time next to a pastor whom I respected as a man of God and a person of integrity… as I saw who this pastor was, what he was doing, and how he went about doing it, I began to realize things about my own life that had been hidden or obscure until now. I remember saying to my wife in those months, “This is what I have always wanted to do; I just never knew there was a job for it.
I liked the teaching and would not have been unhappy doing it for the rest of my life, but what I was experiencing now was touching me at my vocational center: this was what I was made for. I loved being in on those junctures where life was being formed, birth and death, doubt and belief, joy and pain, healing and salvation – the ten thousand interstices of life that don’t show up on schedules or agendas but that pastors happen onto.
It is this last paragraph that lit a firebrand in my soul – that despite the ups and downs, passions and pains of the vocation, it continually and persistingly blazes even though it wavers in stresses. It is too powerful to put out, because it is not just a job, but a deeply meaningful engagement in some kind of spiritually creative act – whatever that means. But it makes sense, when I have a discussion about what it means to be born again with an orchestra conductor, or when I drive home a grateful banker who just popped his ankle playing basketball, or when I have an absolutely enlivening discussion re: Nouwen’s vocational downward mobility with a group of up and coming rising professionals; it makes complete sense, this pastoral vocation, when I can be there for a family who has just lost a matriarch to a long and difficult battle with cancer; meanwhile celebrating with another family who is recovering from it yet still questioning these “tender mercies” of God in suffering.
Yet there are times it doesn’t make sense.
There are times this pastoral vocation, when somehow not aligned with the stars, or mismatched, or somehow off-kilter in some respect – there are times it can be a living hell and can do nightmarish things to a young man or young woman’s ego; I shared last Sunday how I know first-hand; sometimes “we call ourselves terrible things” – and sadly that is part of the pastoral collateral when things don’t go right for those in ministry. I know shipwrecked souls, who labored and yet found that it didn’t quite work, that it did terrible things to their egos, and yet they still hang on for a glimmer of hope – even this God can use. I grieve for them. I understand.
So yes, it is Pastor Appreciation Month. Appreciate them. They stand in the gap, keep their arms up in the battle. It is not a cheap, two-bit job – at least not for me. It is nothing less than working together with God in the act of creation.