It should come as no surprise to folks that the job of being a pastor is pretty stressful. Interestingly, being a minister was wedged between being an assisted living coordinator and marriage counselor in a recent CNN article. If only the writer of the article had understood that we often have ample opportunity to do those jobs too!
In all seriousness, I think most people get it when it comes to the demands put on a minister, and while the stress should be no surprise to most, for some, it often is. All of us will eventually get the occasional comment about how we “only” have to work one day a week, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Feel that? That was your blood pressure rising as your inner voice mimicked the voice of “that” particular parishioner.
So what is a poor pastor to do? Combine this picture with all the perennial stressors of family life, bills, the present state of the world, and the endless litany of social ills to be found only a finger click away, I think it is fair to say that for all of us, especially ministers, sometimes approach what we might characterize as despair.
It’s not that we hate what we do; it’s not that we don’t think that God has gone radio silent; it’s not that with a little quiet time we can regain some calm amidst the storm — no. The best I can do in describing this feeling is in terms of weight. It feels like we carry an additional hundred pound sack on our backs, and it weighs on our hearts and our minds, and if we aren’t careful, that weight will sap us of our strength.
So, again, what to do? For me, prayer is helpful, as is Scripture study, but there are times I turn to poetry and allow the words to soothe me and remind me of my place in the larger scheme things. Feeling those feelings, I remember a poem from Wendell Berry:
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” Powerful stuff. For me, resting in that grace evokes the religious dimension of my life. The words of Jesus and the prayers we pray for one another bring moments of rest beside the still waters my soul seeks. (Psalm 23) Yet here in Berry’s poem, there is a need to both embody that reality, and to be enveloped in an embodied reality when our brains are a whirl lest we forget that even the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) “In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,” he takes a walk outside, looks at the stars, and sees in the cool moment of evening a world that speaks a sublime and marvelous mystery to him. In that moment, he is free because he rests in the knowledge that the same mystery is at work in him.
Sometimes, finding peace amidst despair is simply a matter of watching, listening and giving ourselves over, for it is in giving that we learn to receive.