Spiritual Leadership is Tough

“People may think that as pastors or spiritual leaders we are somehow above the pain and struggles of everyday people,” Laurie wrote after Wilson’s death. “We are the ones who are supposed to have all the answers. But we do not.”

There is similar introspection among clergy of many faiths across the United States as the age-old challenges of their ministries are deepened by many newly evolving stresses. Rabbis worry about protecting their congregations from anti-Semitic violence. Islamic chaplains counsel college students unnerved by anti-Muslim sentiments. A shortage of Catholic priests creates burdens for those who remain, even as their church’s sex-abuse crisis lowers morale. Worries for Protestant pastors range from crime and drug addiction in their communities to financial insecurity for their own families to social media invective that targets them personally.

Adam Hertzman, who works for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, witnessed the emotional toll on local rabbis after the October 2018 massacre that killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue.

“Somehow in the U.S. we expect our clergy to be superhuman when it comes to these things,” he said. “They’re human beings who are going to feel the same kind of fear and numbness and depression that other people do.”

– David Crary, Associated Press, “Stresses Multiply for Many U.S. Clergy: ‘We Need Help Too‘”

Eugene Peterson wrote, “The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God. It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades.”

Pastoring is hard work. It is challenging work. It is human work, and it is divine work. I’m not sure if being a pastor is any more challenging now than it has been in any other age. Regardless, two reminders are worth noting. First, be kind to your pastors. Second, offer them your help.

Better Than VR

Father John Misty’s “Total Entertainment Forever” is prophetic.

Imagine a world where people prefer virtual reality over embodied, physical experience. Having trouble? Just revisit the major plot line of Ready Player One, or Tron, where virtual and physical realities intersect, merge, and somehow overlap.

I don’t care much for the “Total Entertainment Forever” video. The lyrics are the juice. Father John Misty describes the world emerging before us today, a place where we date the celebrity of our choice in a virtual environment, where we are “free” to live however we want (in prisons of virtual illusion), where rich and poor are equally “entertained,” distracted by fantasy. The “nightmare” we’re invited to awaken from is our lives, preferring instead our dreams being beamed straight into our eyeballs in marvelous hi-def.

No gods to rule us
No drugs to soothe us
No myths to prove stuff
No love to confuse us
Not bad for a race of demented monkeys
From a cave to a city to a permanent party
The song closes with a proper scene. Father John Misty imagines a future society unearthing the evidence remaining from our own period, human beings “plugged into our hubs,” smiling but wasted away. We’re left to ponder whether the final line–“This must have been a wonderful place”–is uttered by our posterity in marvel or disdain.
This is a word for our times. The prevailing narrative is that any and all technology will only make human life better. There is truth in that claim, but it is not true. I’d still rather experience life in the body over being a brain in a vat.

Roger Scruton on Beauty

I share this video largely to put down a marker for myself, to allow myself to stumble upon this again at some point in the future. I’ve read Roger Scruton and admire his work. He is a philosopher. In this video presentation, Scruton argues for beauty while critiquing modern art and architecture which, according to Scruton, represents a cult of ugliness. Scruton believes that we have lost touch with the meaning of beauty and have abandoned our quest to create it, much to our impoverishment. He seeks to persuade us to recapture something we have lost, to establish anew the importance of beauty, to inspire courage for those that might name ugliness in art as ugliness, and to encourage the creation of something beautiful.

Beauty can again capture our imagination. Art is no less art if it is ugly, random, purely provocative, and cynical. But if it is ugly, it should be named as such, and in its place beauty should be elevated and celebrated, lifted up as a model, and held forth as an example worth emulating.

Gratitude: Humbling and Elevating

Being grateful to a Supreme Being and to other people is an acknowledgement that there are good and enjoyable things in the world to be enjoyed in accordance with the giver’s intent. Good things happen by design. If a person believes in the spiritual concept of grace, they believe that there is a pattern of beneficence in the world that exists quite independently of their own striving and even their own existence. Gratitude thus depends upon receiving what we do not expect to receive or have not earned or receiving more than we believe we deserve. This awareness is simultaneously humbling and elevating.

– Robert A. Emmons, “Queen of the Virtues and King of the Vices” in Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue: Moral and Spiritual Change in Christian Perspective, 174

Emmons writes that gratitude increases spiritual awareness, promotes physical health, maximizes the good, protects against the negative, and strengthens relationships. It “frees us from ourselves,” though gratitude can be “hard and painful work.”

According to Emmons, to remain in the discipline of gratitude we must pay attention and actively remember what we have received that we are grateful for, which can be reinforced by practices like letter writing or keeping a journal, and through worship, particularly when our liturgies help us notice God’s activity and recall God’s faithfulness both past and present. God may have been active in our lives directly or through a neighbor. And signs of God’s faithfulness may be found in our lives today or through hearing the story of Scripture. Gratitude requires an “external focus.” A self-focused way of being inhibits gratitude.

What are you grateful for today?