Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Of Prophets and Pastors

If you hang around with religious people long enough, sooner or later you encounter a prophet or two.

These days, I suppose most people call them activists. And that’s fine, as far as it goes, because they almost always are activists of one kind or another. What makes them prophets, though, is that their passion for change is deeply rooted in their longing for God’s healed and redeemed creation. They are not shy about condemning the current order because of the way it falls horribly short of God’s will for us. And they expect us to do something about it.

The prophets I know are a pain in the neck. They have no sense of moderation, and are not at all interested in hearing about what is actually possible. They’re impatient with compromise and process. In the church, they always seem to have at least one foot out the door, because they’re frustrated by our timidity in responding to God’s call to us. They are disruptive and annoyingly single-minded.

And they are a blessing to the church. Anyone who spends much time in our midst knows that the great temptation of church life is to become so focused on our own needs and our personal relationship with God that we forget we are part of a larger Body. We come for comfort, and don’t want to be shaken to our core by challenges to what we currently are, even if those changes invite us into new growth. We want a deeper spiritual life, but like the rich young man, we are often reluctant to make the sacrifices that would allow us to have it.

Prophets refuse to let us be complacent. They remind us that while God may meet us where we are, God doesn’t leave us there -- and that there is an urgent need for us to be about God’s work in the world. They call to our attention the devastation caused by climate change and unjust economic systems. They demand we do something about poverty and immigration. They point out the resources we have and then insist we use them for the sake of others. They give us a sense of urgency and drive us out of our comfort zones, where God can transform us in ways we longed for but didn’t dare seek. Yes, as annoying and disruptive as they are, the church needs prophets.

But the church also needs pastors like me. Whatever my prophetic friends think, it’s not fear of rejection or losing my job that softens my tone and makes me insist on patience. It’s that I want people to be able to hear what I say -- what I’ve learned from them -- and I know shrill voices and guilt trips cause people to tune out. In order to grow, we need someone wiling to meet us where we are, and hold our hands while we seek healing of the wounds that keep us from being the people we are called to be. We need someone to reassure us that we are loved, because if we do not know we are loved by God, we cannot offer God’s love to the world. We need someone to encourage us when we are afraid, so that we can find the courage to take the next step.

As a pastor, one of my jobs is to care for people in that strange, ambiguous place where we want growth but don’t want to change. My job is to invite, to encourage, to strengthen, and to prod so that people who arrive looking for comfort go out empowered by God to do things they never believed possible. My task is to hold hands with people facing terrifying realities and promise them they are not alone, and then to embody that by staying there no matter what comes, whether it’s new life or deep disappointment. Only then can I point out when it is fear itself holding us back, and that God is inviting us to come walk on water in the middle of the storm. And yeah, it’s my job to get out of the boat first, and sometimes I see the wind and fail just as Peter failed, and I have to be helped back into the boat by Jesus. That’s my job, too.

Prophets, with their impatience and their passion, are lousy at nurturing people who fall short in responding to God’s call. They are always ten steps ahead, impatiently looking back and demanding we catch up. Pastors are the ones that help us up when we fall, bind our wounds, and urge us to try again.

And we need one another. I think it’s a little like instilling a love of hiking. Prophets are the ones who write the guidebooks and build the trails. They tackle 4,000 foot mountains and tell us all about the wonders we’re missing out on, and warn us of the perils of staying on the couch, of letting the forests be cut and the land mined for another’s profit. They tell us to come out and see for ourselves -- and hurry up about it, because the opportunity isn’t going to last forever. They get us moving, teach us to value the longer view, and convince us to try even when the summit seems a long way away. We’d never experience these amazing places if it weren’t for the prophets urging us onward.

But pastors are the ones who prepare us to get to the top of the mountain. Like teaching children to hike: When you take a small child on their first hike, you don’t try to summit a 4,000-footer. For one thing, you are doomed to fail -- it’s just too hard for a small child -- and if you drag a child on past the point where they are tired and whiny, they will come to hate hiking very, very quickly. If you want your child to love hiking, so that they will eventually climb mountains, you start with an easy hike with lots of interesting things to see and an end that comes into sight when they are just starting to get tired. As your child grows, you do longer, more challenging hikes. Eventually, the day comes when you choose a hike that’s challenging for *you* and your nearly-grown children bound ahead of you, calling back “Hurry up!” and expressing impatience when you have to stop and rest, again. Soon they are eagerly planning for longer, more ambitious hikes -- ones you know you will never go on, because they have far outpaced your strength and skill. If you are very lucky, they will become prophets who tell everyone down below how wonderful the view is and how important it is to learn to climb.

In the end, the church would have no hope of being what it should be if it weren’t for the prophets and the pastors. We complement each other, part of the whole Body of Christ, and the hand cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you.” We may not always like each other, but we do need each other.

It’s not easy for us to be friends, prophets and pastors. We know each others’ limits all too well, and we irritate each other. Prophets are never patient enough, and pastors never bold enough. But I suppose that’s why God gives us both -- so that as the people of God, we will be both patient and bold.

God bless the prophets and the pastors.