This post is the set up for a larger project that I am hoping to start over the next weeks. I apologize if it feels like preamble, but that is exactly what it is intended to be.
Someone very close to me once called me brilliant. “Brilliant” is not an insult. The context, which I won’t go too much into, was that the person was enumerating a list of my virtues. “Brilliant” was first on the list. It was meant to be a compliment.
There was a time in my life when being called “brilliant” would have done it for me. It was a time when I believed that make my way in the world, I needed to be smarter than others. I believe that to be intelligent, and frankly, more intelligent than others was the thinng that would set me apart from the crowd. It was how I would make a name for myself. There was an arrogance attached to that. There was a great deal of ego.
This was something that I took into my professional life. My first couple years of preaching, people would say to me “You really made me think”. That was a win for me! To have intellect so great that it stirred the intellect of others, that was my purpose. I could be a great preacher, because I was insightful, clever, and witty. I could lead a good Bible study that would present complex new ideas in ways that were relevant to daily life. I could articulate plans for the future of the congregation and I could strategically plan how the organization would move into the future by better utilizing the resources at its disposal. This is what brilliant people can do.
But “brilliant” doesn’t equal “good pastor”. There was a distance between me and the people I wanted to serve. I was an egghead. A brain in a jar. “If I don’t have love,” Paul said, “I am a clanging gong, a crashing cymbal”. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my people. I LOVED my people in my first call so much that it hurt. But they didn’t feel it. I was a smart kid to them and all they saw from me were words, thoughts, and ideas, not love. Several conversations toward the end of my time at the church reinforced this to me. I was smart, but smart isn’t enough.
Being brilliant got me nowhere.
I had another conversation with someone very close to me. A church member in my congregation after I left my devastating first call. This church member took me to lunch. It felt routine. Then it turned confrontational. They didn’t mean for it to be a confrontation, but I felt attacked. “People like you,” I was told. “Your sermons are great! But you come across as cold.”
Cold. I was devastated. There it was, in stark terms. I’m not pastoral. I’m cold. I’m a robot. To say that this conversation was traumatic would not be an exaggeration. It has changed the entire course of my life. To hear flat out from someone that I liked and trusted that I was cold cut me to the heart. I am a pastor. A pastor cannot be cold. Something had to change. I had to connect with the side of me that felt things. Love couldn’t just be an abstract for me. It had to be a felt, lived reality. I had a follow up conversation with that person. My initial response was to be angry with them for making an accusation of that kind, but in the following conversation, I thanked them. Unknowingly, they started me on a journey of self discovery toward that which I will become. Of course, I now hold them responsible for my transition from borderline “T” on the Myers-Briggs to solid “F”. They will pay for that!
“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
― Abraham Joshua Heschel
Fred Rogers said something similar. He talked about how when he was young he admired the strength of people like bodybuilder Charles Atlas, but that as he got older, he admired the strength of those who showed genuine kindness, especially to kids. Brilliance and strength, physical strength, are not virtues. They are gifts, assets, tools. But they are not virtues. As much as I would like to cultivate my gifts, and brag of accomplishments, it is better for me to cultivate my virtues. That, for me, has meant getting out of my head and into my heart. It means less loving people in the abstract, and more loving people in their every day realities, in real tangible ways that can be felt. It means not dazzling people with intellect, but being with them in sorrow. It’s a lot more about being present than being competent and I hate that. I would much rather be competent!
Yesterday I posted a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together” that I found quoted in Jean Vanier’s “From Brokenness to Community” on Facebook. The quote, adjusted for inclusivity is “(S)he who loves community destroys community; (S)he who loves [others] builds community” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Vanier went on to say that love cannot be in the abstract. It has to be with the real “others” that we encounter in our day to day lives. And as the founder of the L’Arche community, Vanier found that often the place where love is most “real” is among the poor and outcasts of our society.
So I’m thinking, ironically, about how to get out of my head and into my heart and hands. And I’m thinking about community as a crucible for this kind of love. And I’m thinking about the kinds of people that I need to have in my life to make this abstract into a reality.
And I’m thinking that I need to do less thinking…