Pulled in a million directions

Recently I was home in Michigan for a few days. My parents took me to Sluggos, an old pizza joint that has been around since I was a kid. As we walked in, I noticed a sign on the door that read: “Sorry, we’re only serving pizza and breadsticks. We’re out of shaved ice.” I remember wondering how you could be out of ice and flavored syrups, but we approached the ordering counter nonetheless. At the front was a young woman, not much older than 15, frantically taking orders from a long line of hungry beachgoers, while assuaging the frustration of those who had been waiting for their ‘za for too long. It was obvious she hadn’t been working there long, and yet she was given the hardest job in the restaurant. When we got to the front of the line, we were told they no longer had the ability to seat people inside, which seemed odd, because it was 6:30 p.m. and there were about five empty tables.

This experience is an image of our current moment. People emerged from 18 months of pandemic pandemonium wanting everything to go back to the way it was before.  This is understandable from a psychological standpoint. Our brains can take only so much change and loss. When in the throes of a volatile world, we crave stability. This summer and fall we all want what we once had. We want to shed the masks. We want to travel anywhere and everywhere unabated. We want to see those family members we haven’t embraced in quite some time. We want our pastors to offer bigger and better ministries — to get people back to church. We want choirs singing, hand bells ringing, potlucks, new baptisms and a clear and inspiring vision for the future. We want our pizza, and we don’t want to wait.

But here’s the problem. The world has changed. We have changed, too. It seems like everyone is underresourced, understaffed and overwhelmed. This is just as true for beach pizzerias as it is for Presbyterian churches. As a pastor, I find myself feeling exhausted. Pandemic pastoring was like undergoing the process of erosion. Slowly but surely, the waters of change – decision fatigue, virtual meetings, political infighting, heated session meetings, waning mental health – pressed up against the shore of my energy and calling, changing it over time. Do we have the energy to pull this off?

All of us want normalcy amid rapid change. We want the promised land of milk and honey, but that’s not where we’re currently living. We’re living in exile; we’re wandering around in the wilderness. As far as Scripture is concerned, there are two paths available in the wilderness. The first is nostalgia and anxiety. Nostalgia is the idolization of the past, and anxiety is the worry over the future. This option feels like our culture’s current resting pulse. People are either obsessively fixated on what once was (“We want the fleshpots of Egypt!”), or are utterly demoralized at the prospect of the future. Between Afghanistan, climate change the and delta variant, we are given access to more suffering and despair than any human heart can possibly hold at once (I owe this insight to Nadia Bolz-Weber).

The second option in the wilderness is much harder, and that is radical trust. I recall a story where a minister spent a week with Mother Theresa in Calcutta. At one point he asked her, “Mother, would you pray that I would find certainty?” She responded: “That is one prayer I cannot pray. Certainty you will never have. But I will pray for trust.” My guess is if you’re reading this right now, you’re overwhelmed. Why wouldn’t you be? Maybe you’re anxious and nostalgic, maybe you’re exhausted. You’re definitely feel guilty that you don’t know how to package the end of a 20-year war, a new virus variant and the combustion of our planet into one awe-inspiring sermon. No one can. If you’re a pastor, your job right now isn’t to have the answers, it is rather to be honestly and vulnerably unraveled by the questions, and in so doing, to pray for the hardest thing — to trust God. The God who called you in the past holds also your future. Maybe our task at this moment is to dethrone the mini-messiahs that reign in our teaching elder hearts, and to instead surrender our congregations, our calling, our personal lives and, heck, the entire cosmos — all to God.

It was always the crowds who exhausted Jesus most. They pressed upon him. They were hungry and thirsty. They longed for healing. The world of the crowds was brutal and devastating, and Jesus was for them a sign of a new day. But even Jesus had to withdraw from the chaos. We pastors tend to preach a lot on how much Jesus did, but we can easily neglect those small verses where he withdrew to solitary places to pray with God. We aren’t given details about that sacred quiet. What followed those times of stillness was often a healing of some kind. Maybe Jesus didn’t heal because he was divine. Maybe he healed because he trusted God.

If you hear one thing today, hear this: You can’t possibly speak into all the problems of our world. Nobody can. But what small thing might you be able to have compassion for today? Theologian Søren Kierkegaard said that purity of the heart is to will one thing. What he meant by purity, I think, is wholeness or contentment. It is hard to feel whole or content when our hearts are pulled in a thousand directions, even if those directions are good places to go. What might it take for us to will one thing, to narrow our focus and therefore diminish our worry? The great thing about this big beautiful world is that if you decide to drop one of those issues you’re feeling guilty about, someone else will be there to pick up the slack. The body of Christ needs a hand, fingers, feet, arms, a head and legs. But you can’t be the whole body at once.