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


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.

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


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.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

No More Church Buildings!

It's a sin to have so many church buildings.

I've been holding back because I don't want to hurt the feelings of good people who have done what they knew to serve God. I know people who have given their hard earned money and I've known a few who gave their earnest hard work so their church could have a nice building.

However, I am sickened that we would rather spend millions of dollars to have a place to eat fried chicken, play basketball, and drink gourmet coffee than do the real work of the Lord.

I'd like to see a church begin a campaign to raise millions of dollars to feed hungry children. Or we could send dozens of missionaries to spread the gospel in Muslim nations. Or build small homes for the poor in Mexico. Or serve free lunches to the children of the working poor in our community. Or buy back children in Sudan who were sold as slaves. Or build orphanages and schools. Or fund a charity health agency.

Aren't we already doing these things, too? Yes, but our efforts are anemic. We have a few hardy souls who have kept their focus on God's will, but we groan when they come to church to ask for money. We'll give them a couple of hundred, while we spend 200,000 on the electrical system of a gym we'll use a few times a month.

The one thing that slows down my momentum here is that I've known people who sacrificed greatly to build a building for God, not for themselves. I think God honors those people for their efforts. And I'll admit that a church building can be a haven for harassed people who need a place to worship God.

But let's call it like it is. We usually build a building not as a monument to God, but to ourselves and our loved ones.

Don't agree? Then what's with all the little gold plaques on the stain glass windows, kitchen cabinets, marque signs, and furniture? They honor other people. They never say these items were given as a gift to God in honor of Jesus.

Buildings make us feel successful. We fool ourselves into thinking we've accomplished something. We distract ourselves from contemplating the dreadful thought that we don't know why we exist, other than to maintain ourselves.

However, the fancy buildings aren't even doing that . Churches continue to decline in North America. But we sure have big buildings. They saddle us with debt. They riddle us with stupid conflicts that never get resolved. They make us focus on bills and repairs rather than wounded souls and hungry children.

I've served several churches that were so mired in a building project they couldn't focus on anything else—including Jesus. I did not have the wisdom, courage, or strength to change the momentum of these projects. Instead, I focused on getting them completed and paid for, so we could go on to the real business of the church.

I can't think of how to do without a church building entirely. However, it needs to be a headquarters for doing good things. And while it can be a pleasant place, it doesn't have to be expensive, and should never be the reason for our existence.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Choking on Mediocrity

I'm discouraged by the Joel Osteens and the Rick Warrens. They're not bad guys. Just lightweights.

Where are the power preachers like Paul and Peter who stirred people to repent or riot?

Most sermons bore me with their mediocrity.

Most preachers are nice enough and smart enough, but the messages we give are watered down wastes of time. I'm not sure why anyone bothers to listen.

O, we've learned a few tricks. Dress for the audience. Keep a bag of clever phrases handy. Self deprecating humor is good. Step away from the pulpit and walk around the stage. Have a wireless mike like the rock stars use. Look people in the eye. Tell a story to keep their attention.

But somewhere along the way we left out the substance of the sermon, which I think is kind of crucial.

And it's gotten so formulaic. If you're a fundamentalist preacher, the sermon outline goes like this:
--Read the Scripture
--Talk about something great God did through you (you can brag and be humble at the same time this way).
--Say something vague but catchy about the text.
--Insist that we must believe what it says, with no doubts whatsoever, even if we don't know what it means.
--Tell a cool story.
--Offer to rescue people from hell by prompting them to say the proper prayer (incantation).
--Play the music long enough to wear folks out so someone will respond.
--Go to lunch.

Here's the outline if you're a liberal, intellectual preacher.
--Read the scripture.
--Show off your intellectual credibility by:
--------Explaining why the text doesn't mean what it says.
-------- Explaining why the text probably isn't valid in this day and age.
--Demonstrate outrage about a social justice issue (e.g.: the environment, war, the mistreatment of women and/or gays, the homeless and hungry, etc.).
--Talk about how heaven is a selfish, ignorant pursuit and we really ought to be concerned about the aforementioned social justice issue.
--Tell a cool story
--Offer the proper benedictory liturgy (incantation).
--Leave no time for a response.
--Go to lunch.

Mediocrity is our problem. Our messages have no message. We have powerful deliveries with no punch in the words.

It's a bigger problem than the crazy preachers who get hysterical on TV. It's bigger than the crooks who steal the widow's copper coins in the name of God. It's bigger than the clergy sex scandals that the news agencies publicize.

I'm discouraged by the Joel Osteens and the Rick Warrens. They're not bad guys. Just lightweights. How are they successful with their cotton candy theology in their underpowered sermons and poorly written books?

Am I jealous? There was a time when I was, but I'm too tired for that now. And I'm too discouraged. Frankly, I wish we had a few more pastors who could show the rest of us how to do it well.

Where are the power preachers like Paul and Peter who stirred people to repent or riot? We need those kind of preachers who can move the church out of the self serving sludge it has gotten stuck in. We need them to pierce our hearts. We need the power of their words to fill the emptiness.

At the very least, we preachers ought to be good enough so as to not waste people's time.

Friday, July 3, 2009

What If It Isn't True?

I sat on the back porch on a Sunday morning, an hour before church. All the strength was drained from my body and spirit. It was even hard to hold the phone to my lips as I whispered to my friend the secret I had been harboring from myself for years.

“I'm not sure I believe in Jesus.”

He didn't panic. There were no frantic arguments or pep talks. “You've been running from this for quite some time,” he observed. I agreed.

I see now that all the emphasis of the convictions I shared from the pulpit stemmed from the fear I had of my own doubts. If I spoke loud enough and exhausted myself with good works, maybe I could run from my questions.

I'm not sure why this moment caught me so unaware. I had been wrestling for a long time over the issue of unanswered prayers and unfulfilled promises from the Bible. I realized that I had been facing a thundering silence from God throughout most of a life I had spent working for him. So it should have been no surprise I would come to this conclusion.

But it was traumatic. What if none of this religious stuff was true?

Who was I if there was no Jesus?

More practically, since all I've ever done is work with churches how would I earn a living?

When I mentioned my doubts to those close to me, they were frightened. My wife couldn't talk about it. Friends tried to help. “I just don't allow myself to be tempted by even asking such questions,” one said with the same emphasis I always had when I was running from my doubts.

But this particular friend, like I said before, didn't panic. He prayed for me over the phone that morning. Then he drove for two hours to spend the afternoon with me. Our conversation helped me put things together enough to help me function in the days to come.

That was ten years ago. Did I get my faith back? No. Not like it was.

I admit that I sometimes miss the certainty of my old faith. In some ways I was a better speaker—more dynamic with clever phrases. Nowadays, I have a lot more ambivalence in my messages. More questions, fewer answers. But the gaps in understanding don't scare me anymore.

It bothers some people. Where are the answers they need? Why don't I give them more reassurance? Why can't I shore up that supposedly solid rock upon which they stand?

Recently, an older gentleman, a longtime teacher in his church came to me and told me how troubled he was about his questions. Some things in the Bible just didn't seem to be so. How do we reconcile God's severity in the Old Testament with the gentleness of Jesus? And what about those promises that don't seem to be true?

I loved him for sharing with me like this. And I told him I had the same kinds of questions. “I'm sorry that I have no clear answers for you.”

He relaxed and said even hearing that made him feel better. Then we continued a long and interesting discussion.

Here is where I've become the better pastor. I can let people face their doubts in safety. And perhaps I can show them that life won't fall apart if they have to adjust what they believe and live with unanswered questions.