I have been unemployed for nearly a third of the past three years, which means that I have been a part of more than a few pastoral searches, and know what’s involved. And I’m fairly certain they weren’t supposed to involve two people slinging subtle insults at one another.
This particular one happened over Skype. The church was in California, and for that reason alone was high on my list of preferences. If you are wondering why that was the case, it’s not the weather - it’s the food, specifically, the fish tacos. The man who was conducting the interview was in his mid-fifties, wearing the harried expression of a man who has conducted entirely too many pastoral interviews. Perhaps this in itself should have been a sign that things were not going to go well, the fact that this church had gone through so many candidates and had not managed to find anyone perfect enough for their forty-person congregation.
After our initial exchange, he looked down at my resume, and then looked back up. “Four children?” he said with emphasis. “Am I reading that correctly? FOUR?”
This was back when I had four children.
I smiled and nodded. “Yes, that’s right. I have an eight year old, all the way to a one year old.”
I expected him to smile back and remark how children were such a blessing, or something to that effect. His response was rather different. With a chilly voice he replied, “Wow. Got yourself quite a quiverfull, don’t you.”
Wow. First time I had heard that joke...that day. But as this was an interview for a job that I was quite keen on getting, I simply smiled and shrugged off his snide comment. “Yup, yup, that I do. Quiverfull.” Let’s move on, shall we. But no, he hadn’t even hit his stride yet.
“You should just change your last name to Duggar at this point.”
Hm. I had to give him points for that. I had never fielded that comment yet. Actually, I only had the vaguest familiarity with the name "Duggar", but knew that it had to do with having a lot of children. My lips tightened, but again, it was an interview. So I politely replied, “Ha. That’s good.”
But he still wasn’t done. Wrongly sensing that he had my permission to continue, he followed his last comment up with this gem:
“Are they all vaccinated or are you against that too?”
Vaccinated? Of course they’re vaccinated. My wife has a masters in public health and epidemiology, why in the world would my children not be inoculated?
It was then that I got it: to this guy, I wasn’t just a pastor with four kids. No, a pastor with four kids automatically meant that I was also a card carrying representative of the Quiverfull movement, a wannabe Korean Duggar family, and that I probably didn’t even support child vaccinations either. There could be NO other reason I had four children. And all it took for him to come to these comprehensive conclusions was to read a single line on my resume - what brilliance in deduction! Now I don’t really have anything against the Quiverfull movement, but I still resented the assumption, which I tried to communicate by radiating waves of disapproval. He totally missed this, and so with a cunning smirk, he let go with one last salvo:
“I mean, do you even know why that keeps happening - your wife having kids?”
Okay, that’s enough. I wasn’t going to let him get away with this, even if it did cost me the job. He was going to find out there are many reasons why a guy might have four kids. So with a clipped voice, I tersely replied, “Actually, I don’t know exactly where babies come from anymore. Do you?”
Not expecting that response, he looked at me quizzically.
“We only had two children for a while, and my wife miscarried our third. We thought she wasn’t going to be able to have any more children, that is, until we found out that she was pregnant again. But do you know where we found out about that pregnancy?”
He shook his head dumbly.
“When my wife was on the operating table for her mastectomy, getting a cancerous tumor removed from her chest and her arm.”
He stared silently, so still that I might have thought our Skype call had been disconnected, except for his deliberate blinking.
“We talked to oncologists about this, and they told us to terminate the baby right away because he wouldn’t survive the chemotherapy treatments, that it was too powerful for him. But you know what happened?”
He shook his head again.
“We chose to keep the baby, and he survived. Actually, he was born without a single complication. In fact, we also learned that women who are pregnant while having cancer have much better recovery rates than those who aren’t. Crazy, right?”
I could see that he realized that he had gone too far with his previous comments, and regretted his forwardness. Too late for that now, bud.
“And then! The doctors told my wife that she wouldn’t have any more kids because the chemotherapy caused early menopause. But can you guess what happened?”
He looked at me sheepishly and replied, “She got pregnant again?”
“YES!” I exclaimed with exuberance. “YES. She got pregnant again. So to answer your previous question, whether I know where babies come from? The answer is no, I don’t. But I suspect it has something to do with GOD.”
That ought to put him straight. There was far more to me and my family's story than he could possibly assess with a cursory glance. My righteous anger satisfied, I lifted a hand to shut my laptop screen, but hesitated. The interviewer wore a thoughtful expression on his face, a far softer one that he had been wearing at the beginning of our call. He finally spoke.
“My first wife died of breast cancer. Barbara. It will be ten years ago this year.”
The expression he wore was far away and almost dreamy, as if he was remembering something distant. But I had seen that expression before. It was the expression of someone who had been through hell, and who had learned to distance themselves emotionally and mentally from that experience. It was a look that I myself wore often during the worst moments of my wife’s fight against breast cancer.
I took a look at his face and my heart broke, both for this man’s grief, but even more so for my own juvenile and rude behavior. Sure, this guy had typecast me and my family, and he was wrong for doing so. But I had proceeded to treat him much in the same way, assuming that he too was an abstraction, nothing more than a vindictive old white guy who had no idea what it was to experience suffering and tragedy. The truth was that he had been through so much of what I had also endured, and worse.
This is one of our our greatest failings in the modern internet age, that we rightly believe that our own lives are complex things that defy easy comprehension, but fail to extend that same grace to others. When it comes to their lives, especially those with whom we disagree, we suddenly possess the ability to derive a doctorate thesis’ worth of conclusions about their story and motivations, from only the smallest fragments of data. "You follow Mark Driscoll (or Rob Bell) and John Piper (or Brian McLaren) on Twitter? - Then I know what you're ALL about." *disapproving grimace*
The truth? No human life is so easily circumscribed, neither our own nor others. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made, and our stories more like tortured works of art than simplistic mathematical equations that can be cracked through deduction, then summarized in 140 characters. The image of God that we all carry within us cannot be discerned through such shoddy means, any more than Zacchaeus could see Jesus clearly by peering through the leaves of a sycamore fig. No, in Luke 19, Jesus demonstrates that the only way that we can get to truly know someone is to get down out of our respective trees and spend time with them, and hear their story face to face. Only then can we see them clearly and realize that there is much more to this person than we first thought.
I had done this man wrong. I didn’t want the job any longer, but I did want to make things right. And so I tried my best:
“I’m so sorry to hear that. Really. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. It may have been a while ago...but I’m sorry for your loss.”
He acknowledged my apology with a small nod, and said, "I'm sorry too. I was trying to be funny, but after a long day at work, that doesn't always work so well." He smiled sheepishly.
We could have ended our conversation there, but I felt the need to lighten the mood.
“But in answer to your question, I know where babies come from. For some reason they always come after snowstorms, when my wife and I are stuck in the house together for a long time.”
His laugh caught me off guard, a free-spirited and joyous sound that I did not think it possible for such a harried-looking man to make. But it was at that moment that I could see him clearly, and he could see me. Neither of us saw each other as an abstraction any longer, but a real person, a child of God, both of us trying to do our best in a thoroughly muddled up world.