Would you help us think about the vocation of pastor in this contemporary cultural moment? What is our work in the social and political milieu of 2022?
Several months ago a long-time friend asked me to join him and a group of his good and serious friends from across the country, to think about this question. From north and south, east and west they came to Colorado Springs, each one a pastor of a “First Presbyterian Church” somewhere. In the ecclesial geography of America, history being what it is, there are churches like this in most cities, right next to the city park, the post office, and the city hall.
But over time, cities change, and churches do too. And given the mess of this moment, with the church too often only a mirror of the polarizing politics of left vs. right, what is our calling?
These are my questions too, though I am not a pastor. I feel their weight, and often groan at what is, longing for something more, for something much more. I chose to speak about two words, discernment and desire, and rooted my thinking in St. Augustine.
1500 years ago seems so faraway. But if we are willing to set our hubris aside, certain as we are tempted to be that no one has ever had to live in a more difficult time and place, then perhaps we can hear the wisdom of my very gifted friend, the British poet Steve Turner, who has so simply said, “History repeats itself. Has to. Nobody listens.”
The world in which Augustine lived and moved and had his being were the waning years of the Roman Empire. What was imagined to be eternal was falling apart. Not having the perspective of “the decline and fall,” but seeing its implosion all around him, he wrestled with the questions that always matter most. Who are we? Why are we? What is ours to do?
And he wrote a book we call “The City of God,” a magisterial reflection on the meaning of history, and of human responsibility in history, brilliantly weaving together metanarrative and narrative for centuries to come— at least for all with ears to hear.
At its heart it is a serious look at love, and the reality that the ways we order our loves will be the way we order our lives, not only personally but publicly. Getting that right is the challenge for every age— for every citizen, for every city, for every society. When we disorder them, we stumble, often badly, and there is no flourishing for anyone anywhere.
So we spent hours thinking about discernment and desire, learning from Augustine about thinking things through— the most complex questions of our time and place —but also about the nature of our longings, about what we love and why we love what we love, knowing that— for blessing and curse —our longings and loves are the truest window into what is most important to us.
Given that they were Presbyterians, we talked about “Braveheart” and John Knox, about conventicles and the “killing times” in Scotland, as well as Lesslie Newbigin and John Stott, Simone Weil and Wendell Berry, the band U2, the filmmaker Terence Malick, and the Western writer Louis L’Amour, doing our best to tether our conversation in the world that is ours.
Discernment and desire? It is one thing to know what is real and true and right; what must be is that we desire that too.