Saturday, July 18, 2015
The Epic Discouragement of a Pastor
I love the blessing of being allowed into peoples' lives at the birth of a child, at the death of a loved one, at the point of greatest need to experience, each in their own ways, God's own power and splendor, made real and knowable to us all, through the innate presence of God's Son Jesus Christ.
I love the honor of being invited to perform weddings and baptisms, funerals and renewals of vows, of being invited to offer what miniscule scraps of wisdom I have to offer to lend whatever sense of profoundness and greatness I can muster to something that in point of truth needs no further profoundness, no polish of further greatness: the witness of love itself.
But it is so very, very hard for me to do it.
It is beyond hard for me to preach in the name of God's justice and God's demand for dignity for all when I hear people like Franklin Graham say that Muslims should be banned from the United States after the terrorist attacks in Chattanooga, using our treatment of the Japanese during World War II as a precedent (because that was so moral of us). Never mind that by the same logic, a Christian being radicalized like the Charleston shooter ought to be similar grounds for barring a Christian like me (or Franklin Graham) from the United States as well.
It is beyond painful for me to bear witness to a God of fundamental love and regard for humanity while I see people defend the Confederate flag rather than try to build up the black churches that have been set on fire, never mind trying to build up Mother Emanuel AME after it lost its pastor and eight other souls.
It is beyond wrenching for me to realize that we lament how the talking about these things "divides us," never mind the fact that we were divided to begin with, with our family and most of our friends looking and sounding and dressing exactly like us instead of like the diverse array of images of God, the imago dei, that humanity is able to outwardly proffer to its adherents.
I write this as I read the news that a fifth soldier (I had originally and erroneously written "Marine," but in fact Randall Smith was a petty officer second class in the Navy -E.A.) has died of his wounds in Chattanooga, after the terrorist shooting that had already claimed the lives of four of his comrades. And already, I see the anger at the notion that people somehow care more about Caitlyn Jenner's ESPY speech than about the five folded flags that are about to be given out to five bereft families at five military funerals very, very soon.
Except that isn't it at all. I, and just about everyone else I see and know, are reeling from Chattanooga as well. But there is so much vitriol being cast about as well...possibly because the terrorist who killed the five soldiers is dead as well, so the object of our communal fury must be someone other than a corpse. After 9/11, Osama bin Laden still remained belligerently among the living for nearly a decade. Not so with our latest assailant.
So we lash out at each other instead. We lash out at Caitlyn Jenner for accepting an award she did not ask for, but still merited consideration for, because if her coming out as transgender meant that somewhere else in America, a trans kid who was planning to kill themselves did not, then her bravery in fact saved a life. And in a nation of 320 million people, I'm willing to bet that it saved more than one.
We lash out at black Americans for demanding the removal of the Confederate flag and for calling us out for caring more about defending the flag than about the burning of their churches, the murder of their people by different law enforcement officers, and the denial of equal educational opportunities to their children. And they have to repeat it over and over, because we covered our ears after Eric Garner, and then again after Eric Harris, and again after Tamir Rice, and again and again and again--and now this time for Sandra Bland--because if you deny something long enough, you eventually begin to believe your own denials.
And we lash out at these attempts to remember and honor people like Jenner and Garner and Rice because they aren't us. I have never seen any resistance or objection to remembering utterly horrific events like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, but as soon as we talk about remembering the death and pain experienced by people who aren't our skin color or our gender identity or our sexual orientation, we instead talk about how they "should get over it" and "remember how lucky they are."
Do we really think these are things that Jesus would say?
Or are we willing to admit that the Jesus who lived and died and resurrected for us is the exact same Jesus who lived and died and resurrected for the five Marines in Chattanooga, for Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, for Clementa Pinckney, for Caitlyn Jenner, and for you and for me? And that this Jesus demands us to honor the stories and histories of those who don't look like us just as much as He calls us to honor our own?
Otherwise, what on earth is an Israelite Jesus doing talking to the Syrophoenician woman in Mark and Matthew, or the Samaritan woman and the centurion in John? For that matter, what on earth is Jesus doing telling a Judean audience about a good Samaritan?
And what on earth are we doing trying to be church in His name?
I do this thing called ministry where I go about the sacred and mighty tasks I thrive on, the tasks of of preaching and teaching and counseling and building up all in a context that beats me up as much as it does you. Maybe more so. It makes the devilish temptation of apathy all the more, well, tempting.
I know it cannot be any other way. A people that loves others as much as it loves its own is a people who never needed Jesus to come in the first place.
But in all truth, it is so very hard not to be discouraged by that reality, even though that reality is precisely why I know that what I do remains so very, very necessary. It both redoubles my resolve to keep on doing it and piles on my existential despair for even bothering to do it.
Such is the painful, epic, discouraging-and then-encouraging paradox of ministry.
July 18, 2015
Image: Raphael's "St. Paul Preaching in Athens," public domain.