We often like to speak, in Christian circles, about the God who descends, who comes down, who is somehow nearest to those on the bottom, those who find themselves on the wrong side of the score. The words roll off our churchy tongues almost too easily. Friend of sinners . . . Blessed are the poor, those who mourn . .
I was part of a conference call recently with a number of young-ish pastors in our denomination where we were talking about Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that the his followers would be “one.” Anyone with even the most cursory understanding of church history will know that, well, we haven’t exactly done so well with this little ideal.
Indeed, we might be forgiven for laughing out loud at the idea that there could be such a thing as a unified church.
I got a phone call and it made me angry. It was a follow-up call from a local agency that helps people in trouble in our community. I had phoned them a while back, hoping for some context, some background on a particular couple who was asking our church for material assistance. But they hadn’t had time to respond and a decision had to be made. The people I was talking to were desperate. They couldn’t wait.
Among the more delightful and rewarding tasks of managing a blog is dealing with the blight upon digital existence that is spam. My blog platform’s spam settings are usually pretty reliable, but occasionally either a legitimate comment is labeled spam or something gets through that shouldn’t.
I had a day of sifting and sorting through the pain that shoots up and out like a geyser from the cracks in the ground of our lives together. The hospital, the seniors’ home, the coffee shop, the parking lot, the playground, the living room . . . Sometimes it seems that wherever I turn, there is only pain, only confusion, only sadness, longing, anger, regret.
What would you think if you were walking or driving down the street and you saw a sign that said, “Honk Less, Love More” or “Follow Dreams, Not Crowds” or “Have a Great Day?” Would these signs make you happier, or at least more inclined to behave decently?
I was picking up a book at the library one day when I saw a rundown black car pull up. A woman began to painfully extricate herself from the drivers seat. Her clothes were shabby, hair dishevelled, posture bent. Her overall appearance gave the strong impression that the world had kicked her around a bit. She looked up and, seeing me walking toward her, began to wave at me and called out in a raspy voice, “Hey, can you come over here and help me?”
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.”