The Kids Brought Me Back
by Pastor Daniel Pugh“Daddy, how come there aren’t any dinosaurs at the zoo?”
A fine question for a three-year old. It belongs to my son, Jacob, as he turns back to the entrance of the zoo and begs us to return and find the dinosaur habitat. “Dinosaurs,” I say, “are all gone. They died a long time ago.” I answer timidly wondering how to approach death on a massive scale to a sponge-like and often sensitive mind. We continued leaving the zoo. My answer had sufficed... or so I thought.
A few days later the question of Dinosaurs comes up again. Jacob looked deep in thought as he spoke, “Daddy, did Dinosaurs die a long time ago, like Jesus?”
After first considering whether or not I should comment on his confusing the Cretaceous period with the Roman Empire, I decide to simply answer his question:
“Yes. Along time ago like Jesus. Except Jesus rose from the dead and is now in heaven.”
I waited for his rebuttal: “Well, aren’t there dinosaurs in heaven?”
His line of questioning seems so matter-of-fact. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was scripted. I wonder if, someday, he’ll be a lawyer...He’s staring at me, I’d better answer:
“Heaven is a wonderful place” is all I can manage to say. He seems momentarily satisfied, but now I’m less sure of things.
The thought of T-Rexes awaiting us at the pearly gates is an image I cannot seem to get out of my head. Since that conversation a year ago, my thoughts of the afterlife are colorful and imaginative scenes where all things are possible and all dreams can be realized. Prior to this encounter I had imagined the afterlife as a place where people sit in La-Z-Boys made out of clouds, but now that utopia seems boring. Where is the creativity? Where are the dinosaurs? I now see this former vision as what it really is: a sedentary lifestyle devoid of work.
At the time of this conversation, I was a pastoral intern (or Vicar) whose work was taking over my life so much that my notion of heaven was designed around avoiding it. I began to realize that this is spiritually and theologically dangerous for me as a pastor.
It starts out innocently enough, a council meeting here, a confirmation class there. Then there’s new members classes and home-communions; liturgies, bible studies, and sermons to prepare for. Every time I left the house, Jacob asks me if I’m headed to “work,” a question to which he already knows the answer. He asks, I imagine, as if to “let the records show” that I’m out the door again. And as the court reporter in my mind hacks away at a typewriter, the bailiff and judge in my mind shake their head simultaneously.
Here’s the problem: I like what I do. And it is not the hours that I spend at “work” that were the problem- it is that I find it irresistible to stop working once I’ve left the office. I write sermons in the shower. I plan bible studies while playing with the kids. I construct emails in my head while I eat. Over the period of a couple of months I had found myself always spinning my wheels. If I couldn’t sleep I would get up and check email, or check workingpreacher.org for more sermon ideas.
Clergy burn-out is something taught in seminary. But like most things that need to be learned, it is best learned the hard way. I was burning out. I had found a use for every second of the day. I answered emails within seconds of their arrival. I was on-top of everything: the master of my domain. But spiritually I was running on empty. I was like that race-car driver who refused to take the pit stop and was going to ride of fumes until the finish-line. Except, in my case, there was no finish-line in sight. I hadn’t prayed in weeks. I hadn’t taken the time to read scripture or listen to my own thoughts. I had thought that efficiency was the key, but I was dead wrong. I now realize that when it comes to being a good pastor, efficiency is not effectiveness.
After finishing internship I was given a book by a friend. This book is the memoir or renowned writer Eugene Peterson, and it is simply titled, The Pastor. In it Peterson recalls his own run-in with burn out, where it had gotten so bad that he tried to resign. In a meeting with the church elders, he explains, “I pray in fits and starts. I feel like I’m in a hurry all the time. When I visit or have lunch with you, I’m not listening to you; I’m thinking of ways that I can get the momentum going again. I don’t want to live like this, either with you or with my family… I want to be a pastor who prays, I want to be an unbusy pastor.” For Peterson as it was for me, his efforts to be efficient were eating away at his calling. We feel called to be ministers, but we get stuck administering. For Peterson, stopping ‘work’ long enough to have this conversation with the church elders awakened his calling and renewed his spiritual being.
As for me, there was only one person who could get me out of my funk. My favorite theologian, the person I plagiarize in all of my sermons, my son Jacob. After a day at his Lutheran Preschool, Jacob turned to me and asked, “Daddy, how can God be in everything?”
I froze. The hamster wheel in my brain stopped. My heart-rate slowed down for the first time in a long time. I picked my oldest boy up and hugged him, grateful for lifting the spell that was over me. Out of the fog I searched my mind for a satisfactory answer to the first true theological question I had pondered in months. Finally an answer came, not from my logical thought process, or the automated biblical messages I was used to giving people, but from my own sense of self. “Because God made us that way. There is part of God in everything. That is how we love.”
“Yes, even rocks.”
Our other son, Thomas, is 19 months old. I can already tell that he will push me to grow in new and brave ways like his older brother does. There is something about kids that stretch your limits of time, sleep, and imagination. It was my kids that brought me back. I started praying again, seeing again, believing again.
Around this time every year I think about all the kids out there who show up to Sunday School. Kids whose parents were brought back to church after years of being away, wanting their families’ lives to be shaped by the church. I pray that new and casual worshipers are given a warm welcome. I also pray for parents who don’t believe, and I wonder how they get by. I hope they find networks of people who love and care for them as well.
They say that it takes the whole village to raise a child; but to me it takes a village of children to remind the rest of us what life is about. As Paul tells us, “love knows no bounds.” And when I think about it, kids know no bounds. Dinosaurs in heaven, rocks that love us, fathers who are worth talking to even when they are clearly disengaged. Kids are amazing. They bring us back. May they one day teach the rest of us to act like children of God.