“So,” I said, “what I reckon it all comes down to is, how can I preach if I don’t have any answers?”
“Yes, Mr. Crow,” he said, “How can you?” …
“I don’t believe I can,” I said, and I felt my skin turn cold, for I had not even thought that until then.
He said, “No, I don’t believe you can.” And we sat there and looked at each other again while he waited for me to see the next thing, so he wouldn’t have to tell me: I oughtn’t to waste any time resigning my scholarship and leaving Pigeonville. I saw it soon enough.
I said, “Well,” for now I was ashamed, “I had this feeling maybe I had been called.”
“And you may have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”
— An excerpt from Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry
Such is the burden of the preacher: the burden to have and give answers when some answers cannot be given.
Jayber Crow, the main character in Wendell Berry’s novel, ended up abandoning his pastoral education.
I know a number of preachers who have also walked away, been driven away, or are trying to decide if they will go, even now. They write to me via FB messenger and Twitter. They reach out because they hear in my writing the voice of a kindred pilgrim—one who has a number of questions that some of the old answers do not satisfy.
Some questions, as Crow’s seminary professor tells him, have to be lived out.
When I taught theology at a little evangelical college, I was tasked with introducing all the major systematic topics in a semester. Down the list of topics we went, spending a week on Revelation, one on the Trinity, two weeks on Jesus (person, then works), a week on the Spirit, etc. Keeping up the pace was difficult enough, but as time passed by, I found myself facing an even bigger task.
By the end of the term, I needed to address the elephant in the room: My students now had more questions at the end of the course than at its start. Furthermore, the new questions were ones they most likely would not have considered before being exposed to Ignatius, Augustine, Aquinas, Barth, Moltmann, Cone, Williams, Ruether, Isasi-Díaz, Woodley, and other thinkers. And so we would spend the last class discussing how to discern central doctrines from peripheral, how to live with unanswered questions, how to differentiate between healthy vs. unhealthy doubt, and how to walk by faith. Those conversations were among my favorites.
I wanted to warn my students about the road ahead, remembering the semester in seminary when I felt the rug pulled out from under my eager feet. As it turned out, reading Calvin’s Institutes hadn’t given me the assurance I needed to go out and preach. Rather, it had made me unsure of every sermon I had ever heard and many a prayer I had prayed.
Thankfully, help soon arrived in the form of Philip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God, a source of pastoral care for the perplexed. More recently, I have found counsel and companionship in Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Brian McLaren’s Naked Spirituality, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, Rachel Held Evans’s Evolving in Monkeytown, and Christian Wyman’s My Bright Abyss. They encourage me to keep putting one foot in front of the other or, more challenging yet, to be where I am and trust that it is enough.
Unfortunately, in the decades of sermons I have heard, I can recall less than a handful of preachers able to speak into my experience as a follower of The Way with questions unsatisfied by the usual answers.
And this brings me to a new set of queries.
Is it even possible to be a preacher living with hard questions?
Do we still expect our pastors to have the answers—or, if not all of them, at least a good chunk (i.e., those we deem essential)?
Are priests allowed to be human? To be finite? To wonder? To feel small in the vastness of Mystery?
Are our leaders allowed to keep learning?
Pete Enns has written on the difficulty faced by many Christian scholars. Our churches, denominations, and schools send us off to get our Ph.D.s but then expect us to come back and teach the same things they have always known. They don’t really want us to learn; instead, they want our credentials to shore up the homestead.
I’m not a pastor, but I imagine the pressure and messaging may be similar: Keep learning—but not to the point where your learning threatens to breach the walls of the denominational doctrinal statement.
Sometimes, it seems only ancient pastors are allowed new ideas.
After all, where would we be if Luther hadn’t questioned the doctrine he’d received? Who would we be if the Anabaptists hadn’t insisted the high road of discipleship is for all, rather than a religious elite? Even as we celebrate our spiritual ancestors’ bravery and encourage our faith leaders to speak what they said, we are warned against doing what our ancestors did, when they faithfully questioned certain religious doctrines and practices.
I wonder if this is one of the reasons we find more and more Christians opting out of Sunday sermons. If preachers aren’t allowed to question, but authors, bloggers, and podcasters are, then prophets will continue to be pushed out of parishes and into the wilderness, much like the desert mothers and fathers of old for whom only the vastness of the desert could accommodate the width of their wonder.
In Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow didn’t think it possible to preach without answers. And maybe he was right: answers can serve as tools to set new disciples on the Way and guideposts for the road ahead.
But how do we attend to the legitimate needs of congregation members at earlier stages of their faith journeys while also creating space and grace for those who have labored long on the parish foundation, proceeded to build solid second and third stories, and now peer out of upper windows to find God at work in other places and other ways that inspire them to build bridges, engines, and wings instead of floors, moats, and walls?
According to Richard Rohr, “The holding of this tension [between the needs of those in different seasons of the spiritual journey] is the very shape of wisdom.” But Rohr admits that for those holding the tension, it is a cross to bear. I fear that too many of our leaders have been forced to carry this cross to their own death—be it vocational, physical, emotional, or spiritual.
We are disappearing the very people who remind us that our little lights—our churches, denominational statements, community covenants—are not the Light but rather little pointers toward the Light.
What is to be done?
Can we create space in our churches and educational institutions for pastors and leaders to continue their journeys without driving them to the lonesome desert, the suffocating closet, or the grave? Can we grant them permission to keep learning, to continue to be stretched and led by the hand of the Spirit deeper into Mystery, toward the blinding light of the glory of God?
Can we learn to hold the tension, or will we continue disappearing our pastors?