Pastor's Blog

Throughout the 1990’s I was wrestling doubts about God’s existence.  Instead of removing me from ministry a loving heavenly Father kept me pinned right where I was.  Worse, He kept blessing our little church!  We grew but not in one big leap.

We experienced two splits, one in the early 90’s and one in the late 90’s.  In both I was betrayed by friends.  In both we lost significant numbers and I was afraid the church would die.  But within a month of each split, the seats were full again.  I wasn’t going out seeking attenders and I wasn’t doing anything to promote the church.  People just sort of arrived and stayed.

I was so engrossed in the pain of betrayal that I failed to see God’s hand blessing the work I was doing so begrudgingly.  He was smiling on me, but I was scowling and grumbling, not sure He was even there.

The split of the late 90’s involved ruthless personal attacks behind the scenes.  I experienced painful betrayals that crushed my soul.  I felt very alone and was at the height of my flirtation with atheism.  I was hurt and angry.  My wife and I decided to get away with a little trip to our alma mater for its annual Fall Bible conference.  Getting back to the little college where our life together began was pleasantly nostalgic.  We walked across a familiar campus, now peopled with unfamiliar faces, and sat down for the first session of the Bible conference.

I didn’t know the speaker and don’t remember his name.  I do remember his text was John 13 where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.  He made the simple observation that Judas was still in the room and Jesus washed Judas’ feet, knowing that Judas was his betrayer.  And then he talked about how people betray you when you are in ministry, and if you want to be like Jesus, you must overlook that and “wash their feet”:  forgive them and serve them.

I was furious with that message.  I had come all the way to that Bible conference to find solace and comfort and instead I got a tough message aimed at my pain.  No pampering, no coddling, no soothing.  Just a cold matter-of-fact assertion that I wasn’t handling betrayal the right way at all. 

But then I was struck by the truth that this was too coincidental to be mere coincidence.  Behind the anger a deep-seated joyful confidence was forming.  That message was not just aimed, it was targeted.  For me.  Not by the preacher, but by the Holy Spirit of God.  The Holy Spirit was undeniably there.  I was known and cared for.  He had seen to it that that message was prepared months in advance by a man clueless about who would be listening, and He had seen to it that my wife and I were moved to go hear that exact message.  It was the bizarre glory of divine providence.

At first, I felt it really took a lot of chutzpah for God to be that pointed!  Couldn’t He see how serious my doubts and questions were and how badly I was hurting???  But when my soul looked up at Him with my furrowed brow and my little pinched lips, He burst out laughing at me.  It was unsettling at first.  And then I realized I looked like a two-year old throwing a temper tantrum!  He laughed at me the way I laughed at my own children!  His laughter made ME laugh at myself and at my littleness – my little thoughts, my little anger, my little doubts, my little rebellion, my little hurts.  I laughed at how seriously I was taking myself.  Please understand that I didn’t see a vision or anything like that.  I felt these things deep in my soul and the illustration is to help you understand how my soul felt. 

It was all too coincidental to be anything but a divine encounter, and it changed me.  The Spirit of God planted a seed of truth in my soul that let me know He was there, that He knew what was going on in my life, and that He cared for me and for this little church He had entrusted to me.  My soul was moving in a better direction, back toward evangelical faith.

I wish I could say I’m over betrayal.  It still hurts when I remember it, and occasionally I fight bitterness rising in my soul.  I remind myself that I must become the type of person that washes Judas’ feet without making sarcastic comments and without giving him pain by squeezing the base of his toenails or the pressure point just above his ankle to let him know how I really feel.

And somehow there was healing for my soul in the thought of God laughing at me.

 

 

I once confronted a woman who was cheating on her husband.  With a straight face she told me it was all right because “she had a peace about it”.

In the previous blog I talked about the irreverence developed in my soul by my flirtation with atheism.  Sometimes that irreverence is directed at God, but just as often – perhaps more often – it’s directed at evangelical traditions that I find strange – like the idea that having peace about a decision is a way to know that you have found God’s perfect will for your life.  (The very notion of “God’s perfect will for your life” also provokes my irreverence – but I’ll save that for another blog.)

I want to mention just three points.  First, you can have a peace about anything you WANT TO have peace about.  Human nature thrives on justifying (read “finding peace about”) wrongdoing.

Second, what if a decision needs to be made and you can’t “find a peace”?  Then what?  Indecision about a thing is itself a decision – whether you have a peace about it or not.  

And finally, in my own life I have found that some of the best and wisest and most fruitful decisions I have ever made did not involve having a peace about it – unless by 'peace' you mean “resignation because life forced your hand and gave you little choice.”

I never wanted to be a pastor.  I wanted to teach in higher education.  My first master’s degree – a two-year degree – took me nine years to obtain because I had a job, a family, and was pastoring a church.  I began working on my second master’s degree (also a two-year degree), but life made it clear that I wasn’t going to finish.  I slugged through a few more years of post-grad classes, and I got so closeI was almost at the finish line.  I only needed two or three more classes and a thesis.  But life had piled too many other responsibilities on my shoulders, and I couldn’t keep doing all of them.  I had to decide what was important.

I was agitated and frustrated.  I didn’t like having to make the decision to end my formal education.  But it had to be made.  My dislike for the decision was irrelevant.  I knew the responsible thing to do, and I did not have a peace about it.  I did it anyway.

The church was burgeoning.  We needed to buy land and build a larger facility, but we couldn’t see any way our little group could save what we needed any time soon.  I suggested we go to multiple services.  I didn’t want to go to two services and I certainly didn't have a peace about it.  I hated the thought of it!  Seeing the seats full was exciting!  Seeing good friends and singing together and running ministries together was enjoyable!  Creating a second service would break up all that good stuff and would make things uncomfortable and inconvenient, and it is hard to persuade people to stick with something uncomfortable and inconvenient for very long.  But what else was to be done?

We groaned, held our noses, made the plans, and launched two services.  I was not at peace.  I saw all the potential problems with leading two services – and I was right about all of them!  We experienced misunderstandings and conflict.  We experienced a sizable split and I had to start all over again rebuilding what had been broken.  I was away from my family more.  My wife took the kids home after the first service on Sunday, and often I didn’t get home from conversations or counseling after the service until 2 or 3 pm.  It was inconvenient and troublesome and seemed like it would never end.  I was under a lot of stress, experienced panic attacks at times, and felt anything but peace.  I often wondered if we had done the right thing.

But you know the end of the story.  All those decisions, troublesome as they were, ended up paving the road to blessing.  After three years in multiple services we bought 13 acres of land.  After another four years in multiple services we built a new building.  And for most of those decisions, I didn't have a peace about it.

I’d venture to say that one of the few things I now have a peace about is that it is not necessary to have a peace about a decision in order to make a good decision.  You just need to decide and divine providence will give you a gift:  a whole new set of challenging decisions.

 

Over a year ago some folks suggested that I make my blog more about myself and not so much about theology.  I launched into a chronological biography, but I keep getting sidetracked because I believe the events of my life are not nearly as important as the thinking (including theology) that drove (or accompanied) those events. 

Right now, I’m discussing my flirtation with atheism in the 90’s.  Much of the struggle in my head involved God’s apparent lack of personal involvement in the world.  Despite evangelicalism’s promise of a “personal relationship with God”, I found God to be impersonal and removed from life.  When it really mattered, the God who is supposed to intervene and do miracles often did not.  In fact, many times He allowed horrible things to happen to people – even to helpless babies and children.

The divine silence was often accompanied by evangelicals who had become adept at covering for God with quaint clichés.
                “It mustn’t have been God’s will . . .”
                “All things happen for a reason.  We just don’t know what that reason is yet.”
                “God always answers prayer.  It’s just that sometimes the answer is ‘no’ – or ‘not yet’.”
And one of my favorites:
                “Your friend didn’t die.  She received the ultimate healing.”  (I think this is horrible theology.  But a response will have to wait for another time.)

My atheist friends ripped the veneer off this sort of talk and exposed it as nonsense.  Religion, they said, is just a lie serving as a crutch to help you get through the ugliness of real life, not a courageous acceptance of reality.  Why do you take comfort in a pretty lie rather than facing an ugly truth?

That made sense to me and I explored the merits of a worldview without God.  In the process I ended up ripping the veneer off atheism’s own refusal to face reality head-on (see my earlier blogs), and I decided that perhaps evangelical Christianity was worth a second look – albeit through different glasses.  My flirtation with atheism left me a residual irreverent attitude and approach to many things evangelical.  Some of my churched friends find this distasteful about me.  I can understand that.  Pastors aren’t supposed to be irreverent.  I think, however, they fail to understand me.

My irreverence derives from the story of Job.  God allowed Satan to devastate Job’s life.  Job remained faithful but demanded to know the reasoning behind the tragedies of his life.  Instead of a tender, compassionate response, God stepped up, guns blazing, and argued that Job was too finite and small to understand God’s vastness or the reasoning for God’s actions.  Job responds with a humble zipping of the lip and a willing acceptance of God’s points.

I can’t improve on the wisdom of the book of Job.  The writer is not suggesting that Job’s complaints were unwarranted or unreasonable.  Job’s feelings of pain and confusion are completely understandable.  Sympathizing, then, with complaints against God by a sufferer, however irreverent it may seem, is not unwarranted or unreasonable.  I am not fearful of engaging in it.

On the flip side, the counsel of traditional theology offered by Job’s friends (i.e. we only suffer because we have sinned) is revealed to be simplistic and baseless -- and so I have no qualms about offering irreverent ridicule to those who talk such nonsense.

The author of Job is also suggesting that humanity is unable to grasp God’s mind.  I am – we are all -- too finite, too limited, to grasp God’s reasons for hard things.  But if I can’t grasp His reasoning, I can’t too well defend Him either, can I now?  I don’t believe I’m called to defend every difficult situation, or explain it, or understand it.  I confess that I can’t understand or explain or defend it.  If God wants me to defend some of these things, He needs to provide me with more ammo.  Until He does, He’s on His own.

“But if you don’t answer,” you may ask, “how are atheists ever going to come to the faith?” 

To which I say:  “That’s God’s problem to solve, not mine.”

That’s a little taste of what I mean by “irreverence”.  It’s an irreverence born of faith, not unbelief;  of respect, and not disrespect, for God and the truth.

 

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