This morning I am sipping hot tea and thinking about 30 years of ministry. M. Craig Barnes has observed that the key to pastoral intimacy - appropriate, respectful and real - is trusting the sufficiency of God's love beyond the other person. I think that is brilliant because while it takes the other seriously, it is never trapped in unreal expectations. "It is the only way we are ever free to give love to another human being who can never meet the needs of our souls."
Sadly, I've met too many people in ministry who don't realized or embrace this truth and consequently much of their ministry looks like therapy gone bad and played out in public. In another place, Barnes writes: "As odd as it may sound, it's the scars on the pastor's soul that make it attractive." And his use of the word scars is instructive: scars are wounds that have healed. They are in the past. They represent wrestling with demons, therapy, spiritual direction and so much more all bathed in the grace of God.
(Scars) are what gives credibility to the Gospel the pastor proclaims. Parishioners will always measure that credibility by the degree to which it has clearly been at work in the pastor's life. But what a scarred soul is attractive, gaping wounds are not. No congregation finds a bleeding preacher very poetic. (That is why we must understand) that what we pastors present with our lives is an incarnated version of the healing and redemptive work of the Gospel. (Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, p. 49)
Scars are one sign of gravitas - a depth of living that is grounded in real life and the grace of God - something that the Apostle Paul calls the maturation of faith in Ephesians. (Yes, I understand that this is one of the pseudo-Pauline texts - and is most like not really a letter but a sermon - but in tradition it is ascribed to Paul so... there you go!) "Gravitas refers to a soul that has developed enough spiritual mass to be attractive, like gravity... (and while) gravitas has nothing to do with age, it has everything to do with wounds that have healed, failures that have been redeemed, sins that have been forgiven and thorns that have settled into the flesh. These severe experiences with life expand the soul until it appears larger than the body containing it." (Barnes)
No wonder St. Paul urges and encourages those within the faith community of Ephesus to let God's grace work within them until they, too, resound with gravitas:
No prolonged infancies among us, please. We'll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.
I can remember a conversation with a therapist back in Cleveland who worked with me for two years: my first marriage had come crumbling down after 18 years, my work at church had become strained and exhausting, I wasn't sure about my ability to care for my daughters and mostly I just wanted to run away from everything. (This has been a demon with an incredible half-life!) From hanging with folks in AA I knew that the "geographic solution" didn't work - after all, wherever you go, they say, you still have to take yourself with you - but I didn't know what to do. So he said, "Look, together we can probably discern the wrong reasons that drove you towards ministry. That is a start - and then maybe we can listen for the right reasons to continue."
As man with history, wisdom and experience in both church and real life, Barnes is clear:
If a pastor is going to guide parishioners through this frightening terrain (of brokenness), littered with the rubble of a life lost, he or she has to be familiar with it and recognize it as holy ground... All poets of the soul need to have spent time themselves in this strange land where self-constructed lives are lost and the grace of new life is received... And while it isn't necessary for poets to have experienced in their own lives every tragedy that their parishioners will encounter... it is very necessary for poets of the soul to know exactly what it feels like to have the world cave in and then to be startled by the discovery of a resurrected life based solely on the work (and I would add the grace) of Christ.
Today I can give thanks for my collapse in Cleveland. God, it wasn't pretty - and I still grieve the pain it caused to many I loved. But it was one of the times I trusted the Lord enough to enter Good Friday in the hope that Easter would come, too when God was ready. Soon I will head off to church to celebrate midday Eucharist, to visit with a young man and then do some planning and administrative work with my church leadership team. Tonight I will write two wedding homilies (I have to celebrations on Saturday) for two very different but truly beautiful young couples. St. Paul was so right - NO prolonged infancies among us - PLEASE. Romans 12 speaks to me profoundly...
The challenge of gravitas is, of course, that you can't plan for it or make it happen: you have to learn how to search for the hints of hope within the heart-break and loss.
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