An unfortunate expectation that goes along with being a pastor with a Master’s degree is that I should know things. But knowing things is much harder than you think, especially when the subject matter is an infinite God. Granted, I think I do a pretty good job at knowing what I am supposed to know, but much more often I find that I’m now painfully aware of what I don’t know.
I went to college to study pastoral ministry, and by the time I graduated I had learned how little I knew about being a pastor. I went to seminary to study the Bible, and by the time I graduated I had learned how much I have left to learn about the Bible. Now I’ve been a pastor for two years, and not only do I still think I have much to learn about ministry and the Bible, but I’m realizing how clueless I can be concerning all this stuff as it relates to daily life and concerning human nature in general.
It’s good to know what I don’t know, but it’s also good to know that my chosen field has such breadth. Ministry is a huge job. It can’t be taught solely in the classroom. It has to be lived and experienced.
Likewise, the Bible is a huge book. Anyone can take it and read it and understand its Gospel message, but the longer one spends in its pages, the more one begins to make connections and see its depth. It is so very deep, and sometimes I feel like I’ve just begun to stick my head below the surface.
About a year ago I re-read one of my favorite books, All Creatures Great and Small, the memoirs of a young veterinarian in rural Britain in the 1940’s. I have read the book many times before, but I have never related to the main character, James, quite like I have this time. Just like me, he is starting out in his first job after too many years of school. He has sat through countless hours of classes that made his chosen profession sound much more neat and clean than it really is.
And then suddenly he finds himself up in the middle of the night, shirtless in a cold barn while lying in hay and muck with his arm all the way up inside a birthing cow. In his words,
“I could look back now on six months of hard practical experience. I had treated cows, horses, pigs, dogs, and cats seven days a week; in the morning, afternoon, evening, and through the hours when the world was asleep. I had calved cows and farrowed sows till my arms ached and the skin peeled off. I had been knocked down, trampled on, and sprayed liberally with every kind of muck. I had seen a fair cross section of the diseases of animals. And yet a little voice had begun to niggle at the back of my mind; it said I knew nothing, nothing at all.”
I know that voice. I’m not sure when that voice at the back of my mind has been loudest. Maybe it was when I was getting muck all over my leg while trying to wrap the horns on a steer for our church rodeo. Maybe it was when I was looking back into the blank expressions on the faces of the kids in my youth group while realizing, “I have no idea how to communicate with teens.” Maybe it was when I kicked the front door to my house because I was powerless to stop one person’s bad decisions that were hurting the lives of so many I’d come to care for.
Whenever I am tempted to be discouraged by how little I know and how little I can do, I remember that my smallness is nothing compared to God’s immensity. Thankfully, the reason I feel small and unprepared and clueless in ministry is not because I am bad at it or I don’t know what I am doing, but because God is so much bigger than anything I can ever comprehend or put into words.
No matter how good I get at talking to teens, I can never fully express God to them. I will always be at a loss for how to explain his love, which is bigger than words can describe.
No matter how good I get at leading Bible studies or preaching, I will never mine the depths of Scripture. Unlike the dwarves in the Mines of Moria, I can never mine too greedily or too deep. I will only ever find more of God.
No matter how good I get at understanding people, I will never grasp their emotions, their thoughts, or their motivations. The world hidden behind another’s eyes is a world I can never enter. I must depend instead on the Holy Spirit who goes where I cannot. He is the real minister. But sometimes he asks us to be his hands, his feet, his voicebox anyways.
Now matter how good I get at wrapping steer horns, I will never not feel at least a little out of place at the rodeo, just like I will never not feel a little out of place as a pastor. I will always feel a little silly in the pulpit. I will always wonder, ‘Why me?’ not out of regret, but out of astonishment that God chooses me, sinner though I am.
Who am I to teach people about God? Why this responsibility of trying to explain the infinite to the finite from my own finite mind? Why this honor of weekly immersion in an infinite book, guided by an infinite Spirit?
I don’t know. And maybe that’s the point. I know nothing. And I know God. And that is enough.