Not a bad gig some days

“How do I get that?”

I had been talking to a woman about God. She was convinced that God could never look on her with love. She had done too much that in her own eyes was wrong and unworthy of God.

In all her talk, she had never uttered the word “Jesus,” even though she had talked over and over about her certainty that God “is there.”

So, I asked her about Jesus. She did not know what to say about him. She was not sure how God was Jesus and Jesus was God. It was all confusing. So, we talked about that for a little bit.

Then I talked to her about the fact that God loves us, loves her. I talked about the fact that all of us — me as much as any — fall short of the glory of God. We all are sinners. We all have a list of the ways we fall short of God’s dreams for our lives.

But the good news is this: While we were yet sinners, Jesus Christ died for us.

And I talked about the cross and forgiveness and new life.

I talked about the sense, the assurance, the knowledge that one can have that Jesus Christ loves me and died for me and forgives me, even me, for all sin.

“How can I get that?” she asked.

And so I talked about faith. I talked about trust in Jesus. I talked about it being something that we receive not something we do. I asked her if she would like to pray with me.

“I was going to ask you if we could,” she said.

And so we prayed. We confessed our sin. We asked to be forgiven. We named Jesus as Lord and Savior. We thanked him for all he has done and will do for us. One after the other. Voice after voice.

As she prayed, she cried.

We said “Amen.”

When I saw her the next day we talked about building on that foundation. We talked about finding a church where others could help her continue what had begun.

She said that before she had been seeking relationship with God. She thought she had it. But what she had was not real. It needed drugs and alcohol to keep her numb.

“I know what it means now. I know what it means to have a relationship with Jesus.”

She smiled.

Some days, being a pastor is not at all a bad way to get along in this world.

Seeking to be a good shepherd

Tom Oden in his book Pastoral Theology describes the vocation of a pastor this way:

to know the parish territory, its dangers, its green pastures, its steep precipices, its seasons and possibilities. The pastor leads the flock to spring water and safe vegetation.

This is not the only way he describes the pastoral vocation — and it is worth noting that I do not qualify as a pastor according to his book as I have not been ordained — but it is one that both resonates with me and highlights some of my struggles with our debates in the United Methodist Church.

I am vexed by questions over sexual behavior because I worry about my responsibility to help the people I serve remain safe and to be nourished. I worry about leading them to foul waters and feeding them poisonous herbs rather than life-giving food.

For the better part of 2,000 years, the shepherds who have gone before have pointed to certain inviting pools and warned us that they are not the waters of life, but of death. Now, we are told that the waters they avoided were safe and life-giving all along. The shepherds of the past were wrong. They misunderstood Jesus and the apostles. Drink and be filled.

My prayer is to be a good pastor one day. I seek to learn from the masters of the craft who have come before me. Mostly, I don’t want to lead the sheep to slaughter because I listened to the wrong voices. I want to serve them and help them live as Jesus would have them live.

It would be pastoral malpractice for me to tell the people something is not a sin that is, in fact, one. It would damaging as well to declare something sinful that is not. I am trying to avoid both errors.

Watching on the wall

But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood. (Ezekiel 33:6, NIV)

Here is what I worry about. I worry that God really means what he said to Ezekiel and that we pastors are bathing in the blood of those we do not warn.

I guess in question form to my readers, this worry goes something like this: What are the stakes of what we do as pastors?

I get the impression sometimes that the stakes are not very high. What we do might make people’s live a little easier or even help them cope with serious problems. But, in the end, God will sort it all out, and, hey, he’s a loving God so no worries.

And then I read John Wesley or Peter Cartwright or watch this video of Paul Washer — who despite being a Southern Baptists talks about repentance, justification, and assurance in exactly the ways Wesley did — and I hear men who take the warning of Ezekiel with deadly seriousness. It is interesting to note that all three men are/were itinerants.

I read Eugene Peterson’s wonderful books on being a pastor, and I struggle to find a place where he speaks about the gravity of the work. There is something winsome about everything he writes and, it seems, being a pastor is a winsome thing as well. No blood crying out against us that I can find.

I read Adam Hamilton’s books on how preaching the gospel is like selling shoes and I wonder how heavy he feels the burden of those who do not buy it all? I read his book on the Bible, and wish he had written about this passage in Ezekiel — or the others in Scripture. I wonder what he thinks about the warnings.

I read all these books and think of the pastors I have admired, and I wonder how heavily they feel the burden that God placed on Ezekiel or the admonishment of James that teachers will be judged more strictly.

I think of even casual encounters I have with people with spiritual questions. Do I take them too lightly? Do I let me desire to be likeable get in the way of my calling? Do I even know what to say — how to sound the proper warning?

These questions get to the nature of the pastoral vocation. And for me the starting question is this: What are the stakes in what we are doing as pastors?

Should the church let fat people preach?

A Facebook friend posted this call to arms against the “fat acceptance movement.” I had never heard of the FAM, but, apparently, it is a thing. And based on the post my friend put on Facebook, some people really don’t like the idea.

By any medical definition, I am fat. My fatness results from a combination of lifestyle choices and genetic factors, no doubt. Some of it is in my control. Some of it is not.

According to the federal government, I need to lose 40 pounds to move from the obese to the merely overweight category. To be at a healthy weight, I should lose 80 pounds. That would bring me to what I weighed when I was 19 years old, played basketball or racquetball every day, and lived on college dorm food.

So, let’s talk about this.

Overeating is a sin. It damages the body that belongs ultimately to God. It uses money that could be better spent to help those who are in need. It leaves me less able to engage in the important works of the kingdom.

This is not a sin that features big time in the Bible because most people in biblical times were living on the edge of starvation much of the time. But gluttony does come in for its licks and certainly the Bible condemns satisfying the desires of the flesh.

I am not a member or a supporter of the fat acceptance movement. My fat is not something I am proud about or want you to give me encouragement to accept about myself. But I am fat and have been for a long time.

So, why does the United Methodist Church let an open sinner like me keep preaching?

Do we exploit small churches?

Wendell Berry probably does not consider himself a mentor of pastors. He has been one for me, though. His writing about farming and marriage and poetry constantly brings me to reflect on the practice of pastoral ministry.

So, it is no surprise that his essay “God and Country” would do so. The essay, found in his book What Are People For?, is largely concerned with the ways in which the organized church is co-opted by the economy. Much in the essay is of interest, but for the moment, I want to raise up something Berry has to say about rural churches and the practice of using them as training grounds for student pastors.

No church official, apparently, see any logical, much less any spiritual, problem in sending young people to minister to country churches before they have, according to their institutional superiors, become eligible to be ministers. These student ministers invariably leave the rural congregations that have sponsored or endured their educations as soon as possible once they have their diplomas in hand. The denominational hierarchies, then, evidently regard country places in exactly the same way as “the economy” does: as sources of economic power to be exploited for the advantage of “better” places. The country people will be used to educate ministers for the benefit of city people (in wealthier churches) who, obviously, are though more deserving of educated ministers.

Berry goes on to note that in 50 years he has seen many young pastors called to serve as student pastors in rural churches, but he has never seen one called to stay in such a setting.

Of course — and playing right into Berry’s point — this is about economics. Small, rural churches cannot pay the salary of a full-time pastor. Because we pay pastoral salaries out of the offering plate of local congregations, only the larger and wealthier churches are ministered to by those whose pastoral vocation is their only vocation.

As a bi-vocational local pastor these last 7 years, I feel this. The churches I have served are used to seeing pastors come and go. They have come to accept the fact that I live in another county and have a full-time job that means I won’t be around much Monday to Saturday. They expect at some point, I’ll be moved away.

That is the way the system works.

Wendell Berry has me wondering — not for the first time — if this system reflects the kingdom or the economy.

Of course, that dichotomy is simplistic and probably, therefore, intellectually and spiritually lazy. We reflect both the kingdom and the economy. We live the already and not yet life of every Christian. But Wendell Berry does call me to look at the balance we have struck and ask if there are other ways — more faithful ways — to be the church in rural places and small towns.

It certainly calls me to examine my own heart and mind.