I have been told--not by any source that I can cite--that the simple stick-drawing fish which Christians use to decorate their cars, started as a secret code. In the dangerous first century, so the story goes, back when Christians were fed to lions, it was a way to discover if the person you were talking to was safe. You simply take the end of your walking stick and draw a casual arc-shaped scratch in the dirt. Just a random gesture, like the legendary Masonic signs. But if you are speaking to a Christian, they will understand. They use their own stick to make a complimentary arc, finishing the picture of the fish, and both know at once that all is well, and they are safe to speak freely.
I believe the story, not because of the sources I have never looked for to verify it, but because I can see we are still doing it today. Your pastor, specifically, is doing it every time they meet a new person. We look for code words, clues to see how safe it is to share freely with you.
Why? Well, sad to say, it's because she's a member of an endangered species. No, I don't mean the anticipated pastor shortage, as more retire than are training to enter the ministry. I'm not even referring to the recent research that says the life expectancy for an Adventist pastor is 68 years.*
No, what I mean is the fact that any casual word can be dangerous. In every church, in nearly every group, there is someone who will be horrified that he has seen that movie, or listens to that artist, or lets his children celebrate that holiday. There are a thousand ways for him to lose a member's good opinion, and since pastoral leadership is entirely accomplished through relationships, that's bad news. Never mind calling the Conference on her, the real risk is her effectiveness.
So he approaches each relationship with caution. And if she doesn't know how much to "be herself," then she has to speak in code. Like this:
One Friday night, about a month into our time in a new district, a family invited us over for dinner. It was time to check out the new pastor. As with all the other meetings like this, we all spoke carefully, using psychological sonar to hunt for hidden dangers in the conversation.
About halfway through the night, someone said to Jim, "I have a question for you." And Jim replied with, "Is the answer 42?"The moment was magic. The husband, sitting at the end of the table, lit up, and began asking questions about towels.
Now, I can't really explain 42, if it doesn't mean anything to you. Let's just say it's a combination of a literary reference and a secret password. A certain kind of nerdy soul will see it, complete the fish, and the relationship is secure. We were suddenly "in," with this family and a few others they were close to. For our entire time in that church district, we had a place we could speak freely.
So why am I telling you this? Why would I reveal the code, and risk that some innocent pastor will be thrown to the social lions because the secret is out?** It's because the gains are greater than the risks. For pastors, teachers, and other "church people," safe friendships are more precious than gold. Pastoral leadership runs on relationships, that's true, but it's because people run on relationships. These people who serve need your help. They need support and acceptance, and spaces where they can like music and movies and sports.***
I'm telling you this because, if you have a pastor or another leader in you life, they're probably drowning a little every day in the responsibility. Just like everyone else. There is no way to survive this way of life, except by sometimes stepping away from it, and relaxing like a normal person.**** I want you to learn the code so that you can be that safe space known as a friend.
I don't ask for charity. Actually, pastors and the like make some pretty awesome friends. They don't tell your secrets, they know a lot of good jokes (you won't believe how funny theology actually is--I promise), they are usually deep thinkers with a strong appetite for fun. Also, family-friendly. Oh yes, and they know the incomparable value of friends.
So the next time you talk to your pastor, try out the code. Make a joke, or a pop culture reference. It's a risk, I know--there's about a 1 in 5 chance you'll get the hairy eyeball. But the chance is much greater that they will finish the fish symbol, and you may have a friend. And if they ask a question, it doesn't hurt to check if the answer is 42.
*Feel free to take a moment and be appalled by this number--I am.
**Actually, 42 is becoming less useful as code, since it's an older literary reference theses days. I have met bona fide geeks who have never read Douglas Adams, so perhaps this password is outdated. So I tell myself to sooth my conscience.
***Or not like sports, as sports are a freebie, or even mandatory, in many places. Or like the wrong team.
****Ideally, the church should be such a safe and honest place that we always get to be at ease and act normal there. We all know this isn't completely possible.