For many weeks I have been nursing a minor cold. It hasn't caused me too much grief, and Dayquil and other meds. have kept me from missing much work, but when I went on retreat last week the cold pretty much resolved completely. Something about all that rest and healthy living gave my body what it needed to finally defeat that persistent cold.
Alas, Tuesday night I was up late working on church stuff (as I have been a lot, lately) and didn't get as much sleep as I need. Sure enough, Wednesday I started to feel the cold coming back. I tried to fight it by going to bed early with half a dose of Nightquil, but my sleep was fitful at best. Ideally, I would have just stayed in bed this morning, but someone had to be at the church to meet a technician from Bell to fix the phone lines. Of course, the tech hasn't showed up, yet, so I went ahead and spent the morning doing sermon prep.
All these are first-order observations. Not very interesting, really. But then I flash to something Mary Gates used to say. She said that colds are a somatic expression of depression. I don't think I'm depressed, but I do carry around a significant amount of suppressed sadness and anxiety. Just yesterday I almost cried when talking about a departed member of our church. The emotion surprised me, obviously there is some unresolved stuff there. No doubt I would be healthier, and perhaps cold-free, if I could unpack some of this baggage.
The problem is that this is such a critical time in my parish's life that I have a hard time letting go of the tiller. Besides the Stewardship campaign, I am in the middle of Holy Week planning. There is also a sermon and bible study for this weekend to prepare. And leaflets. The leaflet for Sunday must be printed before tomorrow afternoon so that the volunteers have something to fold.
Did I mention that today I have an appointment to take a parishioner for her elderly Driver's License re-examination/renewal or that a tire on my car is flat and needs to be replaced with a spare and dropped off for repair?
I'm not complaining, I'm just explaining why my cold hasn't gone away. As busy as I sound, many of my parishioners have lives that are even busier. I know people who juggle incredibly stressful jobs, lots of kids, and multiple volunteer commitments. I have no idea how they do it.
The pastoral and homiletical challenge posed by this epidemic of stress in my community is profound. What is the word of Torah spoken on the street corner to those rushing by? One thinks of Jesus, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (Lk 11.41b-42).
Really, Lord? Didn't you also command us to "Go, and make disciples of all nations" (Mt. 28.19) and "feed my sheep" (John 21.17)? Discipleship, not to mention a call to apostolic leadership in ordained ministry, seems to involve making an attempt to inaugurate God's new kingdom here-and-now. I am trying my best to make my church a place of love and growth, and that requires working phone lines, among other things!
Perhaps the monastery has some things to teach us. The absolute nature of the commitment to a Benedictine organization of time means that prayer takes priority over work automatically. You simply must go to the church whenever the bell rings. Five times a day you go. Does that compromise one's ability to get "stuff done"? Of course it does. Yet everything that must happen does happen. There are still many hours to work in the day, and everyone goes off to their cells or offices to do it.
Unlike in a monastery, parochial ministry seems far more burdened with a Martha-esque urgency. I have people literally begging for my attention and help. And I'll be damned if I'm the last Rector of this historic church!
In a monastery one has a community of peers. I only see most of my community on Sunday--through the week I do most of my work alone or one-on-one. The isolation of pastoral ministry in small parishes is a well-documented problem. I have well meaning parishioners offer their pastoral support all the time, but it would be highly problematic for me unburden myself to any of them. Besides the obvious confidentiality issues, it would be unfair for me to develop special intimacy with any one in particular, a recipe for discord and division. Nope, for that I need peers. As much as I am ambivalent about clericalism, it does create a culture that feels comfortable and supportive. When I go to a "clericus" meeting or a Diocesan Committee I can speak in short-hand code that immediately elicits "me too" sympathy and good advice. Nothing that I am describing here is unique to me, I think all of my colleagues have been in a similar position with a similar spiritual problem.
At their best these encounters bring brief relief, rest, and reassurance. Perhaps some insight comes, as well. Yet this Martha-Mary paradox requires transformation, not accommodation. "Venting" make you feel better, temporarily, but it doesn't usually lead to the kind of sustained change or conversion that is actually the mark of the Holy Spirit's activity. For that, something else is required.
I suspect the answer may dwell in the hearts of my parishioners. If I can infect them with the Gospel... If I can make them Jesus followers... If I can show them how to build God's Kingdom... How would that change the character of priestly ministry in this parish? I try--I try very hard to do this.
For the moment I have no magic bullet to offer, just faithfulness, craft, and love. Will that be enough?