By Matthew Dodrill
Last summer I came across a profoundly moving article in The New York Times titled, “Can Parenthood and Pessimism Live Side by Side?” The author, Mark O’Connell, lyrically describes the dissonance between the joys of parenthood and the guilt-ridden anxiety of dragging a new life into this evil world by compulsion (hey, the newborns don’t get a vote!).
The contrast is perfectly illustrated by the image of O’Connell’s bedside table, where E.M. Cioran’s grim book The Trouble With Being Born is sandwiched between his 16-month-old son’s Dora Goes to the Dentist and Little Blue Truck. The disparate ideas of a pessimistic philosophy and the innocent optimism of children’s literature mirror the parental tension of gleefully welcoming a newborn and yet sorrowfully regretting the bleak predicament this child has just entered. And as a father of two-year-old twin girls, I can assure you that this tension is very real.
If O’Connell believes fear and guilt are active ingredients of parental love, I would suggest that they are also, to some degree, elements of pastoral love.
Pastors are not exactly “parents” to their congregations, but rather steward-servants (1 Cor. 4:1) who oversee the life of their local churches. But of course, the role of steward-service naturally elicits a parental-like sense of both joy and fear – and even guilt. We take great pride in our members’ growth and discipleship, yet we fear for their well-being and feel guilty when we cannot prevent or curtail their suffering.
I was recently preaching at the church where I am a pastoral intern when an elderly woman in the congregation suffered a heart attack. We stopped the service to tend to her and she was rushed to the hospital. Re-entering the pulpit, I looked out upon all the concerned faces and realized that O’Connell was right – life is as precious as the toddler who giggles while reading Dora Goes to the Dentist, yet there is also a certain trouble with being born.
The pastor, who celebrates birth and provides care for the bereaved, knows this as well as anyone. But the irreconcilability of these realities – albeit existing contiguously – does not mean that we should adopt a wholly pessimistic outlook. This is not really about optimism or pessimism; there’s a time for both (just read the Psalms). Rather, in light of the resurrection of our Lord, it’s about hope.
So before continuing my sermon, I prayed with this congregation and offered them words of hope and healing for our stricken sister (she’s okay, by the way). Neither the affirmation of life nor the threat of death departed from our consciousness. That’s not how hope works.
Hope resides in the tension between life and death, which is why, despite the troubles of being born, we still delight in having children. And that is why, in light of the resurrection of Jesus, pastors offer reminders of hope despite the angst that sometimes accompanies our vocation. Such is the nature of being steward-servants.
Matthew Dodrill is a third-year student at Duke Divinity School and is currently serving as an intern at the First Baptist Church of South Boston, Va.