Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sympathy, Rather Than Contempt

In my pastoral work, and especially as I'm in a mainstream Protestant church in the Northeastern United States, I deal mostly with issues of mortality.  My congregation is older, often elderly, and some have already been told the name of their executioner.  There is nothing that more wonderfully focuses the mind than the realization of inevitable death.  For normal people, it separates the real from the nonsense.

To quote from a pop song, "The worst of life seems beautiful, when it's seen in full retreat."  Or, from Warren Zevon, when he had learned of his terminal disease, "Enjoy every sandwich".

Outside of my parish, however, I often have to deal with nonsense, especially from those who live in the general neighborhood of the church.  They complain, you see.  As none of the complainers attend our church or contribute to its mission, they think we're to serve as a prop in their New England country life fantasy™.  They see us as rather like that HO scale church that came with my childhood train set, along with a miniature depot, grocery store, and "fillin' station".

They don't realize that they've moved into a "mixed use" neighborhood and that churches aren't props, they're a form of business that works every day of the week.  That can be a hard lesson.  When they complain to me, especially when I've spent a day responding to the sick and the dying, I don't take it with any kind of seriousness.  Juxtaposed with issues of mortality, the complainers tend to garner my sympathy, rather than contempt.

In my current parish, I've received the following over the past years:

1.  Your lawn care provider is too noisy and inefficient.
2.  The lawn care workers appear to be Mexican.
3.  The Christmas creche figures on the church's front lawn need to be re-positioned so that the camel isn't as prominent.
4.  If you fly that Princeton University flag from the rectory on game day again, I will come to your house and punch you.  [Not said in jest, by the way.]
5.  There is too much traffic on weekends.
6.  You ring bells early on Sunday mornings.
7.  The gutter is bent on the north side of the rectory.
8.  Etc., etc., etc.

My responses:

1.  Then tell the lawn care business, not me.
2.  They're Ecuadorian.  Besides, they cross themselves when they pass the columbarium, so they have a respect for our facility that is not always manifest in our neighbors.
3.  It's our creche and our camel; we do with it what we like.
4.  I'm an old Marine from east Cleveland, if you want to throw down with me understand that I've been in as many fights as Mannix and I like it.  This beard covers scar tissue. 
5.  Yes, when we hold a funeral service for a beloved and involved member of the community on a Saturday morning that is attended by at least a third of the town, there will be traffic.
6.  And always will.  Just be thankful I don't ring them every morning, like many churches.
7.  So?  Your roof needs to be replaced.  That's your business, though, not mine.
8.  Etc., etc., etc.

I wade through this froth, and do so in such a way that my parishioners know little or nothing of it, so that I can promise them a stray hour each week of peace and prayer, away from the tiny vexations of 21st century life.  If you ever wonder why your pastor seems so tired, it's because he or she has been protecting you from those who, ultimately, take umbrage at the presence of proclaiming Christians and announce it through their first-world concerns.