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Everyday Practical Theologians

When I started this series, I didn’t know I was starting a series. I was responding to a request for advice to young women leaning into a call to ministry. The request was specifically for ‘practical advice.’ One of the first things that came to mind as I rapidly made my list was this one:

7. Think theologically. About everything. From placement of the communion table to potluck dinners, from where you park your car at the church to what you say at the graveside, think theologically about all of it. Then say it out loud. Write it down. Weave it into your prayers and sermons and everyday conversations. This is practical advice. As a pastor you are to be about thinking theologically and helping others to the same. You are the resident everyday practical theologian (hospital, barracks or church house). You will not be good at this at first and you will have to keep trying. Read those who are good at it like Barbara Brown Taylor, Eugene Peterson, Anne Lamott, Walter Bruggemann, Wendell Berry, Parker Palmer, Alice Walker.

I suppose my first noteworthy venture into practical theology was in a preschool Sunday school class. The teacher asked, “Does anyone know where God came from?” Not a question you should ask preschoolers, really. Unless you actually want an answer. Rhetorical questions have no purpose in minds so young.

Being a preschooler myself, I didn’t miss a beat. Surely I knew. So I raised my hand: “The fairy godmother?”

Of course I thought this way. The I had a brand new baby brother. I knew where he came from. Well, not really, but I did know my mom went to the hospital, and she got a baby. I got a new pull-string Winnie the Pooh from the gift shop. (Or did that belong to my brother, and I just played with it?) I may be fuzzy on where Winnie the Pooh came from or who he belonged to, but it made perfect sense to me to know where God came from.

So basically, I’m saying I came out a feminist theologian. Nearly all preschoolers are theologians. We just squelch that impulse early and often.

The questions of cause and effect, meaning and purpose, death and sexuality, are all prominent in most minds from the time language begins to emerge. Human beings need to understand the minds of those who take care of us. We need to predict the feelings and meanings found on their faces and in what they say. We need this skill in order to survive.  Even the smallest people are curious and interested in how things came to be, and where they will go when they no longer work properly. We want to belong and know what to expect and if we are loved. These are all theological concerns at their heart.

These questions persist over a lifetime, although they may be buried in either a pile of certainties or a hidden in a cloud of apathy. Yet, most adults still want to know how and why things are the way they are. They wonder about the meaning and cause of things that happen, and how they fit into the world.

As pastors we are on the front line of hearing these questions in many forms. We are also in one of the roles in the present culture which gives us a front row seat to witness the struggles people face with these questions. In an up-close-and-personal way we become the sounding board, holding space and often the target of frustrations, doubts and pain around the big questions. We are also privileged to be companions, witnesses and midwives to amazing and creative courage in the face of humanity’s biggest questions.

This is what we hear. As pastors we are also called on to speak out of these questions. It is not that answers or wisdom need always prevail, nor could they. Yet responses informed by our own experience, the wider traditions of wisdom (like scripture and history), and the stories from our communities of faith, are within the range of things we are expected to do. In sermons and prayers and everyday conversations.  In other words we are called upon to notice, reflect on and speak up about the big things: life, death, God, history, meaning, human character, struggle, doubt, emotion, and faith.

There are not any simple answers. The days of the fairy godmother are gone. But the real struggle over the character and presence of God remains alive and lively. How we read the faces, gestures, bodies and minds of others in our care will be vitally important for a vibrant ministry to emerge. Our willingness to bear witness to the struggles in ourselves and within and among those we serve go to the heart of being a pastor.

And clearly it is never too early to start.

This advice to “think theologically” may sound vague or too theoretical. However, it is among the most practical of tasks for a pastor. It gets to the messiness and vulnerability of every life. And what we say (or don’t say) matters. And sometimes loving and respectful presence is the only appropriate response. It might be the most practical and theological thing we can do. Then so be it.