Living into our skin: Every pastor’s daily wrestling
Being unplugged and away from the parish this last week has allowed me to pause and consider this question: What would it look like to “practice incarnation” daily? (I borrow this phrase from Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World). My prayer is that this practice does not solely exist in the “off-duty” spaces, but in light of recent events that have incited concern or much debate in our denomination and in our world, the invitation for clergy to “wear our skin” seems a pretty radical concept to others and certainly not removed of criticism. The hard reality is that folks want to know what we think about certain things, but we can’t help but anticipate what would come next in response.
For me, for us to “practice incarnation” daily is to dwell in the tensions that challenge what we apprehend to be a faithful Christian life. What settles unholiness or what creates a barrier for ourselves and others to respond to the invitation for discipleship? Because these are concerns that deal with our faith, but also our whole being from the skin to the emotion to the rational. “Wearing skin” is a multi-sensory experience. It’s a practice when we can think, feel, express, and name in ways no different than those wrestling with how to live into God’s image in our pews (or chairs!). It’s the ability to form and have opinions on things we face in our community and in our world each and every day.
The skin of a pastor, however, can be quite malleable. It is definitely a gift and a challenge to dwell in this body; for empathy can be a beautiful thing, but vulnerability can fester with misunderstanding. When you are pressed deeply with the pains and anguishes of God’s people, you are bound to feel stretched to certain limits. A “set apart” way of life carries a weight like no other. A weight where you are always wondering if you can genuinely be your real self.
Taylor, an Episcopal priest, puts it this way:
“My body is what connects me to all of these other people. Wearing my skin is not a solitary practice but one that brings me into communion with all these other embodied souls. It is what we have most in common with one another.”
There are moments in my own ministry and in my friends’ ministries where any touch of raw or real from the holy credentialed defies some implicit expectation. Be it the clothes we wear, our age, or even our personal relationships, we certainly feel when the sacred has been overlooked for the scrutiny. Now, this is not to say all of these things come from a bad place or negative intention, but it is to challenge us as to whether we are reclaiming and recognizing the mere dust from which we are all formed. The same dust pastors share in when we approach the communion table or renew the promises of our baptism.
When Jesus informs the disciples that much of the journey of sharing and living the gospel will involve some “dust-shaking,” (Mt 10:12-14) he could not have been more spot on. Such is the daily trial of a pastor with skin. The frequent wondering of whether or not our ministry is meaningful and bearing fruit. And I can tell you from my own wounds I’ve received in ministry, the biggest challenge I encounter is learning to justify that while someone may never see me as “enough,” I can trust in God’s eyes that I am. Yes, our presence can be overbearing and others will tell us it’s lacking or not enough. And some will walk away because of you, but you hope and pray that some deeper theological reason is more likely. What will it take for us to shake the dust with ample room for lament while maintaining a degree of grace?
In 2011, former Dean of Duke Chapel, Sam Wells, spoke at our annual gathering of United Methodists in Virginia. His sermon has stuck with me as I continue to respond to this calling we call “full time ministry.” He speaks of a time early on in his ministry where he had planned a midnight communion service on Christmas Eve at a small church, shedding tears when it seemed as if no one was going to show. The fear of failure or rejection are lingering temptations of pastors, and truly, anyone in the business of tending to the spectrum of human emotion. Wells recalls wrestling with questions such as “Am I too boring, too threatening, too intense, too in-your-face, too demanding, just too much for you?”
“The infuriating thing about church life is that, because it doesn’t involve shouting or hitting or confronting each other, there are a whole lot of people who’ve been socialized into regarding passive aggression as genuinely Christian behavior.”
You may know this phenomenon well. How can we foster spaces in our church where being fully present in our skin can be in tandem with our spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, etc.? A church that comes to worship in order to escape a prophetic word or a challenge to unholy, discriminate actions blinds itself to a significant component of Jesus’ ministry, a ministry very much informed by God’s taking on human flesh. To speak the truth in love is not an excuse for political ranting or partisan biases; it is a faithful reaction to the things that prevent others from receiving the good news of Jesus Christ, who dwelled among us, God in flesh, God wearing skin, to show us how to live.
My skin tells a unique story- scars, bruises, blemishes, tattoos, and all. A lot can be presumed about a pastor based on a single sermon, a relationship status, and yes, even “liking” something on social media. But this is not solely a challenge for us clergy, but a challenge for all of us navigating where an identity in Christ fits into our lives. Are there barriers or obstacles in the Church where you can’t fully live into your skin? Where you have been kept from speaking in gospel-flavored tones with confidence and assurance?