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Rolling * with * the * holy * punches

A reflection on hope

by Barbara Barkley | Presbyterians Today

A MASH helicopter (iStock photo)

I was recently watching reruns of “M*A*S*H” — the iconic 1970s sitcom chronicling the lives of the nurses, doctors and even clergy working in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War — when I came across an episode titled “Dear Sis.”

The episode starts with an altercation between a patient who is flailing and fighting the nurses, refusing to accept their help or care. Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, who oversees the unit’s nurses, calls for the chaplain, the Rev. Francis John Patrick Mulcahy, simply known as “Father Mulcahy,” to help. When the good father steps in, the patient acts out, saying to Father Mulcahy that he is not qualified to help. He then punches the chaplain, and hard. In an unexpected moment of both self-defense and anger, Father Mulcahy punches the man back!

He then spends much of the episode dealing with that instinctual response.

He apologizes to the man and tries to explain his response, but the man will not hear it. He continues to verbally attack Father Mulcahy, saying he is in no way a holy man and must have gone to seminary at the YMCA. The patient cannot see his own actions as having been part of the problem, and he has no ability to offer grace or forgiveness.

Father Mulcahy takes into himself all the attacks that come from this man. He leaves the hospital room, and the unit’s chief surgeon, Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce, famously known as “Hawkeye,” follows him. The interaction between the two is as follows:

Mulcahy: You know, I used to coach boxing at the CYO [Catholic Youth Organization]. I told my boys it built character.

Hawkeye: Father, why don’t you stop punching yourself on the chin?

Mulcahy: I’m Christ’s representative. “Do unto others” — I’m not just supposed to say that stuff. I’m supposed to do it.

Hawkeye: All you’re supposed to do is the best you can.

Mulcahy: Some “best”!

Hawkeye: Best is best! Look. Suppose you were sitting here right now with somebody who had done his best and was feeling lousy about it. You’d let ’em off the hook, wouldn’t you?

Mulcahy: It isn’t just that. I don’t seem to make a difference here. I hang around on the edge of effectiveness. And when I do step in, I really step in.

Hawkeye: Look. This place has made us all nuts. Why should you be any different? We don’t sleep. We don’t eat. And every day a truck dumps a load of bloody bodies at our feet. OK, so you hit someone. We have to stand here and watch so much misery we’re lucky we don’t all join hands and walk into a chopper blade.

The war we’re in

As I listened to this interaction, I found myself struck deeply by this conversation both from a personal place, but also from a communal place. While we are not living through a literal war, like our siblings in Ukraine are, in many ways we are living through a metaphorical one.

Our war is against this tiny little virus that has many tricks up its sleeve and that appears to be using them all. We are in a constant state of stress and fear. Will we be the ones to get it next? How will it affect our families? Our loved ones? Our communities? We think we see the end of the pandemic, and then something else happens and it goes on with more violence and damage than before.

A MASH jeep (iStock photo)


At this point, I think few of us have avoided losing a loved one to this disease. Even fewer have remained unaffected by the illness. As Hawkeye said, “We don’t sleep. We don’t eat. And every day a truck dumps a load of bodies at our feet.”

Holding on to hope right now is difficult. Everyone remains tense, many are grieving, people are fearful and anxious, and everyone has moments when they are less able to act their best, to be their best. We are all making mistakes, and the results, because during this stress it is difficult to step back or to take things with the ease we otherwise might, are broken relationships, torn communities and a fractured world.

We see this in so many places in our world: deepening anger, acting out, rage and violence. We also see it, more personally, in the church. There have been numerous articles written recently, including one in The Wall Street Journal, saying that church communities in general are experiencing a return of only about 50%–70% of their people because of Covid. Many of our churches are simply having to close because of this loss of membership. Churches are learning to adapt, but pastors’ burnout level is extraordinary right now, leaving many to rethink their calls. Some leave ministry altogether, while others are reassessing how best to use their time, talent and treasures.

Constant change produces more stress

The changing church landscape is incredibly stressful, and we must acknowledge that. Pastors need to learn and even create new ways of doing church during fluctuating, changing situations when we can meet, then can’t meet, then can meet again but with limitations and restrictions.

Today’s Father Mulcahys (and Presbyterian clergy) are having to discover and create new ways to connect people and to stay connected. These new learnings take time and energy, and most pastors were already working more than full time at their job. Clergy are navigating a new world, one that changes monthly if not weekly and sometimes even by the day. This is hard, especially when they don’t know where the next change will come or how they might need to adapt once again.

Congregants struggle with these changes, too. So, not only are pastors carrying their own stress, and need to roll with the punches, but they are also called on, constantly, to be the face and voice of calm assurance, of hope and of promise for their flock. That is exhausting. Now add it to how many congregants are acting out their own fear, stress and anger by attacking those in leadership positions. Pastors are easy targets and are receiving more than their fair share of blame and anger.

But I think the story about Father Mulcahy in the “Dear Sis” episode of “M*A*S*H” points to another reason why pastors are reassessing their calls — even to the point of walking away.

Pastors are not perfect. They are not immune to stress. They are not even more “holy” than other people. Pastors and congregants — every single person on this planet — has a call, and that call includes learning to be more loving, forgiving and gracious. As Jesus said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

We are all on a learning curve, and that means all of us will fall, stumble and make mistakes.  But the expectations for pastors remain very high. When you combine huge levels of stress with the expectations that pastors will somehow be able to navigate the struggles better and walk through this terrible time with more grace, more patience, more wisdom and insight than everyone else, the reality is that ultimately, the pastor will disappoint people. They will even fail sometimes. And when they do fail, it is not just parishioners who struggle to forgive them. The pastors struggle, deeply, to forgive themselves. As Father Mulcahy said, “‘Do unto others.’ I’m not just supposed to say that stuff. I’m supposed to do it.”

Throwing punches

But sometimes in the stress when someone hits, pastors won’t be able to step back and respond with grace. Sometimes they will, instinctively and without thought, punch back. And what happens when their apologies are not enough, when they won’t be accepted, and like Father Mulcahy, pastors are sneered at, accused of being “fakes” and told that they are simply horrible at what they do? Well, they have a hard time not taking those comments in.

A MASH tent (iStock photo)

But it goes even deeper than throwing punches and hurling hurtful words. And Father Mulcahy captured it best as to why perhaps today’s clergy landscape is changing and shifting so dramatically when he says to Hawkeye, “I don’t seem to make a difference here. I hang around on the edge of effectiveness. And when I do step in, I really step in.”

There are times when it is hard to see that what pastors do makes a positive difference, especially in a time when affirmation is rare and limited. Pastors remember every time they have made a mistake. They remember, with a voice that yells in their heads constantly, every time they should have responded differently, should have acted when they failed to do so, should have, would have, could have. It is hard, at times, to avoid focusing solely on the things that should have been done and the things that shouldn’t have been done and to instead see any good that might have been done. It is hard, in these times, to hold on to a sense of purpose, of meaning, and most especially, of hope.

Our lows are God’s highs

I am grateful that when I have hit those lows, I feel that God has, every single time, stepped up and stepped in with reassurance and grace for me.

There was a weekend this past winter in which I, as a pastor, hit one of those bottoms where my very career was in question for me once again. It doesn’t help that a member in my household is going through the usual pastor’s kid, teenage rebellion thing and is telling me, with some regularity, that religion causes nothing but damage and that my job not only does no good but is harmful to the world.

While I have my own arguments against this, it still hits hard, and I sit with their words, wondering about their truth. Additionally, I was coming off a very challenging month where we were struggling with family health crises, and the demands on my time between family needs and my job during Advent and Christmas were frankly too much.

I was, like Father Mulcahy, very much of the mindset “I don’t seem to make a difference here. And when I do step in, I just seem to make mistakes.” But three things happened for me, right in a row, all converging at the same time.

The first was seeing the “M*A*S*H” episode where Father Mulcahy’s struggle, when the character does so much good in the series, was a gift and reminder that we can’t always see the good we do. Rather, we are simply called to do the best we can and trust that God will take our best and infuse it with grace. Not everyone will be able to forgive our errors: The soldier in the “M*A*S*H” episode never did forgive Father Mulcahy. But, as we know, that lack of forgiveness hurts the one hanging onto the grudge most of all. That is a choice another can make. One we cannot change. All we can do is be aware of our own errors, apologize and do our best not to repeat them.

The second thing that happened for me was that an individual took the time to tell me that something I had said to her had been life-changing and had put her on a different path forward: one with hope, joy and amazing possibility. Without betraying this individual’s confidence or situation, I saw her change, and I am grateful to have been allowed to be part of that.

The third thing that happened needs a little more explanation. I’ve been feeling strongly that the most important part of my job right now has been and continues to be giving hope. Even when I have not felt it myself, I have felt deeply called, impelled even, to be the bearer of hope during this time of extreme stress, confusion and pain.

In every Bible study, every meeting of our anti-racism group, and in many of our committees and small group meetings, then, my voice has been the voice trumpeting hope in the face of anger, pain and despair. That has been my job and my call for this past year and a half. As times have darkened, I have felt this even more strongly.

Recently I added into our worship services a “moment of hope” where I share a positive story, a story of someone doing good, being kind, making a beautiful difference, even in the face of these difficult and painful times. Again, I feel the deep importance of being that voice of hope, even when I cannot summon it for myself. Yes, hold on to hope. Even in our “Father Mulcahy moments” when we, too, feel we don’t seem “to make a difference here” and just seem to “hang around on the edge of effectiveness.” After all, “this place has made us all nuts,” as Hawkeye so aptly observed, adding, “Why should you be any different?” Indeed. Now hold on to hope.

Barbara Barkley is pastor of Clayton Valley Presbyterian Church in Clayton, California. She has done peace work in Brazil, Alabama, North Carolina, New Mexico, and with immigrants, women and the homeless population in the San Francisco Bay Area. She had encouraged outreach in the congregations she has served through mission trips, involvement in hunger programs and youth and children’s programs.

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