Once upon a time there was a church which had a female pastor. Now, this pastor wasn’t the lead pastor, or even the primary teaching pastor; she led the family and children’s ministries, actually, and spent most of her ministry time with women and youth. But she had the title of pastor – Pastor Barbara.
She was beautiful. She had long, curly brown hair and a nose with that perfect spark of defiance bringing its straight lines singing up from her face. She had a gentle way of moving – never too fast or too sudden – and a gentle way of speaking – never too loud or too harsh. And when she saw the children she loved and taught and prayed for, her whole body would glow with that love and light, like an emanation of the Holy Spirit through her presence.
There was a small girl at this church who adored Pastor Barbara wholeheartedly and unstintingly, although mostly from a distance as she was a quiet child. She enjoyed above all the new songs that Pastor Barbara would sing with them! For her, songs were a release from the uncertainty of social interactions, because the songs (at least the children’s songs that she knew) would specify how you were supposed to act. Take for example “Father Abraham:” no one would ever move that way in everyday life, but the song says to do it so everyone does it and no one has to worry about being out of sync.
One day, Pastor Barbara introduced a new song to the group, and then asked the children what they thought of it.
“I like ‘Shake a Friend’s Hand’ better,” volunteered the little girl, excited to have an opinion and give input to her beloved pastor.
Pastor Barbara smiled and said that was also a good song. But another woman involved in the ministry (we could call her Trunchbull in a moment of Matilda inspiration – it may give you a decent visual anyway – but that would probably be unfair to her character and motivations) hissed at the little girl,
“That is not polite! You should have said that you liked it!”
The little girl was mortified.
Had she truly just hurt her adored Pastor Barbara with careless and unkind words? Why did Pastor Barbara ask the question if she didn’t want an honest answer? Why was her answer not polite?
She felt overwhelmed, and wrong, and out of place.
So she ran, out of the room, down the stairs, and to a little tucked away place where she could hide from everybody’s disappointment and upset. She didn’t want to be wrong; she didn’t want to offend anyone. And she truly didn’t understand why everything had fallen apart so suddenly and dramatically. So she hid from the maelstrom of incomprehensible things.
The adults, of course, went into semi-crisis mode when the little girl inexplicably ran out of the classroom. It is obviously very unsafe for young children to run away unsupervised, with no plan, in a public building near a busy road. Now someone would have to find her, and the other teachers would have to carry on with the lesson in a perhaps unplanned manner, having given up one of their number for the search. But Pastor Barbara was very calm. She made sure everything would run in her absence and then, like the shepherd of parable leaving the ninety-nine well-behaved sheep to find the missing one, she came down to find the little girl.
When she found her, she was as always gentle and quiet. She understood what had happened, and let the little girl know that she understood, and wasn’t offended, and dried the little girl’s tears. She sat with her until the little girl was ready, and then led her back upstairs to the classroom, and made sure to sing her favorite song when it was time for music again. And the little girl loved her even more than before, and hung on her every word, and came to love Jesus better because of this beautiful, wonderful woman who loved Him and showered His love on everyone she met.
It’s probably pretty obvious that this little girl was me, back when I was 7 or 8 years old. Hiding or running away is still my default reaction to an emotionally overwhelming situation, particularly if there is conflict – it feels like an unescapable need to just get out and get away from the palpable tension in the air. And knowing a woman who was such a good shepherd as Pastor Barbara was has always informed my opinions on the whole debate about female pastors! But the main point I want to draw from this story is that my memory of her has also always challenged and inspired my interactions with other people, especially children. Her gentleness and positivity, her pursuit of understanding and connection, her ability to assume the best possible motives in others unless proven otherwise, and her love for the downcast and vulnerable are all things that I try to embody in my teaching and parenting.
And I find that just as these traits helped reassure and comfort me as a child, so they help reassure and comfort my children now. When my first reaction is to assume that my children are deliberately tormenting each other, ignoring me, or destroying the house, my words to them will be angry and my tone of voice sharp: and they will respond with equal anger and sharpness, particularly if their actions stemmed from ignorance or overwhelming emotion rather than from rational choice. When my desire is to send a misbehaving child away from me so that I can enjoy time with the other two instead, the behavior will simmer into resentment and frustration; when I take the time and deal with the inconvenience of processing through the misbehavior to the unmet need underneath it, actively finding, guiding, and restoring my straying sheep, the behavior typically ends along with the undercurrent of negative emotion.
So while I may never have Pastor Barbara’s lofty nose or wild and beautiful hair, and while it is highly unlikely that I am ever the head of a ministry, much less a pastor, I am still here as a shepherd of sorts to this little flock in my home. As such, I hope that I can live out the lessons I learned from her, and show my sheep the unconditional, understanding, unfailing love of God through the way that I love them.