Chapter 4. The Democratic Assumption1
"I am among you as one who serves." Luke 22:27
Humility is the clergyperson's badge of vocational purity. Jesus blessed the meek and described himself in like manner, as "gentle and lowly in heart." St. Francis of Assisi, much-admired in sermons, exceeded even Christ's self-denial, preferring rags to riches and the company of swine to lords and ladies. The gentle parson of more recent vintage wore shiny-bottomed pants and drove second-hand cars, as much from economic necessity as from the imitation of Christ: and we loved him for it because it added an aura of dedication. For the better part of two decades of my life I thought that IHS on the pulpit scarf was the acronym for "In His Service"; and those dear pastors who preached behind that scarf every Sunday incarnated self-giving, self-effacing service to congregation and community.
There is, however, a less pleasant face to clerical humility. Indeed, it sometimes it seems to be just a pose. A colleague nicely frames such hypocrisy in the observation (with his tongue in cheek) that "humility is the subject of my greatest sermon." Martin Luther's polemics against the papacy scored the "servants of the servants of Christ" for excesses of greed and luxury that a year of Holy Thursday foot-washings could never make the poor forget. That habit - talking humble and living high - lingers on, without regard to denomination: as in the priestly soul who would convey the love of Christ to you, but with such speed he can move on to other things before your complicate his schedule with your concerns; as in the eloquent expositor of Matthew 19:14 who can make brave men weep with memories of their lost innocence, but who himself cannot suffer children's embarrassing questions; as in the promoter of the Galilean carpenter, saluting him for the common touch, while himself guarding the privileges - everything from free seats at the stadium to an honored place on the dais - to which ordination and communal tradition entitle him. Arrogance, witting and unwitting, can clothe itself in the accoutrements of humility, nails and thorns, loving words and noble sentiments.
The best cure for this pastoral malaise is exposure to people, especially the younger variety, to get close enough to them that they may see the warts and bunions, the quick tempers and poor spelling, the bluster and the insecurity, and report their observations to the ears of the puffed-up and ordained. If a longwinded preacher regularly had to face a front row full of teenagers equipped with wristwatches and spectacular yawns, the sermons would soon find the acceptable limits of concentration. Teaching a class of third graders about Jesus Christ is an excellent method for developing a theological vocabulary for the pulpit, because eight year olds will not hesitate to ask what "holy" means, or "salvation," or "grace," good religious words their parents think they themselves understand and frequently don't. It was a little boy who first laughed because the emperor's new clothes were really no clothes at all. Children will innocently, without a hint of malice, puncture our over-inflated estimates of ourselves, if we will just get close enough to know them, by teaching them the Bible, playing dodge-ball with them, driving with them on long journeys as the radio blares their top forty hits. This exposure to the close examination of youngsters is a discipline more rigorous than flagellation, and certainly more useful.2
The Sunday School classroom, in which I spent the elementary years of my formal religious education, was dominated by a large mural depicting Jesus and the children. I studied it often when the lesson dragged on. My cousin's profile could be traced on one of the figures standing at our Lord's side. Jesus held a toddler in his arms. Sometimes I would make-believe he stepped out of the picture into our room. Wouldn't that teacher, I thought to myself, the one with the attendance pins down to her navel, jump in fright? But I would go right to him and ask him to show me how he walked on water. It was just my kind of curiosity which prompted the disciples to protect their Master from the impertinent questions of children. But Jesus was not afraid to be embarrassed or interrupted. "Let the children come," he insisted.
It is precisely such openness toward others which the ministry must learn again to practice,3 if it would be truly effective. This meaning can be attached to Christ's kenosis, his self-emptying, the generous descent of heaven, which the Letter to the Philippians hymns in the second chapter: "Christ Jesus... emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men." He was among us - Zacchaeus, the Syro-Phoenician mother, the lepers, the woman caught in adultery, the publicans and winebibbers, the Zealot and the Quisling, rich man and poor man, all of us - as one who served; as one who listened, not only to our praise but to our insults and complaints; as one who loved, not from a safe distance, but close enough to smell the stench of our wounds and to be wounded himself by the fury of our anger.
Call it the democratic assumption, that the least of these, no less than the greatest, has a right to the pastor's time and careful consideration.4
Translating such democracy into priorities on the pastoral agenda may nettle those who have championed the cause of ecclesiastical professionalism.5 A significant allotment of time should be set aside to be with and for youngsters, if to teach them Christ's advocacy of great social causes, then also to learn from them the mysteries of CB's or whatever is the current vogue.6 Establishing regular habits of visitation upon that other plain-speaking segment of the population, the aged and often shut-in, will also be required. Just answering your own office phone can be an adventure in vulnerability, what with the mix of salesmen, heavy-breathers, bona fide inquirers, and casual callers who ring.
I would commend also the principle offered me early in my ministry by a wise pastor, never to ask anything of a parishioner I wouldn't be willing to do myself if I had the talent or the means; which covers a multitude of chores from painting classroom walls to frying Shrove Tuesday pancakes, from cleaning camp latrines to making a fool of oneself in a party night skit.7
The effective pastor will also try to make sure that care given doesn't appear to be an act of condescension. Although the preacher, in the words of a famous practitioner of the art of proclamation, Dr Paul Scherer, "stands three feet above contradiction," even there, in the pulpit, the congregation should be made to know that however much the sheep are wounded, the shepherd is wounded the more. Even in the one-on-one relationship of pastoral counseling, the soul seeking help needs to know, if there is to be healing, that heaven understands, if like a parent for a child, then as a Savior nailed to a cross, for whom our pain is his pain. The power of preaching to change lives and the gnosis to assist others to change their own lives derive from the trust earned because the pastor has been among his people as one of them, open to each of them.
Years ago in a series of lectures at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, D. T. Niles, the late Ceylonese ecumenist, declared that pastors minister best from their weakness, not their strength; from our humanity, not our godliness; from our wounds, not our perfection. For it is the pastor who is down-to-earth who will be the best prepared to lead his people to heaven.
Second Thoughts Twenty-five Years Later
1. Well, I never clearly and succinctly state the assumption. Here it is, the democratic assumption of the effective pastor: to treat other human beings, whatever age, race, station, or annual income, with the same dignity and full attention that the preacher wants for himself. A certain seminary president who shall remain nameless never did learn to focus on those of us of lesser status: whenever I engaged him in conversation he continually looked over my shoulder and around the room for some personage of greater importance. Either that or he had to go very badly to the men's room. I considered it then and now a failing. The Apostle Paul admonishes us never to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, and that "ought" contains, in my view, the thought that anyone of us is no more precious in God's sight than any other of us. A fair measure of a pastor's mastery of the democratic assumption is his treatment of children. The tendency is to condescend kindly to the young. Wrong! They never need our condescension; they need and want our attention. You know, like Jesus with the children when the disciples would shoo them away.
2. I never cease to wonder at the amazing grace that found an arrogant, self-contained wretch like me and showed me a thing or two I would never have willingly chosen for myself. In 1956 in my first fulltime appointment the church's regular program visited upon me the necessity of providing lessons every Wednesday afternoon from 2 to 3 PM for children 3rd Grade through 6th, as our local participation in New York State's Released Time Program. I was fresh out of seminary and full of big Latinate words to explain my theology. But I quickly found that children were not only not impressed with my careful explanations of eschatology and soteriology, they, no less than their parents, wondered why I was speaking in tongues. We quickly compromised on Bible stories. I told them, they listened, the more alertly when I dramatized them. That's a discipline - repeating pericopes (see, I didn't forget all those big, obscure words!) for children - I would recommend to anyone who wants to be a preacher. With children you simply have to get to the point and get there quickly, or they fade into daydreaming or kicking the child next to them. And that's a habit, getting to the point and getting there quickly, that those not so young also appreciate.
3. My psychic tempo being what it is, a trifle fast, I have never been one to "suffer fools gladly." That is, I am an impatient sort. My wife eagerly attests to my failing in this regard. But, in the parish with those whom God had given to my pastoral care, I made the time, found the focus, and sometimes desperately fought to keep my eyes open, when a parishioner, incapable of getting to the point, took forever getting there. Like that competitive game of eating string to see who gets to the marshmallow in the middle first: some people cannot get to the sweetness without chewing up every detail in the process. But, by God, I forced myself to listen; to hold on to the phone way beyond the third repetition, to make believe the anecdote repeated was brand new; and to accept without wincing the organ recitals of hypochondriacs. On the other hand, if a colleague in the ministry, especially someone who had administrative responsibility over me, tested my patience, I would be inclined to snap, "Get to the point." Call it selective application of the democratic assumption. Before chastising me, remember that Jesus wasn't very patient with Pharisees and scribes either.
4. The payoff for Herculean patience arrives, always arrives(!), when the time comes for summing up. When it's time to hang up one's pulpit robe for good and give away one's exhaustive concordance to one freshly ordained, then the backflow of gratitude from those with whom you have shared life and sorrows and triumphs and jelly beans is simply overwhelming. Like the ad currently on TV for the credit card company about the cost of all kinds of things, but how seeing your children happy or holding hands with your beloved is priceless: so it is with the pastoring of souls. The return of love and thanksgiving is priceless.
5. The concern for "professionalism" with doctors and lawyers, no less than clergy, seems often to be an excuse for aloofness. Pastors who insulate themselves from the "madding crowd" by severely limiting access to their offices and phones and homes are in the same league with doctors who refuse under any circumstance to make house calls. But at least a physician, if a public person, does not have the responsibility of leading a congregation. And leadership demands presence and personal involvement, like a captain in battle with the troops, being the one who is willing to lead the way. Just so the shepherd with his flock.
6. In Brooklyn where I cut my eye teeth on pastoring, I made a habit of checking out who was at the bar at The Hilltop and Sparky's as I tooled around the corners of those establishments in my Fiat 1100. A career-long discipline of newsletter writing began in that borough, when the neighborhood around the church, and some young men in it, were gripped with a heroin addiction. I felt it my duty to alert the families in our congregation to the scourge and named names and places. A pastor does what a pastor has to to understand those to whom he preaches and for whom he seeks to provide the wisdom and the comfort of the Scriptures.
7. One of the glories of pastoring souls is the ample opportunity it affords to try one's hand at a wide, wide variety of endeavors. Over the years in my last appointment I developed a reputation as a clam chowder chef, a computer maven, a specialist in refinishing gym floors, a very careful clipper and shaper of evergreen hedges, an expert in the care and repair of in-ground lawn sprinklers, and a consultant for building maintenance. All of which is a far stretch from what the seminary prepared me to do and be! But, by God and for God, I loved it.