In Which I Compare Myself to Barack Obama

Have you ever known things about people that you had to keep to yourself?

On Sunday afternoon, May 1, 2011, President Obama and the rest of the National Security Council gathered in the White House Situation Room to watch the final tense minutes of the Bin Laden raid.  As Pete Souza’s famous photo conveys, those were minutes of high drama, quite different from the President’s surroundings of the previous evening.

obamas_poker_face.jpg

Less than 24 hours earlier on that previous Saturday evening, April 30, President Obama was watching an event with much less significance than the Bin Laden raid: the White House Correspondents Dinner.  During the course of the evening, host and comedian Seth Meyers made a Bin Laden joke and President Obama smiled politely, all the while knowing that the Navy SEALs were already on their way to Abbatabad.  The contrast is striking: the President surrounded by frivolity while events of life-and-death importance unfold.  And he can’t tell anyone….

I Know Things About People

I know what it’s like to have to keep things close.  As a pastor, people tell me their stories, and so I know things about people that they normally keep private.  I’m often struck, at the end of a day, at how much suffering so many people carry around with them.  And the striking thing about their sufferings is that they are often carried in secret: life carries on all about them in its ordinary way.

“About Suffering They Were Never Wrong”

The great 16th century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder was aware of the strange juxtaposition of how everyday life and life-altering suffering might often rub shoulders throughout the course of any given day.  In fact, this juxtaposition is a part of two of his most famous paintings.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Census_at_Bethlehem_-_WGA03379

I referenced this 1566 Bruegel painting–Census at Bethlehem–in my 2010 Christmas Eve sermon.  It’s an ordinary Flemish town on an ordinary winter day, but the title of the painting hints at something more, and when you look more closely, you see, in the bottom right corner, a hunched-over man leading a woman on a donkey.  You think for a bit, and then you understand: it’s Joseph leading Mary, in the pain of the last moments of pregnancy, hoping to find room in the inn.

icarus

Bruegel probably painted the above landscape scene in the 1560s, and like Census at Bethlehem it seems at first to be an ordinary scene from Flemish life.  But with the help of the title–Landscape with the Fall of Icarus–you look more closely and notice two white legs sticking up out of the water in the bottom right of the painting.  Icarus, of course, is the boy from the Greek myth who flew too closely to the sun and fell from the sky as a result.

So, in the one painting, ordinary market day life goes on while the most important birth in history is about to take place in the most humiliating and filthy of circumstances; in the other, the plowman is pushing furrow after furrow while Daedalus’s son falls out of the sky.  What is Bruegel trying to tell us?

Musée des Beaux Arts

The Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden saw both of those paintings in 1938 while visiting the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium, and he was moved to write the following famous poem about his insight into the paintings:

About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters:
How well they understood its human position;
How it takes place while someone else is eating
Or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently,
Passionately waiting for the miraculous birth,
There always must be children
Who did not specially want it to happen,
Skating on a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot that even the dreadful martyrdom
Must run its course anyhow in a corner,
Some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life
And the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance:
How everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster;
The ploughman may have heard the splash,
The forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;
The sun shone as it had to on the white legs
Disappearing into the green water;
And the expensive delicate ship
That must have seen something amazing,
A boy failing out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Musée des Beaux Arts (1939)

Auden’s poem elaborates Bruegel’s point: suffering goes on right in the midst of ordinary life.

  • One mother addresses envelopes for her six year-old son’s birthday party, while another holds her son’s hand as he receives his weekly chemotherapy treatments;
  • One hotel room hosts a man whose wife has just left him, while another contains a pair of giddy newlyweds;
  • One man picks up his coffee from the coffee shop, his only small pleasure in a day of misery, while another pays for his cup while on his way to his much-anticipated yearly hunting trip with his adult son.

As Bruegel and Auden remind us, suffering is not separated from ordinary life; rather, it’s woven into it.   All around us are people carrying what would seem to be unbearable burdens, people in the midst of intractable problems, while the rest of us go about daily life.  I know this is true, because I hear people’s stories.

Strawberries, Small Talk, and Suffering

A few weeks ago, my wife and I had planned to have my staff over to our house for lunch.  Right beforehand I had heard sickening news about someone I care about, and that news was heavy on my mind.  But, the news was confidential, and we were expecting lunch guests, so I tried to push it aside and jovially welcome our guests.  It was a surreal contrast: curry chicken lettuce wraps and summer strawberries and small talk, while I kept thinking about the suffering person I’d just heard about not sixty minutes before.

But that’s life, isn’t it?  I hear more about other people’s sufferings than the average person, perhaps, but you know about sufferings too, either your own or others, and you also know that life goes on.  Bruegel was right: the greatest sufferings happen right alongside the greatest trivialities.

The Power of a Simple Courtesy

People all around us are carrying heavy burdens, and most of the time, you can’t tell by looking at them.  This fact makes me regret all the times I failed to show courtesy to strangers, or took unnecessary offense or became annoyed at the behavior of another person.  Who knows with which secret difficulties they were ensnarled?

Here’s what I do know: in a world in which so many people are carrying secret sufferings, small, simple courtesies can mean the world.

 

 

Ordination Day

 

10367591_10100692369273234_2723831686884796016_n

About to walk into the ordination service, with my wife and parents next to me.

Today was a red-letter day.

I don’t remember my granddaddy baptizing me.

I do remember my confirmation, kneeling on the lumpy pad at the communion rail in my little church, my dad–my pastor–placing his hands on my shoulders, charging me with living into the faith that the saints in the church had passed down to me.

I remember my wedding day.

I remember when my son was born.

And I’ll remember today, my ordination day.  A Red Letter Day.

It’s very late and I have to get up early tomorrow, but here are some unsystematic thoughts on my ordination:

  • It was a beautiful worship service.  When I was at the communion rail listening to the choir sing and waiting for my turn to mount the steps and kneel and receive my ordination, I felt my heart would break at the beauty and power of the music and the words and the occasion.
  • It’s a powerful thing when the bishop places his hands on your head and commands

“David Andrew Forrest, take authority as an elder
to preach the Word of God,
to administer the Holy Sacraments,
and to order the life of the Church
in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

  • The responsibility feels heavy.  I am now responsible for passing on the faith of the saints and the martyrs to my people.  What is it Isaiah says, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, from a people of unclean lips”?  It’s a serious business.
  • I was convicted by the visiting bishop’s sermon: the most important thing you can do is to love your people.  The people at Munger, the people in East Dallas–they are the ones the Lord is asking me to care for.   They are my people, and I am going to be held responsible one day for how well I loved and cared for them.
  • I do actually feel different, now having been ordained.  Even though few specific things in my life will change, still, something is different.  I think I feel the responsibility more, and the power of it more.  The bishop prayed for the Holy Spirit to pour out on me to give me strength–I’ll remember that the next time I’m discouraged or feel weak.
  • I felt the same on my wedding day, and numerous times since then: I am abundantly blessed to have a wife like I do, one who feels called to be my partner in ministry.  We are in ministry together.  She’s quieter, kinder, and more faithful than me, and though I get the attention, without her, I’d struggle.
  •  My parents flew in tonight for the service and leave tomorrow.  My dad is an ordained minister, as was my grandfather.  I was overwhelmed during the service, thinking about what a gift my parents gave me: the gift of faith.  They took their own baptismal vows seriously and raised me in the church and taught me about Jesus.  It is literally a priceless gift.
  • Ordination by the laying on of hands goes all the way back to Peter and Paul and Jesus himself.  Amazing.  The bishop who ordained me was once ordained by the laying on of hands, as was the bishop who ordained him, and so on, all the way back for 20 centuries.
  • I feel totally unworthy, and at the same time really motivated to run the race set before me with endurance.
  • My church and I have done this together and we are growing together.
  • It was really humbling to see so many Mungarians there tonight.  My wife and I constantly say to each other, “What did we do to deserve such great people, such a great church?”
  • God is good, and I am so very very thankful.

The Problem of the Breaking Bad Pastor

bbcashfeat__span

 

Question: Is it okay for pastors to get rich by doing the work of ministry?

Over at First Things, James Duncan has written a brief essay with a provocative title: “Celebrity Pastors’ Walter White Problem.”  He summarizes the problem for many celebrity pastors, namely that they make a lot of money from their churches, but then have a difficult time spending it, as no congregation likes the idea of a lavish pastoral lifestyle.  Their situations are similar to that of Walter White, the anti-hero of the television show “Breaking Bad,” who made millions from dealing drugs, only to find himself unable to spend the money without clearly advertising his illegal activity.  The post is worth reading.

 

On the One Hand, Yes: They Are Talented, Hard-Working Guys

I don’t know any celebrity pastors, but I do know a little bit about the pastoral ministry, and it’s obvious to me that the celebrity pastor church-growth types are enormously talented entrepreneurial individuals.  Were they not in the ministry, they would be very effective leaders of other large organizations.  Also, it’s impossible to be a celebrity pastor and not be an excellent public speaker.  All of these guys, had they been generals or C-level executives, would be earning a lucrative living on the speaking circuit.  Additionally, the celebrity pastor is almost always a best-selling author.  It’s hard work to write a best-selling book–shouldn’t that hard work be rewarded?

It seems unfair to restrict their earning potential just because they chose to work for the church.

 

On The Other Hand, No: Pastoral Ministry Shouldn’t Be About Making Money

The talent of the celebrity pastor is not the issue–the issue is integrity.  It is hard not to question the integrity of a celebrity pastor who becomes wealthy through the work of ministry.

 

Some Observations About Wealth and the Church

  • The pastor’s authority is mainly a moral authority, authority that is enhanced when the pastor is seen to be living more simply than his or her peers, authority that is diminished when the congregation sees the pastor living at a standard far above most of them.  I think the appeal of Pope Francis is due in large part to his well-publicized simplicity.
  • It’s easy to criticize people who are in situations different than your own.  Would I be able to resist the temptations to wealth that so many celebrity pastors face?  I’m not sure.
  • The vast majority of pastors in the world are faithful people who sacrifice for years, doing difficult work for very little pay.
  • Compared to many (most?) pastors in the world, I am extraordinarily well-paid.  My lifestyle and that of my grandfather, who pastored a rural church on the Eastern Shore of Virginia during the Great Depression, are vastly different; mine is much more comfortable than his ever was.  It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to throw stones at wealthy celebrity pastors while justifying my own lifestyle.
  • On the other hand, it is not hypocritical for me to admit that both I and the celebrity pastor have a problem with money.
  • But this problem is not exclusive to those of us in the pastoral ministry: anyone reading this is many times more wealthy than the majority of the people on this planet.  We need to beware the self-righteousness that comes from comparing ourselves to a few wealthy outliers while ignoring our own unseen and suffocating materialism.

 

Conclusion: It’s All About Me

I don’t know any celebrity pastors, and so I can’t speak to the condition of their hearts.  What I do know is my own heart, and it is a greedy thing, and materialism is my disease.  It’s easy for me to criticize others’ financial choices, but much harder for me to live at a lower standard of living than I can afford.  Maybe the benefit of the recent attention paid to the lifestyles of celebrity pastors is that it forces me to ask: “Lord, what do you want me to do with what I’ve been given?”  One day, I’ll have to answer only for myself.  I’ll let God be the judge of the others.