Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. James 3:1
How many times have you seen your dad cry? One? Ten? One hundred? I’ve got you beat. I’m sure of that.
He cries easily. He married someone who does, too. As kids, we’d look over at Mom during the sappy part of a cheesy movie and see her crying. “Mom!” we’d groan as she sheepishly shrugged. Well what goes around comes around. All three of us turned into criers. My brother choked back tears giving his senior research presentation about fish in a lake, which I assume is uncommon. My sister just let us know she was weeping listening to the heartfelt message from Steve from Blue’s Clues. And I cry every time rewatching certain parts of movies, most reliably Shoplifters, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Shrek 2 (of course).
I’ve seen my dad cry after someone prays something especially heartfelt, and when his daughter gets married, and when he delivers bad news, and when he hugs me goodbye. There’s a certain way his voice cracks, a way his face tenses, a way his eyes water that I know so well. Sometimes as I hug him I can feel it before I see it. I know what’s inside and forcing its way out.
But, unlike most people – maybe you, for one – I’ve seen my dad cry in public. Dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of times. I see that same tension in his face, that same way his mouth opens part way in anticipation of the next painful word.
Many years ago, I was in London’s Hyde Park, and there was a street preacher, delivering a fire and brimstone sermon off the top of his head, citing scripture after scripture. All the while he was heckled by two young men, saying “What does it say, Jimmy? What does it say?” But he continued, undaunted. After listening for a little while, my companion and I turned to leave, expressing our admiration for his preaching ability. A stranger, who had been listening nearby, said to us: “But was he speaking the truth in love?” And then he walked away.
My dad is a preacher. No, a pastor. There’s a difference. Maybe what I write here will help you see that.
He cries when he preaches because he is a man of deep faith who feels what he says. He cries when he preaches because his sermons are drawn straight from the holy, sacred scripture, which he believes is the very word of God. He cries when he preaches because his teaching is not just for the edification of curious minds, but for the nourishment of panting souls. He cries when he preaches because he is the first to recognize his own shortcomings and he is always preaching to himself. He cries when he preaches because he knows his very next breath is never guaranteed.
And he cries when he preaches because he knows the people in the pews. And he can never, ever be away from them.
If he was a preacher, then he could, maybe, leave the Church in the church when he goes home. They might not be there when he comes into the office. There might be one or two middle managers between him and the supplicants.
But he’s a pastor, and they are his flock. When he goes home, they follow him. When he comes into the office, they’re waiting for him. And when they bring their supplications, they bring them straight to him. He can never, ever be away from them.
And how could he? He has seen them born and seen them die. Married and divorced. Succeeded and failed. Sinned, and sinned again. Repented, and repented again. Sickness and health. Rich and poor.
A number of us future pastors were in a discussion group, sharing our vision for ministry. One of the others spoke of his great ambitions for his church. In five years his church would be this, in ten years his church would be that. He was very sure of himself. And so I asked him: “What if that’s not what God has planned for you?”
For over 30 years he has been walking into the same small office, pouring coffee in the same kitchen, gashing his hand on the same pulpit. That’s uncommon. His father, a pastor sometimes and a preacher others, moved to a new church at about the rate of a presidential term. Many pastors do the same, for any number of reasons. Some of them are good. My dad has had opportunities to go elsewhere. Somewhere bigger, with more resources, a higher salary, a clean slate. He’s never taken it.
It is not a normal job. The cliché is to say that it’s not a job at all; it’s a calling. And that’s true: the writing was literally on the wall as my dad scraped chalk against blackboard on the first day of his high school teaching job. This is not what I’m supposed to be doing. But let’s call it a job – he goes into an office and sits at a computer and gets a paycheck. That’s a job. But it’s not like other jobs. There is no schedule, no timeclock. Many weeks he will go in seven days a week, and be there from sun-up to sundown. He is a professional with a post-graduate degree, which usually means you’re safe from people dropping by the office for a chat. You wouldn’t go to your dentist, doctor, or lawyer expecting them to set aside their work to have a cup of coffee with you and answer a few questions. But you can do it to a pastor. It’s part of the job. And when he goes home, he’s got a cellphone that is his work phone too, and it is always primed to receive an unexpected question or terrible news.
Maybe some of this burden is of his own making. There’s not any reason he has to be the one to rearrange the chairs in the sanctuary, or shovel the sidewalks in the winter. He could go home at 5 every night. He could have an “emergencies only” policy about his phone. But that is not what the job means to him. It wouldn’t really be the job if he did it that way. The coffee doesn’t drink itself.
“And we’ve decided that, considering our circumstances, it’s really just best for our family if we move on somewhere else. You know what I mean?” “No, frankly, I don’t know what you mean.”
The decades at his small church have gifted him with many friends. Fierce friends. People who would drop everything if he needed it. People who would die for him. People who feel comfortable bringing their pain and sorrow to him, but who will also go to him to celebrate their greatest joy. And it has also brought him face to face and heart to heart with many who have come and gone, and, in doing so, ripped him to shreds.
You can change your doctor, dentist, lawyer. You can leave your country club or sports club or pick a different bar. No hard feelings. Leaving a pastor is different. You’re not just leaving them – you’re leaving their church, their Church. You are leaving brothers and sisters. People do it all the time, and, sometimes, there’s a good reason. And sometimes there isn’t.
I’ve seen my dad carry this, time and again. Tears are not his tell these times. It’s in his sighs and his silence. As kids, we’d badger him to tell us what was going on, to give us the church gossip. But, most of the time, he wouldn’t. Some things are just for the pastor and his wife. And maybe some things are not even for her. Anyone’s dad can bring things home from work, seem a little worn down or broken. But it happens in a peculiar way for a pastor. Often I forget my dad’s experience is unique like that. Often I forget that our experience as his kids was (and is) unique like that.
“I want to be the guy who leads people in the Lord’s Prayer and then says to the others, ‘Let’s roll!’… By God’s grace, when I face the sword, so to speak – or really – I will be preaching Romans 8, and Second Corinthians 4, and Ephesians 2, and John 10, and Psalm 23, and Revelation 22 because I know how it all turns out in the last chapter of the book!”
Perhaps I’ve made it sound like my dad’s life is one long work of misery, years spent in Teresa’s Calcuttan limbo. This is not so. His work brings him great joy and satisfaction. He is a happy man. And God has provided him with stalwarts in the church, with a loving, devoted, sympathetic wife, and, in perhaps his darkest hours, a little black poodle with kind brown eyes. “Garbage and Grace: a lot of both in my line of work,” as he says.
And maybe some will say that I’m biased, that, as his son, I will be sympathetic to him and harsh on those who have caused him pain. This is not so. I am – privately, and sometimes publicly – one of my dad’s harshest critics. I’ve been angered by things he has said and done as a pastor. Forgive me, Dad, but I don’t know – I honestly don’t – if I would go to his church if I wasn’t his son. And if I did, I don’t know if I would be one of the ones who would leave.
My dad has faced trials and tribulations in his work, and while he is in the twilight of his career – even if he goes on as long as his dad did – there are many more ahead. It hurts to know my dad will face that, and I fear for what might happen if the ending is not as graceful, not as dignified, not as satisfactory as he would want. As he, I believe, deserves.
But this is the life he chose. And it is the life, full of profound joy and pain, that all pastors – whether they know it or not – are choosing. It’s not normal.
And neither is being part of a church.
Church participation and membership has become just another part of life that so many of us take for granted, making so many churches indistinguishable from the rest of our culture and giving us the belief that the next church is always better than the last. The uncommon nature of church community has lost its power, and the indwelling, uniting spirit of that community loses too many battles to the petty concerns we are all so ready to wield.
Being a part of a church is weird, and it is messy, and it is difficult. And in every one of those weird, messy, difficult communities stand men and women who have taken up the missive to bear so much of that weirdness, that messiness, that difficulty. You may have one major problem at church. If that’s true for everyone there, what do you think that means for the person who is the common denominator?
Extend them grace. You don’t know how badly they need it.
I love you, Dad. I’m praying for you.
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 1 Timothy 5:17
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
Peter, this was one of your, if not, the, best. Well done.
I really appreciate that. It’s certainly one of the ones I’m most proud of.