Religious fanaticism is, regrettably, front and center in our collective consciousness again in this the summer of bad news. Whether it is Iraq or Israel/Palestine or other places around the globe, many people are quick to point to the role that religion plays in stoking the flames of violence and hatred. And whenever there is violence associated with religion in the news, we can expect to see articles like “The god effect” over at Aeon magazine.
I have many conversations with people who find it difficult to believe or people who barely believe or people who want to believe but can’t or people who are embarrassed to believe or people who look down in condescension at those who believe or people who are just bewildered that anyone could believe in something like God or resurrection or hope or any kind of future that is radically dissimilar to the present. This is the shape of our life and imagination in the post-Christian West.
They’re sitting there in our church parking lot, staring out at the rain from inside their rundown green Chevy Astro van. They showed up after church. Martin was looking for conversation, for help, for gas money to Calgary for a medical procedure, the usual. He’s aboriginal, around 55, dark glasses, long black hair, cowboy boots. The conversation meanders here, there, everywhere. “Am I late for the service?” he says. “I wanted to get here for the service.” It’s 12:10 pm.
I’m tired. It’s been a long Sunday morning already, and I don’t have the energy for this.
Scripture is a gift. This has been affirmed by countless people in the Judeo-Christian tradition down through the ages. Not only affirmed, but demonstrated in the way that its words have been revered, preserved, and followed. But is is a very strange gift, full of unfamiliar modes of communication and stories that vacillate between the weird and the confusing and the often brutally violent. It is a gift that many in the 21st-century world increasingly have little interest in accepting, both inside and outside of the church.
Every so often, usually between 5 and 9 pm on a Saturday night when I am lurching toward the finish line of another sermon (or grinding my teeth in frustration at the sermon that just won’t come together), a terrifying thought pops into my head. All of a sudden it occurs to me what a laughable, horrifyingly presumptuous thing it is to get up in front of a group of people and presume to speak on behalf of or about God.
This sounds just a touch melodramatic or self-important, I know.
Over the last few months, I’ve been following a blog by former Seventh-day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell. The blog is called Year Without God, and chronicles Bell’s decision to take a break from God, walk away from the church, and try living like an atheist for a year.
Like the disciples, I often have no idea how to pray. I don’t know what to ask for, I don’t know how long to keep asking, I don’t know if I am doing it right, I don’t know how it all really works. That doesn’t sound very pastoral, I know. What can I say? I suppose I am, at least, in decent (or at least populous) company when I say that prayer is often very hard for me.
What does one do, after all, with the sheer weight of sadness and longing and confusion that so many must carry?
I did some things inadequately and halfheartedly. I mechanically responded to email, returned phone calls, chipped away at the mountain of paper on my desk. I was often bored and listless, and struggled to corral my wandering mind. I yawned a lot, and looked out the window.
In ministry, there are sometimes moments when something unexpected happens, something that spills out of our careful containers of planning and order, something that points simply, poignantly, and powerfully to the hope of the gospel in a way that no eloquent sermon or finely crafted liturgy ever could. I love these moments. Even when I don’t notice them.
Based on my own entirely unscientific observations, it seems that there is a burgeoning market for “recovering pastor who saw the godless light” stories these days. The genre is familiar enough by now, right?
I spent part of a recent week reading a book about preaching. It had an impressive sounding title that included the words “the glory of preaching.” I bought it on the recommendation of someone from my grad school days who had spent ten minutes or so listening to me going on and on about my what an unobvious choice I was for the vocation of “pastor.”
One hears a lot, these days, about the virtues of doubt. There is much talk about creating space for doubt, encouraging doubt, dignifying doubt, about how doubt is preferable to the illusory certainties of faith, about how doubt can even be an important part of faith.
One of the cool traditions that our church is a part of is what is called “Lenten lunches.” Every Thursday throughout Lent, a different church in our city opens its doors to sisters and brothers from other denominations for a short devotional, followed by a simple lunch of soup and bread. Last week, I was at a table with a few other pastors and the conversation inevitably turned to the demands of ministry: the sometimes seemingly endless meetings, the overwhelming needs of people that we are so often powerless to meet, the importance of boundaries, etc. There was plenty of knowing nodding and mm-hmming. But then there was a pause.
A while back I spent a good chunk of a week at a denominational pastors' retreat in the Alberta foothills just north of Calgary. One of the things we did during our worship times each day was spend some time “dwelling in the Word.” The specific text we focused on each session was Luke 7:36-50, the story where Jesus is anointed by a “sinful woman” at the home of Simon the Pharisee. It’s a scandalous story—a woman of ill repute showing up a bunch of religious elites, crashing their party with her sensuous, inappropriate display of penitence, love, and devotion.
There are a handful of topics and themes that I can fairly reliably count on to cause questions or concerns in the life of the church. Near the top of the list would be questions about the Bible. What about all of the problem texts of violence and misogyny? What about the history of canonization—which books got in, which were left out, and why?
Every morning on my way to work I drive past the local prison. It is a surprisingly picturesque facility—lots of big trees for shade and well-manicured green grass, a nice lake beside it with all kinds of birds, a baseball diamond and basketball courts visible from the road. Nonetheless, the barbed wire and the chain fence around the perimeter leave little doubt about the purpose of