Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Power of a Pastor

(I took some time off for Labor Day and wasn't preaching last Sunday, which is why there wasn't a sermon here for y'all this week.  We'll be starting a new sermon series on Sunday, though, which I am really looking forward to. -E.A.)

In the movie Keeping the Faith, one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time (sort of by default, because I like so few), Ben Stiller's character, a rabbi named Jake Schram, tells his synagogue in a sermon that a religious teacher cannot actually ever save anyone--that they can only offer themselves as guides to other fearful souls.

I was only 14 years old when that movie was released, but it is still a lesson that I have taken to heart as a fully-formed religious teacher, 13 years later.  I cannot save anyone.  I can only offer myself as a preacher and a teacher to fellow wayfarers and pilgrims.

It is humbling to admit, but it is also liberating as well.  The pressures of full-time ministry are the cause of a great many cases of burnout in my vocation, and if it sounds like I am trying to set the bar low for that reason, believe me when I say that it isn't the case.  Ask anyone directly involved in my work, and they will tell you how invested I am in it, and in doing it right.

But it is work in which I have little direct power.  I am not a prophet of old like Nathan or Isaiah who has the ear of the king.  I am not a high priest, clad in the twelve gemstones of the Israelite tribes, who alone in Israel is allowed to commune directly with God.  I am a man, and a weak man at that.  The direct power I have over this world--shaping it, influencing it, or otherwise molding it according to my vision is truly very limited.

Yet the indirect power I possess is practically limitless.  Even as the pastor of a small church, I have the ear of a flock whose numbers are increasing.  Each of them lives within their own lives, their own homes and spheres of influence and power, and God willing, what I say to them every Sunday has some impact on their life, to keep them doing what they do well in making the world and the kingdom a better place.  So many laypeople I know who do amazing, fantastic justice- and mission-oriented work tell me that they could not do what they do without the church and its teaching.

The most concrete example of this phenomenon that I have seen lately comes from a place mostly synonymous with tragedy and with death: the life of the principal at Columbine High School.  He recently announced his retirement, effective at the end of this school year, and buried in the article announcing it was this particular recollection:

DeAngelis described how two days after the Columbine shootings — in which 12 students and one teacher was shot to death before the two teen gunmen killed themselves in Littleton, Colo. — he went to his pastor seeking answers.  "He said, 'Frank, there's a reason you did not die that day. You got a cause. You need to rebuild that community.'"

And as a result, this brave principal and public servant stayed at his post until the children who were in diapers at the time of the Columbine shootings are now graduating from his school.

To my colleagues: this is the sort of power we do wield.  While sometimes our callings may feel like we are meant to simply run on treadmills, there are also moments when we may not move heaven and earth ourselves, but enable another to do so in our stead.  That is a vital part of ministry, so much so that these are the types of occurrences that keep us from burning and flaming out.

To my lay audience: I imagine that this post represents, in many ways, the deepest longings of your own pastor, whether it be me or another servant of God.  We got into this line of work because we felt called to make a difference in the lives of other fearful souls, and every time we are able to for the better, it validates that calling and makes us better at our jobs.  If your pastor or your church has empowered you to be better at what you do, and to be better at improving the world around us, then I humbly ask you to say a quick prayer of thanks to God for them.

Those prayers mean a lot to us, trust me.

Yours in Christ,

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