My fifteen year-old son has taken to introducing me as a “retired pastor.” It’s hard to shake loose of that title for me, too. It’s probably because being a pastor is more of an identity than a job, more a personality than a skill set. Still not sure whether I want to shake loose of that title for good, or just for now, I’m stumbling my way forward into this new life on the other side of the pulpit.
These days I’m thinking much more than I’m writing, and in my head I’m sweeping the floor of the café in Hemingway’s short A Clean Well-Lighted Place. Maybe you know the story of an old man who drinks brandy in the café late into the night. He annoys a younger waiter, but is a valued patron to the experienced waiter.
Perhaps I’ve become the old man who needs the refuge of the café because I don’t regularly haunt the pulpit, one of the last well lighted places in this world where one is expected to probe the deep existential questions of being and nothingness. But pulpits have become dangerous places, too, for congregants don’t want it to be the place where pastors grapple with hard questions for themselves, but rather a place of moral certainty against all the “issues” against which they are opposed, bumper sticker theology in sound-bytes, and “Ten Steps to Your Best Life Now” sermons. No, the pulpit is not a clean, well-lighted place for a questioning middle-age man to ask his congregation questions neither he nor they can answer.
Or perhaps I’m the waiter who says, “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the café.” I spent over twenty years in church work, always trusting that the church was the last, perhaps only, institution in the world that could truly change the world by healing the deep brokenness within each of us. I thought, “Someone might need the church,” so I wanted it to be a community of cleanness and order – a place that helps the lost make sense of their lostness and the lostness of the world. But instead of humble cafes providing for simple needs, the church has become vast halls of Sunday morning theatrics.
Probably, I’m a little of each. What the waiter and the old man hold in common is that they are kept awake at night by the affliction of really big questions. Hemingway labeled this affliction a vague “nothing,” keeping it vague in order to convey that the haunting questions of life were so ponderous and large as to be indescribable. Only the café can offer the space and quiet to grapple with it.
Near the end of the story, just after the older man leaves the café, Hemingway puts the situation thusly, “What did he fear? It was not fear or dread, it was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.” Outside the café is a dangerous place for those who dare to ask hard questions of life, of God, of themselves. We need the café. We need the clean, well-lighted place to take refuge from dangerous emptiness.
So, for now, I’m retired.