“Why are you wearing that shirt?” It was a perfectly reasonable question, one a clergy shirt tends to elicit. The shirt invites the question; the question opens a door for conversation. Sometimes talk turns to where a person attends worship and why they haven’t been in a while. Other times it heads in the direction of frustrations with organized religion. Occasionally, ok, rarely, conversation takes the tone of honest questions about faith and life.
But when a second grader asks the question, he’s probably just wondering why I’m wearing such a funny shirt. He’s not probing for my denominational affiliation, or what sort of statement I’m trying to make. In fact, he may be wondering if I’ve mixed up my dates and dressed up for Halloween a bit prematurely.
“Well, I’m a pastor.” I’d just met Diego over a carton of chocolate milk and some mandarin oranges in the elementary school cafeteria. Our other table buddies had already sent their trays down the magical conveyor belt that takes in dirty dishes and spits out clean ones. Though they were on their way out to recess, Diego apparently had table-cleaning duty. Damp towel and squeegee in hand, Diego was at least momentarily more interested in talking to the new guy with the funny shirt than wiping up lunchable leftovers.
The church where I am a pastor sends nearly thirty reading tutors and lunch buddies to Diego’s elementary school. The partnership is new, and the possibilities exciting. Working to provide a quality education for all children is a much a part of the United Methodist DNA as potlucks and small groups.
After I’d made my declaration, I expected a response like, “My pastor doesn’t wear a shirt like that,” or “Pastor of what church?” Instead, he shot back, “What does a pastor do?” Wait, what? Hold the phone. Pump the brakes. I have a second grade seeker on my hands here!
I stumbled over a quick laundry list of things I do: read the Bible and pray with people, preach, I do weddings and funerals…you know, pastoral things. Diego cocked his head and squinted his eyes, waiting for a word he could grab hold of. I was speaking a foreign language and forgot to bring my pocket translator. Reaching for the right words, I blurted out, “I help people become friends with God.” Bingo!
For not knowing what a pastor does, he certainly knew how to respond to a lame one: politely nod and go back to what you were doing. It’s true pastors do all the things I named, and those things are important. Those things just weren’t what Diego was waiting to hear.
I remember an interviewer asking one of my mentors, “What is the mission of the church?” He wisely responded with something like, “Today it is caring for a family grieving the death of a loved one. Tomorrow it is helping a family build a bridge out of poverty. The next day it is showing a depressed teenager that nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
I’m only 3 1/2 months into being a pastor. Some days I feel like a kid wearing a new pair of shoes I haven’t quite grown into yet. Diego helped me confront the temptation to deal in universals and generalizations. 3 1/2 months in, and here’s what a second grader taught me: God is calling me to be a pastor of particularities, to be a pastor who meets people in the particularities of life, and to proclaim the God of Israel who became flesh in Jesus, was crucified, died, and rose again, and who is with us still through the Holy Spirit.
What does a pastor do? On Tuesdays I help first graders learn to read words like “big,” “cat,” and “wet,” then I hang out with second graders over a frosty carton of chocolate milk and mandarin oranges.