Saturday, November 10, 2012


One of the weird things about being a pastor is the way this job requires me to love.

Love is always a strange experience, but that’s not my point. What’s weird is making a living by it. If I want to pay my mortgage and feed my kinds, I have to love people.

Also beside the point is how lovable these people may or may not be. The humans in my life are probably much like the ones in yours; they invite a whole range of interest and affection. But most occupations leave their practitioners to navigate that range at their own pace and inclination. Not so for clergy. Sure, every line of work includes people seemingly designed to expand their co-workers’ capacity for grace, but even the most mood savvy employer stops short of making unconditional love an element of workplace policy. Unless you’re a pastor.

Although I would normally resist the designation ‘professional’ for the ministry, l’ll use it here for the sake of putting this bluntly: To be a pastor is to be a professional lover.

That sounds weird because it is.

A profession with similar terms comes to mind, the parallels with which I’ll not explore too deeply, but suffice it to say that a prostitute is unlikely to be deemed less professional if she doesn’t love her clients. I’d guess the opposite is the case. She, or he, is paid to pretend, and the pretense is, no pun intended, explicit.

For the pastor, by contrast, play-acting is anathema. And rightly so. We’re supposed to be genuine. But there’s the rub. How can a person freely be something if they’re already supposed to be it? It’s the existential dilemma in vocational form.

I’m sure I’m not the first pastor to wrestle with this. All my ilk probably wonder at times if  the people we attend are sometimes suspicious: Is my pastor here because he cares, or because he is just doing his job? Good question. Sometimes I don’t even know. But I do know it’s hard to work with all that second-guessing and angst in the air. Therapists have it easy in this respect. Their wares are the one great modern alternative to pastoral attention yet they avoid our awkward bind because the terms on their couch are clear: they care when they’re paid to. Sure, the clarity of the arrangement might make it a tad chilly at first, but at least it would mitigate weirdness in the long run.

I am now approaching what on statistical analysis would be a long run in my current church. The average tenure of a pastor is apparently somewhere in the range of four years, and I’m at nearly double that. It seems odd to me that a type of work supposedly based on relationships could finish its course so quickly, but maybe that’s a symptom of exactly the malaise in question.

An awareness of the typical brevity of a pastor’s term was likely in play during a recent conversation I had with a financial advisor. The punch-line in his advice included the unsurprising suggestion that maybe I should consider a job somewhere else for the sake of a lower cost of living and a higher income. Listening to my own response to his idea was a case of hearing aloud a belief I wasn’t formerly conscious of holding: if my church didn’t pay me I’d drive a school bus or deliver firewood to stay in this town. The fact that my hypothetical solution wouldn’t be one at all is maybe a nod at why I found myself talking to a financial advisor in the first place, but that now obvious connection was lost on me at the time because I was stunned by a flash of catharsis: Of course I could go somewhere else, but I don’t want to.

On some days I’m not entirely sure I want to be a pastor. But on no days do I want to be one somewhere else. Why is that? Okay, true, the fishing is good here. And yes, I like the scenery. But a recent vacation supplied ample evidence there is a shortage of neither anglable water nor spectacular landscape elsewhere in this country. On the contrary, beyond this valley are fish and mountains as near the Platonic Forms of each as I could possibly imagine. I’d be happy to elaborate. But not now, this anecdote has a point.

My impromptu burst of pioneering resilience led me to a shocking realization: It seems my roots here are deeper than a thinly baptized hedonism. Strange, but I want to stay for reasons other than Blackcomb powder or Birkenhead trout.

And what might those reasons be?

Before I get to those, there’s another peculiar thing about the pastorate: its frequent and insidious deterioration into sentimentalism. I resist this to a fault – often cringing when a group-hug or a round of Kum-Bah-Yah might actually be appropriate – so rest assured, I don’t say this lightly: Could it be that I want to stay here because I love this place, and maybe even the people in it?

With no slight against the people in question, that would be weird. And it would only compound the original weirdness of getting paid for it.

It seems to me there is no way around it: love, to be genuine, must be free, and ‘free’ in both senses of the word. If I am only interested in someone’s problems because a perceived lack of concern on my part would mean a real lack of food on my table, then I am bound in the pretense by the price of food and my ersatz concern is the consequence of that bind. On the other hand, if I am free to earn my keep elsewise, and indeed elsewhere, but I choose instead to be a pastor, and to be one here, then maybe I am making those choices not because I am supposed to, but simply because I actually like, and maybe even love, the people here.

Alas, much hangs on those ‘maybes.’ But remove them – over-tighten the terms or reduce them to a professionally explicit arrangement – and the whole thing slips backward into a cave where whatever might have been love ends up a shadowy version of its absent ideal. Squeeze the mystery too tightly and I might finally get a grip on it, but it’ll be a lifeless lump, unrecognizable as the may-be miracle it could have been.

So yah, this is weird. But maybe that’s just the way love is. And, if I am going to be any good at this gig, maybe that’s just the way this pastor will have to be too. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


It’s a tricky thing, trusting other people. Movies sometimes say hardened cowboys can make it well enough without it. But those cowboys don’t really exist. Or if they do, they don’t in a way that seems much good after the credits roll. Regular cowboys and the rest of us have to figure it out somehow. If we want to get anywhere in this world then trusting people is part of the deal. It’s the sinews and tendons of moving ourselves around. That guy who broke his leg in Peru, he got himself down the mountain with some very damaged sinews and tendons, although I understand it was painful for him and unpleasant. But what’s a little pain and unpleasantness to a cowboy? Aren’t we all buckaroos in freefall some of the time? Seems so. But of course it’s not the falling we mind. It’s the thud at the bottom and hauling our busted bones back to camp to stare into the fire. The smoke stings the eyes and a little voice inside says maybe just skip it next time. Ride into the sunset and sleep under the stars and eat roasted antelope and only go to town for salt and bags of flour and otherwise don’t bother. It’s a snake’s whisper, that. Calm and smooth and true enough. But it’ll spook a horse and bite from a bedroll sooner than do much good. Travel far enough with that voice and soon we have one ear to it so much of the time that our look at the world goes squinty from straining for it. Then everyone starts to look suspect. Are these the kind of folk who set me on this trail in the first place? Hard to tell, the voice would say. Best not to ride along too quickly. Let’s just wait and see. But waiting and seeing can drag on a long time. And time doesn’t care much about the bruises we get from all that dragging. Pretty soon we aren’t just being cautious, we’ve plain forgotten how to trust in the first place. Sure, forgetting like that would take some effort. My guess is there’d be calluses instead of bruises by the time we really finished the job. And by then we’d likely figure there wasn’t much of life left anyway. Those sinews and tendons would be shrunk and stiff so why bother trying to muster up trust again? Damn snake says maybe the hardness would be a relief. It’s a tricky thing.

Friday, June 1, 2012


Recently I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, and have been down-right shocked by how encouraging it is. There are so many alternative voices and pressures out there; so many odd and competing ideas about what a pastor should be. But here is a guy who gets it. So I was especially glad to find and finally steal a brief article by him on the mysterious little thing we call ‘sabbatical.’ Once again, he gets it.


Eugene H. Peterson

The sabbatical is an entrenched tradition in academia. University professors, committed to the life of the mind, get them regularly every seventh year. And well they should. This life of the mind, teaching and thinking, is strenuous. The mind tires, grows stagnant, begins to repeat itself. The annual invasion of students, their curious and questioning minds strangely mingled with ignorance and sloth, constitutes a formidable challenge to a professor.
Academia exists to protect and develop knowledge, but knowledge is not a dead thing in a book. It's a living dialectic; it requires fully alive professors to maintain it. If knowledge disintegrates into cliché‚ or soddens into data, intelligence is betrayed and the mind dulled. And so the schools provide for regular renewal of the professorial brain cells by providing sabbaticals.
But pastors, committed to the life of the spirit, a life at least as strenuous, if not more so, than the life of the mind, rarely get sabbaticals. I wonder why, for the spirit also tires, grows stagnant, begins to repeat itself. The weekly assembly of Christians, their hungry-and-thirsty-after-righteousness lives strangely mingled with sin and sloth, constitutes a formidable challenge to the pastor. The sanctuary exists to protect and develop holiness, but holiness is not a packaged attitude that can be sold to Sunday god-shoppers. It is life at risk before God, dangerously and awesomely at risk, and it needs fully alive pastors to represent it. If the life of faith is reduced to a church program or into jargon, the gospel is betrayed and the spirit dulled. Yet churches make little provision for renewal of spirit in those they set as overseers for the renewal of their spirits.
The omission impoverishes the church's spiritual vitality. Pastors enter their ordained work centered in prayer and alive to grace; after ten, twelve, thirteen years they find they simply don't have the energy for a life of prayer, of spirit. One after another and year after year, they abandon the terms of their ordination and settle for running churches.
A curious irony has occurred in the midst of this. Churches have, of late, been giving pastors study leave. In my denomination it is required-two weeks each year. But why "study"? That, surely, is not my central work. I stand before a congregation each week not as a lecturer in dogmatics but to lead them in prayer, bring them the sacraments, and guide them in listening to God. Intelligence, and the cultivation of intelligence by study, is not to be slighted in this work, but it is the life of spirit that is my forte. It is the prayer, contemplation, and proclamation to which I am guardian. The sanctuary, not the classroom, is my demesne. 
I think I know what happened. Several centuries ago, the university took the practice of the sabbatical from the church and then altered it to suit its purposes. Recently, the church glanced over at the university and noticed this wonderful practice and thought a sabbatical might be a good idea for pastors, too. And so we started taking it back. But instead of taking back what they took from us, a time for renewal of spirit, we are taking back what they turned it into – a renewal of mind. The all-but-universal practice is for pastors to go to universities and seminaries for these bastard sabbaticals and take academic courses. They return to their congregations with starched and in-fashion ideas, but their spirits as baggy as ever. 
If we are going to take sabbaticals, let them be real sabbaticals: a willed passivity in order to be restored to alert receptivity to spirit – prayer, silence, solitude, worship. It is outrageous that we acquiesce to the world's definition of our word and let our unique, biblical sabbatical be put to the use of career advancement, psychological adjustment, and intellectual polish – with all the prayer and contemplation laundered out. The original intent of sabbath is a time to be silent and listen to God, not attend lectures; a time to be in solitude and be with God, not "interact" with fatigued peers. If help is to be given to the pastor in midcourse, it is not going to come by infusion of intellect but by renewal of spirit.

Leadership Journal  Winter 1988 pp.74-5.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Unsolicited advice from somewhere in the middle

Last week I read about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8.1-11). And as the Bible often does, it surprised me again with something new.

Jesus knew his Hebrew Bible, he knew it said the situation warranted a death penalty. He also knew his religious opponents wanted to catch him fudging it so they could prosecute him accordingly.

The irony is scalding. Here’s a bunch of zealous Bible-readers in a white-knuckle frenzy against the very one their Bibles are about. How does this happen? How does something meant to lead people to Jesus become the very thing used to thwart him?

“Okay, stone her,” Jesus said. “But let the ones who’ve never sinned throw first.”

Sheer brilliance. On my good days I can honestly say I love Jesus but even on the less than good ones I can always say I admire him. That was a tight spot. And I imagine it might’ve felt like a bit of a gamble, given the company he was in. Who could be sure there wasn’t at least one within that self-righteous group who imagined himself sinless?

The phrase that caught me last week was this: the older ones first. The gamble worked, thank God, the mob dispersed. And it was the older ones who left first.

I’m not old yet. The stats tell me I’m likely somewhere in the middle. It’s a strange place to be, this midway. It means I can easily remember what it was like to be young, and I can almost hear what it will be like to be old. From this place I know that unsolicited advice is very unlikely to find its mark. But I’m not crusty yet. There’s still enough youth in my veins to give this a shot.

So here goes: Allow yourself space to be uncomfortable because there is more freedom in questions than answers. Truth is slippery when we try to grip it, like water through the fingers, but it comes free and undeserved when we’re tired and thirsty, like beer from a friend. In the church we call this ‘grace,’ but it’s true everywhere: Life gets smaller when we hold on tight and bigger when we lift our heads and listen.

As far as I can tell, faith is like that. It’s more like listening than gripping, more like accepting a gift than crunching data.

The temptation for you and I at this point is to think we already know this. We nod at quaint thoughts about a relationship with God as if we’ve already checked that item on our list. “Next, please.” But the checklist is fooling us. The most important truths neither fit in boxes nor line up beside them waiting for checkmarks. The big truths take a whole life to learn, over and over again.

The one on my mind at the moment is this: We don’t have faith in Jesus because the Bible has informed us about the mysteries of God, of which he is one. We have faith in Jesus because God enables us to trust him like a man trusts his wife or a close friend.

That sounds a bit weird. Or it should anyway. After all, we’ve never met Jesus in the flesh. But this is where the Bible comes in. With God’s help we can know Jesus through this book and through others who’ve believed it. And that’s the spot we’re in. Like a mob of religious Bible-believers surrounding the one it’s all about.

I used to think that faith in God meant knowing a lot of things about him, that my faith would grow by keeping hold of what I already knew and carefully adding more and more knowledge until one day I had all the answers. As a young man I would’ve been one of the last to finally drop his stone.

So here’s a request from a guy somewhere in the middle: Please don’t make the same mistake. It’s better to be dirt-level and sobbing at the feet of Jesus than disappointed by his grace and walking away.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ears like a fish. Talking about Jesus without saying anything.

             Whatever else ‘Evangelical’ means today it is at least an effort to keep things simple, to share the gospel with Jesus front and centre. And although the Anabaptist movement seems at times to enjoy a self-sustained identity crisis, we are nonetheless consistently fond of the fact that we ‘do our theology on the run.’ There are of course great strengths to both of these characteristics. But combined they tend to mean our gospel proclamation can lack a basic self-awareness. When it comes to talking about Jesus - to use a phrase common in my neck of the woods – we like to jus get ‘er done. This is a perfectly appropriate mode of action for gathering hay before a storm or firewood in late Fall. But for communicating the gospel across cultural differences, it has not served us well.
            In order for me to speak responsibly to a person from a different culture I need to know three things thoroughly: My culture, the other culture and the message I want to convey. Evangelicals typically put the order the other way round and run out of zeal halfway through. We are keen on knowing our message, keen to appear keen on knowing other cultures, and mostly oblivious to whatever value might come from knowing our own. The result is that we have much to say, very little idea how it sounds and no idea when to stop speaking. In other words, we are terrible listeners.
I live in traditional Stl’atl’imx territory and there is a diagnosis here for this kind of problem: Wa7 ícwa7 st’éna7, t’síla tsóqwaoz – “You have no ears, like a fish.” The body of Christ has made its way across cultural lines in my home and native land with ears more or less resembling the empty spaces on the sides of a trout’s head.
The first step toward better attentiveness is a simple confession: Everything you and I say is tangled-up with our culture. There is a constantly spinning loop between our view of the world and the impression that world is having back on us as we view it. And we can no sooner extract ourselves from this loop than inspect the backs of our own eyeballs. Our culture is where we are, how we’re there, what we make of it and what it makes of us. Sounds a bit creepy, putting it that way. But it needn’t be. All creatures are made who and what they are by their particular time and place – and humans have simply given this aspect of our createdness a name, we call it our ‘culture.’
 Whether it was a thick-skinned Viking beached on the shores of Newfoundland or a lost Italian looking for India, our first impressions on this land established a posture and pace we have not significantly adjusted. Frantic self-preservation and gold-struck busyness have characterized the so-called ‘dominant’ culture here ever since.
In political terms our movement across this continent has been one of the most haphazard and self-absorbed examples of colonialism in the history of human expansion. In social terms we have isolated individuals from and against one another as if Darwin were a prophet. Economically, we have institutionalized greed and treated this land like an impossibly infinite resource at our disposal. And epistemologically we have applied our consumerist lust to certainty, as if knowledge itself were a frontier-land available for immediate possession.
Is this our culture? Is this the loop in and from which we view others and the world around us? We could put a more positive spin on it: The freedom within an open-market economy, the respect and order of a liberal democracy, the technologies of modern science, all have many good things to offer. But is this the Christian calling? Should we be spinning our loops for the sake of attracting people to Christ? Can’t we just let Jesus stand, front and centre, without all our cultural baggage?
As it turns out, Jesus only complicates things further. Once he’s part of the picture there’s not just the loop between me and my culture, there’s also the one between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit somehow woven in there too.
Yes, I am for better or worse a product of my culture. But with Jesus I am also, for better, a product of God’s grace. And it’s sharing that latter bit – the invading love of God in our lives – that is our primal objective. But here’s the problem: The two loops are inseparable. I am a creature so I can no sooner remove myself from my time and place than I can usurp the throne of the Creator himself. But I am also a new creation, I am ‘already and not yet’ caught up into something we might call a redeemed culture: The Spirit-filled life of Christ. 
At this point we could get so twisted in our overlapping loops that far from jus gettin’ ‘er done, we might never even get started. But Jesus doesn’t just complicate things and leave us to it. He is also the way through the tangle and into some new possibilities for how to tell the story about him.
Jesus is both a first-century Palestinian Jew and also the One in whom all cultures hold together. He is, like the rest of us, a creature of his place in history. But unlike anyone else, he is also the Creator of history itself. There is a paradox in that, but that’s what it takes to describe the mystery that is the life of Christ. It is a fertile paradox, and it corresponds to our challenge about speaking the gospel across cultures.
As followers of Jesus we are stewards of a message that is irremediably twisted by our own stories – but it is a message that is also the very plotline of creation. There are two poles to this, and as with most of the tensions within our faith, there will always be pressures toward resolution in favour of one over the other. On the one hand are those who would leave Jesus in his original culture and thereby have little to offer anyone else’s. On the other are those who would idealize Jesus, cut him loose from his creaturely loop, and the result is the smothering both of his humanity and ours. What we need is a way of holding the two together; both the fact that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever and the fact that we, to the glory of God, are not.

My home church is small, plain and willing to admit that we don’t have big, fancy answers to the problems we face. But we’ve also done a thing or two right. One was inviting ourselves onto the local Indian Reserve to listen to our neighbours’ stories. No gospel presentation, no alter-call, no soft-sell literature available at the back. Just plain ol’ listening. We’ve done this several times now but the best so far was a couple of years ago.
At the end of the day a large Aboriginal Elder – broad shoulders, deep face, long gray-flecked ponytail; not a Christian – motioned to speak, and the room gave him the respect he was due. “You people, what you’ve done today,” he began, “you’ve given me courage.” Then he paused and collected himself, “Now I don’t have to think that all Christians are assholes anymore.”
Now, I’d like to spare readers the mistake made by many who first ‘listened’ to that comment. Yes, there is a colloquial potty-word there, but let’s not allow the profanity to distract us from the significance of the statement. (If we recoil at the way most normal people speak then we have more to learn about listening than this short article can offer.) This man was naming a former obstacle between himself and his Creator, “all Christians,” and that obstacle had just become a passable boundary. Listening is what prompted the change. Why? Why did seeing Christians listen to his people give him courage? How did a simple gesture inspire such a massive shift?
Listening does something radical, paradoxical even. Listening conveys an attitude in keeping with the mystery at the crux of our faith. Jesus is from the very centre of triune life but he did not cling to his divine culture as if it were superior to ours. He emptied himself. Although we cannot repeat that miracle exactly – we can’t completely ‘empty’ ourselves of our own cultural ties – we can open ourselves to the others for whom Christ came. We can listen to them.

We do, of course, still have a message to speak. Jesus didn’t command us to go into all the world and listen to other cultures. But too much mouth-first fervour eventually contradicts our message. Yes, eventually, the message does have an offensive edge. But as stewards of the story about Jesus it is our responsibility to make sure we don’t offend people before they get to the offensive part. Jesus is supposed to be the Stumbling Block, not us. Many people in our world today are just beginning to stand after tripping over Christian messengers and the last thing they want to do is swallow another culturally suffocating religious sales pitch.
It was our own cultural-religious impulse to speak first and ask questions later that got this backwards in the first place – and so no amount of yet more talk will turn things around. At this point if we want to make a difference we need to start making our way differently. We need to start listening.
And when the conversation does finally come round to Jesus? I for one am not going to tie myself in knots trying see the backs of my eyeballs. Sure I’ll do my best to keep my own cultural tangles out of the message. But I’ll also rest assured that Jesus is not restricted by the terms of his introduction. He is after all the one who created my eyes in the first place. And yes, thank God, my ears too.

A shorter version of this first appeared in the MB Herald, November 2011. See