Saturday, October 19, 2013

carry that weight

This is the third in a series of posts I'm writing this month mostly for my own sanity: What I Wish I'd Learned in Seminary. You can find the first of these posts here; the second one here.


One of my favorite pieces of scripture is the second half of Romans 12, where Paul writes one of the most beautiful To-Do lists in existence:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Do not lag in zeal! Be ardent in spirit! Rejoice; be patient; persevere. The rhythm of that list! The verbs! Paul makes following Jesus into an art, a poem. It’s delicious.

Smack dab in the middle of that passage is one of the simplest instructions possible: Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. I once heard Tex Sample preach a sermon on this passage. He started by reading the scripture, and when he got to that line, stopped, looked up at the congregation, said “that may very well be the hardest thing for any human being to do,” looked back at the Bible and finished reading the chapter. More and more, I think he was right.

There’s a whole essay to be written on the Christology buried in that single sentence - a suffering servant incarnated to rejoice with us and to weep with us – and another on ecclesiology - instruction for us to follow suit. I don’t expect to understand it fully, all at once. But man, one of the things I wish I knew was how to weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice, and maintain some shred of sanity while doing so.

How do you practice rejoicing and weeping as a vocation? Romans 12 has long been a favorite scripture, but working as a pastor has me returning to it again and again. Weeping is hard work. So is rejoicing. And when the grief and joy aren’t directly one’s own, the weight is a weird one to carry. No one can seem to explain to me how to do it right.

And it’s not for lack of asking. I’ve been surveying everyone I can think of, asking mentors and bosses and counselors and friends and my parents: tell me how to be a pastor! Tell me how to carry this weight! There is no single satisfying answer.

I asked several therapist friends how they manage to hear people’s intimate tales of pain day in and day out and still manage to keep themselves healthy. Every one of them mentioned rituals of letting go – lighting a candle or opening and shutting the door after each client, each session. And every one of them concluded with some version of “but if I were a pastor, seeing these people outside the office in other contexts all the time, I have no idea how I’d do it.”

Some pastors keep themselves so busy that there’s no time for reflecting on the weight pinching into their shoulders. Some are adept at defining “professional” tasks from “personal,” shrugging off that intense ER visit/funeral/counseling session filled with weeping at the end of the day as “just another rough day at the office.” Some pastors act like sponges, soaking up every negative emotion they can find and holding onto it for safe-keeping. Some pastors burn out from the weight, some allow themselves to deteriorate, slowly, over decades.

I do not find any of these answers acceptable.

The answer I want comes in the form of a list: tasks that I can complete and scratch through. The answer I want is an academic or intellectual one, something demanding but manageable. The answer I want makes this new arena of “professional growth” measurable, subject to assessment. The answer I want outlines a path toward wisdom, offers operating instructions for Becoming Like Christ.

But there is no rubric for emotional growth, no standardized test to mark progress toward my ‘ability to grieve efficiently.’  There is no SOP for rejoicing with those who rejoice, no “Best Practices” of balanced use of intuition. There is no standard of excellence for spiritual wisdom. The trouble is not that no one knows the answer; the trouble is that there actually is no answer.

What I am (slowly, slowly) learning is that the difficulty of carrying the weight is probably the wrong metaphor. And, on top of that, asking other people for the answer is probably the wrong tactic. Jesus says it fairly clearly: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The psalmist gets right to the point: “Cast your cares upon the Lord, and he will sustain you.” Paul gets in on the action, too, insisting that “my God will supply all your need.”

The metaphor of rejoicing and weeping with others is probably something more akin to “in but not of,” “already and not yet,” “one God, three persons” – being fully present with others while also refusing to shoulder every bit of emotion therein: a paradoxical juxtaposition, an impossible possibility, an act of simple, deep faith.

And the tactic for finding the answer is probably something more like “faith, hope, love,” “fix your eyes on Jesus,” “fake it ‘til you make it,” – being willing to step out and go, even when I have no idea where we’re going or how to get there, an act of simple, deep faith.

I wish I knew how to do that. I wish I’d learned, somewhere along the way, how important and how impossible it would feel just to keep showing up. I wish I knew more of how to pray, how to trust, how to lean on everlasting arms.

I’ve just finished Jana Reiss’ book, Flunking Sainthood (rough going to fight off the disappointment at the formulaic, Guinea Pig for A Year premise, but almost worth it in the end for her honesty, self-critique and application). After she attempts a dozen spiritual practices for one month each, she reflects on how she’s flunked each of them. But when her estranged father is dying in a far-away state, she finds the wherewithal to travel to his bedside and usher him, with compassion and forgiveness, into death. It has been the practice of these spiritual practices, she concludes, that gives her the strength and courage to do so.

Reiss’ conclusion is that “a failed saint is still a saint.” She quotes Dorothy Day, who said that we are all called to be saints, “and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name. We might also get used to recognizing the fact that there is some of the saint in all of us. Inasmuch as we are growing, putting off the old and putting on Christ, there is some of the saint, the holy, the divine right there.”

And so: it may be that I mostly have no idea what I’m doing. It may be that I find myself casting around frantically for instruction on carrying the weight. It may be that these kinds of weeping and these kinds of rejoicing are mostly foreign territory to me. But, I suppose, there are worse pieces of advice than fixing one’s eyes on Jesus. There are worse answers than an assurance that knowing comes through doing. There are far worse suggestions than to have faith, to trust in God, to pray without ceasing. Inasmuch as I am growing, putting off the old and putting on Christ, some spark of divine wisdom must show up.

I am trying. But – GOOD LORD – I did not learn this in seminary.

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