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Podcast Church

My wife Lara’s podcast game is off the charts. At least that’s what I always tell her. I have this image of her from the pandemic. She walks around the house with headphones in her ears, sometimes laughing, sometimes utterly serious. She’s listening to podcasts, and I’m jealous of all she’s learning.

My podcast game is… weak at best. I have a few that I love. One of them, “The Rewatchables,” is what I like to call, “pure Skittles.” It’s a podcast where a few people get together and talk about movies that are re-watchable — that’s it. As pastors, we live in the world of profundity, we taste mystery and peddle meaning. A pure skittles podcast (or movie or show) is one that — like Skittles candy, it tastes really good, but has no nutritional value whatsoever. But hey, sometimes you just want a pack of Skittles, especially when the world is on fire.

During the pandemic, podcasts have become my church. One of the professional downsides of pastoral ministry is that we pastors tend to not have pastors of our own. We worship leaders tend to not worship on our own. There may be a select few pastors – likely more experienced and faithful than I – who can worship while leading liturgy.  I’m thinking about whether that one story is too personal, or fixating on the low attendance during a global pandemic or daydreaming about lunch because I never eat before I speak in front of people. Anyway, it occurred to me this year that I could pastor until age 65 and never really go to church. What a chasm there is between talking about God and talking to God.

One of the podcasts I’ve listened to religiously (pun sort of intended) during the pandemic is “The Mockingcast.” I’m a white dude from West Michigan, the land of Dutch casseroles and emotional repression, but not an episode goes by that I don’t find myself in tears. I am always so surprised by what a world of emotion there is buried six feet under my heart. Kafka said that the function of a book is to “take an ax to the frozen sea inside of us.” “The Mockingcast” is a big ax.

I love “The Mockingcast” because the three Episcopalians who lead it don’t tell me to do anything. Almost every ministry conference I’ve been to has beat me up with “do something, pastor!” Almost every leadership book I’ve read contains some tinge of, “Fix the world, pastor!” Almost every critical email I’ve received the last 12 months carries with it a concomitant whisper of “be better, pastor!” All the while I’m counting it a win if I get dressed and showered before the morning Zoom meeting starts. We pastors don’t need to do more, we need to be told that we are enough. Especially in these complicated days I am so simply unmotivated by calls to just do it. The ashes of Lent remind us that all we do becomes dust. What I need is grace, is feeling, is to be drawn into something bigger than myself.

Robert Frost once noted, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” That’s a pretty good model for ministry.  I’m not advocating for a kind of emotive pastoring or preaching that functions for the pastor as a live counseling session. One bit of advice a pastor of mine gave me before seminary was to never make your congregation feel like they have to take care of you during a sermon. That being said, I wonder if I’ve spent too much time thinking that pastoring is about “helping people understand the gospel,” rather than “inviting people to feel deeply the gospel.” Sometimes at the end of sermons as I look at dull faces, I feel like saying, “Well, I guess you had to be there.” What if the gospel is less a book of laws and rules to beat over the heads of our stubborn people and instead an ax that breaks open the frozen seas inside us?

All this makes me think that being a pastor is first and foremost about being opened up as a human being. The word for this is “abreaction,” and it quite simply means to be caught and known by something in such a way that what is buried within us finds its way to the surface, and what is frozen within us is thawed and broken apart. More than facts to memorize, the gospel comes to us as a story of flesh, blood and guts. It is not something learned as much as it is absorbed, not something taught as much as caught, not something to know as much as to be known by.

On Palm Sunday, we raise palms and Jesus raises his face toward hell. We screech and shriek as the king rides beyond us, but he is silent. We want him to give us something to do, but where he is going we can do nothing at all. He will go deep down within us, down where all our crap and sorrow are buried. He will drown himself in the collective frozen sea that is the human heart. He will feel what we feel, and what dare not to feel.