A Life Like Yet Unlike Most Others
A Life Unlike Most Others, But Please Spare the Sugar
Let me discuss a subject I really know (for a change!) something about: the life and times of a Protestant pastor.
I've just begun reading a book, a very charming book, about a very charming fellow who happens to be an Episcopal priest in the rural mid-South. So far, it's filled with lovable characters, many of them with idiosyncratic ways, but every page throbs nonetheless with a kindly gentility. I'll not write any more about At Home in Mitford until I finish the book.
But it put a bee in my bonnet (or a goad beneath my saddle, pick your metaphor) demanding I tell it like it really was and may still be for those who labor in the Lord's vineyard.
Now it may just be that Brooklyn isn't Mitford and Rockaway Avenue, Valley Stream, isn't Main Street USA. But my world as a pastor was never inhabited with kindly veterinarians reminiscent of Dr. Doolittle, rich dotty widows who catered to my every whim, and friendly grocery store proprietors who knew as much about me as they did about their produce. Most of the people I have loved and known in my capacity as spiritual counselor have rarely been Shirley Temple sunbeam precious. They were... well... real. The vets were kind enough but their duties were mostly limited to pet animals. Few of the widows I cared for (and I cared for a lot of widows!) were rich. And the local grocery store was usually a supermarket with indifferent cashiers.
Nor did I lace my speech with Biblical quotes. The guys on the church basketball team might ask me to offer a prayer before the championship game, but I warned them that I would repeat one I had saved from my seminary days when competing in roundball with students from an evangelical seminary: "O Lord, forgive us for what we are about to do."
Yes, I was always ready to pray when visiting in the homes of congregants, whether for happy or sad reason. Still, under the compulsion of the Golden Rule, I shied away from pious language. If mostly because I would probably be the only person among a congregant's acquaintances who could sustain a conversation loaded with Biblical phrases and allusions: and the last thing a pastor needs is to be put in a different category from other people. Our Lord, you should but probably will not remember, fought against that same tendency of others toward him, to put him in a holy box; and when an inquirer sought to ingratiate himself with Jesus, beginning his conversation with, "Good Teacher," he was greeted with what for him must have been a shocking response from the Galilean, "Good? Why do you call me good?" (Mark 10:17-18, you can look it up).
So for Christ's sake and my own mental stability I eschewed holy speech. Soren Kierkegaard aided and abetted my conviction when he observed that Christianity is intensely inward and that, walking down the street, one could never tell who was and who wasn't really a follower of Jesus. Even when the pedestrian opened his mouth!
And, please, forget the fantasy of the pastor as the careful preparer of sermons; you know, like the Presbyterian minister father in the film "A River Runs Through It." As if I ever had the advantage of setting aside the morning hours Monday through Thursday to prepare Sunday's message, thumb through concordances and commentaries, sift through an index of illustrations, and get the twenty minutes or so of Sunday's oration polished up before Saturday morning. Never, or rarely ever. The demands of living with other Christians as their professional Christian, spiritual guide, building administrator, financial expert, and leader of children's games, brought more demands across my desk than I ever could respond to. I had to become an expert in spiritual triage; and, yes, I confess, I did more than my share of greasing the squeakiest wheel. Helter-skelter is a more appropriate description than calm and reflective of this pastor's approach to parish responsibilities.
Nor would I have had it otherwise, despite my occasional complaints about being too busy. I relished the busyness and took unseemly pride in my resilience in the face of unexpected demands.
In earlier days, before the corrections of our speech by the feminist movement, I might have insisted that the preacher/pastor must be a man among men. For modern consumption it might better be phrased, "a real person among real people." I can pepper my speech, when the occasion occasionally demands it, with a well-chosen expletive, and do it without apology. If my toes are stepped on and stepped on hard, especially if done by someone who ought to know better and is himself a heavy-hitter, I've been known to scream loudly... and not just bear the indignity patiently. I've sat in jails with murderers and flashers and thieves, and mostly listened, without delivering a righteous monologue. I've told a bishop in so many words to shape up (no, I am not thinking of more recent interviews!). I've been run out of a city park in the dark of night by a gang of menacing teenagers who made it clear that I and my youth fellowship were trespassing on their turf. I've found myself in hospital rooms when the patient I've come to visit has his or her Johnny gown around the neck and nowhere else. I've been propositioned by a woman of the streets while stopped at a traffic light in front of a church. I've spoken harshly to a colleague of the cloth who had transgressed the bounds of his office with young women, and told him never again to cross the threshold of the church I pastored.
I've... well, you get the picture, that the life and times of the Protestant pastor (and I suspect most Catholic priests) are anything but picture perfect and country charming. But those helter-skelter life and times are a whole helluva lot and heavenuva lot more interesting than a Norman Rockwell painting of the parson and his flock.