A few weeks ago I left to spend Christmas serving at a children’s home in India. In the middle of a village outside of Chennai we had limited cell phone service. I received an urgent e-mail from my wife to call home. One of our students had committed suicide the morning after we left for India. I had baptized this student a few summers earlier at camp and he had been a regular in our group until this year. In the past four years that we’ve conducted seven memorial services for students in our area. Also during this time, I conducted the service for a mom of one of the students from my previous ministry who committed suicide. I’m not convince any number of classes, lectures, mentoring or case studies could have prepared me for past four years of my ministry. I was recently talking with someone from a parachurch organization about the past four years of my ministry at which he responded, “I don’t know how pastors do it… I don’t know if I could be on the frontline like that…”
To be honest, I was a slightly offended by this statement because this is intrinsically what it means to be a pastor. Part of being a vocational pastor means to walk walking with people in the beauty and in the grit of everyday life. The call in our vocational lives is not the be “successful”, or to have the biggest ministries, but our call is to be faithfully obedient to what God has entrusted to us: His pride and joy, the church. Unfortunately, sometimes this means that we have to deal with disappointment. Sometimes this means that the sheep will bite back. Sometimes this means that people are not going to like our leadership style. At times this will mean that we will have to endure friendly fire, but for some reason, this is what God has entrusted to us. I like to think that sometimes it’s as if God has given us the keys to a cool old muscle car that looks great, but breaks down ever so often. Sometimes it’s roaring on all cylinders, and sometimes you want to drive it off a cliff.
Cornel West said in an interview he likes to “focus on the funk”:
and by funk, what I mean is, wrestling with the wounds, the scars, the bruises, as well as the creative responses to wounds, scars, and bruises—some of them inflicted because of structures and institutions, some of them being tied to our existential condition, in terms of losses of loved ones, in terms of diseases, in terms of betrayals of friends, and so forth; all of these are wounds and scars and bruises. And it’s at that very concrete level that my concept of philosophy operates…
I believe with every fiber of my being that this is what being a pastor is all about, dealing with the funk. We are constantly working with those wrestling with the “wounds, scars, bruises” and offering Biblical and creative responses to those wounds, scars and bruises in the midst of dealing with our own. Life can be filled with both beauty and tragedy and God has called us to engage both the laughter and the tears. Death is the great equalizer that causes us to reflect on our own mortality, but for the Christian who already has the hope of resurrection, in someways, death should cause the pastor to examine our own vocations. “What my is ministry all about?”
Eugene Peterson writes, “the job of the pastor is not to teach people how to live, but to prepare them to die.” Cornel West in another interview for the documentary, Call and Response (2008), said, “we all are born from the funk and we return to the funk”. Death is a reality of life and if we as the pastor have the opportunity to celebrate with people in the creation of new life, the blessing of seeing a blossoming relationship, uniting people in matrimony, then it is an equal honor to walk with families through death. I was taught in seminary that people in times of grief and emotional stress can equate our presence with the presence of God. While we are not God, we can represent God in those tender moments. In those moments our silent, un-anxious presence is our pastoral imperative. We don’t need to feel the pressure to respond on God’s behalf, because let’s face it, what are you going to say that is going to make all of the tears go away? The truth is: sometimes we don’t need to say anything at all and allow the Holy Spirit to minister in that moment through you. All we can do is cling on to the Good Shepherd, pray, hug it out, reaffirm the family, seize pastoral care moments, pick up coffee, and be an un-anxious presence. In my opinion, this is, at it’s core the best part of being a pastor. Remember when you realized that you are not in control? There is a sense of freedom in resigning to the fact that you don’t have all the answers, that in the midst of grief all your excellent exegetical skills go out the window, and that you must come to terms with the realization that you are not in control. What you have in exchange, however, is the opportunity to simply invite God, who is a much better shepherd than you are, into these moments.
As I gave the final committal to this student, I was suddenly hit with the realization of what a true honor it is, to give a final blessing to one of our flock. If we have the pleasure to walk with students in life, then it is an honor to give them one final blessing as they await the glorious resurrection.