Thursday, June 19, 2014

Immensely Thoughtful Yet Appropriate Love

Sam Wells in Christian Century.  The defining job of a minister is to say the right thing at the right time.  That certainly includes remembering people's names; a lot of pastors are intentional and methodical about remembering names.  Of course, no human being can live up to this expectation every time, and this piece is about failing to live up to it.

Traveling back to a church he previously served, to preach a funeral sermon, Sam is greeted by a former member who clearly remembers him warmly.  And he blanks on her name.  I am going to block-quote a big chunk because it may retreat behind CC's paywall:

. . . But the damage is done. The lie is exposed. I’m all surface and no depth, the pastor who can put on a show but deep down doesn’t care enough to remember, who made her feel special but when she was no longer useful moved on elsewhere, who could talk but didn’t walk. Maybe God, in the end, was like that too.

This is the banality of clergy failure—that we put ourselves between people and God. That we tacitly assume God is distant, remote, occupied, distracted, and so we, to compensate, must be present, intense, hearty, and inspiring. We must be more human than God. God can’t possibly remember this woman’s name, her complex story of not having and then having children and their complex story. So we invest deeply in her, utterly professionally, of course, and her melting heart, her trust, her signs of faith and hope—these are the medals of our ministry. Our people need us, need us badly, because only through our sacrificial and immensely thoughtful yet appropriate love can they possibly glimpse a God who seems reluctant to be made known in any explicit and tangible way.


Of course we’re not up to it. We forget her husband was going in for a scan and we should have inquired how it went. We neglect to ask her to read at the carol service. We get talking to someone else after the worship service, and she drifts away disconsolate to her car. But all these things are forgiven. And we know that they’re healthy ways of indicating she shouldn’t overinvest in us, because it’s not really about us, it’s about Christ and Christ’s body, the church. In fact, we shouldn’t be standing between her and God in the first place. God can look after that part without our unique contribution. The pastor’s job is not so much in front of the people as behind them, ushering them like sheep into a place where they may encounter God together. It’s not about being more interesting than God. Cyprian never said, “Outside the pastor there is no salvation.”

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