Joy is a mystery...

Not long ago someone asked me, "I wonder, pastor, if you are giving this church all your attention?" I must confess that I was a little stunned by such words, but then I am always taken aback when my commitment to any part of my ministry is called into doubt.  So, when I feel threatened or put on the spot I've learned that the best thing for me to do is to take a deep breath, pray God's gracious love and then ask for clarification. I may want to go on the offensive - and I know how to do this very, very well - but there is precious little reason to attack in the pastoral ministry.  "Why do you ask such a question," was my careful reply.

"Well, it just seems as if you are away a lot - maybe even distracted, too."  That is probably true I thought to myself and was about to share some of my personal realities when this person added: "I guess you just don't pay as much attention to some people as some of our previous pastors used to do." I was just about to share how my siblings and I are wrestling with the difficulties of bringing my dad's time of independent living to a close, my deep grief over the deaths and illnesses of people close to my heart, my worries about money and cars and my concerns about the health of my lover; I was just about to say that all of these truths and more have probably made me a little less focused, when they tossed me a zinger. Honestly, how do you respond to such a strange albeit all too common combination of nostalgia, judgment and lament? Here are a few of my reactions:

+ First, it is true that I don't give this - or any - church all my attention any more. I give it MOST of my attention most days of the week, but not all of my attention. I used to do that and it makes you crazy, exhausted and no good for anyone. So now I try to pay more attention to my own health needs, my personal spiritual challenges as well as the events in the life of my wife, my children and my wider family and friends. It feels more balanced to me - healthier - and more grounded.  By nature I am someone who frets, but for the past 10 years have been trying to put this insight from Buechner into practice:

Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter . . . 

I know that some people will never grasp this truth; but even that is not my business.

+ Second, there seems to be a correlation between the amount some one complains and their capacity for empathy or compassion: the more carping, the less tenderness.  Now this isn't to say that the person who challenges me is wrong; I am wrong at least as often as I am right - probably more. Nor do I believe the person who calls me into question is not loving; I don't really know so they probably are authentic and sweet in some settings. But what I've seen over the years is that those who go out of their way to challenge and complain mostly seem to be out of sorts with the rest of life, too. Nothing is ever good enough and nobody ever seems to pay them enough attention. What's more, life seems to divided into highly black and white categories with little room for nuance or the complexities of real life beyond their own small world.  Again, Buechner cuts to the chase:

Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It's the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too... Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.

If I act like I am the center of the universe - and my concerns are the only truly important ones - then compassion remains an abstract intellectual concept that is always elusive and I bring even more unhappiness upon myself.

+ Third, those with the deepest pain in life are often the most profoundly compassionate. Time and again I've been with people whose suffering is staggering: they have encountered horrific personal loss, they have endured mind-numbing physical anguish, they have been brought low by circumstances that are beyond tragic. And yet they are the ones who always ask how I am doing. They are the souls who reach out to hold my hand when I'm down or blue. They are the ones who share their time, money and love in ways that humble and amaze me with their joy even after all these years. One last Buechner quote:

Joy is a mystery because it can happen anywhere, anytime, even under the most unpromising circumstances, even in the midst of suffering, with tears in its eyes....

Every day that I am active in ministry I am reminded of three great truths:  1) No good deed goes unpunished; 2) I am often totally inadequate for this job; and 3) God's grace continues to break forth into my life every day in ways that are totally unexpected causing me to return thanks and try to do it better one more time.


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