Monday, December 28, 2009

Now We can Get to Work

It's interesting the difference a good night's sleep makes. On Sunday afternoons, right after church I'm in a really bad mood. Every little noise bothers me. Every conversation I had that morning comes back and I put the most negative interpretation on them.

I felt that way again yesterday, and I felt like I did an especially good job. Afterward, I felt especially bad.

This church is falling apart and everyone's going to blame me, I think.

Well, they do have problems. I actually saw them when I first got here and everyone was telling me about problems that weren't really there.

Now, people are beginning to see them and they're getting scared.

I caught their anxiety yesterday, but this morning I'm thinking, It's about time.

And I don't think they're blaming me, although they might in the future. Perhaps they're in the mood to listen more.

In any case, they're at a crisis, and realize it. Now, maybe we can get some work done.

As it so happens, this is the kind of work I'm best at.

Friday, December 18, 2009

We have a new dog.

We already have a cat that I don't like, and I didn't care to add to the count of incontinent creatures at my casa. But we have one now. And I'll tell you why.

My son asked for one.

He didn't beg or plead. In fact, his tone was very quiet and polite. I've learned that it's desperately important to him when he speaks that quietly.

We looked for a dog that needed a home. The first one was too much. Too big. Too excited. Too enthusiastic. She knocked the boy down right off the bat. He laughed. I didn't.

This was not going to be our dog.

"I think we need to keep looking, son. What do you think?"

"I think I would like this one," he said in that same soft tone.

"Can you help me get this beast in the car?" I ask the vet's attendant.

Pushover? Not me. I told him he had to vacuum the car when we got home.

The thing is, he's a good boy. He knows we don't make a lot of money and he never asks for big things. I already know he won't shirk the responsibilities required of a dog owner.

But mostly I gave in because he's lonely.

He's smart, articulate, and creative--qualities that are not abundant around here. And this is not an easy place for any of us to make friends. He sits too much with a book or a sketch pad or he stares at the TV.

But yesterday, he spent all afternoon playing tag with his new dog who already worships the boy.

They say that preachers' kids are the worst ones in the community. It's not true about mine. And it wasn't true about me or my siblings when we grew up in a preacher's family.

My kids are some of the best. They're honor students and they win awards in everything they participate in. They're never in trouble. They're creative, articulate, and kind.

And isn't because I've done a stellar job raising them.

I sometimes think about how my children bear the consequences of life choices that I have made. Being a minister can be lonely and frustrating but I chose to do it. They didn't.

So if a dog makes my child less lonely and a little healthier, of course he's going to get one.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Just Shut Up and Gimme Some Help

Is there anything as boring as intellectual discussion in theology?

I'm talking about my liberal friends who usually say things like, "What are the ramifications of the cosmological model of theology?" Or, "Is there any way to reconcile the Anselmian model of atonement theory with current Feminist theology?"

Sometimes they want to be more practical so they talk of social justice issues. Whole denominations will discuss the wording in a resolution concerning their position on global warming that they will send to a government entity that will throw it in the shredder.

I have enough education in the field to add to the discussion but I usually refrain because I just don't give a crap.

I'm a small town clergy guy. Real respectable, but not real remarkable. I'm up to my armpits in domestic violence, sexual confusion, grieving parents, and hungry children.

My theology consists of trying to connect with a supposedly compassionate God. I'd love for him/her/it, as well as every mush mouthed theologian to come down from on high and lend a hand.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Right Moment

I was visiting with the man and his wife in the hospital room when the doctor entered with the bad news. The tumor had returned. There was nothing else to be done. The man had only a short time to live.

He took it with a graceful calm. The woman cried softly and I held her.

They commented on how good it was that I happened to be there right at that time. I reflected on how this used to happen all the time in my ministry. I would be there with the person right when they needed the minister the most. I attributed it to the Holy Spirit

And maybe it was, but it was also due to my hyper vigilance. There was a time when I was always available, alert, and could anticipate when I was needed. It seemed mystical , but in fact it was exhaustive--which sort of gave things an ethereal feel to it.

I can't do it anymore because I'm too tired and my family needs me, too. So the Holy Spirit will just have to be a little clearer as to when he wants me to step in. And maybe He was that day.

I was glad I was there. They were a brave couple, accepting bad news with grace. They are why I do what I do.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Your Mark. Get Set… Be Friendly!

It's has been going on long enough in enough churches that it has become a ritual.

"Let's take a moment to greet one another," the worship leader says. Then the music begins, the people stand up, move around, shake each others' hands, and say how glad they are to see each other.

They call it "Passing the Peace" or "Meet and Greet." I like "Trap and Rap" but it has yet to catch on--I'm hoping, though.

I hate it. It reminds me of when I was a kid attending a party and when it came time to leave, my mom would say, "Be sure to tell them you had a nice time."

"I had a nice time," I would mumble with deep sincerity.

A lot of people seem to like it. If I try to skip it, I get complaints, especially from the guys who consider it a religious experience to hug a good looking woman.

I had occasion to visit another church not long ago and it came time for that precious moment of fellowship. I saw a handful of people working the crowd like salesmen and politicians and I thought for a moment I was at a used car lot.

It depresses me to realize how often I have done that same aggressive glad handing myself, working the crowds and noting the visitors for future cultivation.

I can remember when I worked a crowd to see who was especially needy. But there are two things different now. First, in this crowd, no one wants to let on that they're needy. And second, I'm too tired to care as much.

By the end of Sunday night, I'm tired of shaking hands and beaming my big mug into other people's faces. I'm ready to go home to hug my two tall handsome sons and kiss my pretty wife.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Let Us Pray

It was prayer time.

A little old woman raised her hand and with a booming voice said, "I'm grateful I finally got my PLUMBING fixed last week!"

Several pairs of eyebrows went up at her fervent praise. A couple of people laughed.

"It's nice to get those house repairs done, isn't it?" I clarified.

"Ohh." One of the choir members behind me said.

It's hard not to say anything in public without stumbling into an unintended double entendre. One time when the Lay director's microphone was not working, I addressed the sound technicians from the stage: "Fellas, one of you needs to come down here and turn her on!"

They still tease me about that one.

One time, we had a band play for us, and the woman stopped her playing for a moment to tell us that the reason they were performing this kind of music was so they could help us not be so stuffy in our worship. "We want you people to loosen up!"

Her fellow band member knew she has spoken too harshly, so he tried to smooth it over. "And isn't it wonderful," he said grandly, "to be loose in the Lord."

All I could think of was how they were having a laxative effect on the congregation.

I'll take my lumps for my own verbal blunders, but I really wish we could curtail some of the things people share during prayer time. The rest of us do not need to hear of Uncle Bubba's hemorrhoids, or Aunt Flossie's rash just under her right breast.

The worst one was from the prim lady who asked us week after week to pray for her son-in-law who "has a tumor on his left testicle and will have to have it removed."

I kept resisting the urge to ask if the tumor or the whole testicle would need to be removed.

Anyway, if there are no other requests, let us pray….

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Good Week

My God! I just realized that I had a good week! It has been so long, I almost didn't recognize it.

I was dreading last night's finance meeting. Like everywhere else, money is scarcer and it looks like it will be worse before it gets better. But I have some pretty smart guys working at this, and they've got some ideas on how to keep us up and running.

But at the end of the meeting, after we had officially adjourned, nobody got up. They became excited about the work they were doing. Money had raised for food for a homeless ministry. The youth are helping the elderly. The children are collecting canned goods. A mission trip to Mexico is being planned. Project after project was mentioned.

What's really amazing is that usually this kind of talk makes the money guys anxious. But they weren't. They were excited about the possibilities.

The week before, I had told many of them that even if we had to scale down our spending, we shouldn't let anxiety steer us away from the mission of helping others. Whatever we had coming in needed to be used for service, not self preservation. Did they actually listen?

Earlier in the week someone came to me for real ministerial help rather than to complain about something at church. And maybe, just maybe I said something that actually helped.

Before then, I met with the guy who is my boss in our denomination. I reported that both attendance and giving was down, which was not surprising to him or me. I told him how frustrated I was at coming to a church that was obligated to pay off a lavish new building when there were so many poor people needing help. It made me mad and uncomfortable every time I entered my own office.

He smiled. He actually seemed pleased. He thought my discomfort was a good thing. He suggested perhaps I was moved to this church to help them change direction. And perhaps I should not worry about the numbers so much and focus on direction. That's what I had been doing, but I didn't know if he would understand that. Most people don't.

I also confessed to him that I was having a hard time liking these people and that I missed my old church. He said I needed to quit trying to like them and to focus on the job. That helped. He also said I needed to find some interests outside the church. Maybe blogging?

The Sunday after my meeting with him, the attendance was back up, and my preaching had a little more zip to it.

It's only now, when I've had a few moments to sit and think, that I see that it really has been a good week. And maybe just maybe there's some hope.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Endurance

I once worked for a toxic church in a community of crazy people. It was a confusing place where everything was ass backwards.

Examples: I fired the youth minister for inappropriate behavior toward a girl in his group, and the congregation sided against her and sympathized greatly with him.

I had another counseling case where someone in the congregation demanded to know how it was being handled. I told that person to back the hell off because who I spoke to was confidential and not subject to her examination. This should have reassured the church that they could trust me, but instead they thought I was too harsh with the woman I faced off.

One teenager was also into witchcraft, and I'm told he put a curse on me. I laughed but I sort of believed he might have had that kind of power. I don't believe that now.

I was threatened, lied to, and conspired against. Like the cartoon said, "You're not paranoid; people really are out to get you."

Like I said, it wasn't just this church, but the whole religious community. Seven preachers, including me, all left at about the same time. Three of them left the ministry--one of those ran off with the organist. A couple of us were sick. And one died of illness.

Most churches, even the dysfunctional ones, are not as mean and hateful as what I've described. In fact, I have received much kindness from people in the name of Jesus.

But I've learned some things.

First, my family is more important than my church. I don't know why we clergy will often sacrifice our families for this work. I was on this track back then, but not anymore.

Second, I won't die for this work. Jesus' death will have to be enough for them, because I won't sacrifice myself for them.

I spent some time in the hospital for both psychological and physical disorders. I have often wondered why I did not die because I came pretty damn close. I learned about my weaknesses and I learned about my strengths. I'm smarter now. Better than I was before. I'm also more bitter and cynical. I've paid some dues.

But I didn't die, and I'm still serving.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Colder than a Corpse

Everything about the room said "money." Rich dark furniture, lavish paintings, plush sofas.

The guy who spoke to us looked expensive too--Hollywood haircut, three piece suit that cost more than three months of my salary. And shoes with those cute little tassels. His body was finely conditioned from the best gym money could buy.

I hitched up my jeans in a self conscious gesture.

Was he a lawyer? Nope. Bank loan manager? Nuh uhh.

He was a funeral director.

I was with the grieving family not as their minister, but as a friend. I made it my job to reassure them they did not have to take out a second mortgage to pay for this guy's next manicure and tanning session.

I picked up one of those decorative magazines from the coffee table in front of me, and for some reason that bothered him so much that I think it raised his temperature a smidge higher than the stiffs he kept in the back room. It was brief but his whole body twitched. Like a little bitty convulsion.

So of course I picked up another and sure enough, he twitched again. Then one more time. Same thing.

We finished with the arrangements and stood, but before he could leave, the man picked up all the mags I had handled, slammed them down on the table, and spread them as precisely as before I had desecrated them with my touch. And then for the briefest of moments he glared at me.

I gave him a big cheesy smile to remember me by. I resisted the urge to pass gas as I walked past him.

He was the tallest, handsomest, most well dressed prick I had ever met. But he was not the most entertaining funeral director I've known. He wasn't even third runner up. And he sure wasn't Miss Congeniality.

I'll tell you about some of the more entertaining ones later.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stain Glass Sins

I'm feeling sick right now.

My church will have spent $40,000 on stain glass windows by the end the year. They're pretty, I suppose, although I prefer seeing out to watch kids walk home from school.

For that amount of money we could have built eighteen homes for families in Mexico who currently live in wooden huts with dirt floors. Their new homes would be the size of my living room, but they would have electricity, concrete floors, and functioning outhouses. And those families would have been thrilled.

Which one would honor Christ more? A pretty picture of him holding a child, or a real home where a child could sleep more comfortably tonight?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where Does a Preacher Buy Condoms?

So I'm doing my part to keep the population stabilized. I decide to zip into the local pharmacy, on a surreptitious search and retrieve mission. On my way to the designated aisle, I pick up a bag of candy bars to provide cover for the targeted package. Both packages are cradled in one arm and I'm headed for the check out like a wide receiver going for the goal, when a lady from my church rounds the corner of the aisle.

When I say lady, I mean it. She's not one of these grim church women who might not actually know what a condom is. She's just past middle age and a really classy person. I like her and I don't want her to see me lugging an economy sized box of extra thin, lubricated prophylactics.

Before she recognizes me, I dive for a bin full of Halloween masks. She makes eye contact just as I'm burying my potential purchase underneath an item that is also made of latex. But it's not covered completely and I pray (since I'm so religious) that she doesn't look too closely at what I'm trying to conceal.

We visit for a moment before we go our separate ways. If she saw, she doesn't mention it because as I said, she's classy.

I get to the checkout stand. When a guy rings up these kinds of purchases, he usually moves with dispatch to place it in the bag. But not this lady. She picks up the box of condoms and, I'm not kidding, she holds them to her rather ample bosom while she taps in the code. And she's chatty.

"It's mighty warm today, isn't it sir?"

"Mm hmm."

"I see someone is indulging his sweet tooth."

"Beg your pardon? " Oh, she meant the candy bars.

Finally, I'm out the door and safe in my car.

As I leave the parking lot, I notice a drive through window where people can pick up their prescriptions. Couldn't a fellow buy his condoms there as well?

But no, with my luck it wouldn't work out.

First, I don't want to be hollering my order at a friendly plastic pharmacist that repeats my order at maximum volume. He probably wouldn't ask if I wanted fries with that order, but I could imagine what he might say.

"We have a special where you can buy the package with four different flavors."

"Just the plain version."

"You mean vanilla--that's our most popular."

"I mean no flavors please."

"Would you like the combo that comes with personal lubricant and a two liter bottle of soda?"

"No thanks."

"Do you want to supersize that order, sir? "

"No. Well, maybe. I mean no."

"That comes to $29.99, you can pick it up at the second window. Thank you and have a REALLY nice evening." The plastic pharmacist would give a mechanical wink.

Next time, I'm going out of town when I make a liquor run.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

God's Credibility Problem

I often express my dissatisfaction with the people in the Christian movement. I have also maintained that questioning the validity of the church's belief is not the same as challenging the existence of God or his motivation.

But the truth is though I believe in God, he has a credibility problem with me. I'll just stick with one of the bigger problems I have.

"I will send you a counselor (or comforter, or encourager, or helper)." We understand this to be the promise of the Holy Spirit who will come and fill us with something or other. It sounds great because I often feel empty and lonely. I would love to sense a benevolent mystical presence within me or even outside of me. But I don't. I thought I had in times past, but I doubt those past impressions of mine.

I have friends of the charismatic persuasion who insist that they fellowship fully with the Spirit. They feel an intense connection with God. They speak in a heavenly language (what we call tongues). They've seen powerful workings of the Spirit.

I want to be gentle here. But I don't believe them. I believe in their sincerity, but I don't believe they've experienced what they say they are experiencing. I don't say that often because I don't want to hurt their feelings, and besides, I could be wrong. But everything I've seen in my thirty years of ministry appears to be emotionally driven, and a lot of that is anxiety.

I still believe in God and Jesus. I'm still able to teach from the scripture. I'm willing to entertain the idea of a powerful mystical presence that can change the course of events. But I have not seen it.

"Maybe He is there but you just can't see him," some will argue.

Okay. But no one has searched for him more than I have. If He's that hard to experience, what good is He?

I don't talk easily about these things to others. Frankly, it would hurt some people I love, and it would make my life more complicated than I want. This blog allows me to say things because I am anonymous. There are only three people who know my identity and I trust them enough to tell them anything.

To them and those of you who have become my blog friends, I say, that this has been a bitter disappointment to me. I have felt inadequate, rejected, angry, and disillusioned in that order.

Bear in mind that I am not experiencing an emotional or even spiritual crisis. I have been this way for quite a few years and I have found some peace along the way.

I just wanted to say it to someone.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama's Prize

The following does not lie within the context of my normal subject matter. But I just couldn't help myself, and besides, it's my blog.

I live in an area where people think Obama is going to destroy life as we know it. They call him the antichrist, compare him to a Nazi, and accuse him of being a racist. They also question his patriotism because once he didn't wear a little flag on his lapel. O, and according to some, he's not even a real citizen.

All of which is ridiculous. And since I'm a clergy guy, I'll go ahead and say it's wrong and immoral to say such outlandish and insulting things about the President. Criticize, okay. But not this dishonest alarmist crap.

The thing is, I have had to change my mind about Obama. I was skeptical of his ability to be President. But he has shown himself to be reasonable, wise, and often shrewd (although I think he wasted too much political capital on the bid to bring the Olympics to Chicago).

But I like the guy. I've seen enough to be encouraged. And he has my support. He had it even when I was skeptical of him.

But I have a problem with the committee that selected him for the Nobel Peace Prize based on what he might accomplish in the future. Awards are for what a person has already done. Not on what we hope he is going to do.

The Nobel Committee has done him a disservice and made themselves look foolish. They've made this prize a political statement rather than a reward for outstanding deeds. I've not thought much about them before, but now I've considered them enough to not trust them.

If I were Obama, I would find this embarrassing and perhaps a little alarming.

In my own miniscule role as a clergy guy within my culture, I have learned that when I go to a new church, the people who praise me too quickly are the ones I cannot trust. When I do not do what they want (and that always occurs), they become my biggest detractors. Dishonest, manipulative detractors.

Obama needs to look over the Nobel Committee carefully. He doesn't need that kind of "support." I predict they will be his most vocal critics before he is out of office. They'll also prove to be his pettiest and most dishonest critics.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Watching

Most of the time, I write these little articles for the church newsletter or the town newspaper. But I thought I'd share this one with you, since most of the time I only write about my frustrations in ministry.

This one is about being a father.

My second son learned to ride the bicycle this week. He didn’t get the hang of it when he was little like many kids. But when he was ready, he got the bike out and pressed on till he learned it. When I saw he was serious, I took him to the church parking lot and gave words of encouragementk while I watched.

I remember how it was with the first boy. I ran up and down the street pushing him, hoping I could help him discover that secret called balance. But he didn’t. Instead, one time when I wasn’t looking, much less pushing, he found it, and his world expanded immediately.

It was that way when he started walking, too. Just behind us when his mother and I were talking, he quietly pulled himself up, to take his first unaided steps.

Now my second boy did the bicycle thing much the same way, only this time, I was paying attention. Not pushing. Just watching.

As I write these words, he’s outside now, tooling up and down the road, his world suddenly bigger.

I’m still in their world, but I’m beginning to just watch more. O, I’ll intervene, instruct, even push and pull when needed. But I expect to do a lot more standing and applauding as time goes by.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Windows

I blew a gasket yesterday evening at one of the neighborhood kids. We--usually my wife--often have to redirect his behavior when he’s at our house: don’t throw toys on the roof—especially when they’re not your toys; quit tromping in the flowerbed; and it’s the end of the day so go home.

I think there are kids in the area who like to come to our house because it’s comfortable for them, and perhaps safer. No one yells at them.

And I didn’t yell yesterday either. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a substantially sized fellow. I have a fairly intense personality but I try to temper it with a softer voice.

But even though I kept my voice low, the neighborhood kid, who does not seem to be burdened with an overabundance of good sense, could see I was irate. He had been roaming in the front yard and started looking through our windows into the house.

Maybe this doesn’t bother you, but I have enough of people looking at me and commenting on my life and I don’t want some kid invading my space like that. I open the front door abruptly enough to get his attention and tell him, “Don’t look in the windows of houses. It’s considered impolite. Especially, don’t look in the windows of MY house.”

The kid said, “I didn’t know it was rude.”

I shrugged. “That’s why I was telling you.”

I’m a public person. I stand in front of people and open up my thoughts and feelings regularly. Sometimes in my sermons I confess a vulnerability, so I can get others to look at theirs. While most appreciate this, there’s always some that want to pass judgment.

There are others who monitor where I am constantly. They notice when I leave the house, how long I’m at the office, who comes to see me, and for how long. It’s their hobby.

When I get home, I close the doors and the drapes. I don’t want the public to see when and what I’m eating, what I watch on TV, and what I wear at home.

I’ll admit I’m just plain sensitive about it.

Just as soon as I write these words, I also remember the searing loneliness I feel most of the time. If I feel that isolated, shouldn’t I open the doors and windows and quit yelling at little kids who peer inside?

Being evaluated is not the same as having company. Friendship begins with acceptance and then with maybe, I don’t know, friendliness?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Under the Category of “Life is Too Short….”

I remember one church where someone told me from the very beginning: “Around here, you have to earn people’s respect. They don’t just give it to you.”

Sounded fine. But I came to find out that it meant they didn’t feel obligated to be considerate or communicative or even friendly.

On the one hand, I’m not looking for special treatment and I understand that people have to get to know me before they can trust me. On the other hand, the older I get the less I feel the need to prove myself to anyone.

After a year or so of the cold treatment, the guy told me again, “Remember, you have to earn our respect.”

“Your respect,” I said, “is not worth the effort.”

I confess it was rather blunt of me to say but I couldn’t help it. A short time later, I respectfully moved on to a new place.

“If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.” (Mt 10:13-14, NIV).

Monday, September 21, 2009

Resurrection Thoughts

I share the following scene in an attempt to explain my thoughts concerning resurrection. They are not offered as proof. They are merely my thoughts. I plan to write more later.

A dirt road in the country at night. Cars are parked along the side. Hundreds of people gather around a spot where a cross and flowers have been placed. I stand before the grieving crowd of teenagers and parents. Their faces flicker in the light of the candles that each hold in front of them. Behind them the dark sky glitters with thousands of stars.

Standing with me are the mother and father of the child that died one year before in a car wreck.

My job is to give all of them permission to grieve, then put them back together enough for them to move on.

“When I see the light of the stars behind you and I look at the grief in your faces, I believe again in the resurrection. Your grief is testimony that you loved your friend. Your love reveals to me that somewhere, somehow she still exists.

“We cannot believe that the spirit of our friend just blinked out of existence. Her presence is still real because her absence is felt so keenly. I'm not talking about memory. I'm talking about presence.

"Sometimes in our grief we can feel, see, and even hear the person we've lost. Often in our dreams. Sometimes, in times of crisis, in the light of day. I personally do not believe this to be hallucination. I believe because we love, we see beyond the physical.

“If there is an eternal God and if he loves us with an everlasting love, then it is not difficult to believe that life continues in some form beyond this physical existence.

“I cannot prove this scientifically, nor am I particularly interested in trying. But in my spirit I believe it's true and so do you.

“This is what keeps us going. This is why we believe it is right and good to love each other, even the dead. It keeps us alive, and it keeps us going. Perhaps into eternity.”

We cried, hugged each other, blew out our candles, and went our various ways.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Real Atheists

In the sixties, churches started veering away from angry preaching where people came every week to get their spiritual spanking. Preachers started going back to school to learn counseling and social work skills. We started emphasizing how churches should meet the needs of others.

But in the eighties, I saw a shift in the attitude of lots of church people. Grown up mature Christians stopped saying to the world, “How can we meet your needs?”. They shifted to a more consumer oriented stance (selfishness) and asked “How can the church meet MY needs?”

The church has deteriorated over the years to where we have a great number of thumbsucking, overindulged, lazy people who want somebody to pay for a professional to take care of the religious work.

You know, I have become friends with a few atheists recently, and I much prefer them to many of the “elect.” They often have a real passion for truth that I find lacking in many church members. They are often quite idealistic (even if they won't admit it). I think Jesus probably prefers them, too—although don't tell my new friends that because it will start a debate for sure.

If you ask me, the real atheists are often sitting in the pews. They don’t believe. They just want. They’re not racked with guilt; they’re soft with spoiled living. And they whine if things get too uncomfortable.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Maybe I'm a Little Cranky

Most of the positive feedback I have received as a pastor is on how well I care for the people—visitation, counseling, bereavement and hospital calls. People say it is one of my strengths as a pastor.

Most of the negative feedback I have received as a pastor is that I don’t give enough care to people--not enough visitation, counseling, bereavement and hospital calls. People say it is one of my weaknesses as a pastor.

What gives?

Some people are appreciative and unspoiled. They are a pleasure to serve. Others are spoiled and dissatisfied with my efforts. I’ll still serve them with a smile, but at Christmas, I’ll point to the mistletoe I have tied to my belt in the back.

But I’m not bitter--:p

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Moment to Say "Thank You"

Writing this blog helps me greatly. I’ve needed a place air out my frustrations and fears.

The readers are the best part of writing the blog. Some of you have become my friends. You’ve shown interest, care, and acceptance. And because of you, I’m beginning to feel much better.

In the next entry, I have written about a moment of clarity.

I’m not sure how some of my atheist friends who read this blog are going to feel about helping me become clearer in my work as a minister. But please accept my thanks for helping me feel less alone.

There are still many things I need to say that I haven’t said yet, so please keep coming back.

Peace.

Clarity

I just reached my limit of fear, confusion, and grief.

I’ve been grieving over the church I left. It was so pretty, and they were so kind to me, and I felt successful at it. Others thought so, too, which is how I got this big promotion.

I have hated the move. I moved from the country to a small town where I’ve been hemmed in by houses and people. It’s noisy and cramped, and I can’t find a place to be alone, although I have felt extremely lonely.

I inherited a dysfunctional group of leaders, some of whom hated me before they even saw me because I was replacing a pastor they loved. They’ve kept things from me. Some have lied to me. One or two have sown great confusion. Several have flexed their economic muscles at me. Many have chewed up my time and energy demanding that I work on their problems.

I’ve been afraid. Of failing. Of losing a job I haven’t really liked. Of being branded a loser by my denomination’s higher organization. Of other nameless demons of the free-floating variety.

Yesterday, my mind cleared. It was during the sermon.

I interrupted myself and said, “Shall I tell you what’s on my heart or shall I be cautious?” I went with my heart:

“I’ve had a bellyful of being cornered in my office, managing this church. There are some folks who have dropped out this summer, and I hope they come back. But that’s up to them. I’m going spend my time bringing in new people who aren’t going to church anywhere. The work of this church is not done by programs or committees. It is done by people who reach out to other people.

“I’m getting out of my office and start doing the things I do best. And that’s focusing on the people. Who’s with me?”

“YES!” I heard two men say.

I’m glad we got that cleared up.

I’ve been clearing up other things, too. It has taken over a year to put effective leaders in the place of some of the old destructive ones.

The knot in my stomach that’s been there for a year and a half is gone. I've found a quiet place in my head. And this just became my church.

It’s about damn time.

I’m getting out of the damn office. I’m done listening to the damn complaints that have clogged my hours since before I moved in.

I’m setting my own damn agenda, and I’m going to do my damn job.

If I fail, it will be at the things I do best.

And I won’t fail.

The Wall

This is one of those “because I have no one else to tell it to” entries.

Occasionally, I hit a wall where it concerns my physical health.

It’s because of my age and my diabetes that I sometimes reach a point where I have no more energy until I have a chance to rest. When I was young there was always a reserve that I could call on, but no more.

O, there are still times when I am fatigued where I can mentally set it aside and keep moving, but I can’t do it often. There really is a wall when my body shuts down and there’s nothing left. It’s time to go to bed and try again the next day. Or maybe take the next day off and start over the day after.

The thing is, I get more done now than when I thought I had limitless energy. I plan ahead, budget my time and energy, and finish what I start. That attribute helped me take on a fulltime load of graduate work while I worked a fulltime job and did well with both (I don’t want to do it again, though).

Who would have thought that discovering my limitations would serve me so well?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Potlucks

If I ever retire, one of the things I’ll never attend again is the church potluck.

For one thing, I seem to be the only one qualified to pray over the food before we start. It doesn’t matter if I’m with someone who has just revealed he is suicidal, someone will interrupt, grab my arm and say, “Preacher, it’s time for the prayer!” As if a fire broke out in the fellowship hall.

Am I the only person who can do this? I can hear the grumbling: “What are we paying him for then?”

I always go last through the line because, contrary to most church claims, there’s not always enough food. Someone always notices when I haven’t gone through the line and will exclaim, “You better get something to eat!” with the same anxiety of someone begging me to get my swine flu vaccination.

Others take inventory on what I put on my plate--what it is, how much of it there is, what I didn’t get, and how much of it I didn’t finish.

And what would these people do for humor if they couldn’t tease the preacher on how much he ate? “Got enough there, preacher?” (Ha ha). “How many servings have you had?” (Ha ha).

I’ve spent the morning with this crowd. I’ve played with the children, laughed at lame religious jokes, hugged those who are crying, taught a Sunday school lesson, sung a song, arbitrated the latest conflict, smiled in the face of a tacky criticism, preached a sermon, shaken hands with everyone, and made sure the air/heat is working.

Do I have to eat with these people, too? Yes, but only until I retire.

I know it sounds ugly. Even petty. After all, Jesus ate with the people, but he was a better sport than I am—besides, he got to have wine with his meal.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Faith Vs Doubt: The Smackdown :)

This is a follow up of a discussion on faith and doubt that was started at Unreasonable Faith, which is a blog for atheists to state their thoughts. I go over there occasionally and I always enjoy the discussions. If you visit there, be aware that they don't hold back.

I made a statement about the fact that people who believe in God have their doubts. I was making the point that we in the church ought to be more tolerant with people who have legitimate questions. The discussion took off in an interesting direction. Daniel, at Camels with Hammers, offered these thoughts and challenges to me, which I have tried to address here. I include a few quotes from his entry to prompt my stuff. You can read his full statement on his blog (click here).

Daniel, I did the best I could here to answer up. However, I assume the discussion will not end. I appreciate your interest. You are proof that two people can disagree passionately and be respectful at the same time.

********

“Of course the faithful doubt, Clergy Guy—doubt is a precondition of faith. Were religious believers to be certain and doubtless (even if wrong), then they wouldn’t be exercising a will to believe worth calling faith.”

Okay, no disagreement there.

However, some people actually insist that their issues of faith are really facts. And some insist that if we believe that we should not doubt at all. My thought is that people of faith should get to examine their doubts without being attacked. Your assertion is that one cannot have faith and truly allow oneself the opportunity for doubt. It has to be one or the other.

I disagree. I not only stand up for the right to be ambivalent, I also say it is necessary. Some atheists seem every bit as militant in their positions as the arch conservative evangelical Christians are about theirs. I want to ask people on at both extremes this question: “Surely, you are not claiming that you understand all things, are you? Surely there is room for questions and doubts.”


“The very character trait of faithfulness (seen as a virtue by the faithful and even some non-believers but as a vice by me and many here) is a disposition against ever concluding on the side of doubt, even where there is preponderance of evidence in that direction.”

I submit that thinking persons, theists or atheists reach out with their imagination and thoughtfulness to find more meaning than they can currently see. And that sort of quest brings about a never ending supply of questions and even doubts.

The possibility of God cannot be proven. You say emphatically that there is a preponderance of evidence that God does not exist. But you cannot disprove God existence any more than I can prove him. Actually, in terms of logic, it’s much harder to disprove the existence of something, isn’t it?

I have chosen to proceed in life by accepting the possibility that God is real—like a working hypothesis. You have chosen to proceed with the conclusion (I’d call it an assumption) that God does not exist.

This is where the theist and the atheist differ. The argument can quickly break down to the level of two kids saying “Uh huh” and “Nuh Uh.”


“Doubt for the believer is a way of creating an opening for reaffirmation of faith and the experience of a strong act of faith, just the way that sexual desire sets us up for the satisfaction of orgasm.”

That’s an interesting analogy. I’m not a psychologist, but I think it’s well established that sexuality and religion are closely connected in the human brain. Perhaps you’re correct about the dynamics of doubt and faith. But I realize this is a tangential issue.


“Let me personalize this (and ask your forgiveness for the rudeness of personalizing an abstract debate): Can you, as a member of the Christian clergy, conceive of the possible conditions wherein you would be inclined to leave the faith? Are there possible conclusions that if you were led to them rationally you can acknowledge in advance you would be forced to abandon not only your faith but your life’s work and existential vocation? Do you resolve that you are willing to inquire with open endedness, to immerse yourself in contrary ways of thinking to your faith’s and give them the full chance to prove themselves to you?”

Okay, you wanna hear the personal stuff? I have hit at least two crossroads where I was ready to leave my work, my heritage, and my faith. I came close to ending my life, as well. Both times I came back from the edge to make some major changes in my life as well as in my understanding of God. I decided that many of my beliefs were not true, but some things remained:

1. It is good to love others.
2. I was born to help others.
3. Confused and as frustrated as I can be, there must be a God.

It sounds like you’re asking if I’m willing to spend a huge portion of my energy in disproving what I have chosen to believe in order to prove to myself that atheism is valid. No, I am not.

In the past, I have done intense examination of myself and I have had to make some changes in my beliefs. By now I have come too far in the development of my thoughts and concepts to start with a clean slate. However, I am dedicated in my search for truth, and yes, I am capable of making reversals in my beliefs.

One of the core beliefs I have is that there is a God whose existence that I cannot fully prove. This assumption helps the universe make sense to me.

You said something about my basing my faith on a pre-established commitment to tradition and its beliefs. There is some validity to that, but I have spent years examining those traditions and no, I’m not particularly married to them.

However, I have maintained belief in the existence of God.


“Do you set up tests which your beliefs must pass or you will choose to abandon it?”

I can look at my past to see if my beliefs passed the test of validity. Many of them have not. I was raised to believe in the inerrancy of scripture—this has not proved to be true and it created a crisis within me that caused me to leave the arch conservative denomination I was with.

I have also been hugely disappointed with churches in general. The life of a minister is one where one regularly gets his/her heart broken by the people he dedicates himself to helping.

The study of the history of Christianity is also hugely disillusioning.

Many atheists criticize the Bible and the church in an attempt to discredit the possibility of God. I can find plenty of negative things to say about both scripture and church, but I haven’t disproved the possibility God by doing so.

There is no end to the stupid things said by people who profess to believe in God—it’s not hard to find ways of poking holes in their logic. Perhaps it’s even harder to resist making fun of them. I agree that people can be utterly ridiculous. But their flaws do not disprove the existence of God.

Many of my assumptions about God have not proved to be true: God does not answer all prayer; God does not do miracles of the supernatural kind; God does not protect people from harm; I’m not always certain that God loves me.

Doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist.


“You are not leaving open the possibility of abandonment of the position. You may think about the reasons against your position and even indulge your pangs of uncertainty, but you’re not putting those beliefs into reason’s furnaces fully prepared to see them burn rather than survive.”

The existence of God is my framework of understanding. And while I have considered the possibility before that there is no God, and I have been willing to change everything in my life, I am not now at this point in my life.

Does that mean I am not a free thinker? You can conclude what you want about that. I do not feel the need to prove the validity of myself to others.

I read on your blog that you are about to complete your Ph.d in philosophy. My sincere congratulations on your tremendous achievement. I doubt that you are willing to chunk it all and start all over again reexamining your entire system of understanding and convictions.


“Maybe you are (willing to completely reject my faith), maybe that’s why you’re here hanging with the atheists and on your blog expressing your disillusionment with Christianity. Maybe deep down you are a free thinker who would rather be honest than faithful. But it’s one or the other—-honesty or faithfulness, doubt or faith. You can’t have it both ways.”

I am surprised that a man who has dedicated his life to the study of philosophy insists that life is so cut and dried. Be that as it may, I do not agree with the statement that honesty and faithfulness are mutually exclusive.

I have always thought of faith as a way of contextualizing the known and the unknown. I look into the universe, marvel at its size and complexity and I conclude there must be something that created it, which I call God. This is a conclusion that I then use as an assumption which frames how things work in the rest of life.

Why am I hanging with the atheists? I said something about liking a challenging discussion and that I like many of you. I don’t have to agree with you about the possibility/impossibility of God in order to value who you are.

Since you’re challenging me to bare my soul, I’ll go ahead and answer a little more fully. I confess that I am utterly bored with the church. I’m bored with the platitudes and the fear that keeps people cowering within them. I have spent my life working with them and helping them, but I’m not getting enough back from them to sustain me, and I sometimes feel like I’m dying from loneliness.

Yes, I need to make some kind of change, but in order to help me get by I’m reaching out for more than I have.

I figure that belief in God should open up possibilities, not shut them down. The same is true about people. I should open up the avenues of discussion, not shut them down. Reaching out in this way has helped me find some new people, a couple of new friends, and perhaps that’s even saving my life.

I am very sad that I cannot freely make these admissions to my own people, but instead I make them anonymously to people on the internet who come down on the opposite side of the most important issue in my life.

(You can read Daniel's reply here)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Old Maid or Hot Mistress?

When I was in high school, I went out a couple of times with the best looking girl in town. I’m not kidding. She had a pretty face and a figure that turned adolescent boys into stammering, drooling fools. When the news hit that I was going out with her, the guys had new respect for me. “Have a GREAT time,” several said to me with a wink.

We went out twice. And we had a nice time because we liked each other.

But there was no spark. No chemistry. No electricity. No nuthin’.

She may have been built like a brick sanctuary, but I might as well have been in church with my great aunt Flossie.

So with nothing but good wishes, we went our separate ways.

A year or so later, I met my wife (who is still hot three decades later). I could not, did not, and do not now keep my hands off her. She can still make the temperature rise enough to singe my clerical collar.

I’ve lost my train of thought.

O yeah. I was going for a metaphor.

I’ve felt quite passionately for some churches in my past. One or two churches were colder than a wet blanket in winter time. And there was one that I had a passionate longing to get away from.

One of my early churches was very old. I should have just visited them in their living rooms, sat with them when they were sick, and preached soothing sermons. But I was young and fiery and I didn’t want an old maid of a church—I wanted a hot mistress.

Right, too much with the imagery.

The point is they couldn’t be young and energetic for me. They were old and tired. I should have accepted them, or moved on.

I moved on. No hard feelings, we just weren’t a match.

Then I worked with one church that really was like a hot romance, with enough drama and crises to keep any adrenalin addicted preacher happy. I loved the work, and I loved them with great passion. They broke my heart several times—and there’s lots of stories about those times that I’ll get to. But then my health broke and I went into a slowly spiraling depression—and that’s another story.

There have been other churches. My last one was very sweet and a good match for my personality and my age. I miss them very much and I wish I were still there.

But I moved up. And the church I am with now is every bit as attractive as the gorgeous young lady I dated a couple of times in high school. Other preachers are envious of me and with good reason. There are no major problems that I can tell. New building. Enough money. Growing community.

But something is wrong.

I don’t love these people. They don't love me either. We’re mostly nice to each other but there’s no spark. They grieve for their last minister and I grieve for my last church. Even though we all agree there’s no reversing history, it’s hard moving on.

Could we learn to love each other? Don’t we just need a little time? Maybe, and I’m willing to keep trying if they are.

I don’t want to go back to the exciting, dysfunctional church of my younger days. But I need more than to just sort of like the one I’m with now.

I could also stand to have a couple of real friends in this new place. Which is probably another entry.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Shucky Dern! (Addendum to a Previous Entry)

She quit after all. (see previous related post).

She changed her mind. Decided it was insulting to make any adjustments.

I was ready to be all noble and give her a second chance. I was going to be the pastor practicing what he preached, allowing room for redemption and growth.

Instead, I was cheated from a chance to practice patience. I was not going to be allowed to spend an inordinate amount of time helping a stubborn soul. I would be forced to work with someone less difficult and more capable, who needed less supervision.

I guess I can get over it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I Need to Believe

I’ve already written a little about my crisis of faith and how a friend came to me and helped me get myself back together (click here) . Here’s a little more about that time.

Somehow I got through Sunday’s sermons without feeling like a complete liar. I think I managed by sticking with main ideas of the text and not defending whether they were true.

My friend traveled a couple of hours to see me that afternoon and we went for a long walk out on a country road I was partial to. I was still in bad shape from my diabetes and in truth, I don’t remember everything we said, but here are the pieces I’ve retained.

“Are you saying that you don’t believe that Jesus existed?” he began

“In fact,” I replied, “There is evidence other than scripture that refers to someone named Jesus from Nazareth, so I guess I would stipulate to his existence.”

“So you don’t believe in his teachings?”

“I’ve spent my life studying his teachings and separating out what he said versus what others have said about him.”

“And you don’t believe what he says is true?”

“Well, I can’t throw it out. I like Jesus’ teachings. In fact, I love them. They’re brilliant and wonderful. They’re profound and I keep having new ideas when I read them over again. So no, I don’t reject his teachings.”

“What about the resurrection? Are you saying that you no longer believe in the resurrection of the dead?”

It’s interesting that he bypassed the whole atonement argument, where Jesus was a sacrifice that paid for our sins, because I do have a little heartburn about that one. Instead he went right to the bottom line of Christianity.

“The resurrection of the dead is a bold claim,” I said. “Anyone in his right mind would reject it outright.”

Of course, nobody was saying I was in my right mind.

“I need the resurrection to be true,” I said. “I need to believe that I get to exist outside of the limitations I have now. I need the resurrection as an answer to the grief I feel over the losses I’ve had and continue to experience.”

“So you do believe in the resurrection?”

“Yes, in spite of what little sense I have left, I still believe in it.”

“Why?”

“Because I need to.”

And that’s really the reason.

For me this is not a battle to disprove evolution or other scientific issues that might conflict with the Bible. It’s not a matter of finding validity by proving the truth of my beliefs to others. I don’t have to make converts in order to bolster my own faith.

But the possibility of resurrection keeps me going. So I believe.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Funeral Clothes

You tell me. Where else am I going to print this other than an anonymous blog? The church newsletter?

It’s clear that some young women have not attended many funerals. They know they’re supposed to wear black, but all they have are the little party dresses that show a lot of leg and cleavage.

It must be especially difficult when they get to the cemetery. Walking on the ground in the required high heels is difficult. And if the wind kicks up, it’s quite a struggle to keep that light fabric in place. They’re probably not comforted by the eloquent words I’m uttering over the dead.

You understand, I’m not complaining. It certainly makes the day less of a drag.

But it’s not written in stone that one must wear black at a funeral. Most of us just try to wear something nice to show respect. In my part of the world, it’s not uncommon for the men to wear their clean pair of jeans, along with polished boots, a western shirt, and a black hat—often the deceased is dressed the same way.

Some women wear nice dresses and others wear dress jeans—and they don’t have to be black. At one funeral, all the women wore red dresses because the deceased loved that color.

When I die, I won’t care what they wear to the funeral. Hey, I’ll be glad someone actually shows up.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Redemption is a Pain

Dad fetch it, gosh darn it to heck, son of a biscuit!

Nothing ever goes as planned around here.

I had it all worked out. I had decided that this Sunday school teacher had to go. O-U-T spells out. I'm not having another year like the last one. And the conversation last night, with her snippy unpleasant manner just strengthened my resolve.

I'm the big man around here. What I say goes. I make the tough decisions because that's what they pay me for. I'm a decisive, resolute, steely-eyed...

...wuss.

She called me back and said the right words: "I would really like to keep doing this. Is there some way we could work this out?"

Crud.

"Yes, but I need you to do some things differently this year."

"Okay."

"You need to communicate with me and try harder to work with others.

"I can do that."

"You need to show up for church, not just the activity. You need to set an example if you’re going to be a leader.”

"But a lot of people don't like me."

This is unfortunately true. She's not easy to like.

"We can work on resolving some of that. Will you make the effort?"

"I’ll try."

"Let's meet next week and put a plan together."

I hung up the dad blasted phone.

It would have been so much simpler to cut her loose. I have someone, already a leader, ready to step in who can do a great job, and I wouldn't have to worry at all.

But now, I'll be working closely with a young difficult woman, teaching her how to do this job while I have my own work to do.

Why bother?

Because this difficult stubborn woman swallowed her pride and asked respectfully for another chance. Unfortunately for me, I believe in allowing people the opportunity for do-overs, and I believe in a thing called redemption.

Well that little philosophy has turned around to chomp me on both butt cheeks.

It's going to make my life more difficult than it was before, and there's no guarantee that she can really make the necessary adjustments.

But she asked. Anyone with guts enough to be humble always gets another chance with me.

Dad gum it to heck.

There is an addendum to this (click here).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Not My Sons

I went a little crazy when I learned I was going to have a boy. I looked around and decided that I had to work harder to make this world a better place for my child.

Then he was born and my thinking quickly shifted. Screw the world, I thought, I’ve got to take care of my son.

I had other issues to deal with at the time so pardon me if I seem a little extreme.

As a father, I’m troubled by the idea that God was willing to sacrifice his son for the world.

I have sons. No one can have them. In terms of life and death, if I ever had to make a choice between my children and anybody else, I’ll choose my children to live every time.

Want to hurt my kid? Want to beat him and nail him to a cross? It’s not going to happen. If someone were to try, I’d destroy him in the blink of an eye.

Every parent I know feels that way about their kids. They’re supposed to. Something would be wrong if they didn’t feel that way.

So why have we decided it was noble for God to give up his son? I have a hard time respecting a God who would do that.

I have to believe the problem here is in the imagery.

John actually has a different image of Jesus. He maintains that Jesus is actually God Himself in the flesh. When he went to the cross, no one forced him. He gave himself up. He willingly sacrificed his own life for the benefit of humanity.

That’s an image I can respect. I can even aspire to be like that. I can see offering my life as a living sacrifice or even as a martyr.

But not my sons.

After Spending a Moment with the Preschool Kids:

Jesus loves the little children but I’ll bet he had Mary Magdalene take care of them most of the time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Why Pastors Cry

I cry fairly easily. Movies that show generous heroism, news clips of a soldier returning home, that homely British woman who sang “I Dreamed a Dream.” But my tears are private—my wife receives the dubious honor of being the only one who sees me when it happens.

Not long ago, I came home after a couple of intense counseling sessions. I sat down on the sofa, and the tears came. Then came to sobbing and it wasn’t quiet. Like she always does, my wife sat next to me with her arms around me. I told her I had done too many funerals this year. And there have been too many parents in this church who’ve had to bury their children.

It didn’t last long. And then I was okay.

I don’t let the children see me at these moments—I’m afraid it would frighten them. I think it also frightens a church to see their preacher break down. I know that everybody says they understand the preacher is human, but they don’t like to see it. So I don’t show them.

But I let my guard slip yesterday.

A year ago, I preached a funeral for a beautiful teenage girl who was killed in a wreck (leading cause of death for teens). The family was devastated but so terribly sweet—just downright classy even while they grieved. They broke my heart.

Yesterday evening someone called to tell me an ambulance was in front of the family’s house and there may have been an accidental death. As I drove, I kept praying, “No no no no. Not again. Not these people.”

There had been a death but it was a repairman who apparently collapsed and died instantly from a heart attack. I was sorry he died. He was relatively young with a wife and children. I saw his body lying in the yard and I thought about how life had just changed drastically for his loved ones.

The family was shaken but okay. I hugged the beautiful mother who had lost her child the year before, and I couldn’t help crying just a little from both relief and sadness. However, like I said before, they’re classy people so they were cool with it.

Earlier in the day, another woman lost her elderly father whom she loved deeply. She’ll grieve but because of her love her tears will not be unbearably bitter.

I also visited a man in the hospital who is very sick and has little time left, but he is still interesting and engaged with the people around him. The nurses love him; his wife is put out with him, and his pastor is often amused by him.

Throw in a protracted discussion of church budget problems and the latest conflict over where the utensils should be placed in the kitchen, and it all made for a rich full day.

Not all days are like this. And I’m not complaining about this one. It’s actually an honor to be with people during their significant moments. I feel less honored to be part of the kitchen controversies.

I just feel a need these days to tell someone what I’m about. If you’ve bothered to read through this whole thing, thanks for listening… or reading as the case may be.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Church Signs

Have I mentioned that I hate church signs? Not the ones with useful stuff like their name and meeting times. I’m talking about those marquee signs with the cute statements on them like: “You think it’s hot here!” Or What missing in the Ch - - Ch?”

I hate them because they give the owners the feeling that they are accomplishing something by sticking letters up. I hate them because it’s one more opportunity to sound preachy, petty, and irrelevant. Mostly I think I hate them because they’re so overpriced.

I remember being sorely tempted to put my own message up on a sign at a church that I had to leave. In the dark of night just before I left town, I’d write the specific name of my nemesis and talk about how limply endowed I thought he was—or something equally tasteful. I’d take the key to the sign with me and since it’s supposed to be vandal proof, they’d have a hard time changing it.

It’s hard to imagine why they’d have issues with me, isn’t it?

I have a couple of things I’ve been tempted to say on a church sign:

“A place where the only change made is in the offering plate.”

“Where we have the best fried chicken and the grumpiest souls.”

“Where children aren’t seen or heard.”

If we have to put something on a sign other than information, couldn’t we say something affirming that tells the readers that they are valuable? Something that expresses appreciation for beauty, courage, and love? Something that inspires us to be brave and truthful?

I just don't know how to make those statements into a one phrase burma shave slogan.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why Do I Stay?

Why do I stay in the ministry if it makes me so unhappy?

First, this blog gives an unbalanced view of my life. I do find some joy in what I do. This is the stuff I can’t say anywhere else. It’s better than a journal because it makes me feel less alone. So this blog makes my life a little more possible. By the way, thanks for reading and responding—you help me more than you might think.

Here’s a list of reasons why I stay in the ministry:

1. Because I can’t sing or dance (ba dum baah)! I have tried other things like social work and sales, but I truly suck at them. I end up being a minister no matter what other job I’m doing and that doesn’t always fit well with other occupations. (It’s sort of incongruous to quote scripture when you’re selling frilly underwear to a young woman—but that’s another story).

2. Because the church loved me when I needed them. When I was a nerdy kid, the church loved me and valued me. When I was sick, some people from a church rallied to help me. The church has also hurt me, like a dysfunctional family hurts each other, but the church is still my home. I need them and they need me.

3. Being a minister allows me opportunities to do things I couldn’t do elsewhere: writing, public speaking, teaching, studying, thinking, and music (I really can sing, but I was telling the truth about the dancing part).

4. When I don’t know what else to do, when I'm completely frustrated, when I’m dead on my feet, even when God seems far away, I still think it is right to help others.

5. Everything else bores me. I’d rather be frustrated than bored.

6. I would miss it terribly if I quit.

7. It may not always feel like a calling and I may not always be good at it, but I think I was born to do this.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On the Positive Side

I often express gloomy thoughts on this blog. It seems appropriate to share that I had a great weekend with the church youth, where we went to a ministry for the poor and homeless. We fed hungry people and helped organize their clothing ministry. I felt like I connected a little with the kids and we were able to show them that many people do not have the comforts they do. The kids were receptive and enthusiastic.

It is the work I chose to do.

Monday morning I was back in the office dealing with politics and bureaucratic minutia, but it didn’t spoil my good mood.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

On the Couch

Today, I’m on the couch, talking to my imaginary therapist. You can listen in if you’re interested but I'll understand if you’re not:

One of the things I enjoyed about seminary was the fact that for a finite amount of time, I would take a class, complete assignments for that class, get a grade, and then move on to the next one. At the end of each semester, I had a tangible means of seeing how much progress I had made.

I miss that sense of satisfaction.

I don’t get that much in the ministry, where people come and go, numbers ebb and flow, and personal popularity may not indicate how effective I really am. If people come to a church because they like me, but then leave when I have to move on, how successful have I really been?

It’s not like in sports where success can be measured in terms of high scores and win/loss ratios. And it’s not like in business where the amount of money at the bottom line indicates success or failure.

How do we measure how well we’re doing? In a George Barna poll, around 80% of the people said they felt spiritually mature. That’s successful, right?

Not so fast. If we’re all so dadgum spiritual, why aren’t we worshiping regularly? Why are most church struggling with half empty sanctuaries and bulging debts?

If we’re doing so well, why is there so much sexual pain, shoplifting, embezzling, and downright rude behavior in people who ought to know better? And why is there so much depression, anxiety, and addiction?

I wonder sometimes if there really is a heaven. When I get there, will there be a God who will say to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”? Will it be worth it all to hear those words? It would be nice to hear them now.

Let’s just say there is no heaven. And let’s say that it doesn’t really make any difference at all what I do--that I am not succeeding at helping people get better. Should I quit and go into sports—maybe one of those eating competitions? Or business—“Hey mister, wanna buy some used Bibles cheap?”

Naah.

For me there are only two choices. I can lie down and die, or I can stand up and serve. I’m also remembering that down through history, the people who are now considered successful often had to feel their way down the path. Their success occurred because they didn’t quit even during their dry spells.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about myself the last few years is that I don’t quit.

Fail? Maybe. Quit? Never.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Is anyone out there?

I'm dying of curiosity as to who's reading this blog. Do you have a moment to leave a comment? You can be anonymous or use a pseudonym if you like. Or you can always email me at clergyguy@gmail.com. --CG

Friday, July 31, 2009

Get Out of Town

Her face radiated with the vitality of goodness and superiority. She carried her age with the grace that only the insulation of money could give.

“I’m ready,” she said grandly, “to be more active in the church. God has given me gifts that should be used. I've decided it's time to give more of my time and talent.”

“How nice,” I said.

She meant that she wanted to stand before the church and quote her insipid Helen Steiner Rice poems and talk about how good life can be if only we have the right attitude.

“Just let me know when you need me.”

I needed to open a window. Her cologne was making me gag.

“As a matter of fact,” I began, “I know a young woman whose husband beats her when he drinks too much. She desperately needs an older friend who can just listen and be of emotional support. Would you like me to introduce you to her?”

Her smile became a tad strained.

“She lives just around the corner,” I pressed. “Want to come with me now and meet her?”

She took a step back and wrinkled her nose like I made a rude noise and a bad smell.

“I have to be out of town a lot,” she stammered. “I’m not really going to be able to do that.”

And she left. There was no poetic eloquence to explain her sudden reversal. She just got the hell out of my office, which suited me fine.

Okay, I confess that I enjoyed that too much. I got a lot of satisfaction out of piercing through the insulation of her pompous comfortable life.

Satisfaction or not, sometimes it’s my job to pull people out of their comfort zone. If you want to do God’s work, be aware that you’re going to get your hands dirty.

In almost any town, you can walk out your front door and see the houses of people who are going through great difficulties. Some are violent. Some are suicidal. Some have children who are violent or suicidal. Marriages are on the verge of breaking up. Little children hide under their covers and try not to hear their parents fighting. Many are looking at huge bills and tiny checking accounts and just wish they could run away. Family members will have to take turns eating today because there’s not enough food to go around.

One of the gospels tells of Jesus getting sick at his stomach as he looked on people in similar circumstances. Then he challenged his disciples. “They are like sheep without a shepherd. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Pray to the Lord that he will send forth workers.”

Perhaps Jesus calls us through the prayers if his first followers. Are we one going to be some of the workers the disciples prayed for? Or will we just try to get out of town?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Pudgy Boy

As usual, there was tension on the wedding day. One of the children in the party, a big teenage boy, disappeared for a few moments just before the ceremony. The groom was furious when he found him in another room. I walked in on them as the older man yelled at the boy who was to be his stepson. The man’s red face radiated rage as he whipped off his belt and brandished it in front of the youth.

The boy was big but soft looking. He was scared and could hardly speak audibly in the face of the angry man.

That’s when I did something that made me ashamed.

I was so frightened that I made for the door, and then nearly ran across the courtyard to edge of the church property before I stopped myself.

Why was I literally running away?

This was not me. I stand up for the weak. Bullies don’t scare me. In fact I calm them down. Or back them down if necessary. But here I was, running like a coward when an oversized kid needed me.

I gritted my teeth, turned around, and forced myself to walk back to the building.

I paused at the door and tried to gather my wits and make my body quit shaking. When I entered the building, the father was standing there with a big smile. “Guess I overreacted there, Reverend. Shouldn’t have gotten so mad. How about we go on and do this wedding. Whaddaya say?”

I hated myself and him as I shook his outstretched hand. We went into the sanctuary where I performed the wedding.

It’s nearly a decade later, and I've puzzled over that moment many times. The shame has worn off as I recognize some factors that played into that moment. First, there was something about that big scared pudgy kid that I identified with. Second, I was still coming back from a lengthy illness and in some ways I really wasn’t myself.

I’m inclined to have some compassion on my younger self. I even feel a little pity for the man who was so angry.

But if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have run away and left that boy alone.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Isolation

John Meuner's blog discusses the loneliness of preachers and the fact that although the United Methodist Church emphasizes connectionalism (click here for that article), there is very little support and connectedness between churches.

Initially, he speaks of ministers who leave the church because the system is destroying their lives. I left a reply on that site that I'll include here:

For lay members, when they have their struggles, they can talk to their friends at church for help and support. Marriage in trouble? Tell your closest brothers and sisters. Child making bad choices? Confide in the pastor. Problems on the job? Share it with your Sunday school.

Pastors have none of that. Their life is spent serving a church they cannot ask help from. I've been in the ministry all my life. I am extraverted and supportive of others, but the tradeoff has been loneliness and isolation to the point that I alternate between wanting to cry or punch the wall.

But I must do it privately so no one will know.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Loss of a Friend

I lost one of my best friends recently.

He was older. His personality was changed by the stroke he had experienced. He’d become temperamental, irrational at times, and quite needy emotionally. He lived alone and had few friends. He came to my office almost every day for a few minutes for a visit.

He was frustrated that he could not be the person he remembered himself to be. I tried to treat him like a man and I was careful never to talk down to him, even if he acted childish. He in turn gave me his help, sitting with the children at Sunday school and helping with the simple chores—doing these things helped him feel validated.

I did things for him I never do for other parishioners. I gave him money although he never asked for it. I’d often pay for his lunch. I helped him with his paperwork. I stayed with him when was in the hospital, helping him through a couple of physically undignified ordeals (you don’t want to know).

He laughed and cried easily. He especially cried when I moved away and he cried when I came back to visit him.

People complimented me for the way I treated him. They said I went far above the call of duty as a pastor. That’s true, but there was a reason.

We were friends.

I don’t have many of those. You’d think with the thousands of people I have pastored that I would have lots. But I don’t.

Some might think our relationship was rather one-sided with me doing the heavy lifting. It might have appeared that he didn’t have much to offer me. But he did.

He loved me. And he didn’t want anything but for me to love him.

His heart finally quit beating one day, and I’m relieved for him because he suffered so much.

But I miss him. A lot.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I Won't Be Sick With Them

Borderline Personality Disorder. It's a vague label. Supposedly the term has to do with someone who is right on the edge of psychotic. I read on the internet that they have a high rate of suicide, but I have not found this to be true—they make other people suicidal.

While the diagnosis sounds vague, some of the characteristics are recognizable: emotionally mercurial, can be extremely charming then turn in an instant to completely outraged, cause chaos and confusion everywhere they go. They are master manipulators.

A psychologist tells me that the key word is power. They flirt, seduce, even have sex for power. They intimidate, confuse, cry, charm, apologize, scream, cajole, and lie for power. They steal and cheat for power. They pit one group against another to stay in power. They create chaos and make everyone confused to keep power.

In almost every church I've pastored, I've dealt with a resident BPD person who had a position of power. I can't go toe-to-toe with them without doing myself tremendous political damage. If I'm lucky, I can create a healthier element in the church and force the person into the open, which makes him leave. Then I keep him at bay until he finds a vulnerability, like if I'm tired or sick or distracted.

I've had a couple of churches that had several of these crazies band together and keep the church flopping about under a steel net.

In the first church, I took them on. Tried to be direct, loving, honorable—righteous. They nearly destroyed me. Really. And that's another story.

I'm in another one now. They're too powerful for me to take on.

They can't have my guts this time. I won't walk into the punches like I did before. My footwork is better. My strategy is better.

I won't sacrifice me or my family in a quixotic attempt to save them from themselves.

I will take care of me and my loved ones. I'll minister to the ones I can.

And I'll get out as gracefully as I can as soon as I can.

They can be sick if they want. But I won't be sick with them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hot Sauce and Suicide

Here's something they don't prepare you for in seminary.

They were one of the first couples to come to me for marriage counseling. I figured the man to be mean and selfish because of a couple of things she told me. Once, when he was mad he took some hot pepper sauce and doused her underwear with it—this was decades before that beauty contestant story came out. Then she told me that he was kinky in the bedroom and was insisting that she invite a friend over for a threesome.

Quite a scoundrel, I thought. Then the woman tells me of children in her extended family who may have been sexually abused. I heard enough that I had no choice but to call child protective services Turns out there was no evidence of such abuse and she was using me to hurt some in-laws with whom she was in conflict. The family I reported was angry with me for reporting them. Btw, I no longer trust state agencies to keep my name confidential.

Then the wife left her home for an affair with her stepbrother. They'd been involved for some time, she finally told me.

Her husband called me late one night after she left and threatened to kill himself. I couldn't get him to calm down before he hung up on me so I traveled seventy miles to get to him. I rode my motorcycle because my old car had quit running. It was dark and rainy and I almost got bogged down in the dirt road that led to his home in the country.

While I struggled to get my poor bike through the mud it occurred to me that I might be at risk. What if this guy was suicidal AND wanted to take someone, like me, with him? What's more, with my wife out of town, no one knew where I was. This was before cell phones, where I could notify someone quickly. I could have just disappeared from society that night.

I take a few more precautions these days.

The man was was better when I saw him. He was enormously grateful that I had gone to the trouble to check up on him.

The couple got a divorce. The woman took her hot underwear and went to live with her brother/boyfriend. The husband lost weight, got control of his life, met and married someone who actually liked him, and started attending church.

Two people were hurting each other. Which was the bully and which was the victim?

Beats me. It's probably not even a good question.

But I do know that the husband became better. And by better, I mean nicer and more successful in his relationships.

Wanna hear another story? Stay tuned. I got a million of 'em. Or at least a hundred.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Turmoil

I finished up a good week in the church and managed to pull out of a rough depression. It helped greatly that I have people in the church who are focused and excited about some good works they are preparing to do: feeding the hungry, building homes, clothing the needy. You know. God's work.

Of course, there will be some resistance. I got an ominous phone call from someone who wants a meeting because there are “things going on that they're bothered about.”

I know why they're bothered. It's too exciting. It's a little big and bold. It's out of their control.

And worst of all, it's not about them.

In most churches, a few naysayers can railroad momentum. I wonder if it will happen this time.

There are so many things out of my control. If the opposing parties speak unpleasantly enough, it will discourage people who bring the most potential to our church, and we'll lose them. If I squelch down the complainers, who are mostly longtime members, they could leave and that would hurt us, too. Or the whole thing could blow up and everyone could leave.

I can be conciliatory or adversarial. I can be brilliant in my negotiating skills. But it really boils down to how much maturity and humility these people have.

There's nothing in my decades of experience to give me much hope that this will end well. But in all fairness this most recent church has surprised me in the past.

So we'll see.

We'll sit in our multi-million dollar church building and argue over whether we should spend a few thousand dollars to send volunteers to build brick huts for families in Mexico so the children can have roofs over their heads.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Dragon Gets the Girl

They said it would be an informal wedding. He wore jeans and boots. But she wore that micro minidress I mentioned previously--the one that didn't come down far enough to cover her panty-clad bottom. (Click here for that article).
Now I had intended to write this in a humorous vein like the last account, but the story turns dark, so beware.

The girl was memorable, but the groom disturbed me. He was big with rough-hewn features and lifeless eyes. I figured him to be a rancher, only I did not sense the honor that I have known in other ranchers.

He looked bored throughout the ceremony. Until time to kiss the bride.

I've seen lots of guys make a production out of the kiss by sweeping her in his arms and dipping her low for a long dramatic smooch. Sometimes the woman won't turn loose of the man. It's a cute moment.

But this wasn't cute. The man reminded me of a giant komodo dragon you see on one of those nature shows, where they remain still and unblinking until the prey gets close enough for him to strike quickly and gobble it down.


That's what groom did. He grabbed the small woman and mauled her face with his mouth. When he turned her loose, I could see that he had hurt her a little.

They disappeared right after the ceremony, leaving me with their small band of acquaintances. I wanted to sign their license and be done with these proceedings. But they didn't come back for several minutes.

When they returned, the man looked amused and the woman was flushed. Marks on her face and neck started appearing slowly—hickeys.

Where he had taken her? One of the children's classrooms? A broom closet? God, was my office open?

The thing is, the woman was rather likable. In spite of her dress, she was not coarse or unpleasant. Quite the opposite, in fact. She was slim and pretty, soft-spoken with kind blue eyes and a sweet smile.

Did she know she had other choices and that she didn't have to marry this a**hole?

I figure she was broken before she met him, conditioned to respond to brutality as if it was the only way affection was shared.

My guess is he made her wear the minidress. I've no doubt he made her do many humiliating things.

And she loved him.

I hated his guts.

It was years ago, but I still do.

Indecent Wedding Dresses

I was dead on my feet with exhaustion as I conducted the wedding ceremony. I don't remember why I was so tired, but I think it was the Christmas season with all the extra activities and craziness that goes on at that time.

So I'm standing there in front of the bride and groom, trying desperately to bring some coherency to my message. I wanted to say something eloquent, helpful, and not stupid. Then I realized that while I was straining to pull my thoughts together, I was staring directly at the woman's chest.

How many long moments had my eyes been pointed that way? I blinked with a start and looked up. Bless her heart, the sweet young lady was grinning widely and I thought she might start laughing at me. Which was better than her being embarrassed and offended.

There was no explaining myself. I couldn't say, “Sorry about the staring, but I wasn't really looking.” Who would believe that?

I'm sure it wasn't the first time she had been the object of a man's staring because she was certainly pretty. On the other hand she was not dressed provocatively. Sure, the dress was lovely but unlike many others it actually covered her adequately.

This has not always been the case. In this postmodern, enlightened era, many wedding dresses are cut way low. I remember one time a woman showed so much cleavage that I was afraid to look down—I might have gotten dizzy and fallen in!

At another wedding, the bride wore a kind of handmade Indian garb that was definitely not her size-- too tight and too short and not in an attractive way. She kept tugging at the skirt to pull it down while I spoke. Nobody noticed her, though, because her husband was swacked. He actually showed up for the ceremony with a beer in his hand. The audience took bets on when and which way he would fall during the ceremony!

Then there was the bride who wore the micro minidress. It was lavender which sort of clashed with the white veil on her head. The dress was so short that her underwear showed when she walked up the aisle. She probably meant for those panties to be seen because they coordinated with the veil. It could have been an attempt to bring the whole ensemble together.

But the woman's attire (or lack thereof) was not the most memorable thing about that wedding. I'll tell you about that another time. (click here).

Thursday, July 9, 2009

I Withdraw from the Contest

It's really a popularity contest these days. If my kids play ball with their kids, if we can have fun together, if I'm cool, friendly, and relate well, then maybe if they're not too busy, they'll come to my church.

When I move away they can quit, because the new minister just won't be the same, and besides, they have better things to do anyway.

The new guy or gal can't get them to come back. He has to go after new people, start a relationship with them, cajole them into coming to his church, and build up his personal numbers until he leaves. Then they leave and the whole process starts again.

These are the fringe people who come and go. Don't ask too much of them. No commitments, please. O, and what will you do for my children?

It's a joke.

They're a joke.

They make church a joke.

Many of them may have grown up in church. They went to Sunday school and youth, got baptized, and made their commitments. Presumably, they dedicated their lives to the work of Jesus.

But none of the other people in the church matter to them. Christ doesn't matter. Right and wrong don't matter. A desperate world doesn't matter. Only how they feel. If the preacher can make them feel good, if he's fun enough, maybe they'll show up for worship.

I don't compete in the popularity contest anymore. It makes me lonely.

Like me or don't like me, it doesn't much matter. You don't know me anyway. You don't care about me or my family. You only care about whether what I do is good enough to suit you.

Let me make this simple. I'm not good enough. Go on about your business or play.

However, if you can fit doing God's work into your schedule, drop by and we'll visit. If you're troubled, let me know, and I'll be happy to come help you.

If you want to be my friend you can have my undying devotion.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Preacher's Kids

My children don't deserve the reputation that preacher's kids have of being troubled and corrupted. They're a far cry from the stereotype, with their high intelligence and outstanding achievements. I don't claim much credit for that, but neither do I care to downplay their admirable qualities.

In fact, I've been thinking about other preachers' kids I know personally, and most of them are above average in terms of gifts and character, too.

I guess they have to be exceptional.

They certainly have to sort through a lot of bovine manure. They learn the Bible stories and feel the love of their fellow Christians, and yet they also see prominent church people lie, bully, and hurt others—including the preacher that is their parent.

Overall, I've been treated well by the church and when I have been treated poorly, I've kept it from the children, but they're not stupid and like all kids, they have eyes that see more than they let on.

I struggle over how to lead them through the expected religious rituals of our church. Must they always come to every church function? Do they have to get baptized at the right age? Do they have go through confirmation? What about taking communion? What if they don't want to? How much influence from me is appropriate and when does it become manipulative and oppressive?

I worry about how often clergy have failed their children, dating back to Old Testament priests like Aaron and Eli. Their children grew up to be cynical and callous, spurning the church and society.

So I have a few rules for preacher parenting:

I love my children more than I love the church. If I have to choose, the children come first.

The welfare of my children is not negotiable. I'm usually at peace with living on less than others who have similar capabilities. However, if I can't make enough money to feed and care for my children, I'll find work where I can provide for them. When God calls me, my children come too. Part of the deal is that they are taken care of, or it's no deal.

I'm a grownup in a world that can be brutal even in the church. I expect people to be mean and hateful to me, sometimes because I am their preacher. I also expect to be restrained and kind in my response to them. But if someone hurts my children (or my wife), the gloves will come off as I protect the people I love the most. So beware.

Since I'm raising them, I expect them to go to church and be a part of church functions. My wife and I both teach them about God, values, and character. But their spiritual commitments are their own.

Like all parents, I am desperate in my hope that they'll make good choices, that they'll stand strong in adversity, and that they'll avoid making the truly damaging mistakes. But I'm also enormously proud of how well they've done up to now.