Thursday, February 25, 2010

To Tell the Truth

When I was in a liberal seminary, we spent a lot of time discussing what was not true. The Pentateuch was not written by Moses. The gospels were not really written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The atonement theory is really a cleverly designed plan to keep women in oppression. Revelation is not a prediction of the future. And the hope of heaven is overemphasized.

Furthermore, we should be open minded but we MUST agree with what the professors taught, if we could figure out what that was. And don’t anyone dare ask the wrong question or say the wrong thing.

It got so I refused to even pray out loud at mealtime with them because someone would get upset with my terminology.

They’d die if they heard me say that they sound much like the arch conservative Christians I grew up with, but they do. Only the rules are different:

You can’t be saved just any ole way or believe just any doctrine. You can’t just be a good person. The Baptists are wrong. The Methodists are wrong. The Episcopalians are really wrong these days. The Catholics are super wrong. The atheists are going to take over. And if you dare disagree or even ask a challenging question, you should get on your knees right now and beg forgiveness for doubting God.

I’ve walked in both these camps and I’m amazed at how often I could unintentionally say things that shocked, offended, or frightened them. The liberals wanted to fight. The conservatives wanted me to surrender.

I was amused most of the time. Sometimes I picked a fight just to entertain myself. Other times I didn’t want to fool with them at all. Still other times I wanted to tell them all to go to the hell the conservatives threatened me with and the liberals didn’t believe existed.

Then there are the discussions I’ve had on some atheists blogs. Most of them are very smart and morally responsible. Some of them I’ve grown to love and depend on (you know who you are). Many of those blogs focus on the absurdities of the church, which I admit is hard not to do. But shouting about what is false does not go very far in finding truth.

I’m tired of discussing what isn’t true. I want to hear about what IS true.

I want to find goodness and become a more loving person. And I long for more glimpses of God. I assume that goodness, love, and God are all part of truth.

For the most part, I’ve had to make my own way in this search—maybe that’s true for everyone.

Here’s what I’ve decided is true: If I have extra, I need to share. If someone near me is in pain, I need to help. If someone is grieves I will hug them. Lonely people need love. The fearful need encouragement. Battered people need defending. Enslaved people need to be free. Hungry people need to eat. Sick people need healing.

I can see Jesus, the real Jesus, muscle his way past the scriptural verbiage and cultural bias into my consciousness. This Jesus emphasizes the need to help the hurting and harassed. They were his greatest priority. If it made him unpopular, created scandal, and ticked off the professional religious guys, he didn’t care. He helped others.

He had no patience for religious and/or intellectual banter of the day.

He fought with those who oppressed others with their religion.

That’s why, in spite of my doubts, disillusionment and confusion, I am still his disciple.

And that’s the truth.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Things Come Together

I was wondering early Sunday morning about how I could pull it together to do my job that day. How do you lead when you're on empty?

But some things happened that filled me back up.

First, attendance is up. The efforts to reach out to some of our wayward young adults are actually working--go figure. So I'm looking at a full sanctuary.

Second, the funerals I've done have helped some of the conflicts that some of the families had with me. I was able to help them and whatever gripes they had appear to have faded. I got hugs from some of them.

But it was the children that helped me the most. I lead the Sunday night children's activity--I was showing them a movie, mostly for entertainment. While it played, three little girls crawled up into my lap at the same time. One of them kept kissing me on the cheek. Another one snuggled close and told me I was the best preacher--and she was the daughter of one of the couples who had a problem with me.

The children of a congregation are my best barometer as to how the congregation feels about me. If the adults are happy with me, their children are too.

I don't expect it to last because this church is somewhat mercurial, but it was a wonderful break in the grimness that I usually experience in this church.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Gathering Myself on a Sunday Morning

Parents, this might be too hard to read and I wouldn't blame you if you skipped it. However, I had to write it.

I did another funeral yesterday (third one in a week, which is a lot).

Again, it was the grown child of sad, tired parents. The daughter had been sick for many years. No one would have blamed the family if they had put her in a nursing home, but she begged them not to, and Mom and Dad just couldn't do it. So they took care of her as this capable grownup became a needy child again. She suffered so much for so long that everyone was relieved when her time came. Her parents are strong but devastated and exhausted.

I've had to bury too many sons and daughters . Sometimes I remember them all at once.

Many years ago, I ministered to an older couple as they watched their handsome grandson deteriorate from leukemia. With today's treatment, he may have been able to survive, but not back then. I remember that the boy had just hit puberty. Even with the cancer taking him, he was still growing and I could tell he would have been a handsome young man.

I think of my own sons who are tall and strong, looking even handsomer than I imagined when they were a babies (just yesterday). After I do a funeral like the one yesterday, my heart shrieks a silent prayer: Please don't take them, like you took her.

I remember another time I sang at the funeral for a little girl of about five years. I saw her lying in the casket and she looked beautiful, as if she was sleeping. The mother was also beautiful . She couldn't talk or even cry at the ceremony.

I sang at that mother's funeral less than a year later. They found her dead in her home. Her own elderly mother cried out during the service, "God, I can't stand this."

Not long ago, an old man (the one I wrote about before), had to sign a consent form for his grown son to be removed from life support. "I can't do it," he told me. "How can I sign that paper?"

I usually have no answers for these occasions but I considered this thought out loud with him:

"We have to usher our children through difficult times. When they steal from the store, we march them back and make them hand over what they took to the manager. When they're sick, we hold them down so the nurse can give them a shot. We insist they face their fears and then we stand beside them as best we can. Your son has one more thing to face and he's scared. He needs his dad to help him. Can you do it?"

"I don't know, but I'll try," he said honestly.

It's early Sunday morning and it's still dark outside. Some people will come to church glassy-eyed with grief. Others, the young ones, will come feeling hassled, wondering if it was worth wrestling with the kids to get them dressed and out the door. Several will be there harboring private turmoil. And one or two may come with an evil plot to somehow exploit all of them in a bid for some kind of power.

I will stand before all of them and hope to God I'll say something helpful and not stupid.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

THE CAFÉ: High Plains Conversation

Many important things are negotiated and decided in the town café. This is not one of those occasions.

Note: spurious details have been edited out to maintain the substance of the conversation

Wooden faces. Smoke drifts from their noses. Preacher's here. Watch the language.

"Sure is hot."

"Supposed to rain tomorrow."

"Sure could use it."

"Was that you tried to call me?"

"When?"

"Smornin"

"No."

"Well, don't matter what they call me, 'slong as they call me to dinner."

"Huh."

Someone flicks a cigarette.

"Smitty's crop's gone."

"How?"

"Hailstorm."

"Damn."

"Sorry, preacher."

Some drift in. Others leave.

"D'ya hear what Bill said?" The call-me-to-dinner punch line is repeated.

"Huh!"

"Gotta git back to it."

"Ain't gonna git done by itself."

"D'ya leave a tip for the senorita?"

"Next time."

They'll meet again in two hours.

Two hours later.

Wooden faces. Smoke drifts from their noses. Preacher's not here. Conversation is saltier.

"Hotter'n hell."

"Supposed to rain tomorrow."

"Drier'n a bastard."

"Was that you tried to call me?"

"When?"

"'Smornin"

"Hell no."

"Well, don't matter what they call me, 'slong as they call me to dinner."

"Shee-it."

Someone flicks a cigarette.

"Smitty's crop's gone"

"Damn."

"Hailstorm."

"Shee-it."

Some drift in. Others leave.

"D'ya hear what Bill said?" The call-me-to-dinner punch line is repeated.

"Huh! Shee-it."

"Gotta git back to it."

"Damn sure ain't gonna git done by itself."

"D'ya leave a tip for the senorita?"

"Hell no."

"Preacher's comin"

"Shee-it, I gotta go."

They'll meet again in two hours for more of the same.

Preacher sees them sitting there, turns around and gets back in his car. Tells himself, "I gotta get the f--- outta here."

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Too Many to Remember

A longtime friend and colleague called me the other day asking if I remembered an incident that must have happened twenty-five years ago, where we called on someone who had recently attempted suicide. Turns out that guy is still alive and still remembers us with gratitude. He wants to have lunch with my friend.

The thing is that neither one of us could remember the actual occasion. My friend is not a minister, but he is in a caring profession—he has helped hundreds, maybe thousands of people suffering from mental anguish. And I have too.

After so many years, it’s hard to keep them all straight At the time each encounter is significant. Each person we help is important. And each occasion gives me some satisfaction that I did my job that day.

How is it that I can’t remember a specific one?

Oh, I know it it’s buried in the brain cells somewhere. And I understand that as I get older I can’t keep it straight in my convoluted mental files. After all, there really have been so many. But I don’t want to forget.

After I wrote my last post I realized I also forgot how many people have helped me. I don’t have any right to complain when I think about the people who have done some wonderful things for me—acts of love, kindness, and generosity. Words of encouragement and friendship. Some of them read this blog. Thank you.

What causes such searing loneliness within me? I am inclined to blame the ministry for it, and there’s some legitimacy to that, but I remember feeling this isolation as a child before I went into the ministry, so maybe it’s more a part of my personality makeup.

Regardless of how I feel, when I think about how, because of the sheer number, I can’t remember the exchanges of grace I’ve had, I should not let myself be mired in bitterness.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

WANTED: a Friend

I know I get awfully negative on this blog, but it's the only place I have to let loose. Maybe the following will make it clearer as to why.

I didn't get into ministry for the money, but I can't work for free. Although some preachers do it, I don't know how to work another job that also allows me to minister to a church.

I spent a major portion of my life preparing for the ministry. I underwent many years of expensive formal education and I have never done anything but ministry, so it's not like I can change careers easily (although I sometimes daydream about that).

I once worked with a church that was still grieving for their last pastor. Many of them were bound and determined not to like me. Grudgingly they'd tell each other, "The new preacher is friendly." Then they'd add, "But of course, that's what he gets paid for."

My reply was, "Not enough," and I moved on.

We clergy people get into the ministry because we love the church, but it doesn't take long before we become angry with them. In many dysfunctional families, the person who tries hardest to help the others is blamed for all the problems. It happens a lot in churches too.

I actually like to work hard. But what would it be like to not be tired? I can only remember brief moments of peaceful energy. Every moment of rest or recreation feels like I stole it. If I take off, someone dies, gets divorced, or plots some kind of childish coup at the church.

Okay, it's hard everywhere. There's no such thing as an easy job. I'm lucky to have a job at all. But when one of my church members encounters difficulties with his job, he can turn to the church for support. The preacher has to go elsewhere as far away from his church as he can in order to discuss his struggles. And if he loses his job, he can't ever go back even to visit the worship service—makes everybody too uncomfortable.

The minister's family suffers the same isolation.

When I was young, I needed and loved the church, and the church loved me. I thought it would be wonderful to serve the people to whom I was so close. But as the minister I have often been the most isolated person in that church. Some people put me on a pedestal and make me into someone they need. Others use me as a target for their irrational hatred. Almost no one really wants to know me

All of this could be manageable if I had friends outside of the church. Some ministers can do that, but I seem to have forgotten how. That's a shame, because I think I'd be a good friend.