While in Massachusetts for a Christmas vacation, I spent a lot of time visiting with family and friends. One friend with whom I hadn’t spoken to in person in over twenty years asked me about being a minister. It was a question that wanted to understand how I did this and why. It was a question that sought to understand what it meant to not only have a job, but a role, a place in people’s perceptions of the world. It was an earnest and honest question, the type that can only come from a person who not only knows where you are now, but who knew you before the years of living separating the present conversation and “remember when” more fully formed you into the person you are.
I talked about calling and how it’s a word we throw around, especially us ministers, but it’s also a concept that, if we’re honest, we don’t really understand until we have some years of living it under our belt. Yes, there is a sense of invitation, of awareness, and there is a sense of one’s gladness finding a place among the world’s deep needs. There’s no avoiding it really, calling is like Morpheus beckoning Neo to exit the Matrix and enter deeply into reality – you take the red pill and see how far the rabbit hole goes.
The next day I was reading a book I received as a Christmas gift – an autographed copy from the author, my friend John Mabry. He’d sent me his new novel “What Child is This?” and since it arrived just in time for Christmas break I took it with me on vacation.
It’s the story of Katie, a Lutheran pastor, who arrives in a small town at the beginning of Advent. She encounters sexism, hostility for not being the beloved former pastor, an adversarial parish administrator, and at least at first, cold and distant parishioners. She warms to the town and parish and they to her, largely through dealing with the arrival of an abandoned baby the week before Christmas. A young stock boy at a local Christmas specialty store who is helping care for the child tells Katie he could never be a pastor because he’s “not good enough” and Pastor Katie tells him honestly:
“Well I can only speak for myself. But I can tell you I’m not particularly good, I’m not particularly smart, and a lot of the time I have no idea what I’m doing. In fact, I mess up all the time.”
He looked at her as if he were seeing her for the first time. “So why are you a pastor?”
“I think it’s because I love.”
That’s what I should have told my friend. It’s honestly how most of us ministers feel often enough. I hope that’s not a surprise to anyone, but I think those of us who work at being good at what we do are able to do it well because we’ve come to terms with the human reality Pastor Katie confesses to her young parishioner. We encounter the world and the beautiful and terrible things of the world grab us as Frederick Buechner said they would. They wrap their arms around us or shove us as if trying to dislodge us from this life, and we hold on and do our best to love. We spend our lives, as Bono said, “trying to throw our arms around the world.” After all, as is often the case when you love someone, you give them a hug.