October 06, 2019
Retirement’s approach has had me thinking back through my years in ministry. There have been forty of them if we count the three in seminary, which let’s do, because forty has a ring that thirty-seven doesn’t.
Ministry is faith at work. “Increase our faith!” say the apostles to the Lord. Jesus indicates that they should have enough already, because the tiniest seed of it works wonders. “You have that much, don’t you?” Then he changes the subject to work. “Get used to it,” he tells them, because, like slaves, an apostle’s work is never done. The minute you kick off your shoes off and pick up the remote control, comes a knock, a ring, a text. There is a problem somewhere, or a need, and it won’t wait.
My grandfather, “Favoo,” thought ministers only worked one day a week. At Sunday dinner my grandmother, “Bubba,” would mention that Pastor Jones was on vacation. To Favoo vacation for a pastor was redundant. Ministers need time off like Rockefellers need more money.
I will admit that being a priest is not the hardest job I’ve ever had. After college graduation I needed temporary work and signed up for substitute teaching in the Little Rock public schools. My beat was Junior High School. Compared to that, being Dean is easy street. (What’s the protocol for breaking up a fight between two girls?)
Favoo was an oil man. I never considered working in that part of the family business. I don’t know if I would have been any good at it or not. The oil business is a blend of science and high stakes poker. I might have been too cautious to succeed—a nickel here, a dollar there, but never all in.
Before seminary, the two careers I did try on for size were farming and teaching, by which I intended teaching in an ivory tower, not substituting at Pulaski Heights. I worked on the farm most summers, starting at age thirteen. My first day on the job I was handed a shovel and pointed towards the calf barn, which hadn’t been shoveled, it seemed to me, since I was born. By the age of twenty I was competent with tractors, farm chemicals, and spray rigs. One difference between farming and most other jobs is that anyone driving by can see where you started and where you stopped and know how much you did that day. If you don’t get it planted, or don’t get it picked, there’s no pretending. On the farm, lazy has no place to hide.
In parish ministry it does. The workload is mostly up to the priest. There is no limit to the work that could be done, or to the places where it happens: church office, home study, hospital, here and there around the town—so most people don’t have much more than an educated guess about how hard a given priest is working. Over time, the truth will out and parishioners wise up to who’s shoveling and who’s snoring in the hay barn.
Most people know I take a nap, but I don’t think they call me lazy. For the church, I showed up early with my sleeves rolled up. To that boast, Jesus says: “So what?” I quote: “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” “Well boss, I like to think I would” . . . but we take the point. Jesus is preaching what he practiced. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords, who serves. Julie’s grandparents, Pawpaw and Mimi, owned the Busy Bee Café in Lonoke. Mimi used to say “We worked from can to can’t.” Jesus Christ did too. (I like that as a metaphor for ministry: the Busy Bee Café.)
So: we priests are on the hook.
Duty might call at any hour. Every priest has stories of the knock at midnight. Sometimes it is God, sometimes it might be the devil, and sometimes it's a friend who tied one on. Of course, that is not unique to ministry. On the farm it’s nine o’clock and you are ready for bed when a neighbor calls to say your cows are through the fence and on the highway. “Honey call the sheriff while I get my flashlight.”
For priests, for every late night call there are twenty-five on Saturday afternoon. This or that is broken. What are we going to do? When the Razorbacks were good, I dreaded these calls. Lately, they’ve been a welcome distraction. Last spring, I was called back downtown at night because a construction crew, working for us, had parked their trash bin in front of a neighbor’s driveway, who couldn’t get out to go to work his night shift. Dean’s handbook, chapter 3, “How to Handle Foul-Ups.” (1) Apologize. (2) Fix the problem, somehow. (3). Apologize again, in writing.
That is in the Life handbook too. I am also on call as a husband, father, friend. All of us are on the hook for someone.
Wanted: Dean and Rector of Trinity Cathedral. Good Pay, Hard Work. Seminary education, some previous relevant experience, and faith required.
How much faith does one need to be a dean? The more the better? “Increase our faith” they asked on that assumption. But with faith, things aren’t that simple. Faith is not like a bottle of Dr. Pepper. With Dr. Pepper, whether it is full, half-full, or empty tells you all you need to know. Faith is tequila, orange juice, grenadine—a Tequila Sunrise. Tequila for belief, grenadine for feeling, OJ for action: it is the blend that counts.
Baptism is the blend.
First Question: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?” asks the priest. Jesus Christ is God’s message to the world: “Before all worlds, this is who I am.” Do you believe that? An honest yes is faith enough to be a dean.
Next question: “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” That is a question to the heart, like: “Will you marry me?” A warm “I do––for better or worse, in sickness and in health, through thick and thin”––is faith enough to be a dean.
Now the orange juice: “Will you follow and obey him as your Lord?” That is a question to the free. Human beings are complex! Body may want this, while heart wants that, and mind would have us do something else entirely. We have choices. Will you choose your path by trust in Christ and belief in his example? A sincere “I will” is faith enough to be a dean.
In other words: Normal, baptized Christian faith is all the faith it takes to be a dean.
That may seem like a little when we have it—and like a lot if we don’t.
In the annals of faith and science, an interesting footnote is that Charles Darwin had at one point decided to go in the ministry. He tried medicine first and hadn’t liked it, and transferred from Edinburgh to Cambridge to study for the priesthood. Two priests on the Cambridge faculty, John Henslow and Adam Sedgwick were expert naturalists (Sedgwick in geology, Henslow in botany, entomology, and chemistry.) Those two took Darwin under their wing. It was Henslow who arranged Darwin’s fateful trip aboard the U.S.S. Beagle. The plan was for Darwin to take the long voyage, study nature to his heart’s content, come home, be ordained and take up the genteel life of the village priest who studies plants and bugs in his copious spare time. Evidently, Charles Darwin shared my Favoo’s construal of the workload.
Sadly, Darwin lost his faith instead. After his voyage, Darwin no longer looked to God to explain the origin of plants and bugs, or humans. His theory could do that on its own, he bet. Also, nature’s savagery––“red in tooth and claw”–– which he had seen up close, disturbed him.1 In Greek, “gnosis” is knowledge. A-gnosis would be its opposite: complete uncertainty. Darwin became agnostic, neither affirming nor denying belief in God. Then, emotionally, he lost his trust when his ten-year old daughter, Annie, died with flu-like symptoms, breaking his heart. According to Darwin’s great great grandson, Randal Keynes, after Annie died:
Charles set the Christian faith firmly behind him. He did not attend church services with his family. He walked with them to the church door, but left them to enter on their own and stood talking with the village constable or walked along the lanes around the parish.2
In the five years I spent writing about Darwin, his science, and his loss of faith, I thought of him as a parishioner. I’ve known men like him throughout my ministry—intelligent, honorable, and skeptical of God. My Favoo was that way too. He thought church was for the wife and children. To be a priest requires a faith that’s unafraid of doubt in other people. How does one increase that unafraid-ness?
Seminary doesn’t do it. According to Francis Bacon, “the father of science,” some say, “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”3 A little theological study can open cans of worms that three years of seminary can’t quite sort out.
One way young clergy cope with that, I sometimes think, is by recasting faith as thirst for social justice. They believe more confidently in doing good than they can say the creed. Faith becomes passion, action, not belief. That is grenadine plus orange juice, with no tequila: a Virgin Sunrise.
I don’t know why, but that never happened to me. My faith was too stubborn to let seminary doubts unwind it. I could still believe with open questions. Those questions did leave me feeling thirsty for more study. Eventually I went back to school to face the hardest ones head-on. Is Jesus who we say? Is faith in him compatible with science?
The answer I came to is that it is Jesus being who we say he is at Christmas, on Good Friday, and at Easter––the Jesus of the creeds––that fits our faith to science, including Darwin’s. Nature’s value, pathos and resilience answer to the gospel story. The faith I practice as priest, and need for preaching, counseling the troubled, tending to the sick, burying the dead, held the answer to my hardest academic question. “Deepened consistency with Christ,” I wrote, “yields sublime harmony with science.”
Forty years in ministry!
Out of Egypt, Israel wandered forty years to reach the promised land. Now I can appreciate the before and after. Strong, straight backed young men went out of Egypt full of vim and vigor. By the time they reached the Jordan they had gained fifteen pounds and lost an inch or so of height. Now they wear hats to keep their heads from being sunburned. Anything you tell them, you have to say it twice. “Say again?”
By now they’ve said goodbye to parents, friends and loved ones. They’ve got stories to tell of heartaches. . . dangers. . . rescues. . . miracles. . . temptations. . . emergencies. . . dilemmas. . . sins. . . achievements. . . foul-ups. . . mercies. . . and moments now and then of pure exhilaration. . . and lots and lots of fun, with laughter every day.
1“Nature red in tooth and claw” is Tennyson’s phrase.
2Randal Keynes, Darwin, His Daughter, 215.
3Bacon, as quoted in Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2019.