Ye gads. Today is the day that always makes me glad that Lutheran blood flows through my veins. For you uninitiated (and there’s a lot of you) today commemorates the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church and kicked off the Protestant Reformation–so all of you Protestants ought to be excited about today, too.
There’s just something about it. In church circles, we talk about “C&Es”–people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter. I think if I wasn’t a regular church goer, I’d be a “R&GF”–Reformation and Good Friday. Those are two services that I absolutely live for.
And today so totally didn’t let me down. We sang all the hymns that left a satisfying fullness deep in my belly—songs that made me feel like I’d actually sung something, rather than just blathered endless (and eventually meaningless) praise choruses. We sang hymns that reminded me (once again) of how much I am loved, and again I found myself snerking my way though ‘Jesus Loves Me’–but only because I’d already ALSO snerked my way through “A Mighty Fortress” and “Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent”.
I realized as I sat in the crowded, scarlett-bedecked sanctuary and listened to the brass quintet blast out hymn after hymn with the fabulously huge pipe organ offering accompaniment just how fucking wounded I’ve been left by life in the ministry. In the years that I have been functioning in pastoral ministry, either as a seminarian, intern or pastor, I have seen some absolutely hellish things. I’ve had to do some incredibly difficult things. I’ve locked horns with churchly powers that be. On December 26, 2000 I was called to the hospital to sit with a family who was waiting to hear if their son and brother would survive blowing his own face off in front of his wife. Later that same day, I held that man’s college-age daughter in the glow of the lights of the Christmas tree while she screamed, “Why Daddy? Why? Please come back to me Daddy!”. I watched as a man crawled on top of his dead wife’s body and screamed for an hour and a half before he exhausted himself enough that they could pull him off her. I watched as a man burned to death in his own home, and held his wife while she sat in their lawn and watched her husband and everything they owned go up in flames. I have sat with a mother who accidentally killed her own infant son.
In the midst of all that, dealing with everything else a pastor has to do–putting up with people complaining that I didn’t come visit them when they had a hang-nail; telling me that I’d be a really great pastor if I just didn’t preach so long; telling me that it was MY fault that THEIR high school-aged children wouldn’t get out of bed to come to church on Sunday mornings.
I’ve been beaten to a spiritual pulp by my life in professional ministry. I’ve spoken the words of the gospel so many times to so many people…but almost nobody was speaking them back to me. I absolved people of their sins, but no one absolved me of mine. I held people while they cried, but no one ever thought about whether I cried or not, or if there was anyone to hold me when I did.
I say this not as a “pity me” sort of a thing. Sadly, I don’t think my experience of ministry was all that different from what a lot of pastors go through. I truly believe that if you are a good pastor, you walk through hell and back again with people, however many times they need you to, no matter how many other people you’re making the same trip with. I wouldn’t want to pastor any other way. But it does take a lot out of you.
A few weeks ago, on PBS, they were showing a documentary about Mt. St. Helens. Because you can see Mt. St. Helens from my grandparents yard, I’ve always felt an afinity for this mountain. Like it’s mine or something, I don’t know. But they were talking about the incredible ways life managed to survive the erruption…how deep underneath all the piles of ash and mud and sterility, life began to thrum again. And how plant life came back decades before they expected it to. And how now it’s a thriving natural area.
Sitting in church today, emotional (again) over the songs and the promises they evoked, sererpitously drying my tears on my sleeve and hoping my sniffing isn’t too disruptive I realized that: yeah, I’m pretty wounded. But there’s more to it than that. If I was just wounded, I wouldn’t weep. I wouldn’t find myself waking up to go to the extra early service just so I could have the sacrament every week. If I was just wounded, I wouldn’t give a fuck. What makes me weep every week is the stirring of life under the cynical, wounded crust that I’ve had to develop just to keep myself intact. There are tender green shoots of hope, poking up through the black. I weep because for nearly the last decade, I’ve somehow believed that most of the time: God’s promises were not for me. Everyone else: absolutely. But somehow, I kept exempting myself from them.
All of the things I’ve had to see and do and say. All the battles I’ve had to fight. All the confrontations I’ve had to make. All the pain and suffering I’ve went through. All of it left me feeling completely abandoned by God. Because He wouldn’t take someone He professes to love and put them through that shit.
But He didn’t put me through it. He walked me through it. And I’m starting to get that. I’m starting to feel that. The way Linnea will panic in the dark, convinced she’s alone until she hears me say, “It’s OK Baby, Mama’s here, go back to sleep.” is exactly what I’ve been doing for so many years–panicking, crying for my Papa. Only I was too scared/angry/stressed/whatever to hear anything back.
I grew up with the voice of God in my bones. It was my compass. My comfort. My protection. And then, when I went to work for the church, I couldn’t hear it anymore.
Now, I’m starting to hear it again.