Recently, a friend and colleague of mine asked me two questions: What is the Gospel? Why are you a pastor?
We were in seminary together and that ‘what is the Gospel’ question was one we were often asked to answer in a few sentences. The second question is something a lot of us clergy types have been asking ourselves recently. It’s the same thing that teachers and nurses and tons of other people in other vocations have been asking themselves. Why is this the thing and should I keep doing this thing? It is not bad to ask this question. On the contrary, I think it is quite good to ask why we do this thing and not another thing.
I do not believe that my answers are particularly remarkable, gold-encrusted drops of wisdom. Still, they are my answers. As many examine their jobs in the helping vocations, particularly clergy, here are my thoughts.
I think the Gospel is this dynamic thing that looks different based on where I am in life. The way I see it right now is this: there is, both explicitly and implicitly, death all around us. The death throes of things like white supremacy, colonization, poisonous parts of culture, and patriarchy…..their death throes are long and threaten to take us all down to the grave with them. They may yet do so. But Jesus has been to the grave… to all the graves that swear to us ‘hope was always a foolish idea’… and he is not afraid to come back for us. Jesus knows the way out. Jesus knows the way out for all of us.
Many times, over the past few years (since so many of the culture wars and sharpening lines of division have intensified, the pandemic, and the rising urgency of the climate situation) I have wondered where God is in all of this. And I have not always been able to see where God is because it is hard to see in the dark. And yet, I know that God sees me… sees all of us. There are days when that is all the gospel I can find; the truth that Jesus is in the dark with us. It is enough. For now, it is enough.
So with that tiny fragment of dark gospel, I do something creative or I look at the mountains or dig through photographs or find a movie to laugh at or watch an episode of Father Brown and I find a small thing in some part of any of it which is beautiful. In that, there is enough light to remind me God is real and these graves, figurative and literal, are not the end. God will not abandon the world forever.
Why are you a pastor?
This is not the first time I’ve been asked this recently. I think there are many pastors asking this question of themselves and each other. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t shouted and cried about how I’m done with all of this church business over the past few years. Everyone whose job it is to help other people has, no doubt, felt like this.
Often, I think the church has failed at the simplest task of all. We had one job, really: to teach people to love. We’ve made a colossal mess of it. In the end, it is all that really matters. It is love that brings Jesus down to the dark to be with us. It is love that makes up the binds he ties to us so that we, too, are brought out of the grave. It is love that fulfills all of the laws and the ought tos and should haves. It is love that crushes the life out of shame. It is love that saves all of creation. Love is the way.
And even though I, too, have done a colossally poor job of teaching people how to love, it is still the only thing I really feel is worth doing. There is no other vocation in the world that would give me the privilege to tell a bunch of struggling human beings (to whom I bear an unmistakable and striking resemblance) that they are, utterly and completely forgiven by a God that loves them for no reason. And I am, too. There is no other vocation that would let me tell people they are supposed to love their enemies without them assuming I am nuts. Well, they probably think I am nuts for saying it now, but it is the kind of crazy that goes with this job. In a good way. We get to say the most outlandish things!
Before seminary, I remember people saying that if you can do anything besides be a pastor, you should do it. I thought that was b.s. and I still do. I could do lots of other jobs and have. And just for the record, I do not think there is only one way to serve God. God is not going to be mad at anyone who stops being a pastor. I choose to remain a pastor because I love it. Not in the mushy gushy, it is so fabulous, I am having a grand time all day, every day kind of way. I love it the way my mother loved me even on the days that I was terrible. Because I was not terrible every day. I love it in the way we tell people we are to love our neighbors. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is impossible, yet it is only love that will save the world. Love is the only good thing we can every really do. What an utterly absurd and concretely true thing! And it is my job to say it.
Post Script: Having said all of that, I have also learned that I am a much happier pastor when I do other things, too. I am a pastor but I am not only a pastor. When I feel like my identity as a pastor is wobbly, those days that I am not feeling the love of my job so much, it is good to remember my identity as a Child of God is much more than just being a member of the clergy.