In Praise of the Local Church Pastor

About two weeks ago now, my friend Todd, a UCC pastor in Massachusetts posted something on his Facebook page about “having a conversation with the father of creation spirituality…” I was so struck by this, that I decided to write.  What was astounding to me was 1) Todd knew how to find “the father of creation spirituality”, Matthew Fox and 2) That he was so nonchalant about it and 3) That no one else made a big deal about it – maybe because it seems “normal”.

When I was a church pastor, struggling with the Bible and homosexuality, I sent a letter to Robert MacAfee Brown asking him what he thought, and he graciously replied saying, “you think you understand the issue until you actually meet them, then you have to think about it and what to do”. By this, I guess Todd is “normal” for a pastor, but being a pastor is – for the rest of the world, almost by definition, not normal – and it’s not for the reasons most people think.

If you went to your local dentist – another professional – and he mentioned in conversation that he has just had a conversation with the man who invented crowns for teeth so he could do a better job, you’d think he was remarkable to go that far. If your mechanic said he had just spoken with the CEO of Ford about your oil filter, you’d think that extraordinary. If your lawyer had just had a conversation with a Supreme Court about something to do with your case, you’d think you were getting the best lawyer in town, but pastors do this kind of thing all the time. It’s part of their job. Local church pastors are the great translators, the bridge between worlds, for much of society.

Theologian Gabe Fackre pointed out that the cross had 2 axes – a vertical axis, connecting God to humans and a horizontal one connecting humans to humans. He said this in relation to Jesus’ work and salvation. I have used the analogy when speaking about forgiveness – “it’s great that God forgives you, but you still have the other side of the cross to deal with”.  This Cross/Bridge is what makes the job of being a pastor so different.

I’ve been fascinated by the idea that George Harris, the pastor at my home church, has put forth a vision statement that talks about the church “bridging” different parts of society in our little corner of New Britain, because it is indeed the work of the church to do this, but it is also the unspoken work of pastors on a daily basis.

When Todd brings his seminary education to the pulpit or talks to Matthew Fox, he connects the worlds of learned theology to people of all different stripes. He preaches to those with good education and those who like to read, but don’t have time to hack away at St. Augustine – and he preaches to people who can’t read.

When he steps out of the pulpit and joins people for coffee hour, he is just as likely to talk to a 4 year old about Barney as a 14 year old who cares about Katie Perry and High School or a 70 year old man who fought in Vietnam or Korea – and he is expected to be fluent in all of their languages. This is that vertical axis Fackre talked about.

And it is this way for every pastor I have ever known. It has been said that “pastors are the last great “generalists”. They are supposed to know a little something about everything”. In fact, they know a little about a lot of things in order to preach or counsel or teach or just hang out with people in the parish. But the reality goes deeper than that. The fact is that pastors know a little bit about a lot of things because they know a lot of people and they see everyone on the horizontal axis as well.

When Benny or Gerry Claytor or Vernon Thompson or any member of Bridgeport’s IMA had an issue in their community, they spoke to the Mayor or the State Rep whom they knew and was no more important than the Church Mother back in their pew. When Char Corbett does work on healthcare, she speaks the truth to power because the people in power are no more important in God’s eyes than the person in her church with no heat in her house because of her hospital bills. Pastors speak the Truth to power all the time and they bridge worlds doing it.

If you want a letter of reference for your kid’s college application, the pastor writes one. If you need help with immigration, the pastor writes to the State Department or the INS on your behalf. If you need to find food or heating assistance, your pastor calls around and knows who to call or finds out.  If your family is burned out of their home, as clients of mine were recently, the pastor gets the gears of the church going so that the church supplies furniture as best they can.

It’s not unusual for a pastor to speak to the mayor, read to school children, visit a wealthy matron, meet with local businesspeople at a committee meeting, and speak with a poor homeless addict all in the same day. Oh, yeah, and during the week, they try to find time to speak with God, as well – about the needs of their congregations. At the end of the day, that same pastor carries the weight around of each of them and builds another piece of the bridge that their lives become.

There are studies of job satisfaction which indicate that pastors, of all professions, are the most satisfied with their careers. At the same time, many pastors I know are nearly “burned out” at certain times of the year. How can this be? Here’s where the metaphor breaks down – or not – depending on your viewpoint. Pastors either are the bridge, in which case people drive over them all day, or pastors cross the bridge all the time. In any case, being a pastor is not a job for someone who doesn’t handle change or transitions well. All of this motion, all of this switching gears, all of this building connections wears a person out, even if they like the job. This is why they need so much time off.

So, here’s to that local church pastor, the bridge between worlds – the sacred and profane, the rich, the poor and the middle class, the powerful and the weak, the educated and the illiterate, those being born and those dying. May we and God, who gain so much from them, support them on their journey.

Peace,

 

John

 

(And congradulations to Todd, Joe, Eric, Lucille, Leigh, Matt, Pete, John, Gerry, and so many others who have been in the ministry for 25 years or so now.  I still miss Charlie, Benny and Newt.)

“Miracles” and Miracles – AbilityPlus

My friends Sue Tatem and David Hauser are involved with a program called AbilityPlus, Inc, and I am so impressed with it that I wanted to tell you about it. From my understanding of theology, it does two types of work: “Miracles” and Miracles.

The first type of miracle, (“miracle” in quotes) is some thing  we used to dream about when I was a kid. It’s the kind of miracle that is like the iPod or the cellular phone – something dreamed of in science fiction and old Star Trek reruns. When Star Trek first came out, the idea that you could communicate with something the size of an electric razor was just something “those people” would do in the future. No one really believed we’d ever actually see it, but it was fun to imagine.  In real life, you could find the phone by following the cord that attached it to the wall and you made it work by dialing the numbers on a dial.

Computers ran spaceships in Houston, so you could imagine them doing incredible things, but sitting on your lap was not one of them. Something that worked as fast as the thing I’m now typing on took up a city block in Springfield, Mass. and was shared in milliseconds connected by a phone line. Just the keyboard part was bigger than a desktop computer is now.  The point is that at least as far back as Mark Twain’s   “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, we have understood some of what people in the past called  “magic” or “miracles” is actually things humans don’t understand yet, or haven’t invented yet.  AbilityPlus deals in those kinds of “miracles” all the time – the kind of thing that lets a person missing a leg put on a graphite spring-like thing that replaces the leg so that they can ski. I don’t know who invented such things, and I don’t really care. They are just so cool.  Last week, there was an event in New Britain, near where I live. It was the championship of something I’d never heard of — “Sled Hockey”. It’s hockey as I used to know it, but with a twist: handicapped folks do it from sleds that didn’t exist years ago.  (You’ll note that there’s no such thing as “Toboggan Hockey” which we could have invented in my day, but it would have required pulling ropes like we were slaves and there would have been no independent steering among other problems)

The fact that things like the Paralympics (the Olympic games for disabled folks) exist at all is unimaginable to me in much the way that The X Games are unimaginable – bikes that are so lightweight they fly and so strong they can land in one piece, skateboards and roller luge made out of new materials and designs lead to bravery that defies logic. I can see it happen and I still can’t believe it. I have been on crutches a few times in my life and those things hurt , so the idea that someone can use a variation of them without being in agony amazes me.  Maybe these athletes are in pain, but it sure doesn’t seem it.

Then there’s the fact that these people are athletes at all amazes me. I can’t make it down a mountain on skis without falling a hundred times. I can’t run great distances without stopping, and yet there are Paralympics events like marathons.  And the technology that lets people do this stuff is absolutely amazing.  Who dreams up this stuff? This is all, as far as I can tell, a “miracle” of the science-fiction variety. Every once in a while we humans put our minds to making good things, instead of things that kill.  Their miracle gives me hope. Every once in a while, we make things that actually give life meaning, rather than plastic objects sold in vending machines to be thrown our ten minutes later.  The idea that someone would want to create gizmos like this, that someone else might dream of using them, and that they would do all kinds of unimaginable things with them are all miracles in-and-of-themselves. To watch them in action as they execute some kind of spinney thing while rotating head over heels would have been considered amazing when I was a kid, and downright magical or miraculous a century ago, But here they are, and Dave, Sue, and all the other people at AbilityPlus know about them, know what fits who, and what a person might do with them in all kinds of conditions.

But as miraculous as these things are, there is another real miracle that takes place. People’s lives change. People’s spirits are healed. People who couldn’t imagine even talking to each other are connecting and becoming the best of friends, people thought about across the miles, people that hearts ache for and break for when they leave or misfortune hits.

In the days when “liberation theology” was all the rage, there was a type of theology written by people like Veterans for Peace who understood Christ from the perspective of their experience as soldiers.  The long and short of such a theology is this: All soldiers die for our sins.  All of the greed and self-interest that causes countries to go to war, all of the willingness to spend billions destroying things just to see if we can, all of our fascination with violence causes us to put men and women in harm’s way.  They die – or get injured — because we live the ways we choose to live, in whatever ways that means, because of whatever evils live in some dictator’s soul or some corporate boardroom where bombs are made for profit.

In the same way, poor city children die daily because some people want to be rich and live far enough away from them that they don’t have to care. People born with handicaps suffer and die because we live the belief that we’re “normal” and they’re not.  In point of fact, if you subtracted all the people who aren’t “normal” (for whatever reasons) from the overall population, all ten people who would be left would feel strange themselves.

Still, we choose to live this way as a society and plenty of people suffer the slings and arrows, the slights and the deaths that come from it. White folks don’t talk to Black folks or – in the city – some types of Asian folks. Kids don’t respect adults. Adults don’t respect kids. The poor who are on welfare seldom meet the wealthy who determine what they have.  We put away the elderly in nursing homes, we don’t talk to our mentally ill, and people who are not “perfect” physically get mocked for having zits, teeth with gaps, oily hair, unbranded sneakers,” unibrows”, obesity, plus race, gender, orientation and so many other things. And, after we don’t talk to each other, we can’t figure why we fight so much among ourselves.

For all of the little deaths we put ourselves through and the actual deaths we send our soldiers to, the world suffers. Ability+ will have none of it. While we’re putting kids in special-ed classes and their peers are mocking them as “SPEDs”, Ability+ makes them feel like the “somebody” they actually are.  While many people are afraid of the developmentally delayed, Ability+ is teaching them to ski, or snowboard or just have fun being out in the world. Their lives are changed.

But then something else happens. Our lives are changed as we learn there’s nothing to be afraid of. We learn that a kid in the classroom runs out of space, but on a mountain we all get some perspective. The person whom we shun for not having all their body parts comes out of their house and turns out to be pretty special. The person whose spirit we killed in other places begins to live again. They experience resurrection and we begin to have hope again.  That is a miracle.  This renewal of souls is something only God can provide but something we participate in. It is something we activate like putting two new chemicals together, but the burst of energy that is generated provides an unexpected awe.  From the potential energy that was there comes the kinetic energy that is the miracle of rebirth, resurrection, or recovery.

When David and I saw each other a while ago for the first time in years, he didn’t much talk about the gizmos or the skiing, the views from the mountains or the budget required to make it all happen. He talked about inner-city kids bringing cheer to people who lived for their business. He talked about insular people learning to reach out to people that they never would have considered before.  This was what he found exciting. This is what made his day. The fact that he got to watch it happen and be a part of it all was more exciting to him than whatever direct benefit he got from working at AbilityPlus.

AbilityPlus runs at least two different sites – one near Boston where David works and one in Vermont, near Mt. Snow that Sue is related to.  There may be more, but those two places do the best kind of miracles – they use our “miracles” to make more and more miracles. They build bridges of community between people that never would have known each other existed. By doing so, they keep the spirits alive of those involved, they re-energize hope in a world which badly needs it and, yes, it provides a form of resurrection for people we as a society have hurt.  Who knew that by letting people ski or by helping them play hockey or inviting challenged kids to breathe crisp air on slopes that challenge everybody that we could undo sin itself? Apparently, the people at AbilityPlus did. As David, Sue, and all the people who work or volunteer, teach, or give their resources to these experiences know, the miracles just keep coming.

If you want to be involved with AbilityPlus or another organization of Adaptive Sports like them in some way, check out AbilityPlus Adaptive Sports online at http://www.abilityplus.org  and find links to all kinds of ways you can take part in miracles.

Peace,

 

John

[BTW, this is not a paid advertisement. I get nothing from AbilityPlus but the knowledge that I’m spreading the good word about what I see as a great organization with great people doing great things — the very purpose of “Because It Matters”]