Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Honor of our Work

I deeply believe that my call is not better or greater or more important than anyone else's. But I think it is good to take seriously whatever our calling is and to look at what we are really entrusted to do. (Teachers, for example, have the incredible job of setting examples for their kids, engaging their minds and interests in learning, helping students to grow, to think, to see the world through new eyes. That is not a job that can or should ever be taken without a deep sense of the formidable and extraordinary job they have to care for those in their class rooms.)  We could examine the gifts of our callings with every vocation there is.  But today I would like to focus for a minute on the astonishing gift that has been given to those of us who serve as pastors.

As pastors we have been given an awesome task.  We speak to God on behalf of the people. And we attempt to speak words both of challenge and comfort to the people on behalf of God.  In the Protestant church we don't believe these calls or gifts are limited to the clergy by any means.  All people are to pray to God and all people are ministers to one another.  None the less, standing in front of people on a weekly basis to pray and to interpret God's word...  It is an unbelievable gift of trust from our congregants and from those who read our blogs or FB posts, or watch our YouTube videos, that they do take the time to listen to us, that they ask us to pray for them, that they come with the hopes of hearing something that will be meaningful to them, give them comfort or challenge them to a new way to understand and live their lives more fully, that they trust our prayers will be heard.

I found myself thinking today about Matthew 18:6 - “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." As pastors, perhaps, we have more opportunities than many to cause others to stumble.  None of us are perfect.  Therefore all of us have undoubtedly gotten things wrong and been, at times, less than loving or compassionate. I believe it is only with grace and humility that we can stand before our God and pray that we mostly do good for those in our communities. This isn't, though, because I believe God will punish us when we end up hurting someone, but simply because I am aware that with this privilege comes an authority and therefore a responsibility to tread with care and love and a humbleness in all that we do.  We all have heard of times when pastoral authority has been misused, and it can be devastating.  Therefore the first prayer we who serve should pray every day is that God will use us in the service of good with those whose lives we touch.

But our job as pastors goes even beyond the praying and preaching.  I am aware every time I sit with someone going through a transition in their lives, every time I walk with someone in their last days, or pray with someone who has lost a loved one, each time I work with a couple as they make the decision to commit their lives to one another, or plan with a family the baptism of their child, of what an awe-inspiring privilege it is to be with people in these times, to hear their stories, to share in their experiences of deepest pain and greatest joy, to walk their journeys with them.  There is no greater honor than to be allowed to see someone's heart, to be trusted with another person's tears, to hold someone's hand as they transition out of this life-time, to bless a baby as it begins its journey, to hear the hopes and fears, the joys and sorrows, the grief and the wonder others carry.  It is in those times that I see the face of God most clearly in those around me.  It is in those experiences that my own heart finds healing.  It is through those moments that I glimpse eternity. And it is in walking the journey with another that I find myself held most deeply in Grace.

We also have the amazing privilege of interacting with people that most folk avoid, condemn, judge or simply don't see.  We often have people who are in need come into our ministries or churches.  I believe Jesus when he said he is to be found "in the least of these" and that when you do things for those others do not acknowledge that you experience Christ.  I know it is possible to become jaded by experiences of being lied to by someone asking for help.  But my own wish, my own striving is always to see the person behind whatever story they tell me whether it is true or not; to go deeper and really see the person who has been so hurt by life that they stand before me with a story, again true or not.  And in those interactions with other broken people, I see reflected my own brokenness, my own need for truths that go beyond the stories I share, my own need for other people and for their help.  It would be less than honest to say I never feel threatened or overwhelmed in these interactions.  But every time I have an interaction with someone I would rather avoid, I feel the call to look at myself and what I am uneasy with, what makes me uncomfortable.  I am forced to face my own prejudices and biases and to learn from them.  The opportunity to weekly and sometimes daily grow and learn is another of the great gifts of our work. We are called to love and serve those in need.  And as pastors we are able to answer that call as part of our daily service.  That is a gift as we experience grace in the giving, in the loving, in the serving.

Finally, I want to mention one other way in which our work is an amazing call, honor and privilege. I do not believe there is one pastor out there who has not been hurt by the people they serve.  This can take many forms.  Parishioners hold pastors to higher standards most of the time and expect from us, therefore, a level of performance that none of us can meet all the time. They also don't seem to realize that we have as many feelings, insecurities and doubts as everyone else.  Parishioners hurt us, therefore, in many ways.  They can become angry when they perceive we have made a mistake, or when they feel we have slighted them in some way. Sometimes they choose to attack rather than talk to us about their needs and their feelings. They can be nasty and cruel in evaluations.  And sometimes they gather others to them and attack as a group. Parishioners hurt us by dismissing our ministry with them and asking other pastors to serve in important life transitions instead.  I could go on and share stories of pastors who've been chewed up, spit out and broken by congregants who have no regrets at all about the way they have treated them.  The truth is they hurt us in a myriad of ways and in a myriad of situations. And again, there is not one pastor I know who has never been hurt by those they are called to serve.  But it is in the midst of that we hear God asking us to love even those who would hurt us and would hate us.  When we are called to sit with,  pray for, and hold the hand of someone who has made our life difficult, painful, or stressful, it moves us to be better than we are.  It challenges us to live what we preach by forgiving even when forgiveness is not sought, by loving even when the other does not want our love, and by rising above our own egos to truly show the face of grace, love and compassion.  For me personally, this is one of the hardest things I am called to do. Even as I write this faces float before my eyes of people who have been unkind whom I have still been called to love and care for.  My profession forces me to do what I might otherwise avoid. It calls me on my stuff, and forces me to own what is my own baggage, my own brokenness, and my own ego.  That too is a gift that deepens in me every time I am able to it.  When I am able to forgive and let go, I feel God's presence moving in my being.  When I am able to look at an angry face and love the person behind it, sometimes I have been gifted to experience tears of healing for both of us.  When I am able to move myself out of the way and just be a presence for the other, I have felt an awareness of that which is bigger than all of us in the room guiding, affirming, and loving us both.

As pastors we have the joy of being able to focus all of our time on God and on loving others.  We get to study, read, teach, be creative, plan, vision and dream.  We get to walk with people through it all. We get to be blessed by the ministries of those around us.  It is an honor and privilege to be able to serve people as a pastor because we are the ones who are blessed by each person we encounter.  May all of us who serve in these positions walk with the gentle reminder that our work is a blessing to us. And that we are therefore called to walk with grace, joy and humility in every step we take.