Admiration II: ‘Vicar of Large Things’

My Dear Shepherds,

A friend, Andy, sent me an intriguing poem by the Welsh poet and pastor, R. S. Thomas, that begins,

I was vicar of large things

in a small parish.

Andy, who pastors in a little Minnesota burg of 300 people, reads that poem every week. His wife framed it for his study. He likes it, he says, “because it speaks against the desire for great things in a great place.” I admire him and so many other pastors like him who see the “large things” where they serve, regardless of whether their parish is big or small.

By “large things” the poet seemed to have in mind the deep matters of the souls in his flock, “depths in some of them I shrank back from ….” Sometimes, because a person is silent or inarticulate, we do not see how deeply they know God or how deeply they want him.

But Thomas also said, “Their eyes looked at me and were the remains of flowers on an old grave.” Andy told me of spending an afternoon riding a combine with a farmer in his church. “We would share something vulnerable,” he wrote, “and then quickly go back to weather, sports, politics, anything less uncomfortable than grief, sorrow, God.” Large things in deep wells.

Thomas wrote, “I was there, I felt, to blow on ashes that were too long cold.” Can you picture a Boy Scout rubbing two sticks together over dry leaves, puffing away in hopes of a wee flame? Pastoring is long, slow, painstaking work. Sometimes, it feels like the fire has died and we’re supposed to blow on these ashes and get it started. Maybe too little, too late. I admire pastors who are doing that.

One more vivid image:

… the draught

out of their empty places

came whistling so that I wrapped

myself in the heavier clothing

of my calling, speaking of light and love

in the thickening shadows of their kitchens.

Andy says his calling “is what sustains me when I feel like I’m just preaching and visiting and praying, and thinking how is this week different from last week or last year.” He is young, well-educated, and could surely leave the soybean fields for the suburbs, but he wants to be where he is. He sought the small parish, in fact. “I lean on the fact that God has called me to be a pastor. He called me to pastor here, and I’m going to do that until he calls me somewhere else (and I’m not looking to go).” I admire him.

A small parish is not a nobler assignment than a large one. The grass often seems greener in the other shepherd’s pasture. Small church pastors would be surprised how many of their colleagues in large churches would like to change places with them. Whatever the size of your church, I admire you who push against the pressures of “running a church” so that you can find space to care for souls.

Our calling is “speaking of light and love,” those vast truths found in Christ which we pour into the deep wells of our people’s souls. I don’t mean the complexities of theology that we sometimes drag into sermons but the deep things—the beauty of holiness, faith like a little child’s, the kingdom as tiny as a mustard seed and more valuable than a pearl, the Father and his servants who rejoice over one sinner come home, and the mystery long hidden and now made plain, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

With great admiration,

Pastor Lee

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