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Essay

Witchdoctor

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Right before lunch I went to see a parishioner at work. Her mother-in-law had just died. Her husband had been there with his mother. I walked over to share a few words, receive a few tears, and conclude with an informal quasi-benediction, and a mini-embrace.

Walking back to my study, I thought about the group of “pre-seminarians” I was slated to meet that evening, undergrads considering ordained ministry. As I considered what to say, I wondered could I tell them, “I’m a lot more of a ‘witchdoctor’ than I ever expected to be”?

I hope I’m not being offensive by using the term “witchdoctor.” That’s what I say in the conversations in my head when I’m trying to describe that slippery and sacred role.

The longer I am ministry, the more I realize that even in this secular society, even among egg-headed Protestants, people still desire a holy presence, a person who brings the divine to them, or helps to bring them into an awareness of the divine.blessing

I began to encounter this just a year or three out of seminary. Upon returning from vacation, an old man, an odd coot really, whispered to me, “Oh the village ‘feels’ much better now that you’re back.” I could tell he didn’t mean that he liked having my cheery face around, or seeing the warm glow of lights in the parsonage at night. I remember thinking, “What kind of shaman does he take me for? Does he think I keep evil at bay in this sleepy little village simply by my presence? What a weirdo!”

I had come out seminary thinking my main task was to explain to my congregation the synoptic problem or to distinguish between Calvin’s and Zwingli’s views of the Lord’s Supper. And I’m still grateful that I can do that.

I had taken the mandatory one course in “pastoral theology” and pretty much flopped. To this day, I’m not much of “counselor.” I’m prone to be too much of a “fixer,” trying to come up with solutions rather than listening to the aches of people’s souls. Since I am not a counselor, I’ve changed my approach. Now I just listen, sigh, nod my head, commiserate, and then almost at the end I say, “Would it be okay if I prayed with you?” It feels more genuine. I’ve realized people haven’t come to see me for strategy or to psychoanalyze their relationship with their mother.

Prayer is my wheelhouse, my turf, what I have to offer. I can help them connect with God, and help them trust that God is aware of and working in their problems. I don’t think I have become one of those pushy stalker-pray-ers Theresa Latini recently blogged about here, foisting unwanted prayers on the unsuspecting. I hope not. Rather, people have shared their story or heartbreak with me, and I offer to respond by speaking words to God that they, for whatever reason, cannot.

It’s not just in my study. In parking lots and street corners, the hallway or on the telephone, when someone confides in me, instead of responding, “I will pray for you,” I have begun saying “How about I say a brief prayer while we’re here together?” Quietly and inconspicuously, we usually do that.ash wednesday

And it’s not just prayer. It is that instant of eye contact as I hand them the bread during the Lord’s Supper. Or touching the forehead of the toddler that young parents hold up to receive a blessing. “May the Lord bless you and keep you in your baptism.” Putting ashes on that twelve year-old, lanky and high-spirited as a colt, reminding him and me that “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It is gathering at the bedside of someone in the last minutes of life. And it’s the gentle touch, an appropriate embrace (I confess, however, that embracing is still not my wheelhouse) and the casual farewells that carry undercover benedictions. Benedictions, too, at the close of worship, have taken on a sanctity that sermons don’t possess. Many years ago, a Hungarian seminarian worshiped with us. Her first comment, after having spent weeks visiting American churches, “I was in such need of a benediction. Thank you!”

Am I getting carried away? Rejecting my scrubbed and spare Reformed birthright? I don’t think I have any sort of puffed-up head or soul. I understand that I don’t personally possess any supernatural qualities. My ordination didn’t change my ontological makeup. I’m still imbued with enough of an egalitarian ethic that I feel uncomfortable being called “Pastor Steve,” preferring to be simply “Steve.”

We, or at least I, don’t have many categories or touchstones to help conceive of the sacred or priestly role. That I still refer to it as “witchdoctor” probably exposes my own lingering discomfort and unfamiliarity.

I suspect my changes and pilgrimage probably owe most simply to growing older—wiser too, I hope—and increasingly feeling more comfortable in my own skin and in my role as pastor/witchdoctor.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

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