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