June 6, 2013

The Pastor as Minor Poet

It’s a beautiful morning at the Chancery and I took the opportunity, before anyone arrived, to prepare this diary entry while sitting in the garden by the bell tower, surrounded by towering pines and cedars and the singing of at least a half-dozen kinds of birds.

Chancery Bell Tower

My friend Father John Shimchick recently sent me a book with this title, The Pastor As Minor Poet, by M. Craig Barnes (Grand Rapids, 2009). He says it’s his new favorite pastoral book, and though I’ve only dipped into it so far, I love the basic premise. Like a poet, the pastor’s challenge is “to bid parishioners to join in the search for mystery beneath the surface of the ordinary.”

That’s often a tough sell, because the noise and pace of the ordinary don’t leave much room for the time, silence and reflection of poetry, scripture and prayer. Even pastors get swamped with so much ordinary stuff that the savor of mystery is lost and life can become a tasteless ticking-off of tasks on an ecclesiastical to-do list.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t be working hard. As Pope John Paul II once said when people complained that he was doing too much, “Sometimes it’s necessary to do too much.” In readings Acts it’s striking just how much work the apostles do. The travel alone—on first-century roads—is daunting, even if they were the best Roman roads of the day. In today’s reading Paul and Barnabas pass through a large part of Asia Minor—Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, Pisidian Antioch, Pamphylia, Perga and Attalia—before ending up where they began their missionary journey, in Syrian Antioch. There, “ When they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).

Yes, demanding work is needed of pastors. But in the midst of work, the ascetic effort of poetry is also required. For how else, like Paul and Barnabas, do we see the hand of God at work in what we do?