Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There

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The image of compassion: a mother running along the bank of a rapid river, keeping up with her drowning child, running along the bank because she had no arms.—Lindsay Hill, Sea of Hooks, citing Patrul Rinpoche

An older man in my congregation called me last week because he forgot his wife’s cell phone number. The doctor’s office had called and he needed to relay an important message about a cancelation. I told him I didn’t have her number but I would try to find it and call him back. I called a couple of people who didn’t have it, and then I remembered that the wife sings in our choir. I got the choir director on the phone and she said yes she had the lady’s number but it was saved in her own cell, the one she was talking on. She’d have to hang up and call me back. She did, and I wrote down the number. Triumphant, I called the man back but as I went to read him the number I realized I had written it down wrong. There were only nine digits, not ten. I apologized and told him I’d have to call him back again. I tried and tried but couldn’t get the choir director on the phone. No one else I could think of had the number. An invisible vise squeezed my chest. I hated that I couldn’t assist someone who reached out to me. It’s lonely at the intersection of compassion and helplessness. I’ve been there many times.

The first death I dealt with as a pastor was tragic. The wife of my chairman of deacons took her own life violently on a Sunday morning with her husband and seventeen-year-old daughter at home. A neighbor of the family called me and said I needed to get over there right away. I did. A lone deputy sheriff was there, retrieving something from his squad car. He saw me walking up the drive and asked if I was the coroner, I guess because I was dressed for church, wearing a dark suit and tie. I said no, but wished I were. I thought it would have been easier dealing with the dead body than the live, grief-stricken people. I went in and saw the husband looking shell shocked and the daughter with swollen eyes. There was no Bible verse, no counseling trick, nothing in my pastoral toolkit that would make this situation better. I sat next the husband, put my hand on his shoulder, and said nothing. We sat in silence together for a long time.

What do you do when you desperately want to help but you’re powerless?

You must learn to say to yourself that you have no arms; that there is nothing in the world you can fix.

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How I Failed As a Pastor

arrows missing target

The first church I served as pastor was difficult. No, impossible. At least that’s how it seemed at the time. I realize now it was as much my fault as theirs. I was twenty-four when they called me to be the spiritual shepherd of their flock. I learned immediately that just because sheep pick you as their shepherd, that doesn’t mean they will follow you.

The biggest problem was my lack of compassion. There are three rules for ministry. Any pastor who masters them cannot fail. They are as follows: Love the people. Love the people. Love the people. This approach works whether or not all the people love the pastor, love the pastor, love the pastor. (The ego-shattering truth is pastors are sometimes as difficult to love as sheep.) Jesus was often moved to compassion when he looked upon his sheep. I was – and still am – too often moved to anger and resentment.

My parishioners in that first church could never be as dedicated and virtuous as I thought they should be. Then again, I could never be as dedicated and virtuous as I thought I should be. Whoever said “people rise to the level of your expectations” never tried leading a church. Most people already have their hands so full trying to meet the expectations of their bosses and families, and often failing to do so, that they have no emotional resources left to try to meet their pastor’s expectations or even figure out what they are. As cynical as it may sound, one key to being a successful pastor is low expectations. Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed. It doesn’t mean I give up on my people or assume that God has. It means I love them enough not to ask them to jump through my hoops.

Another problem was that I believed ministry functioned the way seminary did: work hard and you’ll be rewarded. You’ll make A’s and earn awards. I worked hard in seminary. I made A’s. I earned awards. I went to my first church and failed. Why? Churches aren’t seminaries. Most of the lessons I learned in the seminary classroom didn’t apply directly to pastoral ministry. When I went to my seminary professors for advice about what to do with my failing ministry, the best they could offer was that I should leave my “preacher-killing church” before I gave up on the ministry altogether. I liked the advice because it allowed me to shift all the blame to my congregation. But it didn’t help the congregation or me. An opportunity for growth on both parts was squandered.

Becoming a pastor is like going to the foreign mission field, especially if you grew up in the suburbs and you’re called to a rural parish as I was. A pastor has to become a cross-cultural expert. In order to be effective a new pastor must learn the language and the culture. That takes time. In my first church I never stuck around long enough to learn what made them tick. I was too impatient. When they didn’t follow my lead, I bailed.

Monks take a vow of stability, meaning they promise not to leave the monastery they first join. There’s a story in the Lives of the Desert Fathers about a monk who told his abbot that he was troubled by thoughts of leaving the monastery. The abbot said, “Go and sit down, and entrust your body to your cell, as a man puts a precious possession into a safe, and do not go out of it. Then let your thoughts go where they will. Let your mind think what it likes, so long as it does not drive your body out of the cell.” Pastors would do good to learn a lesson about stability from monks. To put it in non-monastic terms, you have to be more stubborn about staying at your church than the people in your congregation who want you gone.

Twenty plus years after my failed pastorate I find myself serving a congregation that reminds me a lot of that first one. It’s in a small town and most of the older folks grew up on farms. The church was in a full-blown crisis when I arrived as interim pastor. I had just left active duty with the Navy and a plum job teaching at the Naval Academy. I had no intentions of staying. I just needed a place to hang my hat for a while until I found something better. That was two and a half years ago, and I’m still here.

There’s no guarantee things will turn out any better than they did at my first church. True, I’m no longer a naive twenty-something out to save the world. I’ve learned that I can’t save myself much less anyone else. I’m also a little more patient and a little less demanding than I was two decades ago. Still, at some point I may get frustrated and bail. In the meantime I’m going to do my best to take my own advice: Love the people. Love the people. Love the people. That’s not always easy but I’ll keep trying, because love covers a multitude of sins.

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What Good Is Religion?

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A few weeks ago I received a hostile comment about religion on my blog from someone who accidentally stumbled upon it. I chose not to post it. Instead I sent an email to the person who wrote it, asking for clarification. I received a long and thoughtful reply, explaining that the author isn’t against people of faith, only organized religion. “I’m spiritual but not religious” has become a modern mantra. It’s made me wonder, Is personal faith enough? What good is organized religion? Is religion better than irreligion? Here’s my attempt to answer these important questions.

For starters, I reject the dichotomy between faith and religion that has become popular in Protestant Christianity since the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth first drew the distinction. Just as you can’t have an army of one (despite what the US Army’s recruiting ads say) you can’t have a religion of one. Faith is by its nature a group activity. There’s certainly a place for the private practice of one’s faith. Everyone needs time alone to study and pray. But it’s misguided (if not arrogant) for individuals to think that they can attain to the truth about ultimate reality on their own or even live as persons of moral and spiritual integrity without a community of faith to support and guide them.

I will admit that not all religion is good. That’s true of any human activity. Not all government is good. Not all education is good. Not all medical treatment is good. Institutions are only as good as the people in them and saints are in short supply.

One of the most pervasive myths of the modern age is that religion has caused most of the wars and violence in the history of the world. It’s not true. Indeed irreligious people have arguably caused more death and destruction than religious people ever did.  Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong are prime examples. Religion certainly has had a hand in war and other social evils like slavery and persecution, but it hasn’t been the sole or even primary cause of them. Complex social ills like war and slavery never have a single cause. It’s wrong to blame them all on religion.

Keep in mind that religious people use religious language to justify their choices – some good, some bad, some neutral – even when the underlying cause is something else. Although economics made slavery lucrative and therefore desirable, the institution was both defended and condemned in religious language by people of faith on both sides of the debate.

Organized religion has given the world a host of institutions that have made life better. Secular humanists didn’t invent the university; the Catholic Church did. Long before the Enlightenment there were hospitals, hospices, orphanages, schools, homeless shelters, and a host of other charitable organizations paid for and run by churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. Christian missionaries are often condemned for exporting western culture to the non-western world, and it’s true they did. But they also exported western medicine which saved countless lives. Recently I read that by 1938 there were over 1,000 hospitals around the world founded by missionaries. Even today the only food pantry in my town was founded by six local churches, not secular institutions or humanist societies.

My roommate in college was Cambodian. He fled the killing fields of Pol Pot before migrating to the US. He learned to read in a Buddhist monastery and learned English at a Baptist church. A Protestant missionary named Frank Laubach, developed a literacy program that taught teachers how to teach reading. Millions of people in dozens of countries learned to read through this program – a program born out of a desire to spread the Christian faith. Religion teaches more than dogma. It teaches compassion and the obligation to be good and act benevolently toward others.

Even atheists and agnostics have inherited the bulk of their morality from religion. Organized religion gave us principles such as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” The great legal traditions all flow from organized religion. Hammurabi, Moses, and Justinian all credited the Divine as the source of their laws. For a millennium and a half before Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, Christian monks and nuns had renounced private property and were living communal lives. The monastic traditions of Christianity and other religions have stood the test of time in a way that secular communism has not. The ethical code of secular humanism is largely the product of organized religion.

Government has been taking over the charitable work once left to religious institutions, and some might argue that organized religion has outlived its usefulness. However, if all of the faith-based schools and charities were removed from the earth, there’d be a humanity gap bigger than all the non-religious organizations and governments could fill. Even if they could, religion meets needs that other institutions can’t.

Religion creates communities and spaces that bind us together with other people in ways that civic organizations can’t. The word religion comes from the Latin prefix “re-” plus “ligare,” which means to tie or bind. Religion reconnects us to God and others, making us stronger and better than we are alone. Religion ritualizes all the stages of life. It teaches us how to celebrate new life and how to grieve when life comes to an end. It points us toward ultimate meaning and helps us understand transcendent things. Only religion can provide the hope of a salvation that endures beyond this material world. To irreligious people that may sound like a bunch of bunk, but everyone has a desire to find meaning that transcends the here and now.

I can love my religion while admitting its faults for the same reason Noah could love the ark despite the noise and smell. It’s not perfect but it’s better than treading water on my own.

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Art and Decoration

Cathedral Jackson Pollock 1947

Jackson Pollock, Cathedral (1947), enamel and aluminum paint on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art

The border between art and decoration can be as fuzzy as a political boundary in the desert. Like political boundaries “art” and “decoration” are artificial, man-made concepts at best. At worst they are mere value judgments that signal our own preferences: That’s not art! While acknowledging the limitations of human subjectivity, I think there’s a case to be made for the difference between art and decoration. It’s roughly the same as the difference between wild and domesticated animals. Decoration has been tamed, housebroken. It’s suitable to hang above the sofa or put on the mantel above the fireplace. Art is feral, unpredictable, even dangerous. Decoration is forgettable. Art has the ability to sear itself in our brains and leave a mark . . . or a scar. Decoration and art can both be beautiful. But art doesn’t have to be beautiful at all. It can be weird, impenetrable, ugly, or offensive.

Take, for example, Gustave Courbet’s 1866 The Origin of the World, which confronted my wife and me when we visited the D’Orsay Museum in Paris. It’s a realistic painting of a woman’s elongated nude torso with the genitalia front and center. Who would dare display that in the living room for all to see? Art museums are safe houses where we can be voyeurs without getting arrested or even violating the conventions of polite society. It’s a highbrow alternative to going to the movies where we docilely munch on popcorn as we watch things we’d never even think of doing and if we witnessed them, we’d dial 911.

I remember visiting the Dallas Museum of Art when I was an undergraduate in Texas. After all these years I only recall one painting: Cathedral by Jackson Pollock. I lived such a sheltered life I’d never seen one of Pollock’s big, messy canvases, thick with drips and splatters of paint. It was mesmerizing. Having grown up being taught always to color in the lines, I was shocked and drawn to this rebellious work of art. Everyone knows that to paint means to apply pigment to canvas with a brush. Oh yeah?, the painting screams, Says who?!  It’s the kind of painting that makes you want to drop out of college and go backpacking through Africa. While I was still at the museum considering what I might sell for my airfare – I’ll never forget this – a professor from my college appeared out of nowhere. We exchanged greetings. He was surprised to learn that I wasn’t there because of a class assignment. I was there because that’s how I chose to spend my Saturday. He praised me for my good taste and left me feeling domesticated. Backpacking through Africa was off. I was just a nerdy college kid without a social life.

To be a great artist – or to be a great anything for that matter – you have to be willing to take risks and defy conventions. I’m not talking about being offensive for the sake of being offensive. I’m talking about doing what you know is right, even if you know others will be offended. I want my life to be art, not decoration.

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The Johnstown Flood

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Yesterday I returned from Pennsylvania where I visited a Navy Reserve Chaplain friend of mine, Fr. Leo Arnone, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Cresson. He showed me around his hometown of Johnstown, whose main tourist attraction is the Flood Museum, commemorating one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. On May 31, 1889 a poorly maintained dam broke fourteen miles upriver where the wealthy Pittsburghers, Andrew Carnegie among them, had their hunting and fishing club. With little warning a tidal wave of water slammed into Johnstown destroying the city in just ten minutes. A tangled mountain of debris and humans, living and dead, piled up at the stone bridge at one end of town, and then caught fire, creating a scene of apocalyptic horror.

Over 2,000 people perished, and hundreds of them were never found. Although the exact number of dead is unknown, the official total stands at 2,209. In his book The Johnstown Flood, David McCullouch details the loss of life:

Ninety-nine whole families had been wiped out. Three hundred and ninety-six children aged ten years or less had been killed. Ninety-eight children lost both parents. One hundred and twenty-four women were left widows; 198 men lost their wives.

One woman, Mrs. John Fenn, wife of the tinsmith on Locust Street, lost her husband and seven children. Christ Fitzharris, the saloonkeeper, his wife, father, and eight children were all drowned. Charles Murr and six of his children went down with his cigar store on Washington Street; only his wife and one child survived. In a house owned by John Ryan on Washington Street, twenty-one people drowned, including a man named Gottfried Hoffman, his wife and nine children.

Some of the victims later reported that they believed they were experiencing the Last Judgment when the flood hit. When we suffer we sometimes assume suffering is a punishment from God. We ask, What have I done to deserve this?  Yet suffering is usually not a punishment or even a consequence of sin. Remember Job? Job lost everything: his possessions, his family, and his health. In Job’s case his suffering was part of a cosmic contest between God and Satan. But Job never learned that he was God’s test case or that he passed the test. Let’s keep in mind Job didn’t suffer because he was bad; he suffered because he was good. Johnstown, a city of 30,000 souls in 1889, had both saints and sinners. We shouldn’t assume that Johnstown was any more corrupt or deserving of divine judgment than any other town or that only the wicked perished. Jesus mentioned that eighteen people died when the tower in Siloam fell and suggested the victims were no guiltier than the people who were spared (Luke 13:4-5). Accidents happen. So do floods.

When tragedy strikes we often struggle to make sense out of a senseless situation. We ask God why:  Why would you allow such pain and suffering?  The Bible doesn’t give a direct answer to the question why God permits evil, whether caused by people or nature. We don’t know why God permits evil and tragedy in the world when he could prevent it. The one who calmed the Sea of Galilee could prevent tsunamis and hurricanes, stop deadly floods, and still rumbling earthquakes. He could also stop criminals’ bullets and terrorists’ bombs. Sometimes he does but often he does not.  And he doesn’t tell us why.

During and after the Johnstown flood there was a great outpouring of humanitarianism in the form of heroic acts and charitable deeds. Many risked their lives saving others. Some died trying. People whose homes and possessions were spared shared with those who had nothing. Money and volunteers poured in from all over the country. Clara Barton, head of the newly formed American Red Cross, arrived with relief supplies, and stayed five months, personally overseeing relief operations. Doctors, nurses, ministers, police officers, soldiers, concerned citizens, and even sightseers came in by the trainload to the devastated city. Hearty souls carried out the gruesome task of recovering and burying mangled, decomposing bodies. Others prayed with and consoled the inconsolable. A tidal wave of mercy and goodness hit Johnstown after the flood in similar proportion to the watery one that destroyed the city.

I’m not saying that God causes suffering so that good will result. What I am saying is that God redeems our suffering, changing it from something ugly into something beautiful. The One who brought light out of darkness is in the business of bringing good out of evil. He did that in Johnstown and he did it on Calvary over nineteen hundred years earlier. The crucifixion of the Son of God was one of the greatest acts of evil ever committed, yet God used this supreme evil for the ultimate good of humanity, the salvation of the world.

St. Paul wrote, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). That doesn’t mean everything that happens to us is good. It means that God brings good out of evil in our lives if we let him.

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Detachment

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Benjamin West, Lot Fleeing From Sodom (1810), oil on panel, Detroit Institute of Arts

Fuga Mundi – “flight from the world” – captures the meaning of detachment. If the soul is to be fully God’s, it must rid itself of anything creaturely, anything that isn’t God. It means cleaning house, getting rid of idols, reordering priorities.

We spend our lives getting and spending, chasing after things, whether those things are tangible objects – a bigger home, a nicer car, another stamp for the collection – or intangibles such as praise, recognition, honor, and success. “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher. ‘All is vanity’” (Eccles. 12:8). Vanity means empty or meaningless. The problem isn’t that houses and cars and success are evil; the problem is that they are empty. Even good things can become attachments that hinder us spiritually. If we see ministry – “serving God” – or prayer or any spiritual activity as an end in itself, it becomes an idol. It becomes a vanity. It becomes empty.

All the things that we think will make us happy never really satisfy, and there’s a good reason for that. God made us in such a way that only He can fill the void that we feel within us. St. Augustine, writing in the form of a prayer to God, put it like this: “You have formed us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You” (Confessions, 1.1). To experience peace we must let go of everything that isn’t God. Fuga mundi.

Some have fled the world physically, cloistering themselves behind the protective walls of a monastery, only to find that they’ve brought the world with them. They have detached from the world outwardly but not inwardly. Others have fled the world spiritually, staying in the world yet letting go of its attachments. Most of us have done neither. Like Lot and his family we tarry in Sodom, attached to a world that is soon to vanish. Lot’s uncle Abraham made a bargain with God: If only ten righteous men could be found in Sodom, then God wouldn’t destroy it. But there weren’t ten righteous men, so God destroy the city and its evil twin, Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-25).

I wonder if there are ten righteous people in the world today, ten who have detached themselves from the world and attached themselves fully to God. I don’t know if there are ten, but I think there must be a few. They are the ones who keep the universe from exploding.

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Care for the Dying

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Edvard Munch, “The Sick Child” (1896)

After two deaths and three funerals in just nine days, I’ve been thinking a lot about death. Watching a loved one die can be a sorrowful experience even for believers who have the presence of the Holy Spirit and the hope of eternal life. But the time before the end can also be an important time for giving and receiving love and forgiveness as well as preparing for death. Here are some tips on how to care for and minister to those who are dying:

  1. Be knowledgeable. To help those who are dying we must understand the meaning of death. Death is the separation of the soul from the body. Death doesn’t mean that the person has stopped breathing or that their heart has stopped beating or even that they are “brain dead.” The soul isn’t “in” the lungs, heart, or brain. It isn’t in any particular part of the body. The only way we can know for sure that the soul has left the body with moral certainty is when the process of corruption has begun. We must treat all who are in the process of dying with Christian love and dignity, even when death seems imminent.
  2. Be patient. While there is no moral imperative to prolong life by unnatural means, we shouldn’t hasten death. God calls people home in His timing. It is difficult to watch people suffer, especially those we love, but as Christians we believe that there can be spiritual benefit in suffering.
  3. Be honest. Don’t try to spare a dying person’s feelings by telling him that he will recover and don’t use euphemisms to discuss death. As Christians we should always tell the truth, even when it hurts. Being honest will help the dying person prepare for death. Dishonesty only feeds denial and prevents the dying person from being able to prepare mentally and spiritually for death.
  4. Be receptive. Ask the dying person what they need. If they can’t talk, try to get moisture to their mouth. Do what you can to meet the dying person’s needs, but be honest if they ask for something you can’t provide.
  5. Be creative. Try to create a comforting and meaningful atmosphere for the dying person. Play or sing Christian songs. Bring sound recordings of the Bible or voices of loved ones. Read aloud. If the person loved baseball or crochet, decorate their room with objects that remind them of their favorite pastimes.
  6. Be realistic. Even if you are the primary caregiver, you can’t be there for the dying person 24/7. You need time to eat, sleep, cry, and recharge. Arrange for respite care. You will be a better caregiver if you take care of yourself.
  7. Be prayerful. Pray for and with the dying person. If possible, pray so they can hear you. Even those who are in a coma may be able to hear your prayers. Pray that the person would die ready to meet God, not just that they would have less pain or go quickly. If you’re not sure whether the person is truly a believer, invite them to put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ. Don’t hesitate to call on a minister to pray for or with someone who is dying.

Death can be unpleasant but it doesn’t have to be terrifying. The Psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). It can become precious in our sight too when we have God’s perspective of death.

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