Pastor's Blog

The little addition we put on the chapel in 1989 was full within five years, so we started a second service.  Within five years the second service was bursting at the seams as well.  We began working on purchasing property to expand.

Although things were going well externally, invisible to nearly everyone were the assaults on my soul.  I expected opposition in ministry, but I expected it to come from outside the church – from unbelievers -- the secular world, the political powers, atheists, and those involved in other religions and cults.  I never in my wildest dreams expected the level of opposition and hostility that I received from Christians. 

And not just any Christians, but people I counted as friends – people I trusted, loved, and confided in – and that I thought loved me.  Some I had poured hours of my life into, counseling, advising, and assisting when they were down.  Some were people that I trusted and worked closely with.  And then out of the blue (to me, it seemed), they would turn against me and betray our friendship and grow hostile and vicious. 

Every time it happened, I was completely shocked and dismayed, not just with people – but with a life of serving people.  And that led to disillusionment with the faith itself.

When I first entered the ministry, a pastor friend gave me this advice: “Don’t become friends with your congregation.  Be their pastor, not their friend.”  I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard!  A pastor must love his people.  How can you love people without being a friend to them? 

But after I was betrayed by close friends a few times, I understood what he meant.  I don’t completely agree with him today – but I understand how he came to that conclusion, and I seriously entertained the notion for quite some time.

Betrayal messes with your head.  The knee-jerk reaction is to stop loving people.  Love makes you too vulnerable and vulnerability is risky.  The more you love, the more your soul is crushed when the love fades or dies.  When you experience several betrayals, staying clear of love seems wise and right.  And since Christianity proposes that genuine love is a core principle of godly living, Christianity starts to sound like pretty but preposterous and unbelievable pie-in-the-sky. 

Love is not suspicious of others; love trusts.  Love believes and hopes all things; it gives the benefit of the doubt.  Love wants to forgive; love wants to reconcile and rebuild relationships.  Love bears all things.  Love endures all things and love itself endures.  But does it endure betrayal?  Can it survive betrayal?  Must I love my enemies while they’re assaulting me?

But if hardship pushes you to stop loving, did you ever really love?  Or do you only love those who love you?  Could I be a pastor and be constantly suspicious and on my guard against people that I’m supposed to be loving and caring for?  But how else could I protect myself from being repeatedly wounded and hurt?  How could I emotionally survive in the ministry if I loved people?

Genuine love is risky.  That is love’s nature.  Love takes chances on unlovely and unlovable people.  Love risks being wounded.  Love risks rejection and betrayal.  And it endures rejection and betrayal and goes on to love again. 

I cannot tell you how hard and how often my soul had to wrestle through the things I wrote about in those last three paragraphs.  Love sounds lovely – but is love really a good thing?  Is loving your enemy a worthwhile thing in reality?  Or are these Christian notions just pretty fairy tales for children – and once we become adults, we know better?  

Loving an enemy, a betrayer, a “Judas”, I found extremely difficult.  “Love others” sounds wonderful but in experience I found it anything but pretty.  It was devastating to the well-being of my soul.  After several rounds of betrayal, love hardly seemed worth the pain it inflicted.  It made better sense to protect myself, distrust others, and keep them at a distance.  Why go the extra mile for people who are just going to hurt you and hate you anyway?   

And that is how my experiences with people in ministry became a key ingredient in the “atheist soup” that was brewing in my head . . .

It’s Christmas time, so I want to write a little about the greatest gift I’ve ever received:  my wife.

Chrissy is from the Toledo, OH area, the fourth in a family of five children.  In her high school and college years she was an amazing athlete, excelling in both softball and volleyball.  She began attending the University of Toledo to become a teacher of special education, and then transferred to Baptist Bible College in 1980 – and that’s where we met.

The first thing that attracted me to her was that she didn’t need makeup to be beautiful.  And the simple beauty that shone from her face was the same simple beauty that was in her heart.  She didn’t demand a lot from life or from others.  She was bubbly and full of joy and appreciated simple things.  But she was also a very strong, very tough, very determined soul.  If she hadn’t been, I don’t think anything in my life would have been blessed or succeeded.

I grew up in a family of boys.  I was the eldest of four brothers.  I knew NOTHING about women when I got married, and my wife had to endure that ignorance of mine for years, as did my poor daughters.  By the time I STARTED to figure out the lay of the female land I think my daughters were all but married.  That I didn’t learn patience with and sensitivity toward my wife and daughters until my daughters were pretty much out of the house is one of the biggest regrets of my life.

People looked at Mountain View Chapel and saw a growing church and assumed I was a “successful” pastor.  But there is a price paid for “success”.  Ministry means an investment of time in people – teaching and preparing what you’re going to teach them and constantly reading so you’re educated about what you’re teaching;  counseling and giving advice and constantly reading so you’re educated about the advice and counsel that you’re giving.  And very often it means that you’re dealing with people at their worst, trying to help them through the difficult times.

The most difficult thing for a pastor’s wife, I think, is that her husband is investing time and effort, not in business or a product, but in people.  That’s personal time and personal effort, deep soulful caring for other souls, personal time and effort that is often stolen from the pastor’s wife and children. 

I know that I have spoken bitterly about time poured into people who then turn on me – and this is why I speak bitterly.  Many of those people stole hours of my life, keeping me from my wife and family, and when they turned on me, I was pained and embittered by the wasted investment and the loss of time that I could have spent beneficially with my own family.  It has to be that way;  that’s the nature of the calling.  But that doesn’t change my feelings about it.

That said, those regrets and bitternesses are my own.  I have very few recollections of my wife complaining about my investments in people and many recollections of her encouraging me to go and do what I had to do – and her covering for me while I did what I needed to do.  She kept the home fires burning, spending hours and hours with our children in the evening when I was gone – after she had already spent the entire day with them.  And that was all through the years that she had committed to homeschooling them.  I did what I could to plug in with the kids, but my wife did most of the heavy-lifting involved in rearing and raising them. 

My wife also spent hours sitting in the nursery or helping with children’s ministry while I preached or taught.  And many a Sunday, when others failed to follow through on their commitments to a children’s ministry, Chrissy would step up and cover for them when she really wanted to sit in church and hear the message and sing with everyone else.  She continues to serve that way.

If my wife wasn’t who she is, if she hadn’t done what she did, I couldn’t do what I do.  And Chrissy has always done it with grace and with joy, behind the scenes, without notice or fanfare.  She will not like that I’ve written about her – but it’s the least I can do to say thank you for the most wonderful gift of my life. 

I have often mentioned from the pulpit and in this blog that at one point in my life I wanted to abandon, not only the ministry, but Christianity as a whole.  And I have often been asked when that was, as it didn’t seem noticeable in my ministry or my preaching.  I have also been asked how I was able to pastor a church while seriously wrestling with unbelief. 

As to “when” I struggled – it’s not like it came on suddenly.  The deepest wrestlings pummeled my heart through the 1990’s and into the early 2000’s, but the seeds for the struggle had been planted and watered for quite some time.  I think it’s easier (and perhaps more beneficial) to talk about the causes of the struggle.

First – not first because it’s most important but perhaps because it’s the smallest ingredient and is most easily explained – were doctrinal and philosophical issues that arose throughout my education in both Bible college and seminary that I was having trouble resolving and reconciling with reality.  I’ve discussed some in previous blogs – and maybe I’ll go into details about others in the future. 

As hard as the wrestling in my head was, I think it was merely seasoning to the other two main ingredients in the soup of my doubts. 

I was far more agitated about people than I was about intellectual issues.  Mean-spirited Christians played an enormous role in fueling my doubts.  I expected hostility to Christianity from unbelievers;  but quite often in ministry I encountered nastiness, obstinacy, unkindness, and sometimes just downright cruelty from those who claimed to be believers and who definitely should have known better.  Gandhi resonated with me when he said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

I was shocked at how hostile people could become and how quickly they could turn on me after I had poured hours and hours of my life into them, trying to help them with their struggles.  Perhaps I should have expected that going into ministry.  I was naïve, I guess, and I didn’t expect it.  Sin turned out to be far more incorrigible and people far less reasonable than I ever anticipated that they would be.  And that rocked my world. 

Personal pain and rejection hurt, but more than that I was really struggling with the fact that the entire story of Jesus is that His death and resurrection opened the door for the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is supposed to change people.  That was what the New Covenant (or Testament) was all about – the promise of forgiveness and the work of the Spirit in the church to build a kingdom that ran counter to society, a kingdom where people knew how to love and forgive and seek to understand one another so they could live in peace.  I believed God’s promise – and when life and ministry ran counter to what He had promised – not just once, but repeatedly -- I started questioning whether any of this was real or true.

The most powerful ingredient in the soup, however, was the seeming irrationality of pain in the world.  How could God allow a three-month old child to be afflicted with two types of cancer at the same time – essentially a death sentence?  Worse, when I visited that child at Children’s Hospital, I was reminded of the prominence of the pain and death of innocent children with every floor, every hall, and every room that I passed.  How could a good God allow tragedies like this for no seemingly good reason?  Why didn’t He intervene and do miracles?  But that thought led to an even worse one:  If I pray and ask for a miracle for one child – and we experience it – what do I do with all the rest of these poor kids that don’t get their miracle?  How unfair and unkind is that – for me to “get my miracle” and be rejoicing while across the hall the coroner is being called and there is weeping and wailing and groaning and uncontrollable sobbing?

Those were the ingredients cooking in my soul.  The longer they cooked, the longer their flavors blended, the more the soup tasted like unbelief and atheism to me.

I’ll talk about how I resolved some of these struggles and how I kept ministering amidst them in the next blog.

 

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