Reflections at an ordination

There is no sure-fire recipe guaranteed to produce faith, Ronald Byars writes. Maybe that’s why so many testify that their faith came as a gift.


Maybe you know of a family a little bit like this one:

Both the parents are Presbyterian elders. A daughter is a pastor known to be an effective preacher. Her brother describes himself as agnostic. The question seems more pressing than ever these days: Why do some people have faith? And others don’t?

The religious authorities in Jesus’ day had grown impatient. They wanted him to declare himself openly, directly, unambiguously: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10:24b). His reply was, in effect, that he had said and done enough that they should be able to make up their own minds. It would be futile, he suggests, to spell it all out for them, because he can’t make them “get it.” “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said. “I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). In other words, those who get it will get it; those who don’t get it are not likely to be argued into it.

There is no surefire recipe guaranteed to produce faith. And faith is not achieved by effort.

That pretty well says how it is. It doesn’t explain why some people get it, and others don’t. And it would surely be a mistake to find the lack of faith to be a moral fault. As though those who have faith are the good people, and those who do not have faith are bad people. No. That is not the point here. There is no surefire recipe guaranteed to produce faith. And faith is not achieved by effort. Maybe that’s why so many generations of Christians testify that their faith has come to them as a gift. Sometimes – often, in fact – it comes as a gift that has been received only in struggle, a gift long resisted or that has been long in formation, a gift that feels as though it could be lost at any time. A recently retired pastor commented that he had to be in church every Sunday, because by Thursday he was nearly an atheist. Sometimes faith feels fragile. But the affirmation here is that, somehow, God has not left it entirely to chance. Where there’s even a little faith, God is in it some way. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

A friend grew up in Santa Fe. Both his parents had been the first ones in the door of their church and the last ones out. His father, a widower, had fallen ill and was in a coma in a Santa Fe hospital. My friend flew there from Cleveland; his sister caught a flight from Houston. They sat by his bedside, spoke to him, told him again and again that they were nearby, and there was no response. Nothing. The pastor of his church came to visit. He called my friend’s father by name: “Harold.” Hearing this voice, Harold opened his eyes! My friend said that the words that sprang to mind were these: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

One of the scary things about being a pastor … is that people just might hear, in the pastor’s voice, the voice of the shepherd, Jesus Christ.

This is one of the scary things about being a pastor. It is scary that people just might hear, in the pastor’s voice, the voice of the shepherd, Jesus Christ. The pastor is mortal, a human being like all the neighbors on the block. The pastor can be irascible, impatient, and intemperate, and probably knows as many bad words as you do. I know that firsthand. But in the years since I have been sitting in the pew, I have learned something else: It doesn’t cause me to lose my faith should my pastor lose patience or speak in tongues when he or she hits a thumb with a hammer. As one of the sheep, I still marvel that, now and then, here and there, in my pastor’s voice I hear the voice of the good shepherd. I’ve heard it in church, I’ve heard it lying in a hospital bed rather than in my preferred position standing beside the bed, I’ve heard it when I did not want to and did not expect to. And I know that it is a gift of grace, a pure gift of God, that the shepherd’s voice may speak to us through very human beings.

The role of pastor is pretty much unique to Christianity. Other religious communities have various persons who teach, lead religious ceremonies and interpret the rules. Since the church has been around a long time, other religious communities have sometimes noticed the pastoral role, admired it and borrowed it. But pastoral ministry, as such, is rooted in the Christian faith. “Ego sum pastor bonus,” (John 10:11a). Jesus says in St. Jerome’s Latin translation. The word “pastor” is Latin, and it means “shepherd.” So the role of pastor is a way of manifesting in the church the work of Jesus Christ, the “good shepherd.” In fact, Jesus is the pastor. He is the one who baptizes. He is the one who interprets the Scripture. He is the one who invites us to the Table. He is the one who breaks the bread and gives the cup. The local pastor provides a human voice, a human body, ears that listen and hands that bless — not because any one of them is holy, but in service to that One who alone is holy: “I am the good shepherd.”

When I became a Presbyterian, the first thing I had to do was to learn Presbyterian language. It seemed straightforward enough, but it took me some time to figure out what lay behind it. Presbyterians have no pope, no pontiff, no patriarch, no matriarch, no arch-anything. Our highest elected office is the officer of Moderator. What does a Moderator do? The Moderator is supposed to keep a fight from breaking out. Our second highest office is the Stated Clerk. What does a clerk do? A clerk is somebody who writes things down. I finally realized that those humble titles – moderator, clerk – are meant to be non-hierarchical. Strictly speaking, Presbyterians have no clergy and no clergypersons. We have church officers: deacons; ministers or teaching elders; and “ruling” elders — and, by the way, “ruling” doesn’t mean running the whole show. The term comes from the ruler, the yardstick, and has to do with measuring out what needs to be done. And we certainly have no such thing as “senior” pastors —  except, of course, for those few who apparently didn’t get the memo. And certainly no “junior” pastors. Almost no ecclesiastical power is vested in individuals, but rather in groups of people. Most of our teaching elders, but not all, are pastors.

Certainly, our care with language doesn’t mean that Presbyterians are unfamiliar with the ego trip, or that we’ve overcome the longing for hierarchy, which is still pretty appealing so long as there’s a chance of being at the top of it. Presbyterians can become infected by the need to dominate quite as much as any other sort of people. But that special Presbyterian language, deeply rooted in our tradition, is meant to caution us against succumbing to that need.

The strength and authority of the pastoral role lies in the mystery of Jesus Christ himself, the ultimate pastor.

The strength and authority of the pastoral role lies in the mystery of Jesus Christ himself, the ultimate pastor. Jesus Christ, who chooses to console, challenge, heal, bless, feed, encourage and strengthen in and through this or that human being in relation to other human beings. It’s not about having all the answers. It’s not about manipulating people. It’s not about mastering the arts of propaganda. It’s about the power the Spirit makes manifest when the pastor comes to the flock dis-armed. Dis-armed, vulnerable, willing to let the Spirit work however the Spirit will, no matter who gets the credit or who has the last word.

Years ago, a friend moved from one state to another to accept an appointment at a university faculty. He reported that whenever he found himself in a social situation, the first question was likely to be, “Where do you go to church?” The presumption of the culture of yesteryear was that everybody had a church — or at least had a church they didn’t go to. Everybody was presumed to be Christian, everybody supposedly had faith, and if they didn’t, the culture expected them to pretend that they did. Those days are over. It comes as a shock to those who have been around a long time. We are still not quite used to the decline in our numbers while those who vote with their feet stay home on Sundays. Are there fewer people of faith than there used to be? Or just more people who are up front about where they really stand?

When Constantine lifted up the persecuted church in the fourth century to make it the favored religion of the empire, it was like there was a new Starbucks in town — all sorts of people got in line to join up. Historians estimate that about a third of them were devout; another third believed, but less intensely; and another third were just going along with the program. I suspect that the proportions have always been just about the same, and where the numbers drop off, they start dropping off a long way before you get to the first group and even the second. The crowds are thinner today, but the core is still more or less intact.

I do not believe that just because even the Southern Baptists, like Presbyterians and Episcopalians, are experiencing declining numbers that the Christian faith is on the way out. Our status in society has certainly changed, and that may be, paradoxically, a good thing. Displays of ecclesiastical status and privilege aren’t going to cut it any longer, and that is not where our future lies anyway. But Jesus’ words are just as trustworthy now as they were in the days before they dragged him out to shut him up for good. Just as reliable as they proved to be on the day when he broke the chains of death. We do not need to worry about it. Jesus’ promise will be just as reliable in a secular era as in apparently pious times. Sure, there will be many who simply will not get it and no longer need to pretend to get it — most of them quite honorable persons. But the word is still reliable: The Lord Jesus who calls us by name will not call out in vain. There shall never fail to be a response. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me …  No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

This is a word on which the pastor can rely. This is a word that underlies and supports all the other words and actions of the pastor. This is a word by which all the baptized, whether church officers or not, will be strengthened. Ego sum pastor bonus. I am the good shepherd. “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29).