Two Questions for Young Pastors

For ten weeks this year, my husband, Dan, and I made our home in the rocky, timbered geography of Whidbey Island. We were there for the summer as pastoral interns at First Reformed Church of Oak Harbor, Washington. Even more than preaching or developing the liturgy, our primary task was to know and love the people of the congregation. As we did this—at barbecues and bonfires, in nursing homes, or out on the water in a kayak—we came to understand more deeply what it means to be a pastor.

I heard two questions last summer that framed for me two angles of the work of a pastor. Each comes within the context of story: one acquires its meaning from the story it arrives in, and the other asks a question that prompts more stories. Why story? Because, unlike other uses of language—teaching calculus, ordering plane tickets, explaining how to assemble a bookshelf—storytelling has the power to shape who we are. It is chiefly in the living and telling, hearing and reading, remembering and recounting of stories that we become—and become aware of—who we are.

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Who are you people? This is the first question, the question that is enveloped in a story, the question that demands an answer rooted in the history of God and God’s people.

To set the stage: the city of Oak Harbor sits on the north end of Whidbey Island, a long, convoluted island tucked into the top of Puget Sound. The island itself is beautiful, if generally overcast, and on a clear day, you can see the Cascade Mountains to the east, punctuated by Mt. Baker’s snowy peak, and the saw-toothed profile of the Olympics to the south. If the day is exceptionally clear, Mt. Rainier might even show up, hazy and white, in the distance. The northernmost part of Whidbey Island is home to Deception Pass State Park, one of the most-visited state parks in Washington. Spanning Deception Pass and Canoe Pass, Deception Pass Bridge connects Whidbey Island to the small Pass Island to Fidalgo Island and offers vehicles the only ferry-less passage off the island. The waters of Deception Pass are surprisingly swift and spin into eddies that hover along the shore. Before dawn, fog drifts through the pass and obscures sections of the bridge, which seems strangely suspended until the sun dissipates the mist.

However, Oak Harbor itself, despite its name, is not nearly as picturesque. Highway 20, the main drag in town, boasts a Taco Bell, Arby’s, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and 1-2-3 Thai Food #2. There are several grocery stores, a dry cleaner, half a dozen gas stations. Unlike some of the other places on the island, Oak Harbor is not the sort of place that gets mentioned in guidebooks with adjectives like “charming” or “breathtaking.” Because of its terrain and proximity to the Pacific, the US Navy built a base in Oak Harbor just before World War II, so much of the city’s population consists of enlisted folks, navy families, and retired navy. Planes with names like Prowler and Growler fly over at all hours, sometimes so low and so fast that we would have to pause our conversations if we hoped to hear each other. We began to recognize uniforms: blue camouflage is standard, green jumpsuits are for pilots, black caps for enlisted people, khaki for officers.

Another somewhat visible segment of the population is Dutch, which surprised those of us who hail from Holland, Michigan, and who are used to the Vanderprefixes and -stra suffixes. Some Dutch immigrants settled on Whidbey in the 1800s, but the majority arrived after World War II, when the Netherlands, wracked by war, sent its people elsewhere. Oak Harbor has Nienhuises and Zylstras, Rientjeses and Eelkemas, Boonstras and Beeksmas. The biggest of these clans have roads with their names on them, probably where the family farm once stood. There’s even a Holland Happening each spring, complete with tulips and Dutch dancers and wooden clogs.

And this is the context for First Reformed Church. Some members are there because they love the climate, some are there on navy orders, and some are there because they have no reason to leave. The church is a wonderful and peculiar combination of young and old, navy and civilian, Dutch and non-Dutch, Republicans and Democrats, dentists and fishermen and schoolteachers and lawyers and homemakers and farmers.

But this combination makes it difficult to articulate the church’s identity. Who are these people, these diverse people gathered to worship and scattered to live? And how do they know who they are?

Here’s the story: In 2010, when an earthquake crippled the nation of Haiti, lots of organizations and churches responded by assembling medical kits and baby care kits for the now-homeless Haitians. First Reformed Oak Harbor was one such church. The people of FRC collected supplies to furnish hundreds of these kits, unabashedly buying out stores if that’s what it took to fill more kits. One woman, a long-time member of the church, went to K-Mart to buy safety pins for cloth diapers so she could complete more kits and send them off. When she found the aisle with baby supplies, the shelf was bare where the safety pins had been. Instead of giving up, she located a store clerk and asked if they had any pins in the back. The clerk looked at her incredulously and said, “Who are you people?”

The congregation knows this story. The woman shared it with Pastor Jon, who has told it more than once in a Sunday sermon and has let the work of the story become twofold. On the one hand, the story answers the question: “you people”— Dutch and navy, deployed and homebound, traditional and progressive—are generous people. The people of this church are the people of God, and as such, they live under the sign of the cross and are marked by it; indeed, so marked that the clerk at K-Mart can see that there’s something curious about them.

On the other hand, the clerk’s question still stands. Who are you people?

The question has become a refrain for the congregation, perhaps even a kind of call. Although the question has a fairly simple and true answer—the people of God—it must also be answered as it is worked out in life. These are the people of God who live on an island under mostly cloudy skies, who raise children whose fathers are deployed for half the year, who grow abundant gardens and share the bounty, who keep goats and chickens, who fly fighter jets over dangerous territory, who care for their AIDS-stricken children, who open their homes to people in need of a place to stay, who drop crab pots in the morning and pull them up in time for dinner.

How then, with all the complications of life, do we understand who we are?

A pastor helps her people know who they are by reminding them of their identity as the people of God, a people in Christ. She does this primarily by looking to scripture. By way of example, my husband preached through the early chapters of 2 Kings: the story of Elisha picking up the mantle of Elijah, who is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind; Elisha and the widow and the jars of oil; Elisha and the raising of the Shunammite woman’s son; the armies of Aram and Elisha’s insistence that they be fed; the healing of Naaman.

Dan began his sermon on 2 Kings 4, the story of Elisha and the widow’s oil, by explaining that the stories of scripture are significant not just because they tell us about a past event but because they help us understand who we are. We are Elisha, picking up the mantle after Elijah has left. We are the widow, burdened by poverty and addiction and abuse. We are the community, collecting our own empty vessels and offering them to our neighbors to be filled. We are the children, protected from slavery by the miraculous work of the man of God.

Not every sermon will lend itself to such parallels between the biblical characters and us, but on the whole, a pastor should be showing her congregation that they are in the story of scripture, that the story of the Israelites is our story, that the chronicles of the disciples and the early Christians are ours, that life in the kingdom of God as depicted in Revelation is our future. We pastors are storytellers, not crafting the stories ourselves, but rather taking the story as passed down to us and seeing ourselves and our congregations in it.

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How old are you and where have you been? This is the second question. This is the question a pastor must ask her congregation in order to preach faithfully to them. A pastor must know her people, which means knowing their stories.

Before we arrived, a friend of ours, who grew up on Whidbey, urged us to pay attention to the edges of the island. Here, he said, we would find driftwood, strewn crisscross along the shore. That knotted, twisted, forgotten driftwood would be the key to understanding the soul of the place and the people.

We couldn’t comprehend what he meant. Why couldn’t we pay attention to the clouds, or Puget Sound, or the Cascades? And what will happen if we end up at a church in a place without shorelines and driftwood? How will we know the place and the people then?

After two weeks there, we were invited to go kayaking with one of the members of First Reformed, who gave us a way to understand driftwood’s connection to the people of the church. He took us kayaking around Hope Island, a small island in the middle of Skagit Bay, to the east of Whidbey. Like every shore here, the edges of Hope Island are littered with driftwood.

He explained to us how driftwood is formed: a tree, aging and pummeled with rain over years and years, will finally break and fall off the edge of the bluff and onto the beach. When the tide comes in, it will pick up the tree, and when it goes out, it will take it with it. For dozens of years or more, the tree will wash around in Puget Sound, getting knocked against the floor of the sea, washing up occasionally on the shore with fewer limbs and smoother bark. Then the tide will come in again, pick up the tree, and bring it back out to sea, where the bark will be rubbed off altogether and the branches will be sanded down. This time when it washes up onto the beach, there will only be knobs and knots to mark the former limbs, and the tree will dry out and the sun will bleach it to a grey-white, and it will be among all the other pieces of driftwood with such rough lives.

And then, he said, he wants to ask each white, gnarled log this question: “How old are you and where have you been?”

Each person in a congregation is a piece of driftwood, once a strong and young tree, nourished by rain and sunshine, but knocked down by a storm, battered by the sea, washed up and bleached by the sun. And we learn a person’s history like we learn the history of driftwood, by taking the time to come to its place, admire its knots and smooth trunk, and ask, How old are you and where have you been? Where has this life taken you? And how does that journey—from bluff to beach to sea and back—mark you? Which knot was a deployment, a death, a DUI? Which was a safe delivery, a happy wedding?

These questions helped us to see our congregation more clearly in light of God’s story of redemption. A piece of driftwood may look abandoned, but it is not forgotten by God. It is in the company of saints, who have also lived long, storied lives. And by listening to the stories of our congregation, we learn not only who they are, but who we are, and who God is.

We are learning to tell stories that remind God’s people that they are God’s people. We are learning to hear stories that remind us who we are. We were pastoral interns, but we’re also apprentices in the art of storytelling.

Grace Claus is a third-year student at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.