This post is part of a blog series on Pomomusings, discussing pastoral identity. To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.
The kind, attentive seminary intern who has been hosting me as I lead worship this weekend gets my attention.
“I’m ready for you, this service – I’ve put tissue boxes on all the tables.”
We laugh together, but the comment lingers.
I’m an ordained United Methodist pastor – a hard-won credentialing, a nearly decade-long process of meetings and board interviews and mentorships. I was a full-time pastor, but for the last eight years, I’ve been a full-time caregiver – first for the three children I bore in four years, more recently for my husband, also a pastor, who has come through an experience I still have trouble believing is our story: a stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a failed course of chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, two years of frightening, grueling aftermath.
He is stable now, mostly. The children are older now – 8, 6, and 4. And my vocation has tenaciously oozed into the available gaps. I’ve become a sort of freelance pastor, a writer, a singer/songwriter, the kind of preacher who fills in for other people and leads special events.
My first book was about miscarriage, pregnancy loss. Someone on a random Amazon review said that it was a “bit dramatized,” and I winced, because my fear was that she was right. Writing the book was one thing: alone with my computer and my God, it was very easy to be real. However, I remember the first public reading I did, remember the sudden skip in my heart as I realized what I was about to read aloud. I suddenly felt like everything I was about to say was private, embarrassing, way too revelatory.
It ended up, however, that it was precisely the private and embarrassing storytelling, both mine and other women’s, that made this book matter for people in pain. And this uncomfortable practice has become, somehow, someway, my role for this season: speaking as authentically as I can about God’s trustworthiness through loss and grief. A bizarre manifestation of pastoral identity – at least, that’s how it feels.
I was on a plane not long ago, and I sat next to a delightful man. It turned out that he had been the caregiver for his wife through a long, ultimately fatal neuromuscular disease. He said, “She was a saint. She never complained. It was a joy to take care of her.” And I believed him, because that was true, but I thought some other things might have been true as well. Later in the conversation, we were talking about my husband’s experiences, and I looked at him and said carefully, “There were some days, when he was sickest, that deep down I just wanted him to go ahead and die. And I felt so guilty, because he was going through so much, and that wasn’t the kind of person I wanted to be – but I just wanted it to be over, for both of our sakes.” He sat stock-still. And then the tears came, and a story flooded out, a story of understandable but painful emotional abuse from a woman who was in the grip of debilitating illness, a story of isolation and depression and one grueling moment in the crucible after another. He said, “I wished she would die, too. Not at the beginning, but when she was so frustrated and sick at the end. I’ve never said that out loud. Not once.”
Pastoral identity is strange. It was easier to quantify when I was serving a congregation, holding bread and cup up, wearing my alb and stole, spending countless hours “ordering the life of the church,” earning a salary and a pension and attending All. The. Meetings. In these days I feel like a brutal priest as well as a shepherd. I wander from flock to flock, and the sharp edges of my words slice into the pain people are hiding from themselves. But I am perhaps more fully a pastor than ever, as I tell over and over the good news that because of our God’s love, we don’t ultimately need to fear truth, not even the truth about the darkest corners of our own souls. This is the story and the hope I’ve been given to bear, and although the Midwestern part of me hates being the preacher for whom they put out the tissues, I give God thanks that I have this privilege of watching our own small suffering become one of God’s ways of reaching other people in their own pain.
Elise Erikson Barrett is a United Methodist pastor, writer, editor, and singer/songwriter. Originally from Indianapolis, she makes her home in South Carolina with her husband, three children, and two dogs. She is the author of What Was Lost: A Christian Journey through Miscarriage, and has recently released her first full-length album, Awake. She warmly invites you to connect with her at the site Adam designed, www.elisebarrett.com.