Save Marilynne Robinson’s Rev. Ames in Gilead, the clergyman of literature skew heavy towards the phony and contemptible. For every Elder Zosima there’s at least ten Elmer Gantry’s. The vicars of Jane Austen’s Victorian novels typically evidence little boldness and even more paltry theological wit.
And what’s most often lacking among the modern-day ministers of John Updike and Flannery O’Connor’s is belief itself.
Faith is their fiction.
It’s easy to assume, I suppose, that faith and doubt are part of a pastor’s professional portfolio, doctrines which we’re schooled to parse impersonally.
Doubt is something we know only from hindsight or from a detached 3rd party distance.
While faith is the tool of our trade, as unexamined a part of our professional life as a mechanic’s wrench or a doctor’s stethoscope.
Like all assumptions, this one was pulled straight out of someone’s @#$.
This week my congregation was slammed with the news of 3 deaths in the space of a day. The size of our congregation means that this past year the number of funerals we performed totaled roughly half the Sunday worship attendance of the average Methodist Church. That’s not even including the burials and graveside services we did for folks from the larger community.
One of the 3 deaths was sudden and unexpected.
One was not.
The third one was but wasn’t- you know the kind- but sadder still for the loose ends that remain and stand a good chance of overwhelming the survivors.
In a lot of ways ours is a dismal trade.
And for both proximity and frequency, I tend to think clergy have more occasion than most to wrestle with faith and doubt. Not less.
What is a singularly painful but mercifully infrequent moment in most families lives is for us part of punching the clock.
If we had one.
Only the most unreflective, unfeeling fool would be able to strap on a collar or stole and stare into the void over and over and not wonder if there’s really anything there on the other side.
And only such a fool would not weep on the inside for the gift of faith that comes back from the other side even if nothing more definitive than that ever does.
In Unapologetic, Francis Spufford writes:
“Lots of atheists seem to be certain, recently that this (doubt in the face of suffering) ought not to be a problem for believers, because- curl of lip- we all believe we’re going to be whisked away to a magic kingdom in the sky instead. Facing the prospect of annihilation squarely is the exclusive achievement of-preen- the unbeliever.
But I don’t know many actual Christians who feel this way, or anything like it. Death’s reality is a given of human experience, for anyone old enough to have shaken off adolescent delusions of immortality. There it is, the black water, not to be cancelled by declarations, by storytelling of any kind.
Whatever sense belief makes of death, it has to incorporate its self-evident reality, not deny it.
And again, in my experience, belief makes the problem harder, not easier.
Because there death is, real for us as it is for everyone else, and yet (as with every outrage of the cruel world) we also have to fit it with the intermittently felt, constantly transmitted assurance that we are loved.
I don’t mean to suggest all believers are in a state of continual anguish about this, but it is a very rare believer who has not had to come to a reckoning with the contradiction involved.
On the one hand, the cruel world- the world made cruel by seeing it as created- and on the other hand, the sensation of being cherished by its creator.
When it comes the holy yet dismal trade that is at least 1/3 of ministry, I say:
What he said.
While literature portrays pastors as charlatans and buffoons, popular piety too often over-corrects and caroms off reality, treating pastors as heroes of faith and virtue.
If there’s anything heroic about ministry, it’s that we keep stepping close to the cruel void that most only face a few times in their lives. If there’s anything remarkable about pastors, it’s that they so step and most of the time come away with some small measure of faith.