The Pastor

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They all waited in quiet patience: the pastor was coming forward. His old age prevented his moving with any sort of urgency—indeed, he seemed to shuffle everywhere he went, with eyes glassed over with the grey sea of time. His hair was more or less gone—partly from necessity and partly from age. He had cut it short when he had been roaming about, planting churches throughout the Roman empire. The hair that had not fallen to shears eventually fell from time and toil.

Now, there was but few earthly toils that remained to him. Joints riddled with arthritis, skin stretched tight from scar tissue, back bent as if he was carrying a large burden, the ancient priest had only one final road awaiting him, and it would be a brief one. His body was wasting away more and more every day—some in the congregation marveled that he could make it to the service at all. It seemed that if death was much longer in coming, he wouldn’t have a chance to die—he would just cease to be. All one had to do was blink, and he would wink out of existence.

The old pastor took tiny, scraping steps to the front of the congregation, the tapping of his sandals mixed with the shaking of his hands. A young deacon stood at his side, hand hovering above the bowed back as if he was afraid this frail, ancient man would step into some crack in the church floor and be swallowed up. The pastors fingers were knotted twigs—the result of years working in the mines on some god-forsaken island. Everything about the man exuded age; some of the elders in the congregation could remember a man filled with passion and pious recklessness, but now that sun was setting. Night had all but swallowed up the once flaming spark in the pastor’s eyes.

But for now, the setting sun took small, deliberate steps, until he stood in front of his congregation. Those who knew no better waited with hushed expectation for what was to be said: would he speak of the emperor Trajan; or perhaps of his journeys? Maybe they would even hear a story about Jesus—after all it was only a couple decades prior that the two had walked along together. The tension was evident; the pastor was oblivious to all of it. He stood at the head of the congregation and looked out at the church he had founded. From cracked lips came a single sentence:

“Little children, love one another!”

The words were spoken with much more conviction than it seemed the man should have been able to muster. Those who had never been to the church before looked at each other anxiously, eagerly—now the preaching of the Apostle was to come: visions of Judgment, stories of Jesus, convicting words and bold ideas—the excitement was palpable.

But no more was said.

Not another syllable.

The pastor began his long shuffle to his seat in the back; the young deacon returned to his side, hands at the ready—he would not be the one who would let the Apostle that Jesus Loved fall and break a brittle bone—no matter how irritating and confusing it was to hear the same line, week after monotoned week.

For years, since he had gathered two or three people together on the location the church now stood, the pastor had repeated the same phrase and nothing else. He had no sermons, he had no fresh insights, he had no variation. Just the same, single-line message: Little children, love one another. Some suspected that the time he had spent in persecution had broken a once-thriving mind; others said that he was merely waiting to die and felt no need to prepare new sermons. Still others debated on the significance of his delivery: perhaps he was using his succinct rhetoric to make a bigger point or highlight a culturally issue.

As for the pastor, he merely allowed himself to be helped to his seat in the back of the church and closed his eyes as the church began their worship. The songs were deep, slow songs that reverberated around the stone building and leaked out windows hewn from rock. No music was played, and none was needed. Some people exchanged curious glances; others looked slightly exasperated, but all sang nonetheless. As their praise hummed in dull, flowing streams, the young deacon leaned over to the old pastor and remarked quietly,

“Father, why do you say the same thing over and over again? It begins to become monotonous to some of the brethren.”

The pastor’s eyes remained shut, but a tightening around his mouth seemed to indicate a smile or sadness. He thought about how so many people had missed the brutally simple message; how they were so willing to argue doctrine and so unwilling to love. After a moment, he spoke in a quiet whisper that could barely be heard—even by the young deacon, whose head was almost resting on the pastor’s chest as he waited for a reply.

“My dear Polycarp, it was our Lord’s command.”

“But father,” the deacon responded, “Did he not command other things also?”

Now a faint smile could clearly be seen playing on the corners of the pastor’s mouth, as if he was recalling every incident where Jesus had loved—that woman dragged into the temple, that short little tax collector up in the tree, Mary Magdalene and all the others. He remembered his Lord dying for love.

“My son,” the Apostle John replied, “If this alone be done, it is enough.”

Around them, the music surged; in spite of the monotony, in spite of the confusion, in spite of the irritation, the praise continued unabated. The young deacon settled back into his seat and thought about what had been said. The old pastor remained seated with his eyes closed, dwelling in the love of Christ and passing the time until he was united with his old Friend.

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Go Get Lost

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As I sit in a tiny hotel room in east Rome, with the sun long set behind grey clouds and ancient monuments erected to the remarkable tenacity and creativity of humanity, I’m struck at how comfortable we are with being comfortable. Every day in the city, crowds of hurried tourists on holiday rush by, following their captain–a tour guide waving a red umbrella so that nobody gets lost. They stare at benchmarks of history through the viewfinders of their cameras, then snap frantic pictures of sculptures and artwork that was crafted while Western Europe was still barbarian tribes. And they trudge from place to place, as fixed and consistent as if they were on a track. Don’t wander too far, be on time, hurry up, catch up, let’s go, next stop, right, left, right this way.

And so it goes.

I often find myself falling into this mindset; as human beings, we don’t like being lost. The idea that someone is in charge is comforting. We may search foreign shores and seek out the things that broaden and bend our perspective, but we like to do so under the trained hand of one who knows where to go. Everybody likes going rock climbing when they’re on belay; it takes a special type of childish fascination and risk to climb without ropes.

And yet Jesus said to become like little children. So maybe there’s something to getting in a little over our heads. Perhaps the best way to live wholly and completely is to neglect the instinct of clinging to the safe and the known and venture out onto the ocean, even if we don’t have a boat. After all, the worst we can do is sink–and the best way to learn how to swim is necessity.

Saint Augustine once said something along the lines of “The world is a book, and if you never travel you are only reading one page.” That doesn’t mean every one should pack their bags for a far flung city (although it would surely be a good and decent thing if they had the opportunity to). But it does imply that as human beings, we should view the world as more than the sum total of our own personal experiences. And comfort is an experience that most folks are familiar with, especially us Americans. The entire American dream is rooted around concepts such as comfort and stability. Get an education so you can get a job. Get a job so you can get a family. Get a family and then build a house. Build a house so you can fulfill the illusion of security.

While these things are not wrong, this life we live is not stable in nature. We learn to speak by stuttering. We learn to walk by falling. Why do we stop? Learning to read was arduous for me and a vicious batte for years; does that mean I shouldn’t have tried? When I was a child I thought like a child and I acted like a child. When I grew up, I put my childish ways behind me. I learned that flawed and garbled speech is a necessary phase. I came to appreciate the scars on my hands and knees because they taught me how to run and jump and play. I traded my fear of being lost for a trust that I will make it home. And I learned that home may not be where I thought it was.

Knowing where you are is nice–the bed with the shape of my body pressed into it, the roads on which I know each pothole and dip–it’s easier on me. It’s hard to picture being lost and not having a guide to tell me how to get back to my suburban apartment and my Keurig coffee maker. But there comes a point when we will be asked to give up everything we hold and embrace life. And like the wealthy young man in the Gospel of Luke, the more that we have, the harder this will be. If we have never fallen, we will not learn how to walk. If we have never been lost, we will not be able to venture into the unknown.

Foreign lands can be intimidating. High walls of ancient concrete jut up above the cobbled and uneven streets and sometimes everywhere you turn there’s the impression of being in a hedged-in maze. A different language means communication is sometimes impossible beyond a kind nod or a sympathetic glance. Yet still–wander around. It could be Rome, it could be the town down the road, it could be a waitress you don’t have the nerve to talk to.

Yet still–wander around. Twirl and spin to a dance that you don’t know. Jump when you can’t see. Put off the robe of respectability and try on the habit of Saint Francis. Learn to laugh at yourself; learn how to stand back up.

And for God’s sake, go get lost.