Futility Is Resistible
"...though this world, with devices filled, should threaten to undo us."
Make the Pain Go Away
Psychologist and author Andrew Solomon writes that there is a difference between those wanting to kill themselves and those wishing themselves dead.1 The latter want the pain to go away; the former are willing to act on that desire.
There is a similar, though less final, distinction among pastors. Some, many perhaps, often wish they could escape ministry’s sharp edges. Others act on that desire. The current American political climate inflamed by the uncertainties of the pandemic has made pastoral ministry suddenly distasteful and unbearable for many practitioners. If the reports are accurate, many more than in the past are choosing to leave. I condemn no one for such a choice. These are personal, complex, and often extremely painful decisions.
And I fully understand the desire.
In the inaugural post of Greatheart’s Table2 I mentioned that my friend BJ and I meet monthly over wings and beer. We talk about many things, and at times we talk about quitting ministry. Neither of us has acted on that, obviously, but we take turns talking each other out of doing so. In our last meeting it was my turn to want to quit. Pastoral ministry for me was feeling unbearably futile.
The Expletives in Our Head
In 2020, no one could come to church. Now some of my parishioners are choosing not to.
But it is not just that. She goes on:
When others tell me that 47 people have joined their church since the beginning of the pandemic, expletives dance in my head.
I, too, at time entertain those expletives.
Further peering into modern pastoral experience, Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Policy Center and an evangelical Christian, in another Atlantic essay, comes close to the source of futility. Referring to a conversation he had with Alan Jacobs, a professor at Baylor University, Wehner writes,
Culture teaches us what matters and what views we should take about what matters. Our current political culture, Jacobs argued, has multiple technologies and platforms for catechizing—television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, and podcasts among them. People . . . subject themselves to its catechesis all day long, every single day, hour after hour after hour.
Slowing the Train
When I was a boy my cousin, Danny, and I played by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks near where I lived. We threw stones at the passing freight trains trying to catch the ridges on the box cars. When our aim was good the stone would shatter. The train, of course, never slowed.
Conscientious pastors labor over their sermons for hours, so as to instruct, to catechize, their congregants well. They pour their hearts into preaching those sermons. The congregation spends thirty minutes listening to the sermon and then six to ten hours the rest of the day scrolling their phones and listening to cable news.
The stone shatters. The train is not slowed. Expletives dance in our head. And resistance, say the Borg,3 is futile.
Grumpy Prophets Are We All
So I needed my friend BJ to remind me that futility itself is in fact resistible. He insisted that if God did not let Elijah quit there was no way he was letting me off the hook just because I was in a funk.
Coming off his greatest sermon, Elijah protested to God concerning his own sense of futility.
“I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:10)
I think expletives may have danced in Elijah’s head as well. “The people are listening to everyone but me. Why bother doing this any longer. No one cares. It’s futile.”
But God didn’t buy it. His encouragement to Elijah was gentle but firm and it included this bit of data:
Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:18)
I protested to BJ that seven thousand didn’t seem a very large number, nevertheless I agreed that I needed to keep such things in mind. God was in charge. I signed up for another day. Feelings of futility (though not necessarily the associated expletives) must be, in the end, resisted.
Ministry in the Mess
This all brought to mind missionary-author Edith Schaeffer’s wonderful image of the tapestry.4 On one side of a tapestry is a beautiful and intricate work of art. The other side, however, is a tangled and seemingly meaningless mess of threads.
We pastor on the back side, in the mess and tangle where people live. Though unable to see the beauty the Artist is weaving, we trust him to make it beautiful.
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Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (United States: Scribner, 2015), page 244.
Though this is a Star Trek reference, it has an older provenance. The phrase shows up with reference to the Roman Empire in the movie Ben-Hur. Messala says to Ben-Hur, “Persuade your people that their resistance to Rome is stupid. It is worse than stupid, futile!”
I believe that Schaeffer develops this image in her book Affliction: A Compassionate Look at the Reality of Pain and Suffering (United States: Baker Books, 2012). But it may be elsewhere.