Eleven in the evening is well past my bedtime, which is to confess that I don't have a particularly glamorous social life. A single man in late middle-age on a tight budget, I try to limit my trips to Monte Carlo to once-a-month or so. All of which means I am not at my best when the late Christmas Eve service rolls around. I'd just as soon be tucked away with visions of sugar plums, but we worship late that night, so I suck it up and do my best.
This year the choir was excellent, as always, though the whole community has been struggling a bit. It isn't easy to reconcile the call to be festive with the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, much less the massacre in Newtown. I tried to strike a balance, hope and challenge in the same homily.
At the end of the evening, as the line of folks shaking my hand and wishing me a Merry Christmas wound down, one of the once-a-year crowd stepped up. Instead of wishing me a “Merry Christmas,” he informed me that it was the worst service he had ever attended.
When I attempted to explain our grief, he continued to chastise. And then he was gone. I bit my tongue and didn't sat what I wanted to, that someone who shows up once a year and does not contribute in any way to the life of the community really doesn't have a right to criticize how we worship. I didn't encourage him to try another church next Christmas. I'm human, and I certainly wanted to, but took it, and turned the other cheek.
I could write about this new American attitude, this pernicious belief that we have the right to criticize anything at anytime, to just blurt out whatever toxic blather enters our poisoned minds. But I won't. For what this bushy-bearded rogue reminded me of, more than anything, was all the things pastors never get to say to their congregations. There have been numerous versions of such a list in recent years, often secretly circulated among the clergy. I'm going to let the cat out of the bag.
So here is a list of some of the things your pastor may (or may not) wish she (or he) could say. No doubt she or he has their own list. If you listen well, you might just see “between the lines.”
1) You know how your doctor, lawyer and dentist had to complete years of grueling training and had to face numerous credentialing bodies before practicing her or his profession? Me too. In most cases I have completed a four-year undergraduate degree, a three-year professional degree, completed internships and clinical training. So when you assume I'm an idiot who just doesn't understand, I'm gritting my spiritual teeth and remembering Christ's humility. I'm smiling, but only on the outside.
2) Your offering is not a tip for a good sermon, nor are you paying for services rendered. Your stewardship, bringing your tithes and offerings to the community in which you worship, is a spiritual practice that comes right out of scripture. The people Jesus taught and healed lived in grinding poverty. And then there were the taxes, enforced by a brutal occupation army. Remember Matthew the Tax Collector and all those centurions running around? They weren't there for a parade. Yet Jesus still presumed the Hebrew practice of tithing. Failure to give appropriately is a spiritual problem. I know, and I am praying for you.
3) You probably think I only work an hour a week, because that is how often you see me. But that one hour a week took hours of preparation. I also managed to squeeze in several committee meetings, visited several people who were sick or homebound, and had to call the plumber and the dumpster company. I also represented the church at a civic function, and took three long phone calls telling me last week's sermon was “too political” because I pointed out that Jesus insisted we care for the poor. It's been a busy week, but I kept it down to under sixty hours, so that's good, right?
4) Oh, and about Sunday morning... I have been “on,” like rock concert “on,” all morning. I'm smiling and being social, but I'm actually fried. (One list described this as being "Beyonce at a concert on" and appeared in the Dirty Sexy Ministry blog by The Rev. Laurie Brock and The Rev. Mary Koppel. I'm not very Beyonce, so I've changed the reference slightly...). You know that important thing you needed to tell me as you shook my hand and headed off to brunch? I forgot it, along with the important things eight other people told me. Sorry, I didn't mean to, but you better write it down, send it in an email, or leave me a message for when I get back in the office. I think it is important because you think it is important, but I've already forgotten it.
5) I work for God. I know it sounds insane, but that's it, flat out. Every other level of authority, bishop, vestry or church council, is just middle management. I didn't accept this call to make money. I accepted it because I couldn't say “no” to God any longer. That means I'm not always going to preach what you want to hear. Sometimes I'm going to challenge you, in fact, sometimes I'm going to piss you off. I don't do it for fun. I do it because Jesus told us this following thing was going to be hard, and that we needed to do it with a good team behind us. And I'm on your team by choice. If I stop challenging you, you'll know that I am either exhausted or scared. Neither is good for you or the church you love.
6) Speaking of scared, I'd like to keep my job. I may have a spouse working in the community, kids in the local schools, and I most certainly have student loans that will follow me to the grave. It's a razor's edge up here, trying to please God and middle management and every person sitting in the pews. I need your prayers, and possibly a good therapist...
7) I care more about the regulars. I know I'm not supposed to, but I do. You know, the one's who show up in the pouring rain, there for every fund raiser and Bible study. When a perfect stranger shows up demanding the rites of the church and treating me like I'm an unfortunate prop in their personal movie, it's a problem. She may be your granddaughter, but she hasn't been inside of a church, except as a bridesmaid, in years. She may promise to raise that child as a Christian, but you and I both know she's not going to get up on Sunday morning. I'm having serious theological qualms about this, I'm just not telling you.
8) When you insist on “the way we do things in this church,” I'm wondering when you stopped worshiping a living God and started worshiping a building and its resident bureaucracy. Give me half a chance, and I'll help you drop the average age of worshipers and give this church a future. Many thousands of churches close every year. This doesn't have to be one of them. But it's your choice. When you are ready to look forward instead of backward, I'll be there to lead the way. That is, after all, what you keep telling me I'm supposed to do.
9) Finally, I am human. Really. That nasty comment you made on your way out the door? It hurt. And wasn't very Christian. But I forgive you, and still love you, because that's how I roll.
Links to area churches here.
This article first appeared in the Sayville-Bapyport Patch.