After five years

Today is the fifth anniversary of my ordination to the gospel ministry. It seems appropriate to pause on the occasion for a bit of ruminating.

Pastoral ministry has given me a perspective nothing else could have on life in our 21st century North America (having never lived anywhere else, I can’t comment on things elsewhere). One particular sensation stands out from the past five years, and it illuminates the perspective I’m referring to. The sensation – which I experience acutely and regularly – is that of spinning my wheels, of being crushingly busy all the time while not being at all sure what I’m accomplishing. Now, this is very similar to another sensation which is merely the result of finitude: we never see in this life all God is doing in us and through us, but we remain cheerful, because we know He’s doing something and it’s good to be part of it. What I’m describing is quite different: it’s a fairly clear-sighted sense that the value of my work doesn’t match the voluminous energy I am pouring into it. Before someone takes this as an unconvincing attempt at self-deprecation (or, worse still, an outburst of self-pity), let me explain.

I believe a pastor’s most important work is to study and ponder the goodness, truth, and beauty of God (we could bundle all of this into that wonderful biblical phrase, the glory of God). Why? Because his second-most important work is introducing other people (his sheep, in particular) to the goodness, truth, and beauty of God. And the reason for this is that God created humankind to know, ponder, adore, and image His goodness, truth, and beauty – this (borrowing language from Wendell Berry) is what people are for.

I could not have expected, five years ago, how nearly impossible it would be to fence out time for my most important work. “Oh, brother, another pastor complaining about time management.” No, that’s not where I’m going with this at all. In fact, the very mention of time management is an indicator of what I really want to strike at, something I have come to believe runs so deep in our modern thinking that we no longer perceive how pernicious it is.

I expend an utterly astonishing amount of time as a pastor doing two things. First, I administrate. That is, I organize and oversee vast amounts of labor foisted on us by our modern labor saving devices: dozens of phone calls (which can at best be postponed by letting a queue pile up on my answering machine); flurries of emails surrounding every event in the life of the church (not to mention hundreds more that pop into my inbox because someone thinks I may have a boredom problem); hours of time on the information superhighway making sure I don’t sound like an idiot if (God forbid!) I miss something someone else believes newsworthy; and a half that has not yet been told. From the time I roll out of bed until I fall back into bed – at home, in the study, and on the road – I am constantly managing a massive jet stream of data and communications.

Second, I solve problems. I give input (lots of it) on crises (lots of them). Some crises pertain to the beehive as a whole; many others arise in the personal lives of individuals. All are “urgent”; some are genuinely important. But on any given day, I have (to throw out a number) twenty such crises that may, in one way or another, erupt and demand my attention. And I don’t mind this at all, except that when I’ve finished addressing the latest crisis, I often wonder if truly sustainable progress has been made. Crisis aversion is not, after all, the same thing as construction.

Which leads me, finally, to what I have discovered about life in 21st century North America: We are a society (as Chesterton never tired of saying in his context) that values utility above all else. There are things to be done, there are problems to be solved, we want to get these things done (we especially want the problems solved), and we never ask why any of it should be done. We don’t stop to ponder the greater purposes for human existence, and so we have no real reason to ask why sending the next email or making the next phone call is more important than, say, taking an afternoon off to think about why God made apricots, or to read the work of Girard Manley Hopkins, or to play checkers with grandmother. If all that matters is getting things done, it is not long before the supreme virtue in society is efficiency, speed of execution, and acquisition of the technical skills that make one competitive in the marketplace of productivity. It is not long, in fact, before humans are commodified: before their value is determined by how quickly and how well they can do whatever it is society is doing. Entire educational institutions exist to give their students the technical skills to do things – never mind whether students have the foggiest notion what it means to do nothing and think; never mind if truth has ever captivated them, if they love beauty or can even recognize it, if they are passionate about goodness or even regard good and evil as differentiable – certainly never mind whether they have ever worshipped, or ever will.

Of course, the fact that utility and efficiency are ultimately soulless does have its complications. We can’t escape our created humanness, and eventually we feel the emptiness of a life filled with merely doing things. We can’t sustain meaningful relationships, notwithstanding all our skill at keeping in touch; we feel like we’re drifting even when we’re on task; we’re bored even though we’re completely over-stimulated. Enter the therapy industry, with its offer of efficient solutions to make us feel as if we have a soul. If our circuitry is misfiring, we need to be reprogrammed – be it through medication, catharsis counseling, positive thinking, yoga, or what have you.

Personally, I think the therapy industry, like our educational industry, and the time management industry, and a whole lot of what passes as “pastoral ministry,” is largely a product of the system it proposes to improve. We need to radically reconsider our most basic cultural understanding of what people are for, of what it means to be created human in God’s image.

Let me take this directly to the church and offer but one “for instance.” Do you want to have a more meaningful, more connected, more joyful family life? You don’t need a therapist for your marriage and your kids; you need to spend more time as a family doing what God made people for. You need to read the great books together (especially The Great Book, until its grand story of the world captures your imagination, and begins to shape your sense of what you’re doing in the world). You need to eat together, and linger over it. You need to play games together. You need to sing and pray together. You need to grow flowers and raise gerbils and catch fish and practice archery and recite poems and look at the Milky Way through a telescope on cold winter nights. You need to turn off the phone and the computer and the television until you have a clear idea, individually and as a family, of what the purpose of humankind might be, and what this has to do with goodness, truth, beauty, and glory. And only once all of this is clear in your heads should you flatter yourselves that you’re qualified to use the tools the modern world has given us.

The trouble with truth, goodness, beauty, and glory is that they aren’t things we do and they aren’t in the same universe as questions about utility (much less efficiency). What is the “use” of glory? It isn’t useful. It’s glorious. Its value lies in itself, which to apprehend is the life of the soul.

If I have a burning desire for the next five years of my ministry, it is that I may waste more time pondering, savoring, recounting, and enacting the goodness, truth, and beauty of the Lord. I have wasted time doing so here, and it has seemed a fitting way to celebrate the anniversary at hand.

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