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.